Tag Archives: Stephen Burt

Behind the Sestina: Stephen Burt on “Six Kinds of Noodles”

Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. His latest book of poetry is Belmont (Graywolf, 2013); earlier books of poetry and criticism include Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, Parallel Play, and Randall Jarrell and His Age.

We go Behind the Sestina with Burt to discuss his poem, “Six Kinds of Noodles” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? How many have you written?
I have finished and published two, both in my book Parallel Play (2006); I’ve tried to write several more, though none satisfied me (there may be one in the works). I don’t remember when I read one first, but I know I was trying to write them in college. I’ve already written about the use of the sestina in contemporary poetry; that turned into a long essay in the academic journal Modern Philology.

I would love if you could take us through writing this sestina—the choice of end-words, the inspiration for it, anything you remember.
It began with actual noodles, after they revamped the Macalester College cafeteria: I taught at Macalester from 2000 to 2007, and in about 2003 or 2004 they redid the cafeteria, and when it reopened it was generally better but also had new special features, including what looked to me like a noodle bar, with at least six kinds. And I said “Hey, six kinds of something = sestina potential!” and set to work. I had also been thinking about Ashbery, about how the slipperiness of his language generally, between reference and non-reference, was something the sestina form seemed apt to do (I dislike sestinas that are completely nonsensical or nonreferential—too easy—but I like Ashbery’s own sestinas, especially the one with Popeye, which has been extraordinarily influential). I was also thinking about the line of poems and essays about the influence of Ashbery—I think I had recently looked again at David Kellogg‘s.

How have you been doing, as you write in the sestina, “trying to keep up with John Ashbery” and his prodigious output of work?
It’s hard, isn’t it? I haven’t caught up with Quick Question.

I love how you include a mini-reading list of Ashbery-themed poems. I just looked again at Jeffrey Skinner’s, which appeared in Poetry in 1997, and it’s an opus of meta-Ashbery goodness. And David Kellogg’s seems to be a section of a faux academic treatise. What is it about John Ashbery that elicits these reactions?
He’s important, and influential, and everywhere, but he also seems somehow nonthreatening: a source, rather than a Covering Cherub, I suppose. Also he can, sort of, be imitated in a way that’s not appalling when it’s not perfect. (As against, say, imitation Yeats, or imitation Louise Gluck, which is pretty bad unless it’s letter-perfect.)

And then there are the sestina’s noodles. I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone before but, are you a noodle aficionado?
Isn’t everyone (or everyone without a gluten problem)?

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would you dedicate your sestina?
It’s tempting to say that it’s for Macalester College. No rebuilt cafeteria = no sestina.

Behind the Sestina: Ernest Hilbert On “Hel[l]ical Double Sestina: [Metal Number One]”

ernest-hilbert Ernest Hilbert is the author of two  collections of poetry, Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of You on the Good Earth (2013), as well as a spoken word album recorded with rock band and orchestra, Elegies & Laments, available from Pub Can Records. He hosts the popular blog E-Verse  and works as an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.

We go Behind the Sestina with Hilbert to uncover the metallic truth about his poem “Hel[l]ical Double Sestina: [Metal Number One]” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I’ve always known of it in much the way one knows what a soup tureen is, which is to say I was aware of what it is but never had much use for one. This is due in part to the fact that, until recently, there have so few successful modern examples of the form in English—Kipling, Auden, Bishop are exceptions. I much prefer the sonnet, a compact form long ago conveyed from Mediterranean climes and which took sturdy root in English. I suspect that the long, complex, repetitive form of the sestina proved a more suitable custom to a troubadour of 12th-century Provence than it does for poets today. It strikes me as a lyric form for musical performance, like common (or ballad) meter in English, but it’s quite a struggle to get one to work convincingly on the written page.

This is all to say that I imagine its repetitive qualities may benefit a song, but could appear to lack forward motion when read as an unaccompanied poem. It is therefore something of a dangerous proposition, not to be entered into lightly or often. I also suspect that it may be more suited to the Lengad’òc of Arnaut Daniel than to English, but Mr. Nester’s anthology proves that we now have a rich and living tradition of the sestina in our own language.    

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I never felt a call to write sestinas, perhaps because I’ve never found myself in a creative writing workshop, where I’m told they flourish. I welcomed Mr. Nester’s invitation to compose one, when he served as sestinas editor for McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies. Were it not for his persuasions and ministrations, I’m certain I never would have composed one at all, much less seen it in print. I am grateful for the occasion.

In the midst of the ludic acrobatics I divided an end-stop word—“darkness” into “Dark Nes- / Ter”—in tribute to this volume’s esteemed editor.

Can you describe writing this sestina?
I happen to love heavy metal music. Since I am a poet and opera librettist, the outrageousness of the style continues to appeal well into adulthood. As a greasy-haired warehouse worker and dishwasher in southern New Jersey, heavy metal appeared to be the only unpretentious option for me, not only in terms of how I listened to music but how chose to present myself to a hostile world. The harshness and sheer volume of the music creates a protective shell. The metal-head image was like armor donned each day. One stalks about in tight jeans with long hair and a scowl and hopes to be left alone. The cops failed to get the message, but “being metal” helps one survive day-to-day when options are few and opportunities thin on the ground. It was our way of signaling our refusal to submit, our open rebellion against everything we could think of, businesses, governments, systems of education and discipline, against what we viewed as the obvious hypocrisies of society.

Stephen Burt has remarked that the sestina “served, historically, as a complaint,” its demands understood as “signs for deprivation or duress.” In that regard, it is ideally suited to my aims.

Did the subject matter of the sestina have an impact on the form used, or did the form have an impact on what you were writing about? 
On this occasion, the sestina appealed to me as an almost heroic mold into which I could pour the molten memories of my metal experiences. The language in the poem is purposefully loud, like a heavy metal song, clanging consonants, big vowels, thrown at a very high pitch, a kind of romantic agony, which would seem out of place in most sophisticated or “art” writing. This mimetic approach permitted me to really dive into the subject matter as if into a mosh pit. I cast it as an ode, addressing “Heavy Metal” as if it were a monstrous ancient god and I a lone chronicler alongside the phantom brotherhood of metal-heads, acknowledging the strange communal experience that the music delivers, the grim “us” and “we” of the hordes.

We stand strong. We conquer. We will not surrender. You get the picture.

I do get the picture. It’s also a double sestina, which is very heavy metal.
“Hel[l]ical Double Sestina: [Metal Number One]” begins with an overture in iambic pentameter, in honor of Thomas Gabriel Warrior’s tetrameter lyrics for Celtic Frost songs like “The Usurper” and “Jewel Throne” (“Lend me your steel, rearing hand, / So I may reign the Jewel Throne. / My soul feels the gods’ demand”), which in turn owe much to the fantasy verse and fiction of Robert E. Howard (I have lately entered into his Conan saga). I sought to quote the style of lyrics used by 1980s extreme metal bands like Venom and Slayer. The poem then grows increasingly ragged—metrically bumpy and rhetorically tangled—in a nod to Ezra Pound’s 1920 modernist masterwork “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” in which whole rhymes and identifiable meter in earlier stanzas gradually give way to free verse in order to instill a sense of cultural dislocation and personal disillusionment inaugurated by the modern age.   My modest contribution to this anthology consists of two sestinas, helically twined. I hauled out my OED and magnifying glass to find one word, “eesome,” which I misuse slightly, as it is intended to refer to an object that appears to be beautiful, though I apply it to describe the beautiful sirens’ song, which fails, of course, to lure the Viking ship, so we have an example of synesthesia. I want the sound of the poem to pound the reader’s eardrums like a long heavy-metal tour-de-force like “Master of Puppets” by Metallica (Metallica song titles are buried throughout the poem, along with one by Exodus). The result is a kind of mock-epic, with unapologetic word play and grand gestures, yet I hope the humble honesty and sadness that underlie the poem remain in evidence.

According to the internet, Eric Bohnenstiel is a “pathetic metal expert” on VH1. Is that why you dedicated your poem to him?
Not at all. Shows what the internet knows. He’s a good friend of mine, and if you remove “pathetic,” the epithet sticks just fine. He knows more about heavy metal than anyone I’ve ever known, which is really saying something. I dedicated it to him because the theme of the poem is one I thought he might admire. The “pathetic” bit was surely posted some envious jackass. Love live metal. Horns up!

Interview Conducted by Jessica Furiani