The Confessions of a Sestinas Editor

JanFeb2005Cover

Reprinted from January/February issue of Poets & Writers magazine.

How did I become a sestinas editor? It all began with a rejection letter. “Thanks for sending,” it read, “but we’re looking for more traditional, iambic pentameter sestinas.” Ouch. But before readers commiserate, let me backtrack. Days before, I received word that McSweeney’s, the literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers that feeds a stable of worship-worthy writers such as Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, was publishing poems for the very first time.

And not just any poems—only sestinas.

It makes sense. Much of McSweeney’s charm has been its celebration of rarefied perspicaciousness, the antique mashed with the au courant. Issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the print version of the magazine published in Iceland, are considered art objects in themselves; McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the online version of the magazine in which the sestinas appear, is a clearinghouse of sharp-wittedness and activism.

The sestina exemplifies that quirky sensibility. A 39-line linked form believed to have been invented by Arnaut Daniel—the Provençal troubador who influenced Dante and who appears in the Purgatory as a model for the vernacular poet—the sestina adheres to a set pattern of end-words, or teleutons, which appear at the end of each line. Each six-line stanza is a permutation of the one that precedes it, except for the final three-line stanza, or envoi, which uses all six end-words as a triumphant send-off. Broken down into numbers, the sestina looks like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
2/5 4/3 6/1

The sestina, in other words, is ridiculous. But more than 800 years since its invention, the form survives—and some might even say it thrives. After 16th-century poet Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina, “You Gote-heard Gods,” there was a 300-year gap in English-language sestinas. Then, in the 20th century, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, and others wrote them. Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery wrote great sestinas for the mimeographed magazines of the 1960s. The list goes on.

Back to that rejection note. I knew my sestina might not be up to snuff, but what stuck in my craw was that phrase: “traditional, iambic pentameter.” Some readers may have immediately reached for their handbooks, but it took a couple days before I pulled out my second edition of Lewis Turco’s invaluable reference, The Book of Forms. “Lines can be of any single length,” Turco writes in his sestina entry, and that length is “determined by the poet.” There is no mention of iambs or any set number of metrical feet.

“Aha!” I thought, grinning. “I am out-rarefying the rarefiers!”

Breaking the cardinal rule of rejection-letter recipients, I wrote the editors back. Perhaps, I wrote, the editors were thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous “Sestina,” written in iambic pentameter? A few e-mail exchanges later, one of which included relevant pages I scanned from Turco, I received another e-mail.

“Since you’re so into this,” John Warner, Tendency’s editor, wrote, “why don’t you be our sestinas editor?”

I took the job, of course. My title? Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas. Catchy. For a couple of days, I wrote people from my McSweeney’s e-mail address to show off. And then I got to work.

For McSweeney’s, I try to assemble the modern-day sestina masters. There’s Jonah Winter, author of the classic “Bob” sestina, in which all the end-words are—you guessed it—Bob. James Cummins, author of the book-length sestina sequence The Whole Truth, based on the Perry Mason television series, passed along work. And we published Denise Duhamel’s Sean Penn sestina just in time for Penn’s Best Actor Academy Award for Mystic River. Fiction writers Rick Moody and Steve Almond sent some in, as did Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy. Leah Fasulo’s “Mad Libs Sestina” is a favorite, as is Shanna Compton’s “The Remarried Again Sestina,” with all six surnames her mother has had as end-words. There’s also nine-year-old Julia Mayhew’s “Get to School.”

What has occurred to me as I have put together the section over the past year is that the sestina is, to my mind, the one form that poets from all camps can write and appreciate. Formalists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition; avant-gardists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition.

“The sestina is the form par excellence to challenge people who write metrical verse,” Turco, the form-definer himself, says. “It’s very tough to deal with. You’ve got two basic tactics with those end-words. You could try to hide them or you could pound them.” To be generous to my employers, I will admit that Turco does mention in the most recent edition ofThe Book of Forms that sestinas are “generally written in iambic pentameter or decasyllabic meters.”

Life as a sestinas editor has its drawbacks. You must be vigilant for the missing stanza or the end-word scheme gone awry. The exchanges I have had with writers whose sestinas I have solicited range from “I’d be embarrassed to show mine to anyone” to “Will you accept a Pindaric sestina with a modified envoi?” to the rather succinct “I fucking hate sestinas.”

This underscores the love-hate relationship many contemporary American poets have with the idea of climbing Mount Sestina. Just about every creative writing student is assigned to write a sestina to flex the rhetorical muscles, and more than a few are driven batty in the process.

But submitting to the sestina’s complex scheme—some may say a masochistic submission—brings pleasure to sestina freaks.

“The sestina is a test of your cleverness and ingenuity, and I’m a sucker for a challenge,” says poet David Lehman, the editor of the Best American Poetry series. Lehman, who wrote his first sestina as a sophomore at Columbia, remains attracted to the form because “it seems perfect for an argument or a narrative.”

The great part of being a sestinas editor is seeing how people choose their tactics and deal with the constraints the form has handed them. Hundreds of writers submit themselves to this medieval form rooted in a numerology whose significance is no longer known. For many, it is, I daresay, fun.

And yes, there are more than a few in iambic pentameter.

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