Behind the Sestina: Sandra Beasley On “Let Me Count the Waves” and “The Editor of Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything”

sboct09Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include the Lenoir-Rhyne University Writer in Residence position, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. Her most recent book is Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. She lives in Washington, D.C.

We go Behind the Sestina with Beasley to learn about “Let Me Count the Waves” and “The Editor of Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything,” both featured in the upcoming The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 
As an undergrad at the University of Virginia, I studied with Stephen Cushman (General Editor of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition), and it was in his “Forms of Poetry” class that I first wrangled with the sestina.

Do you remember the first sestina you’ve written?
My very first effort? Functional but terrible. Forced at every turn, a found poem inspired by an article about a recent crime, with line breaks about as orderly as kudzu. Luckily I found a mentor in Henry Taylor, who brought me to American University for my MFA, and who is incredibly adept at form. He wouldn’t let you bring one into workshop that wasn’t at least approximate iambic pentameter. Not because he’s a stickler for rules, but because he wanted to be sure you’d really considered the language from every angle.

Under Henry’s guidance, I eventually wrote “Inviting My Sister to Become a Pirate” (along with a whole set of circus poems and a twelve-part sonnet sequence, “Chronic Medea”). Poet Alfred Corn read it from my notebook while we were both at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and solicited it for Cimarron Review, from which it was later anthologized by Verse Daily in 2005. That felt like a big break–though the day it ran on Verse Daily, I was at historic Fort Snelling, Minnesota, watching my dad retire from his command as Brigadier General in the Army Reserve. I couldn’t have been farther from the internet.

You’ve written how many sestinas total? I have counted at least 12 published in various journals.
Close to twenty at this point, though not all need see light of day. Some poach each other’s end-words. Some are just silly. Sestinas require a certain kinetic energy, and the most I ever got written in a short period of time was actually amidst the mania of the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. I call them the gyroscope of form, because you can only control their narrative course so much; in my experience you commit to a voice, a premise, and the end words (as if defining the endpoints of the three axes of a gyroscope). Then you spin it loose. When I’m drafting them, I carry around a stencil page that outlines the form down the left margin, and I work and re-work the lines that might fit. I’ve also scribble potential end-words into the margin of map-directions during long drives.

It’s possible to read “Let Me Count The Waves” as an ars poetica, a poem that instructs on the nature or use of poetry–if that’s accurate, could you talk more about that?
I relish hyperbole and the intrusion of the unexpected. To save a draft, sometimes you must “Let loose the circus monkeys in their skirts.” At the same time, the best poems always have a personal risk or a compelling philosophical statement lurking beneath the surface. Fulfilling form doesn’t let you off the hook. For a stretch, much of the critical conversation around contemporary sestinas dismissed them as a nonsense form, a place to show off and crack jokes rather than develop serious ideas. Sestinas were taken as proof of poetry’s fundamental lack of efficacy in the modern age.

Can you talk about “Donald”/”Mr. Revell”‘s role in the poem?
I found the Revell quotation in one of the essays that argued this, though I take it wildly out of context for the sake of “Let Me Count the Waves.” “Mr. Revell” is not intended toward the actual poet–who is lovely, I’ve heard from multiple sources–but rather, addresses the difficulty generations of poets have in relating to each other, at once seeking to emulate and defy their forebears. The fact that Revell’s first name happens to correspond with that of a certain cartoon duck was just a happy coincidence.

And there’s the idea or image of poets as ducks, or at least the poet/speaker as a duck.
Poems should aim high. Yet the worst thing a poet can do is take him or herself too seriously. Balancing ego and humility is part of why it’s not easy to be a writer (that, and the lack of health insurance). Who doesn’t want the excuse of a volta’s requirements to work “butthead” into a poem? This was one of the sestinas I drafted at Sewanee. I passed it along to my partner in crime and co-teacher, Eric McHenry, who brought it to conference breakfast the next morning. I slept in, having been up drafting most of the night. But apparently a table full of fellows were laughing at “my butt / or as termed in verse, my luminous butt,” and that is a true compliment.

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Another sestina in The Incredible Sestina Anthology: “The Editor of Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything,” has an epigraph that places us in Edinburgh, 1772. Can you tell us about how this relates to the poem?
Edinburgh is home to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was first published as a three-volume series between 1768 and 1771. Imagine how knowledge of the world had been cataloged up until that point: viral, rooted in geography and folk loyalty, with no centralized record of scientific truths. So this poem picks up in the aftermath. The editor realizes that his work is an inevitable and valuable part of mankind’s intellectual evolution, sure. But pretty good stories got lost in the process.

I love the choice of not using stanza breaks in this sestina. Can you talk about this choice?
In the right scenario, resisting the prescribed form actually fosters it; it’s like cutting rosemary back, so the plant grows twice as fast. Sestinas already draw exceptional attention to their stanza breaks, because the last end-word in each stanza is mirrored as the first end-word in the next stanza. So taking out the stanza breaks emphasizes, I hope, the virility of the form on a line level. What’s hidden from the eye is still heard by the ear. Plus, the lack of stanza breaks honors another father to this particular poem, the dramatic monologue.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina(s) to?
Have you ever been at a reading where someone stepped up and read a sestina without introducing it as such? Have you seen how a certain part of the audience figures it out and tunes in, waiting to see how it gets pulled off? Or the guy who maybe doesn’t even go to readings much, but who recognizes some strange repetition–the guy who does Sudoku on the bus ride home every night–and sits up straighter in his seat, delighted? I love the ability of form to trigger interest, to remind us of affiliation within a tribe of craft. I’d dedicate my sestinas to the fellow troubadours.

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