Behind the Sestina: Meg Kearney on “14th Street”

Meg Kearney’s most recent collection of poems, Home By Now (Four Way Books, 2009), was winner of the 2010 PEN New England LL Winship Award. Its title poem is included in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems: American Places anthology (Viking Penguin, 2011). The Secret of Me, her novel in verse for teens, was released in 2005 by Persea Books. A sequel, The Girl in the Mirror, came in 2013.

Kearney’s poetry has been featured on Poetry Daily and Garrison Keillor’s “A Writer’s Almanac,” and has been published in such publications as Poetry, Agni, and Ploughshares. She is Founding Director of the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, MA. A former Associate Director of the National Book Foundation (sponsor of the National Book Awards), she is the recipient of fellowships from New Hampshire Council on the Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets Award. A native New Yorker, Meg currently resides in New Hampshire with her three-legged black Lab, Trooper.

We go Behind the Sestina with Kearney to discuss her sestina, “14th Street” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I must have discovered the sestina form in my undergraduate reading, but never gave one a try until several years later, when applying for graduate school. I realized then that I enjoy playing with poetic forms—which is a bit like working on a puzzle.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
This was not the first sestina I ever wrote, but it’s among the first, and still is my most successful. I also have a sestina in my novel in verse, The Secret of Me. These are the only two of mine that have ever been published.

Can you describe writing this sestina?
When I wrote “14th Street,” I was subletting an apartment in Manhattan that belonged to a poet named Molly Peacock. Anyone who knows Molly’s work realizes she’s a formal poet; what better place to try writing a sestina? I think the walls in that place whispered poems to me, as it was a very productive time. In writing this particular poem, I realized that sestinas can provide a great structure to tell a story. That apartment and its location—which made it quite noisy night and day—were the original driving forces behind the poem, though it quickly grew beyond a poem about place.

I’m wondering if you wrote 14th Street while still living in New York City, or after you moved to New Hampshire? Do you think the poem would have turned out differently depending on where you were living at the time?
If I hadn’t been living in that apartment on 14th Street (which I only occupied for about 10 months), I never would have written that sestina. I didn’t move to New Hampshire for another 11 years after “14th Street” was written; I’m sure I’d write a much different poem today. Maybe I should give it a shot.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
“14th Street” is hereby dedicated to Molly Peacock.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

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