Behind the Sestina: Tara Betts on “Sestina for the Sin”

Tara Betts is the author of Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Betts’s work has appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’s CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. She is co-editor, with Afaa M. Weaver, of Bop, Strut, and Dance.

We go Behind the Sestina with Betts to learn the truth behind her sestina, “Sestina for the Sin” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I first discovered the sestina in the mid-1990s when I was exploring forms as a way to find new language. I think I first saw it in Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
“Sestina for the Sin” was the first sestina I ever wrote. I have written others since, but this one is the strongest one for me still. I am writing more.

The subject matter of this sestina is so strong. Did the form have an impact on how you went about writing about it?
I remember being immersed in historical narratives about lynchings, and the form seemed to wind around its subject like a rope, but I also felt that this traumatic, emotionally startling material required a form to help me find words that render the described situation with unexpected language.

What made you choose to use the Ida B. Wells-Barnett quote? Had you heard it before or did it come after you wrote the poem?
I was reading a lot of writings by Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s writings, such as Southern Horrors and Other Writings, A Red Record, and A Crusade for Justice. Many of the details of what happens at a lynching were culled from writings like this and the photography series Without Sanctuary.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
My sestina would be dedicated to victims of unlawful deaths, whether it be lynchings or police brutality.

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