Behind the Sestina: Jeffery Conway on “Is It Dancing?”

Jeffery Conway is the author of The Album That Changed My Life (Cold Calm Press, 2006) and two collaborations with David Trinidad and Lynn Crosbie, Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (Turtle Point Press, 2003) and Chain Chain Chain (Ignition Press, 2000). His work is included in Saints of Hysteria: A Half Century of Collaborative American Poetry (Soft Skull Press, 2007) and forthcoming in Rabbit Ears: TV Poems (Poets Wear Prada, 2013). He is currently at work on “Descent of the Dolls,” a Dante-esque collaborative epic about the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, with poets Gillian McCain and David Trinidad. Poems from his newest manuscript, Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas, appear in Court Green, Vanitas, Clementine, Columbia Poetry Review, and Marco Polo.

We went Behind the Sestina with Conway to discuss his poem, “Is It Dancing?” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I discovered the sestina form in Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms, which I first read in the late eighties. When I started the M.F.A. program in poetry at Brooklyn College in 1989, my friend David Trinidad was in his second year there, and he liked to experiment with forms. He encouraged me to peruse the book and try out the forms that spoke to me. When I started writing my own sestinas, I was drawn to the ease with which a narrative is propelled by the form. I’d go to sleep at night and wake up with end words in my head. I’d write them down, and then the “story” of my poem would just materialize, like a connect the dots drawing.

Have you written any sestinas before this one? Any plans to write more in the future?
At Brooklyn College, I had the opportunity to study with Allen Ginsberg. He told me that he thought the sestina “fit” me, that I was “a natch with the form. ” My first sestinas were about highly personal, autobiographical events. I was using the form to tell, more easily and efficiently, about things such as childhood traumas and my sex life in the time of AIDS. It was Allen who said to me one day during a tutorial, back in 1991, that I should write a whole book of sestinas. It was his voice I heard when I started my “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas” project in March of 2007–more than fifteen years after his suggestion.

What inspired you to write a sestina (and an entire sestina project) on the movie Showgirls
The individual poem titles in “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas” are taken directly from the DVD chapter titles. I wrote a sestina for each “chapter” of the film, and I also wrote some extra sestinas and gave them original titles. “Is it Dancing?” is one of those chapter titles from the DVD menu. So the sestina is based on the narrative of that scene in the film. To save myself from sestina OD, I allowed myself the luxury (insanity?) of writing variations of the sestina form. In the collection, I have a rhyming sestina, two different kinds of double sestinas, a triple sestina, and many other variations that I made up (in one poem, I use the six end words of the first stanza as catalogue words, so instead of repeating the word “hand” for example, I use other words that are body parts in the subsequent stanzas; instead of the word “blue” repeating, I use other colors each time that word is to repeat).

There is only one poem in the collection that isn’t an actual sestina–it just “looks” like a sestina (six stanzas with six lines each and a three-line envoi). There is no repetition, even in a variant way, of the end words. The poem is titled “Let’s Don’t Even Go There!”–named after Faye Dunaway’s Infamous Voicemail, and used as a as Mad Lib.

I change the speaker to Elizabeth Berkley, and instead of going off on a reporter about an interview with too much focus on the failed film Mommie Dearest and awful ex-Terry O’Neill (like Faye does), she goes off on a reporter about an interview with too much focus on the failed film Showgirls and awful poet Jeffery Conway (yours truly) and his damn fascination with the film and its star. This was really the only time I let myself cheat. It was just too perfect a transcript to change too much by trying to make it fit into the sometimes too tight shoe of end words.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRfKr4hqUz4

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