Behind the Sestina: Scott Edward Anderson on “Second Skin”

Scott Edward Anderson‘s his first, full-length collection of poems, Fallow Field, published this Fall by Aldrich Press. If you’re in New York City, catch his reading tonight at Poet’s House.

Scott has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts, and received both the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Anon, Blueline, The Cortland Review, Cross Connect, Earth’s Daughters, Isotope, La Petite Zine, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Poetica, River Oak Review, Slant and Terrain. He was a founding editor of Ducky Magazine and writes at TheGreenSkeptic.com and seapoetry.wordpress.com.

We went Behind the Sestina with Anderson to discuss his sestina, “Second Skin,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
Probably the first sestina I was aware of–although I didn’t know what a sestina was then–was Rudyard Kipling’s “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal,” which I remember my Aunt Gladys reciting when I was a kid. It opens,

Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.

And then, much later, I discovered Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte,” in the little New Directions Selected Poems I still own. I was struck by its amazing opening lines:”Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace./ You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!/ I have no life save when the swords clash.” How could anyone write like that and not go mad?

Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since?
No, this was my first and, thus far, my last.

Can you describe writing “Second Skin”? I have this idea that the sense of the poem, like the snake’s skin, slides in, then out of itself, that memory, or at least the kind of memory here, needs to live inside of another skin to come into being. That memory is like a snake’s shed skin. Or am I totally wrong?
Fascinating. Actually, it happened just as I describe it in the poem. I was cutting the lawn by my garden using one of those old rotary push mowers. It was hot and I was half day-dreaming in the heat and ran over the skin. I knew the snake, had seen him before, knew his habits a bit too. He kept rodents out of the garden pretty well. I saw him interacting with the old skin and tried to imagine what was going through his mind, if snakes have minds…Anyway, the end words came pretty easily as I was thinking about him and the idea of memories like old, shod skin we leave behind as we move through our lives.


You’re also an avid hiker and wrote a book of natural history of New York State. I’m wondering if these other hats you wear informed this sestina.
Definitely. At the time I was working for The Nature Conservancy, which I did for 15 years. My work helped encourage a deep engagement with nature at home and abroad. It also helped me pay attention to my surroundings in a way that allowed me to see the snake in the first place.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
The snake, of course, he was a great inspiration, may he rest in peace.

–interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

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