Monthly Archives: January 2014

SestinaWatch Vol. 5: John Green, Rabbi, Hecht and Fairchild

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Sestina spotted in John Green’s Paper Towns. Somebody write a sestina with these end-words already!

Did you hear the one about the rabbi who wrote a sestina after she gave birth? (Sorry, couldn’t resist the joke set-up. It’s a nice column.)

Anthony Hecht’s “Sidney and the Sestina.”

This image (NSFW) elicited giggles at Sestina Headquarters.

“I’ve written two sestina’s in my life,” poet B.H. Faichild tells a college newspaper. “The one I wrote in one day. I’ve been working on ‘The Left-Fielder’s Sestina’ on and off for almost six years.”

Behind the Sestina: Jade Sylvan on “Facebook Sestina”

Jade Sylvan has been published in PANK, Bayou, Basalt, BuzzFeed, The Sun, Word Riot, and others. Jade was the winner of the 2011 Bayou Editor’s Poetry Prize and was a finalist in the 2012 Basalt Bunchgrass Poetry Prize. Jade has published a book of poetry, The Spark Singer (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2009), and a nonfiction novel, Kissing Oscar Wilde (Write Bloody Press, 2013). Jade has collaborated with some of the most groundbreaking artists in the Boston arts community in the role of creator, writer, and/or performer, in such wide-ranging genres as film (including co-writing and starring in the feature film, TEN), indie folk music, hip-hop, improv/sketch comedy, vaudeville, drag, visual art, playing anime theme songs on a harmonium, legitimate theatre, and rock & roll. Jade is originally from the Midwest, but now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts among a rotating cast of geniuses, fairies, magicians, and kings.

We went Behind the Sestina to talk to Sylvan about her “Facebook Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. You’ve written quite a number of them– what keeps you coming back (or are you “sestina retired,” as one poet once said)
Repetition, meter, and form in poetry has always been soothing to me. I specifically love the way re-contextualizing the same words can completely change their meaning, and how sometimes that changed meaning can make you go back and look at the word as it appears earlier in the poem differently.

Even in my free verse and prose, I tend to repeat words, images and themes throughout in different contexts. Once a writer friend described one of my prose poems as an “exploded sestina.”I liked that. I write a lot of exploded sestinas.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Facebook Sestina”? Is it inspired by real life events, place, narrative? I like the idea of a campfire as a metaphor for the popular social networking site? Am I barking up the right tree there?
I was at a human evolution exhibit in the Natural History Museum in DC a couple years ago, and they had one of those “Evolution of Humans” timelines. You know the type: long line with little illustrations of Cro-Magnons with evolutionary turning-points marked at things like “Developing Language” and “Burying the Dead.” This one had marked “Gathering at the Hearth,” as one of these turning-points. I’ve always been interested in evolution, and I’ve seen a ton of these timelines, but I’d never seen “Gathering at the Hearth” listed alongside “Fashioning Tools” as a major event in human evolution. I realized that this was the earliest form of networking, and that the reason the scientists suddenly considered networking to be an intrinsic part of being human was probably things like Facebook. The sestina form fit perfectly. I decided to use half Facebook words (“like,” “friends,” “share”) and half half-Facebook words (“light,” “alone,” “build”) as the repeated words. Then it was just a puzzle.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
Since I refuse to dedicate anything to Mark Zuckerberg, I guess I’ll dedicate this to the Borg Queen. Resistence is futile.

Jeffrey Barg sings Shane Allison’s sestina “Mother Worries” at last Wednesday’s The Incredible Sestina Anthology

Jeffrey Barg sings Shane Allison’s sestina “Mother Worries” from The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing), as part of the book’s launch reading in Philadelphia on January 15, 2014, upstairs at Fergie’s Camera work and insufferable giggling by the anthology’s editor, Daniel Nester.

Jeffrey Barg’s bio is as follows: Jeffrey Barg is a writer, actor, musician and urban planner from Philadelphia. He composed the music and lyrics for Wars & Whores: The Henry IV Musical (now known as The Ballad of King Henry), a Shakespearean folk musical, in the 2011 Philly Fringe. He can be seen this spring in Private Lives at the Spotlight Theatre in Swarthmore.

Behind the Sestina: Sarah Green on “Metamorphic Sestina”

sarahgreen2Sarah Green lives in Athens, Ohio, where she is a third-year doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2012, the 2009 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Mid-American Review, FIELD, Gettysburg ReviewH-ngm-n, Forklift Ohio, Inter/rupture, Leveler, Cortland Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. A singer-songwriter with the Americana duo Heartacre, Sarah is also an enthusiastic 826 volunteer. Her lesson on teaching sonnets to fifth graders can be found in the 826 National curriculum book Don’t Forget to Write.

We go Behind the Sestina with Green to talk about her “Metamorphic Sestina” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? What’s your favorite sestina?
I think the first sestina I ever read was in college, and it was probably Bishop’s Sestina with the tea kettle.

Do I have a favorite sestina? I go back and forth about Ciara Shuttleworth’s sestina, which uses the end words “You / used / to / love / me / well”, but it definitely has stayed with me, might be a favorite. Terrance Hayes has a great sestina, if I remember right…

Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since? If this is a one-off sestina, why is that? If you’ve written many, what keeps you coming back?
This was the first sestina I ever wrote, under the brilliant direction of Martha Collins’ workshop at Oberlin. I believe we were told that a person only gets one successful sestina in his/her life. I’m not sure if that’s true, if this one is mine, or what. I have written more sestinas since then; I find that they combine the potential for obsessive ordering-of-angst -which other traditional forms also share- with the subversive wish to sprawl, or court happenstance, or narrate, or be untrue. Dream.

Is there a setting, a story, to “Metamorophic Sestina”? I have some guesses, what with such evocative words as “saffron” and “Kabir.”
This sestina was written in response to a specific train burning in the city of Gujarat, India, in 2002. The results of the burning were Hindu-Muslim riots in which hundreds of people from both religions died. I had traveled to India in 2001 and it was still on my mind when that news was circulating. I found possibilities in the form for ambiguity and grief that were compelling to me. I was also influenced by Shahid Ali’s ghazals.

Let’s talk end words. What led to your choices. I like especially how you swap out “glass” for such variants as “glasses” but also “gasoline” for “glossolalia.” What emboldened you to do this?
Being 21 years old emboldened me. Am I going to get kicked out of the book for being too young??!

I should add that the repeating line is from the Islamic creed:

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا الله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ الله (lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāh, muḥammadun rasūlu -llāh) (in Arabic)
There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God (in English)

I don’t know if I would write the poem this way now, but at the time I was trying to create a temporary moment of respite from the coexistence of “there is no god” with the full, religious creed , in the same poem, thinking about the coexistence of different belief.

Behind the Sestina: Matt Madden on “The Six Treasures of the Spiral: A Comics Sestina”

Matt Madden is a cartoonist who teaches at the School of Visual Arts and in workshops around the world. His work includes 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Penguin), a collection of his comics adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style; a translation from the French of Aristophane’s The Zabome Sisters (First Second); and Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics, (First Second), a pair of comics textbooks written in collaboration with his wife, Jessica Abel. The couple are also series editors for The Best American Comics from Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. He is currently on an extended residency in Angoulême, France with his wife and their two children.

We went Behind the Sestina with Madden to talk about his “The Six Treasures of the Spiral: A Comics Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Could you tell us about that?
My friend Jason Little described the sestina to me the first night we ever got together (along with Tom Hart) to seriously discuss comics, constraints, Oulipo, and Oubapo (see next question) around 2000. I didn’t actually read any sestinas until a few years later when I researched them online. I believe the first one I ever read was by Rudyard Kipling’s “Sestina of the Tramp Royal.” I loved the sea-shanty-like quality of the imagery and undulating rhythm caused by the repeating words. That poem certainly informed my comic, and if you look closely you can see that I named the boat the Tramp Royal. Another sestina that I read early on and which deeply impressed me was Elizabeth Bishop’s melancholy “Sestina.”

What’s your favorite sestina?
That one might well be my favorite, though as a cartoonist I also have a soft spot for John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabaga in a Landscape.”

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. What got you started on writing comics versions of poetic forms?
I don’t have much of a background in poetry, but I’ve been reading experimental and formalist literature and comics of one sort or another for a long time. Since I started working on my 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises in Style in the late 90s I’ve immersed myself in the world of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature), the literary supper club/laboratory founded by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais in 1960. I found my kindred spirits when I discovered that group and its passion for constraints and formal structures and their application in literature. As it happened, around that same time some French cartoonists had founded Oubapo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Comics) and after a few years’ correspondence they made me a “US correspondent” to the group. When Jason Little described the sestina’s structure to me I was intrigued by the possibilities of that sort of permutational repetition for comics: there are a number of ways you can adapt the concept of repetons to comics: you can have words repeating or images, bits of dialogue, compositional schema, keywords, or, as I did in “Six Treasures,” whole panels. As an author of narrative, I like how the recurring repetons supply story prompts that are always surprising yet have a rhythmic repetition built into them. I feel that even if the final story were seamless there would still be a formal integrity bolstering it behind the scenes—that’s something that’s true about many fixed forms and constraints in general. Since finishing “Six Treasures” I’ve done comics based on the pantoum, the villanelle, and the haiku, and I have notes for a few more sestinas I’d like to try.

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Some panels from Madden’s “The Six Treasures of the Spiral,” his sestina comic.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Six Treasures”? I imagine you coming around to embracing the constraint of having the end/right-most panels adhere to the end word scheme. Did this help determine what kind of story you told?
That’s correct. I decided that my repetons would be panels. I then decided to treat the 2-page spreads as “stanzas” because to put six tiers on a page would have made for too dense a comic, at least for my style of cartooning. That implied that my envoi would be one page that would feature all six repeton-panels, leaving me the equivalent of three panels to complete it (in the end I only used two, the final one being a double panel). 

I played around with different kinds of panels that might work in multiple contexts: ambiguous gestures or expressions, bits of dialogue. At some point I decided that each of the six repeton-panels would show one of the six characters and then used their numerical order as a basis for their names (one=Einiger, two=Twopenny, five=Captain Sank (cinq), etc.). I then pasted up copies of the repeton-panels in their corresponding positions and started filling in the gaps with the aim of telling a reasonable fluid story. I roughed out a whole version that I scrapped because it wasn’t working before coming up with the final repeton-panels.

To jump back a step: The first thing that really got my brain working was the image of the spiral that you can use to figure out the order of the repitons (so I’m very happy it’s on the cover!). I probably also had that Kipling sestina in mind but I started to think about whirlpools and I had a notion to try to adapt Poe’s “Descent into the Maelström” which didn’t work out but which left me with the idea of a maritime adventure and a tragic ending at the bottom of a giant whirlpool. The maritime theme got me thinking about visual sources to draw from: Roy Crane’s adventure comics, Alex Raymond’s elegantly swooping lines he uses to indicate weather and water in Flash Gordon, and Hergé’s Tintin

I love how you integrated the idea of the “spiral,” so integral to the sestina and its origins, into the sestina itself. This self-referential move is part of a rich tradition in sestinas, the “sestina about writing a sestina.” Is that part of what you were going for, or was it more of an easter egg thing, something for the sestina smart fans?
I suppose it’s a bit of both. I like work that references its own creation but I also enjoy the old-fashioned illusionistic possibilities of storytelling. So while it’s not overtly a meta-comic, there many clues and references that a close reader will pick up on, most having to do with the idea of the spiral and the number six.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
Harry Mathews

SestinaWatch Vol. 4: Polar Vortex, or, Some Shivery Sestinas

The polar vortex (the coldest of cyclones) is something like a sestina– a sestina of pure coldness– you know with it’s spirally nature and the repetition of single-digit temperatures day after day. So, I hope you all got or bought copies of The Incredible Sestina Anthology to curl up with during this blistery winter even after this vortex has passed through. I have two copies, which is good because I may need to burn one copy for heat because the radiator still hasn’t turned on in my room. [Update: Whoops! Forgot to turn a knob on the radiator. Still cold though.]

The rest of you should keep your copy (or copies) intact, because there are a lot of incredible Incredible Sestina Readings coming up soon and you may want your book signed. We’ll be in Philly on Wednesday. In February, March and April, we’ll be in New Yawk, Cambridge, Chi-town and Worchestah. Of course, we’ll also be on site for AWP 2014 in Seattle. And by we, I mean Dan and the nearest (local) contributors.

In the meantime, I found some great sestinas from all over the internet. As well as something else. See what I mean after the jump.

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Behind the Sestina: Noelle Kocot on “Why We Go to Couple’s Counseling”

NoelleKocot1Noelle Kocot is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Soul in Space (Wave Books, 2013). Her other books are 4 (Four Way Books, 2001), The Raving Fortune (Four Way, 2004), Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems (Wave, 2006), Sunny Wednesday (Wave, 2009) and The Bigger World (Wave, 2011). Kocot has also translated some of the poems of Tristan Corbière from the French, which appear in Poet by Default (Wave, 2011). Her work has been included in three editions of Best American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, among other anthologies. She has received awards from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Fund for Poetry, The Academy of American Poets and the Lannan Literary Foundation, among others. Kocot lives in the wilds of New Jersey and teaches writing in New York City.

We went Behind the Sestina with Kocot to discuss her poem, “Why We Go to Couple’s Counseling,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Could you tell us about that?
I discovered the sestina when I was 16.  My English teacher, the late Carol Ann Kiyak, suggested I write one.  She told me how to write it, but didn’t give me any samples, and I wrote a bunch.  A year and a half later, on the English Advanced Placement exam, was Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” which was to become at that moment, and remain, my first and favorite sestina.

You’re written so many great sestinas. What got you started?  What keeps you coming back (or are you sestina retired)?
I love the sestina, but haven’t written one in 12 years.  I’d love to again soon, when the mood strikes me!

Let’s talk about your end words. “Rotisserie” in particular is not an easy work to repeat seven times, even in a recipe, and yet you pull it off. One pet theory I have is by having another end-word that rhymes, “gravity,” we get used to hearing it, or it balances out the language in some way. Or am I completely off-track?
I guess you’re right, though I’ve never noticed the connection before!

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
I guess my friend Lizzette, mainly, who is a true poetic inspiration–we have been best friends since the first day of classes at Oberlin College–over 25 years now!  She is one of the spiritual, earthly guardians of my poetry! I would dedicate ALL my poetry to her.