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.

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