Behind the Sestina: Jonah Winter on “Sestina: Bob” and “Sestina: A Cowboy’s Diary”

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Jonah Winter’s two collections of poems are Maine (2002), winner of Slope Editions’ first book prize, and Amnesia (2004), winner of the Field poetry prize. He’s also the  recipient of the Cohen Award from Ploughshares magazine and a Pushcart Prize in poetry.

He’s also a children’s book writer. Two of his books, Diego (1994) and Here Comes the Garbage Barge! (2010), were selected as New York Times Best Illustrated Books. His biography of President Obama, Barack (2008), was a New York Times Best-Seller, and his book, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! (2013), was a New York Times Editors Pick. Winter’s previous book in this series, You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (2009), was chosen as the best non-fiction picture book of 2009 by Booklist.

One of the masters of the sestina form, we asked Jonah Winter questions about his two sestinas that appear in The Incredible Sestina Anthology, “Sestina: A Cowboy’s Diary” and “Sestina: Bob.”

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? 

Duhhhhh, sooooo….    Sorry, my memory’s not so good these days.   I probably discovered the sestina in college.   And the first sestina I ever read was probably Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast.”   I remember liking Bishop a lot in college.   I was very serious then.   And I remember attempting a sestina based loosely on a Leadbelly song — without a trace of irony.   Those were the days!

What other sestina writers do you revere?

Sestina writers I revere? John Ashbery, James Cummins, David Lehman. Wow, I guess that’s kind of like saying that Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente are your favorite baseball players — which, if you asked me, I would list.

Waddayagonnado.

Your first book includes several sestinas, including “Sestina: Bob,” collected here. ‘Bob’ took on a life of its own for its daring, at least at the time, use of only one end-word, “Bob,” throughout the poem. I think I recall reading a story about how you wrote a few sestinas and then figured the whole end-word issue of sestina-writing would be a whole lot easier if you just used a single, very malleable word. Is that how things went when you wrote it? Or was it just as much of a challenge?

No, that’s not how that happened.   If I ever said that’s what happened, I was lyin’!    I had not been writing sestinas — at all. I had been writing mainly incomprehensible graduate school garbage. I can’t remember how I came up with the idea for writing a sestina with only one end-word. It just “came to me”…! I had been recently dumped by a woman who was then dating a man named Bob. It was a painful, chaotic, and even vaguely tragic time in my life–for a variety of reasons; being replaced by a man named Bob was just the icing.

Anyhow, I started viewing comedic writing as a way of getting through these really dark periods.   My goal, at the point (and at many future points), was to crack myself up.    When your life has turned into a nightmare…, laugh! Also, I think the idea of mocking a ridiculous poetic form really appealed to me–and continues to appeal to me. As you know, with the sestina form, there is just so much comic potential. But… that’s not a very funny sentence, is it?

It’s funny, trust me. Did you do any research for “Sestina: A Cowboy’s Diary”? I ask because, in your other life, you write children’s picture books, and I imagine you coming across words like “beefe” and “beeves” and thought, geez, I can’t use this in a book for seventh graders, but I could use it in a persona piece sestina. Am I off the mark there, or do you not use the word “geez” when talking to yourself.

Thanks for bring up my children’s book career.  No, really!

I’m really off here. Geez!

Before I became a children’s book author, I worked as a children’s book editor at Knopf.   And let me tell you, I saw some real stinkers from the unsolicited manuscript pile — which often inspired my adult poems!  Let’s face it, bad writing is just funny.  Well, maybe not to everybody.   But to me it is!

As Steve Martin once said, “some people have a way with words, and some…not have way.”

The cowboy’s diary sestina was actually inspired by a real cowboy’s diary from a young adult book about cowboys.   That’s where them thar beeves came from, I tell you whut.  Yep.  And you’re absolutely right, it’s not so kosher to talk about prostitutes, vis a vis beeves, to young children.   I write picture books for the 5-to-9-year-old age group, mainly biographies.   I love writing for children.   It forces me to be engaging.   Plus, children generally have a great sense of humor.

I often read my adult series, “Book Reports,” when visiting grade schools, and the kids crack up, especially when I read my poem about George Washington (“George Washington stood up in a boat/ And then he started America”).   Kids love stupidity, error, farts, etc.   I love kids!   And it’s really getting to the point where I hate adults, at least the ones with no sense of humor — and I’m afraid that would include a large sector of the poetry world.   But you’re right, there are some things you can’t talk about to kids, such as lesbian sex or estate tax law — and that’s the sort of material I reserve for my adult, ahem…, poems.

What keeps you coming back to sestinas? Many poets, I’m sure you know, are of the “one and done” variety. Is it the eccentricity of the form? The challenge?

I’m one of those writers who finds poetic form liberating. Once you’ve nailed down the end-words, you can say literally anything. You can stray so far from the shore, knowing that you’ve got these little verbal life-jackets to keep you from drowning or getting completely lost. I love the tension between a formal straightjacket… and the potential for diagnoseable verbal insanity.  I’m picturing someone wearing a tuxedo… who’s just set his own head on fire.   Now THAT’s… comedy.

A sestina is a perfect vehicle, as well, for making fun of certain words.   With each successive repetition, their absurdity becomes more evident.   (Unless of course they’re not the perfect words, and then that too becomes increasingly evident with each successive repetition.)    “Repetition is at the border of the wondrous” — thus quoth Mr. Kierkegaard, in referring to Job’s predicament, which, via the magic of philosophy, gets transformed into a vehicle for something like transcendence.   Or, on the other hand: If at first you don’t succeed, keep banging your head repeatedly against the coffee table until there’s nothing left to fall out.  There’s a “joy in repetition,” as pop music tells us, but in my experience there is also a torment. I’m talkin’ OCD here:   a compulsion towards repetition; a vaguely psychotic, and definitely neurotic, attachment of repetition to superstition, borne of magical thinking.   Sestinas are not mentally healthy.   In fact, they work against mental health — as they veer towards psychotic/transcendent quasi-religious experience.   And:   I think you would agree with me that the sestina is among the most absurd of poetic forms — and the most classically prone to failure. What other form would have garnered as many ridiculous results as your McSweeney’s website did?    I’m guessing that 99.7% of writers who attempt a sestina in 2013 are doing so with at least a modicum of ironic intent.  It’s interesting that that has not always been the case.   Back in the good old days, only a few very good poets would attempt this form, and the intent was always sincere and serious.   Who knows, maybe someday I’ll start writing serious sestinas, if for no other reason than to separate myself from the current pack.  But not today.  Or tomorrow.    I’m currently assembling some end-words for a new sestina… inspired by time spent in Santa Fe.

You’re a poet who is also, I think it would be fair to say, a performer. Do you have any thoughts on the sestina as something performed or heard at readings?

Thank you for asking me this question.   I love to read my sestinas out loud in public, preferably in a room where people have gathered to hear a poetry reading, but honestly, I enjoy reading them anywhere — and to anyone who’ll listen.   Everything I write is intended to be read aloud — especially my persona poems, which constitute the majority of what I’ve written the past 20 years or so.

Those sorts of poems straddle the line between poetry and theater, therefore acting them out is appropriate. My neighbor’s 15-year-old son has been using my sestinas in forensic competitions. He’s very animated in the way he reads, and so I’m thrilled that he’s been spreadin’ the word. HOWEVER, I certainly hope that my sestinas are written well enough that they don’t need to be read aloud to convey voice. That is my intention. And I certainly think it’s best for the reader if the poem can perform by itself on the page. That’s kind of the idea behind written literature, know wha’m sayin’?

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

Hmmm….

 

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