Category Archives: Behind the Sestina

Behind the Sestina: Brian Henry on “Bad Apple”

Brian Henry has published nine books of poetry, most recently Brother No One (Salt Publishing, 2013). He has translated Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices (Harcourt, 2008) and Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things (BOA Editions, 2010), which won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award.

We went Behind the Sestina with Henry to discuss “Bad Apple,” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
The first sestina I read was probably in Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, which I read for a literature course in college.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I’ve written quite a few sestinas before and after this one. My earlier sestinas were exercises within the form; my later sestinas were attacks on the form. This is one of my later ones.

Can you describe writing this sestina? Did the subject matter of the sestina have an impact on the form used, or did the form have an impact on what you were writing about?
I wrote this sestina in 2002. I wanted to write a poem by writing a stanza a day. I didn’t sit down to write a sestina, but on the second day, the end word of the first line happened to match up with the end word of the previous line, and the sestina just started to happen. On the third day, though, I decided to make the sestina itself the subject.

Did you really write a stanza a day for a week?  Does the decaying apple symbolize the passage of time?
I did. The apple in the title relates to the idiom “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” I thought it spoke to the construction of a poetic form like the sestina.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
All of my sestinas would be dedicated to Hayden Carruth, who once visited my poetry workshop in graduate school and said that any sestina not written in iambic pentameter is a fake sestina.

—Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani


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


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.


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?



Behind the Sestina: Nate Marshall


From the South Side of Chicago, Nate Marshall is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and was the star of the award-winning documentary  Louder Than A Bomb. He has been featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices, and his work has appeared in such places as Vinyl Poetry, Poetry, Learn Then Burn, and The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux,on Chicago Public Radio.He is also an Assistant Poetry Editor for Muzzle.

Marshall has also worked a teaching artist with organizations such as Young Chicago Authors, Inside Out Detroit, and Southern Word. He is the founder of the Lost Count Scholarship Fund that promotes youth violence prevention in Chicago. Marshall has performed poetry at venues and universities across the US, Canada, and South Africa. He is also a rapper.

We asked Nate about “pallbearers (a sestina),” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 

I first discovered the concept of a sestina at the opening event of Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Slam. One of the featured readers read one and I totally didn’t understand it. I remember thinking it was so odd but I was drawn to the repetition.

Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? 

The first sestina I read I think was Lucy Anderton’s “Eve’s Sestina for Adam” from The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux. I don’t know if I have a favorite sestina but I really respect the sestinas that have very short lines. That’s hard, man.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. What got you started? 

‘pallbearers’ is the first sestina I ever wrote. I wrote the first draft of it in 2009 during my sophomore year of college. My professor, Mark Jarman, trashed it pretty thoroughly in workshop, but I still thought it was pretty good. After many successive drafts its much better in my opinion.

What keeps you coming back (or are you sestina retired)?

I love the sestina for the repetition. It lends itself well to narrative because of that and that plays well to my instincts as a poet. Also I really dig the way knowledge of homophones becomes so golden in building a sestina. That homophone use really reminds me of the inventiveness of writing raps.

Sestinas are my go-to form when I have time to kill. They are like poetry sudoku. They are the official form of international flights, long flight delays and MegaBus trips through the Midwest.

Can you walk us through the composition of “pallbearers”? The sestina welcomes and demands repetition, and so I suspect your writing about this particular subject came out of witnessing and experiencing death, life, friendships? 

It’s hard to say. The thing I started with in this poem was the end words. That’s a trick I learned from Mark Jarman. I wanted to use a bunch of small, flexible words and then one that was strange or more challenging. I think coffin became the word because I could think of a variety of ways it could be used and because I often write about how death and loss impact my life and my world. The repetition seemed to fit the storyline naturally because in a childhood friendship there’s often a kind of repeating, almost sitcom quality to the times you spend with those friends. There’s also sadness to when that time in life ends that might be kind of akin to a sort of death. I think though it is important that the poem ends on the image of togetherness and support even in death. That makes the poem hopeful, it speaks to life and the fact that life is ultimately about the relationships we cultivate with each other.

Can you tell us about the important of the poem’s epigraph? Ang13 is from Chicago, as you are, so I imagine that’s a big part of it?

The epigraph is so important. Listening to that song was the thing that sparked the writing of the poem so there’s that. Also I think Ang13 means a lot to the work. She’s a legendary underground female rapper from Chicago. She’s a smart ass, witty, strong woman voice and that makes sense to start in a poem about my grandmother who was also all those things.

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

Oh this is definitely for my maternal grandmother, Mary Frances Griffin. To a lesser extent, it’s also dedicated to my childhood crew: Shaun Peace, Bart Studnicki, Dominic Giafagleone, and Kenneth Kittrell.

Behind the Sestina: Amanda Nadelberg on “My New Pet Word is Mozzarella”

Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (Coffee House Press, 2012), Isa the Truck Named Isadore (Slope Editions, 2006), and a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married (The Song Cave, 2009).

We went Behind the Sestina with Nadelberg to talk about her sestina, “My New Pet Word is Mozzarella,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
In College. My teacher used The Making of a Poem and lo and behold! 

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
Before, yes. Since: maybe not? I have probably written 4.5 sestinas in my life. 

I would love to read the .5 sestina. Can you describe writing “My New Pet Word is Mozzarella”? Did the subject matter of the sestina have an impact on the form used, or did the form have an impact on what you were writing about?
Its form drives the content most of all. It’s fine to have a nugget expectation of direction but after a while what I always forget I love about them is how you are bullied by these words into a narrative and sometimes it becomes a surprise, the direction taken. It would be fun to a write a sestina without a narrative. I’ve always enjoyed writing sestinas with end words that are seemingly “less expensive” (i.e. prepositions and articles are keys to the kingdom). 

Have you heard anyone use mozzarella as a pet name?  How would define mozzarella as a verb?
I haven’t. It could mean to tussle someone’s hair, as if an affectionate noogie; or it could mean to hurry up or to lie beneath a tree on a hot day.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
Donald Duck’s mom. 

Behind the Sestina: Jason Schneiderman on “The Buffy Sestina”


Jason Schneiderman, essayist and poet, is the author of Sublimation Point and Striking Surface. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Poetry London, Grand Street, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Story Quarterly, and Tin House. Michael Montlack included Jason’s essay about Liza Minnelli in his book, My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. Schneiderman has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He won the 2009 Richard Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press. He was also the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2004. He is an Assistant Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

We went Behind the Sestina with Schneiderman to discuss his “The Buffy Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.
When did you first discover the sestina?
My first semester at college, my best friend was taking a poetry workshop, and he had to write a sestina. I was kind of blown away.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I’m not sure I’ve written one since. I wrote a lot of sestinas when I was an undergrad, but the first one I kept, I wrote in Russia. I was in a workshop, and we were supposed to write sestinas, so I wrote one and I didn’t think much of it. Then after the class, my friends were like, “No fair bringing in older and polished work.” I realized it was a keeper.

Can you describe writing this sestina? 
My husband and I were watching seasons of Buffy as they came out on DVD, and we’d watch almost an entire season in a weekend. I got very used to the rhythm of the seasons… the arc that never included summer, and it felt a bit sestina like– to cycle through the same events, but with endless variation. I wanted to capture the pleasure of the repetition, to enjoy the formal play of the season’s arc, and the sestina seemed like the best container.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has developed a cult following. What is significance of Buffy to you?
Buffy is all about consequences. Everything that happens matters. The worst part of watching TV is the extent to which plots are dropped or forgotten or ignored. On Buffy, everything that happened had repercussions. I was teaching a lot of fiction at the time, and I remember wishing that all my students would watch Buffy– see, I could say– nothing’s extraneous or gratituous– it all leads somewhere. Buffy also understood loss; Joyce’s death continued to reverberate across the entire series.

Buffy calibrated tonal shifts in a way that I’ve never really seen before or since. Buffy could veer between agony and joy while making pit stops at snark, fear, and cute. I still think of Buffy saying to Dawn (at the end of season 6), “I don’t want to protect you from the world; I want to show it to you.” That’s the foundation of my pedagogy. I can’t say that on a job interview, but I can say it here.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
Michael Broder. I know I should say Sarah Michelle Gellar or Joss Whedon, but watching the show with Michael was half the joy.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Patricia Carlin on “Lives of the Conquerors”

Patricia Carlin’s books include Quantum Jitters and Original Green (poems), and
Shakespeare’s Mortal Men (prose). She has published widely in journals and anthologies, including Boulevard, Verse, BOMB, Pleiades, POOL, American Letters & Commentary, and The Literary Review; she has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and VCCA. She teaches literature and poetry writing at The New School and co-edits the poetry journal Barrow Street.

We went Behind the Sestina to talk to Carlin about her poem, “Lives of the Conquerors,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I first encountered Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina “Ye Goatherd Gods” in college. It seemed a formal and historical curiosity, and otherwise uninteresting. Later I came across John Ashbery’s “The Painter,” and was instantly captivated by the possibilities of the form.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
For a while I wrote sestinas obsessively (after all, it’s an obsessive form). Any form is a constraint that moves work in directions it wouldn’t otherwise take; but in my current work I’m exploring a variety of invented, rather than received, constraints.

Can you describe writing this sestina? Did the subject matter of the sestina have an impact on the form used, or did the form have an impact on what you were writing about?
Each time I write a sestina I see afterwards that there’s a close connection between form and content, although it’s a different connection in each poem. In “Lives of the Conquerors” the form mirrors the unrolling of history, where things keep coming back, but they never come back the same way. I remember writing this poem with Iraq very much in mind. In the actual process of writing, though, I was guided by intuition, which is to say I used the end words as a kind of Rorschach blot leading me on. I was also listening to the sound of the poem, as I do any time I write. When I have the sound I know I have the poem.

This sestina is concise and uses its words sparsely. Was this intentional or something that happened while writing?
The concision of this sestina, and what you refer to as its sparse use of words, came from my sense of wishing to distill enormous cycles of time and history, and also from my related sense of all the lacunae in the historical record: those gaps where individual lives vanish into unrecorded nothingness, as do the lives of all rulers, since only remnants ever remain.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I don’t know who I’d dedicate this sestina to–maybe to all of us, piecing out our lives in the little spaces of time and the times.

–Interview conducted by Alex J. Tunney

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.