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The Joy of Six: Albany Times Union’s Sweet Article on Incredible Sestina Anthology



In case you missed this awesomeness, Albany Times Union‘s Elizabeth Floyd Mair interviewed TISA editor Daniel Nester for a piece that ran in this past Sunday’s paper. Check the sweet title, The Joy of Six! Plus the first two stanzas of Laura Cronk’s “Sestina for a Sister in the sidebar.

The article is available online for your reading pleasure. The jump includes the sestina end-word scheme, pictured below.

TU 11 10 2013 c



Behind the Sestina: David Lehman on “The Old Constellation” and “Operation Memory”

David Lehman’s New and Selected Poems (Scribner 2014) is released today.

His other books of poetry include Yeshiva Boys (Scribner, 2009), When a Woman Loves a Man (Scribner, 2005), The Daily Mirror (Scribner, 2000), Valentine Place, and Operation Memory.He and James Cummins collaborated on a book of sestinas, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man. Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award for his nonfiction book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken, 2009); he also wrote and designed the traveling exhibition based on the book, which visited 55 libraries in 27 states in 2011 and 2012. Among Lehman’s other books are a study in detective novels (The Perfect Murder), a group portrait of the NewYork School of poets (The Last Avant-Garde), and an account of the scandal sparked by the revelation that a Yale University eminence had written anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi articles for a leading newspaper in his native Belgium (Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man). He teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School in New York City.

We go Behind the Sestina to talk to Lehman about his two sestinas, “The Old Constellation” and “Operation Memory,” both featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Operation Memory”? I love how it juggles genre fiction conventions–I see film noir, science fiction, even some Dante’s Inferno–with a narrative. Where did you get this idea for “Operation Memory”? Were there any specific inspirations that you remember?
I wrote “Operation Memory” on my thirty-eighth birthday: June 11, 1986. Although I love the sestina form, I did not realize I was writing one until the first six lines were written. When I read them over, they seemed to form a sestina stanza, and the end-words looked promising. Nine years earlier I had written a sestina called “The Thirty-nine Steps,” which my friends and I thought was my best effort at the form. In the back of my head lurked that earlier poem, the end-words of which included the antithetical “youth” and “age.” So the not-so-secret agenda of “Operation Memory” was also time, change, and the feeling of getting older (a feeling even a young man can have).

The poem was chosen by John Ashbery for The Best American Poetry 1988. At the time it seemed a long shot that we would have a 1989 Best American Poetry, let alone twenty-six succeeding volumes, so I had not yet decided to keep the series editor’s poems out of the running for the annual anthology. But I had already decided to ask contributors to comment on their poems, and this is what I wrote about “Operation Memory” for the back of the book:

I’ve long been fascinated by military code names, such as Operation Torch for the Allied invasion of North Africa in World War II. “Operation Memory” suggested a military metaphor for an autobiographical reflection. Or was memory (or its loss) a metaphor for a military experience? Perhaps both. I set out to write a poem about the war in Vietnam. (An undeclared war, Vietnam is nowhere mentioned in the poem.) “Operation Memory” is a sestina with a variable. Ordinarily, there are six repeating end-words in a sestina. Here there are five fixed end-words and a sequence of numbers where the sixth would go. It’s a downward progression (hundred, fifty, eighteen, ten, one) plus a year (1970) and an age (thirty-eight, the age I was when I wrote the poem). I thought of Abraham trying to persuade God to spare the sinful cities: if there were fifty righteous men, would he do it? If there were twenty righteous men? Ten? I was recently asked whether the speaker commits suicide at the end of the poem (“a loaded gun on my lap”). That’s one possibility; a second is that he is about to shoot somebody else; a third is that it’s “a loaded gun” in metaphor only. [Note from The Best American Poetry 1988.]

What keeps you coming back to the sestina?
I love the sestina. When I discovered the form, I was a Columbia freshman, and it seemed to me brilliantly exotic. It was very old, very esoteric, and somehow ultra-new. I liked the way the sestina looked on the page, and I found the secret of its composition easier to master than I anticipated. The sestina looks complicated but the end-words have a way of directing you, and if you keep your eye on them – and on the immediate task of writing lines – the poem will get written.

To write a sestina is to solve a puzzle of your own making. Writing the sestina ngets you, the author, out of the way; you’re too busy solving the puzzle to mess up the poem. There is a deep underground relationship between poetry and numbers just as there is a relationship, less buried, between music and mathematics. Fourteen is the perfect number of lines for a certain kind of utterance; the fourteen-line poem possesses attributes missing in poems two lines longer or shorter–as you’ll see if you attempt to do the work of a sonnet in twelve or sixteen lines. Well, thirty-nine turns out also to be a magic number. The six end-words, repeated in the prescribed way, return in their original order; the wheel comes full circle, and the three-line envoi that ends the poem should hit us with the force of a revelation. All of this is, I think, implicit in the form itself. And you need not think about any of it while you are writing. In fact it would be harmful to your writing if your head were full of theories.

The best sestinas are exercises in poetic logic, in the making of an argument as in an essay but with limited means. That is their glory. The sestina rewards the poet who thrives on wordplay. That is its pleasure. The pleasure is contagious.

You’ve written so many fine sestinas, including couple collaborative efforts. Can you tell me a little about your collaborative sestinas?
Jim Cummins is a master of the form, and his Perry Mason sestinas greatly impressed and inspired me when I read them back in 1986, long before Jim and I met. I’m pretty sure I wrote about the book, The Whole Truth, in Newsweek.  Years later Jim and I met at a reading, had drinks and dinner, and became friends. He wrote a sestina in which one of the end words was “Gary Snyder” and I liked the idea and what he did with it so much that I promptly copied it and produced a sestina – dedicated to Jim – in which the end words were Walt Whitman, Ted Berrigan, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Marvin Bell, and a variable.
Around this time – 1995 or ’96 — Jim and I started to exchange sestinas, each one trying to outdo the other in some way but also conscious of achieving a deep rapport. The idea of our doing a book together seemed to follow naturally from what we were doing. It was Jim who wrote a wonderful series of sestinas in which these two characters, Jim and Dave, have adventures in poetry and in the greater world. I tried my hand at writing one in this genre. And we collaborated on sestina, trading stanzas, more than once — it seemed like a very natural, very friendly thing to do.

Incredible Sestina Anthology goes on the road!

pointing finger

If you’ve been checking out the events page here, you might know this already, but we’ve added some tour dates for early next year! Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle: you are in luck. Sestina luck!

Details below. Stay tuned here for launch readings and other incredible events!

Sunday, November 17, 2013
O.P.P.: Other People’s Poetry
featuring Daniel Nester reading from The Incredible Sestina Anthology
Social Justice Center
33 Central Ave
Albany, NY 12202
Sponsored by The Social Justice Center
Facebook event page

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Drexel/Painted Bride Quarterly
Philadelphia, PA

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Upstairs at Fergie’s Pub
Ernest Hilbert and others read from The Incredible Sestina Anthology!
Philadelphia, PA

Saturday, February 1, 2014
New York Launch Reading of The Incredible Sestina Anthology
With David Lehman, Sharon Mesmer, Sparrow, Victor D. Infante, Patricia Carlin, Jason Schneiderman
Poets House
Ten River Terrace (at Murray Street)
New York, NY 10282
Subway: 1, 2, 3, A or C lines to Chambers Street Station
Detailed directions here

Tuesday, Feburary 4, 2014
Poetry Forum at The New School
with David Lehman

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
NYU Bookstore
Scott Edward Anderson, Patricia Carlin, Victor D. Infante, Jason Schneiderman
726 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Friday, February 21, 2014
Chicago launch of The Incredible Sestina Anthology
Quraysh Ali Lansana, Marty McConnell, Leonard Kress, Kent Johnson, Jenny Boully, Elizabeth Hildreth
The Book Cellar
4736 N Lincoln Ave #1
Chicago, IL 60625

Thursday, February 27, 2014
Seattle/AWP launch party for The Incredible Sestina Anthology
With Patricia Smith, Paul Hoover, Geoff Bouvier, Ravi Shankar, John Hoppenthaler, Sarah Green, Beth Gylys, Sharon Dolin, Nate Marshall, Tomás Q. Morín, Richard Peabody, Sonya Huber, Aaron Belz, Jade Sylvan, Kiki Petrosino, James Harms, Jeffrey Morgan, John Hoppenthaler, Jason Schneiderman, Sandra Beasley
5241 University Way NE [map]
Seattle, WA 98105

Incredible Sestina Anthology editor Interview with New Delta Review’s M.E. Griffith


Forgive me if you’re tired of answering this question already, but why sestinas?

Oh I never get tired of answering the “why sestinas” question. It’s a fair question to ask why would anyone assemble an anthology based on an 800-year-old form. The short answer is I’m fascinated by the enduring appeal of this form, how poets and other artists have been drawn to its fairly elaborate scheme—and in different languages, from Latin and Italian, on to French, German, and English. A slightly longer answer focuses on its present renaissance in English, which has been going on for almost 100 years, and how such a wide variety of poets, from neoformalist to avant garde and every point in between, have taken the sestina under their movement’s wings. It’s an ultimate form for those who stress the validity of received forms in the 21st century, and it’s also so elaborate and procedure-driven that experimental poets can put air quotes around the word “poetic form” and write ones that fulfill their own doctrinal regulations.  In a poetry world that often divides itself among aesthetic teams, the sestina demonstrates a rare common ground.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Behind the Sestina: Geoff Bouvier’s “Refining Sestina”

Geoff Bouvier’s first book, Living Room, was selected by Heather McHugh as the 2005 APR/Honickman Prize winner and was published by Copper Canyon Press. His second book, Glass Harmonica, appeared in 2011 from Quale Press. In 2009, he served as the poet-in-residence at the University of California-Berkeley. For five years, he wrote long-form magazine journalism with The San Diego Reader, publishing over 50 cover stories. Bouvier’s poems have appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, New American Writing, and VOLT. He holds an MFA from Bard College and is currently a Ph.D. student at Florida State University.

We went Behind the Sestina with Bouvier to discover how he refines the sestina in his poem “Refining Sestina,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
The first sestina I ever saw was John Ashbery’s double sestina in Flow Chart. Made the traditional form seem easy.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I spent about two months writing nothing but sestinas, and no, I never wrote another one before or since.

What was it like writing a 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?
Repetitious end-words are already related to echoing, so during those couple of “sestina months” (yes, that’s a thing) I wrote a lot of sestinas about echoes. After a while, it occurred to me to try to write the shortest sestina possible, so I started experimenting with words that could anagram six ways. It was a lot of nonsense. Then I tried sestinas that consisted of just the six end-words. Those were okay. Finally, when I “sestinaed” (yes, that’s a verb) whole phrases, I started to write what sounded like Bach fugues. “Refining Sestina” is one of those.

Living Room, Bouvier’s first book.

It’s clear that your sestina’s form differs from what we are used to seeing. The word “redefining” has something to do with it, certainly. What led you to write the sestina in this way?
For about 10 years, I wrote nothing but prose poems. I didn’t consider any poem “finished” until I’d transposed it into the standard sentences and paragraphs of expository prose. For a while, I worked my way through experimenting with prose sonnets, prose villanelles, prose pantoums, prose sestinas, what-have-you. The conversion into prose of what I’d already thought of as a redefinition of the strict sestina form completed my little experiment.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
My sestina is a paean to sestinas themselves, albeit a refining one.

–Interview Conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s “A Sestina for Shappy, Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Poems”

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The
Year of No Mistakes (Write Bloody Publishing), as well as Dear Future Boyfriend, Hot Teen Slut, Working Class Represent, Oh, Terrible Youth and Everything is Everything. She is also the author of two books of nonfiction: Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam and Curiosity: Thomas Dent Mütter and the Dawn of Modern Medicine, forthcoming from Gotham Books/Penguin.

Aptowicz’s most recent awards include the ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residency at the University of  Pennsylvania, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and an Amy Clampitt Residency.

We unearthed Aptowicz’s “time capsule” and asked her about “A Sestina for Shappy, Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Poems,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I am sure I was first introduced to the sestina form in high school, but the first time I saw contemporary poets use it in a way that was exciting and inspiring was in the online lit journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendancies, which only published poetry in that format.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I have only written one other sestina, and it was written before this one. When I first graduated from NYU, the only job I was offered was a writer and editor for a porn website. And, as a hazard of the job, I was bombarded daily with pop-up ads advertising other porn sites. I noticed that many of the ads used the same words (you can imagine what they are!), so I spent MONTHS collecting phrases from pornographic pop-up ads to create a “found poetry” sestina. When I finally plugged in the last “found” line I was filled with such joy at a job well down–and then, almost after, a woeful sorrow at what my poetic life had devolved into! The resulting sestina can be found in my book, Hot Teen Slut, which is a memoir-in-verse about my year working that job.

Can you describe writing ‘A Sestina for Shappy?’
I was invited to try the sestina format again by McSweeney’s Internet Tendancies, editor Daniel Nester, and when I tried to think of a subject to place in the center of the poem, my relationship with my partner Shappy came to mind. At that time, I had not written much about us, and the timing felt right. The poem came out pretty easily and I was thrilled when it was well-received both on the web (it was later accepted by McSweeneys) and page (it became a crowd favorite at my local poetry venue, the Bowery Poetry Club).

This sestina describes the tentative beginnings of a relationship. Now, six years later, what is like re-reading this poem?
I think it captures wonderfully that time in my life. Shappy and I dated for eleven and a half years, and our years in the tiny kitsch-crammed apartment are among the happiest I’ve ever lived.

Would you consider writing a sequel? If so, what do think the sequel sestina– a sequestina, if you will—would discuss?
I don’t think I would write a sequel. The poem is time capsule, and I think it is best if it remains that way.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to (outside of the obvious candidate)?
The obvious candidate—my partner Shappy – is the only candidate. He absolutely earned every drop of love I crammed into that piece, and I still love him to this very day.

–Interview conducted by Alex J. Tunney

Full Cover Spread of The Incredible Sestina Anthology


Here is the full-cover spread for TISA! We’ve added the names of a couple up-and-comers, Elizabeth Bishop and Ezra Pound. The back cover copy is set. We also love how there are spirals on the top and bottom of the spine.

You do know it’s available for pre-order, right? It will make an excellent gift for the poetry nerd in your life. That person may be you.