June 24, 2008

Thoughts on Sestinas

Thanks to everyone who gave an encouraging nod toward my sestina draft (which was "born" at around midnight on Sunday, and took about four hours to evolve into the 4-AM Monday version you see below). This is part of a mini-project of sestinas I'm doing...nothing related to a book MS, just a workout of the formal muscles. I'll leave it up for the rest of the day before taking it down.

CC asked if I would elaborate a bit on process. I don't want to overthink it, so I'll just throw out some scattered thoughts:

-I don't like interrupting myself to go check the exact for order for the repetition of word endings. So I keep a "form" ABCDEF sestina in a Word Doc, and use that as a blank starting place for drafts. That said, I recommend NOT filling in the specific end words more than a stanza in advance of the actual drafted poem. If you do, you'll feel boxed-in and psyche yourself out.

-Choose your end-words carefully, keeping an eye out for words that have homonyms or multiple meanings. This gives you more to play with. And if overall you're very fidelious to the form, consider making at least one bold substitution (i.e. "John" for "jaw"). Rules are meant to be bent, just not smashed into a million pieces.

-On a related note: I don't think strict iambic is necessary, but I think it's a mistake to not aim for a regular line-length. Sestina writers who ignore meter create a situation where the the eye sees the end words as the ONLY reason for any given line break. The sestina ends up feeling like a runaway train, ready to veer off the tracks at any moment, rather than a gyroscope set in motion. With a ten-syllable line, enjambment becomes a much more powerful tool in counter-balancing the repetition.

-Be strong of heart. The place where the repetition starts to beat the reader over the head is after the third stanza; it's also where you, as a poet, will grow tired of your subject. The same way that a sonnet has a volta (the six-line ending turn), this is where you want to create a narrative or tonal twist. Ask a question. Add a new element.

-The best sestinas are written from a mindset that, to the reader, is palpably obsessive. Don't deny the reptition; embrace it. Write a poem of grief or anger or urging, where the form nourishes the tone.

-Finally, trust the machinery. One of the funny things about sestinas is that beyond the first stanza they begin to dictate their own narrative path. This was originally an excuse to write about a piece of mythological trivia that has been nagging at me (it goes with Occam's razor)...but by stanza 3, the poem was all about John. The ostensible reason "why" I wrote the poem appears nowhere in this draft!

Hope that's illuminating. What are your thoughts on sestinas? Who does them well? How have your own attempts gone, if any?

"Specimen Jar Poetry Puzzle inspired by Elizabeth Bishop" photo taken from Hex Presse, WOMB's chapbook publishing project.


Don said...

This is a sestina I attempted a long time ago. I haven't tried a sestina since.

Ms. Dream

She loves the song they wrote about her,
the way they needed a way out of snow,
escaping to the beaches of her birthplace
where Mr. Sun always breaks out his shades
and she wears on her breasts strips of moon,
slipping onlookers into fantasies of night.

The muses, her best friends, take her out at night.
Men suck in their stomachs, approach her
at the bar counter outside in the full moon,
but her cool eyes are just like deep snows,
turning them into zombies and wandering shades
who lose their minds, forget their birthplaces.

The land of TV and movies was her birthplace,
where action heroes fight through fake nights,
all the actress wannabees wear black shades
and try to be faint, imperfect replicas of her,
but have as much chance as chunks of snow
in a desert or life being found on the moon.

At wild parties, at crowded concerts, the moon
hangs over her soft body, the birthplace
of so many pleas for rescue. Trapped in snow,
stranded in an unknown city, lost at night,
they call out their desperate wishes to her
who looks at them fondly or keeps on her shades.

The orange trees of her tasteful home shade
a swimming pool shaped like a crescent moon
where every man journeys from afar to see her,
thousands of hard miles from their birthplaces,
through furiously hot days and frostbitten nights,
just to cool their desires like coals on snow.

You might as well bury yourself in snow
seek out the underworld to bring back shades
into the land of the living, out of eternal night,
or try to build a ladder all the way to the moon.
She’s chosen your path from your birthplace;
it’s fate if you get the things you need from her.

We can’t shovel our piles of snow over her,
toss away our shades, or deny our birthplaces.
Her lustful night draws us toward her moon.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Am enjoying your posts about sestinas -- mostly because I have a love/hate relationship with this form. I have never been able to write a sestina I have been happy with...I even tried the "twist" you talk about in stanza three, and somehow, it's never twisty enough.

With that said, I really liked your sestina. Maybe that's my summer goal: to write a publishable sestina!

Leslie said...

I love sestinas and keep the same form map in a word document. But my best one was a variation on a nonce form Joe Harrison published--he called it a quintina, I think. Basically he cut it to 5 and ran with it.

I love that because there is less fatigue (for reader and writer) and for some reason I am seriously attracted to odd numbers of lines in a stanza. 6 lines bad. 5 lines good.

My other favorite sestina thing is that I keep groups of words in ascending or descending orders of something (rocks from dust to the moon, for example or months of the year, days of the week) and use those as end words to give myself a little more dancing room.

My favorite sestinas are the bishop stove one and Anthony Hecht's Sestina d'Inverno.

Emily Lloyd said...

Hands down, the most amazing sestina I've ever read was by Lisa Jarnot. And I can't find the flipping thing on the internet, or remember the title--but some of the end words were "truth," "Emperor Wu," "street," and "neighborhood." Phenomenal.

I also love "Dear Thrasher" by Sonya Huber:


Sandra said...

Hey Don--It's funny...even though this is a sestina, it is also unmistakably a Don Illich poem. That's a good thing. So often the form overwhelms the individual voice.

Karen, I don't know that these are publishable. But they are complete. And I've heard fiction writers say, with first novels, that the key is just to COMPLETE the damn thing, even if it immediately goes in a drawer to never be seen again. So maybe the goal ought to just be to not give up on the sestina until that final envoi?

Leslie, when I was poking around the Unsplendid site I think I found an example of the nonce form you talk about--the quintina--by Isaac Cates. He does it very well. But I have to say, I feel a stubborn loyalty to the 6x6 format. I think the challenge of fighting against that utter fatigue is what makes them fun. That said, I REALLY like your idea of substitutions according to "object group" versus linguistic pattern. That intrigues me.

Emily, now I'm dying to find that Lisa Jarnot poem too! Hmmm.

Isaac said...

Thanks for the positive words, Sandra. I was kind of noodling around with the form in that "Prisoners' Dilemma" poem because I could tell that it was the sort of subject that would work well in a sestina—it kept coming back to the same words—but I didn't think it'd sustain 39 lines.

I figure that the traditional forms have a sort of inherent or internal staying power, but they also often get honored just because they've been honored in the past. Why not experiment with nearby or analogous forms?