KL: How long did it take you to master the sestina form?
CW: To complete my first successful sestina, in the days before I had textbooks that provided a diagram of the template and multiple examples of successful sestinas, I simply studied Elizabeth Bishop's "A Miracle for Breakfast," a poem I had first read around the time I studied with her. I copied out and followed the end-word pattern in this sestina, trusting that since it was written by Miss Bishop, it would be correct--faithful to the form as a traditional sestina. (It is!) At that time, I didn't notice the outer-to-inner movement of the end words.
That first sestina was a revision of an earlier attempt I had composed during the workshop with Miss Bishop, and then set aside for a couple of years. Once I put my mind to revising this one, and making it work, it took a few sessions of a few hours each to complete--but this was after a hiatus of two or three years since drafting the first version.
Several years later, while traveling in Europe without any sestinas with me and before I understood the 6 - 1 - 5 - 2 - 4 - 3 template pattern, I goofed up in two sestinas. I followed an incorrect order of end words, but I followed the pattern consistently through all the stanzas. These sestinas were already published in literary magazines by the time I noticed this "error"!
Meanwhile, the editors who accepted them for publication either didn't notice, or thought without mentioning it that I had followed a deliberate variation. I rather suspect that the editors didn't notice! :-) But since the end-word patterns were internally consistent, I didn't attempt to rewrite those two sestinas.
KL: I love the way you mixed contemporary themes with a traditional form in your winning poetry entry, "Sestina: That mouth... " Did you write that consciously or did it just emerge?
CW: Thanks for your kind words about "Sestina: That mouth..."! If I recall correctly, this sestina started as a poem in couplets--but as I wrote, I noticed that some words were recurring a lot, so the sestina! light went on in my brain, and I began to pattern the poem with those recurring words as the end words. That has been my usual procedure with sestinas--I don't typically set out to construct a sestina, but instead I try to cooperate with the language as it comes, and allow it to suggest to me the form it wants to take. Of course, when I give the sestina as a writing assignment to students, they have to set out to write one! And I often try to write one along with them.
I wrote this sestina soon after moving to Coral Gables, FL, to teach for a semester as Visiting Poet at the University of Miami. For some reason I had occasion to speak on the phone with an old friend, a man I had known years before--we had been in a serious relationship fifteen years earlier, but had had little contact since then. This long-distance phone call was rife with tension, verbal and emotional maneuverings, his wariness and my determination to connect in a genuine manner.
The tensions of that phone call dropped me back into the circumstances of our last months together--in a traditional shotgun house in New Orleans that he was repairing and renovating. The phone call brought back the vividness of those final months before I left (for all the reasons to which the poem alludes)--it was almost as if we were once again in New Orleans, and the current phone call was a sort of emotional overlay on those earlier days. All of this was top of mind as I started writing the poem--soon turned into a sestina--which dramatizes that dynamic, of the past coming to life in the present, of the energies and tension still vibrant between the speaker of the poem and the former lover at the other end of the line.
KL: Can you recommend any books for writers to read that can enhance their knowledge and practice of fixed forms?
CW: There are a few books that I have used frequently as texts in Craft of Poetry courses, and other classes that I have taught focusing on form. Here is a short list:
Annie Finch & Katherine Vames, editors. An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (University of Michigan Press, 2002).And here are two recent volumes specifically focusing on the sestina:
John Drury. the po.e.try dic.tion.ar.y (Writer's Digest Books, second edition, 2006).
Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).
Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (University Press of New England, 1986 and later).
Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl, editors. Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century (Dartmouth College Press, 2014).
Daniel Nester, editor. The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013).