Bacopa Literary Review

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Ah hah! This is a Sestina! (continued)

Q & A--The Sestina, with Kaye Linden, Poetry Editor for Bacopa Literary Review, and poetry prize winner/Pushcart nominee Carolyne Wright (see part I here): 

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).

John Drury. the po.e.try (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).
And here are two recent volumes specifically focusing on the sestina:
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).

Bacopa Literary Review, "Sestina: That mouth..."

Bacopa Literary Review 2016 First Prize in Poetry and Pushcart nominee, Carolyne Wright

"...always going," you taunt, as I gab on the phone
with poets from Napoleon's Bar: your nervous lover
blowing plosives and palatals into the rum-colored
mouthpiece. My face flushed as the season's
Zephyr-cheeks, puffing from the celestial edges
of old maps, trying to scare up a storm.

Our shotgun house lists on its storm-
pilings. "Girl, you carrying on that phone
like there's no tomorrow." That Beulah Baptist edge
to your  voice, the plea I miss: blame's lover
fixing the house from the inside, season
of sweat and fragile equity you strip old color

from the sheetrock. Our balance sheet is colored
red, like tempest clouds that terrify a firestorm
survivor. Unsecured debt and the hurricane season
come around again. Get off that phone
and talk to me, you mean. Who else is your lover?
Your unvoiced question with its double edge.

We're tired of living on the edge,
taking our losses up-front. Would the sky's color
change its mind? Could we go on as lovers
as our self-protective gestures--those private storms--
swirl into the vortex of the telephone's
receiver, reverse polarities of the season?

We already lean into another season.
You embrace your own shadow at the room's far edge.
"Take me as I am," I say, and hang up the phone.
Weapons in your concealed history scare me, color
of your skin a risk we share, desire like a summer storm
I almost could have married, if I were a lover

who could smile past your other lovers.
Could I smile now, years too late to give our season
another chance? My leaving you: a freak storm
that gathered its own momentum. Reasons I acknowledge,
debts to each other deferred: memory's colors
don't fade from your voice, on today's blue telephone.

The season bleeds into another decade's color,
millennial storms are on the rise. You're on edge
now, on the phone with me. But who else is your lover?

(Read the origin of this poem here, and more about the sestina form here.)

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ah Hah! This is a Sestina!

By Poetry Editor Kaye Linden

Carolyne Wright won this year's first prize in the Bacopa Literary Review poetry contest. Why did I choose this poem over other engaging poetry? A sestina is a poem structured within a fixed form and it is a difficult form to write well because of its mathematical formulaic structure. I particularly enjoyed the way Carolyne incorporated a modern theme and dialogue into this traditional form. I enjoy writers who gently balance on the edge of tradition by mixing up genres, traditions and expectations. Carolyne is one such poet and I thank her for submitting to our poetry contest.

Q & A--The Sestina, with Kaye Linden, Poetry Editor for Bacopa Literary Review, and poetry prize winner Carolyne Wright

KL: What makes a sestina so special to you? 

CW: This is one of my favorite forms, and it has been a fun proving ground for a few generations of American poets. The end words, and the set pattern in which they are supposed to recur, test one's ability to stick with a subject and explore it from all angles, in a sort of lyric-narrative contemplation. For this and other reasons, I call the sestina an exercise in "poetic cubism." The sestina is a very flexible form, in that it seems to work equally well for deep, serious subjects; humorous, light subjects; and lyrical, philosophical subjects.

This is a form that I learned initially from Elizabeth Bishop, in the workshop of hers that I was part of at the University of Washington. Although for her class I wrote nothing "good," the lessons in poetic prosody and form have stayed with me up to this day.

KL: Describe the sestina's format?

CW: The first known sestina was composed in about 1182 in the South of France by the trouvere (poet/singer/composer) Arnaut Daniel (1150-1210). The poem's original language was Provenรงal, or langue-d'oc, now called Occitan--a southern variant of French. With its medieval origins, the sestina has a sort of archetypal structure, consisting of 39 lines divided into 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, and final 3-line envoi (the farewell, or what I like to call the "send-off"). These six end words are repeated in a set order: after the first stanza, every stanza's end words follow this pattern: 6 - 1 - 5 - 2 - 4 - 3.

The end-word recurrence pattern in diagrams looks rather like a spiral or a cat's-cradle. That is, the first end word of one stanza is always the last end word of the previous stanza, then back to the penultimate (fifth) end word of the previous stanza, then the second end word of the previous stanza, etc. So, if we are trying to write a sestina without the full template of end word ordering, we can use this 6 - 1 - 5 - 2 - 4 - 3 end-word ordering as the basic rule, moving from outward to inward, stanza by stanza, till we have written all six.

For the end-word order in the three-line envoi that concludes the sestina: the proper form is to fit two end words into each line of this final tercet--one inside each line, one at the end of each line. These end words can be in any order here, which gives more chance to continue to sound "natural" in this form, even in its tightest space. We compensate for that extra compression, the stricture of having to fit two end words per line in the envoi, with this freedom to put those end words in any order. (See Carolyne Wright's "Sestina: Into Shadow" as an example.)

The sestina's end-word sequence seems to have followed a set pattern from the beginning, and it apparently had a numerological significance in the time of Arnaut Daniel and the other troubadours. Though the pattern may look maddeningly arbitrary, the movement is always from outer words to inner words, almost a spiral turning inward. That sort of movement could have a spiritual / alchemical significance--certainly the medieval mind would resonate with that.

KL: How does a writer benefit from writing in this form?

CW: I love the effect of the end-word repetitions in the sestina. If we aren't specifically looking for these, they can be very subtle--I have been fooled a number of times, reading three or four stanzas into a poem before realizing, "Ah-hah, this is a sestina!" One of Marilyn Hacker's narrative sestinas, Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Poetry Reading, caught me off-guard in graduate school. It's in the voice of a guest poet reading at some overseas diplomatic outpost, who is gradually revealed to be a guerrilla fighter. It took me three stanzas, the first time I read it, to notice the pattern of repeating end words and to realize that I was reading a sestina!

The benefits for a writer in practicing this form are inherent in the repeating and interlacing of the end words, which cause the same ideas, as carried by those words, to re-combine and return. As I said earlier, the sestina embodies a sort of "poetic cubism." It is a form that tests the poet's ability to focus on the poem's subject and explore it from all angles, in a sort of lyric narrative contemplation. The poet finds herself invoking the same words in different variations over and over again--such repetition with variation lends to any pattern of words, including those of the sestina, a certain gravitas, a certain weight and significance.

The sestina is one of the formal poetic patterns that allow me to enter the depths of language to discover insights that I would not have accesse3d as readily through free verse. In fact, I used to discover insights more readily via free verse--at least I thought I did! And it's fun to read older poems of mine and re-experience those moments of coming upon some insight in the writing of those poems. But more and more, this experience, this kind of discovery, this kind of insight or illumination embedded in the language, comes in the writing of poems in form. 

*     *     *

(The second half of my interview with Carolyne Wright is here. Also, click here for a tool to help you experiment with the sestina form. KL)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sestina: Into Shadow, by Carolyne Wright

(After the Wreck of the Costa Concordia, January 2012)

The dead wait in the ferry line with their one-way
tickets in their pockets. Their faces are shadows,
their memories thinning wisps. Their voices are cries
of cormorants whose black wings skim the waves
unfurling from the ferry's wake. The dead
have given away their sailings, they open their hands

to show us--see? How empty they are! Hands
no longer bracing them at railings on their way
across the Sound to the rain-lit islands of the dead
or back to the great city, busy with shadows
of gray gulls that hover on thermals above the waves.
Passengers crowd decks of the cruise ship docked nearby, their cries

lost in the descending scale of bald eagles' cries
as they circle the harbor. Passengers push back the hands
of the dead without knowing. They hear only waves
that slap the pilings, rumble of taxis on their way
to hotels, where passengers bed down with shadows
of themselves and turn their dreams over to the dead

who may be themselves in a future guise, receded
from the world they think they know--where Poe's raven cries
"Nevermore!" and no one leaves signs, only shadows
that glide across antique mirrors, their hands
opening doors in the reflected walls, the way
that spirits mirror only glass, and waves

re-enter the harbor's greater water. Wave
goodbye, passengers, to these spirits. Your own dead
still wait their turns, as you make your way
next evening back to your vessel, the steward's cry
of "All Aboard!" the ship's whistle stirring shadows
of harbor seals, who glide off, slap flipper hands

at the propellers' oily roil. Deck hands
uncoil hawsers from bollards, the slip slips over the waves'
horizon as night herons row their wings into shadow,
and figures on the pier fade into translucence--the dead
who echo their once-bodied selves in every cry
of farewell. The ferry, too, is on its way

at last, into shadow. The harbor's darkening waves
double back on themselves, and the cries of the dead
echo underwater--moving away, beyond the rescuers' hands.

First Prize in Poetry, Bacopa: A Literary Review (2013)