Speaking of sestinas…

This post was written by guest blogger Wendy McClure.

The latest issue of Poets & Writers has Daniel Nester’s essay “The Confessions of a Sestinas Editor”, about how he landed his McSweeney’sAssistant Web Editor for Sestinas” after disputing a rejection letter he got from them in which they insisted sestinas had to be in iambic pentameter.

. . . “Lines can be of any single length,” Turco writes in his sestina entry, and that length is “determined by the poet.” There is no mention of iambs or any set number of metrical feet.

“Aha!” I thought, grinning. “I am out-rarefying the rarefiers!”

Breaking the cardinal rule of rejection-letter recipients, I wrote the editors back. Perhaps, I wrote, the editors were thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous “Sestina,” written in iambic pentameter? A few e-mail exchanges later, one of which included relevant pages I scanned from Turco, I received another e-mail.

“Since you’re so into this,” John Warner, Tendency’s editor, wrote, “why don’t you be our sestinas editor?”

There’s also a short overview of how the sestina form works. But hey, if for some reason that’s not enough, try this handy (and slightly bizarre) eHow.com article called “How to Write a Sestina,” which includes the following tips under a “Warnings” header (complete with Very Urgent Exclamation Point Icon):

If you have trouble writing your sestina, remember that you’re attempting to write one of the most difficult poetic forms in existence. The challenge of writing a sestina has made it popular, but at the same time the form is not for the novice.

You know how Barbie says “math is hard”? Sestinas are, too! Also:

Do not be discouraged by peers claiming to be poets. When you hear a poet say how much he or she dislikes writing in form, remember that a great artist sees the opportunities in every canvas, regardless or shape or size. A poor artist sees only the limitations.

Watch out! Those infernal peers claiming to be poets are just out to break your spirit.

I’d be curious to know if Nester has ever gotten a submission for a sestina that uses the names of the Brady Bunch Kids as the six end words. Because one afternoon back in 1992, after an undergraduate poetry workshop and several beers, that seemed like the most brilliant fucking idea in the world, man.


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