VG: Shaindel, as I was reading A Brief History of Time, I became interested in your use of traditional forms — the villanelle, sonnet, ghazal, sestina. To start off, could you very briefly define the sestina for readers who may not know the form? Then, could you please define your take on what a sestina is and can be for a poet? What opportunities does it offer the writer to connect with readers that other forms, including free verse, may not?
SB: It's funny that you're the one asking me this because every time I've ever written a sestina, I've had your Craft of Poetry website open in front of me. The sestina is a 39-line poem, which consists of six six-line stanzas (called sestets) and a three-line envoi. Where the fun comes in is that the six stanzas all have the same end words, which are repeated in a mathematical order. The end words, which we will call
VG: Wow, that's really interesting. I'm glad that little website has been a help to poets. To be honest, though, when I write a sestina, I don't really do that iambic pentameter thing. You know, maybe I never did, ha ha.
SB: I think the sestina is a fabulous form. It sounds impossible at first, but it's really a great challenge. When I sit down to write a sestina, I actually feel an adrenaline rush. It's something about the "problem-solving" aspect of it. I write out the end-words in order on my paper beforehand (though now I've discovered an online form that does it for you), and I get to work with those six end words just waiting for me all down the page. I think I've always written the first stanza before deciding on the end words to make sure it's going to work. I'm sure I could write a sestina with random end words, but I like feeling like I'm on the right path to start with. And I'm not ashamed to admit, I count the iambic pentameter on my fingers. So, if you see me in a bar or coffeeshop with a notebook, counting on my fingers, now you know I'm up to composing a form poem.
VG: No shame there. Doesn't everyone count meter on their fingers? Or tap it out on the table?
SB: What I like about the sestina is the reassurance of those six end words. You have a frame to build something on. I also like the obsessiveness of the end words; some poems need to be a sestina — for instance, Anthony Hecht's "Sestina d'Inverno," in which two of the end words are "Rochester" and "snow." Anyone who knows Rochester, New York, knows how those two words go together and deserve the repetition throughout this poem. My poem "Moonlight Sestina" describes new love, and one of the end words is "infatuation," which, I thought, worked nicely because what is infatuation but to keep coming back to thoughts of that person again and again and again?
VG: Thanks. How did this particular sestina get started (as a sestina, that is)? Is this the same for all your sestinas? Do you start off saying, "I'm going to write a sestina about _______?" Or do you start off with a character or image or scene or topic and then find out as you're writing that the poem wants to be a sestina?
SB: I think this particular sestina got started as me wanting to write a sestina about what seemed like the least likely topic for me to write a sestina about, and I came up with the adult entertainment industry. But then I realized the cyclic nature of the industry and how people get into it and can't get out of it, and it seemed the most perfect form to write the poem in.
I think some poems seem to come to me wanting to be sestinas. Even the title, "Why It Almost Never Ends with Stripping" is in pentameter. It was meant to be.
VG: Wow, you're serious about that pentameter thing. Good for you.
SB: I think I have one unfinished sestina that I need to get back to, and I think that it went unfinished just because I had too many other things going on, and I couldn't (or didn't) give it the attention it deserved.
VG: The world waits for that sestina!
Okay, moving on. In terms of craft, how does this sestina work? How did you choose the words? (For example, what led you to that genius "con-" repeton?) What innovations are you making on the form here? I did notice you often do something hip and new at the ends of your form poems: your 14+1 tailed sonnet, your ghazal with the nonstandard ending, the sestina where in the envoi you change a repeton to plural to both hide the word and expand the meaning — fun stuff.
SB: To be honest, this was a much more standard sestina originally. I mean, I've always played with form — I had the syllable "con" because I wanted to play with enjambment and other elements like that and open the form up a bit. I think it's important to look at things the New Formalists did to make form more interesting. I think we've all seen some pretty wretched form poetry from the past — which was really beautiful for what they were writing then, but no one outside of a boy band needs to rhyme words like "love" and "above" or whatnot today. The big change that opened this poem up (to me) was that Hunger Mountain was doing an issue on "appropriated form," and I sent in tons of poems, and I didn't know how much the form needed to be "played with" in order for the poem to be considered an "appropriated" form poem. Roger Weingarten emailed and asked if I would consider changing the end word "money" to a synonym in each stanza, and it worked beautifully. Something about that one end word changing makes the obsession with money seem even more real — like, no matter what you call it, it's all the same thing, and you can fall into a trap of doing almost anything to get more of it. I later learned that the syllable "con" is French slang for "prick," which I thought worked well, considering the nature of the poem and that the sestina is originally a French form. That was one of the "happy accidents" involved in this poem.
VG: You know usually I don't cotton to that synonym-as-repeton device. I'm pretty insistent about alterations happening with rich consonance. And I'm talking here as both a teacher and an editor. I would very rarely publish a sestina in the North American Review that relied on synonyms for repeton change. But I would certainly have published yours hand down if you had submitted it to the NAR.
Okay, Shaindel. So far my questions have been craft-oriented. Let's try something a bit more personal. Could you tell me what this particular poem means? Also, what do you envision this poem "doing" out in the big bad world?
SB: This poem is really important to me because I think it's one of the first poems I wrote that I wanted to "do something." I mean, we all want our poems to connect with people, but I wanted this poem to change one particular person's life and, on various levels, to inspire social change. I had a friend who I met when she was in law school and I was an adjunct college instructor, and she started doing what many young women do — stripping to work her way through school, but what was shocking to me was how quickly everything in her life deteriorated. She went into this downward spiral of drugs, pornography, and prostitution, and it seemed to come out of nowhere to the point that it was unbelievable. I'm sure that many, many people's lives don't fall apart this way, but hers did. And I'm aware that she had factors in her life that may have predisposed her to this kind of meltdown (in case anyone tries to say that I'm generalizing and emails me with their testimonial of their perfectly happy life in adult entertainment). But I came to know friends of hers who had the same sort of life. One of the girls contacted me after a roommate of theirs was found dead from a drug overdose in their apartment, and I told her, "You have to get out of there," meaning that crowd, that whole lifestyle. I really felt like that was the path a lot of these young women were on. One of them was raped in the VIP/private party room of a club, some of them were set up by police officers who tried to bust them on drug charges but were really trying to extort sex from them — all kinds of horrible things happened to them. And no one seemed to care. And they seemed to know that no one would believe them; they just looked at some of these things as the way it was.
I'm not in contact any more with the original friend who was in law school because things spiraled out of control in ways that made me feel I had to cut contact with her. I did hear from a cousin of hers who thanked me for writing the poem and told me the poem had kept her from following in her cousin's footsteps. One of the girls told me she reads the poem whenever she thinks of going back. And I completely understand the temptation. It's hard for me to imagine someone calling me and offering to fly me in to a club and pay me a few thousand dollars for a weekend of work and me turning that down, but that's what my one friend has been doing, and I'm so proud of her. She's staying in school and working as a server at a restaurant and sticking with it all so that she doesn't lose control again. I don't know if I would have that kind of strength, if I had had all of that money available to me, to leave it behind.
I think this poem has done a lot of good already, and I hope it keeps doing more. Whether or not it helps more girls decide to get out of that lifestyle or keeps others from going in, I hope it makes people think. I hope it makes people be less judgmental toward adult entertainers, and I hope it makes people who are consumers of adult entertainment think of the women in it as people, not objects. It's definitely one of my most "talked about" poems; I know that Carolyne Wright teaches it at Seattle University and other college instructors have contacted me to tell me that they're teaching it in various classes. In another interview, I mentioned that I wanted to write poems that are "important, not just good," and I feel like this is one of those.
VG: I'll be teaching it too, Shaindel. May many more poems like this one come to you. Brava.
Now my last question. Though actually "each" of my questions above has been made up 2, 3, or more questions, huh. Sorry about that! Okay, here goes. What is your "personal relationship" to form (other than free verse, of course). Will you continue, do you think, to work with rhyme, meter, and inherited forms? Why? Or why not?
SB: I think being able to write well in form is an important skill. There's something to what Frost said comparing free verse poetry to playing tennis without a net. I write more free verse than anything else, but I think that form is part of the tradition. Even if we don't use it every day, it's nice as poets to have it at our disposal. Why would you turn down having more tools in your toolbox?
I hope to continue working with form because I feel like it works a different part of my brain; it's almost mathematical. Sometimes, getting the right number of syllables or the right end word is just like solving for x. I want to get better at villanelles. I don't think I've written a successful one yet (though there is one in my book). I want to try a double sestina (though I still need to look up exactly what that is). I've never even tried a pantoum or terzanelle. There's definitely still a lot out there to try. Why not just go for it?
VG: I haven't been brave enough to try a double sestina. Instead of six words, you have twelve. So twelve 12-line stanzas and a 6-line envoi, blah blah. Denise Duhamel wrote a great one called "Incest Taboo" that's just tremendous. It's in her book Two by Two. In an interview she says something like, when she first learned about double sestinas, she wrote six or seven in a row. Good God. I'd be lucky to finish one in my whole life!
Shaindel, thanks for such a lovely interview. I hope this sells lots and lots of copies of A Brief History of Time. It was a lot of fun!
SB: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to finally "meet" the developer of the Craft of Poetry website, which made all of my sestinas possible, and to have such an in-depth discussion on form. Take care!
Friends, thanks for joining us. Do purchase your own copy of A Brief History of Time, either direct from Salt Publishing or from Amazon. Would you also please leave a comment down below? Thanks.
Oh, about the fetching "country girl" picture above, which I snagged off her Facebook, Shaindel said:
"I'm fishing for steelhead in the Deschutes River in Oregon, and I'm wearing a Where the Coho Flash Silver concert shirt from Tom Rawson, the folksinger. If you catch a fish wearing one of his shirts, he puts you on his website. My husband Lee took this picture, totally candid. He called my name, and I looked back, and he snapped it."Simply lovely, don't you think? Clearly a woman who's enchanted with her cameraman.
Happy Earth Day, everyone!
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