Tag Archives: poetry

Sestina Challenge and Open-Ended Prompts

I have a fondness for creating within forms, having a pattern or structure to fill in as I choose, something that forces me to examine the harmonies in those choices as ideas or shapes or colors line up.

So I tend to gravitate towards poetry that uses ambitious forms. Not just the shorter and humbler haiku, which can convey computer error messages or be tossed off during a conference session or a boring meeting.

A few days ago, it occurred to me that the structure set up for Rhizo15 would lend itself well to translation into the sestina form. Now, sestinas are HARD to pull off well. The same six ending words shift order, each coming around seven times in 39 lines. That much repetition can easily get boring or clunky, unless the chosen words lend themselves to variation or multiple nuanced meetings.

If you want examples, here are some personal favorites by Elizabeth Bishop and David Lehman, Scott Reid’s clever Sestina in the Computer Age, and 16 more from famous poets.

So here’s one thing about “Daveness”: Dave Cormier has chosen words, for every one of his prompts, that are very open to interpretation. Six weeks of such open-ended prompts could easily supply the six words for line endings. And the many writings and themes that have emerged in our discussions have touched on and circled back to a wide range of meanings. There’s plenty of material here for a sestina, and the form maps well onto a six-week endeavor.

Here’s the order for the ending words. Ariadne Unst also provides a great explanation and tips on composing a sestina. And Josh Mandel has created a handy Sestin-a-matic to plug in your own words and generate the order.

  7. Three lines, using all six words: sometimes ACE, ECA, or (FB)(AD)(EC)

Some of the things I started to ponder: Would I want each stanza to represent a different point of view, or to mimic the contributions of different participants? Would I stick to my own journey in Rhizo15? Would I try to collaborate, or invite others to the same challenge and see what we each came up with? Should I start working on half the lines, based on the prompts Dave had already given?

So when Dave picked up Viplav Baxi’s Week 4 challenge, my first thought was “Oh no, that messes up what the arc of the poem would have been!” Dave (the name) as a prompt would give me much less to work with, than whatever gem Dave (the person) is holding off on sharing until Week 5. So I have to think more broadly, be willing to dance and play and ponder, and find a different word for whatever rings true for me in Week 4.

In any case, here are some of the possible end words from each week’s prompts, as one kind of starting point to use with the sestina structure. (Which of course could discard these words completely, and work instead with anything else that inspires reflection.)

  • Week 1 Subjectives
  • Week 2 Measure? Count?
  • Week 3 Content? People?
  • Week 4 Dave? Host? Role? Party?
  • Week 5 (TBD)
  • Week 6 (TBD)

Some among us have already explored multiple connotations of the formal definitions of these words. They have sparked reflection on many nuances and tangents in our blogs, Google+ and Facebook posts and tweets during Rhizo15. And some lend themselves well to variants (such as prefixes and plurals) if you want to free up the form a little.

There was some temptation to do this all behind a curtain, and unveil it at the end as a singular impressive accomplishment. But I’m too intrigued by the possibilities from the poignant and foolhardy poets among us. And knowing that others might take this on may spur me to follow through on the hard work of trying to do it well. So this challenge is too good not to share. I’d love to hear about others’ impressions and processes, as well as any products this inspires.