November 15, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Daniel Nester has put together one of the year's most impressive poetry anthologies, The Incredible Sestina Anthology. Though all sestinas, these poems cover a broad range of themes, styles, and eras.
I'm tempted, on a website dedicated to music and literature, to compare sestinas to a pop music genre. Trance? Prog rock suite? EDM, whatever that means? I got nothing. Here's what a sestina is: a 39-line poem of six, six-line stanzas followed by a three- line stanza called an envoi, which repeats six words at the end of each line in a prescribed pattern. Invented in medieval France, the sestina has survived 800 years, and in in the past 100 years has thrived in English. Really thrived: American poets of all varieties have written timeless sestinas: Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Sherman Alexie, W.H. Auden, Anne Waldman, James Merrill, Quincey Troupe, Louis Zukofsky, Jonah Winter, Patricia Smith, David Lehman, Florence Cassen Mayers. The list goes on. I love sestinas because, in a poetry world divided up into teams and camps and schools, the sestina offers something for everyone. Ten years ago, McSweeney's Internet Tendency took me on as Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas, an illustrious title which entailed my reading a couple hundred of sestinas a month, publishing about once a week. Since then, I've collected sestinas, assembled hypothetical tables of contents of for book of sestinas, only sestinas, the best examples of the form.
And it's happened. A few days ago, The Incredible Sestina Anthology came out from the mighty Write Bloody Publishing. Here's the soundtrack, or, as my student Alexandra Korcz calls it, "a sestina mixtape."
"Salut: demeure chaste et pure (Act III)" – Jussi Björling – Icon: Jussi Björling
There are two John Ashbery sestinas in the book, and while I was tempted to include something from the Robert Altman's Popeye soundtrack to go with his classic "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," which involves Popeye and Olive Oyl, the truth is that while editing this book, I played selections from the "Faust" opera because I didn't know it.
"Lone Ranger" – Johnny "Guitar Watson – Funkstrumentals
Star Black's double-sestina "Hi Yo" is an imagined monologue centering around the Lone Ranger and Tonto. I had to study up on Lone Ranger lore to edit this one.
"Untitled" – John Zorn and Susie Ibarra – Vision Festival 1997 Compiled
I don't have much free jazz street cred—certainly not as much as Casey Camp, whose graphic novel sestina "A Sestina on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn" I came across years ago—but whenever I think of Zorn's music, I think of the time I saw him play in 1997. I was here for this recording.
"Different Places!" – Showgirls! the Musical! Cast! – Showgirls! the Musical!
I did not know there was a Showgirls-based musical until I got a gander at excerpts of Jeffery Conway's Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas manuscript. The individual sestinas are named after each DVD chapter. "Is It Dancing?" appears in the book. Conway is obviously not sick of his subject: when I was going over the poems, he told me he was on his way to check out one of the first performances of Showgirls! The Musical! in New York.
"Theme from The Brady Bunch" – The Brady Bunch
Denise Duhamel's "The Brady Bunch" is a double sestina—72 lines, 12 end-words. Total lunacy. Also: a thing of beauty. As all sentient beings know, there are six Brady kids; to Duhamel and so many of us from the latchkey generation, The Brady Bunch cannot be contained in a mere 36 lines. Duhamel is one of the first poets to make pop culture not just a novelty subject matter, but part of the impulse to write poetry in the first place.
"Ghetto Defendant" – The Clash – Combat Rock
Drew Gardner's "Sestina: AltaVista" makes a play on the title of Ezra Pound's famous "Sestina: Altaforte." It takes the homage further: is uses same end words: peace, music, clash, opposing, crimson, rejoicing—puts it in a Google-sculpting Flarf blender, and brings The Clash and King Crimson to the party. It's a glorious poem, and I re-discovered this track with Allen Ginsberg while editing the book.
"The Number of the Beast" – Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast
Ernest Hilbert's "Hellical Double Sestina" riffs on the aesthetics of heavy metal and metal fandom. The number of the beast, as metalheads know, is 666. This fascination with sixes is also what drives a sestina forward and around. Plus Maiden rocks.
"Katmandu" – Bob Seger – Beautiful Loser
Is it wrong that, every time I would proofread Donald Justice's oft-anthologized, so-good-it's-wrong "Katmandu" sestina, I thought of this Bob Seger track of the same name? Probably.
"My Crew" – Molemen, Ang 13 – Chicago City Limits Vol. 2
The epigraph of Nate Marshall's "pallbearers" comes from Ang 13: "The ones that hold you up when you really can't stand. That's crew…"
"Once Upon a Time in the West" – Ennio Morricone – Spaghetti Western Soundtracks Vol. 1
"An actor's an actor no matter what, no matter how big their name," Richard Peabody writes in "Spaghetti Western Sestina." Play Morricone while reading the poem and a skinny Virginia cigar might appear in your mouth.
"We Close Our Eyes" – Susanna Hoffs – Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Jason Schneiderman's "The Buffy Sestina" speaks the secret language only Slayerettes speak. I have spoken the language Susanna Hoffs, however, ever since the first Bangles album, All Over The Place, which I consider a masterpiece from L.A.'s Paisley Underground. Susanna Hoffs is solo here, on the original movie soundtrack, but it sounds very Bangles.
"Tegucigalpa" – Fruit Bats – The Ruminant Band
How do you incorporate "Tegucigalpa," the capital of Honduras and a tongue-twister of a word if there ever was one, into a song lyric? How do you use it seven times in a sestina? I came across the Fruit Bats' song while proofreading Esther Schor's sestina, which ran in the London Review of Books when Schor was still an undergraduate. Now a Princeton professor, she's working on a subject that's dear to my heart, Esperanto.
"Only You" – The Flying Pickets – Only You: The Best of The Flying Pickets
Peter Jay Shippy refers to "an a capella/version of "Only You" [that] makes me woozy." I feel the same way.
"As" – Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life
Patricia Smith's "Looking to See How the Eyes Inhabit Dark, Wondering about Light" takes its inspiration from Stevie Wonder's attempt, in 1991, to undergo an operation to partially restore his sight. He went on the Phil Donahue Show and talked about what he would do once he could finally see, once had had undergone procedure, which involved inserting a microchip into the retina. Wonder was deemed an ineligible candidate to the operation.
"Can't Hardly Wait" – The Replacements (Tim version) – All for Nothing
Coming up as a writer in South Jersey and Philly, Chris Stroffolino was a major presence on the scene, someone who I never thought I'd meet, let alone include in anthology I'd edit. These days Stroffolino plays songs in his Piano Van, an upright piano in a van. A documentary directed by Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) is coming out next year. Stroffolino's "In Memory of My Rock Band" outlines the life cycle of a band: singer needs guitarist, gets gigs, plays gigs, guitarist leaves, band records in the studio, band worries about selling out. There's a reference to "post-Tim Replacements" that resonates with me because I went to see the Mats reunite last August in Toronto. It was an exquisite experience, in no small part because I had just put this anthology to bed.
Daniel Nester and The Incredible Sestina Anthology links:
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