Celia Lisset Alvarez: Notes on Sestinizationby Anna Lena Phillips, Celia Lisset Alvarez • 07.02.2012
This week in Fringe, we’re featuring Celia Lisset Alvarez’s longer poem “Blackbirds.” It’s a nonce sestina and, accordingly, 39 lines long. That’s one line short of our usual minimum for longer poetry. But sestinas feel longer than their 39 lines, and this one is, we thought, especially rich. We’re happy to share it again. For the occasion, poetry editor Anna Lena Phillips asked Alvarez about the poem and her recent work.
Looking at this poem two years after its publication, what comes to mind? Is there anything you’d change? Anything you’d forgotten about and are happy to see?
Every time I think of this poem I still can’t believe Fringe picked it up, or that I wrote it. It’s so risky. So many unexplained words and phrases in Spanish—I left them in out of recklessness. The poem is a rare instance of not second-guessing myself. I “should have” tried harder to explain the words in Spanish, I “should have” tried harder to work with the sestina form, I “should have” done many things, I suppose, but I didn’t, and I’m so glad. I have gotten a lot of wonderful feedback on precisely those aspects of the poem that break the rules. One of my favorite comments came from another poet who emailed me to say, “It’s really gorgeous and interesting—I haven’t fully processed it yet but I’m really attracted to it.” I kept that email because I wanted to remind myself of how I got that reaction—of the importance of preserving the freedom to experiment, of not allowing rigor mortis to set in.
“Blackbirds” is a sestina of sorts; but where normally the end words would repeat in prescribed order, you’ve done something else. Could you talk about how you worked with the form?
In the early drafts of the poem, I noticed a thematic and symbolic circularity that I recognized as an opportunity to develop a sestina, a form which I love. Initially, I thought attempting a traditional sestina would help to tame the irregular language and disjointed imagery. I couldn’t settle, however, on end words that made me happy, and the traditional sestina made the poem so “neat” that it lost its appeal to me. I was sacrificing too many words and twisting the images into a narrative that I wasn’t committed to in order to simply fit the form, so I abandoned it. However, in subsequent drafts I realized I liked the look of the sestina if not its rigidity. The sestets had a visual appeal that allowed for a loose narrative as long as I didn’t fuss over the end words, and the envoi was an invaluable way of supplying closure. I decided to break the lines on a sort of interruption method—where a word or phrase could not continue, or where it could mean two separate things at once, I broke the line. Ironically, you can still feel the sestina’s recurrence, despite the lack of ordered end words. That was there from the beginning, and was heightened naturally the moment I allowed the words to order themselves.
How did you decide on the order of the short sentences and fragments of speech that make up the poem? (I bet it’s a fun one to read aloud!)
Actually, I’ve never read this poem aloud (not in public, anyway!), and I don’t know if it would make any sense if I did, although it might be fun for that same reason.
I think disorientation can be a pleasant eye-opener. I love, for example, those tricky word puzzles that have repeated words the eye skips over until someone points them out; word jumbles; anagrams; wordplay in general. It’s amazing to me how our brains can make meaning of words or even letters grouped together irregularly. It’s just fun, pure geek fun. In terms of this poem, I was playing with meaning-braids, with interrupting a thought sequence and then picking it up again in a different context.
The poem was inspired by a trip to Spain my little cousins took. My godmother and I were sitting at the kitchen table, and she was showing me picture after picture of the trip, telling me about the people, the places, the random activities they did. At the same time, I kept thinking about my parents’ time in Spain, where I was born, and all the stories associated with the same places. I felt disoriented, but I also was making all these weird connections that defied chronology or single narratives. I went home and wrote it all down very quickly, every word that triggered a response, snippets of dialogue. I don’t like to get too cosmic, but it kind of felt like being in some sort of trance. When I looked at the first draft, I thought no one would be able to make any sense of it. Then I realized that was a good thing. The only decisions I made in terms of ordering were stanza and line breaks (supplied by the “sestinization” process) and font and spacing choices. At first, I used italics for bits of dialogue, or for the Spanish. In subsequent drafts, I abandoned this scheme, even reversed it, purposefully working to disorient instead of vice versa.
Have you written many sestinas since? What’s the attraction (or repulsion, as the case may be) of the form for you?
I had a funny reverse experience just a few months after Fringe published “Blackbirds.” I had another of what my husband now calls my wacky poems I had been working on, about my hatred of lizards. Nothing was coming out right in this one, however, and it was more rant than poem. Until I tried putting it into sestina form, that is. Then the most wonderful thing happened—it became political, something I had not thought of. In this case, precisely following the sestina form really worked, and Poets and Artists published it in July 2010. It’s something I try to get my students to understand: form is a tool, like red lipstick or high heels. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes you have to tweak it a little or a lot.
That being said, the sestina is probably my favorite for any number of reasons. There’s no rhyme, but the repeated end words create a subtle effect on both the ear and the mind, providing unity and opportunities for multiplicity of meaning. A good end word can yield meaning as a noun, a verb, a gerund, and in different contexts, create surprise both for the reader and for the poet in the composition process. Moreover, it’s long—39 whopping lines to play with. It really pushes you to the brink of insanity sometimes, getting to that last stanza in a fresh way. Very value-oriented—you squeeze every last drop from every word in a sestina. It’s funny, because beginners often balk at the idea of trying one—so many lines to fill, it seems. But they’re very good for beginners because they offer a plan, and teach you how to work with words, how to twist them around and make them do what you want.
What’s the most recent poem you’ve memorized?
Oh my, I haven’t memorized a poem in a very long time. Probably [Matthew Arnold’s] “Dover Beach.” I used to teach it every year, and then one time a couple of years ago I was reading it from the book at the beginning of the class. I went to turn on the air conditioner across the room and I left the book on the podium but kept reciting. It’s funny because I had no idea I’d memorized it, but I had. The same thing had already happened to me once before with [Emily Dickinson’s] “Wild Nights,” but that’s a much shorter poem, not to mention a regularly metered and rhymed one, which makes memorization easier. My students were very impressed. They don’t have that experience. Memorization got such a bum rap teachers have abandoned it. Too bad. There’s an exuberant (albeit very geeky) joy to recitation from memory, and it makes a beloved poem yours in a very intimate way. I can lie awake at night in the dark and read poems without opening my eyes. These poems I know by heart are mine in a way a poem I must look up can never be.
Since “Blackbirds” was published, what have you been up to?
I’ve been working on a full-length manuscript for years, but I also started a blog. I only get to teach creative writing once a year, so the rest of the year I have all these ideas with no outlet. I thought a blog would be a nice way to continue working on writing issues year-long. Since then it has morphed a bit; initially I thought I’d keep it strictly as a teaching blog about creative writing, but inevitably other things crept in—politics, reading, even cooking. I figure the point of the blog was to make myself happy, so I’ve allowed it to do that.
Much, much fun. The interview-style post started with Lesley Wheeler in May of 2011—Heterotopia (Barrow Street, 2010) had come out the year before, and I had been meaning to attempt a formal review for far too long, so I approached her about doing a blog post on the book. She was very gracious—the blog was fairly new, and taking the time to do the Q&A could not have been an exciting proposition for her. Yet, the post is full of wonderful information about her books, her process, and her work. I loved it so much I decided to try to do more of these, and the next one was Chad Parmenter in December 2011. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of hosting Ann Fisher-Wirth, Pat Valdata, and, as you mentioned, Jeannine Hall Gailey. I feel like Barbara Walters!
I hooked up with Ann Fisher-Wirth and Pat Valdata through Joanne Merriam’s wonderful poetry month effort, the Couplets Blog Tour, which I first heard of through Wompo (the Women’s Poetry Listserv). I don’t know how she managed to coordinate such a huge number of poet-bloggers, but she did it. Throughout the entire month, poet-bloggers cross-posted on each other’s blogs, conducting interviews, writing reviews, or otherwise just posting on poetry and writing. In the end there were literally hundreds of posts collected under one umbrella at the Upper Rubber Boot Books website and disseminated via the blogosphere. Another blogger who coordinates events like these is Kelli Russell Agodon, who does the yearly Big Poetry Giveaway, where poetry blogs give away books to anyone who signs up. It’s been extremely gratifying to me to discover the world of blogging, especially in the context of poetry. So many poets are loving the craft, writing about it, sharing their process, their wealth of experience on the entire spectrum between composition and publication, supporting one another’s work, all for free. It’s so . . . nice! So unexpected. I had not read many blogs until I started keeping one, but in just over a year they have become indispensable to me. They are an almost immediate source of information about trends, recent publications, and the inner lives of people whose work I admire. They enrich my experience of writing, reading, and teaching.
What relation does blogging have with your other writing? Likewise Facebook?
It’s a love-hate relationship in that sense. At first, my goal with the blog was at least a weekly post, but I was also aiming for a style of post closer to an essay than a blog post (lengthy, often even researched), so I was spending too much time writing about writing instead of writing. After the first summer, I made a conscious decision to prioritize my usual writing over the blog, even if it meant letting the blog go fallow for a little while. It’s very easy to get sidetracked by the blog—you are the sole arbiter of content, and publication is immediate. Even in less than two years, more people have read my blog than anything else I have ever written in two decades of trying to publish. That kind of instant gratification can be addictive. On the other hand, writing for the blog has really helped me work out my own craft philosophy in a way I had never done before. Since I’m not only limited to teaching creative writing once a year, but also just one very, very introductory class, I’ve never had reason to meticulously work out higher-order craft issues before. For example, I didn’t know I knew so much about prosody until I started blogging. In my class, I try to introduce a couple of forms, spend a class or two on lineation, maybe attempt to scan a poem if I feel the students are able to follow. But we quickly move on to something else. Blogging gives me the opportunity to give shape to what I know in ways I had not done before. I don’t know if it’s made me a better writer, but I think it has certainly made me a better teacher. And anything that keeps the writing muscle active is a good thing.
Facebook is what you make of it. It can be a wonderful tool for disseminating news about one’s writing and contacting other writers if that’s what you want. Most of the hits I get for the blog come from Facebook, and most of the contacts I’ve made communicate with me via Facebook. I try to “friend” as many writers as I can, and it’s wonderful to see what they’re up to in their personal lives, what they’re reading and where. I also often get inspired by people’s pictures, which used to be such private items no one but “real” friends and family would ever see them. As we move more and more toward existing online, places like Facebook can act as a hub of sorts to bring all these errant slivers of ourselves into focus. I’m very glad you didn’t ask about Twitter, however. I haven’t figured that out yet.
You’re also a fiction writer. How do the two genres interact for you?
They don’t, really. I have very different feelings about each. I don’t write poetry when I’m writing fiction and vice versa. Poetry is my dark, mysterious lover, although I’ve been hanging out with him so much lately he’s becoming more familiar. But I still chuckle inside a little when I’m associated with that word, poet. I got my MFA in fiction and for years walked around telling people I could never write poetry. I loved it, however, and took as many classes as I could, so something must have sunk in: at this point I’ve published much more poetry than I ever have fiction and perhaps ever will. But it makes me uncomfortable; I’m always afraid someone will fish me out, say, hey, you’re not a poet! I have to let my guard down to write poetry, expose myself to that fear. I like the ordered universe of prose, the familiarity of narrative. Poetry, with its possibilities for chaos, is kind of frightening. That’s also of course why I write it.
What helps you make time to write?
Unemployment! Seriously, not having been able to find full-time work leaves me with a lot of free time. However, it’s hard, believe it or not, to work without structure for me. I have the kind of personality that thrives on structure, deadlines, outside pressure, so I try to fake it for myself. This many words, pages, poems, this many submissions, by a certain date. If I start making excuses for myself, the system falls apart, and I find myself alphabetizing the socks again (by color, of course).
My current goal is to get that manuscript published. It’s been six years almost since my last collection, and although I have been blessed with steady publication in journals, I’m starting to panic. This new collection is also risky—poems like “Blackbirds” side by side with more traditional narrative and lyric poems exploring the concept of legibility. I struggled for a long time trying to see what was driving so many different poems, and then I suddenly saw that they were all working out the same obsession—legibility, confusion, misrecognition, especially on a linguistic level. The second draft of the manuscript is now making the rounds. My husband believes there’s always someone out there who will publish your work—the trick is finding him or her. I’m hoping he’s right.