A Slice of Life While Creating a Sestina

Slice of Life on TwoWritingTeachers.org 1 June 2021

Have you ever written a sestina?

This weekend I wrote a tritina because of Liz Garton Scanlon’s Poetry Friday post. It was there she mentioned the sestina, as well.  I had heard of this 39-line French form with six stanzas, and the same six words rotating at the end of each stanza, but I didn’t have much confidence or interest in trying one myself. After trying a tritina, though, I thought I’d give it a go. I started a list of favorite words, trying to decide which six to use. I wrote hope, launch, and cry on my list.

Why cry? I thought. Because I need some sad words in my poem too, I answered myself.

Then I realized what an impossible task it would be to pick the right six words. I need a topic, I thought. So I started brainstorming: family, pandemic, food, vacation, etc.

Instead of continuing with my sestina drafting, though, I decided to go to bed. Before I slept, I sent a last-minute appeal text to my family WhatsApp group:

I woke up in the morning to these words, two from each family member. (Are these really favorite words?)

dappled
germinate
turpitude
exhume
zenith
rambunctious
bizarre
delicate
kindness
non-anxious

and my own:

hope
launch

With bizarre, turpitude and exhume, I figured I didn’t need any sad words, so I left cry off my list.

So now the challenge begins. First of all, I only need six words for my sestina, but I gave myself a bit of a buffer zone by asking for two words. I can choose from these twelve–the six I will use for my end lines, for they will be repeated seven times each. And the other six words I will try to fit in one time anywhere in the poem.

When I looked at these words, no subject jumped out. That’s for sure. So I went to read the newspaper,  actually The Washington Post, online version. When I read this opinion piece by Jonathan Capehart, “Kamala Harris Speaks the Truth About Race Unafraid,” I thought, Ah-ha. Here is my subject. Living overseas, I see all the -isms and -phobias that the U.S. has, plus some. The world has systemic injustice and inequity issues, and America is part of the world. I don’t understand how some people in the U.S. argue that America does not have a problem with racism (or any other -ism or -phobia) (e.g., one hundred years ago today) Do others want to immigrate to the U.S. because it’s perfect and their country isn’t? No, they can see the truth. But at least we say there is liberty and justice for all. With every generation, in every century we have to go “further up and further in” to a just nation, a union becoming more perfect. Speaking the truth–admitting, repenting, and repairing problems–is what makes America good.

I was thinking of these things when I drafted my first sestina:

Speak the Truth: A Sestina 

America: It is sunlight and a future, but dappled,
Still needing to exhume the tangled turpitude
Of isms: racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. The zenith
Of America will near as it produces its delicate
Song of the ages. It will usher in inclusive kindness
And bring forth a love song of rambunctious hope.

Over the past eight years I have met people of hope
In this country of invited workers sweetly dappled
From all over the globe. We’ve met many in kindness,
Sometimes coming from countries where the turpitude
Of governance makes their citizens retreat to this delicate
Pearl in the Gulf. For them, Bahrain is the zenith.

Thankful their career brought them to earn in this zenith,
They send money home to their families in hurting hope.
We’ve met people from 131 nations here in this delicate
Population of one-and-a-half million. The light is dappled
Across the land as people are launched from turpitude
And given a renewed promise to germinate kindness.

When people find that we are from America, kindness
Rises. “Tell us more.” Many long for the ultimate zenith
Of their immigration–to move to America. Moral turpitude
During the past few years, notwithstanding. They hope.
America the Beautiful is beautiful, even though dappled
With phobias–gay, trans, Asian, Islam. Speak the truth–delicate

Harsh, truth–not an attack on the U.S. We aren’t delicate.
America dares to weed out -isms and -phobias, choosing kindness.
Look at the color and fearlessness of the current dappled
Administration. America is not yet perfected to its zenith.
Let us not go back to when America was “great,”  but hope
That, in the future, we will continue to uproot turpitude.

All people are created equal, and it’s turpitude
That bizarrely distorts equality all over this delicate
Earth. No matter how great Bahrain is, people see more hope
Where a Black woman with Asian roots takes her power. Kindness
In America, land of the free; liberty and justice–the zenith.

It is hard, but America faces unafraid our history dappled

In non-anxious, bold turpitude; Yet, at times we choose kindness.
We battle to help the delicate soul of America reach her zenith. 
Hope like Kamala brightens the complexion of America dappled.

By Denise Krebs

Postscript: Poetry gives heart and soul to numbers and patterns. I love to puzzle words, syllables, and meter together to fit poetry forms. However, after being in this process for a while today, wrestling with the six words at the end of each line, I couldn’t also think about iambic pentameter. I can’t even manage consistent meter in a short poem. After counting the syllables in the first few lines, I stopped! I’m publishing this draft without worry of iambs and meter. At least for now. I’ve learned that sestinas are a challenge!

Here is a Sestina generator to help you make a template with the word order for each stanza. I discovered it after I made mine.

If you’ve written a sestina, please share a link in the comments. I’d love to read it.

10 thoughts on “A Slice of Life While Creating a Sestina

  1. Wow! First of all, I love the appeal to your family for words. I’d like to see what that generates around here, even if I’m not writing a sestina. Next, I admire your boldness in tackling this form and a tricky topic as well! Wow! Well done! Finally, I love that you included a link to a sestina generator to add to the temptation to attempt one of these. It looks like a summer project to me! Thanks for sharing the process and congratulations on writing your first sestina!

  2. Wow is the word that came to my mind too! I loved reading your process, seeing what words came in, seeing you draft. Sestinas sure are a challenge! I am going to try to write more poetry this summer, but not sure if sestinas will be my thing… I loved your draft!

    1. Erika, thank you so much for your comment. I hope you will enjoy poetry writing this summer. I’d like to invite you to join the Ethical ELA crowd coming up soon. http://www.ethicalela.com/openwrite/ Sarah is having a first-timers meeting on 13 June. I think it may be 5:00 a.m. for you, but that might be doable! 🙂 Otherwise, join us to write on 19 June. There will be no sestinas, definitely!

  3. I admire your fortitude through this process. What a wonderful accomplishment. I’ve only written one sestina. I can send it by email. It’s in a yet-to-be-published collection. I also appreciate learning more about where you live and how that gives you a unique perspective of our country. Well done!

    1. I would love to read your sestina, Margaret. Thank you for reading and commenting. It has been interesting to view my homeland through a further away lens and through the eyes of others’ too.

  4. Denise, your draft is part of a reflective process that wows me. First, your research offered you a post and single words to weave throughout your sestina. I like how you combined thoughts of America and Bahrain (that I know little about). Perhaps, this will be a lesson for school age children on how to write a reflective poem or a discussion about social justice. Keep on writing and creating new poems using different forms.

  5. Denise, I love how you shared your process – from collecting the words to composing the poem. I like this form! Your topic rings of hope and a brighter tomorrow!

    1. Thank you, Kim. Yes, I hope there is a bright tomorrow. Hopefully, America can save and protect democracy in these troubling times. America is a long-lasting experiment. It would be awful to be here when it ends.

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