Sestina: A Poetic Mountain


This week I wrote (and posted) my first sestina.

In case you’re as unfamiliar as I was, here’s the definition of a sestina according to Merriam-Webster:

Ses-ti-na (noun): a lyrical fixed form consisting of six 6-line usually unrhymed stanzas in which the end words of the first stanza recur as end words of the following five stanzas in a successively rotating order and as the middle and end words of the three verses of the concluding tercet.

By nature, I tend to be sort of obsessive and competitive (especially with myself) and writing a sestina was extremely challenging for me. So it’s probably needless to say that ever since I learned I needed to write a sestina for class this has been a severe internal (and external) struggle for me.

Start, stop, start, stop. I counted (because I had to) and can you believe I started and stopped 16 different poems before finally writing one all the way through? Yes 16!

I definitely overthought it for weeks. I read all the sestinas in our reading materials, some over and over again, and I studied the process suggestions for writing one both in our course materials and online. I tried (and when I say tried I mean TRIED) the technique of choosing six words and ended up wildly frustrated every single time. Eventually I gave up.

I have to say that this time around, with my final attempt, procrastination played a big role in my process. I’m not typically a big procrastinator. As a former event planner, I thrive on checking things off my mental To Do list so having this sestina teasing and taunting me was no fun. But as this week approached and the deadline for our sestina assignment grew ever closer, I knew I had to eventually stop procrastinating, sit down and try again. So I inhaled, exhaled, cleared my mind and just started writing. The sestina I submitted this week was the product of that. It sort of just came to me.

I think in the end the answer to my sestina issues was simplification. Also, I needed to trust my instincts. My best writing usually comes from “just writing” so that’s what I did. That and once I stopped pressuring myself to write the best sestina ever written (I know I’m a mess), then the words started flowing and about ten minutes later I had my sestina. It’s not even close to what I originally intended to write but I’m okay with that. In a way, when I read it back, the rhythm of my sestina and the sort of circle effect it seems to portray reminds me of how I felt writing it. In some way I can’t quite put my finger on, to me, it feels like a round of “Row Your Boat” or like one of those songs that goes “second verse same as the first” but, again, maybe that’s just me.

It’s hard to say if it was the sestina’s strict rules which hindered me or more so the pressure I put on myself to follow those rules. I actually started to enjoy the nature of the form once I decided it was okay to relax and have fun with it. Midway through my final attempt, it became like a game or a riddle that needed to be figured out more so than this poetic mountain I had to climb.

That said; I’m glad I refused to let this sestina beat me and I learned a lot in the process of writing it. Similar to other challenges in life, I’m especially happy to be able to say I got through it and I’m even happier to say it’s over.

But now I’m compelled to go back and finish the other 16. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Sestina: A Poetic Mountain

  1. Ah, you must be taking one of the poetry classes at NU! How much longer till your Thesis classes? I just turned mine in for format approval.

    • Hi Christina! Congrats! That’s awesome news about your thesis. How’s the process going for you? Yes, I’m in a poetry class now and then I have 2 more classes (Non-Fiction Seminar and Advanced Screenwriting B) and then it’s thesis time in February. I scheduled a 2 month break between my last class and the thesis. How’ve you been? I hope all is well. Best of luck with your thesis and next steps! xo, Val

      • The process was nerve-wracking. I only had like 40 maybe 50 pages when I started Thesis 660 and by the end I had 201 pages. Once Brandi gave me her corrections, I got it to 150 and she approved it. So now I am just waiting on the format approval and can send it out. I still have one more class though to finish up in September but other than crazy eyes from typing late at night, I am doing pretty good. Not much longer for you, I guess and I don’t blame you for the break that way you have lots to work down but without the eight weeks of pressure buildup. How’s it going on your end? And I think I rewrote my first sestina like ten times so you are not alone!

      • Yes, I’ve heard the process is nerve wracking. Way to go! You must be so proud of yourself! I’m looking forward to those 2 months just to get myself ready and in thesis mode. Plus, I’m writing two novels simultaneously and haven’t quite decided which one to use for my thesis. I guess whichever one is further along come February. 🙂

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