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. 🙂

Planting Words (a sestina about writing)

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Planting Words (a sestina about writing)
Money doesn’t grow on trees
They say.
But who are they anyway?
Because as a writer who writes
What I know
I’m sure that’s where my fortune grows.

It takes love and time to grow
A tree.
Plant a seed and wait, you say?
So who are you to show the way?
We’re writers
And we must write. That’s what we know.

But how did we come to know?
We grow
Up this way and like the trees
We find our strength in what we say
Our own way.
It’s what it means to be writers.

And we’ve always been writers,
We know.
Like a seedling knows to grow
Toward the sun to become a tree.
We can say
The same. We know no other way.

If there was another way
Are savvy enough to know
That like a wild fire grows
Through the trees
We must share what we have to say.

And we have so much to say.
This way
There’s no deadline for writers.
We may be starving but we know
Our faith grows
Beyond the forest through the trees

It’s the truth trees and writers know
For there’s no other way to say
We plant our words to watch them grow.

(Not So) Deep Thoughts on Billy Collins and on Writing Sonnets

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I really enjoyed Billy Collins’ poetry book Sailing Alone Around the Room. To me, it felt like stories and there was a casual quality to it that I truly enjoyed. Also, I found many of his poems/stories so relatable that I can’t help but think how awesome it would be to sit at the same table as Billy Collins at, say, a wedding. It seems to me there’d never be a lull in the conversation… though who am I to say? Maybe he’s better on paper than in person! In any event, I loved this book and have added it to my list of books I won’t sell or give away.

Regarding writing a sonnet, I struggled with this form at first. I started and stopped several poems before finally being inspired to write and complete my sonnet about being hung over. That one came to me quite easily the day after my family’s annual Independence Day party. To that end, I think when I’m inspired to write something the writing comes easily despite any particular format, genre, rules or instructions. Once the inspiration for this poem hit me, the words came and sort of slid into the sonnet form. It’s hard to explain, but I imagine you will understand what I’m trying to say here.

I think the sonnet itself has been such a lasting form because it’s fun. For one, it’s short and although that brings with it its own struggles and complications, for the most part I found that the length itself and the rules brought about an interesting and playful challenge. Even though writing the sonnet wasn’t an easy task, it was a fun challenge and I enjoyed it. Also, having rules helped to set parameters for the poem and that was nice in that it allowed my thoughts to be presented in a neat little package. In other words, knowing the rules gave the poem a shape to strive for—much like having a diagram helps a pile of wood eventually look and act like a book case. Knowing I needed to write a sonnet helped my words become one. Without these rules, I’m afraid I might have gone on and on about drinking and being hung over without ever finding a form. In fact, I’m not sure I would have written this poem at all.

After writing a sonnet myself, I can see why so many poets write sonnets and also why so many seem to write them specifically to get their writing gears greased. The sonnet put me in the mood to write more. In a way, it reminded me of the 3AM Epiphany and 4AM Breakthrough books which are full of writing exercises meant to battle writer’s block and inspire writing students to write. As I sit down to write more poetry in the future, I think I’ll try a sonnet from time to time just for fun and for the challenge of it, but also to see if they positively affect me and my writing as they seem to have positively affected so many other writers and poets.

Hangover Mimosa (a sonnet)

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Hangover Mimosa
We laughed till the sun rose
Memories and wine were to blame
You couldn’t feel your nose
I might have forgotten my name

Ceiling spins and it rushes back to me
Stomach erupts as cartoons pierce my brain
Reminds me of responsibility
Oh how we now need to breathe through the pain

This time the hair of the dog won’t fix it
When the new puppy pees on the floor
Unsupervised minions run rampant
We must be Mommy and Daddy once more.

Plop plop fizz fizz in our OJ sure hits the spot.
A relief it is… though a mimosa it’s not.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell


The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell

This is a poem about war and more specifically about the airmen who manned the ball turrets during World War II. Thematically, this is also a poem about loss, fear, death and maternal love.

When I read this poem, I was immediately taken back to an episode from the 80s TV series Amazing Stories, in which a young soldier (who was also an artist) was a ball turret gunner and his plane got hit by enemy fire and he got trapped inside the ball. Worse yet, the landing gear on the plane malfunctioned, meaning that if the plane were to land he’d be crushed to death. In the story, the soldier, who was just a teenager, had to quickly draw a cartoon of his plane with landing gear intact and believe that it could come to life and save him which it inevitably did.

I loved that story and it was so powerful that it stayed with me all these years, but it was just a story. In reality, this was a hellish position to be in. The soldier given the responsibility of ball turret gunner had to be physically small enough to fit into such a cramped, confined space so typically they were the smallest and often the youngest soldiers. According to Wikipedia, “The Sperry ball turret was very small in order to reduce drag, and was typically operated by the shortest man of the crew. To enter the turret, the turret was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. The gunner placed his feet in the heel rests and then crouched down into a fetal position.” If that wasn’t bad enough, the gunner had to do this alone and with his eyes open.

In The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, poet Randall Jarrell helps us imagine what it must have been like for these soldiers and their mothers, as well.

First off Jarrell tells this in first person and that offers an unparalleled personal perspective, one which brings the reader as close as possible to the POV of the gunner himself. Next, he uses imagery to show what these men might have been thinking and feeling.

“From my Mother’s sleep I fell into the State” is such a powerful opening line. From the POV of the soldier, we learn what a nightmare, too, this must have been for his mother to have had to send her boy to war, knowing she may never see him again. Then, we picture the soldier inside the ball of the plane “hunched in its belly” in the fetal position, much like a fetus in a mother’s womb. This image makes us think of a baby and reinforces our connection to his mother and how she must feel and how he feels as he thinks of her.

As we move through the poem, Jarrell offers another image, that of “wet froze fur.” While some readers may picture tortured animals, like kittens or puppies suffering outside during winter, this image, I believe, is meant to signify the physical conditions and the fear and panic of the young airman as he both sweats and freezes in his military issued B-1 bomber jacket. These jackets were leather and fur lined. At altitude, the soldier would have been freezing inside this unheated compartment but the fear of death and the anxiety over what he must do was also making him sweat. Finally, and perhaps the most gruesome image is that of the soldier dying and having to be “washed out of the turret with a hose.” The idea of this young man dying in battle and having his body power washed away is tragic and horrifying. The idea that he is well aware of this possible fate but cannot escape it is even harder to swallow. With the image of a fetus in its mother’s belly, the poet may or may not have been also making a statement about abortion here.

The poem itself uses a combination of poetic devices successfully. Through partial and full rhyme (froze/hose, black/flak) along with alliteration, consonance and assonance the poet is able to create a natural cadence for his poem. The poet also uses cacophony, or the repetition of unpleasant sounds, to tell the story. By repeating the “fr” and “er” sounds (fur, froze, fighters, nightmare, earth, turret) the poet reminds us of the feelings of being cold and scared—the sound of the combined letters even makes a sort of trembling, shivering sound that successfully reinforces the poet’s message and the overall feeling of the poem itself and, in some readers, may even cause a physical reaction. The poem itself is an example of allusion since it tells the first person story of a soldier who died in WWII and in an exceptionally creative way the poet uses personification by having a dead man tell his own story. Perhaps the most spectacular part of this poem though is its voice.

I really enjoyed this poem. Though brief, it was quite powerful and it really got me thinking of the horrors and tragedies of war. It’s so hard to imagine the many fears and struggles of a soldier but this poem helped put all of that into perspective by offering a personal first person account of one airman, a ball turret gunner, who experienced war and didn’t survive, as well as the added perspective of his mother. It’s amazing to me how much thought and feeling this poet was able to inspire in me through such a brief poem.

Work Cited:

McClatchy, J. D. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. New York. Vintage. 2003.

Wikipedia. Web. 2013.

O North West! (an ode)

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O North West!
I wonder if this was just the result
of a parental coin flip as in “Tails,
we go South.”

O North West!
Personally I would have gone with Key
For it begins with a K after all
Or maybe Summers Eve after daddy
Or is that too douchey even for him?
I doubt it.

O North West!
What a shame! West is such a strong last name
No mid initial? What were they thinking?
It’s not as if they couldn’t afford one.
Bynorth would’ve been my choice but perhaps
It’s too classy, cliché or too close to

O North West!
Do they think
You’re just another spot on a compass
Over there. That way. An almost left turn?
I guess it could be worse. You could have been
an Apple.

O North West!
Will your moniker become its own brand?
A diaper line for big bootied babies?
Or maybe
Your own reality show’s in the works
Sweetie, surely Grannie’s got you covered.
She conceived the marketing strategy
long before the day you were thought to be.
Believe me.

O North West!
Maybe someday you can just slip away
into exclusivity with the rest
of the Wests
If that’s what you want, that is, instead of
Fulfilling your family’s prophecy
Trading your soul for ratings is fine while
you’re alive
But remember we only live once, oh
little one.

O North West!
Will you be daddy’s girl? His shining star?
Or just another dash in mommy’s world?
Grow up to be whatever you want but
Please oh please, pretty please, just promise me
no sex tape.

O North West!
Someday you may take your spouse’s last name.
Will you marry a Star or a Pole or
Hyphenate North West dash whatever? Oh
there’s that inescapable dash again,
you poor thing.

O North West!
A rose is still a rose by any name
So Kardashian heir apparent(ly)
There’s still hope
for you to become the best North West who
ever was.

O North West!
The direction you choose is up to you
It’s your life.
To let your name predict your destiny,
look to the sky, chin up, hold your head high.
You’ll go far
little star.

But if all else fails, go South East instead.

Autumn Alarm Clock (poem)


Autumn Alarm Clock

Mother tapped on my window this morning

Seizing my skin with her breeze and my mind

With the click-clack of leaves falling from trees

Still I squeezed my pillow in denial

My eyes holding on tightly to slumber

And pressing hard on my subconscious snooze

My loving mother found another way

She sent the rain to trickle and tickle

Sweetly on my subconscious mind with its

Dripdropdrip Dripdropdrip

Autumn sensations replaced with those of

Coffee and cream and delicious caffeine

Suddenly I’m awake.

Fun with Images


1. He was as happy as a bag of wet cats
2. She plopped down onto the plastic couch with the thump of a ripe melon
3. Cannibalistic carnivores playing Russian Roulette in an herb garden
4. A psycho clown smiling while dancing barefoot on the sun
5. The shark-sharp teeth of a puppy nipping at your ankle
6. Crabs in a bucket climbing, clawing, falling on top of one another
7. Demons laughing at you from the foot of your bed
8. We sat and waited patiently for the locusts to come
9. Her ego makes mine look like a speck of cracked black pepper in a sarcastic sea of salt.
10. The determined beagle sniffed and sniffed searching the streets for a chicken bone
11. A blood thirsty black cat with hair up hissing wickedly at the witch of the west
12. Then I choked on a thick dark cloud of Aqua Net
13. As she sucked the nectar from the mango’s core its juice dripped up to her elbow
14. Swollen and pursed to burst like a gangrenous gallbladder
15. Alley cats screaming profanities under the starry night sky
16. Sticky fingers smashing overripe bananas in a cereal bowl
17. Pimply adolescent faces hormonally bonded by braces
18. The lunch lady glumped the decomposed paste onto the plate and said, “Eat up.”
19. Is that a pubic hair stuck to the tip of your tongue?
20. Red rose petals painted on a child’s chubby pink cheek
21. She sipped champagne through a swirly Minnie Mouse straw
22. Fancy frozen ponies galloping up and down frolicking round and round forever forward
23. One lonesome wish floating across a sea of weeds all waiting to come true
24. Inhaling the last lush lavender breeze of springtime
25. The final child’s death blow caused candy canes to rain from the sky
26. Two sisters laughing while stirring anxiously making melted Neapolitan soup

Subject Matter and Themes in Poetry

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Subject Matter and Themes: Workshop and On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

When it comes to poetry, I sometimes get confused. This week I found myself scratching my head again as I read about subject matter and themes, and I thought: “Is there a difference?”

Ah, of course there is—though there was a time when I tangled the two. I apparently have a similar issue with similes/metaphors and with alliteration/consonance. In fact, I think I might suffer from a sort of poetic dyslexia because I get so many of the terms turned around.

To keep subject matter and theme straight, I continuously referred back to this week’s lecture which states: “The subject matter is what the poem is about. The theme is better represented as reoccurring ideas that surface and resurface in a poem. I could very well write a poem about auto repair while focusing on themes of aging and mortality, resilience, etc.”

I originally chose Workshop by Billy Collins for this exercise because I connected as a writer for obvious reasons with the subject matter (or was it the themes? Nah, it was definitely the subject matter). But my mind kept returning to On Turning Ten so I’ve decided to discuss both. Of course, if I get either one right, it’ll be a miracle.

First, I love the fact that these two poems show up back-to-back in the book because they feel connected, like two separate glances at one poet’s life. While it’s easy to assume but hard to say with certainty that Collins is being self-reflective with either or simply speaking about poets in general (or a bit of both perhaps), they have similar themes and subject matters. In fact, Workshop could very well be the future perspective of the young poet in On Turning Ten.

Workshop is such a neat poem. On the surface the subject matter feels light and seems to be simply about work shopping a poem but as we dig deeper we see that the poem being work shopped feels alive. Collins uses personification and imagery (like “the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face” and “maybe that’s just what it wants to do” and even “words are food thrown down on the ground for other words to eat”) to show us the poet’s intense connection to his own work as if it is representative of the writer himself— like he is the poem. The image of the hard working mouse reflects the pain and effort the poet put into his piece. Themes that scream out to me include creativity, pain (mostly regarding the critique process), self-reflection and even death. “There’s something about death going on here” feels highlighted in the poem, as though the poet had an epiphany that having his poem torn apart in workshop feels like death itself.

On Turning Ten is a sort of coming of age poem about a young boy who realizes he’s getting too old for childish things, like “imaginary friends.” He reflects on and says goodbye to his childhood as he looks toward the future. There is a profound sadness to the poem as though the young poet doesn’t actually want to say goodbye to his imagination but feels he must. “The whole idea of it” makes him feel like “he’s coming down with something” “a kind of measles of the spirit.” The image of this boy “walking through the universe in his sneakers” looking back at his “youth” or more accurately at his younger self, since he’s only turning ten, and how he played make believe is precious. He says: “It seems only yesterday I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I would shine.” Here the poem captures the essence of youthful abandon and fearlessness. But the poem ends with the subject realizing his own mortality: “But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees. I bleed.”

Death is a major recurring theme in this section of Collins’ book and, even the title, The Art of Drowning, alludes to it. Each poem addresses death from a unique angle. For example, Days dances with the idea that life is a gift and suggests we live each as though it’s our last. Dancing Toward Bethlehem discusses “final minutes” and we see “the orchestra sliding into the sea.”

In On Turning Ten Collins takes what by all accounts should be a positive milestone in a young person’s life but grooms it with negativity as if ten is the beginning of the end, while Workshop addresses the theme of death less literally. Through the image of the cemetery and the line about death in the middle of the poem, Collins practically shouts, “Hey, this poem is also about death!” Workshop isn’t about physical death or realizing one’s own mortality like On Turning Ten but rather it’s the emotional death we sometimes feel when we’re being criticized or misunderstood.

Death is also a common theme with the other poets we covered this week. For example, in I Go Back to May 1937 Sharon Olds uses straightforward language (“you are going to want to die”) and dark imagery (“plates of blood” and “wrought iron gate”) to speak of ghosts and memories of departed loved ones. In addition to death, this week’s other common themes include looking inward, time (it passing, standing still, slipping away), loss, endings, love, regret and creativity.

Writing and poetry itself were common subject matters in this week’s poems. While Workshop discusses a poem being work shopped and On Turning Ten speaks of a young poet growing up, in Canada, the subject of the poem speaks of various Canadian writers as he/she “writes this in a wooden canoe” and Osso Buco says a “full stomach” is “something you don’t hear about much in poetry” and Budapest speaks of the “pen moving along the page.”

It was nice to read so many poems using “writing” as subject to tackle so many different themes.

Works Cited:

Bishop, Wendy. Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem: A Guide to Writing Poetry. New York. Longman. 2000.

Collins, Billy. Sailing Along Around the Room. New York. Random House. 2001.

McClatchy, J. D. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. New York. Vintage. 2003.

My First Attempt at Ars Poetica

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Inspiration all around
Raining down from up above
Words saturating my flesh
Stanzas seeping through my skin

My eyes see all her beauty
My ears teased by her sweet rhyme
The universe controls me
This is her poem, not mine

Revelations fill my mouth
I swallow every drop
Gorge myself on metaphors
The first draft writes itself

I exhale. I am happy.
I feel nurtured. I feel love.
But when I pause to read it
All I think is “what the fuck?”

Suddenly my eyes spy every error
My nerve endings feel each flaw
Stomach aches in imperfection
Now I need to fix them all

Revisions race right through me
Broken cadence destroys my soul
Vile verses course through my veins
Evil images explode

My organs all malfunction
Now I’m sweating rhythmically
My heart beats broken rhythms
Brain obsesses. I can’t breathe.

I need to fix this poem.
If I fail I know I’ll die.
Reconsidering verses
And my calling in life, too

Oh onomatopoeia!

My mind is a thesaurus
Poisoned by hyperbole
One too many similes
All this grotesque imagery

I cry for each cut stanza
I mourn all my dying words
As I read each one out loud
The whole poem sounds absurd

But then my muse takes over
It was right there all along
Inspiration’s returning
As I churn out my new song

Poetic epiphany!
God has not forsaken me
Words start flowing magically
And now I’m born again.