Tuesday, June 17, 2014

As Dog Is My Witness: On Charles Wright

Charles Wright, photo by Michell Cuevas, via uvamagazine.org
by Tom Haushalter

The recent news of Charles Wright's appointment as the next U.S. Poet Laureate arrived like the low and loamy wind that moves through so much of the Virginia poet's work. That is, the news was welcome and not altogether unexpected, but no less gratifying.

Wright, author of more than two dozen collections of poems and translations and two books of essays, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (among many other accolades), and a longtime professor at the University of Virginia, is celebrated as a poet with a keen sensitivity to his natural surroundings (there in Virginian Appalachia) and its ancient, sacred undercurrent.

Wright's poems have been called secular prayers. His lines are strewn with images of his close-by pastoral vantage point, are languid and sinewy, spruce-sweet and dew-laden—but not in the sentimental way you're thinking. The transport of the reader is often enough to a bone-cold solitude among the naked elements, that meeting in which Wright's truths reside.

In an interview with NPR about his newest honor—although he admits, "I really don't know what I'm supposed to do"—Wright expands on his sources of inspiration:
It's always been the idea of landscape that's around me, that I look at; the idea of the music of language; and then the idea of God, or of that spiritual mystery that we doggedly follow, some of us, all of our days, and which we won't find answer to until it's too late—or maybe it's not too late. Maybe it's just the start, I don't know.
The dogged existential pursuit, whether looking forward or behind, has been central to his poetry from early on. And in the 1983 National Book Award–winning selection of his first four collections, titled Country Music (proudly published by Wesleyan University Press, a UPNE Book Partner), quite literally are there dogs nosing through for answers, as in the poem appropriately titled "Dog":
The fantailed dog of the end, the lights out,
Lopes in his sleep,
The moon's moan in the glassy fields.
Everything comes to him, stone
Pad prints extending like stars, tongue black
As a flag, saliva and thread, the needle's tooth,
Everything comes to him.

If I were a wind, which I am, if I
Were smoke, which I am, if I
Were the colorless leaves, the invisible grief,
Which I am, which I am,
He'd whistle me down, and down, but not yet.
In his foreword to the second edition of Country Music, David St. John acknowledges the meditative power of Wright's work, that it "often serves as a kind of prayer book, a kind of poetic hymnal or speculative field guide we might carry with us on our own metaphysical journeys." And indeed, he writes later, in Country Music we find "the same explosive imagery, the same dismantled and concentric (or parallel) narratives, the same resolutely spiritual concerns" that have become hallmarks of Wright's poetry ever since.

In honor of Wright's career—or, as he once told an interviewer, his "reason for living"we're pleased to offer a 30% discount on Country Music if ordered through UPNE.com.

Incidentally, another UPNE partner press, Oberlin College Press, has published an armful of Wright's translations of Italian poets Eugenio Montale (here and here) and Dino Campana, and a book of essays about Charles Wright's work, titled High Lonesome, edited by Adam Giannelli. All these titles are 30% off, too.

At checkout, the discount will automatically be added to your purchase. Not as timeless as the poetry of Charles Wright, this special offer expires August 31, 2014.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

7 Beach Reads for the Winter of the Soul

No Lifeguard on Duty (3053980143)
Photo by Benson Kua from Toronto, Canada
by Tom Haushalter

I've never bought the progression of logic imposed on so many of these "summer reading lists": that books which are read in the summer must a) be read on the beach and b) constitute a vacation (within a vacation!) from the heavier, morose themes that apparently dominate the books we read when we're out of direct sunlight.

As if by virtue of warmer days, all readers want breezy and easy, delicious and dishy, nothing to make them think too hard about themes of mortality or, say, the reality of melting polar ice caps, rising tides...and vanishing beaches.

Or winter.

Summer makes it easy to be taken in by your own carefree delusion, and takes credit for your happiness. But be warned. As the narrator in Icelandic novelist Sjón's book, From the Mouth of the Whale, observes:
In the perpetual light of high summer one has leisure to contemplate the terrible black chill that is the season we call winter, and all the evil that it brings. After such thoughts one sits and turns one's face to the sky, closing one's eyes and letting the blueness fill one with the illusion that it will always be so, or at the most the sky will flush like the cheek of a bashful boy but never grow dark again.

In this spirit of disillusionment and reluctant embrace of the inevitable winter of the soul, here's a summer reading list that, if anything, reminds you how nice it is to be lying on your back in the sand...while you still can.

Barren Grounds: The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip, by Fred "Skip" Pessl
In 1955, Arthur Moffatt led a group of college students on an expedition to the Barren Lands of Arctic Canada, a trip that has since been described as "an excellent example of how not to conduct a canoe trip." The exhaustion of the adventurers as they made their way, their dwindling food supplies, and the harsh conditions forced them to be less cautious, which led to the fatal mistake that caused two canoes to capsize in the frigid waters. Moffatt, the leader, died of exposure, leaving these college kids to find a way to safety. Barren Grounds comprises passages from the journals of two of the young party members, as well as entries from Moffatt's own journal, in which we all learn a few hard lessons in recreational travel.

At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, by Gregory N. Flemming
This book has beaches and palm trees, but imagine you've been exiled to an island in the Caribbean, having escaped a pirate ship where you'd been held captive for months. This is the vivid portrait of fisherman Philip Ashton in the 18th-century "golden age of piracy," a time when threat of being kidnapped and tortured by pirate captains like Edward Low was anything but rollicking good fun on the high seas. If you were Ashton, that is. A Publishers Weekly starred review says Flemming "adds a welcome depth to the history of piracy with this engaging and harrowing account of 'America’s real-life Robinson Crusoe.'"

 Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America's Deadliest Rock Concert, by John Barylick
It's all there in the title. The tragedy of the roadhouse fire in West Warwick, RI, in February 2003, set off by a lethal combination of the heavy-metal act's pyrotechnics and the flammable foam sound insulation on the club's walls, killing 100 people in less than 10 minutes, was in fact a crime. And Barylick, a lead attorney who prosecuted wrongful-death cases related to it, writes of his painstaking search for evidence to hold the band, the club owners, promoters, building inspectors, and others fully accountable for the cause of the fire and its aftermath. A horribly riveting read.

Night Flight to Dungavel: Rudolf Hess, Winston Churchill, and the Real Turning Point of WWII, by Peter Padfield
For decades there has been no clear answer to why Hitler's #2, Rudolf Hess, in May of 1941, flew a German fighter across the channel and crash-landed in Scotland. He was imprisoned in England, later tried at Nuremberg, and imprisoned at Spandau in Berlin, where he would remain until his death (possibly suicide) at age 93. Padfield investigates the many mysteries surrounding Hess' flight: what actually happened, whether he acted alone, the role that Churchill and British MI6 played, and why this episode was a real turning point in the war.

Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America, by Clint Richmond
In 1938, Hazel Frome and her 23-year-old daughter, both San Francisco socialites, were on a cross-country drive when their car broke down in El Paso, TX. Making the most of a bad situation, they passed over the border into Juarez for some shopping and dining, and a week later their battered bodies were found in the Texas desert, with few clues as to circumstances of their abduction, days-long torture, and brutal murders. Richmond relies on long-forgotten archives and declassified FBI files to draw a haunting connection to a Nazi spy ring that operated through El Paso—and was run by spymasters at the German consulate in San Francisco.

A Murder in Wellesley: The Inside Story of an Ivy-League Doctor's Double Life, His Slain Wife, and the Trial that Gripped the Nation, by Tom Farmer & Marty Foley
It became a national story in 1999, when the investigation of the murder of Mabel Greineder in well-heeled Wellesley, MA, turned its focus on her husband, Dirk Greineder, a prominent physician and family man suddenly revealed to have been leading a double life involving prostitutes, pornography, and trysts solicited through the Internet. Farmer and Foley revisit this chilling story, interviewing key figures and showing how investigators pieced together a case against Greineder, culminating in one of the most dramatic courtroom spectacles in recent memory.

Deluge: Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont's Flash Floods, and How One Small State Saved Itself, by Peggy Shinn
Such a sinister summer reading list should conclude with a book that opens at the golden end of a typically delightful Vermont summer. But by the close of August 2011, in the southern gulf region, hurricane season had already begun, and yielded a storm that charted a path up the Atlantic coastline, through New York, and into northern New England. Downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Vermont, Irene's massive store of rainwater was no less severe. And in a matter of a few hours, on August 28, the rains that the mountains absorbed were wrung out like water from a sponge, turning babbling village brooks into raging torrents, washing out roads, destroying bridges, and crippling access to and from several towns throughout the state. Thousands were left homeless. As the storm passed and waters finally subsided, a national emergency declared, Vermonters didn't wait for outside help. Townsfolk pulled one another from the wreckage and quietly performed every manner of good deed to save lives and rebuild communities. This book captures the heartbreak and the heroism.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Superiority of the Ivy League Athlete

by Tom Haushalter

Amid the bloat and spectacle of the National Collegiate Athletic Association—an industry that spends billions each year, earns billions in revenue, the lion's share of it funneled in and out of football and basketball programs, none of which, of course, its 400,000+ athletes (Division I-III combined) see a penny of—it's easy to forget that intercollegiate sports began as an idea that nobody thought would catch on.

That was 1852, football and basketball still yet to be invented. A kid named James Whiton, Jr., a 3rd-year Yale student and the bow oarsman for the Yale Boat Club, on a train ride through New Hampshire that passed right alongside legendarily gorgeous Lake Winnipesaukee, had a thought: Wouldn't it be something if we got a bunch of people up here to watch a race between Yale and Harvard?

Whiton got his crew on board with the idea, then Yale uttered college sports' first-ever fightin' words: that Harvard get up to Lake Winnipesaukee "to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges."

It would be nice to say, as they say, the rest is history. It might also be nice to say that Yale backed up their talk. But Harvard's one boat, Oneida, against Yale's two, Undine and Shawmut, beat them both. And it would be another three years until Yale got up the nerve to issue another challenge. Harvard won that one, too.

After that first race in 1852, regardless of the hundreds of spectators who crowded the hillsides, the notion of teams from different colleges competing in games was dismissed by presidents and deans, even by the New York newspaper that reviewed the race, predicting it would "make little stir in a busy world." Nor did campus life in those days much allow for idle, ostensibly meaningless activity, when there were serious texts to master, which the world depended on.

It bears repeating: this was before football and basketball.

Nowadays, about 48 million people pass the turnstiles at NCAA events each year, the ticket sales for which underwrite sizable percentages of university's operating budgets—to say nothing of the intake from merchandise and television contracts. If the Harvard-Yale race of 1852 was the boutique outlet of sporting competitions, then surely March Madness and the Bowl Championship Series are the big-box retailers of athletic entertainment, hocking brands like Duke, Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State, and UCLA. 

Nowadays, although Ivy teams and athletes can—and do—still command national respect in sports like hockey and (appropriately) rowing, by and large we remember when they were great. It's for this reason that the Harvard-Yale football rivalry and annual broadcast of The Game invariably includes a black-and-white montage of leather-helmeted heroes past.

And if an Ivy does turn heads, such as when the 2012-13 Harvard men's basketball team, earning only its second berth in the NCAA tournament since 1946, upset 3rd-seeded New Mexico in the second round, everyone is gobsmacked at how a bunch of smart kids without athletic scholarships even manage a layup.

Which is exactly what they should be wondering.

In a new book from Northeastern University Press, called Ivy League Athletes: Profiles in Excellence at America's Most Competitive Schools, author Sal Maiorana follows nine student-athletes from seven Ivy League campuses through the 2011-2012 season, and shows how they balance extraordinary effort in the field with even more extraordinary effort in the classrooms of America's most prestigious, arguably most challenging colleges.

Among the students, we meet Melanie Baskind, a pre-med senior at Harvard and captain of both the soccer (fall) and lacrosse (spring) teams—who deserves a citation under any definition of an overachiever.

There's Greg Zebrack, a senior baseballer who transferred to Penn as a junior, coming from the University of Southern California, where he had been recruited to play for one of the best baseball programs in the country—only to tear it up on the east coast and turn the heads of Major League scouts.

And Sheila Dixon, whose life story—from an infant abandoned by her mother at the hospital to an adopted child who realized how truly fortunate she was—propelled her to work harder than most kids, leading her to Brown and to becoming one of the key members of the women's basketball team.

In any discussion of present-day Ivy student-athletes who exemplify the best of the NCAA, it's impossible not to steer the focus to the preternaturally gifted long-distance runner who's spent the last few seasons shattering records and stacking up national titles. Dartmouth senior Abbey D'Agostino, who was just beginning her ascent when Maiorana was researching his book (and isn't one of the nine athletes profiled), has been so successful in her sport as to transcend not just ideas of Ivy greatness but of greatness on any level. (She's determined to compete in the next Olympic Games.)

Last year Runner's World featured D'Agostino and her "unlikely domination," charting her path from freshman whose coach saw a quiet potential to NCAA champion by her junior year. Apart from her typically intense training regimen, it's something of a mystery how swift and steep her mastery of running has been. Keeping in mind that D'Agostino, like a true student-athlete, allows herself no slack when it comes to completing coursework before she heads to the track—what is her secret to winning? According to those who know her:
Her greatest power . . . is what's going on inside, a psychological strength and running IQ of undetermined origin. "She's very smart; she thinks during races," [coach Mark] Coogan says. "She's patient. A lot of people can't run a 5K; they are wasting all this energy, zigzagging in and out, instead of just running for 2 miles to get where you belong. She's really good at that. She trusts that it's all going to happen. . ."
Abbey D'Agostino (Photo: Dartmouth Athletics)
Is it worthwhile to wonder, as we consider mental fortitude of "undetermined origin," if Ivy athletes are uniquely capable of equating athletic challenges with intellectual challenges? In other words, for they who cannot afford to skip class for practice, on which no athletic scholarship rides—thus have little expectation of one day going pro—do the qualities that make them our brightest minds have anything to do with how they approach their sport? Advanced calculus or a four-minute mile: a game is a game.

NFL quarterback and Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick, in his foreword to Maiorana's book, adds: "[In the Ivy League] a certain purity exists because each athlete is competing out of a love and passion for his or her sport." And he goes on to say about his decision to attend Harvard:
The recruiting pitch didn't revolve around the state-of-the-art athletic facilities or the athletic dorms or the preferential treatment you would receive being an athlete at the university. The recruiting pitch was the challenge. It was the fact that . . . the classroom always came first. And it was the fact that, with all the exogenous pressure that came with being a student . . . you were still expected to perform on the field. 
For Fitzpatrick, D'Agostino, and all the student-athletes in Maiorana's tribute, the point of these collegiate sports is not obscured by inordinately bright stadium lights, nor by money thrown at them or trophies promised (though winning is never a bad thing). Since that first crew competition on the lake in 1852, each game is a display of agility and endurance all in pursuit of its own form of perfection.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tell Us About the Time You Fell Off the Monkey Bars—and Enter a Book Giveaway!

ForeEdge and University Press of New England are basically thrilled to finally be able to say: Brenda Biondo's gorgeous photographic tribute to the bygone playgrounds of our youth, Once Upon A Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds: 1920-1975, is available now!

The video above is just a taste of the images that will put your Americana nostalgia engines in overdrive. And it features a recent interview that Biondo did with the inquisitive hosts of "For Your Ears Only." Listen to Biondo explain what inspired her to immortalize these disappearing playground structures and find out how you can help the non-profit organization, Kaboom, build new playgrounds for neighborhoods that need them.

But wait, there's more.

We're in a good mood lately, so we're giving away THREE copies of Once Upon A Playground to three different winners. See the contest entry form below.

To better your chances of winning, share this post with your friends, and leave us a comment about a memorable playground moment of yours—what jungle gym you were the king or queen of, what merry-go-round you got pretty banged up on, maybe that first kiss underneath the coiling slide?

And thanks for liking the new ForeEdge Facebook page—like raising a playground, there are fun things in store. More ForeEdge giveaways! News and reviews about other new releases! Even more exclamation points!

This giveaway closes May 16 at 5:00 PM EST.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

6 Reasons a Knish is Better than a Bagel

And now for a fight we're pretty sure nobody asked for. But a fight that simply can't go unpicked.

Already you're shaking your head. There's just no way the bagel takes a back seat to the knish. Right?

We've thought about it, and we're so convinced the knish is the better of the two Jewish baked goods, we've decided that the entire month of May shall be dubbed Knish Month. (Ahem, #knishmonth.) The delicious designation is, of course, in honor of the May release of Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, by Laura Silver, a lovingly written paean to the humble, hearty knish.

http://www.upne.com/1611683127.htmlSilver, undisputedly the world's leading expert on knish, uncovers the popular history and cultural impact of this potatoey pastry—not to be confused with its cousins the blintz, pierogi, dumpling (which we'll cover in a later post), and certainly not the bagel.

Lest you think we're crazy, read these reasons why the knish is having its moment. Then go get a knish. (Eat the knish.) Then find and fall for Laura Silver's Knish. Then tell us we're crazy.

1. Knish is an acceptable meal.
No one's saying a fresh-baked, pillowy, crispy-on-the-outside bagel is a bad thing, but don't fool yourself into thinking that's a smart way to start your day—it has zero nutritional value. But a knish? Stuffed with potatoes, it's an excellent source of potassium and Vitamin C. If you go with a meat-filled knish, there's your boost of protein! And you know what: with a knish you still get to have something fresh-baked, pillowy, and crispy-on-the-outside.

2. Knish has standards.
Whereas a bagel doesn't care if it's a day old, cold, tied up in a plastic sleeve and marked down for clearance, a knish simply demands to be eaten piping hot, straight out of the oven—and at least once in your life sears the roof of your mouth so you'll always be able to say it was worth the pain.

3. Knish is a welcome change of pace.
Knishes have been made and sold in New York City for well over a century, but like most things worth their weight in gold, you've got to know where to find them—from the legendary Yonah Schimmel's on the Lower East Side to Knish Nosh on Queens Blvd. Unlike the bagel, whose ubiquity makes it almost as easy to find a meh one as it is to find a good one.

Who's the more insulted, the bagel or the pizza?
4. Knish remembers from whence it came.
A bite out of a knish is—and always will be—a bite out of tradition, a nod to the strivers of the Jewish community on New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s, as well as a loving gesture to the old world of the knish's origins. In her book, Laura Silver travels to Jerusalem, Paris, and parts of Poland, tracing not only the enigmatic roots of the knish, but a lineage of Jews for whom this pastry symbolizes the bonds of family. Silvers writes, "In Aramaic, 'a knish,' or rather aknish, meant a coming together, a joining of people, a community."

Now, the bagel's history is no less inspiring, but look at what we've done to it. "Old world" and "handmade" are the furthest things from our minds when we're made to wait in a line at Panera, trying to choose between sesame seed and pumpkin-spice-walnut-crunch or whatever else is in that thing.

5. In a 'food porn' face-off, knish always wins.

All right, the bagels do look pretty good.

6. You can put mustard on a knish.
And mustard beats cream cheese every day. (Lox is cheating.) 

Be sure to head over to Laura Silver's website, Knish.me, a working shrine to everything you ever wanted to know about the knish—a knishipedia, if you will. Find knish recipes, contribute your own personal knish story, locate U.S. knisheries on a map, see where Laura will be promoting Knish this summer, and weigh in on the only other knish debate that matters: round versus square!

Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, by Laura Silver is on sale now.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Is Your Garden Made in the Shade?

Iris reticulata, via Wikicommons

by Susan Sylvia

I promised I wouldn't say anything about the inhuman length and fierceness of this past winter, and how perfectly sublime it is just to see last season's dead grass in my yard. And I would be too embarrassed to mention how spotting the little nubbins of crocus and iris reticulata poking up through the remaining snow in my garden yesterday made me jump up and down like a six-year-old with a new puppy.

Since I'm not commenting on any of that, let's talk gardening.

Gardeners always dislike owning up to gardens that are like an opening scene of Plants Behaving Badly. Whether a plant has a proclivity for 1) covert underground infiltration of its unsuspecting neighbors, 2) startlingly promiscuous self-sowing, or 3) the kind of disdain for its environment that leads to an early demise, no gardener wants to waste time and money trying to encourage everyone in the garden to get along.

Gardening professionals know this about us, so for years we've been plied with lists of "reliable plants for the garden." There is plenty of information out there about shade-tolerant plants, and elsewhere recommendations for cold-tolerant plants. Unfortunately, we end up with an overwhelming, annoying gluts of non-specific information from many different sources, when all one really needs is a good idea for a plant to fill the hole left by poorly chosen specimen of last season (may he rest in peace).

This problem is never more evident than to the New England gardener. Many gardens in these parts feature expanses of unwelcome shade, because yards are so often carved out of the abundant forests in the region, and remain surrounded by tall trees. Add to this New England's four seasons to contend with—June, July, August, and Winter—and these challenges all dogpile on top of the basic reliability that we look for in a good garden plant.

It's a tall order to find plants that have all the qualities we want. Sort of like finding the right man.

Where the qualities of hardiness, shade tolerance, and reliability collide, we find The Shady Lady's Guide to Northeast Gardening, the horticultural equivalent of Match.com. In it, author Amy Ziffer hones down all the excess generic gardening hoopla, weeding out plants that will be nothing but trouble around here, and leaving us with a selection of great plants that will actually work in the New England garden.

Ziffer, a Master Gardener and professional garden designer affectionately known as the Shady Lady, runs her own gardening business in Connecticut and lectures all over the Northeast on the subject. This puts her in the perfect position to vet a comprehensive, reliable go-to list for the average Northeast gardener who doesn't want to take the trouble.

Nodding mandarin (Disporum maculatum) © Amy Ziffer

A number of years ago, I installed a large deep-shade garden for a close friend, and I wish I had had this book—the plants Ziffer profiles would have been far better than some of the choices I made at the time, creating a garden that incited many skirmishes between warring factions and scads of random suicides. (By the way, don't plant the carniverously invasive Aegopodium Podagraria [goutweed] near anything, especially not small children.)

When I chose plants for that garden, Cimicifuga, Hosta, Aruncus (Goat's Beard), and Lungwort formed the framework, and Lamium and Lamiastrum Galeobdolon were the only good options that I knew of for the dry shade under those really inconvenient pine trees at the edge of the yard. These mainstay plants are, indeed, included in Ziffer's guide. But she goes way beyond that, recommending plants that I would never, otherwise, have the courage to try.

She begins by presenting a good-sized list of plants that can be used to create a backbone for your shade garden, both for deep shade and light shade—plants that she has worked with a lot and knows perform well. We see names like Kirengeshoma (Yellow Waxbells), Stylophorum diphyllum (Celandine Poppy), and Sarcococca hookeriana (Sweet Box), none of which I'd ever paid attention to before, possibly because I couldn't pronounce the darn names and didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my local nursery professional.

We learn about culture, light requirements, form, size, bloom time and all the other get-to-know-yous fore each plant. And she very kindly lets us know if a plant may have a teensy bad habit or two that can be forgiven. Armed with this thorough information, I can say that I would now feel confident marching right down to the nursery and giving some of these new plants a try.

Marginal fern (Dryopteris marginalis) © Amy Ziffer
From this basic backbone, Ziffer makes recommendations for "accent plants," bulbs, spring plants that go dormant in summer, plants for neutralizing, and even some native ferns that will actually behave in the garden and can be left in place for years. And—get this—she has unearthed an ornamental grass that will do well in light shade!

Ziffer loads her book with handy features, including index markers at the edge of each plant's page with its USDA zone, so you can flip through the book and stop at the plants that won't give up the ghost during their first winter in your garden. She lists her best picks for groundcovers, native plants, choices for moist areas and rock garden, and plants that will do well in either shade or sun.

All this great info-at-a-glance is good for my inner-adolescent needing instant gratification—without the fluff!

I'm adding this one to the shelf in the shed.

Follow the Shady Lady, Amy Ziffer, on Facebook and find out where she'll be speaking around New England this spring and summer.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

This Poetry Month, Enter the Sestina Arena

by Tom Haushalter
Here we are again, a week into April, a.k.a National Poetry Month, the de facto period of time for everyone who's generally not that excited about poetry to be inordinately, often uncomfortably excited about poetry.

Honestly, it has done a lot of good for poetry education and dissemination

But while National Poetry Month is busy turning the masses into poetry enthusiasts, what's really in it for, you know, actual poets? If every month is poetry month to us, what can we usefully make of April's magnifying glass on our craft? How do we up our own ante?

One off-shoot initiative is National Poem Writing Month (hashtaggably #NaPoWriMo), a challenge to anyone bold enough to write a new poem every day of April, which everyone (and I don't mean everyone) should try once. For the slightly less insane, I recommend trying your hand at a poetic form that is as far from contemporary fashion as can be. If you think I'm talking about a villanelle or a pantoum, you're getting warm.

I dared myself to write a sestina. Not wanting to go down this road alone, I dared a friend to write one with me. Nor was I ashamed to keep close at my side a copy of the newly published collection and celebration of the form, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl. With this book, along with Daniel Nester's own clarion call for more sestinas, The Incredible Sestina Anthology, the form felt suddenly less intimidating—and new, not so twelfth century (when it first appeared).

One way to entice a friend to write a sestina with you (take note) is to appeal to his classic sensibilities. I shot an email to Adam L. Dressler: "Have you what it takes to step inside the Sestina Arena and subdue the beast?"

Dressler didn't flinch.

The sestina takes its unique form by employing the same six end-words (teleutons is the technical term) in each of six six-line stanzas, in a pre-set rotational pattern. But the kicker is that the final three-line stanza, called the envoi, must use all six end-words—two per line, with one in the middle of the line, the other on the end. These six teleutons act as the scaffolding by which you build the poem.

Dressler and I each submitted three words that, put together, would be our teleutons. I can't speak for his source material, but I scanned my copy of French poet St.-John Perse's Collected Poems; here are the six words that paved our way to the Sestina Arena:
Not what you'd call the breeziest set of words, but there they are.

Keep in mind: Dressler and I were not competing against one another. The adversary is the sestina, the punishing and unrelenting form itself. We were in this together. As two gladiators in the hold prior to combat, we fired drafts back and forth, rewrote whole stanzas, sharpened syntax, upgraded some verbs. A few screenshots of our late-night text messages:

When finally it's just you and the poem—and whatever attendant god or muse—a quiet spreads over the page, as it would over a crowd in that moment the animal emerges from the cage. 

First challenger:

by Adam L. Dressler

Of what use now to us are angels
when each must hide a heart of stone
that nothing save perhaps for sleep
might pierce enough for us to battle
this locust hum in which we sway
and drift apart like broken music?

We cannot grasp the distance music
or groping fingertips of angels
that, briefly brushing, fail to sway
our desolating faith in stone,
the ramparts we erect to battle
the scenes that seek us in our sleep.

We stir, we wake, and yet we sleep,
as deaf to silence as to music
though either could abate the battle
we will not cease against the angels
until we lift the veil of stone
that over every sense holds sway.

From tepid task to task we sway,
entangled in the hope that sleep
will wash, as water hollows stone,
away the slightest trace of music
so we might wade, immune as angels
into the mindless press of battle.

Let others, younger, stronger battle
daylong against the daily sway
while they can still recall the angels
who sang them out of and to sleep
and hid them safe in waves of music
like ancient leaves preserved in stone.

No miracle will loose from stone
or set beyond the breach of battle
those slivers of ourselves that music
might still possess the strength to sway,
no vision resurrect from sleep
our interactions with the angels.

Are angels locked, like us, in stone,
sleep drowning out our useless battle,
or do you sway to mortal music?

Hold your applause. The second challenger (moi), as night falls, enters:

by Tom Haushalter

We are none to observe the rites of sleep
who pursue an instrument, whose music—
like the map the architect does battle
with nightly, lines drawn and redrawn to sway
outcomes of form for beauty—leaves angels
in the design. Cathedral begun, stone

cut from white hillsides, hewn, heaved upon stone,
will never be done. To succumb to sleep
is really to guarantee that angels
bear us off on the unwritten music
that would have killed us anyhow, the sway
that would have drawn us to battle.

That's not to say I fled the battle
when midnight's arrows, dense as stone,
persuaded me I could hold sway
over provinces less averse to sleep.
Had I never struck those chords of music
that drew from nimbuses the angels

toting their brasses and strings, what angels
would bother? What cries go up in battle
for a cause long absent, for music
without form? In the middle of a stone
between here and the core of the earth sleep
dark records of potential no god can sway.

You can see as well as I how sway
the wintered wildflowers, pale as angels
surrendering themselves to sleep
in their husks, discarded artifacts of battle.
Mere sight of such austerity is a stone
thrown whining through the field—that old music.

We are prone to call a mind for music
apotheosis (a means to sway
secrets from lovers as from stone
the hammer can give breath to angels),
a priestly craft. Not quite—this battle
lays no laurels. To hope to wring from sleep

music's lost chord, that phantom of angels,
to sharper sway the tide of battle,
set your cornerstone on the edge of sleep.

And now, those so inclined should throw thumbs up or down in the comments section. But in doing so, realize that you accept the dare to wrangle your own sestina and share it with us. This is not a democracy.

Stray Thoughts on Writing a Sestina

  1. While writing in a metered line isn't required of a sestina (not anymore, anyway), clearly Dressler's found a home in iambic tetrameter. And mine tends toward syllabic uniformity—typically ten syllables in each line. It might seem like an added restriction, with the teleutons, to work around, but consider how a metered line complements the form—the patterned repetition, the echoing progression of each stanza. It felt, to me, natural to the sestina.
  2. I think one of the challenges of a successful sestina is to proceed as if the teleutons aren't actually repeating themselves each stanza, such that by using them in all their parts of speech or embedding them in compound words, etc., their brow-beating effect is quieted. This is especially the case as a stanza's last end-word immediately becomes the next stanza's first end-word.
  3. Just about anything can spark the start of a poem, but there's a good chance that one or more of your six teleutons will begin to guide what it is you're trying to say in the sestina, to be the thematic driver(s). The rest of the end-words: mere accessories!
  4. And you may find, as I did, the sixth stanza incredibly difficult to write—if not the whole poem increasingly difficult. After five stanzas pounding out every variation on battle, angel, stone, sleep...you may wonder what the hell there is left to say. Which of course is followed by that action-packed, buzzer-beating, three-line envoi. The kind-of irony is that, as those six fixed coordinates are compressed at the poem's close, you're expected to send it toward that unseen horizon—to liberate the sestina from itself! Good luck with that.


The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, by Lewis Turco

The Book of Literary Terms, by Lewis Turco