Writing in Form: The Sestina

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Musings on Writing and Life.

In Summer 2012, my poem, a sestina called “The Winter We Lived in the Church & It Snowed Daily & The First Barrel of Crude Oil Traveled Successfully Through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline,” was published in the Security Issue of Blood Orange Review. Bryan Fry, the editor at the time, wrote about the issue’s theme: “Where do we find security—in the house where we grew up, behind the walls that protect us from uncertainty, in the sunlight, under the covers, among friends or relatives? Obviously for each person, each race and gender, the answer is different.”

What is a sestina?

A sestina is six stanzas of six lines and a final triplet. All stanzas have the same six words at the line-ends in six different, prescribed sequences. These line-ends also follow a fixed pattern. And all six words appear in the closing three-line “envoi,” also known as a send-off, in a particular pattern as well.

I think the sestina form as a kind of poetry crossword puzzle. The end words I chose and and was thus forced to stick with in this particular poem were rose, radio, dream, arch, ash, and coal. However, as with any poetic form, there is some wiggle room and creative bending of the rules. You may recognize the spot where I did just that—borrowing three lines from one of Billie Holiday’s most famous songs.

For me, form is both a way to contain and also range free. This particular sestina took me all the way back to Northeastern Pennsylvania where I lived during the brutally cold winter of 1976. It speaks in the voice of a woman who feels trapped in that world between the sharp and the flat.

I was flattered when Blood Orange Review nominated this poem for a 2013 Pushcart Prize.


It was the bitterest night. I couldn’t sleep so I rose
from our altared bed. Found Ella doing Gershwin on the radio,
traced the sanctuary planks, hours of dodging dreams.
How hard, that year. Yet my feet remembered to arch
their fragile bones then sultry-slink past the ash —
come dawn, the fate of the woodstove’s coals.

Our routine before bed: one or the other banked the coals.
Hoping to keep some heat alive before whoever rose
first to shiver then rake, scrape then shovel the ash.
Whenever it was my turn, I turned on the radio,
tuned in that DJ, his voice like butter warming to arch
over the sad I wore, an invisible robe, my life no dream.

I thought of the Methodist ladies, wondered if they ever dreamed
Rockette kicks to loosen hairnet curls, no more chorus lines picking coal.
Mornings, I congregated my books and pens. Repaired to the arch
where rays through stained-glass panes of violet, green, and rose
spoke enough to convince I no longer had to (that day) radio
an S.O.S.: Someone please save me before I melt or turn to ash!

Christened myself Wicked Witch of the Pennsylvanian Northeast, my ash
cloud not a pointed hat but those tunnels of snow: no dream.
Daily I cindered, traction for the car’s tires, its radio
broken, my solace lost as I drove the ice past mines where coal
spoke in tongues of profit & loss so Painted Ladies and spires rose
ritzier than our so-called House of God, barely with nave or arch.

Where I swayed that unbound night, my belly a majestic arch
of triumph to what? My foolish wish was never to worry that ash
was what I breathed instead of snow. While the booming baby rose,
destined to join the choir, play pinball after midnight, guitar dream
a string to break or tune, one make-believe future miles away from coal.
Until it was “I Loves You Porgy,” Nina Simone on the night-jazz radio

show. Why couldn’t summertime be the living easier on that radio?
I didn’t ask for much. Words to (mostly) fill and plead and arch.
Believing that fate stayed fate with no reverse like the woodstove coals,
their predictable burn and burn and burn until they powdered, ash.
It was one bitterest night. And my dream stayed only that, a dream.
I couldn’t sleep. Heard “God Bless the Child” from my altar. So I rose


Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news

I listen to the radio. Feel the blues, my muse to ash.
Daybreak, a jig is best to snap to, arch toward dream.
It’s time to sift the coals. They’re glowing, rose.

When I submitted my bio to them, they asked me to answer a single question: What keeps me moving forward as a writer?

Here is how I responded already a dozen years ago!

The malleable, mercurial, and surprising properties of the astonishing English language! The daily doing of the work—showing up and bearing witness to present, past, my far-fetched notions about and hopes for the future with the words.

Like many who say they want to write, maybe even have a talent for it, for many years I think I only talked about wanting to be a “writer”—the noun—rather than doing what was necessary to really embrace the verb, to “write.” To hunker down, surrender to the unglamorous showing up at the page—all that scribbling, fiddling, crossing out, re-thinking, revising, tossing drafts into the paper recycling bin.

Now, at fifty-six—with time running out even more than ever before—that verb has become my imperative. I write to remember and reclaim, to reconnoiter and restore. Words help me cast the net wide, maybe a wee bit wider. I write in search of what I know but keep forgetting. And I keep writing because, more and more, words are all I have, to paraphrase what Samuel Beckett once said.

Nancy Flynn
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