‘Unravelling the Sestina as a Magic Bridge’, a Presentation by Smeetha at the WE session – Writing as Bridges, Creative Showcase, APWT Bangalore, Nov 30, 2022
I have the honour of unpacking the magic of my favourite poetic form - the Sestina, in this session. Let it take shape and leap before your eyes, alive, interesting, porous and osmotic...as good poetry promises to be. So without further ado, let's dive right in! It's been said that every poem is a new world! In a Sestina, starting with just six words, a world is born. I wrote the first one at GloPoWriMo 2017, titled Glow, with the six words really, cess, trick, dulcet, mixing, clot (at a prompt from the day's instructor - Nabina Das) Let me present a stanza from Glow In search of a golden glow half imagined, is there a cess on it? The forest is all dark and thunder rolls, an old trick to frighten even the bold, the darkness is a blindfold really, you walk on, trembling, hanging on by a thought so dulcet so dear, that maybe you then shed your fear, and are mixing visions of utopia with whatever is at hand, before it can clot. I'll be demonstrating to you the magic of this form that compels an intuitive, intricate exploration of one's self and surroundings, bringing up dormant knowledge, memories, experiences and insights. 2. Let's describe its form & structure: In customary parlance it is a complex poetic form using six words in mathematically precise sequences in six stanzas of six lines each, and a three-line envoi.(The mathematical structure is as - ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA, where the alphabets represent the six words) However, to me a Sestina signifies a lambent elastic bridge suspended over space and time to create new worlds that connect to older ones, yet stretch out in immense dreamlike visions of a startling future... And this is where my personal craft and experience of a Sestina comes in, imbued with experience of how the narrative takes shape in horizontal lines and moves forward in leaps and bounds in vertical movements. There's room for exchange and interplay in its spacious stanzas, and scope for deep engagement with the self while penning down each of its thirty-nine lines. 3. The Craft – a personal account of its poetics defined by - Blank verse, line & meter, structure, internal rhyme & rhythm, style, imagery. The sestina is composed of Blank Verse, (that is unrhymed). Any poem is built line by line, as we all know, the line is the building block. In a Sestina the lines are of blank verse in iambic and other meters moving right, and are defined by boundary conditions of the end-words. It is elastic and stretchable, so, how far it can go is up to the poet, (and of course, governed by other considerations too). The elasticity of a line in a Sestina, often lets it leap right off the frame into surprising spaces ... Here's a line from Glow The forest is all dark and thunder rolls, an old trick to frighten even the bold, the darkness is a blindfold really, For me, the line has shortened with time and practice, to show off the end-words clearly without breaking line, thus visually presenting all end-words in a column, and obeying the sequential rule. (You can see it in the poem here). And then, there's Magic! The magic of the form occurs through the constraints of the horizontal line ending at a given word, coupled with the freedom of the vertical movement to flow on that takes the narrative forward. Brake, release, accelerate.This push-pull within its vast spaces and the strange interplay between the six words seems to invigorate the imagination, reaching deep reservoirs of memory, experience and knowledge. I picture it as a river in flow, bounding over boulders, leaping off precipices, gathering speed and momentum. Breaking barriers. A line from Glow that is the cess you have to pay, to stay : fight, fight,forever, keep mixing new elements, new lights, new directions, difficult to trick into submission, The six stanzas or rectangles may be seen as our world Embedded in a circle of oceans, forests, mountains, rivers, silent spaces, places of worship and meditation...fair play and equality... The opportunities to explore narratives in the vertical plane, moving from one stanza to the next, finding connections, unravelling stories, going forward with enjambed lines in a sort of self-created magic, is actuated by the demands of the form itself - rigorous, arduous and worth every iamb and trochee (the stressed & unstressed syllables) the meter demands. Let's look at the opening of two stanzas, that intuitively connect: The second stanza opens thus – Fleeting, ethereal, just a glimpse, is it real? or a trick of the eyes to lure you into forests flush with dulcet tunes you knew so well. The fourth stanza opens as: Golden light, a deer? A chimera, a chiaroscuro? Really is it just a figment of the imagination, no sound basis, a clot Thus, the path keeps getting clearer, and, from an intuitive engagement with one's self, it progresses to a critical awareness of surroundings that shapes the writing. The form mirrors my familiarity and comfort with given structures, an inherent need for making use of resources to the fullest, exemplified in the creation of a Sestina - from just six words entire narratives and dimensions are squeezed out...infusing a musicality with internal rhyme where none is ordained, because blank verse is unrhymed. It brings forth different facets of the six words central to it, establishing new meanings, exploring ideas and themes, a bridge laid out unto oneself and into the world. And within the very structured sestina, there's an affable openness about its perimeter that lets thoughts, ideas, dreams and diversity permeate, changing the tone of a reading at different points of time, or the interpretation of its words or essence, even by the poet who wrote it...
Glow (a sestina) by Smeetha Bhoumik In the deepening shadows, a glow : tinkling dulcet verses like hilly streams dotting silent rows, mixing ethereal, outlandish, down-to-earth, all without cess oh, none at all, save the promise you make, really only to yourself, to see it as it is, and not let it clot like congealed blood, unspoken, a dangerous trick! Fleeting, ethereal, just a glimpse, is it real? Or a trick of the eyes to lure you into forests flush with dulcet tunes you knew so well. You go anyway, lest you clot on forbidden territories of sloth, so yes you are mixing fantasy & reality, dreams & shredded fear really, even as you hum that old favourite tune without cess; In search of a golden glow half imagined, is there a cess on it? The forest is all dark and thunder rolls, an old trick to frighten even the bold, the darkness is a blindfold really, you walk on, trembling, hanging on by a thought so dulcet so dear, that maybe you then shed your fear, and are mixing visions of utopia with whatever is at hand, before it can clot. Filaments of a golden light, strung on the night, a clot half visible gnawing at it with all its might, that is the cess you have to pay, to stay : fight, fight, fight forever, keep mixing new elements, new lights, new directions, difficult to trick into submission, difficult to seduce with false dulcet tunes so apparent in their folly, transparent, yet invisible really! Golden light, a golden deer? A chimera, a chiaroscuro? Really is it just a figment of the imagination, no sound basis, a clot on the landscapes of mind where all sorts of ripples dulcet and mellifluous flow? Or is it to be gained with a steep cess paid out with sieved thoughts, distilled deeds, where no trick holds you back from seeing it, that golden light, you're mixing. Go forth into the vast and terrible night, where light is mixing into shadows creating chiaroscuros or chimeras, or really playing with your imagination, leading you on towards a trick it loves best, to test you, throwing up phantoms within, a clot within you, a dark spot you didn't know you had, it's your cess you pay to enter ephemeral golden strands with voices dulcet. And when you've battled chimeras and hear voices dulcet, know that the streams were with you all along, asking no cess, It is your darkness in which chimeras hid, now they're but a clot.
Smeetha Bhoumik is a poet, artist, founding editor – Yugen Quest Review, and founder of the WE literary community (2016). Author of two poetry collections, she is Chief Editor of Equiverse Space – A Sound Home in Words (WE anthology, Notion, 2018), and Host ‘Writing As Bridges’, a WE panel at Asia Pacific Writers & Translators (APWT), Bangalore, ‘22. She facilitates poetry at #CeWoPoWriMoWE. Her favourite poetic form is the sestina..
As Founder – WE, she has helped establish several poetry awards, including the WE Kamala Das Poetry Award, WE Eunice de Souza Poetry Award, WE Trailblazer Poet Teacher Award, WE Gifted Poet Award along with several WE Special Recognition Prizes . Her poems feature in national/ international journals, anthologies including TMYS Review Sept 22 – Food & Drinks, Sunflowers – Ukranian Poetry on War, Resistance, Hope, Peace (River Paw, 2022) Oxygen – Parables of the Pandemic 2022, Quesadilla & Other Adventures 2019, Muse India 2017, 2018, Life and Legends 2018, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians– Sahitya Akademi, 2019, Unlikely Stories Mark V, Open Your Eyes – A Climate Change Anthology, Freedom Raga, Poetry & Covid project – Universities of Plymouth, and Nottingham Trent, Writing Language, Culture – Asia vs Africa, Mwanaka, among others.
Her art, mainly the ‘Universe Series‘ exploring oneness and the mysterious universe, has shown in exhibitions in India and abroad.