Barbara Sabol, “slaking that yearning for connection.”

Barbara Sabol is our judge for the Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award for 2021. In responding to my question of how the events of 2020 have impacted the role of the poet, she writes:

The Transformative Power of Poetry in the Year of Covid-19

The best work of poetry is to render the personal universal, creating a tether connecting poet to reader, and beyond: casting outward to a broader literary and human community. This has been especially true during this year of extended isolation―our lives abruptly uncoupled to larger society because of public safety concerns. The ensuing sense of separateness.

Of poetry, William Stafford writes, “. . .It’s a shrine/by the road, it’s a flower in the parking lot. . .” in the aptly titled piece, “Poetry.” A poem can lift us out of isolation by transforming a solitary moment into an illuminating exchange between poem and reader. A lyric poem is an intimate gesture: it may enact grief, loneliness, love, wonder―the full scope of human emotion―and speak directly to a reader’s spirit. Even when a narrative of a poem falls outside one’s ken, the human element embedded in that poem may spark a corresponding response in the reader, slaking that yearning for connection.

I have found myself drawn to poetry even more during this long stretch of seclusion; reading books cover to cover, in keeping with the intended arc, versus a typical gleaning from one section to another. Memorizing certain poems so that they beat with my body’s pulse has been a meditative, stirring practice. Certain books and specially loved poems have become companions these sheltered-in days. Stafford is my current companion, and what soothing company he keeps! Lines of his poem, “Why I Am Happy,” reside now in memory, and smooth the way to a calming breath, or to sleep.

Of course, writing holds its own transformative power. The deep dive through layers of feeling and experience allows us to surface enlightened, and perhaps reoriented to the purpose of poetry in times such as these. For those of us visited by the impulse to write, it is essential that we follow that urge, for our own well-being, and with the belief that, upon reading our work, someone may be eased from hermitage back into community.

Barbara shares this sestina with us:

The Mill Wright

We dine atop the incline plane, suspended
above dormant industrial glory―the obsolete steel
mill, Bethlehem’s iron sprawl―slumber-dragon shackled
to Allegheny Valley’s blue-collar realm; smokestacks
hold their acrid breath. Against sunset, giraffe-neck cranes
bend on rusting joints in the silhouetted rigging.

Thirty-eight years my father labored, a journeyman rigger;
young and agile, he clambered scaffolds, suspended
like a trapeze artist. Balanced atop a latticed crane
he rode the platform’s sway in the wind off the hills, steeled
himself against fear, against weary, against the stack
of woe on the counter. Love kept him there, shackled

to the notion of provision. My father accepted the shackle’s
iron rub, its chafe against his soft nature―beneath the rigors
of winch and rope, torch and flame, his lot was stacked
with home-cooked comfort, arms ’round the neck. Suspended
between college and marriage, he had chosen to steal
my mother’s affection with a steady wage, means to crane

the bricks, shingles, circuitry into place so they might crane
their dreams to children, to ribbons and tinsel, the gentle shackles
of family. As a girl, scant memory of him; the mill would steal
my father’s daylight hours, his vigor. The Corporation, true rigger,
played grime-collar labor for its gain. Workers teetered in suspended
animation between blast furnace and bar. Hope, like dominoes, stacked

to tumble, another double all around. Next day’s shrill whistle, stacks
exhaled the dragon’s toxic breathing. Only the head of the crane’s
main boom above gritted mist: my father, mid-air, suspended
over hot metal cars, coke oven―A Chagall in overalls, unshackled
to the engine room’s black heart. His brand of faith, an invisible rigging,
secured him there―practiced hands, a common knot stronger than steel.

From the balcony we consider our hometown, far below a sky steel
gray as the old mill, monument to its rust belt heyday. Stacked
layer on decadent layer a chocolate torte for our desert; the rigging
of a certain privilege. Look! Leftovers wrapped in the shape of a crane.
A toast to our fathers, who kept this city humming. I am shackled
by the memory of him aged so young; by unspoken thanks suspended

in clouds over the mill. When the plant went under, elegant cranes
poised mid-swing. A final time-clock swipe; just like that, unshackled.
Single-file, workers passed the heavy gate, then into the air, suspended.

—from Imagine a Town, Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2020

Barbara Sabol’s second full-length book, Imagine a Town, was awarded the 2019 Sheila-Na-Gig Editions poetry manuscript prize. She is the author of Solitary Spin  and two chapbooks, Original Ruse, and The Distance Between Blues. Her poetry has appeared widely in Journals and anthologies. Barbara conducts community-based poetry workshops. She contributes poetry book reviews for The Ohioana Quarterly. Barbara received an MFA from Spalding University. Her awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize. She lives in Akron, OH with her husband and wonder dogs.

something about sestinas

So, I decided I should write a sestina. I figured if I was going to ask other poets to extend themselves and write something in a form they hadn’t utilized before (and, yes, I am asking you to do that), I should be willing to do the same.

Sestinas have a complex structure, and yet writing one isn’t as difficult as it may seem, because the choices that all poets face when constructing a poem are limited by the sestina’s demands.

Starting along the path of constructing a sestina, you know you are going to need six words that you will use repetitively. They have to be words that you won’t grow tired of and that will express a variety of ideas.

This is where the simplicity within the complexity of creating a sestina comes through. To start, simply choose six words. Just make sure they’re good, serviceable, versatile words.

It’s helpful to decide on a theme while you are picking your words. That’s what I did when I started my sestina. I decided my theme would be a bird feeder. I bought a new feeder recently and have been stocking up on seed for the approaching winter, so it seemed a timely choice.

After choosing this theme, I took a walk around my neighborhood. The sensations of autumn mixed with my memories of bird feeders and words began to present themselves. I recorded several of them on my phone.

Once I got home, I set up a template for my sestina – as suggested in the “What is a Sestina” YouTube video, listed below – and started inserting the words I thought would work best.

Here is what that looked like for the first two stanzas:

Then, I began writing lines that would fit with the end words. This is what I started with:

When I hit line six, I got stumped. Although life seemed like a good word at first, I simply couldn’t come up with a line that worked well with it. So I let it go, and decided on a different word. That choice led to adjusting previous lines, until I had this:

My choice of a different sixth word for stanza one seemed a good one, so I proceeded to stanza 2, which came together rather quickly:

Two stanzas down, and I was happy with what I had. Knowing what the end words would be for the rest of the poem limited what I could do from this point, which I found oddly comforting. Limited choices meant I could concentrate on making each line read well and making them fit my personal writing style.

My completed sestina is below, but before we get there, let me share some insights I had about working with this form:

  • Using such a highly structured form can actually feel liberating. Many decisions are made for you so you can concentrate on the overall effect instead of worrying about how to structure your poem.
  • Although the stanza structure and the last word of each line are predetermined, it’s easy to inject your own sense of rhythm into a sestina, thus personalizing it.
  • If you are faced with writer’s block, or have an idea for a poem that hasn’t worked yet, a formalized structure like sestina can offer a fresh way to approach your work.

I relied on several online resources to help guide my sestina efforts, these were the most useful for me:

Please consider writing your own sestina and submitting it to the Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award by January 12.

Here is my completed poem:

A Winter Feeder

What first draws me in is black
eyes shining out from the cardinal,
who gives nothing away to the cold.
So I watch the flock dig for seed
through flying snow and then scatter
as if something with fangs is about.

On the table, a book that tells about
identifying the purple finch and black
capped chickadee. But how they scatter
food they dislike, the way the cardinal
drops its crest in anger when the seed
hungry sparrows fly in from the cold:

I see these things for myself, with the cold
slickness of the window-pane about
an inch from my face. I let the birds seed
my mind with the drama of their black
and white efforts to survive. The cardinal
rule to stay alert and ready to scatter

the flock if a shadow falls on the scatter
of birdseed that roughens the cold
ground scratched free of snow. Cardinal,
siskin, titmouse, blue jay, flitting about
the feeder, kicking aside millet to get black
sunflower seeds, this serving to seed

the snow with doves pecking the seed
from the ground among a scatter
of sparrows and glistening black
starlings. The book doesn’t leave me cold,
however, for their is much about
it that intrigues: a map of the cardinal

directions from which the cardinal
spreads across the land; what seed
each type of bird prefers; all about
the colors of their eggs. I scatter
the pages wide to fight off the cold
with facts until the sky turns black.

Nothing left of the cardinal but a scatter
of feathers that seed my heart with cold.
Now I know that that black cat is about.

sestina award judge

The judge for our Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award is Julia Beach Anderson from Massachusetts. She received a Master of Fine Arts from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Occulum, Barren Magazine, and Flypaper Lit.

She has a unique take on how to deal with a dried up well of creativity:

“You’re going to need a bigger boat.” – Roy Scheider (as Sheriff Brody), Jaws

There are two things I strongly believe:

  • imagination is fueled by dissatisfaction with what it sees in the world
  • dissatisfaction springs eternal; therefore, the creative well never runs dry

I also believe, however, that a well-used bucket will eventually spring a leak. It’s tempting to say the well is dry, but what works for me is switching buckets for a time, and while it may seem counter-intuitive, I go for a bigger bucket. When I feel down in the imagination, instead of trying to get to the heart of poetry by writing a poem, I read craft essays by writers I admire. If that doesn’t work, I read reviews of collections I’ve already read and love. These are things I do anyway, but I tend to do it more when I’m not writing. Whatever I do, I do not increase the amount of poetry I read. That only increases my poem envy and gives me even more anxiety. Interviews and notes from the editor in my favorite poetry journals are also excellent places to find new buckets.

There are few things better than watching or listening to someone geek out over something they love. It’s impossible to remain jaded or empty in the presence of someone who is genuinely excited by what they’re experiencing or what they’re seeing, and it’s even better when they make you see it, too, or tap into something you already feel. I don’t want to just start throwing things in well to see if I can fill it up again: I want to get closer to the source that feeds the heart of the well and sometimes that means I have to change the way I get to the heart of it.

Sheriff Brody didn’t need a bigger ocean to make the beach safe. He needed a bigger boat to get closer to the thing that was keeping him out of the water.

A few of my favorite books. essays, and podcasts on the craft of writing:

  • Radiant Lyre, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend (Graywolf Press, 2007)
  • Personism: A Manifesto, Frank O’Hara
  • The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young (Graywolf Press, 2010)
  • Lit from the Basement, a podcast hosted by Danielle Cadena Deulen & her husband, Max
  • VS, Poetry Foundation’s podcast hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi

Check out the poem she’s shared with us:

Autopsy of A Bird’s Nest

When they opened Frankenstein’s monster
after they wound the key on his back

after pulling him from the ice
and after carrying his body on a sled

built by the son of the town’s apprentice
using leftover firewood from the orphanage

where all the boys except one died last year
of a fever that bloomed under their beds

including the one that was already empty

and after sending for the executioner
    and his chopping block
after summoning the priest
    and his rosary axe handle

after the key unlocked the torso
and after the rib cage opened

    like a flower they found
    where the heart should be

    a bird’s nest recently abandoned

the undertaker, in slippery sunlight,
dug a grave and called it a defense wound.

*originally published in Barren Magazine, Issue No. 9 (2019)

2019 sestina award winner

Barbara Blanks won first prize in The Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award for 2019. She is the author of five poetry books, a non-fiction cancer journey book, and co-author of a young adult novel.

She sent along a short poem from one of her books and chose to answer four of my inquiries. Here it all is, in her own words:

The first poem I fell in love with was probably one of my mom’s—“My Smile Is Different Now.” She wrote kids’ poems for a variety of publications, and—back then—was often paid in postage stamps. But I also remember my grade-school teacher comparing me to Edward Lear when we had to write limericks. (I had no idea who he was). I also liked Ogden Nash’s short poems. Then again, I wrote a riposte to a children’s song about a little brown bug when I was very young, so maybe that was my favorite!

I don’t have an ideal writing day. No schedule, no goals—except contest deadlines. I look for ways to avoid writing—like doing this interview for Craig’s blog. In juxtaposition with that, I don’t believe in writer’s block. There is always something to write about. One reason I like to enter contests is they might challenge me to write about something I’ve never written about before—or even thought about. Just recently a category topic was “bipartisanship.” I thought, Ugh, I’m not going to write about that. But then I did a bit of research, read something that surprised me, and there was the basis for my poem.

Oh gosh, fulfilling achievements. Of course I love when I win in a contest, especially first place. And it is totally satisfying when I’ve been struggling with a poem and it finally comes together. But what is truly fulfilling is when I hear from somehow about how one of my poems affected them. Nothing beats that feeling.

My favorite poet has always been Edna St. Vincent Millay, with e.e. cummings coming in a close second. I first read Edna back when I was full of pre-teen angst. Her poems about death resonated with me (“To what purpose, April, do you return again?”) I even have “Renascence” memorized—along with a bunch of other poems by other poets. I rarely read one of my poems at an open mic. I’d rather launch into “Kubla Khan” (Coleridge), or “The Labyrinth” (Auden), or “The Tom Cat” (Marquis), or “sweet spring” (cummings), or “Lament” (Millay), or “Dog in Bed” (Sidman), or –who knows!

Here is a short poem from my book, Traveling Sideways.

Canvas of Winter

full moon pearls the snow,
turns night inside out

on black branches, white
perches like frosted birds

blue shadows gossip with gray wind,
secrets spill in silver susurration