How to Write a Sestina

—with all mad props to James Merrill’s sestina “Tomorrows”


Tom Disch says to use the first six
words that come to mind. Well, that’s one
way to do it. But there must be five
hundred other ways. Hmm. Too
easy, you think? The way I got “five”? For
Pete’s sake, you say, why not “tree”

instead of “three”? Well, why not “tree”?
I say in return. Or maybe “sex”
Instead of “six”? Sorry . . . “tree” and “sex” for
“three” and “six” might be one
cheap and cheesy way to get two
words in, but it works! Then there’s “high five”

and “low five”—
sticking on one, two, three
other words to get a different expression, to
make the end words flex. And there’s six
of those end words, too. And only one
of me. Surrounded. Well, okay, before

I go crazy, I remind myself, you’ve got four
stanzas done. Hang in there, you’ll get through five.
You could use another language: say “uno”
Instead of “one.” Then “trois”
instead of . . . well, you know. Jeez, there must be a hex
at play here. An anti-poetry spell. But, hey, only two

stanzas left now. Just two.
Yikes . . . there might as well be a hundred, for
all “just two” is gonna get me. How can I get to six
stanzas? Think. Imagine. Let’s see, there’s a five-
headed dog in the road . . . oh, you wanted “three”
there, didn’t you? Cerberus. Well, one

should be “creative,” right? Stretch the mind. One needs to
discover new tactics. Bring on a fife and drum corps. Six
rhinoceroses. Three French hens. Otherwise, what’s a sestina for?

—Vince Gotera

Vince Gotera is the Editor of the North American Review, the longest-lived literary magazine in the U.S., and a Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. His poetry books include Fighting Kite (2007), Ghost Wars (2003), Dragonfly (1994), and the forthcoming Pacific Crossing. His poems have appeared online in Poets against the War, Mirror Northwest, Our Own Voice, Big City Lit. His blog is The Man with the Blue Guitar <Vince Gotera blog>.

Published in Raven Chronicles, Vol. 21, 2015.