August 14, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiteratureRemembrancesWriting

Little Monsters: On Llama Sestinas & Free Verse Poetic Forms (Part 1)


I confess, up until a few years ago, I’ve long held the belief that free verse is the ultimate expression of creation.

(Prose people, wait before you lob your beautifully-crafted sentences and exquisitely-structured paragraphs at me. There’s more to this story. I promise.)

I confess that I was fully invested in free verse as the ultimate and what of it”, no question mark, hair-flip, back-to-the-wind, reverse-hair-slow-jam-flip exclamation-maybe-just-a-whirl to the real world and to the rules of polite grammar, to critics who lose patience, to all acceptable and respectable spaces and spacing, line break wherever, however, on wayward roads made of maw and trill, big step, long step, slant and twirl.

To put it simply: I held free verse as a poet’s intergalactic playground, as both outer space and the spaceship.

Also, I wanted to just write poems, however they might sing out of me, rather than collections of poems. I wanted to create freely rather than thinking about things like series or order— although if a series came naturally, that was great, but I didn’t write these in order to tell a larger story as the primary intention. That seemed, to me, the exact opposite of what poems should do, which is just to be wild and at liberty.

So, for a long time, I wasn’t thinking of a multitude of poems that needed to speak as a wholeness, or to form a poetic kind of complex organism.

I just wanted to write poems because poetry meant pure freedom in a world (meaning the “real” world) where on socio-economic, political, physical and scientific levels, this does not exist.

Once, a novelist friend who flees from all things poetry asked me: what does poetry do that you cannot? What’s so great about it? 

And I explained that poetry—especially free verse—  is how I both measure and break from time as a concept. Poetry is not natural-law-bound; it’s inelegant math. It’s disbelieving while believing. And it has the very real possibility of not following the rules of arc and narrative.

This is not to say I don’t like to read collections of poetry because I do, and I love to teach them.

I’m speaking for myself here as a writer of poetry, not a reader of poetry, because as a reader, I gobble up collections of poetry— and that includes form poetry— just as I do novels as much as I can.

So, as a writer of poetry, I was happy navigating the outer space within the spaceship and the spaceship breaching the bounds of outer space in the realms of free verse.

But then a few years ago, something changed.

Something furry and fanged that threw a complex side-eye at my free verse ways.

(And if Oliver de la Paz is reading this, please note, as you guess from the title, this involves sestinas.)

A few years ago, I dreamt I was being pursued by a cria— that is, what you call a herd of llamas— of sestinas.

I mean I was being chased and tormented by llama sestinas.

I mean free-range poetic forms.

I mean free-verse poetic forms.

I mean: I woke up suddenly from this torment, still in the throes of screaming my head off, although my terror eeked through the realms of dreaming and waking as a braying aahhh neheheheee, according to my husband.

I woke up suddenly, still seeing in front me these wooly, six-fighting-toothed sestinas who all wore various expressions of free verse and what of it.” 



* * *


It was around this time I’d just begun to teach an online poetry-workshop I call Reframing the Form, a workshop I still teach today and love very much, one in which we examine the ways contemporary poets breathe new life into existing forms.

As I’ve said before, though I’m a lover of writing free verse, I love reading contemporary form poetry, especially work like Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. (If I might suggest a few contemporary beloved sestinas, these include “Chicken-Hearted” by Jenn Givhan; “Dear Thrasher” by Sonya Huber; “Ethel’s Sestina” by Patricia Smith; “Klingon Sestina” by Linda France; and “Sestina for My Unborn Daughter Without the Family Album” by Hajjar Baban.)

And while teaching the class and reading the work inspired me to dip my toe, ankle and knee into the all-too-clear waters of form poetry, I would later go back and “unleash” these verses-in-progress into free verse.

I thought I was doing my work a favor.

I was saying: no constraints, no boundaries.

It was also around this time I was putting together what would be my third collection of poetry, If This is the Age We End Discovery, and agonizing over how to “tell the story” of its subject and theme and verve, a story that was clear to me more in its unraveling and bitten seams, than it was in any sort of linear objective.

Linear is a very good word to describe what I was feeling at the time in trying to “tame” my freest of free verse desires in organizing my very free verse individual poems into a manuscript.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence while teaching a class on form poetry, and asking my students to reframe or “evolve” traditional poetics forms while still keeping the essence of the form— which we widely interpret in the class— that the ideas of form poetry and structuring poems into a manuscript began to speak to each other.

Because one night, everything I thought I knew about free verse changed.

That is, what I know in my heart, rather than my head.

Here’s what happened: I’d just finished a sestina about horses. I’ve written a bunch of poems about one horse in particular, all free verse. But this was my first attempt at one of the most difficult forms to write and trying to “contain” the horses within the horse.  

And as usual, I wasn’t quite sure it worked in a poetic form. I wasn’t sure the sestina sang all those horses, as I usually heard when I write free verse.

Because with free verse, you can just let it come out first, and snip and move and saunter where you like. Not so with form, especially a sestina. There’s rules.

A sestina will keep reminding you of that.

So. Many. Rules.

I went to sleep that night with the intention of breaking up the poem in the morning, and letting yet another poetic form slip away, into a better world.

Drifting into deep sleep, I happily found myself returning to this one horse in particular, a horse named Odin, a horse I met in Iceland, a horse I spent less than a week with but nonetheless fell for in a “big way.” It’s been over three years ago now, but I dream of Odin often. We visit some strange worlds together, including this one. We can do things in dreams, like we do free verse poetry, that we cannot do in real life. Like the fact— I mean, the actual national law— that if an Icelandic horse leaves Iceland, they can’t ever come back. But in poetry and my dreams, Odin and I can be anything we want, and go anywhere we want, together. All the poems I’ve ever written about him come from these dreams, these wonderful free-verse dreams.

Only that night the dream was different.

That night, you see, in the dream, it turned out I was alone. I was alone because I was the horse. Or rather: a horse. I don’t know if I was Odin because I was very confused for a number of reasons. Because I was the subject and the object. Because I was not the poet, not even the speaker. I remember I suddenly started running— that is, galloping— partly due to this confusion, this lack of controlling a “point of view”

But the real reason for my despair and panic was that I was trying to get away from this cria of llama sestinas. Who were chasing me. These multicolored, lacquered-like-eyelashed, and yes, hair flipping-like-free-verse llama sestinas who seemed very angry with me, who seemed to know that come morning, I was going to tear into my new horse sestina and dissolve it into pure free verse. I was at their mercy. And they were just fine, these llama sestinas who were in control of everything, and yet felt the need to send out that particular llama high-pitched alarm cry that originates in the throat while the mouth stays closed.

(This is a true “llamas cry with their mouth closed on earth” fact. Sestinas are among you.)

And a few times, I saw a flash of their fighting teeth, which in my dream, were not normal-sized llama incisors but full-length swords.

They pursued me on a perfectly recognizable landscape that I’d never seen in real life: an endless field of flat, grassless green. No flowers or weeds, no mountains looming in the distance, no hint of sea.

No escape.

And since I was so new to being the horse, or a horse, perhaps the very horse-filled sestina I was seeking to cut up and free, I had trouble escaping these crazy, rage-filled llama sestinas.

Somewhere along the chase, a few got in front of me.

They soon formed a tight oval around me. Flexing and fluffing up their fur to appear bigger. Long eyelashes fanned over eyes blue, light brown, deep green. All giving me serious side-eye, while their alarm cries continued, mouths still closed except when they decided to brandish their teeth.

In retrospect, I wanted to say: What do you want?

But at that moment, so new to horsedom and being chased by bestial poetic forms, I had no language in which to trick or convince or seduce them to release me from this dream.

I waited.

They waited.

As we waited for what felt like days, the landscape began to change: trees popped up and loomed with razor-sharp, bare branches. Dandelions shot out of the green and quickly lost themselves in a brief wind. A small stream pooled nearby and whispered contempt. Then: an inactive volcano came out of the sky and a flock of parrots flew out of it. Black sand shores like those in Reynisfjara hovered a few feet above the abundant green, while a second sun appeared, a sun that became the horizon. It sounds strange, but it made sense without making sense to this new-horse-me as this world formed and unfolded. I felt a kind of helpless freedom in what I could see if I just stayed still for a moment. And I felt like what I was seeing was through the eyes of these sestinas llamas who seemed so in control of themselves as they went on bleating. They wouldn’t let me go. The images did not change; they repeated themselves. There was a cycle happening. It kept happening. And when I moved an inch, in attempt to disrupt it, the sestina llamas moved with me, keeping their tight oval, as the landscape changed again and again in this astounding but locked cycle.

And I would go on to ponder this dream over the course of the next few months, these sestinas llamas popping in and out of my consciousness. For this period, the horse sestina went untouched. I went on teaching my poetic forms class. The poems of my would-be third collection remained in a tight stack on the floor, ready to be separated and ordered into a world on my bedroom floor.

And though it was a new poem and not part of the manuscript, I felt in my heart, rather than knew my head, that I was not to destroy the horse sestina, for it would help me see larger things.

That is: to keep with it. To keep working on the horse sestina as a sestina.

That I felt rather than knew seemed to me to be a free verse idea, though, so I was very confused.

And I didn’t know exactly what this meant at all.

I didn’t know just yet the true magic that is form poetry, although I’ve taught it and read it for years.

I didn’t know how the restrictions and rules that originally bind the forms can, in new and surprising ways, free you. Level you up.

That it wasn’t just about writing poems anymore, although I still enjoy doing just that, and at times only that.

It was about how poetics forms can evolve the outer-space-in the-spaceship free-verse into a palpable vessel of deep, deep space in which often invisible yet powerful forces can guide the way…


Stayed turned for Part 2.


This is the latest installment in an ongoing series exploring themes that haunt, bewilder and astound us. Read “On Time & The Consciousness of Poems” here, “On Language {Enunciation}” here and “On Sex, Exorcisms and Efes” here.