Anybody who ever wrote to a prompt would be fascinated by – or maybe envious of – Ciara Shuttleworth’s story.
Shuttleworth, a poet in the University of Idaho’s MFA program, wrote a sestina in a class taught by professor and poet Robert Wrigley last spring. In a matter of months, the poem – titled “Sestina” – was published in The New Yorker.
Shuttleworth’s poem is made of six words, whose order is shuffled to match the highly structured form of the sestina. (You can read the poem here, if you subscribe to The New Yorker.)
Shuttleworth graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.
I’ve read that you wrote “Sestina” within minutes of being introduced to the form in a workshop. Is that right? Could you tell the story of the poem?
I was in Robert Wrigley’s Prosody and Form class last spring. We discussed a selection of poems each week in a particular form, and were required to write a poem in that form as well. The week Bob assigned the sestina, I wrote a subpar sestina (it worked, but it was not nearly as good as sestinas such as Miller Williams’ “The Shrinking Lonely Sestina”).
One of the poems Bob had assigned us to read was Lloyd Schwarz’s “Six Words,” which impressed me solely because he’d written the sestina with the six end words only. After we, as a class, had discussed “Six Words,” we moved on to discussing another sestina. I have no idea which poem because I turned my focus toward six words I thought might work. They did.
How typical is it for you to get such a blast of inspiration?
I write poems in my head when busy doing other things, but rarely will I have a finished poem on the first draft once I get it on paper. And, aside from “Sestina,” I’ve never written a poem in less than two minutes!
The New Yorker is such an 800-pound gorilla for writers – a huge edifice to aspire to or react against or admire or resent or whatever. Had you submitted there before? How likely did you think it was that they’d take it?
I had not previously submitted to The New Yorker. I emailed “Sestina” and forgot about it because I saw the chance of the poem being published as a long-shot I couldn’t get my hopes up about.
What kind of reaction has come your way? Is there a downside to it?
It’s certainly been interesting to Google myself! There have been folks blogging about “Sestina,” and for the most part they are positive. I found a writers’ discussion forum that slammed it and said that it must be nice to have a mentor like Bob Wrigley to give me his publication connections (Bob is a great mentor, but giving me his publication connections has never been part of our relationship).
There is certainly skepticism, and I can see how another writer might see the six-word sestina as a gimmick. However, I’ve tried to write another and have failed miserably. The six-word sestina is incredibly hard to make work syntactically and structurally. I don’t see the skepticism as a downside, though. I am thrilled that people (whether they like it or not) feel the poem is important enough to discuss. I am thrilled that people who generally don’t care for poetry have written me to let me know they understood and felt the poem, and that they appreciated it.
I think that a lot of poetry is inaccessible to readers outside academia and outside the literary circle. A number of young poets are crafting poems that are accessible, whether it is intentional or not—and they are doing this without “dumbing down” the work. They are taking chances and writing about the human condition. Michael McGriff is a wonderful example. Jane Springer is another. Their work speaks to people, not just to poets and academics. This is vital if poetry is going to gain rather than lose readers every year. I want to be part of that shift back to poetry as a staple of every family’s bookshelf.
There are two classical composers that contacted me about using “Sestina” as a song setting for classical compositions. That’s exciting for me because any new audience the poem can be introduced to is another group of people I’m able to reach.
I’ve written poems before (and continue to) that try to make sense of why people leave each other and what happens to love to turn it into something else. “Sestina” was able to address all of this without having a narrative behind it; “Sestina” was able to encapsulate the hurt and disappointment and culpability everyone goes through with a breakup.
The sestina moves in such a tight space – the progression and nuance you extract from those few words are amazing. How much does that compression and concision compare to your other work?
Thank you! “Sestina” is certainly my tightest poem, but I do try to cut down to bare bones. This is one of the things poetry is capable of that no other writing can get away with—at least not to the extent that poetry does: capturing a moment or a story or a feeling in very few words. There is a great deal that can be left unsaid, and the line breaks and stanza breaks can do a lot of work that more words would otherwise have to.
You studied art before poetry. What kind of art do you make, and what is the relationship between your poetry and your art?
I make carbon-pencil drawings and oil paintings. Mostly portraiture, but figurative work as well. People fascinate me. A portrait, like a poem, can capture a moment, a person, an experience.
As far back as I can remember, there were writers and artists of all media who’d come through my family’s home. I was always encouraged when creating—and when daydreaming. For decades, I put poetry on the back burner. I’d seen how hard a life it is to be a poet. But still I wrote. Even when I didn’t feel like painting, I wrote.
Your father, Red Shuttleworth, is a poet, playwright and writer. How did his poetry influence you? Has your relationship with his work changed over time as you have become a writer yourself?
My father’s imagery is incredible. And he is the master of creating hyphenated words. He is fearless and his language is hard-hitting. He was my first mentor. He is as excited when I get a publication as he is about his own publications. We are a family that celebrates each other’s successes. My father taught me to celebrate the wins big, and throw the rejections out as soon as they arrive.
My relationship with my father’s work has changed because our sensibilities are different. I didn’t play minor league baseball or buck hay and brand cattle or box. While I admire the people who do those things, my life (especially the last decade) has been incredibly urban. Chances are, no one is going to compare my recent work to my father’s work. We’ve had different life experiences. He’s very private, and I tend more toward “open book.” We’ve been published in a number of journals together (most recently with my brother, Luke, in the current issue of Minnetonka Review), and that is a wonderful thing.
I continue to admire my father’s work, am envious sometimes of what he is able to accomplish. He is a life force, and that shows in his work—poems and plays alike.
Why do you write poetry?
I guess I’ve never thought about NOT writing poetry, so this question is a little startling. It’s something I’ve always done. I write in order to make sense of the world, and of my experiences. Writing is a way for me to participate in a local, national, and (hopefully, someday) international conversation that has been going on for centuries. Poets have been jailed, feared, revered. We are dangerous people because it is our duty to speak the truth. Poems that last, that are important when written and continue to be important a hundred years later, are poems about the human condition.
As I work toward my thesis defense and first book manuscript, I’m focusing on regret and all it encompasses: lost love, death, suicide, depression and beauty. These are prevalent topics and things I cannot turn away from.
Read past interviews with Kyle Minor, Roy Kesey, Ben Stroud, Reese Okyong Kwon, Ander Monson, Matt Furie, Seth Fried, Dan Chaon and Shann Ray.