jj six copy
How to Write a Sestina
by Vince Gotera

—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?

Originally published in Raven Chronicles, October 2015

IMAGE: Figure 6 by Jasper Johns (mixed media, 1960s).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In my Elements of Creative Writing class, I assign the students to write either a sonnet or a sestina. While many are familiar with the sonnet, few know the sestina, so I wrote this as a teaching device: it readily shows how the end-words (or teleutons) tumble as well as how to alter them via sound play. A tough challenge in the sestina is that the last end-word in a stanza must be said right away in the next stanza; I particularly relish my “high five” followed by “low five.” I try to teach the students that sestinas can be fun! After I wrote this, I discovered that James Merrill had done a 1-2-3-4-5-6 sestina as well, so I give the master a shout-out in an epigraph. Okay, now you try writing a sestina!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Vince Gotera teaches at the University of Northern Iowa, where he served as Editor of the North American Review (2000-2016). He is also former Editor of Star*Line, the print journal of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (2017-2020). His poetry collections include Dragonfly, Ghost Wars, Fighting Kite, The Coolest Month. and the upcoming Pacific Crossing. Recent poems appeared in Altered Reality Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Dreams & Nightmares, The Ekphrastic Review, Philippines Graphic (Philippines), Rosebud, The Wild Word (Germany) and the anthologies Multiverse (UK), Dear America, and Hay(na)ku 15. He blogs at The Man with the Blue Guitar.