Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man by Jim Cummins and David Lehman; Illustrated by Archie Rand. Soft Skull Press, 2006; $14.95; 143 pages
Jim Cummins and I were talking one afternoon about the sestina collection put together by himself and David Lehman. Mr. Cummins was at his desk at the University of Cincinnati where he teaches English and writing. I was at home in California. Mr. Cummins went to the University of Cincinnati as an undergraduate and the Iowa Writers' Workshop for graduate school, where he graduated in 1973. He studied, he said, "principally with Donald Justice, and secondarily, to some extent, Marvin Bell. But mostly Don Justice."
I asked about the new book's title.
"Oh, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man? Well, it's funny, when we first started doing these, David and I were in the midst of a growing friendship. It was fun. When we came to choose a title, the titles we had seemed so, I don't know, pretentious . They had little puns in them, but they weren't, not really. Then David wrote the 'Masked Man' sestina as a response to sestinas that I'd written, he and I being not superheroes but CIA operatives on the poetry front. That opened up the whole thing, and David said, 'Why not use it as a title?'"
"Explain what a sestina is."
Mr. Cummins laughed, something that he would often do in the next 30 minutes. "It's one of those things where you start to explain and it's like a bad joke, but, basically, it's a medieval troubadour poetry form. It's the only one where repetition takes the place of rhyme. Originally, the scenes of the sestina were time, love, loss, with six stanzas of six lines each. Each of the end words of the first stanza repeat in an intricate way throughout. So, you have only six end words all the way through the total of 39 lines, especially through those first 36 lines, and then in the last stanza, it's a three-line envoi, and that envoi includes all the six end words in it. These three end words end each of the three lines. And there's one end word on each of the three lines. It's about repetition and change, how things come around each stanza. If you're in a sestina and you step into the same river twice, you're in a bad sestina."
"Help me," I said. "If you were going to explain this book to a class of seniors, what would you tell them?"
"I would say that it's not attempting to be over-determined, it's not attempting to give you a theme or a thematic thread, but it does give you a kind of structure. They're all sestinas, after all. It's like going through a pinball machine. You're the ball.
"There's no thread that I can pick up except that the project itself provides the thread. It's like a cathedral where you have the pressure of the arch itself, holding itself together."
"The more complex a form in poetry, the more that form draws out of the poet notions and words that he or she had not previously entertained or would not likely have entertained. Do you think that is true?" I asked.
"That is a truth," said Mr. Cummins, "that you can't explain to people, but it's absolutely true. What I found when I was doing my first book -- The Whole Truth -- which is a sequence of 24 sestinas based on the Perry Mason characters from the old TV show -- I actually had somebody call me from an English department asking what 'the whole truth' was. The whole truth is that there isn't one. But what I try to tell people is you wrestle a sestina, and you don't always win. You have some content, and you're going to pour that content into a form; that form has its own ideas about your content."
I suggested, "It's rather like wrestling between Jacob and the Angel. The sestina's content seeks the Angel's blessing of form."
"Yes. Especially the sestina. The sonnet is much more like a good child."
"The sestina," I said, "seems more complicated a project than the sonnet."
"It's complicated, but I'll tell you, when you get down into the third and fourth stanzas, you have to be light on your feet, you have to shift and go with the way that the poem is developing, rather than the way that you conceived of it beforehand; it's a lot of fun. It can be thrilling. When I was writing my first book, I used to crack myself up on the typewriter. I don't know if that's conceited to say or what, but I used to get a kick out of them."
"Why shouldn't you enjoy what you do?"
"True. Why shouldn't I?"
"When did you discover sestinas?"
"Two of my favorite poets were John Ashbery, the genius of the age, and Donald Justice."
"Donald Justice -- whom everyone forgets."
"I know. It's amazing, isn't it? He's got such a reputation and yet, it's almost like stealth playing: at a certain angle he disappears. But, those two sestina writers in particular -- John's poem, 'The Painter,' and then the 'Popeye' sestina and the 'Faust' sestina, those were the three sestinas that I first read after Pound's 'Sestina Altaforte,' which I didn't like. I read those three and I thought, 'Well, I love them,' and then a few years later, I thought, 'What if I took this weird content and put it into this weird form?'"
"When did people start writing sestinas?"
"That's a good question. Nobody ever stopped, but nobody would ever think of having more than one, or maybe two at the most, in a book. Now, Donald Justice did have three in a book, I think. But, mostly the sestina is looked at as way too 'self conscious,' way too -- I call it 'Baby Huey.' A sestina kind of walks up to you and doesn't know its own strength, slaps you on the back and causes your dentures to fly out."
"And like Baby Huey, his lips are slightly moist."
"Yes, exactly. That is a sestina. I don't want to think about that, but yes, you're right."
"How did you and David happen to do this book?"
"David and I both love the New York School of Poets, first of all. And, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery collaborated on a sestina or two. I think Ashbery is someone that people are only beginning to understand. Not that I understand him. There's a big Ashbery conference that's going to be held. David's running it in New York in April. There's a new book -- A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination -- out by a man named Angus Fletcher, which explains contemporary poetry in a different way. He uses Ashbery and Whitman. Many people are going to show up and have much to say and read poems."
"How did you happen upon the cartoon setting -- Archie Rand's drawings that illustrate the sestinas?"
"My best friend for 20 years was a novelist and essay writer and good poet, Ross Feld. He was from Brooklyn, but he moved here because his wife was a doctor here, and we struck up a friendship and, anyway, he died in 2001, I believe, or 2000. It turned out that his best friend, when they were growing up, was Archie Rand. We were thinking about cover art and I said, 'Would Archie Rand be okay?' because I like his paintings and it would be an emotional thing for me, and I would like that. David said, 'It's a great idea,' because Archie had worked with John Ashbery and Robert Creely on their covers.
"So, we contacted Archie. He not only agreed to do the cover, but then when he read the book, he actually responded to the poems with paintings. We were both so impressed. I was so moved and grateful. It was partly a book to Ross, on both our parts. So that was nice. And, of course, I love the individual paintings. I think he's wonderful."
I asked, "When you sit down and you say, 'Aha, today is a sestina day,' what typically gets you started?"
"Usually what I do is I write a stanza, and the stanza, if it's going to be a sestina, usually comes out as something close to a six-line stanza, something close, and words I can work with. Sometimes, like with The Whitman Subpoena , my first book, I just took a six-line passage out of my favorite six-line passage from 'Song of Myself,' and then set about the work of doing the next five stanzas. So they happen in different ways, but mainly I get that first stanza down and then I develop from there."
"What do you call the writer of a sestina, a sestinist?"
"I don't know. Richard Howard calls it 'sestination.'"
"Why do sestinas eschew rhyme?"
"I know some people say that this is not the case, but if rhyme is mnemonic, written so as to help you remember, I suppose that this sestina form was a different kind of memory trick. And, also, evidently, the sestina in the earliest origins, or at the least the pro-sestinas, or the pre-sestinas, were associated with death, or, in some way, loss. So, I guess the answer to that is back there in that milky area, but I just don't know what it is."
"Why is it that form in poetry is once again becoming of interest to working poets?"
"Well, to me, it's because it's powerful; form, to me, has a value that evidently many other people don't feel that it has. Free verse isn't free; you've got to have the echo form or it's not going to work itself, and if you're willful and narcissistic, maybe you can forget that and believe that your own organic form is the powerful and important thing.
"But I think that all those centuries of tradition and authority are behind free verse. Organic form has a built-in sense that this absolute moment of my expression is the ultimate and important moment. Sometimes, well, a lot of times, you just don't feel that confident about things, or at least I don't, and to access the kind of power that form offers is wonderful. It's a resource like colors of a palette."
"Form," I said, "seems to have an answering strength. It makes demands on you."
"It makes demands on you and it gives you back. That's what I meant about wrestling; I didn't mind the wrestling. The wrestling was a part of the joy of it all because the adversary is your equal."
"One aspect of writing that I like," I said, "is that so often you do not know what comes next."
"I agree with that. This is one crucial reason why I think Ashbery is so amazing, I don't want to write the poetry of will. I want to back off from it as much as I can and let what happens, happen. Because I know that what happens is going to be arbitrary. It's going to be like the greater Cincinnati area as opposed to Cincinnati, the city. It's like going to come out of the greater Cincinnati area of myself rather than the particular localized area that sits down and determines to write a poem. And I want the greater area."
"You want the farmland."
"Exactly. I want all that to be where it comes from rather than my individual little ego."
Professor Cummins rarely teaches sestinas in his classes. "I don't do any of my work in class. Sometimes the better students will check out their teacher's works, but I would imagine most of them don't even know I publish."
I asked about Soft Skull Press, located in Brooklyn, and the reading Mr. Cummins and several of Soft Skull's writers gave recently. Mr. Cummins said, "There's a woman named Jennifer Knox. I read with her at Harvard last week. It was fun. I was thrilled by her work. She's like an Amazon -- six feet tall and she's beautiful, but she's also -- pardon the expression -- a shitkicker . Gets right out there and mixes it up. The book that they published of hers is remarkable. I was pleased. It made me feel excited about where things are these days; I was pleased to have a genuine feeling like that about the press."
"What did people say to you afterwards?"
"Oh, gosh. I don't know, now that I think about it. Erica Funkhouser, the poet, was there, and we talked. She was wonderful. I've always liked her work. We talked about what poets talk about, poetry politics. We're both recluses or outsiders; we both are living in our worlds and trying to write and we don't have a whole lot of connection to the poetry world. So we were talking about that and how that's ultimately freeing. Once you get past feeling outcast, you come to realize how freeing it is. We're not in any cliques is what I mean -- and then finally you begin to realize, 'That's wonderful, I can think anything I want to think.'
"Then my roommate from Iowa City from 30 years ago, who lives in Boston and is a historian for the city government there, has written a book about the history of Boston. He came. I look over and here's this guy in a beard whose eyes are twinkling, trying to fool me, but I knew it was him."