I had a chance to do a quick interview with Daniel Nester, an Associate Professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. He originally hails from this area, went to Rutgers—Camden and has published books on everything from the rock band Queen, a guide on How to Be Inapproprate to his latest work, editing The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which here’s chosen to celebrate here in Philly this Wednesday at Fergie’s Pub.
Hi Daniel! Please tell me a little bit about yourself. Hearsay is that you’re originally from this area. Also, what makes you a geek?
You’ve done your homework. Not exactly a Philly native. I grew up in South Jersey, Maple Shade to be exact, back when the 609 area code wasn’t just, like, Princeton or whatever. My friends and I discovered Philly as soon as we were allowed to go on PATCO. So I’m talking about going to the old Dickens Inn, Third Street Jazz, Dirty Frank’s. I lived in Camden while going to Rutgers, which might make for good writing material, but isn’t exactly the hackey sack in the quad type of college experience. After college, I moved to Philly, and lived on Spruce near 16th Street and loved it. It was too close to home, however, and so I moved to New York, where I lived for 12 years before moving upstate to teach college.
Would I come back to Philly? Of course. If there was a college that would give me a job, sure. The city has changed a lot since I left years ago. I do come home often. I miss the soft pretzels, being near my family, the Delaware Valley accent, the Maple Shade of my childhood. One of the geekiest things about me? In my spare time, I collect 8-tracks and 8-track players and am trying to learn, again, how to repair tapes with a splicing kit.
You’ve written quite a bit. From books about Queen, inappropriateness and now sestinas, how did you arrive at covering such a wide range of topics?
It all makes sense to me, at least in retrospect. I’m a complete, encyclopedic Queen fan, and have been since I was 12. I felt I had to keep this obsession on the down-low, at least with my literary friends. Then I just went for it and wrote two very strange prose poem books with a piece named after each of their songs, including selected solo work. How to Be Inappropriate is a collection of essays and memoir pieces I’d written over a period of time, including profiles of religious parody band, ApologetiX, and King of All Video Games, Todd Rogers, who played the Journey Escape video game on Atari 2600 for 80-plus hours.
I started out as a poet, and still am. And an editor. I edited McSweeney’s sestinas section for a couple years and got to thinking about a proper sestina anthology. That was almost 10 years ago, and so The Incredible Sestina Anthology has been a long time coming.
Tell us a little bit more about sestinas. How did you become so fascinated with this style of poetry so much to assemble a book of them?
A sestina is a form of poetry that was invented 800 years ago by the troubadours in France. Unlike like a haiku, which is a 5-7-5 syllable form, or a sonnet, which is 14 lines with rhyme scheme (ABABCDCDEFEFGG), a sestina repeats words: six end-words, that appear at the end of the line, in a different arrangement, over 39 lines and 7 stanzas, like this, if the end-words were numbers:
Stanza 1: 1 2 3 4 5 6
Stanza 2: 6 1 5 2 4 3
Stanza 3: 3 6 4 1 2 5
Stanza 4: 5 3 2 6 1 4
Stanza 5: 4 5 1 3 6 2
Stanza 6: 2 4 6 5 3 1
Envoi: 2/5 4/3 6/1
It sounds complicated and insane, and it is. It can also lead to some interesting variations. Check out sestina master Florence Cassen Mayers’ “All American Sestina,” which appears in The Incredible Sestina Anthology. Mayers uses the end-words at the beginning of the line, which is “cheating,” sure—but what lovely cheating it is. In this poem, the numbers are words.
It’s crazy. There’s a lot of repetition involved, a lot of word play. Sestinas begin as a kind of a puzzle, but eventually it becomes a poem. I fell in love with sestinas over time, when I realized poets of all different eras and schools and aesthetic preferences write sestinas. It’s the great equalizer.
Would you classify yourself as… a poetry geek?
Definitely. I’m as much of a fan as I am a practitioner. I collect poetry books, to my wife’s chagrin, and try to be open to all the different schools and teams and clubs in what we call PoetryLand.
What’s up with the event on Wednesday? What can people expect?
This reading is going to be unique because we’re having people read their own sestinas as well as people reading from The Incredible Sestina Anthology. You’ve got the incredible and one-of-a-kind Sparrow, along with rock stars from the Philly poetry scene, like Ernest Hilbert, Elizabeth Scanlon, Thomas Devaney and Warren Longmire. You’ll get to write sestinas yourself right there in Fergie’s and even read one if you want. I’ve only been to one all-sestina reading before this one, and I can tell you the first one I want to was insane. In a fun way.