“Sestina” (Nonfiction), by Amy Miles
Forum: Why did you decide to write this particular piece?
Miles: Writing has saved me many times; it brings my non-linear mind a sense of calm and focus. I can impose order on my thoughts, seeing and finding patterns through the many messy drafts I write. I can organize and reorganize my words until my thinking makes sense. This particular essay, “Sestina,” helps me make sense of my childhood, my college years, my life as a mother; I wrote this to find calm: to deal with my worries, to access my strengths. To find my voice.
How do you deal with the challenge of memory when you write nonfiction about your life?
This is a great question, one I didn’t consider until now: are my memories reliable? As I reread my essay, I discovered that I wrote “burnt-orange stove.” Our stove wasn’t orange, but our linoleum floors were–or at least that’s what I think I remember. As I reflect now, I realize my writing is about impressions–I see colors and furniture. Maybe that’s another reason I love Bishop’s “Sestina”: in an unfocused world, there are these images, these tangible things we can count on to serve–and comfort–us in the present moment.
Was writing this piece a fast process, or did you have to return to it multiple times?
At a Puente Professional Development event five years ago, artist, poet and UC Davis professor Maceo Montoys asked us: who do you want to remember por siempre (for always)? His question prompted me to dig out a version of my unpolished “Sestina” and read it aloud to my Puente students as soon as I returned to the classroom. Since then, when sharing my own short term goals at the beginning of each semester, I tell my Puentistas: I want to submit this essay for publication. This is the first year I have been brave enough to do so.
Have you ever written a Sestina?
I think I did–maybe once in a poetry writing class about 25 years ago? As an English major who did not see herself as a “good” writer, I was intimidated by the form. Six key words reordered with precision through the poem? How would I ever find those six words? Perhaps I can spend my summer tinkering with a sestina and its language. I imagine this as a tactile activity–playing with words on notecards, moving them around like pieces on a checkerboard.
Your piece touches on the beauty and importance of the present moment. Did 2020 inspire your writing? Or is this a piece you’d been working on or thought about before COVID times?
My 93-year-old grandma had COVID in December. At one point, I imagined having to read this unfinished piece at her memorial. My inscrutable grandma survived. And I realized how important her story is to my story, my way of seeing and existing in the world. I also realized how important writing has been for me in my most vulnerable times, like now. It was time for me to take the risk and finish and submit this work. I did it in honor of my grandma, my daughters, my students and my 13 and 32-year-old self.