Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina is Shannon Maguire’s second book of poetry in her planned medievalist trilogy. Myrmurs uses the twelfth-century poetic form of the sestina as a starting point for the exploration of living systems.
Myrmurs is an innovative variant of the sestina form (a medieval mechanism of desire that spirals around six end words). Connecting medieval textuality to contemporary politics and poetics, this poem explores cities and languages as self-organizing entities; ants; interspecies entanglements; strange attachments; neocolonialism and how to break free of it. Following on her critically acclaimed debut collection fur(l) parachute (BookThug 2013), this is the second volume in Shannon Maguire’s planned medievalist trilogy.
BookThug Intern Emma Hunter sat down with Shannon Maguire to discuss her new book of poetry.
Shannon Maguire: Yes! For one thing, Myrmurs took much longer to write. From concept to book, five years passed. Of course, I did a lot of other things during that time, including completing two graduate degrees and getting to the ABD (all but done, all but defense, all but delivered) stage of the third! But Myrmurs also needed the time to breathe, and layer. Each project seems to have its own time-scale. This book would not be rushed.
For fur(l), the process was more compressed: it took fifteen months from concept to final manuscript. During the first-draft stage, there was a blissful but relentless production of material that resulted in a sprawling first draft. Most of that time, I was enrolled in the first year of a two-year MFA program at the University of Guelph. Although I was also working part-time, I was lucky to have organized my life in such a way as to focus a lot of my energies on my poetry. One of the gifts of that program is the 12-week mentorship over the summer between first and second year—I worked with the incredibly rigorous Erín Moure. The final manuscript emerged from that regenerative process and I didn’t make any further changes.
Another major difference between the two projects is that when I was writing fur(l), I didn’t realize yet that I was writing a trilogy. However, by the time I’d started planning and researching Myrmurs, I knew what I was up to, and the third book began to take shape as I was working on Myrmurs. With Myrmurs, I did a lot of research, as I had done with fur(l), but this time my reading included many scientific articles in addition to formal and historical research.
I wrote the first two drafts of Myrmurs as my MFA thesis project under the guidance of the brilliant Dionne Brand. I defended my thesis in August 2011 and after that, the project went through two more complete drafts before arriving at its final state. It felt like a more relaxed process than with fur(l).
I was fortunate to work again with Erín Moure as editor for the press. I sent her the third draft in June 2015. She asked all the right questions, made a few critical suggestions, and the final draft emerged in July and August 2015.
EH: Myrmurs uses the sestina form, in which the six end-words of the first stanza reoccur in different orders as end-words in subsequent stanzas. How did you choose this form and what do you think the structure adds to your poetry as a whole?
SM: The twelfth century Troubadour Arnaut Daniel de Riberac is widely credited with the form’s invention. It’s an erotic form that investigates desire by means of linguistic constraint. Since the twelfth century, the sestina has passed through the hands of many a poet. Ordinarily a poem of 39 lines generated from six end words that repeat in a set spiral pattern over six stanzas of six lines followed by a tercet, the sestina could be conceived as a machine of cumulative affect whose motor is echo. My intention in working with the sestina is to open a closed form by extending its macrostructures in order to add complexity to its microstructures.
I have taken up this project, choosing form as the first level of linguistic and structural adaptation. The three most commented upon aspects of the sestina are: its retrograde-cross pattern of end word repetition; its sixes (number of end words, number of lines in regular stanzas, and number of regular stanzas) and its tornada or envoi: that special seventh stanza in which end words are doubled up on the line and the number of lines cut in half. What is often missed in analyses of structural features of the sestina is the significance of the echo that marks the crossing between stanzas. But words become unfaithful to themselves by repetition. In order to have a future, a word must not echo into dissipation but reply to itself, reasserting itself through difference by adapting to its ever-changing context. This is also the engine that drives the sestina as a form. Nowhere is it clearer than at the junction between stanzas where the re-citing of end word occurs in quickest succession. In order for the poem to be able to continue and for the end word to be able to repeat, the context must shift significantly to accommodate, not an echo, but an adaptation.
The book is one long sestina, comprised of six intertwined poems that interact with and change each other. The last section is the envoi or “tornada,” which I discuss below. This extension of single poem into book-length structure is what I call an exploded sestina. My variation of the sestina form does not end with innovation at the macro level but is evidenced at the level of individual poems. For instance, in “Noise (Skelleton)” (26), I use five out of the six end words put forward by Arnaut Daniel in his sestina: enters, nail, rod, uncle and room, adapting his word “soul” to “sound” and then I place them in lines that parallel the order that they would appear in each stanza to create a 39 word “skeleton sestina.” In some cases, the number six figures as a default organizational principal, such as in the first half of “Pleasure,” a poem that owes a lot to Robert Kroetsch for its structure but is divided into six stanzas on the page in order to slow down its otherwise hurling speed.
Less often mentioned in a discussion of sestinas are the sevens– total number of end word repetitions and total number of stanzas. I have strayed from the metaphysical implications of the form but have kept to the idea of a seventh and unspoken word that could emerge from noise and ants.
Which bring me to the tornada. In a poem where meaning is decentralized and local, the idea of wrapping up or folding in the ends in a grand gesture of narrative closure is irresponsible. Instead, by the time linguistic performance has been rethought as contact dance or an ant raft (as in the final body poem simply called ‘noise’), the only way to get out of the poem is by representing—and being suspicious of any representation of— the local, multilingual, synchronic, diachronic and experimental instances of utterance that occur in a place like Dufferin Grove park next to a shopping mall and a row of riot cops. Here language is levelled to barely discernable, highly responsive syllables joined by proximity in a moment of becoming-language becoming-noise.
EH: Myrmurs draws on a vast variety of things, from living structures of ants, to science, to women’s history, to your Métis heritage and even gay slang. How did all these different things converge together throughout the writing process?
SM: Each of the six intertwining long poems has its own dominant vocabulary (or colliding vocabularies) and forms and the ants disperse these vocabularies, bringing the poems into contact, and affecting their structures. You’ll notice that “Pleasure” changes forms and vocabularies about halfway through—it goes from a surrealist narrative line that drifts between wakefulness and dream to an eight-line acrostic with imagist proclivities. This is on account of the interactions that it has with the other poems. And the ants. So I work with language here as a self-organizing system, and all of the themes that you mention emerge from these structural aspects.
EH: Ants and ant colonies are a frequent symbol in Myrmurs. What drew you to using them as a motif in your poetry?
SM: The ants. Yes! I accidently fell in love with ants and myrmecological writing (writing about the study of ants) about the same time as I sat down to work on the exploded sestina so they began to appear at all levels of the poem. A sestina needs an obsession; ants are the obsession.
EH: Myrmurs, like fur(l), is a marriage of the contemporary and the medieval. How do you weave the two together so naturally?
SM: Thank you, what a lovely compliment! I don’t know if I can answer this except to say: hours at the desk. A heck of a lot of reading. A lot of trial and error. A flare for collage. A little recklessness. I am a driven poet, not an inspired poet. There is nothing romantic about the process, really. It would make a terrible movie. Worse than a fishing show. I think Charles Bernstein once called poetry the research and development branch of language (although I couldn’t tell you when or where) and I totally agree! All that said, I do subscribe to the notion of commitment to art as an inquiry into living structures.
EH: Myrmurs features artwork by David Bateman, which appears throughout the book as well as on the cover. How did the creative process work between the two of you?
SM: David is a brilliant and multi-talented artist. His paintings are WILD, his performance poetry and autobiographical monologues are wickedly hilarious and really really smart, and besides these things, he does drag and writes amazing queer fiction. We are on the same wavelength a lot of the time on matters of queer culture. So I sent him a manuscript and we met once to discuss concept and then he went away and came back with this gorgeous painting and a couple of sketches and boom! His art adds an important layer to the book by giving a visual cue to the section breaks (where drawings and sometimes quotations appear, there are “stanza” breaks between sections). And it really compliments the funny parts.
EH: Have you started the final book in the trilogy? In what ways do you expect it to differ from Myrmurs?
SM: I have started writing the third book in the trilogy, a book I’m calling Zip’s File: Post-Silence (for now), and have published some early drafts of poems that might even appear in it in a recent issue of Touch The Donkey. I don’t want to say too much about it here (I spilled the beans a little more in a recent interview with rob mclennan), except to say that I’m working with a somewhat obscure Old French, post-Arthurian romance as my source text: the 13th-century text Le Roman de Silence (The Romance of Silence). It’s attributed to Heldris of Cornwall and written in Old French. So I’m working at the frictional edge of narrative from Silence to science fiction.
Shannon Maguire’s first collection, fur(l) parachute, was a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her Fruit Machine was a finalist for the bpNichol Chapbook Award, and “The Fur Parachute Suite” in CV2 was a finalist for the Manitoba Magazine Award for Best Suite of Poems. Maguire’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the Best American Experimental Writing of 2014,Jacket2, Event, among others. Maguire, who has taught Creative Writing at Algoma University, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and an MA in English from Brock University. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she studies noise and queer and Métis poetics. Connect with Maguire on Twitter @avant_elle
Emma Hunter grew up in Barrie Ontario and now lives in Toronto. Emma has a degree in History from Laurentian University and is enrolled in the Ryerson Publishing Program. She is currently BookThug’s Marketing Intern.