"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."