A female blackbird perching on a branch. The bird and branch are in sharp focus, with everything in the background blurred.

Writing Practise: 92% of a Sestina

One of the things I try to do on a regular basis to improve my writing is practise. I count writing practise as separate from my other writing projects:  when I set time aside to actually practise my writing, I consciously try to experiment, to play around with different styles, approaches, genres and tones. It’s an attempt to broaden my repertoire, flex my creative muscles, and learn new ways of writing well.

For me, an important part of practising is sharing my work with other people. When I was still trying to decide whether writing was for me or not, I wrote a lot of 140-character flash fiction on Twitter. It was a way to work on writing more concisely (a lot more concisely), but also to test the waters, to see what others thought of my style. Tweeting flash fiction, entering it into competitions, and sending it to Twiction journals (yes, there are journals just for Twitter fiction) gave me an early confidence boost at a time when I was still finding my feet.  Having an audience motivates me to keep writing, and to keep trying to improve the things I write.

This week, I wrote a sestina, which is something I’ve never tried before. A sestina is a densely patterned poem that is structured not through rhyme but through the repetition of certain words. Traditional sestinas are composed of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three line envoi. The last words of the first six lines are taken and repeated, in a different order, at the end of each line of the next five stanzas, and again in the envoi. If you’d like to see a really great example, my brother wrote a sestina called ‘The Apple Tree’ that was one of the winning entries in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2012.

My sestina plays a bit fast and loose with the rules on word repetition. It also misses out the envoi (meaning that technically it’s only 92% of a sestina). It’s about the spring equinox, so naturally it is very depressing.

It’s fitting that I’ve written 92% of a sestina, because 92% of the effort in writing is spent on the first draft. The other 92% is spent on revising and polishing the first draft. With that in mind, I’d love to hear your honest feedback and first impressions—it all helps!

Spring Equinox

When the light comes back on behind the sky
The snowdrops have clawed their way up through the asphalt
Desperate for air
And birds are visible through the ribs of hedgerows
In lean trees reaching out with famished fingers
Eager for the return of time

Time turns a corner, admits a pause
Patches and pieces the light
Letting it out with measured fingers
The air sheathes its claws
The laughter of birds returns to the hedgerows
All the desperate things return to life

Despair has slunk away in the night
Shaken loose by the turning of time
Has taken flight, a bird of lead
The light comes back on behind the sky
To reveal an empty bed, an indent like a claw,
And you, smoothing the sheets with tired fingers

Fingers which linger on the pills, on the telephone
Desperation has sloughed you like dead skin
And your hands curl into claws
At the wheedling of time
The insistence of the light
At the birds, which you thought had no power to move you

Your bones are birdlike, hollow but strong
Fingers that catch like branches in your hair
The light fills you (you have nothing else)
Burns away the despair, your flesh
Tells you that it will all come right, in time
Hooks you with its claw

There is always a claw
In the raucous laughter of the birds
Time always dangles a promise
From the ends of those gangrenous fingers
Your heels kick at despair
When the light comes back on behind the sky

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