As a statistician, I had to put a little extra wrinkle in. How might I add an element of chance to the endeavor of writing a sestina?
A Summer set.seed() Sestina
Are you taking a break from mathematical thoughts and cozying up with a good beach read this summer? Understandable! But sometimes a reading “break” isn’t a complete break from the kinds of mathematical thinking you might do during work hours. Thanks to Sarah Hart, we can all become more aware of the connections between mathematics and literature these days. If you haven’t picked up a copy of “Once Upon a Prime” yet, I highly recommend it. She walks through mathematical themes, mathematical structures, and even mathematical characters in her new book that aims to show us that mathematics shares the creativity of literature, and literature thrives off of that pursuit of mystery that can inspire mathematical discovery. There isn’t a split between “numbers” people and “words” people. (Want more of this or can’t wait for your copy of the book to reach you at the library or in your mailbox? Marian Christie has more poetry and math resources to enjoy online.)
One of the topics Hart dives into is constraints on the writing itself that are imposed by mathematical concepts. For example, a sestina is a poem with permutation structure. A poet chooses six words, and those six words must appear at the end of certain lines in a six-line stanza. Then each word’s line number changes in each consecutive stanza according to a permutation. (For a self-aware sestina check out this one that Larry Lesser shared with me.)
I wasn’t always familiar with this type of poem. In the fall, I worked with a poetry professor here at Bucknell University, Katie Hays, to do a crossover class between her Intro to Poetry course and my first-year seminar on Storytelling with Data. Katie suggested that we work with the sestina when I had mentioned that we were learning about order mattering in the presentation of plots and tables. The more we brainstormed, the more we thought that by playing with the order of words in a story-like poem, we could drive that point home. Katie and my students collaborated on a sestina, but I never approached writing one myself. Until now!
However, as a statistician, I had to put a little extra wrinkle in. How might I add an element of chance to the endeavor of writing a sestina? Enter the set.seed idea. I could use a random number generator to tell me which order the words in the sestina should start in. I ended up with:
Then the sestina permutation takes over, governing which words fall in which order from there on. And with that, here goes nothing!
An Academic’s Summer - set.seed(721)
(The first reprieve)
In academia, when it rains, it pours. A deluge of papers to grade, lectures to give - not a
sprinkling, not even a mere shower.
But then April’s more than showers bring May, full stop, and hobbies poke out of the ground to
bloom: I can go for a walk, I can brunch, I can read.
An unencumbered breath of outside air with a view of trees subs in for mask-filtered air and the
What to make of this new found quiet? No Slack clickety-clack, no inbox whoosh or ding.
Routineless? I’m a big fan!
It’s time to reacquaint myself with life’s simple pleasures: my non-dress pants, my power
playlist, my couch.
Time is infinite. I am limitless… maybe I should take a trip.
(The ambitious time)
Wouldn’t it be great if I could just get away? Turn off every notification and galavant off on the
perfect getaway trip.
I can already feel the stress evaporate just picturing it. No storm clouds in sight, just the
Picture me taking in the sights, eating food not out of a Tupperware container, not ever thinking
about a desperate need for even the briefest of respites on the couch.
Think of all of that energy and inspiration just mine for the taking, making me ready to write just
for myself, for fun, not for progress. And in the same way, read.
With all of this cool new work I’ll produce, maybe I’ll amass more than one reader that counts
themselves as my academic fan.
I can dream, right? Me shining so bright it’s others who will need the sunscreen.
(The changing plan)
But then the friction kicks in - all that pre-planning, the jet-lag, the inevitable TSA screen.
I want to relax, not play travel agent to myself. I may not be optimizing my classroom time, but
instead, that pesky trip.
There is so much pressure to make the most of this “free time”. Of that, I am never a fan.
Not to mention that travel requires getting used to a new bed, and a new shampoo that
accompanies that new shower.
So I go ahead and leave those e-mails from my former ambitious self about that dream vacation
As June flies by and my friends ask about that vacation I was definitely going to take, I start to
(The veg out)
Sure a dream vacation would be nice, but there are so many beautiful things you can do from
the comfort of your couch.
On a stay-cation I can give myself over to rom-coms, reality shows, my guiltiest of pleasures.
Yes, I’m still watching. Thanks for checking, TV screen.
I can make an adult version of a blanket fort and timelessly read.
I can finally go through the registry and pick that perfect gift for my friend’s baby shower.
I can bask in complete silence and just stare up at my ceiling fan.
(The turning point)
But at some point, my surroundings and the silence start to lose their charm, even that hypnotic
Is that an urge to venture beyond the couch?
Do my sweatpants suddenly feel too comfortable? Am I perhaps up for a pre-noon shower?
I’m not ready to go all in, mind you, just a next semester pre-screen.
But… if I am going to eventually conjure some bold, new ideas, I’ll need Post-It Notes and new
colored pens (glitter preferably) to keep track of them. Time for a Staples trip!
There were all of those interesting pedagogy papers I e-mailed myself over the course of the
last year. Maybe it’s time to give them a quick, no pressure read.
A passive read turns active with highlighters, notes, mind maps, the occasional mutterings to
myself, and before I know it I’m a butterfly emerged recharged with strong wings like an
You didn’t even need a fancy trip to get to this moment. That time was unwasted on the couch.
Without dread I return to my computer screen.
I even catch myself daydreaming about fun stats in the wild examples in the shower.
(The welcome back)
Welcome back students! Did any of you take a trip? What brought you joy… anything you read?
In this class you will be both a statistics shower and (story) teller. And yes, we’ll learn the details
too, like what residual plot shapes are dreaded. Oh no, not the fan!
I know the temptation of the couch, believe me, but I hope this class provides some activation
energy, helping you realize that you have power beyond your screen.
Now that you’ve read my sestina experiment, I’ll get a little meta and tell you how I approached writing it. As I’ve tried to lean into my creative side and write poetry, I’ve been helped along by the power of constraints to help me face the blank page. Write a poem? Daunting! Write a poem with specific rules about each line? Doable! I was searching for advice for writing a sestina and came across this source that framed a sestina as a story and then proceeded to give a sample sestina about a cousin’s job. That made me think of doing one about my job, and specifically my job now that the semester is over. (Don’t teachers just frolic all summer?)
With a premise in place I just had to pick my words and get going. Half of the words were repurposed from another poetry project I was stuck on, and the other half came from trying to round out a summer story (including thinking of words that could be used in multiple ways). Before I started to write, I listed phrases or ideas that could end with each of the terms. Then I tried to find sub-themes in these that would help me write each stanza. I decided on a narrative arc that tracks me through the summer: initial relief at getting a break, an ambitious start for trying to use all my free time wisely, a mini burn-out that requires real rest, and finally a return of energy and hopes for the future school year. I decided to explicitly label each stanza (see the parenthetical labels) for a bit of extra clarity, a roadmap through time if you will. Another thing you might have noted as you read was that my lines can get fairly long. I’m more of a prose-poem kind of person.
Enough about me, it’s your turn! Set the seed to something else and make your own academic summer sestina using my words. Or come up with your own words and go through the same process with a different theme. Be free! Does this still seem too daunting? Try out a titrina, the “square root of the sestina,” instead. Now randomness will play two roles: one to sample 3 out of 6 initial words and one to provide an initial ordering. Happy writing! Feel free to share your poems with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter (@sastoudt), or in the comments here.