Sestina Synthetica: We Start

a call for collaborators

You’re all invited to sign up for Chalkboard’s upcoming asynchronous collaboration, the Sestina Synthetica.

It’s the ultimate project for those who have always wanted to try the sestina form, but never been too keen on the idea of committing to a poem 39 lines long. This project will run throughout the month of April, but I’m getting a head start in the hope that we can form not just one but several groups of writers to work in parallel.

Important note: 
This project is about writing six lines of poetry with six specific end-words. You don’t have to write a full sestina!

By popular demand, the TL;DR version:

  1. Sign up using the form below.
  2. Wait until I give you details of your group, your order, your end-words.
  3. When it’s your turn, write your six-line stanza using your words in order at the end of each respective line.
  4. Do the cool formatting and submitting stuff outlined below.

And now, for the full story:

What’s a sestina synthetica?

It’s just a fancy name I made up for a sestina written by a group of poets. The more important question is what’s a sestina?

Writing a sestina

A sestina is a 39-line poem, broken into six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi, with no requirement for internal or end rhyme. Though many sestinas are written in iambic pentameter or tetrameter, and many more attempt to maintain a consistent line length, the modern sestina often plays with line length to good effect.

The challenge of the sestina lies in its lexical repetition: the way the first stanza’s end-of-line words are repeated in each stanza throughout the poem in a specific pattern, which I outline below. (I’ll also include a few links to resources at the end of this story.)

Writing collaboratively

In the collaborative form, six poets demonstrate their commitment to the project by submitting one end-word each. A seventh poet, the illustrious sestina master, places these words in an appealing order for the first stanza, and adds their own word as a theme and working title for the poem. (A different title can be used for publication.) Now they are ready to begin!

Each poet in turn contributes a stanza that builds on the previous stanza, in an order such that the stanza ends with their contributed end-word. Once the six stanzas are completed, the sestina master completes the poem by writing the three-line envoi, or by finding a willing guest player to write it.

It looks a little something like this:

  • Stanza 1: a-b-c-d-e-f, written by contributor f
  • Stanza 2: f-a-e-b-d-c, written by contributor c
  • Stanza 3: c-f-d-a-b-e, written by contributor e
  • Stanza 4: e-c-b-f-a-d, written by contributor d
  • Stanza 5: d-e-a-c-f-b, written by contributor b
  • Stanza 6: b-d-f-e-c-a, written by contributor a
  • Envoi: ba-dc-fe (or a variation), written by the sestina master

Like other stanzaic forms, the sestina lends itself perfectly to collaboration, with each stanza able to stand alone as a poem suitable for independent publication, while also contributing to the overall shape of a larger piece.

How will it work?

First, sign up here, contribute your end-word, and let me know if you’re interested in being a sestina master:

Form embed didn’t work? Try this link.

I’ll form each group of poets and assign a sestina master, adding new writers and editors to Chalkboard as required.

The sestina master for each group will prepare and publish a page for their work-in-progress poem, based on a template I’ll provide. It will include

  • the title and theme of the poem
  • the poem’s contributors, tagged in order
  • the list of words in the right order for each stanza
  • general information about the project, for readers.

In order to keep the theme flowing in a consistent thread throughout the poem, I encourage all writers to ask questions about the previous stanzas. Then, when it’s your turn:

  • Draft your sestet stanza as a new story on Medium and prepare it for publication the way you usually would, with a title and an image.
  • At the bottom of your sestet, add: 
    This poem is the <nth> stanza of <poem title> from the Sestina Synthetica project on Chalkboard.
  • Submit your sestet to your preferred Medium publication as a draft or published story.
  • Let your sestina master know by tagging them in the post or response, sending them a private note, or using their social contact details. If you are waiting for your submission to be published, share the link with your sestina master so you don’t hold up the other writers.

The sestina master will then update the WIP sestina with your stanza, and tag the next poet to contribute, until eventually it’s their turn to wrap it up with the envoi. When the poem is complete, the sestina master may choose to change the title.


The work-in-progress and final poem will be published in Chalkboard with copyright shared by all contributors. Should you wish to publish the full sestina synthetica elsewhere on Medium or externally, permission must be granted by all contributors. You’re free to republish your own stanza wherever you like, with a link to the group project (because we’ll appreciate the free publicity for our project). This is one of the reasons I’ve changed the sign-up process — to make it easier to seek your permission.

Wait, how come you changed the sign-up process?

Good question! There are a few reasons:

  • Medium notifications are notoriously unreliable, so we’d like to have some way of checking up on you if your contribution isn’t forthcoming.
  • Medium members come and go with no warning (a lot like Medium features), so we’d like to have some other way of contacting you for permission to publish the complete poem elsewhere, should the opportunity arise.
  • Writers often use an alias on Medium, and we’d like to give you the chance to associate your real name with the poem, if you’d prefer.

The contact details you provide will be shared only with your team. If you choose not to provide your contact details, you will be asked to agree at sign-up to consent to all future publication opportunities, with no financial consideration.

You said something about more sestina information?

I did! For the interested reader, here are some fine examples and instructions:

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