We needed a name. Sestude became the name. This was as we approached the launch of 26 Treasures at the V&A in London, where 26 writers had written exactly 62 words about objects in the British Galleries.
So, as I often do, I took the brief out with me for my Sunday morning run. The brief, in my head, was to come up with a word for this new literary form. I defined it as: “a reflective study in poetry or prose inspired by an object, using exactly 62 words”.
My thoughts revolved around numbers. There were established words like sestet and sestina, already used as poetic terms indicating the importance of the number 6. I put the list I created to Rob, Olivia and Sylvie – the 26 Treasures editorial panel. They rightly discarded some of the more bizarre concoctions – sixtwode, for example – came up with some new suggestions, then we all agreed on ‘sestude’.
Rob capped it by saying “Imagine, the teacher says: ‘Class, I’d now like you to write a sestude about your favourite object’. Fanciful, unlikely – but they might have said that when the ‘sonnet’ was first written.
Anyway, 26 Treasures is on this week at the V&A, with 26 sestudes on display. What I’ve liked most about this project is the combination of tight constraint and limitless possibility. On the one hand, it’s not a nice round 60 words we’re after, or ‘no more than 62 words’, but exactly 62. But writers can then respond in whatever way their imagination takes them, in poetry or prose, in rhyme or free verse, in monologue or dialogue, in story or description. The responses showed extraordinary diversity of emotion, ranging from the melancholic to the funny, taking in the compliant and the defiant, the wry, the bizarre and the exuberant.
I know we haven’t exhausted the possibilities yet and suspect we never will. If you visit the V&A this week or www.26treasures.com you’ll see the wonderful variety of responses possible to the seemingly tightest of word count restrictions.
I’d never intended it this way, but it’s turned out to be another demonstration of the theme of my book 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry. The theme: constraints can liberate your writing. They’re a creative stimulus. If I were still writing the book, I’d add the sestude as a 27th way of looking at a blackberry. Perhaps I will….
In the meantime, take a look at my initially loathed eventually loved Rococo candle stand. And read the sestude I wrote to reflect its strange shape, in the hope that this would encourage visitors and readers to look more closely at this neglected treasure.