Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 12
Last night, at Brooklyn Poets YAWP (https://brooklynpoets.org/) (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/yawpcast/id1073665267), at the open mike, poet Preeti Shah ( @babyprema ) “read” (more on quotation marks later) a poem that transcribed voice messages from the speaker’s departed father. (In fact they are messages from Shah’s own father.) Each of this dozen or so transcriptions—affectionate pleasantries, inquiries after the speaker’s well being, phonetically transcribed phrases— are accompanied by a response.
The responses have a liturgical feeling: they’re not practical, and each begins with a resolution “will listen to as many times as” They are instructions which describe the emotional protocol, eg “as many times as you held my hand, to teach me to walk”
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
The poet’s responses make a list where each item is more emotionally intense than the last, and, at the end of the poem, after the last message-response, is a coda that explains the source of the messages as “the last saved” voicemail recordings. I admire Shah’s adherence to this pattern, her reliance on the found language in the recordings, and her transparent process.
Why there are quotation marks around read: Shah intensified the effect of her poem with a presentation that was so surprising, but so natural that it won the YAWP Poem of the Month: she played the audio from her father’s messages in his own voice, and read the responses she had written in her poem: a dialog between the dead and the living. Her father’s voice is charming and musically cadenced, and contrasts with the formal antiphonal feeling of the responses. This effect is a measure of grief lived every day, and filial love. The last couple of verses:
Hello Preeti. Give me a call when you’re free. Thank you, bye./Will listen to as many times as the beeps made by the EKG when you were in the hospital with a coma.
Hi Preeti, we have to go to that [friend’s home]….(she’s at work), hello?/Will listen to as long as you are not with us.
I believe there was not a dry eye in the house.
In its establishment of a static rhetorical framework, Shah’s poem reminded me of Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas” (https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/whereas) a book-length poem with an explosive profusion of forms that are held and contextualized by the legal language of treaties.
These poems look beyond mainstream poetic form such as meter, rhyme, sestina, sonnet, and deliver new experiences of language trying to stay alive in modern utilitarian confines. What formal elements can you find that are opposed to living language? I’m thinking of politics, law, instruction manuals, Chinese Restaurant menus, greeting cards, self help… How can your poem use these ‘anti-expressions’ against themselves? (Some RWB poets have been working against these forms for some time: Don Zirilli’s From the French Directions for Assembling a Wheelbarrow comes to mind.)
At the bottom of this question is a nagging anxiety that poetry’s traditional forms are inadequate to take attention from the language of power. I believe the most effective (if ‘ effective’ is the ability to capture attention from dehumanizing bullhorns) quality of poetry is newness. Am I wrong?
Adding to the emotional immediacy of both poems is the fact that they are autobiography. They are real, and they get urgency from that. We use real every day: what would be unreal and yet still interesting, still immediate, still new?
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5, 2021
What ambition the poets displayed on Tuesday!
Janet K didn’t authorize us to put her poem “Gone This Year (TCM Remembers)” into the notes as an attachment. As the title suggests, it’s a reaction to the cable channel feature on movie stars who’ve died, and what’s great about it is how she keeps a playful, lyrical tone going while burrowing deep into the dichotomy of timelessness and loss that the movies, especially the old movies, invite. And to give it even more American zest, this philosophical moment happens while driving a car:
The car radio sings step into eternity
and the sign says DIP
so I follow the rules of the road
and dip into my fugitive thoughts
recollecting stars of the screen
and the artisans who made them glow.
and from that beginning comes this ending:
By my bidding, the celebrated dead
come into my bed at night
to devour more and more of my youth …
Maybe next week she’ll bring it back and we’ll get to put it out with the notes.
A couple of weeks ago, JJT brought a triolet in which he confessed that he’d written only one sestina, but all the words in it were blah. That inspired me to write a haiku:
blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah
and right, then, weirdly, I began to understand the haiku form untainted by abuses: it’s a three line poem with two turns, and thought of that way, it could be the most thrilling form to try. My first variation was an homage to what I probably misunderstand as a traditional subject of haiku:
blah blah blah blah fall
blah blah blah blah blah evening
blah blah turned away
I’ll keep you posted (I’ve got six more in the works). Thank you, JJT.
John Trause’s new poem this week was called “Madame Nhu at the Barbecue,” an extremely droll, heavily rhyming satire/critique/indictment in which Madame Nhu is the sister-in-law (?) of South Vietnamese President Diem (in the 1960s), and “the Barbeque” refers to one or more Vietnamese Buddhist’s who self-immolated to protest Diem’s regime. The pattering verses depicting horror with saccharine humor have a Brechtian verfremdungseffeffekt (or “distancing” or “alienation” effect) https://www.britannica.com/art/alienation-effect.
Speaking of droll, Tom Benediktsson’s poem, “You Don’t Want to Know,” is a graphic comic horror show about making sausages from deposed political leaders: “it took hours, a pound/ of ground meat for every quarter pound/ of gristle that clogged the blades until/ we plucked it out and threw it into the snow/ where we heard raccoons fighting over it/ like demons from hell, then we ran out of bourbon…”
Both JJT’s and Tom B’s poems seem natural poetic responses to the tortured political times.
Jen Poteet is still at work on her collection of “Me and Dead Poets” (my name not hers) and this week she let the poet, Paul Celan, do the talking in “Paul Celan’s Muttersprache.” The poem achieves a wonderfully lugubrious tone, and a trudge-like gait, living as it does, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which, if you think of it as the poem does, we are still in. I love the heavy cadence of “Day is night. I recite the Sabbath prayers.” In my uneducated Jewish mind, this vespers of an ending recalls a line from the Passover Haggadah, which is more aubade than vesper. In that passage of the Haggadah, the scholars have been up all night in the park debating me meaning of the bible, when a young student comes at daybreak and says, “Masters, it is time for the morning Sh’ma.”
And speaking of ambition, Rob Goldstein’s “Internal Exile” dares, in its first line, to announce a parlor game of “what if” between two friends: “Where could we go if our luck ran out?/ It’s a game my friend and I play…” And then they play, taking their imagination on an internet ride to the great northeast of Russia, exchanging posted photos: “Check out this Belogorsk housing block –/ a mere six time zones from Moscow. / It’s painted periwinkle blue –/are they kidding?” Rob’s voice has that kind of playfulness, but there’s a clipped cosmopolitan fussy mocking intelligence, too, for example, when he refers to the people in the photos they see by generic Russian names “Olga” and “Ilya.” And also when he confesses that the two friends “seek an abstraction:/ The lonely tops of larch and fir,/ Purity in frozen versts.” At the end, the game concludes when these two Americans on what seems to be pandemic quarantine, emerge from their fantasy adventure to be revealed as dads: “But let’s be real…/One of us will back out./ My daughter’s till unmarried; / He’s got kids at home.” So what you notice in Rob’s poems is this complex voice, a style yearning in several directions at once with a high bar for intimacy. Tom wondered why the poem didn’t go further than to play its game. Frank said it “stays in its chair” but Brendan saw the ambition in lines like “but we seek abstraction.” Maybe they’re all right. I see the game as a worthwhile enterprise if the poem can give us something more of the strange way that men are intimate with one another.
Frank Rubino is back at his suburban dig, looking for evidence of civilization or soul in his poem “Roger Sent a Video.” It veers, with Frank’s patented faith in the dowser’s rod of his mind, from the truly domestic, i.e., hearing his grown kids (and cat) move around the house, and wrapping Xmas presents on Xmas eve, out to the backyard where the wind is howling, then into a rumination about the birds in his sycamore and the worms in his garden, and from there to Darwin, Time, and the titular video from Roger about “two children liv[ing] on top of a cliff somewhere in China.” Underlying these travels is a motif/hope that “people move towards the good.” The final movement/stanzas of the poem work like the last stanza of a sestina, a slide show reprise of each of those narrative elements, showing the life in cameo, bringing these disparate elements into one place.
Susanna Rich’s “Scriptoderm – for Coming Down from You” is a breakup poem in which the pain of being dumped morphs into brand-name consumer-goods metaphors: a medical patch, an automated vacuum cleaner, and chewing gum, with a side reference to “rolling paper,// laying in line after line of crushed me,/ striking the match, puff-puffing out cartoon/ bubbles with the right come-backs.” The energy of the poem is great; even the title is an invented product name.
Yana Kane brought a short poem called “Turning” about reaching the winter solstice and turning back to hope. The most interesting thing for the group to discuss was how the exile of winter and the longing for spring are presented as events that occur in the poem: ”All of this happens here,/ Within the words on this page.” I love that. All poets love that. Shakespeare in Sonnet 65 loved that. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50646/sonnet-65-since-brass-nor-stone-nor-earth-nor-boundless-sea. (that in black ink my love may still shine bright).
Raymond Turco got a little grief from the group with his poem “Lorenzo Milani.” It’s just that we’ve followed this collection Ray’s doing on heroes of Italy for months now, and we’re starting to think that we know better than he does (a mistake), or maybe we’re just cheering him to keep his energy and inventiveness up.
Barbara Hall’s poem “A worthy dot” about insignificance, had simple language, strong metaphors and a wonderfully accessible quatrain form. It’s catchiness and fearless confrontation with ultimate metaphysical questions made it straight to the workshop’s approval. Lan Chi compared it to the beatitudes. Tom pointed out that it lost some energy in the last lines, in response to which Susanna quoted Frost to the effect that anyone can start a poem…. And JJT said there was a bit of cliché dragging it down.
Shane Wagner’s third re-write of the poem now called “Retouching” shows more and more clearly the anguish of the father/son relationship where trust has broken down. The poem considers two photographs and tries to alchemize a picture of the father that the speaker can make sense of the past in the light of the present. The poem starts in a verse form and then devolves into paragraphs, a technique that unapologetically takes us into the mind/heart’s work, and mirrors the difficulty of the situation described. Susanna suggested that the poem might benefit from returning at the end to the photographs that were the device for raising the questions of hurt and forgiveness. I was less sure about that. I think the last stanza/paragraph (less the last puzzling sentence) taken by itself, without the artifice of the photos and the alchemy is a lambent cry.
I don’t know if I’ve said this recently in these notes, but I say it to myself whenever I get home and go through the work afterwards. These poets are good.
Lastly, mid week I circulated a short exegesis on the narrative and poetic techniques that Patti Smith uses to great effect in her book Just Kids. One of the readers of our Field Notes, Isaac Myers III, picked it up to publish as a short daily feature in his online version of his journal Curlew Quarterly, called “Curlew Daily” (thank you Isaac); and Don Z suggested repeating it here so that it’ll be archived on the RWB site with the rest of the Field Notes. So here goes:
I may not have mentioned that I’m reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which is a chronicle of her life in NYC 1965 till not sure when because I haven’t finished. I think she’s a gifted narrator, and that her poetic sensibilities emerge constantly. Here’s a passage about her time with Jim Carroll, author of Basketball Diaries:
Jim and I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. Every outing with him was a floating adventure, riding the high summer clouds. I liked to watch him interact with strangers. We would go to Hong Fat because it was cheap and the dumplings were good, and he would talk to the old guys. You ate what they brought to the table or you pointed to someone’s meal because the menu was in Chinese. They cleaned the tables by pouring hot tea on them and wiping it up with a rag. The whole place had the fragrance of oolong. Sometimes Jim just picked up an abstract thread of conversation with one of these venerable-looking men, who would then lead us through the labyrinth of their lives, through the Opium Wars and the opium dens of San Francisco. And then we would tramp from Mott to Mulberry to Twenty-third Street, back in our time, as if nothing had ever happened.
Of course, the ending is such a wonderful surprise. The tramp through the physical grid of the city becomes a journey through time, which is wonderful enough, but the last phrase, “as if nothing had ever happened” illuminates the experience, casts a kind of backward, confirmatory wonderfulness on the interesting, but seemingly ordinary, details she’s just shared. And note how she builds to that poetic turn starting with the tea to clean the tables, the smell of oolong, and then the assonance of ells in “lead us through the labyrinth of their lives” followed by the double “opium” of “Opium Wars and the opium dens.” And, too, in the geography bit, the evocative ems of “Mott” and “Mulberry” (latinate and soft) yield to the colder, numerical (anglo-saxon, harsh) “Twenty-third Street,” which mirrors the march from magical past to bland present. And yet none of these devices is obtrusive, none calls attention to the wit or cleverness of the poet. There is humility in her craft.
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5
James Tate’s last book of poems is The Government Lake. Like his book Dome of The Hidden Pavilion this collection is homogeneous. Each piece is a…. well let’s forgo labels. The pieces are chunks of paragraph- indented prose, with traditional capitalization and punctuation. They contain complete sentences with subject-verb agreement and maintain, within each piece a fairly consistent register and lexicon— like each one is narrated by the same speaker. Tate said the form was an effective “means of seduction. For one thing, the deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph. People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them: I won’t take much of your time, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I am not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-fallutin’. Come on in.” *
He uses this indirection to get the poem across. The turns in the poems, from everyday reality to the many unreal or heightened places they want to go, are invisible, you don’t notice them. “Into The Night” starts with a nun having a heart attack outside a church. People go to help her. A brother says comforting words.. “Then she rose up off the ground and hovered there…” You don’t even notice this, taking in one sentence after another, attention almost on automatic. Tate conditions you— but somehow doesn’t spare you— the shock of the ending: “And so the two of them walked off into the night, though it was barely noon.”
This reminds me of what Robert Rauschenberg said in the 1972 film “Painters Painting” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0207645/. He was kind of on the tail end of Abstract Expressionism. Like many painters of the Abstract Expressionist “movement” he talked about himself as being a “bystander” to his own paintings. That’s a great word for Tate’s narrator. Things happen in Tate’s poems, the oddest things, but their oddness is not made much of, only witnessed. Likewise, Rauschenberg said that his paintings were not meant to be announcements, proclamations, or anything in themselves: “My paintings are invitations to look somewhere else.”
Tate accomplishes this with his plainspoken voice, and the mechanisms of tuned surprise which he deploys throughout his work the way Rauschenberg deployed commercial illustration, and not-arty objects like a bed or stuffed goat.
Many of us use found language or spokenness. It’s like a fiction writer asserting they’re giving you a “true” story. Or is it? How do you keep ‘plainspoken’ from being utilitarian, formulaic and empty? Is plainspoken your “realspoken”?
We’re trying to seduce readers, and you do that by surprising them; how are the turns and transformations of poetry like a seduction?
The AbEx movement was largely fueled by a drive to create newness. In many cases artists removed things from the equation of European easel painting to make novel distillates. Helen Frankenthaller said she wanted to eliminate brushstrokes so the picture seemed “made all at once” with no indication of how the painting was done. By this, she didn’t mean photo-realism, which also eschews brushstrokes. Rauschenberg, coming later sounded like we took a further step, jettisoning the psychological underpinnings to AbEx. The “grief” of the AbEx artists did have one benefit, he conceded: it made them show their brushstrokes. What about your poem? Do you want newness from your work, something never before read?
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 29, 2020
I was reading Anselm Berrigan’s introduction to the book WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW) – INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983-2009) this morning when I encountered this passage that seemed so important to what we do at our workshop and WCW readings:
“The Poetry Project in the 1960s and ‘70s wasn’t just a place to go give a reading and cross off some list of desired venues. The point was to be exposed, to expose your rawest risk-taking work to a discerning audience, one that would let you know right there whether it’s working or not, and to participate in that as communal process.”
Always, there is that sense that we are getting the news from one another, that we are reading/hearing what is freshest, what is newest and most urgent, what we have an inkling about, what exposes us to “a discerning audience.” Even the stuff we get into books or magazines isn’t as fresh as the stuff that shows up every Tuesday. The poems we are so anxious to publish that we are so anxious to get into books and get those books published, they’re like canned or frozen vegetables, yesterday’s news, while the workshop and our monthly readings are, in comparison, like a farmer’s market on a Saturday in July: “Look what I just pulled out of the ground!” “Look what I just pulled down from a tree!” “Look what I just harvested from my cheese cave!”
Claudia Serea’s poem “On a street in Long Island City” had just such an inkling; you could feel the image forming and turning in the first stanza: “When it gets dark, someone turns on the lights,/ someone who lives alone/ as the moon lives alone.” And then, in the third, “And the lights send a message/ to the visitor at the end of the street: Hi there, here’s the light/ to guide you to the door.” And you could feel the whole workshop brighten with the surprise of the light talking.
Lan Chi Pham’s poem, “Deathbed” got the whole group going too, a lyric that sought to squeeze the essence of a dying father’s life into the last words for each of his family members. Frank was a little leery when people started playing with Lan Chi’s poem as though it were made of refrigerator magnets, asking, and getting the chance to change it from centered lines to hard left lines, to remove the quotes, to indent the quotes, to re-order the quotes, but Lan Chi was game, and whether or not she agreed with all the suggestions, she got to see her risk taking poem in the hands of a discerning audience, succeeding. (the attachment shows some of those changes).
Susanna Rich came back for a second week of abuse with a poem in the form of an email message: “To: email@example.com; cc: firstname.lastname@example.org; Subject: Thanks; Attachments None.” What was so lovely about the title of the poem was how it turned the form of an email into content, and gave us a clear idea of the tone she was trying to evoke; even the last 2 lines of the poem “It’s my way of saying…/send” brightened with the joy of making this tired medium new.
Shane Wagner brought “Retouching” which was a more than a retouching of his poem from last week, “Explicit” It was a re-visioning of the driving emotion of that gnomic, enigmatic poem about lost trust in his father (who wasn’t named). Here, the elided heart of that poem was bodied forth in the two photos that the poem/poet is trying to reconcile: “If I could fold the two photographs in the right way, look at them edge on, peel the layers, subject them to immense pressure . . . could I collapse the distance between us?” It’s a poem about a son wishing for a kind of superheroism.
Speaking of bravery, Jen Poteet brought her first ever attempt at a sonnet, “Sales Girl” and for all its rough edges, its abandoned rhyme scheme, its raw beginning, it was arresting; a vision of the titular sales girl plying her trade with this little bit of salesgirl wisdom at its center: “And what she has been trained to know: retreat./ Let the shoppers wander for a while and choose/ on their own the goods they want. She is nearby/ but hangs stock still….” It’s an original, deeply observed character study in the works.
Raymond Turco brought “Samantha Cristoforetti” a poem about the first Italian female astronaut, which he said is scheduled to be the final poem in his project about Italian heroes, most of whom are warriors, while this one is a hero who sees a world without borders and possibly without the need for war. Ray said he’d consider circulating the completed MS to the group when it’s done.
Carole Stone brought a rewrite of her poem about being a teacher and being a student of poetry with Stanley Kunitz as her teacher. Kind of a memoir in form, it recalls her “aqua Plymouth … whose starter buttons took forever,” and the poems she wrote “in imitation of T.S. Eliot, the poetry god…” As Kunitz is her emblem of a teacher who rewards the speaker with praise, a boy named Nicky Van Herpen becomes her emblem of a student, whose mother praises the speaker, as a teacher.
Frank brought a courageous poem called “Terence” which dives headlong into the challenges of suburban step-parenthood, a poem about an extension cord, a garage, and animal tracks in the snow. And nature supplies the raw materials for a détente between stepfather and stepdaughter, Vy or VeeVee: “Our yard is bounded by a holly bush and a number of liberal fences/ that afford free passage, and the animals are all very busy/ gaming the system, and VeeVee shared with me/ her pleasure discovering that, per their snow prints,/ they live here with us, doing things in groups, at night,/ like bunnies in families…”
Myself, I wimped out and brought a piece of short fiction called “Two Cops Come to the Door,” a kind of frolic, or as Susanna called it, a comic monologue.
Goodbye to 2020. It was rough on the world, that’s evident, and I think it was rough on a few of us, but looking back over the year in RWB workshops, I am very happy with how things turned out; it was another year of the best darned poets in northern New Jersey slinging hash.
Thanks to Frank for co-leading the workshop with me since Covid moved us onto Zoom in April. And thanks to all our regulars and the new members we gained through the ease of Zoom. Next year in Jerusalem.
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 29
I’ve never found the calendar to demarcate a clear boundary between a bad year and good one (changes creep and flow) but I do like a calendar for scheduling parties. I’m sure people will celebrate somehow when 2021 rings in.
I saw an art show this week at PS1. It was a post-Covid masked, capacity-controlled, and temperature-checked experience, but it felt so good to see art in 3-d and at human scale in a gallery again. Making Art In The Age of Mass Incarceration (https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5208) shows art by people, many of them, creating work as prisoners inside the penal system. The constraints of prison life get played out on mundane levels like a lack of art supplies (constraining artists to work with found items like discarded lunch trays or broken windows), but also get expressed in subject matter and in a quality of life which cannot assume access to education about art (in the techniques of making it and strategies of talking about it like this.) The show makes the case that prison life dehumanizes and brutalizes. That’s not new but somehow it’s always a shock: so much of what our society’s built to do is operate these dreadful systems behind illusion and denial. One realizes how well the illusion mechanisms work when one sees work like this.
One piece that moved me very much was a small gallery filled with portraits by the incarcerated artist Mark Loughney. His uniformly sized and composed portraits are tiled across the walls. They’re done with pencil, for the most part, on what looks to be 8 1/2 x 11 printer paper. They show his fellow inmates in 3/4 view, reminiscent of Renaissance portraiture. The style is consistently naive but competent, like good examples of “how to draw portraits.” Good enough that you could hear the voices coming from the faces. Without getting too deeply into the details and variations (some subjects masked for Covid, one self portrait in unique blue pencil) etc., I want to call out the quality of attention these portraits represent. Single sittings are 20 minutes, oases of quiet in a chaotic environment; I like to imagine Loughney focusing and opening to his subjects, maybe there’s talking, maybe not. Then the session’s done and the man is added to the pile of attentions. The attentions accumulate and remain intact.
Gerhard Richter is another kind of artist, and though his circumstances are different (opulent compared to Loughney’s), he shares an intense kind of attentiveness with Loughney. In the film, Gerhard Richter Painting (2012) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1982113/ the artist is shown building up and destroying images. He describes the process something like, “I smear anything on the canvas, and then I have to deal with what happened, change it or destroy it.” Over a span of hours, months, years, he marks or squeegees down the painting, steps back and looks for it to reveal a “good” quality. He finds it impossible to define good, except that it’s got something to do with truth, and objects or images like old photographs that compel him with their goodness are quite confusing to him, and he keeps them up on his wall as if to puzzle himself. “When I understand an image,” he says, “I no longer like it.”
These artists’ attention is directed to making good works, but it’s not the same. In Loughney’s case it’s about focusing his attention well enough to memorialize (formalize) a proscribed encounter with another person. In Richter’s case, he’s attending strictly to a developing sequence of events, and the changing object they create.
What do you find yourself doing more: focusing on something particular and writing about it, or writing something, anything, and making it good?
What time spans do you work with? Loughney works in 20 minute bursts; Richter works with endless process.
What does truth have to do with how good your poem is?
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 22, 2020
The best dream poems don’t announce themselves as such because that would be like announcing a balloon with a pin. Like the dreamer, you need to find yourself at the top of a narrow stair before you realize something’s terribly wrong, and that’s what Janet K’s poem, “The Narrow Staircase” did: “Men in felt hats/ shuffle through the little gate/ that separates the office space,/ and in the time it takes to catch my breath,/ they are whisked up the staircase,/ the dark, narrow staircase.” Is how it starts. And then comes the inside out part: “I need to go up the steps;/ I believe I was slated to go up the steps,/ but the faceless woman at the desk/ cannot find my papers,/ and I can’t find the means/ to voice the request.” And then, at last, in the third stanza, the beginning of the realization: “Something terrible has happened,/ but I cannot fathom what.” After that, it gets even more complicated, but you’ll have to wait for that because Janet doesn’t like to circulate her poems in the Notes till they’re further along. She did not say it was a dream of hers, but she did say that it was a death experience. However, Tom Benediktsson pointed out two excellent qualities of this poem, “no color” and “great verbs.” And Don thought it had a good bit of Kafka in it, while Rob Goldstein thought it had some Lewis Carroll. I prefer to think that Kafka and Lewis Carroll have a bit of Janet in them but more on that later.
Moira O’Brien’s poem, “Celestial Convergence” took its inspiration from the astronomical alignment of Jupiter and Saturn last night (that was obscured by clouds, damnit) which seems only to occur every seven hundred years. Personifying the planets, she had them talk: “What’s your hurry?” and “It’s been centuries since we’ve been this close.” A kind of missed love story emerges as one says to the other “Stay the night and/ defeat the darkness/ with me.” Frank loved the “permissiveness” of the last lines: “In the morning,/ begin your drift.” Yana and Lan Chi had some minor edits. I liked the love story better than the astronomical occurrence that inspired it, and suggested taking out the title to liberate the poem from the tyranny of the metaphor, then see where it wants to go.
Shane Wagner’s poem “Explicit” worked through some emotional baggage to get to the point where it could admit that speaker didn’t trust the ‘you’ of the poem, but when it did, the line, “I don’t trust you.” Isolated in its own stanza separated by triple spaces from what came before and after, rang out. Frank liked the “meta-ness” of the drifting beginning. Moira thought the poem could take advantage of that drift by ending after “I don’t trust you.” On the theory that what came after was just an elaboration on that. Yana thought the poem didn’t take its own metaphor – of the speaker as a ‘court jester’ – seriously enough. Shane said the comments were helpful.
Don brought a poem called “Springtime for Truth” a re-write of last week’s poem. It’s a dramatic poem, which is to say, a poem written in the voice of someone other than the poet. And this speaker appears to be someone who either subscribes to the theories of QAnon or seriously considers them. The poem is filled with aphoristic or epigrammatic statements like “The letter Q is a cross hugging itself.” And “The truth lies on a bed of facts more numerous than spark plugs” and “Disappointment is surrender.” Tom thought all of the aphorisms “build meaning.” Brendan thought the portrait was “Orwellian” although Rob thought it was an “inverted 1984.”
Tom’s poem, “The Outhouse as Literary Critic” is also a dramatic poem. The speaker is an outhouse, hectoring its customer/visitor, a poet, concerning his shallowness and neuroses, but also encouraging him to write. Janet and Moira thought it was “Howl-like”
Yana Kane (who never got an appropriate welcome to the workshop: Hi, Yana!) brought a poem called “Invitation” in two parts, “Day” and “Night.” The “Day” portion answered the title directly, beginning “Let us walk side by side…” and going on to describe coming inside for a pot of Earl Grey tea, and two friends inhaling “the scented steam” of the tea.” The “Night” portion has a different, more mysterious tone that is an invitation to a story with this lovely abbreviation: “Tree. River. Road. Traveler.”
Paul Leibow’s poem was called “Used Tires,” and it was a landscape poem, a meditation on the view from a car of a graveyard with a used tire shop, one of those urban landscapes you can see in Queens where the BQE bisects a graveyard or near Newark, where the GSP does the same thing. Paul’s bisected graveyard was on Route 1 near Elizabeth.
Rob Goldstein brought a rewrite of his poem about a domineering neurologist and his relationship with the doctors who followed him on his rounds, including the speaker. At its narrative heart the poem recounts a kind of contest or test that the neurologist subjects the speaker to, having to do with memory. Rob’s question for the group was whether the good/charming side of the domineering neurologist managed to be evoked. The vote was one yes and one no with nine abstentions.
Frank Rubino’s poem was “My Daughter Saves for College” and it worked as a kind of triptych, showing the speaker’s daughter eating a burger while the family waited in Warsaw for her adoption visa, then again in her crib (in the US) biting her own hands, and finally as a young adult working in the garment district in Manhattan, in pissing rain, “emptying her company’s goods out of a bankrupt factory.” The poem is an ode of sorts to her resilience and inner strength, which ends when the speaker urges all of us to “surrender to her like I have, let her through”
My poem, “Exile’s Letter” was an imitation of Ezra Pound’s ‘translation’ of Li Bo’s poem full of longing for an old friend and a friendship. Frank said it was like a Saul Bellow novel. Later, Don wrote: “for a couple pages there it just felt like i was being cornered at a party while someone tells me about how they used to play basketball”. It sets up the ending well but if I came across this in a magazine I would never get to the ending.”
I don’t see the utility of saying that a poem sounds like Saul Bellow, or Kafka, or Lewis Carroll or Ginsberg’s Howl. What does it do for our colleagues, the writers? That sort of comment replaces the poet in front of us with a cardboard cutout, and lures us away from the individuality of the work we are reading. We should be sussing out what we think the poem is trying to do and how it is trying to do it and whether we think it achieves the goals we think it had. Then the poet will know if they were seen, and if they succeeded, and if not, how they might conceivably think of revising it.
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 22
I got an early Christmas present from an old friend this week. It’s a beautifully produced book of Antonin Artaud’s drawings and portraits. It evokes the memory of an Artaud exhibition my friend and I saw a couple of decades ago in New York.
Artaud’s extremes still fascinate me: his private phonemes, elevation of the interior reality, and rage. I looked on his work more hopefully once, thinking it could reveal what I needed to know in order to create, rather than imitate; he seemed to produce the sound of someone who had committed himself to working with the real, not the aesthetic, and he got joined in my head to Kierkegaard’s 3rd stage of self development, the Truth Seeker. I had known about The Theater Of Cruelty, and some of his writing. When I looked at his drawings, I saw violent invention and I wanted my work to have the same fuel and the same rocketship take-offs.
It was a utilitarian way to approach his work (what can I copy here?), but Artaud’s inherent difficulty makes it impossible to “grasp” and you have to start somewhere. The book (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/antonin-artaud) features an essay by Jaques Derrida that grapples with Artaud’s idiosyncratic vocabulary (notably the word “subjectile”; also “ thrownness”). Derrida wrote the essay To Unsense The Subjectile in French and for 40 years or so it was only published in a German translation. The exclusive German language rendition was part of the original plan. As Derrida is struggling to explain Artaud’s use of the term “subjectile” he starts talking about the fact that the Frenchness of his argument is the substance from within which he is writing. “How will they translate that?” he asks. Later, he says, “Artaud is against a certain Latinity.”
This is extremely difficult text to parse. Derrida quotes Artaud: “for me clear ideas… are ideas that are dead and finished.”
My friend and I have marveled at the difficulty of this language. Artaud fights against himself and against Derrida, who says “I don’t know if I am writing in an intelligible French.”
Artaud’s work conveys to me most of all a torturous need to integrate the disintegrated, and my friend and I admire his persistent fighting, and the bizarre, idiosyncratic language he created out of his struggle. But now, this book gives me a sadness I hadn’t felt before. It’s the sadness of futility and relentless brain chemistry: however far Artaud got, he was someplace that much harder to be.
Start a poem with “For me, clear ideas are ideas that are dead and finished.”
What artists did you once admire?
What gestures/words/appearances did you copy? Did you ever dead-end in a style? ( I have numerous times, and the feeling of dead ending is that the language I am using is suddenly useless to me.) Can you write a tribute to that dead style now?
Benefits of reading something you don’t understand? Is there any deliberately difficult work you return to?
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 15, 2020
It was a workshop popping at the seams with new ideas, revisions, rough drafts and final versions. And we kept to our time: 7-9. No one wants to be the last poem discussed at a three hour workshop. Please remember to put your name on the top of your poem before you upload it, and where possible, make it single spaced (except stanza breaks) so we can all see it on the screen without too much scrolling. Also, if anyone has Yana’s email, send it and I’ll add her to the list.
Yana brought a poem called “Lullaby” that was addressed to and incorporated the lyrics of a Russian lullaby into a poem that examines and amplifies its dreadful message: “the grey wolfie will come/ seize you by your little side/ and drag you into the forest.” Claudia liked the beginning where the lullaby lyrics were interlineated with its analysis. Tom noted a shift in the language in the stanza starting “Would the fanged jaws tear your flesh” from something simple and lullaby-ish to something else. Don disagreed, thinks the language is all consistent. And there were a few other comments for pruning and rearranging, but no one addressed the underlying problem, which is how the hell are we supposed to go to sleep tonight?
Tom Benedicktsson‘s “Scratch” was a flight of scientific hypothesis comparing the survival tactics used by slime mold with those employed by yeasts, their evolutionary “cousins.” It was arresting, original and very funny, especially the bits about yeast, where the references were to well known yeast hanghouts like “drunken orgies” and “tearful bread-baking melodramas as well as the true sounding, but inexplicable “bottoms of poets.” Not nearly as terrifying as Yana’s WOLFIES, but potentially more imminent.
Susanna Lee‘s poem, an early draft, she says, “Turkey Dinner Poetry,” also took on the lives of poets, in a different manner. She analyzed the preparation and service of Thanksgiving dinner under the rubrics of a poetry workshop: examining the stanzas, the ‘meat’ of the poem, and the editing process. A meta-poetical discussion broke out over the use of the word “shard” to describe the bone fragment that has choked many attendees at one of these dinners. Some thought it had too much Greek pottery in it. Someone even cited to a supposed a poetry nostrum: “don’t use the word ‘shard’ in a poem.” (That was a new one on me. I’d been advised that “soul” and “azure” were declasse, but ‘shard’ is so useful if you need a rhyme with “lard.”) But Tom like “shard” so Susanna was left to work it out on her own. Finally, someone got up the courage to tell her to ditch the poetry metaphor completely and perhaps focus more on the racist rants of ratched uncles, and the secrets unintentionally spilled by sloppy sherry sipping aunts.
Shane Wagner brought one of last night’s successful revisions, his poem “Past Lovers.” Last week we urged him to get down into the the weeds of these ‘what if’ ladies, and he delivered. Using “I go back to past lovers” as an anaphoric summoner, he details three of these episodes, and what was nice was how the poem deepened in emotional resonance as the degree of sexual involvement deepened (my mom told me that would happen). But getting down in the weeds also introduced the tangles of those trysts which, as we all know, can resist the compression poetry adores. While the hookup in the ’76 Civic only raised general questions (“If I lingered … do we marry … do I work for your father .. how long have we been divorced”) the groping session in the ’78 Accord (which has a more spacious interior that the Civic) raised questions of consent (“why did you stop us, put on all of your clothes…?) and the third adventure there’s an abbreviated romantic comedy “meet cute” on a railroad platform followed by the pair becoming lovers who only split when “you” went to Providence and “I” didn’t follow. So much to manage, and yet, if Shane pulls it off, we’ll get Tom Hanks to play him.
Ray Turco was back with another free-verse tale of an Italian hero, this one “Giorgio Perlasca” who played a role in saving Jews from concentration camps in WWII. And while Don said the brevity of this piece was powerful, and Janet was a little confused by the ruse Giorgio used, the most interesting part of the discussion, I think, was what role the prose footnotes that Ray adds to the bottom of these poems play. The prose notes provide a short biography of the heroes. Carol, voicing a concern that resonates with mid-20th Century poets who insist that the poem can and should speak for itself, asked Why? There are other traditions, however, in which the poem includes an “argument” that introduces the lyrical content (see Milton’s Elegy “Lycidas” for example), and editors frequently seek to ease the reader’s entry to the poem’s universe with explanatory marginalia and footnotes, and there are truckloads of poetry books today that come with fucking interminable endnotes. Our own Mark Fogarty frequently uses footnotes to provide context for his historical and sports pieces. So then there was a debate as to whether Ray should put his biographical data in a footnote as he does or in an endnote. That discussion has now made it into these field notes, which can be referenced by future editors of Ray’s collected poems.
Speaking of Fogarty, he brought a fart poem: “The Wedding Party,” about the speaker and “Jack Sheridan” using their Christmas gift reel-to-reel tape recorders, to perform a fart compendium to rival the ethnological work of Alan Lomax. There came a moment in this conversation where John J Trause, who has known Fogarty for fifteen years, asked Fogarty to explain why he capitalizes the first letter of each line of his poems. Fogarty sighed deeply.
And then it was Trause‘s turn. He brought a triolet (look it up) called “Procrastination” that considers the his career as a writer of sestinas. It was roundly loved.
Jen Poteet brought back her poem from last week, one of her emerging collection of poems about hanging out in the present day with dead poets. (Like trading cards, she’s already got nearly a full set). This rewrite was hugely successful because instead of merely placing the poet in a modern situation (So-and-so on Instagram, for example) and them mimicking the style of the dearly departed, this audacious piece brought Mary Oliver back to life so that she and Jen could feed the ducks at Race Point. And, truly in the tradition of Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California” or, more recently Jason Koo’s “Shopping with Mayakovsky” (recently reissued in Man on an Extremely Small Island by Brooklyn Arts Press), the two of them talk, and in that moment, however briefly, that dialogue with our teachers and forbears springs into life. Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Butterflies and eyes” appears at first to be about a friend who doesn’t take care of herself and lies a lot about it, but also about the sense of frustration the speaker feels with this friend, and finally, as Don Z pointed out, asks what this poem says about the speaker who is constantly passing judgment on her friend.” And, Don added, if that’s the point, it needs to be brought out more.
Don‘s poem, “QAnon,” raised a bunch of perspectival issues itself. Directed at the movement devoted to spreading destabilizing lies about everything from politics to child abduction and sex trafficking by Hillary Clinton (i.e., politics), the poem didn’t clearly announce whether it was in the voice of a QAnonamist, or a highly sarcastic critic of the movement. Claudia said the voice of the poem — with its aphorisms (“Truth is the shovel, not the snow.”) — was very detached and she couldn’t relate to it. Ray thought the speaker was complicit in the lies. Yana said that the whole thing was “very disturbing,” and remarked on its lack of compassion or sympathy. Tom said: deeply cynical. Don said: “Thanks!”
Claudia Serea, as she is wont to do, brought a masterpiece called “The year we stayed home,” which announces at the beginning that it’s willing to go for the surreal: “It was the year when I built you a house of clouds/ and filled it with thunderclaps and summer rain,/ so you can sleep well at night.” The poem turns out to need its full artillery of imagery to shepherd us through a difficult time in the relation between the speaker, a mother, and the “you” of the poem, a daughter: “It was the year when you wrecked your body,/ and I built a house of screams/ in which you wailed and hated me.” But my favorite line was not surreal at all: “the year we cried/ on both sides of the bathroom door.”
The elegy as a poetic form has a few traditional directions it can go, mourning the loss, cursing the fates, bringing the lost ones back to life, tying their death to larger sociological problems or issues, or using the moment to reflect on what was unique about the deceased. Carole Stone‘s poem “Town” addressed the death of a friend named Ruth, with the elegiacal force of memory and dread: “Soon no one of our generation will be left./ Each day I’m a little sadder,” she wrote, and in a downbeat manner recalled how they met and the last time they saw one another.
Janet K brought a poem called “Rhizome” that celebrated the newly discovered scientific evidence that trees communicate with one another through their roots. Where the poem got controversial, however, was where the speaker compares the peace-loving trees to the awful habits of humanity. This, according to Don Z, made her poem into a bit of a Joyce Kilmer “Trees”.
My poem “Exile’s Letter” is an imitation of Ezra Pound’s “translation” (boy oh boy, is that a controversial word in this context) of Li Po’s poem of the same name. We didn’t get to work on it last night, and it’s kind of long, so maybe we can talk about it next week without two readings, as has become our norm.
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poet’s Workshop of December 15
I looked at the batch of poems we talked about last week and noticed a couple that got energy from biographies. I’m being purposeful about the word biographies because it conveys the ‘lifespan’ scope the poems work with. Mark Fogarty layers Mark Twain’s bio, Twain’s daughter, Susy Clemens, and his own life to create a stratified model of identity with a few links between the strata, such as the concept of “empty house”; Susy haunted an empty house, and the poem’s narrator returns to one, linked to the circumstances of his life by parallels in hers: the poem reverses the link, “I was thinking of Susy” to “Susy spawned thoughts of me” by presenting Susy’s facts first.
Shane Wagner also creates a stratified biography, where the sub-basement is the narrator’s entire past, and the link to it is a feeling of regretful weariness in the present moment.
It’s important to think about what the links are in these poems, how they’re made. Poetry can make links with proximity, vowel sounds, metrics. In Shane’s, the action of extruding the link like a vector, in a direction, from one layer to another is made by the verb in the first line “ I go back..”
In computer science there’s a concept of rich linking called the semantic triple. The semantic triple has three parts, the subject, the predicate, and the object. Predicates link subjects to objects : “another child” “dreaming of” “a former me”; “a former me” “exists in” “a different now.”
I see linked biography poems as graphs, with the biographical layers having connection points. There is an empty house in one biography, and there’s an empty house in the other. There’s a child in the past, and a child in the now. Another concisely-modeled example of linked, multilayered biography, is Lan Chi’s death-bed Rashomon where the poem’s links are discrete family interactions bound to different family members’ lifelong relationships with the father.
Going back to last week’s essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self (https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Self-Studies-Lyric-Poetry/dp/0393066134) In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time” to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced” Each time time a poem creates one of those links between biographies, it creates a brand new I.
(It must say something that I keep coming back to issues of constructing the first person self with poetry.)
What links you to another life?
How many other connection points does that life have to yours? Does it connect like a bridge to yet another life?
How permanent are the links? Are they soluble in water (tears, the family pool)? Or can they withstand fire wind and seismic shifts? (Mine are stubborn cats) What happens when biographies become unlinked? Can you think of any other information models that poetry can benefit from?
Frank Rubino‘s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 8
I listened to Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense this week (https://samharris.org/podcasts/226-price-distraction/) The episode, called “The Price Of Distraction” featured neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley whose work in brain plasticity I’m not qualified to judge, but whose conversation with Sam Harris on the mechanisms of attention (in the first part of the podcast) sparked some thoughts about how poems work and what poems are.
What happens when our attention is diverted? And what are the things that can divert our attention? Humans (Us! We!) are driven to explore, like other mobile animals, to find resources. This activity is subject to a dynamic cost-benefit analysis: “I don’t seem to be finding many nuts here; What’s the ratio of the energy required to climb the next tree versus the probability of finding more nuts?” That calculus demands computation cycles from our brain, and maybe more or less depending on the time of day, the temperature, whether we’re REALLY hungry…
Apparently, behaviorists can be predict the rate of tree-switching accurately among certain animals, and given certain conditions.
When we’re writing poems, we’re trying (in general, and I love exceptions) to dial down our reader’s tree-switching with our poetic machines. (I’m terrible, I’ll stop halfway through a poem I am enjoying to scan ahead in the book for a shorter one.)
A poem is a document of attention. It shows what we’re looking at, what we’re looking for, how we assess the cost of moving on.
I also read a couple of essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self (https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Self-Studies-Lyric-Poetry/dp/0393066134) In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced”
So my thought is that the self is a product of attention, and a poem about the self conjures a brand new I each time it is given attention, and it’s amazing in the sense that each instance of attention is unique.
Do you get distracted when writing? Is the distraction a part of your poem or what you reject from your poem?
Does writing change the nature of your attention?
What does your poem create from the reader’s attention?