Field Notes, Week of 04-13-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021

Happy Poetry Month, workshoppers: 

We had a great workshop last Tuesday.  The truth was delivered by the poets and then the truth was delivered by the workshop.  So much truth.

My poem, “A Mortician’s Stitch” touched on a daughter telling a father’s story then retold by the speaker of the poem, about the life of a guy who was in near constant motion, whose daughter caught his momentum and the speaker who saw it in her.  It was a blank verse poem which means unrhymed iambic pentameter, and I must say that the form is fluid enough to capture discourse without unnatural compression, but the constraint of the iambic line, and the pentameter line in particular, provides just enough back-pressure on the writing process to measure out the poem’s progress in lines of consistent density and tone; the cadence is satisfying to the ear.  I recommend it.

Shane Wagner’s “For a Lifetime” was a prose piece – JJT called it a short story –  about life in the neighborhood with children who face developmental challenges.  That “know-a-little, not-a-lot” feeling that comes from living down the block is well captured, with the children as advance guards or avatars of friendship when they meet at the door for trick or treat on Halloween.  The details all ring true, and the line that rang the truest for me was the one that described the excitement of the girl who gave the juice boxes on Halloween when the speaker’s son arrived in his wheelchair: “The girl filling the doorway.  Holding a tray of juice boxes.  Shifting her weight in anticipation.”  Poetry or prose, it’s details like that that ground a piece.

Don Zirilli brought “Labyrinth”  a poem hearkening back to the story of Orpheus, the Minotaur and Daedelus, but told, according to Don, from the perspective of the labyrinth itself: “Every night, no matter how diligently I was debased,/ I walked backward into myself again.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Bilingualism, a legacy.”  The poem sets up as a dialogue in which the science of bilingualism is set out in italics, such as “It’s about changing codes,” and each italicized piece of the lecture is filled with an autobiographical rejoinder to the thought in the voice of a speaker who grew up speaking Romanian, German and Hungarian, and who now has a “toddler grandson.”  Everyone in the group found the final paragraph/stanza of the poem – the one that introduced the grandson — to be the most engaging, where the grandson is quoted saying he doesn’t like to say certain words in Romainian, but we feel the grandparent’s satisfaction that he “goes on listing in Romanian, all the colors he doesn’t like to say.” 

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Queen of Corona” was about how the last year of evenings have gone for the speaker, reading poems and the paper, following social media, watching movies and tv game shows and eating “corn chips, cheddar and salsa.”  Which is described as a kind of hell from which vaccination may provide relief if the speaker can move up on the list.  We learned that the speaker had indeed moved up the list, and has now been vaccinated, but not whether her activities list or her address had changed.

John J Trause brought a poem, an ode perhaps, called “To Thoth,” the ‘thoth’ being an Egyptian deity of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment and the dead, often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or baboon.  John’s poem was hilarious.  Read it.

Frank Rubino was back from vacation and back with a rewrite of his poem about men talking around a fire, “Pete & Stan’s.”

The dialogue had the offhand terribleness that one automatically associates with men, such as “Did you ever have to fuck someone, said Pete, or they’d fuck you?”  But the real heat of the poem is in the speaker’s feelings of discomfort with the fireside regime and more generally, about secrets (“(I can’t give the secret that I’m bad at the stock market)/(I can’t give the secret of my true numbers)/(I can’t give the secret when I last had sex)”); and that discomfort is vindicated, oddly, when the speaker’s “wife and the ladies come by the fire,” and the speaker can confidently report on the men’s good behavior with goofy smile emoji to emphasize the relief: “No secrets dropped about them all night (goofy smile)/ They are funny and high.”     In a way, the setting of the poem, with the women withdrawing to what was known in Victorian England as the ‘withdrawing room’ and the men retiring to the billiards room (which often had a fireplace) for a game of snooker.  Frank is clearly our poet most comfortable with the familial tensions of midlife.

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “Golden Shovel 1” was written in the form of that name invented by Terrence Hayes, who took the words in a line of Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, and made them into end-words for a poem of his own.  Janet used the words of the title of an article from the Sunday New York Times (“Music and Meditation Fuels Laura Donnelly”) to provide her with end words, and the connection between the inspiring title and the ultimate poem turns out to be the name of a friend of the speaker who recently died, Laura.  What’s particularly wonderful is how Janet used the name “Laura Donnelly” from the newspaper headline and got two line endings, one for her friend “Laura” and the other a reference to a line of poetry by another Donnelly, Tim. 

Come back again on Tuesday 4/20/21, and we’ll rip into a few more poems. 

—Arthur Russell

Amended Field Notes, Week of 04-06-21

Arthur Russell‘s amended notes to the recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 6, 2021

Hey, Everyone:  I tried so hard not to repeat last week’s complete failure to get out the Field Notes that I got a bit sloppy.  I forgot to include Carole Stone’s lovely evocation of a writer’s retreat at a somewhat spooky, but also charming and inspiring, richly-endowed castle in Scotland, which I’ve pasted in full below, and I forgot to tell you about a fabulous poem by Walt Whitman called “Leaves of Grass Original 1855 Edition,” that I’m reading over and over on an audiobook narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, available on Spotify.  I’ve talked to a few people about the experience of having LoG read to me, and how it has enhanced my appreciation of the poem I would say exponentially.  I have a facsimile copy of that 1855 edition that I keep open and follow along as Mr. Ballerini does the hard and necessary work of giving voice to the words on the page.  As you may know, the original 1855 edition has very little by way of formatting; the poem just rolls on and on sometimes a double space between what would, in later editions, be separately numbered or named poems.  Also the Preface to the 1855 edition is a really long 5000-word lyric essay on what it means to be a great poet of the American moment, and the Preface, in the facsimile edition, is in tiny type and paragraphs with no spaces between them, so it looks like the label on a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s Pure Castile Soap.  But with Ballerini reading the Preface, you can hear the urgency of the mission statement (some say WW undertook the work of becoming the American bard after hearing a lecture by RW Emerson), and you can hear those Whitmanic cadences in a distinct ambition, which is very nice. 

My dear friend and I were listening to a 45-minute swath of LoG yesterday— the entire recording, Preface included—is 4 hours 19 minutes—and they were as grateful as I was to have the poem read aloud to us; we did it without having the text, or a glass of wine or anything, just sitting in front of my babbling telephone as though we were listening to FDR give a fireside chat, or as though we were in church letting the improbabilities of liturgy and sermon pass over us unchecked. This was part of my second time through the recording and the poem.  I’d listened to it once beginning on Good Friday (1/3), Holy Saturday (1/3) and Easter Sunday (1/3) (which also corresponded to the last days of Passover, oh happy concordance much to be hip-hip-hoorayed), and I had been upended by the way LoG works as prayer/sermon/testimony/patchwork/Haggadah/midrash. And my dear friend and I agreed that WW can be difficult to enjoy on the page because as readers we’re always rereading, going back to catch the syntactical whole after it unfolds in those minutes-long sentences and lists of his; and when someone is reading the poem, you can’t go back (you can stop it to look up some of those incredible words he comes up with (chuff, teokallis)), but stopping to go back is really not the best way to love LoG.  The best way is to let it roll, keep going, stay in that beautiful space that he carves out of time, try to stay in the moment, and if you drift, come back without judgment (I know, meditation). I thought, too, of how in Hebrew school and at the Saturday services, and at Passover, and, I imagine for Xians, in the liturgy, it’s the hearing of the thing (especially as a child, but also as a second child) over and over that allows your mind to absorb the poem in a noncritical way, to remember it without memorizing it, and in a way, remembering without caring if you remember.  And let me tell you, when I undertook to read LoG, I was erecting sensical barriers to its admission (into my head) based on his relentless filling of its stretched-tight net-shopping-bag sentences, and rudely compared WW’s work to a wet fart (that happened, and I regret it).  But once I found Ballerini’s recording, and loved it, and listened to the poem uninterrupted by my reader’s intelligence (such as it is) or my whiny pissy impatient attitude (think Ezra Pound), I was fucking mesmerized for long stretches, and when I did drift off to appreciate or interrogate an image or phrase or line (“The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case/ He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom”) I was able to rejoin the procession without a sense of loss, and realized that the poem is performative, not textual (Grateful Dead jam, not Bill Evans solo).  It may be that some people can read WW on the page with the same drive and push as hearing it aloud provides, but I’m not one of them (which is a little odd, because in the sorts of shorter lyric works that I hear in workshops and at poetry readings, I’m always craving the text).  Point of the story is I think this Whitman guy is on the rise, a real Ocean Vuong of a poet, and I plan to read “LoG 1855”, with and without the audiobook and my new bff Ballerini two or three times more before the class moves on to Emily Dickinson at the end of the month.  For the last go-through, I may set aside 4 hrs and 19 min, and go straight through.

Speaking of Ocean Vuong, they did a free online reading through Harvard Radcliffe on Thursday night, and read two excerpts from their novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as well as a poem from their forthcoming poetry collection “Time Is A Mother.”  The poem, which they now call “Not Even” was published last year (Poetry, April 2020) as “Not Even This” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/152940/not-even-this) – Although they did not say so explicitly, the readings from the novel, which concerns the Southeast Asian immigrant experience in the US, including their work in massage spas and nail salons, where Vuong actually worked (as a receptionist) as a boy and where his mother worked as a nail technician, were apt in the aftermath of the murder last week of 6 people, 4 of them Asian American women, in Atlanta by a psychotic moron, and they made some comments about that disaster in the q and a, including this: “My aunt works in a massage parlor, in California, right now.” I don’t know about you, but the stark reality of that statement did a lot of work for me ripping away the veil that separates us from the faceless Asian-Americans we hear about as victims of racist violence on the news.  Separately, Vuong also made a very uplifting comment about the younger person we all once were who dreamed up the identity we became.  To paraphrase, they said that in the Western Tradition we are encouraged to forget the person who wanted, and focus on the present, but, they argue, the person who wanted was  the “pioneer of our life in a way.”  Vuong asked us to see that person “not as a defunct version of ourselves, but as a fruitful collaborator.”

If this amended Field Notes were a Frank Rubino invitation to the RWB workshop, I would now say, think of a way to revive that fruitful collaborator in your poems. But even though I have appeared as Frank Rubino in Zoom meetings while he is away (and based on his reputation and home-page photo, received date offers), I am not Frank Rubino….

Next, I’m dropping a link to a worthwhile article in The Paris Review called “Fuck The Bread.”    

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/07/fuck-the-bread-the-bread-is-over/

And finally, again, with renewed apologies to her for having omitted it from the earlier edition of the Field Notes, is Carole Stone’s poem “Hawthornden Castle.”

Hawthornden Castle

Silence in the halls,
outgoing calls not allowed,
lunch arrives outside my door,
sounds of padding feet.

I walk the winding drive,
pass flowers, Latin names displayed.
After a brief shower, the drenched air
holds its blue, Rhododendron flare
like a Tartan plaid.

Tea at four, today the promised scones.
I’m scared of the rattles in my fireplace.
Ghosts of previous guests?
I’m told Stevie Smith was here.

I complain the sherry’s drunk up;
the director implies someone is tippling at night.
The cook makes the promised trifle.
The castle owner’s possessions abound;
Sèvres porcelain, blue and white Ming vases.

Precisely at 10:30 PM,
the cast-iron gate slams shut,
a heavy key turns the ancient squeaky lock.
A poem might come to me tonight.
Glittering, wonderful.

Field Notes, Week of 04-06-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 6, 2021

We had a great workshop, exciting poems and a great discussion on Tuesday, and we had a visit from Isaac Myers III, the editor of The Curlew Quarterly (but he didn’t bring a poem (sad face)) and a return visit from Ana Doina (who did).  Frank Rubino was away presumably enjoying his immunity to Covid, so yours truly had the helm.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem, called “My Dear Friend Thomas” imagined a letter from Emily Dickinson to the poet responding to one from him to her, replete with Dickinson-isms like the m-dashes and idiosyncratic capitalizations, with quotes from her work. But beyond the easy mimicry, the poem fulfilled its project of imagining a real letter from a revered poet, speaking of the poet’s life with candor and friendship.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy,” is a poem of personal isolation and alienation, and despair for America. It is set in the desert where the speaker has parked his camper. There, he reflects on the recurring death of America and the inability to draw any conclusions on the cause of death: “I live through this new autopsy of America,/ this endless cleromancy, again and again and again,// divining nothing.” The poem’s lyricism is light as a skipjack, small utterances that don’t provide much detail, but give the sense of a defeated soul or at least one in a holding pattern, especially in the last lines evoking the power of movement without the desire to go: “I turn over the engine,// listen to the potential in its thrum, then turn it off, satisfied.”

Yana Kane brought a lyric called “Orbit” that addresses the persistent orbit of the Earth around the sun and asks why. It’s a celestial discussion that tries to move beyond science to  free will.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “I Was Not a Girly Girl,” compares the speaker’s love of adventure, nature and science with the speaker’s sister’s love of soap opera and romance: In a lovely verbification, the speaker says of her sister: “She damselled, revelling in distress/ that would soon end in a magical, invisible, life-affirming kiss.”

LanChi Pham’s poem, “Inbox” uses the language of computers to indirectly illuminate what seems to be a romantic problem. It begins with the speaker saying  “I cleaned out the inbox of my heart,” and carries the metaphor forward with words like “delete” “autocomplete” and “Searching…./Searching…/Searching.” And it ends with the woeful conclusion that the “you” of the poem comes up at the end of every search.

John J Trause, who recently wrote a pearl of a prose poem about a spider web in a library is back with more biblio-arachnophilia, a poem speaking to a spider whose web was found on government documents in a library.

Jen Poteet was back with a rewrite of her poem “To the James Merrill Fellowship Committee” imagining a fellowship that would entitle her to live in and around James Merrill’s house in Stonington Connecticut. She was looking to enhance the emotional grip of the poem by imagining more fully the speaker’s engagement in the fellowship process. The poem does a wonderful job of recreating the scene at the Merrill house as described in numerous accounts of Ouija seances, and the workshop pointed out that the “domed tin ceiling in the dining room” was a nice way of creating an atmosphere conducive to calling back spirits. I wouldn’t know.

Ana Doina’s poem, “Stealing Cherries” is a childhood reminiscence on the theme of old guys and kids, some of whom escape their escapade with “cherry juice still dripping from our laughing mouths” and a “slow one left behind” who was spared any retribution by the old, injured gardener.

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “Une petite chanson”—a single sentence affirming each man or woman’s right to live “their own histoire/ their own poeme.”

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Vermilion” was a rewrite of last week’s how-to leave home prose poem.  The poem works by depicting the difficult circumstances of life—boredom and bullying and unsympathetic parents—and then moving on to describe an escape to a sci fi reality that relieves the discomfort.

Janet Kolstein brought a poem called “Oh, My!” about the secret lives of trees that combined a reference to the Wizard of Oz, and recent science on the ability of trees to communicate with one another through chemical releases in their roots. Very entertaining.

Wednesday night, we had an epic reading by Davidson Garrett at the RWB reading.  Damn, that guy can spin a yarn. 

See you all very very very soon.

—Arthur Russell

Jim’s Firm Bottom: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Sit Anywhere

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 30, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I’m feeling hassled by work and I’ve been devoting a lot of time to my chapbook mss this week so this might be short.

I’ve been listening to George Saunders’s audio book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life” (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0871LKPJ3/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title)

It’s great as an audio book because it’s based on Saunders’ college lectures.

Saunders opens the book with an anecdote which could be of great value to us. Working on one of his stories with Bill Buford, the editor of the New Yorker, he complained of Buford’s constant critiques. “What is it about this story that you actually like?” he asked. “I like,” said Buford, “that I read one line, and I like it enough that I want to read the next. And then I read the next line and I like that one enough to read the next. And I just go like that all the way to end.”

The first part of Saunders’s book is built around a Chekov story, “In The Cart.” Saunders guides us through a reading of the story page by page. He focuses us, as readers, on the experience of receiving and processing information. After each page “we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?” 

It’s important to note, he says, that before you start, “as regards In The Cart, your mind is a perfect blank.”

We can read poems this way. Jim Klein talked about the sentence as a force that builds with each clause, and releases its energy at the end: maximum sentence impact requires precise information delivery. Usually the most important pieces of information in English sentences are in the beginnings and endings. That corresponds with a way of breaking your poetic line: Start a line with an important word where possible, and end a line with another important word. Stanza endings and poem endings are places where the most important information can deliver the most energy. Syntax gives you a way of regulating information delivery in a sentence so you can put this powerful information in the most effective positions.

Arthur Russell’s poems which use the techniques of fiction like character, setting, and plot, are little masterpieces of information deployment. In last week’s “Vesuvius Bakery,” for instance, his main character walks down a staircase in the second stanza, which puts him in a memory on another staircase, descending which prompts another memory of the hours just before. The complex timeline is structured across the stanzas to deliver of the most intimate, vulnerable detail in the most powerful position of the poem: the end. We don’t know where he’s going after the first staircase: we expect it has something to do with what we do know: he’s been in a museum looking at a painting about memory and time. What if he just started describing other paintings in the museum? He could have, but we might not have stayed until the end, where he surprised us with the last bit of information.

So back to sentences, syntax, and word order.

Line by line, is your poem likeable?

How does your syntax relate to your line breaks?

Does your poem control the flow of information?

Are there other ways that poems are like stories?

How’s this work on poems you return to again and again, where your mind isn’t a perfect blank? Is there another part of you that approaches a poem “blank”?

The Power of Naming and Other Pretenses: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Minor Histories

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Spring is here! Just in the nick of time.This week I got a little deeper into the artist Mike Kelley, whose More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid I wrote about last week (https://redwheelbarrowpoets.org/2021/03/22/can-we-use-the-distance-between-sentiment-and-true-feeling-franks-letter-to-the-workshop/). Minor Histories (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/minor-histories) is the second in a proposed five volume set of Kelley’s writing. This volume mixes humor, memoir, and notes on technique & materials Kelley used in his paintings, sculpture, installations, performances, photographs and other forms of spatial expression.

It includes a well-known 1991 essay, Some Aesthetic High Points, which, Kelley says elsewhere, had been taken as an earnest anti-aesthetic manifesto— but is really one of his jokes: a takedown of pompous artist bios. It includes his memories of winning a poster contest in grammar school, and seeing an Iggy Pop performance in a biker bar. Another takedown of what I would call a structuralist seriousness, masquerades as an essay on a collection of “sacred” American photographs Kelley childishly defaced (swastika drawn on Lincon’s forehead, etc.) (Reconstructed History, 1990)

In The Poetry of Form, Kelley writes about found naming systems: Geological formations like “The Frozen Cascade” and paint chip colors found in hardware stores. The color of my bedroom is “Soft Chinchilla” He says that he wanted to “stress the naming process… as the primary aesthetic characteristic” of the color or rock formation. He was also intent on the anonymity of the naming process, and He created many artifacts (photos, drawings) based on his research into these naming systems. I thought of the poem “Bad Rock Band Names” by Wayne Miller, which he read at this month’s open mike. (Forgive me if I screwed up the title, Wayne)

(One of my favorite naming systems is cannabis strains: Ghost of Leroy, Jilly Bean, Alaskan Thunder F**k…)

Another association of Kelley’s work to a workshopper is the section in Minor Histories called UFOlogy: Kelley lists, among other things, the many detailed UFO descriptions he came across in his research on the subject. It reminded me of Janet Kolstein’s poem, where the speaker describes a ufo.

So, we have in just this sample of Kelley’s work a list of artistic pretenses you can use to structure (or at least jump-start) a poem:

1. Fake bio (I use this one constantly)

2. Pompous exegesis (actually I’m thinking of Susanna Lee’s recent “Viking Love” poem as an example of this)

3. Found lexicons and taxonomies

4. Deep research into trivia

(Also I can think of Don Zirilli’s heartbreaking instruction manuals as well)(And John J Trause’s “future hagiography” of Marilyn Monroe)

What can you add to this list of pretenses?

Field Notes, Week of 03-15-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 15, 2021

We had a good time at the old Zoom last Tuesday, with poems of metamorphosis, dreams, nostalgia, you know, the stuff we . 

Claudia Serea’s “At 3 a.m., I held my parents” is a dreamlike free verse poem in nine couplets in which the parents are depicted as metamorphic presences that the speaker holds, loves and loses. When the poem begins, the parents are held like children on the speaker’s lap, then compared to weightless birds who wriggle free, “spread their wings and swoosh[ ] off.” 

Don Zirilli’s poem, “How to Remember a Dream” enters the same landscape of dreams that Claudia’s poem occupied, but rather than presenting the content of the dream, it is presented as a ‘how to’ poem, that focuses on the process rather than the content of the dream. Like many poems in the ‘how to’ genre, there’s a bit of tension between the title’s promise of an easy-to-follow set of instructions, and the more difficult emotional content that follows. Three imperatives — “walk” “feel” and “report” – carry the ‘how to’ device forward, but particularly in the ‘feel’ section, the instructions illuminate rather than resolve the difficulties of remembrance, as they show us the imagined student receiving the content of the dream like a “frosty night of weather” transdermally through a their forehead resting on the cool glass of a window:

Feel the cool glass against your forehead

until you’re transparent, no longer

in the way

of the story you’re telling

to the person who is actually having the dream

and slowly pours a frosty night of weather

into you.

Janet Kolstein’s free verse poem, “Black Cat on a Cobblestone Street” was a lovely ekphrasis of a 1927 silent film directed by Walther Ruttman, called “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City.” While Ruttman’s film is famous for being the first or one of the first “city films” (here’s an article about it: https://www.popmatters.com/berlin-walter-ruttmann-2620911194.htmlabout) which can be seen as a celebration of modernity and urbanity, or a partly Marxist social critique on the on the dehumanization brought about by industrialization, Janet’s poem is more of an ‘ubi sunt’ poem, a contemplation of mortality and the transience of life, in which she considers how the people depicted in the movie  are now dead and gone.

Speaking of old movies, Shane Wagner brought a poem called “A Pretty Good Team,” you might call a free verse poem, but not really, since it was written, in part, under the constraint of following the versification of the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin (1937), for the movie “Shall We Dance” where it was sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while dancing in roller skates. Shane takes this lyric about incompatibility (toe-MAY-toe/ toe-MAH-toe) and makes it about domestic compatibility. 

My poem, “I Imagine the Earth Absconded” is set up rhetorically as Petrarchan sonnet (octave and sestet) in unrhymed lines that hearken (loosely) back to iambic pentameter. The subject of the poem is the traditional one of leaving home, coming back and remembering the journey. The poem hinges on the two sides of a simile (tenor and vehicle) which are deliberately conflated: (1) the fanciful device of the Earth leaving the solar system to visit a faraway galaxy, and (2) the teenager who leaves home to go to California, meets a girl in a health-food-store and returns home with artifacts (serape blanket, old car) and a souvenir of his time away (a pillowcase). The intergalactic imagery of a planet leaving its orbit provides some emotional substance to the difficulties of leaving one’s assigned orbit, and the powerful pull of gravity that brings one back to their “endless falling groove” and the pillowcase souvenir with its embroidered “border of yellow stars” embodies the way those journeys live on in a domesticated life.

Barbara Hall brought a pair of haiku “Haiku for my parents.” Both halves of the poem, mom and dad, dealt with death, the dad piece with a startlingly self-aware moment of gentle punning self-mockery by the dying father who says his hands are “the ends of me” and the mom piece with a detail of the funeral – lipstick color – that illuminates the intimacy of a daughter’s knowledge. Don Z commented that it was interesting that the haiku for the father follows the haiku rules, but the one for the mother did not. There was some discussion as to what the poem gained from presenting itself as haiku.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Ruckus” is a poem, like Barbara’s about parental mortality, in which the speaker’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is furious about losing the ability to read, and tears a paperback apart. The description of the “tortured” book being torn apart becomes a metaphor for the father’s losses engendered by the disease.

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “The Chef” written in the second person to a “you” who is the cousin of the speaker. The poem has the candor to recognize the cousin as “”harsh/ like bitter dandelion greens” the respect to admit that the speaker is humbled when she chides him, and ends by celebrating the comfort that the speaker feels when he sees her act of kindness in making his bed. The poem is written in short free verse lines that are set up in three long stanzas; we didn’t have time to discuss the way this form relates to the content, but it would be a good thing to look at.

Frank Rubino’s poem is called “Gasoline is a living chemical.” The poem is in three free verse sections separated by bullet dots. It starts in the Covid present with the “we” of the poem, possibly husband and wife, getting vaccinated at an old Sears store they had visited (together or separately?) as children, and “played… in its overcoat racks…” Within that moment, the speaker reminisces about the connection between that old Sears store and the people who frequented it being possible workers at a clothing factory who might have been customers of his father’s lunch truck, including perhaps the foreman at the factory who  had “put aside some dresses for my sister.” The poem returns from those reminiscences to the vaccination moment where the ‘we’ waits for possible adverse reactions to the shots while listening to muzak on the old Sears music system, and then returns to the domestic scene at home, talking to kids. The second and third sections of the poem ruminate on the moment: the vaccination event held side by side with the situation in Novogorod Russia when the couple adopted their baby, and in a larger sense, the idea of being in a strange public space. 

Jen Poteet’s poem “With Authority” is full of humorous observations about idiosyncrasy and trivia, such as how different sorts of columns (Ionic and Doric) can lead to remembering a (very very old) tv car commercial featuring the actor Ricardo Montalban talking about the rich Corinthian leather in a Chrysler Cordoba.

—Arthur Russell

Can We Use the Distance Between Sentiment and True Feeling? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 16, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I went to the Whitney after such a long time and in “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019” (https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=1) I re-discovered Mike Kelley’s “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” from 1987 https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=12.

I’m fond of this piece, and I like many other Mike Kelley works too. Sadly, he committed suicide in January of 2012. I read on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Kelley_(artist)) that mourners spontaneously recreated “More Love Hours” as a memorial.

More Love Hours, with its stitched-together stuffed animals, uses overtly “sentimental” materials. It’s transgressive (or was, or still is, or is even more?) in that it “ high arts” yarn and sewing and platitudes.  As a blanket-sized wall hanging, it references quilting & seems humble and sincere.  Its title which contains the phrase “Love Hours” (the time people spent creating giveaway toys) has a clumsy earnestness. It functions as a “message” whose literal meaning is easily parsed. 

I don’t know why it works for me: I was taught that sentiment is the enemy of true feeling. Sentiment “manipulates” and numbs, and is often used for political ends yet I react with feeling from More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid:  I empathize with the artist’s tenderness and the restorative labor in his collecting, composition, and construction of More Love Hours, a reflection of each person that produced each hand-made figure; I hear in the title, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, Kelley’s own acknowledgement that “curating” and “assembling” this famous piece, while labor-intensive, took a fraction of the cumulative effort in the construction of every crocheted, sewn, knitted, glued, cut-out, sequined etc figure in the amalgam.

More Love Hours is hanging in a carefully controlled mainstream culture industry environment, a very expensive piece of real estate, and engagement with it is highly proscribed. I can’t take it off the wall and roll around the floor with it. I can’t even really get close enough to smell it.

And yet, I still love it and want to cry thinking about it. I don’t know whether its remoteness (amplified by Kelley’s death)  conjures such closeness? 

Carl Phillips talks about the balance of pain and decorum in great poems. 

Can one use sentimentality as the decorous side of that equation? 

Do you write sentimental poems?

We have seen many successful workshop poems with sentimentality in the balance… and many unsuccessful ones (including mine!) As the Coffee Talk ladies had it, Discuss: “poetic” guardrails against counterfeit feeling don’t work anymore. Sentiment is no longer sentimental. Sentiment is useful in fact in creating the ironic distance required by decorum.  I love some poems like I love More Love Hours- how do those poems work, those tear jerkers?

Existential Catholicism: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 9, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Last week, I wrote:

Billie Eilish divulges high-stakes intimate secrets directly to people who keep the same secrets.

Poetry can make this same deeply intimate connection when readers feel known.

This week, I want to return to the idea of making the reader feel recognized. For me, poetry’s ability to connect deeply addresses a principle of Existentialism the therapist Roger Wolfe displayed on a whiteboard in his office:

I’m talking about item 3. “Separate Reality: unique personal experiences. Aloneness”

As a kid growing up Catholic, I was taught that God could hear my thoughts: that’s a terribly damaging idea for so many reasons, and it’s a relief to now believe it is completely false. But while it held sway, that belief in the divine ear helped me form an articulation of my inner life that tells a good story, makes my case, frames the unexplainable. I am sure  that I share this with others who had a Catholic childhood. 

I can’t blame “wanting to be known” on Catholicism, though: it seems crucial, pre-verbal. I did want some people, if not God,  to hear my thoughts, and that the people never can is a source of sadness. We live in separate realities like the whiteboard says. The thoughts are translated to language, the language is edited, etc.

When someone (often an artist) expresses what I hear in my head, I love them: I must be known. Like a true fan loves Billie Eilish for knowing them.

Poetry is the voice in your head when you’re reading it.

Poetry is the voice in the poet’s head when they’re speaking it.

Billie Eilish is the voice in her fan’s heads.

I think, in trying to talk about a very basic thing that poems do, I just confessed my infantile need to write them. Oh well, Now you know.

Bad Guys and Strange Angels: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Billie Eilish | Official Site

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 2, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I watched The World’s A Little Blurry, https://apple.co/theworldsalittleblurry about Billie Eilish. My kids introduced me to Eilish’s music and theatrical aesthetic, which was nightmarish and dealt familiarly with issues of mental illness like cutting and suicide. That they should esteem it or vibe with it freaked me out as a parent. I think they knew that when they gleefully showed me her megalomaniacal You Should See Me in a Crown https://youtu.be/coLerbRvgsQ . But the anime music video (by Takahashi Murukami (their collaboration is documented in an interview https://youtu.be/TVTzOOBxCog )) made me a Billie Eilish fan. I loved the combination of 2D flatness and dark epic scope, the appropriation of Studio Ghibli for psychotic purposes (a pair of terrified flowers, their faces uplifted to crushing doom, is as powerful and effective an image as you’re likely to find in poetry) as well as Billie’s self-caricature. The restraint of her vocals, their murmuring and lullaby sounded original and worked to unify the song with the visual’s monstrous imagery. Her vocal’s whispery seductiveness is countered by the live Billie’s signature loose-fitting clothes and child-like stage-scampering.

I said I was a fan, but I will never be a real Billie Eilish fan. Real Billie Eilish fans identify with her so deeply it’s as if their inner lives are interchangeable. There’s self-recognition. I think I came close to being a real fan when my children were in their teens, and I had their inner lives much closer to me, and therefore I had Billie Eilish’s inner life closer to me. But now, though I can feel it like distant sunlight (and though I can access numerous other human feelings in her music), I can’t live the Recognition connection:

Billie Eilish divulges high-stakes intimate secrets directly to people who keep the same secrets.

Poetry can make this same deeply intimate connection when readers feel known.

The aspect of Billie Eilish I did not talk about is Fineas, her brother & collaborator, who provides the entertaining, sonically inventive, delightful musical solution that flows the Recognitions along. So there’s an element in her emotional bond, as in poetry’s, of technique and art.

How do you connect deeply with your reader? Since we’ve often talked about entertainment as a way to connect to the reader, I am in mind of what Geoffrey Hill said. “Poetry is a strange angel and has very little to do with enjoyment actually…. “Enjoyment” is patronizing and possessive… when you “enjoy” a poem you say, “You are mine, and you please me in my current mood.” And the angel of poetry says, “Sod off. Sod off!””

Are your poems more the “sod off” kind?

Is Billie Eilish Geoffrey Hill’s strange angel?

Field Notes, Week of 03-02-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 2, 2021

Hey everyone.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem, Allegory, told an allegorical tale in two free verse stanzas of 8 lines each more or less iambic, more or less 4 beats per line. The tale he tells is of a couple, known only as A and B evidently at a bistro “sharing a small table.” A’s gluttony is the subject of stanza 1. B’s finickiness (to put it mildly) is the subject of stanza 2, which ends with her leaving the bistro, “walking at a calorie-burning speed…” Maybe this poem is an allegory because A and B are universal characters, but I think, too, you can see the allegorical scrim as a distancing device or shock attenuator for the disturbing scene of B “grimacing with revulsion,” after “toying with a single bean/ on the black and white checkered tablecloth.” 

Janet K brought a poem called “Tall Ships” (not attached) that addressed “unrequited romance/ experienced as a kind of exile forever from love itself” and the strategy of acquisition that offsets the unhappiness: tchotchkes. “They turn to objects,” she writes, which are, themselves “meditations on the human touch,” whose effect is “mysterious, like the tall ships.. coming down a fog-shrouded river,”  called “a succor for the heartsick” that keeps them, chilling, “far from that trip to the chemist,/ the rope.” And then, in the conclusion, she imagines the heartsick consoling themselves saying “I own you,/ you’re mine,/ you’re my moon-faced mantel clock,/ my kimono embroidered with a field of jonquils.” And as I think it was JJT, who pointed out, that jonquils was such a powerful last word for the poem, known but unusual. My only quibble with this poem was the verb “spy.” Great work, Janet.

Lan Chi Pham brought a delicious poets-only poem about falling in love with poetry and then trying one’s hand at it, called “Poem a Day”, which envisions the speaker having poetry prescribed as a treatment for the blues. “Better do what the good which doctor says,” the speaker says, then the next two stanzas describe in an evolving poems=food metaphor, how she accelerated from “free verse” for lunch to “the heaver stuff” which she “devour[ed] like a bottomless/ Hurricane of word-hunger.” Finally, she tries her hand at “homemade poem” which is “Yum yum” though the poem ends humbly saying her poem was not as good as “The store-bought stuff.” Zirilli, who wasn’t there last night would say, it’s a poem that sticks to a single metaphor all the way through, and that’s a comfort but more than a comfort, a pleasure to the reader.

Yana Kane brought a poem called “Trees dreaming in winter.” Well, now you know pretty much all you need to. Just kidding. Yana’s trees dream, but their dream is the poet’s imagination of the world in winter embodied in trees that “drink in the stillness that pools/ beneath all layers of the ground,” and whose “crowns bloom with constellations” (someone said this is like looking up through the bare branches on a starry night). In the poem’s last movement, Yana has the trees veer further into fantasy with “winged beings” and “luminous fruit” that “flows far beyond the shores of the known world.” It seems as though Yana reaches for the mystical as confirmation that her poems have done that too.

Shane Wagner brought a rewrite of the piece from last week in which he, Robert Frost and Jen Poteet took a walk in the woods; now it’s called “Turn Home.” (By the way, ignore the last paragraph on the page. Shane says it’s not part of the poem.) This version is prose too, prose poem maybe, and it starts essayisticly noting that the country and world have had a lot of anxiety lately, and he’s feeling relaxed, noting that a cactus rescued from the neighbor’s trash last summer is “feeling comfortable enough to produce lewd fuchsia blossoms” and the “icicles seem more willing to hang.” Cute joke. But then the piece turns to the speaker’s special needs child care duties, and from that to a scene at a “special needs picnic” where another father did what was needed for his special needs child, before landing heavily in the double edged worry about who, in a special needs family, will die first, father or child. Nice prose piece.

Way at the other end of the “is-this-poetry-at-a-poetry-workshop” spectrum, John J. Trause (who will be the featured reader at tonight’s Williams Center Poetry Reading (on Zoom): be there) brought a graphical poem called “Untitled” which consists of the word ‘untitled’ written in big letters down the middle of the page, the word broken up, two letters per line, and presented in a stencil typeface. This is concrete poetry, defined as an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. For more on that topic, you may want to look at Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and/or Brian McAllister’s critical piece “Narrative in Concrete / Concrete in Narrative.”

Frank Rubino’s poem had a really long title!  “Shift toward helping, shift toward light, and, soon, in four or five breaths, sleep.” Someone called this an internal monologue, which led to a fistfight (just kidding). Whether it’s really internal, or a piece spoken to this audience, it’s a ruminative piece, like many of Frank’s poems, in which he toggles between declarative truth reach (“My words are my mind”) and close attention to his body (“the way my wrist moves”) questions (“Isn’t that such wasted time?), natural observations (“The robin sat in the dogwood trying to see through the window./ I don’t think birds can./ His body is fluffed for the cold.”) and genuinely lyrical moments of love (“My hauntedness is the same hauntedness as yours./ Our hauntedness is the forward movement of time./ I wish there was a time syrup that would end time forever.” So beautiful). And Frank is dedicated to not privileging one vector of his speech over the others, which makes it tough for lovers of his sweet lyricism, but hey.

Raymond Turco, fresh from the completion of his Italian Heroes manuscript brought a song lyric called “New York is” that tried to capture the spirit of NY in some of its well worn cliches: it has 8 million people none of whom would stop if they saw a corpse on the sidewalk, it is dirty and smelly and, its people all “chase Fortune.” As Brendan pointed out, that may well depict Manhattan, but there are four more boroughs and nuance out there.

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “The Birth of Virtual Reality,” about the death that came with covid, which she represents in the death of an uprooted apple tree, compares to the ivy on Snow Whit’s castle, and finally in a “story” he tells that is both made up and “too real.” And then the story:

she died last fall.

I picked up the shovel unceremoniously,

dropped dirt on her pinewood casket,

Never to see her again.

Virtual Reality took her place:

No face, no mouth, no eyes, no smile.

That’s one hell of a story.

Brenden McEntee brought a five-stanza poem in unrhymed tercets called “Before Bedtime”  that Tom B described as having a three stanzas that start “before bedtime” and two stanzas that start in dream (a dream city and a dream desert) all of which share a dank and brutish view of life. If he overstates (or if I misquote him), there’s no doubt it summons up a life in which the family is the insular protected center of a dangerous world, and even in that protected center “You go to disaffected prayer and childhood/living; I double check the locks and night-eclipsing clouds.” And the poem ends chillingly in its last tercet, which still somehow the family at the center:

Every night, before bedtime, you tell me: “come the new day,

We will bless what needs to be blessed and we will kill

Who needs to be killed and therefore, ourselves, stay safe.

My own poem was a re-write and supplement of my unnamed last week poem about mothwing newspapers. Now it’s called “Mothwing Trilogy” and each of the poems in the trilogy (all circling around sonnet length) has its own name: (1) My Grandfather Read a Newspaper for Moths Which, Oddly, Was Printed on Mothwings” (2) “Which Fey Light?”; and (3) “Butcher Paper Tally On the Use Of “Oddly” In the Title of My Mothwing Poem.”  In some sense, poems two and three are midrashim on poem one, but in another sense they are a triptych in whose center panel a scene of comforting domestic scene unfolds, and in whose outer panel, pandemonium. I think I’ll leave it there.

—Arthur Russell