Field Notes, Week of 12-1-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 1, 2020

Arthur Russell, and sometimes Frank Rubino and others, have been sending the weekly Field Notes to our workshop fans in an email for several years, but only this week we decided to archive them online on our web site. These workshop notes are a treasure trove of poetic knowledge and a way to catalog our work, week to week. We hope you’ll enjoy this new feature.

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Can I just say, it was a great week for RWB. We had an awesome hard-working (and very efficient) workshop on Tuesday, and then an RWB reading on Wednesday with Susanna Rich as the feature and one of the best open mics we’ve ever had: the range of work we heard was arms spread wide.

Of the workshop, I’ll report this:

For a little gem, Moira O brought a poem called “Slice” that, like Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” turned a kitchen accident into poetic gold.  The first line, zeroing in on the shape of the knife’s impression, tells you everything you need to know about how poetry sees things newly:  “It smiles back at me/ with a baby’s toothless grin.”   As usual with a short, good poem, the conversation was intense and joyous.

Also in the realm of short poems, was Susanna Lee’s poem “The Quitter,” about a “last cigarette.”  (On that subject I strongly recommend Italo Svevo’s novel, Confessions of Zeno). In just a few lines, Susanna captured the firmness as well as the contingent nature of any claim to finality when it comes to quitting smoking:  “stubbing out the cigarette/ twisting, twisting it out, into the ashtray// gently dropping, into the pile of ash/ the very last butt, ever// the wry smile.  

Interesting, isn’t it, how the baby’s toothless grin (Moira) and the wry smile of the quitter (Susanna) function so well as images.

Don’s poem, “Sean Connery vs. Watson” had everything a good Zirilli poem needs: a reference to media, a persona to carry the message, and an ironic pose.  This one, a rant in Sean Connery’s voice, riffs on the Jeopardy tv game show (which is where IBM chose to introduce its IA product, “Watson”), as well as a Saturday Night Live sketch involving Sean Connery (who never appeared on Jeopardy), and touches on a theme Don visits regularly: computers vs. humans.  In Don’s poem, the Jeopardy question that breaks Watson’s back is to name the best Bond movie.

(In our workshop, recently we’ve been having the poems read more than once, which is fantastic for giving us all a chance to let the poem sink in before we start tearing it apart, and also to let the poet hear the poem in someone else’s voice, which can be the most important feedback of all.  Don nominated Brendan to read this poem, and Brendan did an outstanding imitation of Sean Connery’s voice, which really brought the poem to life.  Read it in that voice, and you’ll laugh too.)

In an almost alarming way, Don’s poem pairs well with Tom Benediktsson’s called “Trivia, Roman Goddess of Graveyards and Crossroads” which also turns on a point of cinematic greatness: a charge to name “the thirteen films of Preston Sturges.”  Unlike Don’s, written in a Scottish accent, Tom’s poem feature’s his cinematic penchant for macabre.  He creates a graveyard scene that is both Anglo Saxon (hackle) and Roman (greaves) in its feel, with a goddess who speaks like “broken glass in a tin bucket.” She denies the traveler permission to pass unless they can answer about Sturges. 

And since we’re going to the movies, we should talk about Frank Rubino’s excellent poem, “I, Popcorn,” which really has nothing to do with movie trivia.  It concerns itself with being “so small in all this,” ‘this’ being life, and it shows us both his trip to Russia to adopt (‘find’) his daughter, and his father’s volunteer work in a hospice for homeless AIDS sufferers (where he made popcorn for movie nights), and the speaker’s own beginnings as a zygote.  Frank’s strong suit – his go to – is unflinchingly and verbatim at times to depict his quotidian life – “My daughter drops into the sofa …/ chewing her peanut butter/ on ‘Dave’s Powergrain bread with oat kernals,’”  in the belief that the details will anchor his meditations.  By the way, you’ve gotta love getting ‘zygote’ into a poem (with 10 Scrabble points for the ‘z’, 4 for the ‘y’ and 2 for the ‘g’, if you could land that on a triple words score square, you’d have 57 points, and potentially end the game right there.

My own poem, “Cloisters,” as Ray Turco noted, “captures a common moment well” – the moment when a child learns that their parents will one day die.  This early draft needed workshopping and got a lot of help in terms of the diction, the register, and even the title (Jen Poteet shook her head sadly when she said “not so good.”).

Jen’s poem, “Amy Lowell’s Instagram Post” continued her current series of poems about dead poets brought back to life in today’s world.    Don said it evokes Amy Lowell very well and that Instagram is a great connection for Amy Lowell; Tom said Jen’s was better than Amy Lowell (beating up on Amy Lowell is a spectator sport in some countries), Ray T wondered if the poem could connect more to the style of Instagram, and I said the poem doesn’t really connect Amy Lowell to the present except in the title.  Rumor is Jen’s been working on it more since then.

Welcome back to Paul Leibow, who brought Afraid of the Dark Volumes I and 2.  We discussed only Volume 1.  It is similar to some of Paul’s other work that juxtaposes human cruelty to animal behavior as seen on nature shows, and as such functions as a biting indictment of humanity (biting indictments of humanity, am I right?).

“Deathbed Wisdom” by Brendan M, is a lyric that invades the hospital room of a dying woman, whose final memories are depicted in two lines beginning “Once, she’d”, and whose death is depicted indirectly, by reference to the machines that record her vital signs (“The electric impulse of her stutters, fails.”) and a strange, lovely euphemism for her passing (“Her body sighs”).  The group was impressed with its nuance and overall feeling.

Ray Turco brought poem Number 32 in his advancing collection of Italian mostly war heroes , this one called “Pietor Micca” which tells the story of  a soldier in the army of the Duchy of Savor.  There was abundant praise for this poem in the tightness of the narrative and strong line endings, but some suggestions about repetitions of words that didn’t bring new meaning to them, and isn’t that the nut at the heart of repetition in poetry.  Words carry their historical allusions into a poem, where they gather new and expanded meaning peculiar to the scene.  When a poem uses a word over and over, the word needs to do new work, not just in terms of meaning, but also rhetorical or metrical work.

And speaking of repetition in poems, John J Trause’s poem “Incestina” was a sestina that played with one of the scenes from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  His six repeating words (as required by the form) were “daughter” “improper” “nymphet” “crossroads” “village” and “Dolores” (Frank liked those), so, even if you didn’t know the scene from the book to which John referred, everyone understood the overall reference.  Don said he enjoyed the quixotic project of the poem since in some sense it’s ridiculous to make a sestina from Lolita, but Tom B made the observation that for all of the obvious and clever resonances, the poem lacked a “narrative line” but simply repeated the same situation.  In his comments at the end of the discussion, JJT pointed out that he had varied the word order of a classical sestina in the last stanza, using the order that Auden, who is generally considered to have revived the use of the sestina in English had used in his (Pasage Moralise?). 

Janet Kolstein is always writing about art, and in “Il Divino” she considers dirt.  The poem starts with a kind of catalog of all the cleaning of ourselves we people do, and this first part ends by referring to our bodies as a “pristine chapel” – which is a glorious rhyme (for Sistine Chapel) that sends her in the direction of Il Divino, one of the nicknames for Michelangelo, the great Italian artist (1475-1564).  And the second stanza of Janet’s poem notes that “there was no time for hygiene” in Michelangelo’s work, neither in his depiction of the biblical characters nor in the “corpses/ he bought for dissection.”  It’s kind of a “why so prissy” poem, but not all the way to an indictment of humanity. 

Barbara Hall brought a lyric poem called “The Birds” (sorry, no copy available), which talked about pain through loss in childbirth, loss of two husbands, a father and brother dying and used the images of birds in an “almost biblical” way (Moira) to capture and make tolerable the pain.

Can’t end these notes without a reference to the amazing open mic at the “Williams Center Virtual Reading for December 2, 2020”   We had Mark F reading his amazing “Lunch at the Titi Hut,” Maria Lisella reading a stunning poem called “My Junk” about an argument she continues to have with her deceased husband about the stuff in their Queens apartment, Davidson Garret’s heart crushing poem going back to the AIDs epidemic called “Death in a Harlem Hospital with Straussian Overtones, December 1, 1996”, Joel Allegretti’s amazing ideogram of a poem called “Meditations in Red”, Susanna Lee’s multiply-rewritten and nuanced “Social Distancing With the Ladies”, and Frank Rubino’s excellent poem about being a young man finding his legs in the New York social scene in the 1970s called “Helena’s). Those are only some of the highlights of a super wonderful reading.  Everything rang true, and there’s no higher praise for a poetry reading than that. 

See you all in black and white!

—Arthur Russell