The Price of Attention: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino‘s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 8

Hi Everybody-

I listened to Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense this week ( 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 ( 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?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture