Field Notes, Week of 12-15-20

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. 

—Arthur Russell