Field Notes, Week of 12-22-20

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.

—Arthur Russell