Field Notes, Week of 12-29-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of
December 29, 2020

I was reading Anselm Berrigan’s introduction to the book WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW) – INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983-2009) this morning when I encountered this passage that seemed so important to what we do at our workshop and WCW readings:

“The Poetry Project in the 1960s and ‘70s wasn’t just a place to go give a reading and cross off some list of desired venues.  The point was to be exposed, to expose your rawest risk-taking work to a discerning audience, one that would let you know right there whether it’s working or not, and to participate in that as communal process.”

Always, there is that sense that we are getting the news from one another, that we are reading/hearing what is freshest, what is newest and most urgent, what we have an inkling about, what exposes us to “a discerning audience.”  Even the stuff we get into books or magazines isn’t as fresh as the stuff that shows up every Tuesday.  The poems we are so anxious to publish that we are so anxious to get into books and get those books published, they’re like canned or frozen vegetables, yesterday’s news, while the workshop and our monthly readings are, in comparison, like a farmer’s market on a Saturday in July:  “Look what I just pulled out of the ground!” “Look what I just pulled down from a tree!”  “Look what I just harvested from my cheese cave!”  

Claudia Serea’s poem “On a street in Long Island City” had just such an inkling; you could feel the image forming and turning in the first stanza:  “When it gets dark, someone turns on the lights,/ someone who lives alone/ as the moon lives alone.”  And then, in the third, “And the lights send a message/ to the visitor at the end of the street: Hi there, here’s the light/ to guide you to the door.”  And you could feel the whole workshop brighten with the surprise of the light talking.

Lan Chi Pham’s poem, “Deathbed” got the whole group going too, a lyric that sought to squeeze the essence of a dying father’s life into the last words for each of his family members. Frank was a little leery when people started playing with Lan Chi’s poem as though it were made of refrigerator magnets, asking, and getting the chance to change it from centered lines to hard left lines, to remove the quotes, to indent the quotes, to re-order the quotes, but Lan Chi was game, and whether or not she agreed with all the suggestions, she got to see her risk taking poem in the hands of a discerning audience, succeeding.  (the attachment shows some of those changes).

Susanna Rich came back for a second week of abuse with a poem in the form of an email message: “To: loneliness@rejects.ord; cc: solitude@whoknew.org; Subject: Thanks; Attachments None.”   What was so lovely about the title of the poem was how it turned the form of an email into content, and gave us a clear idea of the tone she was trying to evoke; even the last 2 lines of the poem “It’s my way of saying…/send” brightened with the joy of making this tired medium new.  

Shane Wagner brought “Retouching” which was a more than a retouching of his poem from last week, “Explicit”  It was a re-visioning of the driving emotion of that gnomic, enigmatic poem about lost trust in his father (who wasn’t named).  Here, the elided heart of that poem was bodied forth in the two photos that the poem/poet is trying to reconcile: “If I could fold the two photographs in the right way, look at them edge on, peel the layers, subject them to immense pressure . . . could I collapse the distance between us?”  It’s a poem about a son wishing for a kind of superheroism.  

Speaking of bravery, Jen Poteet brought her first ever attempt at a sonnet, “Sales Girl” and for all its rough edges, its abandoned rhyme scheme, its raw beginning, it was arresting; a vision of the titular sales girl plying her trade with this little bit of salesgirl wisdom at its center:  “And what she has been trained to know: retreat./ Let the shoppers wander for a while and choose/ on their own the goods they want. She is nearby/ but hangs stock still….”  It’s an original, deeply observed character study in the works.

Raymond Turco brought “Samantha Cristoforetti” a poem about the first Italian female astronaut, which he said is scheduled to be the final poem in his project about Italian heroes, most of whom are warriors, while this one is a hero who sees a world without borders and possibly without the need for war.  Ray said he’d consider circulating the completed MS to the group when it’s done.

Carole Stone brought a rewrite of her poem about being a teacher and being a student of poetry with Stanley Kunitz as her teacher.  Kind of a memoir in form, it recalls her “aqua Plymouth … whose starter buttons took forever,” and the poems she wrote “in imitation of T.S. Eliot, the poetry god…”  As Kunitz is her emblem of a teacher who rewards the speaker with praise, a boy named Nicky Van Herpen becomes her emblem of a student, whose mother praises the speaker, as a teacher.

Frank brought a courageous poem called “Terence” which dives headlong into the challenges of suburban step-parenthood, a poem about an extension cord, a garage, and animal tracks in the snow.  And nature supplies the raw materials for a détente between stepfather and stepdaughter, Vy or VeeVee: “Our yard is bounded by a holly bush and a number of liberal fences/ that afford free passage, and the animals are all very busy/ gaming the system, and VeeVee shared with me/ her pleasure discovering that, per their snow prints,/ they live here with us, doing things in groups, at night,/ like bunnies in families…” 

Myself, I wimped out and brought a piece of short fiction called “Two Cops Come to the Door,” a kind of frolic, or as Susanna called it, a comic monologue.  

Goodbye to 2020.  It was rough on the world, that’s evident, and I think it was rough on a few of us, but looking back over the year in RWB workshops, I am very happy with how things turned out; it was another year of the best darned poets in northern New Jersey slinging hash. 

Thanks to Frank for co-leading the workshop with me since Covid moved us onto Zoom in April.  And thanks to all our regulars and the new members we gained through the ease of Zoom. Next year in Jerusalem. 

—Arthur Russell