Field Notes, Week of 01-12-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 12, 2021

I arrived at the workshop very late on Tuesday.  I was at the introductory or welcoming Zoom for a year-long Mentorship Program sponsored by Brooklyn Poets.  I’ll tell you more about it as we go along, share what I learn, but the basics are: there are twelve of us mentees (dementees?), various ages, backgrounds, located mostly in the northeast, but west coast too and one zooming in from Singapore.  The idea of the program is an alternative to an academic MFA, with coursework and regular conferences and “craft talks” from the Mentor, Jay Deshpande, elective courses with other teachers in the BKP staff (stable), with an emphasis that is sometimes missing from academic programs, on developing a cohort of colleagues (which sounds to me a bit like the RWB workshop, but hey).  Mostly it’s a chance to work.

I arrived at the workshop in time to hear the end of the discussion of Claudia‘s “About the past,”  which the poem both is and isn’t at the same time. On one level it’s a complaint about how the speaker’s family doesn’t talk about the past, how the true past of famine and death is silenced, but on another level it is very specifically about that family, including a grandfather who “count[s] the beans” in the mother’s bowl, and a grandmother who “counts the spoonfuls of cornmeal” hidden “on top of the cupboard for my father.” And in a lovely turn, the speaker finds herself talking about the past in the same masked manner:  I open my mouth and the past rushes forth/ with all its cornmeal and beans/ that I foolishly keep counting/ like the dead.”

Tom Benediktsson brought another family poem, “666”, which figures forth the Beast of the Apocalypse as a tired mayhem worker pooping out on the poet’s porch to complain about pop music and the good old days, when evil really counted for something in the world. Like most of Tom’s work recently, the avatars of evil are ridiculous, and satisfy his growling anger with Donald John Trump (that’s the way they address him when he’s being impeached). What’s sly about this poem is the way the poem ends with the Beast disappearing and the family of the homeowner/poet going shopping, at CVS! Where they find “fifty kinds of deodorant, each one with a different scent.” Could the Beast of the Apocalypse be within us?

John J. Trause brought a prose poem called “An Attempt at Describing an Embarrassing Occurrence in San Antonio,” that begins with the all caps word “PURPLE” as though it were the warning on a label for an over-the-counter drug, warning the reader of purple prose to come, and boy-oh-boy is it ever!  An over-the-top description of a family outing on a “bright and bonny Sunday in San Antonio” serves as a shaggy dog to the revelation of an XYZ moment.  

Yana Kane brought a rewrite of her poem about the hope for a bright spring, this time called “Breaking Trail.” If you remember the earlier version, the poem noodled into this observation that the poem only exists in words and the words become the experience. Here, that thematic observation moves into a deeper place, as a stand-in for the speaker’s own experience of winter struggles and the longing for springtime:

Struggling through the exile of winter,
longing for spring,
words break trail,
meander across blankness,
lose their way,
read the constellations,
press on.

It’s a fascinating transference, and an audacious move. Can the reader (perhaps another poet?) sympathize with the struggles and longings of words? And what do we make of the second “half” of this poem, which abandons the “words” as subject and looks outward at the objective manifestations of the seasons: “snow, wind, sunshine, ice” and the “wild geese glid[ing] to the melting pond”?

 Moira O’Brien‘s “Round Table” is a memoir in tone, about the speaker’s salad days (“a dewy nineteen-year-old”) as a waitress at the Candlewyck Diner.  Mark Fogarty has set at least one and maybe several of his poems at this venerable sling-hashery, including (I think) one that imagined an alien invasion.  (I feel a collection coming on).  Moira’s poem captures the “breakfast and bullshit” valedictory the overnight staff would indulge in before peeling off for home.  The poem exhibits its bonafides in the evocation of the clientele, including this description of the late/early arrivals:  “The rush closed with bar managers/ and the occasional exotic dancer/ not eating her scampi.”  

Frank Rubino‘s poem, “The Path,” is not about Communist ideology. It’s one of his suburban moments stretching towards truth; the front path to the speaker’s house has been relaid, and the speaker’s daughter has told the speaker that the speaker’s son has walked on it before it “cured.” So the speaker worries about his son’s behaviors, and this leads him to worry about his own life as a provider, and we see him looking out the front window of his house until that thought runs dry and he turns back into the room to see the toes of his wife, including their toenail polish, poking out of the covers. It’s all there. When I read Frank’s poems these days, I get the feeling that his poetry is like one of those old time “real” cameras with an numerous adjustments, for f-stop, focus, lighting, exposure time, and the rest, and that he’s experimenting with all the settings. I can’t wait to see his next exposure (there’s a revision of Frank’s poem in word attached).

Don Z brought “Five Haiku on the Winter Evening After Steve Died.” The poem uses the haiku form (5-7-5) in a new way that draws on the incantational strengths of other forms like villanelle and sestina; the repeated elements, “part of our brain” “whatever parts” “whole” “constructs” illuminate and populate the emptiness of loss.  

Speaking of villanelles, Charlotte Kerwick (who returned last week after an absence) brought “A Villanelle.”   Her repeated lines “I wish I was dead is on repeat in my head” and “keep me in bed all full of dread” lock us into an ambitious evocation of insomnia and sleeplessness.  

Raymond Turco can’t stop himself. His poem “Antonia Masanello” is probably the 30th or so in his poetic sequence of Italian heroes, this one about a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the liberators in the Battle of Milazzo.  

And then there was “The Neighbor’s German Shepherds Rush Me,” with the author’s name omitted, and me having missed the workshop, I’m thinking, Brendan? Is that you?  But how to explain the “stuffed ponies, Cinderella records [and watching] Lassie?”  The poem may be a cross between Tom Benediktsson’s horror stories and Frank Rubino’s suburban soul searchers. A pack of 5 neighbor dogs annoy the hell out of the speaker, who is nonetheless observant enough to see that one of them, Dog One, has a calm, observant demeanor.  That’s the wonderful moment of the poem.  There’s also a fuzzier evocation of the speaker’s relation to his father, who appears to have suffered from multiple personality disorder.
 
Anyway, sorry I missed some of the discussion, and hope to see you all again with fresh work or revisions on Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell