Field Notes, Week of 01-19-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 19, 2021

I may’ve mentioned I borrowed a book of interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009) called “WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW), edited by Anselm Berrigan. It’s been an amazing way to enter the near distant history of the NY poetry scene through peer on peer conversation.  I’ve only gotten 30 pages in and I’ve already been turned on to Bridgette Mayer, whose 1989 book Sonnets is a great warmup for the Sonnets workshop I’m beginning in March with Joshua Mehigan. No library in BCCLS had it, so I went to buy it on Amazon, and they only had the 25thAnniversary edition (amazing in and of itself to have a 25thanniversary edition), which has a killer sonnet in it about leaving your lover in the morning for the day (or at least that’s what I think its about) called “Holding the Thought of Love.” It has this remark and image to offer: “So let’s not talk of love the diffuseness of which/ …is today defused/ As if by the scattering of light rays in a photograph/ Of the softened reflection of a truck in a bakery window.” That is one sophisticated emotion to be able to suspend in midair. The interview of Mayer, from 1992, when the book Sonnets was still very new, has her talking about sonnets like a kid who’s just figured out how an electrical can opener works (and the mom comes home to find all the dog food cans open on the counter).  

Here’s what she said:

I don’t think I like any of the poets of the past who wrote sonnets, do I?  Oh, of course I do.  Paul goodman.  He writes the most amazing sonnets.  That was a thing that inspired me to write them too, and here are Paul Goodman and Catullus always writing about sex.  Sex works really well in the sonnet form.  And of course Shakespeare, we don’t have to mention him, but another sex poet.

Shakes as a sex poet.  I want to be a sex poet!  So, I’d recommend Mayer, whose more recent book  “Works and Days” (New Directions 2016), had me running to Wikipedia a little more than I usually like, but it’s not her fault that her relationship with Aristotle (read “Soule Sermon” at page 7) is as warm as mine is with the George Reeves tv Superman of the 60s.

In a different interview, I met Harryette Mullen, another poet I’d never heard of and am glad I did, one who works in lists, and enjoys artificial constraints, and Oulipo methods ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oulipo).  Check this one out: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51631/any-lit  

So, on to the workshop.

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Commuting in an Ice Storm.”  He said that rather than describe driving in an ice storm, this was a poem for people who already knew what it was like with “all the trees clacking against themselves.”  I noticed that the lineation at the beginning of the poem on the page seemed to mimic Williams’ “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” with sets of three lines of increasing indents.  I can’t quite figure out why it’s such an engaging form, but it runs really well, gives a feeling of dimensional form and air.  There was a sufficiency of discussion about the poem’s fabulous final image of the trees “who click their many ballpoints at me,/ the hapless tap dance/ of a drum roll on square wheels.”  I think that was one of the things Frank was thinking about when he said the poem was “full of pleasures.” 

When will you make an end, Michelangelo? asked the Pope.  And you, Raymond Turco? with your oems of heroes of Italian independence, when will we see it all together, or do you not know?  This one was about a WWI flying ace not named The Bloody Red Baron: “Francesco Baracca.”

Our sometime visitor, Elinor Mattern brought “Furnishing an American Home,” a political poem in which the speaker’s couch becomes a metaphor for America.   Poems like that need to crackle with originality to avoid broccoli status.  This one has at least one such moment, when the speaker admits that as a child the song lyric “Bombs bursting in air” made her “picture[] bodies bursting in air.” More please!

Susanna Lee’s “Love Talk” was a sensuous dream:  “I’m studying French/ so I can write you a poem/ in the language of love.// I will say the words clearly./ You will feel a gentle caressing/ of your ears by my tongue.// Your ears will be left moist/ and hot/ and open.”  What I loved about it was that it didn’t need French even one little bit to be in the language of love.  The line breaks at “and hot” and “and open” were delicious.

Back to the political stuff, our pal, Susanna Rich brought us a rondo.  https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-rondeau-poem#:~:text=A%20rondeau%20is%20a%20French,between%20eight%20and%2010%20syllables  called “Messiah – A Redoubled Roundabout”  For me, the ess and ex rhymes and the flipping back and forth between the Biblical archetypes and modern day copies (pssst, Trump aint president no more) was distracting, but group didn’t have that problem at all; Yana Kane liked the music, she called it “hissing”, Rob Goldstein (and maybe everyone) liked the line “Weep Abraham, for my impasses/ I am more Jesus than Jesus.”  Cadence, am I right?

Speaking of Yana, here she came with another poem in parts, three.  Called “Metamophosis” it’s a triptych type of invention, with two smaller panels framing a central panel.  The idea of metamorphosis is presented as a change in the light in part 1 (called “Light!”); and in part 3 (“Wings”), metamorphosis is shown as an entomological metaphor (the speaker saw herself emerging from a chrysalis). In the central panel we get a narrative about a Tai Chi master whose zest for learning carried him into class one morning excited to learn a new way to do an old move.  There was a lot of discussion of the title and less about the challenges buddhist/zen master poems in general present.  You want to love them, but pizza is so much more fun.

Carole Stone brought a year-into-the-pandemic poem called “Letter from Verona, New Jersey” that had everything that’s best about Carole Stone poems, a strong sense of place and time, a plain spoken voice, and comfort with all the sentimental touchpoints of the speaker’s life. Starting with “I wish I were writing from Prague or Budapest…” it introduced sadness as an undertone that would carry throughout its ruminations on Mexico, watching Netflix, the death of the poet Eavan Boland, photos of her recently deceased brother, and a long lost friend to whom she’d reached out.  It ends with a pure expression of love: “Have I said how much I love Indian Wells Beach?”  I don’t know nothing about Indian Wells Beach, and didn’t need to look it up to know exactly what she meant.  The only thing annoying about this poem was how much people wanted to change it.  Workshop-itis, is what Jim Klein never called it. 

Shane Wagner was back again with “Retouching,” his tiger-by-the-tail poem about the trust rift between the speaker and the speaker’s father.  This re-write was more of a polishing job than an excavation, and so it must’ve been aggravating for Shane to hear that the stuff people liked last week they no longer liked this week, and vice versa.  One thing for sure.  This is Shane’s poem, Shane’s voice, Shane’s subject, and it keeps getting more Shane-y week by week. 

Barbara Hall’s “Shades of the past” was one of those poems that when you ask the poet about it, they tell you all sorts of interesting shit that should have been in the poem.

My poem (“It was John who took me for dumpling”was like a guy with six fingers on one hand, a sonnet with fifteen lines, one of which had been banished to the title.  Stop being ashamed of your fifteen lines, the group told me.  Or chop off the last line, then bring the title down into the body of the poem.  That sort of amputated polydactyly won’t make me Lucille Clifton, people. Fortunately, the poem was about food and geography which grabbed attention and had a surprising if insubstantial piece of dialogue at the end.

Jen Poteet joined the political poem writing wing of the workshop with a poem called “Straightening Up” about the incident at the US Capitol on January 6.  She rather beautifully captured the simple act of Andy Kim, the young congressman from NJ ‘straightening up’ after the “guests” had left, which she, Jen, had seen on the news, which made the poem into an ekphrasis, and that was the best of it.  Look, I just spent the day crying a little too much during the inauguration but even more hearing people talk about the inauguration on the radio; it’s as though I can’t just feel something when it happens; I need to hear about it from someone else, which reminds me, I didn’t cry when my dad died, but I broke down sobbing when I had to call up his also 91 year old best friend in Florida and tell him. 

Speaking of dads, Rob Goldstein’s poem, “The Key” was a poem told by a son about a dad having to go live in a home.  I thought, everyone pretty much thought, it was a brave poem, with lines like this: “Like life on the outside,/ it was a mixed bag.” 

Frank Rubino brought a sonnet-length poem about being with “her” at a medical procedure where a micro camera was inserted in her nostril.  Don Z called it a masterpiece, and if it was, it was on the strength of the turn (in line 9) where the observation of the procedure changed from neutral ‘what happened’ stuff to the speaker’s close observation of the doctor’s face and ‘her’ face: “& her eyes . . ./ faltered as he moved the micro camera through her nostril –/ & her eyes settled quietly at different times from his,/ & fluttered & became perturbed at different times.”  It was there that the speaker’s emotional stake in the goings on was heightened (looking to other people for clues).  There was a bit of a debate whether the title “Bracelets on Her Wrists and Flowers in Her Hair,” was serving the poem.

So, to recap: three political poems, two sonnets and a rondo, plus a grab-bag of free verse.  I’d say a good night. 

Don’t forget our upcoming Zoom poetry events!

—Arthur Russell