Field Notes, Week of 01-26-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26, 2021

We got the news yesterday that Mark Fogarty, the Editor in Chief and the Publisher of the Red Wheelbarrow Journal and the MC of the Gainville Café sessionss, and a stalwart member of the RWB workshop since its beginning, is retiring from his posts after work for the last 13 years at least on the journal, many excellent Friday nights of love and music, including his bass playing and singing.  Losing both Mark and Jim Klein to retirement in one year is a big loss for the group, so I just wanted to shout out our gratitude to both of them for their work, their spirits and their love of poetry.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “A Last Act” is a fifteen line narrative piece of free verse in two stanzas, each of which presents the facts of a different part of the day of a burial.  The poem begins when most of the mourners have left the gravesite and “the men moved in” – the men who do shovel the dirt.  The speaker’s family, including girls who “played hide-and-seek among the monuments” remain behind.  At the center of the poem a strong declarative places the day in the context of a survivor’s life: “It’s the last, firming act of adulthood when your parents die,/ though I don’t confuse it with maturity.”  The poem never tells us whose parent died, which gives the voice a certain internality and adds to the sense of stillness that the poem generates from beginning to end. 

The second stanza, of four lines, brings us back to the graveyard later in the day, “after dinner and recollections,” as the speaker drives by, looking through the green gate, looking for the grave, taking note of the flowers that the men had set on the mound “nicely,/ a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.  Tom B said that the speaker of the poem was hiding their feelings. The way the speaker doesn’t tell us the relationship between the decedent and themselves but declares the place a parent’s death takes is one example.  And look at those last two lines again: the speaker, driving past the cemetery sees the grave through the gate and declares, in a very third person way that the flowers are  “a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.”  Well, there IS a person passing and seeing right at that moment, and it’s not “anyone”— it’s the speaker.  So whether they are hiding their feelings  as Tom says, or presenting them through the filter of distancing effects (and through the green gate), it gives the poem its enduring sense of stillness.  (Frank didn’t like the title.  Neither did I, and there were a bunch of other editorial comments on syntax and word choice.)  I for one would love to see this near-sonnet again.

Speaking of maintaining a distance from emotion, Raymond Turco’s poem “Nilde Iotti” brings his book of Italian heroes more deeply into the twentieth century that some of his others.  The subject was a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, who (spoiler alert) had an affair and child with a married man.  As always, in this collection, Ray works in free verse, does not eschew archaicisms, and addresses his subjects as “you” while maintaining a third-person-ish distance that frequently, as here, creates a jarring contrast of familiarity and anonymity.  Like Michelangelo’s slaves, they only emerge halfway from their stones. 

Speaking of poems written in the second person that maintain an emotional distance from their subject, Susanna Rich’s poem “e-ro-teme/ n. 1. A mark indicating a question” is a lyrical love poem in free verse stanzas of three lines each that magnifies the adoration of a loved one’s hair curling around their ear.  The magnification is achieved through lingering on the possibilities of the moment, and the distancing is achieved through a kind of intelligent coyness, allowing the fascination of the peculiar word – eroteme — that describes a question mark, to dominate, even going as far as presenting the word, separated (in the title) into its syllables in a way that sneakily calls out the “eros” lurking in “eroteme.”  Tom thought the poem digressed. Jen must’ve agreed because she said to take out the comparison to “yin and yang,” and Claudia Serea asked in the politest way possibly, why the heck the poem needed three-line stanzas.

Shane Wagner, fresh from three consecutive rewrites of his last photo-based poem “Retouching” (about the broken bond between father and son) brought “Polaroids” a love poem (also in the second person) in which the love is shared between those old-fashioned Polaroids with a white border, and the subject of the poem, the “you” who is nude in the third stanza and pregnant in the fourth (talk about fast developing!).  The poem evoked a lot of nostalgia for the old technology (and Don said there’s an app that can make any photo look like it was taken by a 1970s Polaroid, and a lot of editorial comments. 

What would our work as a workshop be if it wasn’t about trying to fix a poem?  When we edit, we erase what we don’t like or don’t understand to make the poem conform to our norms; we substitute ourselves for the poet; we say, if I were writing this poem, this is how I would do it.  Well, hooray for that, and no doubt that can be helpful.  I’ve been an advocate in workshop for reading the poem twice and even three times before we say anything about it, because it keeps the poem in front of us in the poet’s words, allows us a chance to enter the poet’s intentions as hidden in a condensation of syntax, diction, line breaks, assonance, metaphor and a dozen other strategies.  Gives us a chance to say what IS happening in the poem instead of what SHOULD happen in the poem.  And that can be helpful to everyone, not just the poet.

Mike Mandzik, the inside of whose mind is a pinball machine, brought a poem called “RED FLAG” about an unfortunate misunderstanding in love, in which, as usual, the guy doesn’t know what went wrong, only that he’s not getting any pussy for a while.  Mike, want to come over to my place for the Super Bowl?

Carole Stone brought “Somewhere Else” a good poem (with a shitty title) where her plainspoken mid-century voice tallies the facts and artifacts of age: hurting legs, a bit of kindness from the guy in the liquor store, a beloved book on her desk, and hair getting long during the pandemic.  And remarkably, the poem is overtly about the very sort of emotional distancing that we talked about in Brendan’s, Raymond’s and Susanna Rich’s poem, except this poem records that difficulty as the turn that ends the poem:  “I think I’m closer to putting my emotions/ on the page.  I’ve almost stopped longing/ to be somewhere else.”

Yana Kane’s poem “Tai Chi Teacher” is a re-write of her triptych about a tai chi master whose lessons survive him.  It’s in four sections now (Quad-tych?) of varying length and uneven stanza lengths, still in free verse, and even more clearly now an elegy to this mentor.  It starts with the highly formal address: Our Tai Chi teacher,/ Master Yu,/ was in the eighty-first year of his life,” and as the poem proceeds, it adopts several forms of address all typical of the elegy form: narrative of an incident in which the aged teacher showed openness to learning, strong declarations of inviolable truths (“Life does not make bargains…”) and expressions of personal grief (“Now I gaze at the blank pages…But the pages remain empty”); grief in ritual (“Looking at a snowy hill… I see the shaven head of the nun/ Who recited the sutras”) and the consolation of memory (“Ten years have passed . . .). One of the traditional moves of the elegy form that this poem does not engage with is the effort to place the life and loss of the beloved in the wider context of the world. (see “Lycidas” by John Milton).    

My poem was a haiku:  “The cardinal ate/ the suet cake into the/shape of a cardinal.” In the hands of most haiku practitioners I’ve encountered on the dusty road to hell, the form has, until recently, been a mystery of shallow ironies to me.  But then a few weeks back, I conceived of the form as a three-line poem with two turns, and then I saw the potential for doing some real damage in it.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.

Don Z’s poem, “The New Ideas in Chess,”  Susanna said, recognizes chess’s role as a metaphor for life. 

Frank said it was about endless conflict.  Brendan more or less agreed. 

Moira’s poem, “Twitch, No Twitch” is about that whole suburban obsession with the animals that dare to live near us, and the fight for survival and the confrontations that come from it.  It’s free verse, seven uneven stanzas long, narrative, prosy, and concerns two different denizens of that suburban cosmos: squirrels and hawks.  The squirrel bit lets us see one in the jaws of a fox, confirming that the game is for keeps, but also wonders what the heck these rodents want, including the possibility of flirtation.  The hawk portion tells of today’s confrontation, which is almost surreal, between the speaker and the bird, who stare at one another, one with god’s standard ocular equipment and the other with binoculars, which leads the speaker to conceive of them as dueling snipers. 

Janet K’s poem “Starz Who’ve “Sadly” Died” is a rewrite of her poem “Gone This Year TCM Remembers” and like that draft, it wades into the questions of reality and fantasy that celebrity and movies always prompt, and those questions tie back to our own of mortality and memory.  It’s free verse, prosy, meditative, and as in the first draft, it takes place in the automobile, American home of such meditations (remember, Brendan McEntee’s speaker driving past the cemetery?).  What Janet handles so well is the way crossing currents of belief and cynicism cross, never better than in the lines:

The car radio sings step into eternity,

and I’m cushioned in a moving shell,

an intimate place to dwell on the passing of stars and time,

as the Subaru’s odometer marks mine.

I’d thing, get lost, nostalgia,/

even as I summon it.

Note the assonance/rhyme of shell/dwell, and time/mine.  What are they doing?  Is it the lyrical work of elaboration, stopping time? 

See you all next week, and don’t forget on Feb 3, 2021, Wednesday night at 7, to leave some time for the RWB monthly reading and open mic, with this month’s feature, Kyle Brosnihan!  (Zoom link forthcoming from Frank).

—Arthur Russell