Field Notes, Week of 02-09-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021

I had this other thought about reading poems; reading, your mind wanders, words, phrases pull you into reverie and you miss something, or you read something you disagree with or would have done differently, or just resent. All of these pull you away from the text; it’s like reading a poem, the act of reading (even if it’s hearing) pulls you away from the poem. Maybe it’s a personal defect, but I think it’s more common than that. So, I’m in a workshop now with 11 other poets writing a poem a week, and posting them on Wet Ink, and wanting to respond, but being constantly pulled this way and that, I decided to try this: read the poem once, then read it out loud and record it on my phone.  Then play it back as many times as I need to, maybe while preparing dinner.  The oddball bits I want to change become less distracting, the relation of parts to each other becomes a little clearer, what the heck is going on goes from ‘who is this person, anyway’ to ‘who is this person, anyway’  (just kidding). And the investment in time is minimal, for most poems, a minute or so.  I hit the play button over and over until I’ve noticed more and more things about it, and rather than like or dislike, I can talk about what it is, and not just the formal elements of meter, rhyme, stanza, but the angle of attack, the emotion hiding behind the cleverness, shit like that. So I’m recommending that: hit record; hit play; hit play; hit play (the peculiarities of your own voice disappear, the line you misread repairs itself). Someone once told me, the first time you read a poem (story) you read it to find yourself in it; the second time, you read it, you read it to find the author in it, but around about the third time, it’s the poem.  It’s just that thing, fragment, remains, song.

Frank put my poem, “Authorities,” first in the packet, so I’ll tell you, I wrote it in Deshpande workshop on form, session 1, “Couplets, Tercets, Quatrains and Monostichs.” The monostich is the one line stanza (what I used to call the self-aggrandizing line). A poem made of monostichs can be used for list poems, or prophesy, or I spy with my little eye, and if you have a gift for aphorism, the monostich poem may be the venue for you. I thought it provided a networking possibility for non sequiturs, and found that I was talking a lot about who to listen to. I was very happy with the shape of it.

One of the authorities I appealed to in “Authorities” was the poets who come to watch me write my poems, and Jen Poteet brought something of the same modality to “Hart Crane and I File for Unemployment” – another in her series of poems that bring dead poets back to life for companionship and anachronism. Here, in free verse of no particular meter, she draws parallels and differences to hers and Hart’s situations. I thought the device was wonderful, especially when she and Hart “gaze/ out his kitchen window/ at the Brooklyn Bridge, its gleaming girders/ torched by winter sunlight.”

Ray Turco is getting more and more guff from the group over his biographical/ hagiographical sketches of heroes of Italian independence, in particular the prose sketches the follow, mirror and only alter slightly the information presented in the preceding poem. This one, “Maddalena Cerasuolo,” dips back to WWII for the story of a resistance fighter.  I pointed out that the whole middle stanza was made of sentences with the same syntax, dependent clauses followed by main clauses, which become distancing, informational, and repetitive. Maybe that’s what he wants, someone said.

Speaking of hagiography, John J. Trause returned with the middle tych of a triptych about Marilyn Monroe, called “St. Marilyn Chrysotricha,” which presents the movie star in a tongue-in-cheek manner as a saint. People loved it’s humor, and no one doubted that Marilyn deserves canonization.

Susanna Lee, back from a sad time out to mourn the loss of Arliss her dog, brought a stunningly simple and beautiful poem (“Poetry Practice) of one sentence in three free-verse quatrains (so similar in shape and form to “This is Just to Say” by WCW), in which her little kindnesses define a practice of poetry that we could admire. There was a lot of talk about the last stanza (which seems appropriate) because the participle “blessing” aroused attention. After all, the participle “leaving” had started the second stanza, and “blessing” didn’t seem to have an object, or maybe blessing seemed to religious. Anyway, we all got out our editorial pencils – we love changing poems too much – and gave Susanna a few suggestions to honor what we took to be her intention.

Barbara Hall brought “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” about which some people said that Barbara and the shells could stay, but Wallace Stevens had to go. He was gumming up the works. My favorite line was X, “Clam shells ease open when steamed in a pot to yield/ one of my favorite seafood dishes: steamed clams.” Wallace Stevens has to go, but Gertrude Stein can stay!

Shane Wagner brought us a short story called “Tourist”, a sci fi disease adventure of the future. Myself, I was drawn to the description of the big fireplace in the fourth paragraph, with Jacob, the host if not the hero of the story, building a fire of “quartered logs the length of his arm, two in one direction, then two in the other and so on until the pile was chest high.” And I liked how Ava watching the conflagration “imagined Jacog as a boy at this hearth learning the technique form his father….”    

Yana Kane’s poem, “Family Tree” takes that ready-made metaphor, and then talks about tree stuff as a means of elucidating family. It has great repetitions of “too many times” that provide the ostinato of the poem, and you do get the feeling that the speaker’s family’s been through a lot, but for me, the suggestion of a family wasn’t strong enough to break through the news of what happened to the tree.

Don Zirilli’s poem “Welcome to My Giant Castle of Myself” was, according to Don, inspired by wondering how you could invite someone into your life, but maybe never succeed. So the poem uses what he called “untethered metaphor” to animate the house. I liked best the parts where the human idiosyncrasy was built right into the structure: “I’m trying to get better lighting/ but the ceilings are worried about you./ Not all the angles understand/ how to accommodate your perspective./ Be careful of the well/ in the drawing room.”

Our fearless leader, Frank, brought “How Can a Loser Ever Win” in which he fell into the wake of Kyle Brosnihan’s big poem “Empire” which Kyle read last week as the feature at the RWB reading last Wednesday. What Frank had admired about Kyle’s poem was the way it took a simple core and built out from it lyrically, finding places where iteration was the driver and elaboration was the lyric experiment.  He hit pay dirt many times in this piece, but none better than the tercet in the second stanza: “I want to change my job into a ministry./ I want to change my computer skills into hospice skills./ I want to change my blue jeans into a sari and wear a kimono and toga.”  You could feel the tug of the desire to do good, and then the sourpuss of middle age reassert itself in the monostich stanza that followed: “I want to change a few enemies into whale shit.” 

All in all, another day at the workshop with my friends.  Try recording these poems and playing them back.

—Arthur Russell