Field Notes, Week of 02-23-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 23, 2021

I’ve mentioned the book What is Poetry (Just Kidding I Know You Know), Interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter a few times and I’ll do it again now. These interviews are a look back at the NY poetry scene in the 1990s-early aughts, but I still haven’t gotten past 1997 (and I ran out of renewals from the library, so I returned it and then submitted a request for it, so I should have it back soon). These poets, many of them had their starts in the 1960s, and in these interviews they talk about the older poets who inspired them, going even further back, so the interviews really cover a great swath of time.

I wanted to call out an interview in that book by Lisa Jarnot of John Godfrey, because some of the things he says are priceless; he says “Poetry is like DNA or fingerprints, and that’s what you aspire to. You aspire to realizing your DNA when you write , and that’s not easy to find out and you try to approach it more and more as you go along.” There’s a lot more good stuff in the interview, so I recommend it.

In our workshop, Don Zirilli brought an amazing list poem called “My Symptoms.” It’s a poem of forty one-line stanzas (sometimes called “monostichs” or “onesets”), in which he presents humorous, discordant or terrifying states of affair, such as “The other day was something like three months ago” “Way in the back of my head is a wet ball of oatmeal,” “I think I might come off with my clothes” and “It’s like a headache without the head.”  When you can write lines like that you have a symptom called ‘being a poet.”

Janet Kolstein brought a chilling poem about a suicide death at a high rise apartment house viewed from above called “Snow Angel.” Although the poem doesn’t mention the snow after the title, the silent movie of the removal of the corpse implicitly refers to the snow when it ends “A dark, wet spot remained where/ his body spent the last of its heat.” 

Susanna Lee brought a poem called “Death-Cleaning” and Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books,” both addressing the issue of mortality through the agency of books. Susanna considered the vacuum left by never having become an underground comix writer. Rob considered pruning his bookshelves, to which his speaker has a profound attachment. It was interesting how the attachment evidenced itself.  In the first section of the poem, the speaker fetishizes the books by playing word games with the titles.  In the second section, he talks about how a random conversation with “nice lady/ at a call-center” gave him the courage to toss some books, and in the third section, the depth of the charge becomes more personal when he comes across an inscription from a long-ago girlfriend in a book called Philosopher or Dog and once again has to boost his conviction to divest with the hearty exhortation” “Cast off, old man, cast off!” Nice work, Rob.

In an unrelated “casting off” event, Raymond Turco brought us the “Introduction” to the book of short biographical poems about famous Italians that he’s been working on for months, and we learned that the title of the book will be “Italians to Remember.” In this Introduction, the poet calls himself the “god of elegies,/ of paeans,/ of dirges,/ of odes” and promises to sing of Italy’s victories and defeats.  In a tumbled metaphor he announces that he will “blow” the names and the histories of Italy “down the River Po/ so that even the smallest altruist/ among men and among women all,/ may fill their lungs with [his] spirit/ and be gifted a glorious voice/ with which to sing.” 

Tom Benediktsson took a break from his recent sci-fi/fantasy/horror poems to bring one he called “Window, Moon, Window” and described as a “tone poem” Following the script of its title, it starts out inside a room looking at a blizzard through the window, then ventures outside to look at the night sky, then ends “afloat on a ghost boat” where the speaker encounter “a bird,/ an old man,// [who] wants to talk to [him]” one he remembers from another time when the bird/old man “flew against the window.”

John J. Trause brought another segment of his triptych: “My Marilyn: A Triptych.” This panel, “Marilyn Framed” has an incantatory children’s rhyme feel as it addresses the effect celebrity had on the actress. The group was taken by the multiple valences of the word “framed”

Jen Poteet’s poem, “Looking at Edward Hopper’s Paintings with Mark Strand” was just that. The speaker and Strand are at a Hopper exhibit in Truro (Mass?).  Their comments back and worth are interspersed with descriptions of two of Hopper’s famous paintings. 

Shane Wagner brought a list poem called “Does Desire End?” (Spoiler alert: no). The poem used anaphora—the repeating phrase at the beginning of each stanza “My favorite”—about the speaker’s marriage and sexual desire between spices. Sometimes, when the thing described as ‘my favorite’ seemed undesirable, like “I couldn’t get an erection” tension emerged, but for the most part it was a prayer/celebration about the good times.

My own poem, no title, first line “My grandfather read mothwings by the fire,” was fourteen lines long in two stanzas of 8 and 6 lines each, loosely organized as blank verse. It presented a familiar domestic scene, grandfather reading by the fire, grandson taking the old man up to bed then straightening up. It was a bit of a headscratcher for the group.

JOHN J TRAUSE’S READING AT THE WILLIAMS CENTER ON ZOOM WILL BE NEXT WEDNESDAY, MARCH 3, 2021, AND ITS GONNA BE A GOOD ONE, I ALREADY KNOW. So come, and if you don’t have an announcement with the zoom line on it, (1) where have you BEEEN? and (2) write back and I’ll see that you get it.

—Arthur Russell