Jim’s Firm Bottom: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Sit Anywhere

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 30, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I’m feeling hassled by work and I’ve been devoting a lot of time to my chapbook mss this week so this might be short.

I’ve been listening to George Saunders’s audio book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life” (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0871LKPJ3/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title)

It’s great as an audio book because it’s based on Saunders’ college lectures.

Saunders opens the book with an anecdote which could be of great value to us. Working on one of his stories with Bill Buford, the editor of the New Yorker, he complained of Buford’s constant critiques. “What is it about this story that you actually like?” he asked. “I like,” said Buford, “that I read one line, and I like it enough that I want to read the next. And then I read the next line and I like that one enough to read the next. And I just go like that all the way to end.”

The first part of Saunders’s book is built around a Chekov story, “In The Cart.” Saunders guides us through a reading of the story page by page. He focuses us, as readers, on the experience of receiving and processing information. After each page “we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?” 

It’s important to note, he says, that before you start, “as regards In The Cart, your mind is a perfect blank.”

We can read poems this way. Jim Klein talked about the sentence as a force that builds with each clause, and releases its energy at the end: maximum sentence impact requires precise information delivery. Usually the most important pieces of information in English sentences are in the beginnings and endings. That corresponds with a way of breaking your poetic line: Start a line with an important word where possible, and end a line with another important word. Stanza endings and poem endings are places where the most important information can deliver the most energy. Syntax gives you a way of regulating information delivery in a sentence so you can put this powerful information in the most effective positions.

Arthur Russell’s poems which use the techniques of fiction like character, setting, and plot, are little masterpieces of information deployment. In last week’s “Vesuvius Bakery,” for instance, his main character walks down a staircase in the second stanza, which puts him in a memory on another staircase, descending which prompts another memory of the hours just before. The complex timeline is structured across the stanzas to deliver of the most intimate, vulnerable detail in the most powerful position of the poem: the end. We don’t know where he’s going after the first staircase: we expect it has something to do with what we do know: he’s been in a museum looking at a painting about memory and time. What if he just started describing other paintings in the museum? He could have, but we might not have stayed until the end, where he surprised us with the last bit of information.

So back to sentences, syntax, and word order.

Line by line, is your poem likeable?

How does your syntax relate to your line breaks?

Does your poem control the flow of information?

Are there other ways that poems are like stories?

How’s this work on poems you return to again and again, where your mind isn’t a perfect blank? Is there another part of you that approaches a poem “blank”?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture