Are You Vulnerable When You Write? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 18, 2021

Hi Everybody-

As a follow on to last week’s alexithymia letter I want to write to you this week citing an album I’ve had on heavy rotation: John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band ( https://open.spotify.com/album/0nYrjKixKaREskGL449EqU )

This album was made in 1970, just after the Beatles broke up. A deluxe edition that came out this year includes multiple takes of each track, showing Lennon’s process as he refined its raw impact. 

I include it as counterpoint to alexithymia because it famously employs primal scream (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy ) and uses personal trauma for its sources. Remember alexithymia’s experience: 

  • Difficulty identifying different types of feelings
  • Limited understanding of what causes feelings
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Difficulty recognizing facial cues in others
  • Limited or rigid imagination
  • Constricted style of thinking
  • Hypersensitive to physical sensations
  • Detached or tentative connection to others

Plastic Ono Band today sounds so real, so urgent, and so pained. In composing it, John Lennon worked with feelings of betrayal and abandonment: its minimal, three piece settings propel, announce, insist. Feelings are central: the songs are hot. They renounce the singer’s idols (one of whom happens to have been himself) and strive for a more humane, reality-based conception of being alive. I recall when I first bought a copy of this album to hear Working Class Hero, with its notorious word ‘fuck’ and played it during dinner to bug my parents. In my recent listening, I’ve become fascinated by the word “Cookie,” whose use in take after take of Hold On testifies to how Lennon valued a ‘casual’ or ’throwaway’ endearment. As the original teen-aged listener, I was embarrassed by the vulnerability of that aside. Now I think vulnerability is real, and real is poems.

When you are writing a poem, are you vulnerable? What’s your “Cookie?”

It’s like John Lennon read last week’s prompt before he wrote Plastic Ono Band’s lyrics: “I have alexithymia:” Take each bullet point in the above list and elaborate. 

This album has enriched my life so much in the past couple of weeks, in part because it enriched my life as a High Schooler, and it makes a prism between then-me and now-me. Do you use your poems as time-traveling mirrors?

Critics complained of Plastic Ono Band’s emphasis on self-expression. As a High Schooler, I was inclined to agree, even as I memorized the album. Today, I think the critics were blind. Have you reclaimed anything that was uncomfortable for you?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture