Field Notes, Week of 07-27-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 27, 2021

It seems that this week’s workshop was all about costs and benefits of different formal and substantive choices in poems. We saw that the decision to use a formal device whether it’s a traditional one like assonance, anaphora or metaphor, or putting a poem in the form of a dialogue, or a newer formal device like adding footnotes to a poem, or changing the layout of the poem on the page can serve the poet’s purposes of identifying their work as “poetry” but also bring with them expectations that the poem can meet or fail to meet and exact costs and sacrifices the poet needs to be aware of and possibly manage.

Claudia Serea‘s poem, “The retouching team is working hard,” brought the political reality of the propaganda in the Communist regime of her native Romania to the fore, where making the political leader look good was a priority, and  ironically adopting the perspective of a supporter of media manipulation. Her poem focused on photoshopping government portraits of leaders to make them look good. Ana Doina agreed with the political point, suggesting it’s not only Romania that promoted such hero augmentative strategies, but other Communist block and authoritarian controlled countries, including an endorsement of the technique Claudia’s poem mentioned of never showing a strongman with their hat in their hand. No one had anything to say about the prosody of the poem because (1) Claudia is just so damn good at what she does; and (2) when politics come in the door, prosody goes out the window. And it raises the question: how far can political irony take a poem?

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Everything I do is stitched.” The poem, whose text relates to craft-work with fabric, has a principal text and a set of footnotes. For example, the first line of the poem says “Everything I do is stitched with color” and contains footnotes to the word “stitched” and the word “color.” The footnote to “stitched” is a four line definition of the word followed by a explanation of how the speaker threads a needle or uses a sewing machine when hand stitching becomes too difficult. The footnote to “color” provides a definition of the word and then is a friendly tone calls out the mnemonic device—Roy G. Biv—that is used to teach children the color spectrum. And so the short poem about craft continues annotating itself until the footnotes occupy almost half the page. This use of footnotes within the poem (as opposed by footnotes added by editors of an anthology) is a formal element of the prosody, no different fundamentally than any other manipulation that brings new voices or multiple voices into a poem, such as collage and erasure. The footnote, with its traditional textual role of explanation or amendment, brings with it expectations of authority and dignity that can be in dialogue with the principal text, reinforcing or subverting the message of the poem. The success or failure of the technique depends, like everything else, on how well it is done and for what purpose, how much tension —in this case—is created between text and what is literally subtext. Barbara’s footnotes provide definitions. Barbara uses the footnotes for the anodyne purpose of providing definitions, and historical background to her stitching practice. And on one level, the footnotes enact the process of stitching: attaching subtext to text, which is clever. But the concern, as with everything, is whether the device earns its place in the poem by delivering in meaning than it demands in effort. The footnote project calls a lot of attention to itself as a form and demands a lot of effort from the reader.

John J. Trause‘s poem “Magic Fingers” is a Trausian romp of the first order that —like Barbara’s poem—draws a lot of formal attention to itself, though not with footnotes, but foregrounded music; the poem is chockablock with assonance and near rhyme around the words beginning with haich or sounding like “hotel” and the gerund case “ing”—as in the lines “hoteling and motelling, modelling and hostelling,/ no telling what else,/ and retelling ….” Like others of John’s poems it borrows (sometimes frantically) from popular movie culture with references to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Seberg, and seems like it will function only on that playful level until it resolves in the final stanzas to a plaintive call for Olga Khokhlova, Pablo Picasso’s first wife, which is surprisingly effective at changing the lyric tone of the poem.

My poem, “Ode To The Place At the Northern End of Manhattan….” is, as advertised, a lyric song of praise to a place with nostalgic significance. When I wrote the poem a few years ago it was in a blocky left justified form, and it had several more sections than are shown here. Recently, I read of book called Crush by Richard Siken, who used what I’d call an exploded arrangement of the poem on the page that infused his work with a lot of energy, and I liked it. So I took the first section of the Ode and, with only minor editorial changes to the text, changed its layout to look a little like Siken’s “Scheherazade”  and I liked it a lot. Personally, I think that making mechanical changes to form and layout, moving a poem into short lines, long lines, couplets, tercets, and quatrains, just changing the font or font size, all of these and many more are fantastic, ‘low cost’ tools of revision, literally allowing us to re-see the poem, see it newly, ways of making the poem new for the poet, bringing things that may have been buried in habit out into a more prominent place, where they can be seen, acknowledged, and raise questions. Shira Ehrlichman, the poet who wrote “Odes to Lithium” advocates this method of stimulated revision through initially mechanical changes the “laboratory of possibility.”   I also advocate it.  Raymond Carver famously said (or repeated) in his droll, low-key way: “A very few of us have true vision; the rest of us have revision.”

Ray Turco‘s poem “Spaesato” addresses the situation of a speaker who finds themselves “exist[ing] between languages,” Italian and English:  “In Italy, I am American but different,/ In America, I am Italian but quirky and new.”   The poem takes a leap towards the lyric expression of alienation that comes from this duality in the last lines: “I cling to myself, close to myself/ in the cold of the rain.”

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “The Trap,” comes out of a truly wonderful poetic tradition, the dialogue, which presents a moral or intellectual problem from two sides by putting itself in the form of a conversation. One of the loveliest parts of Don’s dialogue is that we don’t exactly know what the two voices are talking about, but more about their conversational relationship. Someone said it was like the dialogue in Waiting for Godot, and maybe so, but it is also a development that continues Don’s recent monologues in the voice of a stand-up comedian.  
Overheard conversations can be riveting, and this one often works on that level even with minimal ‘content.’

Oh my god
Do you think anything will happen in August?

Do you think anything will happen in January?

Extremists love anniversaries

I guess everyone is sentimental

I’m not sure any of this is a good idea
But what other choice do we have?

You might make it to a nice park trail
But what if it’s already started

(and so on.) Don enhanced the mesmeric quality of such eavesdropping by having two people reading the poem as dialogue. It was a lot of fun and Don said it helped him towards future revision, which is the highest goal we have.

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Ubi patria – a prophecy before exile” which was a bit of a character study of the woman employed by the speaker of the poem to help with household work and, ultimately with packing the speaker’s belongings as the speaker prepares to go into exile. The employee is introduced as “Leana/ the gypsy we hired to paint our house,” and the poem spares no harshness in talking about Leana as a woman whom the state has “declared …. retarded” and “spayed” after she had seven pregnancies “and gave one healthy boy to each orphanage in a thousand mile radius. At least one member of the workshop was deeply disturbed by these locutions suggesting that a content warning may be appropriate when addressing topics of state brutality and cruelty, even if the views are not the views of the poet, but only the reported views of the state.

Frank Rubino‘s poem “On Chestnut Street” continues Frank’s recent commitment to experimenting with form, here, manipulated indenting of successive lines in stanzas one, two, and six and, in stanza four, working with and against an anaphoric repetition of “Love has me” alternating with one instance of “gore has me”  — The poem also falls into a group of Frank’s poems that take place while the speaker is walking around Montclair, New Jersey, such as “Dayes and Monthes” sharing cultural references like the music in their headphones or, here, thoughts about Virgil’s Aeneid, and in particular, the scene in which Aeneas recognizes his mother by the color of her throat. Love is presented as a brutal thing (“love has me in its rock crevice,/ wedged between stone walls,/ chasing its sick porcupine” and a place of sadness and deception, but it is set unironically against an overt insistence that the speaker is “ecstatic with gratitude.”

We are all sorcerer apprentices, employing the poetic devices that we have admired elsewhere to achieve the purposes and discuss the matters that matter to us. As apprentices, we sometimes flood the workshop, but that’s okay, in fact, better than okay.

Don’t forget to come to the RWB Reading tomorrow at 7:00 pm.
—Arthur Russell