Happy New Year!
A lot of good work got done at our first workshop of the year. May it be a harbinger of a year of solid work.
Claudia Serea’s “In the alley by the schoolyard” is a free verse New Year’s poem written in tercets, that, like many of Claudia’s poems, uses the title as a part of the first sentence of the poem. The poem personifies the new year as a guy “swaggering down the street/ in its varsity jacket” that parks its “shiny car” under a “No Parking” sign. It has live language, and, true to Jim Klein’s other dictum, it was about “one thing,” a scene of bravado, and young energy. It would be interesting to discuss how tercets work, what energy they bring to a poem, and how Claudia marshals that energy.
Carole Stone brought an energetic free verse poem called “Hanging Out with the Dead.”
Shane Wagner bought an unnamed poem starting “There must be a perfect moment to take down a Christmas tree.” It is a momento mori poem, which translates from the Latin, as “remember death,” and such poems pursue the virtuous ends of reminding us that life is short. The human skull (cf. Hamlet) is a fine object to contemplate in that mode, but Shane picked the Christmas tree with its obvious ironic identification with the birth of the Christ child. The poem succeeds best when it diverts us from its morbidity with real world considerations such as suggesting that one might take the tree down “before the vacuum bag is full” which has elusive but compelling metaphorical possibilities. The on-the-nose ending – “There must be a perfect moment to die” – was a little too on-the-nose for some.
My little poem, “How I Want to Die” was also a momento mori poem, five lines long, and written in iambic pentameter, and featured a description of a cut tulip in a vase drooping as the poem’s professed method of passing away. It’s good to talk about these poems and their relation to the tradition that that they continue, and we should do it more.
Like Shane, Tom Benediktsson brought a Xmas poem, but “The Gift” was more like an Abbot and Costello routine than a momento mori; conceived as a dialogue about wrapping gifts and having the gift for wrapping gifts.
Frank Rubino’s “My Daughter Came For Thanksgiving” sets his fatherly response to the named event in which the daughter, banged up by life is seen in relation to the embedded simile of a dented car cruising on the highway in front of the speaker. The car is “viable” and so, for all the problems she’s had, is the daughter. The poem got a little lost when it tried to make the phrase “tried to change an accident,” into a refrain, but doubtless, Frank, who treats fatherhood the way Andy Warhol treats Marilyn Monroe, will be back with more.
Jennifer Poteet’s poem, “The Whole She-Bang” an astrophysical meditation about human’s place in the universe had a title that poked gentle fun at the “Big Bang.”
Elinor Mattern’s poem, “About Your Poem, ‘Traveling through the Dark’” is a poem about the experience of teaching the eponymous William Stafford poem to a class of poetry students, so it has a wonderful set of nested relationships at its heart: that poem, this poem, that poet, this poet, the impossible quandary at the heart of Stafford’s poem – how to address a dead car-struck deer with a fetal fawn inside. Elinor’s poem is a celebration of Stafford’s poem, which “guaranteed … a lively and engaged discussion with college students of the elements of literature.” The poem shouts out some of the poetic elements that make Stafford’s poem successful: possible metaphor, alliteration, vivid concrete nouns, strong verbs, sparing but specific adjectives, and words that “work double time.” However, Elinor’s poem steers clear of those virtues, preferring a prosaic, denotative approach, a downbeat spoken rhythm, and words that work single time. As a workshop, we steered clear of taking up those differences, all of which were on display in the poem itself, and steered clear, as well, of the opportunities that the poem, with such a strong baseline structure, has, to investigate any number of issues beyond its consoling message that “sometimes life just sucks.”
Ana Doina brought “What Freedom Is” one of her Eastern Block anecdotal reminiscences about the evils of communism.
Yana Kane shared the news that she’d been accepted to the FDU MFA program and planned to work on in the area of translation. Congratulations, Yana. Her poem, “Sabbath” followed a formula she’s used before, of quoting and then riffing on an epigraph. This time it was the phrase “look into the face of knowledge, call it a god” attributed to Tamara Zbrizher. Yana’s poem – two quatrains followed by two tercets, sought, as the title, “Sabbath” suggests, a moment of surcease in what she describes as a long-drawn-out war between “knowledge” and “uncertainty.” It imagines this surcease with the lovely albeit difficult to understand or reconcile image of “a field of snow/ receiving an abundance of snow.” But perhaps the most provocative element of the poem is the hint of a suggestion at the end of the last line that a season of peace would include “no separate name for anything that grows,” a concept that would reverse the Adamic prerogative of naming the world and ask us to seek peace without nomenclature. I could imagine a poem that told Zbrizer to screw off and pursued the fabulous unnamed world that barely made it into the poem.
Susanna Lee’s poem, like Yana’s, got awfully interesting at the last line. Before that, it was just a celebration of the legalization of pot, as exemplified by firing up a spliff on one’s morning walk, but at the end, out of nowhere, it proclaimed “The War on Drugs maimed; it will not be forgiven.” Yes, what about that?
Jan Castro brought a 13-line, free verse poem called “The Polish Rider* Take 3” an ekphrasis describing what “we” – viewers at large? – miss about a Rembrandt painting, photo included, a painting that was mentioned by Frank O’Hara in his love poem “Having a Coke with You”. Jan’s nonlove poem is arranged in roughly 10-syllable mostly non-metrical lines, other than the last two which are shorter, 6 and 8 syllables respectively. Notwithstanding all the deviations (no rhymes, no meter, no turn at line 9), it looks like a sonnet on the page. While O’Hara’s poem mentioned the Polish Rider as a means of saying that only the guy in that painting could rival his love as a worthy subject of gazing, Jan’s poem is focused on the elements of Rembrandt’s painting that “we miss” as we are dazzled by the “rider’s white horse…”