Field Notes, Week of 06-14-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 14, 2022

The workshop is here so a poet can present a poem to their peers and get to hear what those peers think (1) what the poem wants to be, (2) how the poem goes about becoming what it wants to be and (3) how the poem is doing on that journey. There’s praise for what’s made an impression and “shakes” (or suggestions) for things that may not be working. 

In this conception, the poet doesn’t participate during the discussion. They’re Tom Sawyer at their own funeral, but at the end we open the discussion to questions from the poet, such as “I was trying to imitate Robert Frost’s The Road Less Travelled; did that come across?” Or, “What did you mean when you said my reference to the War of 1812 ‘took you out of’ the poem?” Or, “I’m a little concerned that the poem is too personal, to self involved; did anyone feel that way? Or, “What about the title? No one said anything about the title.  Does the title work?”

We don’t encourage the poet’s advocacy on behalf of the poem or explanation from the poet because those things don’t benefit the poet; sometimes when the poet talks about the backdrop to the poem, or the circumstances it was meant to address, we just say: “oh, that would be good, put it in the poem” because the poem is the poet’s ambassador to the world, and the poet doesn’t generally get to accompany the poem out into the world providing an introduction or post script (although it was pretty common in Milton’s time to have an “argument” before the poem, and I’ve always been charmed by fiction with ‘in which’ headings as in “Chapter 17, in which Tom eats a snake.”

We had a searingly good workshop on Tuesday, charred on the outside, rare on the inside. 

Brendan McEntee brought “At Sunken Meadow.” Poems that start with a place name are great because they give the reader a little ground to stand on, but they still don’t limit what the poem can do.  They suggest an openness to what the poet noticed, and Brendan’s poem was like that, about the speaker standing on the beach throwing rocks, noticing a gull, noticing the clouds, noticing two boys walking by “carrying a bucket awkwardly between them” and picking up a fragment of their conversation, which may or may not be significant before “the rest of their conversation is lost to the waves.”  Brendan does that very well.

Don Zirilli’s poem was “Fool Me Twice” and it was a difficult formal poem, a sestina, which uses the last word in each line of six, six line stanzas where the last word appears in a different prescribed sequence. The seventh and final 3-line stanza features all six of the end words in medial and line end positions for a saturated burst of whatever the poet was getting at (think last minute of a fireworks display). The form is immensely difficult, primarily because of the challenge of making the repetitions interesting, but also because Don has chosen to present his sestina in the form of iambic pentameter. Don’s poem’s six end words were “twice” “oath” “know” “time” “fool” and “heart.” What struck me about the poem was how the first stanza has an almost metaphor free-statement of the poem’s theme – how we humans fool ourselves, particularly when it comes to marriage, when it comes to knowing ourselves or others. As the poem moves on, it becomes more allusive and more reliant on metaphor, personification of the elements, and becomes less plain spoken.  This can be delightful, but it can also make the poem more elusive.

Howard Prosnitz’s “THE L-SHAPED ROOM” presents as a first person narration, with the eponymous L-shaped room as its topic. But this L-shaped room is a metaphor for the difficulties quotidian and existential of fitting into and being comfortable with living.

Susanna Lee’s “Steel Rains” comes hard after the tragedies of war, first anchored in references to the Ukraine war, and then in relation to gun violence in the US. The poem has a strong iambic bounce, some strong iambic pentameters (e.g. “Upon the baby’s cheek, the mother’s tears,” and “they’d bring to murder him, his kith and kin”) but varies line lengths and moves away from meter entirely with lines like “lips and kisses” or “Never surrender!”  Another noticeable feature of the poem is its irregular use of rhyme, such as “Courage, bravery, all that’s good./ A fighter earns the right to fatherhood.” We talked about how the poem creates expectations with regard to matters like meter and rhyme, and how the savvy reader will notice changes and expect them to be significant. 

My poem “There Are People Who Lack Decent Housing” joined Don’s and Susanna’s this week as poems that used iambic pentameter; mine was a blank verse (non-rhyming iambic pentameter lines) essay on the persistence of class divisions and the limitations of empathy when the world is seen from a partially self-aware position of privilege. 

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Who You Talkin’ to In There” starts out as a kind of philosophical or possibly epistemological discussion about sources of authority in “our tradition,” a discussion among the speaker, and “Daniel” “Mark” and “Janelle” who may be in a class in which the speaker is the teacher or may not.  Midway through the poem, the discussion becomes a groan-worthy tale about how someone named Harvey boiled a chicken down to its bones which he then reassembled to a chicken skeleton with wire for a science project in the eighth grade.  It was grotesque and funny, but what interested me was (1) how it raised the question of poetic authority: “In our tradition the inner voice is god.” This is a direct invocation of the Romantic norm which replaced the Enlightenment norm of verifiable fact with allegiance to subjectivity.  That’s the artistic world we live in to this day, where identity is a font of authority.  In a way, this was the same subject I tackled in “There Are People Who Lack Decent Housing” which follows this declarative by immediately declining to be a member of the group: “I am not one of them.”  Maybe this is a new “old farts poetics.”

Claudia Serea’s “Veined hands reach into my dream” is a poem that uses the eponymous hands in the eponymous dream to draw together elements of the speaker’s life, attachment to their parents, their overseas past, their gardening present and a sense of  the nearness of death.

John J. Trause’s “Lemon Yellow Limoncello” was a concrete sonnet based on a 14-times repeated four beat iambic line with an internal half rhyme between “lemon yellow” and “limoncello” made concrete or “chromatic” by having all of the lines highlighted in computer yellow. The last line breaks down visually to what might be the stem of an upside down (i.e. empty?) Limoncello bottle or an emblem for fractured sense, or possibly, a visible musical symbol for retard or slowing down, to bring an end to the chant that has gone on for the thirteen previous lines.  Brilliant stuff.

Jen Poteet’s “Church Street” is an ode to the speaker’s mother, a regular fixture on a particular street in Montclair, a woman who knew everyone (and their dog) and was known by everyone (and their dog, for whom she carried treats in her “enormous purse.” 

I have to apologize to Carole Stone. She sent her poem “Au Clair de Lune” by email, and we discussed it, but I can’t find it on my computer, so please forgive me.

Thanks again to everyone: we had more poems than we could get to, and we’ll keep chugging along next week. See you then.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 06-07-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 7, 2022

We had a chockablock workshop on Tuesday, 10 poems in two hours and great conversations. The workshop works best when we spend a lot of our time digging into what the poem “WANTS” to do and “HOW” the poem goes about its work, WHETHER and HOW it is succeeding and failing with considerations of the syntax, metrical features, allusions, rhyme or no rhyme, how metaphors are employed, and only secondarily considering editorial changes to the poem.  Why?  Well too many reasons. When we edit before we know what the poem WANTS, we are more likely to be making the poem into one that “WE” would have written rather than attending to what the POET has written. Also, though we/you/I may take for granted that we know what the poem is doing, and how it is doing it, we really get to talk about POETRY when we talk about what we see going on structurally and sharing that becomes and broadens our understanding of what poems do, where editing elides that process. And on Tuesday, it was all going pretty well! 

Jen Poteet’s poem, “What Comes Back” starts out as an innocuous list poem of things that repeat on you, like boomerangs and black eyed susans  (though she leaves out salami). But about halfway through, it reveals a curious residue of the speaker’s mother, the smell of perfume that resides, abides, and persists in certain inherited linen shirts.  There’s a lot of heat in that recognition, and maybe the poem was always headed towards this particular call-back; at least it felt that way to one or two of the members of the venire.  It’s a curious dilemma: lists have a way of leading to tangents and those tangents can lead to the truest of surprises, but, as Frost said, “no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader.” A preordained conclusion can deprive what comes before it of its honest significance.  We want to know more about those linen shirts, more about the mourning molecules of sandalwood and oolong migrating from the interstices of the linen’s warp and weft, into the tuneful nostrils of the lyric speaker!

Claudia Serea’s “When she’s off to college” starts out as an amorous take on the empty nest syndrome: “When she’s off to college … the way you lean against the sink … and we can watch the dusk fall,” but then it gets slightly tangled in a metaphor (who hasn’t had that happen?) of a certain pink and peach light turning on and off as a lighthouse signal. The point seems elusive, but it may be about the couple finding their way back to the source of their love (now that the beloved brat is gone). Anyway, with CS, we’re almost certainly going to see this again, because she takes NOTES! 

, “Love Poem Re Teachers (Part I)” is a first step in a blank verse essay about the way loving teachers is central to character formation. Frank (the intellectual) loved the subject, and the way it divides different kinds of love. He said it was “unassailable” referring to the concrete memories associated with teacher love.  Janet liked the references to “mimeographed” pages and “embossed” birth notices. Jen liked Mrs. Rice’s “iron grip and angry nose.”  Speaking of noses Carole sniffed a bit when she asked if this was anything more than “Sentimental Education,” to which Frank replied that the “material is so sticky” and Brendan thought that “the desire to please and being allowed by teachers to please them was love. My main question for the group was whether this poem could tolerate being extended, and Brenden was quick to say: “bring yourself into the poem more” and it can work.

Frank’s six-pager called “The Clover” ends with “and now you know a little about me,” which felt like a real New York School of poetry ending, though also a bit of a ribbon around a bouquet of diverse flowers, worries about the speaker’s daughter’s mental/emotional health, the comforts of marriage, intergenerational personality formation at the hands of parents, and suburban life; in other words, Frank’s usual jams, but here presented in six separate poems not obviously connected and set in different dictional registers. For instance, the first line of the first poem, “There seems to be less connectivity between the amygdala and the frontal cortex” used medical diction that appeared emotionally distanced to me, though Don found it direct and emotional. There’s a fundamental feature of Frank’s work that I call the Roger Sessions attitude.  Sessions was a modern classical music composer. In an interview I heard long ago, when asked about the inaccessibility of some of his music, he said (and I’m super paraphrasing). I am here. I am accessible. The listener needs to come to me and will be richly rewarded, but I will not come to them. One thing I felt as a subtle but purposeful part of this poem was the title, “The Clover” a reference to the ribbits who jump over the clover outside the speaker’s house, “playing, but also maybe horny,” and is also a reference to “being in clover” or having it good. I think the poem could rely on that title even more.

Don Zirilli’s “Weeding” is a free verse in two balanced stanzas of ten lines each, and it examines the whole notion of ‘weeds’ and our human relation to them, which is why I loved the first line: “I call them weeds. I don’t know what they are.” And these weeds become a powerful agent/metaphor for our human relationship to our companions on this here earth. “Popping them out saddens/ and satisfies me,” he says near the end of Stanza One. Stanza Two continues in much the same way, but connects weeding to the speaker’s personal life “my world/ with work and worry, bouts of attention…” and the wonderment as to whether “what I do is any use.” Carole saw the imagery of the second stanza as turning to a very dark place, employing words like “chaos” and “trail of destruction” but I never saw the turn that way. Rather it seemed an event tempered look at the margins of quotidian suburban life.

Ana Doina’s poem “What was his name?”—a retelling of an oral history story told in sporadic blank verse—about a war, perhaps WWI and “a sailor gone overboard”. The group found the narration lively, aided by the distillation of blank verse. I’d love to see it all rendered as blank verse.

Howard Prosnitz brought a poem called “Three Songs From a Play” which, as Frank pointed out, appearing outside ot the context of their “play,” were difficult to contextualize. 

Brendan McEntee’s “Building 93”, is a touristy kind of poem about a very untouristy place, an abandoned mental institution. The title starkly refers to a building at one such place, and the poem seems knowledgeable about the “great patient release” that took place when New York’s mental institutions were more or less emptied out, leading, far down the line, some would argue, to the homeless population of people in need of some support our city faces now. The poem relies on physical description to underline concepts of abandonment and lack of care.

But by far the most intriguing line is the one that connects back to Brendan’s comment about my Teacher poem. The line says “Like love, the vandals and the weather/ left disfigurement in their wake.”  That line brings the speaker into the poem in an ambiguous but intriguing way, mirroring the comment Brendan made about “Teachers.”

Carole’s “Chamber Music Concert” describes the view of the eponymous musical event from outside a church, and suggests a connection to the music heard while looking in through the window, akin to “a second language” and ends with the vision of the violin’s bow coming down “without pity.” The group appreciated the evocation of “grey-haired women, streaked blondes,/ in long tunics and loose pants” and the “director, slim as a pencil / in her long red evening dress”, but puzzled over this poem, the possible significance of the Schubert Quintet to which it refers, the meaning of “second language” and the  pitiless descent of the bow. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this one again, too!

The invitations to submit to RWB 15 went out yesterday. Find it and do it. We can’t wait to read your stuff.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 05-31-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 31, 2022

Robert Hass’s famous poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” begins

“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

The poems this week seem to confirm that sentiment. 

Near the start of Brendan McEntee’s elegiac “May 25th, 2022,” we hear the weary recitation of the mortal tally from the familiar horror of the mass shooting of schoolchildren and their teachers in Uvalde, TX: “This time a Texas school.  Nineteen children, two teachers./ Shooter dead at the scene…” Like all good elegy and also like a post-traumatic flashback, the poem veers to remembering other, nearer deaths and their anniversaries—of the speaker’s wife and his dead wife’s sister, and then to the public violence, of George Floyd’s (remembered by his last words) and Sandy Hook before telling us that the speaker surrendered his own gun to his brother to remove the temptation to commit suicide. Death speaks to death in the mind of the speaker, but life speaks to death in the poem; through anniversaries and how they occur on “a beautiful day in late May,” as neighbors wave to one another, and discuss the news, including another recent shooting in which a local girl lost an eye, and another threat of violence closer to home. This sidewalk conversation among neighbors becomes the place where words become the coinage of condolence:  “We talk of Texas,/pass the words between us/ courage, outrage, rampage, harrowing.” And for me, this is the poem’s apex: grief coming to rest in words that cannot contain it, words that also seem to mock the media and the politicians who use them to avoid doing anything about the mass shootings that have become a regular part of our lives.

Like Brendan’s poem, Shane Wagner’s poem “Apocalypse” addresses situation at the heart of the Uvalde murders: a man puts his child on a school bus and “She isn’t coming home.” 

Carole Stone’s “Wedding Band” addresses loss differently. The seashells on a local beach remind the speaker of diamond chips on her mother’s wedding band, which she now wears.

Yana Kane brought a rewrite of “Hive Hymn” her “concrete” poem (in something like the shape of a beehive) that ask us to “sing a hymn” to the industriousness and energy of bees and ends with a prayer that we (or the flowers we love) may be worthy of their attention. With that prayer for worthiness, the poem reveals, without directly acknowledging, an underlying environmental concern.

Like Yana’s “Hymn Hive,” Frank Rubino’s poem, “Woods Outside Chicago” ends with a prayer: “Dear corporations, please refund & erase me from your databases./ Dear church, please acknowledge your lies.” And as Brendan’s poem finds its physical space in a street meeting of neighbor’s, Frank’s poem lives in the context of a group of friends on a day trip of some sort, in the titular “woods” or on a “boat ride.” It’s a poem in which city folk go out into the country and think big thoughts; here, the thoughts revolve around creativity, freedom and “naming”; the friends have archetypical names (“the Master Printer,” “the Poet,” and “a Serious Painter”). Even the campfire has a name: “The Snappy Fire.” And somehow that may not yet be apparent, the bucolic setting the freedom it inspires leads the poem to its prayer to be free of corporate databases and for the world to be freed from the tyranny of church lies.

Susanna Lee’s “Where I’m From, Politically” is a rewrite that tells a family anecdote about kindness to one’s enemies during trench warfare.  

Joanne Santiglia’s poem “Cherry Blossom Lesson” is a short, but remarkable poem about fertility and how fleeting it is. The poem looks at those beautiful blossoms and in those “pink and white explosions of spring” sees a woman yearning to “pour herself over her lover’s body/ and blanket him with her own voluptuous blooms.”  

Howard Prosnitz’s poem “Caption” is an ekphrasis of sorts, describing a surreal picture in which a fish is portrayed holding a creel from which the head of a man protrudes. It has the feeling both of bulldogs playing cards and of a Magritte painting.

Janet K’s poem “Rocky Road of Later Life” (not included in the package) is another rewrite of her lyric turn on the indignities of getting older:

Drugged into a semblance of calm,
flailing in agitation, or awash in tears,
we will all take our place
in the veterans of having been parade,
a line that stretches into light years.

No one captures bemusement as Janet does.

Thanks to everyone who brought their poems. Don’t forget to upload to the Google Drive if you can before this Tuesday. See you there.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 05-24-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 24, 2022

What a great workshop. 10 poems in two hours. The only thing missing from the Zoom-iverse—and sometimes you really miss it—is going out for drinks after the intense conversations, and the sudden aloneness when the meeting ends, and you don’t even get to walk out into the Rutherfordian night and walk one another to one another’s cars.  Yet, we persist.

Yana Kane’s “Hive Hymn” about bees, is a concrete poem; it’s shape on the page was intended to echo the subject matter of the poem, in this case, beehives.  Though none of us saw the hives in these word mounds (or Aztec pyramids), Don saw the shape as a callback to George Herbert, the 17th Century English metaphysical poet’s “Easter Wings”,  I was reminded of some of Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer.”  But the poem is more than a concrete poem; it’s a poem in praise of the “hive mind” as well as the “honey and wax” that they produce.  The sense that emerges is that the bees have got it right, and we would do well to notice the magic of their lives.  With bee populations all over the world under threat of collapse from environmental degradation and climate change, the poem also serves a political purpose, a purpose that is somewhat obscured by the prayer in the final lines: “May our roses merit visitations by the winged messengers,/ May our strawberry blossoms find favor in their faceted eyes.”.  Actually there was never any doubt that the roses and strawberries were worthy.  The problem, once again, is with the humans.

Howard Prosnitz brought “WASP,” a poem that starts with an epigraph quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost about the exile from Eden, and more specifically, Satan’s exile from Heaven, which preceded it. Howard finds an objective correlative for Milton’s “new created world” in the fate of a wasp trapped between a window screen and window. The poem is arranged in one word lines, and the slender verticality of it appears to be a concrete representation of the narrow strait in which the wasp finds itself. There’s also a lovely pair of near homonyms—“screen” sounds like “scream” and “pane” sounds like “pain”—that really deepen the connection between the wasp and Satan—and so interesting too to hear waspishness and Satan conflated that way. 

Carole Stone (WHO WILL BE THE FEATURED READER AT THE RED WHEELBARROW READING FOR JUNE 1, THIS WEDNESDAY, SO COME – WE’RE GOING BACK TO ZOOM THIS MONTH BUT HOPE TO BE BACK IN THE LITTLE THEATRE AT FELICIAN UNIVERSITY IN JULY) brought a rewrite of a poem called “No Happy Ruins” in which she imagines the pain and suffering of the people trapped in the war in Ukraine.  The poem is in four parts, which come at the war from several angles – the present suffering in Ukraine, the recognition that our lives are not nearly as burdened, a longer view where the long-term cost of the war is contemplated, and a final surprising section that presents the sun as a “Pallbearer, immune to grief.” and, a few lines later, as the bringer of cherry blossoms. Finally, the poem ends on two domestic images, one of NYC seen from the heights of Eagle Rock, and one of daylight falling on the speaker’s arm:

                         The look

of the distant city

seen from Eagle Rock. 

The daylight

pulsing down my arm.

I wonder if these pure images are a distillation of the fluctuating emotions of the poem or an escape from them?

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “We Who Breathe” (not in the package) is about a funeral, or as Don said “it examines the experience of being at a funeral.”  It talks a little about the setting, notices the “rabbi’s cadenced voice”, “the widow’s muffled sobs”  and joins in the metaphysical appreciation of the mystery of death from a not-too-involved point of view.  What I loved about the poem was how easily and comfortably it inhabited the role of relative: “At the gravesite,/ green, with late-spring chirping,/ we took the spade/ and sprinkled mica-flecked earth/ on the lowered casket: your spirit?” The way the metaphysical question lives in the same sentence as the burial, separated only by a semi-colon is emblematic of the way this poem lives, moves, sits and carries on.  In fact, the last line –“The line of cars removes again” is a reference to the way that funerals proceed, with the mourners driving from the chapel to the gravesite and then onward to the shiva.  In other words, life goes on.

David Briggs brought a poem called “Resonance.”  It’s a lyric poem that takes place in a supermarket in which the items for sale and the sounds of the place make the sense, act on the speaker.  There’s a role reversal: “The smell of Columbian roast/ percolates my mask”.  There’s absurdism: “The price of honeycrisps/ seeps under my eyelids.”  There’s animism: the voice of a “big talker” placing bets on a football game “unnerves the beef jerky.” Throughout, the rhetoric of the poem provides the emotional spine: “Doesn’t anyone want to finger the dimples / of Ritz crackers?” has a surefooted sense of loss.  And an alphabet soup can is a surrogate for a time when writing came more easily.  Finally, the speaker tries to reassert hope: “I’ll try to take up the task again,” he says.  “I’ll try to whisper fizz into the sodacans, so you can/ hear my sigh each time you crack one open.”   Great work, David!

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Where I’m From, Politically” tells a family story about an ancestor who acted nobly and humanely to an enemy soldier during WWI (at least the trenches make you think so). Everyone loved the title, which I recognized as a prompt from the Brevitas group, and one that had been fructifying for me too.  Frank noted that the poem had a longish setup, getting the genealogy right.  But even with the orientation set, the story of the ancestor’s decency (comforting the enemy soldier and setting his leg with a rifle for a splint) lacked a real connection to the occasion of its telling.

Don Zirilli’s “Grace, Faith” had a far flung lyricism that required the group to propose theories that would explain it all.  Grace is a state of being that comes from down from god, while faith is a human attribute that travels in the opposite direction.  I personally opted for Grace as the prayer at the start of a meal and saw the contents of the poem as conversations during dinner.  But I really loved the first stanza for its swift acceleration from what appears to be current events — “Dad tells me Notre Dame/ is on file” – directly to a son’s deep knowledge of his father — “his wry smile/ gone forever.”  And just as Janet’s poem was about the experience of being at a funeral, Don’s was about the experience of being at dinner.  His speaker hears, and reports, and waits for his head to be still, and when “Dinner ends” he hasn’t “asked a single question.”   I get the grace; and in a different, patient way, I also get the faith.

Then there was Brendan McEntees poem “Never Save the Drowning Man” which was about the experience of learning to disengage. It posits two test cases for leaving not-so-well-enough alone: the drowning man who returns to the ocean and the burning woman who likes to burn. The central syllogism of the poem conveys the futility of intervention:  “And by save I mean “try to” save./ And by “try to” I mean fail.” Brendan’s poem, like Carole Stone’s end with two sentences that either distill or abandon the project:

Now I watch the horizon – his hand disappears.

Now I watch her embers swirl to the sky.

Raymond Turco’s poem, “I Met a Man Today” engages self-consciously in the oldest story-telling strategy, the one we see in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, where the wedding guest meets the ancient mariner and forwards his strange tale to us; or the one we see it in Shelley’s Ozymandias (“I met a traveler from an antique land”), where the traveler tells of a ruined colossal statue in the desert; the strategy of putting the wondrous tale into the mouth of another:  

I met a man today

who told me

he never learned to be alone…

And what’s the effect of this act of deferral? This act of hearsay?  This act of ‘story laundering?’  — On one level it enhances the credibility of the speaker.  He’s not saying, as in Shelly, that there was a ruined statue of a great king in a desert; he’s only saying he heard of such a thing; he’s only vouching for the truth of the report, not the truth of the underlying tale; and yet this distancing gesture frees the listener to enjoy the story as story, pushes it into the realm of myth or fable, makes an emblem of it.  In Raymond’s poem, the story of that the poet brings to our attention is not a story of a monstrous run of bad luck (Ancient Mariner) or the monkey Time makes of men (Ozymandias), but the simple emotional handicap of never having learned to be alone.  That structural incongruity (big frame/little truth) is reinforced (or strategically undermined) with a set of paradoxes or oxymorons: (1) the “man” who never learned to be alone was “an only child who slept/ in his brother’s bed;” (2) his suffering took place in “vociferous silence”; and (3) he played a game of “see-saw for one.” – And these oxymorons become the “wonders” that the poet/speaker presents through the tale of the man he met. This strategy of successive oxymorons is used to comic effect in Tyler Rager’s  “Two Dead Boys”  (“One bright day in the middle of the night/ Two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other,/ Drew their swords and shot each other.”) But Raymond is using this strategy to convey the sorrow, frustration and dread that attend a self-involved existence. The combination of these two strategies (hearsay report and oxymorons) makes me wonder if the “man” that the poet “met” is really a surrogate for speaker, as in all of those “I’m asking for a friend” stories. 

I love all of these poems, and I loved the conversation they prompted. Enjoy the last week or so without mosquitoes!

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 05-10-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 10, 2022

It was an intimate group, just five of us, for the workshop this week.  No time limit to discuss the poems.

Janet Kolstein’s “When You Fall” (not included in the attachment) had a title that could have led anywhere – from a work-related accident to a moral comeuppance—but the first line told us exactly what kind of fall we were in for:

“Who among us could lift the frail elderly”

and yet the second line told us we were not in the desolated kitchen of some Life Alert victim who has “fallen and I can’t get up”, because Janet’s “frail elderly” were

“bronzing on the private beaches of late life?”

and just as suddenly, the third line acted out the tourism of those “private beaches,” with a voice telling us or the elderly

“Watch! Over your shoulder!  There goes an African Parrot.”

And as if those first three lines were not enough of an immersion into the COMPLICATED world of aging, the next line, ending the first quatrain of the poem, is a direct address to the reader that poses a question about the persistence of memory and establishes the speaker as the true, and trustworthy guide to her ambiguous underworld:

“We can’t unsee the past, or can we?”

I just loved this poem, which continued on more and more deeply into its world of aging with a combination of surefooted lyricism and intellectual strength.  Hopefully, the rest of you will get to see it, perhaps in this year’s RWB Journal #15.

Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “Iowa Sunset” that was an experiment in taking the advice of another poet, the poet Cynthia Cruz, whose advice is paraphrased in the first two lines of the poem to the effect that “Involuntary memory is the wellspring. . . but we must find the right state of mind.” Tom’s riff punned on “state of mind” by referring to the “state of Iowa,” and the poem continued with more wordplay in its exciting and delightful second stanza about Belarus, balaklavas and the Mediterranean dessert, baklava. Following the stream of its “wellspring” the poem then moved on to consider the color of pig’s blood on a fence and the memory of riding the subway “when a woman next to me falls asleep/ and slumps with her head on my shoulder/ and way past my stop wakes up, all embarrassed.” It’s an exciting draft, and it may also be a warning about following the advice of other poets.

Brenden McEntee’s poem “Highland Paddy” is a tremendously ambitious poem that considers ghosts while the speaker walks across The Walkway over the Hudson, a steel cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie, New York, on the east bank and Highland, New York, on the west bank. It calls the wind over the bridge “everyone’s poltergeist” and touches on Irish folksong or ballad concerning the death of one “Fenian.” Then, passing two dogs on the bridge, the poet turns to remembering his own dog who died a few weeks, seeking the solitude and privacy of a space behind the sofa to die.  In its last movement, the poem returns to the think of the bridge and how it endures, how the towns on either side wither, and how he finds comfort in his Irish ballad.  But the poem ends on a disturbing image of the other walkers on the bridge behind “sun-shaded eyes.”

Yaka Kane’s brought a poem named after the nesting Russian dolls called “Matryoshka Dolls” in which the nesting dolls become a metaphor for intimacy in relationships, and the passing days are represented as nesting dolls, and the faults, evasions, silences and so forth of the relationship are embedded or embodied in the inner dolls as each new day buries them deeper and, one might suppose, less available to revision, in the body of the relationship. It’s a terribly ambitious poem about a frightening development.

Hopefully, we await the return of our co-leader Frank Rubino.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-26-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 26, 2022

The experimentation was busting out all over at last night’s RWB workshop.

Yana Kane Esrig brought a poem called “Train and its dreamer” that investigated the hypnopompic moment between sleep and waking when dreams and outer stimuli mix. For Yana, the image of a train whose sound “quilts the still air” nicely matches quilt as a sleep tool with quilt as a quality of the sound. Carole thought Yana could have pursued the dream even more than the poem did with its fragmentary references to “stations, timetables, tickets… “  Maybe so.  Maybe we’ll see it again.

Carole Stone’s poem “Holi” takes place in a liquor store where the speaker goes (and has gone before) for a bottle of sauterne; the manager wears a Bindi on his forehead, which stimulates a daydream that starts out celebrating colors and life, but then retreats to a despairing “All these years, darkness, darkness.” It’s a powerful setup, that ends with a return to the matter at hand, the bottle which the manager opens for the speaker: “He always does” she concludes, revealing a weakness of hand strength that somehow suffuses the poem with sadness.

We all know from Shakespeare and Cyrano de Bergerac that insults make entertaining poetry when their disdain is delivered with cleverness. New workshopper, Howard Posnitz, entered that arena with a putdown poem directed at someone who had given the speaker a “Dirty Look.”  “Faucet nose, dripping snot,/ Call Joe the plumber for a new nose,” the poem very nearly began, and continued cursing and insulting the dirty look giver, sometimes with zip—“I wouldn’t steal your face even if I were a kleptomaniac”—and other times without: “You must be the ugliest man in New York.” Howard’s task was even more challenging because he was writing a rebuff to someone who hadn’t said anything, or done more than stretch their face muscles. 

My poem, “I Don’t Know Why Loving You is Like Sun” is 14 lines long with two stanzas, one of eight iambic pentameter lines and one of six iambic pentameter lines. The first stanza protests that the speaker doesn’t know why the shenanigans and acrobatics of a squirrel stealing sunflower seeds from a birdfeeder is like the love they feel for their beloved. The second stanza suggests that living without the ambivalence that “dogged” his other relationships, may be the thing that that love and marauding squirrels have in common. In that sense, the poem it recalls Nasim Hikmet’s “On Living” which begins: “Living is no laughing matter:/you must live with great seriousness/like a squirrel, for example—/   I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,/I mean living must be your whole occupation.” Brendan saw the poem “in conversation” with sonnets of the past.

Don Zirilli brought a poem—“Twitter Censored”— that picked up where Janet Kolstein’s poem from last week—quoting sets of comments from a facebook page—left off.  Don went to Twitter to show how even more wildly than Facebook, Twitter comments ran. The subject was more or less Farah Fawsett, but that didn’t stop it from talking about Faberge soap, the Connecticut Huskies basketball team, personal finances and the use of the word “posters” to describe scientific demonstrations. If, as WCW said (though not first) a poem is a machine made of words, and if, as Matt Zapruder added: “a machine made of words to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind,” then Twittor Censored did that work because one floated along on a wash of words that dared to recreate the vibe of an atom with indeterminate electrons ponging about. I loved it.

Janet’s poem, not included here, “Under the Tent”) was about going to a graduation party where a magician had been hired to entertain, and finding that the only utterly amazing trick was the trick of watching the young grow up before your very eyes. How’d they do that?

Don’t forget we’ve got the Google drive working now, so you can post your poems the day (or days) before the workshop, and read the other poems so you have a chance to read them first.  We’ll still take poems uploaded to the chat, but the new way could really spark things. 

And don’t forget that May 4 at the RWB reading—in person at Felician College! (see the flyer)—features Morgan Boyle and Preeti Shah, both Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Month Winners this year, and Pretti’s winner was workshopped in our workshop.

See you all soon.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-29-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 29, 2022

I thought it was a really fun workshop.

Janet Kolstein has many poems that she ripped more or less literally from the New York Times, and this week brought a poem ripped from her dreams, “Sometimes Dreams are Poems That Write Themselves,” that literally challenged us to follow her dream’s logic and find a ready made poem, but someone challenged that thesis, saying that because the poem is the rendering of the dream in words, the poet is more than an algebraic translator, and the poem is more than a record, it’s a recording.

Susanna Lee brought a poem that was a literal record, a transcription of the voices of several men on a podcast talking about war: “Podcast: Retired Marines.” The discussion jumped to the conclusion that the poem was a persona poem, sometimes called a dramatic poem, where the poet speaks through a mask, though Susanna said it was three voices. And while Carole called it a poem of witness—about war, Don said, if it’s a poem of witness, it’s a poem of second-hand witness. Because the speaker was mostly engaging in hearsay, it was more barbershop than battlefield. And yet, the podcast struck a deep chord in Susanna because it resonated with the world she sees around us. I wonder if the poem could benefit from having a first person narrator to make those stakes clear.

I was just delighted by Don Zirilli’s “The Adventures of Superlady”  a narrative in four quatrains that records a disorienting encounter with the needy Superlady of the title outside a supermarket; delighted because it’s a superhero poem (right, Frank?) at least as crazy as Deadpool, but also because of the naked need that Superlady (ret.) had to be needed. “Why didn’t you save me?” the speaker asks, and Superlady responds “Everybody asks me that” but as she persists, the poem ends with a surprisingly heartrending “How about one more cry for help?”

John J. Trause brought something of an ode, something of a travelogue, something of an ironic celebration that is truly ironic and truly a celebration of a dinner at the chain restaurant “Grade Lux Café.” And I think what made the poem a delight was how lovingly knowingly the poem appreciated the restaurant’s “Viennese Secession” décor and plausibly continental menu. The tone work of the poem starts with its first, pinky-raised line: “I am one to dine alone” and continues with the allusion to dialogue from a Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” “Your wife was just showing us her Klimt.” It even extends to punctuation, i.e., the extraneous but necessary comma between “asparagus spears” and “cooked to perfection. 

Jen Poteet’s poem, “Unexpected” has been like a studio visit for the group, as she’s worked on at least three revisions of it that some of us have seen over the last few days. The poem’s bombshell is the riddle posed in lines 4 and 5: “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband,” but the genius of the poem is what Tom called the “objective correlative” to the unexplored emotion stirred by the unopened letter. Because the poem turns away from the letter completely to talk about a fox seen through the kitchen window stealing through the yard, and somehow our experience of the fox that “fixes her pale gold eyes” on the speaker, and ”disappears under the fence” takes the place of whatever emotion the letter stirred. It’s also a great lesson in simplicity. Those two lines “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband” are so plainspoken and yet so fraught” they don’t need any “poetic” embellishment. But the real question was whether the poem could begin with it’s bombshell a strategy against which some warning flags were raised.   But I come from the Ricky Jay school of poetry that says “Grab their attention” and “reward them with a surprise,” and I can’t think of a more attention grabbing start that the letter for the deceased husband, or more of a surprise than diverting the overflow of feeling into a fleeing fox. 

Tom Benediktsson’s “Leon’s Riddle” was, he explained one of 6 or 8 poems he’s done with the characters “Gregor” and “Leon.”  In it’s combination of comic intellectualism and cockroaches—in this case Kafka’s Gregor Samson—  it reminded some people of Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. I loved its  playfulness it’s metawareness of its prosody, and it’s surreal setting—Also Krazy Kat (“L’il angel”). 

My poem was called “Grandma Ann,” a tiny little narrative that captured one tiny little piece of my paternal grandmother’s hundred year old dialogue as told to me by my father. The surprise of the poem (which was just accepted for publication by Ephemeral Elegies and will be published on their site on May 2—Thank you, Tiffany) is how suddenly, the poem becomes about how this little fragment of a woman survives.

Brendan had what I’d call a traditional family driving in the car poem called “On the Way to the Agricultural Fair.” It’s told in the third person which gives it a kind of allegorical feel, and it’s presented in the shape of a justified prose block, which, predictably, adds to its solidity, and the mother of the family is the main character; she speaks to one of the kids about the farmers he sees burning their fields from the car window, but then she retreats into her thoughts, where she wonders a little bit about the way her son’s mind works, and then goes on to fantasize about a fire in her own garden to make way for (perhaps) a Zen Garden. The poem ends with the benign image of the family at the fair visiting the butter-sculpture pavilion. Allegory?

Carole Stone’s “Trip” was a bit of a trip itself.  It starts out in as a kind of Thanatopsis, with a valedictory air: “I will go on a long trip,/ meet my ancestors,” but in summoning the foreign born, immigrant ancestors to this imminent meeting, the speaker realizes she has nothing in common with these people: “Why should I care, brought up American?” And then carrying forward on that American identity, she comments on the current war in Ukraine, but that Eastern European vibe only returns her to those ancestors carrying suitcases when the boarded trains to death camps. And then, the poem starts to disabuse itself of its “victim” stance when the speaker notices that her granddaughters are successful, and it culminates by grabbing its own lapels and telling itself to snap out of this negative mood because life is a blast. That poem did its yoga, that’s for sure; it was as limber as they come.

Hey, I wanted to mention again that I’m reading Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 collection “The Speed of Darkness.”  She’s very formally inventive and audacious, as I pointed out that she included in this collection an experiment where she took a poem by William Cullen Bryant “Monument Moutain” and, as described in a footnote, ran the poem in reverse, picking out the phrases that spoke to her and reassembling them into a new poem called “Mountain: One From Bryant.” And think about it, this was 50 years before erasure poems became a thing. And she was audacious enough about it to include in the explanatory footnote a conversation she had with Denise Levertov about the experiment she was performing. I also mentioned a fabulous poem of Rukeyser’s whose name I couldn’t remember but I looked it up and the name is “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” I also listened to a You Tube video that captured a track from Rukeyser’s Caedmon Records recording of her poem “The Speed of Darkness” totally worth checking out, if for no other reason than to hear her sweet Bronx accent, though there are many other reasons—the poem is a world view in 13 short sections.  And one last thing, for now, about her—that she has a wicked relentless sense of song, which you can hear in her poem “Song: Love in Whose Rich Honor.” You can hear that King James lilt in the title (which is also the first two lines), but where she takes that energy is to a fearless personal challenge——that love would split her open and give her the gift of writing about death and madness.  It’s CRAZY!


In whose rich honor

I stand looking from my window  

over the starved trees of a dry September


deep and so far forbidden

is bringing me

a gift

to claw at my skin

to break open my eyes

the gift longed for so long

The power

to write

out of the desperate ecstasy at last

death and madness.

I love the unrelenting unpunctuated concise form of this poem on the page, its use of capitals to signal sentences, and its Donne—like desire to be broken apart by love, the way its syntax breaks open at the end, with “death and madness” lying on the floor of the poem like candy out of a pinata. And I’ll say this about Rukheyser. Lots of people talk about Elizabeth Bishop as the heir to Marianne Moore’s line of Modernism, but take a look at Rukeyser’s “Believing in Those Inexorable Laws” actually read it aloud and I think you’ll hear some of the selfsame self-assuredness, rhythmic complexity, erudition, and slyness that is so evident in Moore’s work.

It was great to see you all.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-15-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 15, 2022

Just a note to say, sorry I missed the March 8 Notes, and sorry too to have missed Barbara Hall’s poem the week before that.    

This week, Frank’s poem “Edison Nutley” had the feel of a meditation on first kissing and it found its most authentic voice at the moment it stepped back from the corduroy sofa and the Frankie Valli soundtrack and the 9 year old’s tongue in his mouth and said: “Attraction’s funny, you know./ It’s mating.”  And with that turn, it found a moment of unexpected heat, a moment that could have revealed something new about the depth of emotion that passes in what passes for innocent play. I loved that moment, but it was almost too much for the poem to digest or hold.  Instead, the poem widened centrifugally. The speaker confessed to being attracted to “anybody with the living tongue,” which was gross but intriguing, then it went back to add a literal postscript to pre-teen kiss story—an incident in which the 9-year-old kisser had written to the speaker and her letter was delivered even though she had hand-drawn a fake postage stamp. Then, finally, the poem moved on to another first kiss, this one with a “woman who pained erotic paintings.” And in the last few lines, there’s a repetition of the meditative reprise: “A kiss is funny, you know…” but we never find out what really comes after “you know./ It’s mating.”

Barbara Hall brought a spluttering rant of a poem against irrationality and protesting the current war beginning “Words   words   Words.” We all shared the sentiment.

Carole Stone’s poem, “What Me Do I Like the Best?” takes a whack at defining four younger than 20 versions of the speaker, clipped aspirational recollections, maybe tinged by nostalgia or philosophy, but also tinged by the haunting uselessness of being older, wiser and still impotent to do anything about the current war.

Jen Poteet brought another installment from her new project to write about towns and cities in NJ, this one called “Jersey City” that talks about an early roommate situation the speaker had there. This poem, like Carole’s has a hint of nostalgia, ok, maybe more than a hint, as it ends “We made less than twenty grand a year/ and I don’t think we were ever happier.” Poems like this, and like Frank’s kiss poem and like Carole’s avatar poem all depend on the taste of the bait and the point on the hook. Why should the reader follow you into the past, what reward do you promise? In this poem, Jen’s most gorgeous and authenticating knowledge is the speaker’s memory of how one invites burglars by announcing the purchase of a new appliance, and one announces the purchase of a new appliance by putting the box out in the trash. And she rewards that attention by telling us that they tried to fool the thieves by putting their boxes in the Pathmark dumpster. Good stuff.

Claudia said that my poem, Love Poem, was notable because it went outside my usual narrative comfort zone. Well, maybe so, but Claudia’s poem, “Black Sea spoils” was also a deviation for her usual lyric mode. It’s a list of adjectives and adjectival phrases to be applied to the riches and/or relics thrown up by the Black Sea, a poem in which the music of the words provides a sensorium, a landscape of textures that move from maritime words like “bearded, barnacled” to mineral words like “opaled, alabastered,/ tourmalined and carnadined,” and onward to strange biomorphic words like “salty cauliflower heads,/ bloodied and boned, buried in red pubic hair of algae…” It’s an audacious album of assonance and suggestion. The challenge of a list poem that audacious is that each item in the list has to relate back to the title—in this case, Black Sea spoils—and start to build or imply a narrative, or a larger picture of some sort, and this poem is well on the way to doing that.

My poem, the one Claudia complimented for going out of my comfort zone, was called “Love Poem” and it set itself the impressionistic task of assembling very new, short suggestive brush strokes in a way that built an emotionally accessible whole. 

I’m a couple of weeks into my reading of Stephen Crane’s bio by Paul Auster (Burning Boy) and the side-by-side reading of the Norton Critical Edition of “The Red Badge of Courage.” It’s funny. A few months ago, I thought I’d encountered the most modern of the Modernists in Marianne Moore, because she had shed more antique baggage than the others, but here I am with Crane, a writer born 18 years before Moore, who died of tuberculosis by the time Moore was 13, and seen against the background of his age, through the eyes of Auster and the fabulous lineup of essayists who provided the Norton commentary to accompany Red Badge, I think I’m joining the consensus that sees Crane as the first, and most irrevocable Modernist. He’s certainly the best sentence writer I’ve encountered in American English, and a positive genius of metaphor and simile.  Within one or two pages of Chapter XXII he had phrases like the guns “denouncing” the enemy, or men who “filed a plumping volley at the foes” and sentences like: “There was much blood upon the grass blades” And he ended chapter XXIV with a striking tautology: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” I was astonished today to read in Auster’s bio that Crane, who seemed to have no tutor was deeply moved and affected in the writing of Red Badge by Leo Tolstoy’s  Sevastopol, three short stories written by Leo Tolstoy and published in 1855 to record his experiences during the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). It does nothing to dent Crane’s originality, but it does confirm a belief of mine, that there is no poem without a prior poem. And Crane had not red War & Peace or Anna Karenina until much later.   

Come back tonight, and we’ll do it all again.
—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-01-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 1, 2022

There’s nothing new about what I’m going to say except that I never knew it before as I do now: there are a LOT of poetry journals out there, and a LOT of manuscript competitions. Since I finished the BKP Mentorship Program with an MS I wanted to shop, essentially since the first of 2022, I’ve been sending out poems somewhere or other almost every day. I have my whole MS out to 14 competitions and contests, and I’ve done another 30 submissions to everyplace from POETRY to Stink Eye. It’s complicated because every journal’s requirements are different, either for number of poems, formatting of poems, times of year when they are open to submissions, whether or not they permit simultaneous submissions, whether and where your contact info should appear, and because I have resisted having a bio I can cut and paste, so I keep writing new ones, which is weird as weird can be. Generally, I’m trying to get the poems in my MS published in journals, but sometimes as I finish new things or dredge up and revise old ones, I send them out too. Picking poems to send to journals that don’t accept simultaneous submissions is tricky because you may be tying up a poem for a few months. And there’s a hierarchy of poems, the very best ones need a chance to cycle through some of the most prestigious journals even though the chances of having them accepted are slim.

I’ve developed and continue my list of places to send poems by reading the bios of other poets in other journals and seeing where they had their work published. I also use the Acknowledgements page in the individual books of poetry I read, which is really the same thing.  If the journal is online, I peruse it, see if there’s any reason to avoid it (sometimes its obvious), and to check out the poems. 

When I read something basically for ‘research’ purposes, but I like it, I always try for a minute to find the poet online and send them an email or DM on facebook.  People love that shit, wouldn’t you?  And you can’t help finding out something interesting about your place in the world when you see what’s out there, as in “Oh, I’m better than that,” or “I don’t think I could EVER write that well.” 

I’ve been keeping track of my submissions on an Excel spreadsheet which I developed with the help of my accountant.  What an interesting sociological experience that was, and a tad embarrassing to admit my poetry side to my business professional, but he really knows how to maneuver Excel to act like a true data base, so I can search my submissions by poem name, magazine name, date of submission, method of submission (submittable, email or snail mail), date of response, as well as status, and that last one is important because when a poem is accepted, you need to tell the other places it’s been sent to that you’re withdrawing that poem from consideration. Beyond the organizational benefits of the spread sheet, it can make you feel good about what you’re accomplishing just by sending. And once you give your poetry salesperson a place to work, it helps you to appreciate the how much a part of your success this process of selling is.  Plus, in a way that is both more indirect and less subtle than workshopping and open mic-ing a poem, it—the whole process of thinking about your poem as a product—keeps you in touch with your customer base, and I can’t help thinking that’s a very good thing.

My workshop poem this past week, “Andrea, From Burlington” is a 2017 poem that I dredged up during the last couple of months on the theory that it’s ok, and even if it’s not in my book, I should send it out, so I showed it to Jen Poteet’s workshop of Sunday, got a nice mix of affirmations and suggestions, took it out to the woodshed and tried it again on Tuesday. 

Carole Stone, too, brought a poem called “Journey” that had been workshopped in and revised after Jen Poteet’s workshop about putting a brave face on the final trip to death:  “I will wear my Frida Kahlo socks.”

Don Zirilli’s poem, “Some Borders Should Not Be Crossed,” stimulated a lot of speculation about its subject and intention, but this comment found its way into my notes: “Something wants to be revealed in that last stanza.” 

Shane’s untiled prose poem with a dreamlike unexplained abruptness was either about “POWs or a mental hospital” according to one of the comments.  Shane said it just came out that way.

Ana Doina’s poem, “Top Secret Report” was another of her Communist Romania anecdotes and concerned a visit from the secret police that did not result in the disappearance, torture or death of innocent Romanians. Some thought the Hogan’s Heroes approach to state repression was timely given the situation in The Ukraine, but some wondered what the stakes are for the narrator in telling this story.

Brendan McEntee’s “Write the Foam” is a bit of an ars poetica. The title is imperative, and the poem starts with the title coming at you in the voice of a person identified only as “she.” The rest of the poem is the speaker’s effort to comply, describing the scene in a way that sometimes confuses (emphasis on ‘fuses’) subject and object, ending as the sea presents itself most humbly at the feet of the speaker: “The sky is cloud-scudded and beautiful and the foam reaches out, touches my toe.”

Frank Rubino’s poem, “The local beer place dog” has great seriousness in aphoristic statements such as “Clothing is an invention that worked day one without false starts.” But it is also committed to the seemingly random, quotidian facts of a walk and conversation with a friend, or the oddly specific nomenclature of the title: local beer place dog, or the way it turns on itself to offer an ars poetica sort of imperative: “Don’t get rid of ordinary thought just to make an image:/ talk about a great painting about to come into the world.

Janet Kolstein brought a re-write of her poem “Google Earth: Alexandria” (not in the packet) that explores the modern dilemma of being everywhere the internet allows, but still stuck in your apartment looking at your computer.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 02-22-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 22, 2022

Hi: We had a good hardworking workshop on Tuesday and got to hear good poems and learn from them. After all, it’s not our job to make other people’s poems conform to our tastes, but to dive into a poem, come up with some ideas about what it wants to be and how it wants to become that.

Rob Goldstein’s poem, “Charlie McCarthy” has a wonderful first stanza that allows the mind to enter a field of fruitful deduction and leave behind the earthbound work of connotation. It’s up there with his best stuff. 

Grafted onto awful stillness
is this self-conscious dandy—
a dissonance of spirit and hickory,
essential to the uncanny.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Hospice, with a Friend” takes us right into that fraught place at that fraught moment, and does so not with a physical description, but by sharing the bizarre emotional and moral questions that run through a visitor’s mind, such as this, in the opening line: “Should I write you off early while you’re on your deathbed?” Questions like that continue for the first half of the poem, but when action does replace wonderment, it’s so we can hear about the speaker getting drunk: “I drink myself under./ You’re on your deathbed.  I swig extra slugs, one for one…” I thought the last couplet of the poem threw up its hands and said something somewhat drunk, slurred, abject, ineffable and beautiful: “You’re on your deathbed/ Roses and honey and dew.”

Frank Rubino’s poem “Have a target for your kindness” was about two things, needing kindness and exhorting/promoting kindness, even offering “a voice for your kindness.” The poem, whose argument is fractured that way, between ‘you need kindness’ and ‘do kindness’ drives forward with a seeming unwillingness to let go of its central intuition, talking about eyes that need kindness, arms, legs, and genitals that need kindness, accurate and false words that need kindness, and then offering help from the other angle: “If you want to be kinder/ here is a voice for your kindness.” And the picture that emerges is that this business of kindness is a lot more complex and delicate that volition, and the poem culminates with a beautiful suburban image that bodies forth the whole without trying to define it: “How lightly can you touch the shopping cart & make it roll/ to its nesting place in the other shopping carts.” That’s the good stuff we come to workshop to cultivate.

The thing that’s so promising about Barbara Hall’s “Dear Dead Husband [DDH]”, is the invitation it offers the reader through its form and tone to decipher the poet’s attitude to the expired spouse. Is he missed or is she glad he’s gone? Is there irony, sarcasm, affection? It’s clearly an elegy in the form of an epistle, but the things she writes about, the day-to-day business of life, the sleeping, the laundry, the very long trips to the grocery store, seem to miniscule to support a full scale, happy-you’re-gone. 

Janet’s “Google Earth and Beyond: Alexandria, Egypt” like several other Google Earth poems Janet has written, travel poems for the covid bound, takes us to Egypt, and the first line just about sets the stakes and suggests the limitations for this kind of journey. “I’m seeking Cleopatra and come upon a man with a blurry face.” The poem (not in the package) tells us what we can see (“the magnificent new Biblioteca said to be/ on the side of the library burned circa 48 BC”) and what we can’t (“the spots of the hoi polloi/ in the vast beige grid populated by 8 million”) and there’s a real sense of frustration and resignation, but also loss in the last line, “condemned, as I am, to an eternity of digitality.”

Tom Benediktsson’s “Panopticon”—a word referring to a circular prison with a central courtyard designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 17th C, in which a single guard could watch all the prisoners arrayed in cells around the circumference —imagines imprisonment.  It has a traditional prison reference to the bird overhead as a reminder of freedom, but also imagines prison as a place of stories, stories that challenge traditional perspectives of incarceration. The jailer and the jailed are mirror images of each other, and the speaker may be the prisoner. A pair of old women skipping in the snow pursued by their nurse may be the prisoner’s dream, but it is also a metaphor for the way identity works, as is a sock puppet worn by the prisoner, whose name is Tom, who challenges the jailer to define the identity of the prisoner.      

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Shake Me,” a prosy piece, appears to be a sort of surreal dream too, in which the speaker is an honoree in a tickertape parade, riding in an open convertible with two beautiful movie stars from the 1970s, but the ticker tape scraps of paper, printed with words like “Terms of Service” and “Usual and Customary” suggest a darker, perhaps sinister undercurrent. Why else would he want to be awakened?

Jennifer Poteet is starting a new series, poems about or taking place in towns and cities of New Jersey, and the first visit is to ”Atlantic City” and it’s a poem about class, fear and class-related guilt in a city whose public face is about gambling. The speaker goes there for a writer’s conference and is forced to wonder about her safety, decaying cityscapes and privilege. It’s a good beginning for the new project.

My poem, “Happy Ending” is a prose poem imitation of another prose poem of the same name by the poet “Jay Meek” from his Book Windows. The exercise was to mirror the rhetorical and tonal and thematic moves in the original while borrowing none of the content. This kind of exercise is based on the insight that to some extent every poem, even the least traditionally formal poem, is a form unto itself, a “nonce” form, so what I’m trying to do is reverse engineer the poem, find its underlying form and then imitate it.

Joanne Santiglia’s poem was called “CO 10, 11 and 12” and it was an ode to the perfume Chanel No. 5 on the occasion of its 100th birthday, with the title referring to the chemicals called “aldehydes” used to create it.  It’s a joyous poem, and that’s a good thing.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Translator” talks about the process of translating poetry, portraying the translator through the metaphor of a bridge in which “I sway over the chasm/ into which a word can fall and fall, and never make a sound,” and prays for a meeting, facilitated by the bridge, between poem and reader, whom, she hopes, will “fall in love.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Romanian village, 1946” about children who’d been sent to dig up some extra good clay for their uncle to use in his pottery finding the corpse of a WWII soldier decomposing in the forest, and the villagers coming together to give the remains a decent burial. A strange nostalgia in the form of an anecdote.

Thanks to all of the hardworking poets and thanks for the poems. See you next Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell

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