Is Self Expression Always Good? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Where is the forest?

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 11, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I learned the term ‘alexithymia.’ It’s a coinage, according to Wiktionary (, by two psychiatrists, deriving from Greek, whose literal translation would be ’not speaking the heart’ (There is a kind of poetics in psychology, I think, that’s not always good.)

I found a Scientific American article ( that describes the experience of someone with alexithymia:

  • 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

“Limited or rigid imagination” and “Constricted style of thinking” jumped off this list because these items describe the cognitive consequences of having an incoherent or unstable emotional life. It speaks to the severity of this condition when it’s in its acute form. 

Taken as a whole, without the pathological aspect, the list seems to describe me when I’m writing a poem. 

This might seem weird for an artist to say, but I’ve been puzzled for some time about the absolute value of self-expression. It’s accepted that self-expression is essential, but what is the raw input of self-expression for an alexithymia-sufferer? Would such ‘self-expression’ simply be, as a Dr. friend of mine suggested, a learned pro-social behavior? And would it satisfy that person’s aims?

When you are writing a poem, are you expressing yourself?

An interesting prompt would be “I have alexithymia:” Take each bullet point in the above list and elaborate. (Don Zirilli’s workshop poem ’Symptoms’ is one approach to a prompt like that.)

Does society, with its screens, headphones, contact-less payments, etc, have alexithymia?

Expression figures in the pro-social circuit of feel, communicate, receive-feedback. But this is a transaction: is there a non-transactional circuit for self-expression? Are poems a transaction? Arthur Russell says poems reward attention.

Sparks Between Poets: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 4, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I want to try something weird— I want to compare two wildly different books I read this week.

They have a few similarities, actually. They are both short overall: 30 pages, 60 pages. They are both comprised of consistently sized short prose pieces. The pieces live in a weird place between poetry and prose. For each book, there’s a single persona who narrates every piece. The persona uses humor and, in some cases, excruciating detail. Each book has a deprived setting.

The blatant differences: one book is about a year old; the other is 50 years old. One by a man; one by a woman. The two approaches to language are different. One uses language in an aggressively stripped down way, with simple declarative sentences. The other uses richly idiomatic language with allusions and metaphors. Two of its sentences however connected me to the other work: “Two jaws open. It’s the fine of his fines, so long as he’s fine.”

Musical and permutational, as punny as Shakespeare who’s also alluded to in this work, these sentences echoed the other book: “Quite still again then all quite quiet apparently till eyes open again while still light though less.”

This was the initial spark that jumped from pole to pole like in those old mad scientist horror movies, and connected Rachel Wagner’s “Jacob’s Hip” ( with Samuel Beckett’s “Fizzles” (collected in

Does you brain connect inordinately different poems? Do they have any similarities? 

There’s a lot more to say about each of these works and I don’t have space to do it all here. To address the sense of space in each: the strongest evocations of space in Wagner’s book come in the descriptions of prison, with white walls, grimy corners, and vending machines, and, in Beckett’s work there’s a claustral feeling of close walls, or barren plains stretching beyond a dimming flashlight.

I would love to write a bit more about the personas that narrate each of these pieces:

Are they funny? How? Self-deprecating?

Do they understate their harrowing predicaments?

Do they succeed or fail?

Working with very disparate works like Fizzles and Jacob’s Hip reminds me of what we do in the workshop with each other’s poems.

Calculating the Cacti: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I spent many hours this week in the desert, surrounded by saguaro cacti. These life forms group together to make living water conservation networks. It is humbling to endure the heat as a human (Me: “my arm is going to catch on fire”) and realize that none of these green spiny cacti have moved to seek shade for over 100 years. A single cactus can hold several tons of water in its body. It stands and preserves what comes to it.

I liked reading last week’s workshop poems, which I missed in person, in Arthur’s field notes; Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy” in which the speaker encounters the occasional “strangers” amongst the Joshua Trees, hit me with its desert setting. The meaning of ‘stranger’ is so different in a desert, where another person is a rarity, as alien in form and function as a cactus.  

I’m working my way through George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain ( in which Saunders adapts his master-class on 19th century Russian short stories to book form. Singers, from Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches is about a singing contest at a nowhere tavern. It has a lot to say about the strange, extra-human origins, social functions, and death of art (and it takes place on a brutally hot day), and it’s a really great story, but Saunders’s students complain that there’s too much description. Indeed there’s a long preamble to the central action of the singing contest which contains virtually nothing but descriptions of clothing, faces, architecture, etc. Finally, when the first guy opens his mouth in the tavern to start singing, Turgenev does one of those lovely Russian addresses directly to the reader, and says “but first, I think it would be best to describe each person in the story.” Saunders calls out this moment and offers a challenge: go back through the story and cross out everything that’s non-essential.  

This is a challenge to assess what work the description is actually doing. I remember learning how rapidly eyes scan back and forth across even a still image— how “seeing” is the eye making these movements and the brain assembling the discreet visual data points into a whole. Saunders points out that Turgenev’s descriptions of people don’t really add up to people but more like “Cubist paintings” He points out that modern descriptive writing is more terse, less focused on comprehensiveness (unless you are maybe Karl Ove Knausgaard? 🙂 And yet. You can’t get rid of any of it without it harming the effect of the story. 

It’s not that big of a leap from these “sight-like” descriptive fragments that “don’t add up” to a coherent image… to a poem whose word choices and stanza breaks disrupt syntax and sense.

Poetry schedules a sequence of events, like the choreography of an eye moving across a view.

Eyes-across-view is only one temporal scheme. There are also speech events and changes in register (which to my ear sound like new characters coming on)

The number of events and their relationships to each other make the wholeness of the poem.

There is no wholeness of the poem without every event.

There is no other/better wholeness of the poem.

Meaningless description is an event and is therefore not meaningless.

Am I proposing that there is no way to assess the relative appropriateness of a line or word, or stanza?

Can you actually edit a poem like we do in our workshop?

There are some pretty freaky arms on some cacti. Should we bend them or break them off?

I Poem Therefore I Poet: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

The Dog & His Reflection

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 20, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week, I loved meeting the poet Terence Hayes (How to Be Drawn & American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin  ) at Brooklyn Poets . 

Hayes’s session focused on ways to quickly get at what a poem is doing, and then to use that information to generate new poems. He says he derived this approach from the “Maker’s Knowledge” principle of Cartesian opponent Giambattista Vico. Best I can summarize its relevance in one sentence: Descartes with I think therefore I am says you start with an abstract principle of truth; Vico says you start with every practical example you can muster. Perhaps someone better versed in Philosophy will elaborate ( As it pertains to Hayes’s method, the idea is, if you want to know what makes a good poem, make a good poem (God knows everything about the Universe because he made it: humans can’t know the ultimate truth; they can only know what they take their hands and make) How do you make a good poem? Look at the way other good poems are made. 

Hayes had us listen to good poems to focus on the poem’s hot spots. I’m writing this to transfer some of the practical knowledge I got from this exercise. One is don’t try too hard. When someone’s reading a poem (this works very well with poems read out loud) you want to background all your critical judgement, so you can be attentive to those moments in the poem that really work for you. You are going to hear and remember the best parts automatically: that’s the way the brain works. Those automatically remembered moments are going to be your key to what makes the poem good.

What makes the poem good is your key to prompt yourself to write your own good poem. This is not an attempt to assess a poem’s universal poetic worthiness. It’s an attunement, and an energy collector. One of the benefits of basing this on Vico is his principle that, because of the variety of human experience, there are many ways to reach a good outcome.

So some of the prompts might be: I like the way John J Trause incorporates legal language into his spiderweb poem: I will write a poem that uses an image from nature and contractual language.

Or, I like the way Don Zirilli speaks in the voice of a Labyrinth: I will choose an architectural  structure and write in its voice.

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” (

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”?

The Power of Naming and Other Pretenses: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Minor Histories

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Spring is here! Just in the nick of time.This week I got a little deeper into the artist Mike Kelley, whose More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid I wrote about last week ( Minor Histories ( is the second in a proposed five volume set of Kelley’s writing. This volume mixes humor, memoir, and notes on technique & materials Kelley used in his paintings, sculpture, installations, performances, photographs and other forms of spatial expression.

It includes a well-known 1991 essay, Some Aesthetic High Points, which, Kelley says elsewhere, had been taken as an earnest anti-aesthetic manifesto— but is really one of his jokes: a takedown of pompous artist bios. It includes his memories of winning a poster contest in grammar school, and seeing an Iggy Pop performance in a biker bar. Another takedown of what I would call a structuralist seriousness, masquerades as an essay on a collection of “sacred” American photographs Kelley childishly defaced (swastika drawn on Lincon’s forehead, etc.) (Reconstructed History, 1990)

In The Poetry of Form, Kelley writes about found naming systems: Geological formations like “The Frozen Cascade” and paint chip colors found in hardware stores. The color of my bedroom is “Soft Chinchilla” He says that he wanted to “stress the naming process… as the primary aesthetic characteristic” of the color or rock formation. He was also intent on the anonymity of the naming process, and He created many artifacts (photos, drawings) based on his research into these naming systems. I thought of the poem “Bad Rock Band Names” by Wayne Miller, which he read at this month’s open mike. (Forgive me if I screwed up the title, Wayne)

(One of my favorite naming systems is cannabis strains: Ghost of Leroy, Jilly Bean, Alaskan Thunder F**k…)

Another association of Kelley’s work to a workshopper is the section in Minor Histories called UFOlogy: Kelley lists, among other things, the many detailed UFO descriptions he came across in his research on the subject. It reminded me of Janet Kolstein’s poem, where the speaker describes a ufo.

So, we have in just this sample of Kelley’s work a list of artistic pretenses you can use to structure (or at least jump-start) a poem:

1. Fake bio (I use this one constantly)

2. Pompous exegesis (actually I’m thinking of Susanna Lee’s recent “Viking Love” poem as an example of this)

3. Found lexicons and taxonomies

4. Deep research into trivia

(Also I can think of Don Zirilli’s heartbreaking instruction manuals as well)(And John J Trause’s “future hagiography” of Marilyn Monroe)

What can you add to this list of pretenses?

Can We Use the Distance Between Sentiment and True Feeling? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 16, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I went to the Whitney after such a long time and in “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019” ( I re-discovered Mike Kelley’s “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” from 1987

I’m fond of this piece, and I like many other Mike Kelley works too. Sadly, he committed suicide in January of 2012. I read on Wikipedia ( that mourners spontaneously recreated “More Love Hours” as a memorial.

More Love Hours, with its stitched-together stuffed animals, uses overtly “sentimental” materials. It’s transgressive (or was, or still is, or is even more?) in that it “ high arts” yarn and sewing and platitudes.  As a blanket-sized wall hanging, it references quilting & seems humble and sincere.  Its title which contains the phrase “Love Hours” (the time people spent creating giveaway toys) has a clumsy earnestness. It functions as a “message” whose literal meaning is easily parsed. 

I don’t know why it works for me: I was taught that sentiment is the enemy of true feeling. Sentiment “manipulates” and numbs, and is often used for political ends yet I react with feeling from More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid:  I empathize with the artist’s tenderness and the restorative labor in his collecting, composition, and construction of More Love Hours, a reflection of each person that produced each hand-made figure; I hear in the title, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, Kelley’s own acknowledgement that “curating” and “assembling” this famous piece, while labor-intensive, took a fraction of the cumulative effort in the construction of every crocheted, sewn, knitted, glued, cut-out, sequined etc figure in the amalgam.

More Love Hours is hanging in a carefully controlled mainstream culture industry environment, a very expensive piece of real estate, and engagement with it is highly proscribed. I can’t take it off the wall and roll around the floor with it. I can’t even really get close enough to smell it.

And yet, I still love it and want to cry thinking about it. I don’t know whether its remoteness (amplified by Kelley’s death)  conjures such closeness? 

Carl Phillips talks about the balance of pain and decorum in great poems. 

Can one use sentimentality as the decorous side of that equation? 

Do you write sentimental poems?

We have seen many successful workshop poems with sentimentality in the balance… and many unsuccessful ones (including mine!) As the Coffee Talk ladies had it, Discuss: “poetic” guardrails against counterfeit feeling don’t work anymore. Sentiment is no longer sentimental. Sentiment is useful in fact in creating the ironic distance required by decorum.  I love some poems like I love More Love Hours- how do those poems work, those tear jerkers?

Existential Catholicism: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 9, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Last week, I wrote:

Billie Eilish divulges high-stakes intimate secrets directly to people who keep the same secrets.

Poetry can make this same deeply intimate connection when readers feel known.

This week, I want to return to the idea of making the reader feel recognized. For me, poetry’s ability to connect deeply addresses a principle of Existentialism the therapist Roger Wolfe displayed on a whiteboard in his office:

I’m talking about item 3. “Separate Reality: unique personal experiences. Aloneness”

As a kid growing up Catholic, I was taught that God could hear my thoughts: that’s a terribly damaging idea for so many reasons, and it’s a relief to now believe it is completely false. But while it held sway, that belief in the divine ear helped me form an articulation of my inner life that tells a good story, makes my case, frames the unexplainable. I am sure  that I share this with others who had a Catholic childhood. 

I can’t blame “wanting to be known” on Catholicism, though: it seems crucial, pre-verbal. I did want some people, if not God,  to hear my thoughts, and that the people never can is a source of sadness. We live in separate realities like the whiteboard says. The thoughts are translated to language, the language is edited, etc.

When someone (often an artist) expresses what I hear in my head, I love them: I must be known. Like a true fan loves Billie Eilish for knowing them.

Poetry is the voice in your head when you’re reading it.

Poetry is the voice in the poet’s head when they’re speaking it.

Billie Eilish is the voice in her fan’s heads.

I think, in trying to talk about a very basic thing that poems do, I just confessed my infantile need to write them. Oh well, Now you know.

Bad Guys and Strange Angels: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Billie Eilish | Official Site

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 2, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I watched The World’s A Little Blurry, about Billie Eilish. My kids introduced me to Eilish’s music and theatrical aesthetic, which was nightmarish and dealt familiarly with issues of mental illness like cutting and suicide. That they should esteem it or vibe with it freaked me out as a parent. I think they knew that when they gleefully showed me her megalomaniacal You Should See Me in a Crown . But the anime music video (by Takahashi Murukami (their collaboration is documented in an interview )) made me a Billie Eilish fan. I loved the combination of 2D flatness and dark epic scope, the appropriation of Studio Ghibli for psychotic purposes (a pair of terrified flowers, their faces uplifted to crushing doom, is as powerful and effective an image as you’re likely to find in poetry) as well as Billie’s self-caricature. The restraint of her vocals, their murmuring and lullaby sounded original and worked to unify the song with the visual’s monstrous imagery. Her vocal’s whispery seductiveness is countered by the live Billie’s signature loose-fitting clothes and child-like stage-scampering.

I said I was a fan, but I will never be a real Billie Eilish fan. Real Billie Eilish fans identify with her so deeply it’s as if their inner lives are interchangeable. There’s self-recognition. I think I came close to being a real fan when my children were in their teens, and I had their inner lives much closer to me, and therefore I had Billie Eilish’s inner life closer to me. But now, though I can feel it like distant sunlight (and though I can access numerous other human feelings in her music), I can’t live the Recognition connection:

Billie Eilish divulges high-stakes intimate secrets directly to people who keep the same secrets.

Poetry can make this same deeply intimate connection when readers feel known.

The aspect of Billie Eilish I did not talk about is Fineas, her brother & collaborator, who provides the entertaining, sonically inventive, delightful musical solution that flows the Recognitions along. So there’s an element in her emotional bond, as in poetry’s, of technique and art.

How do you connect deeply with your reader? Since we’ve often talked about entertainment as a way to connect to the reader, I am in mind of what Geoffrey Hill said. “Poetry is a strange angel and has very little to do with enjoyment actually…. “Enjoyment” is patronizing and possessive… when you “enjoy” a poem you say, “You are mine, and you please me in my current mood.” And the angel of poetry says, “Sod off. Sod off!””

Are your poems more the “sod off” kind?

Is Billie Eilish Geoffrey Hill’s strange angel?

Unediting Your Poem: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Perhaps many of you saw “Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues” this week on KEEN’s Facebook page . (Also at Penn Sound ) It documents a 1988 “investigation” of (or investigation using?) Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” at NYCs The Kitchen  (A great excerpt from Kerouac’s 1959 poem of 242 “choruses” is here

The Kitchen event must have been quite long, starting at 3 PM on a Sunday but the video features 26 readers, and runs a mere thirty minutes with some commentary. (We had about 26 readers at the last WCW Center open mike.)

Oh my goodness I just saw that Lawrence Ferlinghetti died. He is a commentator in this video… 

I really loved hearing Kerouac’s words, and I love the form of Mexico City Blues; it’s an ancestor of Ted Berrigan’s Tambourine Life, a compound of smaller pieces, which I talked about in an earlier note (remember Ted’s vast bandaid?) But I don’t want to talk so much about the long poem, or even the passages selected for the video. I want to talk about selection itself. Editing.

Unedited work. Doesn’t that idea make you squirm? Loong poems. Don Zirilli said long poems are like getting stuck in the corner with someone at a party.

I like the edited experience this video presents. (Of a writer who typed on rolls of paper and who stated that first, unedited thoughts were best.) Because who doesn’t have a half hour to watch this? I generated a whole load of lines this weekend which I want NOT to be one long poem and I’m thinking about what it means to edit them like his video was edited. How do I approach it? How do I find the succinct expression of length? The thirty minute version of my “choruses”?

Often we think of a poet’s job to be like an editor’s. The poet edits the poem to get the “ best” poem. To expurgate the “junk.” Poetic language is the product of the poet’s work.

But spokenness, appropriation, rhetoric, erasure admit the value of that junk line or junk stanza: that discarded speech has some human experience behind it, some lived-through impulse. To make your poem relevant to your contemporaries (which is the thing that matters most if you want your work to be read in the future, after you’re dead, and they speak differently about so many things) you have to really grapple with your discards, to acknowledge and draw in your poem’s opposition. Why did your poem want to say that? Is there something real in the cliche? Your poem’s length and ragged edges have crucial roles in making it fresh, responsive. 

What do you leave in your poem? There is natural drama in the high vs the low, the dirty vs the clean, the mess vs the geometry. My step Daughter, a fiction writer, said “Poetry is just word replacement, fill in the blanks.” Cheeky. It’s the blanks too though. Do you have blanks in your work?