Take Mario Out of Your Poem: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 29, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I read a conversation between Super Mario Brothers Creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo guy Bill Trinen.

Bill Trinen: It actually goes back to the way they designed the original Super Mario Bros., where when they tested it, originally, there was no Mario and there was no person. It was just a block. And you would press the button and see the block move. There’s actually a word in Japanese that describes what you’re talking about — the feeling — which there is no word for in English. In Japanese it’s called tegotae …

Miyamoto: … tegotae …

Trinen: … which if you were to translate directly sort of means ‘hand response.’ There’s also hagotae, which is the sense that you get on your teeth when you’re eating food. 

Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario, announcing a Super Mario iPhone game in 2016.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario, announcing a Super Mario iPhone game in 2016.Credit…Stephen Lam/Getty Images


This got me thinking about the virtue of vividness.  Effective  poems  have …  hagotae.

Hagotae is a good thing to get into a poem, I think. I’ve been reading James Wright a lot lately, and so many of  his poems  have it. I like The Flying Eagles of Troop 62. which I’ve shared with you. It’s a prose poem honoring Wright’s scoutmaster Ralph Neal. the man’s name is the first  instance of vividness, in the opening sentence. Then there’s a phonetic translieration of the Scout’s oath; then the pain of the Boy Scouts’ pubescent gonads. 

The poem has much more vividness, including the end, where Wright talks about ‘ice breaking open in me’ at the mention of Ralph Neal’s name and the garfish (not the pike or the trout) of his feelings escaping into a hill spring, where crawdads are burrowing in the  mud to ‘get the cool.’

So, yes, we admire concrete details blah blah, but this poem does a lot more than present concrete details. What really makes the details work are the frameworks Wright creates. He gives us an overarching American critique. He writes a Boy Scout Troop group biography  that ranges in time and space. And we have a psychological foundation of personal humility if not humiliation that ennobles the presumptive subject of the poem, Ralph Neal.

These frameworks could bury the poem but they don’t.  They can’t suppress the weird vividness that pops out like coin bonuses in Marioland. Meanwhile the conflicting requirements of these underlying structures— like the crumbling midair platforms Mario has to jump across— require  some anchoring sensations.

What’s the featureless block version of your poem— the no Mario and no person version? Sometimes it’s good to leave your poem at that (or strip it down to that)  but Wright puts his in a whole gamescape.

What contexts allow for the details of your poem to have their impacts? Often I’ve got an ethical dilemma or pain of some kind that framing the poem.

Is there any way to test a poem the way you test a game, for tegotae?

What is the tooth-feel (hagotae) of your poem?

(Per an related linguistic study of Japanese onomatopoeia in food language, is your poem motimoti or netineti? Also see phonetic Boy Scout oath above.)

What is Art? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 15, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Art historian Jane Kallir’s Spring 2021 newsletter https://kallirresearch.org/does-the-artworld-still-exist/ poses what sounds like a metaphysical question: “Does the ‘Artworld’ still exist?” The concept of the Artworld was defined in a 1964 article by Arthur Danto https://prettydeep.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dantoartworld.pdf as (Kallir’s formulation): “a coterie of cognoscenti (artists, critics, collectors, curators and so on), who supported a common art-historical narrative with the power to transform a soup can from supermarket staple into museum object.” 

A closed group of people determined the aesthetic value of objects, and decided whether they would hang in museums and be written about. This has been the same group of objects whose auction prices have risen since the 1980s. Kallir notes that it was in everyone’s interest, therefore, to equate market prices with objective value. “Savvy collector/dealers could stockpile canvases by, say, Warhol or Picasso, taking advantage of momentary dips in auction prices, with the assurance that their investments would eventually pay off. Thus was born the blue-chip market.” Among most people I know, this is a fairly well accepted view of the way the art world has worked in our lifetimes.

Kallir asks what happens to the “Artworld” now, that the financial world of markets and auctions has been disrupted? The value of art is still inextricably tied up with money, but money has moved. She talks about the counter-narratives that have arisen with the internet, as artists like KAWS (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaws) bypass the traditional Artworld and connect directly with consumers via the internet:  

  • The melding of “high” and “low”
  • The embrace of narratives created by women and people of color 

Can you use the concept of counter-narrative in your poetry to overwrite shopworn and accepted ideas of “good” writing?

Some of my analogs to what Kallir provides for the Artworld are 

  • the establishment of “low” patterns like 4 x 4 or limericks and the intrusions on them by “sublime” lyrical passages
  • poems in other forms like instruction manuals, tv scripts, or newspaper articles
  • the adoption of plainspokenness, and humble conceits
  • eschewing a good ending, just writing a no frills ending where the poem lands

A prompt is to write a poetic monologue for the KAWS sculpture above.

Do Computers Like Poetry? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Alan Turning Machine or Model

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 8, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Don’t worry about the rain! We’re meeting on zoom tonight.

Shane Wagner brought a poem to our workshop last week whose subject, in part, was the relationship of memory to the actual:

Instance/ Recreate you/ In that time and place// Instance/ Do I change you/ Each time I call again

Don Zirilli was reminded of computer programming by the logic of Shane’s lines, and his use of the word ‘Instance,’ which is a term of art in computer programming denoting the individuated realization of a templated event or object.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship of poetry to computer programming for years, so I wrote a small computer program based on Shane’s poem and emailed it to him. It’s my first pocodem. Here’s a snippet:

if (myArms.areEmpty) { InMyArms(that_time, that_place) } [myArms.you]

The poem and full runnable program are here https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AxD2XB05yXf4O1TR7xnqWo4w9Rscz9fr/view?usp=sharing

There is an email thread about this dialog of forms. 

Don Zirilli: “The code is the poem. The reader is the browser.” “I’m viscerally (not intellectually) convinced that I am a continual consciousness”

Rob Goldstein: “Each instance of memory has to be a unique retrieval of information… Anything that achieves consciousness is a unique “ignition” that binds diverse regions of the brain in a massive, coordinated discharge of neurons “

Yana Kane-Esrig:”I experience myself as having two “lobes”: one thinks in Russian, the other one in English.”

(Rob’s been trained in medicine.)

The conversation about the pocodem focused on the theme of continuous identity. One has an experience of oneself as a character named “I”, until, as Rob said, “the carburetor misfires.”  ‘You’ is recreated by memory each time, & such memories have no contractual relationship to what really happened or who you “are”. 

I’ve always thought that poems are excellent at creating an Instance. They work with the templates of language, and make something that seems novel and continuous at the same time, like the experience of consciousness. (I’ve cited before the work of Gerald Edelman who wrote in A Universe Of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XCGTLKB ) that the production of consciousness requires continuous novelty; brains deprived of stimulus are less capable of producing the illusion of continuous experience.)

OK all this was fun. But in the end I would rather write poems than code: probably because I can do a lot more with language that’s not constrained by purely instructional or informational purposes. When writing poems, I have a much better illusion of novelty.

Annnd… we’re back to the new. What’s new about your poems? Can your poem be represented as a programmatic retrieval of subconscious information? Would that be good?

Is there a companion form for your poem? (An office building? a chemical formula? A computer program?) How defiant, careless, or inaccurate would you have to be, in realizing a companion form, to keep your work interesting?

Use Your Boredom! Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 1, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I read an interview by the artist Mike Kelley (https://redwheelbarrowpoets.org/2021/03/29/the-power-of-naming-and-other-pretenses-franks-letter-to-the-workshop/) of his contemporary and sometime collaborator, the artist Jim Shaw (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/studio-visit-jim-shaw-1923199) The interview’s from 1998, reprinted in https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00U81QGF4/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1, which you can get for your Kindle (or get the paperback for $847.00)

Maybe I should end it right there.

No, poets. Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw had an $847 conversation:

Mike Kelley names Shaw’s strategies: “you use flows of imagery in your work, whether you want to talk about it through narrative issues, or associative flow, or formal connections… or whatever.”Shaw answers: “I wanted to do a visual version of William Burroughs’ fractured style and make reference to a wide variety of things…” He cites the paintings of James Rosenquist, which, Shaw replies, “present a collage of popular imagery, but are unified by his… painting manner.” 

A few words later, Kelley makes the point that Shaw works, in fact, with “stylistic disunity”

And Shaw talks about becoming tired with the restrictions of series and wanting to work with his own feelings of getting bored before it started to get boring: “I would start off with simple distortions and then then become more convoluted and weird; they would end up really fragmented.”

How does your poem flow? Through narrative, association, formality? What exactly is flowing?

Shaw talks elsewhere of thinking up various “excuses to render” because he likes to draw. Are there tropes or techniques you want to fit into your work all the time? Maybe places or times you want to write about? Does your comfort with these things provide a safety net for your other poetic moves?

What unifies your work? Or, are you, like Shaw, drawn to disunity? Can you put the force which wants to disrupt your unity into your work, thereby creating a more inclusive whole?

Imprint Me: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 25, 2021

Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018

Hi Everybody-

Arthur Russel publishes Field Notes from our workshop on a fairly regular (almost never misses) weekly schedule. These notes are a view into how poets work and how poets talk about poets’ work. They’re a wonderful anthology but this week Arthur didn’t get to it because of me. See, in our interdependent community, Arthur needs me to package the poems up in a pdf and send them to him, which I usually do right after the workshop, or else I forget, like I did this week. In a poetry community we have little paper clip chains of helpfulness that add up to our literary history. It’s how art gets done.

It reminds me of a quote I’ve cited before— in one of my poems— by Peter Schjeldahl, who has written for decades with tireless elegance about the New York art scene. In his collection Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light (https://www.abramsbooks.com/product/hot-cold-heavy-light-100-art-writings-1988-2018_9781683355298/) he talks about Clement Greenberg, the critic whose influence, in the 1950s, raised Abstract Expressionism into preeminence. In his essay on Greenberg, Schjeldahl cites some of Greenberg’s judgements that might seem like mistakes. “Fortunately…” he says, “greatness in or about art has precious little to do with being right. It most involves telling a story that imprints itself, when and while it counts, on the eyes and brains of your contemporaries.”

The connection to our workshop is that we are our contemporaries. We are the ones whose eyes and brains need impressing. We are the ones whose hands carry our work to the readers of the future, but we count now. Please don’t be embarrassed to say you’re coming to our workshop to be great. 

I’m the kind of person who would automatically sneer at such an idea. However I am then left with very little explanation as to why I keep trying to write better poems.

Schjeldahl might say great poems can imprint themselves. How? Once poems inspired memorization. I don’t think that’s so widespread now.

Who are your contemporaries? What matters to them? How will you get their attention? I’m one of your contemporaries.

Imprint me.

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

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/alexithymia), 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 (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-emotional-blindness-of-alexithymia/) 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” (https://ten-dollar-books.com/collections/poetry/products/jacobs-hip-by-rachel-wagner-signed-paperback-pre-order-1-15) with Samuel Beckett’s “Fizzles” (collected in https://groveatlantic.com/book/the-complete-short-prose-1929-1989/)

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 (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609280/a-swim-in-a-pond-in-the-rain-by-george-saunders/) 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 https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/317329/how-to-be-drawn-by-terrance-hayes/ & American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/567051/american-sonnets-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-by-terrance-hayes/  ) at Brooklyn Poets https://brooklynpoets.org/workshops/craft-labs/ . 

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 (https://www.philosophizethis.org/podcast/descartes). 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.

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