Amended Field Notes, Week of 04-06-21

Arthur Russell‘s amended notes to the recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 6, 2021

Hey, Everyone:  I tried so hard not to repeat last week’s complete failure to get out the Field Notes that I got a bit sloppy.  I forgot to include Carole Stone’s lovely evocation of a writer’s retreat at a somewhat spooky, but also charming and inspiring, richly-endowed castle in Scotland, which I’ve pasted in full below, and I forgot to tell you about a fabulous poem by Walt Whitman called “Leaves of Grass Original 1855 Edition,” that I’m reading over and over on an audiobook narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, available on Spotify.  I’ve talked to a few people about the experience of having LoG read to me, and how it has enhanced my appreciation of the poem I would say exponentially.  I have a facsimile copy of that 1855 edition that I keep open and follow along as Mr. Ballerini does the hard and necessary work of giving voice to the words on the page.  As you may know, the original 1855 edition has very little by way of formatting; the poem just rolls on and on sometimes a double space between what would, in later editions, be separately numbered or named poems.  Also the Preface to the 1855 edition is a really long 5000-word lyric essay on what it means to be a great poet of the American moment, and the Preface, in the facsimile edition, is in tiny type and paragraphs with no spaces between them, so it looks like the label on a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s Pure Castile Soap.  But with Ballerini reading the Preface, you can hear the urgency of the mission statement (some say WW undertook the work of becoming the American bard after hearing a lecture by RW Emerson), and you can hear those Whitmanic cadences in a distinct ambition, which is very nice. 

My dear friend and I were listening to a 45-minute swath of LoG yesterday— the entire recording, Preface included—is 4 hours 19 minutes—and they were as grateful as I was to have the poem read aloud to us; we did it without having the text, or a glass of wine or anything, just sitting in front of my babbling telephone as though we were listening to FDR give a fireside chat, or as though we were in church letting the improbabilities of liturgy and sermon pass over us unchecked. This was part of my second time through the recording and the poem.  I’d listened to it once beginning on Good Friday (1/3), Holy Saturday (1/3) and Easter Sunday (1/3) (which also corresponded to the last days of Passover, oh happy concordance much to be hip-hip-hoorayed), and I had been upended by the way LoG works as prayer/sermon/testimony/patchwork/Haggadah/midrash. And my dear friend and I agreed that WW can be difficult to enjoy on the page because as readers we’re always rereading, going back to catch the syntactical whole after it unfolds in those minutes-long sentences and lists of his; and when someone is reading the poem, you can’t go back (you can stop it to look up some of those incredible words he comes up with (chuff, teokallis)), but stopping to go back is really not the best way to love LoG.  The best way is to let it roll, keep going, stay in that beautiful space that he carves out of time, try to stay in the moment, and if you drift, come back without judgment (I know, meditation). I thought, too, of how in Hebrew school and at the Saturday services, and at Passover, and, I imagine for Xians, in the liturgy, it’s the hearing of the thing (especially as a child, but also as a second child) over and over that allows your mind to absorb the poem in a noncritical way, to remember it without memorizing it, and in a way, remembering without caring if you remember.  And let me tell you, when I undertook to read LoG, I was erecting sensical barriers to its admission (into my head) based on his relentless filling of its stretched-tight net-shopping-bag sentences, and rudely compared WW’s work to a wet fart (that happened, and I regret it).  But once I found Ballerini’s recording, and loved it, and listened to the poem uninterrupted by my reader’s intelligence (such as it is) or my whiny pissy impatient attitude (think Ezra Pound), I was fucking mesmerized for long stretches, and when I did drift off to appreciate or interrogate an image or phrase or line (“The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case/ He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom”) I was able to rejoin the procession without a sense of loss, and realized that the poem is performative, not textual (Grateful Dead jam, not Bill Evans solo).  It may be that some people can read WW on the page with the same drive and push as hearing it aloud provides, but I’m not one of them (which is a little odd, because in the sorts of shorter lyric works that I hear in workshops and at poetry readings, I’m always craving the text).  Point of the story is I think this Whitman guy is on the rise, a real Ocean Vuong of a poet, and I plan to read “LoG 1855”, with and without the audiobook and my new bff Ballerini two or three times more before the class moves on to Emily Dickinson at the end of the month.  For the last go-through, I may set aside 4 hrs and 19 min, and go straight through.

Speaking of Ocean Vuong, they did a free online reading through Harvard Radcliffe on Thursday night, and read two excerpts from their novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as well as a poem from their forthcoming poetry collection “Time Is A Mother.”  The poem, which they now call “Not Even” was published last year (Poetry, April 2020) as “Not Even This” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/152940/not-even-this) – Although they did not say so explicitly, the readings from the novel, which concerns the Southeast Asian immigrant experience in the US, including their work in massage spas and nail salons, where Vuong actually worked (as a receptionist) as a boy and where his mother worked as a nail technician, were apt in the aftermath of the murder last week of 6 people, 4 of them Asian American women, in Atlanta by a psychotic moron, and they made some comments about that disaster in the q and a, including this: “My aunt works in a massage parlor, in California, right now.” I don’t know about you, but the stark reality of that statement did a lot of work for me ripping away the veil that separates us from the faceless Asian-Americans we hear about as victims of racist violence on the news.  Separately, Vuong also made a very uplifting comment about the younger person we all once were who dreamed up the identity we became.  To paraphrase, they said that in the Western Tradition we are encouraged to forget the person who wanted, and focus on the present, but, they argue, the person who wanted was  the “pioneer of our life in a way.”  Vuong asked us to see that person “not as a defunct version of ourselves, but as a fruitful collaborator.”

If this amended Field Notes were a Frank Rubino invitation to the RWB workshop, I would now say, think of a way to revive that fruitful collaborator in your poems. But even though I have appeared as Frank Rubino in Zoom meetings while he is away (and based on his reputation and home-page photo, received date offers), I am not Frank Rubino….

Next, I’m dropping a link to a worthwhile article in The Paris Review called “Fuck The Bread.”    

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/07/fuck-the-bread-the-bread-is-over/

And finally, again, with renewed apologies to her for having omitted it from the earlier edition of the Field Notes, is Carole Stone’s poem “Hawthornden Castle.”

Hawthornden Castle

Silence in the halls,
outgoing calls not allowed,
lunch arrives outside my door,
sounds of padding feet.

I walk the winding drive,
pass flowers, Latin names displayed.
After a brief shower, the drenched air
holds its blue, Rhododendron flare
like a Tartan plaid.

Tea at four, today the promised scones.
I’m scared of the rattles in my fireplace.
Ghosts of previous guests?
I’m told Stevie Smith was here.

I complain the sherry’s drunk up;
the director implies someone is tippling at night.
The cook makes the promised trifle.
The castle owner’s possessions abound;
Sèvres porcelain, blue and white Ming vases.

Precisely at 10:30 PM,
the cast-iron gate slams shut,
a heavy key turns the ancient squeaky lock.
A poem might come to me tonight.
Glittering, wonderful.

Field Notes, Week of 04-06-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 6, 2021

We had a great workshop, exciting poems and a great discussion on Tuesday, and we had a visit from Isaac Myers III, the editor of The Curlew Quarterly (but he didn’t bring a poem (sad face)) and a return visit from Ana Doina (who did).  Frank Rubino was away presumably enjoying his immunity to Covid, so yours truly had the helm.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem, called “My Dear Friend Thomas” imagined a letter from Emily Dickinson to the poet responding to one from him to her, replete with Dickinson-isms like the m-dashes and idiosyncratic capitalizations, with quotes from her work. But beyond the easy mimicry, the poem fulfilled its project of imagining a real letter from a revered poet, speaking of the poet’s life with candor and friendship.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy,” is a poem of personal isolation and alienation, and despair for America. It is set in the desert where the speaker has parked his camper. There, he reflects on the recurring death of America and the inability to draw any conclusions on the cause of death: “I live through this new autopsy of America,/ this endless cleromancy, again and again and again,// divining nothing.” The poem’s lyricism is light as a skipjack, small utterances that don’t provide much detail, but give the sense of a defeated soul or at least one in a holding pattern, especially in the last lines evoking the power of movement without the desire to go: “I turn over the engine,// listen to the potential in its thrum, then turn it off, satisfied.”

Yana Kane brought a lyric called “Orbit” that addresses the persistent orbit of the Earth around the sun and asks why. It’s a celestial discussion that tries to move beyond science to  free will.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “I Was Not a Girly Girl,” compares the speaker’s love of adventure, nature and science with the speaker’s sister’s love of soap opera and romance: In a lovely verbification, the speaker says of her sister: “She damselled, revelling in distress/ that would soon end in a magical, invisible, life-affirming kiss.”

LanChi Pham’s poem, “Inbox” uses the language of computers to indirectly illuminate what seems to be a romantic problem. It begins with the speaker saying  “I cleaned out the inbox of my heart,” and carries the metaphor forward with words like “delete” “autocomplete” and “Searching…./Searching…/Searching.” And it ends with the woeful conclusion that the “you” of the poem comes up at the end of every search.

John J Trause, who recently wrote a pearl of a prose poem about a spider web in a library is back with more biblio-arachnophilia, a poem speaking to a spider whose web was found on government documents in a library.

Jen Poteet was back with a rewrite of her poem “To the James Merrill Fellowship Committee” imagining a fellowship that would entitle her to live in and around James Merrill’s house in Stonington Connecticut. She was looking to enhance the emotional grip of the poem by imagining more fully the speaker’s engagement in the fellowship process. The poem does a wonderful job of recreating the scene at the Merrill house as described in numerous accounts of Ouija seances, and the workshop pointed out that the “domed tin ceiling in the dining room” was a nice way of creating an atmosphere conducive to calling back spirits. I wouldn’t know.

Ana Doina’s poem, “Stealing Cherries” is a childhood reminiscence on the theme of old guys and kids, some of whom escape their escapade with “cherry juice still dripping from our laughing mouths” and a “slow one left behind” who was spared any retribution by the old, injured gardener.

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “Une petite chanson”—a single sentence affirming each man or woman’s right to live “their own histoire/ their own poeme.”

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Vermilion” was a rewrite of last week’s how-to leave home prose poem.  The poem works by depicting the difficult circumstances of life—boredom and bullying and unsympathetic parents—and then moving on to describe an escape to a sci fi reality that relieves the discomfort.

Janet Kolstein brought a poem called “Oh, My!” about the secret lives of trees that combined a reference to the Wizard of Oz, and recent science on the ability of trees to communicate with one another through chemical releases in their roots. Very entertaining.

Wednesday night, we had an epic reading by Davidson Garrett at the RWB reading.  Damn, that guy can spin a yarn. 

See you all very very very soon.

—Arthur Russell

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” (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0871LKPJ3/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title)

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 (https://redwheelbarrowpoets.org/2021/03/22/can-we-use-the-distance-between-sentiment-and-true-feeling-franks-letter-to-the-workshop/). Minor Histories (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/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” (https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=1) I re-discovered Mike Kelley’s “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” from 1987 https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=12.

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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Kelley_(artist)) 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?

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, https://apple.co/theworldsalittleblurry 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 https://youtu.be/coLerbRvgsQ . But the anime music video (by Takahashi Murukami (their collaboration is documented in an interview https://youtu.be/TVTzOOBxCog )) 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?

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 24, 2021

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 24, 2021

Terrific poetry reading on Wednesday night, celebrating Black History Month!! We had over 50 participants, including a large number of high school attendees who shared very moving poetry and songs. Many thanks to our co-sponsor, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, to all our readers who were just fantastic, and to all who tuned in. If you missed it, watch the video above.

Featured RWB and guest poets included:
Zorida Mohammed, Mark Fogarty, Francesca and Raymond Dharmakan Bremner, James C. Ellerbe, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, reg e gaines, Michelle Whittaker, as well as local high school readers.

Also, many thanks to organizer Christie Del Rey-Cone from the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, and to the high school student coordinator, Dana Serea, for their outreach efforts. Let’s do it again next year!

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” https://youtu.be/inMs5loNcvg this week on KEEN’s Facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1595959980642796/ . (Also at Penn Sound  https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bittencourt-and-Katz.php ) 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  https://poets.org/poem/mexico-city-blues-113th-chorus)

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?

Field Notes, Week of 02-16-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 16, 2021

Good morning and welcome to the Field Notes for the February 16, 2021 RWB Workshop.

Janet Kolstein (no copy included) brought a rewrite of her poem “Did you know Neil Lasher?” about one of those odd apartment house elevator acquaintanceships that ends in learning of the person’s passing, and a concomitantly odd form of mourning that ensues. I thought of it as an elegy pulling the slender threads of that incomplete portrait. So much information and the contours of the emotional gap revealed in these two lines: “I’d interviewed him in a Meet Your Neighbor segment/ that aired on our (now) cancelled condo channel.” And so much reverence (I think that’s not the wrong word) in this lovely quatrain:

He was always pulled together;
grey cashmere around his heck,
navy blue sweater, or a smart suit cut to his roundness.
A nimbus of stylish white hair

The kindness of “smart suit cut to his roundness” slayed me.

Claudia Serea’s poem, “If I could go back in time” imagines a time before the speaker was born, before her parents met, when her father as a young man was arrested by the secret police in Romania for what he’d written in poems in a high school notebook. In this poem, the unborn speaker imagines herself a gust of wind that blows that notebook off the table and out of sight of the secret police, thereby saving her father, but also, coincidentally, insuring that her father wouldn’t meet her mother and she, the speaker, would never be born. There is a wonderful moment in this wonderful poem when the narrative ends (“the Securitate would never find [the book]” and the poem leaps to two images in a couplet: “The flame would crawl into the match,/ the spider would swallow back its web.” They are images that illuminate time moving backwards, or undone cause undoing effect, and they are followed by the monostich: ‘and my father would be spared.’  Great story telling move, I think, and it is followed, ironically, with the new effect, that the speaker, the daughter, as savior, presented as a gust of wind would, by logic, have “swelled the curtains, exhaled,/ and disappeared.” So the sacrifice comes home in the last word of the poem. Nice work.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Fetish” talks about a guardian angel who “is neither.” Presented as a story in free verse with variable line lengths but a slender overall appearance, the poem portrays the ‘angel’ as a kind of pet or disruptive and sexually perverted child who masturbates hovering in front of a shoe store window. Funny as anything, the poem mostly avoids talking about the speaker, this parent/pet owner, except in the lines that reveal their superstitious nature: “so the other day I’m walking/ into town, busy avoiding the cracks/ in the sidewalk while counting back/ from a hundred by sevens.” And that’s really all it takes! I think that what energizes Tom’s work beyond the bizarre imagination of the supernatural, is his excellent management of lines that keeps his odd tales moving. Look at all these great line ending words: neither, levitate, ground, breaststroker, incontinent, cracks, staring, rubbing, inappropriate, swat, angel, revolving, embarrassment, shoes! And look too at the fabulous break at “three” in the compound word “three-legged dog,” which so zazzes the funny line with additional expectation, or the breaks between “rubbing” and “himself” and between “inappropriate” and “way,” that enliven each new line with impetus and momentum. So, it’s not just the story, but the lines that include fresh surprising details in an entertaining and engaging and surprising way. And, as the workshop pointed out, the title “Fetish” applies not only to the angel’s love of shoes, but can be a slantwise reference to the angel itself under the definition of fetish as “an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers.”  Thanks Tom.

For a different approach to narrative, Raymond Turco brought another of his hagiographic sketches, this one about the assassinated PM of Italy “Aldo Moro.” In all of these sketches, this one included, Ray writes in the second person, but oddly forfeits the proximity of that mode of address with an impersonal voice and a narrative style. The net effect can be somewhat “Dragnet-like,” the historical importance of the hero’s life, the chilling circumstances of their death circumscribed in a just-the-facts mode. The poem part of the poem is in prosy free verse, and is followed by an actual prose paragraph reciting more or less the same facts. The slight difference between the poem part and the prose part lies in the some details included in one and not the other and in ‘commentary’ such as “A mystery surrounds you, Aldo,/ the details are still unclear,” which is true.

Barbara Hall’s poem “HAIKU Visions for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” is a rewrite in tercets of Barbara’s praise poem for seashells. Now the poem leans on both Wallace Stevens and on the form of haiku for support, and could possibly lose itself in the ascription. What does this series of tercets risk and/or gain by calling itself haiku? And how has it answered Wallace Stevens’ invention? The group was happy to take it on its own terms independent of the title as a series of recollections about finding shells, eating shellfish, using shells as art, and even getting a gash on one’s knee that needed stiches. 

Shane Wagner’s poem “Robert Frost, Jennifer Poeteet and Shane Wagner in the Woods” starts off alluding heavily to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” but moves on to discuss the speaker feeding his son, and the challenges of having special needs children, and ending on a question about mortality. In that diffuse sense, it accepts and rejects Frost’s dichotomy concerning paths through life as there are roads, but the only choices are local. I love the way the poem alludes not just to Frost, but to Jen Poteet’s series of what she calls anachronistic poems about dead poets revived as interlocutors. And I love the way Shane made a party out of it by inviting a person/poet named Shane Wagner to come along for the walk.  It would be interesting to see Shane excavate this poem for its mineral wealth. 

Susanna Lee’s poem was a prose/poem called “Locks of Love” that was a waggish satirical take on Viking lore, that spoofed (or was it an homage pretending to be a spoof) the hyper sexuality of the type. “The men’s manliness oozed and anointed these, their holy women, all over.”

Jen Poteet, fresh from her appearance in Shane’s poem brought one of her own called “On Valentine’s Day, Everyone’s a Poet.” Though she never delivered on the promise of the title, there was a spritely insouciance to the portrayal of cupid as “a chubby little saint” who “aims an arrow” and the monosyllable one-word italicized, exclamation: thwack! 

Yana Kane’s poem “Unbinding” came in three parts separated by dots. The first presented the interesting proposition of the speaker as an old woman emerging from a chrysalis. The second and third segments proposed variations (no, not 13 variations) on the idea of metamorphosis. The third segment was a haiku in at least a couple of ways: its adherence to the American syllabic count for the lines (5-7-5) and also the grab of a moment out of time, this one so clearly depicted as an afternoon light phenomenon:

Holding sunset light

above the rising shadow,

a rusty pipe glows.

Frank Rubino’s poem was called “Mary.” Like other of Frank’s work, centers (?) on a reality of suburban home life, the speaker’s place in the world and leaking water, and veers away to consider other things: a Russian language singer, the speaker’s wife’s decorative lights, and a woman named Mary. I loved the homeowner’s mystical relationship to his home in these sweet lines:

I opened the tiny hatch in the basement ceiling, and reached up into the dark super-ceiling,

Somehow my hand knows which pipes are full:

the more lightly you touch, the more you know.

And I also loved the way the name Mary became a lambent unknown in these lyrical lines:

I was washing a pot from dinner,

and the smell of bay leaf

arose on the steam, and reminded me of Mary.

And I said, out loud, “Oh Mary.”

And my wife asked me, What made you think of Mary?”

I also liked the way the poem came back to the image of reaching for a valve in the dark to refer to the way memory works: “I reached my hand into the dark compartment of my brain.” 

On the overall, I think it would be good if we as a group spent time talking about how a poem does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t. A poem has available to it the huge range of devices, modalities and tools that poetry has invented over the last ten thousand years: form, line, sentence, argument, rhetoric, image, voice, diction, assonance, resonance, repetition, allusion to other sources, drama, narrative and lyric modes; subject, theme, irony, sarcasm (?); and we, as poets, as practitioners rather than simply as customers, have a greater awareness of what’s going on in a poem. And we can learn and the writer of the poem can learn more from us talking about what is going on—even if it seems obvious to us—than they can learn from finding out what we are or aren’t bothered by. Yet so often, instead of talking about what a poem is and how a poem is and where a poem seems to want to go and whether it seems to get there and if not why not—from which we can learn a lot—the first thing out of our mouths is “I would” instead of “you did.” Praise is important, but “I love” is only the beginning of informed praise. Don’t we ever worry that we’re imposing our own ideas of what a poem should be on a poem without exposing what those ideas are or figuring out what the poet has made? Isn’t there some sort of homogenization process going on when we jump to edit along “traditional” “modernistic” lines as though we were repairing a Ford for which a greasy dogeared manual exists rather than meeting a poem—a fucking creation—on its own terms?  Can you imagine saying to God—“love the universe, but you should have ended at Jacob?”

—Arthur Russell

Every-day-ness: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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

Hi Everybody-

I’ve been reading Homeland Elegies, a novel by Ayad Akhtar. Written by the author of the play Disgraced, It was on a number of ‘best of 2020’ lists and has many pleasures, including cringey sex scenes and an erotically described bourbon. Its political sophistication, geographical sweep, and compassionately-observed characters trying in various painful ways to deal with America’s marginalization of Muslims after 9/11 make it spectacularly uncomfortable. I’m really enjoying the form of the novel, which is a fictionalized memoir. That gives its events the credibility of true-life, and permits the author to explore ideas in “transcribed” conversations. In it, Akhtar (the character, who is a playwright) enumerates some of the journaling practices that produce the exhaustive detail in his writing:

1. He records his dreams by taping a short pencil to his finger so that when he wakes at night he can directly transcribe them, with what feels like an extension of his body. (A friend tells him that if he wakes up and loses the memory of the dream he can recover it by returning his spine to the position it was in when he had the dream. He tries it. It works.)

2. He goes home after a dinner conversation and records it, and even reads and analyzes it for theme. (This does seem to stretch credibility because there’s a fair amount of serious drinking.)

3. He writes every evening what has happened that day. (I’m thinking of Kharms who, if nothing happened on a day, wrote “Today I wrote nothing”)
Also, Akhtar uses footnotes to meticulously correct and expand upon ‘the record.’

Though I’ve written about dreams, I tend to stay away from them in my poems. I was taught that dreams are anathema to good writing because the events of a dream have no consequences. I’m not sure that I think that, but I do know that when someone gets set to tell me their dream (my mother has some very long ones) I tend to find it harder to pay attention to than some other things. 

Every-day-ness is important to me. I need fresh, topical words, so every day I record something that is interesting or has emotional impact every day. I have gone through periods writing faithful accounts of everything that happens, but so far I haven’t figured out a way to make that practice add up to more than busy-work. The subconscious curator needs to be exercised.

Do you write every day?

Back to those usual questions that fascinate us: is your writing a true and accurate account of your life?

Anyway, what gives your writing its credibility?

Here’s a link to a 16 second video I found on r/youtubehaiku/, the reddit channel where “Videos 14 seconds and under are known as Haiku videos and 15-30 seconds are Poetry!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GX69llei1EIt will tickle your absurdist funny-bone, speaking of Daniil Kharms.