Field Notes, Week of 08-02-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of August 2, 2022

How about that Marina Carriera reading at The Little Theatre at Felician U sponsored by RWB on Wednesday August 3? Great lyricism, great earthy (earthy = sexy) romanticism, and an important stand as a joyous first-generation Portuguese queer woman. 

Pity the poor fool who wasn’t at the workshop Tuesday, where Janet Kolstein’s “I Used To Think” blew the roof off Zoom. It was a list poem of things the speaker “used to think” beginning with her previous belief that “a pot belly was gross” and very gradually moving from this comic instance into more and more serious material until we catch her admitting that dreams don’t come true: “I used to think you could live like an artist—/ not caring for jewels or cars,/ mortgages or debt – your hands your gift,/ you clothes speckled with paint…” She ends with a great sigh, saying, among other things: “I used to think . . . that my parents would always be living/ and time was a great Buddha sleeping with one eye open.” Someone pointed out that the poem doesn’t talk about the things the speaker thinks now, only what she ‘used to think’ and this creates a wonderful poetic state (or space) that allows something like nostalgia for delusion to become the emotion of the poem.  Janet’s poems don’t go out in these notes, so if you weren’t there, you’ll have to wait till it’s published someplace BIG!

Yana Kane’s poem, “I did not want” is a curious pairing with Janet’s “I Used to Think”  Yana’s poem is also a list poem, where the ellipses that begin each stanza signal that each stanza is part of a list beginning with the title’s words “I did not want.” And like Janet’s poem, Yana’s poem also addresses the past, but in a very different register than Janet’s, because Janet talks about personal history and the feelings associated with leaving innocence behind, but Yana focuses on feelings associated with extinction (i.e. group death) through the example of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, whose final member “Martha,” as the epigraph tells us, passed away on September 1, 1914, and was stuffed and put into the Smithsonian Institution. (Interesting, too, how Janet’s “Buddha” has one eye open, and Yana’s Martha is known for her “glass-eyed visage”)  However, the speaker of the poem, which one might suppose from the title that bridges into the first line, to have been Martha, is not Martha, but, as we learn in the final stanza, another stuffed animal “one case over” from Martha’s, and although the speaker may also be extinct, we don’t know who they/she/he is.   The bigger unanswered question might be what the story of the bird and the speaker as stuffed animals is a metaphor for?  Human extinction? Or just how humans do not learn from their mistakes.

Brendan McEntee’s poem “In Lavender” is about a summer day sitting in an Adirondack chair in a patch of lavender out on Long Island. The poem has an O’Hara sort of present tense that grants us easy entry while setting the scene: “When the wind drops, the heat shows./ There’ll be rain later.  Right now, it’s me in lavender…” Brendan’s style seems to be to put us in a place—a seaside, a graveyard, or here, a public garden—and tell us about the moment to moment in a way that suggests but doesn’t discuss the underlying thing that brought him there.  Recently, his poem described a father and son driving silently around a graveyard until the father is ready to leave. In this poem, Brendan alludes to garden rules—“We’re not to pick the plants, or touch them/ or do anything that disturbs this universe.” But then, semantically exonerated because the lavender touched him, not the other way around, the speaker gathers a palmful of lavender smell and breaths it between his hands. And that awareness of and respect for rules and his use of the word “universe” very subtly freight that solitude with sadness, a sadness he never discusses, but carries in this diction, and gives a home in the solitude of a garden.  I admire the way what he never says becomes the real feeling of the poem. And this is what I mean by connotation, suggestion or implication, one of poetry’s latent powerhouses.

Ana Doina works differently, denotatively; everything the poem wants to say, it says outright. In “Painted Stones” which, like Brendan’s “In Lavender” takes place in a leisure-time outdoor setting, she carefully narrates a walk in the woods taken by the speaker and a painter of stones. Eventually we learn that the painter of stones lost loved ones in the holocaust, an historical surprise, a narrative surprise, but not poetical surprise, and learn that the stones stand in for people lost in the horror (in other words, the painted stones are explicitly the metaphors for the people; the poem reports on those metaphors without having metaphors of its own). And this is a poem that tells us exactly what the underlying feeling is: “You believe/ the ciphered language is enough to hide/ the bitterness of your heart/ from any chance intruder” or the “refuge” and “safety” the painter found in the woods, and the rolling cadence of the final stanza describing the “fear that a loved face/ might have been lost, consumed/ by the hate-fueled fires/ of the war that orphaned you.” 

Speaking of bitter hearts, Howard Prosnitz’s “After Reading Yeats” draws a distinction between the “pleasure” a reader can derive from a “gut punch” line in great poem and the “delight” the speaker feels remembering the early death of an Irish boy who literally punched him in the gut while they were both in junior high school a half century earlier. The cruel joy it celebrates—“the delight/ in knowing that the bastard died young”—is quite inexplicable and alienating.  Happiness today for the forty-years-ago death of a fifty-years-ago childhood combatant?  Fuck mellowing with age. Those seeking revenge, the Japanese proverb tells us, “should dig two graves, one for yourself.” In this poem, Howard has buried the speaker’s bully and has unearthed the speaker’s bitter, vindictive heart. I wondered if Howard meant to invoke the “alienation effect” described by Bertolt Brecht, in which familiar contents are presented in an unfamiliar way to get a new effect so that the audience does not empathize with the story of a drama and can think profoundly about the issues it raises.

In “United We Stand,” Don Zirilli presents a sardonic view of the “stand your ground” laws that excuse homicide when a person feels threatened. Most famously, this type of law led to the exoneration of Trevon Martin’s killer in Florida. The poem uses an ordinary font for the speaker of the poem and italicized font for material he has copied from internet sources related to people who have “stood their ground,” thus exposing the stupidity of such laws.

Raymond Turco’s poem “The Gods Who Rule the Earth” very effectively borrows the cadences and register of a public speaker exhorting a crowd. What he is exhorting them to do is not clear to this reader, but the rhetorical framework is very strong; even without knowing what the poem is about, we can feel the oration in a crowded square.

Frank Rubino brought  “Radio in My Pocket,” a poem that seemed to me to follow a sleepless man around his house carrying either a transistor radio or a phone streaming a radio station while he wonders the midnight usual: who he is, and how men, who can erect an empty swimming pool shell in a desert, are different from animals, who can ‘read sand dunes.’  The speaker’s wife is sleeping, and there appears to be something sacrilegious about approaching her with his radio, source of the “sonics, semantic, information” of the outside world, in his hand. He is a deeply thoughtful man who reads the runes in the flotsam of his life. 

John J Trause delighted us with “Gretta in the Yum-Yum Palace” a poem in the long tradition of poems about girls in gardens, with the quasi-important distinction that John’s “girl” Gretta may be a full-grown lady, and that her “garden” is a candy shop.  Still the net effect of the effervescent, alliterative verses describing all sorts of candy (“There are the goo-goo clusters,/ and fluffer-nutter Sundays, the hot fudge brownies,/ and here the krispy krunch and crackled krokant…”) is not very different from a profusion (or orgy) of flowers.  When you read it, have a box of chocolates handy.

My own poem, “Fallow, He Reported, When She Asked,” is a narrative poem in the form of iambic pentameter quatrains rhymed abab (cdcd and so on), that tells a fragment of a tale about a man named Bob who has come down from the prairie to the plains to visit his Aunt Sally, only to find that her barn was the scene of a grisly killing. A philosophical or moral discussion on the porch of Sally’s house ensues.  Someone said it had an air of Robert Service’s poetry most famously, “The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew.”   

Nick Davis’s prose poem “When Summer Was Good” (not attached) addresses the youthful summer before the departure of a father.

Remember, this is August, the month for Nicole Sealy’s Sealy Challenge—read a book of poems a day for 31 days.  So far, I’ve read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Howard Nemorov’s New and Selected Poems (1961); Monica Youn’s Blackacre; Marina Carriera’s Tanto Tanto; and Marwa Helal’s Ante Body.  In addition to individual collections, I plan to mix in a few of the journals that I receive in hard copy, which I too infrequently read from cover to cover.  You might want to read RWB 14 that way, if you haven’t already.  RWB 15 is in the works now, due out in October, and you don’t want these puppies stacking up like New Yorker magazines.

If you haven’t already purchased Marina Carriera’s Tanto Tanto from which she read several love poems at the August 3 RWB reading, please do. You’ll be supporting Marina as well as her publisher, CavanKerry Press, a North Jersey joint that has also provided several features for our reading series.

!Hasta la proxima vez! 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 06-28-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 28, 2022

Just a word before I get to the workshop, about Howard Nemerov, former poet laureate of the United States (1988), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collected poems in 1978, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Bollengen Prize, and the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.  How did we ever forget this guy? And speaking of forgetting, I got my copy of Nemerov’s New and Selected Poems (1960!) when I was invited to raid the library of one of our great (and not frequently enough remembered) New Jersey poets, Madeleine Tiger, when she moved out of her house in Bloomfield, and it, the book, has sat on my bookshelf unread for a dozen or more years since then until alphabetical swelling required a shift of volumes and Nemerov fell onto the floor. I love the guy!  Not just for his mid-century swag, but for the steady formalness of his mind and his willingness to announce a theme and go for it. The poem, “Runes” in this volume, is a fifteen-part poem in which each part has fifteen lines—and Nemerov tells you in line one of part one (no less exactly than Milton announces his purpose in line one of Paradise Lost), exactly what he’s going for: “This is about the stillness in moving things.” And from there, he’s off, talking about “winter seeds, where time to come has tensed/ Itself,” and Ulysses, and sunflowers, and how winter makes water a captive “in the snowflake’s prison”—on and on with an unapologetic embodiment of ideas past and present in things, things, things.  Of course, you can’t read that first line without hearing an echo of Eliot’s “still point in the moving world”—all of the Midcenturies had to be aware of Mr. Big, but Nemerov had his own point to make and his own, to me, accessible way of making it. I literally had to stop reading for the day when I read part X of the poem, which, if you’ll indulge it, I’ll quote in full. It embodies the idea of thaw, since one of the themes of the larger poem is seasonal change and begins with a direct address to “white water”:


White water, white water, feather of a form

Between the stones, is the race run to stay

Or pass away?  Your utterance is riddled,

Rainbowed and clear and cold, tasting of stone,

White water, at the breaking of the ice,

When the high places render up the new

Children of water and their tumbling light

Laughter runs down the hills, and the small fist

Of the seed unclenches in the day’s dazzle,

How happiness is helpless before your fall,

White water, and history is no more than

The shadows thrown by clouds on mountainsides,

A distant chill, when all is brought to pass

By rain and birth and rising of the dead.

I particularly love “history is no more than/ The shadows thrown by clouds on mountainsides.” So limpid for an image about clouds, so cloudless, so uncomplicated and complex, and such a lesson to learn in times when the shadows seem to hide the mountainsides. This is great stuff; And there was more great stuff at our workshop on Tuesday, including, but not limited to…

Claudia Serea’s poem, “Claudia, listen,” starts in the title with the speaker’s mother’s voice asking the speaker to listen to the sound of a nightingale (introduced by its Romanian name, “privighetoarea”). It’s a brilliant move starting that way because ultimately the poem is about hearing the mother’s voice as much as (or even more than) it is about the nightingale’s song. Interesting, though, the thing that reminds the speaker of her mother’s direction to “listen” is not a nightingale at all, but a branch of a bush “tugging on [her] sleeve”.  The nightingale is gone, and, as Don suggested, the memory of the mother has become the nightingale, as in the myth of Philomel.    

Don Kreiger brought a political poem called “Juneteenth at Carter-Howell-Strong Park”  that was preceded by an italicized explanation that the Juneteenth holiday is a remembrance “of the past and ongoing disgrace that is America.” Having announced its perspective so confrontationally, the poem proper is freighted with its politics as it describes a visit to the eponymous park in Frenchtown neighborhood of Tallahassee, Florida, and that politics is made personal because the speaker tells us he grew up in Tallahassee but never visited Frenchtown as a kid.  Yet, here he is, visiting as a adult who can spend $20 for a hat and $20 more for “a case of coke and a lemon” and then, with or without his burden of soda pop, “[take] a turn round the pond/ shirtless in that Tallahassee sun.” What he finds, perhaps predictably, is a town looking pretty shabby, with “rusty metal roofs,” “an overgrown lot,/ a pickup on flat tires, the driver’s door/ lying on the engine.” The park itself is a more welcoming place, filled with birds on or around a lake, and men on the benches around the lake, men who wave hello to the speaker, and even offer him a beer. So, is this visit to Frenchtown a form of ceremonial penance for a white person performed on the occasion of Juneteenth? If so, how interesting that the poem reenacts the segregation of his youth; his is a visit without any human interactions; though he buys a hat and a case of coke, he speaks to no one. He never even returned the wave to the men on the benches, or responded in any way whatsoever to the man who offered him a beer. This hopeless isolation and separation are reinforced in the last line of the poem, where the speaker cannot even understand the offer of a beer unless it is repeated. The bleakness of this vision of race in America is as unremitting and grim as Clarence Thomas’s.

Frank’s multiverse/poem, “I grew up with my mom’s meatloaf” brings together a vision of fetal development in which ontogeny recapitulates both philogeny and forest life; it is enacted in a natural landscape (a forest) and lives as both a political act (there are different Parties) and a personal narrative (chronic pain). In somewhat the same fashion as Don Kreiger’s “Juneteenth”, Frank’s poem announces its political stakes at the start.  Don’s came as a sort of pre-poem “argument” about a “depraved” America, while Frank’s comes as a footnote to the title, a footnote that quotes in disbelieving wonder from Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and leaving decisions concerning the legality of abortion to the individual States. Frank’s footnote is a straight quote from the opinion of the court, but the fact that it comes as a note to the title “I grew up with my mom’s meatloaf” carries the emotional weight of living in a moment when everything Americans have come to rely on for the last 50 years has been overturned, and in that sense, it’s quite brilliant. The poem never mentions Frank’s mom or meatloaf again, but the point is made, with the added implication that meatloaf is a crazy stand-in or avatar for the bloody, dangerous butchery of illegal abortion to come. The cadence at the end, “Our government has failed” fell too heavy handedly for most of the group, but the density and complexity of Frank’s achievement is pretty awesome.

Tom Benediktsson’s “Grannie’s Revenge” is a free-verse (free-range) narrative about an absurd dinner party with Grannie as the host who has spiked the professor’s food with knock-out drops (a “mickey finn”). The professor, possibly Grannie’s kid, is accompanied by the professor’s graduate assistant dressed up as a chicken.

Some of the finer points of ethics discussed at the dinner and in the poem were out of my ken, but I know a free-for-all when I see one, and this one was entertaining.

Kellie Nicholiades brought “Blood for Gas” , a narrative (narratives are a big big deal in poetry today) which someone in the group described as an ‘essay on giving blood,’ an it certainly was an eye-opening experience that most people have never had, so the information was welcome, but as usual, with Kellie, the joie de vivre is in the voice, the sure-footedness that comes from having one’s facts straight, and the eye to know what we need to know if we want to know about humanity. Check it out.

Brendan McEntee brought “The Tyranny of Aceticism” a poem that spoke about stripping all of the life’s indulgences away through the metaphor of a house that is disassembled to leave an empty pit where the foundation was, and a person employed to take on the sins of others standing where a birdbath should be. This be some cold shit.

Shane Wagner’s “Your Touch” was a beautiful poem about needing and accepting help from an intimate. Set in couplets (like so many of our poems tonight), the poem begins, “When I was spiraling/ I was afraid to ask for help.”  What I love love loved about the poem was that it doesn’t really try to explain what “spiraling” is except to say that it involves the inner rehearsal of the past that accompanies sleeplessness. And to this, the intimate brings an intimacy of legs and arms and bellies that “holds” the speaker “in place,” and help him to “slow.” The bare bones of the situation are so elegantly handled. The ending, when the intimate falls asleep, and the spiraling continues is only a little wry.  The surcease was crucial and welcome.

Howard Prosnitz is back with another Fishman poem. The last one was about camp life in Nazi Germany; this one, in seven rhymed couplets, in the 3rd person, is called “Fishman in Love” and is ostensibly or nominally, about love, however Fishman’s love is not very emotional; it has a bandy-legged, arms-length satirical, even snide, talking out of the side of your mouth feel, right from the start: “Late in the afternoon/ Fishman visits the moon./ Not alone in the dust/ A girlfish answers his lust.” Tom found its energy attractive.  I was left wondering what was at stake for the speaker. The poem reminded me of a misogynistic remark my father made about boy/girl relationships when I was a teen: “Platonic? Yeah, “play” for me; “tonic” for her.” I still cringe when I remember it.

Tracy Tong’s “Revlon Toast of New York (325) Never Discontinued” was an ode to a shade of lipstick full of love, nostalgia and great lipstick names: Burnt Toast, Strawberry Jam, August Romance, Love Potion and Cherry Bomb.  Cheers!

Nick’s poem “Sestina reworked Prompt1” was no sestina, but a powerful free verse anti lynching poem, in which the soul of a lynched person is sent back to live its life and “tell the world that you still had work to do” and that “we” the managers of the afterlife “reject their offering.” The ending is bold and emotional:  “Go home and live oh mighty soul/ Go the Fuck home and live!”

Carole Stone brought a light narrative verse arranged in tercets in the voice of a grandmother attending a granddaughter’s piano recital and going out with the family for Chinese food afterwards. It turns out the kids can use chopsticks but grandma can’t, so she goes for the fork. Though we love specific details, they need to advance the poem to earn their place, and for me, granular details like the name of the restaurant, San Tung Restaurant, and the name of the opera from which aria the granddaughter played, had come, “Die Meistersinger,” seemed to add unnecessary weight without enlivening the anecdote.

Come back next Tuesday, and we’ll do it all over, and don’t forget to come to the LIVE RWB reading on 6/7 at the Little Theatre at Felician University in Rutherford at 7 pm. It’s gonna be great! 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 06-21-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 21, 2022

Super workshop last Tuesday.

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “2 Samuel 3:38” with an epigraph quoting that biblical verse, concerning King David’s mourning the death of Abner, killed by Joab (in verse 28 of the same chapter) in which David, who has cried at the funeral for Abner tells his servants to pay attention to this great loss—and then the body of the poem follows in three free verse quatrains that seemed to branch off in three not-obvious directions from that stem. First there is an acorn rapping at Norma’s window which she mistook for the call of a suitor, and the speaker of the poem is unable to get an explanation from her as to why.  Second the speaker was present at the collapse of a church that went unnoticed by 21 people walking into the bar next door. Third, the speaker speaks of his mule, who is both humble and demanding, and “sometimes… needs a kick.” The theme of not noticing, and of needing to be reminded is strong enough in the second and third stanzas, a little harder to track in the (Norma) first. Tom said “the individual stanzas are tight, but there’s a riddle at the heart of the poem that requires great patience.”

We had a new workshopper this week, Tracy Tong, (Hi, Tracy) whose poem “Helene” seems to follow the speaker’s train of thought as they sit in an apartment, listen to steam hiss and growling motorcycles pass, remember the dementia of an aunt who has passed away, and a conversation with their mom about a French sitcom. The poem suddenly develops a strong emotional thrust five lines before the end, when it asks, somewhat plaintively, “How long can I randomly google how long/ Can a moth-orchid persist/ In mid-winter. Babies cry/ In the womb, why” before ending with the evocative, intriguing, and yet only distantly approachable: “Where to burn five miles/ Off 11218, the red denim roses”. No period, no question mark, maybe the truest broken off thought in poetry. Poems that assemble thoughts this way get the great benefit of multiple turns and shifts and of genuine thought, but also carry the burden of making their own senses. By the way, zip code 11218 includes the Windsor Terrace and North Kensington portions of Brooklyn, where I spent a ton of time working at the Hollywood Car Wash on the corner of Church Avenue and Coney Island Avenue. Surprising, notwithstanding the tv show 90210, how evocative of place a zip code can be.

My poem, “Tiki Torches Very Reasonable at Costco,” presents a series of aggressive confrontations with the social order, recommending lawlessness at times, and asking the reader to recognize that their privilege is built on the suffering of others. Don Z said it “succeeds as a political poem because of attitude, not virtue.” Tom said that the speaker of the poem was an asshole who is saying ‘you think you’re not an asshole, but you are,’ implicating everyone.   Don Kreiger said that ultimately, it’s a list poem, so ordering the list is what matters, and he saw some opportunities for modifying the order to enhance the overall thrust of the satire.

Jennifer Poteet has been working on a book of poems about her mother, recently one about how she was a familiar face on Montclair’s Church Street.  This one, “The Judaism I Knew” talks about her mother as the proponent of a not very observant form of Judaism that left the speaker a little bit at sea, maybe wanting more, maybe wanting more of any explanation.  Don K called it “the start of something” suggesting it could be much more if the shards of memory were connected to a “transformation”.

Howard Prosnitz’ “Fishman” was about a particular Jew or an emblematic Jew named Fishman during WWII.  In a single stanza of short, irregularly rhythmic lines, it had a hint of song to it, some rhymes (shaker/ maker), irregular intriguing half rhymes (taxi/Nazi, speck/kike) and one perfect rhyme (heir/air).  The point, rhetorically, was elusive, but the music was enchanting.

Frank Rubino’s poem, “I flew out to the pine-green woods” is about the speaker’s brother, whom the speaker has come all the way cross country to visit, and yet he regards his brother’s life and home from the outside: “I looked at my brother’s house from the clearing…”  The speaker is ambivalent about his brother at least in part because of the brother’s passion for guns, and hunting (he has a skinning room he calls the “Meating Place).  The speaker could do without the guns but remembers as “fun” shooting at cans of expanding foam insulation.  The poem is in couplets with a couple of monostiches.  The monostiches, such as “& I saw a good house with food and new appliances” are isolated for emphasis; the couplets make the poem easy to read,  but so far lack oppositional completeness, the way that couplets can measure the way forward by opening and swiftly resolving little bits of learning and allowing us as readers to assimilate them before moving on. If all brother poems are versions of the story of Cain and Abel, this poem is written from the perspective of a meditative Abel standing outside Cain’s home and wondering what the heck.

David Bragg brought a poem called “A goose observes a train at dusk” – a goose POV monologue that is also a critique of human activity, in particular the human addiction to light. All the stanzas are seven lines of roughly equal length, but nonmetrical.  The poem has great lines: “Why/ do they not welcome the darkness/ that comes to shelter them from peril?”  and “I would soar the long distance/ to the cold egg moon/ and wander the black lake of night,/ bobbing for sunken stars.”

Elinor Mattern was back (hi Elinor) with a poem about an illegal abortion in 1963 (timely, right?) called “A is for After, 1963.” The poem, in the third person, speaks about a 12-year old, carried, after “the procedure” (which is never explicitly named) “out to the car.” And as the narrative moves towards the rest she needs, a story, not explicitly named, of a possible unpunished rape, possible unpunished incest, emerges of which “she can only remember little bits,” including “a stranger in the living room,/ her mother crying, the lights of the bridge twinkling outside the car window.” The poem’s strategy of speaking in the third person, but adopting the limited knowledge available to the young girl pushes what might be an unbearably horrible story to a distance where it can live, but that strategy also has costs in terms of immediacy.

Finally!  We got to hear a Kellie Nicholaides poem, called “D’s Deli and Liquor in Carlstadt” a poem that, along with its speaker, wanders into the eponymous liquor store and starts recording. It’s a kind of ode, a kind of celebration of the accidental moment, including the customers and counterman she knows and the strangers she only kind of knows. Of course, the liquor store setting conveys a slice of life that carries it’s own complex societal and emotional landscape, but Kellie deals with these lovingly. Welcome back, Kellie!

Yana Kane’s “Peapod” got great reviews from the group; a prose poem (or, as DZ said, “just prose”) it recounts a childhood memory of being introduced  to picking and shucking peas. In the fourth paragraph, the speaker reveals that “this is my earliest memory,” (could we have known the stakes earlier? Is the description of the process joyful enough to sustain us till then?), and the final stanza converts the peas that the speaker plants as an adult into a Garden of Eden without an “angry God.” It’s an excellent start.

Barbara Hall’s poem “The Tulip Tree in Four Parts” is an elegy of sorts about the tree in the neighbor’s yard, a subject beautifully addressed in Zorida Mohammed’s “Two Pines” (See RWB 14). Barbara’s poem, Part I, begins with the phone call informing the speaker that the tree is coming down tomorrow, because it just got too big. Part II delivers the tree to its executioner with a series of onomatopoeic “buzzes” “CRACKS” “Grrrs” and “SPLATS” and ends with a baby opossum falling from the tree. Part III anthropomorphizes the birds into town criers who spread the news of those who have “lost their perch” while Part IV delivers a eulogy for the tree: “Erased: the tulip tree and trunk. —/ Erased the tulip stump from the earth.” Eulogy within elegy is traditional last step.  Here is how Dylan Thomas handled the move in his “Refusal to Mourn the Death By Burning of a Child in London;” “Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter.”

Most of the group loved the onomatopoeia.  With its sound effects and overt emotionality, it would make an excellent illustrated children’s book.

Come back on Tuesday, y’all.  We’ve got plenty more poems—some we didn’t get to on Tuesday, and new ones—to read and love on. Poems about recent SCOTUS decisions are welcome!

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 06-14-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 06-07-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 05-24-22

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

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

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

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

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

                         The look

of the distant city

seen from Eagle Rock. 

The daylight

pulsing down my arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I watch the horizon – his hand disappears.

Now I watch her embers swirl to the sky.

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

I met a man today

who told me

he never learned to be alone…

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-29-22

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

I thought it was a really fun workshop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In whose rich honor

I stand looking from my window  

over the starved trees of a dry September


deep and so far forbidden

is bringing me

a gift

to claw at my skin

to break open my eyes

the gift longed for so long

The power

to write

out of the desperate ecstasy at last

death and madness.

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

It was great to see you all.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-15-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field Notes, Week of 03-01-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 23, 2022

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 23, 2022

Terrific poetry reading last night, celebrating Black History Month!! This annual celebration has become our tradition, featuring published poets reading their own powerful work alongside high school students reading their favorite poems by Black authors.

Many thanks to our co-sponsor, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, to Christie Del Rey-Cone and to the high school student co-organizer, Dana Serea, to all our readers who were just fantastic, and to all who tuned in. If you missed it, watch the video above. Let’s do it again next year!

Featured readers:
Zorida Mohammed
Francesca Bremner
Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal
Jerry Johnson
Preeti Shah
Wanda Phipps
Mark Fogarty
Natalia Tomczak
Alex Anacleto
Anabella Cone
Zen Castaneda
Miya Kofo
Dana Serea

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