Field Notes, Week of 07-20-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 20, 2021

We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Took me from then till now to calm down enough to write about it.

Frank Rubino‘s “Fire is not connected to wood” is a suburban philosophical free verse tract in two stanzas about nature and mortality presented in the garb of two guys looking for a stinky dead bird in the bushes in the backyard on a summer night with a fire burning. The men’s sniffing upsets “the others”  and sets off thoughts about Dostoyevsky’s Karamazovs; ultimately the speaker looks up at the back window of his own house “regretting my daughter’s old bedroom window/ & that she slept on a mattress now on the floor of her mother’s one bedroom apartment.” Stanza one ends with a remarkable, frank cry of anguish for the lost daughter. Quite a journey, but then the poem flips back in time to the same afternoon where, with excruciating delight, sympathy, and concision, the speaker recounts the movements of a bird struggling to fly up onto the garage roof  “discombobulated, as she careens across to the cypress tree,/ loose winged still, still fluttery.” Only to conclude, glumly, that the bird that delighted him in the afternoon may be the dead bird he and his friend smell in the night. Chagrin, remorse, regret, loss and even fading hope become instinct in the picture of the bird; the daughter and the bird locked in the embrace that the poem forces on them. Good good poem. There was quite a debate at the workshop over the allusion to Dostoyevsky, the use of the friend’s name when even the absent daughter had no name, some suggestion that the emotional miasma of the first stanza should be ditched in favor of the mid-century clarity of the second stanza tracking the bird’s movements.  Someone even argued that you can’t “regret a window”—but obviously they have only limited experience with either regret or windows.  

Janet Kolstein continued what’s been a remarkable run of poems with “Sol y Sombra.”  The title refers to the two sides of a bull fighting arena — one can sit in the sun or the shadows; and the poem talks about adolescent fantasy of dressing like the toreador in the poster on the stairs to the attic of the house the speaker grew up in:

Lithe and fierce in his skin-tight suit of lights,
El Cordobes hung on the wall by the steep attic stairs I’d painted with stars.
I must’ve run up and down those steps to my bedroom ten-thousand times
and stood, expectant, in front of the closet
deciding what to wear
when what I wore affected my confidence
or lack thereof
It had to feel just right on my body.

What I love particularly about this poem is how it frankly acknowledges that it’s the moment from the poster—bullfighter, cape, costume, sword (“the space between the sword and the beast”)—that excites the speaker, even in memory, not the “pain I felt for the bull’s heaving agony [and] bleeding wounds.” And it excites me because that’s how humans are. We can love a bullfighter’s costume even if bullfighting should be outlawed. Sol and Sombra, indeed.

Moira O’Brien‘s haiku, “Seniors wheeled to the quad” worked in the manner of Pound’s “In a Station in the Metro” juxtaposing two images. For Pound it was the faces in a subway crowd and the petals on a tree limb; for O’Brien, it’s the old people out in the sun on the quad and “turtles basking on rocks.” The success of a juxtapositional effort like this may be dependent on how unexpected the comparison is, and how one image deepens the other. Put differently, my Pope and Dryden professor at Syracuse, Art Hoffman once responded to a criticism of Dryden’s imagery saying: “you say ‘far-fetched’ as though it was a bad thing…”  

Joanne Santiglia brought a poem called “The Wine Flows”  a free- verse love poem that uses wine as a metaphor to explore personality. The wine, it begins “flows from my mouth to yours/ turning to vinegar…” The beloved says don’t worry, but the speaker insists that if her “tongue is tart,” she’s to blame for the transfiguration. Spilt words and wine are “not easily contained,” she acknowledges, before professing her wish that her words would transmit her loving intentions.

Shane Wagner‘s poem “Summer of ’78” is a beach nostalgia that ticks off the typical summer pleasures of youthful cousins on the seaside, before ending with a surprise review of “grandma’s liver/ Only liver I ever enjoyed/ Maybe because we were that hungry/ Or maybe because, as she explained, you have to devein the liver before you cook it.” Amazing how the down and dirty memory can rise up and trump the cliches.

Yana Kane brought back an elegy we’ve seen several times before “Tai Chi Teacher,” a poem in four segments that begins with a beautiful depiction of the eponymous teacher still learning his craft at the age of 83, and then veers in the following sections, as a good elegy should, to consider the aftermath of his death, at a memorial service, in the speaker’s notebook, and, ten years later, in the surviving memory.  It seems that Yana has struggled to extend the poem beyond that initial beautiful depiction through multiple drafts, but keeps running into the same problem—that nothing so far has matched that initial evocation in solidity, believability and intensity. But if we know Yana, she’ll find a way, and when she does, we’ll be here.

Barbara Hall‘s poem “The Day I Walked to School,” about missing her bus, has a super refrain: “then (of course) I thought of you,” that alternates with the little snippets of narrative that take the speaker through her morning routine and out to the bus stop just a little too late. The group wondered who the “you” of whom the speaker thought was, and what their connection to the narrative was. Everyone in the world loves a good refrain, and loves it even better when each instance of the repetition holds the subject in a slightly different, new and surprising light (see, e.g., James Taylor’s “Wandering”). Here, we got the lambency but not the development.

Mike Mandzik (god, how we love this guy) brought a knee-slapper of a poem “WHY IS URANUS BLUE?” that spoke in some sort of scientific way about what turns out to be a fart joke—it’s the methane around the ‘gas giant’ that makes the planet blue, and keeps the other planets from getting too close. And someone even noticed that when Mike referred to space as the “vinyl veneer” he was actually spoofing Star Trek’s invocation of space as the “final frontier.” A poem as funny as a fart in a space suit?  I don’t know, but when we ship out for Mars, I want Mike for company.

Just a note on process—We like to emphasize DESCRIPTION as a workshop priority. Description is more difficult than likes and dislikes, and more difficult than line editing, but ultimately more rewarding than either. Description reveals the mechanisms and manners of the poem, and everyone in the group benefits when anyone in the group says: “I spy with my little eye…”  

YESTERDAY WAS THE NYC POETRY FESTIVAL ON GOVERNOR’S ISLAND.
The rain held off and a few of us represented The Red Wheelbarrow Poets at this annual event. It was great to read live again and see everyone in  person. Photos and video coming soon.

See you tomorrow night.

Field Notes, Week of 07-13-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 13, 2021


Hey, everyone, last week Arthur was back to the workshop, and here are his insightful weekly Field Notes. Welcome back, Arthur!



It was great to be back after a 6 week hiatus for a workshop through the Brooklyn Poets with Jay Deshpande, part of the year long mentorship program.

Shane Wagner brought a prose poem called “Beautiful Japanese Man” about an encounter on a commuter train between the ungendered speaker and the person he refers to as the titular “Beautiful Japanese Man.” As seems appropriate, the encounter is presented mostly as a choreography of movements and a meeting of eyes, a dumb show of strangers that could, at first, have been out of a spy movie or a police procedural, until the speaker and the man “looked away then met each other’s eye several times until we eventually gave up and just started at one another.” The remarkable thing is how efficiently the poem moves through its narration, from gaze to stare, and then, quite powerfully, how the man is able to summon the speaker back onto the train when the speaker gets off at 14th Street.  The intimacy of that moment is great, and once they are restored to the train, the poem’s sole line of dialogue, indirect but obvious, “I have an apartment” brings the poem to a nearly silent boil.  There’s a lovely moment after that, too, when the speaker, considering the proposition, “wondered if it was a company apartment and if he was there only part of the time.”  The real debate about this poem, it seems addressed how much of a lead-in the poem needed/wanted, and how to frame the final shot after the speaker “made a slight no gesture with [his] head.”  Everyone had an opinion on that, but the group did not discuss the gender of the speaker or how the speaker “knew” that the beautiful man was Japanese.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “Turning over in his grave” is a narrative about a cab ride in Romania, another traditional poetic form, strangers meeting here as they do in Shane Wagner’s “Beautiful Japanese Man” in a public mode of conveyance.  While Shane’s poem was about an almost-sex event, Ana’s poem is about generational ignorance, a cabbie who voices the popular complaints about the shortcomings of government, and a passenger who is evidently from an older generation, who knows better how bad the former government was, and, after listening to (and reporting to us) all the ignorant shit the cabbie says, delivers a sarcastic rebuke from the back seat in a final stanza mic drop.  

Claudia Serea‘s free verse poem in short line stanzas of variable length, “The cemetery is full” depicts a cemetery full of broken and lichenous statuary that the poem animates to create a scene of somber decay, so ultimately the poem creates a picture in which “the cemetery is full” but the speaker “suspect[s] all of the souls are gone.” Rather than end at that firm bottom, however, the poem continues with what might seem like a reaffirmation of life, as the speaker lines their “pockets/ with portulaca seeds,” which, as Lia pointed out, can produce the most vivid and colorful of flowers.  

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Flag on an Overpass,” a free verse in two eight-line stanzas of varied length, though the second stanza has longer, more even lines.  The first stanza imagines a car trip.  The second stanza takes place in a cemetery (two cemetery poems in a row!).  Claudia’s cemetery was full of statuary, but empty of souls.  In Don’s poem “Every grave, car, stone, parking space, mourner,/ gate, bird, flower, and window is empty.”  Claudia’s poem lingers on the details of decay that make a somber picture of the cemetery, while Don’s poem lists the categories of cemetery stuff and calls them empty.  Claudia’s poem has no first person narrator until the end with the portulaca seeds, and presents its message of uplift (if that’s what it is) in the gesture of the seeds, while Don’s poem establishes the speaker long before they reach the cemetery, driving down the highway, and is overt in presenting the speaker’s emotional state in the first stanza “I remember why I love/ or forget why I don’t love, and my heart fills up.” And in the second stanza, “I forget what I feel.  I remember what the tree feels.” So Don’s poem is more “argumentative” in the sense that however abstractly it moves, it works by overtly drawing parallels between speaker and scene. Neither poem tells us specifically why the speaker is in the cemetery, but the workshop seemed to accept that the graveyard does a lot of the centering work, and that’s been true since long before Thomas Grey and his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” And it’s good in our discussion to notice these canonical moves of setting and all of the allusions, shared assumptions, and other baggage they bring to a poem.

Carole Stone‘s “Sweet Dreams” has no cemetery, but it has elegy, and if not grief,  “breather/ from grief….a fit of pique.” In short line, rather incantatory, sometimes rhyming free verse, in four stanzas, it moves around a widow’s poolside world, considering the lost husband, absence, and presents us at the end with “the unpaid bill of loss.”  

My own poem, “New Sponge Trilogy” is a three part poem that begins with a facebook post in couplets about the day he changes kitchen sponges. This section begins with a form of general address about what “we” do, as though the tribe of kitchen sponge changers was a religious group, but ends up abandoning the “we” for a first person address about how the speaker’s daughter will someday find all of the old sponges in the basement ‘shop’ in the house. Part 2 of the poem continues the social media thread, but speaks in the voice of a single bacterium living in the speaker’s sponge, a bacterium which tells of seeing the author of the poem eating a fried egg sandwich at his kitchen sink and relating, knowingly, not only who the author is, and what his marital status is, but distinguishing the author from a more famous homonym. If there was dry humor in the first section, there is a certain degree of wet humor in the second. The third section also continues the social media genre, but takes on a third voice, that of an old friend of the speaker/author, who writes to the speaker/author privately in a message to remember being urged by her mother (back in h.s.) to consider the possibility of taking on the speaker/author as a boyfriend, which she rejects, and in rejecting reveals that the speaker/author holds onto a lot more than sponges, which she urges him, for his own sake, to let go.  
 
Lia DiStefano‘s poem “Secrets from The Deer Head” creatively imagines that the jazz music played at a somewhat well known but not famous jazz club/bar at the Delaware Water Gap had a mystical connection to the mites and woodworms living in the old building’s walls.

Brendan McEntee‘s poem “The Great Wave” is blocky and substantial on the page, long lines, almost paragraphs that give the poem a certain visual heft and even a sense of foreboding with the title looming above it like the great wave it names ready to crash.  It is always good to be aware of the look of the poem on the page and what it is telling us before we begin to read, because these impressions guide us into the poem and set the mood in ways that we, as poets can be aware of and use to our advantage, or ignore and pretend that it doesn’t matter how the words are arrayed.  The first line of Brendan’s poem is a big turn from the title.  Look how it engages with the title, in quiet argument:  “The Great Wave”—”It’s a rogue wave, really.  So says the literature: the rest of us see tsunami.”  So we already know that this poem, unlike, for example, Claudia’s, which moves through depiction to create emotional effect, or Don’s which engages in emotional counterpoint of speaker and scene, this poem is a talker, an explainer, a knowledger.  Between the title and the first line, the poem has invited us into something calm, reasonable, patient, and then, almost immediately backs this up with a reference to a woodblock print of the wave, so the poem takes on an ekphrastic quality, which reinforces the impression of thoughtfulness we have about the speaker, so that when the speaker locates the print of the wave inside “one of my favorite restaurants,” the poem allows the owner of the restaurant to perform the analysis of the woodblock (clever, that) and is already moving on a couple of tracks to introduce the subject, tell us about the speaker and give us a way into a narrative that will, eventually be about a failed romantic encounter followed, years later by a distressed call from the former date/companion, who relates a dream that takes us back to the ocean, to waves and parents, and deep familial distress, back in fact to the very restaurant where the woodblock print was hanging.  This poem is something special, a rich stew.

Yana Kane‘s aphoristic “Be free!” is a poem in the imperative, directing the reader to appreciate life with all its contradictions.

Frank Rubino‘s “Mom the artist reads to Brother Bill”  is a domestic inquiry into childhood, not exactly a nostalgia, but an unwinding and rewinding of two brother’s relationships to their mother, to the story of Noah and the Ark, (and look how the Great Flood here, as a resort of parable resembles Brendan’s reach back to the Great Wave for both anchor the poem.  We’re always looking back to shared origins.).  In Brendan’s poem, the great wave invades the dreams of the failed companion.  In Frank’s poem, there is it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor conveying the sibling roles played by speaker and brother (you’re the Flood and I’m the Ark because I’m good).  Another interesting aspect of this twisted reflection on the classic is the role played by “Mom the artist” in the title, who is presented not only as the reader of the “Bible story book with lurid illustrations.” And the poem brings mom back twice in a way that is obviously unsettling, first, at the end of this sentence drawing the boys into equal preadolescence:

We both wear dirty underwear the same
and know each other’s drawers and striped crew socks
& the degree and provenance of each other’s stink,
as Mom, too, well knows.

And it seems to me in that first tag of “mom” syntactically appended to the equivalence, reasserts the role of the mother, maybe not as artist, but as intelligence, awareness backup, support.  Then the next sentence does the same trick again; both boys watched monster films in a very specific way in a very specific place evoked with the kind of deep love that can only apply to home, and then again, at the end, “as Mom well knows,” and that “well knows” and now the awareness has developed into a kind of “presiding” over the boys, and we, as readers are asked to notice, and having notices the mom’s second appearance as president, should we also notice her absence after the third parallelism between the boys which immediately follows, which reiterates the good brother bad brother conclusion with which the poem started—should we notice that mom, the president, does not well know that Frank is the good kid and Bill is the bad kid?  

There are things not fully worked out in this poem.  Should they remain not fully worked out?  That seems to be the question Frank asks over and over in his work.

Hey, everybody, we need to hear from everyone in the workshop about the poetry that takes place in our workshop. From everyone on virtually every poem, with respect for one anothers’ different styles and different pacings and different comfort levels.  The workshop is a place for work that we all share for one another, through observation and intelligence, and no one voice of the group is more important than another, so please pitch in.

Arthur  Russell

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

Alan Turning Machine or Model

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is an email thread about this dialog of forms. 

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

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

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

(Rob’s been trained in medicine.)

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

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

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

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

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

Field Notes, Week of 05-25-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 25, 2021

We had a super workshop on Tuesday, May 25; sixteen people, and we got to nine fantastic poems, with six held over to next Tuesday.

Preeti Shah, our friend from Brooklyn Poets, brought a poem (her first with us) called “The Timing of Things”—a meditative lyrical narrative apostrophe on finding a small bird, dead from a fall, outside a CVS, and the revisionist dream born in the grief at seeing it (we’ve all had one like it, admit it) of having arrived just in the nick of time to catch it.  Addressing the bird, she writes: “Perhaps a few hours earlier,/ I could have broken your fall/ by stretching my cotton ribbed shirt/ widely as a safety net…” However, the poem turns sharply from that fantasy, to extended lyrical images of the corpse and its disintegration: “Your dust-strewn feathers/ have blown across/ the empty parking lot/ passed the cigarette butts, to the far side/ of cracked cement/ where pedestrians wait to cross.” Bridget Sprouls said it was a poem about our failure to honor dead things. That, and a poem full of a deep, innocent regret. Thank you, Preeti.
Tom Benediktsson commented on Frank Rubino’s poem “My kid confesses twenty years of crime” that this like other recent ones (I’d say the last six weeks) have used a lot of cantorial repetition, to give a lyric voice to his poems.  Frank’s poems always honor his compositional intuitions, and the consequent veering can sometimes challenge the reader (intentionally or not). The rhetorical power of the anphora does a lot of work to hold them together, at least that seems to be what the experiment is, and that Tom noticed and that I agree with.  This week’s poem is about the rent fabric of a family when one of the children, as the title suggests, confesses to twenty years of crime. The poem features several repeated phrases, “she stole… she stole… she stole” “She doesn’t know… She doesn’t know” and “Kids don’t know. . . Kids don’t know”  which home in on the obsessional difficulty accepting the disaster while exposing the speaker’s strategies to avoid the tragedy.  Elsewhere the anaphora adopts the cadence of an old English judgment with a stanza that includes  “For having lived a life of crime & for to heal her spirit,/ & for to repair her thousand injuries…/ she must leave our house forthwith.” Still elsewhere, Frank nearly pauses the poem to say: “Well well well/ Oh well.” For me, the central image that repeated in all the sections, that time is the glue of suffering, was too complex to thaw and resolve itself into a dew, but I have faith it will do in the next drafts.

Brendan McEntee‘s great/wonderful poem, “Thanksgiving Walk,” was, as Bridget said, a mood poem, in which the careful examination of the world outside reflects the inner mood of the speaker; and as Tom said, the poem had a speaker, but no “I” which made it more purely a mirror.  Here’s the second stanza entire:

Squint-visible in low tide stink,
barely legible on the swollen log
under the seaweed cling: “YOU
are the means of production.”

Someone went through a lot of work for subtle abjection.

John J Trause crazily surmised that the “squint” and the “stink” were intentionally set in place to create the sonic echo of “squid ink”-as the medium in which the message was written on the swollen log.  And even more crazily, Brendan agreed!  Personally, I loved “Squint-visible” as a compound adjective and the tetrameter cadence of the stanza through its first four lines.

Bridget Sprouls‘ poem “Swati’s Daughter, Radha” was a blessing for the girl, Radha. The specific blessings varied from the surreal (May she never molt like a lizard/ or grow plaza-like ears for roaring absolutes.”) to the practical (May she find and patch the leaks”), and at the end the power of the ballad meter asserted itself in a stanza that could be relineated thusly:

May her questions twirl like petals
from an ever blooming tree,
and may her parents live to see all this—
and smile in their tea.

Lovely poem.

My own poem, “Peonies” was a four-stanza lyric on lost love written in ballad meter, inspired by my recent study of Emily Dickinson, who wrote in that meter frequently.  Don Zirilli said that the poem embraced its formality, and Frank noticed the ‘archaic’ structure of its phases; Benediktsson said it was in conversation with older poems such as Houseman’s “Shropshire Lad.” And Don said that the metaphysics of the second stanza, where the speaker sees his lost love in “an iridescent grackle wing,/ the sun’s reflection on a rake/ or any other holy thing” went further back, to John Donne, Janet K’s summed it all up as follows – “This poem cries out for an Irish folksinger.”

Jen Poteet wrote a poem about the disrespect that people show to people who lose their cats.  The title says it all:  “Get Another One!”  Bridget described the poem as a snappy comeback to a person like that, and the drippingest sarcasm came in the line some thought it should end on: “They’ve got a slew of hardy plants/ down at the Home Depot…”

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “Diagnosis” about an existential crisis, had the droll absurdism of an early Woody Allen stand-up (“My mother made me a homosexual, and if you get her the yarn, she’ll make you one too”), with a side order of surreal madness.  Frank and I thought it was painfully funny; others didn’t see the humor, just the pain.  This pleased Don.  Lines like “I’m a Stage IV auto-empath.” and “Maybe I’ve put your finger right on it” and “I come from a long line of mouth eaters” point in one way.  Others like “The house is burning right now,/ in the wall somewhere,/ and all I can think about is pop tarts.” veer towards a genuine crisis, while the last couplet demonstrates anguish, still laced with absurdism: “I hope I’ve answered your question and I really really/ hope you asked one.”

Moira‘s moving-day poem, “Backwards Glance” got a ton of respect for its leisurely pace associated with a last look at a long-lived home.  It’s a list poem that only slowly reveals its situation, beginning with “The birds, the squirrels and their/nutshell calling cards” then continues to inventory the world outside (similarly but differently from Brendan’s “Thanksgiving Walk”) with a line that starts out at a canter and then ignites: “A warm breeze, a cool breeze,/ the burning bush.”   But the poem really ignites when it comes inside: “Eggs over easy/ Your spice rub./ The refrigerator, the stove, the oven/ The Weber kettle barbecue// Your underwear drawer brimming with boxers./ T-shirts worn to threadbare softness/ which I now wear  as nightshirts// As I sit on the deck bathed in the light and warmth/ of a late afternoon sun,/ its hard to stay/ and hard to leave.” These completely unvarnished items have so much power that adjectives would add nothing.

Ana Doina‘s  “Gagarin’s radishes” was widely viewed as a prose piece, or a short story, rather than a poem, probably because the story was memorable, but the writing was not necessarily.  Either way, the conjunction of children in Russia in the later 1950s helping a neighbor harvest her radishes in exchange for sandwiches with radish, butter and salt, and the first Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin was irresistible.

So that’s the end of the field notes for May 25, 2021. I’m going to be absent from the workshop for the next six weeks because I’m going to be in a workshop Tuesday evenings as part of a yearlong mentorship program I’m enrolled in through Brooklyn Poets. See you when that’s done, mid July. Be nice to Frank. He’s a great guy.

—Arthur Russell

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

Where is the forest?

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

Hi Everybody-

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

I found a Scientific American article (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-emotional-blindness-of-alexithymia/) that describes the experience of someone with alexithymia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparks Between Poets: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

This was the initial spark that jumped from pole to pole like in those old mad scientist horror movies, and connected Rachel Wagner’s “Jacob’s Hip” (https://ten-dollar-books.com/collections/poetry/products/jacobs-hip-by-rachel-wagner-signed-paperback-pre-order-1-15) with Samuel Beckett’s “Fizzles” (collected in https://groveatlantic.com/book/the-complete-short-prose-1929-1989/)

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

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

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

Are they funny? How? Self-deprecating?

Do they understate their harrowing predicaments?

Do they succeed or fail?

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

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

The Dog & His Reflection

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

Hi Everybody-

This week, I loved meeting the poet Terence Hayes (How to Be Drawn https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/317329/how-to-be-drawn-by-terrance-hayes/ & American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/567051/american-sonnets-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-by-terrance-hayes/  ) at Brooklyn Poets https://brooklynpoets.org/workshops/craft-labs/ . 

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

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

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

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

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

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”?