Field Notes, Week of 01-19-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 19, 2021

I may’ve mentioned I borrowed a book of interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009) called “WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW), edited by Anselm Berrigan. It’s been an amazing way to enter the near distant history of the NY poetry scene through peer on peer conversation.  I’ve only gotten 30 pages in and I’ve already been turned on to Bridgette Mayer, whose 1989 book Sonnets is a great warmup for the Sonnets workshop I’m beginning in March with Joshua Mehigan. No library in BCCLS had it, so I went to buy it on Amazon, and they only had the 25thAnniversary edition (amazing in and of itself to have a 25thanniversary edition), which has a killer sonnet in it about leaving your lover in the morning for the day (or at least that’s what I think its about) called “Holding the Thought of Love.” It has this remark and image to offer: “So let’s not talk of love the diffuseness of which/ …is today defused/ As if by the scattering of light rays in a photograph/ Of the softened reflection of a truck in a bakery window.” That is one sophisticated emotion to be able to suspend in midair. The interview of Mayer, from 1992, when the book Sonnets was still very new, has her talking about sonnets like a kid who’s just figured out how an electrical can opener works (and the mom comes home to find all the dog food cans open on the counter).  

Here’s what she said:

I don’t think I like any of the poets of the past who wrote sonnets, do I?  Oh, of course I do.  Paul goodman.  He writes the most amazing sonnets.  That was a thing that inspired me to write them too, and here are Paul Goodman and Catullus always writing about sex.  Sex works really well in the sonnet form.  And of course Shakespeare, we don’t have to mention him, but another sex poet.

Shakes as a sex poet.  I want to be a sex poet!  So, I’d recommend Mayer, whose more recent book  “Works and Days” (New Directions 2016), had me running to Wikipedia a little more than I usually like, but it’s not her fault that her relationship with Aristotle (read “Soule Sermon” at page 7) is as warm as mine is with the George Reeves tv Superman of the 60s.

In a different interview, I met Harryette Mullen, another poet I’d never heard of and am glad I did, one who works in lists, and enjoys artificial constraints, and Oulipo methods ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oulipo).  Check this one out: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51631/any-lit  

So, on to the workshop.

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Commuting in an Ice Storm.”  He said that rather than describe driving in an ice storm, this was a poem for people who already knew what it was like with “all the trees clacking against themselves.”  I noticed that the lineation at the beginning of the poem on the page seemed to mimic Williams’ “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” with sets of three lines of increasing indents.  I can’t quite figure out why it’s such an engaging form, but it runs really well, gives a feeling of dimensional form and air.  There was a sufficiency of discussion about the poem’s fabulous final image of the trees “who click their many ballpoints at me,/ the hapless tap dance/ of a drum roll on square wheels.”  I think that was one of the things Frank was thinking about when he said the poem was “full of pleasures.” 

When will you make an end, Michelangelo? asked the Pope.  And you, Raymond Turco? with your oems of heroes of Italian independence, when will we see it all together, or do you not know?  This one was about a WWI flying ace not named The Bloody Red Baron: “Francesco Baracca.”

Our sometime visitor, Elinor Mattern brought “Furnishing an American Home,” a political poem in which the speaker’s couch becomes a metaphor for America.   Poems like that need to crackle with originality to avoid broccoli status.  This one has at least one such moment, when the speaker admits that as a child the song lyric “Bombs bursting in air” made her “picture[] bodies bursting in air.” More please!

Susanna Lee’s “Love Talk” was a sensuous dream:  “I’m studying French/ so I can write you a poem/ in the language of love.// I will say the words clearly./ You will feel a gentle caressing/ of your ears by my tongue.// Your ears will be left moist/ and hot/ and open.”  What I loved about it was that it didn’t need French even one little bit to be in the language of love.  The line breaks at “and hot” and “and open” were delicious.

Back to the political stuff, our pal, Susanna Rich brought us a rondo.  https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-rondeau-poem#:~:text=A%20rondeau%20is%20a%20French,between%20eight%20and%2010%20syllables  called “Messiah – A Redoubled Roundabout”  For me, the ess and ex rhymes and the flipping back and forth between the Biblical archetypes and modern day copies (pssst, Trump aint president no more) was distracting, but group didn’t have that problem at all; Yana Kane liked the music, she called it “hissing”, Rob Goldstein (and maybe everyone) liked the line “Weep Abraham, for my impasses/ I am more Jesus than Jesus.”  Cadence, am I right?

Speaking of Yana, here she came with another poem in parts, three.  Called “Metamophosis” it’s a triptych type of invention, with two smaller panels framing a central panel.  The idea of metamorphosis is presented as a change in the light in part 1 (called “Light!”); and in part 3 (“Wings”), metamorphosis is shown as an entomological metaphor (the speaker saw herself emerging from a chrysalis). In the central panel we get a narrative about a Tai Chi master whose zest for learning carried him into class one morning excited to learn a new way to do an old move.  There was a lot of discussion of the title and less about the challenges buddhist/zen master poems in general present.  You want to love them, but pizza is so much more fun.

Carole Stone brought a year-into-the-pandemic poem called “Letter from Verona, New Jersey” that had everything that’s best about Carole Stone poems, a strong sense of place and time, a plain spoken voice, and comfort with all the sentimental touchpoints of the speaker’s life. Starting with “I wish I were writing from Prague or Budapest…” it introduced sadness as an undertone that would carry throughout its ruminations on Mexico, watching Netflix, the death of the poet Eavan Boland, photos of her recently deceased brother, and a long lost friend to whom she’d reached out.  It ends with a pure expression of love: “Have I said how much I love Indian Wells Beach?”  I don’t know nothing about Indian Wells Beach, and didn’t need to look it up to know exactly what she meant.  The only thing annoying about this poem was how much people wanted to change it.  Workshop-itis, is what Jim Klein never called it. 

Shane Wagner was back again with “Retouching,” his tiger-by-the-tail poem about the trust rift between the speaker and the speaker’s father.  This re-write was more of a polishing job than an excavation, and so it must’ve been aggravating for Shane to hear that the stuff people liked last week they no longer liked this week, and vice versa.  One thing for sure.  This is Shane’s poem, Shane’s voice, Shane’s subject, and it keeps getting more Shane-y week by week. 

Barbara Hall’s “Shades of the past” was one of those poems that when you ask the poet about it, they tell you all sorts of interesting shit that should have been in the poem.

My poem (“It was John who took me for dumpling”was like a guy with six fingers on one hand, a sonnet with fifteen lines, one of which had been banished to the title.  Stop being ashamed of your fifteen lines, the group told me.  Or chop off the last line, then bring the title down into the body of the poem.  That sort of amputated polydactyly won’t make me Lucille Clifton, people. Fortunately, the poem was about food and geography which grabbed attention and had a surprising if insubstantial piece of dialogue at the end.

Jen Poteet joined the political poem writing wing of the workshop with a poem called “Straightening Up” about the incident at the US Capitol on January 6.  She rather beautifully captured the simple act of Andy Kim, the young congressman from NJ ‘straightening up’ after the “guests” had left, which she, Jen, had seen on the news, which made the poem into an ekphrasis, and that was the best of it.  Look, I just spent the day crying a little too much during the inauguration but even more hearing people talk about the inauguration on the radio; it’s as though I can’t just feel something when it happens; I need to hear about it from someone else, which reminds me, I didn’t cry when my dad died, but I broke down sobbing when I had to call up his also 91 year old best friend in Florida and tell him. 

Speaking of dads, Rob Goldstein’s poem, “The Key” was a poem told by a son about a dad having to go live in a home.  I thought, everyone pretty much thought, it was a brave poem, with lines like this: “Like life on the outside,/ it was a mixed bag.” 

Frank Rubino brought a sonnet-length poem about being with “her” at a medical procedure where a micro camera was inserted in her nostril.  Don Z called it a masterpiece, and if it was, it was on the strength of the turn (in line 9) where the observation of the procedure changed from neutral ‘what happened’ stuff to the speaker’s close observation of the doctor’s face and ‘her’ face: “& her eyes . . ./ faltered as he moved the micro camera through her nostril –/ & her eyes settled quietly at different times from his,/ & fluttered & became perturbed at different times.”  It was there that the speaker’s emotional stake in the goings on was heightened (looking to other people for clues).  There was a bit of a debate whether the title “Bracelets on Her Wrists and Flowers in Her Hair,” was serving the poem.

So, to recap: three political poems, two sonnets and a rondo, plus a grab-bag of free verse.  I’d say a good night. 

Don’t forget our upcoming Zoom poetry events!

—Arthur Russell

By the Book: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Black Friday

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 19

Hi Everybody-

I spent last week putting together a chapbook manuscript. Many in this group have put poetry collections together, but this is the first time I’ve done it, and I thought I’d share a couple of points about the experience.

1. Jim Klein told me that when he was putting together his great The Preembroidered Moment (https://www.errantpigeon.com/the-preembroidered-moment), he read the whole manuscript aloud over and over, always to Haydn and “fixed the meter” across all the poems. He said this was a strategy that helped line by line but also created a wholeness. Emily Hunt, in her Fall 2020 Brooklyn Poets workshop on spokenness counseled me to create harmonies between my poems by using common words, in particular “Pop” which is used as a fatherly address.Another poet I spoke with sometime ago (I’m sorry I forgot who) said they looked for chaining relationships between the last line of one poem and the first line of the next. Sequencing is tricky. I discovered that sequencing is much easier for me when I start like that poet with pairs that reflect one another somehow, and build outward.

2. Jim’s poems are autobiographical but reference a period in his life over twenty years prior to their publication. He said he’d arranged them in chronological order. I limited the scope of my collection to poems written in the past two years, but I did tease out a chronological arc. And another chronological arc. And another.

3. My teacher, painter Lousia Chase (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisa_Chase), said, “You can’t be another artist than the one you already are.” I thought about that as I looked at my work in pages on the floor, or in the table of contents in my word document. I wished I had other poems that went more deeply into some of my themes and re-played the leitmotifs more, and that I had created a richer experience. But I didn’t.

4. In my wife. I had a reader with opinions, who helped me organize and told me what was weak or false in the book. One needs a person like her in their process. Also. I have the Red Wheelbarrow Poets (https://redwheelbarrowpoets.org/); none of the poems in this collection have gone un-workshopped. On the other hand, Jim told me you have to spend years in complete isolation to come up with anything good.

Wholeness

Movement

Quality

Editing is hard, but, as Steve Jobs said, (this quote’s attributed to other people too) “Real artists ship.” (https://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?story=Real_Artists_Ship.txt)

Field Notes, Week of 01-05-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5, 2021

What ambition the poets displayed on Tuesday!

Janet K didn’t authorize us to put her poem “Gone This Year (TCM Remembers)” into the notes as an attachment.  As the title suggests, it’s a reaction to the cable channel feature on movie stars who’ve died, and what’s great about it is how she keeps a playful, lyrical tone going while burrowing deep into the dichotomy of timelessness and loss that the movies, especially the old movies, invite.  And to give it even more American zest, this philosophical moment happens while driving a car:

The car radio sings step into eternity

and the sign says DIP

so I follow the rules of the road

and dip into my fugitive thoughts

recollecting stars of the screen

and the artisans who made them glow. 

and from that beginning comes this ending:

By my bidding, the celebrated dead

come into my bed at night

to devour more and more of my youth …

Maybe next week she’ll bring it back and we’ll get to put it out with the notes. 

A couple of weeks ago, JJT brought a triolet in which he confessed that he’d written only one sestina, but all the words in it were blah.  That inspired me to write a haiku:

blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah

and right, then, weirdly, I began to understand the haiku form untainted by abuses: it’s a three line poem with two turns, and thought of that way, it could be the most thrilling form to try.  My first variation was an homage to what I probably misunderstand as a traditional subject of haiku:

blah blah blah blah fall

blah blah blah blah blah evening

blah blah turned away

I’ll keep you posted (I’ve got six more in the works).  Thank you, JJT.

John Trause’s new poem this week was called “Madame Nhu at the Barbecue,” an extremely droll, heavily rhyming satire/critique/indictment in which Madame Nhu is the sister-in-law (?) of South Vietnamese President Diem (in the 1960s), and “the Barbeque” refers to one or more Vietnamese Buddhist’s who self-immolated to protest Diem’s regime.  The pattering verses depicting horror with saccharine humor have a Brechtian verfremdungseffeffekt (or “distancing” or “alienation” effect) https://www.britannica.com/art/alienation-effect.  

Speaking of droll, Tom Benediktsson’s poem, “You Don’t Want to Know,” is a graphic comic horror show about making sausages from deposed political leaders: “it took hours, a pound/ of ground meat for every quarter pound/ of gristle that clogged the blades until/ we plucked it out and threw it into the snow/ where we heard raccoons fighting over it/ like demons from hell, then we ran out of bourbon…” 

Both JJT’s and Tom B’s poems seem natural poetic responses to the tortured political times.

Jen Poteet is still at work on her collection of “Me and Dead Poets”  (my name not hers) and this week she let the poet, Paul Celan, do the talking in “Paul Celan’s Muttersprache.”  The poem achieves a wonderfully lugubrious tone, and a trudge-like gait, living as it does, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which, if you think of it as the poem does, we are still in.  I love the heavy cadence of “Day is night.  I recite the Sabbath prayers.”  In my uneducated Jewish mind, this vespers of an ending recalls a line from the Passover Haggadah, which is more aubade than vesper.  In that passage of the Haggadah, the scholars have been up all night in the park debating me meaning of the bible, when a young student comes at daybreak and says, “Masters, it is time for the morning Sh’ma.”

And speaking of ambition, Rob Goldstein’s “Internal Exile” dares, in its first line, to announce a parlor game of “what if” between two friends:  “Where could we go if our luck ran out?/ It’s a game my friend and I play…”  And then they play, taking their imagination on an internet ride to the great northeast of Russia, exchanging posted photos: “Check out this Belogorsk housing block –/ a mere six time zones from Moscow. / It’s painted periwinkle blue –/are they kidding?”  Rob’s voice has that kind of playfulness, but there’s a clipped cosmopolitan fussy mocking intelligence, too, for example, when he refers to the people in the photos they see by generic Russian names “Olga” and “Ilya.”  And also when he confesses that the two friends “seek an abstraction:/ The lonely tops of larch and fir,/ Purity in frozen versts.”  At the end, the game concludes when these two Americans on what seems to be pandemic quarantine, emerge from their fantasy adventure to be revealed as dads:  “But let’s be real…/One of us will back out./ My daughter’s till unmarried; / He’s got kids at home.”  So what you notice in Rob’s poems is this complex voice, a style yearning in several directions at once with a high bar for intimacy.  Tom wondered why the poem didn’t go further than to play its game.  Frank said it “stays in its chair” but Brendan saw the ambition in lines like “but we seek abstraction.” Maybe they’re all right.  I see the game as a worthwhile enterprise if the poem can give us something more of the strange way that men are intimate with one another.  

Frank Rubino is back at his suburban dig, looking for evidence of civilization or soul in his poem “Roger Sent a Video.”  It veers, with Frank’s patented faith in the dowser’s rod of his mind, from the truly domestic, i.e., hearing his grown kids (and cat) move around the house, and wrapping Xmas presents on Xmas eve, out to the backyard where the wind is howling, then into a rumination about the birds in his sycamore and the worms in his garden, and from there to Darwin, Time, and the titular video from Roger about “two children liv[ing] on top of a cliff somewhere in China.”  Underlying these travels is a motif/hope that “people move towards the good.”  The final movement/stanzas of the poem work like the last stanza of a sestina, a slide show reprise of each of those narrative elements, showing the life in cameo, bringing these disparate elements into one place.

Susanna Rich’s “Scriptoderm – for Coming Down from You” is a breakup poem in which the pain of being dumped morphs into brand-name consumer-goods metaphors: a medical patch, an automated vacuum cleaner, and chewing gum, with a side reference to “rolling paper,// laying in line after line of crushed me,/ striking the match, puff-puffing out cartoon/ bubbles with the right come-backs.”  The energy of the poem is great; even the title is an invented product name. 

Yana Kane brought a short poem called “Turning” about reaching the winter solstice and turning back to hope.  The most interesting thing for the group to discuss was how the exile of winter and the longing for spring are presented as events that occur in the poem: ”All of this happens here,/ Within the words on this page.”  I love that.  All poets love that.  Shakespeare in Sonnet 65 loved that.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50646/sonnet-65-since-brass-nor-stone-nor-earth-nor-boundless-sea.  (that in black ink my love may still shine bright).

Raymond Turco got a little grief from the group with his poem “Lorenzo Milani.” It’s just that we’ve followed this collection Ray’s doing on heroes of Italy for months now, and we’re starting to think that we know better than he does (a mistake), or maybe we’re just cheering him to keep his energy and inventiveness up. 

Barbara Hall’s poem “A worthy dot” about insignificance, had simple language, strong metaphors and a wonderfully accessible quatrain form.  It’s catchiness and fearless confrontation with ultimate metaphysical questions made it straight to the workshop’s approval.  Lan Chi compared it to the beatitudes.  Tom pointed out that it lost some energy in the last lines, in response to which Susanna quoted Frost to the effect that anyone can start a poem….  And JJT said there was a bit of cliché dragging it down.

Shane Wagner’s third re-write of the poem now called “Retouching” shows more and more clearly the anguish of the father/son relationship where trust has broken down.  The poem considers two photographs and tries to alchemize a picture of the father that the speaker can make sense of the past in the light of the present.  The poem starts in a verse form and then devolves into paragraphs, a technique that unapologetically takes us into the mind/heart’s work, and mirrors the difficulty of the situation described.  Susanna suggested that the poem might benefit from returning at the end to the photographs that were the device for raising the questions of hurt and forgiveness.  I was less sure about that.  I think the last stanza/paragraph (less the last puzzling sentence) taken by itself, without the artifice of the photos and the alchemy is a lambent cry. 

I don’t know if I’ve said this recently in these notes, but I say it to myself whenever I get home and go through the work afterwards.  These poets are good. 

Lastly, mid week I circulated a short exegesis on the narrative and poetic techniques that Patti Smith uses to great effect in her book Just Kids.  One of the readers of our Field Notes, Isaac Myers III, picked it up to publish as a short daily feature in his online version of his journal Curlew Quarterly, called “Curlew Daily” (thank you Isaac); and Don Z suggested repeating it here so that it’ll be archived on the RWB site with the rest of the Field Notes.  So here goes:

I may not have mentioned that I’m reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which is a chronicle of her life in NYC 1965 till not sure when because I haven’t finished.   I think she’s a gifted narrator, and that her poetic sensibilities emerge constantly.  Here’s a passage about her time with Jim Carroll, author of Basketball Diaries:

 Jim and I spent a lot of time in Chinatown.  Every outing with him was a floating adventure, riding the high summer clouds.  I liked to watch him interact with strangers.  We would go to Hong Fat because it was cheap and the dumplings were good, and he would talk to the old guys.  You ate what they brought to the table or you pointed to someone’s meal because the menu was in Chinese.  They cleaned the tables by pouring hot tea on them and wiping it up with a rag.  The whole place had the fragrance of oolong.  Sometimes Jim just picked up an abstract thread of conversation with one of these venerable-looking men, who would then lead us through the labyrinth of their lives, through the Opium Wars and the opium dens of San Francisco.  And then we would tramp from Mott to Mulberry to Twenty-third Street, back in our time, as if nothing had ever happened. 

Of course, the ending is such a wonderful surprise.  The tramp through the physical grid of the city becomes a journey through time, which is wonderful enough, but the last phrase, “as if nothing had ever happened” illuminates the experience, casts a kind of backward, confirmatory wonderfulness on the interesting, but seemingly ordinary, details she’s just shared.  And note how she builds to that poetic turn starting with the tea to clean the tables, the smell of oolong, and then the assonance of ells in “lead us through the labyrinth of their lives” followed by the double “opium” of “Opium Wars and the opium dens.”   And, too, in the geography bit, the evocative ems of “Mott” and “Mulberry” (latinate and soft) yield to the colder, numerical (anglo-saxon, harsh) “Twenty-third Street,” which mirrors the march from magical past to bland present.  And yet none of these devices is obtrusive, none calls attention to the wit or cleverness of the poet.  There is humility in  her craft.

—Arthur Russell

Keeping it Realspoken: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

The hell of modern media: on Robert Rauschenberg's Dante series | The Art  Newspaper

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5

Hi Everybody-

James Tate’s last book of poems is The Government  Lake. Like his book Dome of The Hidden Pavilion this collection is homogeneous. Each piece is a…. well let’s forgo labels. The pieces are chunks of paragraph- indented prose, with traditional capitalization and punctuation. They contain complete sentences with subject-verb agreement and maintain, within each piece a fairly consistent register and lexicon— like each one is narrated by the same speaker. Tate said the form was an effective “means of seduction. For one thing, the deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph. People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them: I won’t take much of your time, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I am not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-fallutin’. Come on in.” *

He uses this indirection to get the poem across. The turns in the poems, from everyday reality to the many unreal or heightened places they want to go, are invisible, you don’t notice them. “Into The Night” starts with a nun having a heart attack outside a church. People go to help her. A brother says comforting words.. “Then she rose up off the ground and hovered there…” You don’t even notice this, taking in one sentence after another, attention almost on automatic. Tate conditions you— but somehow doesn’t spare you— the shock of the ending: “And so the two of them walked off into the night, though it was barely noon.”

(For some fresh hot ways of doing similar things check out the workshop field notes from last week with prose poems by Arthur Russell and a prose-poem hybrid by Shane Wagner.)

This reminds me of what Robert Rauschenberg said in the 1972 film “Painters Painting” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0207645/. He was kind of on the tail end of Abstract Expressionism. Like many painters of the Abstract Expressionist “movement” he talked about himself as being a “bystander” to his own paintings. That’s a great word for Tate’s narrator. Things happen in Tate’s poems, the oddest things, but their oddness is not made much of, only witnessed. Likewise, Rauschenberg said that his paintings were not meant to be announcements, proclamations, or anything in themselves: “My paintings are invitations to look somewhere else.”

Tate accomplishes this with his plainspoken voice, and the mechanisms of tuned surprise which he deploys throughout his work the way Rauschenberg deployed commercial illustration, and not-arty objects like a bed or stuffed goat.

Many of us use found language or spokenness. It’s like a fiction writer asserting they’re giving you a “true” story. Or is it? How do you keep ‘plainspoken’ from being utilitarian, formulaic and empty? Is plainspoken your “realspoken”?

We’re trying to seduce readers, and you do that by surprising them; how are the turns and transformations of poetry like a seduction?

The AbEx movement was largely fueled by a drive to create newness. In many cases artists removed things from the equation of European easel painting to make novel distillates. Helen Frankenthaller said she wanted to eliminate brushstrokes so the picture seemed “made all at once” with no indication of how the painting was done. By this, she didn’t mean photo-realism, which also eschews brushstrokes. Rauschenberg, coming later sounded like we took a further step, jettisoning the psychological underpinnings to AbEx. The “grief” of the AbEx artists did have one benefit, he conceded: it made them show their brushstrokes. What about your poem? Do you want newness from your work, something never before read? 

Brushstrokes or Big Bang splotch?

The Truth Won’t Always Set You Free: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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

Hi Everybody-

I’ve never found the calendar to demarcate a clear boundary between a bad year and good one (changes creep and flow) but I do like a calendar for scheduling parties. I’m sure people will celebrate somehow when 2021 rings in.

I saw an art show this week at PS1. It was a post-Covid masked, capacity-controlled, and temperature-checked experience, but it felt so good to see art in 3-d and at human scale in a gallery again. Making Art In The Age of Mass Incarceration (https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5208) shows art by people, many of them, creating work as prisoners inside the penal system. The constraints of prison life get played out on mundane levels like a lack of art supplies (constraining artists to work with found items like discarded lunch trays or broken windows), but also get expressed in subject matter and in a quality of life which cannot assume access to education about art (in the techniques of making it and strategies of talking about it like this.) The show makes the case that prison life dehumanizes and brutalizes. That’s not new but somehow it’s always a shock: so much of what our society’s built to do is operate these dreadful systems behind illusion and denial. One realizes how well the illusion mechanisms work when one sees work like this.

One piece that moved me very much was a small gallery filled with portraits by the incarcerated artist Mark Loughney. His uniformly sized and composed portraits are tiled across the walls. They’re done with pencil, for the most part, on what looks to be 8 1/2 x 11 printer paper. They show his fellow inmates in 3/4 view, reminiscent of Renaissance portraiture. The style is consistently naive but competent, like good examples of “how to draw portraits.”  Good enough that you could hear the voices coming from the faces. Without getting too deeply into the details and variations (some subjects masked for Covid, one self portrait in unique blue pencil) etc., I want to call out the quality of attention these portraits represent. Single sittings are 20 minutes, oases of quiet in a chaotic environment; I like to imagine Loughney focusing and opening to his subjects, maybe there’s talking, maybe not. Then the session’s done and the man is added to the pile of attentions. The attentions accumulate and remain intact.

Gerhard Richter is another kind of artist, and though his circumstances are different (opulent compared to Loughney’s), he shares an intense kind of attentiveness with Loughney. In the film, Gerhard Richter Painting (2012) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1982113/ the artist is shown building up and destroying images. He describes the process something like, “I smear anything on the canvas, and then I have to deal with what happened, change it or destroy it.” Over a span of hours, months, years, he marks or squeegees down the painting, steps back and looks for it to reveal a “good” quality. He finds it impossible to define good, except that it’s got something to do with truth, and objects or images like old photographs that compel him with their goodness are quite confusing to him, and he keeps them up on his wall as if to puzzle himself. “When I understand an image,” he says, “I no longer like it.”

These artists’ attention is directed to making good works, but it’s not the same. In Loughney’s case it’s about focusing his attention well enough to memorialize (formalize) a proscribed encounter with another person. In Richter’s case, he’s attending strictly to a developing sequence of events, and the changing object they create.

What do you find yourself doing more: focusing on something particular and writing about it, or writing something, anything, and making it good?

What time spans do you work with? Loughney works in 20 minute bursts; Richter works with endless process.

What does truth have to do with how good your poem is?

Field Notes, Week of 12-22-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 22, 2020

The best dream poems don’t announce themselves as such because that would be like announcing a balloon with a pin.  Like the dreamer, you need to find yourself at the top of a narrow stair before you realize something’s terribly wrong, and that’s what Janet K’s poem, “The Narrow Staircase” did:  “Men in felt hats/ shuffle through the little gate/ that separates the office space,/ and in the time it takes to catch my breath,/ they are whisked up the staircase,/ the dark, narrow staircase.” Is how it starts.  And then comes the inside out part:  “I need to go up the steps;/ I believe I was slated to go up the steps,/ but the faceless woman at the desk/ cannot find my papers,/ and I can’t find the means/ to voice the request.”  And then, at last, in the third stanza, the beginning of the realization: “Something terrible has happened,/ but I cannot fathom what.”  After that, it gets even more complicated, but you’ll have to wait for that because Janet doesn’t like to circulate her poems in the Notes till they’re further along.  She did not say it was a dream of hers, but she did say that it was a death experience.  However, Tom Benediktsson pointed out two excellent qualities of this poem, “no color” and “great verbs.”  And Don thought it had a good bit of Kafka in it, while Rob Goldstein thought it had some Lewis Carroll.  I prefer to think that Kafka and Lewis Carroll have a bit of Janet in them but more on that later.  

Moira O’Brien’s poem, “Celestial Convergence” took its inspiration from the astronomical alignment of Jupiter and Saturn last night (that was obscured by clouds, damnit) which seems only to occur every seven hundred years.  Personifying the planets, she had them talk: “What’s your hurry?” and “It’s been centuries since we’ve been this close.”  A kind of missed love story emerges as one says to the other “Stay the night and/ defeat the darkness/ with me.”  Frank loved the “permissiveness” of the last lines: “In the morning,/ begin your drift.”  Yana and Lan Chi had some minor edits.  I liked the love story better than the astronomical occurrence that inspired it, and suggested taking out the title to liberate the poem from the tyranny of the metaphor, then see where it wants to go.

Shane Wagner’s poem “Explicit” worked through some emotional baggage to get to the point where it could admit that speaker didn’t trust the ‘you’ of the poem, but when it did, the line, “I don’t trust you.” Isolated in its own stanza separated by triple spaces from what came before and after, rang out.  Frank liked the “meta-ness” of the drifting beginning.  Moira thought the poem could take advantage of that drift by ending after “I don’t trust you.” On the theory that what came after was just an elaboration on that.  Yana thought the poem didn’t take its own metaphor – of the speaker as a ‘court jester’ – seriously enough.  Shane said the comments were helpful.

Don brought a poem called “Springtime for Truth” a re-write of last week’s poem.  It’s a dramatic poem, which is to say, a poem written in the voice of someone other than the poet.  And this speaker appears to be someone who either subscribes to the theories of QAnon or seriously considers them.  The poem is filled with aphoristic or epigrammatic statements like “The letter Q is a cross hugging itself.” And “The truth lies on a bed of facts more numerous than spark plugs”  and “Disappointment is surrender.”  Tom thought all of the aphorisms “build meaning.”  Brendan thought the portrait was “Orwellian” although Rob thought it was an “inverted 1984.”

Tom’s poem, “The Outhouse as Literary Critic” is also a dramatic poem.  The speaker is an outhouse, hectoring its customer/visitor, a poet, concerning his shallowness and neuroses, but also encouraging him to write.  Janet and Moira thought it was “Howl-like”

Yana Kane (who never got an appropriate welcome to the workshop: Hi, Yana!)  brought a poem called “Invitation” in two parts, “Day” and “Night.”  The “Day” portion answered the title directly, beginning “Let us walk side by side…”  and going on to describe coming inside for a pot of Earl Grey tea, and two friends inhaling “the scented steam” of the tea.”  The “Night” portion has a different, more mysterious tone that is an invitation to a story with this lovely abbreviation: “Tree.  River.  Road.  Traveler.”

Paul Leibow’s poem was called “Used Tires,” and it was a landscape poem, a meditation on the view from a car of a graveyard with a used tire shop, one of those urban landscapes you can see in Queens where the BQE bisects a graveyard or near Newark, where the GSP does the same thing.  Paul’s bisected graveyard was on Route 1 near Elizabeth.

Rob Goldstein brought a rewrite of his poem about a domineering neurologist and his relationship with the doctors who followed him on his rounds, including the speaker.  At its narrative heart the poem recounts a kind of contest or test that the neurologist subjects the speaker to, having to do with memory.  Rob’s question for the group was whether the good/charming side of the domineering neurologist managed to be evoked.  The vote was one yes and one no with nine abstentions.   

Frank Rubino’s poem was “My Daughter Saves for College” and it worked as a kind of triptych, showing the speaker’s daughter eating a burger while the family waited in Warsaw for her adoption visa, then again in her crib (in the US) biting her own hands, and finally as a young adult working in the garment district in Manhattan, in pissing rain, “emptying her company’s goods out of a bankrupt factory.”  The poem is an ode of sorts to her resilience and inner strength, which ends when the speaker urges all of us to “surrender to her like I have, let her through” 

My poem, “Exile’s Letter” was an imitation of Ezra Pound’s ‘translation’ of Li Bo’s poem full of longing for an old friend and a friendship.  Frank said it was like a Saul Bellow novel.  Later, Don wrote: “for a couple pages there it just felt like i was being cornered at a party while someone tells me about how they used to play basketball”. It sets up the ending well but if I came across this in a magazine I would never get to the ending.”  

I don’t see the utility of saying that a poem sounds like Saul Bellow, or Kafka, or Lewis Carroll or Ginsberg’s Howl.  What does it do for our colleagues, the writers?  That sort of comment replaces the poet in front of us with a cardboard cutout, and lures us away from the individuality of the work we are reading.  We should be sussing out what we think the poem is trying to do and how it is trying to do it and whether we think it achieves the goals we think it had.  Then the poet will know if they were seen, and if they succeeded, and if not, how they might conceivably think of revising it.

—Arthur Russell

Violent Invention: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 22

Hi Everybody-

I got an early Christmas present from an old friend this week. It’s a beautifully produced book of Antonin Artaud’s drawings and portraits. It evokes the memory of an Artaud exhibition my friend and I saw a couple of decades ago in New York.

Artaud’s extremes still fascinate me: his private phonemes, elevation of the interior reality, and rage. I looked on his work more hopefully once, thinking it could reveal what I needed to know in order to create, rather than imitate; he seemed to produce the sound of someone who had committed himself to working with the real, not the aesthetic, and he got joined in my head to Kierkegaard’s 3rd stage of self development, the Truth Seeker. I had known about The Theater Of Cruelty, and some of his writing. When I looked at his drawings, I saw violent invention and I wanted my work to have the same fuel and the same rocketship take-offs. 

It was a utilitarian way to approach his work (what can I copy here?), but Artaud’s inherent difficulty makes it impossible to “grasp” and you have to start somewhere. The book (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/antonin-artaud) features an essay by Jaques Derrida that grapples with Artaud’s idiosyncratic vocabulary (notably the word “subjectile”; also “ thrownness”). Derrida wrote the essay To Unsense The Subjectile in French and for 40 years or so it was only published in a German translation. The exclusive German language rendition was part of the original plan. As Derrida is struggling to explain Artaud’s use of the term “subjectile” he starts talking about the fact that the Frenchness of his argument is the substance from within which he is writing. “How will they translate that?” he asks. Later, he says, “Artaud is against a certain Latinity.”

This is extremely difficult text to parse. Derrida quotes Artaud: “for me clear ideas… are ideas that are dead and finished.”

My friend and I have marveled at the difficulty of this language. Artaud fights against himself and against Derrida, who says “I don’t know if I am writing in an intelligible French.”

Artaud’s work conveys to me most of all a torturous need to integrate the disintegrated, and my friend and I admire his persistent fighting, and the bizarre, idiosyncratic language he created out of his struggle. But now, this book gives me a sadness I hadn’t felt before. It’s the sadness of futility and relentless brain chemistry: however far Artaud got, he was someplace that much harder to be.

Start a poem with “For me, clear ideas are ideas that are dead and finished.”

What artists did you once admire?

What gestures/words/appearances did you copy? Did you ever dead-end in a style? ( I have numerous times, and the feeling of dead ending is that the language I am using is suddenly useless to me.) Can you write a tribute to that dead style now?

Benefits of reading something you don’t understand? Is there any deliberately difficult work you return to?

Field Notes, Week of 12-15-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 15, 2020

It was a workshop popping at the seams with new ideas, revisions, rough drafts and final versions.  And we kept to our time: 7-9.  No one wants to be the last poem discussed at a three hour workshop. Please remember to put your name on the top of your poem before you upload it, and where possible, make it single spaced (except stanza breaks) so we can all see it on the screen without too much scrolling.  Also, if anyone has Yana’s email, send it and I’ll add her to the list.

Yana brought a poem called  “Lullaby” that was addressed to and incorporated the lyrics of a Russian lullaby into a poem that examines and amplifies its dreadful message: “the grey wolfie will come/ seize you by your little side/ and drag you into the forest.”  Claudia liked the beginning where the lullaby lyrics were interlineated with its analysis.  Tom noted a shift in the language in the stanza starting “Would the fanged jaws tear your flesh” from something simple and lullaby-ish to something else.   Don disagreed, thinks the language is all consistent.  And there were a few other comments for pruning and rearranging, but no one addressed the underlying problem, which is how the hell are we supposed to go to sleep tonight?

Tom Benedicktsson‘s “Scratch” was a flight of scientific hypothesis comparing the survival tactics used by slime mold with those employed by yeasts, their evolutionary “cousins.”  It was arresting, original and very funny, especially the bits about yeast, where the references were to well known yeast hanghouts like  “drunken orgies” and “tearful bread-baking melodramas as well as the true sounding, but inexplicable “bottoms of poets.”  Not nearly as terrifying as Yana’s WOLFIES, but potentially more imminent.

Susanna Lee‘s poem, an early draft, she says, “Turkey Dinner Poetry,” also took on the lives of poets, in a different manner. She analyzed the preparation and service of Thanksgiving dinner under the rubrics of a poetry workshop: examining the stanzas, the ‘meat’ of the poem, and the editing process.  A meta-poetical discussion broke out over the use of the word “shard” to describe the bone fragment that has choked many attendees at one of these dinners.  Some thought it had too much Greek pottery in it.  Someone even cited to a supposed a poetry nostrum: “don’t use the word ‘shard’ in a poem.”  (That was a new one on me.  I’d been advised that “soul” and “azure” were declasse, but ‘shard’ is so useful if you need a rhyme with “lard.”)  But Tom like “shard” so Susanna was left to work it out on her own.  Finally, someone got up the courage to tell her to ditch the poetry metaphor completely and perhaps focus more on the racist rants of ratched uncles, and the secrets unintentionally spilled by sloppy sherry sipping aunts.  

Shane Wagner brought one of last night’s successful revisions, his poem “Past Lovers.”  Last week we urged him to get down into the the weeds of these ‘what if’ ladies, and he delivered.  Using “I go back to past lovers” as an anaphoric summoner, he details three of these episodes, and what was nice was how the poem deepened in emotional resonance as the degree of sexual involvement deepened (my mom told me that would happen).  But getting down in the weeds also introduced the tangles of those trysts which, as we all know, can resist the compression poetry adores.  While the hookup in the ’76 Civic only raised general questions (“If I lingered … do we marry … do I work for your father .. how long have we been divorced”) the groping session in the ’78 Accord (which has a more spacious interior that the Civic) raised questions of consent (“why did you stop us, put on all of your clothes…?) and the third adventure there’s an abbreviated romantic comedy “meet cute” on a railroad platform followed by the pair becoming lovers who only split when “you” went to Providence and “I” didn’t follow.  So much to manage, and yet, if Shane pulls it off, we’ll get Tom Hanks to play him.

Ray Turco was back with another free-verse tale of an Italian hero, this one “Giorgio Perlasca” who played a role in saving Jews from concentration camps in WWII.  And while Don said the brevity of this piece was powerful, and Janet was a little confused by the ruse Giorgio used, the most interesting part of the discussion, I think, was what role the prose footnotes that Ray adds to the bottom of these poems play.  The prose notes provide a short biography of the heroes.  Carol, voicing a concern that resonates with mid-20th Century poets who insist that the poem can and should speak for itself, asked Why?  There are other traditions, however, in which the poem includes an “argument” that introduces the lyrical content (see Milton’s Elegy “Lycidas” for example), and editors frequently seek to ease the reader’s entry to the poem’s universe with explanatory marginalia and footnotes, and there are truckloads of poetry books today that come with fucking interminable endnotes.  Our own Mark Fogarty frequently uses footnotes to provide context for his historical and sports pieces.  So then there was a debate as to whether Ray should put his biographical data in a footnote as he does or in an endnote.  That discussion has now made it into these field notes, which can be referenced by future editors of Ray’s collected poems.

Speaking of Fogarty, he brought a fart poem: “The Wedding Party,” about the speaker and “Jack Sheridan” using their Christmas gift reel-to-reel tape recorders, to perform a fart compendium to rival the ethnological work of Alan Lomax.  There came a moment in this conversation where John J Trause, who has known Fogarty for fifteen years, asked Fogarty to explain why he capitalizes the first letter of each line of his poems.  Fogarty sighed deeply.

And then it was Trause‘s turn.  He brought a triolet (look it up) called “Procrastination” that considers the his career as a writer of sestinas.  It was roundly loved.

Jen Poteet brought back her poem from last week, one of her emerging collection of poems about hanging out in the present day with dead poets.  (Like trading cards, she’s already got nearly a full set).  This rewrite was hugely successful because instead of merely placing the poet in a modern situation (So-and-so on Instagram, for example) and them mimicking the style of the dearly departed, this audacious piece brought Mary Oliver back to life so that she and Jen could feed the ducks at Race Point.  And, truly in the tradition of Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California” or, more recently Jason Koo’s “Shopping with Mayakovsky” (recently reissued in Man on an Extremely Small Island by Brooklyn Arts Press), the two of them talk, and in that moment, however briefly, that dialogue with our teachers and forbears springs into life.
Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Butterflies and eyes” appears at first to be about a friend who doesn’t take care of herself and lies a lot about it, but also about the sense of frustration the speaker feels with this friend, and finally, as Don Z pointed out, asks what this poem says about the speaker who is constantly passing judgment on her friend.”  And, Don added, if that’s the point, it needs to be brought out more.

Don‘s poem, “QAnon,” raised a bunch of perspectival issues itself.  Directed at the movement devoted to spreading destabilizing lies about everything from politics to child abduction and sex trafficking by Hillary Clinton (i.e., politics), the poem didn’t clearly announce whether it was in the voice of a QAnonamist, or a highly sarcastic critic of the movement.  Claudia said the voice of the poem — with its aphorisms (“Truth is the shovel, not the snow.”) — was very detached and she couldn’t relate to it.  Ray thought the speaker was complicit in the lies.  Yana said that the whole thing was “very disturbing,” and remarked on its lack of compassion or sympathy.  Tom said: deeply cynical.  Don said: “Thanks!”

Claudia Serea, as she is wont to do, brought a masterpiece called “The year we stayed home,” which announces at the beginning that it’s willing to go for the surreal:  “It was the year when I built you a house of clouds/ and filled it with thunderclaps and summer rain,/ so you can sleep well at night.”  The poem turns out to need its full artillery of imagery to shepherd us through a difficult time in the relation between the speaker, a mother, and the “you” of the poem, a daughter:  “It was the year when you wrecked your body,/ and I built a house of screams/ in which you wailed and hated me.”  But my favorite line was not surreal at all: “the year we cried/ on both sides of the bathroom door.”  

The elegy as a poetic form has a few traditional directions it can go, mourning the loss, cursing the fates, bringing the lost ones back to life, tying their death to larger sociological problems or issues, or using the moment to reflect on what was unique about the deceased.  Carole Stone‘s poem “Town” addressed the death of a friend named Ruth, with the elegiacal force of memory and dread:  “Soon no one of our generation will be left./ Each day I’m a little sadder,” she wrote, and in a downbeat manner recalled how they met and the last time they saw one another.  

Janet K brought a poem called “Rhizome” that celebrated the newly discovered scientific evidence that trees communicate with one another through their roots.  Where the poem got controversial, however, was where the speaker compares the peace-loving trees to the awful habits of humanity.  This, according to Don Z, made her poem into a bit of a Joyce Kilmer “Trees”.

My poem “Exile’s Letter” is an imitation of Ezra Pound’s “translation” (boy oh boy, is that a controversial word in this context) of Li Po’s poem of the same name.  We didn’t get to work on it last night, and it’s kind of long, so maybe we can talk about it next week without two readings, as has become our norm. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-1-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 1, 2020

Arthur Russell, and sometimes Frank Rubino and others, have been sending the weekly Field Notes to our workshop fans in an email for several years, but only this week we decided to archive them online on our web site. These workshop notes are a treasure trove of poetic knowledge and a way to catalog our work, week to week. We hope you’ll enjoy this new feature.

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Can I just say, it was a great week for RWB. We had an awesome hard-working (and very efficient) workshop on Tuesday, and then an RWB reading on Wednesday with Susanna Rich as the feature and one of the best open mics we’ve ever had: the range of work we heard was arms spread wide.

Of the workshop, I’ll report this:

For a little gem, Moira O brought a poem called “Slice” that, like Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” turned a kitchen accident into poetic gold.  The first line, zeroing in on the shape of the knife’s impression, tells you everything you need to know about how poetry sees things newly:  “It smiles back at me/ with a baby’s toothless grin.”   As usual with a short, good poem, the conversation was intense and joyous.

Also in the realm of short poems, was Susanna Lee’s poem “The Quitter,” about a “last cigarette.”  (On that subject I strongly recommend Italo Svevo’s novel, Confessions of Zeno). In just a few lines, Susanna captured the firmness as well as the contingent nature of any claim to finality when it comes to quitting smoking:  “stubbing out the cigarette/ twisting, twisting it out, into the ashtray// gently dropping, into the pile of ash/ the very last butt, ever// the wry smile.  

Interesting, isn’t it, how the baby’s toothless grin (Moira) and the wry smile of the quitter (Susanna) function so well as images.

Don’s poem, “Sean Connery vs. Watson” had everything a good Zirilli poem needs: a reference to media, a persona to carry the message, and an ironic pose.  This one, a rant in Sean Connery’s voice, riffs on the Jeopardy tv game show (which is where IBM chose to introduce its IA product, “Watson”), as well as a Saturday Night Live sketch involving Sean Connery (who never appeared on Jeopardy), and touches on a theme Don visits regularly: computers vs. humans.  In Don’s poem, the Jeopardy question that breaks Watson’s back is to name the best Bond movie.

(In our workshop, recently we’ve been having the poems read more than once, which is fantastic for giving us all a chance to let the poem sink in before we start tearing it apart, and also to let the poet hear the poem in someone else’s voice, which can be the most important feedback of all.  Don nominated Brendan to read this poem, and Brendan did an outstanding imitation of Sean Connery’s voice, which really brought the poem to life.  Read it in that voice, and you’ll laugh too.)

In an almost alarming way, Don’s poem pairs well with Tom Benediktsson’s called “Trivia, Roman Goddess of Graveyards and Crossroads” which also turns on a point of cinematic greatness: a charge to name “the thirteen films of Preston Sturges.”  Unlike Don’s, written in a Scottish accent, Tom’s poem feature’s his cinematic penchant for macabre.  He creates a graveyard scene that is both Anglo Saxon (hackle) and Roman (greaves) in its feel, with a goddess who speaks like “broken glass in a tin bucket.” She denies the traveler permission to pass unless they can answer about Sturges. 

And since we’re going to the movies, we should talk about Frank Rubino’s excellent poem, “I, Popcorn,” which really has nothing to do with movie trivia.  It concerns itself with being “so small in all this,” ‘this’ being life, and it shows us both his trip to Russia to adopt (‘find’) his daughter, and his father’s volunteer work in a hospice for homeless AIDS sufferers (where he made popcorn for movie nights), and the speaker’s own beginnings as a zygote.  Frank’s strong suit – his go to – is unflinchingly and verbatim at times to depict his quotidian life – “My daughter drops into the sofa …/ chewing her peanut butter/ on ‘Dave’s Powergrain bread with oat kernals,’”  in the belief that the details will anchor his meditations.  By the way, you’ve gotta love getting ‘zygote’ into a poem (with 10 Scrabble points for the ‘z’, 4 for the ‘y’ and 2 for the ‘g’, if you could land that on a triple words score square, you’d have 57 points, and potentially end the game right there.

My own poem, “Cloisters,” as Ray Turco noted, “captures a common moment well” – the moment when a child learns that their parents will one day die.  This early draft needed workshopping and got a lot of help in terms of the diction, the register, and even the title (Jen Poteet shook her head sadly when she said “not so good.”).

Jen’s poem, “Amy Lowell’s Instagram Post” continued her current series of poems about dead poets brought back to life in today’s world.    Don said it evokes Amy Lowell very well and that Instagram is a great connection for Amy Lowell; Tom said Jen’s was better than Amy Lowell (beating up on Amy Lowell is a spectator sport in some countries), Ray T wondered if the poem could connect more to the style of Instagram, and I said the poem doesn’t really connect Amy Lowell to the present except in the title.  Rumor is Jen’s been working on it more since then.

Welcome back to Paul Leibow, who brought Afraid of the Dark Volumes I and 2.  We discussed only Volume 1.  It is similar to some of Paul’s other work that juxtaposes human cruelty to animal behavior as seen on nature shows, and as such functions as a biting indictment of humanity (biting indictments of humanity, am I right?).

“Deathbed Wisdom” by Brendan M, is a lyric that invades the hospital room of a dying woman, whose final memories are depicted in two lines beginning “Once, she’d”, and whose death is depicted indirectly, by reference to the machines that record her vital signs (“The electric impulse of her stutters, fails.”) and a strange, lovely euphemism for her passing (“Her body sighs”).  The group was impressed with its nuance and overall feeling.

Ray Turco brought poem Number 32 in his advancing collection of Italian mostly war heroes , this one called “Pietor Micca” which tells the story of  a soldier in the army of the Duchy of Savor.  There was abundant praise for this poem in the tightness of the narrative and strong line endings, but some suggestions about repetitions of words that didn’t bring new meaning to them, and isn’t that the nut at the heart of repetition in poetry.  Words carry their historical allusions into a poem, where they gather new and expanded meaning peculiar to the scene.  When a poem uses a word over and over, the word needs to do new work, not just in terms of meaning, but also rhetorical or metrical work.

And speaking of repetition in poems, John J Trause’s poem “Incestina” was a sestina that played with one of the scenes from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  His six repeating words (as required by the form) were “daughter” “improper” “nymphet” “crossroads” “village” and “Dolores” (Frank liked those), so, even if you didn’t know the scene from the book to which John referred, everyone understood the overall reference.  Don said he enjoyed the quixotic project of the poem since in some sense it’s ridiculous to make a sestina from Lolita, but Tom B made the observation that for all of the obvious and clever resonances, the poem lacked a “narrative line” but simply repeated the same situation.  In his comments at the end of the discussion, JJT pointed out that he had varied the word order of a classical sestina in the last stanza, using the order that Auden, who is generally considered to have revived the use of the sestina in English had used in his (Pasage Moralise?). 

Janet Kolstein is always writing about art, and in “Il Divino” she considers dirt.  The poem starts with a kind of catalog of all the cleaning of ourselves we people do, and this first part ends by referring to our bodies as a “pristine chapel” – which is a glorious rhyme (for Sistine Chapel) that sends her in the direction of Il Divino, one of the nicknames for Michelangelo, the great Italian artist (1475-1564).  And the second stanza of Janet’s poem notes that “there was no time for hygiene” in Michelangelo’s work, neither in his depiction of the biblical characters nor in the “corpses/ he bought for dissection.”  It’s kind of a “why so prissy” poem, but not all the way to an indictment of humanity. 

Barbara Hall brought a lyric poem called “The Birds” (sorry, no copy available), which talked about pain through loss in childbirth, loss of two husbands, a father and brother dying and used the images of birds in an “almost biblical” way (Moira) to capture and make tolerable the pain.

Can’t end these notes without a reference to the amazing open mic at the “Williams Center Virtual Reading for December 2, 2020”   We had Mark F reading his amazing “Lunch at the Titi Hut,” Maria Lisella reading a stunning poem called “My Junk” about an argument she continues to have with her deceased husband about the stuff in their Queens apartment, Davidson Garret’s heart crushing poem going back to the AIDs epidemic called “Death in a Harlem Hospital with Straussian Overtones, December 1, 1996”, Joel Allegretti’s amazing ideogram of a poem called “Meditations in Red”, Susanna Lee’s multiply-rewritten and nuanced “Social Distancing With the Ladies”, and Frank Rubino’s excellent poem about being a young man finding his legs in the New York social scene in the 1970s called “Helena’s). Those are only some of the highlights of a super wonderful reading.  Everything rang true, and there’s no higher praise for a poetry reading than that. 

See you all in black and white!

—Arthur Russell

Williams Readings on Zoom—Susanna Rich—Dec 2

Join us on Wednesday, December 2, 2020 at 7 p.m. to hear the poet and performer Susanna Rich read from her work. Please come early and wait in the waiting room for the host to let you in.

Susanna Rich is a bilingual Hungarian-American, Fulbright Fellow in Creative Writing, and Collegium Budapest Fellow—with roots in Transylvania and family ties to the vampire known as the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory. Susanna is an Emmy-Award nominee, and the founding producer and principal performer at Wild Nights Productions, LLC. Her repertoire includes the musical Shakespeare’s *itches: The Women v. Will and ashes, ashes: A Poet Responds to the Shoah. She is author of five poetry collections, Beware the House, Television Daddy, The Drive Home, Surfing for Jesus; and, in celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, recognizing the right of United States women to vote, SHOUT! Poetry for Suffrage. Visit Susanna at www.wildnightsproductions.com.

Tune in to listen to poignant poetry and participate in the open mic. NJ’s best and most vibrant reading series is alive and well on Zoom!

Please see instructions below. To avoid issues at the reading, please don’t share the Zoom link on Facebook. We are instructing people who want to attend to DM Claudia, Don, Arthur, or Anton to get the link.

Zoom instructions:
If you’ve never tried Zoom, please download it from zoom.com and get familiar with it. It’s pretty simple, and tons of people use it. If you have the zoom application but haven’t used it in a while, it’s not a bad idea to upgrade it to the latest version.Please note:
1. The meeting has a waiting room. Please come early and wait in the waiting room for the host to let you in.
2. People can’t join before the host. Our host on Wednesday, December 2 will be Frank Rubino.
3. To avoid issues at the reading, please don’t share the Zoom link on Facebook.

When you get into the meeting, everyone will go on mute and the MC will kick off with introductions. Use the Chat button to open the Chat panel. For the open mic sign up, we’ll type our names in the Chat panel of the zoom meeting. We will remind you about it at the break. The MC will call off your name from the chat, and you’ll read your poem.