Field Notes, Week of 02-01-22

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

We had a fine February first workshop on Tuesday.

Brendan McEntee brought a poem called “How We Dreamt in the Fire” lyric almost to the vanishing point (which I loved) but conveying a clear feeling of isolation and desolation, perhaps climate-change related, but did so by the least obvious means.  Here’s the first stanza, which moves with an independence of will that resists paraphrase:

Six a.m. and the moon still holds its piece of the sky.
Silence, a true silence arrives
Plays like music in a shuttered mall.

It’s such a strange move to say that a silence, not any silence, but a “true silence” played like music, and it only gets stranger when that music is in a mall, and even more strange when that mall is ‘shuttered.’ And the way he uses two different verbs—plays and arrives—to describe the advent of silence, it’s as though everything that has been given—including the time of day and the moon above—has been, if not taken away, reconsidered—and yet the residue of this giving and taking is the essential feeling of the dreamer plopped down in an ambiguity. Read on, and in the second stanza see how the poem resists all explanation, moving in seemingly rational increments that test rationality, from “gardens” to “the bleaching of the world.”

Janet K brought an elegy about the ski slope death of an actor, Gaspard Ulliel, La Rosiere 1/19/22,” (not attached) that indulges in the language of obituary (“Gaspard . . . leaves behind a six-year-old son”) and the language of fan-dom (“I tore out the ad for the cologne [he promoted]/ and saved it.”), but what it really does, and what Janet does so well with her deadpan delivery, is to wonder – as she did in that poem about the near stranger in her high-rise who fell to his death from his balcony—about the how we can have real feelings about something we know only slightly or indirectly.

Carole Stone’s poem, “It Is Impossible to Be Alone in Language” is a “message-in-a-bottle” poem, in which the ‘messages of grief’ related to living alone are imaginarily found by a “wife” in a far-away country.

Don Z is our most courageous poet, sharing poems before he’s sure he’s comfortable with them himself.  His “There is a Beautiful Sorrow I Must Attend To” takes the form of four short elusive couplets, the last of which – “I don’t have time for today./ I can’t make it to my life” – comes closest to answering the call of the title.  The other three couplets suggest an arctic night of strong emotion but resist nearly completely providing context.  The excitement that such elusiveness stimulates in the group, however, is a testament to the power of lyric substitution.  We want answers and our minds suggest them, and when a poem gets our minds going, then, as Don might say, they become “flashing igloo[s]/ beaconing to toothy darkness.”

Barbara Hall brought a list poem called “Today I” that recounted the doings of the speaker’s day, and then relaxed with a cup of chamomile tea and key lime cookies as she watched the sun dip below the horizon.

Ana Doina got a lot of traction in the group with her “Although”, which can be summarized as a list of the crappy things that communism brought to her former country after WWI, things that did not stop people from experiencing the ordinary facets of life, music, love, and divorce.  The setup is to use the word “although” at the beginning of phrases explaining the bad stuff, and the release is the final stanza saying that life went on despite the restrictions. 

Frank Rubino’s  “Sir, no man’s enemy”  is a kind of prayer/petition/plea to an entity known only as “Sir” – for clean cardboard and pillows for homeless people, but on the way to that plea, it provides us with dozens of names of men out of context and tells a pair of anecdotes about the members of the speaker’s family giving up smoking, too late or not too late. What was interesting is how this “Sir” character refuses to be a god, and even becomes human enough to take the name “Jim.” Still the “cap-in-hand feel’ (Brendan) of the poem and its humility soar above its multifarious roots, and that must be the feeling and meaning.

Getting ready for Valentine’s Day, I brought a love poem called “Love Poem” that took the form of what Frank called “delicate little triplets”. It features a series of statements and metaphors, like “She does/ to  me/ what a church// steeple does/ to a clear/ blue winter sky,” utterances that don’t connect to one another except through the title and the delicate little triplets. Some controversy broke out over the ending trope, about “happiness”  which struck Susanna and possibly Janet and possible Claudia as to “telly” and remedies in the nature of machetes were suggested. Don Z liked the way the poem “sits in the romantic tradition.” And responded to the loppers thusly: “We need a strong end, but we need to end when we’re done.” 

Hey, I’d like to shout out my daughter, Delaney’s podcast called “Only Child Syndrome” which you can get through Spotify. Delaney’s 25, and her podcast, which runs about an hour for each episode, has a lot of music, but her sound checks are about culture and womanhood. She’s far more articulate and insightful and easygoing than I am, so if you or a young woman you know likes insight, clarity, music and fun – tell them to check it out.

And a second “Hey” – I went to the Allen Ginsberg Prize reading yesterday to collect my Second Prize winnings (and adulation), and ran into a wildly divergent group of fantastic poets. As usual, in the corner of the poetry world governed beneficently by Maria Mazziotti Gilan, narrative poems were the order of the day. Through the ‘chat’ feature in Zoom, I invited two of my favorite readers, Marion Paganello and Lisa Cole Nicalau to sign up for these Field Notes, and they accepted. So, hey, Frank, I’m sending Marion’s and Lisa’s email addresses to you separately; please send them the invite to our workshop.

I probably won’t be at the 2-15-22 workshop, but Frank will, and I implore you all to write love poems, quickly, before it’s too late. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-04-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 4, 2022

Happy New Year!
A lot of good work got done at our first workshop
of the year.  May it be a harbinger of a year of solid work.

Claudia Serea’s “In the alley by the schoolyard” is a free verse New Year’s poem written in tercets, that, like many of Claudia’s poems, uses the title as a part of the first sentence of the poem.  The poem personifies the new year as a guy “swaggering down the street/ in its varsity jacket” that parks its “shiny car” under a “No Parking” sign. It has live language, and, true to Jim Klein’s other dictum, it was about “one thing,” a scene of bravado, and young energy.  It would be interesting to discuss how tercets work, what energy they bring to a poem, and how Claudia marshals that energy.

Carole Stone brought an energetic free verse poem called “Hanging Out with the Dead.”

Shane Wagner bought an unnamed poem starting “There must be a perfect moment to take down a Christmas tree.” It is a momento mori poem, which translates from the Latin, as “remember death,” and such poems pursue the virtuous ends of reminding us that life is short.  The human skull (cf. Hamlet) is a fine object to contemplate in that mode, but Shane picked the Christmas tree with its obvious ironic identification with the birth of the Christ child.  The poem succeeds best when it diverts us from its morbidity with real world considerations such as suggesting that one might take the tree down “before the vacuum bag is full” which has elusive but compelling metaphorical possibilities.  The on-the-nose ending – “There must be a perfect moment to die” – was a little too on-the-nose for some.

My little poem, “How I Want to Die” was also a momento mori poem, five lines long, and written in iambic pentameter, and featured a description of a cut tulip in a vase drooping as the poem’s professed method of passing away.  It’s good to talk about these poems and their relation to the tradition that that they continue, and we should do it more.

Like Shane, Tom Benediktsson brought a Xmas poem, but “The Gift” was more like an Abbot and Costello routine than a momento mori; conceived as a dialogue about wrapping gifts and having the gift for wrapping gifts. 

Frank Rubino’s “My Daughter Came For Thanksgiving” sets his fatherly response to the named event in which the daughter, banged up by life is seen in relation to the embedded simile of a dented car cruising on the highway in front of the speaker.  The car is “viable” and so, for all the problems she’s had, is the daughter.  The poem got a little lost when it tried to make the phrase “tried to change an accident,” into a refrain, but doubtless, Frank, who treats fatherhood the way Andy Warhol treats Marilyn Monroe, will be back with more.

Jennifer Poteet’s poem,  “The Whole She-Bang” an astrophysical meditation about human’s place in the universe had a title that poked gentle fun at the “Big Bang.”

Elinor Mattern’s poem, “About Your Poem, ‘Traveling through the Dark’” is a poem about the experience of teaching the eponymous William Stafford poem to a class of poetry students, so it has a wonderful set of nested relationships at its heart: that poem, this poem, that poet, this poet, the impossible quandary at the heart of Stafford’s poem – how to address a dead car-struck deer with a fetal fawn inside.  Elinor’s poem is a celebration of Stafford’s poem, which “guaranteed … a lively and engaged discussion with college students of the elements of literature.”  The poem shouts out some of the poetic elements that make Stafford’s poem successful: possible metaphor, alliteration, vivid concrete nouns, strong verbs, sparing but specific adjectives, and words that “work double time.”  However, Elinor’s poem steers clear of those virtues, preferring a prosaic, denotative approach, a downbeat spoken rhythm, and words that work single time.  As a workshop, we steered clear of taking up those differences, all of which were on display in the poem itself, and steered clear, as well, of the opportunities that the poem, with such a strong baseline structure, has, to investigate any number of issues beyond its consoling message that “sometimes life just sucks.”  

Ana Doina brought “What Freedom Is” one of her Eastern Block anecdotal reminiscences about the evils of communism.

Yana Kane shared the news that she’d been accepted to the FDU MFA program and planned to work on in the area of translation. Congratulations, Yana.  Her poem, “Sabbath” followed a formula she’s used before, of quoting and then riffing on an epigraph.  This time it was the phrase “look into the face of knowledge, call it a god” attributed to Tamara Zbrizher.  Yana’s poem – two quatrains followed by two tercets, sought, as the title, “Sabbath” suggests, a moment of surcease in what she describes as a long-drawn-out war between “knowledge” and “uncertainty.”   It imagines this surcease with the lovely albeit difficult to understand or reconcile image of “a field of snow/ receiving an abundance of snow.”  But perhaps the most provocative element of the poem is the hint of a suggestion at the end of the last line that a season of peace would include “no separate name for anything that grows,” a concept that would reverse the Adamic prerogative of naming the world and ask us to seek peace without nomenclature. I could imagine a poem that told Zbrizer to screw off and pursued the fabulous unnamed world that barely made it into the poem.

Susanna Lee’s poem, like Yana’s, got awfully interesting at the last line.  Before that, it was just a celebration of the legalization of pot, as exemplified by firing up a spliff on one’s morning walk, but at the end, out of nowhere, it proclaimed “The War on Drugs maimed; it will not be forgiven.”  Yes, what about that?

Jan Castro brought a 13-line, free verse poem called “The Polish Rider* Take 3” an ekphrasis describing what “we” – viewers at large? – miss about a Rembrandt painting, photo included, a painting that was mentioned by Frank O’Hara in his love poem “Having a Coke with You”.  Jan’s nonlove poem is arranged in roughly 10-syllable mostly non-metrical lines, other than the last two which are shorter, 6 and 8 syllables respectively.  Notwithstanding all the deviations (no rhymes, no meter, no turn at line 9), it looks like a sonnet on the page.     While O’Hara’s poem mentioned the Polish Rider as a means of saying that only the guy in that painting could rival his love as a worthy subject of gazing, Jan’s poem is focused on the elements of Rembrandt’s painting that “we miss” as we are dazzled by the “rider’s white horse…”

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-28-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 28, 2021

Hey, Workshoppers— It’s the night before New Year’s Eve (or, in Yiddish, Erev Erev New Year’s Eve);  I’m hoping all of you are getting ready for a joyous new year and a 2022 that will outshine all previous years.  

We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, and I’m happy to say that as a group, we’re doing a great job talking about poems, not just saying what we like and how we’d fix what we don’t but diving into the a priori questions—what is this piece of writing? What does it set out to do and how does it propose to do it?  What promises does the poem make to the reader, and how are those promises kept or altered? What is happening in the poem? What poetic devices does it employ, and are they working? What is the form of the poem, not just old-fashioned forms like sonnets or villanelles, but the idiosyncratic (or nonce) forms of free verse? What register does the diction reside in? Is it old fashioned words or new? Or a combination of them, and how does the diction assist or fall away from the drive of the poem? Are there short lines? Long lines? Big stanzas, little stanzas? Why. Is it Narrative, Lyric, Dramatic or a combination? Given that the poem as a machine made of words exists to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind (Mallarme, WCW, Matt Zapruder), does it? I remember when we started as a group some people thought said that describing a poem was “boring” or “obvious,” but that’s not the mood now. What could be more relevant to a poet than to hear how people recognize what was intended, or how people saw things that the poet never even knew were there (answer: “nothing”) and what (spoiler alert, the answer again will be , “nothing”) could be more interesting than talking about how the poems of our cohort work, sharing what we know about how they work without necessarily EVER offering to edit the poem to conform to our own ideas of what a poem should sound like or be about or look like.
 
Every since I heard Sharon Olds talk about how, in her workshops, the poem was read aloud three different times (once without circulating the text) before the poem was discussed, I’ve been a fan of that approach. Every time the poem is read aloud, whether it is by the poet or by someone else, it presents another facet of itself. It might even be totally unfair to plop a poem down in front of someone, read it through just once and then start making comments. But once you’ve heard it through and go back and hear it again, the ways that the poem operates, the ways it prepared or didn’t prepare you for what came next, the subtle clues in line, diction, rhetoric, and music, all soo important to the overall project, come clearer. And if you’re the poet, listening to other people read the poem, with or without a copy of it to look at in front of you, you are going to hear how that reading is an interpretation, actually a critique, of the text, you’re going to hear what worked, and where the hiccups were, and where the reader got into the flow and where they didn’t. And what I love about multiple readings of that sort is that no one has to say one single word that isn’t already in the poem for the poet to start getting ideas about what could be done to improve it.  

No clearer example of this phenomenon exists than the reading of my poem this week, “End of Year Party at Nutley Arts Press” by Ray Turco. He was trying his hardest to make sense of it, and present it to us with all of its (to me, fabulous) nuance and humor, but it just wasn’t there, so even before the “discussion” began, the discussion was well on its way. And what if two or three people read the poem, and it comes out differently from each of them? Without the “discussion” having begun, we’d know a great deal, but even more important, the poet (in this case me) would be well on their way to revisions.  And this without any editorial comments.
 
All of this is happening nowadays in our workshop, and I’m very happy about it, and want to thank everyone in the group for their patience with the process and their acceptance of the method. So, thanks.

Ana Doina brought a plain spoken narrative piece “My father’s tomatoes,” about her father smuggling old world heirloom, tomato seeds (from his own father’s garden) into the United States as part of his immigration move. The story seemed to the workshoppers to have relevance for the lawlessness of the smuggle, the assimilation process of immigrants, or possibly as a pushback against GMO movement in agriculture. During the discussion, I was focusing on the question of how the poetic form can shove off from the prosaic in narrative, and raise a sail to some unseen wind.

Carole Stone brought a poem called “The Pianist” that discussed youthful ambitions to fix the world and what happens if you live long enough to conclude that not much has changed. I thought the lines “Every morning,/the world starts up again” were bold. The lines sound like renewal, but they are also a nuanced way of saying that we’ve learned nothing from the tragedies of the last century.

Jennifer Poteet‘s poem “Bird Says Goodbye to Bear” was a sort of allegory, Carole said, a riff on the story of the Goldilocks, without Goldilocks, that it had the sound of a children’s book, but plays with expectations about that form by introducing uncertainty as its central emotional position, which we see when the speaker (after turning into a bird from a bear) decides to leave the nest and Momma Bear asks “Will you come back” and the speaker says: “I didn’t know and couldn’t answer.” What a cold-assed way to end a poem that might be!  But Jennifer presses forward to the parting hug, restoring some of the sweetness of the children’s story expectation.

Susanna Lee brought “Does the Christmas Tree Know Its Destination” which used personification of the tree as a means of conveying a critique of the Xmas tree industry, and the happiness anyway of having one of those sawed off conifers in one’s home.

Ray Turco‘s poem, “A String Quartet” was a bit of a seduction piece: guy brings girl (who has a dancer’s body) to a concert.  We don’t know if he got lucky, but we as a workshop did just fine, talking about how the question at the heart of the seduction works—”What are the right chords/ to penetrate/ your dancer’s heart?” Cold-assed indeed.

Brendan McEntee‘s “Pie” with a subtitle “after “A Ghost Story (2017)” presented a narrative that suggested a woman coming home from a funeral gorging on a friend’s gift of a pie. The overall shape of the narrative remained a bit mysterious, but some of the description was so alarmingly sharp and focused that it effectively conveyed the “hands off” reverence that the poet took while witnessing a scene of great pain: “Barefoot, she slides to the floor,/ her back against the cabinet, and eats, holding the pie plate,/ carving through the middle, the thumb-pressed crust/ remains intact for a while. She eats, her fork/ Hitting the glass. She digs in, breaks the bottom crust.”  

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “To My Niece Teaching English in Thailand,” whose title was a great setup to an angry, somewhat sardonic critique of America that the speaker was urging as a lesson plan on his niece.
 
Rob Goldstein‘s “Ahab, Between Voyages” did a great job of projecting an image of the unquiet mind of the doomed whaleboat captain when he was stuck on land.  

And, finally, Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “This Poem Is Trying to Look Normal but I’m Not Fooled” that takes place inside an MRI machine equipped with a television (showing a Godzilla movie) that the patient can watch while the bizarre space odyssey of being in one of those machines transpired.  

Gotta go. But thanks again to everyone in the group and outside the group who receive my Field Notes. Thanks for listening to and putting up with me. And Happy New Year!

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-21-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 21, 2021

We had a great workshop.  

Jennifer Poteet
‘s “Bird in a Box” compares good poems to skating, to eels, to electric current down the spine, to the thrill of being undressed by a first lover, to crashing a bike after learning to ride one, and the pounding of the heart in the chest after that crash, to a bird in a box. Then the poem screeches to a halt:  Why? Because, it is revealed that the lover, the who one who unbuttoned of the speaker’s blouse, button by button, was a real person, one who, “after a third marriage” tells the speaker “the doctor gives him six months to live.” It is the boldest sort of strategy, in which the poem is pulled out of its conceit by reality and the crash of the bicycle morphs into a real life catastrophe.  Bravo, Jen.

John J. Trause brought a movie commentary sort of poem called “Craning to See a Hotel Room” that mixed references to the movies “Psycho” and “Touch of Evil” to delve into the issues of exploitation and voyeurism.

The title of Frank Rubino‘s poem, “Days of rogation,” refers to meatless feast days in the Catholic calendar, and to a larger meditation on the modern meat industry, but at its best, it slides, meditatively, into a consideration of the unaccountable pain and solace of love:  “no one/ will love my ear-wax, love my funny toe…./ no one / should be allowed in there, but here you are!/  One time you… showed me guyswith giant cocks and… I cried/ inside but …/I come from people with zucchini heads/ some of them… gnarled beautifully like mountain cedars…”

You can’t teach talent like that.

My poem, “Her Silver Rings in the Dish by the Bed” was a sonnet-length domestic love poem.  Frank saw it as a sonnet.  Yana said it changes the sonnet tradition by paying attention to an older woman. Frank liked the fact that it “starts with a thesis and proves it out,” somewhat metaphysically.

Susanna Lee‘s poem was also about domestic romance.  It was called “Poem for the Rising of the Winter Solstice Moon.”  It spoke in a “room of one’s own way” about maintaining private space in the home, but veered towards the sadness of isolation in life later in marriage, with couples sleeping apart and the speaker’s parents “gone.”  Then, somewhat miraculously it slouched towards communion of a deeply mature sort, when the vibrant moon seen separately gave the couple something to talk about.  Deft work.

Preeti Shah‘s poem, “My Name” was a purely lyrical piece in the form of a personal history. When she was young her “Name/ caught light the wet riggings/ of palak in some hesitant throat.” In India, it “comforted/ as Maa’s home dish…”  In America, she comically compares it the Heimlich maneuver.  And finally, in along lyrical passage, she conjures the feeling of her name in her own mouth as a beautiful meal “aching to be tasted/ by all tongues/ that still missed their homes.” Beautiful.

Speaking of foreign locales, Carole Stone‘s “Down Mexico Way” imagines the figure of Death in several disguises: as a guitar player, an American tourist, as a cyber researcher peeking at her “Facebook” page, and as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, where her deceased parents show up and “light up cigarillos.”
 
Yana Kane‘s “The Doll House” takes dollhouses to task for their lifelessness, their obscuration of “any flaws:” for example the “mother in the kitchen” who is always and forever pulling “a blueberry pie from the oven.” And the father in the parlor, who “never tires of reading the same newspaper.” It was a creepy poem, for sure, something between Twilight Zone and Stepford Wives.

Raymond Turco‘s “Verona” creates a vibrant tonal sketch of the town with a curious allusion to an unproven theory that the name “Verona” is a bastardization of “Vera Roma” meaning “the one true Rome.”

JJT called Brendan‘s poem, “Waterfall in Winter” “high Romantic,” and “Tennysonian.” It depicts the hidden space behind a waterfall where a kind of shrine is maintained, literally maintained, as its “drooping lilies” are replaced —by the speaker—with “fresh ones” and the old ones are cast into the “crashing water.”  Yet, when he leaves he swears he will never be back.  Mysterious, and somber.

Janet Kolstein‘s “The White Bird” (not in the package) is either a dream, a surreal vision, or just another day on the Lower East Side.  It presents a bird perched on the speaker’s shoulder that talks, shops for clothes, takes a bath in warm water, and is grabbed by barber who wakes up after sleeping on the street outside his shop. The speaker then pats the bird dry with a “paper towel, to avoid his getting chilled/ when he turns into a cat.” I’m voting for ‘just another day on the Lower East Side.’

Thank you all for coming; see you at the next workshop.

—Arthur Russell

RWB 14 Soft Launch featuring the Red Wheelbarrow Poets

If you missed our virtual, soft launch of The Red Wheelbarrow #14, here is the recording of the event. Arthur Russell emcees as poets from The Red Wheelbarrow read their poems from the book. Frank Rubino is the featured poet.

Order The Red Wheelbarrow #14 here.

THE RED WHEELBARROW #14 IS READY TO ORDER!


More poetry than ever!

Under the direction of a new editorial team, The Red Wheelbarrow reaches its 14th annual collection of great poetry and prose, including the work of 62 poets, the most we’ve ever published. Inside, featured poet Frank Rubino offers great creative insights in the interview with The Red Wheelbarrow Poets that accompanies his poems. Alongside our core group, you’ll find new names of talented poets published in The Red Wheelbarrow for the first time who also became regulars at our online workshops and readings in the past year. Don’t miss Don Zirilli’s expressive doodles and his erudite essay on the chess of William Carlos Williams. All this exciting work is wrapped in a striking red cover showcasing Anton Yakovlev’s photograph of a wheelbarrow holding a castle.

Most importantly, we hope you’ll find great inspiration in these pages, proving that our beloved Red Wheelbarrow honors its impressive legacy while powering into the future.

Order The Red Wheelbarrow #14 here.

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

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

Miyamoto: … tegotae …

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

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

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/obituaries/mario-segale-dies-super-mario.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Field Notes, Week of 07-27-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 27, 2021

It seems that this week’s workshop was all about costs and benefits of different formal and substantive choices in poems. We saw that the decision to use a formal device whether it’s a traditional one like assonance, anaphora or metaphor, or putting a poem in the form of a dialogue, or a newer formal device like adding footnotes to a poem, or changing the layout of the poem on the page can serve the poet’s purposes of identifying their work as “poetry” but also bring with them expectations that the poem can meet or fail to meet and exact costs and sacrifices the poet needs to be aware of and possibly manage.

Claudia Serea‘s poem, “The retouching team is working hard,” brought the political reality of the propaganda in the Communist regime of her native Romania to the fore, where making the political leader look good was a priority, and  ironically adopting the perspective of a supporter of media manipulation. Her poem focused on photoshopping government portraits of leaders to make them look good. Ana Doina agreed with the political point, suggesting it’s not only Romania that promoted such hero augmentative strategies, but other Communist block and authoritarian controlled countries, including an endorsement of the technique Claudia’s poem mentioned of never showing a strongman with their hat in their hand. No one had anything to say about the prosody of the poem because (1) Claudia is just so damn good at what she does; and (2) when politics come in the door, prosody goes out the window. And it raises the question: how far can political irony take a poem?

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Everything I do is stitched.” The poem, whose text relates to craft-work with fabric, has a principal text and a set of footnotes. For example, the first line of the poem says “Everything I do is stitched with color” and contains footnotes to the word “stitched” and the word “color.” The footnote to “stitched” is a four line definition of the word followed by a explanation of how the speaker threads a needle or uses a sewing machine when hand stitching becomes too difficult. The footnote to “color” provides a definition of the word and then is a friendly tone calls out the mnemonic device—Roy G. Biv—that is used to teach children the color spectrum. And so the short poem about craft continues annotating itself until the footnotes occupy almost half the page. This use of footnotes within the poem (as opposed by footnotes added by editors of an anthology) is a formal element of the prosody, no different fundamentally than any other manipulation that brings new voices or multiple voices into a poem, such as collage and erasure. The footnote, with its traditional textual role of explanation or amendment, brings with it expectations of authority and dignity that can be in dialogue with the principal text, reinforcing or subverting the message of the poem. The success or failure of the technique depends, like everything else, on how well it is done and for what purpose, how much tension —in this case—is created between text and what is literally subtext. Barbara’s footnotes provide definitions. Barbara uses the footnotes for the anodyne purpose of providing definitions, and historical background to her stitching practice. And on one level, the footnotes enact the process of stitching: attaching subtext to text, which is clever. But the concern, as with everything, is whether the device earns its place in the poem by delivering in meaning than it demands in effort. The footnote project calls a lot of attention to itself as a form and demands a lot of effort from the reader.

John J. Trause‘s poem “Magic Fingers” is a Trausian romp of the first order that —like Barbara’s poem—draws a lot of formal attention to itself, though not with footnotes, but foregrounded music; the poem is chockablock with assonance and near rhyme around the words beginning with haich or sounding like “hotel” and the gerund case “ing”—as in the lines “hoteling and motelling, modelling and hostelling,/ no telling what else,/ and retelling ….” Like others of John’s poems it borrows (sometimes frantically) from popular movie culture with references to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Seberg, and seems like it will function only on that playful level until it resolves in the final stanzas to a plaintive call for Olga Khokhlova, Pablo Picasso’s first wife, which is surprisingly effective at changing the lyric tone of the poem.

My poem, “Ode To The Place At the Northern End of Manhattan….” is, as advertised, a lyric song of praise to a place with nostalgic significance. When I wrote the poem a few years ago it was in a blocky left justified form, and it had several more sections than are shown here. Recently, I read of book called Crush by Richard Siken, who used what I’d call an exploded arrangement of the poem on the page that infused his work with a lot of energy, and I liked it. So I took the first section of the Ode and, with only minor editorial changes to the text, changed its layout to look a little like Siken’s “Scheherazade”  and I liked it a lot. Personally, I think that making mechanical changes to form and layout, moving a poem into short lines, long lines, couplets, tercets, and quatrains, just changing the font or font size, all of these and many more are fantastic, ‘low cost’ tools of revision, literally allowing us to re-see the poem, see it newly, ways of making the poem new for the poet, bringing things that may have been buried in habit out into a more prominent place, where they can be seen, acknowledged, and raise questions. Shira Ehrlichman, the poet who wrote “Odes to Lithium” advocates this method of stimulated revision through initially mechanical changes the “laboratory of possibility.”   I also advocate it.  Raymond Carver famously said (or repeated) in his droll, low-key way: “A very few of us have true vision; the rest of us have revision.”

Ray Turco‘s poem “Spaesato” addresses the situation of a speaker who finds themselves “exist[ing] between languages,” Italian and English:  “In Italy, I am American but different,/ In America, I am Italian but quirky and new.”   The poem takes a leap towards the lyric expression of alienation that comes from this duality in the last lines: “I cling to myself, close to myself/ in the cold of the rain.”

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “The Trap,” comes out of a truly wonderful poetic tradition, the dialogue, which presents a moral or intellectual problem from two sides by putting itself in the form of a conversation. One of the loveliest parts of Don’s dialogue is that we don’t exactly know what the two voices are talking about, but more about their conversational relationship. Someone said it was like the dialogue in Waiting for Godot, and maybe so, but it is also a development that continues Don’s recent monologues in the voice of a stand-up comedian.  
Overheard conversations can be riveting, and this one often works on that level even with minimal ‘content.’

Oh my god
Do you think anything will happen in August?

Do you think anything will happen in January?

Extremists love anniversaries

I guess everyone is sentimental

I’m not sure any of this is a good idea
But what other choice do we have?

You might make it to a nice park trail
But what if it’s already started

(and so on.) Don enhanced the mesmeric quality of such eavesdropping by having two people reading the poem as dialogue. It was a lot of fun and Don said it helped him towards future revision, which is the highest goal we have.

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Ubi patria – a prophecy before exile” which was a bit of a character study of the woman employed by the speaker of the poem to help with household work and, ultimately with packing the speaker’s belongings as the speaker prepares to go into exile. The employee is introduced as “Leana/ the gypsy we hired to paint our house,” and the poem spares no harshness in talking about Leana as a woman whom the state has “declared …. retarded” and “spayed” after she had seven pregnancies “and gave one healthy boy to each orphanage in a thousand mile radius. At least one member of the workshop was deeply disturbed by these locutions suggesting that a content warning may be appropriate when addressing topics of state brutality and cruelty, even if the views are not the views of the poet, but only the reported views of the state.

Frank Rubino‘s poem “On Chestnut Street” continues Frank’s recent commitment to experimenting with form, here, manipulated indenting of successive lines in stanzas one, two, and six and, in stanza four, working with and against an anaphoric repetition of “Love has me” alternating with one instance of “gore has me”  — The poem also falls into a group of Frank’s poems that take place while the speaker is walking around Montclair, New Jersey, such as “Dayes and Monthes” sharing cultural references like the music in their headphones or, here, thoughts about Virgil’s Aeneid, and in particular, the scene in which Aeneas recognizes his mother by the color of her throat. Love is presented as a brutal thing (“love has me in its rock crevice,/ wedged between stone walls,/ chasing its sick porcupine” and a place of sadness and deception, but it is set unironically against an overt insistence that the speaker is “ecstatic with gratitude.”

We are all sorcerer apprentices, employing the poetic devices that we have admired elsewhere to achieve the purposes and discuss the matters that matter to us. As apprentices, we sometimes flood the workshop, but that’s okay, in fact, better than okay.

Don’t forget to come to the RWB Reading tomorrow at 7:00 pm.
—Arthur Russell

What is Art? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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