The Red Wheelbarrow Poets invite you to celebrate Black History Month with a special poetry reading on Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 pm.
Featured RWB and guest poets include:
Zorida Mohammed, Francesca and Raymond Dharmakan Bremner, James C. Ellerbe, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, reg e gaines, Michelle Whittaker, as well as local high school and community readers.
Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 p.m.
-Launch the Zoom.us app
-Zoom ID: 846 9724 6452
We’d like to thank our guest readers for featuring at this special event. Looking forward to hearing their poignant poetry.
Also, many thanks to our partner, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, and to the high school student coordinator, Dana Serea, for their outreach efforts.
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021
This past Wednesday we featured poet Kyle Seamus Brosnihan at our virtual Williams Center reading on zoom. He read his poem, Empire which you can find here https://www.alwayscrashing.com/current/2019/6/18/kyle-seamus-brosnihan-empire Empire is a long poem that builds a repetitive pattern:
my normal heart
my mandatory heart
my only heart
my tedious heart
my circular heart
my disposable heart
my blue heart
is a pit I keep falling into
my cancerous heart
is a bone I keep choking on
These lines are from the beginning of the online version. The “my ___ heart” protocol starts up right away, directly, forthrightly: the poem saying this is what I do, you don’t have to figure it out. As Arthur Russell put it: I’m going to keep playing this game. The simplicity of the game is disarming, and approachable. Unlike more complex patterns like sestinas or pantoums, this poem just keeps doing its tick tock thing. Not that other games aren’t running. Against this repetition, Brosnihan deploys:
1. Characters. Voices walk on and off the stage: my fascist heart/ forgot how to love/ whatever/ love is boring
2. Micro-Sequences: my unrelenting heart/ and and and/ my never-ending heart/ and and and /my paradoxical heart/ but
3. Taxonomies: a group of a dozen hearts or so are the “won’t love you” hearts and their appearance together is reminiscent of a hierarchical categorization. Each one a sub-species: “if you’re not my kind of pretty” “unless you won’t love me” “if you know all the answers”etc.
4. Emotional Arcs. The last major sequence of hearts are the highest expression of an ardor that’s been maneuvering and growing throughout the long poem: they each “long for love”
The art of Ed Atkins https://cabinet.uk.com/refuse also uses repetition. Listening to Brosnihan’s poem, I thought of Atkins’s pieces, Refuse.exe, and The Weight of the World. In Refuse.exe, a customized computer animation program renders, without commentary, and with a half-heard piano soundtrack, blankly classical, various objects crashing through a floor. A massive ship’s anchor, a cloud of feathers, a pallet of books, a pile of human bones and skulls, fish, a piano. A fat rope. The action occurs in an anonymous dull gray space. Its “abject cgi” as Cabinet Gallery’s founder, Andrew Wheatley, calls it, is austere, and limits the game visually the same way Brosnihan’s simple verbal pattern constrains Empire. Atkins’s other piece, The Weight of the World, is a 19 hour reading from Proust, accompanying a relentless though somehow soothing progression of manufacturing processes at jigsaw puzzle factories, kayak factories, saltine factories, and all sorts of mass producers; it reminds me of the emotional payoffs Brosnihan gets with his characters and arcs.
Do your poems play with repetition, permutation, and rogue variance?
What are the units that repeat in your poem?
Consciousness seems to require both a mechanism for synthesizing consistency and a setting which produces novelty. I guess that’s not a question.
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021
Claudia Serea has written many beautiful poems about Romania, her family in Romania, magic in Romania, coming to the US from Romania, and thinking about Romania when she’s in the US, but for some reason tonight’s poem “Self-portrait on Independence Boulevard” had a whole new kind of freshness and immediacy. It’s not just the understated irony of living in a communist dictatorship on a street called Independence Boulevard, or growing up, as she says, in the “oblique gaze” of “dirty potatoes sprouted eyes” in a vegetable store in a country where she can see “the bread line snaking down the sidewalk/ under the young linden trees/ that cast almost no shadows.” It may have a lot to do with the way the poem switches from the past tense to the present tense when it gets to “Here I am, quiet, scrawny,/ knee-scarred and pony tailed…” and the image of her “gliding in the vast emptiness of Independence Boulevard/ in my industrial city full of dust,/ feet strapped with brown leather and buckles/ on metal, four-wheel rollerskates.” That image of youthful vibrancy on a desolate boulevard is sharp, but the device of switching into the present tense, even though the whole poem takes place in the past, gives the poem an extra jolt. I love that.
Moira O’Brien’s poem “Ghost Herd” about the sight of deer through a winter window, showed up in two drafts, a discredited 8-line draft and a pared down tercet that rang true. Seeing the editorial changes was exciting for the group, and someone suggested presenting the poem as an erasure, leaving only the surviving bits.
Raymond Turco was back with another poem in his book of Italian heroes, “Giacomo Matteotti”, an antifascist and socialist politician of the early 20th Century. Ray’s format in this book, of providing a short prose biography of his subjects after the more lyrical poem, has been the subject of a several discussions since he began the project. No one knows exactly what to make of it. The bios are not just footnotes; sometimes they have the same information that is in the poem, and sometimes they have interesting details that are left out of the poems. We continue to wonder what the relationship is between poem and notes. The poems are not so obscure or lyrically separated from historical fact that they need a lot of explanation, but the poems are presented in the second person, while the bio is presented in the third person. We considered the possibility that the repetition may provide a stereoscopic view, or confronted the reader with choices to make about reality or poetry.
Tom Benediktsson brought “Glo-Fish at the Aquarium.” The title contains the premise or the locale, and the poem starts out fancifully considering the benefits of having phosphorescence, such as being “my own nightlight.” But fancy turns ecclesiastical and curt, if not downright impatient, when the poem becomes about a glowing statuette of Jesus Christ.
My own poem, “Heist Ballad” was part one of a narrative lyric that may never be completed, written in a series of haiku.
Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books.” In the opening stanzas, mostly couplets, the poem entertains a fanciful notion of reading across the titles of books from their spines for the ironies their successive titles provide. But then the poem hits on an amusement of a more intimate and intriguing nature, a chance encounter with a “nice lady/ At a call-center” whose offhand remark, a “that’s life” generality, inspires the speaker to cull his herd of books. “She got me thinking – straightened me out.” the poem continues. That oddball dramatic moment is my favorite in the poem. There we suddenly are, deep in the gussets of the speaker’s mind, allow to see what moves him and to see him being moved. And what follows is another surprise, an inscription in one of his books that reminds him of an old lover. That’s the true gen.
John J. Trause’s poem, part one, called “Marilyn Mosaic,” of a triptych called “My Marilyn: A Triptych” delights in working the titles of Marilyn Monroe’s movies into a portrait of the movie star.
Barbara D. Hall brought a poem called “MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE.” Its method is to present a too sweet, too warm, too compassionate, too wonderful, highly detailed but fairly cliched accounting of a happy childhood memory of a fabulous grandmother only to reveal in the last two lines end that it never happened. That’s a courageous and daring strategy.
Yana Kane was back with another draft of her ode/elegy to a Tai Chi teacher called “Tai Chi Teacher.” She has reached the point of polishing this piece.
Frank Rubino’s poem, “Kong seems to be able to see my death” captures the speaker watching an old monster movie while overhearing his wife talking on the speakerphone about a person who’d died. Slowly as the poem moves forward, the fragments of his wife’s phone call come to dominate his thoughts, so we hear the contrast between “Godzilla’s breath” being pushed down his throat and “when you’re that young you don’t realize people can just die.”
Janet Kolstein’s poem, “The Faux Ficus,” like Rob Goldstein’s “Throwing Out Books” was about paring down possessions, in Janet’s case, the eponymous plastic ficus, a forlorn companion dragged to the trash room still bearing the “shred marks on the droopy polyesterish fronds” of the speaker’s “former cat.”
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021
We got snow!
My art school friend was Donald Miller. We shared a couple of painting classes and I followed his reading recommendations (for which I’m grateful to this day) and we went to films and clubs together and shared student life. Donald was learned and debauched and made compelling, challenging art in many different forms, poetry, painting & collage and music. He was one of those people with a kind of hard-won performers’ camp that was very seductive to me, whose facade he let me see behind. And he was outrageous. His project, Borbetomagus (“Worm King”) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borbetomagus is still active. Google says Genre: Free jazz, Noise rock, Classical
This week I watched a film on Swans https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seer_(Swans_album) Genre: Rock, No wave, Industrial music, Post-punk, Gothic rock, more, that brought Donald and Borbetomagus to mind. Both Swans and Borbetomagus are concerned with noise and with particular uses of sound that seem extra-musical, or maybe proto-musical.
Watching the Swans film (“Where Does A Body End”), I recalled my experiences of Borbetomagus in person. Those performances are still vivid in my mind (I can hear the shrieking saxes, and the screech of Donald’s escape-from-jail file working at his amped electric guitar (which he said he wanted to play like Prince). I can see Borbetomagus’s body language— purpose, subjugation by example to the sonics— but I still don’t understand why I felt they were important to me, or what they were to me, or why anyone would seek them out the way Swans fans seek out their long, aggressive noisescapes.
I realize now I often gave myself an out from extreme art like Borbetomagus: it was “ironic”; it was a “position”; it was a “school.”
Whereas Swans fans describe their concerts as “ecstatic rtitual.”
Whereas Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter of Borbetemagus contorted their bodies around their saxophones like dervishes.
But my recent pursuit of chance and failure as strategies for making poems leads to noise, and an experience of noise that’s closer to a servant’s, the way Borbetomagus (and Swans) channel, create, and live in the noise. Which brings me, in pretty short order to:
Is noise art?
Is noise a poem?
Does noise have sentences? (In Swans case yes, In Borbetomagus no)
So many have asked this question in so many ways, that I’m not sure the strategy of making noise can produce the value of newness or entertainment, which (even now) I accept as poetic principles, just as I accept the principle of syntax.
Perhaps noise’s outrageousness is a kind of entertainment.
Perhaps noise’s confrontation is a kind of entertainment.
I do know that I feel a searcher in noise, and perhaps what I’m looking for is a poem?
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26
If I can swing it to play hooky from work on Thursday afternoon I’m going to attend About Fred Moten’s poem ‘Come on, get it!’ I want to learn more about Fred Moten, and this conversation, about the challenges of translating his poem to French for an art show, sounds as if it might get into some of the cross-modal issues I like to think about.
This week I’ve been reading Danil Kharms ’Today I Wrote Nothing” translated by Matvei Yankelevich (Ardis, New York, 2009). (Yankelevich also translated Vvedenskys Rug/Hydrangea a couple of months back on Poetry Daily (https://poems.com/poem/rug-hydrangea/) Today I Wrote Nothing has me at the title because I love anti-aesthetic memes. Kharms (and Vvedensky) were part of a group of Russian writers who formed the collective OBERIU, dedicated to the absurd (Yankelevich takes great care in his introduction to break down the trope of the Stalinist artist battling totalitarianism with absurdity: it’s very much worth reading.) Kharms wrote in 1937 that only “chush” was of interest to him. In his introduction, Yankelevich enumerates the meanings of “chush”: nonsense, baloney, a bunch of crap, stuff that just happens by chance (“au hasard”), the seemingly meaningless.
The book contains a number of prose pieces that are the antecedents of James Tate’s ’The Government Lake’ which I talked about in an earlier letter. One begins:
Tumbling Old Women
Because of her excessive curiosity, one old woman tumbled out her window, fell and shattered to pieces.
Another old woman leaned out to look at the one who’d shattered but, out of excessive curiosity, also tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces.
By the time the brief piece is finished 6 women have died. In the end: “I got sick of watching them and walked over to Maltsev Market where, they say, a blind man had been given a knit shawl.”
The pattern of a natural human impulse (here it’s curiosity) leading to bizarre catastrophe (they shatter) is established in piece after piece, and the “conclusions” are no conclusions at all; they’re merely trivia. (There’s a famous novella in here, a take on Crime and Punishment, in which a caterpillar balls itself up at the end as if it wants to be some sort of metaphor for the whole story, but the author says “At this point I temporarily end my manuscript in the belief it has drawn on long enough”)
What is the core impulse or dilemma, the universal, that sets off the poetic machine in our world? Is that in your poem?
Can you create a pattern of bizarre developments in your poem? (Jim Klein does this in An Egg Heated In Vinegar, in RWB 13)
Should you write a poem that resists all coherence? If you say no, perhaps that’s because of your answer to the first question?
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!
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 19
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.
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)
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.
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5
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?
Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 29
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?