Field Notes, Week of 11-23-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of November 23, 2021

Stephen Sondheim died a little yesterday, and PBS Newshour played portions of a 2010 interview they did.  If you write poems, you’ll be engrossed in this:

Sondheim: “If you think of a lyric as a little one act play,
Then every line is a scene,
And a quatrain becomes an entire act,
Each line is a scene and you’ve got seven words in a line
So let’s say each word is a speech….
Well, you know, if you’re writing a play
and something’s wrong with a speech,
you cut or change the speech,
same way you’ve got to do it word by word.
It is as focused as that.”

Interviewer: “and the greatest focus is on the words that rhyme.  Sondheim writes lying down, the better for a quick nap when things aren’t going well, he says.  He uses an old rhyming dictionary, a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus”

Sondheim: “Rhyme draws the ear’s attention to the word, so you don’t make the least important word in the line the rhyme word; And, also, a rhyme can take something that is not too strong and make it much stronger.  If you tell a joke in rhyme, it’s twice as funny as it would be if you just told it in prose, if it was just a speech. The same words!

But the rhyme goes [hits fist on palm] does That to it, and that’s one of the uses of rhyme. It’s not only to focus the attention on a word but to strengthen what you’re saying.

Now sometimes you avoid a rhyme because you don’t want to draw the ear’s attention because you want to fool’em(!) because one of the things you want to do in a song and in a scene and in a play is surprise an audience.”

Interviewer: “And that surprise, Sondheim says, can come in very subtle ways, something happening between the ear and the brain, for example, he believes words that are spelled differently but sound alike, such as “suffer” and “rougher” engage the listener more than those spelled similarly: “rougher” and “tougher””

Sondheim: “I think we see words as they were on paper sometimes when you hear them.  I don’t mean it’s an actually conscious thing, but I’m absolutely convinced that people essentially “see” what they’re “hearing.”

Now, this is me, Arthur: I think we poets [regardless of denomination] ignore Sondheim at our own peril, at risk to our work. This is a scientist, an experimental prosodist, a dentally intense marksman who could drill exacting wormholes through scalp, skull and skepticism using words alone, and change perceptions with his bare wit.

Now, to get to the matter at hand, we had an amazing workshop on Tuesday; great poems, great discussions, and both Shane Wagner and Susanna Lee back in the fold.

Shane Wagner‘s poem, “Heaven” considers life after death through the poetic lens of a Billy Collins poem that suggests heaven is what we imagine it to be, but when the speaker tries to play the Billy Collins game, he’s struck by how little his imagination matches his desire, which is to live the life he lives, and that part of the poem, beginning with an exceptionally long line, is where the poem, as far as I’m concerned, breaks out of its essayistic, armchair, pipe-smoking, patches-on-its-sleeves mode and becomes deeply, personally heartfelt.  Here’s that line: “But I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife.” The poem lingers on that bed, focusing on his wife’s handicraft of the quilt, and actually seeing her “mouth working an unconscious side business” while she worked. Some workshoppers, while appreciating where the poem went, said the poem needs the essayistic bit to set up the magic. To which I say that if you call your poem “heaven” and start it “but I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife,” you have done what poetry alone can do.  We will see what Shane thinks of that.

Don Z’s “Museum of the House Made From Doormats” is sketch poetry of great immediacy. He says he wrote it ten minutes before the workshop, possibly after watching an episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” giving it the freshness of mozzarella from a pork store, or of Michael Landon. The poem uses the image of a doormat to illuminate the vast experience of mortality, and of thresholds generally, which makes it something of a  relative of Shane Wagner’s “Heaven.” So, I guess it’s true that thoughts of mortality can sharpen the mind.

David Briggs was back (Hi, David) with a poem called “B-movie love life” which had the clever device of tracking an actual love story by reference to cliched tropes of B-movies, and begins: “Remember when we were lost upriver,/ realizing the hole we’d stepped in/ was really a footprint?” and then, “Remember when we stole/ the Alpha Romeo/ for a joyride,/ but found it had a transmitter/ that led the henchmen/ right to our villa?”—continuing all the way to “Remember the baffled newscaster/ who narrated our last moments?” It was an exhilarating experience moving through those cinematic tropes standing in for the progress and decline of a love affair. I look at poem as a series of loose-fitting metaphors, in which the tenor (or thing described) is a love affair, and the vehicle (the metaphorical descriptor) is the movie tropes. For me, in this draft, the vehicle ran over the tenor, or just parked on it, and yet it wouldn’t take too much tweaking to change the focus so that each iteration of the movie substitution would deepen our involvement with the lovers and their disappointment.

And super-interestingly, Barbara Hall brought a poem called “And I don’t like pretzels….” about flipping channels on the tv, finding nothing, not even the pretzels she doesn’t like, to interest her except her own ruminations on history and American fuck-everything-up-ism; and at the moment the poem considers the end of the world, it does so only by summoning up sci-fi adventure movies, then, in despair, reaching for another pretzel (empty calories).

Frank Rubino brought “Solaris,” a fantastically ambitious poem that continues his knife-edge consideration of adult parenting. The poem, which distances itself from the subject by calling her “person P” is “interrupted” several times by a diagram of an Oxycontin molecule, a picture that you can’t read aloud when you read the poem, but is there, the whole time you read it, just as Oxycontin (an addictive opioid drug manufactured by the Sackler family’s company Perdu Pharma) is always there in the family, interrupting. The poem also uses an old Russian movie called “Solaris” as a backdrop as well as a title; the story of the movie, sketched in the seventh and eighth stanzas of the poem, involves the ghost-like apparition of “a man’s dead wife” in an orbiting space lab. The poem also starts with and seems to live in the aftermath of an argument with someone over how problems should be addressed, whether the speaker is failing to confront them or looking for a new way to do so. Over and over, the speaker says “I’ve been thinking about currents and what flows through me,” which may be less of a refrain and more of an anaphora, and each time the poem repeats this line, it delves into a different sort of current, of thought, of water. No one can doubt the seriousness of this endeavor, and if Frank can tame all of these elements, he will have one behemoth of a poem on his hands. Frankly, I said it to Shane—there’s no way he should let Billy Collins hijack his poem—and I’d say it too to Frank about Solaris: those Russian filmmakers of the same era as Kubrick may have given you a jump start, but you owe them nothing, and your poem is plenty on its own.

Janet Kolstein continued on the metaphysical roll she’s been on with a poem called “Beholder” considering beauty and the ugliness it can lead to.

Brendan McEntee brought “At the Run” a poem designed to suggest a narrative associated with two people by focusing exclusively on the movements of a dog in which they both had an interest in a dog run. It was intriguing but frustrating for some, who wanted a little more help from the poet. Big question that. We all want to be able to draw the portrait of a lady in a single sinuous line, but more difficult to know when the line provides sufficient information from which an inevitable conclusion can be drawn or withheld.

Carole Stone‘s poem “Sweet Dreams” has rhymes, no meter, but little snatches of rhyme that give the dreams of the title their sweet tilt, or diminish or heighten the anguish of the subject, getting old alone and being lonesome. Speaking of her deceased husband, the speaker says she wishes he could see her “in my Mexican straw hat/ sitting poolside./ I haven’t cried.”

Tom Benediktsson brought us a poem called “Killing God”—a free verse in five stanzas that doesn’t so much kill god, or depict the killing of god as much as it introduces us to the tripartite “people in my head” that have hilarious, incisive and very different ideas about what god (depicted as a cricket in a glue trap) is or how ‘he’ ought to be treated. The fact that this metaphysical/metareligious rumination takes place while the speaker is wearing a Speedo (over which his floppy belly flops) and holding a silver sushi knife only makes the portrait irrefutable and unforgettable.

My poem, “Julie Hirsch” is about finding the conditions necessary to begin an artistic project. It’s in the gross form of a Petrarchan sonnet, 14 lines, an octet that portrays the subject, followed by a sestet that turns somewhat to include the speaker’s appreciation of the teacher. The poem doesn’t rhyme and it is not in the form of iambic pentameters, but rather iambic hexameters except the final couplet, which are iambic septameters.

Last thing for today, and then I’ll shut up: please consider signing up for the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award Smackdown on December 13 (a Monday) : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/ and supporting me in my effort to become the first two-time Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year winner for my poem “Unencumbered” (my previous win was in 2015 for “The Whales Off Manhattan Beach Breaching in Winter). I know it’s a bit of a commitment of time and money (for the ticket). All I can say is I’d appreciate it immensely and it’s going to be a great show.  : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 11-16-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
November 16, 2021

Janet Kolstein‘s “The Glittering Tower” takes the view from an apartment overlooking the Hudson River at a high rise building under construction on the other side as a beginning point for a meditation on ghosts. The crane that supports the frame of the highrise disappears in the night sky leaving behind, “the tower alone glitters in diamond white/ through the shutters of my psyche.” And at that moment, the poem turns to ghosts, but not just any ghosts, ghosts who appear to haunt Times Square “smoking and drinking spirits from brown paper bags./ They gather near Broadway, mingling among us,/ popping into theatres to catch the second act.”  

Don Zirillli brought “How to Remember a Dream,” a rewrite of a poem we all remembered for the arresting image of ‘walking backwards into a dream,’ though some of the earlier particulars were lost to us. Here, the poem is framed as a “how to” poem, which creates the expectation of a set of instructions, essentially in the second person form of address. Don complicates this expectation by having the “you” receiving the instructions confounded or merged with the “you” of the dream: “you’re glass, no longer in the way of the story you’re telling to the person actually having the dream.” That was a bridge too far for some in the workshop, but others were ready for the complication, and delighted by the you “who slowly pours a frosty night of weather/ into the top of your head.”  

My poem, “I Can Only See” tracks the progress of a person locking up his house at night before going to sleep by moving through the house from latches to lights, till his eyes close and he sees what’s going on inside his head.

Yana Kane (who will be one of the 2021 Brooklyn Poets poem of the month winners competing for poem of the year at an open to the public contest with audience voting on December 13—PLEASE COME) brought a poem called “Synaesthesia” that turned out to be less about the confusion or conflation of sensory perception and more about escape depicted as a trap door at the bottom of the ocean.

John J. Trause‘s “The Last Iris” followed the cinematographic method that he has followed in several recent poems, of zooming in on a particular detail from afar. Here, the first stanza of the poem zooms in on a cement and brick flower planter in an abandoned gas station on the corner of a block in a commercial district of a suburb, then switches in the second stanza to focus on an iris flowering in “coldest November”—a flower seemingly, though not explicitly located in the cement and brick flower planter of the first stanza. The effect could be post-apocalyptic or a celebration of life’s relentlessness.

Ray Turco brought a poem called “The Ship of My Brothers” which hearkened back to late Romantic and Victorian tropes of foreignness, evoking a kind of mythological ship sailing through the night, guided by the stars.

Frank Rubino’s poem “Dominatus Super Omnia” which Google says means “Mastery Over Everything” which is about the way a man moves through the world, seeking freedom or liberty through work, through independence, through prosperity, but how, too, the quest is or can be stymied by failure to recognize “the true box” one is in, and being stuck in a living mobius curlicue he identifies as “Changeless End of Endless Change.” It’s an audacious beginning of a philosophical investigation (hence the Latin title?) of that changeless theme in Frank’s work, identity. Hopefully, we’ll see more of it.
 
Moira O’Brien (newly elected as the sixth member of the RWB leadership called the Gang of Six), brought a satirical piece called “Today’s Special” that compared a breast biopsy with a restaurant special: “The meat is a paper thin scallopine/ achieved with a mammographic press… served on a bed of regret…” Chilling and hilarious at the same time.

Well, it’s good to be back at the Field Notes after a few spotty months, but we’ve just about finished the Mentorship Program I’ve been in with the Brooklyn Poets, so thanks for your patience. And enjoy the poems.

—Arthur

Field Notes, Week of 09-14-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of September 14, 2021

Frank Rubino brought us a re-write of a poem with no name now beginning “Cleaining our basement after the flood.”  It used to begin with “In the year I was a bright bottle-blonde” and one of the critiques of this version was “How can you improve on that first line?” The poem suggests that the ruin of the flooded basement with its “fat volume of Chinese poetry” put him in touch with the memory of a photo he’d never seen but had mythologized into “the best picture ever taken of [him]”  taken by a woman he loved after a chaste night naked together.” And the project of the poem may have been to reinvent or redeploy that mythology with a line from the fat volume of Chinese poetry as a sort of caption: “a senseless unending vigilance.”  Or it may have been, as Janet suggested to answer the question “Why am I thinking about that picture still?”  Tom thought that using the quote in the first part of the poem deprived it of its power at the end, and then there were questions about how to convey the strange sensation of holding onto that hollow place for so long.  In the current version Frank used the image of “gravel that lays/ on the hip of the mountain like a skirt” to do that work.  In the last version, there was a related but distinct image of a tree whose roots can split and loose a bolder on a mountain.  Let me tell you, that’s an ambitious program, and we may see it again.

Rob Golstein‘s poem “The Larch”  was one of the sort we talked about last week or two, Brendan McEntee’s poem about a couple vacationing on the coast of somewhere, the woman of the pair in deep distress when a local out walking his dog explains the derivation of the name of the place.  Rob’s poem has the speaker walking (vacationing?) by a lake somewhere, imagining a forest of larch trees which are, for him, metonymic of “The North” whose latitudes tug at him: “Half-dead things are favored far north,” he says, and “Like a consumptive, the larch/ spends half a lifetime dying.”  And Rob’s poem comes with a local who knows that larches are called tamaracks in these parts.  Rob’s poem has a similarity with Frank’s unnamed poem too, in that it features a “sort of mania” about the north that started with what appears to be an artifact of youth: “a crystal globe/ I found in Aunt Maude’s attich—/ with its shaken snowfall on tiny Nevsky Prosect.”  And that connection to Frank’s poem is even more engaging because in both poems the connection between the object (the north, a photo) and the thing that spurs the memory (snow globe, Chinese poetry) is less than obvious.  Fertile ground in both poems for more research.

Shane Wagner brought two poems about an elder in the speaker’s family, “Hedwig”  that he wrote during a 15 for 15 challenge, that is, writing 15 poems in 15 days.  One of the poems, “Hedwig” is just a rough sketch that reads like a Sgt. Friday police report: Hedwig was a flapper, then she became an insufferable Mormon.  Everyone from St. Augustine onward knows this story.  The other poem, Elegy, though, was a wonderful thing based on the same facts, with this fine beginning:  “And yet I loved Hedwig.” Which announced its stakes (improbable love) in a way that provided a gloss on whatever might follow, an invulnerability to cliché.  Frank thought the poems would make a nice diptych, praising the failure of the clichéd version for its potential to provide depth or perspective.

Tom Benediktsson (god, it’s good to have him back) brought a poem—like Susanna Lee’s from last week—that focused on a tree breaking into a house, but while Susanna’s used this trope to illuminate the metaphysics of “inside/outside,”  Tom was working on a recollection of super storm Sandy, which had cracked the bones of the house he was in, and threatened real harm, and put him in mind (Rob Goldstein’s?) “northern sea” and Viking ships and the Venerable Bede’s memorable metaphor that life was like a sparrow’s flight througha mead hall from darkness into light, and back into darkness.  So, he picked up the norse poetry style of compound nouns, presented a piano as a “hammer harp” and his poetry as a “word horde.”

Myself, I brought two experimental pieces that came out of my readings of the forerunners of the Modernist movement, “Fuse” which was a ‘translation’ of Charles Baudelaire’s “Fuse I” and “Instress” which was an investigation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetic concept of the same name, which is sometimes described as ” the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.”  In “Fuse” I tried to translate away from the religiosities that I couldn’t relate to while preserving what I perceived as Baudelaire’s declarative intensity and his primary focus on the distinction between originals and fakes; I surprised myself when this past week’s media hype/frenzy over the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 became a point of critical heat.  In “Instress” I tried the same theme, using a quiet ballad meter, with more of a positive emphasis on renewal; it may be the same old story, but Spring is a damn good story.

Jen Poteet‘s poem “Before GPS, EBAY and ETSY” was an homage to old fashioned yard sales and the times before the internet sucked all the romance out of life.  It was very well received, but Jen seemed alive to the possibility of digging a little deeper into the emotional ocassion of the poem, the thing, other than nostalgia for piling crap into a car, that made yesterday a wee sight more attractive than today.  So, maybe we’ll see that poem again soon.

Come back all of y’all.  We were a tiny bit skinny on the attendance, but never short on love for what we do.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 09-07-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of September 7, 2021

This month my reading is focused on The Modernists, and rather than try to describe it in detail, I’ll share the reading assignment I’m working from as part of the Brooklyn Poet’s Mentorship Program led by Jay Deshpande. For me, getting back to Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens, but also Gertrude Stein and thinking of Robert Frost as a modernist, and being shoved face first into Hart Crane is thrilling. But the real surprise on the reading list has been a book called Poems for the Millennium, a massive 800 page compendium (which I got in hardcover, used, but virtually mint condition for $5 on Amazon which came from the DISCARDS of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois) which includes MANY MORE poets and writers who were part of the Modernist moment, but also contains a section called “Forerunners”  that goes all the way back to William Blake, and includes Friedrich Holderlin, Elias Lonnrot, Whitman, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme, all of whom, in the editors’ view, had a great deal to do with setting the table for the likes of Eliot and Pound; and the annotations to the brief but on-point poems they’ve included do a lot of good work pointing forward to the Modernists.  Some of the annotations are quotes from the poets that were new to me, and keyed into the innovations these poets experimented with that became the stock and trade of the Moderns. Here’s one from Whitman: “I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment—that is, an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new potentialities of speech.”  Or this annotation to Fascicle 34, poem 9 by Emily Dickinson: ” “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—’, written in a time of civil war by a woman with little formal education in philosophy, carefully delineates and declines all aspects of the ‘Will to Power’ nearly twenty years before Friedrich Nietzsche’s metaphysical rebellion.”  Or this piece of practical advice from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Poetry is in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake—and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on.” Suffice to say if I don’t put this book aside, I won’t get to the actual Modernists until some time next year.

Our workshop on Tuesday was breathtaking, not least because Janet Kolstein (copy NOT attached, sad face) brought a poem called “Google Earth, Petra, Jordan” which continued her a line of poems she started before Covid, that live easily in the online world. Maybe they’re ekphrases, but she goes on google earth and clicks around looking at pictures, and the poem comes out of the meditation. This one begins “Aunt Bess is gone!  Bessie, the last of the aunts.  Uncles gone too.  Parents dead.” And starting from this generational exclamation, the poem goes to Petra and considers, in a not-un-Ozymandias sort of way, how time sandblasts us all.  Here’s another great line from this very good poem: “My generation: we’re overlooking the cliffs of eternity, trepidacious.” Of course I love “trepidacious” for its audacity, but also enjoy the way she uses ‘overlooking’ – with it’s double meaning of “looking out over” and “forgetting to notice” – to create two roads.

John J. Trause’s “Marsupial on the Bosporus” was what someone called a ‘snapshot’ poem.  It zoomed in on a Turkish restaurant here in Northern New Jersey, then into the dining room, and then to the view out the window to a grapevine where the speaker saw “peering down at the corner table/ was a baby opossum, hunkering down, looking in at the diners.  Other than the somewhat misleading title, what made the poem so dynamic was this continual but seamless changing of perspective from outside (the restaurant located geographically, temporally, meteorologically) to inside (the table where they sat), to outside (seeing the opossum) to inside (the opossum seeing them).  The poem ends with the opossum scurrying away, and that ending elicited some discussion in the group, discussion as to whether the poem was what it seemed to be: a cute recollection of a surprising encounter expertly delineated, or whether it’s occasion, emotionally, or its outcome, signaled more, or to put it in terms Gerard Manley Hopkins might not have spit on me for suggesting, whether its inscape had been “dwelt” sufficiently upon.

Ana Doina‘s poem “Recurring nightmare”  was precisely that, the pinning down of an awful recurring nightmare complete with a wrought iron gate, wooly fog, and empty house, a view out the window at the street outside (Wait! Isn’t that what JJT did in “Marsupial…”?) and the requisite “man in a heavy coat” and “Dark fedora … pulled low over his brows.”  At its conclusion, the poem releases us from the mystery of the dream by telling us that it had its genesis in Cold War realities in the speaker’s home country of Romania, so it becomes about the depth of post traumatic stress instead of the millions of things that a dream unexplained could suggest. Perhaps in this way it answers this quotation from Charles Baudelaire in the “Millennium” book: “When I’ve aroused universal horror and disgust,/ I shall have conquered solitude.”
 Shane Wagner brought a poem called “Shell” that starts with a close observation of the abandoned shell of a cicada clinging to a tree, which leads the speaker to see for the first time that cicada shells include eyes, or shell-like coverings that once fit over the cicada’s eyes. And this leads the poem in two directions—towards St. Paul (as in ‘scales’), and towards mortality—past and future caskets. The general impression of the group was that Shane was on to something, and it was worth pursuing another draft that did a little more of this and less of that.

Ray Turco brought “The Shepherd of Many Turns” that starts out with a vision that might’ve come from Ana Doina’s poem: the poet banging on the door of the church, stalked by the hour of their death, listening to a church bell toll and getting the marrow in their bones chilled. Then the poem turns to embracing the speaker’s transcendental view of themselves as a shepherd who, after a life of whooping and bellowing, “will pass from man/ to ewe/ to plant/ to ant/ to dust.” In its final lines, the poem turns again, to a confession of what seems to be a fear of dying alone.

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “Spiral” was a duet set up in two columns read aloud by two readers, Don and Brendan McEntee.  Some of the time, Don and  Brendan took turns reading their lines, but in the middle stanzas, both of them read simultaneously, as if it was a Charles Ives composition, in which the soundscape (inscape) was dwelt and dwelt and dwelt upon.  One interesting feature of this conversation was that it wasn’t the typical bifurcation of interlocutor and witness, teacher and student, or even a philosophical debate; it had two nuanced and distinct personalities not so much working through a problem as talking (“My Dinner With Andre”?) about the news, the future news, “the problem of disguised repetitions,” getting called out on pronouncing someone’s name wrong and not being able to hear the correction (Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”?), and other miscellaneous subjects all of which create the image of a spiral, even this one on futility: “Everything is going down the drain,/ so root for the drain.” It was a thrilling, thrilling poem, which brought to mind this 1807 quote by Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843, German poet and philosopher) taken from the “Millennium” book: “I believe in a forthcoming revolution of attitudes and conceptions which will make everything that has gone before turn red with shame.” (Get this! Holderlin went to school, actually WENT TO COLLEGE with Hegel and Schelling).  

Yana‘s poem “The tree breaks into the house” is many things disguised as one thing; the ‘one thing’ is the relationship between a house and the tree outside the house; the many things include a revelation that the house in question was the speaker’s childhood home, though that doesn’t come out until the end; and an investigation of memory, and even of identity, and the limits of poetry and perhaps an ecological manifesto (a small one). The poem starts out with a simple statement: “In a story/ the tree smashes a bedroom window,/ breaks into the house.” But that invasion triggers a meditation that touches on whether the tree owns or serves the house or whether the house owns the tree.  And while the first section of this two section poem (“Window”) seems more concerned with the physicality of the situation, the second section (“Gap”) introduces the speaker as a storyteller, a frustrated one at that:  “The story I tell refuses completion.// A gap opens –/ an entrance to a cavernous space/ of dark pools, of echoes.” The introduction of this figurative language, heralds the beginning of a wider philosophical discussion, and when the speaker wonders what a house can “know,” she is also wondering what she can know of the house or the tree: “What can I know/ about the past/ that roosts in trees,/ that dwells in houses?” And so the story she imagines telling at the start of the poem disintegrates: “Pages scatter,/ ink blurs,/ the meaning changes, as new words appear.

Frank’s poem “Sleeping on My Friend’s Floor” is about a rare sort of nostalgia, the kind that pines for something it never had, in this case, a photograph that a friend (the one with the floor) took of the speaker in the morning after they—speaker and friend—slept together naked….. chastely, a photo the speaker “always thought … must’ve been the best picture ever taken of [him/her/them].” And the feeling associated with this absent picture or possibly the speaker themselves, is presented in a simile as “up the mountainside a ways like a thunk/ off the rock.”  Elaborating still further on this strange nostalgia, the speaker imagines themself both as the rock and the tree whose root has split the rock.  So, yes, a very complex emotional connection to this photo the speaker has never seen.  In the last movement/stanza, the poem discloses its occasion—it’s after hurricane Ida, and the speaker is cleaning out their basement.  The things they encounter in the soaked basement evidently remind them of the naked photo they never had: a catalog of Korean War “slides” (remember them?) belonging to the speaker’s father, “a set of vintage dishes in a box labeled Richard; & a fat volume of Chinese poetry,/ whose soaked page had “a senseless, unending vigilance.” So, it seems, in this final trope, the poem finds its motto in the fat volume of Chinese poetry. “A senseless, unending vigilance” may be gnomic, but it may be a found instruction on how to make inquiry of the world. A very dynamic piece of work.

OK—for those of you who are interested, Brooklyn Poets has locked down Jay Deshpande to give a craft talk webinar this coming Sunday 9/19 from 4-7 on Zoom.  The talk is called “I and Others: Selfhood, Identity, and the Management of the Speaker”  I couldn’t recommend a presentation of this type more strongly.  Jay’s talks tend to get at the poetry connections we make intuitively but he’s got them articulated in a way we recognize but still feel surprised by.  Check it out on the Brooklyn Poet’s website, and register if you have the time.  

—Arthur Russell

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

Field Notes, Week of 07-20-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you tomorrow night.

Field Notes, Week of 07-13-21

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur  Russell

Field Notes, Week of 05-25-21

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

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

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

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

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

Someone went through a lot of work for subtle abjection.

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

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

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

Lovely poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 05-11-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 11, 2021

Special shout out to Preeti Shah, a recent poem-of-the-month winner at Brooklyn Poets, but a first-timer for the RWB, who audited the workshop and promised to bring a poem sometime soon.  We look forward to it.
Bridget Sprouls was back for a second week running and brought a poem of sadness and untethered regret called “Strange sad story,” having to do with a stray dog adopted or housed by the speaker of the poem and her partner.  The backstory that Bridget shared with us at the workshop didn’t make it all the way into the poem, but the dismay, despair and the sadness of the title are there in full, even in the description of the land where she lives: ” We live in the middle of a forest/ where the ground rolls up and slips below,/ and in the middle of saw-ravaged hectares, where slash chokes the ground/ and near farms that sprawl into acute remembrance….”

Frank Rubino‘s poem, “There is a place where dreams are monitored” uses a wonderfully evocative piece of anaphora.  Several lines begin “You’re looking at a man who…”  So, a poem about identity illuminated by stories, one about how youthful moral failings (cheating on the SATs, skimming money) can, an adult man, dog; another about a family cat; another about financial losses, and a surprising one about being lectured by the cops.  In a way, the poem mirrors the second thoughts and sorrow of Bridget’s poem – hers about losing a dog, his in part about losing a cat, but both of them churning over the facts, suggesting places where blame can land, and ruminating.

Raymond Turco brought a poem that Frank described as gnomic, called “We Are All Man,” that talks, very briefly, about the godly nature of man, and suggests that all speech names god.  Tom thought it was a ‘modern affirmation.’

Janet K‘s poem “In His Body,” like, but very unlike Raymond’s addresses the man/god relation, though Janet comes at it from the point of view of the saggy elder body, and the desire to be youthful if not young in a poem that is filled with vivid language, starting with the repeated beginning of stanzas one and two with the word “Fancy” as a  VERB!  “Fancy switching a jelly belly for a six-pack ….. Fancy striding on a skeleton of bonded bone…”  And the energy continues to flow in stanza three with the life affirming, healing grace of a television evangelist: “Yeah, baby./ Abandon the walker, ditch the cane.”   Finally, in the fourth stanza, the man/god thing comes out a lot of latent music: “If you funded the fantasy of inimitability/ you could look in the mirror at one of the gods/ and run your hands over the firmness of youth….”  The poem ends falling back into a bit of momento mori, considering how even a well-tuned body can and fail and fall, but holding on to what she calls the “fantasy of inimitability” by ending on the hopeful word, “Still.”

Shane Wagner‘s poem “Cedar Lane, to Woodlawn, to Long Hill” a poem set during a neighborhood walk along the path described in the title, that gets the question of violence by a zig-zag route, starting with a sock that bunches in the speaker’s heel, then goes back to the birth of his daughter, jumps forward to the a mature conversation about violence against women, then on to coded language used to describe other social ills, and ends with a boy pointing a finger gun at a dog and the speaker who points his own finger gun at the boy.  Susanna Lee said that the violence becomes clearer as the poem goes on, but investing the finger gun in an innocent with such political potency comes with some liabilities.

Rob G brought a poem called “Soul Wrangling” which is a fractured narrative about a newly married couple, an actual honeymoon couple, going into the Arizona desert on their honeymoon to search for the bones of dismembered children described by a person with an “unraveled mind…gilded with common sophistry.”  It’s an odd tale, and one that doesn’t fit easily into a poem that uses as much concision as Rob’s do.

My untitled poem beginning with “In emojis” distinguishes between the way sadness is depicted in emojis and how it appears on a real face, allowing the person who is crying to taste their own tears to “check the depth/ of your sorrow/ as they pass”.  Susanna Lee suggested it was about how to disassociate from sorrow.  Bridget liked “as they pass” as a last line.  Janet K said that the long skinny look of the poem on the page was like ‘water falling.’  Rob G suggested the title “Salinity.”

Susanna Lee‘s poem, “Permanent Waves” talked about hair, the speaker’s hair, the speaker’s mother’s hair, and the speaker’s sister’s hair, but more than that, it talked about distinguishing the speaker from a sister who “let mom dress her up,/ allowed her hair to be permed,/ dressed in itchy white lace gloves/ and pinchy, black patent leather shoes, wore and easter bonnet with an elastic ribbon snapped under her chin.”  An immensely rich area to explore, but this poem stays away from the rawness of the emotion it strongly suggests, and may do itself a disservice thereby.

Tom Benediktsson‘s poem “Syzygy” was inspired by Jen Poteet’s poem about applying for a James Merrill fellowship from a few weeks ago.  Tom’s poem starts with a startling, even amazing evocation of a painter who invites the speaker into “a snoring father,/ a dirty kitchen and a room full of art.” Such celerity!  And the next two lines are even more tantalizing: “I bought an e-ray of his wife’s skull/ on which he’d painted a fish.”  Unfortunately, for this reader, the poem does not develop along those amazing lines, but turns into a recollection of a trip to Merrill’s Stonington Connecticut, specifically a restaurant called “Noah’s,” and though the poem circles back to “some strange starving fish” it never regains its strange wonderfulness.

Just a great group of working poets working on their poems. (We miss you, Jim.)

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-27-21

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

We had a very welcome surprise guest at the workshop, Bridget Sprouls, whose poem “Fresh Pasture” closely observed the aftermath of a farmyard accident, a lamb kicked by a steer: “She didn’t fall, just shook her head/ then walked on slowly after,/ nibbling a few blades./ Soon she simply stood there/ ears back, unable to mask the pain.”  The direct, unadorned simplicity of the narration allowed us, the readers, to care, to worry about the lamb, so that the next line, also unadorned, locked us into the moment: “Something had happened to her.”  The poem follows the lamb, who “sat quietly,/ breathing perhaps a little faster than normal;” the two adverbs, “quietly” and “perhaps” did a lot of work, which is unusual for adverbs, keeping the tension high.  And the concern we felt for the lamb reached a high point as the poem paused to educate us a bit about the lamb’s usual routine – experimental chewing and calling for milk – to then let us know that “Today she didn’t chew.  She didn’t baa for milk.”  Just a lovely poem.  Some of us thought the last line “The world had grown so very dangerous” was unnecessary precisely because we knew that from the careful caring exposition, but that’s for Bridget to decide.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Topanga” (no included in the package) was just amazing as looks back at youth go.  It was about that time in the early 1970s when Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon in California were magnets for the indy pop musical idols of the day, but those were just the backdrop to the young speaker’s place in that charged universe, and ended with; “I was always going back to New Jersey/ when summer was over/ and I needed a job as cashier or behind a counter,/ and there was our home in Halcyon Park as a backup/ where I could secretly lick my wounds when I failed.”

John J. Trause brought an untitled poem that began “I picked a flower in Britain once,/ the color of your eyes.”  It was written in ballad meter with the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyming and an added internal bonus rhyme in line three.  It was hypnotic metrically and hilariously sensual.

Tom Benediktsson was back after a few weeks away with “Freely Fly” a poem that anthropomorphizes an “LL Bean Wicked Good flannel shirt.”  I can’t summarize it, but it was wildly imaginative, satirical and just plain nuts. Welcome back, Tom.

It really was comedy night; not just JJT and Benediktsson either—Don Zirilli‘s poem “Stand Up” was shaped like am actual comic’s standup routine, starting with a quick reversal of an old comic’s standby: “I just flew in from New York/ and boy is the sky tired.”  And throughout, Don pushes the routine towards a slightly more surreal kind of humor; one section tells a joke about a snake who gets hit in the face by a dandelion stem; another tells a castle-with-a-moat joke; and it ends with a twist on a typical stand-up ending: “You’ve been fantastic./ I loved you in another life.”  My only wonderment was whether any of this material was beyond the ken of today’s standup comics.

Brendan‘s poem “Ta Republique” also featured a moat, albeit one around a sandcastle, a sandcastle on a beach outside a convalescent home whose windows were filled with sick people “some in wheelchairs, some bandaged, some with their fists to their mouths, their sounds lost/ to the flash and scream of a fighter jet, heading in.”  And the overall picture was jarring, arresting, and disturbing, but in a memorable way.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “The Cruelty of Youth” was a narrative about a summer idyll that was not ideal.  The speaker went swimming every day with a childhood friend of the speaker’s mother, and the friend goaded the speaker to swim the whole width of the lake, until one day, having had enough of that, the speaker challenges the friend to talk about his youth, spent as a child victim of the Nazi Josef Mengele’s cruel experimentation.

Jen Poteet brought a poem called “Wildflower or Weed” about dandelions.
Susanna Lee brought a sonnet called “Corona Stole Our Love Sonnet” that focuses on a guitar.

Claudia Serea’s poem “If this fever were an old-fashioned war” a direct address to a sick child, that includes the kind of fantastical storytelling that parents allow themselves to indulge in when it’s their kid and their kid is sick. Very nice poem.

Raymond Turco‘s poem was an Italian original and an English translation that had been accepted for publication.  We loved hearing Ray read it in Italian, and then we tore into the English, which had one of Ray’s unexpectedly strong metaphorical twists at the start: “In search of my son’s heart,/ I find it transplanted.”  We loved wondering what that could mean and where the poem could go.

Turns out I’m posting these notes just fifteen minutes before our next workshop. So, if I gave anyone short shrift, I apologize.  Our workshop, as Frank says, is the best thing anywhere.

—Arthur Russell

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