Jim’s Firm Bottom: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Sit Anywhere

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 30, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I’m feeling hassled by work and I’ve been devoting a lot of time to my chapbook mss this week so this might be short.

I’ve been listening to George Saunders’s audio book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life” (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0871LKPJ3/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title)

It’s great as an audio book because it’s based on Saunders’ college lectures.

Saunders opens the book with an anecdote which could be of great value to us. Working on one of his stories with Bill Buford, the editor of the New Yorker, he complained of Buford’s constant critiques. “What is it about this story that you actually like?” he asked. “I like,” said Buford, “that I read one line, and I like it enough that I want to read the next. And then I read the next line and I like that one enough to read the next. And I just go like that all the way to end.”

The first part of Saunders’s book is built around a Chekov story, “In The Cart.” Saunders guides us through a reading of the story page by page. He focuses us, as readers, on the experience of receiving and processing information. After each page “we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?” 

It’s important to note, he says, that before you start, “as regards In The Cart, your mind is a perfect blank.”

We can read poems this way. Jim Klein talked about the sentence as a force that builds with each clause, and releases its energy at the end: maximum sentence impact requires precise information delivery. Usually the most important pieces of information in English sentences are in the beginnings and endings. That corresponds with a way of breaking your poetic line: Start a line with an important word where possible, and end a line with another important word. Stanza endings and poem endings are places where the most important information can deliver the most energy. Syntax gives you a way of regulating information delivery in a sentence so you can put this powerful information in the most effective positions.

Arthur Russell’s poems which use the techniques of fiction like character, setting, and plot, are little masterpieces of information deployment. In last week’s “Vesuvius Bakery,” for instance, his main character walks down a staircase in the second stanza, which puts him in a memory on another staircase, descending which prompts another memory of the hours just before. The complex timeline is structured across the stanzas to deliver of the most intimate, vulnerable detail in the most powerful position of the poem: the end. We don’t know where he’s going after the first staircase: we expect it has something to do with what we do know: he’s been in a museum looking at a painting about memory and time. What if he just started describing other paintings in the museum? He could have, but we might not have stayed until the end, where he surprised us with the last bit of information.

So back to sentences, syntax, and word order.

Line by line, is your poem likeable?

How does your syntax relate to your line breaks?

Does your poem control the flow of information?

Are there other ways that poems are like stories?

How’s this work on poems you return to again and again, where your mind isn’t a perfect blank? Is there another part of you that approaches a poem “blank”?

The Power of Naming and Other Pretenses: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Minor Histories

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Spring is here! Just in the nick of time.This week I got a little deeper into the artist Mike Kelley, whose More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid I wrote about last week (https://redwheelbarrowpoets.org/2021/03/22/can-we-use-the-distance-between-sentiment-and-true-feeling-franks-letter-to-the-workshop/). Minor Histories (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/minor-histories) is the second in a proposed five volume set of Kelley’s writing. This volume mixes humor, memoir, and notes on technique & materials Kelley used in his paintings, sculpture, installations, performances, photographs and other forms of spatial expression.

It includes a well-known 1991 essay, Some Aesthetic High Points, which, Kelley says elsewhere, had been taken as an earnest anti-aesthetic manifesto— but is really one of his jokes: a takedown of pompous artist bios. It includes his memories of winning a poster contest in grammar school, and seeing an Iggy Pop performance in a biker bar. Another takedown of what I would call a structuralist seriousness, masquerades as an essay on a collection of “sacred” American photographs Kelley childishly defaced (swastika drawn on Lincon’s forehead, etc.) (Reconstructed History, 1990)

In The Poetry of Form, Kelley writes about found naming systems: Geological formations like “The Frozen Cascade” and paint chip colors found in hardware stores. The color of my bedroom is “Soft Chinchilla” He says that he wanted to “stress the naming process… as the primary aesthetic characteristic” of the color or rock formation. He was also intent on the anonymity of the naming process, and He created many artifacts (photos, drawings) based on his research into these naming systems. I thought of the poem “Bad Rock Band Names” by Wayne Miller, which he read at this month’s open mike. (Forgive me if I screwed up the title, Wayne)

(One of my favorite naming systems is cannabis strains: Ghost of Leroy, Jilly Bean, Alaskan Thunder F**k…)

Another association of Kelley’s work to a workshopper is the section in Minor Histories called UFOlogy: Kelley lists, among other things, the many detailed UFO descriptions he came across in his research on the subject. It reminded me of Janet Kolstein’s poem, where the speaker describes a ufo.

So, we have in just this sample of Kelley’s work a list of artistic pretenses you can use to structure (or at least jump-start) a poem:

1. Fake bio (I use this one constantly)

2. Pompous exegesis (actually I’m thinking of Susanna Lee’s recent “Viking Love” poem as an example of this)

3. Found lexicons and taxonomies

4. Deep research into trivia

(Also I can think of Don Zirilli’s heartbreaking instruction manuals as well)(And John J Trause’s “future hagiography” of Marilyn Monroe)

What can you add to this list of pretenses?

Can We Use the Distance Between Sentiment and True Feeling? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 16, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I went to the Whitney after such a long time and in “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019” (https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=1) I re-discovered Mike Kelley’s “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” from 1987 https://whitney.org/guide/58?language=english&type=general&page=1&stop=12.

I’m fond of this piece, and I like many other Mike Kelley works too. Sadly, he committed suicide in January of 2012. I read on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Kelley_(artist)) that mourners spontaneously recreated “More Love Hours” as a memorial.

More Love Hours, with its stitched-together stuffed animals, uses overtly “sentimental” materials. It’s transgressive (or was, or still is, or is even more?) in that it “ high arts” yarn and sewing and platitudes.  As a blanket-sized wall hanging, it references quilting & seems humble and sincere.  Its title which contains the phrase “Love Hours” (the time people spent creating giveaway toys) has a clumsy earnestness. It functions as a “message” whose literal meaning is easily parsed. 

I don’t know why it works for me: I was taught that sentiment is the enemy of true feeling. Sentiment “manipulates” and numbs, and is often used for political ends yet I react with feeling from More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid:  I empathize with the artist’s tenderness and the restorative labor in his collecting, composition, and construction of More Love Hours, a reflection of each person that produced each hand-made figure; I hear in the title, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, Kelley’s own acknowledgement that “curating” and “assembling” this famous piece, while labor-intensive, took a fraction of the cumulative effort in the construction of every crocheted, sewn, knitted, glued, cut-out, sequined etc figure in the amalgam.

More Love Hours is hanging in a carefully controlled mainstream culture industry environment, a very expensive piece of real estate, and engagement with it is highly proscribed. I can’t take it off the wall and roll around the floor with it. I can’t even really get close enough to smell it.

And yet, I still love it and want to cry thinking about it. I don’t know whether its remoteness (amplified by Kelley’s death)  conjures such closeness? 

Carl Phillips talks about the balance of pain and decorum in great poems. 

Can one use sentimentality as the decorous side of that equation? 

Do you write sentimental poems?

We have seen many successful workshop poems with sentimentality in the balance… and many unsuccessful ones (including mine!) As the Coffee Talk ladies had it, Discuss: “poetic” guardrails against counterfeit feeling don’t work anymore. Sentiment is no longer sentimental. Sentiment is useful in fact in creating the ironic distance required by decorum.  I love some poems like I love More Love Hours- how do those poems work, those tear jerkers?

Existential Catholicism: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 9, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Last week, I wrote:

Billie Eilish divulges high-stakes intimate secrets directly to people who keep the same secrets.

Poetry can make this same deeply intimate connection when readers feel known.

This week, I want to return to the idea of making the reader feel recognized. For me, poetry’s ability to connect deeply addresses a principle of Existentialism the therapist Roger Wolfe displayed on a whiteboard in his office:

I’m talking about item 3. “Separate Reality: unique personal experiences. Aloneness”

As a kid growing up Catholic, I was taught that God could hear my thoughts: that’s a terribly damaging idea for so many reasons, and it’s a relief to now believe it is completely false. But while it held sway, that belief in the divine ear helped me form an articulation of my inner life that tells a good story, makes my case, frames the unexplainable. I am sure  that I share this with others who had a Catholic childhood. 

I can’t blame “wanting to be known” on Catholicism, though: it seems crucial, pre-verbal. I did want some people, if not God,  to hear my thoughts, and that the people never can is a source of sadness. We live in separate realities like the whiteboard says. The thoughts are translated to language, the language is edited, etc.

When someone (often an artist) expresses what I hear in my head, I love them: I must be known. Like a true fan loves Billie Eilish for knowing them.

Poetry is the voice in your head when you’re reading it.

Poetry is the voice in the poet’s head when they’re speaking it.

Billie Eilish is the voice in her fan’s heads.

I think, in trying to talk about a very basic thing that poems do, I just confessed my infantile need to write them. Oh well, Now you know.

Bad Guys and Strange Angels: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Billie Eilish | Official Site

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 2, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I watched The World’s A Little Blurry, https://apple.co/theworldsalittleblurry about Billie Eilish. My kids introduced me to Eilish’s music and theatrical aesthetic, which was nightmarish and dealt familiarly with issues of mental illness like cutting and suicide. That they should esteem it or vibe with it freaked me out as a parent. I think they knew that when they gleefully showed me her megalomaniacal You Should See Me in a Crown https://youtu.be/coLerbRvgsQ . But the anime music video (by Takahashi Murukami (their collaboration is documented in an interview https://youtu.be/TVTzOOBxCog )) made me a Billie Eilish fan. I loved the combination of 2D flatness and dark epic scope, the appropriation of Studio Ghibli for psychotic purposes (a pair of terrified flowers, their faces uplifted to crushing doom, is as powerful and effective an image as you’re likely to find in poetry) as well as Billie’s self-caricature. The restraint of her vocals, their murmuring and lullaby sounded original and worked to unify the song with the visual’s monstrous imagery. Her vocal’s whispery seductiveness is countered by the live Billie’s signature loose-fitting clothes and child-like stage-scampering.

I said I was a fan, but I will never be a real Billie Eilish fan. Real Billie Eilish fans identify with her so deeply it’s as if their inner lives are interchangeable. There’s self-recognition. I think I came close to being a real fan when my children were in their teens, and I had their inner lives much closer to me, and therefore I had Billie Eilish’s inner life closer to me. But now, though I can feel it like distant sunlight (and though I can access numerous other human feelings in her music), I can’t live the Recognition connection:

Billie Eilish divulges high-stakes intimate secrets directly to people who keep the same secrets.

Poetry can make this same deeply intimate connection when readers feel known.

The aspect of Billie Eilish I did not talk about is Fineas, her brother & collaborator, who provides the entertaining, sonically inventive, delightful musical solution that flows the Recognitions along. So there’s an element in her emotional bond, as in poetry’s, of technique and art.

How do you connect deeply with your reader? Since we’ve often talked about entertainment as a way to connect to the reader, I am in mind of what Geoffrey Hill said. “Poetry is a strange angel and has very little to do with enjoyment actually…. “Enjoyment” is patronizing and possessive… when you “enjoy” a poem you say, “You are mine, and you please me in my current mood.” And the angel of poetry says, “Sod off. Sod off!””

Are your poems more the “sod off” kind?

Is Billie Eilish Geoffrey Hill’s strange angel?

Unediting Your Poem: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Perhaps many of you saw “Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues” https://youtu.be/inMs5loNcvg this week on KEEN’s Facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1595959980642796/ . (Also at Penn Sound  https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bittencourt-and-Katz.php ) It documents a 1988 “investigation” of (or investigation using?) Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” at NYCs The Kitchen  (A great excerpt from Kerouac’s 1959 poem of 242 “choruses” is here  https://poets.org/poem/mexico-city-blues-113th-chorus)

The Kitchen event must have been quite long, starting at 3 PM on a Sunday but the video features 26 readers, and runs a mere thirty minutes with some commentary. (We had about 26 readers at the last WCW Center open mike.)

Oh my goodness I just saw that Lawrence Ferlinghetti died. He is a commentator in this video… 

I really loved hearing Kerouac’s words, and I love the form of Mexico City Blues; it’s an ancestor of Ted Berrigan’s Tambourine Life, a compound of smaller pieces, which I talked about in an earlier note (remember Ted’s vast bandaid?) But I don’t want to talk so much about the long poem, or even the passages selected for the video. I want to talk about selection itself. Editing.

Unedited work. Doesn’t that idea make you squirm? Loong poems. Don Zirilli said long poems are like getting stuck in the corner with someone at a party.

I like the edited experience this video presents. (Of a writer who typed on rolls of paper and who stated that first, unedited thoughts were best.) Because who doesn’t have a half hour to watch this? I generated a whole load of lines this weekend which I want NOT to be one long poem and I’m thinking about what it means to edit them like his video was edited. How do I approach it? How do I find the succinct expression of length? The thirty minute version of my “choruses”?

Often we think of a poet’s job to be like an editor’s. The poet edits the poem to get the “ best” poem. To expurgate the “junk.” Poetic language is the product of the poet’s work.

But spokenness, appropriation, rhetoric, erasure admit the value of that junk line or junk stanza: that discarded speech has some human experience behind it, some lived-through impulse. To make your poem relevant to your contemporaries (which is the thing that matters most if you want your work to be read in the future, after you’re dead, and they speak differently about so many things) you have to really grapple with your discards, to acknowledge and draw in your poem’s opposition. Why did your poem want to say that? Is there something real in the cliche? Your poem’s length and ragged edges have crucial roles in making it fresh, responsive. 

What do you leave in your poem? There is natural drama in the high vs the low, the dirty vs the clean, the mess vs the geometry. My step Daughter, a fiction writer, said “Poetry is just word replacement, fill in the blanks.” Cheeky. It’s the blanks too though. Do you have blanks in your work?

Every-day-ness: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 16, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I’ve been reading Homeland Elegies, a novel by Ayad Akhtar. Written by the author of the play Disgraced, It was on a number of ‘best of 2020’ lists and has many pleasures, including cringey sex scenes and an erotically described bourbon. Its political sophistication, geographical sweep, and compassionately-observed characters trying in various painful ways to deal with America’s marginalization of Muslims after 9/11 make it spectacularly uncomfortable. I’m really enjoying the form of the novel, which is a fictionalized memoir. That gives its events the credibility of true-life, and permits the author to explore ideas in “transcribed” conversations. In it, Akhtar (the character, who is a playwright) enumerates some of the journaling practices that produce the exhaustive detail in his writing:

1. He records his dreams by taping a short pencil to his finger so that when he wakes at night he can directly transcribe them, with what feels like an extension of his body. (A friend tells him that if he wakes up and loses the memory of the dream he can recover it by returning his spine to the position it was in when he had the dream. He tries it. It works.)

2. He goes home after a dinner conversation and records it, and even reads and analyzes it for theme. (This does seem to stretch credibility because there’s a fair amount of serious drinking.)

3. He writes every evening what has happened that day. (I’m thinking of Kharms who, if nothing happened on a day, wrote “Today I wrote nothing”)
Also, Akhtar uses footnotes to meticulously correct and expand upon ‘the record.’

Though I’ve written about dreams, I tend to stay away from them in my poems. I was taught that dreams are anathema to good writing because the events of a dream have no consequences. I’m not sure that I think that, but I do know that when someone gets set to tell me their dream (my mother has some very long ones) I tend to find it harder to pay attention to than some other things. 

Every-day-ness is important to me. I need fresh, topical words, so every day I record something that is interesting or has emotional impact every day. I have gone through periods writing faithful accounts of everything that happens, but so far I haven’t figured out a way to make that practice add up to more than busy-work. The subconscious curator needs to be exercised.

Do you write every day?

Back to those usual questions that fascinate us: is your writing a true and accurate account of your life?

Anyway, what gives your writing its credibility?

Here’s a link to a 16 second video I found on r/youtubehaiku/, the reddit channel where “Videos 14 seconds and under are known as Haiku videos and 15-30 seconds are Poetry!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GX69llei1EIt will tickle your absurdist funny-bone, speaking of Daniil Kharms.

A Simple Game: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021

Hi Everybody-

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.

Make Some Noise: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021

Hi Everybody-

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?

The Chush of Kharms: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

By V. Vizu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11559799

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26

Hi Everybody-

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?

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