By the Book: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Black Friday

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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




Editing is hard, but, as Steve Jobs said, (this quote’s attributed to other people too) “Real artists ship.” (

Can a Poet Get Their Form From the IRS? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Home Within

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 12 

Hi Everybody-

Last night, at Brooklyn Poets YAWP ( (, at the open mike, poet Preeti Shah ( @babyprema ) “read” (more on quotation marks later) a poem that transcribed voice messages from the speaker’s departed father. (In fact they are messages from Shah’s own father.) Each of this dozen or so transcriptions—affectionate pleasantries, inquiries after the speaker’s well being, phonetically transcribed phrases— are accompanied by a response. 

The responses have a liturgical feeling: they’re not practical, and each begins with a resolution “will listen to as many times as” They are instructions which describe the emotional protocol, eg “as many times as you held my hand, to teach me to walk” 

Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)

The poet’s responses make a list where each item is more emotionally intense than the last, and, at the end of the poem, after the last message-response, is a coda that explains the source of the messages as “the last saved” voicemail recordings.
I admire Shah’s adherence to this pattern, her reliance on the found language in the recordings, and her transparent process. 

Why there are quotation marks around read: Shah intensified the effect of her poem with a presentation that was so surprising, but so natural that it won the YAWP Poem of the Month: she played the audio from her father’s messages in his own voice, and read the responses she had written in her poem: a dialog between the dead and the living. Her father’s voice is charming and musically cadenced, and contrasts with the formal antiphonal feeling of the responses. This effect is a measure of grief lived every day, and filial love. The last couple of verses:

Hello Preeti. Give me a call when you’re free. Thank you, bye./Will listen to as many times as the beeps made by the EKG when you were in the hospital with a coma. 

Hi Preeti, we have to go to that [friend’s home]….(she’s at work), hello?/Will listen to as long as you are not with us. 

I believe there was not a dry eye in the house.

In its establishment of a static rhetorical framework, Shah’s poem reminded me of Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas” ( a book-length poem with an explosive profusion of forms that are held and contextualized by the legal language of treaties.

These poems look beyond mainstream poetic form such as meter, rhyme, sestina, sonnet, and deliver new experiences of language trying to stay alive in modern utilitarian confines. What formal elements can you find that are opposed to living language? I’m thinking of politics, law, instruction manuals, Chinese Restaurant menus, greeting cards, self help… How can your poem use these ‘anti-expressions’ against themselves? (Some RWB poets have been working against these forms for some time: Don Zirilli’s From the French Directions for Assembling a Wheelbarrow comes to mind.)

At the bottom of this question is a nagging anxiety that poetry’s traditional forms are inadequate  to take attention from the language of power. I believe the most effective (if ‘ effective’ is the ability to capture attention from dehumanizing bullhorns) quality of poetry is newness. Am I wrong?

Adding to the emotional immediacy of both poems is the fact that they are autobiography. They are real, and they get urgency from that. We use real every day: what would be unreal and yet still interesting, still immediate, still new?


Keeping it Realspoken: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brushstrokes or Big Bang splotch?

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

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violent Invention: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Pin on IdeeFixe

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What artists did you once admire?

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

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

Who’s Living in Your Poem? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop


Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poet’s Workshop of December 15

Hi Everybody-

I looked at the batch of poems we talked about last week and noticed a couple that got energy from biographies. I’m being purposeful about the word biographies because it conveys the ‘lifespan’ scope the poems work with. Mark Fogarty layers Mark Twain’s bio, Twain’s daughter, Susy Clemens, and his own life to create a stratified model of identity with a few links between the strata, such as the concept of “empty house”; Susy haunted an empty house, and the poem’s narrator returns to one, linked to the circumstances of his life by parallels in hers: the poem reverses the link, “I was thinking of Susy” to “Susy spawned thoughts of me” by presenting Susy’s facts first. 

Shane Wagner also creates a stratified biography, where the sub-basement is the narrator’s entire past, and the link to it is a feeling of regretful weariness in the present moment. 

It’s important to think about what the links are in these poems, how they’re made. Poetry can make links with proximity, vowel sounds, metrics. In Shane’s, the action of extruding the link like a vector, in a direction, from one layer to another is made by the verb in the first line “ I go back..” 

In computer science there’s a concept of rich linking called the semantic triple. The semantic triple has three parts, the subject, the predicate, and the object. Predicates link subjects to objects : “another child” “dreaming of” “a former me”; “a former me” “exists in” “a different now.” 

I see linked biography poems as graphs, with the biographical layers having connection points. There is an empty house in one biography, and there’s an empty house in the other. There’s a child in the past, and a child in the now.
Another concisely-modeled example of linked, multilayered biography, is Lan Chi’s death-bed Rashomon where the poem’s links are discrete family interactions bound to different family members’ lifelong relationships with the father.

Going back to last week’s essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self ( In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time” to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced”
Each time time a poem creates one of those links between biographies, it creates a brand new I.

(It must say something that I keep coming back to issues of constructing the first person self with poetry.)

What links you to another life?

How many other connection points does that life have to yours? Does it connect like a bridge to yet another life?

How permanent are the links? Are they soluble in water (tears, the family pool)? Or can they withstand fire wind and seismic shifts? (Mine are stubborn cats) What happens when biographies become unlinked? Can you think of any other information models that poetry can benefit from?

The Price of Attention: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino‘s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 8

Hi Everybody-

I listened to Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense this week ( The episode, called “The Price Of Distraction” featured neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley whose work in brain plasticity I’m not qualified to judge, but whose conversation with Sam Harris on the mechanisms of attention (in the first part of the podcast) sparked some thoughts about how poems work and what poems are.

What happens when our attention is diverted? And what are the things that can divert our attention? Humans (Us! We!) are driven to explore, like other mobile animals, to find resources. This activity is subject to a dynamic cost-benefit analysis: “I don’t seem to be finding many nuts here; What’s the ratio of the energy required to climb the next tree versus the probability of finding more nuts?” That calculus demands computation cycles from our brain, and maybe more or less depending on the time of day, the temperature, whether we’re REALLY hungry…

Apparently, behaviorists can be predict the rate of tree-switching accurately among certain animals, and given certain conditions.

When we’re writing poems, we’re trying (in general, and I love exceptions) to dial down our reader’s tree-switching with our poetic machines. (I’m terrible, I’ll stop halfway through a poem I am enjoying to scan ahead in the book for a shorter one.) 

A poem is a document of attention. It shows what we’re looking at, what we’re looking for, how we assess the cost of moving on.

I also read a couple of essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self ( In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced”

So my thought is that the self is a product of attention, and a poem about the self conjures a brand new I each time it is given attention, and it’s amazing in the sense that each instance of attention is unique.

Do you get distracted when writing? Is the distraction a part of your poem or what you reject from your poem?

Does writing change the nature of your attention?

What does your poem create from the reader’s attention?

%d bloggers like this: