Field Notes, Week of 02-16-21

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

Good morning and welcome to the Field Notes for the February 16, 2021 RWB Workshop.

Janet Kolstein (no copy included) brought a rewrite of her poem “Did you know Neil Lasher?” about one of those odd apartment house elevator acquaintanceships that ends in learning of the person’s passing, and a concomitantly odd form of mourning that ensues. I thought of it as an elegy pulling the slender threads of that incomplete portrait. So much information and the contours of the emotional gap revealed in these two lines: “I’d interviewed him in a Meet Your Neighbor segment/ that aired on our (now) cancelled condo channel.” And so much reverence (I think that’s not the wrong word) in this lovely quatrain:

He was always pulled together;
grey cashmere around his heck,
navy blue sweater, or a smart suit cut to his roundness.
A nimbus of stylish white hair

The kindness of “smart suit cut to his roundness” slayed me.

Claudia Serea’s poem, “If I could go back in time” imagines a time before the speaker was born, before her parents met, when her father as a young man was arrested by the secret police in Romania for what he’d written in poems in a high school notebook. In this poem, the unborn speaker imagines herself a gust of wind that blows that notebook off the table and out of sight of the secret police, thereby saving her father, but also, coincidentally, insuring that her father wouldn’t meet her mother and she, the speaker, would never be born. There is a wonderful moment in this wonderful poem when the narrative ends (“the Securitate would never find [the book]” and the poem leaps to two images in a couplet: “The flame would crawl into the match,/ the spider would swallow back its web.” They are images that illuminate time moving backwards, or undone cause undoing effect, and they are followed by the monostich: ‘and my father would be spared.’  Great story telling move, I think, and it is followed, ironically, with the new effect, that the speaker, the daughter, as savior, presented as a gust of wind would, by logic, have “swelled the curtains, exhaled,/ and disappeared.” So the sacrifice comes home in the last word of the poem. Nice work.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Fetish” talks about a guardian angel who “is neither.” Presented as a story in free verse with variable line lengths but a slender overall appearance, the poem portrays the ‘angel’ as a kind of pet or disruptive and sexually perverted child who masturbates hovering in front of a shoe store window. Funny as anything, the poem mostly avoids talking about the speaker, this parent/pet owner, except in the lines that reveal their superstitious nature: “so the other day I’m walking/ into town, busy avoiding the cracks/ in the sidewalk while counting back/ from a hundred by sevens.” And that’s really all it takes! I think that what energizes Tom’s work beyond the bizarre imagination of the supernatural, is his excellent management of lines that keeps his odd tales moving. Look at all these great line ending words: neither, levitate, ground, breaststroker, incontinent, cracks, staring, rubbing, inappropriate, swat, angel, revolving, embarrassment, shoes! And look too at the fabulous break at “three” in the compound word “three-legged dog,” which so zazzes the funny line with additional expectation, or the breaks between “rubbing” and “himself” and between “inappropriate” and “way,” that enliven each new line with impetus and momentum. So, it’s not just the story, but the lines that include fresh surprising details in an entertaining and engaging and surprising way. And, as the workshop pointed out, the title “Fetish” applies not only to the angel’s love of shoes, but can be a slantwise reference to the angel itself under the definition of fetish as “an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers.”  Thanks Tom.

For a different approach to narrative, Raymond Turco brought another of his hagiographic sketches, this one about the assassinated PM of Italy “Aldo Moro.” In all of these sketches, this one included, Ray writes in the second person, but oddly forfeits the proximity of that mode of address with an impersonal voice and a narrative style. The net effect can be somewhat “Dragnet-like,” the historical importance of the hero’s life, the chilling circumstances of their death circumscribed in a just-the-facts mode. The poem part of the poem is in prosy free verse, and is followed by an actual prose paragraph reciting more or less the same facts. The slight difference between the poem part and the prose part lies in the some details included in one and not the other and in ‘commentary’ such as “A mystery surrounds you, Aldo,/ the details are still unclear,” which is true.

Barbara Hall’s poem “HAIKU Visions for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” is a rewrite in tercets of Barbara’s praise poem for seashells. Now the poem leans on both Wallace Stevens and on the form of haiku for support, and could possibly lose itself in the ascription. What does this series of tercets risk and/or gain by calling itself haiku? And how has it answered Wallace Stevens’ invention? The group was happy to take it on its own terms independent of the title as a series of recollections about finding shells, eating shellfish, using shells as art, and even getting a gash on one’s knee that needed stiches. 

Shane Wagner’s poem “Robert Frost, Jennifer Poeteet and Shane Wagner in the Woods” starts off alluding heavily to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” but moves on to discuss the speaker feeding his son, and the challenges of having special needs children, and ending on a question about mortality. In that diffuse sense, it accepts and rejects Frost’s dichotomy concerning paths through life as there are roads, but the only choices are local. I love the way the poem alludes not just to Frost, but to Jen Poteet’s series of what she calls anachronistic poems about dead poets revived as interlocutors. And I love the way Shane made a party out of it by inviting a person/poet named Shane Wagner to come along for the walk.  It would be interesting to see Shane excavate this poem for its mineral wealth. 

Susanna Lee’s poem was a prose/poem called “Locks of Love” that was a waggish satirical take on Viking lore, that spoofed (or was it an homage pretending to be a spoof) the hyper sexuality of the type. “The men’s manliness oozed and anointed these, their holy women, all over.”

Jen Poteet, fresh from her appearance in Shane’s poem brought one of her own called “On Valentine’s Day, Everyone’s a Poet.” Though she never delivered on the promise of the title, there was a spritely insouciance to the portrayal of cupid as “a chubby little saint” who “aims an arrow” and the monosyllable one-word italicized, exclamation: thwack! 

Yana Kane’s poem “Unbinding” came in three parts separated by dots. The first presented the interesting proposition of the speaker as an old woman emerging from a chrysalis. The second and third segments proposed variations (no, not 13 variations) on the idea of metamorphosis. The third segment was a haiku in at least a couple of ways: its adherence to the American syllabic count for the lines (5-7-5) and also the grab of a moment out of time, this one so clearly depicted as an afternoon light phenomenon:

Holding sunset light

above the rising shadow,

a rusty pipe glows.

Frank Rubino’s poem was called “Mary.” Like other of Frank’s work, centers (?) on a reality of suburban home life, the speaker’s place in the world and leaking water, and veers away to consider other things: a Russian language singer, the speaker’s wife’s decorative lights, and a woman named Mary. I loved the homeowner’s mystical relationship to his home in these sweet lines:

I opened the tiny hatch in the basement ceiling, and reached up into the dark super-ceiling,

Somehow my hand knows which pipes are full:

the more lightly you touch, the more you know.

And I also loved the way the name Mary became a lambent unknown in these lyrical lines:

I was washing a pot from dinner,

and the smell of bay leaf

arose on the steam, and reminded me of Mary.

And I said, out loud, “Oh Mary.”

And my wife asked me, What made you think of Mary?”

I also liked the way the poem came back to the image of reaching for a valve in the dark to refer to the way memory works: “I reached my hand into the dark compartment of my brain.” 

On the overall, I think it would be good if we as a group spent time talking about how a poem does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t. A poem has available to it the huge range of devices, modalities and tools that poetry has invented over the last ten thousand years: form, line, sentence, argument, rhetoric, image, voice, diction, assonance, resonance, repetition, allusion to other sources, drama, narrative and lyric modes; subject, theme, irony, sarcasm (?); and we, as poets, as practitioners rather than simply as customers, have a greater awareness of what’s going on in a poem. And we can learn and the writer of the poem can learn more from us talking about what is going on—even if it seems obvious to us—than they can learn from finding out what we are or aren’t bothered by. Yet so often, instead of talking about what a poem is and how a poem is and where a poem seems to want to go and whether it seems to get there and if not why not—from which we can learn a lot—the first thing out of our mouths is “I would” instead of “you did.” Praise is important, but “I love” is only the beginning of informed praise. Don’t we ever worry that we’re imposing our own ideas of what a poem should be on a poem without exposing what those ideas are or figuring out what the poet has made? Isn’t there some sort of homogenization process going on when we jump to edit along “traditional” “modernistic” lines as though we were repairing a Ford for which a greasy dogeared manual exists rather than meeting a poem—a fucking creation—on its own terms?  Can you imagine saying to God—“love the universe, but you should have ended at Jacob?”

—Arthur Russell

Celebrate Black History Month w/RWB Poets & Guests


The Red Wheelbarrow Poets invite you to celebrate Black History Month with a special poetry reading on Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 pm.

Featured RWB and guest poets include:
Zorida Mohammed, Francesca and Raymond Dharmakan Bremner, James C. Ellerbe, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, reg e gaines, Michelle Whittaker, as well as local high school and community readers.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 p.m.

Zoom information:
-Launch the Zoom.us app
-Zoom ID: 846 9724 6452
-Password: rcrc07070

We’d like to thank our guest readers for featuring at this special event. Looking forward to hearing their poignant poetry.

Also, many thanks to our partner, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, and to the high school student coordinator, Dana Serea, for their outreach efforts.

Field Notes, Week of 02-09-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021

I had this other thought about reading poems; reading, your mind wanders, words, phrases pull you into reverie and you miss something, or you read something you disagree with or would have done differently, or just resent. All of these pull you away from the text; it’s like reading a poem, the act of reading (even if it’s hearing) pulls you away from the poem. Maybe it’s a personal defect, but I think it’s more common than that. So, I’m in a workshop now with 11 other poets writing a poem a week, and posting them on Wet Ink, and wanting to respond, but being constantly pulled this way and that, I decided to try this: read the poem once, then read it out loud and record it on my phone.  Then play it back as many times as I need to, maybe while preparing dinner.  The oddball bits I want to change become less distracting, the relation of parts to each other becomes a little clearer, what the heck is going on goes from ‘who is this person, anyway’ to ‘who is this person, anyway’  (just kidding). And the investment in time is minimal, for most poems, a minute or so.  I hit the play button over and over until I’ve noticed more and more things about it, and rather than like or dislike, I can talk about what it is, and not just the formal elements of meter, rhyme, stanza, but the angle of attack, the emotion hiding behind the cleverness, shit like that. So I’m recommending that: hit record; hit play; hit play; hit play (the peculiarities of your own voice disappear, the line you misread repairs itself). Someone once told me, the first time you read a poem (story) you read it to find yourself in it; the second time, you read it, you read it to find the author in it, but around about the third time, it’s the poem.  It’s just that thing, fragment, remains, song.

Frank put my poem, “Authorities,” first in the packet, so I’ll tell you, I wrote it in Deshpande workshop on form, session 1, “Couplets, Tercets, Quatrains and Monostichs.” The monostich is the one line stanza (what I used to call the self-aggrandizing line). A poem made of monostichs can be used for list poems, or prophesy, or I spy with my little eye, and if you have a gift for aphorism, the monostich poem may be the venue for you. I thought it provided a networking possibility for non sequiturs, and found that I was talking a lot about who to listen to. I was very happy with the shape of it.

One of the authorities I appealed to in “Authorities” was the poets who come to watch me write my poems, and Jen Poteet brought something of the same modality to “Hart Crane and I File for Unemployment” – another in her series of poems that bring dead poets back to life for companionship and anachronism. Here, in free verse of no particular meter, she draws parallels and differences to hers and Hart’s situations. I thought the device was wonderful, especially when she and Hart “gaze/ out his kitchen window/ at the Brooklyn Bridge, its gleaming girders/ torched by winter sunlight.”

Ray Turco is getting more and more guff from the group over his biographical/ hagiographical sketches of heroes of Italian independence, in particular the prose sketches the follow, mirror and only alter slightly the information presented in the preceding poem. This one, “Maddalena Cerasuolo,” dips back to WWII for the story of a resistance fighter.  I pointed out that the whole middle stanza was made of sentences with the same syntax, dependent clauses followed by main clauses, which become distancing, informational, and repetitive. Maybe that’s what he wants, someone said.

Speaking of hagiography, John J. Trause returned with the middle tych of a triptych about Marilyn Monroe, called “St. Marilyn Chrysotricha,” which presents the movie star in a tongue-in-cheek manner as a saint. People loved it’s humor, and no one doubted that Marilyn deserves canonization.

Susanna Lee, back from a sad time out to mourn the loss of Arliss her dog, brought a stunningly simple and beautiful poem (“Poetry Practice) of one sentence in three free-verse quatrains (so similar in shape and form to “This is Just to Say” by WCW), in which her little kindnesses define a practice of poetry that we could admire. There was a lot of talk about the last stanza (which seems appropriate) because the participle “blessing” aroused attention. After all, the participle “leaving” had started the second stanza, and “blessing” didn’t seem to have an object, or maybe blessing seemed to religious. Anyway, we all got out our editorial pencils – we love changing poems too much – and gave Susanna a few suggestions to honor what we took to be her intention.

Barbara Hall brought “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” about which some people said that Barbara and the shells could stay, but Wallace Stevens had to go. He was gumming up the works. My favorite line was X, “Clam shells ease open when steamed in a pot to yield/ one of my favorite seafood dishes: steamed clams.” Wallace Stevens has to go, but Gertrude Stein can stay!

Shane Wagner brought us a short story called “Tourist”, a sci fi disease adventure of the future. Myself, I was drawn to the description of the big fireplace in the fourth paragraph, with Jacob, the host if not the hero of the story, building a fire of “quartered logs the length of his arm, two in one direction, then two in the other and so on until the pile was chest high.” And I liked how Ava watching the conflagration “imagined Jacog as a boy at this hearth learning the technique form his father….”    

Yana Kane’s poem, “Family Tree” takes that ready-made metaphor, and then talks about tree stuff as a means of elucidating family. It has great repetitions of “too many times” that provide the ostinato of the poem, and you do get the feeling that the speaker’s family’s been through a lot, but for me, the suggestion of a family wasn’t strong enough to break through the news of what happened to the tree.

Don Zirilli’s poem “Welcome to My Giant Castle of Myself” was, according to Don, inspired by wondering how you could invite someone into your life, but maybe never succeed. So the poem uses what he called “untethered metaphor” to animate the house. I liked best the parts where the human idiosyncrasy was built right into the structure: “I’m trying to get better lighting/ but the ceilings are worried about you./ Not all the angles understand/ how to accommodate your perspective./ Be careful of the well/ in the drawing room.”

Our fearless leader, Frank, brought “How Can a Loser Ever Win” in which he fell into the wake of Kyle Brosnihan’s big poem “Empire” which Kyle read last week as the feature at the RWB reading last Wednesday. What Frank had admired about Kyle’s poem was the way it took a simple core and built out from it lyrically, finding places where iteration was the driver and elaboration was the lyric experiment.  He hit pay dirt many times in this piece, but none better than the tercet in the second stanza: “I want to change my job into a ministry./ I want to change my computer skills into hospice skills./ I want to change my blue jeans into a sari and wear a kimono and toga.”  You could feel the tug of the desire to do good, and then the sourpuss of middle age reassert itself in the monostich stanza that followed: “I want to change a few enemies into whale shit.” 

All in all, another day at the workshop with my friends.  Try recording these poems and playing them back.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 02-02-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021

Claudia Serea has written many beautiful poems about Romania, her family in Romania, magic in Romania, coming to the US from Romania, and thinking about Romania when she’s in the US, but for some reason tonight’s poem “Self-portrait on Independence Boulevard” had a whole new kind of freshness and immediacy. It’s not just the understated irony of living in a communist dictatorship on a street called Independence Boulevard, or growing up, as she says, in the “oblique gaze” of “dirty potatoes sprouted eyes” in a vegetable store in a country where she can see “the bread line snaking down the sidewalk/ under the young linden trees/ that cast almost no shadows.” It may have a lot to do with the way the poem switches from the past tense to the present tense when it gets to “Here I am, quiet, scrawny,/ knee-scarred and pony tailed…”  and the image of her “gliding in the vast emptiness of Independence Boulevard/ in my industrial city full of dust,/ feet strapped with brown leather and buckles/ on metal, four-wheel rollerskates.” That image of youthful vibrancy on a desolate boulevard is sharp, but the device of switching into the present tense, even though the whole poem takes place in the past, gives the poem an extra jolt. I love that.

Moira O’Brien’s poem “Ghost Herd” about the sight of deer through a winter window, showed up in two drafts, a discredited 8-line draft and a pared down tercet that rang true. Seeing the editorial changes was exciting for the group, and someone suggested presenting the poem as an erasure, leaving only the surviving bits.

Raymond Turco was back with another poem in his book of Italian heroes, “Giacomo Matteotti”, an antifascist and socialist politician of the early 20th Century. Ray’s format in this book, of providing a short prose biography of his subjects after the more lyrical poem, has been the subject of a several discussions since he began the project. No one knows exactly what to make of it.  The bios are not just footnotes; sometimes they have the same information that is in the poem, and sometimes they have interesting details that are left out of the poems. We continue to wonder what the relationship is between poem and notes. The poems are not so obscure or lyrically separated from historical fact that they need a lot of explanation,  but the poems are presented in the second person, while the bio is presented in the third person. We considered the possibility that the repetition may provide a stereoscopic view, or confronted the reader with choices to make about reality or poetry.    

Tom Benediktsson brought “Glo-Fish at the Aquarium.” The title contains the premise or the locale, and the poem starts out fancifully considering the benefits of having phosphorescence, such as being “my own nightlight.” But fancy turns ecclesiastical and curt, if not downright impatient, when the poem becomes about a glowing statuette of Jesus Christ. 

My own poem, “Heist Ballad” was part one of a narrative lyric that may never be completed, written in a series of haiku.  

Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books.” In the opening stanzas, mostly couplets, the poem entertains a fanciful notion of reading across the titles of books from their spines for the ironies their successive titles provide. But then the poem hits on an amusement of a more intimate and intriguing nature, a chance encounter with a “nice lady/ At a call-center” whose offhand remark, a “that’s life” generality, inspires the speaker to cull his herd of books. “She got me thinking – straightened me out.” the poem continues. That oddball dramatic moment is my favorite in the poem. There we suddenly are, deep in the gussets of the speaker’s mind, allow to see what moves him and to see him being moved. And what follows is another surprise, an inscription in one of his books that reminds him of an old lover. That’s the true gen.

John J. Trause’s poem, part one, called “Marilyn Mosaic,” of a triptych called “My Marilyn: A Triptych” delights in working the titles of Marilyn Monroe’s movies into a portrait of the movie star.

Barbara D. Hall brought a poem called “MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE.” Its method is to present a too sweet, too warm, too compassionate, too wonderful, highly detailed but fairly cliched accounting of a happy childhood memory of a fabulous grandmother only to reveal in the last two lines end that it never happened. That’s a courageous and daring strategy. 

Yana Kane was back with another draft of her ode/elegy to a Tai Chi teacher called “Tai Chi Teacher.” She has reached the point of polishing this piece.

Frank Rubino’s poem, “Kong seems to be able to see my death” captures the speaker watching an old monster movie while overhearing his wife talking on the speakerphone about a person who’d died. Slowly as the poem moves forward, the fragments of his wife’s phone call come to dominate his thoughts, so we hear the contrast between “Godzilla’s breath” being pushed down his throat and “when you’re that young you don’t realize people can just die.”    

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “The Faux Ficus,” like Rob Goldstein’s “Throwing Out Books” was about paring down possessions, in Janet’s case, the eponymous plastic ficus, a forlorn companion dragged to the trash room still bearing the “shred marks on the droopy polyesterish fronds” of the speaker’s “former cat.” 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-26-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26, 2021

We got the news yesterday that Mark Fogarty, the Editor in Chief and the Publisher of the Red Wheelbarrow Journal and the MC of the Gainville Café sessionss, and a stalwart member of the RWB workshop since its beginning, is retiring from his posts after work for the last 13 years at least on the journal, many excellent Friday nights of love and music, including his bass playing and singing.  Losing both Mark and Jim Klein to retirement in one year is a big loss for the group, so I just wanted to shout out our gratitude to both of them for their work, their spirits and their love of poetry.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “A Last Act” is a fifteen line narrative piece of free verse in two stanzas, each of which presents the facts of a different part of the day of a burial.  The poem begins when most of the mourners have left the gravesite and “the men moved in” – the men who do shovel the dirt.  The speaker’s family, including girls who “played hide-and-seek among the monuments” remain behind.  At the center of the poem a strong declarative places the day in the context of a survivor’s life: “It’s the last, firming act of adulthood when your parents die,/ though I don’t confuse it with maturity.”  The poem never tells us whose parent died, which gives the voice a certain internality and adds to the sense of stillness that the poem generates from beginning to end. 

The second stanza, of four lines, brings us back to the graveyard later in the day, “after dinner and recollections,” as the speaker drives by, looking through the green gate, looking for the grave, taking note of the flowers that the men had set on the mound “nicely,/ a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.  Tom B said that the speaker of the poem was hiding their feelings. The way the speaker doesn’t tell us the relationship between the decedent and themselves but declares the place a parent’s death takes is one example.  And look at those last two lines again: the speaker, driving past the cemetery sees the grave through the gate and declares, in a very third person way that the flowers are  “a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.”  Well, there IS a person passing and seeing right at that moment, and it’s not “anyone”— it’s the speaker.  So whether they are hiding their feelings  as Tom says, or presenting them through the filter of distancing effects (and through the green gate), it gives the poem its enduring sense of stillness.  (Frank didn’t like the title.  Neither did I, and there were a bunch of other editorial comments on syntax and word choice.)  I for one would love to see this near-sonnet again.

Speaking of maintaining a distance from emotion, Raymond Turco’s poem “Nilde Iotti” brings his book of Italian heroes more deeply into the twentieth century that some of his others.  The subject was a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, who (spoiler alert) had an affair and child with a married man.  As always, in this collection, Ray works in free verse, does not eschew archaicisms, and addresses his subjects as “you” while maintaining a third-person-ish distance that frequently, as here, creates a jarring contrast of familiarity and anonymity.  Like Michelangelo’s slaves, they only emerge halfway from their stones. 

Speaking of poems written in the second person that maintain an emotional distance from their subject, Susanna Rich’s poem “e-ro-teme/ n. 1. A mark indicating a question” is a lyrical love poem in free verse stanzas of three lines each that magnifies the adoration of a loved one’s hair curling around their ear.  The magnification is achieved through lingering on the possibilities of the moment, and the distancing is achieved through a kind of intelligent coyness, allowing the fascination of the peculiar word – eroteme — that describes a question mark, to dominate, even going as far as presenting the word, separated (in the title) into its syllables in a way that sneakily calls out the “eros” lurking in “eroteme.”  Tom thought the poem digressed. Jen must’ve agreed because she said to take out the comparison to “yin and yang,” and Claudia Serea asked in the politest way possibly, why the heck the poem needed three-line stanzas.

Shane Wagner, fresh from three consecutive rewrites of his last photo-based poem “Retouching” (about the broken bond between father and son) brought “Polaroids” a love poem (also in the second person) in which the love is shared between those old-fashioned Polaroids with a white border, and the subject of the poem, the “you” who is nude in the third stanza and pregnant in the fourth (talk about fast developing!).  The poem evoked a lot of nostalgia for the old technology (and Don said there’s an app that can make any photo look like it was taken by a 1970s Polaroid, and a lot of editorial comments. 

What would our work as a workshop be if it wasn’t about trying to fix a poem?  When we edit, we erase what we don’t like or don’t understand to make the poem conform to our norms; we substitute ourselves for the poet; we say, if I were writing this poem, this is how I would do it.  Well, hooray for that, and no doubt that can be helpful.  I’ve been an advocate in workshop for reading the poem twice and even three times before we say anything about it, because it keeps the poem in front of us in the poet’s words, allows us a chance to enter the poet’s intentions as hidden in a condensation of syntax, diction, line breaks, assonance, metaphor and a dozen other strategies.  Gives us a chance to say what IS happening in the poem instead of what SHOULD happen in the poem.  And that can be helpful to everyone, not just the poet.

Mike Mandzik, the inside of whose mind is a pinball machine, brought a poem called “RED FLAG” about an unfortunate misunderstanding in love, in which, as usual, the guy doesn’t know what went wrong, only that he’s not getting any pussy for a while.  Mike, want to come over to my place for the Super Bowl?

Carole Stone brought “Somewhere Else” a good poem (with a shitty title) where her plainspoken mid-century voice tallies the facts and artifacts of age: hurting legs, a bit of kindness from the guy in the liquor store, a beloved book on her desk, and hair getting long during the pandemic.  And remarkably, the poem is overtly about the very sort of emotional distancing that we talked about in Brendan’s, Raymond’s and Susanna Rich’s poem, except this poem records that difficulty as the turn that ends the poem:  “I think I’m closer to putting my emotions/ on the page.  I’ve almost stopped longing/ to be somewhere else.”

Yana Kane’s poem “Tai Chi Teacher” is a re-write of her triptych about a tai chi master whose lessons survive him.  It’s in four sections now (Quad-tych?) of varying length and uneven stanza lengths, still in free verse, and even more clearly now an elegy to this mentor.  It starts with the highly formal address: Our Tai Chi teacher,/ Master Yu,/ was in the eighty-first year of his life,” and as the poem proceeds, it adopts several forms of address all typical of the elegy form: narrative of an incident in which the aged teacher showed openness to learning, strong declarations of inviolable truths (“Life does not make bargains…”) and expressions of personal grief (“Now I gaze at the blank pages…But the pages remain empty”); grief in ritual (“Looking at a snowy hill… I see the shaven head of the nun/ Who recited the sutras”) and the consolation of memory (“Ten years have passed . . .). One of the traditional moves of the elegy form that this poem does not engage with is the effort to place the life and loss of the beloved in the wider context of the world. (see “Lycidas” by John Milton).    

My poem was a haiku:  “The cardinal ate/ the suet cake into the/shape of a cardinal.” In the hands of most haiku practitioners I’ve encountered on the dusty road to hell, the form has, until recently, been a mystery of shallow ironies to me.  But then a few weeks back, I conceived of the form as a three-line poem with two turns, and then I saw the potential for doing some real damage in it.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.

Don Z’s poem, “The New Ideas in Chess,”  Susanna said, recognizes chess’s role as a metaphor for life. 

Frank said it was about endless conflict.  Brendan more or less agreed. 

Moira’s poem, “Twitch, No Twitch” is about that whole suburban obsession with the animals that dare to live near us, and the fight for survival and the confrontations that come from it.  It’s free verse, seven uneven stanzas long, narrative, prosy, and concerns two different denizens of that suburban cosmos: squirrels and hawks.  The squirrel bit lets us see one in the jaws of a fox, confirming that the game is for keeps, but also wonders what the heck these rodents want, including the possibility of flirtation.  The hawk portion tells of today’s confrontation, which is almost surreal, between the speaker and the bird, who stare at one another, one with god’s standard ocular equipment and the other with binoculars, which leads the speaker to conceive of them as dueling snipers. 

Janet K’s poem “Starz Who’ve “Sadly” Died” is a rewrite of her poem “Gone This Year TCM Remembers” and like that draft, it wades into the questions of reality and fantasy that celebrity and movies always prompt, and those questions tie back to our own of mortality and memory.  It’s free verse, prosy, meditative, and as in the first draft, it takes place in the automobile, American home of such meditations (remember, Brendan McEntee’s speaker driving past the cemetery?).  What Janet handles so well is the way crossing currents of belief and cynicism cross, never better than in the lines:

The car radio sings step into eternity,

and I’m cushioned in a moving shell,

an intimate place to dwell on the passing of stars and time,

as the Subaru’s odometer marks mine.

I’d thing, get lost, nostalgia,/

even as I summon it.

Note the assonance/rhyme of shell/dwell, and time/mine.  What are they doing?  Is it the lyrical work of elaboration, stopping time? 

See you all next week, and don’t forget on Feb 3, 2021, Wednesday night at 7, to leave some time for the RWB monthly reading and open mic, with this month’s feature, Kyle Brosnihan!  (Zoom link forthcoming from Frank).

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-29-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of
December 29, 2020

I was reading Anselm Berrigan’s introduction to the book WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW) – INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983-2009) this morning when I encountered this passage that seemed so important to what we do at our workshop and WCW readings:

“The Poetry Project in the 1960s and ‘70s wasn’t just a place to go give a reading and cross off some list of desired venues.  The point was to be exposed, to expose your rawest risk-taking work to a discerning audience, one that would let you know right there whether it’s working or not, and to participate in that as communal process.”

Always, there is that sense that we are getting the news from one another, that we are reading/hearing what is freshest, what is newest and most urgent, what we have an inkling about, what exposes us to “a discerning audience.”  Even the stuff we get into books or magazines isn’t as fresh as the stuff that shows up every Tuesday.  The poems we are so anxious to publish that we are so anxious to get into books and get those books published, they’re like canned or frozen vegetables, yesterday’s news, while the workshop and our monthly readings are, in comparison, like a farmer’s market on a Saturday in July:  “Look what I just pulled out of the ground!” “Look what I just pulled down from a tree!”  “Look what I just harvested from my cheese cave!”  

Claudia Serea’s poem “On a street in Long Island City” had just such an inkling; you could feel the image forming and turning in the first stanza:  “When it gets dark, someone turns on the lights,/ someone who lives alone/ as the moon lives alone.”  And then, in the third, “And the lights send a message/ to the visitor at the end of the street: Hi there, here’s the light/ to guide you to the door.”  And you could feel the whole workshop brighten with the surprise of the light talking.

Lan Chi Pham’s poem, “Deathbed” got the whole group going too, a lyric that sought to squeeze the essence of a dying father’s life into the last words for each of his family members. Frank was a little leery when people started playing with Lan Chi’s poem as though it were made of refrigerator magnets, asking, and getting the chance to change it from centered lines to hard left lines, to remove the quotes, to indent the quotes, to re-order the quotes, but Lan Chi was game, and whether or not she agreed with all the suggestions, she got to see her risk taking poem in the hands of a discerning audience, succeeding.  (the attachment shows some of those changes).

Susanna Rich came back for a second week of abuse with a poem in the form of an email message: “To: loneliness@rejects.ord; cc: solitude@whoknew.org; Subject: Thanks; Attachments None.”   What was so lovely about the title of the poem was how it turned the form of an email into content, and gave us a clear idea of the tone she was trying to evoke; even the last 2 lines of the poem “It’s my way of saying…/send” brightened with the joy of making this tired medium new.  

Shane Wagner brought “Retouching” which was a more than a retouching of his poem from last week, “Explicit”  It was a re-visioning of the driving emotion of that gnomic, enigmatic poem about lost trust in his father (who wasn’t named).  Here, the elided heart of that poem was bodied forth in the two photos that the poem/poet is trying to reconcile: “If I could fold the two photographs in the right way, look at them edge on, peel the layers, subject them to immense pressure . . . could I collapse the distance between us?”  It’s a poem about a son wishing for a kind of superheroism.  

Speaking of bravery, Jen Poteet brought her first ever attempt at a sonnet, “Sales Girl” and for all its rough edges, its abandoned rhyme scheme, its raw beginning, it was arresting; a vision of the titular sales girl plying her trade with this little bit of salesgirl wisdom at its center:  “And what she has been trained to know: retreat./ Let the shoppers wander for a while and choose/ on their own the goods they want. She is nearby/ but hangs stock still….”  It’s an original, deeply observed character study in the works.

Raymond Turco brought “Samantha Cristoforetti” a poem about the first Italian female astronaut, which he said is scheduled to be the final poem in his project about Italian heroes, most of whom are warriors, while this one is a hero who sees a world without borders and possibly without the need for war.  Ray said he’d consider circulating the completed MS to the group when it’s done.

Carole Stone brought a rewrite of her poem about being a teacher and being a student of poetry with Stanley Kunitz as her teacher.  Kind of a memoir in form, it recalls her “aqua Plymouth … whose starter buttons took forever,” and the poems she wrote “in imitation of T.S. Eliot, the poetry god…”  As Kunitz is her emblem of a teacher who rewards the speaker with praise, a boy named Nicky Van Herpen becomes her emblem of a student, whose mother praises the speaker, as a teacher.

Frank brought a courageous poem called “Terence” which dives headlong into the challenges of suburban step-parenthood, a poem about an extension cord, a garage, and animal tracks in the snow.  And nature supplies the raw materials for a détente between stepfather and stepdaughter, Vy or VeeVee: “Our yard is bounded by a holly bush and a number of liberal fences/ that afford free passage, and the animals are all very busy/ gaming the system, and VeeVee shared with me/ her pleasure discovering that, per their snow prints,/ they live here with us, doing things in groups, at night,/ like bunnies in families…” 

Myself, I wimped out and brought a piece of short fiction called “Two Cops Come to the Door,” a kind of frolic, or as Susanna called it, a comic monologue.  

Goodbye to 2020.  It was rough on the world, that’s evident, and I think it was rough on a few of us, but looking back over the year in RWB workshops, I am very happy with how things turned out; it was another year of the best darned poets in northern New Jersey slinging hash. 

Thanks to Frank for co-leading the workshop with me since Covid moved us onto Zoom in April.  And thanks to all our regulars and the new members we gained through the ease of Zoom. Next year in Jerusalem. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-22-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 22, 2020

The best dream poems don’t announce themselves as such because that would be like announcing a balloon with a pin.  Like the dreamer, you need to find yourself at the top of a narrow stair before you realize something’s terribly wrong, and that’s what Janet K’s poem, “The Narrow Staircase” did:  “Men in felt hats/ shuffle through the little gate/ that separates the office space,/ and in the time it takes to catch my breath,/ they are whisked up the staircase,/ the dark, narrow staircase.” Is how it starts.  And then comes the inside out part:  “I need to go up the steps;/ I believe I was slated to go up the steps,/ but the faceless woman at the desk/ cannot find my papers,/ and I can’t find the means/ to voice the request.”  And then, at last, in the third stanza, the beginning of the realization: “Something terrible has happened,/ but I cannot fathom what.”  After that, it gets even more complicated, but you’ll have to wait for that because Janet doesn’t like to circulate her poems in the Notes till they’re further along.  She did not say it was a dream of hers, but she did say that it was a death experience.  However, Tom Benediktsson pointed out two excellent qualities of this poem, “no color” and “great verbs.”  And Don thought it had a good bit of Kafka in it, while Rob Goldstein thought it had some Lewis Carroll.  I prefer to think that Kafka and Lewis Carroll have a bit of Janet in them but more on that later.  

Moira O’Brien’s poem, “Celestial Convergence” took its inspiration from the astronomical alignment of Jupiter and Saturn last night (that was obscured by clouds, damnit) which seems only to occur every seven hundred years.  Personifying the planets, she had them talk: “What’s your hurry?” and “It’s been centuries since we’ve been this close.”  A kind of missed love story emerges as one says to the other “Stay the night and/ defeat the darkness/ with me.”  Frank loved the “permissiveness” of the last lines: “In the morning,/ begin your drift.”  Yana and Lan Chi had some minor edits.  I liked the love story better than the astronomical occurrence that inspired it, and suggested taking out the title to liberate the poem from the tyranny of the metaphor, then see where it wants to go.

Shane Wagner’s poem “Explicit” worked through some emotional baggage to get to the point where it could admit that speaker didn’t trust the ‘you’ of the poem, but when it did, the line, “I don’t trust you.” Isolated in its own stanza separated by triple spaces from what came before and after, rang out.  Frank liked the “meta-ness” of the drifting beginning.  Moira thought the poem could take advantage of that drift by ending after “I don’t trust you.” On the theory that what came after was just an elaboration on that.  Yana thought the poem didn’t take its own metaphor – of the speaker as a ‘court jester’ – seriously enough.  Shane said the comments were helpful.

Don brought a poem called “Springtime for Truth” a re-write of last week’s poem.  It’s a dramatic poem, which is to say, a poem written in the voice of someone other than the poet.  And this speaker appears to be someone who either subscribes to the theories of QAnon or seriously considers them.  The poem is filled with aphoristic or epigrammatic statements like “The letter Q is a cross hugging itself.” And “The truth lies on a bed of facts more numerous than spark plugs”  and “Disappointment is surrender.”  Tom thought all of the aphorisms “build meaning.”  Brendan thought the portrait was “Orwellian” although Rob thought it was an “inverted 1984.”

Tom’s poem, “The Outhouse as Literary Critic” is also a dramatic poem.  The speaker is an outhouse, hectoring its customer/visitor, a poet, concerning his shallowness and neuroses, but also encouraging him to write.  Janet and Moira thought it was “Howl-like”

Yana Kane (who never got an appropriate welcome to the workshop: Hi, Yana!)  brought a poem called “Invitation” in two parts, “Day” and “Night.”  The “Day” portion answered the title directly, beginning “Let us walk side by side…”  and going on to describe coming inside for a pot of Earl Grey tea, and two friends inhaling “the scented steam” of the tea.”  The “Night” portion has a different, more mysterious tone that is an invitation to a story with this lovely abbreviation: “Tree.  River.  Road.  Traveler.”

Paul Leibow’s poem was called “Used Tires,” and it was a landscape poem, a meditation on the view from a car of a graveyard with a used tire shop, one of those urban landscapes you can see in Queens where the BQE bisects a graveyard or near Newark, where the GSP does the same thing.  Paul’s bisected graveyard was on Route 1 near Elizabeth.

Rob Goldstein brought a rewrite of his poem about a domineering neurologist and his relationship with the doctors who followed him on his rounds, including the speaker.  At its narrative heart the poem recounts a kind of contest or test that the neurologist subjects the speaker to, having to do with memory.  Rob’s question for the group was whether the good/charming side of the domineering neurologist managed to be evoked.  The vote was one yes and one no with nine abstentions.   

Frank Rubino’s poem was “My Daughter Saves for College” and it worked as a kind of triptych, showing the speaker’s daughter eating a burger while the family waited in Warsaw for her adoption visa, then again in her crib (in the US) biting her own hands, and finally as a young adult working in the garment district in Manhattan, in pissing rain, “emptying her company’s goods out of a bankrupt factory.”  The poem is an ode of sorts to her resilience and inner strength, which ends when the speaker urges all of us to “surrender to her like I have, let her through” 

My poem, “Exile’s Letter” was an imitation of Ezra Pound’s ‘translation’ of Li Bo’s poem full of longing for an old friend and a friendship.  Frank said it was like a Saul Bellow novel.  Later, Don wrote: “for a couple pages there it just felt like i was being cornered at a party while someone tells me about how they used to play basketball”. It sets up the ending well but if I came across this in a magazine I would never get to the ending.”  

I don’t see the utility of saying that a poem sounds like Saul Bellow, or Kafka, or Lewis Carroll or Ginsberg’s Howl.  What does it do for our colleagues, the writers?  That sort of comment replaces the poet in front of us with a cardboard cutout, and lures us away from the individuality of the work we are reading.  We should be sussing out what we think the poem is trying to do and how it is trying to do it and whether we think it achieves the goals we think it had.  Then the poet will know if they were seen, and if they succeeded, and if not, how they might conceivably think of revising it.

—Arthur Russell

Williams Readings on Zoom—Susanna Rich—Dec 2

Join us on Wednesday, December 2, 2020 at 7 p.m. to hear the poet and performer Susanna Rich read from her work. Please come early and wait in the waiting room for the host to let you in.

Susanna Rich is a bilingual Hungarian-American, Fulbright Fellow in Creative Writing, and Collegium Budapest Fellow—with roots in Transylvania and family ties to the vampire known as the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory. Susanna is an Emmy-Award nominee, and the founding producer and principal performer at Wild Nights Productions, LLC. Her repertoire includes the musical Shakespeare’s *itches: The Women v. Will and ashes, ashes: A Poet Responds to the Shoah. She is author of five poetry collections, Beware the House, Television Daddy, The Drive Home, Surfing for Jesus; and, in celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, recognizing the right of United States women to vote, SHOUT! Poetry for Suffrage. Visit Susanna at www.wildnightsproductions.com.

Tune in to listen to poignant poetry and participate in the open mic. NJ’s best and most vibrant reading series is alive and well on Zoom!

Please see instructions below. To avoid issues at the reading, please don’t share the Zoom link on Facebook. We are instructing people who want to attend to DM Claudia, Don, Arthur, or Anton to get the link.

Zoom instructions:
If you’ve never tried Zoom, please download it from zoom.com and get familiar with it. It’s pretty simple, and tons of people use it. If you have the zoom application but haven’t used it in a while, it’s not a bad idea to upgrade it to the latest version.Please note:
1. The meeting has a waiting room. Please come early and wait in the waiting room for the host to let you in.
2. People can’t join before the host. Our host on Wednesday, December 2 will be Frank Rubino.
3. To avoid issues at the reading, please don’t share the Zoom link on Facebook.

When you get into the meeting, everyone will go on mute and the MC will kick off with introductions. Use the Chat button to open the Chat panel. For the open mic sign up, we’ll type our names in the Chat panel of the zoom meeting. We will remind you about it at the break. The MC will call off your name from the chat, and you’ll read your poem.

RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—Mar 10, 2020

Janet Kolstein

Conrad Heyer (1749-1856), The Earliest Born Man to be Photographed (in 1852)


He’d heard of the thing
and eyed images born of the contraption.
It wouldn’t take long for his own aged self 
to replicate on the silvered plate.

The man who’d crossed the icy Delaware 
with the Father of Our Country
had orbs reminiscent of the General’s.
His great, beaked nose had grown craggy with years,
his mouth indignant at the loss of teeth.

Maybe, it had been enough to see himself
in the mirror of clear lakes,
or to face his murky reflection on grooming.
He’d looked inward, and knew his character
forged with the gravitas of nationhood.

Changes come to those who live long lives,
some small, some monumental,
some bringing awe and trepidation.
As a farmer, he knew how crops grew from seeds
with the sun and the rain that nurtured his fields,

and that all living things are pitiful
when Death comes calling,
but this new machine, a camera,
miniaturized and memorialized
the very shades of his being,
and, in the beam of his eyes, 
brought forth a new way of seeing
and remembering.

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Blog – http://redwheelbarrowpoets.org
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Twitter – @RWBPoets

RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—Mar 3, 2020

Arthur Russell

Fellatio Salon


I used to think Japanese porn,
with its pixilated penises,
wasted the strengths
that this ethnic type 
perfected,
the ultra femme
squeaky female voices 
no other nationality
could do as well.
Pixilating the cocks,
the coitus, as well the uniquely
directional pubic hair 
of the actors, 
was a shame.

But tonight, I grazed
on a long video
about a sex worker
in a fellatio salon
giving head to five 
guys in forty minutes.
There were no booths.
The guys sat on a pair
of wide banquettes,
both facing the same direction,
waiting their turns
while the others
got sucked off
one at a time.

The sex worker gave 
each of them her full, 
coquettish attention 
for seven or eight minutes.
She started them off
with a bright caress 
of the face, but no kissing.
She’d help them 
get their pants and unders off
then enthuse
as though she’d
spontaneously come up
with the most delightful idea:
oral sex.

She’d entered the room
with a miniature
riding-hood basket
stocked with 
individually wrapped
moistened cloth towelettes
dangling from her fingers.
When she struggled 
to tear the wrapping,
her smile twisted a little.
She’d clean the guy’s groin
before, and again —
more gently —
after he’d come.

She opened 
a second towelette
to wipe her lips 
between patrons.   
What I particularly liked
about her blow jobs
was that she’d
bring a guy off 
in three, four 
minutes tops,
then, after lingering
on the display and swallow
of his cum in her mouth,
which did not appeal to me at all,

she would go back 
to sucking him off
while his dick 
was sagging down 
to limp for nearly 
as long as she had 
on the run up, and, 
for at least one guy,
the second round of sucking
had more impact
than the first.
He turned his head aside and shrieked
into his own shoulder.

The last guy
she blew 
had this cool 
bass baritone grunt,
and a short, thick dick
she seemed to like,
and she made 
a Tootsie pop sound 
each time she popped it 
out of her mouth.
She giggled 
in a slightly more 
delighted way for him
than she had for the others.

All the guys 
were super grateful
and kind of happy,
as though they’d 
just gotten 
a free car wash.
No money
changed hands.
They must’ve
paid outside,
like
a movie ticket.
Inside, they faced forward
and accepted her joy.

The big surprise
for me 
was that after 
the first few minutes, 
I didn’t mind
the pixilated dicks at all.
I didn’t 
need to see 
the lip-on-dick contact.
I could follow
the obvious progression
and read 
the implied emotion
in her courtesan face. 

Pixilated
dicks show modesty.
Her spaghetti-strap 
satin top—
which she hardly 
paid attention to 
for the first 3 guys— 
dropped off
one shoulder for the 
fourth guy. Her tit 
came out, 
but it was an accident.
She lifted it back 
with her thumb.

On the last guy, 
the one with the thick dick
and the baritone grunt,
both straps came off.
Her whole torso,
with its lovely clear
skin and her youth 
intact 
came into view.
You might have caught 
an accidental glimpse of her 
as you walked
past your teenage daughter’s
open bedroom door.

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Blog – http://redwheelbarrowpoets.org
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Twitter – @RWBPoets