I thought it was a really fun workshop.
Janet Kolstein has many poems that she ripped more or less literally from the New York Times, and this week brought a poem ripped from her dreams, “Sometimes Dreams are Poems That Write Themselves,” that literally challenged us to follow her dream’s logic and find a ready made poem, but someone challenged that thesis, saying that because the poem is the rendering of the dream in words, the poet is more than an algebraic translator, and the poem is more than a record, it’s a recording.
Susanna Lee brought a poem that was a literal record, a transcription of the voices of several men on a podcast talking about war: “Podcast: Retired Marines.” The discussion jumped to the conclusion that the poem was a persona poem, sometimes called a dramatic poem, where the poet speaks through a mask, though Susanna said it was three voices. And while Carole called it a poem of witness—about war, Don said, if it’s a poem of witness, it’s a poem of second-hand witness. Because the speaker was mostly engaging in hearsay, it was more barbershop than battlefield. And yet, the podcast struck a deep chord in Susanna because it resonated with the world she sees around us. I wonder if the poem could benefit from having a first person narrator to make those stakes clear.
I was just delighted by Don Zirilli’s “The Adventures of Superlady” a narrative in four quatrains that records a disorienting encounter with the needy Superlady of the title outside a supermarket; delighted because it’s a superhero poem (right, Frank?) at least as crazy as Deadpool, but also because of the naked need that Superlady (ret.) had to be needed. “Why didn’t you save me?” the speaker asks, and Superlady responds “Everybody asks me that” but as she persists, the poem ends with a surprisingly heartrending “How about one more cry for help?”
John J. Trause brought something of an ode, something of a travelogue, something of an ironic celebration that is truly ironic and truly a celebration of a dinner at the chain restaurant “Grade Lux Café.” And I think what made the poem a delight was how lovingly knowingly the poem appreciated the restaurant’s “Viennese Secession” décor and plausibly continental menu. The tone work of the poem starts with its first, pinky-raised line: “I am one to dine alone” and continues with the allusion to dialogue from a Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” “Your wife was just showing us her Klimt.” It even extends to punctuation, i.e., the extraneous but necessary comma between “asparagus spears” and “cooked to perfection.
Jen Poteet’s poem, “Unexpected” has been like a studio visit for the group, as she’s worked on at least three revisions of it that some of us have seen over the last few days. The poem’s bombshell is the riddle posed in lines 4 and 5: “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband,” but the genius of the poem is what Tom called the “objective correlative” to the unexplored emotion stirred by the unopened letter. Because the poem turns away from the letter completely to talk about a fox seen through the kitchen window stealing through the yard, and somehow our experience of the fox that “fixes her pale gold eyes” on the speaker, and ”disappears under the fence” takes the place of whatever emotion the letter stirred. It’s also a great lesson in simplicity. Those two lines “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband” are so plainspoken and yet so fraught” they don’t need any “poetic” embellishment. But the real question was whether the poem could begin with it’s bombshell a strategy against which some warning flags were raised. But I come from the Ricky Jay school of poetry that says “Grab their attention” and “reward them with a surprise,” and I can’t think of a more attention grabbing start that the letter for the deceased husband, or more of a surprise than diverting the overflow of feeling into a fleeing fox.
Tom Benediktsson’s “Leon’s Riddle” was, he explained one of 6 or 8 poems he’s done with the characters “Gregor” and “Leon.” In it’s combination of comic intellectualism and cockroaches—in this case Kafka’s Gregor Samson— it reminded some people of Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. I loved its playfulness it’s metawareness of its prosody, and it’s surreal setting—Also Krazy Kat (“L’il angel”).
My poem was called “Grandma Ann,” a tiny little narrative that captured one tiny little piece of my paternal grandmother’s hundred year old dialogue as told to me by my father. The surprise of the poem (which was just accepted for publication by Ephemeral Elegies and will be published on their site on May 2—Thank you, Tiffany) is how suddenly, the poem becomes about how this little fragment of a woman survives.
Brendan had what I’d call a traditional family driving in the car poem called “On the Way to the Agricultural Fair.” It’s told in the third person which gives it a kind of allegorical feel, and it’s presented in the shape of a justified prose block, which, predictably, adds to its solidity, and the mother of the family is the main character; she speaks to one of the kids about the farmers he sees burning their fields from the car window, but then she retreats into her thoughts, where she wonders a little bit about the way her son’s mind works, and then goes on to fantasize about a fire in her own garden to make way for (perhaps) a Zen Garden. The poem ends with the benign image of the family at the fair visiting the butter-sculpture pavilion. Allegory?
Carole Stone’s “Trip” was a bit of a trip itself. It starts out in as a kind of Thanatopsis, with a valedictory air: “I will go on a long trip,/ meet my ancestors,” but in summoning the foreign born, immigrant ancestors to this imminent meeting, the speaker realizes she has nothing in common with these people: “Why should I care, brought up American?” And then carrying forward on that American identity, she comments on the current war in Ukraine, but that Eastern European vibe only returns her to those ancestors carrying suitcases when the boarded trains to death camps. And then, the poem starts to disabuse itself of its “victim” stance when the speaker notices that her granddaughters are successful, and it culminates by grabbing its own lapels and telling itself to snap out of this negative mood because life is a blast. That poem did its yoga, that’s for sure; it was as limber as they come.
Hey, I wanted to mention again that I’m reading Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 collection “The Speed of Darkness.” She’s very formally inventive and audacious, as I pointed out that she included in this collection an experiment where she took a poem by William Cullen Bryant “Monument Moutain” and, as described in a footnote, ran the poem in reverse, picking out the phrases that spoke to her and reassembling them into a new poem called “Mountain: One From Bryant.” And think about it, this was 50 years before erasure poems became a thing. And she was audacious enough about it to include in the explanatory footnote a conversation she had with Denise Levertov about the experiment she was performing. I also mentioned a fabulous poem of Rukeyser’s whose name I couldn’t remember but I looked it up and the name is “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” I also listened to a You Tube video that captured a track from Rukeyser’s Caedmon Records recording of her poem “The Speed of Darkness” totally worth checking out, if for no other reason than to hear her sweet Bronx accent, though there are many other reasons—the poem is a world view in 13 short sections. And one last thing, for now, about her—that she has a wicked relentless sense of song, which you can hear in her poem “Song: Love in Whose Rich Honor.” You can hear that King James lilt in the title (which is also the first two lines), but where she takes that energy is to a fearless personal challenge——that love would split her open and give her the gift of writing about death and madness. It’s CRAZY!
In whose rich honor
I stand looking from my window
over the starved trees of a dry September
deep and so far forbidden
is bringing me
to claw at my skin
to break open my eyes
the gift longed for so long
out of the desperate ecstasy at last
death and madness.
I love the unrelenting unpunctuated concise form of this poem on the page, its use of capitals to signal sentences, and its Donne—like desire to be broken apart by love, the way its syntax breaks open at the end, with “death and madness” lying on the floor of the poem like candy out of a pinata. And I’ll say this about Rukheyser. Lots of people talk about Elizabeth Bishop as the heir to Marianne Moore’s line of Modernism, but take a look at Rukeyser’s “Believing in Those Inexorable Laws” actually read it aloud and I think you’ll hear some of the selfsame self-assuredness, rhythmic complexity, erudition, and slyness that is so evident in Moore’s work.
It was great to see you all.