Field Notes, Week of 07-20-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you tomorrow night.

Field Notes, Week of 07-13-21

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur  Russell

Do Computers Like Poetry? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Alan Turning Machine or Model

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 1, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Don’t worry about the rain! We’re meeting on zoom tonight.

Shane Wagner brought a poem to our workshop last week whose subject, in part, was the relationship of memory to the actual:

Instance/ Recreate you/ In that time and place// Instance/ Do I change you/ Each time I call again

Don Zirilli was reminded of computer programming by the logic of Shane’s lines, and his use of the word ‘Instance,’ which is a term of art in computer programming denoting the individuated realization of a templated event or object.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship of poetry to computer programming for years, so I wrote a small computer program based on Shane’s poem and emailed it to him. It’s my first pocodem. Here’s a snippet:

if (myArms.areEmpty) { InMyArms(that_time, that_place) } [myArms.you]

The poem and full runnable program are here https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AxD2XB05yXf4O1TR7xnqWo4w9Rscz9fr/view?usp=sharing

There is an email thread about this dialog of forms. 

Don Zirilli: “The code is the poem. The reader is the browser.” “I’m viscerally (not intellectually) convinced that I am a continual consciousness”

Rob Goldstein: “Each instance of memory has to be a unique retrieval of information… Anything that achieves consciousness is a unique “ignition” that binds diverse regions of the brain in a massive, coordinated discharge of neurons “

Yana Kane-Esrig:”I experience myself as having two “lobes”: one thinks in Russian, the other one in English.”

(Rob’s been trained in medicine.)

The conversation about the pocodem focused on the theme of continuous identity. One has an experience of oneself as a character named “I”, until, as Rob said, “the carburetor misfires.”  ‘You’ is recreated by memory each time, & such memories have no contractual relationship to what really happened or who you “are”. 

I’ve always thought that poems are excellent at creating an Instance. They work with the templates of language, and make something that seems novel and continuous at the same time, like the experience of consciousness. (I’ve cited before the work of Gerald Edelman who wrote in A Universe Of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XCGTLKB ) that the production of consciousness requires continuous novelty; brains deprived of stimulus are less capable of producing the illusion of continuous experience.)

OK all this was fun. But in the end I would rather write poems than code: probably because I can do a lot more with language that’s not constrained by purely instructional or informational purposes. When writing poems, I have a much better illusion of novelty.

Annnd… we’re back to the new. What’s new about your poems? Can your poem be represented as a programmatic retrieval of subconscious information? Would that be good?

Is there a companion form for your poem? (An office building? a chemical formula? A computer program?) How defiant, careless, or inaccurate would you have to be, in realizing a companion form, to keep your work interesting?

Use Your Boredom! Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 1, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I read an interview by the artist Mike Kelley (https://redwheelbarrowpoets.org/2021/03/29/the-power-of-naming-and-other-pretenses-franks-letter-to-the-workshop/) of his contemporary and sometime collaborator, the artist Jim Shaw (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/studio-visit-jim-shaw-1923199) The interview’s from 1998, reprinted in https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00U81QGF4/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1, which you can get for your Kindle (or get the paperback for $847.00)

Maybe I should end it right there.

No, poets. Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw had an $847 conversation:

Mike Kelley names Shaw’s strategies: “you use flows of imagery in your work, whether you want to talk about it through narrative issues, or associative flow, or formal connections… or whatever.”Shaw answers: “I wanted to do a visual version of William Burroughs’ fractured style and make reference to a wide variety of things…” He cites the paintings of James Rosenquist, which, Shaw replies, “present a collage of popular imagery, but are unified by his… painting manner.” 

A few words later, Kelley makes the point that Shaw works, in fact, with “stylistic disunity”

And Shaw talks about becoming tired with the restrictions of series and wanting to work with his own feelings of getting bored before it started to get boring: “I would start off with simple distortions and then then become more convoluted and weird; they would end up really fragmented.”

How does your poem flow? Through narrative, association, formality? What exactly is flowing?

Shaw talks elsewhere of thinking up various “excuses to render” because he likes to draw. Are there tropes or techniques you want to fit into your work all the time? Maybe places or times you want to write about? Does your comfort with these things provide a safety net for your other poetic moves?

What unifies your work? Or, are you, like Shaw, drawn to disunity? Can you put the force which wants to disrupt your unity into your work, thereby creating a more inclusive whole?

Imprint Me: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 25, 2021

Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018

Hi Everybody-

Arthur Russel publishes Field Notes from our workshop on a fairly regular (almost never misses) weekly schedule. These notes are a view into how poets work and how poets talk about poets’ work. They’re a wonderful anthology but this week Arthur didn’t get to it because of me. See, in our interdependent community, Arthur needs me to package the poems up in a pdf and send them to him, which I usually do right after the workshop, or else I forget, like I did this week. In a poetry community we have little paper clip chains of helpfulness that add up to our literary history. It’s how art gets done.

It reminds me of a quote I’ve cited before— in one of my poems— by Peter Schjeldahl, who has written for decades with tireless elegance about the New York art scene. In his collection Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light (https://www.abramsbooks.com/product/hot-cold-heavy-light-100-art-writings-1988-2018_9781683355298/) he talks about Clement Greenberg, the critic whose influence, in the 1950s, raised Abstract Expressionism into preeminence. In his essay on Greenberg, Schjeldahl cites some of Greenberg’s judgements that might seem like mistakes. “Fortunately…” he says, “greatness in or about art has precious little to do with being right. It most involves telling a story that imprints itself, when and while it counts, on the eyes and brains of your contemporaries.”

The connection to our workshop is that we are our contemporaries. We are the ones whose eyes and brains need impressing. We are the ones whose hands carry our work to the readers of the future, but we count now. Please don’t be embarrassed to say you’re coming to our workshop to be great. 

I’m the kind of person who would automatically sneer at such an idea. However I am then left with very little explanation as to why I keep trying to write better poems.

Schjeldahl might say great poems can imprint themselves. How? Once poems inspired memorization. I don’t think that’s so widespread now.

Who are your contemporaries? What matters to them? How will you get their attention? I’m one of your contemporaries.

Imprint me.

Are You Vulnerable When You Write? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 18, 2021

Hi Everybody-

As a follow on to last week’s alexithymia letter I want to write to you this week citing an album I’ve had on heavy rotation: John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band ( https://open.spotify.com/album/0nYrjKixKaREskGL449EqU )

This album was made in 1970, just after the Beatles broke up. A deluxe edition that came out this year includes multiple takes of each track, showing Lennon’s process as he refined its raw impact. 

I include it as counterpoint to alexithymia because it famously employs primal scream (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy ) and uses personal trauma for its sources. Remember alexithymia’s experience: 

  • Difficulty identifying different types of feelings
  • Limited understanding of what causes feelings
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Difficulty recognizing facial cues in others
  • Limited or rigid imagination
  • Constricted style of thinking
  • Hypersensitive to physical sensations
  • Detached or tentative connection to others

Plastic Ono Band today sounds so real, so urgent, and so pained. In composing it, John Lennon worked with feelings of betrayal and abandonment: its minimal, three piece settings propel, announce, insist. Feelings are central: the songs are hot. They renounce the singer’s idols (one of whom happens to have been himself) and strive for a more humane, reality-based conception of being alive. I recall when I first bought a copy of this album to hear Working Class Hero, with its notorious word ‘fuck’ and played it during dinner to bug my parents. In my recent listening, I’ve become fascinated by the word “Cookie,” whose use in take after take of Hold On testifies to how Lennon valued a ‘casual’ or ’throwaway’ endearment. As the original teen-aged listener, I was embarrassed by the vulnerability of that aside. Now I think vulnerability is real, and real is poems.

When you are writing a poem, are you vulnerable? What’s your “Cookie?”

It’s like John Lennon read last week’s prompt before he wrote Plastic Ono Band’s lyrics: “I have alexithymia:” Take each bullet point in the above list and elaborate. 

This album has enriched my life so much in the past couple of weeks, in part because it enriched my life as a High Schooler, and it makes a prism between then-me and now-me. Do you use your poems as time-traveling mirrors?

Critics complained of Plastic Ono Band’s emphasis on self-expression. As a High Schooler, I was inclined to agree, even as I memorized the album. Today, I think the critics were blind. Have you reclaimed anything that was uncomfortable for you?

Field Notes, Week of 05-25-21

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

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

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

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

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

Someone went through a lot of work for subtle abjection.

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

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

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

Lovely poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Is Self Expression Always Good? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Where is the forest?

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 11, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I learned the term ‘alexithymia.’ It’s a coinage, according to Wiktionary (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/alexithymia), by two psychiatrists, deriving from Greek, whose literal translation would be ’not speaking the heart’ (There is a kind of poetics in psychology, I think, that’s not always good.)

I found a Scientific American article (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-emotional-blindness-of-alexithymia/) that describes the experience of someone with alexithymia:

  • Difficulty identifying different types of feelings
  • Limited understanding of what causes feelings
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Difficulty recognizing facial cues in others
  • Limited or rigid imagination
  • Constricted style of thinking
  • Hypersensitive to physical sensations
  • Detached or tentative connection to others

“Limited or rigid imagination” and “Constricted style of thinking” jumped off this list because these items describe the cognitive consequences of having an incoherent or unstable emotional life. It speaks to the severity of this condition when it’s in its acute form. 

Taken as a whole, without the pathological aspect, the list seems to describe me when I’m writing a poem. 

This might seem weird for an artist to say, but I’ve been puzzled for some time about the absolute value of self-expression. It’s accepted that self-expression is essential, but what is the raw input of self-expression for an alexithymia-sufferer? Would such ‘self-expression’ simply be, as a Dr. friend of mine suggested, a learned pro-social behavior? And would it satisfy that person’s aims?

When you are writing a poem, are you expressing yourself?

An interesting prompt would be “I have alexithymia:” Take each bullet point in the above list and elaborate. (Don Zirilli’s workshop poem ’Symptoms’ is one approach to a prompt like that.)

Does society, with its screens, headphones, contact-less payments, etc, have alexithymia?

Expression figures in the pro-social circuit of feel, communicate, receive-feedback. But this is a transaction: is there a non-transactional circuit for self-expression? Are poems a transaction? Arthur Russell says poems reward attention.

Sparks Between Poets: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 4, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week I want to try something weird— I want to compare two wildly different books I read this week.

They have a few similarities, actually. They are both short overall: 30 pages, 60 pages. They are both comprised of consistently sized short prose pieces. The pieces live in a weird place between poetry and prose. For each book, there’s a single persona who narrates every piece. The persona uses humor and, in some cases, excruciating detail. Each book has a deprived setting.

The blatant differences: one book is about a year old; the other is 50 years old. One by a man; one by a woman. The two approaches to language are different. One uses language in an aggressively stripped down way, with simple declarative sentences. The other uses richly idiomatic language with allusions and metaphors. Two of its sentences however connected me to the other work: “Two jaws open. It’s the fine of his fines, so long as he’s fine.”

Musical and permutational, as punny as Shakespeare who’s also alluded to in this work, these sentences echoed the other book: “Quite still again then all quite quiet apparently till eyes open again while still light though less.”

This was the initial spark that jumped from pole to pole like in those old mad scientist horror movies, and connected Rachel Wagner’s “Jacob’s Hip” (https://ten-dollar-books.com/collections/poetry/products/jacobs-hip-by-rachel-wagner-signed-paperback-pre-order-1-15) with Samuel Beckett’s “Fizzles” (collected in https://groveatlantic.com/book/the-complete-short-prose-1929-1989/)

Does you brain connect inordinately different poems? Do they have any similarities? 

There’s a lot more to say about each of these works and I don’t have space to do it all here. To address the sense of space in each: the strongest evocations of space in Wagner’s book come in the descriptions of prison, with white walls, grimy corners, and vending machines, and, in Beckett’s work there’s a claustral feeling of close walls, or barren plains stretching beyond a dimming flashlight.

I would love to write a bit more about the personas that narrate each of these pieces:

Are they funny? How? Self-deprecating?

Do they understate their harrowing predicaments?

Do they succeed or fail?

Working with very disparate works like Fizzles and Jacob’s Hip reminds me of what we do in the workshop with each other’s poems.

Field Notes, Week of 05-11-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell