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

Field Notes, Week of 04-27-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 27, 2021

We had a very welcome surprise guest at the workshop, Bridget Sprouls, whose poem “Fresh Pasture” closely observed the aftermath of a farmyard accident, a lamb kicked by a steer: “She didn’t fall, just shook her head/ then walked on slowly after,/ nibbling a few blades./ Soon she simply stood there/ ears back, unable to mask the pain.”  The direct, unadorned simplicity of the narration allowed us, the readers, to care, to worry about the lamb, so that the next line, also unadorned, locked us into the moment: “Something had happened to her.”  The poem follows the lamb, who “sat quietly,/ breathing perhaps a little faster than normal;” the two adverbs, “quietly” and “perhaps” did a lot of work, which is unusual for adverbs, keeping the tension high.  And the concern we felt for the lamb reached a high point as the poem paused to educate us a bit about the lamb’s usual routine – experimental chewing and calling for milk – to then let us know that “Today she didn’t chew.  She didn’t baa for milk.”  Just a lovely poem.  Some of us thought the last line “The world had grown so very dangerous” was unnecessary precisely because we knew that from the careful caring exposition, but that’s for Bridget to decide.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Topanga” (no included in the package) was just amazing as looks back at youth go.  It was about that time in the early 1970s when Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon in California were magnets for the indy pop musical idols of the day, but those were just the backdrop to the young speaker’s place in that charged universe, and ended with; “I was always going back to New Jersey/ when summer was over/ and I needed a job as cashier or behind a counter,/ and there was our home in Halcyon Park as a backup/ where I could secretly lick my wounds when I failed.”

John J. Trause brought an untitled poem that began “I picked a flower in Britain once,/ the color of your eyes.”  It was written in ballad meter with the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyming and an added internal bonus rhyme in line three.  It was hypnotic metrically and hilariously sensual.

Tom Benediktsson was back after a few weeks away with “Freely Fly” a poem that anthropomorphizes an “LL Bean Wicked Good flannel shirt.”  I can’t summarize it, but it was wildly imaginative, satirical and just plain nuts. Welcome back, Tom.

It really was comedy night; not just JJT and Benediktsson either—Don Zirilli‘s poem “Stand Up” was shaped like am actual comic’s standup routine, starting with a quick reversal of an old comic’s standby: “I just flew in from New York/ and boy is the sky tired.”  And throughout, Don pushes the routine towards a slightly more surreal kind of humor; one section tells a joke about a snake who gets hit in the face by a dandelion stem; another tells a castle-with-a-moat joke; and it ends with a twist on a typical stand-up ending: “You’ve been fantastic./ I loved you in another life.”  My only wonderment was whether any of this material was beyond the ken of today’s standup comics.

Brendan‘s poem “Ta Republique” also featured a moat, albeit one around a sandcastle, a sandcastle on a beach outside a convalescent home whose windows were filled with sick people “some in wheelchairs, some bandaged, some with their fists to their mouths, their sounds lost/ to the flash and scream of a fighter jet, heading in.”  And the overall picture was jarring, arresting, and disturbing, but in a memorable way.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “The Cruelty of Youth” was a narrative about a summer idyll that was not ideal.  The speaker went swimming every day with a childhood friend of the speaker’s mother, and the friend goaded the speaker to swim the whole width of the lake, until one day, having had enough of that, the speaker challenges the friend to talk about his youth, spent as a child victim of the Nazi Josef Mengele’s cruel experimentation.

Jen Poteet brought a poem called “Wildflower or Weed” about dandelions.
Susanna Lee brought a sonnet called “Corona Stole Our Love Sonnet” that focuses on a guitar.

Claudia Serea’s poem “If this fever were an old-fashioned war” a direct address to a sick child, that includes the kind of fantastical storytelling that parents allow themselves to indulge in when it’s their kid and their kid is sick. Very nice poem.

Raymond Turco‘s poem was an Italian original and an English translation that had been accepted for publication.  We loved hearing Ray read it in Italian, and then we tore into the English, which had one of Ray’s unexpectedly strong metaphorical twists at the start: “In search of my son’s heart,/ I find it transplanted.”  We loved wondering what that could mean and where the poem could go.

Turns out I’m posting these notes just fifteen minutes before our next workshop. So, if I gave anyone short shrift, I apologize.  Our workshop, as Frank says, is the best thing anywhere.

—Arthur Russell

Calculating the Cacti: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I spent many hours this week in the desert, surrounded by saguaro cacti. These life forms group together to make living water conservation networks. It is humbling to endure the heat as a human (Me: “my arm is going to catch on fire”) and realize that none of these green spiny cacti have moved to seek shade for over 100 years. A single cactus can hold several tons of water in its body. It stands and preserves what comes to it.

I liked reading last week’s workshop poems, which I missed in person, in Arthur’s field notes; Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy” in which the speaker encounters the occasional “strangers” amongst the Joshua Trees, hit me with its desert setting. The meaning of ‘stranger’ is so different in a desert, where another person is a rarity, as alien in form and function as a cactus.  

I’m working my way through George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609280/a-swim-in-a-pond-in-the-rain-by-george-saunders/) in which Saunders adapts his master-class on 19th century Russian short stories to book form. Singers, from Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches is about a singing contest at a nowhere tavern. It has a lot to say about the strange, extra-human origins, social functions, and death of art (and it takes place on a brutally hot day), and it’s a really great story, but Saunders’s students complain that there’s too much description. Indeed there’s a long preamble to the central action of the singing contest which contains virtually nothing but descriptions of clothing, faces, architecture, etc. Finally, when the first guy opens his mouth in the tavern to start singing, Turgenev does one of those lovely Russian addresses directly to the reader, and says “but first, I think it would be best to describe each person in the story.” Saunders calls out this moment and offers a challenge: go back through the story and cross out everything that’s non-essential.  

This is a challenge to assess what work the description is actually doing. I remember learning how rapidly eyes scan back and forth across even a still image— how “seeing” is the eye making these movements and the brain assembling the discreet visual data points into a whole. Saunders points out that Turgenev’s descriptions of people don’t really add up to people but more like “Cubist paintings” He points out that modern descriptive writing is more terse, less focused on comprehensiveness (unless you are maybe Karl Ove Knausgaard? 🙂 And yet. You can’t get rid of any of it without it harming the effect of the story. 

It’s not that big of a leap from these “sight-like” descriptive fragments that “don’t add up” to a coherent image… to a poem whose word choices and stanza breaks disrupt syntax and sense.

Poetry schedules a sequence of events, like the choreography of an eye moving across a view.

Eyes-across-view is only one temporal scheme. There are also speech events and changes in register (which to my ear sound like new characters coming on)

The number of events and their relationships to each other make the wholeness of the poem.

There is no wholeness of the poem without every event.

There is no other/better wholeness of the poem.

Meaningless description is an event and is therefore not meaningless.

Am I proposing that there is no way to assess the relative appropriateness of a line or word, or stanza?

Can you actually edit a poem like we do in our workshop?

There are some pretty freaky arms on some cacti. Should we bend them or break them off?

I Poem Therefore I Poet: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

The Dog & His Reflection

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 20, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This week, I loved meeting the poet Terence Hayes (How to Be Drawn https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/317329/how-to-be-drawn-by-terrance-hayes/ & American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/567051/american-sonnets-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-by-terrance-hayes/  ) at Brooklyn Poets https://brooklynpoets.org/workshops/craft-labs/ . 

Hayes’s session focused on ways to quickly get at what a poem is doing, and then to use that information to generate new poems. He says he derived this approach from the “Maker’s Knowledge” principle of Cartesian opponent Giambattista Vico. Best I can summarize its relevance in one sentence: Descartes with I think therefore I am says you start with an abstract principle of truth; Vico says you start with every practical example you can muster. Perhaps someone better versed in Philosophy will elaborate (https://www.philosophizethis.org/podcast/descartes). As it pertains to Hayes’s method, the idea is, if you want to know what makes a good poem, make a good poem (God knows everything about the Universe because he made it: humans can’t know the ultimate truth; they can only know what they take their hands and make) How do you make a good poem? Look at the way other good poems are made. 

Hayes had us listen to good poems to focus on the poem’s hot spots. I’m writing this to transfer some of the practical knowledge I got from this exercise. One is don’t try too hard. When someone’s reading a poem (this works very well with poems read out loud) you want to background all your critical judgement, so you can be attentive to those moments in the poem that really work for you. You are going to hear and remember the best parts automatically: that’s the way the brain works. Those automatically remembered moments are going to be your key to what makes the poem good.

What makes the poem good is your key to prompt yourself to write your own good poem. This is not an attempt to assess a poem’s universal poetic worthiness. It’s an attunement, and an energy collector. One of the benefits of basing this on Vico is his principle that, because of the variety of human experience, there are many ways to reach a good outcome.

So some of the prompts might be: I like the way John J Trause incorporates legal language into his spiderweb poem: I will write a poem that uses an image from nature and contractual language.

Or, I like the way Don Zirilli speaks in the voice of a Labyrinth: I will choose an architectural  structure and write in its voice.

Field Notes, Week of 04-20-21

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

I’d like to start off tonight’s notes with a little prayer for two of our local poets who died in the last week: Laura Boss, editor of LIPS, and a mainstay of the Northern NJ poetry scene passed away after a battle with cancer. I knew Laura Boss only slightly, and yet from the few times we met, I came away liking her. Also, sadly, Brooklyn Poets’ reining Yawper of the Year, Robin Romeo, a young man, died; I’m not sure of the cause. After only a year or so at BKP, Robin had become irreplaceable, a poem of the month winner, a solid supporter of other poets’ work. Irreplaceable and now gone. May he rest in peace.

Clearly, if we still had a poem of the week, it would have gone to LanChi Pham for “The length of a line is the length of a human breath, Tom told me.” It’s a daughter’s love poem to her father who loves all poetry but his daughter’s poems particularly. Completely unadorned by fancy poetic language, it shows us the father “Lying in his hospital bed/ With the oxygen tubes/ Running up his nostrils/ And two tanks/ Always next to the nightstand.” And then father and daughter share poetry and conversation, “Until he wheezes,/ And can barely catch his breath anymore./ Then we stop…” A poem of short lines for a father short of breath.  Didn’t Stephen Sondheim write “Send In The Clowns” in short phrases so that Hermoine Gingold, the getting-up-there-non-singing-star of “A Little Night Music” could make a go of it? This poem enacts the very love it speaks of.

Claudia Serea, the master, was back with a garden as god poem called “I’m helping my grandmother pull from the earth potatoes and onions.” The poem proceeds directly from the title to tell us “It’s hard because the earth/ doesn’t relinquish them easily,/ because it never does,/ once it snatches something from us.” Sly work, but the poem doesn’t linger on that easy mortality; instead it enacts a Marx Brothers routine: a tug of war between the speaker the dirt, ending in the triumphant speaker showing off her “trove of potatoes,/ glistening amber piglets,/ and the onions,/ hanging in the air,/ rare golden birds.” Thank you, Claudia.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Filling in the blanks” tracks the speaker’s family’s migration story. From where to where is omitted though ‘from oppression to freedom’ seems like a fair bet. The poem is a verse narrative whose lyricism resides in the clipped, vaguely teletyped sequencing: “Permission granted.// No coming back would be allowed./ Every goodbye is carved in stone.// Three weeks to put our affairs in order.” In the last segment, the migrant family of 3 (two parents and the speaker) sitting three across in the plane “are entering this world/ together,/ as if we were triplets.” 

Ana Doina brought a polished up version of her poem “Bilingualism, a legacy,” which intersperses a lecturer’s spiel about the benefits of bilingualism with language-based memories from the speaker’s past. 

John J Trause brought a concrete poem called “Dementia,” that enacted the descent into dementia by writing the word vertically in a typeface of diminishing density acting as an erasure that mimics the supposed erasure of memory or self or whatever is erased in the course of the disease. Recently in a controversial 40 page poem published in Poetry, called “Scholl’s Ferry Road,” Michael Dickman used an analogous technique, of dedicating more and more of each page to white space reflecting the dementia that overwhelmed the speaker slipping into dementia. 

My poem, “Chains to the Sea” was a sound poem riffing on the famous final line of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Fern Hill”: “though I sang in my chains like the sea.”  It was intended as an homage to that triple anapest line of Thomas’, which has astounded me since I first memorized “Fern Hill” with Thomas’ Collected Poems propped open on the steering wheel of my 1973 Monte Carlo while I drove north and west on Route 17 from NYC to Alfred, New York where my then girlfriend was learning to be a potter.  It was a five hour drive, and I had the poem down cold by the time I got there. So this poem is an incantation rolling that phrase around until it seems to make new meaning. 

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “For Those Who Are Wretched” which takes off from the Victor Hugo novel, Les Misérables, suggests that the wretched of the world should “find the Jean Valjean” (a character in the novel) in themselves.

Susanna Lee wrote a comic poem about how hard it is to write a sonnet called “How to Write the Modern Sonnet.” It was super well received, having inside poetry jokes like “Only fourteen or so of the sonnet’s lines need words” and “Sonnets follow a metrical pattern when they feel like it” and other attitudinal humor as in “Shakespearean sonnets are the best, tres cool.” The poem ends with a line of the driest, morbid hilarity a poet can reckon: “Follow all these sonnet tips and you still die.”

Jen Poteet’s poem “Woman and Whippet” sounds like the name of a painting, and here the dog in the painting is the speaker, narrating from inside the frame what the unrecognized viewer of the painting must be thinking the dog is thinking. It’s a clever conceit, which starts off with some rudimentary observations about the sitting, the dog’s relation to his mistress with her “ruffled silk dress, gloves/ and elaborate feathered hat…” and the requisite unfulfilled dog desire to “terrorize mice,” etc. But then, almost exactly 2/3 of the way through (where the turn would be in a sonnet), there’s a ferocious turn.  The dog in the painting who has been enacting the viewer’s thoughts throughout suddenly says: “I don’t know death. I don’t know guilt or pride./  I’m the sort of chap that’s here now…” That is where the poem catches fire, as the energy ping-pongs between dog and painter and poet. Dogs don’t philosophize about a sense of mortality they don’t have, but someone does.  Fascinatingly, after that moment of surfacing passion, the dog goes back to wondering what (spoiler alert: garbage) is for dinner.  Thank you Jennifer Poteet!     

Shane Wagner brought a provocative poem called “Would You Fuck Me?” that jumps directly from the title to a confrontation.  A movie theater manager is propositioning a young usher. Hot as a pistol, the poem proper starts: “He repeated the question several times.” As that first stanza ends, the question repeats: “Would you fuck me?” After that, however the poem cools off considerably.

What Frank Rubino’s poem lacked in a title it more than made up for in poem.  It reads as a grab bag of disparate ideas: a meditation on (or by) one of the speaker’s toes (“I am toes”), an overly long one, a meditation that morphs into a consideration of adhesion or binding, which transmutes into a discussion of the painter Delacroix’s ability to paint water droplets, and then section 1 ends with the memory of a long ago taxi ride to Newark Airport during which the speaker sees the demolished building that once housed his father’s diner on Route 21. In section 2, the poem almost wills itself to fly. The speaker is still his toes, but his toes are in the Southwest on a hiking trail, perhaps a tour of butte country, and here, in this environment the speaker (c’mon, it’s not the toe), engages in a series of reframing observations: looking down he sees “the small figures on the road below” and figures “that was us.” He hears a cute exchange in the men’s room between father and little boy; he tells us the sat thing he saw and the happy thing, which was the same boy “lying limp across his father’s shoulders.” Some of the workshoppers wanted to cut away everything about this poem that didn’t sing with the easy impact of the demolished diner, or cut the poem into sections that could be separate poems. I say if John Donne were in the workshop, we’d be a little more anxious to figure out what he was trying to accomplish and how he went about accomplishing it, and a little less quick to give it a nip and a tuck. My point is that John Donne’s not coming, but Frank is here, so let’s treat him with the same respect we’d show to Donne.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Miss Pink” was a tongue-in-cheek updated/fractured fairy tale, a sort of version of Little Red Riding Hood, a kind of ballad. It’s strength came from its densely artificial language, such as “The train screeched into the station like a Chinese Dragon,/ and opening all its metal jaws sharply and at once,/ commanded, “Clear the doors and step in.” The poem’s not in the package, but it’s got a lovely ending.

Thanks to everyone who brought poems, and thanks to everyone who assisted in the discussion to help these poems on their way to coherence.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-13-21

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

Happy Poetry Month, workshoppers: 

We had a great workshop last Tuesday.  The truth was delivered by the poets and then the truth was delivered by the workshop.  So much truth.

My poem, “A Mortician’s Stitch” touched on a daughter telling a father’s story then retold by the speaker of the poem, about the life of a guy who was in near constant motion, whose daughter caught his momentum and the speaker who saw it in her.  It was a blank verse poem which means unrhymed iambic pentameter, and I must say that the form is fluid enough to capture discourse without unnatural compression, but the constraint of the iambic line, and the pentameter line in particular, provides just enough back-pressure on the writing process to measure out the poem’s progress in lines of consistent density and tone; the cadence is satisfying to the ear.  I recommend it.

Shane Wagner’s “For a Lifetime” was a prose piece – JJT called it a short story –  about life in the neighborhood with children who face developmental challenges.  That “know-a-little, not-a-lot” feeling that comes from living down the block is well captured, with the children as advance guards or avatars of friendship when they meet at the door for trick or treat on Halloween.  The details all ring true, and the line that rang the truest for me was the one that described the excitement of the girl who gave the juice boxes on Halloween when the speaker’s son arrived in his wheelchair: “The girl filling the doorway.  Holding a tray of juice boxes.  Shifting her weight in anticipation.”  Poetry or prose, it’s details like that that ground a piece.

Don Zirilli brought “Labyrinth”  a poem hearkening back to the story of Orpheus, the Minotaur and Daedelus, but told, according to Don, from the perspective of the labyrinth itself: “Every night, no matter how diligently I was debased,/ I walked backward into myself again.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Bilingualism, a legacy.”  The poem sets up as a dialogue in which the science of bilingualism is set out in italics, such as “It’s about changing codes,” and each italicized piece of the lecture is filled with an autobiographical rejoinder to the thought in the voice of a speaker who grew up speaking Romanian, German and Hungarian, and who now has a “toddler grandson.”  Everyone in the group found the final paragraph/stanza of the poem – the one that introduced the grandson — to be the most engaging, where the grandson is quoted saying he doesn’t like to say certain words in Romainian, but we feel the grandparent’s satisfaction that he “goes on listing in Romanian, all the colors he doesn’t like to say.” 

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Queen of Corona” was about how the last year of evenings have gone for the speaker, reading poems and the paper, following social media, watching movies and tv game shows and eating “corn chips, cheddar and salsa.”  Which is described as a kind of hell from which vaccination may provide relief if the speaker can move up on the list.  We learned that the speaker had indeed moved up the list, and has now been vaccinated, but not whether her activities list or her address had changed.

John J Trause brought a poem, an ode perhaps, called “To Thoth,” the ‘thoth’ being an Egyptian deity of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment and the dead, often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or baboon.  John’s poem was hilarious.  Read it.

Frank Rubino was back from vacation and back with a rewrite of his poem about men talking around a fire, “Pete & Stan’s.”

The dialogue had the offhand terribleness that one automatically associates with men, such as “Did you ever have to fuck someone, said Pete, or they’d fuck you?”  But the real heat of the poem is in the speaker’s feelings of discomfort with the fireside regime and more generally, about secrets (“(I can’t give the secret that I’m bad at the stock market)/(I can’t give the secret of my true numbers)/(I can’t give the secret when I last had sex)”); and that discomfort is vindicated, oddly, when the speaker’s “wife and the ladies come by the fire,” and the speaker can confidently report on the men’s good behavior with goofy smile emoji to emphasize the relief: “No secrets dropped about them all night (goofy smile)/ They are funny and high.”     In a way, the setting of the poem, with the women withdrawing to what was known in Victorian England as the ‘withdrawing room’ and the men retiring to the billiards room (which often had a fireplace) for a game of snooker.  Frank is clearly our poet most comfortable with the familial tensions of midlife.

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “Golden Shovel 1” was written in the form of that name invented by Terrence Hayes, who took the words in a line of Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, and made them into end-words for a poem of his own.  Janet used the words of the title of an article from the Sunday New York Times (“Music and Meditation Fuels Laura Donnelly”) to provide her with end words, and the connection between the inspiring title and the ultimate poem turns out to be the name of a friend of the speaker who recently died, Laura.  What’s particularly wonderful is how Janet used the name “Laura Donnelly” from the newspaper headline and got two line endings, one for her friend “Laura” and the other a reference to a line of poetry by another Donnelly, Tim. 

Come back again on Tuesday 4/20/21, and we’ll rip into a few more poems. 

—Arthur Russell