Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021
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?
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.
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.
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.
Hey, Everyone: I tried so hard not to repeat last week’s complete failure to get out the Field Notes that I got a bit sloppy. I forgot to include Carole Stone’s lovely evocation of a writer’s retreat at a somewhat spooky, but also charming and inspiring, richly-endowed castle in Scotland, which I’ve pasted in full below, and I forgot to tell you about a fabulous poem by Walt Whitman called “Leaves of Grass Original 1855 Edition,” that I’m reading over and over on an audiobook narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, available on Spotify. I’ve talked to a few people about the experience of having LoG read to me, and how it has enhanced my appreciation of the poem I would say exponentially. I have a facsimile copy of that 1855 edition that I keep open and follow along as Mr. Ballerini does the hard and necessary work of giving voice to the words on the page. As you may know, the original 1855 edition has very little by way of formatting; the poem just rolls on and on sometimes a double space between what would, in later editions, be separately numbered or named poems. Also the Preface to the 1855 edition is a really long 5000-word lyric essay on what it means to be a great poet of the American moment, and the Preface, in the facsimile edition, is in tiny type and paragraphs with no spaces between them, so it looks like the label on a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s Pure Castile Soap. But with Ballerini reading the Preface, you can hear the urgency of the mission statement (some say WW undertook the work of becoming the American bard after hearing a lecture by RW Emerson), and you can hear those Whitmanic cadences in a distinct ambition, which is very nice.
My dear friend and I were listening to a 45-minute swath of LoG yesterday— the entire recording, Preface included—is 4 hours 19 minutes—and they were as grateful as I was to have the poem read aloud to us; we did it without having the text, or a glass of wine or anything, just sitting in front of my babbling telephone as though we were listening to FDR give a fireside chat, or as though we were in church letting the improbabilities of liturgy and sermon pass over us unchecked. This was part of my second time through the recording and the poem. I’d listened to it once beginning on Good Friday (1/3), Holy Saturday (1/3) and Easter Sunday (1/3) (which also corresponded to the last days of Passover, oh happy concordance much to be hip-hip-hoorayed), and I had been upended by the way LoG works as prayer/sermon/testimony/patchwork/Haggadah/midrash. And my dear friend and I agreed that WW can be difficult to enjoy on the page because as readers we’re always rereading, going back to catch the syntactical whole after it unfolds in those minutes-long sentences and lists of his; and when someone is reading the poem, you can’t go back (you can stop it to look up some of those incredible words he comes up with (chuff, teokallis)), but stopping to go back is really not the best way to love LoG. The best way is to let it roll, keep going, stay in that beautiful space that he carves out of time, try to stay in the moment, and if you drift, come back without judgment (I know, meditation). I thought, too, of how in Hebrew school and at the Saturday services, and at Passover, and, I imagine for Xians, in the liturgy, it’s the hearing of the thing (especially as a child, but also as a second child) over and over that allows your mind to absorb the poem in a noncritical way, to remember it without memorizing it, and in a way, remembering without caring if you remember. And let me tell you, when I undertook to read LoG, I was erecting sensical barriers to its admission (into my head) based on his relentless filling of its stretched-tight net-shopping-bag sentences, and rudely compared WW’s work to a wet fart (that happened, and I regret it). But once I found Ballerini’s recording, and loved it, and listened to the poem uninterrupted by my reader’s intelligence (such as it is) or my whiny pissy impatient attitude (think Ezra Pound), I was fucking mesmerized for long stretches, and when I did drift off to appreciate or interrogate an image or phrase or line (“The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case/ He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom”) I was able to rejoin the procession without a sense of loss, and realized that the poem is performative, not textual (Grateful Dead jam, not Bill Evans solo). It may be that some people can read WW on the page with the same drive and push as hearing it aloud provides, but I’m not one of them (which is a little odd, because in the sorts of shorter lyric works that I hear in workshops and at poetry readings, I’m always craving the text). Point of the story is I think this Whitman guy is on the rise, a real Ocean Vuong of a poet, and I plan to read “LoG 1855”, with and without the audiobook and my new bff Ballerini two or three times more before the class moves on to Emily Dickinson at the end of the month. For the last go-through, I may set aside 4 hrs and 19 min, and go straight through.
Speaking of Ocean Vuong, they did a free online reading through Harvard Radcliffe on Thursday night, and read two excerpts from their novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as well as a poem from their forthcoming poetry collection “Time Is A Mother.” The poem, which they now call “Not Even” was published last year (Poetry, April 2020) as “Not Even This” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/152940/not-even-this) – Although they did not say so explicitly, the readings from the novel, which concerns the Southeast Asian immigrant experience in the US, including their work in massage spas and nail salons, where Vuong actually worked (as a receptionist) as a boy and where his mother worked as a nail technician, were apt in the aftermath of the murder last week of 6 people, 4 of them Asian American women, in Atlanta by a psychotic moron, and they made some comments about that disaster in the q and a, including this: “My aunt works in a massage parlor, in California, right now.” I don’t know about you, but the stark reality of that statement did a lot of work for me ripping away the veil that separates us from the faceless Asian-Americans we hear about as victims of racist violence on the news. Separately, Vuong also made a very uplifting comment about the younger person we all once were who dreamed up the identity we became. To paraphrase, they said that in the Western Tradition we are encouraged to forget the person who wanted, and focus on the present, but, they argue, the person who wanted was the “pioneer of our life in a way.” Vuong asked us to see that person “not as a defunct version of ourselves, but as a fruitful collaborator.”
If this amended Field Notes were a Frank Rubino invitation to the RWB workshop, I would now say, think of a way to revive that fruitful collaborator in your poems. But even though I have appeared as Frank Rubino in Zoom meetings while he is away (and based on his reputation and home-page photo, received date offers), I am not Frank Rubino….
Next, I’m dropping a link to a worthwhile article in The Paris Review called “Fuck The Bread.”
And finally, again, with renewed apologies to her for having omitted it from the earlier edition of the Field Notes, is Carole Stone’s poem “Hawthornden Castle.”
Silence in the halls, outgoing calls not allowed, lunch arrives outside my door, sounds of padding feet.
I walk the winding drive, pass flowers, Latin names displayed. After a brief shower, the drenched air holds its blue, Rhododendron flare like a Tartan plaid.
Tea at four, today the promised scones. I’m scared of the rattles in my fireplace. Ghosts of previous guests? I’m told Stevie Smith was here.
I complain the sherry’s drunk up; the director implies someone is tippling at night. The cook makes the promised trifle. The castle owner’s possessions abound; Sèvres porcelain, blue and white Ming vases.
Precisely at 10:30 PM, the cast-iron gate slams shut, a heavy key turns the ancient squeaky lock. A poem might come to me tonight. Glittering, wonderful.
We had a great workshop, exciting poems and a great discussion on Tuesday, and we had a visit from Isaac Myers III, the editor of The Curlew Quarterly (but he didn’t bring a poem (sad face)) and a return visit from Ana Doina (who did). Frank Rubino was away presumably enjoying his immunity to Covid, so yours truly had the helm.
Tom Benediktsson’s poem, called “My Dear Friend Thomas” imagined a letter from Emily Dickinson to the poet responding to one from him to her, replete with Dickinson-isms like the m-dashes and idiosyncratic capitalizations, with quotes from her work. But beyond the easy mimicry, the poem fulfilled its project of imagining a real letter from a revered poet, speaking of the poet’s life with candor and friendship.
Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy,” is a poem of personal isolation and alienation, and despair for America. It is set in the desert where the speaker has parked his camper. There, he reflects on the recurring death of America and the inability to draw any conclusions on the cause of death: “I live through this new autopsy of America,/ this endless cleromancy, again and again and again,// divining nothing.” The poem’s lyricism is light as a skipjack, small utterances that don’t provide much detail, but give the sense of a defeated soul or at least one in a holding pattern, especially in the last lines evoking the power of movement without the desire to go: “I turn over the engine,// listen to the potential in its thrum, then turn it off, satisfied.”
Yana Kane brought a lyric called “Orbit” that addresses the persistent orbit of the Earth around the sun and asks why. It’s a celestial discussion that tries to move beyond science to free will.
Susanna Lee’s poem, “I Was Not a Girly Girl,” compares the speaker’s love of adventure, nature and science with the speaker’s sister’s love of soap opera and romance: In a lovely verbification, the speaker says of her sister: “She damselled, revelling in distress/ that would soon end in a magical, invisible, life-affirming kiss.”
LanChi Pham’s poem, “Inbox” uses the language of computers to indirectly illuminate what seems to be a romantic problem. It begins with the speaker saying “I cleaned out the inbox of my heart,” and carries the metaphor forward with words like “delete” “autocomplete” and “Searching…./Searching…/Searching.” And it ends with the woeful conclusion that the “you” of the poem comes up at the end of every search.
John J Trause, who recently wrote a pearl of a prose poem about a spider web in a library is back with more biblio-arachnophilia, a poem speaking to a spider whose web was found on government documents in a library.
Jen Poteet was back with a rewrite of her poem “To the James Merrill Fellowship Committee” imagining a fellowship that would entitle her to live in and around James Merrill’s house in Stonington Connecticut. She was looking to enhance the emotional grip of the poem by imagining more fully the speaker’s engagement in the fellowship process. The poem does a wonderful job of recreating the scene at the Merrill house as described in numerous accounts of Ouija seances, and the workshop pointed out that the “domed tin ceiling in the dining room” was a nice way of creating an atmosphere conducive to calling back spirits. I wouldn’t know.
Ana Doina’s poem, “Stealing Cherries” is a childhood reminiscence on the theme of old guys and kids, some of whom escape their escapade with “cherry juice still dripping from our laughing mouths” and a “slow one left behind” who was spared any retribution by the old, injured gardener.
Raymond Turco brought a poem called “Une petite chanson”—a single sentence affirming each man or woman’s right to live “their own histoire/ their own poeme.”
Shane Wagner’s poem, “Vermilion” was a rewrite of last week’s how-to leave home prose poem. The poem works by depicting the difficult circumstances of life—boredom and bullying and unsympathetic parents—and then moving on to describe an escape to a sci fi reality that relieves the discomfort.
Janet Kolstein brought a poem called “Oh, My!” about the secret lives of trees that combined a reference to the Wizard of Oz, and recent science on the ability of trees to communicate with one another through chemical releases in their roots. Very entertaining.
Wednesday night, we had an epic reading by Davidson Garrett at the RWB reading. Damn, that guy can spin a yarn.
It’s great as an audio book because it’s based on Saunders’ college lectures.
Saunders opens the book with an anecdote which could be of great value to us. Working on one of his stories with Bill Buford, the editor of the New Yorker, he complained of Buford’s constant critiques. “What is it about this story that you actually like?” he asked. “I like,” said Buford, “that I read one line, and I like it enough that I want to read the next. And then I read the next line and I like that one enough to read the next. And I just go like that all the way to end.”
The first part of Saunders’s book is built around a Chekov story, “In The Cart.” Saunders guides us through a reading of the story page by page. He focuses us, as readers, on the experience of receiving and processing information. After each page “we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?”
It’s important to note, he says, that before you start, “as regards In The Cart, your mind is a perfect blank.”
We can read poems this way. Jim Klein talked about the sentence as a force that builds with each clause, and releases its energy at the end: maximum sentence impact requires precise information delivery. Usually the most important pieces of information in English sentences are in the beginnings and endings. That corresponds with a way of breaking your poetic line: Start a line with an important word where possible, and end a line with another important word. Stanza endings and poem endings are places where the most important information can deliver the most energy. Syntax gives you a way of regulating information delivery in a sentence so you can put this powerful information in the most effective positions.
Arthur Russell’s poems which use the techniques of fiction like character, setting, and plot, are little masterpieces of information deployment. In last week’s “Vesuvius Bakery,” for instance, his main character walks down a staircase in the second stanza, which puts him in a memory on another staircase, descending which prompts another memory of the hours just before. The complex timeline is structured across the stanzas to deliver of the most intimate, vulnerable detail in the most powerful position of the poem: the end. We don’t know where he’s going after the first staircase: we expect it has something to do with what we do know: he’s been in a museum looking at a painting about memory and time. What if he just started describing other paintings in the museum? He could have, but we might not have stayed until the end, where he surprised us with the last bit of information.
So back to sentences, syntax, and word order.
Line by line, is your poem likeable?
How does your syntax relate to your line breaks?
Does your poem control the flow of information?
Are there other ways that poems are like stories?
How’s this work on poems you return to again and again, where your mind isn’t a perfect blank? Is there another part of you that approaches a poem “blank”?
It includes a well-known 1991 essay, Some Aesthetic High Points, which, Kelley says elsewhere, had been taken as an earnest anti-aesthetic manifesto— but is really one of his jokes: a takedown of pompous artist bios. It includes his memories of winning a poster contest in grammar school, and seeing an Iggy Pop performance in a biker bar. Another takedown of what I would call a structuralist seriousness, masquerades as an essay on a collection of “sacred” American photographs Kelley childishly defaced (swastika drawn on Lincon’s forehead, etc.) (Reconstructed History, 1990)
In The Poetry of Form, Kelley writes about found naming systems: Geological formations like “The Frozen Cascade” and paint chip colors found in hardware stores. The color of my bedroom is “Soft Chinchilla” He says that he wanted to “stress the naming process… as the primary aesthetic characteristic” of the color or rock formation. He was also intent on the anonymity of the naming process, and He created many artifacts (photos, drawings) based on his research into these naming systems. I thought of the poem “Bad Rock Band Names” by Wayne Miller, which he read at this month’s open mike. (Forgive me if I screwed up the title, Wayne)
(One of my favorite naming systems is cannabis strains: Ghost of Leroy, Jilly Bean, Alaskan Thunder F**k…)
Another association of Kelley’s work to a workshopper is the section in Minor Histories called UFOlogy: Kelley lists, among other things, the many detailed UFO descriptions he came across in his research on the subject. It reminded me of Janet Kolstein’s poem, where the speaker describes a ufo.
So, we have in just this sample of Kelley’s work a list of artistic pretenses you can use to structure (or at least jump-start) a poem:
1. Fake bio (I use this one constantly)
2. Pompous exegesis (actually I’m thinking of Susanna Lee’s recent “Viking Love” poem as an example of this)
3. Found lexicons and taxonomies
4. Deep research into trivia
(Also I can think of Don Zirilli’s heartbreaking instruction manuals as well)(And John J Trause’s “future hagiography” of Marilyn Monroe)
We had a good time at the old Zoom last Tuesday, with poems of metamorphosis, dreams, nostalgia, you know, the stuff we .
Claudia Serea’s “At 3 a.m., I held my parents” is a dreamlike free verse poem in nine couplets in which the parents are depicted as metamorphic presences that the speaker holds, loves and loses. When the poem begins, the parents are held like children on the speaker’s lap, then compared to weightless birds who wriggle free, “spread their wings and swoosh[ ] off.”
Don Zirilli’s poem, “How to Remember a Dream” enters the same landscape of dreams that Claudia’s poem occupied, but rather than presenting the content of the dream, it is presented as a ‘how to’ poem, that focuses on the process rather than the content of the dream. Like many poems in the ‘how to’ genre, there’s a bit of tension between the title’s promise of an easy-to-follow set of instructions, and the more difficult emotional content that follows. Three imperatives — “walk” “feel” and “report” – carry the ‘how to’ device forward, but particularly in the ‘feel’ section, the instructions illuminate rather than resolve the difficulties of remembrance, as they show us the imagined student receiving the content of the dream like a “frosty night of weather” transdermally through a their forehead resting on the cool glass of a window:
Feel the cool glass against your forehead
until you’re transparent, no longer
in the way
of the story you’re telling
to the person who is actually having the dream
and slowly pours a frosty night of weather
Janet Kolstein’s free verse poem, “Black Cat on a Cobblestone Street” was a lovely ekphrasis of a 1927 silent film directed by Walther Ruttman, called “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City.” While Ruttman’s film is famous for being the first or one of the first “city films” (here’s an article about it: https://www.popmatters.com/berlin-walter-ruttmann-2620911194.htmlabout) which can be seen as a celebration of modernity and urbanity, or a partly Marxist social critique on the on the dehumanization brought about by industrialization, Janet’s poem is more of an ‘ubi sunt’ poem, a contemplation of mortality and the transience of life, in which she considers how the people depicted in the movie are now dead and gone.
Speaking of old movies, Shane Wagner brought a poem called “A Pretty Good Team,” you might call a free verse poem, but not really, since it was written, in part, under the constraint of following the versification of the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin (1937), for the movie “Shall We Dance” where it was sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while dancing in roller skates. Shane takes this lyric about incompatibility (toe-MAY-toe/ toe-MAH-toe) and makes it about domestic compatibility.
My poem, “I Imagine the Earth Absconded” is set up rhetorically as Petrarchan sonnet (octave and sestet) in unrhymed lines that hearken (loosely) back to iambic pentameter. The subject of the poem is the traditional one of leaving home, coming back and remembering the journey. The poem hinges on the two sides of a simile (tenor and vehicle) which are deliberately conflated: (1) the fanciful device of the Earth leaving the solar system to visit a faraway galaxy, and (2) the teenager who leaves home to go to California, meets a girl in a health-food-store and returns home with artifacts (serape blanket, old car) and a souvenir of his time away (a pillowcase). The intergalactic imagery of a planet leaving its orbit provides some emotional substance to the difficulties of leaving one’s assigned orbit, and the powerful pull of gravity that brings one back to their “endless falling groove” and the pillowcase souvenir with its embroidered “border of yellow stars” embodies the way those journeys live on in a domesticated life.
Barbara Hall brought a pair of haiku “Haiku for my parents.” Both halves of the poem, mom and dad, dealt with death, the dad piece with a startlingly self-aware moment of gentle punning self-mockery by the dying father who says his hands are “the ends of me” and the mom piece with a detail of the funeral – lipstick color – that illuminates the intimacy of a daughter’s knowledge. Don Z commented that it was interesting that the haiku for the father follows the haiku rules, but the one for the mother did not. There was some discussion as to what the poem gained from presenting itself as haiku.
Susanna Lee’s poem, “Ruckus” is a poem, like Barbara’s about parental mortality, in which the speaker’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is furious about losing the ability to read, and tears a paperback apart. The description of the “tortured” book being torn apart becomes a metaphor for the father’s losses engendered by the disease.
Raymond Turco brought a poem called “The Chef” written in the second person to a “you” who is the cousin of the speaker. The poem has the candor to recognize the cousin as “”harsh/ like bitter dandelion greens” the respect to admit that the speaker is humbled when she chides him, and ends by celebrating the comfort that the speaker feels when he sees her act of kindness in making his bed. The poem is written in short free verse lines that are set up in three long stanzas; we didn’t have time to discuss the way this form relates to the content, but it would be a good thing to look at.
Frank Rubino’s poem is called “Gasoline is a living chemical.” The poem is in three free verse sections separated by bullet dots. It starts in the Covid present with the “we” of the poem, possibly husband and wife, getting vaccinated at an old Sears store they had visited (together or separately?) as children, and “played… in its overcoat racks…” Within that moment, the speaker reminisces about the connection between that old Sears store and the people who frequented it being possible workers at a clothing factory who might have been customers of his father’s lunch truck, including perhaps the foreman at the factory who had “put aside some dresses for my sister.” The poem returns from those reminiscences to the vaccination moment where the ‘we’ waits for possible adverse reactions to the shots while listening to muzak on the old Sears music system, and then returns to the domestic scene at home, talking to kids. The second and third sections of the poem ruminate on the moment: the vaccination event held side by side with the situation in Novogorod Russia when the couple adopted their baby, and in a larger sense, the idea of being in a strange public space.
Jen Poteet’s poem “With Authority” is full of humorous observations about idiosyncrasy and trivia, such as how different sorts of columns (Ionic and Doric) can lead to remembering a (very very old) tv car commercial featuring the actor Ricardo Montalban talking about the rich Corinthian leather in a Chrysler Cordoba.
I’m fond of this piece, and I like many other Mike Kelley works too. Sadly, he committed suicide in January of 2012. I read on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Kelley_(artist)) that mourners spontaneously recreated “More Love Hours” as a memorial.
More Love Hours, with its stitched-together stuffed animals, uses overtly “sentimental” materials. It’s transgressive (or was, or still is, or is even more?) in that it “ high arts” yarn and sewing and platitudes. As a blanket-sized wall hanging, it references quilting & seems humble and sincere. Its title which contains the phrase “Love Hours” (the time people spent creating giveaway toys) has a clumsy earnestness. It functions as a “message” whose literal meaning is easily parsed.
I don’t know why it works for me: I was taught that sentiment is the enemy of true feeling. Sentiment “manipulates” and numbs, and is often used for political ends yet I react with feeling from More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid: I empathize with the artist’s tenderness and the restorative labor in his collecting, composition, and construction of More Love Hours, a reflection of each person that produced each hand-made figure; I hear in the title, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, Kelley’s own acknowledgement that “curating” and “assembling” this famous piece, while labor-intensive, took a fraction of the cumulative effort in the construction of every crocheted, sewn, knitted, glued, cut-out, sequined etc figure in the amalgam.
More Love Hours is hanging in a carefully controlled mainstream culture industry environment, a very expensive piece of real estate, and engagement with it is highly proscribed. I can’t take it off the wall and roll around the floor with it. I can’t even really get close enough to smell it.
And yet, I still love it and want to cry thinking about it. I don’t know whether its remoteness (amplified by Kelley’s death) conjures such closeness?
Carl Phillips talks about the balance of pain and decorum in great poems.
Can one use sentimentality as the decorous side of that equation?
Do you write sentimental poems?
We have seen many successful workshop poems with sentimentality in the balance… and many unsuccessful ones (including mine!) As the Coffee Talk ladies had it, Discuss: “poetic” guardrails against counterfeit feeling don’t work anymore. Sentiment is no longer sentimental. Sentiment is useful in fact in creating the ironic distance required by decorum. I love some poems like I love More Love Hours- how do those poems work, those tear jerkers?