Field Notes, Week of 12-15-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 15, 2020

It was a workshop popping at the seams with new ideas, revisions, rough drafts and final versions.  And we kept to our time: 7-9.  No one wants to be the last poem discussed at a three hour workshop. Please remember to put your name on the top of your poem before you upload it, and where possible, make it single spaced (except stanza breaks) so we can all see it on the screen without too much scrolling.  Also, if anyone has Yana’s email, send it and I’ll add her to the list.

Yana brought a poem called  “Lullaby” that was addressed to and incorporated the lyrics of a Russian lullaby into a poem that examines and amplifies its dreadful message: “the grey wolfie will come/ seize you by your little side/ and drag you into the forest.”  Claudia liked the beginning where the lullaby lyrics were interlineated with its analysis.  Tom noted a shift in the language in the stanza starting “Would the fanged jaws tear your flesh” from something simple and lullaby-ish to something else.   Don disagreed, thinks the language is all consistent.  And there were a few other comments for pruning and rearranging, but no one addressed the underlying problem, which is how the hell are we supposed to go to sleep tonight?

Tom Benedicktsson‘s “Scratch” was a flight of scientific hypothesis comparing the survival tactics used by slime mold with those employed by yeasts, their evolutionary “cousins.”  It was arresting, original and very funny, especially the bits about yeast, where the references were to well known yeast hanghouts like  “drunken orgies” and “tearful bread-baking melodramas as well as the true sounding, but inexplicable “bottoms of poets.”  Not nearly as terrifying as Yana’s WOLFIES, but potentially more imminent.

Susanna Lee‘s poem, an early draft, she says, “Turkey Dinner Poetry,” also took on the lives of poets, in a different manner. She analyzed the preparation and service of Thanksgiving dinner under the rubrics of a poetry workshop: examining the stanzas, the ‘meat’ of the poem, and the editing process.  A meta-poetical discussion broke out over the use of the word “shard” to describe the bone fragment that has choked many attendees at one of these dinners.  Some thought it had too much Greek pottery in it.  Someone even cited to a supposed a poetry nostrum: “don’t use the word ‘shard’ in a poem.”  (That was a new one on me.  I’d been advised that “soul” and “azure” were declasse, but ‘shard’ is so useful if you need a rhyme with “lard.”)  But Tom like “shard” so Susanna was left to work it out on her own.  Finally, someone got up the courage to tell her to ditch the poetry metaphor completely and perhaps focus more on the racist rants of ratched uncles, and the secrets unintentionally spilled by sloppy sherry sipping aunts.  

Shane Wagner brought one of last night’s successful revisions, his poem “Past Lovers.”  Last week we urged him to get down into the the weeds of these ‘what if’ ladies, and he delivered.  Using “I go back to past lovers” as an anaphoric summoner, he details three of these episodes, and what was nice was how the poem deepened in emotional resonance as the degree of sexual involvement deepened (my mom told me that would happen).  But getting down in the weeds also introduced the tangles of those trysts which, as we all know, can resist the compression poetry adores.  While the hookup in the ’76 Civic only raised general questions (“If I lingered … do we marry … do I work for your father .. how long have we been divorced”) the groping session in the ’78 Accord (which has a more spacious interior that the Civic) raised questions of consent (“why did you stop us, put on all of your clothes…?) and the third adventure there’s an abbreviated romantic comedy “meet cute” on a railroad platform followed by the pair becoming lovers who only split when “you” went to Providence and “I” didn’t follow.  So much to manage, and yet, if Shane pulls it off, we’ll get Tom Hanks to play him.

Ray Turco was back with another free-verse tale of an Italian hero, this one “Giorgio Perlasca” who played a role in saving Jews from concentration camps in WWII.  And while Don said the brevity of this piece was powerful, and Janet was a little confused by the ruse Giorgio used, the most interesting part of the discussion, I think, was what role the prose footnotes that Ray adds to the bottom of these poems play.  The prose notes provide a short biography of the heroes.  Carol, voicing a concern that resonates with mid-20th Century poets who insist that the poem can and should speak for itself, asked Why?  There are other traditions, however, in which the poem includes an “argument” that introduces the lyrical content (see Milton’s Elegy “Lycidas” for example), and editors frequently seek to ease the reader’s entry to the poem’s universe with explanatory marginalia and footnotes, and there are truckloads of poetry books today that come with fucking interminable endnotes.  Our own Mark Fogarty frequently uses footnotes to provide context for his historical and sports pieces.  So then there was a debate as to whether Ray should put his biographical data in a footnote as he does or in an endnote.  That discussion has now made it into these field notes, which can be referenced by future editors of Ray’s collected poems.

Speaking of Fogarty, he brought a fart poem: “The Wedding Party,” about the speaker and “Jack Sheridan” using their Christmas gift reel-to-reel tape recorders, to perform a fart compendium to rival the ethnological work of Alan Lomax.  There came a moment in this conversation where John J Trause, who has known Fogarty for fifteen years, asked Fogarty to explain why he capitalizes the first letter of each line of his poems.  Fogarty sighed deeply.

And then it was Trause‘s turn.  He brought a triolet (look it up) called “Procrastination” that considers the his career as a writer of sestinas.  It was roundly loved.

Jen Poteet brought back her poem from last week, one of her emerging collection of poems about hanging out in the present day with dead poets.  (Like trading cards, she’s already got nearly a full set).  This rewrite was hugely successful because instead of merely placing the poet in a modern situation (So-and-so on Instagram, for example) and them mimicking the style of the dearly departed, this audacious piece brought Mary Oliver back to life so that she and Jen could feed the ducks at Race Point.  And, truly in the tradition of Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California” or, more recently Jason Koo’s “Shopping with Mayakovsky” (recently reissued in Man on an Extremely Small Island by Brooklyn Arts Press), the two of them talk, and in that moment, however briefly, that dialogue with our teachers and forbears springs into life.
Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Butterflies and eyes” appears at first to be about a friend who doesn’t take care of herself and lies a lot about it, but also about the sense of frustration the speaker feels with this friend, and finally, as Don Z pointed out, asks what this poem says about the speaker who is constantly passing judgment on her friend.”  And, Don added, if that’s the point, it needs to be brought out more.

Don‘s poem, “QAnon,” raised a bunch of perspectival issues itself.  Directed at the movement devoted to spreading destabilizing lies about everything from politics to child abduction and sex trafficking by Hillary Clinton (i.e., politics), the poem didn’t clearly announce whether it was in the voice of a QAnonamist, or a highly sarcastic critic of the movement.  Claudia said the voice of the poem — with its aphorisms (“Truth is the shovel, not the snow.”) — was very detached and she couldn’t relate to it.  Ray thought the speaker was complicit in the lies.  Yana said that the whole thing was “very disturbing,” and remarked on its lack of compassion or sympathy.  Tom said: deeply cynical.  Don said: “Thanks!”

Claudia Serea, as she is wont to do, brought a masterpiece called “The year we stayed home,” which announces at the beginning that it’s willing to go for the surreal:  “It was the year when I built you a house of clouds/ and filled it with thunderclaps and summer rain,/ so you can sleep well at night.”  The poem turns out to need its full artillery of imagery to shepherd us through a difficult time in the relation between the speaker, a mother, and the “you” of the poem, a daughter:  “It was the year when you wrecked your body,/ and I built a house of screams/ in which you wailed and hated me.”  But my favorite line was not surreal at all: “the year we cried/ on both sides of the bathroom door.”  

The elegy as a poetic form has a few traditional directions it can go, mourning the loss, cursing the fates, bringing the lost ones back to life, tying their death to larger sociological problems or issues, or using the moment to reflect on what was unique about the deceased.  Carole Stone‘s poem “Town” addressed the death of a friend named Ruth, with the elegiacal force of memory and dread:  “Soon no one of our generation will be left./ Each day I’m a little sadder,” she wrote, and in a downbeat manner recalled how they met and the last time they saw one another.  

Janet K brought a poem called “Rhizome” that celebrated the newly discovered scientific evidence that trees communicate with one another through their roots.  Where the poem got controversial, however, was where the speaker compares the peace-loving trees to the awful habits of humanity.  This, according to Don Z, made her poem into a bit of a Joyce Kilmer “Trees”.

My poem “Exile’s Letter” is an imitation of Ezra Pound’s “translation” (boy oh boy, is that a controversial word in this context) of Li Po’s poem of the same name.  We didn’t get to work on it last night, and it’s kind of long, so maybe we can talk about it next week without two readings, as has become our norm. 

—Arthur Russell

Who’s Living in Your Poem? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Family

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poet’s Workshop of December 15

Hi Everybody-

I looked at the batch of poems we talked about last week and noticed a couple that got energy from biographies. I’m being purposeful about the word biographies because it conveys the ‘lifespan’ scope the poems work with. Mark Fogarty layers Mark Twain’s bio, Twain’s daughter, Susy Clemens, and his own life to create a stratified model of identity with a few links between the strata, such as the concept of “empty house”; Susy haunted an empty house, and the poem’s narrator returns to one, linked to the circumstances of his life by parallels in hers: the poem reverses the link, “I was thinking of Susy” to “Susy spawned thoughts of me” by presenting Susy’s facts first. 

Shane Wagner also creates a stratified biography, where the sub-basement is the narrator’s entire past, and the link to it is a feeling of regretful weariness in the present moment. 

It’s important to think about what the links are in these poems, how they’re made. Poetry can make links with proximity, vowel sounds, metrics. In Shane’s, the action of extruding the link like a vector, in a direction, from one layer to another is made by the verb in the first line “ I go back..” 

In computer science there’s a concept of rich linking called the semantic triple. The semantic triple has three parts, the subject, the predicate, and the object. Predicates link subjects to objects : “another child” “dreaming of” “a former me”; “a former me” “exists in” “a different now.” 

I see linked biography poems as graphs, with the biographical layers having connection points. There is an empty house in one biography, and there’s an empty house in the other. There’s a child in the past, and a child in the now.
Another concisely-modeled example of linked, multilayered biography, is Lan Chi’s death-bed Rashomon where the poem’s links are discrete family interactions bound to different family members’ lifelong relationships with the father.

Going back to last week’s essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self (https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Self-Studies-Lyric-Poetry/dp/0393066134) In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time” to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced”
Each time time a poem creates one of those links between biographies, it creates a brand new I.

(It must say something that I keep coming back to issues of constructing the first person self with poetry.)

What links you to another life?

How many other connection points does that life have to yours? Does it connect like a bridge to yet another life?

How permanent are the links? Are they soluble in water (tears, the family pool)? Or can they withstand fire wind and seismic shifts? (Mine are stubborn cats) What happens when biographies become unlinked? Can you think of any other information models that poetry can benefit from?

The Price of Attention: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino‘s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 8

Hi Everybody-

I listened to Sam Harris’s podcast Making Sense this week (https://samharris.org/podcasts/226-price-distraction/) The episode, called “The Price Of Distraction” featured neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley whose work in brain plasticity I’m not qualified to judge, but whose conversation with Sam Harris on the mechanisms of attention (in the first part of the podcast) sparked some thoughts about how poems work and what poems are.

What happens when our attention is diverted? And what are the things that can divert our attention? Humans (Us! We!) are driven to explore, like other mobile animals, to find resources. This activity is subject to a dynamic cost-benefit analysis: “I don’t seem to be finding many nuts here; What’s the ratio of the energy required to climb the next tree versus the probability of finding more nuts?” That calculus demands computation cycles from our brain, and maybe more or less depending on the time of day, the temperature, whether we’re REALLY hungry…

Apparently, behaviorists can be predict the rate of tree-switching accurately among certain animals, and given certain conditions.

When we’re writing poems, we’re trying (in general, and I love exceptions) to dial down our reader’s tree-switching with our poetic machines. (I’m terrible, I’ll stop halfway through a poem I am enjoying to scan ahead in the book for a shorter one.) 

A poem is a document of attention. It shows what we’re looking at, what we’re looking for, how we assess the cost of moving on.

I also read a couple of essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self (https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Self-Studies-Lyric-Poetry/dp/0393066134) In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced”

So my thought is that the self is a product of attention, and a poem about the self conjures a brand new I each time it is given attention, and it’s amazing in the sense that each instance of attention is unique.

Do you get distracted when writing? Is the distraction a part of your poem or what you reject from your poem?

Does writing change the nature of your attention?

What does your poem create from the reader’s attention?

Field Notes, Week of 12-1-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 1, 2020

Arthur Russell, and sometimes Frank Rubino and others, have been sending the weekly Field Notes to our workshop fans in an email for several years, but only this week we decided to archive them online on our web site. These workshop notes are a treasure trove of poetic knowledge and a way to catalog our work, week to week. We hope you’ll enjoy this new feature.

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Can I just say, it was a great week for RWB. We had an awesome hard-working (and very efficient) workshop on Tuesday, and then an RWB reading on Wednesday with Susanna Rich as the feature and one of the best open mics we’ve ever had: the range of work we heard was arms spread wide.

Of the workshop, I’ll report this:

For a little gem, Moira O brought a poem called “Slice” that, like Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” turned a kitchen accident into poetic gold.  The first line, zeroing in on the shape of the knife’s impression, tells you everything you need to know about how poetry sees things newly:  “It smiles back at me/ with a baby’s toothless grin.”   As usual with a short, good poem, the conversation was intense and joyous.

Also in the realm of short poems, was Susanna Lee’s poem “The Quitter,” about a “last cigarette.”  (On that subject I strongly recommend Italo Svevo’s novel, Confessions of Zeno). In just a few lines, Susanna captured the firmness as well as the contingent nature of any claim to finality when it comes to quitting smoking:  “stubbing out the cigarette/ twisting, twisting it out, into the ashtray// gently dropping, into the pile of ash/ the very last butt, ever// the wry smile.  

Interesting, isn’t it, how the baby’s toothless grin (Moira) and the wry smile of the quitter (Susanna) function so well as images.

Don’s poem, “Sean Connery vs. Watson” had everything a good Zirilli poem needs: a reference to media, a persona to carry the message, and an ironic pose.  This one, a rant in Sean Connery’s voice, riffs on the Jeopardy tv game show (which is where IBM chose to introduce its IA product, “Watson”), as well as a Saturday Night Live sketch involving Sean Connery (who never appeared on Jeopardy), and touches on a theme Don visits regularly: computers vs. humans.  In Don’s poem, the Jeopardy question that breaks Watson’s back is to name the best Bond movie.

(In our workshop, recently we’ve been having the poems read more than once, which is fantastic for giving us all a chance to let the poem sink in before we start tearing it apart, and also to let the poet hear the poem in someone else’s voice, which can be the most important feedback of all.  Don nominated Brendan to read this poem, and Brendan did an outstanding imitation of Sean Connery’s voice, which really brought the poem to life.  Read it in that voice, and you’ll laugh too.)

In an almost alarming way, Don’s poem pairs well with Tom Benediktsson’s called “Trivia, Roman Goddess of Graveyards and Crossroads” which also turns on a point of cinematic greatness: a charge to name “the thirteen films of Preston Sturges.”  Unlike Don’s, written in a Scottish accent, Tom’s poem feature’s his cinematic penchant for macabre.  He creates a graveyard scene that is both Anglo Saxon (hackle) and Roman (greaves) in its feel, with a goddess who speaks like “broken glass in a tin bucket.” She denies the traveler permission to pass unless they can answer about Sturges. 

And since we’re going to the movies, we should talk about Frank Rubino’s excellent poem, “I, Popcorn,” which really has nothing to do with movie trivia.  It concerns itself with being “so small in all this,” ‘this’ being life, and it shows us both his trip to Russia to adopt (‘find’) his daughter, and his father’s volunteer work in a hospice for homeless AIDS sufferers (where he made popcorn for movie nights), and the speaker’s own beginnings as a zygote.  Frank’s strong suit – his go to – is unflinchingly and verbatim at times to depict his quotidian life – “My daughter drops into the sofa …/ chewing her peanut butter/ on ‘Dave’s Powergrain bread with oat kernals,’”  in the belief that the details will anchor his meditations.  By the way, you’ve gotta love getting ‘zygote’ into a poem (with 10 Scrabble points for the ‘z’, 4 for the ‘y’ and 2 for the ‘g’, if you could land that on a triple words score square, you’d have 57 points, and potentially end the game right there.

My own poem, “Cloisters,” as Ray Turco noted, “captures a common moment well” – the moment when a child learns that their parents will one day die.  This early draft needed workshopping and got a lot of help in terms of the diction, the register, and even the title (Jen Poteet shook her head sadly when she said “not so good.”).

Jen’s poem, “Amy Lowell’s Instagram Post” continued her current series of poems about dead poets brought back to life in today’s world.    Don said it evokes Amy Lowell very well and that Instagram is a great connection for Amy Lowell; Tom said Jen’s was better than Amy Lowell (beating up on Amy Lowell is a spectator sport in some countries), Ray T wondered if the poem could connect more to the style of Instagram, and I said the poem doesn’t really connect Amy Lowell to the present except in the title.  Rumor is Jen’s been working on it more since then.

Welcome back to Paul Leibow, who brought Afraid of the Dark Volumes I and 2.  We discussed only Volume 1.  It is similar to some of Paul’s other work that juxtaposes human cruelty to animal behavior as seen on nature shows, and as such functions as a biting indictment of humanity (biting indictments of humanity, am I right?).

“Deathbed Wisdom” by Brendan M, is a lyric that invades the hospital room of a dying woman, whose final memories are depicted in two lines beginning “Once, she’d”, and whose death is depicted indirectly, by reference to the machines that record her vital signs (“The electric impulse of her stutters, fails.”) and a strange, lovely euphemism for her passing (“Her body sighs”).  The group was impressed with its nuance and overall feeling.

Ray Turco brought poem Number 32 in his advancing collection of Italian mostly war heroes , this one called “Pietor Micca” which tells the story of  a soldier in the army of the Duchy of Savor.  There was abundant praise for this poem in the tightness of the narrative and strong line endings, but some suggestions about repetitions of words that didn’t bring new meaning to them, and isn’t that the nut at the heart of repetition in poetry.  Words carry their historical allusions into a poem, where they gather new and expanded meaning peculiar to the scene.  When a poem uses a word over and over, the word needs to do new work, not just in terms of meaning, but also rhetorical or metrical work.

And speaking of repetition in poems, John J Trause’s poem “Incestina” was a sestina that played with one of the scenes from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  His six repeating words (as required by the form) were “daughter” “improper” “nymphet” “crossroads” “village” and “Dolores” (Frank liked those), so, even if you didn’t know the scene from the book to which John referred, everyone understood the overall reference.  Don said he enjoyed the quixotic project of the poem since in some sense it’s ridiculous to make a sestina from Lolita, but Tom B made the observation that for all of the obvious and clever resonances, the poem lacked a “narrative line” but simply repeated the same situation.  In his comments at the end of the discussion, JJT pointed out that he had varied the word order of a classical sestina in the last stanza, using the order that Auden, who is generally considered to have revived the use of the sestina in English had used in his (Pasage Moralise?). 

Janet Kolstein is always writing about art, and in “Il Divino” she considers dirt.  The poem starts with a kind of catalog of all the cleaning of ourselves we people do, and this first part ends by referring to our bodies as a “pristine chapel” – which is a glorious rhyme (for Sistine Chapel) that sends her in the direction of Il Divino, one of the nicknames for Michelangelo, the great Italian artist (1475-1564).  And the second stanza of Janet’s poem notes that “there was no time for hygiene” in Michelangelo’s work, neither in his depiction of the biblical characters nor in the “corpses/ he bought for dissection.”  It’s kind of a “why so prissy” poem, but not all the way to an indictment of humanity. 

Barbara Hall brought a lyric poem called “The Birds” (sorry, no copy available), which talked about pain through loss in childbirth, loss of two husbands, a father and brother dying and used the images of birds in an “almost biblical” way (Moira) to capture and make tolerable the pain.

Can’t end these notes without a reference to the amazing open mic at the “Williams Center Virtual Reading for December 2, 2020”   We had Mark F reading his amazing “Lunch at the Titi Hut,” Maria Lisella reading a stunning poem called “My Junk” about an argument she continues to have with her deceased husband about the stuff in their Queens apartment, Davidson Garret’s heart crushing poem going back to the AIDs epidemic called “Death in a Harlem Hospital with Straussian Overtones, December 1, 1996”, Joel Allegretti’s amazing ideogram of a poem called “Meditations in Red”, Susanna Lee’s multiply-rewritten and nuanced “Social Distancing With the Ladies”, and Frank Rubino’s excellent poem about being a young man finding his legs in the New York social scene in the 1970s called “Helena’s). Those are only some of the highlights of a super wonderful reading.  Everything rang true, and there’s no higher praise for a poetry reading than that. 

See you all in black and white!

—Arthur Russell