Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 24, 2021

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 24, 2021

Terrific poetry reading on Wednesday night, celebrating Black History Month!! We had over 50 participants, including a large number of high school attendees who shared very moving poetry and songs. Many thanks to our co-sponsor, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, to all our readers who were just fantastic, and to all who tuned in. If you missed it, watch the video above.

Featured RWB and guest poets included:
Zorida Mohammed, Mark Fogarty, Francesca and Raymond Dharmakan Bremner, James C. Ellerbe, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, reg e gaines, Michelle Whittaker, as well as local high school readers.

Also, many thanks to organizer Christie Del Rey-Cone from the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, and to the high school student coordinator, Dana Serea, for their outreach efforts. Let’s do it again next year!

Unediting Your Poem: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Perhaps many of you saw “Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues” https://youtu.be/inMs5loNcvg this week on KEEN’s Facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1595959980642796/ . (Also at Penn Sound  https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bittencourt-and-Katz.php ) It documents a 1988 “investigation” of (or investigation using?) Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” at NYCs The Kitchen  (A great excerpt from Kerouac’s 1959 poem of 242 “choruses” is here  https://poets.org/poem/mexico-city-blues-113th-chorus)

The Kitchen event must have been quite long, starting at 3 PM on a Sunday but the video features 26 readers, and runs a mere thirty minutes with some commentary. (We had about 26 readers at the last WCW Center open mike.)

Oh my goodness I just saw that Lawrence Ferlinghetti died. He is a commentator in this video… 


I really loved hearing Kerouac’s words, and I love the form of Mexico City Blues; it’s an ancestor of Ted Berrigan’s Tambourine Life, a compound of smaller pieces, which I talked about in an earlier note (remember Ted’s vast bandaid?) But I don’t want to talk so much about the long poem, or even the passages selected for the video. I want to talk about selection itself. Editing.

Unedited work. Doesn’t that idea make you squirm? Loong poems. Don Zirilli said long poems are like getting stuck in the corner with someone at a party.

I like the edited experience this video presents. (Of a writer who typed on rolls of paper and who stated that first, unedited thoughts were best.) Because who doesn’t have a half hour to watch this? I generated a whole load of lines this weekend which I want NOT to be one long poem and I’m thinking about what it means to edit them like his video was edited. How do I approach it? How do I find the succinct expression of length? The thirty minute version of my “choruses”?

Often we think of a poet’s job to be like an editor’s. The poet edits the poem to get the “ best” poem. To expurgate the “junk.” Poetic language is the product of the poet’s work.

But spokenness, appropriation, rhetoric, erasure admit the value of that junk line or junk stanza: that discarded speech has some human experience behind it, some lived-through impulse. To make your poem relevant to your contemporaries (which is the thing that matters most if you want your work to be read in the future, after you’re dead, and they speak differently about so many things) you have to really grapple with your discards, to acknowledge and draw in your poem’s opposition. Why did your poem want to say that? Is there something real in the cliche? Your poem’s length and ragged edges have crucial roles in making it fresh, responsive. 

What do you leave in your poem? There is natural drama in the high vs the low, the dirty vs the clean, the mess vs the geometry. My step Daughter, a fiction writer, said “Poetry is just word replacement, fill in the blanks.” Cheeky. It’s the blanks too though. Do you have blanks in your work?

Field Notes, Week of 02-16-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 16, 2021

Good morning and welcome to the Field Notes for the February 16, 2021 RWB Workshop.

Janet Kolstein (no copy included) brought a rewrite of her poem “Did you know Neil Lasher?” about one of those odd apartment house elevator acquaintanceships that ends in learning of the person’s passing, and a concomitantly odd form of mourning that ensues. I thought of it as an elegy pulling the slender threads of that incomplete portrait. So much information and the contours of the emotional gap revealed in these two lines: “I’d interviewed him in a Meet Your Neighbor segment/ that aired on our (now) cancelled condo channel.” And so much reverence (I think that’s not the wrong word) in this lovely quatrain:

He was always pulled together;
grey cashmere around his heck,
navy blue sweater, or a smart suit cut to his roundness.
A nimbus of stylish white hair

The kindness of “smart suit cut to his roundness” slayed me.

Claudia Serea’s poem, “If I could go back in time” imagines a time before the speaker was born, before her parents met, when her father as a young man was arrested by the secret police in Romania for what he’d written in poems in a high school notebook. In this poem, the unborn speaker imagines herself a gust of wind that blows that notebook off the table and out of sight of the secret police, thereby saving her father, but also, coincidentally, insuring that her father wouldn’t meet her mother and she, the speaker, would never be born. There is a wonderful moment in this wonderful poem when the narrative ends (“the Securitate would never find [the book]” and the poem leaps to two images in a couplet: “The flame would crawl into the match,/ the spider would swallow back its web.” They are images that illuminate time moving backwards, or undone cause undoing effect, and they are followed by the monostich: ‘and my father would be spared.’  Great story telling move, I think, and it is followed, ironically, with the new effect, that the speaker, the daughter, as savior, presented as a gust of wind would, by logic, have “swelled the curtains, exhaled,/ and disappeared.” So the sacrifice comes home in the last word of the poem. Nice work.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Fetish” talks about a guardian angel who “is neither.” Presented as a story in free verse with variable line lengths but a slender overall appearance, the poem portrays the ‘angel’ as a kind of pet or disruptive and sexually perverted child who masturbates hovering in front of a shoe store window. Funny as anything, the poem mostly avoids talking about the speaker, this parent/pet owner, except in the lines that reveal their superstitious nature: “so the other day I’m walking/ into town, busy avoiding the cracks/ in the sidewalk while counting back/ from a hundred by sevens.” And that’s really all it takes! I think that what energizes Tom’s work beyond the bizarre imagination of the supernatural, is his excellent management of lines that keeps his odd tales moving. Look at all these great line ending words: neither, levitate, ground, breaststroker, incontinent, cracks, staring, rubbing, inappropriate, swat, angel, revolving, embarrassment, shoes! And look too at the fabulous break at “three” in the compound word “three-legged dog,” which so zazzes the funny line with additional expectation, or the breaks between “rubbing” and “himself” and between “inappropriate” and “way,” that enliven each new line with impetus and momentum. So, it’s not just the story, but the lines that include fresh surprising details in an entertaining and engaging and surprising way. And, as the workshop pointed out, the title “Fetish” applies not only to the angel’s love of shoes, but can be a slantwise reference to the angel itself under the definition of fetish as “an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers.”  Thanks Tom.

For a different approach to narrative, Raymond Turco brought another of his hagiographic sketches, this one about the assassinated PM of Italy “Aldo Moro.” In all of these sketches, this one included, Ray writes in the second person, but oddly forfeits the proximity of that mode of address with an impersonal voice and a narrative style. The net effect can be somewhat “Dragnet-like,” the historical importance of the hero’s life, the chilling circumstances of their death circumscribed in a just-the-facts mode. The poem part of the poem is in prosy free verse, and is followed by an actual prose paragraph reciting more or less the same facts. The slight difference between the poem part and the prose part lies in the some details included in one and not the other and in ‘commentary’ such as “A mystery surrounds you, Aldo,/ the details are still unclear,” which is true.

Barbara Hall’s poem “HAIKU Visions for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” is a rewrite in tercets of Barbara’s praise poem for seashells. Now the poem leans on both Wallace Stevens and on the form of haiku for support, and could possibly lose itself in the ascription. What does this series of tercets risk and/or gain by calling itself haiku? And how has it answered Wallace Stevens’ invention? The group was happy to take it on its own terms independent of the title as a series of recollections about finding shells, eating shellfish, using shells as art, and even getting a gash on one’s knee that needed stiches. 

Shane Wagner’s poem “Robert Frost, Jennifer Poeteet and Shane Wagner in the Woods” starts off alluding heavily to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” but moves on to discuss the speaker feeding his son, and the challenges of having special needs children, and ending on a question about mortality. In that diffuse sense, it accepts and rejects Frost’s dichotomy concerning paths through life as there are roads, but the only choices are local. I love the way the poem alludes not just to Frost, but to Jen Poteet’s series of what she calls anachronistic poems about dead poets revived as interlocutors. And I love the way Shane made a party out of it by inviting a person/poet named Shane Wagner to come along for the walk.  It would be interesting to see Shane excavate this poem for its mineral wealth. 

Susanna Lee’s poem was a prose/poem called “Locks of Love” that was a waggish satirical take on Viking lore, that spoofed (or was it an homage pretending to be a spoof) the hyper sexuality of the type. “The men’s manliness oozed and anointed these, their holy women, all over.”

Jen Poteet, fresh from her appearance in Shane’s poem brought one of her own called “On Valentine’s Day, Everyone’s a Poet.” Though she never delivered on the promise of the title, there was a spritely insouciance to the portrayal of cupid as “a chubby little saint” who “aims an arrow” and the monosyllable one-word italicized, exclamation: thwack! 

Yana Kane’s poem “Unbinding” came in three parts separated by dots. The first presented the interesting proposition of the speaker as an old woman emerging from a chrysalis. The second and third segments proposed variations (no, not 13 variations) on the idea of metamorphosis. The third segment was a haiku in at least a couple of ways: its adherence to the American syllabic count for the lines (5-7-5) and also the grab of a moment out of time, this one so clearly depicted as an afternoon light phenomenon:

Holding sunset light

above the rising shadow,

a rusty pipe glows.

Frank Rubino’s poem was called “Mary.” Like other of Frank’s work, centers (?) on a reality of suburban home life, the speaker’s place in the world and leaking water, and veers away to consider other things: a Russian language singer, the speaker’s wife’s decorative lights, and a woman named Mary. I loved the homeowner’s mystical relationship to his home in these sweet lines:

I opened the tiny hatch in the basement ceiling, and reached up into the dark super-ceiling,

Somehow my hand knows which pipes are full:

the more lightly you touch, the more you know.

And I also loved the way the name Mary became a lambent unknown in these lyrical lines:

I was washing a pot from dinner,

and the smell of bay leaf

arose on the steam, and reminded me of Mary.

And I said, out loud, “Oh Mary.”

And my wife asked me, What made you think of Mary?”

I also liked the way the poem came back to the image of reaching for a valve in the dark to refer to the way memory works: “I reached my hand into the dark compartment of my brain.” 

On the overall, I think it would be good if we as a group spent time talking about how a poem does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t. A poem has available to it the huge range of devices, modalities and tools that poetry has invented over the last ten thousand years: form, line, sentence, argument, rhetoric, image, voice, diction, assonance, resonance, repetition, allusion to other sources, drama, narrative and lyric modes; subject, theme, irony, sarcasm (?); and we, as poets, as practitioners rather than simply as customers, have a greater awareness of what’s going on in a poem. And we can learn and the writer of the poem can learn more from us talking about what is going on—even if it seems obvious to us—than they can learn from finding out what we are or aren’t bothered by. Yet so often, instead of talking about what a poem is and how a poem is and where a poem seems to want to go and whether it seems to get there and if not why not—from which we can learn a lot—the first thing out of our mouths is “I would” instead of “you did.” Praise is important, but “I love” is only the beginning of informed praise. Don’t we ever worry that we’re imposing our own ideas of what a poem should be on a poem without exposing what those ideas are or figuring out what the poet has made? Isn’t there some sort of homogenization process going on when we jump to edit along “traditional” “modernistic” lines as though we were repairing a Ford for which a greasy dogeared manual exists rather than meeting a poem—a fucking creation—on its own terms?  Can you imagine saying to God—“love the universe, but you should have ended at Jacob?”

—Arthur Russell

Every-day-ness: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 16, 2021

Hi Everybody-

I’ve been reading Homeland Elegies, a novel by Ayad Akhtar. Written by the author of the play Disgraced, It was on a number of ‘best of 2020’ lists and has many pleasures, including cringey sex scenes and an erotically described bourbon. Its political sophistication, geographical sweep, and compassionately-observed characters trying in various painful ways to deal with America’s marginalization of Muslims after 9/11 make it spectacularly uncomfortable. I’m really enjoying the form of the novel, which is a fictionalized memoir. That gives its events the credibility of true-life, and permits the author to explore ideas in “transcribed” conversations. In it, Akhtar (the character, who is a playwright) enumerates some of the journaling practices that produce the exhaustive detail in his writing:

1. He records his dreams by taping a short pencil to his finger so that when he wakes at night he can directly transcribe them, with what feels like an extension of his body. (A friend tells him that if he wakes up and loses the memory of the dream he can recover it by returning his spine to the position it was in when he had the dream. He tries it. It works.)

2. He goes home after a dinner conversation and records it, and even reads and analyzes it for theme. (This does seem to stretch credibility because there’s a fair amount of serious drinking.)

3. He writes every evening what has happened that day. (I’m thinking of Kharms who, if nothing happened on a day, wrote “Today I wrote nothing”)
Also, Akhtar uses footnotes to meticulously correct and expand upon ‘the record.’

Though I’ve written about dreams, I tend to stay away from them in my poems. I was taught that dreams are anathema to good writing because the events of a dream have no consequences. I’m not sure that I think that, but I do know that when someone gets set to tell me their dream (my mother has some very long ones) I tend to find it harder to pay attention to than some other things. 

Every-day-ness is important to me. I need fresh, topical words, so every day I record something that is interesting or has emotional impact every day. I have gone through periods writing faithful accounts of everything that happens, but so far I haven’t figured out a way to make that practice add up to more than busy-work. The subconscious curator needs to be exercised.

Do you write every day?

Back to those usual questions that fascinate us: is your writing a true and accurate account of your life?

Anyway, what gives your writing its credibility?

Here’s a link to a 16 second video I found on r/youtubehaiku/, the reddit channel where “Videos 14 seconds and under are known as Haiku videos and 15-30 seconds are Poetry!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GX69llei1EIt will tickle your absurdist funny-bone, speaking of Daniil Kharms.

Celebrate Black History Month w/RWB Poets & Guests


The Red Wheelbarrow Poets invite you to celebrate Black History Month with a special poetry reading on Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 pm.

Featured RWB and guest poets include:
Zorida Mohammed, Francesca and Raymond Dharmakan Bremner, James C. Ellerbe, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, reg e gaines, Michelle Whittaker, as well as local high school and community readers.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 p.m.

Zoom information:
-Launch the Zoom.us app
-Zoom ID: 846 9724 6452
-Password: rcrc07070

We’d like to thank our guest readers for featuring at this special event. Looking forward to hearing their poignant poetry.

Also, many thanks to our partner, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, and to the high school student coordinator, Dana Serea, for their outreach efforts.

Field Notes, Week of 02-09-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021

I had this other thought about reading poems; reading, your mind wanders, words, phrases pull you into reverie and you miss something, or you read something you disagree with or would have done differently, or just resent. All of these pull you away from the text; it’s like reading a poem, the act of reading (even if it’s hearing) pulls you away from the poem. Maybe it’s a personal defect, but I think it’s more common than that. So, I’m in a workshop now with 11 other poets writing a poem a week, and posting them on Wet Ink, and wanting to respond, but being constantly pulled this way and that, I decided to try this: read the poem once, then read it out loud and record it on my phone.  Then play it back as many times as I need to, maybe while preparing dinner.  The oddball bits I want to change become less distracting, the relation of parts to each other becomes a little clearer, what the heck is going on goes from ‘who is this person, anyway’ to ‘who is this person, anyway’  (just kidding). And the investment in time is minimal, for most poems, a minute or so.  I hit the play button over and over until I’ve noticed more and more things about it, and rather than like or dislike, I can talk about what it is, and not just the formal elements of meter, rhyme, stanza, but the angle of attack, the emotion hiding behind the cleverness, shit like that. So I’m recommending that: hit record; hit play; hit play; hit play (the peculiarities of your own voice disappear, the line you misread repairs itself). Someone once told me, the first time you read a poem (story) you read it to find yourself in it; the second time, you read it, you read it to find the author in it, but around about the third time, it’s the poem.  It’s just that thing, fragment, remains, song.

Frank put my poem, “Authorities,” first in the packet, so I’ll tell you, I wrote it in Deshpande workshop on form, session 1, “Couplets, Tercets, Quatrains and Monostichs.” The monostich is the one line stanza (what I used to call the self-aggrandizing line). A poem made of monostichs can be used for list poems, or prophesy, or I spy with my little eye, and if you have a gift for aphorism, the monostich poem may be the venue for you. I thought it provided a networking possibility for non sequiturs, and found that I was talking a lot about who to listen to. I was very happy with the shape of it.

One of the authorities I appealed to in “Authorities” was the poets who come to watch me write my poems, and Jen Poteet brought something of the same modality to “Hart Crane and I File for Unemployment” – another in her series of poems that bring dead poets back to life for companionship and anachronism. Here, in free verse of no particular meter, she draws parallels and differences to hers and Hart’s situations. I thought the device was wonderful, especially when she and Hart “gaze/ out his kitchen window/ at the Brooklyn Bridge, its gleaming girders/ torched by winter sunlight.”

Ray Turco is getting more and more guff from the group over his biographical/ hagiographical sketches of heroes of Italian independence, in particular the prose sketches the follow, mirror and only alter slightly the information presented in the preceding poem. This one, “Maddalena Cerasuolo,” dips back to WWII for the story of a resistance fighter.  I pointed out that the whole middle stanza was made of sentences with the same syntax, dependent clauses followed by main clauses, which become distancing, informational, and repetitive. Maybe that’s what he wants, someone said.

Speaking of hagiography, John J. Trause returned with the middle tych of a triptych about Marilyn Monroe, called “St. Marilyn Chrysotricha,” which presents the movie star in a tongue-in-cheek manner as a saint. People loved it’s humor, and no one doubted that Marilyn deserves canonization.

Susanna Lee, back from a sad time out to mourn the loss of Arliss her dog, brought a stunningly simple and beautiful poem (“Poetry Practice) of one sentence in three free-verse quatrains (so similar in shape and form to “This is Just to Say” by WCW), in which her little kindnesses define a practice of poetry that we could admire. There was a lot of talk about the last stanza (which seems appropriate) because the participle “blessing” aroused attention. After all, the participle “leaving” had started the second stanza, and “blessing” didn’t seem to have an object, or maybe blessing seemed to religious. Anyway, we all got out our editorial pencils – we love changing poems too much – and gave Susanna a few suggestions to honor what we took to be her intention.

Barbara Hall brought “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” about which some people said that Barbara and the shells could stay, but Wallace Stevens had to go. He was gumming up the works. My favorite line was X, “Clam shells ease open when steamed in a pot to yield/ one of my favorite seafood dishes: steamed clams.” Wallace Stevens has to go, but Gertrude Stein can stay!

Shane Wagner brought us a short story called “Tourist”, a sci fi disease adventure of the future. Myself, I was drawn to the description of the big fireplace in the fourth paragraph, with Jacob, the host if not the hero of the story, building a fire of “quartered logs the length of his arm, two in one direction, then two in the other and so on until the pile was chest high.” And I liked how Ava watching the conflagration “imagined Jacog as a boy at this hearth learning the technique form his father….”    

Yana Kane’s poem, “Family Tree” takes that ready-made metaphor, and then talks about tree stuff as a means of elucidating family. It has great repetitions of “too many times” that provide the ostinato of the poem, and you do get the feeling that the speaker’s family’s been through a lot, but for me, the suggestion of a family wasn’t strong enough to break through the news of what happened to the tree.

Don Zirilli’s poem “Welcome to My Giant Castle of Myself” was, according to Don, inspired by wondering how you could invite someone into your life, but maybe never succeed. So the poem uses what he called “untethered metaphor” to animate the house. I liked best the parts where the human idiosyncrasy was built right into the structure: “I’m trying to get better lighting/ but the ceilings are worried about you./ Not all the angles understand/ how to accommodate your perspective./ Be careful of the well/ in the drawing room.”

Our fearless leader, Frank, brought “How Can a Loser Ever Win” in which he fell into the wake of Kyle Brosnihan’s big poem “Empire” which Kyle read last week as the feature at the RWB reading last Wednesday. What Frank had admired about Kyle’s poem was the way it took a simple core and built out from it lyrically, finding places where iteration was the driver and elaboration was the lyric experiment.  He hit pay dirt many times in this piece, but none better than the tercet in the second stanza: “I want to change my job into a ministry./ I want to change my computer skills into hospice skills./ I want to change my blue jeans into a sari and wear a kimono and toga.”  You could feel the tug of the desire to do good, and then the sourpuss of middle age reassert itself in the monostich stanza that followed: “I want to change a few enemies into whale shit.” 

All in all, another day at the workshop with my friends.  Try recording these poems and playing them back.

—Arthur Russell

A Simple Game: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021

Hi Everybody-

This past Wednesday we featured poet Kyle Seamus Brosnihan at our virtual Williams Center reading on zoom. He read his poem, Empire which you can find here https://www.alwayscrashing.com/current/2019/6/18/kyle-seamus-brosnihan-empire Empire is a long poem that builds a repetitive pattern:

my normal heart
my mandatory heart
my only heart
my tedious heart
my circular heart
my disposable heart
my blue heart
                  is a pit I keep falling into
my cancerous heart
                  is a bone I keep choking on

These lines are from the beginning of the online version. The “my ___ heart” protocol starts up right away, directly, forthrightly: the poem saying this is what I do, you don’t have to figure it out. As Arthur Russell put it: I’m going to keep playing this game. The simplicity of the game is disarming, and approachable. Unlike more complex patterns like sestinas or pantoums, this poem just keeps doing its tick tock thing. Not that other games aren’t running. Against this repetition, Brosnihan deploys:

1. Characters. Voices walk on and off the stage: my fascist heart/ forgot how to love/ whatever/ love is boring

2. Micro-Sequences: my unrelenting heart/ and and and/ my never-ending heart/ and and and /my paradoxical heart/ but

3. Taxonomies: a group of a dozen hearts or so are the “won’t love you” hearts and their appearance together is reminiscent of a hierarchical categorization. Each one a sub-species: “if you’re not my kind of pretty” “unless you won’t love me” “if you know all the answers”etc.

4. Emotional Arcs. The last major sequence of hearts are the highest expression of an ardor that’s been maneuvering and growing throughout the long poem: they each “long for love” 

The art of Ed Atkins https://cabinet.uk.com/refuse also uses repetition. Listening to Brosnihan’s poem, I thought of Atkins’s pieces, Refuse.exe, and The Weight of the World. In Refuse.exe, a customized computer animation program renders, without commentary, and with a half-heard piano soundtrack, blankly classical, various objects crashing through a floor. A massive ship’s anchor, a cloud of feathers, a pallet of books, a pile of human bones and skulls, fish, a piano. A fat rope. The action occurs in an anonymous dull gray space. Its “abject cgi” as Cabinet Gallery’s founder, Andrew Wheatley, calls it, is austere, and limits the game visually the same way Brosnihan’s simple verbal pattern constrains Empire. Atkins’s other piece, The Weight of the World, is a 19 hour reading from Proust, accompanying a relentless though somehow soothing progression of manufacturing processes at jigsaw puzzle factories, kayak factories, saltine factories, and all sorts of mass producers; it reminds me of the emotional payoffs Brosnihan gets with his characters and arcs.

Do your poems play with repetition, permutation, and rogue variance? 

What are the units that repeat in your poem? 

Consciousness seems to require both a mechanism for synthesizing consistency and a setting which produces novelty. I guess that’s not a question.

Field Notes, Week of 02-02-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021

Claudia Serea has written many beautiful poems about Romania, her family in Romania, magic in Romania, coming to the US from Romania, and thinking about Romania when she’s in the US, but for some reason tonight’s poem “Self-portrait on Independence Boulevard” had a whole new kind of freshness and immediacy. It’s not just the understated irony of living in a communist dictatorship on a street called Independence Boulevard, or growing up, as she says, in the “oblique gaze” of “dirty potatoes sprouted eyes” in a vegetable store in a country where she can see “the bread line snaking down the sidewalk/ under the young linden trees/ that cast almost no shadows.” It may have a lot to do with the way the poem switches from the past tense to the present tense when it gets to “Here I am, quiet, scrawny,/ knee-scarred and pony tailed…”  and the image of her “gliding in the vast emptiness of Independence Boulevard/ in my industrial city full of dust,/ feet strapped with brown leather and buckles/ on metal, four-wheel rollerskates.” That image of youthful vibrancy on a desolate boulevard is sharp, but the device of switching into the present tense, even though the whole poem takes place in the past, gives the poem an extra jolt. I love that.

Moira O’Brien’s poem “Ghost Herd” about the sight of deer through a winter window, showed up in two drafts, a discredited 8-line draft and a pared down tercet that rang true. Seeing the editorial changes was exciting for the group, and someone suggested presenting the poem as an erasure, leaving only the surviving bits.

Raymond Turco was back with another poem in his book of Italian heroes, “Giacomo Matteotti”, an antifascist and socialist politician of the early 20th Century. Ray’s format in this book, of providing a short prose biography of his subjects after the more lyrical poem, has been the subject of a several discussions since he began the project. No one knows exactly what to make of it.  The bios are not just footnotes; sometimes they have the same information that is in the poem, and sometimes they have interesting details that are left out of the poems. We continue to wonder what the relationship is between poem and notes. The poems are not so obscure or lyrically separated from historical fact that they need a lot of explanation,  but the poems are presented in the second person, while the bio is presented in the third person. We considered the possibility that the repetition may provide a stereoscopic view, or confronted the reader with choices to make about reality or poetry.    

Tom Benediktsson brought “Glo-Fish at the Aquarium.” The title contains the premise or the locale, and the poem starts out fancifully considering the benefits of having phosphorescence, such as being “my own nightlight.” But fancy turns ecclesiastical and curt, if not downright impatient, when the poem becomes about a glowing statuette of Jesus Christ. 

My own poem, “Heist Ballad” was part one of a narrative lyric that may never be completed, written in a series of haiku.  

Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books.” In the opening stanzas, mostly couplets, the poem entertains a fanciful notion of reading across the titles of books from their spines for the ironies their successive titles provide. But then the poem hits on an amusement of a more intimate and intriguing nature, a chance encounter with a “nice lady/ At a call-center” whose offhand remark, a “that’s life” generality, inspires the speaker to cull his herd of books. “She got me thinking – straightened me out.” the poem continues. That oddball dramatic moment is my favorite in the poem. There we suddenly are, deep in the gussets of the speaker’s mind, allow to see what moves him and to see him being moved. And what follows is another surprise, an inscription in one of his books that reminds him of an old lover. That’s the true gen.

John J. Trause’s poem, part one, called “Marilyn Mosaic,” of a triptych called “My Marilyn: A Triptych” delights in working the titles of Marilyn Monroe’s movies into a portrait of the movie star.

Barbara D. Hall brought a poem called “MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE.” Its method is to present a too sweet, too warm, too compassionate, too wonderful, highly detailed but fairly cliched accounting of a happy childhood memory of a fabulous grandmother only to reveal in the last two lines end that it never happened. That’s a courageous and daring strategy. 

Yana Kane was back with another draft of her ode/elegy to a Tai Chi teacher called “Tai Chi Teacher.” She has reached the point of polishing this piece.

Frank Rubino’s poem, “Kong seems to be able to see my death” captures the speaker watching an old monster movie while overhearing his wife talking on the speakerphone about a person who’d died. Slowly as the poem moves forward, the fragments of his wife’s phone call come to dominate his thoughts, so we hear the contrast between “Godzilla’s breath” being pushed down his throat and “when you’re that young you don’t realize people can just die.”    

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “The Faux Ficus,” like Rob Goldstein’s “Throwing Out Books” was about paring down possessions, in Janet’s case, the eponymous plastic ficus, a forlorn companion dragged to the trash room still bearing the “shred marks on the droopy polyesterish fronds” of the speaker’s “former cat.” 

—Arthur Russell

Make Some Noise: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021

Hi Everybody-

We got snow! 

My art school friend was Donald Miller. We shared a couple of painting classes and I followed his reading recommendations (for which I’m grateful to this day) and we went to films and clubs together and shared student life. Donald was learned and debauched and made compelling, challenging art in many different forms, poetry, painting & collage and music. He was one of those people with a kind of hard-won performers’ camp that was very seductive to me, whose facade he let me see behind. And he was outrageous. His project, Borbetomagus (“Worm King”) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borbetomagus is still active. Google says Genre: Free jazz, Noise rock, Classical 

This week I watched a film on Swans https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seer_(Swans_album) Genre: Rock, No wave, Industrial music, Post-punk, Gothic rock, more, that brought Donald and Borbetomagus to mind. Both Swans and Borbetomagus are concerned with noise and with particular uses of sound that seem extra-musical, or maybe proto-musical.

Watching the Swans film (“Where Does A Body End”), I recalled my experiences of Borbetomagus in person. Those performances are still vivid in my mind (I can hear the shrieking saxes, and the screech of Donald’s escape-from-jail file working at his amped electric guitar (which he said he wanted to play like Prince). I can see Borbetomagus’s  body language— purpose, subjugation by example to the sonics— but I still don’t understand why I felt they were important to me, or what they were to me, or why anyone would seek them out the way Swans fans seek out their long, aggressive noisescapes.

I realize now I often gave myself an out from extreme art like Borbetomagus: it was “ironic”; it was a “position”; it was a “school.” 

Whereas Swans fans describe their concerts as “ecstatic rtitual.”

Whereas Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter of Borbetemagus contorted their bodies around their saxophones like dervishes.

But my recent pursuit of chance and failure as strategies for making poems leads to noise, and an experience of noise that’s closer to a servant’s, the way Borbetomagus (and Swans) channel, create, and live in the noise. Which brings me, in pretty short order to:

Is noise art?

Is noise a poem? 

Does noise have sentences? (In Swans case yes, In Borbetomagus no) 

So many have asked this question in so many ways, that I’m not sure the strategy of making noise can produce the value of newness or entertainment, which (even now) I accept as poetic principles, just as I accept the principle of syntax.

Perhaps noise’s outrageousness is a kind of entertainment.

Perhaps noise’s confrontation is a kind of entertainment.

I do know that I feel a searcher in noise, and perhaps what I’m looking for is a poem?

Field Notes, Week of 01-26-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26, 2021

We got the news yesterday that Mark Fogarty, the Editor in Chief and the Publisher of the Red Wheelbarrow Journal and the MC of the Gainville Café sessionss, and a stalwart member of the RWB workshop since its beginning, is retiring from his posts after work for the last 13 years at least on the journal, many excellent Friday nights of love and music, including his bass playing and singing.  Losing both Mark and Jim Klein to retirement in one year is a big loss for the group, so I just wanted to shout out our gratitude to both of them for their work, their spirits and their love of poetry.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “A Last Act” is a fifteen line narrative piece of free verse in two stanzas, each of which presents the facts of a different part of the day of a burial.  The poem begins when most of the mourners have left the gravesite and “the men moved in” – the men who do shovel the dirt.  The speaker’s family, including girls who “played hide-and-seek among the monuments” remain behind.  At the center of the poem a strong declarative places the day in the context of a survivor’s life: “It’s the last, firming act of adulthood when your parents die,/ though I don’t confuse it with maturity.”  The poem never tells us whose parent died, which gives the voice a certain internality and adds to the sense of stillness that the poem generates from beginning to end. 

The second stanza, of four lines, brings us back to the graveyard later in the day, “after dinner and recollections,” as the speaker drives by, looking through the green gate, looking for the grave, taking note of the flowers that the men had set on the mound “nicely,/ a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.  Tom B said that the speaker of the poem was hiding their feelings. The way the speaker doesn’t tell us the relationship between the decedent and themselves but declares the place a parent’s death takes is one example.  And look at those last two lines again: the speaker, driving past the cemetery sees the grave through the gate and declares, in a very third person way that the flowers are  “a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.”  Well, there IS a person passing and seeing right at that moment, and it’s not “anyone”— it’s the speaker.  So whether they are hiding their feelings  as Tom says, or presenting them through the filter of distancing effects (and through the green gate), it gives the poem its enduring sense of stillness.  (Frank didn’t like the title.  Neither did I, and there were a bunch of other editorial comments on syntax and word choice.)  I for one would love to see this near-sonnet again.

Speaking of maintaining a distance from emotion, Raymond Turco’s poem “Nilde Iotti” brings his book of Italian heroes more deeply into the twentieth century that some of his others.  The subject was a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, who (spoiler alert) had an affair and child with a married man.  As always, in this collection, Ray works in free verse, does not eschew archaicisms, and addresses his subjects as “you” while maintaining a third-person-ish distance that frequently, as here, creates a jarring contrast of familiarity and anonymity.  Like Michelangelo’s slaves, they only emerge halfway from their stones. 

Speaking of poems written in the second person that maintain an emotional distance from their subject, Susanna Rich’s poem “e-ro-teme/ n. 1. A mark indicating a question” is a lyrical love poem in free verse stanzas of three lines each that magnifies the adoration of a loved one’s hair curling around their ear.  The magnification is achieved through lingering on the possibilities of the moment, and the distancing is achieved through a kind of intelligent coyness, allowing the fascination of the peculiar word – eroteme — that describes a question mark, to dominate, even going as far as presenting the word, separated (in the title) into its syllables in a way that sneakily calls out the “eros” lurking in “eroteme.”  Tom thought the poem digressed. Jen must’ve agreed because she said to take out the comparison to “yin and yang,” and Claudia Serea asked in the politest way possibly, why the heck the poem needed three-line stanzas.

Shane Wagner, fresh from three consecutive rewrites of his last photo-based poem “Retouching” (about the broken bond between father and son) brought “Polaroids” a love poem (also in the second person) in which the love is shared between those old-fashioned Polaroids with a white border, and the subject of the poem, the “you” who is nude in the third stanza and pregnant in the fourth (talk about fast developing!).  The poem evoked a lot of nostalgia for the old technology (and Don said there’s an app that can make any photo look like it was taken by a 1970s Polaroid, and a lot of editorial comments. 

What would our work as a workshop be if it wasn’t about trying to fix a poem?  When we edit, we erase what we don’t like or don’t understand to make the poem conform to our norms; we substitute ourselves for the poet; we say, if I were writing this poem, this is how I would do it.  Well, hooray for that, and no doubt that can be helpful.  I’ve been an advocate in workshop for reading the poem twice and even three times before we say anything about it, because it keeps the poem in front of us in the poet’s words, allows us a chance to enter the poet’s intentions as hidden in a condensation of syntax, diction, line breaks, assonance, metaphor and a dozen other strategies.  Gives us a chance to say what IS happening in the poem instead of what SHOULD happen in the poem.  And that can be helpful to everyone, not just the poet.

Mike Mandzik, the inside of whose mind is a pinball machine, brought a poem called “RED FLAG” about an unfortunate misunderstanding in love, in which, as usual, the guy doesn’t know what went wrong, only that he’s not getting any pussy for a while.  Mike, want to come over to my place for the Super Bowl?

Carole Stone brought “Somewhere Else” a good poem (with a shitty title) where her plainspoken mid-century voice tallies the facts and artifacts of age: hurting legs, a bit of kindness from the guy in the liquor store, a beloved book on her desk, and hair getting long during the pandemic.  And remarkably, the poem is overtly about the very sort of emotional distancing that we talked about in Brendan’s, Raymond’s and Susanna Rich’s poem, except this poem records that difficulty as the turn that ends the poem:  “I think I’m closer to putting my emotions/ on the page.  I’ve almost stopped longing/ to be somewhere else.”

Yana Kane’s poem “Tai Chi Teacher” is a re-write of her triptych about a tai chi master whose lessons survive him.  It’s in four sections now (Quad-tych?) of varying length and uneven stanza lengths, still in free verse, and even more clearly now an elegy to this mentor.  It starts with the highly formal address: Our Tai Chi teacher,/ Master Yu,/ was in the eighty-first year of his life,” and as the poem proceeds, it adopts several forms of address all typical of the elegy form: narrative of an incident in which the aged teacher showed openness to learning, strong declarations of inviolable truths (“Life does not make bargains…”) and expressions of personal grief (“Now I gaze at the blank pages…But the pages remain empty”); grief in ritual (“Looking at a snowy hill… I see the shaven head of the nun/ Who recited the sutras”) and the consolation of memory (“Ten years have passed . . .). One of the traditional moves of the elegy form that this poem does not engage with is the effort to place the life and loss of the beloved in the wider context of the world. (see “Lycidas” by John Milton).    

My poem was a haiku:  “The cardinal ate/ the suet cake into the/shape of a cardinal.” In the hands of most haiku practitioners I’ve encountered on the dusty road to hell, the form has, until recently, been a mystery of shallow ironies to me.  But then a few weeks back, I conceived of the form as a three-line poem with two turns, and then I saw the potential for doing some real damage in it.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.

Don Z’s poem, “The New Ideas in Chess,”  Susanna said, recognizes chess’s role as a metaphor for life. 

Frank said it was about endless conflict.  Brendan more or less agreed. 

Moira’s poem, “Twitch, No Twitch” is about that whole suburban obsession with the animals that dare to live near us, and the fight for survival and the confrontations that come from it.  It’s free verse, seven uneven stanzas long, narrative, prosy, and concerns two different denizens of that suburban cosmos: squirrels and hawks.  The squirrel bit lets us see one in the jaws of a fox, confirming that the game is for keeps, but also wonders what the heck these rodents want, including the possibility of flirtation.  The hawk portion tells of today’s confrontation, which is almost surreal, between the speaker and the bird, who stare at one another, one with god’s standard ocular equipment and the other with binoculars, which leads the speaker to conceive of them as dueling snipers. 

Janet K’s poem “Starz Who’ve “Sadly” Died” is a rewrite of her poem “Gone This Year TCM Remembers” and like that draft, it wades into the questions of reality and fantasy that celebrity and movies always prompt, and those questions tie back to our own of mortality and memory.  It’s free verse, prosy, meditative, and as in the first draft, it takes place in the automobile, American home of such meditations (remember, Brendan McEntee’s speaker driving past the cemetery?).  What Janet handles so well is the way crossing currents of belief and cynicism cross, never better than in the lines:

The car radio sings step into eternity,

and I’m cushioned in a moving shell,

an intimate place to dwell on the passing of stars and time,

as the Subaru’s odometer marks mine.

I’d thing, get lost, nostalgia,/

even as I summon it.

Note the assonance/rhyme of shell/dwell, and time/mine.  What are they doing?  Is it the lyrical work of elaboration, stopping time? 

See you all next week, and don’t forget on Feb 3, 2021, Wednesday night at 7, to leave some time for the RWB monthly reading and open mic, with this month’s feature, Kyle Brosnihan!  (Zoom link forthcoming from Frank).

—Arthur Russell