Field Notes, Week of 05-10-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 10, 2022

It was an intimate group, just five of us, for the workshop this week.  No time limit to discuss the poems.

Janet Kolstein’s “When You Fall” (not included in the attachment) had a title that could have led anywhere – from a work-related accident to a moral comeuppance—but the first line told us exactly what kind of fall we were in for:

“Who among us could lift the frail elderly”

and yet the second line told us we were not in the desolated kitchen of some Life Alert victim who has “fallen and I can’t get up”, because Janet’s “frail elderly” were

“bronzing on the private beaches of late life?”

and just as suddenly, the third line acted out the tourism of those “private beaches,” with a voice telling us or the elderly

“Watch! Over your shoulder!  There goes an African Parrot.”

And as if those first three lines were not enough of an immersion into the COMPLICATED world of aging, the next line, ending the first quatrain of the poem, is a direct address to the reader that poses a question about the persistence of memory and establishes the speaker as the true, and trustworthy guide to her ambiguous underworld:

“We can’t unsee the past, or can we?”

I just loved this poem, which continued on more and more deeply into its world of aging with a combination of surefooted lyricism and intellectual strength.  Hopefully, the rest of you will get to see it, perhaps in this year’s RWB Journal #15.

Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “Iowa Sunset” that was an experiment in taking the advice of another poet, the poet Cynthia Cruz, whose advice is paraphrased in the first two lines of the poem to the effect that “Involuntary memory is the wellspring. . . but we must find the right state of mind.” Tom’s riff punned on “state of mind” by referring to the “state of Iowa,” and the poem continued with more wordplay in its exciting and delightful second stanza about Belarus, balaklavas and the Mediterranean dessert, baklava. Following the stream of its “wellspring” the poem then moved on to consider the color of pig’s blood on a fence and the memory of riding the subway “when a woman next to me falls asleep/ and slumps with her head on my shoulder/ and way past my stop wakes up, all embarrassed.” It’s an exciting draft, and it may also be a warning about following the advice of other poets.

Brenden McEntee’s poem “Highland Paddy” is a tremendously ambitious poem that considers ghosts while the speaker walks across The Walkway over the Hudson, a steel cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie, New York, on the east bank and Highland, New York, on the west bank. It calls the wind over the bridge “everyone’s poltergeist” and touches on Irish folksong or ballad concerning the death of one “Fenian.” Then, passing two dogs on the bridge, the poet turns to remembering his own dog who died a few weeks, seeking the solitude and privacy of a space behind the sofa to die.  In its last movement, the poem returns to the think of the bridge and how it endures, how the towns on either side wither, and how he finds comfort in his Irish ballad.  But the poem ends on a disturbing image of the other walkers on the bridge behind “sun-shaded eyes.”

Yaka Kane’s brought a poem named after the nesting Russian dolls called “Matryoshka Dolls” in which the nesting dolls become a metaphor for intimacy in relationships, and the passing days are represented as nesting dolls, and the faults, evasions, silences and so forth of the relationship are embedded or embodied in the inner dolls as each new day buries them deeper and, one might suppose, less available to revision, in the body of the relationship. It’s a terribly ambitious poem about a frightening development.

Hopefully, we await the return of our co-leader Frank Rubino.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-26-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 26, 2022

The experimentation was busting out all over at last night’s RWB workshop.

Yana Kane Esrig brought a poem called “Train and its dreamer” that investigated the hypnopompic moment between sleep and waking when dreams and outer stimuli mix. For Yana, the image of a train whose sound “quilts the still air” nicely matches quilt as a sleep tool with quilt as a quality of the sound. Carole thought Yana could have pursued the dream even more than the poem did with its fragmentary references to “stations, timetables, tickets… “  Maybe so.  Maybe we’ll see it again.

Carole Stone’s poem “Holi” takes place in a liquor store where the speaker goes (and has gone before) for a bottle of sauterne; the manager wears a Bindi on his forehead, which stimulates a daydream that starts out celebrating colors and life, but then retreats to a despairing “All these years, darkness, darkness.” It’s a powerful setup, that ends with a return to the matter at hand, the bottle which the manager opens for the speaker: “He always does” she concludes, revealing a weakness of hand strength that somehow suffuses the poem with sadness.

We all know from Shakespeare and Cyrano de Bergerac that insults make entertaining poetry when their disdain is delivered with cleverness. New workshopper, Howard Posnitz, entered that arena with a putdown poem directed at someone who had given the speaker a “Dirty Look.”  “Faucet nose, dripping snot,/ Call Joe the plumber for a new nose,” the poem very nearly began, and continued cursing and insulting the dirty look giver, sometimes with zip—“I wouldn’t steal your face even if I were a kleptomaniac”—and other times without: “You must be the ugliest man in New York.” Howard’s task was even more challenging because he was writing a rebuff to someone who hadn’t said anything, or done more than stretch their face muscles. 

My poem, “I Don’t Know Why Loving You is Like Sun” is 14 lines long with two stanzas, one of eight iambic pentameter lines and one of six iambic pentameter lines. The first stanza protests that the speaker doesn’t know why the shenanigans and acrobatics of a squirrel stealing sunflower seeds from a birdfeeder is like the love they feel for their beloved. The second stanza suggests that living without the ambivalence that “dogged” his other relationships, may be the thing that that love and marauding squirrels have in common. In that sense, the poem it recalls Nasim Hikmet’s “On Living” which begins: “Living is no laughing matter:/you must live with great seriousness/like a squirrel, for example—/   I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,/I mean living must be your whole occupation.” Brendan saw the poem “in conversation” with sonnets of the past.

Don Zirilli brought a poem—“Twitter Censored”— that picked up where Janet Kolstein’s poem from last week—quoting sets of comments from a facebook page—left off.  Don went to Twitter to show how even more wildly than Facebook, Twitter comments ran. The subject was more or less Farah Fawsett, but that didn’t stop it from talking about Faberge soap, the Connecticut Huskies basketball team, personal finances and the use of the word “posters” to describe scientific demonstrations. If, as WCW said (though not first) a poem is a machine made of words, and if, as Matt Zapruder added: “a machine made of words to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind,” then Twittor Censored did that work because one floated along on a wash of words that dared to recreate the vibe of an atom with indeterminate electrons ponging about. I loved it.

Janet’s poem, not included here, “Under the Tent”) was about going to a graduation party where a magician had been hired to entertain, and finding that the only utterly amazing trick was the trick of watching the young grow up before your very eyes. How’d they do that?

Don’t forget we’ve got the Google drive working now, so you can post your poems the day (or days) before the workshop, and read the other poems so you have a chance to read them first.  We’ll still take poems uploaded to the chat, but the new way could really spark things. 

And don’t forget that May 4 at the RWB reading—in person at Felician College! (see the flyer)—features Morgan Boyle and Preeti Shah, both Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Month Winners this year, and Pretti’s winner was workshopped in our workshop.

See you all soon.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-29-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 29, 2022

I thought it was a really fun workshop.

Janet Kolstein has many poems that she ripped more or less literally from the New York Times, and this week brought a poem ripped from her dreams, “Sometimes Dreams are Poems That Write Themselves,” that literally challenged us to follow her dream’s logic and find a ready made poem, but someone challenged that thesis, saying that because the poem is the rendering of the dream in words, the poet is more than an algebraic translator, and the poem is more than a record, it’s a recording.

Susanna Lee brought a poem that was a literal record, a transcription of the voices of several men on a podcast talking about war: “Podcast: Retired Marines.” The discussion jumped to the conclusion that the poem was a persona poem, sometimes called a dramatic poem, where the poet speaks through a mask, though Susanna said it was three voices. And while Carole called it a poem of witness—about war, Don said, if it’s a poem of witness, it’s a poem of second-hand witness. Because the speaker was mostly engaging in hearsay, it was more barbershop than battlefield. And yet, the podcast struck a deep chord in Susanna because it resonated with the world she sees around us. I wonder if the poem could benefit from having a first person narrator to make those stakes clear.

I was just delighted by Don Zirilli’s “The Adventures of Superlady”  a narrative in four quatrains that records a disorienting encounter with the needy Superlady of the title outside a supermarket; delighted because it’s a superhero poem (right, Frank?) at least as crazy as Deadpool, but also because of the naked need that Superlady (ret.) had to be needed. “Why didn’t you save me?” the speaker asks, and Superlady responds “Everybody asks me that” but as she persists, the poem ends with a surprisingly heartrending “How about one more cry for help?”

John J. Trause brought something of an ode, something of a travelogue, something of an ironic celebration that is truly ironic and truly a celebration of a dinner at the chain restaurant “Grade Lux Café.” And I think what made the poem a delight was how lovingly knowingly the poem appreciated the restaurant’s “Viennese Secession” décor and plausibly continental menu. The tone work of the poem starts with its first, pinky-raised line: “I am one to dine alone” and continues with the allusion to dialogue from a Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” “Your wife was just showing us her Klimt.” It even extends to punctuation, i.e., the extraneous but necessary comma between “asparagus spears” and “cooked to perfection. 

Jen Poteet’s poem, “Unexpected” has been like a studio visit for the group, as she’s worked on at least three revisions of it that some of us have seen over the last few days. The poem’s bombshell is the riddle posed in lines 4 and 5: “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband,” but the genius of the poem is what Tom called the “objective correlative” to the unexplored emotion stirred by the unopened letter. Because the poem turns away from the letter completely to talk about a fox seen through the kitchen window stealing through the yard, and somehow our experience of the fox that “fixes her pale gold eyes” on the speaker, and ”disappears under the fence” takes the place of whatever emotion the letter stirred. It’s also a great lesson in simplicity. Those two lines “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband” are so plainspoken and yet so fraught” they don’t need any “poetic” embellishment. But the real question was whether the poem could begin with it’s bombshell a strategy against which some warning flags were raised.   But I come from the Ricky Jay school of poetry that says “Grab their attention” and “reward them with a surprise,” and I can’t think of a more attention grabbing start that the letter for the deceased husband, or more of a surprise than diverting the overflow of feeling into a fleeing fox. 

Tom Benediktsson’s “Leon’s Riddle” was, he explained one of 6 or 8 poems he’s done with the characters “Gregor” and “Leon.”  In it’s combination of comic intellectualism and cockroaches—in this case Kafka’s Gregor Samson—  it reminded some people of Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. I loved its  playfulness it’s metawareness of its prosody, and it’s surreal setting—Also Krazy Kat (“L’il angel”). 

My poem was called “Grandma Ann,” a tiny little narrative that captured one tiny little piece of my paternal grandmother’s hundred year old dialogue as told to me by my father. The surprise of the poem (which was just accepted for publication by Ephemeral Elegies and will be published on their site on May 2—Thank you, Tiffany) is how suddenly, the poem becomes about how this little fragment of a woman survives.

Brendan had what I’d call a traditional family driving in the car poem called “On the Way to the Agricultural Fair.” It’s told in the third person which gives it a kind of allegorical feel, and it’s presented in the shape of a justified prose block, which, predictably, adds to its solidity, and the mother of the family is the main character; she speaks to one of the kids about the farmers he sees burning their fields from the car window, but then she retreats into her thoughts, where she wonders a little bit about the way her son’s mind works, and then goes on to fantasize about a fire in her own garden to make way for (perhaps) a Zen Garden. The poem ends with the benign image of the family at the fair visiting the butter-sculpture pavilion. Allegory?

Carole Stone’s “Trip” was a bit of a trip itself.  It starts out in as a kind of Thanatopsis, with a valedictory air: “I will go on a long trip,/ meet my ancestors,” but in summoning the foreign born, immigrant ancestors to this imminent meeting, the speaker realizes she has nothing in common with these people: “Why should I care, brought up American?” And then carrying forward on that American identity, she comments on the current war in Ukraine, but that Eastern European vibe only returns her to those ancestors carrying suitcases when the boarded trains to death camps. And then, the poem starts to disabuse itself of its “victim” stance when the speaker notices that her granddaughters are successful, and it culminates by grabbing its own lapels and telling itself to snap out of this negative mood because life is a blast. That poem did its yoga, that’s for sure; it was as limber as they come.

Hey, I wanted to mention again that I’m reading Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 collection “The Speed of Darkness.”  She’s very formally inventive and audacious, as I pointed out that she included in this collection an experiment where she took a poem by William Cullen Bryant “Monument Moutain” and, as described in a footnote, ran the poem in reverse, picking out the phrases that spoke to her and reassembling them into a new poem called “Mountain: One From Bryant.” And think about it, this was 50 years before erasure poems became a thing. And she was audacious enough about it to include in the explanatory footnote a conversation she had with Denise Levertov about the experiment she was performing. I also mentioned a fabulous poem of Rukeyser’s whose name I couldn’t remember but I looked it up and the name is “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” I also listened to a You Tube video that captured a track from Rukeyser’s Caedmon Records recording of her poem “The Speed of Darkness” totally worth checking out, if for no other reason than to hear her sweet Bronx accent, though there are many other reasons—the poem is a world view in 13 short sections.  And one last thing, for now, about her—that she has a wicked relentless sense of song, which you can hear in her poem “Song: Love in Whose Rich Honor.” You can hear that King James lilt in the title (which is also the first two lines), but where she takes that energy is to a fearless personal challenge——that love would split her open and give her the gift of writing about death and madness.  It’s CRAZY!

Love

In whose rich honor

I stand looking from my window  

over the starved trees of a dry September

Love

deep and so far forbidden

is bringing me

a gift

to claw at my skin

to break open my eyes

the gift longed for so long

The power

to write

out of the desperate ecstasy at last

death and madness.

I love the unrelenting unpunctuated concise form of this poem on the page, its use of capitals to signal sentences, and its Donne—like desire to be broken apart by love, the way its syntax breaks open at the end, with “death and madness” lying on the floor of the poem like candy out of a pinata. And I’ll say this about Rukheyser. Lots of people talk about Elizabeth Bishop as the heir to Marianne Moore’s line of Modernism, but take a look at Rukeyser’s “Believing in Those Inexorable Laws” actually read it aloud and I think you’ll hear some of the selfsame self-assuredness, rhythmic complexity, erudition, and slyness that is so evident in Moore’s work.

It was great to see you all.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-15-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 15, 2022

Just a note to say, sorry I missed the March 8 Notes, and sorry too to have missed Barbara Hall’s poem the week before that.    

This week, Frank’s poem “Edison Nutley” had the feel of a meditation on first kissing and it found its most authentic voice at the moment it stepped back from the corduroy sofa and the Frankie Valli soundtrack and the 9 year old’s tongue in his mouth and said: “Attraction’s funny, you know./ It’s mating.”  And with that turn, it found a moment of unexpected heat, a moment that could have revealed something new about the depth of emotion that passes in what passes for innocent play. I loved that moment, but it was almost too much for the poem to digest or hold.  Instead, the poem widened centrifugally. The speaker confessed to being attracted to “anybody with the living tongue,” which was gross but intriguing, then it went back to add a literal postscript to pre-teen kiss story—an incident in which the 9-year-old kisser had written to the speaker and her letter was delivered even though she had hand-drawn a fake postage stamp. Then, finally, the poem moved on to another first kiss, this one with a “woman who pained erotic paintings.” And in the last few lines, there’s a repetition of the meditative reprise: “A kiss is funny, you know…” but we never find out what really comes after “you know./ It’s mating.”

Barbara Hall brought a spluttering rant of a poem against irrationality and protesting the current war beginning “Words   words   Words.” We all shared the sentiment.

Carole Stone’s poem, “What Me Do I Like the Best?” takes a whack at defining four younger than 20 versions of the speaker, clipped aspirational recollections, maybe tinged by nostalgia or philosophy, but also tinged by the haunting uselessness of being older, wiser and still impotent to do anything about the current war.

Jen Poteet brought another installment from her new project to write about towns and cities in NJ, this one called “Jersey City” that talks about an early roommate situation the speaker had there. This poem, like Carole’s has a hint of nostalgia, ok, maybe more than a hint, as it ends “We made less than twenty grand a year/ and I don’t think we were ever happier.” Poems like this, and like Frank’s kiss poem and like Carole’s avatar poem all depend on the taste of the bait and the point on the hook. Why should the reader follow you into the past, what reward do you promise? In this poem, Jen’s most gorgeous and authenticating knowledge is the speaker’s memory of how one invites burglars by announcing the purchase of a new appliance, and one announces the purchase of a new appliance by putting the box out in the trash. And she rewards that attention by telling us that they tried to fool the thieves by putting their boxes in the Pathmark dumpster. Good stuff.

Claudia said that my poem, Love Poem, was notable because it went outside my usual narrative comfort zone. Well, maybe so, but Claudia’s poem, “Black Sea spoils” was also a deviation for her usual lyric mode. It’s a list of adjectives and adjectival phrases to be applied to the riches and/or relics thrown up by the Black Sea, a poem in which the music of the words provides a sensorium, a landscape of textures that move from maritime words like “bearded, barnacled” to mineral words like “opaled, alabastered,/ tourmalined and carnadined,” and onward to strange biomorphic words like “salty cauliflower heads,/ bloodied and boned, buried in red pubic hair of algae…” It’s an audacious album of assonance and suggestion. The challenge of a list poem that audacious is that each item in the list has to relate back to the title—in this case, Black Sea spoils—and start to build or imply a narrative, or a larger picture of some sort, and this poem is well on the way to doing that.

My poem, the one Claudia complimented for going out of my comfort zone, was called “Love Poem” and it set itself the impressionistic task of assembling very new, short suggestive brush strokes in a way that built an emotionally accessible whole. 

I’m a couple of weeks into my reading of Stephen Crane’s bio by Paul Auster (Burning Boy) and the side-by-side reading of the Norton Critical Edition of “The Red Badge of Courage.” It’s funny. A few months ago, I thought I’d encountered the most modern of the Modernists in Marianne Moore, because she had shed more antique baggage than the others, but here I am with Crane, a writer born 18 years before Moore, who died of tuberculosis by the time Moore was 13, and seen against the background of his age, through the eyes of Auster and the fabulous lineup of essayists who provided the Norton commentary to accompany Red Badge, I think I’m joining the consensus that sees Crane as the first, and most irrevocable Modernist. He’s certainly the best sentence writer I’ve encountered in American English, and a positive genius of metaphor and simile.  Within one or two pages of Chapter XXII he had phrases like the guns “denouncing” the enemy, or men who “filed a plumping volley at the foes” and sentences like: “There was much blood upon the grass blades” And he ended chapter XXIV with a striking tautology: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” I was astonished today to read in Auster’s bio that Crane, who seemed to have no tutor was deeply moved and affected in the writing of Red Badge by Leo Tolstoy’s  Sevastopol, three short stories written by Leo Tolstoy and published in 1855 to record his experiences during the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). It does nothing to dent Crane’s originality, but it does confirm a belief of mine, that there is no poem without a prior poem. And Crane had not red War & Peace or Anna Karenina until much later.   

Come back tonight, and we’ll do it all again.
—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-01-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 1, 2022

There’s nothing new about what I’m going to say except that I never knew it before as I do now: there are a LOT of poetry journals out there, and a LOT of manuscript competitions. Since I finished the BKP Mentorship Program with an MS I wanted to shop, essentially since the first of 2022, I’ve been sending out poems somewhere or other almost every day. I have my whole MS out to 14 competitions and contests, and I’ve done another 30 submissions to everyplace from POETRY to Stink Eye. It’s complicated because every journal’s requirements are different, either for number of poems, formatting of poems, times of year when they are open to submissions, whether or not they permit simultaneous submissions, whether and where your contact info should appear, and because I have resisted having a bio I can cut and paste, so I keep writing new ones, which is weird as weird can be. Generally, I’m trying to get the poems in my MS published in journals, but sometimes as I finish new things or dredge up and revise old ones, I send them out too. Picking poems to send to journals that don’t accept simultaneous submissions is tricky because you may be tying up a poem for a few months. And there’s a hierarchy of poems, the very best ones need a chance to cycle through some of the most prestigious journals even though the chances of having them accepted are slim.

I’ve developed and continue my list of places to send poems by reading the bios of other poets in other journals and seeing where they had their work published. I also use the Acknowledgements page in the individual books of poetry I read, which is really the same thing.  If the journal is online, I peruse it, see if there’s any reason to avoid it (sometimes its obvious), and to check out the poems. 

When I read something basically for ‘research’ purposes, but I like it, I always try for a minute to find the poet online and send them an email or DM on facebook.  People love that shit, wouldn’t you?  And you can’t help finding out something interesting about your place in the world when you see what’s out there, as in “Oh, I’m better than that,” or “I don’t think I could EVER write that well.” 

I’ve been keeping track of my submissions on an Excel spreadsheet which I developed with the help of my accountant.  What an interesting sociological experience that was, and a tad embarrassing to admit my poetry side to my business professional, but he really knows how to maneuver Excel to act like a true data base, so I can search my submissions by poem name, magazine name, date of submission, method of submission (submittable, email or snail mail), date of response, as well as status, and that last one is important because when a poem is accepted, you need to tell the other places it’s been sent to that you’re withdrawing that poem from consideration. Beyond the organizational benefits of the spread sheet, it can make you feel good about what you’re accomplishing just by sending. And once you give your poetry salesperson a place to work, it helps you to appreciate the how much a part of your success this process of selling is.  Plus, in a way that is both more indirect and less subtle than workshopping and open mic-ing a poem, it—the whole process of thinking about your poem as a product—keeps you in touch with your customer base, and I can’t help thinking that’s a very good thing.

My workshop poem this past week, “Andrea, From Burlington” is a 2017 poem that I dredged up during the last couple of months on the theory that it’s ok, and even if it’s not in my book, I should send it out, so I showed it to Jen Poteet’s workshop of Sunday, got a nice mix of affirmations and suggestions, took it out to the woodshed and tried it again on Tuesday. 

Carole Stone, too, brought a poem called “Journey” that had been workshopped in and revised after Jen Poteet’s workshop about putting a brave face on the final trip to death:  “I will wear my Frida Kahlo socks.”

Don Zirilli’s poem, “Some Borders Should Not Be Crossed,” stimulated a lot of speculation about its subject and intention, but this comment found its way into my notes: “Something wants to be revealed in that last stanza.” 

Shane’s untiled prose poem with a dreamlike unexplained abruptness was either about “POWs or a mental hospital” according to one of the comments.  Shane said it just came out that way.

Ana Doina’s poem, “Top Secret Report” was another of her Communist Romania anecdotes and concerned a visit from the secret police that did not result in the disappearance, torture or death of innocent Romanians. Some thought the Hogan’s Heroes approach to state repression was timely given the situation in The Ukraine, but some wondered what the stakes are for the narrator in telling this story.

Brendan McEntee’s “Write the Foam” is a bit of an ars poetica. The title is imperative, and the poem starts with the title coming at you in the voice of a person identified only as “she.” The rest of the poem is the speaker’s effort to comply, describing the scene in a way that sometimes confuses (emphasis on ‘fuses’) subject and object, ending as the sea presents itself most humbly at the feet of the speaker: “The sky is cloud-scudded and beautiful and the foam reaches out, touches my toe.”

Frank Rubino’s poem, “The local beer place dog” has great seriousness in aphoristic statements such as “Clothing is an invention that worked day one without false starts.” But it is also committed to the seemingly random, quotidian facts of a walk and conversation with a friend, or the oddly specific nomenclature of the title: local beer place dog, or the way it turns on itself to offer an ars poetica sort of imperative: “Don’t get rid of ordinary thought just to make an image:/ talk about a great painting about to come into the world.

Janet Kolstein brought a re-write of her poem “Google Earth: Alexandria” (not in the packet) that explores the modern dilemma of being everywhere the internet allows, but still stuck in your apartment looking at your computer.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 02-22-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 22, 2022

Hi: We had a good hardworking workshop on Tuesday and got to hear good poems and learn from them. After all, it’s not our job to make other people’s poems conform to our tastes, but to dive into a poem, come up with some ideas about what it wants to be and how it wants to become that.

Rob Goldstein’s poem, “Charlie McCarthy” has a wonderful first stanza that allows the mind to enter a field of fruitful deduction and leave behind the earthbound work of connotation. It’s up there with his best stuff. 

Grafted onto awful stillness
is this self-conscious dandy—
a dissonance of spirit and hickory,
essential to the uncanny.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Hospice, with a Friend” takes us right into that fraught place at that fraught moment, and does so not with a physical description, but by sharing the bizarre emotional and moral questions that run through a visitor’s mind, such as this, in the opening line: “Should I write you off early while you’re on your deathbed?” Questions like that continue for the first half of the poem, but when action does replace wonderment, it’s so we can hear about the speaker getting drunk: “I drink myself under./ You’re on your deathbed.  I swig extra slugs, one for one…” I thought the last couplet of the poem threw up its hands and said something somewhat drunk, slurred, abject, ineffable and beautiful: “You’re on your deathbed/ Roses and honey and dew.”

Frank Rubino’s poem “Have a target for your kindness” was about two things, needing kindness and exhorting/promoting kindness, even offering “a voice for your kindness.” The poem, whose argument is fractured that way, between ‘you need kindness’ and ‘do kindness’ drives forward with a seeming unwillingness to let go of its central intuition, talking about eyes that need kindness, arms, legs, and genitals that need kindness, accurate and false words that need kindness, and then offering help from the other angle: “If you want to be kinder/ here is a voice for your kindness.” And the picture that emerges is that this business of kindness is a lot more complex and delicate that volition, and the poem culminates with a beautiful suburban image that bodies forth the whole without trying to define it: “How lightly can you touch the shopping cart & make it roll/ to its nesting place in the other shopping carts.” That’s the good stuff we come to workshop to cultivate.

The thing that’s so promising about Barbara Hall’s “Dear Dead Husband [DDH]”, is the invitation it offers the reader through its form and tone to decipher the poet’s attitude to the expired spouse. Is he missed or is she glad he’s gone? Is there irony, sarcasm, affection? It’s clearly an elegy in the form of an epistle, but the things she writes about, the day-to-day business of life, the sleeping, the laundry, the very long trips to the grocery store, seem to miniscule to support a full scale, happy-you’re-gone. 

Janet’s “Google Earth and Beyond: Alexandria, Egypt” like several other Google Earth poems Janet has written, travel poems for the covid bound, takes us to Egypt, and the first line just about sets the stakes and suggests the limitations for this kind of journey. “I’m seeking Cleopatra and come upon a man with a blurry face.” The poem (not in the package) tells us what we can see (“the magnificent new Biblioteca said to be/ on the side of the library burned circa 48 BC”) and what we can’t (“the spots of the hoi polloi/ in the vast beige grid populated by 8 million”) and there’s a real sense of frustration and resignation, but also loss in the last line, “condemned, as I am, to an eternity of digitality.”

Tom Benediktsson’s “Panopticon”—a word referring to a circular prison with a central courtyard designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 17th C, in which a single guard could watch all the prisoners arrayed in cells around the circumference —imagines imprisonment.  It has a traditional prison reference to the bird overhead as a reminder of freedom, but also imagines prison as a place of stories, stories that challenge traditional perspectives of incarceration. The jailer and the jailed are mirror images of each other, and the speaker may be the prisoner. A pair of old women skipping in the snow pursued by their nurse may be the prisoner’s dream, but it is also a metaphor for the way identity works, as is a sock puppet worn by the prisoner, whose name is Tom, who challenges the jailer to define the identity of the prisoner.      

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Shake Me,” a prosy piece, appears to be a sort of surreal dream too, in which the speaker is an honoree in a tickertape parade, riding in an open convertible with two beautiful movie stars from the 1970s, but the ticker tape scraps of paper, printed with words like “Terms of Service” and “Usual and Customary” suggest a darker, perhaps sinister undercurrent. Why else would he want to be awakened?

Jennifer Poteet is starting a new series, poems about or taking place in towns and cities of New Jersey, and the first visit is to ”Atlantic City” and it’s a poem about class, fear and class-related guilt in a city whose public face is about gambling. The speaker goes there for a writer’s conference and is forced to wonder about her safety, decaying cityscapes and privilege. It’s a good beginning for the new project.

My poem, “Happy Ending” is a prose poem imitation of another prose poem of the same name by the poet “Jay Meek” from his Book Windows. The exercise was to mirror the rhetorical and tonal and thematic moves in the original while borrowing none of the content. This kind of exercise is based on the insight that to some extent every poem, even the least traditionally formal poem, is a form unto itself, a “nonce” form, so what I’m trying to do is reverse engineer the poem, find its underlying form and then imitate it.

Joanne Santiglia’s poem was called “CO 10, 11 and 12” and it was an ode to the perfume Chanel No. 5 on the occasion of its 100th birthday, with the title referring to the chemicals called “aldehydes” used to create it.  It’s a joyous poem, and that’s a good thing.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Translator” talks about the process of translating poetry, portraying the translator through the metaphor of a bridge in which “I sway over the chasm/ into which a word can fall and fall, and never make a sound,” and prays for a meeting, facilitated by the bridge, between poem and reader, whom, she hopes, will “fall in love.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Romanian village, 1946” about children who’d been sent to dig up some extra good clay for their uncle to use in his pottery finding the corpse of a WWII soldier decomposing in the forest, and the villagers coming together to give the remains a decent burial. A strange nostalgia in the form of an anecdote.

Thanks to all of the hardworking poets and thanks for the poems. See you next Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 23, 2022

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 23, 2022

Terrific poetry reading last night, celebrating Black History Month!! This annual celebration has become our tradition, featuring published poets reading their own powerful work alongside high school students reading their favorite poems by Black authors.

Many thanks to our co-sponsor, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, to Christie Del Rey-Cone and to the high school student co-organizer, Dana Serea, to all our readers who were just fantastic, and to all who tuned in. If you missed it, watch the video above. Let’s do it again next year!


Featured readers:
Zorida Mohammed
Francesca Bremner
Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal
Jerry Johnson
Preeti Shah
Wanda Phipps
Mark Fogarty
Natalia Tomczak
Alex Anacleto
Anabella Cone
Zen Castaneda
Miya Kofo
Dana Serea

Field Notes, Week of 02-01-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 1, 2022

We had a fine February first workshop on Tuesday.

Brendan McEntee brought a poem called “How We Dreamt in the Fire” lyric almost to the vanishing point (which I loved) but conveying a clear feeling of isolation and desolation, perhaps climate-change related, but did so by the least obvious means.  Here’s the first stanza, which moves with an independence of will that resists paraphrase:

Six a.m. and the moon still holds its piece of the sky.
Silence, a true silence arrives
Plays like music in a shuttered mall.

It’s such a strange move to say that a silence, not any silence, but a “true silence” played like music, and it only gets stranger when that music is in a mall, and even more strange when that mall is ‘shuttered.’ And the way he uses two different verbs—plays and arrives—to describe the advent of silence, it’s as though everything that has been given—including the time of day and the moon above—has been, if not taken away, reconsidered—and yet the residue of this giving and taking is the essential feeling of the dreamer plopped down in an ambiguity. Read on, and in the second stanza see how the poem resists all explanation, moving in seemingly rational increments that test rationality, from “gardens” to “the bleaching of the world.”

Janet K brought an elegy about the ski slope death of an actor, Gaspard Ulliel, La Rosiere 1/19/22,” (not attached) that indulges in the language of obituary (“Gaspard . . . leaves behind a six-year-old son”) and the language of fan-dom (“I tore out the ad for the cologne [he promoted]/ and saved it.”), but what it really does, and what Janet does so well with her deadpan delivery, is to wonder – as she did in that poem about the near stranger in her high-rise who fell to his death from his balcony—about the how we can have real feelings about something we know only slightly or indirectly.

Carole Stone’s poem, “It Is Impossible to Be Alone in Language” is a “message-in-a-bottle” poem, in which the ‘messages of grief’ related to living alone are imaginarily found by a “wife” in a far-away country.

Don Z is our most courageous poet, sharing poems before he’s sure he’s comfortable with them himself.  His “There is a Beautiful Sorrow I Must Attend To” takes the form of four short elusive couplets, the last of which – “I don’t have time for today./ I can’t make it to my life” – comes closest to answering the call of the title.  The other three couplets suggest an arctic night of strong emotion but resist nearly completely providing context.  The excitement that such elusiveness stimulates in the group, however, is a testament to the power of lyric substitution.  We want answers and our minds suggest them, and when a poem gets our minds going, then, as Don might say, they become “flashing igloo[s]/ beaconing to toothy darkness.”

Barbara Hall brought a list poem called “Today I” that recounted the doings of the speaker’s day, and then relaxed with a cup of chamomile tea and key lime cookies as she watched the sun dip below the horizon.

Ana Doina got a lot of traction in the group with her “Although”, which can be summarized as a list of the crappy things that communism brought to her former country after WWI, things that did not stop people from experiencing the ordinary facets of life, music, love, and divorce.  The setup is to use the word “although” at the beginning of phrases explaining the bad stuff, and the release is the final stanza saying that life went on despite the restrictions. 

Frank Rubino’s  “Sir, no man’s enemy”  is a kind of prayer/petition/plea to an entity known only as “Sir” – for clean cardboard and pillows for homeless people, but on the way to that plea, it provides us with dozens of names of men out of context and tells a pair of anecdotes about the members of the speaker’s family giving up smoking, too late or not too late. What was interesting is how this “Sir” character refuses to be a god, and even becomes human enough to take the name “Jim.” Still the “cap-in-hand feel’ (Brendan) of the poem and its humility soar above its multifarious roots, and that must be the feeling and meaning.

Getting ready for Valentine’s Day, I brought a love poem called “Love Poem” that took the form of what Frank called “delicate little triplets”. It features a series of statements and metaphors, like “She does/ to  me/ what a church// steeple does/ to a clear/ blue winter sky,” utterances that don’t connect to one another except through the title and the delicate little triplets. Some controversy broke out over the ending trope, about “happiness”  which struck Susanna and possibly Janet and possible Claudia as to “telly” and remedies in the nature of machetes were suggested. Don Z liked the way the poem “sits in the romantic tradition.” And responded to the loppers thusly: “We need a strong end, but we need to end when we’re done.” 

Hey, I’d like to shout out my daughter, Delaney’s podcast called “Only Child Syndrome” which you can get through Spotify. Delaney’s 25, and her podcast, which runs about an hour for each episode, has a lot of music, but her sound checks are about culture and womanhood. She’s far more articulate and insightful and easygoing than I am, so if you or a young woman you know likes insight, clarity, music and fun – tell them to check it out.

And a second “Hey” – I went to the Allen Ginsberg Prize reading yesterday to collect my Second Prize winnings (and adulation), and ran into a wildly divergent group of fantastic poets. As usual, in the corner of the poetry world governed beneficently by Maria Mazziotti Gilan, narrative poems were the order of the day. Through the ‘chat’ feature in Zoom, I invited two of my favorite readers, Marion Paganello and Lisa Cole Nicalau to sign up for these Field Notes, and they accepted. So, hey, Frank, I’m sending Marion’s and Lisa’s email addresses to you separately; please send them the invite to our workshop.

I probably won’t be at the 2-15-22 workshop, but Frank will, and I implore you all to write love poems, quickly, before it’s too late. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-04-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 4, 2022

Happy New Year!
A lot of good work got done at our first workshop
of the year.  May it be a harbinger of a year of solid work.

Claudia Serea’s “In the alley by the schoolyard” is a free verse New Year’s poem written in tercets, that, like many of Claudia’s poems, uses the title as a part of the first sentence of the poem.  The poem personifies the new year as a guy “swaggering down the street/ in its varsity jacket” that parks its “shiny car” under a “No Parking” sign. It has live language, and, true to Jim Klein’s other dictum, it was about “one thing,” a scene of bravado, and young energy.  It would be interesting to discuss how tercets work, what energy they bring to a poem, and how Claudia marshals that energy.

Carole Stone brought an energetic free verse poem called “Hanging Out with the Dead.”

Shane Wagner bought an unnamed poem starting “There must be a perfect moment to take down a Christmas tree.” It is a momento mori poem, which translates from the Latin, as “remember death,” and such poems pursue the virtuous ends of reminding us that life is short.  The human skull (cf. Hamlet) is a fine object to contemplate in that mode, but Shane picked the Christmas tree with its obvious ironic identification with the birth of the Christ child.  The poem succeeds best when it diverts us from its morbidity with real world considerations such as suggesting that one might take the tree down “before the vacuum bag is full” which has elusive but compelling metaphorical possibilities.  The on-the-nose ending – “There must be a perfect moment to die” – was a little too on-the-nose for some.

My little poem, “How I Want to Die” was also a momento mori poem, five lines long, and written in iambic pentameter, and featured a description of a cut tulip in a vase drooping as the poem’s professed method of passing away.  It’s good to talk about these poems and their relation to the tradition that that they continue, and we should do it more.

Like Shane, Tom Benediktsson brought a Xmas poem, but “The Gift” was more like an Abbot and Costello routine than a momento mori; conceived as a dialogue about wrapping gifts and having the gift for wrapping gifts. 

Frank Rubino’s “My Daughter Came For Thanksgiving” sets his fatherly response to the named event in which the daughter, banged up by life is seen in relation to the embedded simile of a dented car cruising on the highway in front of the speaker.  The car is “viable” and so, for all the problems she’s had, is the daughter.  The poem got a little lost when it tried to make the phrase “tried to change an accident,” into a refrain, but doubtless, Frank, who treats fatherhood the way Andy Warhol treats Marilyn Monroe, will be back with more.

Jennifer Poteet’s poem,  “The Whole She-Bang” an astrophysical meditation about human’s place in the universe had a title that poked gentle fun at the “Big Bang.”

Elinor Mattern’s poem, “About Your Poem, ‘Traveling through the Dark’” is a poem about the experience of teaching the eponymous William Stafford poem to a class of poetry students, so it has a wonderful set of nested relationships at its heart: that poem, this poem, that poet, this poet, the impossible quandary at the heart of Stafford’s poem – how to address a dead car-struck deer with a fetal fawn inside.  Elinor’s poem is a celebration of Stafford’s poem, which “guaranteed … a lively and engaged discussion with college students of the elements of literature.”  The poem shouts out some of the poetic elements that make Stafford’s poem successful: possible metaphor, alliteration, vivid concrete nouns, strong verbs, sparing but specific adjectives, and words that “work double time.”  However, Elinor’s poem steers clear of those virtues, preferring a prosaic, denotative approach, a downbeat spoken rhythm, and words that work single time.  As a workshop, we steered clear of taking up those differences, all of which were on display in the poem itself, and steered clear, as well, of the opportunities that the poem, with such a strong baseline structure, has, to investigate any number of issues beyond its consoling message that “sometimes life just sucks.”  

Ana Doina brought “What Freedom Is” one of her Eastern Block anecdotal reminiscences about the evils of communism.

Yana Kane shared the news that she’d been accepted to the FDU MFA program and planned to work on in the area of translation. Congratulations, Yana.  Her poem, “Sabbath” followed a formula she’s used before, of quoting and then riffing on an epigraph.  This time it was the phrase “look into the face of knowledge, call it a god” attributed to Tamara Zbrizher.  Yana’s poem – two quatrains followed by two tercets, sought, as the title, “Sabbath” suggests, a moment of surcease in what she describes as a long-drawn-out war between “knowledge” and “uncertainty.”   It imagines this surcease with the lovely albeit difficult to understand or reconcile image of “a field of snow/ receiving an abundance of snow.”  But perhaps the most provocative element of the poem is the hint of a suggestion at the end of the last line that a season of peace would include “no separate name for anything that grows,” a concept that would reverse the Adamic prerogative of naming the world and ask us to seek peace without nomenclature. I could imagine a poem that told Zbrizer to screw off and pursued the fabulous unnamed world that barely made it into the poem.

Susanna Lee’s poem, like Yana’s, got awfully interesting at the last line.  Before that, it was just a celebration of the legalization of pot, as exemplified by firing up a spliff on one’s morning walk, but at the end, out of nowhere, it proclaimed “The War on Drugs maimed; it will not be forgiven.”  Yes, what about that?

Jan Castro brought a 13-line, free verse poem called “The Polish Rider* Take 3” an ekphrasis describing what “we” – viewers at large? – miss about a Rembrandt painting, photo included, a painting that was mentioned by Frank O’Hara in his love poem “Having a Coke with You”.  Jan’s nonlove poem is arranged in roughly 10-syllable mostly non-metrical lines, other than the last two which are shorter, 6 and 8 syllables respectively.  Notwithstanding all the deviations (no rhymes, no meter, no turn at line 9), it looks like a sonnet on the page.     While O’Hara’s poem mentioned the Polish Rider as a means of saying that only the guy in that painting could rival his love as a worthy subject of gazing, Jan’s poem is focused on the elements of Rembrandt’s painting that “we miss” as we are dazzled by the “rider’s white horse…”

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-28-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 28, 2021

Hey, Workshoppers— It’s the night before New Year’s Eve (or, in Yiddish, Erev Erev New Year’s Eve);  I’m hoping all of you are getting ready for a joyous new year and a 2022 that will outshine all previous years.  

We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, and I’m happy to say that as a group, we’re doing a great job talking about poems, not just saying what we like and how we’d fix what we don’t but diving into the a priori questions—what is this piece of writing? What does it set out to do and how does it propose to do it?  What promises does the poem make to the reader, and how are those promises kept or altered? What is happening in the poem? What poetic devices does it employ, and are they working? What is the form of the poem, not just old-fashioned forms like sonnets or villanelles, but the idiosyncratic (or nonce) forms of free verse? What register does the diction reside in? Is it old fashioned words or new? Or a combination of them, and how does the diction assist or fall away from the drive of the poem? Are there short lines? Long lines? Big stanzas, little stanzas? Why. Is it Narrative, Lyric, Dramatic or a combination? Given that the poem as a machine made of words exists to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind (Mallarme, WCW, Matt Zapruder), does it? I remember when we started as a group some people thought said that describing a poem was “boring” or “obvious,” but that’s not the mood now. What could be more relevant to a poet than to hear how people recognize what was intended, or how people saw things that the poet never even knew were there (answer: “nothing”) and what (spoiler alert, the answer again will be , “nothing”) could be more interesting than talking about how the poems of our cohort work, sharing what we know about how they work without necessarily EVER offering to edit the poem to conform to our own ideas of what a poem should sound like or be about or look like.
 
Every since I heard Sharon Olds talk about how, in her workshops, the poem was read aloud three different times (once without circulating the text) before the poem was discussed, I’ve been a fan of that approach. Every time the poem is read aloud, whether it is by the poet or by someone else, it presents another facet of itself. It might even be totally unfair to plop a poem down in front of someone, read it through just once and then start making comments. But once you’ve heard it through and go back and hear it again, the ways that the poem operates, the ways it prepared or didn’t prepare you for what came next, the subtle clues in line, diction, rhetoric, and music, all soo important to the overall project, come clearer. And if you’re the poet, listening to other people read the poem, with or without a copy of it to look at in front of you, you are going to hear how that reading is an interpretation, actually a critique, of the text, you’re going to hear what worked, and where the hiccups were, and where the reader got into the flow and where they didn’t. And what I love about multiple readings of that sort is that no one has to say one single word that isn’t already in the poem for the poet to start getting ideas about what could be done to improve it.  

No clearer example of this phenomenon exists than the reading of my poem this week, “End of Year Party at Nutley Arts Press” by Ray Turco. He was trying his hardest to make sense of it, and present it to us with all of its (to me, fabulous) nuance and humor, but it just wasn’t there, so even before the “discussion” began, the discussion was well on its way. And what if two or three people read the poem, and it comes out differently from each of them? Without the “discussion” having begun, we’d know a great deal, but even more important, the poet (in this case me) would be well on their way to revisions.  And this without any editorial comments.
 
All of this is happening nowadays in our workshop, and I’m very happy about it, and want to thank everyone in the group for their patience with the process and their acceptance of the method. So, thanks.

Ana Doina brought a plain spoken narrative piece “My father’s tomatoes,” about her father smuggling old world heirloom, tomato seeds (from his own father’s garden) into the United States as part of his immigration move. The story seemed to the workshoppers to have relevance for the lawlessness of the smuggle, the assimilation process of immigrants, or possibly as a pushback against GMO movement in agriculture. During the discussion, I was focusing on the question of how the poetic form can shove off from the prosaic in narrative, and raise a sail to some unseen wind.

Carole Stone brought a poem called “The Pianist” that discussed youthful ambitions to fix the world and what happens if you live long enough to conclude that not much has changed. I thought the lines “Every morning,/the world starts up again” were bold. The lines sound like renewal, but they are also a nuanced way of saying that we’ve learned nothing from the tragedies of the last century.

Jennifer Poteet‘s poem “Bird Says Goodbye to Bear” was a sort of allegory, Carole said, a riff on the story of the Goldilocks, without Goldilocks, that it had the sound of a children’s book, but plays with expectations about that form by introducing uncertainty as its central emotional position, which we see when the speaker (after turning into a bird from a bear) decides to leave the nest and Momma Bear asks “Will you come back” and the speaker says: “I didn’t know and couldn’t answer.” What a cold-assed way to end a poem that might be!  But Jennifer presses forward to the parting hug, restoring some of the sweetness of the children’s story expectation.

Susanna Lee brought “Does the Christmas Tree Know Its Destination” which used personification of the tree as a means of conveying a critique of the Xmas tree industry, and the happiness anyway of having one of those sawed off conifers in one’s home.

Ray Turco‘s poem, “A String Quartet” was a bit of a seduction piece: guy brings girl (who has a dancer’s body) to a concert.  We don’t know if he got lucky, but we as a workshop did just fine, talking about how the question at the heart of the seduction works—”What are the right chords/ to penetrate/ your dancer’s heart?” Cold-assed indeed.

Brendan McEntee‘s “Pie” with a subtitle “after “A Ghost Story (2017)” presented a narrative that suggested a woman coming home from a funeral gorging on a friend’s gift of a pie. The overall shape of the narrative remained a bit mysterious, but some of the description was so alarmingly sharp and focused that it effectively conveyed the “hands off” reverence that the poet took while witnessing a scene of great pain: “Barefoot, she slides to the floor,/ her back against the cabinet, and eats, holding the pie plate,/ carving through the middle, the thumb-pressed crust/ remains intact for a while. She eats, her fork/ Hitting the glass. She digs in, breaks the bottom crust.”  

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “To My Niece Teaching English in Thailand,” whose title was a great setup to an angry, somewhat sardonic critique of America that the speaker was urging as a lesson plan on his niece.
 
Rob Goldstein‘s “Ahab, Between Voyages” did a great job of projecting an image of the unquiet mind of the doomed whaleboat captain when he was stuck on land.  

And, finally, Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “This Poem Is Trying to Look Normal but I’m Not Fooled” that takes place inside an MRI machine equipped with a television (showing a Godzilla movie) that the patient can watch while the bizarre space odyssey of being in one of those machines transpired.  

Gotta go. But thanks again to everyone in the group and outside the group who receive my Field Notes. Thanks for listening to and putting up with me. And Happy New Year!

—Arthur Russell

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