Calculating the Cacti: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no wholeness of the poem without every event.

There is no other/better wholeness of the poem.

Meaningless description is an event and is therefore not meaningless.

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

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

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

Can a Poet Get Their Form From the IRS? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Home Within

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 12 

Hi Everybody-

Last night, at Brooklyn Poets YAWP (https://brooklynpoets.org/) (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/yawpcast/id1073665267), at the open mike, poet Preeti Shah ( @babyprema ) “read” (more on quotation marks later) a poem that transcribed voice messages from the speaker’s departed father. (In fact they are messages from Shah’s own father.) Each of this dozen or so transcriptions—affectionate pleasantries, inquiries after the speaker’s well being, phonetically transcribed phrases— are accompanied by a response. 

The responses have a liturgical feeling: they’re not practical, and each begins with a resolution “will listen to as many times as” They are instructions which describe the emotional protocol, eg “as many times as you held my hand, to teach me to walk” 

Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
Transcribed voicemail recording (language by father)/how often to play (language by poet)
…
Coda

The poet’s responses make a list where each item is more emotionally intense than the last, and, at the end of the poem, after the last message-response, is a coda that explains the source of the messages as “the last saved” voicemail recordings.
I admire Shah’s adherence to this pattern, her reliance on the found language in the recordings, and her transparent process. 

Why there are quotation marks around read: Shah intensified the effect of her poem with a presentation that was so surprising, but so natural that it won the YAWP Poem of the Month: she played the audio from her father’s messages in his own voice, and read the responses she had written in her poem: a dialog between the dead and the living. Her father’s voice is charming and musically cadenced, and contrasts with the formal antiphonal feeling of the responses. This effect is a measure of grief lived every day, and filial love. The last couple of verses:

Hello Preeti. Give me a call when you’re free. Thank you, bye./Will listen to as many times as the beeps made by the EKG when you were in the hospital with a coma. 

Hi Preeti, we have to go to that [friend’s home]….(she’s at work), hello?/Will listen to as long as you are not with us. 

I believe there was not a dry eye in the house.

In its establishment of a static rhetorical framework, Shah’s poem reminded me of Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas” (https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/whereas) a book-length poem with an explosive profusion of forms that are held and contextualized by the legal language of treaties.

These poems look beyond mainstream poetic form such as meter, rhyme, sestina, sonnet, and deliver new experiences of language trying to stay alive in modern utilitarian confines. What formal elements can you find that are opposed to living language? I’m thinking of politics, law, instruction manuals, Chinese Restaurant menus, greeting cards, self help… How can your poem use these ‘anti-expressions’ against themselves? (Some RWB poets have been working against these forms for some time: Don Zirilli’s From the French Directions for Assembling a Wheelbarrow comes to mind.)

At the bottom of this question is a nagging anxiety that poetry’s traditional forms are inadequate  to take attention from the language of power. I believe the most effective (if ‘ effective’ is the ability to capture attention from dehumanizing bullhorns) quality of poetry is newness. Am I wrong?

Adding to the emotional immediacy of both poems is the fact that they are autobiography. They are real, and they get urgency from that. We use real every day: what would be unreal and yet still interesting, still immediate, still new?

Frank

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

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

Hi Everybody-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does writing change the nature of your attention?

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

WCW—Susanna Lee & Leilani McInerney Dec 5

Williams Readings-Susanna-Leilani.indd

For the month of December  we are featuring Susana Lee and Leilani McInerney.

About our December features: 

Susanna Leebegan writing poetry later in life, first sharing haiku on Twitter. Susanna is a natural storyteller. Her poems are beautiful observations about the connections between the inhabitants, sentient or not, of what we humans call the universe. Susanna’s poems explore the chasm between the ideal and the way things really are in clear and wry language.  She, with the poet’s discerning eye, is often amused by how truth is found only after our failure to make sense of things the way they are and not by what we believe reality to be.

Leilani McInerney’s poetry has a deceptively light but powerful touch. In Leilani’s poems there is a deep, almost religious, or mystical if you will, relationship between the sensuality of the body and the inherent spiritual nature of the soul. With great grace and pence, her poems express this dynamic and beautiful tension calling us to our seat at the feast with an unmistakable joie de vivre.

Please join us on Wednesday, December 5th, 2018, 7:00 PM at the William Carlos Williams Center, One Williams Plaza in Rutherford NJ to hear these two wonderful poets read.

Please note: We must now pay $100 per month rent for the use the Williams Center for our readings. This is in addition to the $100 per month rent the Red Wheelbarrow workshop must pay for the use of their space in the Williams Center.

We need your help to survive and continue to hold our monthly readings. We will be asking for donations. A $5 per person donation is suggested. If we all contribute, we can pay the rent!

You can follow everything about the Red Wheelbarrow, its events, and poets at these sites:
Blog – https://redwheelbarrowpoets.wordpress.com
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RWBPoets
Twitter – @RWBPoets.

GV – John Dull and RWB Workshop Poets

WORKSHOP POETS TAKE OVER GAINVILLE CAFE

The Magic Circle series returns to GainVille Café Friday, June 29. RED WHEELBARROW WORKSHOP POETS will be featured from the long-running (11 years!) weekly workshop led by Jim Klein. Our musical guest will be Rutherford singer-songwriter JOHN DULL, returning for an encore performance, hopefully with special guest MARTIN DULL. Also featuring the Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Bring-Your-A-Game open mic. A $9 cover includes coffee/tea, dessert. 7 PM.

GainVille Café
17 Ames Avenue, Rutherford
201-507-1800.

Also at GainVille on Dec 1st

On Dec 1st 6-7pm at GainVille, preceding the poets, there will be a themed event for the upcoming holidays. Cliff Evan will do a reading and signing of the hilarious children’s illustration book for adults: A burnt-out Santa, one runaway reindeer, and what it means to have real courage via www.instagram.com/cupidsfarewellchristmas

CUPID’S FAREWELL CHRISTMAS a story of identity, individuality, and the meaning of real courage.

www.facebook.com/CupidsFarewellChristmas/

http://www.newyorkcomiccon.com/…/…/Cupids-Farewell-Christmas

WCW – Emari DiGiorgio

Wednesday, December 6, 2017, 7 p.m.

Williams Center for the Arts

Plus the words of William Carlos Williams
and open readings from the floor

Free

Emari DiGiorgio is the author of Girl Torpedo (Agape, 2018), the winner of the 2017 Numinous Orison, Luminous Origin Literary Award, and The Things a Body Might Become (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She’s the recipient of the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize, the Ellen La Forge Memorial Poetry Prize, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, RHINO’s Founder’s Prize, the Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Award, and a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She’s received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy of the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She teaches at Stockton University, is a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poet, and hosts World Above, a monthly reading series in Atlantic City, NJ.

Mudflap Girl Speaks

My hot minute as a pin-up: the golden hour’s
slick ruse. More likely, Stu drew the thin frame

of a girl downtown, feral dame I feared as a newly
housed wife. Or a wisp of the she before me,

untethered Amazon freewheeling the countryside.
Her body’s open road, long haul, radio static,

bellowing semi horn her call. Maybe she was
a goddess of his dreams: the slope of spine

a dangerous curve at night, dark crease along hip,
one-way bridge, flashing lights. Change gears

too fast, and areolas’ inverted potholes will shred
thread, send a rig skittering sideways across

Highway One, a full cache of beer and glass
crashed. I prayed that he’d come home, wanted

to bang the road from his bones, but I tired of his
crass jokes, how he thought time stopped when he

was gone. I sundialed in sheets, pined for a woman
who went braless at the post office, the peaked

grottos of her tits in the cool dark of an old cotton
shirt. My breasts were a roadside attraction, though

the toots and whistles were for a phantom sexpot
they dreamt of bending over, never kissing.

 

Contact: John Barrale – john.barrale@gmail.com

RWB Workshop Poem of the Week

Poem of the Week, 8/15/17

Zorida Mohammed


If I Died Today, I Would Not Mind
.

 

I am sitting on my kitchen porch steps amidst my flowers,

in high summer, as peaceful as Ferdinand the bull.

The red dahlias that have survived many winters tower over me.

Bronze maple leaf hibiscus, as well as ordinary ones of different colors, surround the porch.

Echinacea have lost their rosy pink petals, and rounds of dark, spiky seeds

now sit atop the tall stalks waiting for whomever will eat them.

Bleeding hearts, with their ferny foliage, live in the shadow of the blue columbine,

the seeds spilled from its papery pods into the surrounding soil.

The irises and lilies are all strappy leaves;

their stick-like green stalks are all that’s left of their blooms.

The lady slippers, grown from seeds snuck in from Romania

by a friend’s mother, are so prolific I weed them like weeds.

The geraniums and snap dragons require frequent pruning to keep up their show.

The oleander cuttings that I’ve stuck into the composty soil

have sprouted new growth. The plant given by a friend

will now be potted up to grace the home of another friend.

Numerous other flowers are being short- changed and will go unnamed.

WCW—Sharon Mesmer

 

476558_10151065359287802_509981710_oWednesday, August 3, 2016, 7 p.m.

Williams Center for the Arts • Cinema 3 • One Williams Plaza, Rutherford NJ

Plus the words of William Carlos Williams & open readings from the floor

Sharon Mesmer is an award-winning poet, fiction writer and essayist. Her newest poetry collection, Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place, published by Bloof Books, was voted Entropy’s “Best of 2015.” Previous poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008), The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose Press, 2008), Vertigo Seeks Affinities (chapbook, Belladonna Books, 2007), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press, 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (chapbook, ABJ Press, Tokyo, 1997). Her awards include a Fulbright Specialist grant (2011), a Jerome Foundation/SASE award (as mentor to poet Elisabeth Workman, 2009) and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships (2007 and 1999). Her essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in the New York Times, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and the Brooklyn Rail, among other places. As an original member of the flarf collective, she read her work at the Whitney Museum in April 2007 (in the “Flarf Versus Conceptual” event), at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, and as part of National Public Radio’s “Studio 360” program on January 23, 2009. She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs of New York University and The New School.

From “Stupid University Job”

I thought I had it bad
until I met that handsome Scottish man
whose parents tried to make him spontaneously combust
by feeding him haggis laced with gunpowder
and making him sleep in the stove.
Instead of an ear, he had a shiny, snail-shaped ridge.
I guess we all have our tragic flaw.
Mine is like that of the naked man
who holds up a sign that says “I’m naked”
and runs screaming through the park.
My handlers say I’m difficult,
but don’t you believe it.
My soul still radiates a luminous intensity
despite this stupid university job.