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!
Jennifer Poteet‘s “Bird in a Box” compares good poems to skating, to eels, to electric current down the spine, to the thrill of being undressed by a first lover, to crashing a bike after learning to ride one, and the pounding of the heart in the chest after that crash, to a bird in a box. Then the poem screeches to a halt: Why? Because, it is revealed that the lover, the who one who unbuttoned of the speaker’s blouse, button by button, was a real person, one who, “after a third marriage” tells the speaker “the doctor gives him six months to live.” It is the boldest sort of strategy, in which the poem is pulled out of its conceit by reality and the crash of the bicycle morphs into a real life catastrophe. Bravo, Jen.
John J. Trause brought a movie commentary sort of poem called “Craning to See a Hotel Room” that mixed references to the movies “Psycho” and “Touch of Evil” to delve into the issues of exploitation and voyeurism.
The title of Frank Rubino‘s poem, “Days of rogation,” refers to meatless feast days in the Catholic calendar, and to a larger meditation on the modern meat industry, but at its best, it slides, meditatively, into a consideration of the unaccountable pain and solace of love: “no one/ will love my ear-wax, love my funny toe…./ no one / should be allowed in there, but here you are!/ One time you… showed me guyswith giant cocks and… I cried/ inside but …/I come from people with zucchini heads/ some of them… gnarled beautifully like mountain cedars…”
You can’t teach talent like that.
My poem, “Her Silver Rings in the Dish by the Bed” was a sonnet-length domestic love poem. Frank saw it as a sonnet. Yana said it changes the sonnet tradition by paying attention to an older woman. Frank liked the fact that it “starts with a thesis and proves it out,” somewhat metaphysically.
Susanna Lee‘s poem was also about domestic romance. It was called “Poem for the Rising of the Winter Solstice Moon.” It spoke in a “room of one’s own way” about maintaining private space in the home, but veered towards the sadness of isolation in life later in marriage, with couples sleeping apart and the speaker’s parents “gone.” Then, somewhat miraculously it slouched towards communion of a deeply mature sort, when the vibrant moon seen separately gave the couple something to talk about. Deft work.
Preeti Shah‘s poem, “My Name” was a purely lyrical piece in the form of a personal history. When she was young her “Name/ caught light the wet riggings/ of palak in some hesitant throat.” In India, it “comforted/ as Maa’s home dish…” In America, she comically compares it the Heimlich maneuver. And finally, in along lyrical passage, she conjures the feeling of her name in her own mouth as a beautiful meal “aching to be tasted/ by all tongues/ that still missed their homes.” Beautiful.
Speaking of foreign locales, Carole Stone‘s “Down Mexico Way” imagines the figure of Death in several disguises: as a guitar player, an American tourist, as a cyber researcher peeking at her “Facebook” page, and as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, where her deceased parents show up and “light up cigarillos.”
Yana Kane‘s “The Doll House” takes dollhouses to task for their lifelessness, their obscuration of “any flaws:” for example the “mother in the kitchen” who is always and forever pulling “a blueberry pie from the oven.” And the father in the parlor, who “never tires of reading the same newspaper.” It was a creepy poem, for sure, something between Twilight Zone and Stepford Wives.
Raymond Turco‘s “Verona” creates a vibrant tonal sketch of the town with a curious allusion to an unproven theory that the name “Verona” is a bastardization of “Vera Roma” meaning “the one true Rome.”
JJT called Brendan‘s poem, “Waterfall in Winter” “high Romantic,” and “Tennysonian.” It depicts the hidden space behind a waterfall where a kind of shrine is maintained, literally maintained, as its “drooping lilies” are replaced —by the speaker—with “fresh ones” and the old ones are cast into the “crashing water.” Yet, when he leaves he swears he will never be back. Mysterious, and somber.
Janet Kolstein‘s “The White Bird” (not in the package) is either a dream, a surreal vision, or just another day on the Lower East Side. It presents a bird perched on the speaker’s shoulder that talks, shops for clothes, takes a bath in warm water, and is grabbed by barber who wakes up after sleeping on the street outside his shop. The speaker then pats the bird dry with a “paper towel, to avoid his getting chilled/ when he turns into a cat.” I’m voting for ‘just another day on the Lower East Side.’
Thank you all for coming; see you at the next workshop.
Honestly, I’ve had my share of difficulties understanding how Modernism works, who the most modern Modernist is, what makes Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, and HD all of a piece and what they are all a piece of, because Pound often seems like a cartoonish cheerleading mimic to me, and TS Eliot, like Pound, seems to relish in their high-brow translations restatements, and sarcastic renditions of classical western poetry (and classical Chinese) and erudition in a way that WCW almost never does, while Stevens (racism aside) is a musical genius of long rhapsodic stretches of intellectual supposition, and WCW for all we call him an “imagist” has plenty of late Victorian argumentation in his poems, while Crane is a bit of an impressionist, but now I’m reading Moore, and with Moore, I’m reading a biography of Moore by Linda Leavell called “Holding On Upside Down; The Life and Work of Marianne Moore” and along with those two, a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson that includes, among other gems, an amazing Donald Hall interview of Moore from 1959, when, at the age of 72, she was at the pinnacle of her popularity, a popularity that celebrated her later, more accessible work, and not the stuff that stunned Eliot, got Pound’s heart pounding, and made both of them boosters for her career. And just to give you some perspective on that career, her first acceptances for publication were from Poetry magazine (by Harriet Monroe herself) on July 6, 1914, and it wasn’t till 10.5 years later, on December 27, 1924, that the first book she could call her own, Observations, was published. (A couple of her boosters, goaded by Pound, published a book of her work (called “Poems”) in 1921 without her permission). And even with her 1924 debut solidifying her reputation as one of the great Modernists, it wasn’t “until Ashbery pronounced ‘An Octopus’ the greatest of Moore’s poems in 1967 [that] it received … critical attention.” (Leavell, p. 219). But all that said, with Leavell’s help, I’m beginning to understand what makes Moore modern, important for writers today, and pleasurable. Like WCW, her poems were full of direct quotations from other media, newspapers, books, other poems, and her poems were always in conversation with ideas, other poets, historians, whole eras. In fact, “An Octopus”, her longest poem, which is about the glaciers on Mount Rainier in Washington State, is her undeclared response to Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a poem of similar length, whose impact as a long modern poem can’t be overstated. But the difference is that her poem is about a living American place, a mountain and its 7 glaciers, and the things that lived on that mountain and among those glaciers, and the power they represent, and how different a mountain, with all its particularities, is from the “smoothness” the Greeks liked; Moore had a pragmatic view of a “real toad” in an “imaginary garden” (she called poetry an imaginary garden filled with real toads), a view includes direct quotes from travel catalogs about Mt Ranier, and the rules of the national park, which she fits into her ode; and this omnivorous view of how poems work was “an alternative to what she considered the ‘macabre’ failure of imagination in Eliot’s poem.” (Leavell, p216). But there’s more to Moore than collage. In the same poem she includes an aphoristic statement of her true love, which is accuracy: “Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus/ with its capacity for fact.” And for her, accuracy, goes well beyond lucidity. In that 1959 interview I mentioned, Donald Hall asked her “Do you have in your own work any favorites or unfavorites?” And Moore replied, “Indeed I do. I think the most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication in it to suit myself. That’s a problem. And I don’t approve of my “enigmatics” or as somebody said, “the not ungreen grass.” I said to my mother one time, “How did you ever permit me to let this be printed?” And she said, “You didn’t ask my advice.”
Getting back to that ingredient of a good poem, “enough implication . . . to suit myself,” that ingredient is the hard-won openness, the attitude, the humor, the critique of what she has a distaste for, presented not with silence, but restraint. She wrote about her passions, and her passions were nature and intelligence, but you’ll never find her writing about or celebrating romantic love, or selling off pieces of her biography for emotional validation. Moore’s the more modern Modernist because she dares to stand before you without the scaffolding of the classics around her, because she dares to write with lucidity as well as implication. Let me get done with this bit of the Field Notes by quoting a line or two from her poem “Snakes, Mongooses, Snake Charmers, and the Like” in which she gets both accuracy and a stunning metaphor into her description of a snake rising out of a basket:
Thick, not heavy, it stands up from its traveling-basket, The essentially Greek, the plastic animal all of a piece from nose to tail; One is compelled to look at it as at the shadows of the Alps Imprisoning in their folds like flies in amber the rhythms of the skating rink.
To me, saying that the movements of a snake “imprison … the rhythms of the skating rink” is not only an amazing original metaphor of stunning observational perspicacity; it has great assonances, and the way that “alps” and “amber” provide an intermediate or intramural assonance, is just great, and as if that wasn’t enough, the way “snake” (the subject of the poem) and “skate” frame the whole. People think of Moore as a free verse or a syllabic poet, but she had a devastating ear for rhyme. In one of first mature poems, “Critics and Connoisseurs,” written in syllabics with no previously known meter, she locates half-rhymes in the middle of sentences, and on off-beats, so that “Certain Ming/ products” rhymes with “I have seen something” and “ambition without” rhymes with “stick north, south.” “and” rhymes with “stand,” Here’s how she described her process when Donald Hall asked her if she planned out her unusually shaped stanzas:
“Never, I never “plan” a stanza. Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure. I may influence an arrangement or thin it, then try to have successive stanzas identical with the first… No, I never draw lines.” I make a rhyme conspicuous to me at a glance, by underlining with red, blue or other pencil — as many colors as I have rhymes to differentiate. However, if the phrases recur in too incoherent an architecture—as print—I notice that the words as a tune do not sound right.”
Moore never betrays or orphans her intelligence to capture an emotion. The emotion must survive the gantlet of her mind, thrive in the lucidity of her imagination.
Anyway, no more time for that today.
Janet Kolstein brought a brilliant villanelle called “Home Fires Burning Cold” (not attached) that uses as its two repeated lines: “An old home can take on the feel of a battered shoe” and “Silence and scruffy floors that all cry you.” It’s a rhymed free-verse that slides outside the lines of iambic pentameter, and varies slightly the traditional structure of a villanelle, but it has a strong rhythmic feel, and as the repeating lines return, they gain heft; while they seemed comforting at first, by the time of the last recurrence, they feel emotionally retrograde.
My poem, “Be Leaving Soon, Be Always on Your Way” like Janet’s, was a formal poem, written in a basically blank verse style (with some exceptions); it was an exhortation to action, to engage impatiently with life. It used the imperative “Be” as an anaphora; the poem was ordering the reader or the speaker ordering themselves, to get on with life when facing morbidity or mortality:
Be under doctor’s orders to slow down; Be “fuck that shit. I haven’t read the Bible yet, Or Dostoyevsky, Dante, Heller, Kant; Be “I haven’t seen Kanye; I haven’t seen Bron”; Be “I cant stop now;” be “sorry, gotta go,” Be off the clock, off balance, off the beaten path, Be better off, be off the hook, be off Your rocker, off the juice, be off the cuff, Be off to work, be dizzy, “sit;” “I’m fine, I need a minute.” “Get your feet up off the sofa! Sit up straight, stop mumbling, you eat too fast…
The workshop liked the energy of it; but sent it back for surgery on the first and second stanzas.
Claudia Serea‘s “Seagulls in the parking lot” was a rewrite that kept it’s central situation, a daughter talking to her father on the phone, while she’s in her office at work and he is in the hospital thinking he won’t make it. In this iteration, Claudia used her ruminations on the seagulls she could see through the window in her office as she spoke to her father as an extension of her anxiety about her dad: “Outside my window, the gulls cry,/ covering your voice when you respond.” The workshop loved the setting and acknowledged how hard it would be to train the seagulls to do what you want them to do.
Brendan McEntee brought a poem whose title did a ton of work: “Donating the Last of Your Clothes” A title like that or like Frank Rubino’s last week, with a title something like “She’s Coming for Thanksgiving and That’ll be Good” did so much work. You’re home free, off to the races with a start like that. Frank doubled down on that start with a first line that went “We’ll install locks.” Brendan’s strategy was different. After his centering title, he moved almost as far away from it as possible beginning with a small mystery: “It’s a Pilot roller-ball, blue, nothing special.” A mystery that is resolved slowly as we find out that the pen came from a jacket pocket “- the suede coral pink one—/ resting in the bottom of a bin/ of what I kept of your clothes,/ folded as you would have wanted,” allowing the emotion of the loss that we learned of in the title to find a home in “you.” Brendan’s subsequent strategy works a lot like Claudia’s. In Claudia’s poem, the gulls were carrying the emotional burden of the poem—the loss—anticipated—of the father; in Brendan’s, it’s the pen that becomes the repository of the poem’s emotional charge rather than the woman who died. Bravo to both of you, all three of you, for learning emotional ventriloquism.
Look, Susanna Lee did it too! She brought a “Where I’m From” poem (yes, it’s a subgenre) that sketched out a white typical middle class upbringing in the 1960s, referring to television shows, describing a household built on discipline by shouting out the brand names of things. “I’m from St. Patrick’s Day,/ from pink lemonade./” It was a nostalgic poem in the sense that it cherished the feelings associated with the things and people of youth, but what it’s really doing in a more obvious (Antiques Road Show?) way, is the same thing that Brendan, with his pen, and Claudia, with her birds, were doing—investing things with emotion. It’s the poet’s prestidigitation.
Yana Kane (who will be reading at the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Contest on Monday December 13 you should go, it’ll be great. You can buy a ticket at BrooklynPoets.org.) brought a poem called “Escape is Possible” a cheery poem considering the alternatives. The interesting device Yana employs is to describe the “escape” in a way that is rhetorically explicit but very impressionistic. To escape, for example, one “search[es] under the senses, / feel[s] the floor of your perception,/ the hidden trapdoor is there.” And this semi fantastical door leads to an ocean in one sinks to the bottom and then rises.
Carole Stone brought “Hugs” which is about seeking solace in poetry from the anguish of a dead spouse; it started with a great lyrical evocation of desolation in stanzas shaped like tercets:
The death live on the rooftop, Enter my bedroom, pull me form sleep. O, won’t you hold me,
Let me run through the streets Shouting, “Love me, love me,”…
However the poem turns away from the morbidity of death, seeks solace, which is a refuge from grief, in poetry, and more specifically, the book that holds Neruda’s poems, whose “spine [is] held together with tape.” This book, and poetry itself act like the trap door in Yana’s poem, that are held out as a possible escape.
Finally, this week, Don Zirilli brought a poem called “The German Christmas Market of New Jersey” which is an actual annual thing where he lives. It’s a poem about being deprived of singularity and thrust into an uncomfortable multiplicity, a condition here associated with being at a fair that is populated by people from another fair (“The crowd was from the state fair”) not just literally, but figuratively as well (“from every fair of every state.”). In this condition, the revival of the covid 19 pandemic, with masks, has a disorienting quality. The pandemic is “mysterious and new.” And the masks make everything double: “I put on a mask/ and now twice as many characters are played./ I’m different to everyone and everyone different.” Ultimately, for now, in Don’s poem everyone is learning a new lesson, but not everyone is getting the same lesson: “oh// was I supposed to get something? Maybe I did.”
Listen—There’s still time to register for Monday’s Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award contest featuring two of your favorite Red Wheelbarrow poets, Yana Kane and me. It’s a zoom event and you get your tickets through Eventbrite, and the tickets are not cheap, $25.00 because it’s a fundraiser for Brooklyn Poets. The event starts at 7 pm and the 12 poem of the month winners will read their poems, at the end of which, at about 8 pm, everyone in the audience can vote for poem of the month (via text message). Let’s start a friendly interstate rivalry by going into Brooklyn and taking the Poem of the Year Award back to New Jersey for a year. Come and support Yana and me—here’s the link to the signup/registration https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.
Further Field Notes of December 12, 2021
Continuing my reading of Marianne Moore, I found a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson published by Prentice-Hall, Inc. in 1969, that has provided very good insight and information. I was particularly happy with Hugh Kenner’s essay “Meditation and Enactment” because I’ve loved Hugh Kenner since I read his grand piece of literary criticism called THE POUND ERA a lifetime ago. Such a strong, distilling and careful voice, it’s exciting just to be with him. But this morning I want to share a short excerpt from an essay by Henry Gifford (never heard of him before) called “Two Philologists” that dares to do the obviously necessary but fraught work of comparing Marianne Moore to Emily Dickinson. I’ll skip the intro and get right to this insight:
“And yet, given this all-important distinction between the two poets, their choice of language seems to unite them unexpectedly. Both are incontrovertibly American—or perhaps one should say American of a certain tone and temper which, like much else in the modern world, may be dissolving. They are individual, ironic, and above all fastidious. Their poetry is exact and curious like the domestic skills of the American woman in antebellum days. It has the elevation of old-fashioned erudite American talk—more careful in its vocabulary, more strenuously aiming at correctness and dignity than English talk of the same vintage. This is not to confuse the milieux of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; nor to insinuate that both poets stand at a distance from today in a charming lady-like quaintness. What distinguishes them is something very far from quaintness: a practical interest in the capacities of the English language both learned and colloquial, in its American variety.”
I’ll admit that the phrase in the excerpt that demanded repetition is “old-fashioned erudite American talk,” and the reason for me, that it demanded repetition, is that it captures something about perspective, propriety, restraint and approach that I have noticed and yet been unable to articulate so lucidly in both poets. The phrase “old-fashioned erudite American talk” reminds me of the way that my Aunt Ruth (who sent birthday cards with $15 ‘for books’ to all of her nieces and nephews) spoke, the way that my father’s friend, Frank Lowe (who owned a hammer factory in Brooklyn! and recited “The Ballad of Dangerous Dan McGrew” from memory at our dinner table) spoke, the way my father’s lawyer, Harold Robbins (who knew his Latin and used it to seem comic and erudite), spoke, the way formal letters were written, the way “to whom it may concern” was deployed at the beginning of a letter, or the way the word “one” was used to designate “a person.” And I thought, yes, there’s something that doesn’t saw the air in both Dickinson and Moore, that doesn’t need a shotgun to pop a balloon. And Gifford is correct, I think, when he notes that this sort of fastidious, correct, respectful way of observing the world and commenting on it is “dissolving” or has already dissolved.
Anyway, I thought it might be of interest to you. And read Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era,” and when you do, bring an extra pair of socks because they ones you’re wearing may get knocked off.
Stephen Sondheim died a little yesterday, and PBS Newshour played portions of a 2010 interview they did. If you write poems, you’ll be engrossed in this:
Sondheim: “If you think of a lyric as a little one act play, Then every line is a scene, And a quatrain becomes an entire act, Each line is a scene and you’ve got seven words in a line So let’s say each word is a speech…. Well, you know, if you’re writing a play and something’s wrong with a speech, you cut or change the speech, same way you’ve got to do it word by word. It is as focused as that.”
Interviewer: “and the greatest focus is on the words that rhyme. Sondheim writes lying down, the better for a quick nap when things aren’t going well, he says. He uses an old rhyming dictionary, a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus”
Sondheim: “Rhyme draws the ear’s attention to the word, so you don’t make the least important word in the line the rhyme word; And, also, a rhyme can take something that is not too strong and make it much stronger. If you tell a joke in rhyme, it’s twice as funny as it would be if you just told it in prose, if it was just a speech. The same words!
But the rhyme goes [hits fist on palm] does That to it, and that’s one of the uses of rhyme. It’s not only to focus the attention on a word but to strengthen what you’re saying.
Now sometimes you avoid a rhyme because you don’t want to draw the ear’s attention because you want to fool’em(!) because one of the things you want to do in a song and in a scene and in a play is surprise an audience.”
Interviewer: “And that surprise, Sondheim says, can come in very subtle ways, something happening between the ear and the brain, for example, he believes words that are spelled differently but sound alike, such as “suffer” and “rougher” engage the listener more than those spelled similarly: “rougher” and “tougher””
Sondheim: “I think we see words as they were on paper sometimes when you hear them. I don’t mean it’s an actually conscious thing, but I’m absolutely convinced that people essentially “see” what they’re “hearing.”
Now, this is me, Arthur: I think we poets [regardless of denomination] ignore Sondheim at our own peril, at risk to our work. This is a scientist, an experimental prosodist, a dentally intense marksman who could drill exacting wormholes through scalp, skull and skepticism using words alone, and change perceptions with his bare wit.
Now, to get to the matter at hand, we had an amazing workshop on Tuesday; great poems, great discussions, and both Shane Wagner and Susanna Lee back in the fold.
Shane Wagner‘s poem, “Heaven” considers life after death through the poetic lens of a Billy Collins poem that suggests heaven is what we imagine it to be, but when the speaker tries to play the Billy Collins game, he’s struck by how little his imagination matches his desire, which is to live the life he lives, and that part of the poem, beginning with an exceptionally long line, is where the poem, as far as I’m concerned, breaks out of its essayistic, armchair, pipe-smoking, patches-on-its-sleeves mode and becomes deeply, personally heartfelt. Here’s that line: “But I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife.” The poem lingers on that bed, focusing on his wife’s handicraft of the quilt, and actually seeing her “mouth working an unconscious side business” while she worked. Some workshoppers, while appreciating where the poem went, said the poem needs the essayistic bit to set up the magic. To which I say that if you call your poem “heaven” and start it “but I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife,” you have done what poetry alone can do. We will see what Shane thinks of that.
Don Z’s “Museum of the House Made From Doormats” is sketch poetry of great immediacy. He says he wrote it ten minutes before the workshop, possibly after watching an episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” giving it the freshness of mozzarella from a pork store, or of Michael Landon. The poem uses the image of a doormat to illuminate the vast experience of mortality, and of thresholds generally, which makes it something of a relative of Shane Wagner’s “Heaven.” So, I guess it’s true that thoughts of mortality can sharpen the mind.
David Briggs was back (Hi, David) with a poem called “B-movie love life” which had the clever device of tracking an actual love story by reference to cliched tropes of B-movies, and begins: “Remember when we were lost upriver,/ realizing the hole we’d stepped in/ was really a footprint?” and then, “Remember when we stole/ the Alpha Romeo/ for a joyride,/ but found it had a transmitter/ that led the henchmen/ right to our villa?”—continuing all the way to “Remember the baffled newscaster/ who narrated our last moments?” It was an exhilarating experience moving through those cinematic tropes standing in for the progress and decline of a love affair. I look at poem as a series of loose-fitting metaphors, in which the tenor (or thing described) is a love affair, and the vehicle (the metaphorical descriptor) is the movie tropes. For me, in this draft, the vehicle ran over the tenor, or just parked on it, and yet it wouldn’t take too much tweaking to change the focus so that each iteration of the movie substitution would deepen our involvement with the lovers and their disappointment.
And super-interestingly, Barbara Hall brought a poem called “And I don’t like pretzels….” about flipping channels on the tv, finding nothing, not even the pretzels she doesn’t like, to interest her except her own ruminations on history and American fuck-everything-up-ism; and at the moment the poem considers the end of the world, it does so only by summoning up sci-fi adventure movies, then, in despair, reaching for another pretzel (empty calories).
Frank Rubino brought “Solaris,” a fantastically ambitious poem that continues his knife-edge consideration of adult parenting. The poem, which distances itself from the subject by calling her “person P” is “interrupted” several times by a diagram of an Oxycontin molecule, a picture that you can’t read aloud when you read the poem, but is there, the whole time you read it, just as Oxycontin (an addictive opioid drug manufactured by the Sackler family’s company Perdu Pharma) is always there in the family, interrupting. The poem also uses an old Russian movie called “Solaris” as a backdrop as well as a title; the story of the movie, sketched in the seventh and eighth stanzas of the poem, involves the ghost-like apparition of “a man’s dead wife” in an orbiting space lab. The poem also starts with and seems to live in the aftermath of an argument with someone over how problems should be addressed, whether the speaker is failing to confront them or looking for a new way to do so. Over and over, the speaker says “I’ve been thinking about currents and what flows through me,” which may be less of a refrain and more of an anaphora, and each time the poem repeats this line, it delves into a different sort of current, of thought, of water. No one can doubt the seriousness of this endeavor, and if Frank can tame all of these elements, he will have one behemoth of a poem on his hands. Frankly, I said it to Shane—there’s no way he should let Billy Collins hijack his poem—and I’d say it too to Frank about Solaris: those Russian filmmakers of the same era as Kubrick may have given you a jump start, but you owe them nothing, and your poem is plenty on its own.
Janet Kolstein continued on the metaphysical roll she’s been on with a poem called “Beholder” considering beauty and the ugliness it can lead to.
Brendan McEntee brought “At the Run” a poem designed to suggest a narrative associated with two people by focusing exclusively on the movements of a dog in which they both had an interest in a dog run. It was intriguing but frustrating for some, who wanted a little more help from the poet. Big question that. We all want to be able to draw the portrait of a lady in a single sinuous line, but more difficult to know when the line provides sufficient information from which an inevitable conclusion can be drawn or withheld.
Carole Stone‘s poem “Sweet Dreams” has rhymes, no meter, but little snatches of rhyme that give the dreams of the title their sweet tilt, or diminish or heighten the anguish of the subject, getting old alone and being lonesome. Speaking of her deceased husband, the speaker says she wishes he could see her “in my Mexican straw hat/ sitting poolside./ I haven’t cried.”
Tom Benediktsson brought us a poem called “Killing God”—a free verse in five stanzas that doesn’t so much kill god, or depict the killing of god as much as it introduces us to the tripartite “people in my head” that have hilarious, incisive and very different ideas about what god (depicted as a cricket in a glue trap) is or how ‘he’ ought to be treated. The fact that this metaphysical/metareligious rumination takes place while the speaker is wearing a Speedo (over which his floppy belly flops) and holding a silver sushi knife only makes the portrait irrefutable and unforgettable.
My poem, “Julie Hirsch” is about finding the conditions necessary to begin an artistic project. It’s in the gross form of a Petrarchan sonnet, 14 lines, an octet that portrays the subject, followed by a sestet that turns somewhat to include the speaker’s appreciation of the teacher. The poem doesn’t rhyme and it is not in the form of iambic pentameters, but rather iambic hexameters except the final couplet, which are iambic septameters.
Last thing for today, and then I’ll shut up: please consider signing up for the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award Smackdown on December 13 (a Monday) : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/ and supporting me in my effort to become the first two-time Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year winner for my poem “Unencumbered” (my previous win was in 2015 for “The Whales Off Manhattan Beach Breaching in Winter). I know it’s a bit of a commitment of time and money (for the ticket). All I can say is I’d appreciate it immensely and it’s going to be a great show. : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of November 16, 2021
Janet Kolstein‘s “The Glittering Tower” takes the view from an apartment overlooking the Hudson River at a high rise building under construction on the other side as a beginning point for a meditation on ghosts. The crane that supports the frame of the highrise disappears in the night sky leaving behind, “the tower alone glitters in diamond white/ through the shutters of my psyche.” And at that moment, the poem turns to ghosts, but not just any ghosts, ghosts who appear to haunt Times Square “smoking and drinking spirits from brown paper bags./ They gather near Broadway, mingling among us,/ popping into theatres to catch the second act.”
Don Zirillli brought “How to Remember a Dream,” a rewrite of a poem we all remembered for the arresting image of ‘walking backwards into a dream,’ though some of the earlier particulars were lost to us. Here, the poem is framed as a “how to” poem, which creates the expectation of a set of instructions, essentially in the second person form of address. Don complicates this expectation by having the “you” receiving the instructions confounded or merged with the “you” of the dream: “you’re glass, no longer in the way of the story you’re telling to the person actually having the dream.” That was a bridge too far for some in the workshop, but others were ready for the complication, and delighted by the you “who slowly pours a frosty night of weather/ into the top of your head.”
My poem, “I Can Only See” tracks the progress of a person locking up his house at night before going to sleep by moving through the house from latches to lights, till his eyes close and he sees what’s going on inside his head.
Yana Kane (who will be one of the 2021 Brooklyn Poets poem of the month winners competing for poem of the year at an open to the public contest with audience voting on December 13—PLEASE COME) brought a poem called “Synaesthesia” that turned out to be less about the confusion or conflation of sensory perception and more about escape depicted as a trap door at the bottom of the ocean.
John J. Trause‘s “The Last Iris” followed the cinematographic method that he has followed in several recent poems, of zooming in on a particular detail from afar. Here, the first stanza of the poem zooms in on a cement and brick flower planter in an abandoned gas station on the corner of a block in a commercial district of a suburb, then switches in the second stanza to focus on an iris flowering in “coldest November”—a flower seemingly, though not explicitly located in the cement and brick flower planter of the first stanza. The effect could be post-apocalyptic or a celebration of life’s relentlessness.
Ray Turco brought a poem called “The Ship of My Brothers” which hearkened back to late Romantic and Victorian tropes of foreignness, evoking a kind of mythological ship sailing through the night, guided by the stars.
Frank Rubino’s poem “Dominatus Super Omnia” which Google says means “Mastery Over Everything” which is about the way a man moves through the world, seeking freedom or liberty through work, through independence, through prosperity, but how, too, the quest is or can be stymied by failure to recognize “the true box” one is in, and being stuck in a living mobius curlicue he identifies as “Changeless End of Endless Change.” It’s an audacious beginning of a philosophical investigation (hence the Latin title?) of that changeless theme in Frank’s work, identity. Hopefully, we’ll see more of it.
Moira O’Brien (newly elected as the sixth member of the RWB leadership called the Gang of Six), brought a satirical piece called “Today’s Special” that compared a breast biopsy with a restaurant special: “The meat is a paper thin scallopine/ achieved with a mammographic press… served on a bed of regret…” Chilling and hilarious at the same time.
Well, it’s good to be back at the Field Notes after a few spotty months, but we’ve just about finished the Mentorship Program I’ve been in with the Brooklyn Poets, so thanks for your patience. And enjoy the poems.
If you missed our virtual, soft launch of The Red Wheelbarrow #14, here is the recording of the event. Arthur Russell emcees as poets from The Red Wheelbarrow read their poems from the book. Frank Rubino is the featured poet.
Under the direction of a new editorial team, The Red Wheelbarrow reaches its 14th annual collection of great poetry and prose, including the work of 62 poets, the most we’ve ever published. Inside, featured poet Frank Rubino offers great creative insights in the interview with The Red Wheelbarrow Poets that accompanies his poems. Alongside our core group, you’ll find new names of talented poets published in The Red Wheelbarrow for the first time who also became regulars at our online workshops and readings in the past year. Don’t miss Don Zirilli’s expressive doodles and his erudite essay on the chess of William Carlos Williams. All this exciting work is wrapped in a striking red cover showcasing Anton Yakovlev’s photograph of a wheelbarrow holding a castle.
Most importantly, we hope you’ll find great inspiration in these pages, proving that our beloved Red Wheelbarrow honors its impressive legacy while powering into the future.
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.
Janet Kolstein Conrad Heyer (1749-1856), The Earliest Born Man to be Photographed (in 1852)
He’d heard of the thing and eyed images born of the contraption. It wouldn’t take long for his own aged self to replicate on the silvered plate.
The man who’d crossed the icy Delaware with the Father of Our Country had orbs reminiscent of the General’s. His great, beaked nose had grown craggy with years, his mouth indignant at the loss of teeth.
Maybe, it had been enough to see himself in the mirror of clear lakes, or to face his murky reflection on grooming. He’d looked inward, and knew his character forged with the gravitas of nationhood.
Changes come to those who live long lives, some small, some monumental, some bringing awe and trepidation. As a farmer, he knew how crops grew from seeds with the sun and the rain that nurtured his fields,
and that all living things are pitiful when Death comes calling, but this new machine, a camera, miniaturized and memorialized the very shades of his being, and, in the beam of his eyes, brought forth a new way of seeing and remembering.
I used to think Japanese porn, with its pixilated penises, wasted the strengths that this ethnic type perfected, the ultra femme squeaky female voices no other nationality could do as well. Pixilating the cocks, the coitus, as well the uniquely directional pubic hair of the actors, was a shame.
But tonight, I grazed on a long video about a sex worker in a fellatio salon giving head to five guys in forty minutes. There were no booths. The guys sat on a pair of wide banquettes, both facing the same direction, waiting their turns while the others got sucked off one at a time.
The sex worker gave each of them her full, coquettish attention for seven or eight minutes. She started them off with a bright caress of the face, but no kissing. She’d help them get their pants and unders off then enthuse as though she’d spontaneously come up with the most delightful idea: oral sex.
She’d entered the room with a miniature riding-hood basket stocked with individually wrapped moistened cloth towelettes dangling from her fingers. When she struggled to tear the wrapping, her smile twisted a little. She’d clean the guy’s groin before, and again — more gently — after he’d come.
She opened a second towelette to wipe her lips between patrons. What I particularly liked about her blow jobs was that she’d bring a guy off in three, four minutes tops, then, after lingering on the display and swallow of his cum in her mouth, which did not appeal to me at all,
she would go back to sucking him off while his dick was sagging down to limp for nearly as long as she had on the run up, and, for at least one guy, the second round of sucking had more impact than the first. He turned his head aside and shrieked into his own shoulder.
The last guy she blew had this cool bass baritone grunt, and a short, thick dick she seemed to like, and she made a Tootsie pop sound each time she popped it out of her mouth. She giggled in a slightly more delighted way for him than she had for the others.
All the guys were super grateful and kind of happy, as though they’d just gotten a free car wash. No money changed hands. They must’ve paid outside, like a movie ticket. Inside, they faced forward and accepted her joy.
The big surprise for me was that after the first few minutes, I didn’t mind the pixilated dicks at all. I didn’t need to see the lip-on-dick contact. I could follow the obvious progression and read the implied emotion in her courtesan face.
Pixilated dicks show modesty. Her spaghetti-strap satin top— which she hardly paid attention to for the first 3 guys— dropped off one shoulder for the fourth guy. Her tit came out, but it was an accident. She lifted it back with her thumb.
On the last guy, the one with the thick dick and the baritone grunt, both straps came off. Her whole torso, with its lovely clear skin and her youth intact came into view. You might have caught an accidental glimpse of her as you walked past your teenage daughter’s open bedroom door.