Field Notes, Week of 04-06-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 6, 2021

We had a great workshop, exciting poems and a great discussion on Tuesday, and we had a visit from Isaac Myers III, the editor of The Curlew Quarterly (but he didn’t bring a poem (sad face)) and a return visit from Ana Doina (who did).  Frank Rubino was away presumably enjoying his immunity to Covid, so yours truly had the helm.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem, called “My Dear Friend Thomas” imagined a letter from Emily Dickinson to the poet responding to one from him to her, replete with Dickinson-isms like the m-dashes and idiosyncratic capitalizations, with quotes from her work. But beyond the easy mimicry, the poem fulfilled its project of imagining a real letter from a revered poet, speaking of the poet’s life with candor and friendship.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “New Autopsy,” is a poem of personal isolation and alienation, and despair for America. It is set in the desert where the speaker has parked his camper. There, he reflects on the recurring death of America and the inability to draw any conclusions on the cause of death: “I live through this new autopsy of America,/ this endless cleromancy, again and again and again,// divining nothing.” The poem’s lyricism is light as a skipjack, small utterances that don’t provide much detail, but give the sense of a defeated soul or at least one in a holding pattern, especially in the last lines evoking the power of movement without the desire to go: “I turn over the engine,// listen to the potential in its thrum, then turn it off, satisfied.”

Yana Kane brought a lyric called “Orbit” that addresses the persistent orbit of the Earth around the sun and asks why. It’s a celestial discussion that tries to move beyond science to  free will.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “I Was Not a Girly Girl,” compares the speaker’s love of adventure, nature and science with the speaker’s sister’s love of soap opera and romance: In a lovely verbification, the speaker says of her sister: “She damselled, revelling in distress/ that would soon end in a magical, invisible, life-affirming kiss.”

LanChi Pham’s poem, “Inbox” uses the language of computers to indirectly illuminate what seems to be a romantic problem. It begins with the speaker saying  “I cleaned out the inbox of my heart,” and carries the metaphor forward with words like “delete” “autocomplete” and “Searching…./Searching…/Searching.” And it ends with the woeful conclusion that the “you” of the poem comes up at the end of every search.

John J Trause, who recently wrote a pearl of a prose poem about a spider web in a library is back with more biblio-arachnophilia, a poem speaking to a spider whose web was found on government documents in a library.

Jen Poteet was back with a rewrite of her poem “To the James Merrill Fellowship Committee” imagining a fellowship that would entitle her to live in and around James Merrill’s house in Stonington Connecticut. She was looking to enhance the emotional grip of the poem by imagining more fully the speaker’s engagement in the fellowship process. The poem does a wonderful job of recreating the scene at the Merrill house as described in numerous accounts of Ouija seances, and the workshop pointed out that the “domed tin ceiling in the dining room” was a nice way of creating an atmosphere conducive to calling back spirits. I wouldn’t know.

Ana Doina’s poem, “Stealing Cherries” is a childhood reminiscence on the theme of old guys and kids, some of whom escape their escapade with “cherry juice still dripping from our laughing mouths” and a “slow one left behind” who was spared any retribution by the old, injured gardener.

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “Une petite chanson”—a single sentence affirming each man or woman’s right to live “their own histoire/ their own poeme.”

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Vermilion” was a rewrite of last week’s how-to leave home prose poem.  The poem works by depicting the difficult circumstances of life—boredom and bullying and unsympathetic parents—and then moving on to describe an escape to a sci fi reality that relieves the discomfort.

Janet Kolstein brought a poem called “Oh, My!” about the secret lives of trees that combined a reference to the Wizard of Oz, and recent science on the ability of trees to communicate with one another through chemical releases in their roots. Very entertaining.

Wednesday night, we had an epic reading by Davidson Garrett at the RWB reading.  Damn, that guy can spin a yarn. 

See you all very very very soon.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-15-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 15, 2021

We had a good time at the old Zoom last Tuesday, with poems of metamorphosis, dreams, nostalgia, you know, the stuff we . 

Claudia Serea’s “At 3 a.m., I held my parents” is a dreamlike free verse poem in nine couplets in which the parents are depicted as metamorphic presences that the speaker holds, loves and loses. When the poem begins, the parents are held like children on the speaker’s lap, then compared to weightless birds who wriggle free, “spread their wings and swoosh[ ] off.” 

Don Zirilli’s poem, “How to Remember a Dream” enters the same landscape of dreams that Claudia’s poem occupied, but rather than presenting the content of the dream, it is presented as a ‘how to’ poem, that focuses on the process rather than the content of the dream. Like many poems in the ‘how to’ genre, there’s a bit of tension between the title’s promise of an easy-to-follow set of instructions, and the more difficult emotional content that follows. Three imperatives — “walk” “feel” and “report” – carry the ‘how to’ device forward, but particularly in the ‘feel’ section, the instructions illuminate rather than resolve the difficulties of remembrance, as they show us the imagined student receiving the content of the dream like a “frosty night of weather” transdermally through a their forehead resting on the cool glass of a window:

Feel the cool glass against your forehead

until you’re transparent, no longer

in the way

of the story you’re telling

to the person who is actually having the dream

and slowly pours a frosty night of weather

into you.

Janet Kolstein’s free verse poem, “Black Cat on a Cobblestone Street” was a lovely ekphrasis of a 1927 silent film directed by Walther Ruttman, called “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City.” While Ruttman’s film is famous for being the first or one of the first “city films” (here’s an article about it: https://www.popmatters.com/berlin-walter-ruttmann-2620911194.htmlabout) which can be seen as a celebration of modernity and urbanity, or a partly Marxist social critique on the on the dehumanization brought about by industrialization, Janet’s poem is more of an ‘ubi sunt’ poem, a contemplation of mortality and the transience of life, in which she considers how the people depicted in the movie  are now dead and gone.

Speaking of old movies, Shane Wagner brought a poem called “A Pretty Good Team,” you might call a free verse poem, but not really, since it was written, in part, under the constraint of following the versification of the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin (1937), for the movie “Shall We Dance” where it was sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while dancing in roller skates. Shane takes this lyric about incompatibility (toe-MAY-toe/ toe-MAH-toe) and makes it about domestic compatibility. 

My poem, “I Imagine the Earth Absconded” is set up rhetorically as Petrarchan sonnet (octave and sestet) in unrhymed lines that hearken (loosely) back to iambic pentameter. The subject of the poem is the traditional one of leaving home, coming back and remembering the journey. The poem hinges on the two sides of a simile (tenor and vehicle) which are deliberately conflated: (1) the fanciful device of the Earth leaving the solar system to visit a faraway galaxy, and (2) the teenager who leaves home to go to California, meets a girl in a health-food-store and returns home with artifacts (serape blanket, old car) and a souvenir of his time away (a pillowcase). The intergalactic imagery of a planet leaving its orbit provides some emotional substance to the difficulties of leaving one’s assigned orbit, and the powerful pull of gravity that brings one back to their “endless falling groove” and the pillowcase souvenir with its embroidered “border of yellow stars” embodies the way those journeys live on in a domesticated life.

Barbara Hall brought a pair of haiku “Haiku for my parents.” Both halves of the poem, mom and dad, dealt with death, the dad piece with a startlingly self-aware moment of gentle punning self-mockery by the dying father who says his hands are “the ends of me” and the mom piece with a detail of the funeral – lipstick color – that illuminates the intimacy of a daughter’s knowledge. Don Z commented that it was interesting that the haiku for the father follows the haiku rules, but the one for the mother did not. There was some discussion as to what the poem gained from presenting itself as haiku.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Ruckus” is a poem, like Barbara’s about parental mortality, in which the speaker’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is furious about losing the ability to read, and tears a paperback apart. The description of the “tortured” book being torn apart becomes a metaphor for the father’s losses engendered by the disease.

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “The Chef” written in the second person to a “you” who is the cousin of the speaker. The poem has the candor to recognize the cousin as “”harsh/ like bitter dandelion greens” the respect to admit that the speaker is humbled when she chides him, and ends by celebrating the comfort that the speaker feels when he sees her act of kindness in making his bed. The poem is written in short free verse lines that are set up in three long stanzas; we didn’t have time to discuss the way this form relates to the content, but it would be a good thing to look at.

Frank Rubino’s poem is called “Gasoline is a living chemical.” The poem is in three free verse sections separated by bullet dots. It starts in the Covid present with the “we” of the poem, possibly husband and wife, getting vaccinated at an old Sears store they had visited (together or separately?) as children, and “played… in its overcoat racks…” Within that moment, the speaker reminisces about the connection between that old Sears store and the people who frequented it being possible workers at a clothing factory who might have been customers of his father’s lunch truck, including perhaps the foreman at the factory who  had “put aside some dresses for my sister.” The poem returns from those reminiscences to the vaccination moment where the ‘we’ waits for possible adverse reactions to the shots while listening to muzak on the old Sears music system, and then returns to the domestic scene at home, talking to kids. The second and third sections of the poem ruminate on the moment: the vaccination event held side by side with the situation in Novogorod Russia when the couple adopted their baby, and in a larger sense, the idea of being in a strange public space. 

Jen Poteet’s poem “With Authority” is full of humorous observations about idiosyncrasy and trivia, such as how different sorts of columns (Ionic and Doric) can lead to remembering a (very very old) tv car commercial featuring the actor Ricardo Montalban talking about the rich Corinthian leather in a Chrysler Cordoba.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-02-21

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

Hey everyone.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem, Allegory, told an allegorical tale in two free verse stanzas of 8 lines each more or less iambic, more or less 4 beats per line. The tale he tells is of a couple, known only as A and B evidently at a bistro “sharing a small table.” A’s gluttony is the subject of stanza 1. B’s finickiness (to put it mildly) is the subject of stanza 2, which ends with her leaving the bistro, “walking at a calorie-burning speed…” Maybe this poem is an allegory because A and B are universal characters, but I think, too, you can see the allegorical scrim as a distancing device or shock attenuator for the disturbing scene of B “grimacing with revulsion,” after “toying with a single bean/ on the black and white checkered tablecloth.” 

Janet K brought a poem called “Tall Ships” (not attached) that addressed “unrequited romance/ experienced as a kind of exile forever from love itself” and the strategy of acquisition that offsets the unhappiness: tchotchkes. “They turn to objects,” she writes, which are, themselves “meditations on the human touch,” whose effect is “mysterious, like the tall ships.. coming down a fog-shrouded river,”  called “a succor for the heartsick” that keeps them, chilling, “far from that trip to the chemist,/ the rope.” And then, in the conclusion, she imagines the heartsick consoling themselves saying “I own you,/ you’re mine,/ you’re my moon-faced mantel clock,/ my kimono embroidered with a field of jonquils.” And as I think it was JJT, who pointed out, that jonquils was such a powerful last word for the poem, known but unusual. My only quibble with this poem was the verb “spy.” Great work, Janet.

Lan Chi Pham brought a delicious poets-only poem about falling in love with poetry and then trying one’s hand at it, called “Poem a Day”, which envisions the speaker having poetry prescribed as a treatment for the blues. “Better do what the good which doctor says,” the speaker says, then the next two stanzas describe in an evolving poems=food metaphor, how she accelerated from “free verse” for lunch to “the heaver stuff” which she “devour[ed] like a bottomless/ Hurricane of word-hunger.” Finally, she tries her hand at “homemade poem” which is “Yum yum” though the poem ends humbly saying her poem was not as good as “The store-bought stuff.” Zirilli, who wasn’t there last night would say, it’s a poem that sticks to a single metaphor all the way through, and that’s a comfort but more than a comfort, a pleasure to the reader.

Yana Kane brought a poem called “Trees dreaming in winter.” Well, now you know pretty much all you need to. Just kidding. Yana’s trees dream, but their dream is the poet’s imagination of the world in winter embodied in trees that “drink in the stillness that pools/ beneath all layers of the ground,” and whose “crowns bloom with constellations” (someone said this is like looking up through the bare branches on a starry night). In the poem’s last movement, Yana has the trees veer further into fantasy with “winged beings” and “luminous fruit” that “flows far beyond the shores of the known world.” It seems as though Yana reaches for the mystical as confirmation that her poems have done that too.

Shane Wagner brought a rewrite of the piece from last week in which he, Robert Frost and Jen Poteet took a walk in the woods; now it’s called “Turn Home.” (By the way, ignore the last paragraph on the page. Shane says it’s not part of the poem.) This version is prose too, prose poem maybe, and it starts essayisticly noting that the country and world have had a lot of anxiety lately, and he’s feeling relaxed, noting that a cactus rescued from the neighbor’s trash last summer is “feeling comfortable enough to produce lewd fuchsia blossoms” and the “icicles seem more willing to hang.” Cute joke. But then the piece turns to the speaker’s special needs child care duties, and from that to a scene at a “special needs picnic” where another father did what was needed for his special needs child, before landing heavily in the double edged worry about who, in a special needs family, will die first, father or child. Nice prose piece.

Way at the other end of the “is-this-poetry-at-a-poetry-workshop” spectrum, John J. Trause (who will be the featured reader at tonight’s Williams Center Poetry Reading (on Zoom): be there) brought a graphical poem called “Untitled” which consists of the word ‘untitled’ written in big letters down the middle of the page, the word broken up, two letters per line, and presented in a stencil typeface. This is concrete poetry, defined as an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. For more on that topic, you may want to look at Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and/or Brian McAllister’s critical piece “Narrative in Concrete / Concrete in Narrative.”

Frank Rubino’s poem had a really long title!  “Shift toward helping, shift toward light, and, soon, in four or five breaths, sleep.” Someone called this an internal monologue, which led to a fistfight (just kidding). Whether it’s really internal, or a piece spoken to this audience, it’s a ruminative piece, like many of Frank’s poems, in which he toggles between declarative truth reach (“My words are my mind”) and close attention to his body (“the way my wrist moves”) questions (“Isn’t that such wasted time?), natural observations (“The robin sat in the dogwood trying to see through the window./ I don’t think birds can./ His body is fluffed for the cold.”) and genuinely lyrical moments of love (“My hauntedness is the same hauntedness as yours./ Our hauntedness is the forward movement of time./ I wish there was a time syrup that would end time forever.” So beautiful). And Frank is dedicated to not privileging one vector of his speech over the others, which makes it tough for lovers of his sweet lyricism, but hey.

Raymond Turco, fresh from the completion of his Italian Heroes manuscript brought a song lyric called “New York is” that tried to capture the spirit of NY in some of its well worn cliches: it has 8 million people none of whom would stop if they saw a corpse on the sidewalk, it is dirty and smelly and, its people all “chase Fortune.” As Brendan pointed out, that may well depict Manhattan, but there are four more boroughs and nuance out there.

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “The Birth of Virtual Reality,” about the death that came with covid, which she represents in the death of an uprooted apple tree, compares to the ivy on Snow Whit’s castle, and finally in a “story” he tells that is both made up and “too real.” And then the story:

she died last fall.

I picked up the shovel unceremoniously,

dropped dirt on her pinewood casket,

Never to see her again.

Virtual Reality took her place:

No face, no mouth, no eyes, no smile.

That’s one hell of a story.

Brenden McEntee brought a five-stanza poem in unrhymed tercets called “Before Bedtime”  that Tom B described as having a three stanzas that start “before bedtime” and two stanzas that start in dream (a dream city and a dream desert) all of which share a dank and brutish view of life. If he overstates (or if I misquote him), there’s no doubt it summons up a life in which the family is the insular protected center of a dangerous world, and even in that protected center “You go to disaffected prayer and childhood/living; I double check the locks and night-eclipsing clouds.” And the poem ends chillingly in its last tercet, which still somehow the family at the center:

Every night, before bedtime, you tell me: “come the new day,

We will bless what needs to be blessed and we will kill

Who needs to be killed and therefore, ourselves, stay safe.

My own poem was a re-write and supplement of my unnamed last week poem about mothwing newspapers. Now it’s called “Mothwing Trilogy” and each of the poems in the trilogy (all circling around sonnet length) has its own name: (1) My Grandfather Read a Newspaper for Moths Which, Oddly, Was Printed on Mothwings” (2) “Which Fey Light?”; and (3) “Butcher Paper Tally On the Use Of “Oddly” In the Title of My Mothwing Poem.”  In some sense, poems two and three are midrashim on poem one, but in another sense they are a triptych in whose center panel a scene of comforting domestic scene unfolds, and in whose outer panel, pandemonium. I think I’ll leave it there.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 02-23-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 23, 2021

I’ve mentioned the book What is Poetry (Just Kidding I Know You Know), Interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter a few times and I’ll do it again now. These interviews are a look back at the NY poetry scene in the 1990s-early aughts, but I still haven’t gotten past 1997 (and I ran out of renewals from the library, so I returned it and then submitted a request for it, so I should have it back soon). These poets, many of them had their starts in the 1960s, and in these interviews they talk about the older poets who inspired them, going even further back, so the interviews really cover a great swath of time.

I wanted to call out an interview in that book by Lisa Jarnot of John Godfrey, because some of the things he says are priceless; he says “Poetry is like DNA or fingerprints, and that’s what you aspire to. You aspire to realizing your DNA when you write , and that’s not easy to find out and you try to approach it more and more as you go along.” There’s a lot more good stuff in the interview, so I recommend it.

In our workshop, Don Zirilli brought an amazing list poem called “My Symptoms.” It’s a poem of forty one-line stanzas (sometimes called “monostichs” or “onesets”), in which he presents humorous, discordant or terrifying states of affair, such as “The other day was something like three months ago” “Way in the back of my head is a wet ball of oatmeal,” “I think I might come off with my clothes” and “It’s like a headache without the head.”  When you can write lines like that you have a symptom called ‘being a poet.”

Janet Kolstein brought a chilling poem about a suicide death at a high rise apartment house viewed from above called “Snow Angel.” Although the poem doesn’t mention the snow after the title, the silent movie of the removal of the corpse implicitly refers to the snow when it ends “A dark, wet spot remained where/ his body spent the last of its heat.” 

Susanna Lee brought a poem called “Death-Cleaning” and Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books,” both addressing the issue of mortality through the agency of books. Susanna considered the vacuum left by never having become an underground comix writer. Rob considered pruning his bookshelves, to which his speaker has a profound attachment. It was interesting how the attachment evidenced itself.  In the first section of the poem, the speaker fetishizes the books by playing word games with the titles.  In the second section, he talks about how a random conversation with “nice lady/ at a call-center” gave him the courage to toss some books, and in the third section, the depth of the charge becomes more personal when he comes across an inscription from a long-ago girlfriend in a book called Philosopher or Dog and once again has to boost his conviction to divest with the hearty exhortation” “Cast off, old man, cast off!” Nice work, Rob.

In an unrelated “casting off” event, Raymond Turco brought us the “Introduction” to the book of short biographical poems about famous Italians that he’s been working on for months, and we learned that the title of the book will be “Italians to Remember.” In this Introduction, the poet calls himself the “god of elegies,/ of paeans,/ of dirges,/ of odes” and promises to sing of Italy’s victories and defeats.  In a tumbled metaphor he announces that he will “blow” the names and the histories of Italy “down the River Po/ so that even the smallest altruist/ among men and among women all,/ may fill their lungs with [his] spirit/ and be gifted a glorious voice/ with which to sing.” 

Tom Benediktsson took a break from his recent sci-fi/fantasy/horror poems to bring one he called “Window, Moon, Window” and described as a “tone poem” Following the script of its title, it starts out inside a room looking at a blizzard through the window, then ventures outside to look at the night sky, then ends “afloat on a ghost boat” where the speaker encounter “a bird,/ an old man,// [who] wants to talk to [him]” one he remembers from another time when the bird/old man “flew against the window.”

John J. Trause brought another segment of his triptych: “My Marilyn: A Triptych.” This panel, “Marilyn Framed” has an incantatory children’s rhyme feel as it addresses the effect celebrity had on the actress. The group was taken by the multiple valences of the word “framed”

Jen Poteet’s poem, “Looking at Edward Hopper’s Paintings with Mark Strand” was just that. The speaker and Strand are at a Hopper exhibit in Truro (Mass?).  Their comments back and worth are interspersed with descriptions of two of Hopper’s famous paintings. 

Shane Wagner brought a list poem called “Does Desire End?” (Spoiler alert: no). The poem used anaphora—the repeating phrase at the beginning of each stanza “My favorite”—about the speaker’s marriage and sexual desire between spices. Sometimes, when the thing described as ‘my favorite’ seemed undesirable, like “I couldn’t get an erection” tension emerged, but for the most part it was a prayer/celebration about the good times.

My own poem, no title, first line “My grandfather read mothwings by the fire,” was fourteen lines long in two stanzas of 8 and 6 lines each, loosely organized as blank verse. It presented a familiar domestic scene, grandfather reading by the fire, grandson taking the old man up to bed then straightening up. It was a bit of a headscratcher for the group.

JOHN J TRAUSE’S READING AT THE WILLIAMS CENTER ON ZOOM WILL BE NEXT WEDNESDAY, MARCH 3, 2021, AND ITS GONNA BE A GOOD ONE, I ALREADY KNOW. So come, and if you don’t have an announcement with the zoom line on it, (1) where have you BEEEN? and (2) write back and I’ll see that you get it.

—Arthur Russell