Field Notes, Week of 09-14-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of September 14, 2021

Frank Rubino brought us a re-write of a poem with no name now beginning “Cleaining our basement after the flood.”  It used to begin with “In the year I was a bright bottle-blonde” and one of the critiques of this version was “How can you improve on that first line?” The poem suggests that the ruin of the flooded basement with its “fat volume of Chinese poetry” put him in touch with the memory of a photo he’d never seen but had mythologized into “the best picture ever taken of [him]”  taken by a woman he loved after a chaste night naked together.” And the project of the poem may have been to reinvent or redeploy that mythology with a line from the fat volume of Chinese poetry as a sort of caption: “a senseless unending vigilance.”  Or it may have been, as Janet suggested to answer the question “Why am I thinking about that picture still?”  Tom thought that using the quote in the first part of the poem deprived it of its power at the end, and then there were questions about how to convey the strange sensation of holding onto that hollow place for so long.  In the current version Frank used the image of “gravel that lays/ on the hip of the mountain like a skirt” to do that work.  In the last version, there was a related but distinct image of a tree whose roots can split and loose a bolder on a mountain.  Let me tell you, that’s an ambitious program, and we may see it again.

Rob Golstein‘s poem “The Larch”  was one of the sort we talked about last week or two, Brendan McEntee’s poem about a couple vacationing on the coast of somewhere, the woman of the pair in deep distress when a local out walking his dog explains the derivation of the name of the place.  Rob’s poem has the speaker walking (vacationing?) by a lake somewhere, imagining a forest of larch trees which are, for him, metonymic of “The North” whose latitudes tug at him: “Half-dead things are favored far north,” he says, and “Like a consumptive, the larch/ spends half a lifetime dying.”  And Rob’s poem comes with a local who knows that larches are called tamaracks in these parts.  Rob’s poem has a similarity with Frank’s unnamed poem too, in that it features a “sort of mania” about the north that started with what appears to be an artifact of youth: “a crystal globe/ I found in Aunt Maude’s attich—/ with its shaken snowfall on tiny Nevsky Prosect.”  And that connection to Frank’s poem is even more engaging because in both poems the connection between the object (the north, a photo) and the thing that spurs the memory (snow globe, Chinese poetry) is less than obvious.  Fertile ground in both poems for more research.

Shane Wagner brought two poems about an elder in the speaker’s family, “Hedwig”  that he wrote during a 15 for 15 challenge, that is, writing 15 poems in 15 days.  One of the poems, “Hedwig” is just a rough sketch that reads like a Sgt. Friday police report: Hedwig was a flapper, then she became an insufferable Mormon.  Everyone from St. Augustine onward knows this story.  The other poem, Elegy, though, was a wonderful thing based on the same facts, with this fine beginning:  “And yet I loved Hedwig.” Which announced its stakes (improbable love) in a way that provided a gloss on whatever might follow, an invulnerability to cliché.  Frank thought the poems would make a nice diptych, praising the failure of the clichéd version for its potential to provide depth or perspective.

Tom Benediktsson (god, it’s good to have him back) brought a poem—like Susanna Lee’s from last week—that focused on a tree breaking into a house, but while Susanna’s used this trope to illuminate the metaphysics of “inside/outside,”  Tom was working on a recollection of super storm Sandy, which had cracked the bones of the house he was in, and threatened real harm, and put him in mind (Rob Goldstein’s?) “northern sea” and Viking ships and the Venerable Bede’s memorable metaphor that life was like a sparrow’s flight througha mead hall from darkness into light, and back into darkness.  So, he picked up the norse poetry style of compound nouns, presented a piano as a “hammer harp” and his poetry as a “word horde.”

Myself, I brought two experimental pieces that came out of my readings of the forerunners of the Modernist movement, “Fuse” which was a ‘translation’ of Charles Baudelaire’s “Fuse I” and “Instress” which was an investigation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetic concept of the same name, which is sometimes described as ” the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.”  In “Fuse” I tried to translate away from the religiosities that I couldn’t relate to while preserving what I perceived as Baudelaire’s declarative intensity and his primary focus on the distinction between originals and fakes; I surprised myself when this past week’s media hype/frenzy over the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 became a point of critical heat.  In “Instress” I tried the same theme, using a quiet ballad meter, with more of a positive emphasis on renewal; it may be the same old story, but Spring is a damn good story.

Jen Poteet‘s poem “Before GPS, EBAY and ETSY” was an homage to old fashioned yard sales and the times before the internet sucked all the romance out of life.  It was very well received, but Jen seemed alive to the possibility of digging a little deeper into the emotional ocassion of the poem, the thing, other than nostalgia for piling crap into a car, that made yesterday a wee sight more attractive than today.  So, maybe we’ll see that poem again soon.

Come back all of y’all.  We were a tiny bit skinny on the attendance, but never short on love for what we do.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 09-07-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of September 7, 2021

This month my reading is focused on The Modernists, and rather than try to describe it in detail, I’ll share the reading assignment I’m working from as part of the Brooklyn Poet’s Mentorship Program led by Jay Deshpande. For me, getting back to Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens, but also Gertrude Stein and thinking of Robert Frost as a modernist, and being shoved face first into Hart Crane is thrilling. But the real surprise on the reading list has been a book called Poems for the Millennium, a massive 800 page compendium (which I got in hardcover, used, but virtually mint condition for $5 on Amazon which came from the DISCARDS of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois) which includes MANY MORE poets and writers who were part of the Modernist moment, but also contains a section called “Forerunners”  that goes all the way back to William Blake, and includes Friedrich Holderlin, Elias Lonnrot, Whitman, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme, all of whom, in the editors’ view, had a great deal to do with setting the table for the likes of Eliot and Pound; and the annotations to the brief but on-point poems they’ve included do a lot of good work pointing forward to the Modernists.  Some of the annotations are quotes from the poets that were new to me, and keyed into the innovations these poets experimented with that became the stock and trade of the Moderns. Here’s one from Whitman: “I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment—that is, an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new potentialities of speech.”  Or this annotation to Fascicle 34, poem 9 by Emily Dickinson: ” “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—’, written in a time of civil war by a woman with little formal education in philosophy, carefully delineates and declines all aspects of the ‘Will to Power’ nearly twenty years before Friedrich Nietzsche’s metaphysical rebellion.”  Or this piece of practical advice from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Poetry is in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake—and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on.” Suffice to say if I don’t put this book aside, I won’t get to the actual Modernists until some time next year.

Our workshop on Tuesday was breathtaking, not least because Janet Kolstein (copy NOT attached, sad face) brought a poem called “Google Earth, Petra, Jordan” which continued her a line of poems she started before Covid, that live easily in the online world. Maybe they’re ekphrases, but she goes on google earth and clicks around looking at pictures, and the poem comes out of the meditation. This one begins “Aunt Bess is gone!  Bessie, the last of the aunts.  Uncles gone too.  Parents dead.” And starting from this generational exclamation, the poem goes to Petra and considers, in a not-un-Ozymandias sort of way, how time sandblasts us all.  Here’s another great line from this very good poem: “My generation: we’re overlooking the cliffs of eternity, trepidacious.” Of course I love “trepidacious” for its audacity, but also enjoy the way she uses ‘overlooking’ – with it’s double meaning of “looking out over” and “forgetting to notice” – to create two roads.

John J. Trause’s “Marsupial on the Bosporus” was what someone called a ‘snapshot’ poem.  It zoomed in on a Turkish restaurant here in Northern New Jersey, then into the dining room, and then to the view out the window to a grapevine where the speaker saw “peering down at the corner table/ was a baby opossum, hunkering down, looking in at the diners.  Other than the somewhat misleading title, what made the poem so dynamic was this continual but seamless changing of perspective from outside (the restaurant located geographically, temporally, meteorologically) to inside (the table where they sat), to outside (seeing the opossum) to inside (the opossum seeing them).  The poem ends with the opossum scurrying away, and that ending elicited some discussion in the group, discussion as to whether the poem was what it seemed to be: a cute recollection of a surprising encounter expertly delineated, or whether it’s occasion, emotionally, or its outcome, signaled more, or to put it in terms Gerard Manley Hopkins might not have spit on me for suggesting, whether its inscape had been “dwelt” sufficiently upon.

Ana Doina‘s poem “Recurring nightmare”  was precisely that, the pinning down of an awful recurring nightmare complete with a wrought iron gate, wooly fog, and empty house, a view out the window at the street outside (Wait! Isn’t that what JJT did in “Marsupial…”?) and the requisite “man in a heavy coat” and “Dark fedora … pulled low over his brows.”  At its conclusion, the poem releases us from the mystery of the dream by telling us that it had its genesis in Cold War realities in the speaker’s home country of Romania, so it becomes about the depth of post traumatic stress instead of the millions of things that a dream unexplained could suggest. Perhaps in this way it answers this quotation from Charles Baudelaire in the “Millennium” book: “When I’ve aroused universal horror and disgust,/ I shall have conquered solitude.”
 Shane Wagner brought a poem called “Shell” that starts with a close observation of the abandoned shell of a cicada clinging to a tree, which leads the speaker to see for the first time that cicada shells include eyes, or shell-like coverings that once fit over the cicada’s eyes. And this leads the poem in two directions—towards St. Paul (as in ‘scales’), and towards mortality—past and future caskets. The general impression of the group was that Shane was on to something, and it was worth pursuing another draft that did a little more of this and less of that.

Ray Turco brought “The Shepherd of Many Turns” that starts out with a vision that might’ve come from Ana Doina’s poem: the poet banging on the door of the church, stalked by the hour of their death, listening to a church bell toll and getting the marrow in their bones chilled. Then the poem turns to embracing the speaker’s transcendental view of themselves as a shepherd who, after a life of whooping and bellowing, “will pass from man/ to ewe/ to plant/ to ant/ to dust.” In its final lines, the poem turns again, to a confession of what seems to be a fear of dying alone.

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “Spiral” was a duet set up in two columns read aloud by two readers, Don and Brendan McEntee.  Some of the time, Don and  Brendan took turns reading their lines, but in the middle stanzas, both of them read simultaneously, as if it was a Charles Ives composition, in which the soundscape (inscape) was dwelt and dwelt and dwelt upon.  One interesting feature of this conversation was that it wasn’t the typical bifurcation of interlocutor and witness, teacher and student, or even a philosophical debate; it had two nuanced and distinct personalities not so much working through a problem as talking (“My Dinner With Andre”?) about the news, the future news, “the problem of disguised repetitions,” getting called out on pronouncing someone’s name wrong and not being able to hear the correction (Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”?), and other miscellaneous subjects all of which create the image of a spiral, even this one on futility: “Everything is going down the drain,/ so root for the drain.” It was a thrilling, thrilling poem, which brought to mind this 1807 quote by Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843, German poet and philosopher) taken from the “Millennium” book: “I believe in a forthcoming revolution of attitudes and conceptions which will make everything that has gone before turn red with shame.” (Get this! Holderlin went to school, actually WENT TO COLLEGE with Hegel and Schelling).  

Yana‘s poem “The tree breaks into the house” is many things disguised as one thing; the ‘one thing’ is the relationship between a house and the tree outside the house; the many things include a revelation that the house in question was the speaker’s childhood home, though that doesn’t come out until the end; and an investigation of memory, and even of identity, and the limits of poetry and perhaps an ecological manifesto (a small one). The poem starts out with a simple statement: “In a story/ the tree smashes a bedroom window,/ breaks into the house.” But that invasion triggers a meditation that touches on whether the tree owns or serves the house or whether the house owns the tree.  And while the first section of this two section poem (“Window”) seems more concerned with the physicality of the situation, the second section (“Gap”) introduces the speaker as a storyteller, a frustrated one at that:  “The story I tell refuses completion.// A gap opens –/ an entrance to a cavernous space/ of dark pools, of echoes.” The introduction of this figurative language, heralds the beginning of a wider philosophical discussion, and when the speaker wonders what a house can “know,” she is also wondering what she can know of the house or the tree: “What can I know/ about the past/ that roosts in trees,/ that dwells in houses?” And so the story she imagines telling at the start of the poem disintegrates: “Pages scatter,/ ink blurs,/ the meaning changes, as new words appear.

Frank’s poem “Sleeping on My Friend’s Floor” is about a rare sort of nostalgia, the kind that pines for something it never had, in this case, a photograph that a friend (the one with the floor) took of the speaker in the morning after they—speaker and friend—slept together naked….. chastely, a photo the speaker “always thought … must’ve been the best picture ever taken of [him/her/them].” And the feeling associated with this absent picture or possibly the speaker themselves, is presented in a simile as “up the mountainside a ways like a thunk/ off the rock.”  Elaborating still further on this strange nostalgia, the speaker imagines themself both as the rock and the tree whose root has split the rock.  So, yes, a very complex emotional connection to this photo the speaker has never seen.  In the last movement/stanza, the poem discloses its occasion—it’s after hurricane Ida, and the speaker is cleaning out their basement.  The things they encounter in the soaked basement evidently remind them of the naked photo they never had: a catalog of Korean War “slides” (remember them?) belonging to the speaker’s father, “a set of vintage dishes in a box labeled Richard; & a fat volume of Chinese poetry,/ whose soaked page had “a senseless, unending vigilance.” So, it seems, in this final trope, the poem finds its motto in the fat volume of Chinese poetry. “A senseless, unending vigilance” may be gnomic, but it may be a found instruction on how to make inquiry of the world. A very dynamic piece of work.

OK—for those of you who are interested, Brooklyn Poets has locked down Jay Deshpande to give a craft talk webinar this coming Sunday 9/19 from 4-7 on Zoom.  The talk is called “I and Others: Selfhood, Identity, and the Management of the Speaker”  I couldn’t recommend a presentation of this type more strongly.  Jay’s talks tend to get at the poetry connections we make intuitively but he’s got them articulated in a way we recognize but still feel surprised by.  Check it out on the Brooklyn Poet’s website, and register if you have the time.  

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 07-27-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 27, 2021

It seems that this week’s workshop was all about costs and benefits of different formal and substantive choices in poems. We saw that the decision to use a formal device whether it’s a traditional one like assonance, anaphora or metaphor, or putting a poem in the form of a dialogue, or a newer formal device like adding footnotes to a poem, or changing the layout of the poem on the page can serve the poet’s purposes of identifying their work as “poetry” but also bring with them expectations that the poem can meet or fail to meet and exact costs and sacrifices the poet needs to be aware of and possibly manage.

Claudia Serea‘s poem, “The retouching team is working hard,” brought the political reality of the propaganda in the Communist regime of her native Romania to the fore, where making the political leader look good was a priority, and  ironically adopting the perspective of a supporter of media manipulation. Her poem focused on photoshopping government portraits of leaders to make them look good. Ana Doina agreed with the political point, suggesting it’s not only Romania that promoted such hero augmentative strategies, but other Communist block and authoritarian controlled countries, including an endorsement of the technique Claudia’s poem mentioned of never showing a strongman with their hat in their hand. No one had anything to say about the prosody of the poem because (1) Claudia is just so damn good at what she does; and (2) when politics come in the door, prosody goes out the window. And it raises the question: how far can political irony take a poem?

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Everything I do is stitched.” The poem, whose text relates to craft-work with fabric, has a principal text and a set of footnotes. For example, the first line of the poem says “Everything I do is stitched with color” and contains footnotes to the word “stitched” and the word “color.” The footnote to “stitched” is a four line definition of the word followed by a explanation of how the speaker threads a needle or uses a sewing machine when hand stitching becomes too difficult. The footnote to “color” provides a definition of the word and then is a friendly tone calls out the mnemonic device—Roy G. Biv—that is used to teach children the color spectrum. And so the short poem about craft continues annotating itself until the footnotes occupy almost half the page. This use of footnotes within the poem (as opposed by footnotes added by editors of an anthology) is a formal element of the prosody, no different fundamentally than any other manipulation that brings new voices or multiple voices into a poem, such as collage and erasure. The footnote, with its traditional textual role of explanation or amendment, brings with it expectations of authority and dignity that can be in dialogue with the principal text, reinforcing or subverting the message of the poem. The success or failure of the technique depends, like everything else, on how well it is done and for what purpose, how much tension —in this case—is created between text and what is literally subtext. Barbara’s footnotes provide definitions. Barbara uses the footnotes for the anodyne purpose of providing definitions, and historical background to her stitching practice. And on one level, the footnotes enact the process of stitching: attaching subtext to text, which is clever. But the concern, as with everything, is whether the device earns its place in the poem by delivering in meaning than it demands in effort. The footnote project calls a lot of attention to itself as a form and demands a lot of effort from the reader.

John J. Trause‘s poem “Magic Fingers” is a Trausian romp of the first order that —like Barbara’s poem—draws a lot of formal attention to itself, though not with footnotes, but foregrounded music; the poem is chockablock with assonance and near rhyme around the words beginning with haich or sounding like “hotel” and the gerund case “ing”—as in the lines “hoteling and motelling, modelling and hostelling,/ no telling what else,/ and retelling ….” Like others of John’s poems it borrows (sometimes frantically) from popular movie culture with references to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Seberg, and seems like it will function only on that playful level until it resolves in the final stanzas to a plaintive call for Olga Khokhlova, Pablo Picasso’s first wife, which is surprisingly effective at changing the lyric tone of the poem.

My poem, “Ode To The Place At the Northern End of Manhattan….” is, as advertised, a lyric song of praise to a place with nostalgic significance. When I wrote the poem a few years ago it was in a blocky left justified form, and it had several more sections than are shown here. Recently, I read of book called Crush by Richard Siken, who used what I’d call an exploded arrangement of the poem on the page that infused his work with a lot of energy, and I liked it. So I took the first section of the Ode and, with only minor editorial changes to the text, changed its layout to look a little like Siken’s “Scheherazade”  and I liked it a lot. Personally, I think that making mechanical changes to form and layout, moving a poem into short lines, long lines, couplets, tercets, and quatrains, just changing the font or font size, all of these and many more are fantastic, ‘low cost’ tools of revision, literally allowing us to re-see the poem, see it newly, ways of making the poem new for the poet, bringing things that may have been buried in habit out into a more prominent place, where they can be seen, acknowledged, and raise questions. Shira Ehrlichman, the poet who wrote “Odes to Lithium” advocates this method of stimulated revision through initially mechanical changes the “laboratory of possibility.”   I also advocate it.  Raymond Carver famously said (or repeated) in his droll, low-key way: “A very few of us have true vision; the rest of us have revision.”

Ray Turco‘s poem “Spaesato” addresses the situation of a speaker who finds themselves “exist[ing] between languages,” Italian and English:  “In Italy, I am American but different,/ In America, I am Italian but quirky and new.”   The poem takes a leap towards the lyric expression of alienation that comes from this duality in the last lines: “I cling to myself, close to myself/ in the cold of the rain.”

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “The Trap,” comes out of a truly wonderful poetic tradition, the dialogue, which presents a moral or intellectual problem from two sides by putting itself in the form of a conversation. One of the loveliest parts of Don’s dialogue is that we don’t exactly know what the two voices are talking about, but more about their conversational relationship. Someone said it was like the dialogue in Waiting for Godot, and maybe so, but it is also a development that continues Don’s recent monologues in the voice of a stand-up comedian.  
Overheard conversations can be riveting, and this one often works on that level even with minimal ‘content.’

Oh my god
Do you think anything will happen in August?

Do you think anything will happen in January?

Extremists love anniversaries

I guess everyone is sentimental

I’m not sure any of this is a good idea
But what other choice do we have?

You might make it to a nice park trail
But what if it’s already started

(and so on.) Don enhanced the mesmeric quality of such eavesdropping by having two people reading the poem as dialogue. It was a lot of fun and Don said it helped him towards future revision, which is the highest goal we have.

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Ubi patria – a prophecy before exile” which was a bit of a character study of the woman employed by the speaker of the poem to help with household work and, ultimately with packing the speaker’s belongings as the speaker prepares to go into exile. The employee is introduced as “Leana/ the gypsy we hired to paint our house,” and the poem spares no harshness in talking about Leana as a woman whom the state has “declared …. retarded” and “spayed” after she had seven pregnancies “and gave one healthy boy to each orphanage in a thousand mile radius. At least one member of the workshop was deeply disturbed by these locutions suggesting that a content warning may be appropriate when addressing topics of state brutality and cruelty, even if the views are not the views of the poet, but only the reported views of the state.

Frank Rubino‘s poem “On Chestnut Street” continues Frank’s recent commitment to experimenting with form, here, manipulated indenting of successive lines in stanzas one, two, and six and, in stanza four, working with and against an anaphoric repetition of “Love has me” alternating with one instance of “gore has me”  — The poem also falls into a group of Frank’s poems that take place while the speaker is walking around Montclair, New Jersey, such as “Dayes and Monthes” sharing cultural references like the music in their headphones or, here, thoughts about Virgil’s Aeneid, and in particular, the scene in which Aeneas recognizes his mother by the color of her throat. Love is presented as a brutal thing (“love has me in its rock crevice,/ wedged between stone walls,/ chasing its sick porcupine” and a place of sadness and deception, but it is set unironically against an overt insistence that the speaker is “ecstatic with gratitude.”

We are all sorcerer apprentices, employing the poetic devices that we have admired elsewhere to achieve the purposes and discuss the matters that matter to us. As apprentices, we sometimes flood the workshop, but that’s okay, in fact, better than okay.

Don’t forget to come to the RWB Reading tomorrow at 7:00 pm.
—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 07-20-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 20, 2021

We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Took me from then till now to calm down enough to write about it.

Frank Rubino‘s “Fire is not connected to wood” is a suburban philosophical free verse tract in two stanzas about nature and mortality presented in the garb of two guys looking for a stinky dead bird in the bushes in the backyard on a summer night with a fire burning. The men’s sniffing upsets “the others”  and sets off thoughts about Dostoyevsky’s Karamazovs; ultimately the speaker looks up at the back window of his own house “regretting my daughter’s old bedroom window/ & that she slept on a mattress now on the floor of her mother’s one bedroom apartment.” Stanza one ends with a remarkable, frank cry of anguish for the lost daughter. Quite a journey, but then the poem flips back in time to the same afternoon where, with excruciating delight, sympathy, and concision, the speaker recounts the movements of a bird struggling to fly up onto the garage roof  “discombobulated, as she careens across to the cypress tree,/ loose winged still, still fluttery.” Only to conclude, glumly, that the bird that delighted him in the afternoon may be the dead bird he and his friend smell in the night. Chagrin, remorse, regret, loss and even fading hope become instinct in the picture of the bird; the daughter and the bird locked in the embrace that the poem forces on them. Good good poem. There was quite a debate at the workshop over the allusion to Dostoyevsky, the use of the friend’s name when even the absent daughter had no name, some suggestion that the emotional miasma of the first stanza should be ditched in favor of the mid-century clarity of the second stanza tracking the bird’s movements.  Someone even argued that you can’t “regret a window”—but obviously they have only limited experience with either regret or windows.  

Janet Kolstein continued what’s been a remarkable run of poems with “Sol y Sombra.”  The title refers to the two sides of a bull fighting arena — one can sit in the sun or the shadows; and the poem talks about adolescent fantasy of dressing like the toreador in the poster on the stairs to the attic of the house the speaker grew up in:

Lithe and fierce in his skin-tight suit of lights,
El Cordobes hung on the wall by the steep attic stairs I’d painted with stars.
I must’ve run up and down those steps to my bedroom ten-thousand times
and stood, expectant, in front of the closet
deciding what to wear
when what I wore affected my confidence
or lack thereof
It had to feel just right on my body.

What I love particularly about this poem is how it frankly acknowledges that it’s the moment from the poster—bullfighter, cape, costume, sword (“the space between the sword and the beast”)—that excites the speaker, even in memory, not the “pain I felt for the bull’s heaving agony [and] bleeding wounds.” And it excites me because that’s how humans are. We can love a bullfighter’s costume even if bullfighting should be outlawed. Sol and Sombra, indeed.

Moira O’Brien‘s haiku, “Seniors wheeled to the quad” worked in the manner of Pound’s “In a Station in the Metro” juxtaposing two images. For Pound it was the faces in a subway crowd and the petals on a tree limb; for O’Brien, it’s the old people out in the sun on the quad and “turtles basking on rocks.” The success of a juxtapositional effort like this may be dependent on how unexpected the comparison is, and how one image deepens the other. Put differently, my Pope and Dryden professor at Syracuse, Art Hoffman once responded to a criticism of Dryden’s imagery saying: “you say ‘far-fetched’ as though it was a bad thing…”  

Joanne Santiglia brought a poem called “The Wine Flows”  a free- verse love poem that uses wine as a metaphor to explore personality. The wine, it begins “flows from my mouth to yours/ turning to vinegar…” The beloved says don’t worry, but the speaker insists that if her “tongue is tart,” she’s to blame for the transfiguration. Spilt words and wine are “not easily contained,” she acknowledges, before professing her wish that her words would transmit her loving intentions.

Shane Wagner‘s poem “Summer of ’78” is a beach nostalgia that ticks off the typical summer pleasures of youthful cousins on the seaside, before ending with a surprise review of “grandma’s liver/ Only liver I ever enjoyed/ Maybe because we were that hungry/ Or maybe because, as she explained, you have to devein the liver before you cook it.” Amazing how the down and dirty memory can rise up and trump the cliches.

Yana Kane brought back an elegy we’ve seen several times before “Tai Chi Teacher,” a poem in four segments that begins with a beautiful depiction of the eponymous teacher still learning his craft at the age of 83, and then veers in the following sections, as a good elegy should, to consider the aftermath of his death, at a memorial service, in the speaker’s notebook, and, ten years later, in the surviving memory.  It seems that Yana has struggled to extend the poem beyond that initial beautiful depiction through multiple drafts, but keeps running into the same problem—that nothing so far has matched that initial evocation in solidity, believability and intensity. But if we know Yana, she’ll find a way, and when she does, we’ll be here.

Barbara Hall‘s poem “The Day I Walked to School,” about missing her bus, has a super refrain: “then (of course) I thought of you,” that alternates with the little snippets of narrative that take the speaker through her morning routine and out to the bus stop just a little too late. The group wondered who the “you” of whom the speaker thought was, and what their connection to the narrative was. Everyone in the world loves a good refrain, and loves it even better when each instance of the repetition holds the subject in a slightly different, new and surprising light (see, e.g., James Taylor’s “Wandering”). Here, we got the lambency but not the development.

Mike Mandzik (god, how we love this guy) brought a knee-slapper of a poem “WHY IS URANUS BLUE?” that spoke in some sort of scientific way about what turns out to be a fart joke—it’s the methane around the ‘gas giant’ that makes the planet blue, and keeps the other planets from getting too close. And someone even noticed that when Mike referred to space as the “vinyl veneer” he was actually spoofing Star Trek’s invocation of space as the “final frontier.” A poem as funny as a fart in a space suit?  I don’t know, but when we ship out for Mars, I want Mike for company.

Just a note on process—We like to emphasize DESCRIPTION as a workshop priority. Description is more difficult than likes and dislikes, and more difficult than line editing, but ultimately more rewarding than either. Description reveals the mechanisms and manners of the poem, and everyone in the group benefits when anyone in the group says: “I spy with my little eye…”  

YESTERDAY WAS THE NYC POETRY FESTIVAL ON GOVERNOR’S ISLAND.
The rain held off and a few of us represented The Red Wheelbarrow Poets at this annual event. It was great to read live again and see everyone in  person. Photos and video coming soon.

See you tomorrow night.

Field Notes, Week of 05-25-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 25, 2021

We had a super workshop on Tuesday, May 25; sixteen people, and we got to nine fantastic poems, with six held over to next Tuesday.

Preeti Shah, our friend from Brooklyn Poets, brought a poem (her first with us) called “The Timing of Things”—a meditative lyrical narrative apostrophe on finding a small bird, dead from a fall, outside a CVS, and the revisionist dream born in the grief at seeing it (we’ve all had one like it, admit it) of having arrived just in the nick of time to catch it.  Addressing the bird, she writes: “Perhaps a few hours earlier,/ I could have broken your fall/ by stretching my cotton ribbed shirt/ widely as a safety net…” However, the poem turns sharply from that fantasy, to extended lyrical images of the corpse and its disintegration: “Your dust-strewn feathers/ have blown across/ the empty parking lot/ passed the cigarette butts, to the far side/ of cracked cement/ where pedestrians wait to cross.” Bridget Sprouls said it was a poem about our failure to honor dead things. That, and a poem full of a deep, innocent regret. Thank you, Preeti.
Tom Benediktsson commented on Frank Rubino’s poem “My kid confesses twenty years of crime” that this like other recent ones (I’d say the last six weeks) have used a lot of cantorial repetition, to give a lyric voice to his poems.  Frank’s poems always honor his compositional intuitions, and the consequent veering can sometimes challenge the reader (intentionally or not). The rhetorical power of the anphora does a lot of work to hold them together, at least that seems to be what the experiment is, and that Tom noticed and that I agree with.  This week’s poem is about the rent fabric of a family when one of the children, as the title suggests, confesses to twenty years of crime. The poem features several repeated phrases, “she stole… she stole… she stole” “She doesn’t know… She doesn’t know” and “Kids don’t know. . . Kids don’t know”  which home in on the obsessional difficulty accepting the disaster while exposing the speaker’s strategies to avoid the tragedy.  Elsewhere the anaphora adopts the cadence of an old English judgment with a stanza that includes  “For having lived a life of crime & for to heal her spirit,/ & for to repair her thousand injuries…/ she must leave our house forthwith.” Still elsewhere, Frank nearly pauses the poem to say: “Well well well/ Oh well.” For me, the central image that repeated in all the sections, that time is the glue of suffering, was too complex to thaw and resolve itself into a dew, but I have faith it will do in the next drafts.

Brendan McEntee‘s great/wonderful poem, “Thanksgiving Walk,” was, as Bridget said, a mood poem, in which the careful examination of the world outside reflects the inner mood of the speaker; and as Tom said, the poem had a speaker, but no “I” which made it more purely a mirror.  Here’s the second stanza entire:

Squint-visible in low tide stink,
barely legible on the swollen log
under the seaweed cling: “YOU
are the means of production.”

Someone went through a lot of work for subtle abjection.

John J Trause crazily surmised that the “squint” and the “stink” were intentionally set in place to create the sonic echo of “squid ink”-as the medium in which the message was written on the swollen log.  And even more crazily, Brendan agreed!  Personally, I loved “Squint-visible” as a compound adjective and the tetrameter cadence of the stanza through its first four lines.

Bridget Sprouls‘ poem “Swati’s Daughter, Radha” was a blessing for the girl, Radha. The specific blessings varied from the surreal (May she never molt like a lizard/ or grow plaza-like ears for roaring absolutes.”) to the practical (May she find and patch the leaks”), and at the end the power of the ballad meter asserted itself in a stanza that could be relineated thusly:

May her questions twirl like petals
from an ever blooming tree,
and may her parents live to see all this—
and smile in their tea.

Lovely poem.

My own poem, “Peonies” was a four-stanza lyric on lost love written in ballad meter, inspired by my recent study of Emily Dickinson, who wrote in that meter frequently.  Don Zirilli said that the poem embraced its formality, and Frank noticed the ‘archaic’ structure of its phases; Benediktsson said it was in conversation with older poems such as Houseman’s “Shropshire Lad.” And Don said that the metaphysics of the second stanza, where the speaker sees his lost love in “an iridescent grackle wing,/ the sun’s reflection on a rake/ or any other holy thing” went further back, to John Donne, Janet K’s summed it all up as follows – “This poem cries out for an Irish folksinger.”

Jen Poteet wrote a poem about the disrespect that people show to people who lose their cats.  The title says it all:  “Get Another One!”  Bridget described the poem as a snappy comeback to a person like that, and the drippingest sarcasm came in the line some thought it should end on: “They’ve got a slew of hardy plants/ down at the Home Depot…”

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “Diagnosis” about an existential crisis, had the droll absurdism of an early Woody Allen stand-up (“My mother made me a homosexual, and if you get her the yarn, she’ll make you one too”), with a side order of surreal madness.  Frank and I thought it was painfully funny; others didn’t see the humor, just the pain.  This pleased Don.  Lines like “I’m a Stage IV auto-empath.” and “Maybe I’ve put your finger right on it” and “I come from a long line of mouth eaters” point in one way.  Others like “The house is burning right now,/ in the wall somewhere,/ and all I can think about is pop tarts.” veer towards a genuine crisis, while the last couplet demonstrates anguish, still laced with absurdism: “I hope I’ve answered your question and I really really/ hope you asked one.”

Moira‘s moving-day poem, “Backwards Glance” got a ton of respect for its leisurely pace associated with a last look at a long-lived home.  It’s a list poem that only slowly reveals its situation, beginning with “The birds, the squirrels and their/nutshell calling cards” then continues to inventory the world outside (similarly but differently from Brendan’s “Thanksgiving Walk”) with a line that starts out at a canter and then ignites: “A warm breeze, a cool breeze,/ the burning bush.”   But the poem really ignites when it comes inside: “Eggs over easy/ Your spice rub./ The refrigerator, the stove, the oven/ The Weber kettle barbecue// Your underwear drawer brimming with boxers./ T-shirts worn to threadbare softness/ which I now wear  as nightshirts// As I sit on the deck bathed in the light and warmth/ of a late afternoon sun,/ its hard to stay/ and hard to leave.” These completely unvarnished items have so much power that adjectives would add nothing.

Ana Doina‘s  “Gagarin’s radishes” was widely viewed as a prose piece, or a short story, rather than a poem, probably because the story was memorable, but the writing was not necessarily.  Either way, the conjunction of children in Russia in the later 1950s helping a neighbor harvest her radishes in exchange for sandwiches with radish, butter and salt, and the first Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin was irresistible.

So that’s the end of the field notes for May 25, 2021. I’m going to be absent from the workshop for the next six weeks because I’m going to be in a workshop Tuesday evenings as part of a yearlong mentorship program I’m enrolled in through Brooklyn Poets. See you when that’s done, mid July. Be nice to Frank. He’s a great guy.

—Arthur Russell

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