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 07-13-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 13, 2021


Hey, everyone, last week Arthur was back to the workshop, and here are his insightful weekly Field Notes. Welcome back, Arthur!



It was great to be back after a 6 week hiatus for a workshop through the Brooklyn Poets with Jay Deshpande, part of the year long mentorship program.

Shane Wagner brought a prose poem called “Beautiful Japanese Man” about an encounter on a commuter train between the ungendered speaker and the person he refers to as the titular “Beautiful Japanese Man.” As seems appropriate, the encounter is presented mostly as a choreography of movements and a meeting of eyes, a dumb show of strangers that could, at first, have been out of a spy movie or a police procedural, until the speaker and the man “looked away then met each other’s eye several times until we eventually gave up and just started at one another.” The remarkable thing is how efficiently the poem moves through its narration, from gaze to stare, and then, quite powerfully, how the man is able to summon the speaker back onto the train when the speaker gets off at 14th Street.  The intimacy of that moment is great, and once they are restored to the train, the poem’s sole line of dialogue, indirect but obvious, “I have an apartment” brings the poem to a nearly silent boil.  There’s a lovely moment after that, too, when the speaker, considering the proposition, “wondered if it was a company apartment and if he was there only part of the time.”  The real debate about this poem, it seems addressed how much of a lead-in the poem needed/wanted, and how to frame the final shot after the speaker “made a slight no gesture with [his] head.”  Everyone had an opinion on that, but the group did not discuss the gender of the speaker or how the speaker “knew” that the beautiful man was Japanese.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “Turning over in his grave” is a narrative about a cab ride in Romania, another traditional poetic form, strangers meeting here as they do in Shane Wagner’s “Beautiful Japanese Man” in a public mode of conveyance.  While Shane’s poem was about an almost-sex event, Ana’s poem is about generational ignorance, a cabbie who voices the popular complaints about the shortcomings of government, and a passenger who is evidently from an older generation, who knows better how bad the former government was, and, after listening to (and reporting to us) all the ignorant shit the cabbie says, delivers a sarcastic rebuke from the back seat in a final stanza mic drop.  

Claudia Serea‘s free verse poem in short line stanzas of variable length, “The cemetery is full” depicts a cemetery full of broken and lichenous statuary that the poem animates to create a scene of somber decay, so ultimately the poem creates a picture in which “the cemetery is full” but the speaker “suspect[s] all of the souls are gone.” Rather than end at that firm bottom, however, the poem continues with what might seem like a reaffirmation of life, as the speaker lines their “pockets/ with portulaca seeds,” which, as Lia pointed out, can produce the most vivid and colorful of flowers.  

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Flag on an Overpass,” a free verse in two eight-line stanzas of varied length, though the second stanza has longer, more even lines.  The first stanza imagines a car trip.  The second stanza takes place in a cemetery (two cemetery poems in a row!).  Claudia’s cemetery was full of statuary, but empty of souls.  In Don’s poem “Every grave, car, stone, parking space, mourner,/ gate, bird, flower, and window is empty.”  Claudia’s poem lingers on the details of decay that make a somber picture of the cemetery, while Don’s poem lists the categories of cemetery stuff and calls them empty.  Claudia’s poem has no first person narrator until the end with the portulaca seeds, and presents its message of uplift (if that’s what it is) in the gesture of the seeds, while Don’s poem establishes the speaker long before they reach the cemetery, driving down the highway, and is overt in presenting the speaker’s emotional state in the first stanza “I remember why I love/ or forget why I don’t love, and my heart fills up.” And in the second stanza, “I forget what I feel.  I remember what the tree feels.” So Don’s poem is more “argumentative” in the sense that however abstractly it moves, it works by overtly drawing parallels between speaker and scene. Neither poem tells us specifically why the speaker is in the cemetery, but the workshop seemed to accept that the graveyard does a lot of the centering work, and that’s been true since long before Thomas Grey and his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” And it’s good in our discussion to notice these canonical moves of setting and all of the allusions, shared assumptions, and other baggage they bring to a poem.

Carole Stone‘s “Sweet Dreams” has no cemetery, but it has elegy, and if not grief,  “breather/ from grief….a fit of pique.” In short line, rather incantatory, sometimes rhyming free verse, in four stanzas, it moves around a widow’s poolside world, considering the lost husband, absence, and presents us at the end with “the unpaid bill of loss.”  

My own poem, “New Sponge Trilogy” is a three part poem that begins with a facebook post in couplets about the day he changes kitchen sponges. This section begins with a form of general address about what “we” do, as though the tribe of kitchen sponge changers was a religious group, but ends up abandoning the “we” for a first person address about how the speaker’s daughter will someday find all of the old sponges in the basement ‘shop’ in the house. Part 2 of the poem continues the social media thread, but speaks in the voice of a single bacterium living in the speaker’s sponge, a bacterium which tells of seeing the author of the poem eating a fried egg sandwich at his kitchen sink and relating, knowingly, not only who the author is, and what his marital status is, but distinguishing the author from a more famous homonym. If there was dry humor in the first section, there is a certain degree of wet humor in the second. The third section also continues the social media genre, but takes on a third voice, that of an old friend of the speaker/author, who writes to the speaker/author privately in a message to remember being urged by her mother (back in h.s.) to consider the possibility of taking on the speaker/author as a boyfriend, which she rejects, and in rejecting reveals that the speaker/author holds onto a lot more than sponges, which she urges him, for his own sake, to let go.  
 
Lia DiStefano‘s poem “Secrets from The Deer Head” creatively imagines that the jazz music played at a somewhat well known but not famous jazz club/bar at the Delaware Water Gap had a mystical connection to the mites and woodworms living in the old building’s walls.

Brendan McEntee‘s poem “The Great Wave” is blocky and substantial on the page, long lines, almost paragraphs that give the poem a certain visual heft and even a sense of foreboding with the title looming above it like the great wave it names ready to crash.  It is always good to be aware of the look of the poem on the page and what it is telling us before we begin to read, because these impressions guide us into the poem and set the mood in ways that we, as poets can be aware of and use to our advantage, or ignore and pretend that it doesn’t matter how the words are arrayed.  The first line of Brendan’s poem is a big turn from the title.  Look how it engages with the title, in quiet argument:  “The Great Wave”—”It’s a rogue wave, really.  So says the literature: the rest of us see tsunami.”  So we already know that this poem, unlike, for example, Claudia’s, which moves through depiction to create emotional effect, or Don’s which engages in emotional counterpoint of speaker and scene, this poem is a talker, an explainer, a knowledger.  Between the title and the first line, the poem has invited us into something calm, reasonable, patient, and then, almost immediately backs this up with a reference to a woodblock print of the wave, so the poem takes on an ekphrastic quality, which reinforces the impression of thoughtfulness we have about the speaker, so that when the speaker locates the print of the wave inside “one of my favorite restaurants,” the poem allows the owner of the restaurant to perform the analysis of the woodblock (clever, that) and is already moving on a couple of tracks to introduce the subject, tell us about the speaker and give us a way into a narrative that will, eventually be about a failed romantic encounter followed, years later by a distressed call from the former date/companion, who relates a dream that takes us back to the ocean, to waves and parents, and deep familial distress, back in fact to the very restaurant where the woodblock print was hanging.  This poem is something special, a rich stew.

Yana Kane‘s aphoristic “Be free!” is a poem in the imperative, directing the reader to appreciate life with all its contradictions.

Frank Rubino‘s “Mom the artist reads to Brother Bill”  is a domestic inquiry into childhood, not exactly a nostalgia, but an unwinding and rewinding of two brother’s relationships to their mother, to the story of Noah and the Ark, (and look how the Great Flood here, as a resort of parable resembles Brendan’s reach back to the Great Wave for both anchor the poem.  We’re always looking back to shared origins.).  In Brendan’s poem, the great wave invades the dreams of the failed companion.  In Frank’s poem, there is it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor conveying the sibling roles played by speaker and brother (you’re the Flood and I’m the Ark because I’m good).  Another interesting aspect of this twisted reflection on the classic is the role played by “Mom the artist” in the title, who is presented not only as the reader of the “Bible story book with lurid illustrations.” And the poem brings mom back twice in a way that is obviously unsettling, first, at the end of this sentence drawing the boys into equal preadolescence:

We both wear dirty underwear the same
and know each other’s drawers and striped crew socks
& the degree and provenance of each other’s stink,
as Mom, too, well knows.

And it seems to me in that first tag of “mom” syntactically appended to the equivalence, reasserts the role of the mother, maybe not as artist, but as intelligence, awareness backup, support.  Then the next sentence does the same trick again; both boys watched monster films in a very specific way in a very specific place evoked with the kind of deep love that can only apply to home, and then again, at the end, “as Mom well knows,” and that “well knows” and now the awareness has developed into a kind of “presiding” over the boys, and we, as readers are asked to notice, and having notices the mom’s second appearance as president, should we also notice her absence after the third parallelism between the boys which immediately follows, which reiterates the good brother bad brother conclusion with which the poem started—should we notice that mom, the president, does not well know that Frank is the good kid and Bill is the bad kid?  

There are things not fully worked out in this poem.  Should they remain not fully worked out?  That seems to be the question Frank asks over and over in his work.

Hey, everybody, we need to hear from everyone in the workshop about the poetry that takes place in our workshop. From everyone on virtually every poem, with respect for one anothers’ different styles and different pacings and different comfort levels.  The workshop is a place for work that we all share for one another, through observation and intelligence, and no one voice of the group is more important than another, so please pitch in.

Arthur  Russell

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 05-11-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 11, 2021

Special shout out to Preeti Shah, a recent poem-of-the-month winner at Brooklyn Poets, but a first-timer for the RWB, who audited the workshop and promised to bring a poem sometime soon.  We look forward to it.
Bridget Sprouls was back for a second week running and brought a poem of sadness and untethered regret called “Strange sad story,” having to do with a stray dog adopted or housed by the speaker of the poem and her partner.  The backstory that Bridget shared with us at the workshop didn’t make it all the way into the poem, but the dismay, despair and the sadness of the title are there in full, even in the description of the land where she lives: ” We live in the middle of a forest/ where the ground rolls up and slips below,/ and in the middle of saw-ravaged hectares, where slash chokes the ground/ and near farms that sprawl into acute remembrance….”

Frank Rubino‘s poem, “There is a place where dreams are monitored” uses a wonderfully evocative piece of anaphora.  Several lines begin “You’re looking at a man who…”  So, a poem about identity illuminated by stories, one about how youthful moral failings (cheating on the SATs, skimming money) can, an adult man, dog; another about a family cat; another about financial losses, and a surprising one about being lectured by the cops.  In a way, the poem mirrors the second thoughts and sorrow of Bridget’s poem – hers about losing a dog, his in part about losing a cat, but both of them churning over the facts, suggesting places where blame can land, and ruminating.

Raymond Turco brought a poem that Frank described as gnomic, called “We Are All Man,” that talks, very briefly, about the godly nature of man, and suggests that all speech names god.  Tom thought it was a ‘modern affirmation.’

Janet K‘s poem “In His Body,” like, but very unlike Raymond’s addresses the man/god relation, though Janet comes at it from the point of view of the saggy elder body, and the desire to be youthful if not young in a poem that is filled with vivid language, starting with the repeated beginning of stanzas one and two with the word “Fancy” as a  VERB!  “Fancy switching a jelly belly for a six-pack ….. Fancy striding on a skeleton of bonded bone…”  And the energy continues to flow in stanza three with the life affirming, healing grace of a television evangelist: “Yeah, baby./ Abandon the walker, ditch the cane.”   Finally, in the fourth stanza, the man/god thing comes out a lot of latent music: “If you funded the fantasy of inimitability/ you could look in the mirror at one of the gods/ and run your hands over the firmness of youth….”  The poem ends falling back into a bit of momento mori, considering how even a well-tuned body can and fail and fall, but holding on to what she calls the “fantasy of inimitability” by ending on the hopeful word, “Still.”

Shane Wagner‘s poem “Cedar Lane, to Woodlawn, to Long Hill” a poem set during a neighborhood walk along the path described in the title, that gets the question of violence by a zig-zag route, starting with a sock that bunches in the speaker’s heel, then goes back to the birth of his daughter, jumps forward to the a mature conversation about violence against women, then on to coded language used to describe other social ills, and ends with a boy pointing a finger gun at a dog and the speaker who points his own finger gun at the boy.  Susanna Lee said that the violence becomes clearer as the poem goes on, but investing the finger gun in an innocent with such political potency comes with some liabilities.

Rob G brought a poem called “Soul Wrangling” which is a fractured narrative about a newly married couple, an actual honeymoon couple, going into the Arizona desert on their honeymoon to search for the bones of dismembered children described by a person with an “unraveled mind…gilded with common sophistry.”  It’s an odd tale, and one that doesn’t fit easily into a poem that uses as much concision as Rob’s do.

My untitled poem beginning with “In emojis” distinguishes between the way sadness is depicted in emojis and how it appears on a real face, allowing the person who is crying to taste their own tears to “check the depth/ of your sorrow/ as they pass”.  Susanna Lee suggested it was about how to disassociate from sorrow.  Bridget liked “as they pass” as a last line.  Janet K said that the long skinny look of the poem on the page was like ‘water falling.’  Rob G suggested the title “Salinity.”

Susanna Lee‘s poem, “Permanent Waves” talked about hair, the speaker’s hair, the speaker’s mother’s hair, and the speaker’s sister’s hair, but more than that, it talked about distinguishing the speaker from a sister who “let mom dress her up,/ allowed her hair to be permed,/ dressed in itchy white lace gloves/ and pinchy, black patent leather shoes, wore and easter bonnet with an elastic ribbon snapped under her chin.”  An immensely rich area to explore, but this poem stays away from the rawness of the emotion it strongly suggests, and may do itself a disservice thereby.

Tom Benediktsson‘s poem “Syzygy” was inspired by Jen Poteet’s poem about applying for a James Merrill fellowship from a few weeks ago.  Tom’s poem starts with a startling, even amazing evocation of a painter who invites the speaker into “a snoring father,/ a dirty kitchen and a room full of art.” Such celerity!  And the next two lines are even more tantalizing: “I bought an e-ray of his wife’s skull/ on which he’d painted a fish.”  Unfortunately, for this reader, the poem does not develop along those amazing lines, but turns into a recollection of a trip to Merrill’s Stonington Connecticut, specifically a restaurant called “Noah’s,” and though the poem circles back to “some strange starving fish” it never regains its strange wonderfulness.

Just a great group of working poets working on their poems. (We miss you, Jim.)

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-27-21

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

We had a very welcome surprise guest at the workshop, Bridget Sprouls, whose poem “Fresh Pasture” closely observed the aftermath of a farmyard accident, a lamb kicked by a steer: “She didn’t fall, just shook her head/ then walked on slowly after,/ nibbling a few blades./ Soon she simply stood there/ ears back, unable to mask the pain.”  The direct, unadorned simplicity of the narration allowed us, the readers, to care, to worry about the lamb, so that the next line, also unadorned, locked us into the moment: “Something had happened to her.”  The poem follows the lamb, who “sat quietly,/ breathing perhaps a little faster than normal;” the two adverbs, “quietly” and “perhaps” did a lot of work, which is unusual for adverbs, keeping the tension high.  And the concern we felt for the lamb reached a high point as the poem paused to educate us a bit about the lamb’s usual routine – experimental chewing and calling for milk – to then let us know that “Today she didn’t chew.  She didn’t baa for milk.”  Just a lovely poem.  Some of us thought the last line “The world had grown so very dangerous” was unnecessary precisely because we knew that from the careful caring exposition, but that’s for Bridget to decide.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Topanga” (no included in the package) was just amazing as looks back at youth go.  It was about that time in the early 1970s when Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon in California were magnets for the indy pop musical idols of the day, but those were just the backdrop to the young speaker’s place in that charged universe, and ended with; “I was always going back to New Jersey/ when summer was over/ and I needed a job as cashier or behind a counter,/ and there was our home in Halcyon Park as a backup/ where I could secretly lick my wounds when I failed.”

John J. Trause brought an untitled poem that began “I picked a flower in Britain once,/ the color of your eyes.”  It was written in ballad meter with the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyming and an added internal bonus rhyme in line three.  It was hypnotic metrically and hilariously sensual.

Tom Benediktsson was back after a few weeks away with “Freely Fly” a poem that anthropomorphizes an “LL Bean Wicked Good flannel shirt.”  I can’t summarize it, but it was wildly imaginative, satirical and just plain nuts. Welcome back, Tom.

It really was comedy night; not just JJT and Benediktsson either—Don Zirilli‘s poem “Stand Up” was shaped like am actual comic’s standup routine, starting with a quick reversal of an old comic’s standby: “I just flew in from New York/ and boy is the sky tired.”  And throughout, Don pushes the routine towards a slightly more surreal kind of humor; one section tells a joke about a snake who gets hit in the face by a dandelion stem; another tells a castle-with-a-moat joke; and it ends with a twist on a typical stand-up ending: “You’ve been fantastic./ I loved you in another life.”  My only wonderment was whether any of this material was beyond the ken of today’s standup comics.

Brendan‘s poem “Ta Republique” also featured a moat, albeit one around a sandcastle, a sandcastle on a beach outside a convalescent home whose windows were filled with sick people “some in wheelchairs, some bandaged, some with their fists to their mouths, their sounds lost/ to the flash and scream of a fighter jet, heading in.”  And the overall picture was jarring, arresting, and disturbing, but in a memorable way.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “The Cruelty of Youth” was a narrative about a summer idyll that was not ideal.  The speaker went swimming every day with a childhood friend of the speaker’s mother, and the friend goaded the speaker to swim the whole width of the lake, until one day, having had enough of that, the speaker challenges the friend to talk about his youth, spent as a child victim of the Nazi Josef Mengele’s cruel experimentation.

Jen Poteet brought a poem called “Wildflower or Weed” about dandelions.
Susanna Lee brought a sonnet called “Corona Stole Our Love Sonnet” that focuses on a guitar.

Claudia Serea’s poem “If this fever were an old-fashioned war” a direct address to a sick child, that includes the kind of fantastical storytelling that parents allow themselves to indulge in when it’s their kid and their kid is sick. Very nice poem.

Raymond Turco‘s poem was an Italian original and an English translation that had been accepted for publication.  We loved hearing Ray read it in Italian, and then we tore into the English, which had one of Ray’s unexpectedly strong metaphorical twists at the start: “In search of my son’s heart,/ I find it transplanted.”  We loved wondering what that could mean and where the poem could go.

Turns out I’m posting these notes just fifteen minutes before our next workshop. So, if I gave anyone short shrift, I apologize.  Our workshop, as Frank says, is the best thing anywhere.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-20-21

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

I’d like to start off tonight’s notes with a little prayer for two of our local poets who died in the last week: Laura Boss, editor of LIPS, and a mainstay of the Northern NJ poetry scene passed away after a battle with cancer. I knew Laura Boss only slightly, and yet from the few times we met, I came away liking her. Also, sadly, Brooklyn Poets’ reining Yawper of the Year, Robin Romeo, a young man, died; I’m not sure of the cause. After only a year or so at BKP, Robin had become irreplaceable, a poem of the month winner, a solid supporter of other poets’ work. Irreplaceable and now gone. May he rest in peace.

Clearly, if we still had a poem of the week, it would have gone to LanChi Pham for “The length of a line is the length of a human breath, Tom told me.” It’s a daughter’s love poem to her father who loves all poetry but his daughter’s poems particularly. Completely unadorned by fancy poetic language, it shows us the father “Lying in his hospital bed/ With the oxygen tubes/ Running up his nostrils/ And two tanks/ Always next to the nightstand.” And then father and daughter share poetry and conversation, “Until he wheezes,/ And can barely catch his breath anymore./ Then we stop…” A poem of short lines for a father short of breath.  Didn’t Stephen Sondheim write “Send In The Clowns” in short phrases so that Hermoine Gingold, the getting-up-there-non-singing-star of “A Little Night Music” could make a go of it? This poem enacts the very love it speaks of.

Claudia Serea, the master, was back with a garden as god poem called “I’m helping my grandmother pull from the earth potatoes and onions.” The poem proceeds directly from the title to tell us “It’s hard because the earth/ doesn’t relinquish them easily,/ because it never does,/ once it snatches something from us.” Sly work, but the poem doesn’t linger on that easy mortality; instead it enacts a Marx Brothers routine: a tug of war between the speaker the dirt, ending in the triumphant speaker showing off her “trove of potatoes,/ glistening amber piglets,/ and the onions,/ hanging in the air,/ rare golden birds.” Thank you, Claudia.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Filling in the blanks” tracks the speaker’s family’s migration story. From where to where is omitted though ‘from oppression to freedom’ seems like a fair bet. The poem is a verse narrative whose lyricism resides in the clipped, vaguely teletyped sequencing: “Permission granted.// No coming back would be allowed./ Every goodbye is carved in stone.// Three weeks to put our affairs in order.” In the last segment, the migrant family of 3 (two parents and the speaker) sitting three across in the plane “are entering this world/ together,/ as if we were triplets.” 

Ana Doina brought a polished up version of her poem “Bilingualism, a legacy,” which intersperses a lecturer’s spiel about the benefits of bilingualism with language-based memories from the speaker’s past. 

John J Trause brought a concrete poem called “Dementia,” that enacted the descent into dementia by writing the word vertically in a typeface of diminishing density acting as an erasure that mimics the supposed erasure of memory or self or whatever is erased in the course of the disease. Recently in a controversial 40 page poem published in Poetry, called “Scholl’s Ferry Road,” Michael Dickman used an analogous technique, of dedicating more and more of each page to white space reflecting the dementia that overwhelmed the speaker slipping into dementia. 

My poem, “Chains to the Sea” was a sound poem riffing on the famous final line of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Fern Hill”: “though I sang in my chains like the sea.”  It was intended as an homage to that triple anapest line of Thomas’, which has astounded me since I first memorized “Fern Hill” with Thomas’ Collected Poems propped open on the steering wheel of my 1973 Monte Carlo while I drove north and west on Route 17 from NYC to Alfred, New York where my then girlfriend was learning to be a potter.  It was a five hour drive, and I had the poem down cold by the time I got there. So this poem is an incantation rolling that phrase around until it seems to make new meaning. 

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “For Those Who Are Wretched” which takes off from the Victor Hugo novel, Les Misérables, suggests that the wretched of the world should “find the Jean Valjean” (a character in the novel) in themselves.

Susanna Lee wrote a comic poem about how hard it is to write a sonnet called “How to Write the Modern Sonnet.” It was super well received, having inside poetry jokes like “Only fourteen or so of the sonnet’s lines need words” and “Sonnets follow a metrical pattern when they feel like it” and other attitudinal humor as in “Shakespearean sonnets are the best, tres cool.” The poem ends with a line of the driest, morbid hilarity a poet can reckon: “Follow all these sonnet tips and you still die.”

Jen Poteet’s poem “Woman and Whippet” sounds like the name of a painting, and here the dog in the painting is the speaker, narrating from inside the frame what the unrecognized viewer of the painting must be thinking the dog is thinking. It’s a clever conceit, which starts off with some rudimentary observations about the sitting, the dog’s relation to his mistress with her “ruffled silk dress, gloves/ and elaborate feathered hat…” and the requisite unfulfilled dog desire to “terrorize mice,” etc. But then, almost exactly 2/3 of the way through (where the turn would be in a sonnet), there’s a ferocious turn.  The dog in the painting who has been enacting the viewer’s thoughts throughout suddenly says: “I don’t know death. I don’t know guilt or pride./  I’m the sort of chap that’s here now…” That is where the poem catches fire, as the energy ping-pongs between dog and painter and poet. Dogs don’t philosophize about a sense of mortality they don’t have, but someone does.  Fascinatingly, after that moment of surfacing passion, the dog goes back to wondering what (spoiler alert: garbage) is for dinner.  Thank you Jennifer Poteet!     

Shane Wagner brought a provocative poem called “Would You Fuck Me?” that jumps directly from the title to a confrontation.  A movie theater manager is propositioning a young usher. Hot as a pistol, the poem proper starts: “He repeated the question several times.” As that first stanza ends, the question repeats: “Would you fuck me?” After that, however the poem cools off considerably.

What Frank Rubino’s poem lacked in a title it more than made up for in poem.  It reads as a grab bag of disparate ideas: a meditation on (or by) one of the speaker’s toes (“I am toes”), an overly long one, a meditation that morphs into a consideration of adhesion or binding, which transmutes into a discussion of the painter Delacroix’s ability to paint water droplets, and then section 1 ends with the memory of a long ago taxi ride to Newark Airport during which the speaker sees the demolished building that once housed his father’s diner on Route 21. In section 2, the poem almost wills itself to fly. The speaker is still his toes, but his toes are in the Southwest on a hiking trail, perhaps a tour of butte country, and here, in this environment the speaker (c’mon, it’s not the toe), engages in a series of reframing observations: looking down he sees “the small figures on the road below” and figures “that was us.” He hears a cute exchange in the men’s room between father and little boy; he tells us the sat thing he saw and the happy thing, which was the same boy “lying limp across his father’s shoulders.” Some of the workshoppers wanted to cut away everything about this poem that didn’t sing with the easy impact of the demolished diner, or cut the poem into sections that could be separate poems. I say if John Donne were in the workshop, we’d be a little more anxious to figure out what he was trying to accomplish and how he went about accomplishing it, and a little less quick to give it a nip and a tuck. My point is that John Donne’s not coming, but Frank is here, so let’s treat him with the same respect we’d show to Donne.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Miss Pink” was a tongue-in-cheek updated/fractured fairy tale, a sort of version of Little Red Riding Hood, a kind of ballad. It’s strength came from its densely artificial language, such as “The train screeched into the station like a Chinese Dragon,/ and opening all its metal jaws sharply and at once,/ commanded, “Clear the doors and step in.” The poem’s not in the package, but it’s got a lovely ending.

Thanks to everyone who brought poems, and thanks to everyone who assisted in the discussion to help these poems on their way to coherence.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-13-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021

Happy Poetry Month, workshoppers: 

We had a great workshop last Tuesday.  The truth was delivered by the poets and then the truth was delivered by the workshop.  So much truth.

My poem, “A Mortician’s Stitch” touched on a daughter telling a father’s story then retold by the speaker of the poem, about the life of a guy who was in near constant motion, whose daughter caught his momentum and the speaker who saw it in her.  It was a blank verse poem which means unrhymed iambic pentameter, and I must say that the form is fluid enough to capture discourse without unnatural compression, but the constraint of the iambic line, and the pentameter line in particular, provides just enough back-pressure on the writing process to measure out the poem’s progress in lines of consistent density and tone; the cadence is satisfying to the ear.  I recommend it.

Shane Wagner’s “For a Lifetime” was a prose piece – JJT called it a short story –  about life in the neighborhood with children who face developmental challenges.  That “know-a-little, not-a-lot” feeling that comes from living down the block is well captured, with the children as advance guards or avatars of friendship when they meet at the door for trick or treat on Halloween.  The details all ring true, and the line that rang the truest for me was the one that described the excitement of the girl who gave the juice boxes on Halloween when the speaker’s son arrived in his wheelchair: “The girl filling the doorway.  Holding a tray of juice boxes.  Shifting her weight in anticipation.”  Poetry or prose, it’s details like that that ground a piece.

Don Zirilli brought “Labyrinth”  a poem hearkening back to the story of Orpheus, the Minotaur and Daedelus, but told, according to Don, from the perspective of the labyrinth itself: “Every night, no matter how diligently I was debased,/ I walked backward into myself again.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Bilingualism, a legacy.”  The poem sets up as a dialogue in which the science of bilingualism is set out in italics, such as “It’s about changing codes,” and each italicized piece of the lecture is filled with an autobiographical rejoinder to the thought in the voice of a speaker who grew up speaking Romanian, German and Hungarian, and who now has a “toddler grandson.”  Everyone in the group found the final paragraph/stanza of the poem – the one that introduced the grandson — to be the most engaging, where the grandson is quoted saying he doesn’t like to say certain words in Romainian, but we feel the grandparent’s satisfaction that he “goes on listing in Romanian, all the colors he doesn’t like to say.” 

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Queen of Corona” was about how the last year of evenings have gone for the speaker, reading poems and the paper, following social media, watching movies and tv game shows and eating “corn chips, cheddar and salsa.”  Which is described as a kind of hell from which vaccination may provide relief if the speaker can move up on the list.  We learned that the speaker had indeed moved up the list, and has now been vaccinated, but not whether her activities list or her address had changed.

John J Trause brought a poem, an ode perhaps, called “To Thoth,” the ‘thoth’ being an Egyptian deity of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment and the dead, often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or baboon.  John’s poem was hilarious.  Read it.

Frank Rubino was back from vacation and back with a rewrite of his poem about men talking around a fire, “Pete & Stan’s.”

The dialogue had the offhand terribleness that one automatically associates with men, such as “Did you ever have to fuck someone, said Pete, or they’d fuck you?”  But the real heat of the poem is in the speaker’s feelings of discomfort with the fireside regime and more generally, about secrets (“(I can’t give the secret that I’m bad at the stock market)/(I can’t give the secret of my true numbers)/(I can’t give the secret when I last had sex)”); and that discomfort is vindicated, oddly, when the speaker’s “wife and the ladies come by the fire,” and the speaker can confidently report on the men’s good behavior with goofy smile emoji to emphasize the relief: “No secrets dropped about them all night (goofy smile)/ They are funny and high.”     In a way, the setting of the poem, with the women withdrawing to what was known in Victorian England as the ‘withdrawing room’ and the men retiring to the billiards room (which often had a fireplace) for a game of snooker.  Frank is clearly our poet most comfortable with the familial tensions of midlife.

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “Golden Shovel 1” was written in the form of that name invented by Terrence Hayes, who took the words in a line of Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, and made them into end-words for a poem of his own.  Janet used the words of the title of an article from the Sunday New York Times (“Music and Meditation Fuels Laura Donnelly”) to provide her with end words, and the connection between the inspiring title and the ultimate poem turns out to be the name of a friend of the speaker who recently died, Laura.  What’s particularly wonderful is how Janet used the name “Laura Donnelly” from the newspaper headline and got two line endings, one for her friend “Laura” and the other a reference to a line of poetry by another Donnelly, Tim. 

Come back again on Tuesday 4/20/21, and we’ll rip into a few more poems. 

—Arthur Russell

Amended Field Notes, Week of 04-06-21

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

Hey, Everyone:  I tried so hard not to repeat last week’s complete failure to get out the Field Notes that I got a bit sloppy.  I forgot to include Carole Stone’s lovely evocation of a writer’s retreat at a somewhat spooky, but also charming and inspiring, richly-endowed castle in Scotland, which I’ve pasted in full below, and I forgot to tell you about a fabulous poem by Walt Whitman called “Leaves of Grass Original 1855 Edition,” that I’m reading over and over on an audiobook narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, available on Spotify.  I’ve talked to a few people about the experience of having LoG read to me, and how it has enhanced my appreciation of the poem I would say exponentially.  I have a facsimile copy of that 1855 edition that I keep open and follow along as Mr. Ballerini does the hard and necessary work of giving voice to the words on the page.  As you may know, the original 1855 edition has very little by way of formatting; the poem just rolls on and on sometimes a double space between what would, in later editions, be separately numbered or named poems.  Also the Preface to the 1855 edition is a really long 5000-word lyric essay on what it means to be a great poet of the American moment, and the Preface, in the facsimile edition, is in tiny type and paragraphs with no spaces between them, so it looks like the label on a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s Pure Castile Soap.  But with Ballerini reading the Preface, you can hear the urgency of the mission statement (some say WW undertook the work of becoming the American bard after hearing a lecture by RW Emerson), and you can hear those Whitmanic cadences in a distinct ambition, which is very nice. 

My dear friend and I were listening to a 45-minute swath of LoG yesterday— the entire recording, Preface included—is 4 hours 19 minutes—and they were as grateful as I was to have the poem read aloud to us; we did it without having the text, or a glass of wine or anything, just sitting in front of my babbling telephone as though we were listening to FDR give a fireside chat, or as though we were in church letting the improbabilities of liturgy and sermon pass over us unchecked. This was part of my second time through the recording and the poem.  I’d listened to it once beginning on Good Friday (1/3), Holy Saturday (1/3) and Easter Sunday (1/3) (which also corresponded to the last days of Passover, oh happy concordance much to be hip-hip-hoorayed), and I had been upended by the way LoG works as prayer/sermon/testimony/patchwork/Haggadah/midrash. And my dear friend and I agreed that WW can be difficult to enjoy on the page because as readers we’re always rereading, going back to catch the syntactical whole after it unfolds in those minutes-long sentences and lists of his; and when someone is reading the poem, you can’t go back (you can stop it to look up some of those incredible words he comes up with (chuff, teokallis)), but stopping to go back is really not the best way to love LoG.  The best way is to let it roll, keep going, stay in that beautiful space that he carves out of time, try to stay in the moment, and if you drift, come back without judgment (I know, meditation). I thought, too, of how in Hebrew school and at the Saturday services, and at Passover, and, I imagine for Xians, in the liturgy, it’s the hearing of the thing (especially as a child, but also as a second child) over and over that allows your mind to absorb the poem in a noncritical way, to remember it without memorizing it, and in a way, remembering without caring if you remember.  And let me tell you, when I undertook to read LoG, I was erecting sensical barriers to its admission (into my head) based on his relentless filling of its stretched-tight net-shopping-bag sentences, and rudely compared WW’s work to a wet fart (that happened, and I regret it).  But once I found Ballerini’s recording, and loved it, and listened to the poem uninterrupted by my reader’s intelligence (such as it is) or my whiny pissy impatient attitude (think Ezra Pound), I was fucking mesmerized for long stretches, and when I did drift off to appreciate or interrogate an image or phrase or line (“The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case/ He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom”) I was able to rejoin the procession without a sense of loss, and realized that the poem is performative, not textual (Grateful Dead jam, not Bill Evans solo).  It may be that some people can read WW on the page with the same drive and push as hearing it aloud provides, but I’m not one of them (which is a little odd, because in the sorts of shorter lyric works that I hear in workshops and at poetry readings, I’m always craving the text).  Point of the story is I think this Whitman guy is on the rise, a real Ocean Vuong of a poet, and I plan to read “LoG 1855”, with and without the audiobook and my new bff Ballerini two or three times more before the class moves on to Emily Dickinson at the end of the month.  For the last go-through, I may set aside 4 hrs and 19 min, and go straight through.

Speaking of Ocean Vuong, they did a free online reading through Harvard Radcliffe on Thursday night, and read two excerpts from their novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as well as a poem from their forthcoming poetry collection “Time Is A Mother.”  The poem, which they now call “Not Even” was published last year (Poetry, April 2020) as “Not Even This” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/152940/not-even-this) – Although they did not say so explicitly, the readings from the novel, which concerns the Southeast Asian immigrant experience in the US, including their work in massage spas and nail salons, where Vuong actually worked (as a receptionist) as a boy and where his mother worked as a nail technician, were apt in the aftermath of the murder last week of 6 people, 4 of them Asian American women, in Atlanta by a psychotic moron, and they made some comments about that disaster in the q and a, including this: “My aunt works in a massage parlor, in California, right now.” I don’t know about you, but the stark reality of that statement did a lot of work for me ripping away the veil that separates us from the faceless Asian-Americans we hear about as victims of racist violence on the news.  Separately, Vuong also made a very uplifting comment about the younger person we all once were who dreamed up the identity we became.  To paraphrase, they said that in the Western Tradition we are encouraged to forget the person who wanted, and focus on the present, but, they argue, the person who wanted was  the “pioneer of our life in a way.”  Vuong asked us to see that person “not as a defunct version of ourselves, but as a fruitful collaborator.”

If this amended Field Notes were a Frank Rubino invitation to the RWB workshop, I would now say, think of a way to revive that fruitful collaborator in your poems. But even though I have appeared as Frank Rubino in Zoom meetings while he is away (and based on his reputation and home-page photo, received date offers), I am not Frank Rubino….

Next, I’m dropping a link to a worthwhile article in The Paris Review called “Fuck The Bread.”    

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/07/fuck-the-bread-the-bread-is-over/

And finally, again, with renewed apologies to her for having omitted it from the earlier edition of the Field Notes, is Carole Stone’s poem “Hawthornden Castle.”

Hawthornden Castle

Silence in the halls,
outgoing calls not allowed,
lunch arrives outside my door,
sounds of padding feet.

I walk the winding drive,
pass flowers, Latin names displayed.
After a brief shower, the drenched air
holds its blue, Rhododendron flare
like a Tartan plaid.

Tea at four, today the promised scones.
I’m scared of the rattles in my fireplace.
Ghosts of previous guests?
I’m told Stevie Smith was here.

I complain the sherry’s drunk up;
the director implies someone is tippling at night.
The cook makes the promised trifle.
The castle owner’s possessions abound;
Sèvres porcelain, blue and white Ming vases.

Precisely at 10:30 PM,
the cast-iron gate slams shut,
a heavy key turns the ancient squeaky lock.
A poem might come to me tonight.
Glittering, wonderful.

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