Field Notes, Week of 02-16-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 16, 2021

Good morning and welcome to the Field Notes for the February 16, 2021 RWB Workshop.

Janet Kolstein (no copy included) brought a rewrite of her poem “Did you know Neil Lasher?” about one of those odd apartment house elevator acquaintanceships that ends in learning of the person’s passing, and a concomitantly odd form of mourning that ensues. I thought of it as an elegy pulling the slender threads of that incomplete portrait. So much information and the contours of the emotional gap revealed in these two lines: “I’d interviewed him in a Meet Your Neighbor segment/ that aired on our (now) cancelled condo channel.” And so much reverence (I think that’s not the wrong word) in this lovely quatrain:

He was always pulled together;
grey cashmere around his heck,
navy blue sweater, or a smart suit cut to his roundness.
A nimbus of stylish white hair

The kindness of “smart suit cut to his roundness” slayed me.

Claudia Serea’s poem, “If I could go back in time” imagines a time before the speaker was born, before her parents met, when her father as a young man was arrested by the secret police in Romania for what he’d written in poems in a high school notebook. In this poem, the unborn speaker imagines herself a gust of wind that blows that notebook off the table and out of sight of the secret police, thereby saving her father, but also, coincidentally, insuring that her father wouldn’t meet her mother and she, the speaker, would never be born. There is a wonderful moment in this wonderful poem when the narrative ends (“the Securitate would never find [the book]” and the poem leaps to two images in a couplet: “The flame would crawl into the match,/ the spider would swallow back its web.” They are images that illuminate time moving backwards, or undone cause undoing effect, and they are followed by the monostich: ‘and my father would be spared.’  Great story telling move, I think, and it is followed, ironically, with the new effect, that the speaker, the daughter, as savior, presented as a gust of wind would, by logic, have “swelled the curtains, exhaled,/ and disappeared.” So the sacrifice comes home in the last word of the poem. Nice work.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Fetish” talks about a guardian angel who “is neither.” Presented as a story in free verse with variable line lengths but a slender overall appearance, the poem portrays the ‘angel’ as a kind of pet or disruptive and sexually perverted child who masturbates hovering in front of a shoe store window. Funny as anything, the poem mostly avoids talking about the speaker, this parent/pet owner, except in the lines that reveal their superstitious nature: “so the other day I’m walking/ into town, busy avoiding the cracks/ in the sidewalk while counting back/ from a hundred by sevens.” And that’s really all it takes! I think that what energizes Tom’s work beyond the bizarre imagination of the supernatural, is his excellent management of lines that keeps his odd tales moving. Look at all these great line ending words: neither, levitate, ground, breaststroker, incontinent, cracks, staring, rubbing, inappropriate, swat, angel, revolving, embarrassment, shoes! And look too at the fabulous break at “three” in the compound word “three-legged dog,” which so zazzes the funny line with additional expectation, or the breaks between “rubbing” and “himself” and between “inappropriate” and “way,” that enliven each new line with impetus and momentum. So, it’s not just the story, but the lines that include fresh surprising details in an entertaining and engaging and surprising way. And, as the workshop pointed out, the title “Fetish” applies not only to the angel’s love of shoes, but can be a slantwise reference to the angel itself under the definition of fetish as “an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers.”  Thanks Tom.

For a different approach to narrative, Raymond Turco brought another of his hagiographic sketches, this one about the assassinated PM of Italy “Aldo Moro.” In all of these sketches, this one included, Ray writes in the second person, but oddly forfeits the proximity of that mode of address with an impersonal voice and a narrative style. The net effect can be somewhat “Dragnet-like,” the historical importance of the hero’s life, the chilling circumstances of their death circumscribed in a just-the-facts mode. The poem part of the poem is in prosy free verse, and is followed by an actual prose paragraph reciting more or less the same facts. The slight difference between the poem part and the prose part lies in the some details included in one and not the other and in ‘commentary’ such as “A mystery surrounds you, Aldo,/ the details are still unclear,” which is true.

Barbara Hall’s poem “HAIKU Visions for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” is a rewrite in tercets of Barbara’s praise poem for seashells. Now the poem leans on both Wallace Stevens and on the form of haiku for support, and could possibly lose itself in the ascription. What does this series of tercets risk and/or gain by calling itself haiku? And how has it answered Wallace Stevens’ invention? The group was happy to take it on its own terms independent of the title as a series of recollections about finding shells, eating shellfish, using shells as art, and even getting a gash on one’s knee that needed stiches. 

Shane Wagner’s poem “Robert Frost, Jennifer Poeteet and Shane Wagner in the Woods” starts off alluding heavily to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” but moves on to discuss the speaker feeding his son, and the challenges of having special needs children, and ending on a question about mortality. In that diffuse sense, it accepts and rejects Frost’s dichotomy concerning paths through life as there are roads, but the only choices are local. I love the way the poem alludes not just to Frost, but to Jen Poteet’s series of what she calls anachronistic poems about dead poets revived as interlocutors. And I love the way Shane made a party out of it by inviting a person/poet named Shane Wagner to come along for the walk.  It would be interesting to see Shane excavate this poem for its mineral wealth. 

Susanna Lee’s poem was a prose/poem called “Locks of Love” that was a waggish satirical take on Viking lore, that spoofed (or was it an homage pretending to be a spoof) the hyper sexuality of the type. “The men’s manliness oozed and anointed these, their holy women, all over.”

Jen Poteet, fresh from her appearance in Shane’s poem brought one of her own called “On Valentine’s Day, Everyone’s a Poet.” Though she never delivered on the promise of the title, there was a spritely insouciance to the portrayal of cupid as “a chubby little saint” who “aims an arrow” and the monosyllable one-word italicized, exclamation: thwack! 

Yana Kane’s poem “Unbinding” came in three parts separated by dots. The first presented the interesting proposition of the speaker as an old woman emerging from a chrysalis. The second and third segments proposed variations (no, not 13 variations) on the idea of metamorphosis. The third segment was a haiku in at least a couple of ways: its adherence to the American syllabic count for the lines (5-7-5) and also the grab of a moment out of time, this one so clearly depicted as an afternoon light phenomenon:

Holding sunset light

above the rising shadow,

a rusty pipe glows.

Frank Rubino’s poem was called “Mary.” Like other of Frank’s work, centers (?) on a reality of suburban home life, the speaker’s place in the world and leaking water, and veers away to consider other things: a Russian language singer, the speaker’s wife’s decorative lights, and a woman named Mary. I loved the homeowner’s mystical relationship to his home in these sweet lines:

I opened the tiny hatch in the basement ceiling, and reached up into the dark super-ceiling,

Somehow my hand knows which pipes are full:

the more lightly you touch, the more you know.

And I also loved the way the name Mary became a lambent unknown in these lyrical lines:

I was washing a pot from dinner,

and the smell of bay leaf

arose on the steam, and reminded me of Mary.

And I said, out loud, “Oh Mary.”

And my wife asked me, What made you think of Mary?”

I also liked the way the poem came back to the image of reaching for a valve in the dark to refer to the way memory works: “I reached my hand into the dark compartment of my brain.” 

On the overall, I think it would be good if we as a group spent time talking about how a poem does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t. A poem has available to it the huge range of devices, modalities and tools that poetry has invented over the last ten thousand years: form, line, sentence, argument, rhetoric, image, voice, diction, assonance, resonance, repetition, allusion to other sources, drama, narrative and lyric modes; subject, theme, irony, sarcasm (?); and we, as poets, as practitioners rather than simply as customers, have a greater awareness of what’s going on in a poem. And we can learn and the writer of the poem can learn more from us talking about what is going on—even if it seems obvious to us—than they can learn from finding out what we are or aren’t bothered by. Yet so often, instead of talking about what a poem is and how a poem is and where a poem seems to want to go and whether it seems to get there and if not why not—from which we can learn a lot—the first thing out of our mouths is “I would” instead of “you did.” Praise is important, but “I love” is only the beginning of informed praise. Don’t we ever worry that we’re imposing our own ideas of what a poem should be on a poem without exposing what those ideas are or figuring out what the poet has made? Isn’t there some sort of homogenization process going on when we jump to edit along “traditional” “modernistic” lines as though we were repairing a Ford for which a greasy dogeared manual exists rather than meeting a poem—a fucking creation—on its own terms?  Can you imagine saying to God—“love the universe, but you should have ended at Jacob?”

—Arthur Russell

Celebrate Black History Month w/RWB Poets & Guests


The Red Wheelbarrow Poets invite you to celebrate Black History Month with a special poetry reading on Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 pm.

Featured RWB and guest poets include:
Zorida Mohammed, Francesca and Raymond Dharmakan Bremner, James C. Ellerbe, Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal, reg e gaines, Michelle Whittaker, as well as local high school and community readers.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 at 7 p.m.

Zoom information:
-Launch the Zoom.us app
-Zoom ID: 846 9724 6452
-Password: rcrc07070

We’d like to thank our guest readers for featuring at this special event. Looking forward to hearing their poignant poetry.

Also, many thanks to our partner, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, and to the high school student coordinator, Dana Serea, for their outreach efforts.

Field Notes, Week of 02-09-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 9, 2021

I had this other thought about reading poems; reading, your mind wanders, words, phrases pull you into reverie and you miss something, or you read something you disagree with or would have done differently, or just resent. All of these pull you away from the text; it’s like reading a poem, the act of reading (even if it’s hearing) pulls you away from the poem. Maybe it’s a personal defect, but I think it’s more common than that. So, I’m in a workshop now with 11 other poets writing a poem a week, and posting them on Wet Ink, and wanting to respond, but being constantly pulled this way and that, I decided to try this: read the poem once, then read it out loud and record it on my phone.  Then play it back as many times as I need to, maybe while preparing dinner.  The oddball bits I want to change become less distracting, the relation of parts to each other becomes a little clearer, what the heck is going on goes from ‘who is this person, anyway’ to ‘who is this person, anyway’  (just kidding). And the investment in time is minimal, for most poems, a minute or so.  I hit the play button over and over until I’ve noticed more and more things about it, and rather than like or dislike, I can talk about what it is, and not just the formal elements of meter, rhyme, stanza, but the angle of attack, the emotion hiding behind the cleverness, shit like that. So I’m recommending that: hit record; hit play; hit play; hit play (the peculiarities of your own voice disappear, the line you misread repairs itself). Someone once told me, the first time you read a poem (story) you read it to find yourself in it; the second time, you read it, you read it to find the author in it, but around about the third time, it’s the poem.  It’s just that thing, fragment, remains, song.

Frank put my poem, “Authorities,” first in the packet, so I’ll tell you, I wrote it in Deshpande workshop on form, session 1, “Couplets, Tercets, Quatrains and Monostichs.” The monostich is the one line stanza (what I used to call the self-aggrandizing line). A poem made of monostichs can be used for list poems, or prophesy, or I spy with my little eye, and if you have a gift for aphorism, the monostich poem may be the venue for you. I thought it provided a networking possibility for non sequiturs, and found that I was talking a lot about who to listen to. I was very happy with the shape of it.

One of the authorities I appealed to in “Authorities” was the poets who come to watch me write my poems, and Jen Poteet brought something of the same modality to “Hart Crane and I File for Unemployment” – another in her series of poems that bring dead poets back to life for companionship and anachronism. Here, in free verse of no particular meter, she draws parallels and differences to hers and Hart’s situations. I thought the device was wonderful, especially when she and Hart “gaze/ out his kitchen window/ at the Brooklyn Bridge, its gleaming girders/ torched by winter sunlight.”

Ray Turco is getting more and more guff from the group over his biographical/ hagiographical sketches of heroes of Italian independence, in particular the prose sketches the follow, mirror and only alter slightly the information presented in the preceding poem. This one, “Maddalena Cerasuolo,” dips back to WWII for the story of a resistance fighter.  I pointed out that the whole middle stanza was made of sentences with the same syntax, dependent clauses followed by main clauses, which become distancing, informational, and repetitive. Maybe that’s what he wants, someone said.

Speaking of hagiography, John J. Trause returned with the middle tych of a triptych about Marilyn Monroe, called “St. Marilyn Chrysotricha,” which presents the movie star in a tongue-in-cheek manner as a saint. People loved it’s humor, and no one doubted that Marilyn deserves canonization.

Susanna Lee, back from a sad time out to mourn the loss of Arliss her dog, brought a stunningly simple and beautiful poem (“Poetry Practice) of one sentence in three free-verse quatrains (so similar in shape and form to “This is Just to Say” by WCW), in which her little kindnesses define a practice of poetry that we could admire. There was a lot of talk about the last stanza (which seems appropriate) because the participle “blessing” aroused attention. After all, the participle “leaving” had started the second stanza, and “blessing” didn’t seem to have an object, or maybe blessing seemed to religious. Anyway, we all got out our editorial pencils – we love changing poems too much – and gave Susanna a few suggestions to honor what we took to be her intention.

Barbara Hall brought “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” about which some people said that Barbara and the shells could stay, but Wallace Stevens had to go. He was gumming up the works. My favorite line was X, “Clam shells ease open when steamed in a pot to yield/ one of my favorite seafood dishes: steamed clams.” Wallace Stevens has to go, but Gertrude Stein can stay!

Shane Wagner brought us a short story called “Tourist”, a sci fi disease adventure of the future. Myself, I was drawn to the description of the big fireplace in the fourth paragraph, with Jacob, the host if not the hero of the story, building a fire of “quartered logs the length of his arm, two in one direction, then two in the other and so on until the pile was chest high.” And I liked how Ava watching the conflagration “imagined Jacog as a boy at this hearth learning the technique form his father….”    

Yana Kane’s poem, “Family Tree” takes that ready-made metaphor, and then talks about tree stuff as a means of elucidating family. It has great repetitions of “too many times” that provide the ostinato of the poem, and you do get the feeling that the speaker’s family’s been through a lot, but for me, the suggestion of a family wasn’t strong enough to break through the news of what happened to the tree.

Don Zirilli’s poem “Welcome to My Giant Castle of Myself” was, according to Don, inspired by wondering how you could invite someone into your life, but maybe never succeed. So the poem uses what he called “untethered metaphor” to animate the house. I liked best the parts where the human idiosyncrasy was built right into the structure: “I’m trying to get better lighting/ but the ceilings are worried about you./ Not all the angles understand/ how to accommodate your perspective./ Be careful of the well/ in the drawing room.”

Our fearless leader, Frank, brought “How Can a Loser Ever Win” in which he fell into the wake of Kyle Brosnihan’s big poem “Empire” which Kyle read last week as the feature at the RWB reading last Wednesday. What Frank had admired about Kyle’s poem was the way it took a simple core and built out from it lyrically, finding places where iteration was the driver and elaboration was the lyric experiment.  He hit pay dirt many times in this piece, but none better than the tercet in the second stanza: “I want to change my job into a ministry./ I want to change my computer skills into hospice skills./ I want to change my blue jeans into a sari and wear a kimono and toga.”  You could feel the tug of the desire to do good, and then the sourpuss of middle age reassert itself in the monostich stanza that followed: “I want to change a few enemies into whale shit.” 

All in all, another day at the workshop with my friends.  Try recording these poems and playing them back.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 02-02-21

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

Claudia Serea has written many beautiful poems about Romania, her family in Romania, magic in Romania, coming to the US from Romania, and thinking about Romania when she’s in the US, but for some reason tonight’s poem “Self-portrait on Independence Boulevard” had a whole new kind of freshness and immediacy. It’s not just the understated irony of living in a communist dictatorship on a street called Independence Boulevard, or growing up, as she says, in the “oblique gaze” of “dirty potatoes sprouted eyes” in a vegetable store in a country where she can see “the bread line snaking down the sidewalk/ under the young linden trees/ that cast almost no shadows.” It may have a lot to do with the way the poem switches from the past tense to the present tense when it gets to “Here I am, quiet, scrawny,/ knee-scarred and pony tailed…”  and the image of her “gliding in the vast emptiness of Independence Boulevard/ in my industrial city full of dust,/ feet strapped with brown leather and buckles/ on metal, four-wheel rollerskates.” That image of youthful vibrancy on a desolate boulevard is sharp, but the device of switching into the present tense, even though the whole poem takes place in the past, gives the poem an extra jolt. I love that.

Moira O’Brien’s poem “Ghost Herd” about the sight of deer through a winter window, showed up in two drafts, a discredited 8-line draft and a pared down tercet that rang true. Seeing the editorial changes was exciting for the group, and someone suggested presenting the poem as an erasure, leaving only the surviving bits.

Raymond Turco was back with another poem in his book of Italian heroes, “Giacomo Matteotti”, an antifascist and socialist politician of the early 20th Century. Ray’s format in this book, of providing a short prose biography of his subjects after the more lyrical poem, has been the subject of a several discussions since he began the project. No one knows exactly what to make of it.  The bios are not just footnotes; sometimes they have the same information that is in the poem, and sometimes they have interesting details that are left out of the poems. We continue to wonder what the relationship is between poem and notes. The poems are not so obscure or lyrically separated from historical fact that they need a lot of explanation,  but the poems are presented in the second person, while the bio is presented in the third person. We considered the possibility that the repetition may provide a stereoscopic view, or confronted the reader with choices to make about reality or poetry.    

Tom Benediktsson brought “Glo-Fish at the Aquarium.” The title contains the premise or the locale, and the poem starts out fancifully considering the benefits of having phosphorescence, such as being “my own nightlight.” But fancy turns ecclesiastical and curt, if not downright impatient, when the poem becomes about a glowing statuette of Jesus Christ. 

My own poem, “Heist Ballad” was part one of a narrative lyric that may never be completed, written in a series of haiku.  

Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books.” In the opening stanzas, mostly couplets, the poem entertains a fanciful notion of reading across the titles of books from their spines for the ironies their successive titles provide. But then the poem hits on an amusement of a more intimate and intriguing nature, a chance encounter with a “nice lady/ At a call-center” whose offhand remark, a “that’s life” generality, inspires the speaker to cull his herd of books. “She got me thinking – straightened me out.” the poem continues. That oddball dramatic moment is my favorite in the poem. There we suddenly are, deep in the gussets of the speaker’s mind, allow to see what moves him and to see him being moved. And what follows is another surprise, an inscription in one of his books that reminds him of an old lover. That’s the true gen.

John J. Trause’s poem, part one, called “Marilyn Mosaic,” of a triptych called “My Marilyn: A Triptych” delights in working the titles of Marilyn Monroe’s movies into a portrait of the movie star.

Barbara D. Hall brought a poem called “MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE.” Its method is to present a too sweet, too warm, too compassionate, too wonderful, highly detailed but fairly cliched accounting of a happy childhood memory of a fabulous grandmother only to reveal in the last two lines end that it never happened. That’s a courageous and daring strategy. 

Yana Kane was back with another draft of her ode/elegy to a Tai Chi teacher called “Tai Chi Teacher.” She has reached the point of polishing this piece.

Frank Rubino’s poem, “Kong seems to be able to see my death” captures the speaker watching an old monster movie while overhearing his wife talking on the speakerphone about a person who’d died. Slowly as the poem moves forward, the fragments of his wife’s phone call come to dominate his thoughts, so we hear the contrast between “Godzilla’s breath” being pushed down his throat and “when you’re that young you don’t realize people can just die.”    

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “The Faux Ficus,” like Rob Goldstein’s “Throwing Out Books” was about paring down possessions, in Janet’s case, the eponymous plastic ficus, a forlorn companion dragged to the trash room still bearing the “shred marks on the droopy polyesterish fronds” of the speaker’s “former cat.” 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-26-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26, 2021

We got the news yesterday that Mark Fogarty, the Editor in Chief and the Publisher of the Red Wheelbarrow Journal and the MC of the Gainville Café sessionss, and a stalwart member of the RWB workshop since its beginning, is retiring from his posts after work for the last 13 years at least on the journal, many excellent Friday nights of love and music, including his bass playing and singing.  Losing both Mark and Jim Klein to retirement in one year is a big loss for the group, so I just wanted to shout out our gratitude to both of them for their work, their spirits and their love of poetry.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “A Last Act” is a fifteen line narrative piece of free verse in two stanzas, each of which presents the facts of a different part of the day of a burial.  The poem begins when most of the mourners have left the gravesite and “the men moved in” – the men who do shovel the dirt.  The speaker’s family, including girls who “played hide-and-seek among the monuments” remain behind.  At the center of the poem a strong declarative places the day in the context of a survivor’s life: “It’s the last, firming act of adulthood when your parents die,/ though I don’t confuse it with maturity.”  The poem never tells us whose parent died, which gives the voice a certain internality and adds to the sense of stillness that the poem generates from beginning to end. 

The second stanza, of four lines, brings us back to the graveyard later in the day, “after dinner and recollections,” as the speaker drives by, looking through the green gate, looking for the grave, taking note of the flowers that the men had set on the mound “nicely,/ a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.  Tom B said that the speaker of the poem was hiding their feelings. The way the speaker doesn’t tell us the relationship between the decedent and themselves but declares the place a parent’s death takes is one example.  And look at those last two lines again: the speaker, driving past the cemetery sees the grave through the gate and declares, in a very third person way that the flowers are  “a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.”  Well, there IS a person passing and seeing right at that moment, and it’s not “anyone”— it’s the speaker.  So whether they are hiding their feelings  as Tom says, or presenting them through the filter of distancing effects (and through the green gate), it gives the poem its enduring sense of stillness.  (Frank didn’t like the title.  Neither did I, and there were a bunch of other editorial comments on syntax and word choice.)  I for one would love to see this near-sonnet again.

Speaking of maintaining a distance from emotion, Raymond Turco’s poem “Nilde Iotti” brings his book of Italian heroes more deeply into the twentieth century that some of his others.  The subject was a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, who (spoiler alert) had an affair and child with a married man.  As always, in this collection, Ray works in free verse, does not eschew archaicisms, and addresses his subjects as “you” while maintaining a third-person-ish distance that frequently, as here, creates a jarring contrast of familiarity and anonymity.  Like Michelangelo’s slaves, they only emerge halfway from their stones. 

Speaking of poems written in the second person that maintain an emotional distance from their subject, Susanna Rich’s poem “e-ro-teme/ n. 1. A mark indicating a question” is a lyrical love poem in free verse stanzas of three lines each that magnifies the adoration of a loved one’s hair curling around their ear.  The magnification is achieved through lingering on the possibilities of the moment, and the distancing is achieved through a kind of intelligent coyness, allowing the fascination of the peculiar word – eroteme — that describes a question mark, to dominate, even going as far as presenting the word, separated (in the title) into its syllables in a way that sneakily calls out the “eros” lurking in “eroteme.”  Tom thought the poem digressed. Jen must’ve agreed because she said to take out the comparison to “yin and yang,” and Claudia Serea asked in the politest way possibly, why the heck the poem needed three-line stanzas.

Shane Wagner, fresh from three consecutive rewrites of his last photo-based poem “Retouching” (about the broken bond between father and son) brought “Polaroids” a love poem (also in the second person) in which the love is shared between those old-fashioned Polaroids with a white border, and the subject of the poem, the “you” who is nude in the third stanza and pregnant in the fourth (talk about fast developing!).  The poem evoked a lot of nostalgia for the old technology (and Don said there’s an app that can make any photo look like it was taken by a 1970s Polaroid, and a lot of editorial comments. 

What would our work as a workshop be if it wasn’t about trying to fix a poem?  When we edit, we erase what we don’t like or don’t understand to make the poem conform to our norms; we substitute ourselves for the poet; we say, if I were writing this poem, this is how I would do it.  Well, hooray for that, and no doubt that can be helpful.  I’ve been an advocate in workshop for reading the poem twice and even three times before we say anything about it, because it keeps the poem in front of us in the poet’s words, allows us a chance to enter the poet’s intentions as hidden in a condensation of syntax, diction, line breaks, assonance, metaphor and a dozen other strategies.  Gives us a chance to say what IS happening in the poem instead of what SHOULD happen in the poem.  And that can be helpful to everyone, not just the poet.

Mike Mandzik, the inside of whose mind is a pinball machine, brought a poem called “RED FLAG” about an unfortunate misunderstanding in love, in which, as usual, the guy doesn’t know what went wrong, only that he’s not getting any pussy for a while.  Mike, want to come over to my place for the Super Bowl?

Carole Stone brought “Somewhere Else” a good poem (with a shitty title) where her plainspoken mid-century voice tallies the facts and artifacts of age: hurting legs, a bit of kindness from the guy in the liquor store, a beloved book on her desk, and hair getting long during the pandemic.  And remarkably, the poem is overtly about the very sort of emotional distancing that we talked about in Brendan’s, Raymond’s and Susanna Rich’s poem, except this poem records that difficulty as the turn that ends the poem:  “I think I’m closer to putting my emotions/ on the page.  I’ve almost stopped longing/ to be somewhere else.”

Yana Kane’s poem “Tai Chi Teacher” is a re-write of her triptych about a tai chi master whose lessons survive him.  It’s in four sections now (Quad-tych?) of varying length and uneven stanza lengths, still in free verse, and even more clearly now an elegy to this mentor.  It starts with the highly formal address: Our Tai Chi teacher,/ Master Yu,/ was in the eighty-first year of his life,” and as the poem proceeds, it adopts several forms of address all typical of the elegy form: narrative of an incident in which the aged teacher showed openness to learning, strong declarations of inviolable truths (“Life does not make bargains…”) and expressions of personal grief (“Now I gaze at the blank pages…But the pages remain empty”); grief in ritual (“Looking at a snowy hill… I see the shaven head of the nun/ Who recited the sutras”) and the consolation of memory (“Ten years have passed . . .). One of the traditional moves of the elegy form that this poem does not engage with is the effort to place the life and loss of the beloved in the wider context of the world. (see “Lycidas” by John Milton).    

My poem was a haiku:  “The cardinal ate/ the suet cake into the/shape of a cardinal.” In the hands of most haiku practitioners I’ve encountered on the dusty road to hell, the form has, until recently, been a mystery of shallow ironies to me.  But then a few weeks back, I conceived of the form as a three-line poem with two turns, and then I saw the potential for doing some real damage in it.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.

Don Z’s poem, “The New Ideas in Chess,”  Susanna said, recognizes chess’s role as a metaphor for life. 

Frank said it was about endless conflict.  Brendan more or less agreed. 

Moira’s poem, “Twitch, No Twitch” is about that whole suburban obsession with the animals that dare to live near us, and the fight for survival and the confrontations that come from it.  It’s free verse, seven uneven stanzas long, narrative, prosy, and concerns two different denizens of that suburban cosmos: squirrels and hawks.  The squirrel bit lets us see one in the jaws of a fox, confirming that the game is for keeps, but also wonders what the heck these rodents want, including the possibility of flirtation.  The hawk portion tells of today’s confrontation, which is almost surreal, between the speaker and the bird, who stare at one another, one with god’s standard ocular equipment and the other with binoculars, which leads the speaker to conceive of them as dueling snipers. 

Janet K’s poem “Starz Who’ve “Sadly” Died” is a rewrite of her poem “Gone This Year TCM Remembers” and like that draft, it wades into the questions of reality and fantasy that celebrity and movies always prompt, and those questions tie back to our own of mortality and memory.  It’s free verse, prosy, meditative, and as in the first draft, it takes place in the automobile, American home of such meditations (remember, Brendan McEntee’s speaker driving past the cemetery?).  What Janet handles so well is the way crossing currents of belief and cynicism cross, never better than in the lines:

The car radio sings step into eternity,

and I’m cushioned in a moving shell,

an intimate place to dwell on the passing of stars and time,

as the Subaru’s odometer marks mine.

I’d thing, get lost, nostalgia,/

even as I summon it.

Note the assonance/rhyme of shell/dwell, and time/mine.  What are they doing?  Is it the lyrical work of elaboration, stopping time? 

See you all next week, and don’t forget on Feb 3, 2021, Wednesday night at 7, to leave some time for the RWB monthly reading and open mic, with this month’s feature, Kyle Brosnihan!  (Zoom link forthcoming from Frank).

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-19-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 19, 2021

I may’ve mentioned I borrowed a book of interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009) called “WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW), edited by Anselm Berrigan. It’s been an amazing way to enter the near distant history of the NY poetry scene through peer on peer conversation.  I’ve only gotten 30 pages in and I’ve already been turned on to Bridgette Mayer, whose 1989 book Sonnets is a great warmup for the Sonnets workshop I’m beginning in March with Joshua Mehigan. No library in BCCLS had it, so I went to buy it on Amazon, and they only had the 25thAnniversary edition (amazing in and of itself to have a 25thanniversary edition), which has a killer sonnet in it about leaving your lover in the morning for the day (or at least that’s what I think its about) called “Holding the Thought of Love.” It has this remark and image to offer: “So let’s not talk of love the diffuseness of which/ …is today defused/ As if by the scattering of light rays in a photograph/ Of the softened reflection of a truck in a bakery window.” That is one sophisticated emotion to be able to suspend in midair. The interview of Mayer, from 1992, when the book Sonnets was still very new, has her talking about sonnets like a kid who’s just figured out how an electrical can opener works (and the mom comes home to find all the dog food cans open on the counter).  

Here’s what she said:

I don’t think I like any of the poets of the past who wrote sonnets, do I?  Oh, of course I do.  Paul goodman.  He writes the most amazing sonnets.  That was a thing that inspired me to write them too, and here are Paul Goodman and Catullus always writing about sex.  Sex works really well in the sonnet form.  And of course Shakespeare, we don’t have to mention him, but another sex poet.

Shakes as a sex poet.  I want to be a sex poet!  So, I’d recommend Mayer, whose more recent book  “Works and Days” (New Directions 2016), had me running to Wikipedia a little more than I usually like, but it’s not her fault that her relationship with Aristotle (read “Soule Sermon” at page 7) is as warm as mine is with the George Reeves tv Superman of the 60s.

In a different interview, I met Harryette Mullen, another poet I’d never heard of and am glad I did, one who works in lists, and enjoys artificial constraints, and Oulipo methods ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oulipo).  Check this one out: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51631/any-lit  

So, on to the workshop.

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Commuting in an Ice Storm.”  He said that rather than describe driving in an ice storm, this was a poem for people who already knew what it was like with “all the trees clacking against themselves.”  I noticed that the lineation at the beginning of the poem on the page seemed to mimic Williams’ “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” with sets of three lines of increasing indents.  I can’t quite figure out why it’s such an engaging form, but it runs really well, gives a feeling of dimensional form and air.  There was a sufficiency of discussion about the poem’s fabulous final image of the trees “who click their many ballpoints at me,/ the hapless tap dance/ of a drum roll on square wheels.”  I think that was one of the things Frank was thinking about when he said the poem was “full of pleasures.” 

When will you make an end, Michelangelo? asked the Pope.  And you, Raymond Turco? with your oems of heroes of Italian independence, when will we see it all together, or do you not know?  This one was about a WWI flying ace not named The Bloody Red Baron: “Francesco Baracca.”

Our sometime visitor, Elinor Mattern brought “Furnishing an American Home,” a political poem in which the speaker’s couch becomes a metaphor for America.   Poems like that need to crackle with originality to avoid broccoli status.  This one has at least one such moment, when the speaker admits that as a child the song lyric “Bombs bursting in air” made her “picture[] bodies bursting in air.” More please!

Susanna Lee’s “Love Talk” was a sensuous dream:  “I’m studying French/ so I can write you a poem/ in the language of love.// I will say the words clearly./ You will feel a gentle caressing/ of your ears by my tongue.// Your ears will be left moist/ and hot/ and open.”  What I loved about it was that it didn’t need French even one little bit to be in the language of love.  The line breaks at “and hot” and “and open” were delicious.

Back to the political stuff, our pal, Susanna Rich brought us a rondo.  https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-rondeau-poem#:~:text=A%20rondeau%20is%20a%20French,between%20eight%20and%2010%20syllables  called “Messiah – A Redoubled Roundabout”  For me, the ess and ex rhymes and the flipping back and forth between the Biblical archetypes and modern day copies (pssst, Trump aint president no more) was distracting, but group didn’t have that problem at all; Yana Kane liked the music, she called it “hissing”, Rob Goldstein (and maybe everyone) liked the line “Weep Abraham, for my impasses/ I am more Jesus than Jesus.”  Cadence, am I right?

Speaking of Yana, here she came with another poem in parts, three.  Called “Metamophosis” it’s a triptych type of invention, with two smaller panels framing a central panel.  The idea of metamorphosis is presented as a change in the light in part 1 (called “Light!”); and in part 3 (“Wings”), metamorphosis is shown as an entomological metaphor (the speaker saw herself emerging from a chrysalis). In the central panel we get a narrative about a Tai Chi master whose zest for learning carried him into class one morning excited to learn a new way to do an old move.  There was a lot of discussion of the title and less about the challenges buddhist/zen master poems in general present.  You want to love them, but pizza is so much more fun.

Carole Stone brought a year-into-the-pandemic poem called “Letter from Verona, New Jersey” that had everything that’s best about Carole Stone poems, a strong sense of place and time, a plain spoken voice, and comfort with all the sentimental touchpoints of the speaker’s life. Starting with “I wish I were writing from Prague or Budapest…” it introduced sadness as an undertone that would carry throughout its ruminations on Mexico, watching Netflix, the death of the poet Eavan Boland, photos of her recently deceased brother, and a long lost friend to whom she’d reached out.  It ends with a pure expression of love: “Have I said how much I love Indian Wells Beach?”  I don’t know nothing about Indian Wells Beach, and didn’t need to look it up to know exactly what she meant.  The only thing annoying about this poem was how much people wanted to change it.  Workshop-itis, is what Jim Klein never called it. 

Shane Wagner was back again with “Retouching,” his tiger-by-the-tail poem about the trust rift between the speaker and the speaker’s father.  This re-write was more of a polishing job than an excavation, and so it must’ve been aggravating for Shane to hear that the stuff people liked last week they no longer liked this week, and vice versa.  One thing for sure.  This is Shane’s poem, Shane’s voice, Shane’s subject, and it keeps getting more Shane-y week by week. 

Barbara Hall’s “Shades of the past” was one of those poems that when you ask the poet about it, they tell you all sorts of interesting shit that should have been in the poem.

My poem (“It was John who took me for dumpling”was like a guy with six fingers on one hand, a sonnet with fifteen lines, one of which had been banished to the title.  Stop being ashamed of your fifteen lines, the group told me.  Or chop off the last line, then bring the title down into the body of the poem.  That sort of amputated polydactyly won’t make me Lucille Clifton, people. Fortunately, the poem was about food and geography which grabbed attention and had a surprising if insubstantial piece of dialogue at the end.

Jen Poteet joined the political poem writing wing of the workshop with a poem called “Straightening Up” about the incident at the US Capitol on January 6.  She rather beautifully captured the simple act of Andy Kim, the young congressman from NJ ‘straightening up’ after the “guests” had left, which she, Jen, had seen on the news, which made the poem into an ekphrasis, and that was the best of it.  Look, I just spent the day crying a little too much during the inauguration but even more hearing people talk about the inauguration on the radio; it’s as though I can’t just feel something when it happens; I need to hear about it from someone else, which reminds me, I didn’t cry when my dad died, but I broke down sobbing when I had to call up his also 91 year old best friend in Florida and tell him. 

Speaking of dads, Rob Goldstein’s poem, “The Key” was a poem told by a son about a dad having to go live in a home.  I thought, everyone pretty much thought, it was a brave poem, with lines like this: “Like life on the outside,/ it was a mixed bag.” 

Frank Rubino brought a sonnet-length poem about being with “her” at a medical procedure where a micro camera was inserted in her nostril.  Don Z called it a masterpiece, and if it was, it was on the strength of the turn (in line 9) where the observation of the procedure changed from neutral ‘what happened’ stuff to the speaker’s close observation of the doctor’s face and ‘her’ face: “& her eyes . . ./ faltered as he moved the micro camera through her nostril –/ & her eyes settled quietly at different times from his,/ & fluttered & became perturbed at different times.”  It was there that the speaker’s emotional stake in the goings on was heightened (looking to other people for clues).  There was a bit of a debate whether the title “Bracelets on Her Wrists and Flowers in Her Hair,” was serving the poem.

So, to recap: three political poems, two sonnets and a rondo, plus a grab-bag of free verse.  I’d say a good night. 

Don’t forget our upcoming Zoom poetry events!

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-12-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 12, 2021

I arrived at the workshop very late on Tuesday.  I was at the introductory or welcoming Zoom for a year-long Mentorship Program sponsored by Brooklyn Poets.  I’ll tell you more about it as we go along, share what I learn, but the basics are: there are twelve of us mentees (dementees?), various ages, backgrounds, located mostly in the northeast, but west coast too and one zooming in from Singapore.  The idea of the program is an alternative to an academic MFA, with coursework and regular conferences and “craft talks” from the Mentor, Jay Deshpande, elective courses with other teachers in the BKP staff (stable), with an emphasis that is sometimes missing from academic programs, on developing a cohort of colleagues (which sounds to me a bit like the RWB workshop, but hey).  Mostly it’s a chance to work.

I arrived at the workshop in time to hear the end of the discussion of Claudia‘s “About the past,”  which the poem both is and isn’t at the same time. On one level it’s a complaint about how the speaker’s family doesn’t talk about the past, how the true past of famine and death is silenced, but on another level it is very specifically about that family, including a grandfather who “count[s] the beans” in the mother’s bowl, and a grandmother who “counts the spoonfuls of cornmeal” hidden “on top of the cupboard for my father.” And in a lovely turn, the speaker finds herself talking about the past in the same masked manner:  I open my mouth and the past rushes forth/ with all its cornmeal and beans/ that I foolishly keep counting/ like the dead.”

Tom Benediktsson brought another family poem, “666”, which figures forth the Beast of the Apocalypse as a tired mayhem worker pooping out on the poet’s porch to complain about pop music and the good old days, when evil really counted for something in the world. Like most of Tom’s work recently, the avatars of evil are ridiculous, and satisfy his growling anger with Donald John Trump (that’s the way they address him when he’s being impeached). What’s sly about this poem is the way the poem ends with the Beast disappearing and the family of the homeowner/poet going shopping, at CVS! Where they find “fifty kinds of deodorant, each one with a different scent.” Could the Beast of the Apocalypse be within us?

John J. Trause brought a prose poem called “An Attempt at Describing an Embarrassing Occurrence in San Antonio,” that begins with the all caps word “PURPLE” as though it were the warning on a label for an over-the-counter drug, warning the reader of purple prose to come, and boy-oh-boy is it ever!  An over-the-top description of a family outing on a “bright and bonny Sunday in San Antonio” serves as a shaggy dog to the revelation of an XYZ moment.  

Yana Kane brought a rewrite of her poem about the hope for a bright spring, this time called “Breaking Trail.” If you remember the earlier version, the poem noodled into this observation that the poem only exists in words and the words become the experience. Here, that thematic observation moves into a deeper place, as a stand-in for the speaker’s own experience of winter struggles and the longing for springtime:

Struggling through the exile of winter,
longing for spring,
words break trail,
meander across blankness,
lose their way,
read the constellations,
press on.

It’s a fascinating transference, and an audacious move. Can the reader (perhaps another poet?) sympathize with the struggles and longings of words? And what do we make of the second “half” of this poem, which abandons the “words” as subject and looks outward at the objective manifestations of the seasons: “snow, wind, sunshine, ice” and the “wild geese glid[ing] to the melting pond”?

 Moira O’Brien‘s “Round Table” is a memoir in tone, about the speaker’s salad days (“a dewy nineteen-year-old”) as a waitress at the Candlewyck Diner.  Mark Fogarty has set at least one and maybe several of his poems at this venerable sling-hashery, including (I think) one that imagined an alien invasion.  (I feel a collection coming on).  Moira’s poem captures the “breakfast and bullshit” valedictory the overnight staff would indulge in before peeling off for home.  The poem exhibits its bonafides in the evocation of the clientele, including this description of the late/early arrivals:  “The rush closed with bar managers/ and the occasional exotic dancer/ not eating her scampi.”  

Frank Rubino‘s poem, “The Path,” is not about Communist ideology. It’s one of his suburban moments stretching towards truth; the front path to the speaker’s house has been relaid, and the speaker’s daughter has told the speaker that the speaker’s son has walked on it before it “cured.” So the speaker worries about his son’s behaviors, and this leads him to worry about his own life as a provider, and we see him looking out the front window of his house until that thought runs dry and he turns back into the room to see the toes of his wife, including their toenail polish, poking out of the covers. It’s all there. When I read Frank’s poems these days, I get the feeling that his poetry is like one of those old time “real” cameras with an numerous adjustments, for f-stop, focus, lighting, exposure time, and the rest, and that he’s experimenting with all the settings. I can’t wait to see his next exposure (there’s a revision of Frank’s poem in word attached).

Don Z brought “Five Haiku on the Winter Evening After Steve Died.” The poem uses the haiku form (5-7-5) in a new way that draws on the incantational strengths of other forms like villanelle and sestina; the repeated elements, “part of our brain” “whatever parts” “whole” “constructs” illuminate and populate the emptiness of loss.  

Speaking of villanelles, Charlotte Kerwick (who returned last week after an absence) brought “A Villanelle.”   Her repeated lines “I wish I was dead is on repeat in my head” and “keep me in bed all full of dread” lock us into an ambitious evocation of insomnia and sleeplessness.  

Raymond Turco can’t stop himself. His poem “Antonia Masanello” is probably the 30th or so in his poetic sequence of Italian heroes, this one about a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the liberators in the Battle of Milazzo.  

And then there was “The Neighbor’s German Shepherds Rush Me,” with the author’s name omitted, and me having missed the workshop, I’m thinking, Brendan? Is that you?  But how to explain the “stuffed ponies, Cinderella records [and watching] Lassie?”  The poem may be a cross between Tom Benediktsson’s horror stories and Frank Rubino’s suburban soul searchers. A pack of 5 neighbor dogs annoy the hell out of the speaker, who is nonetheless observant enough to see that one of them, Dog One, has a calm, observant demeanor.  That’s the wonderful moment of the poem.  There’s also a fuzzier evocation of the speaker’s relation to his father, who appears to have suffered from multiple personality disorder.
 
Anyway, sorry I missed some of the discussion, and hope to see you all again with fresh work or revisions on Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-05-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5, 2021

What ambition the poets displayed on Tuesday!

Janet K didn’t authorize us to put her poem “Gone This Year (TCM Remembers)” into the notes as an attachment.  As the title suggests, it’s a reaction to the cable channel feature on movie stars who’ve died, and what’s great about it is how she keeps a playful, lyrical tone going while burrowing deep into the dichotomy of timelessness and loss that the movies, especially the old movies, invite.  And to give it even more American zest, this philosophical moment happens while driving a car:

The car radio sings step into eternity

and the sign says DIP

so I follow the rules of the road

and dip into my fugitive thoughts

recollecting stars of the screen

and the artisans who made them glow. 

and from that beginning comes this ending:

By my bidding, the celebrated dead

come into my bed at night

to devour more and more of my youth …

Maybe next week she’ll bring it back and we’ll get to put it out with the notes. 

A couple of weeks ago, JJT brought a triolet in which he confessed that he’d written only one sestina, but all the words in it were blah.  That inspired me to write a haiku:

blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah

and right, then, weirdly, I began to understand the haiku form untainted by abuses: it’s a three line poem with two turns, and thought of that way, it could be the most thrilling form to try.  My first variation was an homage to what I probably misunderstand as a traditional subject of haiku:

blah blah blah blah fall

blah blah blah blah blah evening

blah blah turned away

I’ll keep you posted (I’ve got six more in the works).  Thank you, JJT.

John Trause’s new poem this week was called “Madame Nhu at the Barbecue,” an extremely droll, heavily rhyming satire/critique/indictment in which Madame Nhu is the sister-in-law (?) of South Vietnamese President Diem (in the 1960s), and “the Barbeque” refers to one or more Vietnamese Buddhist’s who self-immolated to protest Diem’s regime.  The pattering verses depicting horror with saccharine humor have a Brechtian verfremdungseffeffekt (or “distancing” or “alienation” effect) https://www.britannica.com/art/alienation-effect.  

Speaking of droll, Tom Benediktsson’s poem, “You Don’t Want to Know,” is a graphic comic horror show about making sausages from deposed political leaders: “it took hours, a pound/ of ground meat for every quarter pound/ of gristle that clogged the blades until/ we plucked it out and threw it into the snow/ where we heard raccoons fighting over it/ like demons from hell, then we ran out of bourbon…” 

Both JJT’s and Tom B’s poems seem natural poetic responses to the tortured political times.

Jen Poteet is still at work on her collection of “Me and Dead Poets”  (my name not hers) and this week she let the poet, Paul Celan, do the talking in “Paul Celan’s Muttersprache.”  The poem achieves a wonderfully lugubrious tone, and a trudge-like gait, living as it does, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which, if you think of it as the poem does, we are still in.  I love the heavy cadence of “Day is night.  I recite the Sabbath prayers.”  In my uneducated Jewish mind, this vespers of an ending recalls a line from the Passover Haggadah, which is more aubade than vesper.  In that passage of the Haggadah, the scholars have been up all night in the park debating me meaning of the bible, when a young student comes at daybreak and says, “Masters, it is time for the morning Sh’ma.”

And speaking of ambition, Rob Goldstein’s “Internal Exile” dares, in its first line, to announce a parlor game of “what if” between two friends:  “Where could we go if our luck ran out?/ It’s a game my friend and I play…”  And then they play, taking their imagination on an internet ride to the great northeast of Russia, exchanging posted photos: “Check out this Belogorsk housing block –/ a mere six time zones from Moscow. / It’s painted periwinkle blue –/are they kidding?”  Rob’s voice has that kind of playfulness, but there’s a clipped cosmopolitan fussy mocking intelligence, too, for example, when he refers to the people in the photos they see by generic Russian names “Olga” and “Ilya.”  And also when he confesses that the two friends “seek an abstraction:/ The lonely tops of larch and fir,/ Purity in frozen versts.”  At the end, the game concludes when these two Americans on what seems to be pandemic quarantine, emerge from their fantasy adventure to be revealed as dads:  “But let’s be real…/One of us will back out./ My daughter’s till unmarried; / He’s got kids at home.”  So what you notice in Rob’s poems is this complex voice, a style yearning in several directions at once with a high bar for intimacy.  Tom wondered why the poem didn’t go further than to play its game.  Frank said it “stays in its chair” but Brendan saw the ambition in lines like “but we seek abstraction.” Maybe they’re all right.  I see the game as a worthwhile enterprise if the poem can give us something more of the strange way that men are intimate with one another.  

Frank Rubino is back at his suburban dig, looking for evidence of civilization or soul in his poem “Roger Sent a Video.”  It veers, with Frank’s patented faith in the dowser’s rod of his mind, from the truly domestic, i.e., hearing his grown kids (and cat) move around the house, and wrapping Xmas presents on Xmas eve, out to the backyard where the wind is howling, then into a rumination about the birds in his sycamore and the worms in his garden, and from there to Darwin, Time, and the titular video from Roger about “two children liv[ing] on top of a cliff somewhere in China.”  Underlying these travels is a motif/hope that “people move towards the good.”  The final movement/stanzas of the poem work like the last stanza of a sestina, a slide show reprise of each of those narrative elements, showing the life in cameo, bringing these disparate elements into one place.

Susanna Rich’s “Scriptoderm – for Coming Down from You” is a breakup poem in which the pain of being dumped morphs into brand-name consumer-goods metaphors: a medical patch, an automated vacuum cleaner, and chewing gum, with a side reference to “rolling paper,// laying in line after line of crushed me,/ striking the match, puff-puffing out cartoon/ bubbles with the right come-backs.”  The energy of the poem is great; even the title is an invented product name. 

Yana Kane brought a short poem called “Turning” about reaching the winter solstice and turning back to hope.  The most interesting thing for the group to discuss was how the exile of winter and the longing for spring are presented as events that occur in the poem: ”All of this happens here,/ Within the words on this page.”  I love that.  All poets love that.  Shakespeare in Sonnet 65 loved that.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50646/sonnet-65-since-brass-nor-stone-nor-earth-nor-boundless-sea.  (that in black ink my love may still shine bright).

Raymond Turco got a little grief from the group with his poem “Lorenzo Milani.” It’s just that we’ve followed this collection Ray’s doing on heroes of Italy for months now, and we’re starting to think that we know better than he does (a mistake), or maybe we’re just cheering him to keep his energy and inventiveness up. 

Barbara Hall’s poem “A worthy dot” about insignificance, had simple language, strong metaphors and a wonderfully accessible quatrain form.  It’s catchiness and fearless confrontation with ultimate metaphysical questions made it straight to the workshop’s approval.  Lan Chi compared it to the beatitudes.  Tom pointed out that it lost some energy in the last lines, in response to which Susanna quoted Frost to the effect that anyone can start a poem….  And JJT said there was a bit of cliché dragging it down.

Shane Wagner’s third re-write of the poem now called “Retouching” shows more and more clearly the anguish of the father/son relationship where trust has broken down.  The poem considers two photographs and tries to alchemize a picture of the father that the speaker can make sense of the past in the light of the present.  The poem starts in a verse form and then devolves into paragraphs, a technique that unapologetically takes us into the mind/heart’s work, and mirrors the difficulty of the situation described.  Susanna suggested that the poem might benefit from returning at the end to the photographs that were the device for raising the questions of hurt and forgiveness.  I was less sure about that.  I think the last stanza/paragraph (less the last puzzling sentence) taken by itself, without the artifice of the photos and the alchemy is a lambent cry. 

I don’t know if I’ve said this recently in these notes, but I say it to myself whenever I get home and go through the work afterwards.  These poets are good. 

Lastly, mid week I circulated a short exegesis on the narrative and poetic techniques that Patti Smith uses to great effect in her book Just Kids.  One of the readers of our Field Notes, Isaac Myers III, picked it up to publish as a short daily feature in his online version of his journal Curlew Quarterly, called “Curlew Daily” (thank you Isaac); and Don Z suggested repeating it here so that it’ll be archived on the RWB site with the rest of the Field Notes.  So here goes:

I may not have mentioned that I’m reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which is a chronicle of her life in NYC 1965 till not sure when because I haven’t finished.   I think she’s a gifted narrator, and that her poetic sensibilities emerge constantly.  Here’s a passage about her time with Jim Carroll, author of Basketball Diaries:

 Jim and I spent a lot of time in Chinatown.  Every outing with him was a floating adventure, riding the high summer clouds.  I liked to watch him interact with strangers.  We would go to Hong Fat because it was cheap and the dumplings were good, and he would talk to the old guys.  You ate what they brought to the table or you pointed to someone’s meal because the menu was in Chinese.  They cleaned the tables by pouring hot tea on them and wiping it up with a rag.  The whole place had the fragrance of oolong.  Sometimes Jim just picked up an abstract thread of conversation with one of these venerable-looking men, who would then lead us through the labyrinth of their lives, through the Opium Wars and the opium dens of San Francisco.  And then we would tramp from Mott to Mulberry to Twenty-third Street, back in our time, as if nothing had ever happened. 

Of course, the ending is such a wonderful surprise.  The tramp through the physical grid of the city becomes a journey through time, which is wonderful enough, but the last phrase, “as if nothing had ever happened” illuminates the experience, casts a kind of backward, confirmatory wonderfulness on the interesting, but seemingly ordinary, details she’s just shared.  And note how she builds to that poetic turn starting with the tea to clean the tables, the smell of oolong, and then the assonance of ells in “lead us through the labyrinth of their lives” followed by the double “opium” of “Opium Wars and the opium dens.”   And, too, in the geography bit, the evocative ems of “Mott” and “Mulberry” (latinate and soft) yield to the colder, numerical (anglo-saxon, harsh) “Twenty-third Street,” which mirrors the march from magical past to bland present.  And yet none of these devices is obtrusive, none calls attention to the wit or cleverness of the poet.  There is humility in  her craft.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-29-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of
December 29, 2020

I was reading Anselm Berrigan’s introduction to the book WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW) – INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983-2009) this morning when I encountered this passage that seemed so important to what we do at our workshop and WCW readings:

“The Poetry Project in the 1960s and ‘70s wasn’t just a place to go give a reading and cross off some list of desired venues.  The point was to be exposed, to expose your rawest risk-taking work to a discerning audience, one that would let you know right there whether it’s working or not, and to participate in that as communal process.”

Always, there is that sense that we are getting the news from one another, that we are reading/hearing what is freshest, what is newest and most urgent, what we have an inkling about, what exposes us to “a discerning audience.”  Even the stuff we get into books or magazines isn’t as fresh as the stuff that shows up every Tuesday.  The poems we are so anxious to publish that we are so anxious to get into books and get those books published, they’re like canned or frozen vegetables, yesterday’s news, while the workshop and our monthly readings are, in comparison, like a farmer’s market on a Saturday in July:  “Look what I just pulled out of the ground!” “Look what I just pulled down from a tree!”  “Look what I just harvested from my cheese cave!”  

Claudia Serea’s poem “On a street in Long Island City” had just such an inkling; you could feel the image forming and turning in the first stanza:  “When it gets dark, someone turns on the lights,/ someone who lives alone/ as the moon lives alone.”  And then, in the third, “And the lights send a message/ to the visitor at the end of the street: Hi there, here’s the light/ to guide you to the door.”  And you could feel the whole workshop brighten with the surprise of the light talking.

Lan Chi Pham’s poem, “Deathbed” got the whole group going too, a lyric that sought to squeeze the essence of a dying father’s life into the last words for each of his family members. Frank was a little leery when people started playing with Lan Chi’s poem as though it were made of refrigerator magnets, asking, and getting the chance to change it from centered lines to hard left lines, to remove the quotes, to indent the quotes, to re-order the quotes, but Lan Chi was game, and whether or not she agreed with all the suggestions, she got to see her risk taking poem in the hands of a discerning audience, succeeding.  (the attachment shows some of those changes).

Susanna Rich came back for a second week of abuse with a poem in the form of an email message: “To: loneliness@rejects.ord; cc: solitude@whoknew.org; Subject: Thanks; Attachments None.”   What was so lovely about the title of the poem was how it turned the form of an email into content, and gave us a clear idea of the tone she was trying to evoke; even the last 2 lines of the poem “It’s my way of saying…/send” brightened with the joy of making this tired medium new.  

Shane Wagner brought “Retouching” which was a more than a retouching of his poem from last week, “Explicit”  It was a re-visioning of the driving emotion of that gnomic, enigmatic poem about lost trust in his father (who wasn’t named).  Here, the elided heart of that poem was bodied forth in the two photos that the poem/poet is trying to reconcile: “If I could fold the two photographs in the right way, look at them edge on, peel the layers, subject them to immense pressure . . . could I collapse the distance between us?”  It’s a poem about a son wishing for a kind of superheroism.  

Speaking of bravery, Jen Poteet brought her first ever attempt at a sonnet, “Sales Girl” and for all its rough edges, its abandoned rhyme scheme, its raw beginning, it was arresting; a vision of the titular sales girl plying her trade with this little bit of salesgirl wisdom at its center:  “And what she has been trained to know: retreat./ Let the shoppers wander for a while and choose/ on their own the goods they want. She is nearby/ but hangs stock still….”  It’s an original, deeply observed character study in the works.

Raymond Turco brought “Samantha Cristoforetti” a poem about the first Italian female astronaut, which he said is scheduled to be the final poem in his project about Italian heroes, most of whom are warriors, while this one is a hero who sees a world without borders and possibly without the need for war.  Ray said he’d consider circulating the completed MS to the group when it’s done.

Carole Stone brought a rewrite of her poem about being a teacher and being a student of poetry with Stanley Kunitz as her teacher.  Kind of a memoir in form, it recalls her “aqua Plymouth … whose starter buttons took forever,” and the poems she wrote “in imitation of T.S. Eliot, the poetry god…”  As Kunitz is her emblem of a teacher who rewards the speaker with praise, a boy named Nicky Van Herpen becomes her emblem of a student, whose mother praises the speaker, as a teacher.

Frank brought a courageous poem called “Terence” which dives headlong into the challenges of suburban step-parenthood, a poem about an extension cord, a garage, and animal tracks in the snow.  And nature supplies the raw materials for a détente between stepfather and stepdaughter, Vy or VeeVee: “Our yard is bounded by a holly bush and a number of liberal fences/ that afford free passage, and the animals are all very busy/ gaming the system, and VeeVee shared with me/ her pleasure discovering that, per their snow prints,/ they live here with us, doing things in groups, at night,/ like bunnies in families…” 

Myself, I wimped out and brought a piece of short fiction called “Two Cops Come to the Door,” a kind of frolic, or as Susanna called it, a comic monologue.  

Goodbye to 2020.  It was rough on the world, that’s evident, and I think it was rough on a few of us, but looking back over the year in RWB workshops, I am very happy with how things turned out; it was another year of the best darned poets in northern New Jersey slinging hash. 

Thanks to Frank for co-leading the workshop with me since Covid moved us onto Zoom in April.  And thanks to all our regulars and the new members we gained through the ease of Zoom. Next year in Jerusalem. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-22-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 22, 2020

The best dream poems don’t announce themselves as such because that would be like announcing a balloon with a pin.  Like the dreamer, you need to find yourself at the top of a narrow stair before you realize something’s terribly wrong, and that’s what Janet K’s poem, “The Narrow Staircase” did:  “Men in felt hats/ shuffle through the little gate/ that separates the office space,/ and in the time it takes to catch my breath,/ they are whisked up the staircase,/ the dark, narrow staircase.” Is how it starts.  And then comes the inside out part:  “I need to go up the steps;/ I believe I was slated to go up the steps,/ but the faceless woman at the desk/ cannot find my papers,/ and I can’t find the means/ to voice the request.”  And then, at last, in the third stanza, the beginning of the realization: “Something terrible has happened,/ but I cannot fathom what.”  After that, it gets even more complicated, but you’ll have to wait for that because Janet doesn’t like to circulate her poems in the Notes till they’re further along.  She did not say it was a dream of hers, but she did say that it was a death experience.  However, Tom Benediktsson pointed out two excellent qualities of this poem, “no color” and “great verbs.”  And Don thought it had a good bit of Kafka in it, while Rob Goldstein thought it had some Lewis Carroll.  I prefer to think that Kafka and Lewis Carroll have a bit of Janet in them but more on that later.  

Moira O’Brien’s poem, “Celestial Convergence” took its inspiration from the astronomical alignment of Jupiter and Saturn last night (that was obscured by clouds, damnit) which seems only to occur every seven hundred years.  Personifying the planets, she had them talk: “What’s your hurry?” and “It’s been centuries since we’ve been this close.”  A kind of missed love story emerges as one says to the other “Stay the night and/ defeat the darkness/ with me.”  Frank loved the “permissiveness” of the last lines: “In the morning,/ begin your drift.”  Yana and Lan Chi had some minor edits.  I liked the love story better than the astronomical occurrence that inspired it, and suggested taking out the title to liberate the poem from the tyranny of the metaphor, then see where it wants to go.

Shane Wagner’s poem “Explicit” worked through some emotional baggage to get to the point where it could admit that speaker didn’t trust the ‘you’ of the poem, but when it did, the line, “I don’t trust you.” Isolated in its own stanza separated by triple spaces from what came before and after, rang out.  Frank liked the “meta-ness” of the drifting beginning.  Moira thought the poem could take advantage of that drift by ending after “I don’t trust you.” On the theory that what came after was just an elaboration on that.  Yana thought the poem didn’t take its own metaphor – of the speaker as a ‘court jester’ – seriously enough.  Shane said the comments were helpful.

Don brought a poem called “Springtime for Truth” a re-write of last week’s poem.  It’s a dramatic poem, which is to say, a poem written in the voice of someone other than the poet.  And this speaker appears to be someone who either subscribes to the theories of QAnon or seriously considers them.  The poem is filled with aphoristic or epigrammatic statements like “The letter Q is a cross hugging itself.” And “The truth lies on a bed of facts more numerous than spark plugs”  and “Disappointment is surrender.”  Tom thought all of the aphorisms “build meaning.”  Brendan thought the portrait was “Orwellian” although Rob thought it was an “inverted 1984.”

Tom’s poem, “The Outhouse as Literary Critic” is also a dramatic poem.  The speaker is an outhouse, hectoring its customer/visitor, a poet, concerning his shallowness and neuroses, but also encouraging him to write.  Janet and Moira thought it was “Howl-like”

Yana Kane (who never got an appropriate welcome to the workshop: Hi, Yana!)  brought a poem called “Invitation” in two parts, “Day” and “Night.”  The “Day” portion answered the title directly, beginning “Let us walk side by side…”  and going on to describe coming inside for a pot of Earl Grey tea, and two friends inhaling “the scented steam” of the tea.”  The “Night” portion has a different, more mysterious tone that is an invitation to a story with this lovely abbreviation: “Tree.  River.  Road.  Traveler.”

Paul Leibow’s poem was called “Used Tires,” and it was a landscape poem, a meditation on the view from a car of a graveyard with a used tire shop, one of those urban landscapes you can see in Queens where the BQE bisects a graveyard or near Newark, where the GSP does the same thing.  Paul’s bisected graveyard was on Route 1 near Elizabeth.

Rob Goldstein brought a rewrite of his poem about a domineering neurologist and his relationship with the doctors who followed him on his rounds, including the speaker.  At its narrative heart the poem recounts a kind of contest or test that the neurologist subjects the speaker to, having to do with memory.  Rob’s question for the group was whether the good/charming side of the domineering neurologist managed to be evoked.  The vote was one yes and one no with nine abstentions.   

Frank Rubino’s poem was “My Daughter Saves for College” and it worked as a kind of triptych, showing the speaker’s daughter eating a burger while the family waited in Warsaw for her adoption visa, then again in her crib (in the US) biting her own hands, and finally as a young adult working in the garment district in Manhattan, in pissing rain, “emptying her company’s goods out of a bankrupt factory.”  The poem is an ode of sorts to her resilience and inner strength, which ends when the speaker urges all of us to “surrender to her like I have, let her through” 

My poem, “Exile’s Letter” was an imitation of Ezra Pound’s ‘translation’ of Li Bo’s poem full of longing for an old friend and a friendship.  Frank said it was like a Saul Bellow novel.  Later, Don wrote: “for a couple pages there it just felt like i was being cornered at a party while someone tells me about how they used to play basketball”. It sets up the ending well but if I came across this in a magazine I would never get to the ending.”  

I don’t see the utility of saying that a poem sounds like Saul Bellow, or Kafka, or Lewis Carroll or Ginsberg’s Howl.  What does it do for our colleagues, the writers?  That sort of comment replaces the poet in front of us with a cardboard cutout, and lures us away from the individuality of the work we are reading.  We should be sussing out what we think the poem is trying to do and how it is trying to do it and whether we think it achieves the goals we think it had.  Then the poet will know if they were seen, and if they succeeded, and if not, how they might conceivably think of revising it.

—Arthur Russell