Field Notes, Week of 02-22-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 22, 2022

Hi: We had a good hardworking workshop on Tuesday and got to hear good poems and learn from them. After all, it’s not our job to make other people’s poems conform to our tastes, but to dive into a poem, come up with some ideas about what it wants to be and how it wants to become that.

Rob Goldstein’s poem, “Charlie McCarthy” has a wonderful first stanza that allows the mind to enter a field of fruitful deduction and leave behind the earthbound work of connotation. It’s up there with his best stuff. 

Grafted onto awful stillness
is this self-conscious dandy—
a dissonance of spirit and hickory,
essential to the uncanny.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Hospice, with a Friend” takes us right into that fraught place at that fraught moment, and does so not with a physical description, but by sharing the bizarre emotional and moral questions that run through a visitor’s mind, such as this, in the opening line: “Should I write you off early while you’re on your deathbed?” Questions like that continue for the first half of the poem, but when action does replace wonderment, it’s so we can hear about the speaker getting drunk: “I drink myself under./ You’re on your deathbed.  I swig extra slugs, one for one…” I thought the last couplet of the poem threw up its hands and said something somewhat drunk, slurred, abject, ineffable and beautiful: “You’re on your deathbed/ Roses and honey and dew.”

Frank Rubino’s poem “Have a target for your kindness” was about two things, needing kindness and exhorting/promoting kindness, even offering “a voice for your kindness.” The poem, whose argument is fractured that way, between ‘you need kindness’ and ‘do kindness’ drives forward with a seeming unwillingness to let go of its central intuition, talking about eyes that need kindness, arms, legs, and genitals that need kindness, accurate and false words that need kindness, and then offering help from the other angle: “If you want to be kinder/ here is a voice for your kindness.” And the picture that emerges is that this business of kindness is a lot more complex and delicate that volition, and the poem culminates with a beautiful suburban image that bodies forth the whole without trying to define it: “How lightly can you touch the shopping cart & make it roll/ to its nesting place in the other shopping carts.” That’s the good stuff we come to workshop to cultivate.

The thing that’s so promising about Barbara Hall’s “Dear Dead Husband [DDH]”, is the invitation it offers the reader through its form and tone to decipher the poet’s attitude to the expired spouse. Is he missed or is she glad he’s gone? Is there irony, sarcasm, affection? It’s clearly an elegy in the form of an epistle, but the things she writes about, the day-to-day business of life, the sleeping, the laundry, the very long trips to the grocery store, seem to miniscule to support a full scale, happy-you’re-gone. 

Janet’s “Google Earth and Beyond: Alexandria, Egypt” like several other Google Earth poems Janet has written, travel poems for the covid bound, takes us to Egypt, and the first line just about sets the stakes and suggests the limitations for this kind of journey. “I’m seeking Cleopatra and come upon a man with a blurry face.” The poem (not in the package) tells us what we can see (“the magnificent new Biblioteca said to be/ on the side of the library burned circa 48 BC”) and what we can’t (“the spots of the hoi polloi/ in the vast beige grid populated by 8 million”) and there’s a real sense of frustration and resignation, but also loss in the last line, “condemned, as I am, to an eternity of digitality.”

Tom Benediktsson’s “Panopticon”—a word referring to a circular prison with a central courtyard designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 17th C, in which a single guard could watch all the prisoners arrayed in cells around the circumference —imagines imprisonment.  It has a traditional prison reference to the bird overhead as a reminder of freedom, but also imagines prison as a place of stories, stories that challenge traditional perspectives of incarceration. The jailer and the jailed are mirror images of each other, and the speaker may be the prisoner. A pair of old women skipping in the snow pursued by their nurse may be the prisoner’s dream, but it is also a metaphor for the way identity works, as is a sock puppet worn by the prisoner, whose name is Tom, who challenges the jailer to define the identity of the prisoner.      

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Shake Me,” a prosy piece, appears to be a sort of surreal dream too, in which the speaker is an honoree in a tickertape parade, riding in an open convertible with two beautiful movie stars from the 1970s, but the ticker tape scraps of paper, printed with words like “Terms of Service” and “Usual and Customary” suggest a darker, perhaps sinister undercurrent. Why else would he want to be awakened?

Jennifer Poteet is starting a new series, poems about or taking place in towns and cities of New Jersey, and the first visit is to ”Atlantic City” and it’s a poem about class, fear and class-related guilt in a city whose public face is about gambling. The speaker goes there for a writer’s conference and is forced to wonder about her safety, decaying cityscapes and privilege. It’s a good beginning for the new project.

My poem, “Happy Ending” is a prose poem imitation of another prose poem of the same name by the poet “Jay Meek” from his Book Windows. The exercise was to mirror the rhetorical and tonal and thematic moves in the original while borrowing none of the content. This kind of exercise is based on the insight that to some extent every poem, even the least traditionally formal poem, is a form unto itself, a “nonce” form, so what I’m trying to do is reverse engineer the poem, find its underlying form and then imitate it.

Joanne Santiglia’s poem was called “CO 10, 11 and 12” and it was an ode to the perfume Chanel No. 5 on the occasion of its 100th birthday, with the title referring to the chemicals called “aldehydes” used to create it.  It’s a joyous poem, and that’s a good thing.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Translator” talks about the process of translating poetry, portraying the translator through the metaphor of a bridge in which “I sway over the chasm/ into which a word can fall and fall, and never make a sound,” and prays for a meeting, facilitated by the bridge, between poem and reader, whom, she hopes, will “fall in love.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Romanian village, 1946” about children who’d been sent to dig up some extra good clay for their uncle to use in his pottery finding the corpse of a WWII soldier decomposing in the forest, and the villagers coming together to give the remains a decent burial. A strange nostalgia in the form of an anecdote.

Thanks to all of the hardworking poets and thanks for the poems. See you next Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 23, 2022

Black History Month Poetry Reading, February 23, 2022

Terrific poetry reading last night, celebrating Black History Month!! This annual celebration has become our tradition, featuring published poets reading their own powerful work alongside high school students reading their favorite poems by Black authors.

Many thanks to our co-sponsor, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission, to Christie Del Rey-Cone and to the high school student co-organizer, Dana Serea, to all our readers who were just fantastic, and to all who tuned in. If you missed it, watch the video above. Let’s do it again next year!


Featured readers:
Zorida Mohammed
Francesca Bremner
Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal
Jerry Johnson
Preeti Shah
Wanda Phipps
Mark Fogarty
Natalia Tomczak
Alex Anacleto
Anabella Cone
Zen Castaneda
Miya Kofo
Dana Serea

Field Notes, Week of 02-01-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 1, 2022

We had a fine February first workshop on Tuesday.

Brendan McEntee brought a poem called “How We Dreamt in the Fire” lyric almost to the vanishing point (which I loved) but conveying a clear feeling of isolation and desolation, perhaps climate-change related, but did so by the least obvious means.  Here’s the first stanza, which moves with an independence of will that resists paraphrase:

Six a.m. and the moon still holds its piece of the sky.
Silence, a true silence arrives
Plays like music in a shuttered mall.

It’s such a strange move to say that a silence, not any silence, but a “true silence” played like music, and it only gets stranger when that music is in a mall, and even more strange when that mall is ‘shuttered.’ And the way he uses two different verbs—plays and arrives—to describe the advent of silence, it’s as though everything that has been given—including the time of day and the moon above—has been, if not taken away, reconsidered—and yet the residue of this giving and taking is the essential feeling of the dreamer plopped down in an ambiguity. Read on, and in the second stanza see how the poem resists all explanation, moving in seemingly rational increments that test rationality, from “gardens” to “the bleaching of the world.”

Janet K brought an elegy about the ski slope death of an actor, Gaspard Ulliel, La Rosiere 1/19/22,” (not attached) that indulges in the language of obituary (“Gaspard . . . leaves behind a six-year-old son”) and the language of fan-dom (“I tore out the ad for the cologne [he promoted]/ and saved it.”), but what it really does, and what Janet does so well with her deadpan delivery, is to wonder – as she did in that poem about the near stranger in her high-rise who fell to his death from his balcony—about the how we can have real feelings about something we know only slightly or indirectly.

Carole Stone’s poem, “It Is Impossible to Be Alone in Language” is a “message-in-a-bottle” poem, in which the ‘messages of grief’ related to living alone are imaginarily found by a “wife” in a far-away country.

Don Z is our most courageous poet, sharing poems before he’s sure he’s comfortable with them himself.  His “There is a Beautiful Sorrow I Must Attend To” takes the form of four short elusive couplets, the last of which – “I don’t have time for today./ I can’t make it to my life” – comes closest to answering the call of the title.  The other three couplets suggest an arctic night of strong emotion but resist nearly completely providing context.  The excitement that such elusiveness stimulates in the group, however, is a testament to the power of lyric substitution.  We want answers and our minds suggest them, and when a poem gets our minds going, then, as Don might say, they become “flashing igloo[s]/ beaconing to toothy darkness.”

Barbara Hall brought a list poem called “Today I” that recounted the doings of the speaker’s day, and then relaxed with a cup of chamomile tea and key lime cookies as she watched the sun dip below the horizon.

Ana Doina got a lot of traction in the group with her “Although”, which can be summarized as a list of the crappy things that communism brought to her former country after WWI, things that did not stop people from experiencing the ordinary facets of life, music, love, and divorce.  The setup is to use the word “although” at the beginning of phrases explaining the bad stuff, and the release is the final stanza saying that life went on despite the restrictions. 

Frank Rubino’s  “Sir, no man’s enemy”  is a kind of prayer/petition/plea to an entity known only as “Sir” – for clean cardboard and pillows for homeless people, but on the way to that plea, it provides us with dozens of names of men out of context and tells a pair of anecdotes about the members of the speaker’s family giving up smoking, too late or not too late. What was interesting is how this “Sir” character refuses to be a god, and even becomes human enough to take the name “Jim.” Still the “cap-in-hand feel’ (Brendan) of the poem and its humility soar above its multifarious roots, and that must be the feeling and meaning.

Getting ready for Valentine’s Day, I brought a love poem called “Love Poem” that took the form of what Frank called “delicate little triplets”. It features a series of statements and metaphors, like “She does/ to  me/ what a church// steeple does/ to a clear/ blue winter sky,” utterances that don’t connect to one another except through the title and the delicate little triplets. Some controversy broke out over the ending trope, about “happiness”  which struck Susanna and possibly Janet and possible Claudia as to “telly” and remedies in the nature of machetes were suggested. Don Z liked the way the poem “sits in the romantic tradition.” And responded to the loppers thusly: “We need a strong end, but we need to end when we’re done.” 

Hey, I’d like to shout out my daughter, Delaney’s podcast called “Only Child Syndrome” which you can get through Spotify. Delaney’s 25, and her podcast, which runs about an hour for each episode, has a lot of music, but her sound checks are about culture and womanhood. She’s far more articulate and insightful and easygoing than I am, so if you or a young woman you know likes insight, clarity, music and fun – tell them to check it out.

And a second “Hey” – I went to the Allen Ginsberg Prize reading yesterday to collect my Second Prize winnings (and adulation), and ran into a wildly divergent group of fantastic poets. As usual, in the corner of the poetry world governed beneficently by Maria Mazziotti Gilan, narrative poems were the order of the day. Through the ‘chat’ feature in Zoom, I invited two of my favorite readers, Marion Paganello and Lisa Cole Nicalau to sign up for these Field Notes, and they accepted. So, hey, Frank, I’m sending Marion’s and Lisa’s email addresses to you separately; please send them the invite to our workshop.

I probably won’t be at the 2-15-22 workshop, but Frank will, and I implore you all to write love poems, quickly, before it’s too late. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-04-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 4, 2022

Happy New Year!
A lot of good work got done at our first workshop
of the year.  May it be a harbinger of a year of solid work.

Claudia Serea’s “In the alley by the schoolyard” is a free verse New Year’s poem written in tercets, that, like many of Claudia’s poems, uses the title as a part of the first sentence of the poem.  The poem personifies the new year as a guy “swaggering down the street/ in its varsity jacket” that parks its “shiny car” under a “No Parking” sign. It has live language, and, true to Jim Klein’s other dictum, it was about “one thing,” a scene of bravado, and young energy.  It would be interesting to discuss how tercets work, what energy they bring to a poem, and how Claudia marshals that energy.

Carole Stone brought an energetic free verse poem called “Hanging Out with the Dead.”

Shane Wagner bought an unnamed poem starting “There must be a perfect moment to take down a Christmas tree.” It is a momento mori poem, which translates from the Latin, as “remember death,” and such poems pursue the virtuous ends of reminding us that life is short.  The human skull (cf. Hamlet) is a fine object to contemplate in that mode, but Shane picked the Christmas tree with its obvious ironic identification with the birth of the Christ child.  The poem succeeds best when it diverts us from its morbidity with real world considerations such as suggesting that one might take the tree down “before the vacuum bag is full” which has elusive but compelling metaphorical possibilities.  The on-the-nose ending – “There must be a perfect moment to die” – was a little too on-the-nose for some.

My little poem, “How I Want to Die” was also a momento mori poem, five lines long, and written in iambic pentameter, and featured a description of a cut tulip in a vase drooping as the poem’s professed method of passing away.  It’s good to talk about these poems and their relation to the tradition that that they continue, and we should do it more.

Like Shane, Tom Benediktsson brought a Xmas poem, but “The Gift” was more like an Abbot and Costello routine than a momento mori; conceived as a dialogue about wrapping gifts and having the gift for wrapping gifts. 

Frank Rubino’s “My Daughter Came For Thanksgiving” sets his fatherly response to the named event in which the daughter, banged up by life is seen in relation to the embedded simile of a dented car cruising on the highway in front of the speaker.  The car is “viable” and so, for all the problems she’s had, is the daughter.  The poem got a little lost when it tried to make the phrase “tried to change an accident,” into a refrain, but doubtless, Frank, who treats fatherhood the way Andy Warhol treats Marilyn Monroe, will be back with more.

Jennifer Poteet’s poem,  “The Whole She-Bang” an astrophysical meditation about human’s place in the universe had a title that poked gentle fun at the “Big Bang.”

Elinor Mattern’s poem, “About Your Poem, ‘Traveling through the Dark’” is a poem about the experience of teaching the eponymous William Stafford poem to a class of poetry students, so it has a wonderful set of nested relationships at its heart: that poem, this poem, that poet, this poet, the impossible quandary at the heart of Stafford’s poem – how to address a dead car-struck deer with a fetal fawn inside.  Elinor’s poem is a celebration of Stafford’s poem, which “guaranteed … a lively and engaged discussion with college students of the elements of literature.”  The poem shouts out some of the poetic elements that make Stafford’s poem successful: possible metaphor, alliteration, vivid concrete nouns, strong verbs, sparing but specific adjectives, and words that “work double time.”  However, Elinor’s poem steers clear of those virtues, preferring a prosaic, denotative approach, a downbeat spoken rhythm, and words that work single time.  As a workshop, we steered clear of taking up those differences, all of which were on display in the poem itself, and steered clear, as well, of the opportunities that the poem, with such a strong baseline structure, has, to investigate any number of issues beyond its consoling message that “sometimes life just sucks.”  

Ana Doina brought “What Freedom Is” one of her Eastern Block anecdotal reminiscences about the evils of communism.

Yana Kane shared the news that she’d been accepted to the FDU MFA program and planned to work on in the area of translation. Congratulations, Yana.  Her poem, “Sabbath” followed a formula she’s used before, of quoting and then riffing on an epigraph.  This time it was the phrase “look into the face of knowledge, call it a god” attributed to Tamara Zbrizher.  Yana’s poem – two quatrains followed by two tercets, sought, as the title, “Sabbath” suggests, a moment of surcease in what she describes as a long-drawn-out war between “knowledge” and “uncertainty.”   It imagines this surcease with the lovely albeit difficult to understand or reconcile image of “a field of snow/ receiving an abundance of snow.”  But perhaps the most provocative element of the poem is the hint of a suggestion at the end of the last line that a season of peace would include “no separate name for anything that grows,” a concept that would reverse the Adamic prerogative of naming the world and ask us to seek peace without nomenclature. I could imagine a poem that told Zbrizer to screw off and pursued the fabulous unnamed world that barely made it into the poem.

Susanna Lee’s poem, like Yana’s, got awfully interesting at the last line.  Before that, it was just a celebration of the legalization of pot, as exemplified by firing up a spliff on one’s morning walk, but at the end, out of nowhere, it proclaimed “The War on Drugs maimed; it will not be forgiven.”  Yes, what about that?

Jan Castro brought a 13-line, free verse poem called “The Polish Rider* Take 3” an ekphrasis describing what “we” – viewers at large? – miss about a Rembrandt painting, photo included, a painting that was mentioned by Frank O’Hara in his love poem “Having a Coke with You”.  Jan’s nonlove poem is arranged in roughly 10-syllable mostly non-metrical lines, other than the last two which are shorter, 6 and 8 syllables respectively.  Notwithstanding all the deviations (no rhymes, no meter, no turn at line 9), it looks like a sonnet on the page.     While O’Hara’s poem mentioned the Polish Rider as a means of saying that only the guy in that painting could rival his love as a worthy subject of gazing, Jan’s poem is focused on the elements of Rembrandt’s painting that “we miss” as we are dazzled by the “rider’s white horse…”

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-28-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 28, 2021

Hey, Workshoppers— It’s the night before New Year’s Eve (or, in Yiddish, Erev Erev New Year’s Eve);  I’m hoping all of you are getting ready for a joyous new year and a 2022 that will outshine all previous years.  

We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, and I’m happy to say that as a group, we’re doing a great job talking about poems, not just saying what we like and how we’d fix what we don’t but diving into the a priori questions—what is this piece of writing? What does it set out to do and how does it propose to do it?  What promises does the poem make to the reader, and how are those promises kept or altered? What is happening in the poem? What poetic devices does it employ, and are they working? What is the form of the poem, not just old-fashioned forms like sonnets or villanelles, but the idiosyncratic (or nonce) forms of free verse? What register does the diction reside in? Is it old fashioned words or new? Or a combination of them, and how does the diction assist or fall away from the drive of the poem? Are there short lines? Long lines? Big stanzas, little stanzas? Why. Is it Narrative, Lyric, Dramatic or a combination? Given that the poem as a machine made of words exists to induce in the reader a poetic state of mind (Mallarme, WCW, Matt Zapruder), does it? I remember when we started as a group some people thought said that describing a poem was “boring” or “obvious,” but that’s not the mood now. What could be more relevant to a poet than to hear how people recognize what was intended, or how people saw things that the poet never even knew were there (answer: “nothing”) and what (spoiler alert, the answer again will be , “nothing”) could be more interesting than talking about how the poems of our cohort work, sharing what we know about how they work without necessarily EVER offering to edit the poem to conform to our own ideas of what a poem should sound like or be about or look like.
 
Every since I heard Sharon Olds talk about how, in her workshops, the poem was read aloud three different times (once without circulating the text) before the poem was discussed, I’ve been a fan of that approach. Every time the poem is read aloud, whether it is by the poet or by someone else, it presents another facet of itself. It might even be totally unfair to plop a poem down in front of someone, read it through just once and then start making comments. But once you’ve heard it through and go back and hear it again, the ways that the poem operates, the ways it prepared or didn’t prepare you for what came next, the subtle clues in line, diction, rhetoric, and music, all soo important to the overall project, come clearer. And if you’re the poet, listening to other people read the poem, with or without a copy of it to look at in front of you, you are going to hear how that reading is an interpretation, actually a critique, of the text, you’re going to hear what worked, and where the hiccups were, and where the reader got into the flow and where they didn’t. And what I love about multiple readings of that sort is that no one has to say one single word that isn’t already in the poem for the poet to start getting ideas about what could be done to improve it.  

No clearer example of this phenomenon exists than the reading of my poem this week, “End of Year Party at Nutley Arts Press” by Ray Turco. He was trying his hardest to make sense of it, and present it to us with all of its (to me, fabulous) nuance and humor, but it just wasn’t there, so even before the “discussion” began, the discussion was well on its way. And what if two or three people read the poem, and it comes out differently from each of them? Without the “discussion” having begun, we’d know a great deal, but even more important, the poet (in this case me) would be well on their way to revisions.  And this without any editorial comments.
 
All of this is happening nowadays in our workshop, and I’m very happy about it, and want to thank everyone in the group for their patience with the process and their acceptance of the method. So, thanks.

Ana Doina brought a plain spoken narrative piece “My father’s tomatoes,” about her father smuggling old world heirloom, tomato seeds (from his own father’s garden) into the United States as part of his immigration move. The story seemed to the workshoppers to have relevance for the lawlessness of the smuggle, the assimilation process of immigrants, or possibly as a pushback against GMO movement in agriculture. During the discussion, I was focusing on the question of how the poetic form can shove off from the prosaic in narrative, and raise a sail to some unseen wind.

Carole Stone brought a poem called “The Pianist” that discussed youthful ambitions to fix the world and what happens if you live long enough to conclude that not much has changed. I thought the lines “Every morning,/the world starts up again” were bold. The lines sound like renewal, but they are also a nuanced way of saying that we’ve learned nothing from the tragedies of the last century.

Jennifer Poteet‘s poem “Bird Says Goodbye to Bear” was a sort of allegory, Carole said, a riff on the story of the Goldilocks, without Goldilocks, that it had the sound of a children’s book, but plays with expectations about that form by introducing uncertainty as its central emotional position, which we see when the speaker (after turning into a bird from a bear) decides to leave the nest and Momma Bear asks “Will you come back” and the speaker says: “I didn’t know and couldn’t answer.” What a cold-assed way to end a poem that might be!  But Jennifer presses forward to the parting hug, restoring some of the sweetness of the children’s story expectation.

Susanna Lee brought “Does the Christmas Tree Know Its Destination” which used personification of the tree as a means of conveying a critique of the Xmas tree industry, and the happiness anyway of having one of those sawed off conifers in one’s home.

Ray Turco‘s poem, “A String Quartet” was a bit of a seduction piece: guy brings girl (who has a dancer’s body) to a concert.  We don’t know if he got lucky, but we as a workshop did just fine, talking about how the question at the heart of the seduction works—”What are the right chords/ to penetrate/ your dancer’s heart?” Cold-assed indeed.

Brendan McEntee‘s “Pie” with a subtitle “after “A Ghost Story (2017)” presented a narrative that suggested a woman coming home from a funeral gorging on a friend’s gift of a pie. The overall shape of the narrative remained a bit mysterious, but some of the description was so alarmingly sharp and focused that it effectively conveyed the “hands off” reverence that the poet took while witnessing a scene of great pain: “Barefoot, she slides to the floor,/ her back against the cabinet, and eats, holding the pie plate,/ carving through the middle, the thumb-pressed crust/ remains intact for a while. She eats, her fork/ Hitting the glass. She digs in, breaks the bottom crust.”  

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “To My Niece Teaching English in Thailand,” whose title was a great setup to an angry, somewhat sardonic critique of America that the speaker was urging as a lesson plan on his niece.
 
Rob Goldstein‘s “Ahab, Between Voyages” did a great job of projecting an image of the unquiet mind of the doomed whaleboat captain when he was stuck on land.  

And, finally, Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “This Poem Is Trying to Look Normal but I’m Not Fooled” that takes place inside an MRI machine equipped with a television (showing a Godzilla movie) that the patient can watch while the bizarre space odyssey of being in one of those machines transpired.  

Gotta go. But thanks again to everyone in the group and outside the group who receive my Field Notes. Thanks for listening to and putting up with me. And Happy New Year!

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-21-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 21, 2021

We had a great workshop.  

Jennifer Poteet
‘s “Bird in a Box” compares good poems to skating, to eels, to electric current down the spine, to the thrill of being undressed by a first lover, to crashing a bike after learning to ride one, and the pounding of the heart in the chest after that crash, to a bird in a box. Then the poem screeches to a halt:  Why? Because, it is revealed that the lover, the who one who unbuttoned of the speaker’s blouse, button by button, was a real person, one who, “after a third marriage” tells the speaker “the doctor gives him six months to live.” It is the boldest sort of strategy, in which the poem is pulled out of its conceit by reality and the crash of the bicycle morphs into a real life catastrophe.  Bravo, Jen.

John J. Trause brought a movie commentary sort of poem called “Craning to See a Hotel Room” that mixed references to the movies “Psycho” and “Touch of Evil” to delve into the issues of exploitation and voyeurism.

The title of Frank Rubino‘s poem, “Days of rogation,” refers to meatless feast days in the Catholic calendar, and to a larger meditation on the modern meat industry, but at its best, it slides, meditatively, into a consideration of the unaccountable pain and solace of love:  “no one/ will love my ear-wax, love my funny toe…./ no one / should be allowed in there, but here you are!/  One time you… showed me guyswith giant cocks and… I cried/ inside but …/I come from people with zucchini heads/ some of them… gnarled beautifully like mountain cedars…”

You can’t teach talent like that.

My poem, “Her Silver Rings in the Dish by the Bed” was a sonnet-length domestic love poem.  Frank saw it as a sonnet.  Yana said it changes the sonnet tradition by paying attention to an older woman. Frank liked the fact that it “starts with a thesis and proves it out,” somewhat metaphysically.

Susanna Lee‘s poem was also about domestic romance.  It was called “Poem for the Rising of the Winter Solstice Moon.”  It spoke in a “room of one’s own way” about maintaining private space in the home, but veered towards the sadness of isolation in life later in marriage, with couples sleeping apart and the speaker’s parents “gone.”  Then, somewhat miraculously it slouched towards communion of a deeply mature sort, when the vibrant moon seen separately gave the couple something to talk about.  Deft work.

Preeti Shah‘s poem, “My Name” was a purely lyrical piece in the form of a personal history. When she was young her “Name/ caught light the wet riggings/ of palak in some hesitant throat.” In India, it “comforted/ as Maa’s home dish…”  In America, she comically compares it the Heimlich maneuver.  And finally, in along lyrical passage, she conjures the feeling of her name in her own mouth as a beautiful meal “aching to be tasted/ by all tongues/ that still missed their homes.” Beautiful.

Speaking of foreign locales, Carole Stone‘s “Down Mexico Way” imagines the figure of Death in several disguises: as a guitar player, an American tourist, as a cyber researcher peeking at her “Facebook” page, and as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, where her deceased parents show up and “light up cigarillos.”
 
Yana Kane‘s “The Doll House” takes dollhouses to task for their lifelessness, their obscuration of “any flaws:” for example the “mother in the kitchen” who is always and forever pulling “a blueberry pie from the oven.” And the father in the parlor, who “never tires of reading the same newspaper.” It was a creepy poem, for sure, something between Twilight Zone and Stepford Wives.

Raymond Turco‘s “Verona” creates a vibrant tonal sketch of the town with a curious allusion to an unproven theory that the name “Verona” is a bastardization of “Vera Roma” meaning “the one true Rome.”

JJT called Brendan‘s poem, “Waterfall in Winter” “high Romantic,” and “Tennysonian.” It depicts the hidden space behind a waterfall where a kind of shrine is maintained, literally maintained, as its “drooping lilies” are replaced —by the speaker—with “fresh ones” and the old ones are cast into the “crashing water.”  Yet, when he leaves he swears he will never be back.  Mysterious, and somber.

Janet Kolstein‘s “The White Bird” (not in the package) is either a dream, a surreal vision, or just another day on the Lower East Side.  It presents a bird perched on the speaker’s shoulder that talks, shops for clothes, takes a bath in warm water, and is grabbed by barber who wakes up after sleeping on the street outside his shop. The speaker then pats the bird dry with a “paper towel, to avoid his getting chilled/ when he turns into a cat.” I’m voting for ‘just another day on the Lower East Side.’

Thank you all for coming; see you at the next workshop.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-14-21

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

Not to burden you too much with my current Marianne Moore infatuation, but as I try to come to grips with just what made Modernism Modernism, I found this passage in the Linda Leavell biography that was amusing:

“Pound and Eliot had both gone on record as admirers of Moore’s poetry in 1918 and Eliot again in 1923.  Williams had done so in 1925. And in 1935, with his review of “Selected Poems”, Wallace Stevens added himself to the roster. Eliot and Williams had no taste for each other’s work.  Nor did Pound and Stevens.  But all four modernists concurred that Moore was, as Stevens put it, “A Poet That Matters.” Whareas to Williams she represented all that was “new” in poetry, to Eliot she was an enduring member of the “tradition.” And whereas Pound praised her early resistance to romanticism, Stevens paid her his highest compliment by calling her a “romantic.”  “Unless one is that,” he said, “one is not a poet at all.” Stevens’s review explained more precisely than anyone else had how the elements of her stanza—syllable count, rhyme, and indentation of lines—work to create a sense of rhythm.
     “Eliot’s praise for Moore’s highly complex and innovative technique—along with that of Stevens, R.P. Blackmur, and Morton Zabel—made her seem more than ever a poet’s poet. If even F.R. Leavis lacked sufficient intellect to appreciate such technique, was there any hope for the “lovers of poetry,” whose aversion to the “new and genuine” Eliot also disparaged?”

My question?  What did F.R. Leavis do to piss off Linda Leavell?

Anyway, we had a fine workshop on Tuesday.

Brendan McEntee‘s poem “Resigned to Ghosts” is named for ghosts but it’s about haunting, and Frank said he loved the cadence in this meditation on loss, which had a lugubrious heaviness, a weariness you could hear right away in the first line: “Being haunted is nothing special.” I loved the way it moved from the expected repositories of sadness—the photos and the cookbooks in “the amassed mess of a parent’s estate” out into the world where he sees the haunting in the frozen food aisle of a supermarket: “in the men shuffling with wrinkled khakis and worn orthotic shoes/ they can’t bother to replace. During the day, it’s the widowers,/ picking through frozen dinners.  Subsistence eating.  Subsistence living.” What can be more convincingly moving than seeing ones own sadness mirrored and prefigured in the world outside. Crazily powerful stuff.

Preeti Shah was back (Hi Preeti) with a stunningly beautiful and heart rending poem called “Silenced” a compendium of sentences/statements/questions by inmates in a nursing home, everything from innocent requests for favors (“Take me to the café so I can buy a bag of Cheetos”) to indictments (“I hate this fucking place.  Everyone is a sadist”) to abject despair (“My kids aren’t getting a cent/ My kids never visit/ My pet died.”). The poem never announces its method; there is no filler.  The “speaker” of the poem never speaks; it is all given over to the utterances, which run one into the other, with the effect that the “speaker” of the poem is the whole population of the nursing home, and the poet’s job, done quietly and effectively, is to aggregate these utterances in ways that let their power build.  Ultimately, you look back at the title, “Silenced” and ask yourself who was silenced? The elderly shut up where no one will hear them or the poet who heard and recorded what they said. I’ll shut up now.  Just read it, and bring tissues.

Shane Wagner brought “Sound Sympathy” that takes place during a sonogram visit to the radiologist but is actually about the relationship between the patient and the technician performing the sonogram who is not permitted to tell the patient knows whether she sees blood clots, but finds a way to calm the patient’s anxiety without technically violating the prohibition on giving medical advice.  Nicely done.

Tom Benediktsson‘s poem, “Supercuts” turns a trip to the barber into a flashback to the Bible story of Samson and Delilah.

Don Zirilli, perhaps inspired by my recent discussions of Miss Marianne Moore, brought “The Imaginary Gardener Kisses a Real Toad,” a continuation of Moore’s famous statement beginning her poem “Poetry,” “I, too, dislike it.”

Frank Rubino moved into a shorter form for his poem this week, “I wait for a song” that plays on the phrase “lucky strike” which is both a hope for success in life (“wait all my life for a lucky strike.”) and a cigarette name (taking him into a family history of brand preferences among his relatives). This yoking together of destinies could have been sterile, but in the last movement of this short poem, you feel the still inchoate yearning for the “more” that life desires: “& if you could strip off/ my leather jacket I wear,/ you’d find hair, and flesh, and luck—/ the good luck or the bad luck of only a man.” (I particularly loved the double possessive of “my leather jacket I wear”—which is awkward but emphatic).

Rob Goldstein and I both brought poems with Yiddish phrases stuck inside.  His, “History is a Bucket of Musky Fear” is an abstracted dreamscape that illuminates its titular point with little bits of evidence from different sources: the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the fate of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany whose ships were turned away in many ports. His Yiddism? “goylemat maydlekh” (robot girls).  

My poem, “Oh dear, Zev” was, as Don pointed out, an exhortation.  It urged a guy named Zev to fall in love, told him there’s still time to go for the gusto, and told him that his friends would be there for him if he “fell” and couldn’t get up.  My Yiddism?  “cheder bucher” – or a boy who goes to religious school.

Janet K brought back her villanelle from last week, now called “Faded Tattoos” (not in the packet) back with many subtle improvements that made its consideration of stasis much more powerful.

Carole Stone brought a poem called “Why Do the Men Die First,” a continued exploration of grief, and maybe part of the grand elegy that Carole has been writing on the loss of a spouse.  Tom Benediktsson pointed out that, in this poem made of couplets, the first line of each couplet was end-stopped while the second line of each couplet was enjambed to the first line of the succeeding couplet.  That arrangement gives the reader a doubled sense of meaning, looking back to the previous line for sense momentarily as the couplet ends, but then seeing the first line of the next couplet as a confirmation that the poem has moved on.  It’s an interesting technique, worth remembering.

On Sunday at 4:30 pm, I’ll be attending the Zoom graduation ceremony from the Brooklyn Poets Mentorship Program which has occupied all of 2021 for me.   It’ll be the twelve of us being introduced by Jay Deshpande our fearless mentor, and reading a poem or two. It’ll be done by 5:30. You’re all welcome to attend. The event is free and open to the public, but all guests need to register to get the Zoom link: https://bit.ly/bpmpgrad. Like all good graduations, afterwards we’ll be going to Juniors for cheesecake.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-08-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of December 8, 2021

Honestly, I’ve had my share of difficulties understanding how Modernism works, who the most modern Modernist is, what makes Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, and HD all of a piece and what they are all a piece of, because Pound often seems like a cartoonish cheerleading mimic to me, and TS Eliot, like Pound, seems to relish in their high-brow translations restatements, and sarcastic renditions of classical western poetry (and classical Chinese) and erudition in a way that WCW almost never does, while Stevens (racism aside) is a musical genius of long rhapsodic stretches of intellectual supposition, and WCW for all we call him an “imagist” has plenty of late Victorian argumentation in his poems, while Crane is a bit of an impressionist, but now I’m reading Moore, and with Moore, I’m reading a biography of Moore by Linda Leavell called “Holding On Upside Down; The Life and Work of Marianne Moore” and along with those two, a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson that includes, among other gems, an amazing Donald Hall interview of Moore from 1959, when, at the age of 72, she was at the pinnacle of her popularity, a popularity that celebrated her later, more accessible work, and not the stuff that stunned Eliot, got Pound’s heart pounding, and made both of them boosters for her career.  And just to give you some perspective on that career, her first acceptances for publication were from Poetry magazine (by Harriet Monroe herself) on July 6, 1914, and it wasn’t till 10.5 years later, on December 27, 1924, that the first book she could call her own, Observations, was published.  (A couple of her boosters, goaded by Pound, published a book of her work (called “Poems”) in 1921 without her permission).  And even with her 1924 debut solidifying her reputation as one of the great Modernists, it wasn’t “until Ashbery pronounced ‘An Octopus’ the greatest of Moore’s poems in 1967 [that] it received … critical attention.” (Leavell, p. 219).  But all that said, with Leavell’s help, I’m beginning to understand what makes Moore modern, important for writers today, and pleasurable.  Like WCW, her poems were full of direct quotations from other media, newspapers, books, other poems, and her poems were always in conversation with ideas, other poets, historians, whole eras.  In fact, “An Octopus”, her longest poem, which is about the glaciers on Mount Rainier in Washington State, is her undeclared response to Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a poem of similar length, whose impact as a long modern poem can’t be overstated.  But the difference is that her poem is about a living American place, a mountain and its 7 glaciers, and the things that lived on that mountain and among those glaciers, and the power they represent, and how different a mountain, with all its particularities, is from the “smoothness” the Greeks liked; Moore had a pragmatic view of a “real toad” in an “imaginary garden” (she called poetry an imaginary garden filled with real toads), a view includes direct quotes from travel catalogs about Mt Ranier, and the rules of the national park, which she fits into her ode; and this omnivorous view of how poems work was  “an alternative to what she considered the ‘macabre’ failure of imagination in Eliot’s poem.” (Leavell, p216).  But there’s more to Moore than collage.  In the same poem she includes an aphoristic statement of her true love, which is accuracy: “Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus/ with its capacity for fact.” And for her, accuracy, goes well beyond lucidity.  In that 1959 interview I mentioned, Donald Hall asked her “Do you have in your own work any favorites or unfavorites?” And Moore replied, “Indeed I do.  I think the most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication in it to suit myself.  That’s a problem.  And I don’t approve of my “enigmatics” or as somebody said, “the not ungreen grass.”  I said to my mother one time, “How did you ever permit me to let this be printed?” And she said, “You didn’t ask my advice.”
 
Getting back to that ingredient of a good poem, “enough implication . . . to suit myself,” that ingredient is the hard-won openness, the attitude, the humor, the critique of what she has a distaste for, presented not with silence, but restraint.  She wrote about her passions, and her passions were nature and intelligence, but you’ll never find her writing about or celebrating romantic love, or selling off pieces of her biography for emotional validation. Moore’s the more modern Modernist because she dares to stand before you without the scaffolding of the classics around her, because she dares to write with lucidity as well as implication.  Let me get done with this bit of the Field Notes by quoting a line or two from her poem “Snakes, Mongooses, Snake Charmers, and the Like” in which she gets both accuracy and a stunning metaphor into her description of a snake rising out of a basket:

Thick, not heavy, it stands up from its traveling-basket,
The essentially Greek, the plastic animal all of a piece from nose to tail;
One is compelled to look at it as at the shadows of the Alps
Imprisoning in their folds like flies in amber the rhythms of the skating rink.

To me, saying that the movements of a snake “imprison … the rhythms of the skating rink” is not only an amazing original metaphor of stunning observational perspicacity;  it has great assonances, and the way that “alps” and “amber” provide an intermediate or intramural assonance, is just great, and as if that wasn’t enough, the way “snake” (the subject of the poem) and “skate” frame the whole.  People think of Moore as a free verse or a syllabic poet, but she had a devastating ear for rhyme.  In one of first mature poems, “Critics and Connoisseurs,” written in syllabics with no previously known meter, she locates half-rhymes in the middle of sentences, and on off-beats, so that “Certain Ming/ products” rhymes with “I have seen something” and “ambition without” rhymes with “stick north, south.” “and” rhymes with “stand,” Here’s how she described her process when Donald Hall asked her if she planned out her unusually shaped stanzas:

“Never, I never “plan” a stanza.  Words cluster like chromosomes, determining the procedure.  I may influence an arrangement or thin it, then try to have successive stanzas identical with the first… No, I never draw lines.” I make a rhyme conspicuous to me at a glance, by underlining with red, blue or other pencil — as many colors as I have rhymes to differentiate.  However, if the phrases recur in too incoherent an architecture—as print—I notice that the words as a tune do not sound right.”

Moore never betrays or orphans her intelligence to capture an emotion. The emotion must survive the gantlet of her mind, thrive in the lucidity of her imagination.

Anyway, no more time for that today.
 
Janet Kolstein brought a brilliant villanelle called “Home Fires Burning Cold” (not attached) that uses as its two repeated lines: “An old home can take on the feel of a battered shoe” and  “Silence and scruffy floors that all cry you.” It’s a rhymed free-verse that slides outside the lines of iambic pentameter, and varies slightly the traditional structure of a villanelle, but it has a strong rhythmic feel, and as the repeating lines return, they gain heft; while they seemed comforting at first, by the time of the last recurrence, they feel emotionally retrograde.

My poem, “Be Leaving Soon, Be Always on Your Way” like Janet’s, was a formal poem, written in a basically blank verse style (with some exceptions); it was an exhortation to action, to engage impatiently with life. It used the imperative “Be” as an anaphora; the poem was ordering the reader or the speaker ordering themselves, to get on with life when facing morbidity or mortality:

Be under doctor’s orders to slow down;
Be “fuck that shit. I haven’t read the Bible yet,
Or Dostoyevsky, Dante, Heller, Kant;
Be “I haven’t seen Kanye; I haven’t seen Bron”;
Be “I cant stop now;” be “sorry, gotta go,”
Be off the clock, off balance, off the beaten path,
Be better off, be off the hook, be off
Your rocker, off the juice, be off the cuff,
Be off to work, be dizzy, “sit;” “I’m fine,
I need a minute.” “Get your feet up off the sofa!
Sit up straight, stop mumbling, you eat too fast…

The workshop liked the energy of it; but sent it back for surgery on the first and second stanzas.

Claudia Serea‘s “Seagulls in the parking lot” was a rewrite that kept it’s central situation, a daughter talking to her father on the phone, while she’s in her office at work and he is in the hospital thinking he won’t make it. In this iteration, Claudia used her ruminations on the seagulls she could see through the window in her office as she spoke to her father as an extension of her anxiety about her dad: “Outside my window, the gulls cry,/ covering your voice when you respond.” The workshop loved the setting and acknowledged how hard it would be to train the seagulls to do what you want them to do.

Brendan McEntee brought a poem whose title did a ton of work: “Donating the Last of Your Clothes” A title like that or like Frank Rubino’s last week, with a title something like “She’s Coming for Thanksgiving and That’ll be Good” did so much work. You’re home free, off to the races with a start like that.  Frank doubled down on that start with a first line that went “We’ll install locks.” Brendan’s strategy was different.  After his centering title, he moved almost as far away from it as possible beginning with a small mystery: “It’s a Pilot roller-ball, blue, nothing special.” A mystery that is resolved slowly as we find out that the pen came from a jacket pocket “- the suede coral pink one—/ resting in the bottom of a bin/ of what I kept of your clothes,/ folded as you would have wanted,” allowing the emotion of the loss that we learned of in the title to find a home in “you.” Brendan’s subsequent strategy works a lot like Claudia’s. In Claudia’s poem, the gulls were carrying the emotional burden of the poem—the loss—anticipated—of the father; in Brendan’s, it’s the pen that becomes the repository of the poem’s emotional charge rather than the woman who died. Bravo to both of you, all three of you, for learning emotional ventriloquism.

Look, Susanna Lee did it too! She brought a “Where I’m From” poem (yes, it’s a subgenre) that sketched out a white typical middle class upbringing in the 1960s, referring to television shows, describing a household built on discipline by shouting out the brand names of things. “I’m from St. Patrick’s Day,/ from pink lemonade./” It was a nostalgic poem in the sense that it cherished the feelings associated with the things and people of youth, but what it’s really doing in a more obvious (Antiques Road Show?) way, is the same thing that Brendan, with his pen, and Claudia, with her birds, were doing—investing things with emotion. It’s the poet’s prestidigitation.

Yana Kane (who will be reading at the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Contest on Monday December 13 you should go, it’ll be great. You can buy a ticket at BrooklynPoets.org.) brought a poem called “Escape is Possible” a cheery poem considering the alternatives. The interesting device Yana employs is to describe the “escape” in a way that is rhetorically explicit but very impressionistic.  To escape, for example, one “search[es] under the senses, / feel[s] the floor of your perception,/ the hidden trapdoor is there.” And this semi fantastical door leads to an ocean in one sinks to the bottom and then rises.
 
Carole Stone brought “Hugs” which is about seeking solace in poetry from the anguish of a dead spouse; it started with a great lyrical evocation of desolation in stanzas shaped like tercets:
 
The death live on the rooftop,
Enter my bedroom, pull me form sleep.
O, won’t you hold me,

Let me run through the streets
Shouting, “Love me, love me,”…

However the poem turns away from the morbidity of death, seeks solace, which is a refuge from grief, in poetry, and more specifically, the book that holds Neruda’s poems, whose “spine [is] held together with tape.” This book, and poetry itself act like the trap door in Yana’s poem, that are held out as a possible escape.

Finally, this week, Don Zirilli brought a poem called “The German Christmas Market of New Jersey” which is an actual annual thing where he lives. It’s a poem about being deprived of singularity and thrust into an uncomfortable multiplicity, a condition here associated with being at a fair that is populated by people from another fair (“The crowd was from the state fair”) not just literally, but figuratively as well (“from every fair of every state.”). In this condition, the revival of the covid 19 pandemic, with masks, has a disorienting quality. The pandemic is “mysterious and new.” And the masks make everything double: “I put on a mask/ and now twice as many characters are played./ I’m different to everyone and everyone different.” Ultimately, for now, in Don’s poem everyone is learning a new lesson, but not everyone is getting the same lesson:  “oh// was I supposed to get something?  Maybe I did.”
 
Listen—There’s still time to register for Monday’s Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award contest featuring two of your favorite Red Wheelbarrow poets, Yana Kane and me.  It’s a zoom event and you get your tickets through Eventbrite, and the tickets are not cheap, $25.00 because it’s a fundraiser for Brooklyn Poets. The event starts at 7 pm and the 12 poem of the month winners will read their poems, at the end of which, at about 8 pm, everyone in the audience can vote for poem of the month (via text message). Let’s start a friendly interstate rivalry by going into Brooklyn and taking the Poem of the Year Award back to New Jersey for a year. Come and support Yana and me—here’s the link to the signup/registration   https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.

Further Field Notes of December 12, 2021

Continuing my reading of Marianne Moore, I found a collection of critical essays edited by Charles Tomlinson published by Prentice-Hall, Inc. in 1969, that has provided very good insight and information.  I was particularly happy with Hugh Kenner’s essay “Meditation and Enactment” because I’ve loved Hugh Kenner since I read his grand piece of literary criticism called THE POUND ERA a lifetime ago.  Such a strong, distilling and careful voice, it’s exciting just to be with him.  But this morning I want to share a short excerpt from an essay by Henry Gifford (never heard of him before) called “Two Philologists” that dares to do the obviously necessary but fraught work of comparing Marianne Moore to Emily Dickinson.  I’ll skip the intro and get right to this insight:

“And yet, given this all-important distinction between the two poets, their choice of language seems to unite them unexpectedly. Both are incontrovertibly American—or perhaps one should say American of a certain tone and temper which, like much else in the modern world, may be dissolving. They are individual, ironic, and above all fastidious. Their poetry is exact and curious like the domestic skills of the American woman in antebellum days. It has the elevation of old-fashioned erudite American talk—more careful in its vocabulary, more strenuously aiming at correctness and dignity than English talk of the same vintage. This is not to confuse the milieux of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; nor to insinuate that both poets stand at a distance from today in a charming lady-like quaintness. What distinguishes them is something very far from quaintness: a practical interest in the capacities of the English language both learned and colloquial, in its American variety.”

I’ll admit that the phrase in the excerpt that demanded repetition is “old-fashioned erudite American talk,” and the reason for me, that it demanded repetition, is that it captures something about perspective, propriety, restraint and approach that I have noticed and yet been unable to articulate so lucidly in both poets. The phrase “old-fashioned erudite American talk” reminds me of the way that my Aunt Ruth (who sent birthday cards with $15 ‘for books’ to all of her nieces and nephews) spoke, the way that my father’s friend, Frank Lowe (who owned a hammer factory in Brooklyn! and recited “The Ballad of Dangerous Dan McGrew” from memory at our dinner table) spoke, the way my father’s lawyer, Harold Robbins (who knew his Latin and used it to seem comic and erudite), spoke, the way formal letters were written, the way “to whom it may concern” was deployed at the beginning of a letter, or the way the word “one” was used to designate “a person.” And I thought, yes, there’s something that doesn’t saw the air in both Dickinson and Moore, that doesn’t need a shotgun to pop a balloon. And Gifford is correct, I think, when he notes that this sort of fastidious, correct, respectful way of observing the world and commenting on it is “dissolving” or has already dissolved.
 
Anyway, I thought it might be of interest to you.  And read Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era,” and when you do, bring an extra pair of socks because they ones you’re wearing may get knocked off.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 11-23-21

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

Stephen Sondheim died a little yesterday, and PBS Newshour played portions of a 2010 interview they did.  If you write poems, you’ll be engrossed in this:

Sondheim: “If you think of a lyric as a little one act play,
Then every line is a scene,
And a quatrain becomes an entire act,
Each line is a scene and you’ve got seven words in a line
So let’s say each word is a speech….
Well, you know, if you’re writing a play
and something’s wrong with a speech,
you cut or change the speech,
same way you’ve got to do it word by word.
It is as focused as that.”

Interviewer: “and the greatest focus is on the words that rhyme.  Sondheim writes lying down, the better for a quick nap when things aren’t going well, he says.  He uses an old rhyming dictionary, a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus”

Sondheim: “Rhyme draws the ear’s attention to the word, so you don’t make the least important word in the line the rhyme word; And, also, a rhyme can take something that is not too strong and make it much stronger.  If you tell a joke in rhyme, it’s twice as funny as it would be if you just told it in prose, if it was just a speech. The same words!

But the rhyme goes [hits fist on palm] does That to it, and that’s one of the uses of rhyme. It’s not only to focus the attention on a word but to strengthen what you’re saying.

Now sometimes you avoid a rhyme because you don’t want to draw the ear’s attention because you want to fool’em(!) because one of the things you want to do in a song and in a scene and in a play is surprise an audience.”

Interviewer: “And that surprise, Sondheim says, can come in very subtle ways, something happening between the ear and the brain, for example, he believes words that are spelled differently but sound alike, such as “suffer” and “rougher” engage the listener more than those spelled similarly: “rougher” and “tougher””

Sondheim: “I think we see words as they were on paper sometimes when you hear them.  I don’t mean it’s an actually conscious thing, but I’m absolutely convinced that people essentially “see” what they’re “hearing.”

Now, this is me, Arthur: I think we poets [regardless of denomination] ignore Sondheim at our own peril, at risk to our work. This is a scientist, an experimental prosodist, a dentally intense marksman who could drill exacting wormholes through scalp, skull and skepticism using words alone, and change perceptions with his bare wit.

Now, to get to the matter at hand, we had an amazing workshop on Tuesday; great poems, great discussions, and both Shane Wagner and Susanna Lee back in the fold.

Shane Wagner‘s poem, “Heaven” considers life after death through the poetic lens of a Billy Collins poem that suggests heaven is what we imagine it to be, but when the speaker tries to play the Billy Collins game, he’s struck by how little his imagination matches his desire, which is to live the life he lives, and that part of the poem, beginning with an exceptionally long line, is where the poem, as far as I’m concerned, breaks out of its essayistic, armchair, pipe-smoking, patches-on-its-sleeves mode and becomes deeply, personally heartfelt.  Here’s that line: “But I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife.” The poem lingers on that bed, focusing on his wife’s handicraft of the quilt, and actually seeing her “mouth working an unconscious side business” while she worked. Some workshoppers, while appreciating where the poem went, said the poem needs the essayistic bit to set up the magic. To which I say that if you call your poem “heaven” and start it “but I find it increasingly hard to imagine sharing my body with anyone except my wife,” you have done what poetry alone can do.  We will see what Shane thinks of that.

Don Z’s “Museum of the House Made From Doormats” is sketch poetry of great immediacy. He says he wrote it ten minutes before the workshop, possibly after watching an episode of “Little House on the Prairie,” giving it the freshness of mozzarella from a pork store, or of Michael Landon. The poem uses the image of a doormat to illuminate the vast experience of mortality, and of thresholds generally, which makes it something of a  relative of Shane Wagner’s “Heaven.” So, I guess it’s true that thoughts of mortality can sharpen the mind.

David Briggs was back (Hi, David) with a poem called “B-movie love life” which had the clever device of tracking an actual love story by reference to cliched tropes of B-movies, and begins: “Remember when we were lost upriver,/ realizing the hole we’d stepped in/ was really a footprint?” and then, “Remember when we stole/ the Alpha Romeo/ for a joyride,/ but found it had a transmitter/ that led the henchmen/ right to our villa?”—continuing all the way to “Remember the baffled newscaster/ who narrated our last moments?” It was an exhilarating experience moving through those cinematic tropes standing in for the progress and decline of a love affair. I look at poem as a series of loose-fitting metaphors, in which the tenor (or thing described) is a love affair, and the vehicle (the metaphorical descriptor) is the movie tropes. For me, in this draft, the vehicle ran over the tenor, or just parked on it, and yet it wouldn’t take too much tweaking to change the focus so that each iteration of the movie substitution would deepen our involvement with the lovers and their disappointment.

And super-interestingly, Barbara Hall brought a poem called “And I don’t like pretzels….” about flipping channels on the tv, finding nothing, not even the pretzels she doesn’t like, to interest her except her own ruminations on history and American fuck-everything-up-ism; and at the moment the poem considers the end of the world, it does so only by summoning up sci-fi adventure movies, then, in despair, reaching for another pretzel (empty calories).

Frank Rubino brought “Solaris,” a fantastically ambitious poem that continues his knife-edge consideration of adult parenting. The poem, which distances itself from the subject by calling her “person P” is “interrupted” several times by a diagram of an Oxycontin molecule, a picture that you can’t read aloud when you read the poem, but is there, the whole time you read it, just as Oxycontin (an addictive opioid drug manufactured by the Sackler family’s company Perdu Pharma) is always there in the family, interrupting. The poem also uses an old Russian movie called “Solaris” as a backdrop as well as a title; the story of the movie, sketched in the seventh and eighth stanzas of the poem, involves the ghost-like apparition of “a man’s dead wife” in an orbiting space lab. The poem also starts with and seems to live in the aftermath of an argument with someone over how problems should be addressed, whether the speaker is failing to confront them or looking for a new way to do so. Over and over, the speaker says “I’ve been thinking about currents and what flows through me,” which may be less of a refrain and more of an anaphora, and each time the poem repeats this line, it delves into a different sort of current, of thought, of water. No one can doubt the seriousness of this endeavor, and if Frank can tame all of these elements, he will have one behemoth of a poem on his hands. Frankly, I said it to Shane—there’s no way he should let Billy Collins hijack his poem—and I’d say it too to Frank about Solaris: those Russian filmmakers of the same era as Kubrick may have given you a jump start, but you owe them nothing, and your poem is plenty on its own.

Janet Kolstein continued on the metaphysical roll she’s been on with a poem called “Beholder” considering beauty and the ugliness it can lead to.

Brendan McEntee brought “At the Run” a poem designed to suggest a narrative associated with two people by focusing exclusively on the movements of a dog in which they both had an interest in a dog run. It was intriguing but frustrating for some, who wanted a little more help from the poet. Big question that. We all want to be able to draw the portrait of a lady in a single sinuous line, but more difficult to know when the line provides sufficient information from which an inevitable conclusion can be drawn or withheld.

Carole Stone‘s poem “Sweet Dreams” has rhymes, no meter, but little snatches of rhyme that give the dreams of the title their sweet tilt, or diminish or heighten the anguish of the subject, getting old alone and being lonesome. Speaking of her deceased husband, the speaker says she wishes he could see her “in my Mexican straw hat/ sitting poolside./ I haven’t cried.”

Tom Benediktsson brought us a poem called “Killing God”—a free verse in five stanzas that doesn’t so much kill god, or depict the killing of god as much as it introduces us to the tripartite “people in my head” that have hilarious, incisive and very different ideas about what god (depicted as a cricket in a glue trap) is or how ‘he’ ought to be treated. The fact that this metaphysical/metareligious rumination takes place while the speaker is wearing a Speedo (over which his floppy belly flops) and holding a silver sushi knife only makes the portrait irrefutable and unforgettable.

My poem, “Julie Hirsch” is about finding the conditions necessary to begin an artistic project. It’s in the gross form of a Petrarchan sonnet, 14 lines, an octet that portrays the subject, followed by a sestet that turns somewhat to include the speaker’s appreciation of the teacher. The poem doesn’t rhyme and it is not in the form of iambic pentameters, but rather iambic hexameters except the final couplet, which are iambic septameters.

Last thing for today, and then I’ll shut up: please consider signing up for the Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year Award Smackdown on December 13 (a Monday) : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/ and supporting me in my effort to become the first two-time Brooklyn Poets Poem of the Year winner for my poem “Unencumbered” (my previous win was in 2015 for “The Whales Off Manhattan Beach Breaching in Winter). I know it’s a bit of a commitment of time and money (for the ticket). All I can say is I’d appreciate it immensely and it’s going to be a great show.  : https://brooklynpoets.org/events/awards-gala/.

—Arthur Russell

RWB 14 Soft Launch featuring the Red Wheelbarrow Poets

If you missed our virtual, soft launch of The Red Wheelbarrow #14, here is the recording of the event. Arthur Russell emcees as poets from The Red Wheelbarrow read their poems from the book. Frank Rubino is the featured poet.

Order The Red Wheelbarrow #14 here.

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