Join us on April 5, 2023, at 7 p.m. at The Felician University Little Theater, 230 Montross Avenue, Rutherford, NJ 07070, for a fantastic poetry reading featuring Ilya Kaminsky & Katie Farris, plus the best open mic in New York and New Jersey!
Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odesa, Ukraine. He is the author of Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press), which was The New York Times’ Notable Book for 2019 and was a National Book Award finalist, and Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press), and is the co-editor and co-translator of many other books, including Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Harper Collins). His work received The Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Katie Farris’s most recent book, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, from Alice James Books (US) and Liverpool University Press (UK), was listed as Publisher’s Weekly’s Top 10 Poetry Books for 2023. She’s also the author of the hybrid-form text boysgirls (Marick Press, 2011; Tupelo Press 2019), and the co-translator of many works, including A Country in Which Everyone’s Name is Fear, which was one of World Literature Today’s Notable Books of 2022. She’s a Pushcart Prize winner.
At the event, the featured poets will bring their books to sell. We’ll also have copies of our Red Wheelbarrow #15 for sale. Or, if you prefer to order online, you can do so here.
The RWB Poets welcome you! Drop by to listen to our features, read in the open mic, and qualify to submit to our annual journal. See you all in person on April 5 at 7 p.m!
Our Red Wheelbarrow #15 is still making waves, and we’re still in a celebratory mood! It’s because this book, besides being the biggest one ever (100 poets published!), is a really special issue that includes a section of Rutherford High School poets. We were so excited to publish these young authors and hear their poems at the launch! Click here to read moreabout the 19 high school students and their Creative Writing teacher, Melissa Dougard.
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‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of November 16, 2021
Janet Kolstein‘s “The Glittering Tower” takes the view from an apartment overlooking the Hudson River at a high rise building under construction on the other side as a beginning point for a meditation on ghosts. The crane that supports the frame of the highrise disappears in the night sky leaving behind, “the tower alone glitters in diamond white/ through the shutters of my psyche.” And at that moment, the poem turns to ghosts, but not just any ghosts, ghosts who appear to haunt Times Square “smoking and drinking spirits from brown paper bags./ They gather near Broadway, mingling among us,/ popping into theatres to catch the second act.”
Don Zirillli brought “How to Remember a Dream,” a rewrite of a poem we all remembered for the arresting image of ‘walking backwards into a dream,’ though some of the earlier particulars were lost to us. Here, the poem is framed as a “how to” poem, which creates the expectation of a set of instructions, essentially in the second person form of address. Don complicates this expectation by having the “you” receiving the instructions confounded or merged with the “you” of the dream: “you’re glass, no longer in the way of the story you’re telling to the person actually having the dream.” That was a bridge too far for some in the workshop, but others were ready for the complication, and delighted by the you “who slowly pours a frosty night of weather/ into the top of your head.”
My poem, “I Can Only See” tracks the progress of a person locking up his house at night before going to sleep by moving through the house from latches to lights, till his eyes close and he sees what’s going on inside his head.
Yana Kane (who will be one of the 2021 Brooklyn Poets poem of the month winners competing for poem of the year at an open to the public contest with audience voting on December 13—PLEASE COME) brought a poem called “Synaesthesia” that turned out to be less about the confusion or conflation of sensory perception and more about escape depicted as a trap door at the bottom of the ocean.
John J. Trause‘s “The Last Iris” followed the cinematographic method that he has followed in several recent poems, of zooming in on a particular detail from afar. Here, the first stanza of the poem zooms in on a cement and brick flower planter in an abandoned gas station on the corner of a block in a commercial district of a suburb, then switches in the second stanza to focus on an iris flowering in “coldest November”—a flower seemingly, though not explicitly located in the cement and brick flower planter of the first stanza. The effect could be post-apocalyptic or a celebration of life’s relentlessness.
Ray Turco brought a poem called “The Ship of My Brothers” which hearkened back to late Romantic and Victorian tropes of foreignness, evoking a kind of mythological ship sailing through the night, guided by the stars.
Frank Rubino’s poem “Dominatus Super Omnia” which Google says means “Mastery Over Everything” which is about the way a man moves through the world, seeking freedom or liberty through work, through independence, through prosperity, but how, too, the quest is or can be stymied by failure to recognize “the true box” one is in, and being stuck in a living mobius curlicue he identifies as “Changeless End of Endless Change.” It’s an audacious beginning of a philosophical investigation (hence the Latin title?) of that changeless theme in Frank’s work, identity. Hopefully, we’ll see more of it.
Moira O’Brien (newly elected as the sixth member of the RWB leadership called the Gang of Six), brought a satirical piece called “Today’s Special” that compared a breast biopsy with a restaurant special: “The meat is a paper thin scallopine/ achieved with a mammographic press… served on a bed of regret…” Chilling and hilarious at the same time.
Well, it’s good to be back at the Field Notes after a few spotty months, but we’ve just about finished the Mentorship Program I’ve been in with the Brooklyn Poets, so thanks for your patience. And enjoy the poems.
The RWB Poets started to hold online workshops on Zoom in an effort to carry on with our writing in time of pandemics. As a new initiative, we’re proposing that one of us will do a short process piece about a poem we workshopped on Tuesday. Here is this week’s pick, Tom Benediktsson on “Ghosting.”
I learned the term “ghosting” two months ago. Duh…not knowing it was a cliché, it seemed like a vivid metaphor. I thought back about times in my life when I ghosted or got ghosted, and then I remembered that dramatic day.
That’s how the poem started, breaking my rule not to write directly from personal experience. Usually I hide behind a speaker I’ve made up– a character, an alter ego.
While writing the poem I also began to think about “ghosting” as a metaphor for writing. Writing, it occurred to me, can be a kind of “ghosting,” in the sense not of erasing but of inventing someone. Thus writing as that boy I once was is “ghosting.” A ghost writer, of course, is paid to write in someone else’s voice. Maybe all narrative poetry is ghost writing, except of course we don’t get paid. Maybe in all lyric poetry we invent a ghost of ourselves.
But enough philosophizing. When I revise the poem I’ll drop the three ghosting definitions, for which all of the above was shorthand, and just tell the story, Tom!
Hmmmm…. who am I when I tell “Tom” what to do?
I’m seventeen. Sitting in a hospital room, failing to write a paper about Aristotle’s Ethics. They wheel in my mother, post hysterectomy. Her snoring stops when a patient shouts out that the president has been shot.
My mother mumbles. “Has the president been shot?” I telephone my father the recluse. “The president has been shot.” “To hell with the president how’s your mother!”
I spend the day tending my mother and checking on the news. That evening, back at the university, my girlfriend of three weeks wants to laugh hysterically, wants to dance, wants me to be that cancelled homecoming date.
She doesn’t ask about the hospital. I kiss her good night, realize I don’t really like her. And so I don’t call her again. Ever. Aristotle might not approve.
Ghosting: abruptly shutting down a relationship. Ghosting: summoning the dead. Ghosting: writing as another person.
It’s 57 years. That girl I hurt is a ghost. That boy I was is another ghost. My parents, ghosts. The murdered president. And me
Janet Kolstein Conrad Heyer (1749-1856), The Earliest Born Man to be Photographed (in 1852)
He’d heard of the thing and eyed images born of the contraption. It wouldn’t take long for his own aged self to replicate on the silvered plate.
The man who’d crossed the icy Delaware with the Father of Our Country had orbs reminiscent of the General’s. His great, beaked nose had grown craggy with years, his mouth indignant at the loss of teeth.
Maybe, it had been enough to see himself in the mirror of clear lakes, or to face his murky reflection on grooming. He’d looked inward, and knew his character forged with the gravitas of nationhood.
Changes come to those who live long lives, some small, some monumental, some bringing awe and trepidation. As a farmer, he knew how crops grew from seeds with the sun and the rain that nurtured his fields,
and that all living things are pitiful when Death comes calling, but this new machine, a camera, miniaturized and memorialized the very shades of his being, and, in the beam of his eyes, brought forth a new way of seeing and remembering.
I used to think Japanese porn, with its pixilated penises, wasted the strengths that this ethnic type perfected, the ultra femme squeaky female voices no other nationality could do as well. Pixilating the cocks, the coitus, as well the uniquely directional pubic hair of the actors, was a shame.
But tonight, I grazed on a long video about a sex worker in a fellatio salon giving head to five guys in forty minutes. There were no booths. The guys sat on a pair of wide banquettes, both facing the same direction, waiting their turns while the others got sucked off one at a time.
The sex worker gave each of them her full, coquettish attention for seven or eight minutes. She started them off with a bright caress of the face, but no kissing. She’d help them get their pants and unders off then enthuse as though she’d spontaneously come up with the most delightful idea: oral sex.
She’d entered the room with a miniature riding-hood basket stocked with individually wrapped moistened cloth towelettes dangling from her fingers. When she struggled to tear the wrapping, her smile twisted a little. She’d clean the guy’s groin before, and again — more gently — after he’d come.
She opened a second towelette to wipe her lips between patrons. What I particularly liked about her blow jobs was that she’d bring a guy off in three, four minutes tops, then, after lingering on the display and swallow of his cum in her mouth, which did not appeal to me at all,
she would go back to sucking him off while his dick was sagging down to limp for nearly as long as she had on the run up, and, for at least one guy, the second round of sucking had more impact than the first. He turned his head aside and shrieked into his own shoulder.
The last guy she blew had this cool bass baritone grunt, and a short, thick dick she seemed to like, and she made a Tootsie pop sound each time she popped it out of her mouth. She giggled in a slightly more delighted way for him than she had for the others.
All the guys were super grateful and kind of happy, as though they’d just gotten a free car wash. No money changed hands. They must’ve paid outside, like a movie ticket. Inside, they faced forward and accepted her joy.
The big surprise for me was that after the first few minutes, I didn’t mind the pixilated dicks at all. I didn’t need to see the lip-on-dick contact. I could follow the obvious progression and read the implied emotion in her courtesan face.
Pixilated dicks show modesty. Her spaghetti-strap satin top— which she hardly paid attention to for the first 3 guys— dropped off one shoulder for the fourth guy. Her tit came out, but it was an accident. She lifted it back with her thumb.
On the last guy, the one with the thick dick and the baritone grunt, both straps came off. Her whole torso, with its lovely clear skin and her youth intact came into view. You might have caught an accidental glimpse of her as you walked past your teenage daughter’s open bedroom door.
I play the songs she listens to over and over. They help me get into her mind because those songs are playing in her mind too, and the voice they take is her voice inside her thoughts.
The voice she hears in the songs in her mind is resigned to loss. So much, she hears that voice that’s sad, that’s yearning to be soothed, and it makes me think that, within her private experience, she feels this yearning, and needs someone to reach her.
Anyone you’re talking to, anyone you’re standing next to, or walking up the stairs with, on their way with you in the meek herd through the iron passageways under Penn Station, across the iron gangplanks hanging over the underground tracks— anyone with their devices in their ears like networked robots, all of them, also, have their sad songs.
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