Field Notes, Week of 12-22-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-15-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 15, 2020

It was a workshop popping at the seams with new ideas, revisions, rough drafts and final versions.  And we kept to our time: 7-9.  No one wants to be the last poem discussed at a three hour workshop. Please remember to put your name on the top of your poem before you upload it, and where possible, make it single spaced (except stanza breaks) so we can all see it on the screen without too much scrolling.  Also, if anyone has Yana’s email, send it and I’ll add her to the list.

Yana brought a poem called  “Lullaby” that was addressed to and incorporated the lyrics of a Russian lullaby into a poem that examines and amplifies its dreadful message: “the grey wolfie will come/ seize you by your little side/ and drag you into the forest.”  Claudia liked the beginning where the lullaby lyrics were interlineated with its analysis.  Tom noted a shift in the language in the stanza starting “Would the fanged jaws tear your flesh” from something simple and lullaby-ish to something else.   Don disagreed, thinks the language is all consistent.  And there were a few other comments for pruning and rearranging, but no one addressed the underlying problem, which is how the hell are we supposed to go to sleep tonight?

Tom Benedicktsson‘s “Scratch” was a flight of scientific hypothesis comparing the survival tactics used by slime mold with those employed by yeasts, their evolutionary “cousins.”  It was arresting, original and very funny, especially the bits about yeast, where the references were to well known yeast hanghouts like  “drunken orgies” and “tearful bread-baking melodramas as well as the true sounding, but inexplicable “bottoms of poets.”  Not nearly as terrifying as Yana’s WOLFIES, but potentially more imminent.

Susanna Lee‘s poem, an early draft, she says, “Turkey Dinner Poetry,” also took on the lives of poets, in a different manner. She analyzed the preparation and service of Thanksgiving dinner under the rubrics of a poetry workshop: examining the stanzas, the ‘meat’ of the poem, and the editing process.  A meta-poetical discussion broke out over the use of the word “shard” to describe the bone fragment that has choked many attendees at one of these dinners.  Some thought it had too much Greek pottery in it.  Someone even cited to a supposed a poetry nostrum: “don’t use the word ‘shard’ in a poem.”  (That was a new one on me.  I’d been advised that “soul” and “azure” were declasse, but ‘shard’ is so useful if you need a rhyme with “lard.”)  But Tom like “shard” so Susanna was left to work it out on her own.  Finally, someone got up the courage to tell her to ditch the poetry metaphor completely and perhaps focus more on the racist rants of ratched uncles, and the secrets unintentionally spilled by sloppy sherry sipping aunts.  

Shane Wagner brought one of last night’s successful revisions, his poem “Past Lovers.”  Last week we urged him to get down into the the weeds of these ‘what if’ ladies, and he delivered.  Using “I go back to past lovers” as an anaphoric summoner, he details three of these episodes, and what was nice was how the poem deepened in emotional resonance as the degree of sexual involvement deepened (my mom told me that would happen).  But getting down in the weeds also introduced the tangles of those trysts which, as we all know, can resist the compression poetry adores.  While the hookup in the ’76 Civic only raised general questions (“If I lingered … do we marry … do I work for your father .. how long have we been divorced”) the groping session in the ’78 Accord (which has a more spacious interior that the Civic) raised questions of consent (“why did you stop us, put on all of your clothes…?) and the third adventure there’s an abbreviated romantic comedy “meet cute” on a railroad platform followed by the pair becoming lovers who only split when “you” went to Providence and “I” didn’t follow.  So much to manage, and yet, if Shane pulls it off, we’ll get Tom Hanks to play him.

Ray Turco was back with another free-verse tale of an Italian hero, this one “Giorgio Perlasca” who played a role in saving Jews from concentration camps in WWII.  And while Don said the brevity of this piece was powerful, and Janet was a little confused by the ruse Giorgio used, the most interesting part of the discussion, I think, was what role the prose footnotes that Ray adds to the bottom of these poems play.  The prose notes provide a short biography of the heroes.  Carol, voicing a concern that resonates with mid-20th Century poets who insist that the poem can and should speak for itself, asked Why?  There are other traditions, however, in which the poem includes an “argument” that introduces the lyrical content (see Milton’s Elegy “Lycidas” for example), and editors frequently seek to ease the reader’s entry to the poem’s universe with explanatory marginalia and footnotes, and there are truckloads of poetry books today that come with fucking interminable endnotes.  Our own Mark Fogarty frequently uses footnotes to provide context for his historical and sports pieces.  So then there was a debate as to whether Ray should put his biographical data in a footnote as he does or in an endnote.  That discussion has now made it into these field notes, which can be referenced by future editors of Ray’s collected poems.

Speaking of Fogarty, he brought a fart poem: “The Wedding Party,” about the speaker and “Jack Sheridan” using their Christmas gift reel-to-reel tape recorders, to perform a fart compendium to rival the ethnological work of Alan Lomax.  There came a moment in this conversation where John J Trause, who has known Fogarty for fifteen years, asked Fogarty to explain why he capitalizes the first letter of each line of his poems.  Fogarty sighed deeply.

And then it was Trause‘s turn.  He brought a triolet (look it up) called “Procrastination” that considers the his career as a writer of sestinas.  It was roundly loved.

Jen Poteet brought back her poem from last week, one of her emerging collection of poems about hanging out in the present day with dead poets.  (Like trading cards, she’s already got nearly a full set).  This rewrite was hugely successful because instead of merely placing the poet in a modern situation (So-and-so on Instagram, for example) and them mimicking the style of the dearly departed, this audacious piece brought Mary Oliver back to life so that she and Jen could feed the ducks at Race Point.  And, truly in the tradition of Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California” or, more recently Jason Koo’s “Shopping with Mayakovsky” (recently reissued in Man on an Extremely Small Island by Brooklyn Arts Press), the two of them talk, and in that moment, however briefly, that dialogue with our teachers and forbears springs into life.
Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Butterflies and eyes” appears at first to be about a friend who doesn’t take care of herself and lies a lot about it, but also about the sense of frustration the speaker feels with this friend, and finally, as Don Z pointed out, asks what this poem says about the speaker who is constantly passing judgment on her friend.”  And, Don added, if that’s the point, it needs to be brought out more.

Don‘s poem, “QAnon,” raised a bunch of perspectival issues itself.  Directed at the movement devoted to spreading destabilizing lies about everything from politics to child abduction and sex trafficking by Hillary Clinton (i.e., politics), the poem didn’t clearly announce whether it was in the voice of a QAnonamist, or a highly sarcastic critic of the movement.  Claudia said the voice of the poem — with its aphorisms (“Truth is the shovel, not the snow.”) — was very detached and she couldn’t relate to it.  Ray thought the speaker was complicit in the lies.  Yana said that the whole thing was “very disturbing,” and remarked on its lack of compassion or sympathy.  Tom said: deeply cynical.  Don said: “Thanks!”

Claudia Serea, as she is wont to do, brought a masterpiece called “The year we stayed home,” which announces at the beginning that it’s willing to go for the surreal:  “It was the year when I built you a house of clouds/ and filled it with thunderclaps and summer rain,/ so you can sleep well at night.”  The poem turns out to need its full artillery of imagery to shepherd us through a difficult time in the relation between the speaker, a mother, and the “you” of the poem, a daughter:  “It was the year when you wrecked your body,/ and I built a house of screams/ in which you wailed and hated me.”  But my favorite line was not surreal at all: “the year we cried/ on both sides of the bathroom door.”  

The elegy as a poetic form has a few traditional directions it can go, mourning the loss, cursing the fates, bringing the lost ones back to life, tying their death to larger sociological problems or issues, or using the moment to reflect on what was unique about the deceased.  Carole Stone‘s poem “Town” addressed the death of a friend named Ruth, with the elegiacal force of memory and dread:  “Soon no one of our generation will be left./ Each day I’m a little sadder,” she wrote, and in a downbeat manner recalled how they met and the last time they saw one another.  

Janet K brought a poem called “Rhizome” that celebrated the newly discovered scientific evidence that trees communicate with one another through their roots.  Where the poem got controversial, however, was where the speaker compares the peace-loving trees to the awful habits of humanity.  This, according to Don Z, made her poem into a bit of a Joyce Kilmer “Trees”.

My poem “Exile’s Letter” is an imitation of Ezra Pound’s “translation” (boy oh boy, is that a controversial word in this context) of Li Po’s poem of the same name.  We didn’t get to work on it last night, and it’s kind of long, so maybe we can talk about it next week without two readings, as has become our norm. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-1-20

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of 
December 1, 2020

Arthur Russell, and sometimes Frank Rubino and others, have been sending the weekly Field Notes to our workshop fans in an email for several years, but only this week we decided to archive them online on our web site. These workshop notes are a treasure trove of poetic knowledge and a way to catalog our work, week to week. We hope you’ll enjoy this new feature.

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Can I just say, it was a great week for RWB. We had an awesome hard-working (and very efficient) workshop on Tuesday, and then an RWB reading on Wednesday with Susanna Rich as the feature and one of the best open mics we’ve ever had: the range of work we heard was arms spread wide.

Of the workshop, I’ll report this:

For a little gem, Moira O brought a poem called “Slice” that, like Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” turned a kitchen accident into poetic gold.  The first line, zeroing in on the shape of the knife’s impression, tells you everything you need to know about how poetry sees things newly:  “It smiles back at me/ with a baby’s toothless grin.”   As usual with a short, good poem, the conversation was intense and joyous.

Also in the realm of short poems, was Susanna Lee’s poem “The Quitter,” about a “last cigarette.”  (On that subject I strongly recommend Italo Svevo’s novel, Confessions of Zeno). In just a few lines, Susanna captured the firmness as well as the contingent nature of any claim to finality when it comes to quitting smoking:  “stubbing out the cigarette/ twisting, twisting it out, into the ashtray// gently dropping, into the pile of ash/ the very last butt, ever// the wry smile.  

Interesting, isn’t it, how the baby’s toothless grin (Moira) and the wry smile of the quitter (Susanna) function so well as images.

Don’s poem, “Sean Connery vs. Watson” had everything a good Zirilli poem needs: a reference to media, a persona to carry the message, and an ironic pose.  This one, a rant in Sean Connery’s voice, riffs on the Jeopardy tv game show (which is where IBM chose to introduce its IA product, “Watson”), as well as a Saturday Night Live sketch involving Sean Connery (who never appeared on Jeopardy), and touches on a theme Don visits regularly: computers vs. humans.  In Don’s poem, the Jeopardy question that breaks Watson’s back is to name the best Bond movie.

(In our workshop, recently we’ve been having the poems read more than once, which is fantastic for giving us all a chance to let the poem sink in before we start tearing it apart, and also to let the poet hear the poem in someone else’s voice, which can be the most important feedback of all.  Don nominated Brendan to read this poem, and Brendan did an outstanding imitation of Sean Connery’s voice, which really brought the poem to life.  Read it in that voice, and you’ll laugh too.)

In an almost alarming way, Don’s poem pairs well with Tom Benediktsson’s called “Trivia, Roman Goddess of Graveyards and Crossroads” which also turns on a point of cinematic greatness: a charge to name “the thirteen films of Preston Sturges.”  Unlike Don’s, written in a Scottish accent, Tom’s poem feature’s his cinematic penchant for macabre.  He creates a graveyard scene that is both Anglo Saxon (hackle) and Roman (greaves) in its feel, with a goddess who speaks like “broken glass in a tin bucket.” She denies the traveler permission to pass unless they can answer about Sturges. 

And since we’re going to the movies, we should talk about Frank Rubino’s excellent poem, “I, Popcorn,” which really has nothing to do with movie trivia.  It concerns itself with being “so small in all this,” ‘this’ being life, and it shows us both his trip to Russia to adopt (‘find’) his daughter, and his father’s volunteer work in a hospice for homeless AIDS sufferers (where he made popcorn for movie nights), and the speaker’s own beginnings as a zygote.  Frank’s strong suit – his go to – is unflinchingly and verbatim at times to depict his quotidian life – “My daughter drops into the sofa …/ chewing her peanut butter/ on ‘Dave’s Powergrain bread with oat kernals,’”  in the belief that the details will anchor his meditations.  By the way, you’ve gotta love getting ‘zygote’ into a poem (with 10 Scrabble points for the ‘z’, 4 for the ‘y’ and 2 for the ‘g’, if you could land that on a triple words score square, you’d have 57 points, and potentially end the game right there.

My own poem, “Cloisters,” as Ray Turco noted, “captures a common moment well” – the moment when a child learns that their parents will one day die.  This early draft needed workshopping and got a lot of help in terms of the diction, the register, and even the title (Jen Poteet shook her head sadly when she said “not so good.”).

Jen’s poem, “Amy Lowell’s Instagram Post” continued her current series of poems about dead poets brought back to life in today’s world.    Don said it evokes Amy Lowell very well and that Instagram is a great connection for Amy Lowell; Tom said Jen’s was better than Amy Lowell (beating up on Amy Lowell is a spectator sport in some countries), Ray T wondered if the poem could connect more to the style of Instagram, and I said the poem doesn’t really connect Amy Lowell to the present except in the title.  Rumor is Jen’s been working on it more since then.

Welcome back to Paul Leibow, who brought Afraid of the Dark Volumes I and 2.  We discussed only Volume 1.  It is similar to some of Paul’s other work that juxtaposes human cruelty to animal behavior as seen on nature shows, and as such functions as a biting indictment of humanity (biting indictments of humanity, am I right?).

“Deathbed Wisdom” by Brendan M, is a lyric that invades the hospital room of a dying woman, whose final memories are depicted in two lines beginning “Once, she’d”, and whose death is depicted indirectly, by reference to the machines that record her vital signs (“The electric impulse of her stutters, fails.”) and a strange, lovely euphemism for her passing (“Her body sighs”).  The group was impressed with its nuance and overall feeling.

Ray Turco brought poem Number 32 in his advancing collection of Italian mostly war heroes , this one called “Pietor Micca” which tells the story of  a soldier in the army of the Duchy of Savor.  There was abundant praise for this poem in the tightness of the narrative and strong line endings, but some suggestions about repetitions of words that didn’t bring new meaning to them, and isn’t that the nut at the heart of repetition in poetry.  Words carry their historical allusions into a poem, where they gather new and expanded meaning peculiar to the scene.  When a poem uses a word over and over, the word needs to do new work, not just in terms of meaning, but also rhetorical or metrical work.

And speaking of repetition in poems, John J Trause’s poem “Incestina” was a sestina that played with one of the scenes from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  His six repeating words (as required by the form) were “daughter” “improper” “nymphet” “crossroads” “village” and “Dolores” (Frank liked those), so, even if you didn’t know the scene from the book to which John referred, everyone understood the overall reference.  Don said he enjoyed the quixotic project of the poem since in some sense it’s ridiculous to make a sestina from Lolita, but Tom B made the observation that for all of the obvious and clever resonances, the poem lacked a “narrative line” but simply repeated the same situation.  In his comments at the end of the discussion, JJT pointed out that he had varied the word order of a classical sestina in the last stanza, using the order that Auden, who is generally considered to have revived the use of the sestina in English had used in his (Pasage Moralise?). 

Janet Kolstein is always writing about art, and in “Il Divino” she considers dirt.  The poem starts with a kind of catalog of all the cleaning of ourselves we people do, and this first part ends by referring to our bodies as a “pristine chapel” – which is a glorious rhyme (for Sistine Chapel) that sends her in the direction of Il Divino, one of the nicknames for Michelangelo, the great Italian artist (1475-1564).  And the second stanza of Janet’s poem notes that “there was no time for hygiene” in Michelangelo’s work, neither in his depiction of the biblical characters nor in the “corpses/ he bought for dissection.”  It’s kind of a “why so prissy” poem, but not all the way to an indictment of humanity. 

Barbara Hall brought a lyric poem called “The Birds” (sorry, no copy available), which talked about pain through loss in childbirth, loss of two husbands, a father and brother dying and used the images of birds in an “almost biblical” way (Moira) to capture and make tolerable the pain.

Can’t end these notes without a reference to the amazing open mic at the “Williams Center Virtual Reading for December 2, 2020”   We had Mark F reading his amazing “Lunch at the Titi Hut,” Maria Lisella reading a stunning poem called “My Junk” about an argument she continues to have with her deceased husband about the stuff in their Queens apartment, Davidson Garret’s heart crushing poem going back to the AIDs epidemic called “Death in a Harlem Hospital with Straussian Overtones, December 1, 1996”, Joel Allegretti’s amazing ideogram of a poem called “Meditations in Red”, Susanna Lee’s multiply-rewritten and nuanced “Social Distancing With the Ladies”, and Frank Rubino’s excellent poem about being a young man finding his legs in the New York social scene in the 1970s called “Helena’s). Those are only some of the highlights of a super wonderful reading.  Everything rang true, and there’s no higher praise for a poetry reading than that. 

See you all in black and white!

—Arthur Russell

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