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

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 12-14-21

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 11-16-21

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.

—Arthur

Field Notes, Week of 09-14-21

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

Frank Rubino brought us a re-write of a poem with no name now beginning “Cleaining our basement after the flood.”  It used to begin with “In the year I was a bright bottle-blonde” and one of the critiques of this version was “How can you improve on that first line?” The poem suggests that the ruin of the flooded basement with its “fat volume of Chinese poetry” put him in touch with the memory of a photo he’d never seen but had mythologized into “the best picture ever taken of [him]”  taken by a woman he loved after a chaste night naked together.” And the project of the poem may have been to reinvent or redeploy that mythology with a line from the fat volume of Chinese poetry as a sort of caption: “a senseless unending vigilance.”  Or it may have been, as Janet suggested to answer the question “Why am I thinking about that picture still?”  Tom thought that using the quote in the first part of the poem deprived it of its power at the end, and then there were questions about how to convey the strange sensation of holding onto that hollow place for so long.  In the current version Frank used the image of “gravel that lays/ on the hip of the mountain like a skirt” to do that work.  In the last version, there was a related but distinct image of a tree whose roots can split and loose a bolder on a mountain.  Let me tell you, that’s an ambitious program, and we may see it again.

Rob Golstein‘s poem “The Larch”  was one of the sort we talked about last week or two, Brendan McEntee’s poem about a couple vacationing on the coast of somewhere, the woman of the pair in deep distress when a local out walking his dog explains the derivation of the name of the place.  Rob’s poem has the speaker walking (vacationing?) by a lake somewhere, imagining a forest of larch trees which are, for him, metonymic of “The North” whose latitudes tug at him: “Half-dead things are favored far north,” he says, and “Like a consumptive, the larch/ spends half a lifetime dying.”  And Rob’s poem comes with a local who knows that larches are called tamaracks in these parts.  Rob’s poem has a similarity with Frank’s unnamed poem too, in that it features a “sort of mania” about the north that started with what appears to be an artifact of youth: “a crystal globe/ I found in Aunt Maude’s attich—/ with its shaken snowfall on tiny Nevsky Prosect.”  And that connection to Frank’s poem is even more engaging because in both poems the connection between the object (the north, a photo) and the thing that spurs the memory (snow globe, Chinese poetry) is less than obvious.  Fertile ground in both poems for more research.

Shane Wagner brought two poems about an elder in the speaker’s family, “Hedwig”  that he wrote during a 15 for 15 challenge, that is, writing 15 poems in 15 days.  One of the poems, “Hedwig” is just a rough sketch that reads like a Sgt. Friday police report: Hedwig was a flapper, then she became an insufferable Mormon.  Everyone from St. Augustine onward knows this story.  The other poem, Elegy, though, was a wonderful thing based on the same facts, with this fine beginning:  “And yet I loved Hedwig.” Which announced its stakes (improbable love) in a way that provided a gloss on whatever might follow, an invulnerability to cliché.  Frank thought the poems would make a nice diptych, praising the failure of the clichéd version for its potential to provide depth or perspective.

Tom Benediktsson (god, it’s good to have him back) brought a poem—like Susanna Lee’s from last week—that focused on a tree breaking into a house, but while Susanna’s used this trope to illuminate the metaphysics of “inside/outside,”  Tom was working on a recollection of super storm Sandy, which had cracked the bones of the house he was in, and threatened real harm, and put him in mind (Rob Goldstein’s?) “northern sea” and Viking ships and the Venerable Bede’s memorable metaphor that life was like a sparrow’s flight througha mead hall from darkness into light, and back into darkness.  So, he picked up the norse poetry style of compound nouns, presented a piano as a “hammer harp” and his poetry as a “word horde.”

Myself, I brought two experimental pieces that came out of my readings of the forerunners of the Modernist movement, “Fuse” which was a ‘translation’ of Charles Baudelaire’s “Fuse I” and “Instress” which was an investigation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetic concept of the same name, which is sometimes described as ” the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.”  In “Fuse” I tried to translate away from the religiosities that I couldn’t relate to while preserving what I perceived as Baudelaire’s declarative intensity and his primary focus on the distinction between originals and fakes; I surprised myself when this past week’s media hype/frenzy over the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 became a point of critical heat.  In “Instress” I tried the same theme, using a quiet ballad meter, with more of a positive emphasis on renewal; it may be the same old story, but Spring is a damn good story.

Jen Poteet‘s poem “Before GPS, EBAY and ETSY” was an homage to old fashioned yard sales and the times before the internet sucked all the romance out of life.  It was very well received, but Jen seemed alive to the possibility of digging a little deeper into the emotional ocassion of the poem, the thing, other than nostalgia for piling crap into a car, that made yesterday a wee sight more attractive than today.  So, maybe we’ll see that poem again soon.

Come back all of y’all.  We were a tiny bit skinny on the attendance, but never short on love for what we do.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 09-07-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of September 7, 2021

This month my reading is focused on The Modernists, and rather than try to describe it in detail, I’ll share the reading assignment I’m working from as part of the Brooklyn Poet’s Mentorship Program led by Jay Deshpande. For me, getting back to Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens, but also Gertrude Stein and thinking of Robert Frost as a modernist, and being shoved face first into Hart Crane is thrilling. But the real surprise on the reading list has been a book called Poems for the Millennium, a massive 800 page compendium (which I got in hardcover, used, but virtually mint condition for $5 on Amazon which came from the DISCARDS of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois) which includes MANY MORE poets and writers who were part of the Modernist moment, but also contains a section called “Forerunners”  that goes all the way back to William Blake, and includes Friedrich Holderlin, Elias Lonnrot, Whitman, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme, all of whom, in the editors’ view, had a great deal to do with setting the table for the likes of Eliot and Pound; and the annotations to the brief but on-point poems they’ve included do a lot of good work pointing forward to the Modernists.  Some of the annotations are quotes from the poets that were new to me, and keyed into the innovations these poets experimented with that became the stock and trade of the Moderns. Here’s one from Whitman: “I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment—that is, an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new potentialities of speech.”  Or this annotation to Fascicle 34, poem 9 by Emily Dickinson: ” “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—’, written in a time of civil war by a woman with little formal education in philosophy, carefully delineates and declines all aspects of the ‘Will to Power’ nearly twenty years before Friedrich Nietzsche’s metaphysical rebellion.”  Or this piece of practical advice from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Poetry is in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake—and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on.” Suffice to say if I don’t put this book aside, I won’t get to the actual Modernists until some time next year.

Our workshop on Tuesday was breathtaking, not least because Janet Kolstein (copy NOT attached, sad face) brought a poem called “Google Earth, Petra, Jordan” which continued her a line of poems she started before Covid, that live easily in the online world. Maybe they’re ekphrases, but she goes on google earth and clicks around looking at pictures, and the poem comes out of the meditation. This one begins “Aunt Bess is gone!  Bessie, the last of the aunts.  Uncles gone too.  Parents dead.” And starting from this generational exclamation, the poem goes to Petra and considers, in a not-un-Ozymandias sort of way, how time sandblasts us all.  Here’s another great line from this very good poem: “My generation: we’re overlooking the cliffs of eternity, trepidacious.” Of course I love “trepidacious” for its audacity, but also enjoy the way she uses ‘overlooking’ – with it’s double meaning of “looking out over” and “forgetting to notice” – to create two roads.

John J. Trause’s “Marsupial on the Bosporus” was what someone called a ‘snapshot’ poem.  It zoomed in on a Turkish restaurant here in Northern New Jersey, then into the dining room, and then to the view out the window to a grapevine where the speaker saw “peering down at the corner table/ was a baby opossum, hunkering down, looking in at the diners.  Other than the somewhat misleading title, what made the poem so dynamic was this continual but seamless changing of perspective from outside (the restaurant located geographically, temporally, meteorologically) to inside (the table where they sat), to outside (seeing the opossum) to inside (the opossum seeing them).  The poem ends with the opossum scurrying away, and that ending elicited some discussion in the group, discussion as to whether the poem was what it seemed to be: a cute recollection of a surprising encounter expertly delineated, or whether it’s occasion, emotionally, or its outcome, signaled more, or to put it in terms Gerard Manley Hopkins might not have spit on me for suggesting, whether its inscape had been “dwelt” sufficiently upon.

Ana Doina‘s poem “Recurring nightmare”  was precisely that, the pinning down of an awful recurring nightmare complete with a wrought iron gate, wooly fog, and empty house, a view out the window at the street outside (Wait! Isn’t that what JJT did in “Marsupial…”?) and the requisite “man in a heavy coat” and “Dark fedora … pulled low over his brows.”  At its conclusion, the poem releases us from the mystery of the dream by telling us that it had its genesis in Cold War realities in the speaker’s home country of Romania, so it becomes about the depth of post traumatic stress instead of the millions of things that a dream unexplained could suggest. Perhaps in this way it answers this quotation from Charles Baudelaire in the “Millennium” book: “When I’ve aroused universal horror and disgust,/ I shall have conquered solitude.”
 Shane Wagner brought a poem called “Shell” that starts with a close observation of the abandoned shell of a cicada clinging to a tree, which leads the speaker to see for the first time that cicada shells include eyes, or shell-like coverings that once fit over the cicada’s eyes. And this leads the poem in two directions—towards St. Paul (as in ‘scales’), and towards mortality—past and future caskets. The general impression of the group was that Shane was on to something, and it was worth pursuing another draft that did a little more of this and less of that.

Ray Turco brought “The Shepherd of Many Turns” that starts out with a vision that might’ve come from Ana Doina’s poem: the poet banging on the door of the church, stalked by the hour of their death, listening to a church bell toll and getting the marrow in their bones chilled. Then the poem turns to embracing the speaker’s transcendental view of themselves as a shepherd who, after a life of whooping and bellowing, “will pass from man/ to ewe/ to plant/ to ant/ to dust.” In its final lines, the poem turns again, to a confession of what seems to be a fear of dying alone.

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “Spiral” was a duet set up in two columns read aloud by two readers, Don and Brendan McEntee.  Some of the time, Don and  Brendan took turns reading their lines, but in the middle stanzas, both of them read simultaneously, as if it was a Charles Ives composition, in which the soundscape (inscape) was dwelt and dwelt and dwelt upon.  One interesting feature of this conversation was that it wasn’t the typical bifurcation of interlocutor and witness, teacher and student, or even a philosophical debate; it had two nuanced and distinct personalities not so much working through a problem as talking (“My Dinner With Andre”?) about the news, the future news, “the problem of disguised repetitions,” getting called out on pronouncing someone’s name wrong and not being able to hear the correction (Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”?), and other miscellaneous subjects all of which create the image of a spiral, even this one on futility: “Everything is going down the drain,/ so root for the drain.” It was a thrilling, thrilling poem, which brought to mind this 1807 quote by Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843, German poet and philosopher) taken from the “Millennium” book: “I believe in a forthcoming revolution of attitudes and conceptions which will make everything that has gone before turn red with shame.” (Get this! Holderlin went to school, actually WENT TO COLLEGE with Hegel and Schelling).  

Yana‘s poem “The tree breaks into the house” is many things disguised as one thing; the ‘one thing’ is the relationship between a house and the tree outside the house; the many things include a revelation that the house in question was the speaker’s childhood home, though that doesn’t come out until the end; and an investigation of memory, and even of identity, and the limits of poetry and perhaps an ecological manifesto (a small one). The poem starts out with a simple statement: “In a story/ the tree smashes a bedroom window,/ breaks into the house.” But that invasion triggers a meditation that touches on whether the tree owns or serves the house or whether the house owns the tree.  And while the first section of this two section poem (“Window”) seems more concerned with the physicality of the situation, the second section (“Gap”) introduces the speaker as a storyteller, a frustrated one at that:  “The story I tell refuses completion.// A gap opens –/ an entrance to a cavernous space/ of dark pools, of echoes.” The introduction of this figurative language, heralds the beginning of a wider philosophical discussion, and when the speaker wonders what a house can “know,” she is also wondering what she can know of the house or the tree: “What can I know/ about the past/ that roosts in trees,/ that dwells in houses?” And so the story she imagines telling at the start of the poem disintegrates: “Pages scatter,/ ink blurs,/ the meaning changes, as new words appear.

Frank’s poem “Sleeping on My Friend’s Floor” is about a rare sort of nostalgia, the kind that pines for something it never had, in this case, a photograph that a friend (the one with the floor) took of the speaker in the morning after they—speaker and friend—slept together naked….. chastely, a photo the speaker “always thought … must’ve been the best picture ever taken of [him/her/them].” And the feeling associated with this absent picture or possibly the speaker themselves, is presented in a simile as “up the mountainside a ways like a thunk/ off the rock.”  Elaborating still further on this strange nostalgia, the speaker imagines themself both as the rock and the tree whose root has split the rock.  So, yes, a very complex emotional connection to this photo the speaker has never seen.  In the last movement/stanza, the poem discloses its occasion—it’s after hurricane Ida, and the speaker is cleaning out their basement.  The things they encounter in the soaked basement evidently remind them of the naked photo they never had: a catalog of Korean War “slides” (remember them?) belonging to the speaker’s father, “a set of vintage dishes in a box labeled Richard; & a fat volume of Chinese poetry,/ whose soaked page had “a senseless, unending vigilance.” So, it seems, in this final trope, the poem finds its motto in the fat volume of Chinese poetry. “A senseless, unending vigilance” may be gnomic, but it may be a found instruction on how to make inquiry of the world. A very dynamic piece of work.

OK—for those of you who are interested, Brooklyn Poets has locked down Jay Deshpande to give a craft talk webinar this coming Sunday 9/19 from 4-7 on Zoom.  The talk is called “I and Others: Selfhood, Identity, and the Management of the Speaker”  I couldn’t recommend a presentation of this type more strongly.  Jay’s talks tend to get at the poetry connections we make intuitively but he’s got them articulated in a way we recognize but still feel surprised by.  Check it out on the Brooklyn Poet’s website, and register if you have the time.  

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 07-27-21

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

It seems that this week’s workshop was all about costs and benefits of different formal and substantive choices in poems. We saw that the decision to use a formal device whether it’s a traditional one like assonance, anaphora or metaphor, or putting a poem in the form of a dialogue, or a newer formal device like adding footnotes to a poem, or changing the layout of the poem on the page can serve the poet’s purposes of identifying their work as “poetry” but also bring with them expectations that the poem can meet or fail to meet and exact costs and sacrifices the poet needs to be aware of and possibly manage.

Claudia Serea‘s poem, “The retouching team is working hard,” brought the political reality of the propaganda in the Communist regime of her native Romania to the fore, where making the political leader look good was a priority, and  ironically adopting the perspective of a supporter of media manipulation. Her poem focused on photoshopping government portraits of leaders to make them look good. Ana Doina agreed with the political point, suggesting it’s not only Romania that promoted such hero augmentative strategies, but other Communist block and authoritarian controlled countries, including an endorsement of the technique Claudia’s poem mentioned of never showing a strongman with their hat in their hand. No one had anything to say about the prosody of the poem because (1) Claudia is just so damn good at what she does; and (2) when politics come in the door, prosody goes out the window. And it raises the question: how far can political irony take a poem?

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “Everything I do is stitched.” The poem, whose text relates to craft-work with fabric, has a principal text and a set of footnotes. For example, the first line of the poem says “Everything I do is stitched with color” and contains footnotes to the word “stitched” and the word “color.” The footnote to “stitched” is a four line definition of the word followed by a explanation of how the speaker threads a needle or uses a sewing machine when hand stitching becomes too difficult. The footnote to “color” provides a definition of the word and then is a friendly tone calls out the mnemonic device—Roy G. Biv—that is used to teach children the color spectrum. And so the short poem about craft continues annotating itself until the footnotes occupy almost half the page. This use of footnotes within the poem (as opposed by footnotes added by editors of an anthology) is a formal element of the prosody, no different fundamentally than any other manipulation that brings new voices or multiple voices into a poem, such as collage and erasure. The footnote, with its traditional textual role of explanation or amendment, brings with it expectations of authority and dignity that can be in dialogue with the principal text, reinforcing or subverting the message of the poem. The success or failure of the technique depends, like everything else, on how well it is done and for what purpose, how much tension —in this case—is created between text and what is literally subtext. Barbara’s footnotes provide definitions. Barbara uses the footnotes for the anodyne purpose of providing definitions, and historical background to her stitching practice. And on one level, the footnotes enact the process of stitching: attaching subtext to text, which is clever. But the concern, as with everything, is whether the device earns its place in the poem by delivering in meaning than it demands in effort. The footnote project calls a lot of attention to itself as a form and demands a lot of effort from the reader.

John J. Trause‘s poem “Magic Fingers” is a Trausian romp of the first order that —like Barbara’s poem—draws a lot of formal attention to itself, though not with footnotes, but foregrounded music; the poem is chockablock with assonance and near rhyme around the words beginning with haich or sounding like “hotel” and the gerund case “ing”—as in the lines “hoteling and motelling, modelling and hostelling,/ no telling what else,/ and retelling ….” Like others of John’s poems it borrows (sometimes frantically) from popular movie culture with references to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Seberg, and seems like it will function only on that playful level until it resolves in the final stanzas to a plaintive call for Olga Khokhlova, Pablo Picasso’s first wife, which is surprisingly effective at changing the lyric tone of the poem.

My poem, “Ode To The Place At the Northern End of Manhattan….” is, as advertised, a lyric song of praise to a place with nostalgic significance. When I wrote the poem a few years ago it was in a blocky left justified form, and it had several more sections than are shown here. Recently, I read of book called Crush by Richard Siken, who used what I’d call an exploded arrangement of the poem on the page that infused his work with a lot of energy, and I liked it. So I took the first section of the Ode and, with only minor editorial changes to the text, changed its layout to look a little like Siken’s “Scheherazade”  and I liked it a lot. Personally, I think that making mechanical changes to form and layout, moving a poem into short lines, long lines, couplets, tercets, and quatrains, just changing the font or font size, all of these and many more are fantastic, ‘low cost’ tools of revision, literally allowing us to re-see the poem, see it newly, ways of making the poem new for the poet, bringing things that may have been buried in habit out into a more prominent place, where they can be seen, acknowledged, and raise questions. Shira Ehrlichman, the poet who wrote “Odes to Lithium” advocates this method of stimulated revision through initially mechanical changes the “laboratory of possibility.”   I also advocate it.  Raymond Carver famously said (or repeated) in his droll, low-key way: “A very few of us have true vision; the rest of us have revision.”

Ray Turco‘s poem “Spaesato” addresses the situation of a speaker who finds themselves “exist[ing] between languages,” Italian and English:  “In Italy, I am American but different,/ In America, I am Italian but quirky and new.”   The poem takes a leap towards the lyric expression of alienation that comes from this duality in the last lines: “I cling to myself, close to myself/ in the cold of the rain.”

Don Zirilli‘s poem, “The Trap,” comes out of a truly wonderful poetic tradition, the dialogue, which presents a moral or intellectual problem from two sides by putting itself in the form of a conversation. One of the loveliest parts of Don’s dialogue is that we don’t exactly know what the two voices are talking about, but more about their conversational relationship. Someone said it was like the dialogue in Waiting for Godot, and maybe so, but it is also a development that continues Don’s recent monologues in the voice of a stand-up comedian.  
Overheard conversations can be riveting, and this one often works on that level even with minimal ‘content.’

Oh my god
Do you think anything will happen in August?

Do you think anything will happen in January?

Extremists love anniversaries

I guess everyone is sentimental

I’m not sure any of this is a good idea
But what other choice do we have?

You might make it to a nice park trail
But what if it’s already started

(and so on.) Don enhanced the mesmeric quality of such eavesdropping by having two people reading the poem as dialogue. It was a lot of fun and Don said it helped him towards future revision, which is the highest goal we have.

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Ubi patria – a prophecy before exile” which was a bit of a character study of the woman employed by the speaker of the poem to help with household work and, ultimately with packing the speaker’s belongings as the speaker prepares to go into exile. The employee is introduced as “Leana/ the gypsy we hired to paint our house,” and the poem spares no harshness in talking about Leana as a woman whom the state has “declared …. retarded” and “spayed” after she had seven pregnancies “and gave one healthy boy to each orphanage in a thousand mile radius. At least one member of the workshop was deeply disturbed by these locutions suggesting that a content warning may be appropriate when addressing topics of state brutality and cruelty, even if the views are not the views of the poet, but only the reported views of the state.

Frank Rubino‘s poem “On Chestnut Street” continues Frank’s recent commitment to experimenting with form, here, manipulated indenting of successive lines in stanzas one, two, and six and, in stanza four, working with and against an anaphoric repetition of “Love has me” alternating with one instance of “gore has me”  — The poem also falls into a group of Frank’s poems that take place while the speaker is walking around Montclair, New Jersey, such as “Dayes and Monthes” sharing cultural references like the music in their headphones or, here, thoughts about Virgil’s Aeneid, and in particular, the scene in which Aeneas recognizes his mother by the color of her throat. Love is presented as a brutal thing (“love has me in its rock crevice,/ wedged between stone walls,/ chasing its sick porcupine” and a place of sadness and deception, but it is set unironically against an overt insistence that the speaker is “ecstatic with gratitude.”

We are all sorcerer apprentices, employing the poetic devices that we have admired elsewhere to achieve the purposes and discuss the matters that matter to us. As apprentices, we sometimes flood the workshop, but that’s okay, in fact, better than okay.

Don’t forget to come to the RWB Reading tomorrow at 7:00 pm.
—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 07-20-21

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

We had a fantastic workshop on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Took me from then till now to calm down enough to write about it.

Frank Rubino‘s “Fire is not connected to wood” is a suburban philosophical free verse tract in two stanzas about nature and mortality presented in the garb of two guys looking for a stinky dead bird in the bushes in the backyard on a summer night with a fire burning. The men’s sniffing upsets “the others”  and sets off thoughts about Dostoyevsky’s Karamazovs; ultimately the speaker looks up at the back window of his own house “regretting my daughter’s old bedroom window/ & that she slept on a mattress now on the floor of her mother’s one bedroom apartment.” Stanza one ends with a remarkable, frank cry of anguish for the lost daughter. Quite a journey, but then the poem flips back in time to the same afternoon where, with excruciating delight, sympathy, and concision, the speaker recounts the movements of a bird struggling to fly up onto the garage roof  “discombobulated, as she careens across to the cypress tree,/ loose winged still, still fluttery.” Only to conclude, glumly, that the bird that delighted him in the afternoon may be the dead bird he and his friend smell in the night. Chagrin, remorse, regret, loss and even fading hope become instinct in the picture of the bird; the daughter and the bird locked in the embrace that the poem forces on them. Good good poem. There was quite a debate at the workshop over the allusion to Dostoyevsky, the use of the friend’s name when even the absent daughter had no name, some suggestion that the emotional miasma of the first stanza should be ditched in favor of the mid-century clarity of the second stanza tracking the bird’s movements.  Someone even argued that you can’t “regret a window”—but obviously they have only limited experience with either regret or windows.  

Janet Kolstein continued what’s been a remarkable run of poems with “Sol y Sombra.”  The title refers to the two sides of a bull fighting arena — one can sit in the sun or the shadows; and the poem talks about adolescent fantasy of dressing like the toreador in the poster on the stairs to the attic of the house the speaker grew up in:

Lithe and fierce in his skin-tight suit of lights,
El Cordobes hung on the wall by the steep attic stairs I’d painted with stars.
I must’ve run up and down those steps to my bedroom ten-thousand times
and stood, expectant, in front of the closet
deciding what to wear
when what I wore affected my confidence
or lack thereof
It had to feel just right on my body.

What I love particularly about this poem is how it frankly acknowledges that it’s the moment from the poster—bullfighter, cape, costume, sword (“the space between the sword and the beast”)—that excites the speaker, even in memory, not the “pain I felt for the bull’s heaving agony [and] bleeding wounds.” And it excites me because that’s how humans are. We can love a bullfighter’s costume even if bullfighting should be outlawed. Sol and Sombra, indeed.

Moira O’Brien‘s haiku, “Seniors wheeled to the quad” worked in the manner of Pound’s “In a Station in the Metro” juxtaposing two images. For Pound it was the faces in a subway crowd and the petals on a tree limb; for O’Brien, it’s the old people out in the sun on the quad and “turtles basking on rocks.” The success of a juxtapositional effort like this may be dependent on how unexpected the comparison is, and how one image deepens the other. Put differently, my Pope and Dryden professor at Syracuse, Art Hoffman once responded to a criticism of Dryden’s imagery saying: “you say ‘far-fetched’ as though it was a bad thing…”  

Joanne Santiglia brought a poem called “The Wine Flows”  a free- verse love poem that uses wine as a metaphor to explore personality. The wine, it begins “flows from my mouth to yours/ turning to vinegar…” The beloved says don’t worry, but the speaker insists that if her “tongue is tart,” she’s to blame for the transfiguration. Spilt words and wine are “not easily contained,” she acknowledges, before professing her wish that her words would transmit her loving intentions.

Shane Wagner‘s poem “Summer of ’78” is a beach nostalgia that ticks off the typical summer pleasures of youthful cousins on the seaside, before ending with a surprise review of “grandma’s liver/ Only liver I ever enjoyed/ Maybe because we were that hungry/ Or maybe because, as she explained, you have to devein the liver before you cook it.” Amazing how the down and dirty memory can rise up and trump the cliches.

Yana Kane brought back an elegy we’ve seen several times before “Tai Chi Teacher,” a poem in four segments that begins with a beautiful depiction of the eponymous teacher still learning his craft at the age of 83, and then veers in the following sections, as a good elegy should, to consider the aftermath of his death, at a memorial service, in the speaker’s notebook, and, ten years later, in the surviving memory.  It seems that Yana has struggled to extend the poem beyond that initial beautiful depiction through multiple drafts, but keeps running into the same problem—that nothing so far has matched that initial evocation in solidity, believability and intensity. But if we know Yana, she’ll find a way, and when she does, we’ll be here.

Barbara Hall‘s poem “The Day I Walked to School,” about missing her bus, has a super refrain: “then (of course) I thought of you,” that alternates with the little snippets of narrative that take the speaker through her morning routine and out to the bus stop just a little too late. The group wondered who the “you” of whom the speaker thought was, and what their connection to the narrative was. Everyone in the world loves a good refrain, and loves it even better when each instance of the repetition holds the subject in a slightly different, new and surprising light (see, e.g., James Taylor’s “Wandering”). Here, we got the lambency but not the development.

Mike Mandzik (god, how we love this guy) brought a knee-slapper of a poem “WHY IS URANUS BLUE?” that spoke in some sort of scientific way about what turns out to be a fart joke—it’s the methane around the ‘gas giant’ that makes the planet blue, and keeps the other planets from getting too close. And someone even noticed that when Mike referred to space as the “vinyl veneer” he was actually spoofing Star Trek’s invocation of space as the “final frontier.” A poem as funny as a fart in a space suit?  I don’t know, but when we ship out for Mars, I want Mike for company.

Just a note on process—We like to emphasize DESCRIPTION as a workshop priority. Description is more difficult than likes and dislikes, and more difficult than line editing, but ultimately more rewarding than either. Description reveals the mechanisms and manners of the poem, and everyone in the group benefits when anyone in the group says: “I spy with my little eye…”  

YESTERDAY WAS THE NYC POETRY FESTIVAL ON GOVERNOR’S ISLAND.
The rain held off and a few of us represented The Red Wheelbarrow Poets at this annual event. It was great to read live again and see everyone in  person. Photos and video coming soon.

See you tomorrow night.

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