Field Notes, Week of 01-05-21

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

What ambition the poets displayed on Tuesday!

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

The car radio sings step into eternity

and the sign says DIP

so I follow the rules of the road

and dip into my fugitive thoughts

recollecting stars of the screen

and the artisans who made them glow. 

and from that beginning comes this ending:

By my bidding, the celebrated dead

come into my bed at night

to devour more and more of my youth …

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

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

blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah

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

blah blah blah blah fall

blah blah blah blah blah evening

blah blah turned away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 12-1-20

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