We had a great workshop last Tuesday. The truth was delivered by the poets and then the truth was delivered by the workshop. So much truth.
My poem, “A Mortician’s Stitch” touched on a daughter telling a father’s story then retold by the speaker of the poem, about the life of a guy who was in near constant motion, whose daughter caught his momentum and the speaker who saw it in her. It was a blank verse poem which means unrhymed iambic pentameter, and I must say that the form is fluid enough to capture discourse without unnatural compression, but the constraint of the iambic line, and the pentameter line in particular, provides just enough back-pressure on the writing process to measure out the poem’s progress in lines of consistent density and tone; the cadence is satisfying to the ear. I recommend it.
Shane Wagner’s “For a Lifetime” was a prose piece – JJT called it a short story – about life in the neighborhood with children who face developmental challenges. That “know-a-little, not-a-lot” feeling that comes from living down the block is well captured, with the children as advance guards or avatars of friendship when they meet at the door for trick or treat on Halloween. The details all ring true, and the line that rang the truest for me was the one that described the excitement of the girl who gave the juice boxes on Halloween when the speaker’s son arrived in his wheelchair: “The girl filling the doorway. Holding a tray of juice boxes. Shifting her weight in anticipation.” Poetry or prose, it’s details like that that ground a piece.
Don Zirilli brought “Labyrinth” a poem hearkening back to the story of Orpheus, the Minotaur and Daedelus, but told, according to Don, from the perspective of the labyrinth itself: “Every night, no matter how diligently I was debased,/ I walked backward into myself again.”
Ana Doina brought a poem called “Bilingualism, a legacy.” The poem sets up as a dialogue in which the science of bilingualism is set out in italics, such as “It’s about changing codes,” and each italicized piece of the lecture is filled with an autobiographical rejoinder to the thought in the voice of a speaker who grew up speaking Romanian, German and Hungarian, and who now has a “toddler grandson.” Everyone in the group found the final paragraph/stanza of the poem – the one that introduced the grandson — to be the most engaging, where the grandson is quoted saying he doesn’t like to say certain words in Romainian, but we feel the grandparent’s satisfaction that he “goes on listing in Romanian, all the colors he doesn’t like to say.”
Susanna Lee’s poem, “Queen of Corona” was about how the last year of evenings have gone for the speaker, reading poems and the paper, following social media, watching movies and tv game shows and eating “corn chips, cheddar and salsa.” Which is described as a kind of hell from which vaccination may provide relief if the speaker can move up on the list. We learned that the speaker had indeed moved up the list, and has now been vaccinated, but not whether her activities list or her address had changed.
John J Trause brought a poem, an ode perhaps, called “To Thoth,” the ‘thoth’ being an Egyptian deity of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment and the dead, often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or baboon. John’s poem was hilarious. Read it.
Frank Rubino was back from vacation and back with a rewrite of his poem about men talking around a fire, “Pete & Stan’s.”
The dialogue had the offhand terribleness that one automatically associates with men, such as “Did you ever have to fuck someone, said Pete, or they’d fuck you?” But the real heat of the poem is in the speaker’s feelings of discomfort with the fireside regime and more generally, about secrets (“(I can’t give the secret that I’m bad at the stock market)/(I can’t give the secret of my true numbers)/(I can’t give the secret when I last had sex)”); and that discomfort is vindicated, oddly, when the speaker’s “wife and the ladies come by the fire,” and the speaker can confidently report on the men’s good behavior with goofy smile emoji to emphasize the relief: “No secrets dropped about them all night (goofy smile)/ They are funny and high.” In a way, the setting of the poem, with the women withdrawing to what was known in Victorian England as the ‘withdrawing room’ and the men retiring to the billiards room (which often had a fireplace) for a game of snooker. Frank is clearly our poet most comfortable with the familial tensions of midlife.
Janet Kolstein’s poem, “Golden Shovel 1” was written in the form of that name invented by Terrence Hayes, who took the words in a line of Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, and made them into end-words for a poem of his own. Janet used the words of the title of an article from the Sunday New York Times (“Music and Meditation Fuels Laura Donnelly”) to provide her with end words, and the connection between the inspiring title and the ultimate poem turns out to be the name of a friend of the speaker who recently died, Laura. What’s particularly wonderful is how Janet used the name “Laura Donnelly” from the newspaper headline and got two line endings, one for her friend “Laura” and the other a reference to a line of poetry by another Donnelly, Tim.
Come back again on Tuesday 4/20/21, and we’ll rip into a few more poems.
Hey, Everyone: I tried so hard not to repeat last week’s complete failure to get out the Field Notes that I got a bit sloppy. I forgot to include Carole Stone’s lovely evocation of a writer’s retreat at a somewhat spooky, but also charming and inspiring, richly-endowed castle in Scotland, which I’ve pasted in full below, and I forgot to tell you about a fabulous poem by Walt Whitman called “Leaves of Grass Original 1855 Edition,” that I’m reading over and over on an audiobook narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, available on Spotify. I’ve talked to a few people about the experience of having LoG read to me, and how it has enhanced my appreciation of the poem I would say exponentially. I have a facsimile copy of that 1855 edition that I keep open and follow along as Mr. Ballerini does the hard and necessary work of giving voice to the words on the page. As you may know, the original 1855 edition has very little by way of formatting; the poem just rolls on and on sometimes a double space between what would, in later editions, be separately numbered or named poems. Also the Preface to the 1855 edition is a really long 5000-word lyric essay on what it means to be a great poet of the American moment, and the Preface, in the facsimile edition, is in tiny type and paragraphs with no spaces between them, so it looks like the label on a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s Pure Castile Soap. But with Ballerini reading the Preface, you can hear the urgency of the mission statement (some say WW undertook the work of becoming the American bard after hearing a lecture by RW Emerson), and you can hear those Whitmanic cadences in a distinct ambition, which is very nice.
My dear friend and I were listening to a 45-minute swath of LoG yesterday— the entire recording, Preface included—is 4 hours 19 minutes—and they were as grateful as I was to have the poem read aloud to us; we did it without having the text, or a glass of wine or anything, just sitting in front of my babbling telephone as though we were listening to FDR give a fireside chat, or as though we were in church letting the improbabilities of liturgy and sermon pass over us unchecked. This was part of my second time through the recording and the poem. I’d listened to it once beginning on Good Friday (1/3), Holy Saturday (1/3) and Easter Sunday (1/3) (which also corresponded to the last days of Passover, oh happy concordance much to be hip-hip-hoorayed), and I had been upended by the way LoG works as prayer/sermon/testimony/patchwork/Haggadah/midrash. And my dear friend and I agreed that WW can be difficult to enjoy on the page because as readers we’re always rereading, going back to catch the syntactical whole after it unfolds in those minutes-long sentences and lists of his; and when someone is reading the poem, you can’t go back (you can stop it to look up some of those incredible words he comes up with (chuff, teokallis)), but stopping to go back is really not the best way to love LoG. The best way is to let it roll, keep going, stay in that beautiful space that he carves out of time, try to stay in the moment, and if you drift, come back without judgment (I know, meditation). I thought, too, of how in Hebrew school and at the Saturday services, and at Passover, and, I imagine for Xians, in the liturgy, it’s the hearing of the thing (especially as a child, but also as a second child) over and over that allows your mind to absorb the poem in a noncritical way, to remember it without memorizing it, and in a way, remembering without caring if you remember. And let me tell you, when I undertook to read LoG, I was erecting sensical barriers to its admission (into my head) based on his relentless filling of its stretched-tight net-shopping-bag sentences, and rudely compared WW’s work to a wet fart (that happened, and I regret it). But once I found Ballerini’s recording, and loved it, and listened to the poem uninterrupted by my reader’s intelligence (such as it is) or my whiny pissy impatient attitude (think Ezra Pound), I was fucking mesmerized for long stretches, and when I did drift off to appreciate or interrogate an image or phrase or line (“The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case/ He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom”) I was able to rejoin the procession without a sense of loss, and realized that the poem is performative, not textual (Grateful Dead jam, not Bill Evans solo). It may be that some people can read WW on the page with the same drive and push as hearing it aloud provides, but I’m not one of them (which is a little odd, because in the sorts of shorter lyric works that I hear in workshops and at poetry readings, I’m always craving the text). Point of the story is I think this Whitman guy is on the rise, a real Ocean Vuong of a poet, and I plan to read “LoG 1855”, with and without the audiobook and my new bff Ballerini two or three times more before the class moves on to Emily Dickinson at the end of the month. For the last go-through, I may set aside 4 hrs and 19 min, and go straight through.
Speaking of Ocean Vuong, they did a free online reading through Harvard Radcliffe on Thursday night, and read two excerpts from their novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as well as a poem from their forthcoming poetry collection “Time Is A Mother.” The poem, which they now call “Not Even” was published last year (Poetry, April 2020) as “Not Even This” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/152940/not-even-this) – Although they did not say so explicitly, the readings from the novel, which concerns the Southeast Asian immigrant experience in the US, including their work in massage spas and nail salons, where Vuong actually worked (as a receptionist) as a boy and where his mother worked as a nail technician, were apt in the aftermath of the murder last week of 6 people, 4 of them Asian American women, in Atlanta by a psychotic moron, and they made some comments about that disaster in the q and a, including this: “My aunt works in a massage parlor, in California, right now.” I don’t know about you, but the stark reality of that statement did a lot of work for me ripping away the veil that separates us from the faceless Asian-Americans we hear about as victims of racist violence on the news. Separately, Vuong also made a very uplifting comment about the younger person we all once were who dreamed up the identity we became. To paraphrase, they said that in the Western Tradition we are encouraged to forget the person who wanted, and focus on the present, but, they argue, the person who wanted was the “pioneer of our life in a way.” Vuong asked us to see that person “not as a defunct version of ourselves, but as a fruitful collaborator.”
If this amended Field Notes were a Frank Rubino invitation to the RWB workshop, I would now say, think of a way to revive that fruitful collaborator in your poems. But even though I have appeared as Frank Rubino in Zoom meetings while he is away (and based on his reputation and home-page photo, received date offers), I am not Frank Rubino….
Next, I’m dropping a link to a worthwhile article in The Paris Review called “Fuck The Bread.”
And finally, again, with renewed apologies to her for having omitted it from the earlier edition of the Field Notes, is Carole Stone’s poem “Hawthornden Castle.”
Silence in the halls, outgoing calls not allowed, lunch arrives outside my door, sounds of padding feet.
I walk the winding drive, pass flowers, Latin names displayed. After a brief shower, the drenched air holds its blue, Rhododendron flare like a Tartan plaid.
Tea at four, today the promised scones. I’m scared of the rattles in my fireplace. Ghosts of previous guests? I’m told Stevie Smith was here.
I complain the sherry’s drunk up; the director implies someone is tippling at night. The cook makes the promised trifle. The castle owner’s possessions abound; Sèvres porcelain, blue and white Ming vases.
Precisely at 10:30 PM, the cast-iron gate slams shut, a heavy key turns the ancient squeaky lock. A poem might come to me tonight. Glittering, wonderful.
We had a good time at the old Zoom last Tuesday, with poems of metamorphosis, dreams, nostalgia, you know, the stuff we .
Claudia Serea’s “At 3 a.m., I held my parents” is a dreamlike free verse poem in nine couplets in which the parents are depicted as metamorphic presences that the speaker holds, loves and loses. When the poem begins, the parents are held like children on the speaker’s lap, then compared to weightless birds who wriggle free, “spread their wings and swoosh[ ] off.”
Don Zirilli’s poem, “How to Remember a Dream” enters the same landscape of dreams that Claudia’s poem occupied, but rather than presenting the content of the dream, it is presented as a ‘how to’ poem, that focuses on the process rather than the content of the dream. Like many poems in the ‘how to’ genre, there’s a bit of tension between the title’s promise of an easy-to-follow set of instructions, and the more difficult emotional content that follows. Three imperatives — “walk” “feel” and “report” – carry the ‘how to’ device forward, but particularly in the ‘feel’ section, the instructions illuminate rather than resolve the difficulties of remembrance, as they show us the imagined student receiving the content of the dream like a “frosty night of weather” transdermally through a their forehead resting on the cool glass of a window:
Feel the cool glass against your forehead
until you’re transparent, no longer
in the way
of the story you’re telling
to the person who is actually having the dream
and slowly pours a frosty night of weather
Janet Kolstein’s free verse poem, “Black Cat on a Cobblestone Street” was a lovely ekphrasis of a 1927 silent film directed by Walther Ruttman, called “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City.” While Ruttman’s film is famous for being the first or one of the first “city films” (here’s an article about it: https://www.popmatters.com/berlin-walter-ruttmann-2620911194.htmlabout) which can be seen as a celebration of modernity and urbanity, or a partly Marxist social critique on the on the dehumanization brought about by industrialization, Janet’s poem is more of an ‘ubi sunt’ poem, a contemplation of mortality and the transience of life, in which she considers how the people depicted in the movie are now dead and gone.
Speaking of old movies, Shane Wagner brought a poem called “A Pretty Good Team,” you might call a free verse poem, but not really, since it was written, in part, under the constraint of following the versification of the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin (1937), for the movie “Shall We Dance” where it was sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while dancing in roller skates. Shane takes this lyric about incompatibility (toe-MAY-toe/ toe-MAH-toe) and makes it about domestic compatibility.
My poem, “I Imagine the Earth Absconded” is set up rhetorically as Petrarchan sonnet (octave and sestet) in unrhymed lines that hearken (loosely) back to iambic pentameter. The subject of the poem is the traditional one of leaving home, coming back and remembering the journey. The poem hinges on the two sides of a simile (tenor and vehicle) which are deliberately conflated: (1) the fanciful device of the Earth leaving the solar system to visit a faraway galaxy, and (2) the teenager who leaves home to go to California, meets a girl in a health-food-store and returns home with artifacts (serape blanket, old car) and a souvenir of his time away (a pillowcase). The intergalactic imagery of a planet leaving its orbit provides some emotional substance to the difficulties of leaving one’s assigned orbit, and the powerful pull of gravity that brings one back to their “endless falling groove” and the pillowcase souvenir with its embroidered “border of yellow stars” embodies the way those journeys live on in a domesticated life.
Barbara Hall brought a pair of haiku “Haiku for my parents.” Both halves of the poem, mom and dad, dealt with death, the dad piece with a startlingly self-aware moment of gentle punning self-mockery by the dying father who says his hands are “the ends of me” and the mom piece with a detail of the funeral – lipstick color – that illuminates the intimacy of a daughter’s knowledge. Don Z commented that it was interesting that the haiku for the father follows the haiku rules, but the one for the mother did not. There was some discussion as to what the poem gained from presenting itself as haiku.
Susanna Lee’s poem, “Ruckus” is a poem, like Barbara’s about parental mortality, in which the speaker’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is furious about losing the ability to read, and tears a paperback apart. The description of the “tortured” book being torn apart becomes a metaphor for the father’s losses engendered by the disease.
Raymond Turco brought a poem called “The Chef” written in the second person to a “you” who is the cousin of the speaker. The poem has the candor to recognize the cousin as “”harsh/ like bitter dandelion greens” the respect to admit that the speaker is humbled when she chides him, and ends by celebrating the comfort that the speaker feels when he sees her act of kindness in making his bed. The poem is written in short free verse lines that are set up in three long stanzas; we didn’t have time to discuss the way this form relates to the content, but it would be a good thing to look at.
Frank Rubino’s poem is called “Gasoline is a living chemical.” The poem is in three free verse sections separated by bullet dots. It starts in the Covid present with the “we” of the poem, possibly husband and wife, getting vaccinated at an old Sears store they had visited (together or separately?) as children, and “played… in its overcoat racks…” Within that moment, the speaker reminisces about the connection between that old Sears store and the people who frequented it being possible workers at a clothing factory who might have been customers of his father’s lunch truck, including perhaps the foreman at the factory who had “put aside some dresses for my sister.” The poem returns from those reminiscences to the vaccination moment where the ‘we’ waits for possible adverse reactions to the shots while listening to muzak on the old Sears music system, and then returns to the domestic scene at home, talking to kids. The second and third sections of the poem ruminate on the moment: the vaccination event held side by side with the situation in Novogorod Russia when the couple adopted their baby, and in a larger sense, the idea of being in a strange public space.
Jen Poteet’s poem “With Authority” is full of humorous observations about idiosyncrasy and trivia, such as how different sorts of columns (Ionic and Doric) can lead to remembering a (very very old) tv car commercial featuring the actor Ricardo Montalban talking about the rich Corinthian leather in a Chrysler Cordoba.
Good morning and welcome to the Field Notes for the February 16, 2021 RWB Workshop.
Janet Kolstein (no copy included) brought a rewrite of her poem “Did you know Neil Lasher?” about one of those odd apartment house elevator acquaintanceships that ends in learning of the person’s passing, and a concomitantly odd form of mourning that ensues. I thought of it as an elegy pulling the slender threads of that incomplete portrait. So much information and the contours of the emotional gap revealed in these two lines: “I’d interviewed him in a Meet Your Neighbor segment/ that aired on our (now) cancelled condo channel.” And so much reverence (I think that’s not the wrong word) in this lovely quatrain:
He was always pulled together; grey cashmere around his heck, navy blue sweater, or a smart suit cut to his roundness. A nimbus of stylish white hair
The kindness of “smart suit cut to his roundness” slayed me.
Claudia Serea’s poem, “If I could go back in time” imagines a time before the speaker was born, before her parents met, when her father as a young man was arrested by the secret police in Romania for what he’d written in poems in a high school notebook. In this poem, the unborn speaker imagines herself a gust of wind that blows that notebook off the table and out of sight of the secret police, thereby saving her father, but also, coincidentally, insuring that her father wouldn’t meet her mother and she, the speaker, would never be born. There is a wonderful moment in this wonderful poem when the narrative ends (“the Securitate would never find [the book]” and the poem leaps to two images in a couplet: “The flame would crawl into the match,/ the spider would swallow back its web.” They are images that illuminate time moving backwards, or undone cause undoing effect, and they are followed by the monostich: ‘and my father would be spared.’ Great story telling move, I think, and it is followed, ironically, with the new effect, that the speaker, the daughter, as savior, presented as a gust of wind would, by logic, have “swelled the curtains, exhaled,/ and disappeared.” So the sacrifice comes home in the last word of the poem. Nice work.
Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Fetish” talks about a guardian angel who “is neither.” Presented as a story in free verse with variable line lengths but a slender overall appearance, the poem portrays the ‘angel’ as a kind of pet or disruptive and sexually perverted child who masturbates hovering in front of a shoe store window. Funny as anything, the poem mostly avoids talking about the speaker, this parent/pet owner, except in the lines that reveal their superstitious nature: “so the other day I’m walking/ into town, busy avoiding the cracks/ in the sidewalk while counting back/ from a hundred by sevens.” And that’s really all it takes! I think that what energizes Tom’s work beyond the bizarre imagination of the supernatural, is his excellent management of lines that keeps his odd tales moving. Look at all these great line ending words: neither, levitate, ground, breaststroker, incontinent, cracks, staring, rubbing, inappropriate, swat, angel, revolving, embarrassment, shoes! And look too at the fabulous break at “three” in the compound word “three-legged dog,” which so zazzes the funny line with additional expectation, or the breaks between “rubbing” and “himself” and between “inappropriate” and “way,” that enliven each new line with impetus and momentum. So, it’s not just the story, but the lines that include fresh surprising details in an entertaining and engaging and surprising way. And, as the workshop pointed out, the title “Fetish” applies not only to the angel’s love of shoes, but can be a slantwise reference to the angel itself under the definition of fetish as “an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers.” Thanks Tom.
For a different approach to narrative, Raymond Turco brought another of his hagiographic sketches, this one about the assassinated PM of Italy “Aldo Moro.” In all of these sketches, this one included, Ray writes in the second person, but oddly forfeits the proximity of that mode of address with an impersonal voice and a narrative style. The net effect can be somewhat “Dragnet-like,” the historical importance of the hero’s life, the chilling circumstances of their death circumscribed in a just-the-facts mode. The poem part of the poem is in prosy free verse, and is followed by an actual prose paragraph reciting more or less the same facts. The slight difference between the poem part and the prose part lies in the some details included in one and not the other and in ‘commentary’ such as “A mystery surrounds you, Aldo,/ the details are still unclear,” which is true.
Barbara Hall’s poem “HAIKU Visions for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” is a rewrite in tercets of Barbara’s praise poem for seashells. Now the poem leans on both Wallace Stevens and on the form of haiku for support, and could possibly lose itself in the ascription. What does this series of tercets risk and/or gain by calling itself haiku? And how has it answered Wallace Stevens’ invention? The group was happy to take it on its own terms independent of the title as a series of recollections about finding shells, eating shellfish, using shells as art, and even getting a gash on one’s knee that needed stiches.
Shane Wagner’s poem “Robert Frost, Jennifer Poeteet and Shane Wagner in the Woods” starts off alluding heavily to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” but moves on to discuss the speaker feeding his son, and the challenges of having special needs children, and ending on a question about mortality. In that diffuse sense, it accepts and rejects Frost’s dichotomy concerning paths through life as there are roads, but the only choices are local. I love the way the poem alludes not just to Frost, but to Jen Poteet’s series of what she calls anachronistic poems about dead poets revived as interlocutors. And I love the way Shane made a party out of it by inviting a person/poet named Shane Wagner to come along for the walk. It would be interesting to see Shane excavate this poem for its mineral wealth.
Susanna Lee’s poem was a prose/poem called “Locks of Love” that was a waggish satirical take on Viking lore, that spoofed (or was it an homage pretending to be a spoof) the hyper sexuality of the type. “The men’s manliness oozed and anointed these, their holy women, all over.”
Jen Poteet, fresh from her appearance in Shane’s poem brought one of her own called “On Valentine’s Day, Everyone’s a Poet.” Though she never delivered on the promise of the title, there was a spritely insouciance to the portrayal of cupid as “a chubby little saint” who “aims an arrow” and the monosyllable one-word italicized, exclamation: thwack!
Yana Kane’s poem “Unbinding” came in three parts separated by dots. The first presented the interesting proposition of the speaker as an old woman emerging from a chrysalis. The second and third segments proposed variations (no, not 13 variations) on the idea of metamorphosis. The third segment was a haiku in at least a couple of ways: its adherence to the American syllabic count for the lines (5-7-5) and also the grab of a moment out of time, this one so clearly depicted as an afternoon light phenomenon:
Holding sunset light
above the rising shadow,
a rusty pipe glows.
Frank Rubino’s poem was called “Mary.” Like other of Frank’s work, centers (?) on a reality of suburban home life, the speaker’s place in the world and leaking water, and veers away to consider other things: a Russian language singer, the speaker’s wife’s decorative lights, and a woman named Mary. I loved the homeowner’s mystical relationship to his home in these sweet lines:
I opened the tiny hatch in the basement ceiling, and reached up into the dark super-ceiling,
Somehow my hand knows which pipes are full:
the more lightly you touch, the more you know.
And I also loved the way the name Mary became a lambent unknown in these lyrical lines:
I was washing a pot from dinner,
and the smell of bay leaf
arose on the steam, and reminded me of Mary.
And I said, out loud, “Oh Mary.”
And my wife asked me, What made you think of Mary?”
I also liked the way the poem came back to the image of reaching for a valve in the dark to refer to the way memory works: “I reached my hand into the dark compartment of my brain.”
On the overall, I think it would be good if we as a group spent time talking about how a poem does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t. A poem has available to it the huge range of devices, modalities and tools that poetry has invented over the last ten thousand years: form, line, sentence, argument, rhetoric, image, voice, diction, assonance, resonance, repetition, allusion to other sources, drama, narrative and lyric modes; subject, theme, irony, sarcasm (?); and we, as poets, as practitioners rather than simply as customers, have a greater awareness of what’s going on in a poem. And we can learn and the writer of the poem can learn more from us talking about what is going on—even if it seems obvious to us—than they can learn from finding out what we are or aren’t bothered by. Yet so often, instead of talking about what a poem is and how a poem is and where a poem seems to want to go and whether it seems to get there and if not why not—from which we can learn a lot—the first thing out of our mouths is “I would” instead of “you did.” Praise is important, but “I love” is only the beginning of informed praise. Don’t we ever worry that we’re imposing our own ideas of what a poem should be on a poem without exposing what those ideas are or figuring out what the poet has made? Isn’t there some sort of homogenization process going on when we jump to edit along “traditional” “modernistic” lines as though we were repairing a Ford for which a greasy dogeared manual exists rather than meeting a poem—a fucking creation—on its own terms? Can you imagine saying to God—“love the universe, but you should have ended at Jacob?”
I had this other thought about reading poems; reading, your mind wanders, words, phrases pull you into reverie and you miss something, or you read something you disagree with or would have done differently, or just resent. All of these pull you away from the text; it’s like reading a poem, the act of reading (even if it’s hearing) pulls you away from the poem. Maybe it’s a personal defect, but I think it’s more common than that. So, I’m in a workshop now with 11 other poets writing a poem a week, and posting them on Wet Ink, and wanting to respond, but being constantly pulled this way and that, I decided to try this: read the poem once, then read it out loud and record it on my phone. Then play it back as many times as I need to, maybe while preparing dinner. The oddball bits I want to change become less distracting, the relation of parts to each other becomes a little clearer, what the heck is going on goes from ‘who is this person, anyway’ to ‘who is this person, anyway’ (just kidding). And the investment in time is minimal, for most poems, a minute or so. I hit the play button over and over until I’ve noticed more and more things about it, and rather than like or dislike, I can talk about what it is, and not just the formal elements of meter, rhyme, stanza, but the angle of attack, the emotion hiding behind the cleverness, shit like that. So I’m recommending that: hit record; hit play; hit play; hit play (the peculiarities of your own voice disappear, the line you misread repairs itself). Someone once told me, the first time you read a poem (story) you read it to find yourself in it; the second time, you read it, you read it to find the author in it, but around about the third time, it’s the poem. It’s just that thing, fragment, remains, song.
Frank put my poem, “Authorities,” first in the packet, so I’ll tell you, I wrote it in Deshpande workshop on form, session 1, “Couplets, Tercets, Quatrains and Monostichs.” The monostich is the one line stanza (what I used to call the self-aggrandizing line). A poem made of monostichs can be used for list poems, or prophesy, or I spy with my little eye, and if you have a gift for aphorism, the monostich poem may be the venue for you. I thought it provided a networking possibility for non sequiturs, and found that I was talking a lot about who to listen to. I was very happy with the shape of it.
One of the authorities I appealed to in “Authorities” was the poets who come to watch me write my poems, and Jen Poteet brought something of the same modality to “Hart Crane and I File for Unemployment” – another in her series of poems that bring dead poets back to life for companionship and anachronism. Here, in free verse of no particular meter, she draws parallels and differences to hers and Hart’s situations. I thought the device was wonderful, especially when she and Hart “gaze/ out his kitchen window/ at the Brooklyn Bridge, its gleaming girders/ torched by winter sunlight.”
Ray Turco is getting more and more guff from the group over his biographical/ hagiographical sketches of heroes of Italian independence, in particular the prose sketches the follow, mirror and only alter slightly the information presented in the preceding poem. This one, “Maddalena Cerasuolo,” dips back to WWII for the story of a resistance fighter. I pointed out that the whole middle stanza was made of sentences with the same syntax, dependent clauses followed by main clauses, which become distancing, informational, and repetitive. Maybe that’s what he wants, someone said.
Speaking of hagiography, John J. Trause returned with the middle tych of a triptych about Marilyn Monroe, called “St. Marilyn Chrysotricha,” which presents the movie star in a tongue-in-cheek manner as a saint. People loved it’s humor, and no one doubted that Marilyn deserves canonization.
Susanna Lee, back from a sad time out to mourn the loss of Arliss her dog, brought a stunningly simple and beautiful poem (“Poetry Practice) of one sentence in three free-verse quatrains (so similar in shape and form to “This is Just to Say” by WCW), in which her little kindnesses define a practice of poetry that we could admire. There was a lot of talk about the last stanza (which seems appropriate) because the participle “blessing” aroused attention. After all, the participle “leaving” had started the second stanza, and “blessing” didn’t seem to have an object, or maybe blessing seemed to religious. Anyway, we all got out our editorial pencils – we love changing poems too much – and gave Susanna a few suggestions to honor what we took to be her intention.
Barbara Hall brought “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” about which some people said that Barbara and the shells could stay, but Wallace Stevens had to go. He was gumming up the works. My favorite line was X, “Clam shells ease open when steamed in a pot to yield/ one of my favorite seafood dishes: steamed clams.” Wallace Stevens has to go, but Gertrude Stein can stay!
Shane Wagner brought us a short story called “Tourist”, a sci fi disease adventure of the future. Myself, I was drawn to the description of the big fireplace in the fourth paragraph, with Jacob, the host if not the hero of the story, building a fire of “quartered logs the length of his arm, two in one direction, then two in the other and so on until the pile was chest high.” And I liked how Ava watching the conflagration “imagined Jacog as a boy at this hearth learning the technique form his father….”
Yana Kane’s poem, “Family Tree” takes that ready-made metaphor, and then talks about tree stuff as a means of elucidating family. It has great repetitions of “too many times” that provide the ostinato of the poem, and you do get the feeling that the speaker’s family’s been through a lot, but for me, the suggestion of a family wasn’t strong enough to break through the news of what happened to the tree.
Don Zirilli’s poem “Welcome to My Giant Castle of Myself” was, according to Don, inspired by wondering how you could invite someone into your life, but maybe never succeed. So the poem uses what he called “untethered metaphor” to animate the house. I liked best the parts where the human idiosyncrasy was built right into the structure: “I’m trying to get better lighting/ but the ceilings are worried about you./ Not all the angles understand/ how to accommodate your perspective./ Be careful of the well/ in the drawing room.”
Our fearless leader, Frank, brought “How Can a Loser Ever Win” in which he fell into the wake of Kyle Brosnihan’s big poem “Empire” which Kyle read last week as the feature at the RWB reading last Wednesday. What Frank had admired about Kyle’s poem was the way it took a simple core and built out from it lyrically, finding places where iteration was the driver and elaboration was the lyric experiment. He hit pay dirt many times in this piece, but none better than the tercet in the second stanza: “I want to change my job into a ministry./ I want to change my computer skills into hospice skills./ I want to change my blue jeans into a sari and wear a kimono and toga.” You could feel the tug of the desire to do good, and then the sourpuss of middle age reassert itself in the monostich stanza that followed: “I want to change a few enemies into whale shit.”
All in all, another day at the workshop with my friends. Try recording these poems and playing them back.
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 2, 2021
Claudia Serea has written many beautiful poems about Romania, her family in Romania, magic in Romania, coming to the US from Romania, and thinking about Romania when she’s in the US, but for some reason tonight’s poem “Self-portrait on Independence Boulevard” had a whole new kind of freshness and immediacy. It’s not just the understated irony of living in a communist dictatorship on a street called Independence Boulevard, or growing up, as she says, in the “oblique gaze” of “dirty potatoes sprouted eyes” in a vegetable store in a country where she can see “the bread line snaking down the sidewalk/ under the young linden trees/ that cast almost no shadows.” It may have a lot to do with the way the poem switches from the past tense to the present tense when it gets to “Here I am, quiet, scrawny,/ knee-scarred and pony tailed…” and the image of her “gliding in the vast emptiness of Independence Boulevard/ in my industrial city full of dust,/ feet strapped with brown leather and buckles/ on metal, four-wheel rollerskates.” That image of youthful vibrancy on a desolate boulevard is sharp, but the device of switching into the present tense, even though the whole poem takes place in the past, gives the poem an extra jolt. I love that.
Moira O’Brien’s poem “Ghost Herd” about the sight of deer through a winter window, showed up in two drafts, a discredited 8-line draft and a pared down tercet that rang true. Seeing the editorial changes was exciting for the group, and someone suggested presenting the poem as an erasure, leaving only the surviving bits.
Raymond Turco was back with another poem in his book of Italian heroes, “Giacomo Matteotti”, an antifascist and socialist politician of the early 20th Century. Ray’s format in this book, of providing a short prose biography of his subjects after the more lyrical poem, has been the subject of a several discussions since he began the project. No one knows exactly what to make of it. The bios are not just footnotes; sometimes they have the same information that is in the poem, and sometimes they have interesting details that are left out of the poems. We continue to wonder what the relationship is between poem and notes. The poems are not so obscure or lyrically separated from historical fact that they need a lot of explanation, but the poems are presented in the second person, while the bio is presented in the third person. We considered the possibility that the repetition may provide a stereoscopic view, or confronted the reader with choices to make about reality or poetry.
Tom Benediktsson brought “Glo-Fish at the Aquarium.” The title contains the premise or the locale, and the poem starts out fancifully considering the benefits of having phosphorescence, such as being “my own nightlight.” But fancy turns ecclesiastical and curt, if not downright impatient, when the poem becomes about a glowing statuette of Jesus Christ.
My own poem, “Heist Ballad” was part one of a narrative lyric that may never be completed, written in a series of haiku.
Rob Goldstein brought a poem called “Throwing Out Books.” In the opening stanzas, mostly couplets, the poem entertains a fanciful notion of reading across the titles of books from their spines for the ironies their successive titles provide. But then the poem hits on an amusement of a more intimate and intriguing nature, a chance encounter with a “nice lady/ At a call-center” whose offhand remark, a “that’s life” generality, inspires the speaker to cull his herd of books. “She got me thinking – straightened me out.” the poem continues. That oddball dramatic moment is my favorite in the poem. There we suddenly are, deep in the gussets of the speaker’s mind, allow to see what moves him and to see him being moved. And what follows is another surprise, an inscription in one of his books that reminds him of an old lover. That’s the true gen.
John J. Trause’s poem, part one, called “Marilyn Mosaic,” of a triptych called “My Marilyn: A Triptych” delights in working the titles of Marilyn Monroe’s movies into a portrait of the movie star.
Barbara D. Hall brought a poem called “MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE.” Its method is to present a too sweet, too warm, too compassionate, too wonderful, highly detailed but fairly cliched accounting of a happy childhood memory of a fabulous grandmother only to reveal in the last two lines end that it never happened. That’s a courageous and daring strategy.
Yana Kane was back with another draft of her ode/elegy to a Tai Chi teacher called “Tai Chi Teacher.” She has reached the point of polishing this piece.
Frank Rubino’s poem, “Kong seems to be able to see my death” captures the speaker watching an old monster movie while overhearing his wife talking on the speakerphone about a person who’d died. Slowly as the poem moves forward, the fragments of his wife’s phone call come to dominate his thoughts, so we hear the contrast between “Godzilla’s breath” being pushed down his throat and “when you’re that young you don’t realize people can just die.”
Janet Kolstein’s poem, “The Faux Ficus,” like Rob Goldstein’s “Throwing Out Books” was about paring down possessions, in Janet’s case, the eponymous plastic ficus, a forlorn companion dragged to the trash room still bearing the “shred marks on the droopy polyesterish fronds” of the speaker’s “former cat.”
I may’ve mentioned I borrowed a book of interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009) called “WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW), edited by Anselm Berrigan. It’s been an amazing way to enter the near distant history of the NY poetry scene through peer on peer conversation. I’ve only gotten 30 pages in and I’ve already been turned on to Bridgette Mayer, whose 1989 book Sonnets is a great warmup for the Sonnets workshop I’m beginning in March with Joshua Mehigan. No library in BCCLS had it, so I went to buy it on Amazon, and they only had the 25thAnniversary edition (amazing in and of itself to have a 25thanniversary edition), which has a killer sonnet in it about leaving your lover in the morning for the day (or at least that’s what I think its about) called “Holding the Thought of Love.” It has this remark and image to offer: “So let’s not talk of love the diffuseness of which/ …is today defused/ As if by the scattering of light rays in a photograph/ Of the softened reflection of a truck in a bakery window.” That is one sophisticated emotion to be able to suspend in midair. The interview of Mayer, from 1992, when the book Sonnets was still very new, has her talking about sonnets like a kid who’s just figured out how an electrical can opener works (and the mom comes home to find all the dog food cans open on the counter).
Here’s what she said:
I don’t think I like any of the poets of the past who wrote sonnets, do I? Oh, of course I do. Paul goodman. He writes the most amazing sonnets. That was a thing that inspired me to write them too, and here are Paul Goodman and Catullus always writing about sex. Sex works really well in the sonnet form. And of course Shakespeare, we don’t have to mention him, but another sex poet.
Shakes as a sex poet. I want to be a sex poet! So, I’d recommend Mayer, whose more recent book “Works and Days” (New Directions 2016), had me running to Wikipedia a little more than I usually like, but it’s not her fault that her relationship with Aristotle (read “Soule Sermon” at page 7) is as warm as mine is with the George Reeves tv Superman of the 60s.
Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Commuting in an Ice Storm.” He said that rather than describe driving in an ice storm, this was a poem for people who already knew what it was like with “all the trees clacking against themselves.” I noticed that the lineation at the beginning of the poem on the page seemed to mimic Williams’ “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” with sets of three lines of increasing indents. I can’t quite figure out why it’s such an engaging form, but it runs really well, gives a feeling of dimensional form and air. There was a sufficiency of discussion about the poem’s fabulous final image of the trees “who click their many ballpoints at me,/ the hapless tap dance/ of a drum roll on square wheels.” I think that was one of the things Frank was thinking about when he said the poem was “full of pleasures.”
When will you make an end, Michelangelo? asked the Pope. And you, Raymond Turco? with your oems of heroes of Italian independence, when will we see it all together, or do you not know? This one was about a WWI flying ace not named The Bloody Red Baron: “Francesco Baracca.”
Our sometime visitor, Elinor Mattern brought “Furnishing an American Home,” a political poem in which the speaker’s couch becomes a metaphor for America. Poems like that need to crackle with originality to avoid broccoli status. This one has at least one such moment, when the speaker admits that as a child the song lyric “Bombs bursting in air” made her “picture bodies bursting in air.” More please!
Susanna Lee’s “Love Talk” was a sensuous dream: “I’m studying French/ so I can write you a poem/ in the language of love.// I will say the words clearly./ You will feel a gentle caressing/ of your ears by my tongue.// Your ears will be left moist/ and hot/ and open.” What I loved about it was that it didn’t need French even one little bit to be in the language of love. The line breaks at “and hot” and “and open” were delicious.
Speaking of Yana, here she came with another poem in parts, three. Called “Metamophosis” it’s a triptych type of invention, with two smaller panels framing a central panel. The idea of metamorphosis is presented as a change in the light in part 1 (called “Light!”); and in part 3 (“Wings”), metamorphosis is shown as an entomological metaphor (the speaker saw herself emerging from a chrysalis). In the central panel we get a narrative about a Tai Chi master whose zest for learning carried him into class one morning excited to learn a new way to do an old move. There was a lot of discussion of the title and less about the challenges buddhist/zen master poems in general present. You want to love them, but pizza is so much more fun.
Carole Stone brought a year-into-the-pandemic poem called “Letter from Verona, New Jersey” that had everything that’s best about Carole Stone poems, a strong sense of place and time, a plain spoken voice, and comfort with all the sentimental touchpoints of the speaker’s life. Starting with “I wish I were writing from Prague or Budapest…” it introduced sadness as an undertone that would carry throughout its ruminations on Mexico, watching Netflix, the death of the poet Eavan Boland, photos of her recently deceased brother, and a long lost friend to whom she’d reached out. It ends with a pure expression of love: “Have I said how much I love Indian Wells Beach?” I don’t know nothing about Indian Wells Beach, and didn’t need to look it up to know exactly what she meant. The only thing annoying about this poem was how much people wanted to change it. Workshop-itis, is what Jim Klein never called it.
Shane Wagner was back again with “Retouching,” his tiger-by-the-tail poem about the trust rift between the speaker and the speaker’s father. This re-write was more of a polishing job than an excavation, and so it must’ve been aggravating for Shane to hear that the stuff people liked last week they no longer liked this week, and vice versa. One thing for sure. This is Shane’s poem, Shane’s voice, Shane’s subject, and it keeps getting more Shane-y week by week.
Barbara Hall’s “Shades of the past” was one of those poems that when you ask the poet about it, they tell you all sorts of interesting shit that should have been in the poem.
My poem (“It was John who took me for dumpling”was like a guy with six fingers on one hand, a sonnet with fifteen lines, one of which had been banished to the title. Stop being ashamed of your fifteen lines, the group told me. Or chop off the last line, then bring the title down into the body of the poem. That sort of amputated polydactyly won’t make me Lucille Clifton, people. Fortunately, the poem was about food and geography which grabbed attention and had a surprising if insubstantial piece of dialogue at the end.
Jen Poteet joined the political poem writing wing of the workshop with a poem called “Straightening Up” about the incident at the US Capitol on January 6. She rather beautifully captured the simple act of Andy Kim, the young congressman from NJ ‘straightening up’ after the “guests” had left, which she, Jen, had seen on the news, which made the poem into an ekphrasis, and that was the best of it. Look, I just spent the day crying a little too much during the inauguration but even more hearing people talk about the inauguration on the radio; it’s as though I can’t just feel something when it happens; I need to hear about it from someone else, which reminds me, I didn’t cry when my dad died, but I broke down sobbing when I had to call up his also 91 year old best friend in Florida and tell him.
Speaking of dads, Rob Goldstein’s poem, “The Key” was a poem told by a son about a dad having to go live in a home. I thought, everyone pretty much thought, it was a brave poem, with lines like this: “Like life on the outside,/ it was a mixed bag.”
Frank Rubino brought a sonnet-length poem about being with “her” at a medical procedure where a micro camera was inserted in her nostril. Don Z called it a masterpiece, and if it was, it was on the strength of the turn (in line 9) where the observation of the procedure changed from neutral ‘what happened’ stuff to the speaker’s close observation of the doctor’s face and ‘her’ face: “& her eyes . . ./ faltered as he moved the micro camera through her nostril –/ & her eyes settled quietly at different times from his,/ & fluttered & became perturbed at different times.” It was there that the speaker’s emotional stake in the goings on was heightened (looking to other people for clues). There was a bit of a debate whether the title “Bracelets on Her Wrists and Flowers in Her Hair,” was serving the poem.
So, to recap: three political poems, two sonnets and a rondo, plus a grab-bag of free verse. I’d say a good night.
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‘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.
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.