Sunday, January 26, 2020

The air is a black window of salt-fog and mist, as if the sea were snaking its long fingers up into the hill streets.

I settle down, in this lamplit room, to coax an ear, an eye.

How can I define faithful?

On my tongue the fog tastes like drowning.

There are tales to tell.

And none are true.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

It's too early to be awake on a Saturday morning, but nonetheless I am on the couch and drinking coffee and listening to snowmelt drip off the roof. We are supposed to get up to two inches of rain tonight, and I expect Portland to be a mess of flooded slop by this time tomorrow. For the moment, though, there's just this ticking drip, drip; the growl of an airplane overhead; the mutter of my own breath.

Yesterday I submitted the embryo manuscript to a publisher, who also asked me to include a brief description of what I thought was going on in the collection--not a blurb but a statement of intent. I appreciated that question; I don't think any press has asked me that before.

Here's what I ended up writing:
I think of this manuscript as a poetic version of a linked short-story collection. The viewpoint shifts from a speaking "I" to omniscience; from past to present; from memoir to invention. But the collection as a whole maintains fidelity to the complex notion of blood, which may connote history and family, but also life force and violence, inheritance and loss. Through both narrative and lyric means, I pushed myself to address these conundrums: to see, to admit, to mourn.
When I reread the note, I see that it depends too much on rhetorical pacing. Nonetheless, I'm glad I was forced to put into words the impulses that arose as I ordered and re-ordered these poems.

Creating a manuscript can be difficult, but also mutable. Both Chestnut Ridge and the unpublished A Month in Summer were driven by outside forces: in one case, chronology; in the other, narrative. Those parameters created their own complications, but poem order was fairly obvious. This current manuscript, composed of a decade's-worth of poems, pulls together pieces that arrived as single works, not as elements of a larger project. What do they mean to one another? How do they speak as a unit? It's very hard to figure that out.

When organizing my first three collections, I went through a similar struggle with order. But in some ways, because I had fewer pieces to work with at that time, I also had more obvious options. By this point in my life, I have so many poems that I can't use them all in a manuscript. In fact, I'm leaving out many that have already been published in journals. They're not bad poems: they just don't fit; they don't make sense in this context; they're the wrong weight or tone. This kind of decision making is really hard.

Well, we'll see what transpires. Very possibly nothing. Getting published does not get easier, at least not for me. I'm not "emerging"; I'm not famous. I've got a stack of books that don't sell and that no one reviews. But don't think of this as complaining: truly, I'm far more successful than I ever thought I'd be. I write because I have to write, and a lot of what I've written has been printed. That's a miracle, for a not-famous person. Still, the process of trying to get people to pay attention to new work . . . it's hard, and often painful and demoralizing.

Anyway: in cheery news (cheery to me, anyway), the next issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal is going to include not only the first section of A Month in Summer but also my essay-review of recent collections by two other not-famous poets. Beloit has rejected a lot of my submissions over the past few years, so I'm especially pleased they took this longish excerpt. And I'm glad to be celebrating some other semi-invisibles who are persevering.

Friday, January 24, 2020

I made better word-progress this week than I expected, given the number of meetings and appointments I was working around. Today, after a yoga class, I'll be back at my desk--this time focusing on a syllabus for next Tuesday's class. We've got yet another storm in the forecast for the weekend, but it looks like things should be cleaned up before I have to hit the road on Monday.

I've got all kinds of writing prompts sloshing around in my skull, and I'm looking forward to sorting them out for the kids to play with on Tuesday. And I've been copying out the Sonnets to Orpheus, and that's adding ingredients to my brain stew. I kind of feel as if I might be building up to, of all things, an essay. I haven't written one for ages. I've been all poems, all the time--really, since before we moved from Harmony. A few prose bits have struggled toward the light, but not many.

And I think I'm going to take the plunge and start submitting the embryo manuscript to a publisher or two.

This poem from the ms appeared in the anthology Except for Love: New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall.
Dawn Potter
When the girls and their grandpap
Carried the slop pal down to the barn,
They discovered the hog was getting ready to die.
It lay on one side.
Its tail twitched.
Muck had crept into its snout.
It was like a rotten log in a swamp. 
The hog's breathing was heavy and slow.
Their grandpap shook his head and said,
Oh pig.
Now the girls knew for sure it was a goner.
They climbed up onto the fence
To watch the hog die.
But dying can take a long time.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

I made a giant dent in my residency-application stack, and this morning I will celebrate by taking time off to get my hair cut before clambering back onto the reading train.

[Side note: Maybe you might be interested in yesterday's meal? I believe I mentioned that I roasted a chicken on Sunday. A whole chicken is a fine and economical purchase for two people. You get a special dinner, a manageable amount of leftover chicken for sandwiches and recipes, and bones for soup and stock. Yesterday I used diced chicken and the dregs of soup as the basis for a risotto, which I accompanied with roasted purple sweet potatoes and sliced fennel. I decorated the plate with lettuce leaves and topped the meal with feathers of basil. Afterward we ate bowls of blueberries and played Yahtzee.]

I hope to spend some time with Rilke today, and maybe also my embryo manuscript. I hope to go for a walk and get the upstairs rooms vacuumed. I hope to finish Green's Loving and begin something else . . . maybe Johnson's biography of Dickens. I've got a teaching syllabus roiling around in my thoughts. I'm considering a craft essay on using historical materials as creative triggers.

And I'm thinking about disappointment--thinking about it observationally, contingently. Watching the way it sours and shrills inside a body. The way it chokes.

Here's a poem from the embryo manuscript. It appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram a couple of years ago.
Disappointed Women 
Dawn Potter 
They lived in filth. Or were horribly clean.
They piled scrapple onto dark platters.
They poured milk and ignored the phone. 
They arranged stones on windowsills.
They filled lists and emptied shelves.
They dyed their hair in the sink. 
One stored a Bible in the bathroom.
One hoarded paper in the dining room.
One stared at Lolita and stirred the soup. 
When I say emptied I mean they wanted to feel.
When I say filled I mean they wanted to jump.
When I say bathroom, dining room, soup I mean 
I washed my hands.
I sat at the table.
I ate what they gave me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Yesterday--hurray!--I finished and shipped one of my editing projects, so today I'll turn my attention to a Brazilian novel translation I'm checking and to the giant stack of residency applications teetering on my desktop.

Midday yesterday I walked to the University of New England campus to talk to the archivist about officially beginning to transfer materials to the Maine Women Writers Collection, and now, oddly, or maybe not oddly, I feel light and almost free. It is such a relief to think: okay, here is a place that cares about my muddle. Even if nobody other than a librarian ever looks at my files or papers, there they'll be, in the company of a thousand other striving, private, secretive, urgent, awkward Maine women.

One of our concerns is this very blog. It's pretty much the first thing I'm going to sign over to the archive for safekeeping. Given that I've been writing an almost daily note since 2008, and that it's already public, we see no reason to hold off. If the Blogger platform were to crash and disappear at any moment, this blog would evaporate into the crevices of the Internet. It's really the closest thing I have to a regular diary or correspondence, so MWWC will be looking into the best way to capture and preserve it on its secure servers. I feel happy about that, for no particular reason . . . except that I wrote it, and it's my history, and it's an intangible document that I cannot physically hold or protect.

Meanwhile, the Senate trial. The disappearing birds. The terrified children. The graft and the lies.

I think of you, my friends. I hold out my hands.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

One degree above zero: our coldest morning of the season so far, and I am sitting on the couch by myself recovering, in the nicest possible way, from an unwontedly social day: a morning of work, then a yoga class, then an afternoon visit with a teacher from Scotland, then an evening poetry discussion. Sometimes I forget how hermit-like my life is. I can go for days without talking to anyone but Tom. Yesterday, however, was full of talk, and the visit with the teacher was especially delightful. She is young, brilliant, committed to her students, and full of hope, and she made me feel all bubbly and excited about teaching, and I long to fly to Scotland to watch her in action . . . though where am I going to find the travel funds? Always the sticking point.

And then afterward: a focused and helpful discussion among poets, a study of other people's drafts, which is such a good reminder to me about the evolution of individual style and the gradually unearthing, in oneself, of poetic necessity.

This morning, I am doing that strange thing I told you about a few weeks ago: slithering up the icy sidewalks to the Maine Women Writers Collection to discuss the process of leaving my papers and files to the archive. Having spent the entire fall feeling extremely mortal (via that cancer scare I told you about a few days ago), I'm relieved to have this option. But also diffident, of course. Being archived is a weird place to be in, both as a writer and as a human being.

Just stick me up on that shelf there.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Today is a holiday on paper but a workday in our household. This morning Tom will trundle off to build cabinets for someone else's house, and I will clomp upstairs to coddle other people's manuscripts. In the afternoon, though, I'll be visiting with a teacher from Scotland, who, as I understand it, is researching American methods of teaching high school creative writing. I'm looking forward to that conversation. Then tonight, I have a poetry-group meeting, so it will be a varied, wordy, semi-social day.

I've started rereading one of my touchstone books, Henry Green's Loving, and yesterday I also began copying out Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. Already I can see that he is doing something unique with the sonnet argument, and "I want to try that too" prickles are rising on the back of my neck . . . a good sign for a poet in a dry spell.
She slept the world. Singing god, how did you
so perfect her that she never once
had need to be awake?
           --from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, I.ii, trans. Edward Snow