Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So I'm sitting on Robert Frost's front porch, drinking a beer and reading Middlemarch, and along comes this boy, about 18 years old, tall and curly-haired; and he plops himself down on a table and looks me in the eye and says, "Are you a poet?"

I say, "Why, yes," and then he crosses his arms and leans back and says, still staring me in the eye,
"'The Charge of the Light Brigade' is the bomb."
I do what anyone would do, which is to become slack-jawed and slightly dizzy. Undeterred, he remarks that Alfred Lord Tennyson is his favorite poet, that he'd accidentally discovered Tennyson's poems in a book in his grandfather's house; also, that he hasn't quite gotten his brain around "In Memoriam" and that other long stuff but "The Eagle" and "The Kracken" are also the bomb.

Eventually I see that I have no choice but to walk down to my car and dig out a copy of my new book for this boy, who happens to be hiking the Appalachian Trail with his dad. The boy seems to be very pleased with the gift. He admires the thinness of my collection, which he says will make it easy to carry on the trail, and he promises to email me with his remarks. Really, I can't wait.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A third day in New Hampshire means a third breakfast at Polly's Pancake Parlor, the world's cutest diner. The ladies at Polly's all like the fact that my picture is on one of the posters stuck on their bulletin board. This makes me feel like a celebrity. Also, they give me an early-bird discount because I am the earliest bird in town.

Yesterday I learned from poet Leslea Newman that Tennessee Williams once published a book of poems. Who knew? Not only that, "Life Story," the piece she brought in for her workshop, is one of the funniest poems I have ever read. Possibly it won't be all that appropriate for school kids, however.

Monday, June 28, 2010

I am sitting in the reading room of the Abbie Greenleaf Library in Franconia, New Hampshire, feeling totally exhausted. Nonetheless, the teaching conference maintains its accustomed standards. Every year the participants are marvelous, the visiting poets are exciting, the food is delicious, the coffee pot is broken, and the weather is lousy. Baron and I were on stage all day long yesterday, so today seems rather calm in comparison, except for the tension of being time keeper during the teachers' presentations. I vacillate between checking the time every three seconds and forgetting to check it at all. Neither behavior is ideal.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

I arrived home yesterday at 5 p.m. I leave for the Frost Place at noon today. My clothes are dirty, my refrigerator is empty, and my grass is tall. I seem to have forgotten how to write poems. Sentences also are difficult. Here's hoping the skill returns before tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, I drink coffee without milk, here in my almost empty house. The boys are far away, living it up in a Saratoga motel with their grandparents. The poodle and her new silly haircut are languishing at the kennel. Tom is asleep. Only the parakeet and I are awake, and eyeing one another.

There: I managed five rusty sentences. I feel like my sturdy flourishing diction has wilted away in the sun. Clearly I need shade and a watering can.

By the way, an excerpt from my long poem "The White Bear" appears in the new Green Mountains Review. The journal's website hasn't been updated, but the issue does indeed exist; and if you order it, it will arrive in your mailbox just as it did in mine.

Dinner last night: Damariscotta oysters on the half shell with rice vinegar and garlic flowers. Picked crab with cherry tomatoes, tiny peas, cilantro, and lettuce. Coldish white wine. Cannoli. Call it, if you will, the last romantic meal of the season.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Here it is Thursday, and I have not written to you for days. Between traveling and testy Internet connections and never being alone, composition has been difficult. So here's the summary: On Monday, we took the train back to Providence from D.C. We spent the night at my parents' house and then, on Tuesday, bid farewell to them and to the boys and went to Martha's Vineyard. I had never been here before, so the island's proliferation of cute architecture was a surprise. Tom and I have been filling our day-and-a-half with aimless projects punctuated by naps and meals. We hold hands and walk very slowly, and Tom has even taken to talking to strangers, which is a remarkable development. But our peculiar idleness ends today: we take the ferry back to the mainland, and continue north to Concord, where Tom has a photo show and an artist's talk and where no one has told us where we will be sleeping. Perhaps it will be the car. If so, I hope the temperature drops.

Monday, June 21, 2010

1. There's no fun like an interactive exhibit that allows a Natural History Museum tourist to visualize how she'd look as a Neanderthal.

2. At sunset, the Reflecting Pool is filled with hundreds of Canada geese who are all staring reverently toward the Lincoln Memorial. Meanwhile, flocks of teenage ducklings pay no attention to either Lincoln or their mothers.

3. The flocks of visiting Safety Patrol kids who appear everywhere in downtown D.C. seem to be more obedient than ducklings are.

4. Strange things to discover about one's husband after knowing him for 25 years: Tom was once a Safety Patrol captain. Who would have guessed?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Purgatorial walk up hill through blinding heat to reach zoo. Arrived. Glimpsed no animals. Became vaguely distrait, in an existential sort of way. Fortunately, the air-conditioned Ape House made up for much. But if you see one naked mole-rat, you've seen them all.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I think I may have forgotten how to read books. To fill the gap, I've taken up reading the Metro map.

Yesterday we ate breakfast at a diner, during which time the U.S. soccer team scored its tying goal and its winning-and-then-disqualified goal. I had never before been in a room packed with people who found themselves spontaneously erupting into the "U-S-A, U-S-A" chant. It was a tad disconcerting, though on the other hand the goals were thrilling.

Then we went to the Phillips Collection. This is a very lovely museum with, among other flashy treasures, a small dim room devoted to four Mark Rothko paintings. For more on my feelings about Rothko, see here. However, I saw less of this collection than might have been ideal because Paul's age of maturity tends to diminish in art museums, meaning that I need to spend a certain amount of time coddling him into good behavior so that the artists in the family (i.e., Tom and James) get a chance to actually look at art. Meanwhile, Paul and I drink soda in the cafe and make cozy personal comments about puppies, noisy old men, etc.

After the Phillips, we proceeded to the National Archives, where my friend Lucy works. Making the most of that perk, she put on her special-person badge and bustled the boys through special-person doors, and showed them how to cut in front of the regular standing-in-line mob to see the Big Documents. There is nothing like being allowed to cut into the Bill of Rights queue to make a kid feel important.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Last night's reading took place in the far-off wilds of Bethesda, which appears to me to be a mysterious land of crosswalks, high rises, and parking garages. Not too many people showed, but fortunately I brought a posse. And then I had the surprise of glancing up and seeing a Harmony girl there: She baby-sat my kids! She attended their birthday parties! And there she sat in faraway Bethesda! I was flummoxed!--(though of course when I thought clearly about it I remembered she was going to law school around the corner in the wilds of Virginia). I also had the pleasure of seeing acquaintances from college whom I hadn't laid eyes on for 24 years, including John Feffer, aforementioned in my previous post about the New York Times. So that was lovely.

Yesterday's strangest event: on our way home from the reading, Lucy found a meat thermometer in the Metro.

Today's strangest event: Tom and Paul claim to be going on a tour of the L. Ron Hubbard House. Tom says he will leave all his money with me in case he becomes too tempted. . . .

Thursday, June 17, 2010

News flash from Our Nation's Capital:

Washington, D.C., is much hotter than Maine. Children complain about it.

The L. Ron Hubbard House has what looks to be incipient poison ivy in its landscaped front yard.

Headline in the Washington Post: "Ex-executive indicted in home finance scam." I'm sure this comes as a great shock to you.

Most dogs in Washington seem to know how to walk around politely without their leashes on.

If you climb the circular stairs up to Lucy's loft and lean over the desk and crane your neck sideways, and it isn't hazy, you can see the Washington Monument from her window.

Reading tonight at the Writer's Center. I hope people will come, but since I don't know too many people here, I have no idea. Maybe if they bring their well-behaved leashless dogs, the audience will seem to swell.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sitting in the Amtrak station in Providence, which is sort of shaped like the Pantheon. Except not so nice.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Yesterday, an essay about reading, written by my friend John Feffer, appeared in the New York Times. Feffer and I went to Haverford together and not only shared our writing with each other (he was much better at that time, with an amazingly assured voice) but were also regular gym-class badminton partners. And now he has grown up to be a playwright, a novelist, and an international expert on North Korea.

I wonder if he still plays badminton. Tom and I played yesterday and, as usual, I lost.

Tomorrow my family begins its long trip into the heated south. I have no idea what my time and internet capacity will be, but I will attempt to keep a travelogue. Among other adventures, I'll be spending five days with Lucy, one of the Winter's Tale readers. Maybe Paul and Lucy and I will get to finish reading act 5 together.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hay day today. It was supposed to be yesterday, but one thing led to another, or didn't, and I weeded and mowed grass and mulched herb-garden paths instead. In past years we would pick up 200 bales off the field; but now that I'm down to a single old goat, we buy 50 bales of last year's hay from the farmer's barn. The job is easier and quicker, but I have a certain nostalgia for the real job--the heat, the sweat, the drone of the tractor . . . the physical extremity of the task.

Now that the boys are older they are strong enough to help. That, too, is better, in most ways . . . except that haying used to be a two-person work romance. There was something lovely in the meter of the job, and the common demands of it. Read a Hayden Carruth poem, and he will explain what I mean.

By the way, I have written a review of Carruth's 2006 new-and-selected that should be appearing in a future Beloit Poetry Journal. I try to explain why I love his work so much and how it has turned out to be one of the bulwarks beneath my own. But I wonder how many young writers read him anymore. It seems likely that he doesn't matter much in other lives.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Harmony Bird and Mammal News

In my dooryard there is a lilac, and in the lilac there is a nest, and in the nest there is supposed to be a robin. But every time anyone opens the back door or happens to amble past within 20 feet of the bush, the robin screeches, "Yikes!" and flies off into the woods. Since I am constantly opening the back door and ambling past the bush, I'd say that any chance of hatchlings is remote. However, I will keep you apprised.

The poodle demonstrated this week that she has no talent for rodent management. Yesterday she excitedly chased a red squirrel up the maple tree next to the lilac (incidentally causing the robin to screech, "Yikes!" and fly off into the woods). The squirrel responded in the usual squirrel way: by perching safely out of reach and then berating the poodle with a stream of fluent squirrel invective, roughly translating as "Somebody musta whooped your mama with a ugly stick. . . . " Eventually, the squirrel got tired of swearing and jumped into the apple tree and left the premises. Meanwhile, the poodle spent the afternoon sitting proudly at the base of the maple, waiting for the squirrel to come down.

Then, this morning, as I was feeding chickens, I discovered two mice trapped at the bottom of a five-gallon bucket. Even though field mice, with their big ears and liquid eyes, are undoubtedly cuter than house mice, which look like squinting miniature rats, I have become immune to the charms of rodents. Followed by the interested poodle, I carried the bucket over to the edge of the woods and dumped out the mice. For a terrier, this action would have been more or less equivalent to mice-served-on-a-platter. For a poodle, it was yet another chance to pounce enthusiastically in all the wrong places. I expect to see those mice again tomorrow.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I'm sure many of you have already scanned this NY Times preview of the New Yorker's list of the best up-and-coming fiction writers under the age of 40.

As a person over the age of 40, I naturally find such lists rather depressing, and prizes such as the Yale Younger Poets Series evoke the same feeling. I was not able to begin writing seriously until I was 30 years old. I say "was not able" because I had spent my 20s trying and failing to write well. There were numerous reasons: (1) I was trying to write fiction but didn't know I wasn't a fiction writer; (2) I was not in school, nor did I hang out with any writers, nor did I have a mentor, so I had neither a steady writing model nor critical encouragement; (3) I was extraordinarily absorbed by my reading life; (4) I was trying to learn how to hold down a job (not well) and to be in love (possibly too well); (5) as a recovering child violinist, I was having difficulty figuring out if I had any real adult talent for anything.

But the threads began to weave themselves into a pattern. I acquired a genre, a place, a subject, a mentor, imaginative concentration, and the time and ability to practice. I had a decade of apprenticeship, and I published my first book of poems during the summer of 2004, just before I turned 40.

So here I am age 45: located somewhere in that netherworld between emerging and midcareer writer. I hope I haven't written my best work yet. I hope that being a writer isn't like being a rock star or a baseball player . . . washed up by 50, suitable for nothing but advertisements and pontification.

I look at these lists and I think about Marian Evans, the great and matchless George Eliot, who published her first fiction, the story collection called Scenes of Clerical Life, when she was 39. It was not her greatest work. All of her novels came later--Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner. She was 50 when she published Middlemarch, 57 when she published Daniel Deronda.

And then there was John Keats, who died at age 26, after writing some of the greatest poems in the English language since the death of Milton.

Could it be that our lives are variable trajectories? How can commentators make such silly pronouncements and assumptions about artistic potential? I wonder if this foolishness about youthful promise is an offshoot of the way in which creative writing has become academicized (and what a dreadful word that is; if I were a copyeditor, I would make the author change it). I would be interested to know how many of the people on the New Yorker's fiction list are MFA products. To be sure, the Yale series has been around longer than the MFA programs have been. Nonetheless, a look at the list does clarify something: that not too many of those names have lasted in our consciousness. But the ones that have lingered belong, on the whole, to poets who, as older men and women, went on to create richer and more complicated work.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A quick post this morning, as I must toss breakfast down my throat and rush off to the Harmony School award ceremony, where my son will not be receiving the Nicest Kid of the Year Prize.

But I'll mention that I'm rereading A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and that one thing I'm liking very much is how she deals with the complexities of political and social idealism among liberal free-thinkers: how good intentions go entirely bad, or become good in unexpected ways, or were always foolish, or are bad with a shade of redemption. I like the complications, and I like the way in which she manages to be both sympathetic and clear-eyed.

And, yes, I did manage to write my two words yesterday, but I've never written an essay about nausea before; so I'm beginning to feel slightly Sartre-esque. Of course I'm making that up because I haven't read La Nausee and probably never will, though I do hope he will pardon the invisible accent aigu in his title because I'm in a hurry.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I'm feeling tongue-tied this morning, as if there's nothing new under the chilly sun. This is my last full day home alone: school ends tomorrow; summer begins; my days will pulse with bang and rattle and breathing. I don't want you to think I'm complaining. I'm not; I'm not. Only, I'm aware that I must change.

And today: I need to buy layer mash and goat grain and go to the post office to return the dress I mail-ordered and that I hate. I need to take a kid to his piano lesson. I need to weed the cabbage patch and thin out carrot seedlings and finish mulching the potatoes. I need to make bread. I need to sit at the kitchen table and eat cheese and crackers and read. I need to write two words. Two words at least . . . at the very least. If I don't manage to write those two words, I don't know what I'll do.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This time next week, I will be beginning the first leg of my first very-long-time-away-from-home in a very a long time. On Tuesday we'll drive down to my parents' house in Massachusetts. On Wednesday we'll take the Amtrak to Washington, D.C., where I'll be reading with Nicole Cooley and teaching a workshop at the Writers' Center in Bethesda. After a whirlwind boy vacation among the statuary, we'll take the Amtrak back north on Monday, leave the boys with my parents (who will then fork off onto their own Gettysburg-Saratoga-New-Jersey-relatives odyssey), kill a couple of days alone in the Boston area without children, and end up on Thursday at the Concord Art Association, where Tom is featured in a photo show called "Seeing Is Believing" and will also be taking part in a gallery talk. On Friday the two of us will return to Harmony. I'll wash a great deal of laundry and briefly fret about the weeds in my garden. Then I'll leave on Saturday for Franconia, New Hampshire, where I'll be teaching at the Frost Place till Thursday.

Merely writing these sentences is making my eyes begin to cross. I am not the kind of person who leads this sort of peripatetic life. I am the kind of person who can't be bothered to drive two miles into town.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A weekend of rain, and now sunshine and shattered peonies; iris collapsing into the lank grass, schoolbus belching diesel, and my older son dramatically exhausted from staying up till 3 a.m. trying to finish writing a short story about a telemarketer.

Last Monday of the school year: chemistry finals all week, parent-student baseball, apathetic primary elections, and eighth-grade graduation; interspersed with a clover-clogged lawnmower, bolted lettuce, and cucumber plants that won't grow because the slugs keep eating them.

Blackberry flowers on a bramble I didn't know we possessed; raspberries loaded with buds; badminton net sagging into the wet dandelions, and chickens cheerfully coated with mud.

Wordsworth's Prelude, Keats's biography, an A. S. Byatt re-read, and an embryonic essay about throwing up on an airplane while sitting behind David Byrne. Continued intense poetry-collection melancholy interspersed with forgetfulness. Not enough hay in the barn.

Wishing I were in Brooklyn, relieved not to be in Brooklyn. Wondering if the wind will dry the grass.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

from Madrigal

Dawn Potter

My oven brings forth its brown
loaves; butter
glitters in the churn.
There is a home for goodness
in my heart.
Love feeds there,
like a bird, it scratches a nest of thorn
and feathers.
How quietly I wait for him
to come and lean against my ancient walls
and sing this song that you
also know so well.

[part 4 of "Madrigal," in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Saturday, June 5, 2010

We went to Tom's opening in Camden yesterday, which was populated almost entirely by seventy-year-old yachters, and it was so strange and comic: I could feel my my trashy hick blood beginning to surge and complain . . . not in self-defense or nervously or angrily or anything of the sort. More like wanting to show off its tattoos. And I don't even have a tattoo.

So after a while this kid walked in through the door: I say kid but he was probably about 23, kind of sloppy with a big beard. And the women in the room completely lost themselves in happiness . . . started crowding around him, hugging him, and he nodded and smiled at the men, who nodded back with pleasure: and I realized, This is someone's grandson. They've all known him since he was a baby rolling off their poop-decks and spilling their gin-and-tonics and roping his little brother to the mast. Look how much they love him. At this point my trashy blood calmed right down and behaved itself.

And now on to something completely different: I just want to reiterate, for the record, that I am not a joiner of writing groups. I am not a participator in authorial-group-niceness-for-the-sake-of-being-supportive. This sounds selfish, and it is selfish. It's also isolating and ascetic and necessary. For me, being a writer is entirely different from being a student or a teacher. I hope, in both of these latter roles, that I am sympathetic and patient and encouraging. But my own writing practice is different. I work alone, and the only people who read my stuff before it gets published are people who (1) have a personal stake in the matter or (2) have established an intense writing or reading link with me. Most of the people in category 2 (and there aren't many) take the opportunity to point out weakness. This is a good thing.

But today I got a note this morning from a reader in category 2 who liked the essay, without qualification. This crazy essay, that doesn't mention one single work of literature! I feel like I've suddenly stumbled through the back of a wardrobe into a strange and snowy country.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tom has a photo opening tonight at Ten High Street Gallery in Camden, Maine, 5-7 p.m. Here's what Nickelson Editions has to say about the venue and Tom's work.

Here is the group poem that Harmony Elementary School's grade-3 class wrote during our workshop yesterday.

June 3, 2010

Worms and slugs are crawling around
in the wet dirt.
The grass is soaked with rain.
The fog is smoky
like a little bonfire.
The swing seats are damp
and the chains are rusty and silent.
Clouds are blanketing the whole sky.
The crow is gliding high and slow
and I can barely see him.
Above the world,
the stars are lighting up.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

1. After my grumpy school-related post a few weeks ago, Harmony's third-grade teacher invited me in to teach a poetry class. I have no idea if she read my grumpy post or if this was merely coincidence, but anyway . . . I take it back: I will be teaching in Harmony this year, for an hour and 15 minutes, and the commute is excellent.

2. Guess what?--and David, I'm talking to you, you skeptic: I did finish that essay, and I did manage to write almost 3,000 words without mentioning a single work of literature. See, there's more to life than books, you know (but not much more) . . . (and now let's find out who can name the band I've just quoted).

3. I have received numerous enthusiastic responses to yesterday's post. Everyone thinks Ruth's fifth grader is brilliant.

4. Rain here today, which is a good thing, except for the mosquitoes. I think I will make lettuce soup for dinner.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A stellar comment about poetry from one of Ruth's fifth graders:

Poetry is like a very well read 3 year old, it uses terrific words, but uses them so strangely and it always spouts the truth you don't want other people to hear in public. . . It'll act all cute and funny and make you smile for its cleverness, then keep you up all night yelling and screaming about something you don't understand at all.

Well, that about sums it up, I'd say.

In other news, I'm writing again. My goal is to compose an entire essay that doesn't mention a single work of literature. Hah! I'll never be able to do it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I didn't know what to write to you today, so I opened a book of someone else's poems. Today it happened to be Thomas Hardy's. I've never been all that delighted by Hardy's poems. But his novels, especially Far from the Madding Crowd, are a different story . . . though perhaps, now that I think of it, that is the only Hardy novel on my shelf of obsessively reread books. Naturally, when I was young, I used to adore Tess of the d'Urbervilles; but I've had it up to here with that pious sap Angel Clare, not mention Tess expiring at Stonehenge. Enough is enough. And then Jude the Obscure is the most irritating of books. . . . Well, as you can see, I have mixed feelings about Hardy, although the painting of him in London's National Portrait Gallery makes him look shockingly like my gentle and beloved grandfather James Miller, who was a coal miner, a steelworker, a tender of cows, a walker of acres; a man to whom handwriting came hard. The discovery that he was also Thomas Hardy's doppelganger was just one of the many strange events that took place on that trip to England I made with my mother when I was five months' pregnant with the next James, and we ate an inordinate amount of cake and clotted cream, wept over the pilgrims at Canterbury, and were terrified to discover that RAF fighter planes now routinely make dreadful howling shrieking practice dives over Wordsworth's Lake District hills.

But back to Hardy. Here's a poem that is kind of like the good girl's "Frankie and Johnny." The rhythm is slightly off, however. It would be harder to sing.

A Wife Waits

Thomas Hardy

Will's at the dance in the Club-room below,
Where the tall liquor-cups foam;
I on the pavement up here by the Bow,
Wait, wait, to steady him home.

Will and his partner are treading a tune,
Loving companions they be;
Willy, before we were married in June,
Said he loved no one but me;

Said he would let his old pleasures all go
Ever to live with his Dear.
Will's at the dance in the Club-room below,
Shivering I wait for him here.