Thursday, September 30, 2010

To all you teachers out there: here's a link to Anne Britting Oleson's blog post about starting every day's class with a poem. Not only did Anne attend the 2010 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, but she is also an accomplished poet in her own right. Yet even poets can find the idea of sharing poetry scary, especially in the classroom. Nonetheless, she persevered, and good things happened.
Early morning. Overcast. Sky sagging into the trees; maple leaves glowing like Mardi Gras beads, and meanwhile the prim firs point discreetly heavenward.

I am thinking about books: books that I am reading, books that I am writing; about the distant cawing of crows, about tires on the road and the dregs of coffee in my cup. I am sitting here in my old bathrobe, alone in the house, yet the house is filled with sounds. Birds cry through the open window, and the refrigerator hums. The dog sighs. My heart beats. I am wishing for everything, for something, for nothing in particular. The planet spins, and I can feel it tilt.

At random I open my notebook and discover that I have copied out this passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My morning post is late because I got distracted by my husband, who is home today instead of building a porch in Skowhegan. He won't be home for long, however, because he is on his way to Belfast to deliver our collaborative display for the Belfast Poetry Festival. Tom will have six large photographs on the library walls, accompanied by three of my poems. They'll be up for the month of October, in case you feel like wandering into Belfast and looking at them. We'll also be doing a performance at the library on October 16 that involves reading and video. This is a new venture for us, and we're a little keyed up . . . though right now he's doing most of the work, while I hover and make coffee. I imagine he's relieved to know that on the 16th he'll get to recede (slightly) into the background while I don the poetry tap shoes and do the talking.

Tom also has an opening this Saturday at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. He's one of 150 artists featured in a giant retrospective of Maine photography over the past decade. As an added bonus, the snacks at CMCA openings are usually excellent. Just ask my children.

Meanwhile, I've reached chapter 16 in Great Expectations and chapter 14 in Moby-Dick. How are the rest of you readers doing? Should we slow down to let you catch up? Or press forward?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I've just learned that today is the anniversary of Melville's death. Thought I'd pass that on, for those who like a frisson to accompany their reading assignments.
Teresa sent me a link to this NY Times article about whales, which she thought the rest of you Moby-Dick readers might be interested in. My favorite part describes a killer-whale fad in Puget Sound.

I sort of managed to sleep last night so I am feeling as if it might actually be possible to concentrate on something today. I dimly remember waving my arms around yesterday in a 10th-grade English class, although James hasn't relayed gossip about any egregious faux-pas. Possibly he's just being diplomatic.

After a scintillating trip to the grocery store, I spent the latter part of the afternoon sitting in drizzle at an elementary-school soccer game, which was more rewarding than it sounds because Paul scored two goals and also perfected his Agony of Defeat routine, which he has implemented as a melodramatic accompaniment to near-goals, out-of-bounds calls, etc. I was a little embarrassed, but other parents found his show amusing--perhaps because they've never asked him to clean a chicken house or redo his math homework.

Today it continues to rain and rain and rain here in Harmony, Maine, a situation that will have implications for soccer practice and minestrone making. Possibly it might even influence the baking of layer cakes. You never can tell. As Wordsworth says, "I began/My story early--not misled, I trust,/By an infirmity of love for days/Disowned by memory." This also goes for days that have barely started.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My four and a half days at Haystack were wonderful, though I could have done without the insomnia that is starting to make me feel like a tottering, squint-eyed invalid. I met some excellent people there and, what's more, took the plunge and began organizing poems into a new collection. I was amazed to discover that I already possess more than 50 manuscript pages. What a surprise. And here I thought I'd only been writing prose.

If I'd had a good night's sleep lately, I could write a more colorful entry about my Haystack experience. But I'm grasping at air this morning, and I suppose I should save my small stock of wherewithal for the 10th graders I'll be working with this afternoon.

Anyway: I came home to find two new publications on the coffee table: the new issue of Maine Magazine, which includes Tom's South Solon Meetinghouse photos interspersed with a few of my paragraphs; and New Walk Magazine, a U.K. journal that printed my name on the cover along with the name of Andrew Motion, who was Poet Laureate of England until 2009. I feel as if I have brushed the hem of fame's garment.

By the way, according to Wikipedia, "the salary of the [British laureateship] has varied, but traditionally includes some alcohol. Ben Jonson first received a pension of 100 marks, and later an annual 'terse of Canary wine.'" If Maine were to align itself with such a tradition, the state laureate would be likely to receive a few cases of Allen's coffee brandy and/or a suitcase of Bud Light. Maybe I should suggest the idea to the legislature.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Moby Expectations, chapter 12

As I mentioned yesterday, I'll be leaving tomorrow for Haystack and won't be home till Sunday afternoon. There's no Internet access there, so you won't hear from me unless I happen to venture off the property and find myself in a library or a coffeeshop or something. So as regards my function as official Moby-Dick and Great Expectations termagant: today is the only nagging you'll get.

I'll be bringing the novels with me, and I've already reached chapter 8 in both books. What if we aim for chapter 12 in both of them? And what if you use this post as your discussion base for the week's reading? To propel your comments, my only leading question is this: what is making you most uneasy?

I'm beginning to compile a list of the other books I'll be packing. So far I've got The Collected Shorter Poems of Hayden Carruth and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. I'm also considering King Lear and possibly Dorothy Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon. Wordsworth's Prelude ought to come along, and possibly George Herbert's poems as well. . . .

I know this is beginning to sound ridiculous. Book separation anxiety is why I never go to writers' retreats.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wednesday afternoon I'll be embarking on a four-day faculty retreat at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Numerous artists--blacksmiths, potters, metalworkers, weavers, etc.--who have previously taught in Haystack's programs have been invited to spend unstructured time at the school working on their own projects, but they'll also have the option to participate in two daily workshops outside their field of expertise: one focusing on performance, the other focusing on writing.

I've been invited to teach the writing workshop, which means that I'll have to work for two hours a day but will otherwise get to sit by the sea and write, read, nap, drink red wine, nap, read, talk, eat, talk, write, nap. . . . You get the idea. This will be the first time I've ever attended an artist's retreat, and I'm hoping that I will actually manage to create some new work. I'm a little nervous, though. What if all I do is nap?

At least for two hours a day I can guarantee I won't be napping because I'll have to be running a workshop for an unknown number of non-writers who are serious artists in their own fields. I'm excited about this because the last time I taught at Haystack I found the presence of such serious non-writers extraordinarily stimulating. It was wonderful to discover how similar the metaphors of working are.

I think of writing and revision as the physical accumulation and ordering of materials, a wielding of tools. This is the vocabulary that a blacksmith also uses, that a canoe builder uses, that a jewelry maker uses, even though our tools vary wildly. So after much thought, I decided to center my workshops around the poems of a single poet--one whose craft has deeply influenced my own writing. Although I tend to read canonical rather than contemporary poetry, I did not want to inflict Miltonic or Donne-ish complexities of syntax and diction on these artists. Language is not their primary tool, and there's no need force them to fight their way into the material. So I chose, as you may not be surprised to hear, three poems by Hayden Carruth: "Concerning Necessity," "Adolf Eichmann," and "John Dryden."

I am going to focus on these poems as material constructions--as compilations of words and punctuation--with the intent of leading participants to consider how the organization of such physical elements can metamorphose into explorations of order versus chaos, beauty versus ugliness . . . in other words, into doing what art has always been striving to do. As a description, this sounds quite pompous, but the participants will be doing the reading and talking and and thinking and writing--and coming to whatever conclusions they come to. I'm excited to see what those conclusions will be.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

1. In case you were wondering, Swiss chard makes an excellent spanakopita. I filled an enormous pan, and all of it has vanished.

2. Today I am going on a walk with my friend Angela. We are going to look at a wild blueberry field at the top of a Kingsbury ridge and spend some time wandering around an old cemetery up there. But at the moment I am sitting at my desk trying to solve the confusing problem of soccer carpooling.

3. On yesterday's post, Teresa left some fine remarks about Moby-Dick and Great Expectations. I'm particularly interested in her theater remarks. I am not theatrically well educated, so to me, at least, her perceptions are eye-opening.

4. My brief memoir piece, "Word Problem," has just appeared in the South Loop Review, volume 12 (which is available in the flesh even though the website doesn't yet feature it). I mention this here because it may be the oddest piece I've ever published: it's written as a faux-algebraic word problem and deals with the intertwined history of a handful of friends and lovers. If you happen to get your hands on it, I'd be glad to hear what you think because to me the piece feels like a very strange departure.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Moby-Dick, chapters 1-4; Great Expectations, chapters 1-4

Time for you all to start talking about these books.

Time for me to go pick Swiss chard and make spanakopita.

Friday, September 17, 2010

FYI . . . and do not ask me to explain why Blogger insists on retaining this terrible san-serif font.

"CavanKerry Press is seeking gifts of short poetry and prose for the Waiting Room Reader: Stories to Keep You Company, Volume II, a collection of narrative/lyrical pieces designed to help reduce the stress experienced by those waiting for medical care. Focus should be positive and center on life's gifts or humor and needn't be related to health or the medical experience. Submit up to 5 pieces, none longer than 1-2 pages (double spaced for prose). Refer to the current edition (www.cavankerrypress.org, click LaurelBooks, click WRR) for sample themes. Work should be unpublished or if already published, writers whose work is selected will be asked to secure permissions for its use. E-mail submissions only by October 15 to joan@cavankerrypress.org and include WRR in subject line."


The University of Massachusetts Press has just published Kevin D. Murphy's
biography of Jonathan Fisher, whose woodcuts illustrate my own Tracing Paradise. Fisher was a Congregationalist minister, artist, and jack-of-all-trades and a very interesting figure in Maine frontier history.
Margaret Drabble's novel The Red Queen opens with an epigraph from Alexander Sokurov's film Russian Ark: "The dead weep with joy when their books are reprinted."

Tom happens to have just watched that movie, and I happen to have found myself reading The Red Queen for the second time, and remembering how beautiful the cover is, and how terrifying the tale. I had dreams last night about a small boy being kidnapped by a posse of Repo Man-like highway patrolmen. They disappeared over the crest of a mountain. Meanwhile, I helplessly cleaned the bathroom. This scenario has no relation whatsoever to the plot of The Red Queen but the fear, the powerlessness, the claustrophobia are precisely similar.

Possibly this is a poor reading choice for me, but we'll see. At the moment I'm feeling oppressed by the gaps in my writing and thinking skills . . . and whether or not that oppression is justified is, of course, beside the point. Anything can be a nightmare. As Drabble's novel makes clear.

In any case, I'm done with my editing project, home with a sighing dog and a coughing husband, with a day of bread making and workshop prep ahead of me--though the prep is nearly done, I think, and let me sum it up for you: "How do poems manage order and chaos? How do they encapsulate both beauty and ugliness?" How indeed? I wish I knew.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ah, Moby-Dick. For most of a lifetime, I've avoided reading you, and now I'm getting my comeuppance, by which I mean that I'm beginning to see what I was missing all these years, by which I mean that I now regret that I don't have years' worth of rereading behind me, by which I mean that I'm uneasy making thoughtful pronouncements about a book I haven't read a dozen times. Careless snap judgments: I'm okay with them. (See "Books I'm Reading" in the sidebar for a recent, possibly unreasonable snap judgment.) But MD requires greater care.

I could wander into the side issues of New Bedford, where Melville sets his early chapters and which also, coincidentally, happens to be the county-courthouse town of Bristol County, Massachusetts, where my parents have lived since I was in 8th grade. When I was a child, New Bedford equaled (according to my mother) "that scary place you have to drive into when you have the bad luck to get jury duty." Being a braver driver than she is, I did, a few years ago, bring my children and my mother to the whaling museum. But what I remember most about the history of whaling is that Paul, who was about 5 years old, (1) threw a loud fit because he couldn't find anything he liked at the gift shop yet still longed to spend money there; and (2) decided, as a result, to cross all city streets without looking both ways or holding anyone's hand. Apparently, his evil stomping really did have the power to halt all traffic, but it didn't endear him much to his already nervous grandmother.

In short, my New Bedford is not Melville's; and though in retrospect I think Paul might have benefited morally from a run-in with Queequeg's harpoon, this sort of maundering evades a commitment to the seriousness of Melville's mission . . . which isn't to say he's humorless. But unlike Dickens, he is intensely undomestic, and this probably accounts for why it's taken me so long to care about reading the novel.

He's also a clumsy writer. Consider this sentence, for instance, which I've plucked quickly from among hundreds of similar ones: "Affected by the solemnity of the scene, there was a wondering gaze of incredulous curiosity in [Queequeg's] countenance." (Hey, yesterday didn't I quote a Dickens sentence with countenance? Ack. More spooky book fates.) This blunt little sentence balances on a dangling modifier, meaning that the two halves are linked only by the comma, not by grammatical logic. There are lots of danglers in Moby-Dick, and lots of chunky asides that reach for rhetorical flourish but end up floundering in a kind of metrical quicksand. Try reading this sentence aloud:

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say--here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.

Ugh.

But, as it's taken me most of lifetime to discover, not all great books are well written. And though I may never forgive Theodore Dreiser for the hideous prose of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, I am forgiving Melville for nearly everything. Even though I'm only 8 chapters into this novel, I am fascinated by Ishmael, that unreliable narrator, that self-confident greenhorn . . . a man who himself seems likely to be all the things he derides in those innocent Green Mountain boys who arrive in New Bedford ready to catch a whale. And Queequeg is irresistible--sitting at the boardinghouse breakfast table forking up rare beefsteak with his harpoon. Melville's characters are complicated; their motivations are ambiguous and changeable; the darkness of the sea and the mission looms behind them. There's a magnificence to this novel that overrides its sentences. I'm excited to be reading it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Well, I've managed to accidentally overread myself again: all of a sudden, I seem have reached chapter 8 in both Moby-Dick and Great Expectations. So I will stack the books on top of the piano and try to forget about them for a few days, or at least until you tell me you've caught up.

In the meantime, however, I want to talk about writing style. In his comment on my September 10 post, David spoke fervently in favor of Dickens's style; and I, too, find it hard to imagine arguing that Melville's prose comes anywhere close to matching Dickens's fluent, artful sentences. I can think of no other writer who can be both screamingly funny and intensely sad at the same time, and Great Expectations is a particularly fine example of Dickens's unique stylistic control. Of course he wants us to recognize that his character Pip is an abused child and that Pip's sister is a monster, and of course he wants us to feel--and to feel deeply--the child's fear and resignation. Nonetheless, his comedy will not be squelched.

Consider, for instance, Pip's parenthetical remark about getting his face washed: "(I may here remark that I suppose myself to be better acquainted than any living authority with the ridgy effect of a wedding-ring passing unsympathetically over the human countenance.)" The sentence is rhetorically driven, full of clausal balance and theatrical cadence. It is a delight to read aloud. But it also depends a great deal on precise adjectives and adverbs. To hell with today's fashionably stupid creative-writing manuals and their generalized hatred of modifiers. The problem isn't writers' use of modifiers; it's their clumsy use. As I've asserted before, contemporary writers could learn a great deal from studying Dickens's eloquent adjectives and adverbs.

For instance, look back at the Dickens line I just quoted. Diction-wise, "ridgy effect" is a tour de force: by attaching a precise, physical adjective to a milder, less tangible noun, he manages to both exaggerate and understate the action of face washing. We meet "ridgy" well before we get to "wedding ring," so the action is drawn out. Then we have the mild verb form "passing"--a bland, repetitive-motion sort of word--which is then modified by the long multisyllabic "unsympathetically." And all of a sudden we understand that this is not only a drawn-out action but a common, apparently endless one. We have a sense of automatic cruelty . . . roughness as a substitute for thought, as a daily chore. . . .

This is what Dickens does, in sentence after sentence after sentence. The mind boggles. At least mine does.

Tomorrow I'll perorate on Melville's style. In the meantime, weigh in with your own thoughts about Dickens.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Harmony, it's raining and raining and raining, so here is a song for the rain, from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It appears at the very end of the play, and the Clown sings it.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man's estate,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering I could never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

P.S. I don't know about you, but I think the opening of Moby-Dick's chapter 3 is hilarious. Mysterious ugly motel art is timeless.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A cool, cloudy morning here--towels in the washing machine, canner heating on the stove, a blue jay screaming in the apple tree. His voice sounds like a rusty swing chain.

I have much editing to accomplish today. I really need to get this project done because next week I leave for several days at Haystack, where I'm supposed to lead a series of writing workshops for professional craft artists, all of them previous faculty members in Haystack's programs, who have been invited back for a chance to work on their own projects. Along the way, they'll have the option to sit in on a writing class, which I have yet to design. I'm looking forward to designing it, however.

So I'm off to the land of work. Meanwhile, here's a random snippet from The Golden Bough, a reminder that other people have far more irritating job descriptions. (I tell you: The Golden Bough is like the I Ching. Keep a copy handy at all times.)

Among the Todas of Southern India, the holy milkman, who acts as priest of the sacred dairy, is subject to a variety of irksome and burdensome restrictions during the whole time of his incumbency, which may last many years. Thus he must live at the sacred dairy and may never visit his home or any village. He must be celibate; if he is married he must leave his wife. On no account may any ordinary person touch the holy milkman or the holy dairy; such a touch would so defile his holiness that he would forfeit his office. It is only on two days a week, namely Mondays and Thursdays, that a mere layman may even approach the milkman; on other days, if he has any business with him, he must stand at a distance (some say a quarter of a mile) and shout his message across the intervening space. Further, the holy milkman never cuts his hair or pares his nails so long as he holds office; he never crosses a river by a bridge, but wades through a ford and only certain fords.

Oh, the burdens of power.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Canning update: thirteen quarts of tomatoes yesterday, plus a potful of sauce destined for the freezer. As an added bonus, yesterday, during one of my brief forays away from the stove, I found a handful of puffball mushrooms in the yard. We had them for dinner with with spaghetti and some of that red sauce cut with heavy cream.

My red sauce more or less follows Marcella Hazan's "simple, fresh-tasting" recipe, which appears in her Classic Italian Cooking. Peel, seed, and quarter a bunch of tomatoes. Put them into a heavy-bottomed pot with a whole peeled onion and half a stick of butter. Cook till soft. Run through a food mill into another heavy-bottomed pot. Cook till you like the thickness. Cool and freeze. This sauce lends itself to further intensification with meat and/or herbs. Or you can keep it plain and light. Or (as mentioned) you can mix it with cream.

In-between-canning update: I've been reading Larry McMurtry's Texasville, the paperback that wins the prize for possessing the number-1 tawdriest cover illustration of any book on my shelves. This novel is both well written and supremely lightweight and is stuffed with amusing characters. The subject is middle-aged sex, which (if one can take this book as fact) is a busy cottage industry in backwater Texas.

Post-canning update: I'm loving all the book comments you've been leaving. Apparently, the general consensus is that we need to speed up this project. How does three chapters in each book sound as our goal for next weekend? That would bring us up to chapter 4 in both novels. Complain if this seems unreasonable or too easy.

And now I'm off to feed animals and attack Tomato Day, Part 2.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yesterday I got a call from a farmer in town who said he has canned his final jar of sauce and is now giving me all the rest of the tomatoes in his garden. This is very exciting, but it does mean that I will be canning canning canning far into the hazy future. Fortunately, canning has plenty of waiting-for-the-pot-to-boil moments that I can fill with novel reading; and though peeling all those hundreds of tomatoes will be a drag. I'm hoping to rope a boy into servitude.

By the way, yesterday I made Julia Child's custard apple tart, and you should make it too. It's excellent, and not too complicated. I also made fish chowder, which actually goes remarkably well with apple pie.

Here's a poem that I haven't thought about for a while. It's not in either collection, though it was published once, several years ago, in a lovely but short-lived journal called the Wesserunsett Review. I'm not sure why I left it out of Crimes, except that it's one of those poems I don't always like. Today, however, it doesn't seem too bad, though I should tighten a few grammatical links.

The Land of Spices

Dawn Potter

In the 1970s, what seeker ever laid

eyes on a nutmeg grater? Something called

nutmeg leapt fully formed

from red-white-and-black Durkee boxes,

a harmless grist, innocently beige,


dry as the moon, sandy as kibble,

which mothers tapped by scant

teaspoons into One-Pie pumpkin and scattered

thriftily onto skim-milk Junket.

“Makes food look pretty!”


vowed the label, but nutmeg

wasn’t meant to be anything;

and if a child fell asleep on the sofa

with the library’s black-leather

Dickens flung open on her chest


and dreamed of Peggotty’s

red forefinger, rough as a nutmeg

grater, smelling of lye and ancient

floors, she dreamed in similes

vague as chivalry.


Then how was it that this child

born to inherit our Age of Convenience

felt so exactly the pine-cone

scrape of that phantom finger

against her sunburnt cheek?


Had callow Shelley turned out to be right

after all, blabbing his shrill claptrap

at Godwin’s high-toned soirĂ©e—

“My opinion of love is that it

acts upon the human


heart precisely as a nutmeg

grater acts upon a nutmeg”—

and was the dog-eared, grade-school

social studies book just as true,

chanting its ode of immortality for those


glory-hunters . . . da Gama,

Magellan . . . who bartered

their souls for cumin and cardamom,

vanilla and myrrh, for rattling

casks of seed more precious than prayer?


Because if the Land of Spices

is something understood,

a dream well dressed,

a paraphrase,

a kind of tune, brown and sweet,


round as earth,

ragged as our laboring flesh,

then even in 1975, in the empire’s

smallest outpost, in a kitchen

pure as Saran Wrap, the slow palms sway


and the milky scent of paradise

lingers on the clean south wind:

our ordinary heaven,

this seven-day world,

transposing in an hour, as a child


snaps her flip-flops against a chair,

gobbles saltines and orange soda,

and grates away at her own

hungry heart—word, after word,

after sounding, star-bent word.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Great Expectations, chapter 1

Probably all of you noticed this as well, but I must say I was jolted to discover that both Moby-Dick and Great Expectations begin with versions of "Call me this name." Moreover, in both cases the names are single words, without surnames. So here we have two characters, each rootless in his own way: one a wandering sailor, the other an orphan in a marshy graveyard. Yet in both novels the name is the first and most vital point of conversation and connection: "this is who I am."

What are your thoughts about this name issue--or about anything else in GE chapter?

And now, regarding our reading schedule: several of us seem to be hamstrung by our slow progress, so I'd like to negotiate a new schedule. Do you want to read the books simultaneously or continue to alternate? And how many chapters could you consume in a week? In both novels, the chapters are fairly short, although the Melville is dense and the Dickens is busy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A site called the Bronte Blog has excerpted the opening of my Sewanee Review essay about Charlotte's novel "Shirley." You may be amused to note that the piece is highlighted as a "recent Bronte scholar paper." Hah! The excerpt itself proves otherwise. I mean, really: how can an essay that starts out by referring to Aeneas as a "pious sap" have anything to do with scholarship? Equating "writer about famous books" with "scholar" is just plain silly, and reductive too. And embarrassing. What would Foucault say? Oy. [Actually he wouldn't say, "Oy." But he might say, "Chut!"]

Dinner tonight: oven-fried chicken, dill and yogurt dumplings, coleslaw. Possibly a custard pie, if the hens can drum up the willpower to lay a few eggs. These freeloading chickens are starting to get on my nerves.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Of course this Moby-Dick/Great Expectations reading schedule needs to suit your time constraints, but I have to admit that I am finding the project very difficult. It's way too slow for me. Despite my well-mannered intention to parallel the group's reading speed, I am already a chapter ahead in MD; and I had to hide GE in the car in order to avoid sailing into it full tilt.

On an average day, I do manage to accomplish tasks other than reading novels. But my book habit fits in so snugly around those tasks. For instance, making polenta or risotto or chocolate pudding or bechamel sauce is much less boring if I read while stirring. It's easy to shell peas or trim green beans while reading. Naturally every trip to the bathroom involves a book, as does every blank moment during a kid's sporting event, piano lesson, or orthodontist appointment. The books I'm reading seep into the spaces of everything I do; and the only reason I didn't start this conversation while our group was undertaking A Winter's Tale is because I was reading the play out loud with Paul . . . a torturously slow process that was steadily driving me crazy. I do love that my 12-year-old wants to read Shakespeare, but reading these books is my private vice, like chocolate bingeing is for other people. I did not enjoy waiting for him.

Yet I'm also loving the novelty of sharing a common project with all of you, so I will try to persevere at this slow speed, meanwhile hoping you will forgive me for any page-turning impatience that erupts.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Look! A pie-contest review!
I'm so pleased about the rich Moby-Dick conversation that took place while I was incommunicado at the Harmony Fair (see the comments beneath my September 3 post). Myself, I'm feeling more and more enthusiastic about undertaking this novel, which, as all of your comments reinforce, already feels strangely pertinent to so much in this world.

And now I'd like to get started on Great Expectations; but for me, today must be dedicated to post-fair recovery--i.e., driving to Skowhegan to buy dog food, allergy medicine, and a tire. The Harmony Elementary kids get an extra day of sleep (otherwise known as "teacher workshop day"), but the Harmony high schoolers are whining and complaining and dragging themselves to school. Both my boys lived life to the fullest all weekend: Paul won Best of Show for his pickled dill beans, and he also won the pie-eating contest (ages 9-14 category). James and his best friend Sam covered themselves in glory by winning the ever-popular doubles competition known as the Gross Games (sample event: rubbing your face in a plate of corn syrup and then picking up Froot Loops with your head; no hands allowed). I am sorry to say that I've been left to deal with the shirts.

Meanwhile, I ran the Exhibit Hall, which, after the flurry of setup and judge management, devolved into sitting in a lawn chair and reading/socializing/telling kids not to bounce balls inside the building. I did have a slightly sheepish, sigh-filled moment, when one woman made the mistake of asking me what I was reading.

"Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire," I replied.

"Oh," she said. "Is that part of a series?"


Monday, September 6, 2010

A sort of mediocre review of Crimes, but I've seen far more cutting ones from this reviewer, so things could be worse.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Today is the day the Harmony Fair holds its annual State of Maine-sponsored two-crust apple pie contest. And this year two of my judges are high school English teachers and lovers of poetry who also happen to be skilled bakers. Amazing, wouldn't you say?

Therefore, for the first time ever, the apple pie judging will begin with a poem: "Ray," by Hayden Carruth. It's about pie, of course, and also contains literary referents, which English teachers love.

P.S. Moby-Dick readers: don't make me nag.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Moby-Dick, chapter 1

Because I'll be enmeshed in the Harmony Fair this weekend, I'm opening Moby-Dick comments early so that you can (1) stop procrastinating and finish the chapter (come on; you can do it; it's short) and (2) have a few days to get your thoughts down on "paper" (i.e., the comment form). Please don't forget to comment, even if you hate what you've read or have no idea what's happening. I'm delighted to host this reading party, but I do not want to be the whip-cracker. I already do plenty of whip-cracking around the house.

So, to begin, I'll mention Ishmael's intriguing thoughts about the nature of work. What's your response?

Dinner tonight: fair hotdogs and elderly coffee.

For next week: Read chapter 1 of Dickens's Great Expectations. I hope to say more about that novel this weekend, but who knows what fair morass will have swallowed me?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Internet down for almost 24 hours = no post this morning. Sorry.

However, here's a capsule summary of what I was doing instead of writing to you:

1. Not editing.

2. Making bread-and-butter pickles.

3. Reading Nabokov's Pale Fire.

4. Not writing.

5. Making catsup.

6. Making lunch for my friend Nick, who came all the way from New York City to have lunch with me. I'm so incredibly flattered.

Notice that I'm making catsup, not ketchup. Just pointing that out.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Well, here in Harmony we are on fair countdown. Labor Day Weekend is always crammed with Labor in this town, and our annual fair is the most exciting thing that ever happens. We have a demolition derby (also featured on the cover of my new poetry collection); we have a truck pull; we have a horse show; we have lame inflatable rides; we have hotdogs and French fries; we have a skillet toss (for the ladies) and a hammer throw (for the men). Last year saw the introduction of the Gross Games (primarily for middle school students and wacked-out parents), which involve eating lots of squishy nasty food at top speed without using your hands. And we have my own particular Labor-intensive project: the exhibition hall . . . a.k.a, the tomatoes, the bread-and-butter pickles, the two-crust apple pies, the 4-Hers' explanation of how to groom a sheep, the guinea fowl eggs, the needlepoint cow. . . .

This year we also, apparently, have Hurricane Earl. So wish us luck.

Here's my Harmony Fair poem, from Boy Land. I've posted it more than once; but like the fair, it's turning into an annual event.


The Skillet Toss

Dawn Potter

Harmony Fair, September 2002

A loose, laughing huddle of women

gathers alongside a swath of packed dirt,

hot children milling underfoot

clutching half-empty cans of soda;

and now husbands drift over, and we

arrive, who don’t throw skillets,


ready to cheer on our friend Tina,

who baby-sits our kids and doesn’t take shit.

Ask the contestants what they’re aiming at

this year, they’ll all say husbands.

Men are proud to have a wife who can

fracture skulls, if she thinks it’s worth her while.


They watch, amused but unsurprised—

married too long to doubt the plain lack

of vanity a high school sweetheart

acquires by forty. Tina practices her swing,

all knees and elbows under the sun;

the crowd watches, relaxed


and easy-tempered in the heat,

last hurrah of a Maine summer:

such weather can’t last; frost on the way:

in this town we never forget January;

so oh, the pleasure now of watching

sweat run down a brown arm,


first arc of a skillet in the heavy air

and the slow rise of dust when it lands:

Applause, laughter; Tina wipes

her forehead and takes aim for the next,

all eyes on her target: invisible Everyman

in the haze, asking for it, his voice


a low grumble of content, like oxen

flicking their tails in the barn—

and just fool enough to turn his back,

bare elbows propped on the fence,

watching a couple of ponies drag

their burden of concrete across the ring.


[from Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004).]


And if you haven't seen Tom's fair pictures, look here.

Dinner tonight: gazpacho, and plenty of it.