Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Yesterday we endured one massive thunderstorm after another, all afternoon into evening . . . and meanwhile a blizzard was smothering Virginia. So bizarre. This morning our basement is full of water, but the electricity still hasn't faltered. When I stand outside on the stoop, I can hear the streams roaring over the rocks. It sounds like an April snow melt out there, not Halloween morning.

I'm gratified by the comments and emails I'm getting in response to the teaching diary I've been posting here. One thing has become clear, both in the course of my own teaching and in the remarks I'm hearing: poetry is an incredibly cogent and efficient way to teach the fundamentals of grammar. Yesterday in class we were all about conjunctions and sentence length; in previous lessons we dealt with commas and prepositions, nouns and their modifiers, gerunds as sound and sense, etc., etc. We've accomplished this in the space of four hours spread over four weeks. Moreover, the kids get it: they really are starting to grasp the idea that parts of speech can drive their own creative thinking.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to the teachers in this school for letting me show up each week and figure this stuff out with their students. I teach many single-session workshops, but I almost never get the chance to build a cohesive program. These teachers are giving me that opportunity, and I am learning as fast as I can.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Teaching project: week 4

Today's class was not canceled by Hurricane Sandy. While the weather in central Maine is windy and rainy, it doesn't seem much different from our usual autumn storms, at least not yet. Apparently there is more to come, so I won't dump out my buckets of water yet; but for the moment all I've done is dodge a few tree limbs and hang onto my rain hood.

Today's poems were two old teaching favorites of mine: Michael Casey's "driving while under the influence" and Kim Addonizio's "Garbage." As far as I can tell, neither is available online, but I can email copies if you want them. Just let me know.

The students continue to seem comfortable and cheerful; and when I asked a few of them to be readers, several seemed downright pleased to be asked. Because the group is so large, I find it challenging to develop a good read-aloud strategy that keeps everyone usefully engaged. It's always helpful when more than one person has the poem in his or her mouth--it seems to lead more naturally to conversation--but too many readers can be fragmenting. So today, for each poem, I asked two readers to alternate between the lines. I'm really trying to get them to internalize the idea of the line as a unit of sound, which is a very difficult thing to explain but fairly easy to hear and feel.

We started off with the Casey, a persona poem in which the poet leans heavily on pause and pacing to create his character. After reading it, the two boys who read spoke cogently about that sense of space in the speaker's voice: Casey is masterful at manipulating line endings to mimic a specific voice. I asked the class to tell me who this particular character was: male or female, old or young, smart or stupid--none of which Casey directly reveals. Everything is narrative context and speech pacing, but the students were instantly all over the poem: they nailed down the character without trouble.

Next, we turned to the Addonizio, a longish, untidy polemic about waste. The two girls who read the poem spoke about the awkwardness of the line endings, which, they felt, seemed to break up sentences almost randomly. So we moved on to look at the sentences. I asked the class to scan the poem and tell me where each sentence ended. We tracked periods down the page, and the class discovered that, after several shortish sentences, the poet launches into a twenty-line, detail-packed, almost hysterical description of accumulation. As one student said, "She's building up her sentence with the garbage." Then we went back and looked at how the sentences opened and noticed that several begin with "Don't think about . . . " before moving into the details of the garbage dump. We talked about this opener as a manipulation strategy: the poet is pretending that she isn't pushing our faces into the trash. But, in truth, she's forcing us to look at something we really don't want to look at.

For an in-class writing assignment, I asked students to write at least fifteen lines about something they really, really hate or that really, really makes them angry. They could choose to rush their lines down the page, like Addonizio does, or to pause deliberately at the ends, like Casey does. But whatever style they chose to emulate, they had to write the entire poem as a single long sentence. Before they began writing, we brainstormed words that help keep a sentence going, words that they could latch onto as inspiration to press forward: and, or, for, because, since, yet, etc. As you can see, this kind of prompt is a good way to teach conjunctions.

The idea of writing about something they hated made the students chattery and excited. But after about five minutes they settled down to write, and at the end of the class we heard drafts about unattractive hairy men, prideful football jocks, annoying roommates, and even, very bravely, given our politically conservative county, a declaration against gay-marriage opponents. After this last student read, I did make sure to talk briefly about the long history of political poetry and to also mention that poems can be a great way to think about these kinds of sensitive issues. They let us sit quietly and listen instead of jumping into the debate and arguing. And if we disagree, then we have to go home and write our own poem.

For homework, I asked students to add at least five lines to the in-class poem. They can do this by adding material and/or relineating. In addition, they need to transform the one-sentence draft into a three-sentence draft.

Next week I'll be on the road, teaching in New Hampshire, but the classroom teachers still plan to bring the students together. I'll be interested to hear how that session goes. By the time I've returned, each student should have chosen one of the drafts he or she has written so far, and that will be the template for the more intensive revision exercises we'll be undertaking. The goal, by the end of this experiment, is for students to have several progressive drafts that lead to a finished poem.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Monday, October 29, 2012

High wind warnings have already been posted for Harmony, though we are 500 miles away from New York City; so this may be my last post for a while. We'll see how the power holds out, but I'm not sanguine. Whenever God sneezes, we lose power. Because we don't own a generator, I've been packing the freezers with extra blocks of ice, and later this afternoon I'll start filling containers with water. With a wood stove and a gas stove we can cook and stay warm indefinitely; water and refrigeration are my major concern. And fortunately we aren't in a flood zone, although we do live in a forest. However, Tropical Storm Irene took out two trees close to the house last year, and Tom cut down another one next to the barn yesterday, which makes me feel somewhat better. Still we do have some enormous white pines and a looming old maple tree that could do a great deal of damage.

I send out all my best thoughts and wishes for the rest of you, riding out this scary storm in your fragile little boats.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

At 4 a.m., fifteen years ago, my son Paul was born. He was a fat baby, a tall toddler, a scrawny grammar-school boy, and now he is a lanky freshman in high school. Last night, on the closing night of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I sat in the audience watching him cavort around the stage in a tailcoat and top hat, smacking shrieky students with a paddle, competing with his brother's best friend for the affections of the heroine, getting "murdered" by the Headless Horseman; and I couldn't help but recall all the years of play acting he's gone through in our backyard. For several years, he maintained a superhero identity (Weasel Man) whose superpower was wind finger and whose street-clothes persona was Otis Redding. For those same several years, he enacted entire soccer teams with numerous invisible friends (Jack, Jesus, Connecticut, and Fred). Even as a toddler he was a swift inventor of characters. For something called the Monkey Swing Game, he created several personae--the Cook, the Meat, the Napkin Passenger, Rocko, and Sticko--and he made me write down all their names so that we would never forget them.

There’s no denying him

announced the old lady at Bud’s Shop ’n Save,
grabbing your father’s coat sleeve, eyeing you
up and down like post-office criminals.
Flat cheekbones, shock of hair, same aloof,
thin-hipped stride, same touch-me-not scowl:
six years old, already the masked man.
What have I done to deserve lover and son
so beautiful, both remote as trout in green shallows?
I fritter my squirrel antics on the bank, swing
head-first from a cedar bough: Notice me, notice me!
You cock his cool stare and flit into shadow, my slippery fish.
But dangle the lure, the words—
up you flash, sun bronzing your quick scales.
“Away went Alice like the wind!” you cry; “In Lear I love the Fool!”
Feathers sprout from my worldly paws, your gills suckle air.
New born, we flee open-eyed into the east,
bright wingbeats carving cloud, below us the unfolding sea—
white chop, clean spray.
You know the story.

["There's no denying him," by Dawn Potter, from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Valentine’s Day

Dawn Potter

The plow guy shows up four hours after the snow has stopped
and plows a rosebush.
But in the dark of the year
I don’t care about roses.
What I care about is an emergency exit to the street
so I can escape from my own toils and devices,

a hatch that he carves out for me,
after a fashion,
though it’s littered with cigarette butts
and speckles of hydraulic fluid.
When I trudge out to hand him his cash,
he doesn’t even bother

to transfer the joint to the other hand.
He smiles broadly, like a man should smile
when he’s just finished plowing the driveway
of a woman who’s rumored to write poems,
who’s ten years older than himself,
and whose son plays soccer on his daughter’s team,

where they do real good
because both kids are fast and can score, and once
they even got their names drawn from plastic pickle jars
and had to dance together at the middle-school Snow Ball.
Not that they liked it.
I feel a little sad

when the plow guy doesn’t go so far
as to offer me the joint.
It’s a disappointment,
but, in the long run,
probably for the best
since, if we did smoke a joint together—

his plaid elbow poking out of the pickup window,
me with my bare feet stuck into barn boots
and the zipper half torn out of my coat—
we might have to talk about something
like ice fishing,
or how big our skinny kids are getting,

or what the cold’s supposed to do tomorrow,
instead of just plowing and smiling, and paying,
and turning our backs
in the way citizens do
who’ve modestly eyed each other for a score of years
but won’t believe they have a life in common,

except for snow
and old clothes, and two kids
who chase a ball down a shaggy field.
Though now we share this morning’s dose of loneliness.
God forbid
that we should mention such a thing.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2012)]

Friday, October 26, 2012

Link Day

The Sewanee Review has posted a link to the opening pages of my essay "Ode to My Son's Audiobooks," which appears in the current issue. It is rather unfortunate that it breaks off in the middle of a word, but oh well.

Tonight I'll be playing with my newly reconfigured band at a fundraising dinner for Community Fitness in Guilford, Maine. As you can see, we still have band-name problems; but it's just possible that Brian and I may perform our cover of this beautiful Civil Wars song, "Twenty Years." Though I say it myself, we don't sound half bad. Neither of us looks like Johnny Depp, however.

Tonight and twice tomorrow my son Paul stars as Ichabod Crane in a very silly musical version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. Granted, he's got a cold and is losing his voice, but the girl who plays his love interest, Katrina, makes up for that. "Mom, she sounds as good as Adele!"

And in honor of my son's theatrical debut, I offer a link to William Stafford's poem "First Grade."  I bet you've met these kids. In fact, some of them were probably you.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Last night as I was driving kids home from play practice--

Boy 1: You know what I love about being a nerd?

Boy 2: What?

Boy 1: You can get really excited about stuff. You don't have to be like "eh, that's cool," even if you love something and want to do it all the time.

Me: What's the opposite of nerd, would you say?

Boy 1: Super jock, maybe?

Me: But lots of you nerds play sports and are pretty good at them.

Boy 2: It's definitely not jock.

Boy 1: I know--hipsters. Hipsters are the opposite of nerds.

Me: Hm . . . what about all those hipsters in bands and art school?

[Thoughtful pause]

Girl: I'm not sure if I'm a nerd. I think I might be more in the middle.

Boy 1: I think you're in the middle but leaning toward nerd.

Boy 2: Yeah.

Girl [pleased]: Yeah.

Me: And the great thing is, being a nerd only gets better. Probably high school is the low point, really. [pause] No, maybe middle school.

Boy 1 [firmly]: Yes.

[Thoughtful pause]

Boy 2: I don't know. Middle school was fine. I think I was only just starting to discover my inner nerd then.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The other day I scanned an interview with an English professor who admitted that he had never finished George Eliot's Middlemarch "because it was too long," and my temper started to fray. It's funny how possessive we can be about the writers who matter to us. I've picked many an argument over Dickens.

So as I sit here this morning, wondering what I ought to say to you, my thoughts have turned to the names of writers whose writing I avoid reading. Off the top of my head, I can name Dostoyevsky, Poe, Proust, Lessing, Pound, and there are many more out there--including a passel of contemporary novelists and poets whose names I won't even bring up because they probably Google their names every day, and I'll just make them depressed.

I feel sad about avoiding these writers. I ought to be more broad-minded and flexible, but sometimes I think my John Milton project wore me out in that regard. Today I feel some sympathy with Jane Welsh Carlyle, who wrote in her diary on November 1, 1855, "Mr. C presented me today with a novel of [James Fenimore] Cooper's (Lionel Lincoln) which he had picked up on a stall for ninepence--Dear I should say. But in spite of its badness I have read at it till flesh and blood can stand no more."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaching project: week 3

This week the atmosphere in the classroom was downright relaxed, which was good because I was ready to make a big move in what I planned to demand from the students writing-wise. Till now, we had focused on in-class discussion and quick-moving writing prompts, but today I decided to shift the concentration and require them to produce a longer piece of writing.

Nonetheless, we started out, as always, by reading poems. Today I had various students read each piece aloud line by line, and then I read it again. First up was Nikki Giovanni's "Winter Poem," a deceptively simple children's poem. I say "deceptively simple" because when I asked students to number the chronological events of the poem, one girl immediately said, "Doesn't that just mean numbering the lines?" Not quite. It didn't take long for the class to realize that the this happened and then that happened and then that happened events are interspersed with moments of stasis, when nothing but feelings seem to exist.

So we talked a bit about how Giovanni used the time-passing structure as a way to organize not only the events themselves but also reactions to those events. And then I tossed out the word image and asked them to find a few. The students struggled with this task, and no wonder. Even though the poem does include a number of nouns, none is particularly vivid. The most complex image--"web of snow"--is in fact quite difficult to picture. So the poem's appeal seems to come not from a visual evocation of winter but from the way in which the lines move the reader from one place to another place in both time and space.

Now we moved on to our second poem, Jane Kenyon's translation of Anna Akhmatova's "Along the Hard Crest of the Snowdrift." After we finished reading it aloud, I jumped straight into image: "Find some images in this poem," I said, and of course the students immediately capitulated, tossing out one gorgeous phrase after another. For this is a poem whose sensibility is almost entirely image-driven; and when I asked the class to do what they'd done with the Giovanni poem--that is, to number the events as they took place--they also realized that hardly anything happens in this poem: a bit of walking, some trembling branches, the ringing of spurs. Akhmatova's poem stays in the same time and place throughout, but we vividly experience the intensity of that moment.

All of this chat about the two poems took, at most, 15 minutes. Then I gave the class a writing prompt, which took the form of the following diagram on the board:

↓ Sky


Ground  ↑

Then I explained:

1. You are going to write a poem about what's going on outside, right now: right at this time of year, right in this particular place, right at this moment in the day.

2. Your poem is going to either start at the sky and work down to the ground or start at the ground and work up to the sky: your choice.

3. You can also define your own limits of sky and ground: e.g., sky can be outer space or the top of a tree; ground can be a soccer field or a cavern of magma.

4. Before the end of this class period, write a 20-line poem that moves all the way from top to bottom or from bottom to top.

"Twenty lines!" Naturally they were aghast. But after some initial jabbering, they fell into deep silence, and they wrote and wrote and wrote. The teachers and I pressed them to keep cranking out lines: "Don't stop and think; this is a first draft; you'll do the thinking later." Fortunately, they had that stunning Akhmatova poem in their heads, and the Giovanni poem had allowed them to quickly absorb the idea of how one might attach images to a preexisting beginning-to-end framework. Still, in terms of production, this was by far the biggest demand I'd made of them, and I bet they were tired afterward.

With five minutes left in the class, three students (all juniors! remember how silent those juniors were on day 1?) decided to read their work aloud. Each was a poem about an autumn morning in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, yet all were distinctive. We had one in which the wind functioned as a continuous image from top to bottom. We had another in which the movement from top to bottom was intersected beautifully by the side-to-side interruption of a loaded log truck moving down the road. We had another that eschewed the omniscient eye and instead created a first-person narrator who speculates about what she is seeing around her.

For homework, I asked them to reduce their 20-line poem to 10 lines, but without damaging the top-down or bottom-up structure. In other words, they can't just chop off 10 lines and call it done but have to actually pick and choose and cut and paste and refine and delete to get the poem down to 10 lines.

For more about this project, follow the links:

Week 1

Week 2

Monday, October 22, 2012

Somehow, in and among the editing and the proof checking and the invention of workshop syllabi and the cooking and the cleaning and the animal feeding and the wood splitting and the carpooling and the reading and the boy nagging, I have talked myself into starting that essay about Plath, Sexton, et al. And when I say et al., I mean that I think this essay may attend to the family members of writers as much as the writers themselves . . . though, of course, some of those family members are themselves artists. But what was it like to be Branwell Bronte, watching his industrious sisters accomplish what he could not? What was it like to be Cassandra Austen or Lavinia Dickinson or Jane Carlyle or Dorothy Wordsworth or Catherine Dickens or Leonard Woolf or Eleanor Frost or Adrienne Rich's husband, Alfred Conrad, who, after their separation, "drove into the woods and shot himself"?

The list is infinite and heartbreaking, and I have not even added any children's or parents' names to it, not yet.

I'll give you the one paragraph I've written so far.

Long after Sylvia Plath extinguished herself in a whirlpool of despair, illness, theater, and vengeance, her husband Ted Hughes tried to describe the ecstatic, suffering anxiety that was a central element of her personality:

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water,
Listening for them—in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching—
Then dancing wilder in the silence.

I think about him, battered relic of Plath, composing those lines so many years after the fact; still struggling against her terrible allure, against his own rash and fumbling failures as her dance partner. The powers-that-be, it seems, saw fit to inflict him with a lifetime spent facing the music—though he hobbled onward, grievously damaged yet wielding his vocation to the end. If not sustenance, poetry was at least a few scant drops of water in the wasteland.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Audrey Beard had already recorded two albums with her church choir before she graduated from her Cleveland high school in 1965. Under the stage name Penny North, she made the shift to secular music, singing at a neighborhood lounge and some talent shows. Although she caught the attention of a Motown scout, who offered her an audition in Detroit, her mother made her turn it down. Penny settled for recording two tracks for a Cleveland studio and briefly became a minor local celebrity. But eventually members of her church pressured her to give up her career as a secular singer, and that was the last the music world heard of Penny North.

"I had this thought a while ago," wrote W. B. Yeats.
'My darling cannot understand
What I have done, or what would do
In this blind bitter land.'
Or as landscape painter J. M. W. Turner once said, "We can take only what we see, no matter what is there."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

1. My essay "Ode to My Son's Audiobooks" appears in the new issue of The Sewanee Review. This may be the first time I've ever shared a table of contents with Billy Collins.

2. One thing that binds my family together seems to be a weakness for cute baby walruses.

3. Dinner last night: pork chops, first rubbed with salt and crushed green peppercorns, then left to their own devices for 3 hours, and finally pan roasted and served on a bed of buttered chard and spinach fettucine and topped with a fresh tomato, garlic, rosemary, vermouth, and parsley sauce. Accompanied by a salad of arugula and diced red and yellow beets.

4. First draft of the anthology cover:

Friday, October 19, 2012

Three quotations from books I was reading yesterday, all of which explain why I'm feeling, in Robert Frost's words, that "there is a residue of extreme sorrow that nothing can be done about and over it poetry lingers to brood with sympathy. I have heard poetry charged with having a vested interest in sorrow.” And sometimes, as in Toibin's case, prose counts as poetry.

from "A Pink Wool Knitted Dress" by Ted Hughes (in the poetry collection Birthday Letters)
In your pink wool knitted dress
Before anything had smudged anything
You stood at the altar. Bloomsday.

from "The Pearl Fishers" by Colm Toibin (in the story collection The Empty Family)
We must turn our bewilderment in the world into a gift from God.

from "Questions for Baron" by Howard Levy (in the forthcoming poetry collection Spooky Action at a Distance)
You are three states away,
due north. I hope it is much cooler,
yet loneliness can adapt to every condition.
We often house it with winter,
shut in by cold and snow,
Frost’s Storm Fear, after all,
the screaming wind that buries talk,
the sharp icicle of it: how loneliness can pierce
the heart and then melt away
as if nothing had broken through the skin.
But in this blazing sunlight, the thermometer
reading 98 in the shade, the world
sickeningly full of August, colors flagrant
in the harsh sun, everything
wilted but the buzzing flies and bees,
there it is, humming along,
part of the furnace.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Forthcoming from Autumn House Press in 2013, A Poet's Sourcebook is an anthology of writings about poetry that opens in the ancient world and moves chronologically to the present. The book includes many different types of writing--essays, journal entries, letters, interviews, scripts, poems--and features a swath of voices. Following is a list of the writers and anonymous sources that appear in the anthology. Many of these writers are themselves writing about other writers, so you could add Virgil, Goethe, Lorca, Beddoes, Herrick, and many others to the list.

It's a good thing I like to read because this is only a spoonful of what I've been force-feeding myself during the past year.

Lao Tzu
The Book of Genesis
Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani
Li Chi'ing Chao
Marie de France
Dante Alighieri
Francesco Petrarch
An Aztec Poet
Jan Kochanowski
Sir Philip Sidney
William Shakespeare
John Milton
Anne Bradstreet
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Samuel Johnson
David Crantz
Phillis Wheatley
William Blake
William Wordsworth
Dorothy Wordsworth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
George Gordon Byron
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Johann Peter Eckermann
John Keats
Thomas Carlyle
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Edgar Allan Poe
Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov
Henry David Thoreau
Frederick Douglass
Emily Bronte
Walt Whitman
Charles Sangster
Matthew Arnold
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Walter Pater
Emily Dickinson
Paul Verlaine
Gerard Manley Hopkins
William Butler Yeats
Robert Frost
Rainer Maria Rilke
Edward Thomas
Wallace Stevens
Lytton Strachey
Virginia Woolf
Ezra Pound
T. S. Eliot
Vladimir Nabokov
Theodore Roethke
Czeslaw Milosz
A Keresan Poet
Hayden Carruth
Philip Larkin
Denise Levertov
John Berger
Philip Levine
Adrienne Rich
Gregory Corso
Gary Snyder
Audre Lorde
Toi Derricotte
Galsan Tschinag
Yusef Komunyakaa
Baron Wormser
Bei Dao
Elizabeth McElrea
Charles Bernstein
Jack Wiler
Naomi Shihab Nye
Rita Dove
Sam Watson
Lynda Hull
Teresa Carson
Dawn Potter
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
Brenda Shaughnessy
Mike Walker
Autumn McClintock
Garth Greenwell
Rory Waterman
Mthabisi Phili
Ethan Richard

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I balk at watching televised presidential debates, but I have written dream poems about both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. As far as I can recall, I have never dreamed about a Democratic presidential candidate, though I do vote for them.

In the old days, whenever W's voice came over the air, I had to turn off the radio, no matter what he was saying. The very sound of his syllables gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I can't tell you why staged political debates make my skin crawl, but they do. Even though O's voice is downright euphonious, I can't tolerate the scripts, and those decorated TV backgrounds, and all that artificially flavored reportage. I can't stand the word reportage either.
Poets are never liberals or conservatives, they are always radicals or reactionaries; and today, of course, public life rejects these indecorous extremes. True, the far right has worked up something resembling a movement in recent years, but it remains intellectually disreputable. On the left, in spite of sporadic efforts in New York and California, those of us who are born anarchists have to agree there isn’t much doing. In other words the political attitudes usually endorsed by poets are now amorphous, disintegrated, anachronistic, without programs. Yet this ought to be exactly the political condition in which poets can flourish and in which politically directed poems—and I mean poems in the completest sense—can be written without becoming debased by doctrinaire points of view. I cannot speak for reaction; but it is hard for me to believe that any radical poet in the country today lacks a point on which he can stand firm, a point from which, as the spokesman of us all, he can attack known injustices and stupidities. Isn't the bomb, our monstrous, inescapable, political absurdity, the place to begin? And why then isn't it happening?
Hayden Carruth wrote those sentences in 1963. Does that cheer you or depress you?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Teaching project: week 2

This morning I taught my second poetry session with a combined group of ninth and eleventh graders. They came into class livelier than they did last week, and even the juniors were chatty. I started them off immediately with a dictation exercise: my choice was "The Base Stealer" by Robert Francis, which I often use with high school students. I  know I've written about this poem in other teaching posts, but I'm going to reiterate the details of what transpired in this particular class.

When I dictate a poem, what I'm doing is reading it aloud and asking students to copy out what they hear. I give them every capital letter, every piece of punctuation, every line and stanza break; I spell any difficult words and repeat myself as necessary. The goal is to draw students into a tight focus on the actual, palpable materials of the poem.

For the first line or two, they are always restless: some are bewildered; some are scornful; most think they are obediently bowing to yet another tedious assignment. But before long they are sucked into the moment. Midway through, one boy said, "Wait. How many times did he write 'Come on' in that line?" Another boy worked to sort out the complications of punctuation in the final line: "Commas, and then a dash, and then an exclamation point?" The other students listened to me and listened to each other. The room was very quiet, except for occasional spontaneous remarks about a word.

I mentioned in last week's post that the eleventh-grade class includes several ESL students. As an aid to them, the teachers and I decided to give them photocopies of the poem. Then, as they wrote down the words I was dictating, they could also check them visually. (I've learned that this is also a useful option for students with hearing loss or language delays.)

After I finished the dictation, I broke the class into seven groups of four or five students each and asked them to decide as a group, "What's the most important word in this poem?" They worked on this task for eight or ten minutes, and then we reconvened and shared the words. Interestingly, every single group chose a different word: what we ended up with on the board were taunt, teeter, scattering, ecstatic, poised, between, and he. I chattered briefly about letter sounds, parts of speech, links of connotation or sensation among the words, the personality of the character in the poem; and then I gave them a writing exercise, which began with this instruction:
Choose a physical activity: a sport, falling down the stairs, splitting firewood--something you've done yourself or watched someone else do. Now imagine a couple of seconds of the action, and freeze it in your head, as if you've paused a video clip. Hold onto that picture.
Then I threw out the following prompts at two- or three-minute intervals:
Lines 1 and 2. Arms. What the arms doing? Focus on action, shape, where they are in space.
Lines 3 and 4. Hands. What are the fingers doing? Be exact? What are they touching? Does their motion remind you of anything else? What?
Lines 5 and 6. Feet. What are the feet doing? Where are they in space? Have they shifted from one space to another?
Line 7. Unfreeze the video clip. What does the person's body do as soon as the video starts rolling?
After the students finished writing, I asked them to swap their iPads or papers with another student and read that person's draft. As they read, they needed to look for two words in that other person's poem that they liked, and then they needed to share that information with the poet. This simple structured conversation is a first step toward being able to talk more fully about each others' poems in workshop groups, which I hope they'll be ready to do later this fall.

At this point several students read their poems aloud, and once again we had some fine first drafts. There were a lot of athletes in this room, and it clearly gave them great pleasure to focus their writing eyes so closely on what their bodies have been trained to perform. This week more juniors decided to share their poems, which was a big plus because the freshmen are eager to find out what's in the heads of the big kids. After last week's session, they told their English teacher they were disappointed at not getting to hear what the eleventh graders had to say. Multi-age, multi-level classes really do help students expand their understanding of one another, and I'm very glad the juniors are softening up so quickly.

For homework, students will need to turn in a second draft that contains at least the following changes:
After your original lines 1 and 2, add at least one line that answers, "What does the person see?"
After your original lines 3 and 4, add at least one line that answers, "What does the person hear?"
After your original lines 5 and 6, add at least one line that answers, "What does the person remember?"

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Thursday I shipped out the proofs of my forthcoming anthology, A Poet's Sourcebook, and this morning I turned in the final manuscript of my next poetry collection, Same Old Story. Next to clear off the desk: two editing projects and several teaching syllabi and some Frost Place paperwork, and then maybe, just maybe, I might find myself beginning to write again.

Composing yesterday's post reminded me of the many years I've been planning to write an essay about growing up in the daughter generation of writers such as Sexton and Plath. I'm not sure why I keep postponing that essay, but one of these days I'm going to have to gird my loins and start attacking the issue.  Last winter I even began to imagine teaching a course from that point of view--a general-interest, you-don't-even-need-to-be-a-poet-and-you-certainly-don't-need-to-know-squat-about-feminist-theory approach to the Woman Problem. But who hires anyone to teach that kind of class? And who would sign up for it? I have no idea.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I was in the car watching cows saunter over a pasture, and dry leaves blow over the road, and the pale clouds fade into gold. I was letting the radio news wash over me but I wasn't really listening to it, until all of a sudden I heard a small news clip about Botswana, where, as of this week, it is now legal to will your property to a woman. 

For some reason, this was the straw that broke my camel's heart; and why it wasn't the story of that brave child in Afghanistan whom the Taliban decided to shoot merely because she said she wanted to go to school; or why it wasn't the recorded telephone message from Senator Todd "Mr. Legitimate Rape" Akin asking me to contribute to his reelection campaign; or why it wasn't one of a thousand other anecdotes of stupidity, cruelty, and arrogance: that I can't tell you. All I can say is that this Botswana story plucked the scab off the festering sore I share with half the people on this planet, a wound that higher-toned circles refer to as gender oppression but that most women around the world know as "just the way things are."

And even here in "enlightened" America, girls and women are routinely beaten and murdered, or trained to be afraid to speak out, or led to believe that they can't take charge of their destinies. But none of this is news to any one of you who reads this letter. And the very fact that none of this is news is intolerable to me today.

I was
the girl of the chain letter,
the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes,
the one of the telephone bills,
the wrinkled photo and the lost connections,
the one who kept saying--
Listen! Listen!
We must never! We must never!
and all those things . . .

[from "Love Song" by Anne Sexton (April 19, 1963)]

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The season of mellow fruitfulness has come and gone. I spent yesterday's gloaming huddled under a blanket watching the bare-legged JV soccer boys wildly do jumping jacks between plays in a vain effort to stay warm. Too close to my hat for comfort, a trio of beady-eyed inland seagulls swooped down on the popcorn kernels littering the grass; and my big black poodle, who for unfortunate grooming-schedule reasons was forced to attend this game, developed a strong dislike for big white birds. High winds have torn all the leaves from the trees, frost has burnt the remnants of summer, and I am wondering where my winter boots have gotten to. On today's schedule: pull out the last of my beets and carrots, investigate the brussels sprouts, split some firewood, and remember to bring two blankets to the next soccer game.

I wish I could write, but that hasn't been happening lately. Now that the anthology proofs are in the hands of the postmistress, I am trying to dredge up a shred of optimism about my ability to create something new. (Can one "dredge up a shred"? I think not, but I'm going to try anyway.) In the meantime, I could make an apple pie and vacuum the wood chips out of the living room rug. Art is short; housework is long--which on the whole is probably how it should be. Otherwise, what would I have to write about?

Friday, October 12, 2012

As far as I can remember, this is the first of my Chestnut Ridge poems I've shared with you. The central character in this piece is a bad-tempered British loyalist who is not too comfortable about sojourning in the wilds of colonial Pennsylvania.

Incident at Jacobs Creek

Dawn Potter


Waiting for Mr. Crawford,
A dilatory man, like most I meet.
This be a country o’errun with Rascals,

Hot weather, and malevolent aspersions.
My late fatigues reduce me
To exceeding gloom.

The people here are Liberty mad.
So much impertinence:
I believe they suspect A Spy.

To distract, I toil up the mountain
With these lively Miss Crawfords.
We seek huckleberries,

A tedious fruit.
The girls laugh to see me whip forth
My pistol and shoot a Rattlesnake

Which had like to bite me.
Nothing but rogues in this country
And baleful heat without cease.

God save the King.
I am very uneasy to wait.
Again I ramble the wilds

With these Miss Crawfords,
But find myself weak.
The air of this Country is pestilent,

And its manners unwholesome as well.
When we come to cross a busy Creek,
I make wise motion to turn back.

Yet both glint-eyed damsels tuck
Their skirts above their knees
And ford the waters with indifference.

Every soul I meet is prejudiced
Against me. How to cherish the ladies
When even the maidens are Scoundrels?

[first published in Poetry Salzburg, spring 2012]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Teaching project: week 1

I always learn a lot from the participants at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, and this past summer I listened to one of them present a choral-reading approach to teaching a poem. The idea stayed with me, and yesterday I decided to tweak it for the opening session of a semester-long poetry project I'll be running at a local high school for roughly an hour each week.

The project will combine two classes. One is a set of honors-level ninth graders who are chatty (in a good way), focused, and very high-functioning but who also have all of those silly freshman tics. The other contains college-prep-level eleventh graders who are more sedate yet less sure of themselves academically. The eleventh-grade class also includes a contingent of students who do not speak English as a first language. Both classroom teachers are fully involved in all aspects of the project.

Yesterday there were about thirty kids in the room. In this first meeting I gave them copies of the Whitman excerpt that follows. I told them I was going to read the excerpt aloud, and I wanted them to circle every word that stood out to them: words that were interesting, strange, ugly, beautiful, heartrending, irritating . . . simply, every word that they particularly noticed as I read.

from Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
         Walt Whitman
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving
            his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Then I told them I would reread the poem, but this time, whenever I came to a word they had circled, they had to say it along with me.

They started off shyly, of course, but soon their voices strengthened, and we could hear the chime of voices rising and falling, sometimes with many people speaking a word, sometimes with only a few. Whitman's biblical resonances make this a compelling activity . . . everyone in the room begins to hear what their eyes or their logic cannot quite make sense of. And of course the result is very beautiful.

When we had finished with this choral reading, I gave students a writing prompt: I very quickly fed them the first words of every line in the Whitman excerpt and told them to write their own lines as fast as they could, without thinking too hard but just letting their artist brains do the work. Now, if you look back at those first words, you'll see that nearly all of them are prepositions . . . dull little words, and naturally students had chosen none of these words to circle. So after we finished the writing exercise, I talked a bit about the way in which Whitman had chosen that subtle grammatical strategy to push him into the far-more interesting words that appear later in the line. This writing prompt also gave students a good dose of poetic obsession: look at the number of times that "from" appears as a line opener in Whitman's poem. Having to replicate that repetitive pressure in their own work really made a mark on the students.

So then we listened to some first drafts, and they were stunners. One boy wrote with great and tender affection about his best friends since babyhood, both of whom were sitting in the room with him, both of whom were beaming. One girl wrote about the way in which her brain was figuring out how to write a poem as she was writing the poem.

Moments like these are why I love to teach.

But I had to assign homework as well, and I wanted to choose something that would be easy for the teachers to assess and easy for every student to do as long as he or she focused on the task. During the in-class writing exercise, some of the ESL students, for instance, were barely able to do more than write down the prompt word; they couldn't move further at that moment to create a line of their own because they just didn't have the syntactical facility. So I needed to create homework that balanced both ends of the seesaw: students who are deeply at home with the language, and students who struggle to manage the surface elements of English. Here's the assignment, and I'm looking forward to hearing what the teachers have to say about the results:
1. Change at least two words in each line of your first draft.
2. Add a question to the middle of the poem.
3. Create a one-word title that answers that question.
The students will need to submit the in-class draft along with the homework draft so that the teachers can compare them.

On next week's agenda: dictation, commas, and writing about the way in which a body moves.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Just a quick note between obligations: I had to teach first thing this morning, and soon I have to embark on a band gig at the Bangor Rape Crisis Center's annual benefit auction. Somewhere in the hiatus between these events I have to edit and grocery shop. Tomorrow, however, will be a new and less overflowing day, and I will use it to tell you about my poetry class. In the meantime, I'll give you the poem that started off our session today.

from Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

         Walt Whitman

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving
            his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In every spare moment, I've been hammering out proof corrections for my forthcoming anthology, A Poet's Sourcebook, and it's disconcerting to discover how many errors it contains, almost all of them my own. Of course, I know that being an author and being an editor are two different jobs, but still I wish I'd submitted a more perfect piece of work to the publisher. And yet not only did I labor over the accuracy but I also know, from long copyediting experience, what elements must be cross-checked against what other elements . . . and I thought I'd done that. Nonetheless, titles in the table of contents aren't matching the titles in the text, translators' names don't appear in both places, "German" is spelled as "Gerrman" . . . how does that even happen? The whole process has been quite damaging to my editorial ego.

But soon I will have to give up and relinquish these battered proofs to the typesetter, which also means that soon, I hope, I will also get the go-head to start doing some pre-press publicity for it, such as revealing the table of contents to you. I'm actually quite pleased with this book, imperfect as it is, and I'm excited to hear what you think of it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

In a note to me my friend Richard forged a surprising yet cogent connection between the Corso scrap I gave you yesterday--"it does tell me my soul has a shadow"--and this familiar gem, which, like Richard, I once knew by heart and used to repeat to myself while I skipped rope round and round the apartment complex where we lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, long ago in the days when I was five years old and my dad spent all day long writing his dissertation and my three-year-old sister encountered insect trouble.

My Shadow

Robert Louis Stevenson

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow--
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes get so little that there's none of him at all.

He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he's a coward you can see;
I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Silver Spring, Maryland, 1969

Dawn Potter

In dreams, strange men steal cats from me.

Every morning I walk to school.
My teacher, Miss Sayford, wears white boots.
She is more beautiful than a princess.
Boys place "Lost in Space,"
and girls are lost also.

At home I jump rope
up and down the sidewalk
that loops like a horseshoe
around the dirt yard by the apartment,
where the crab tree grows,

where the bee is, before it stings.

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Today is my 48th birthday; and though I keep thinking that someday I'm sure to succumb to the melancholy of growing old, for now I still wake up on my birthday morning feeling just as happy as I did when I was turning 6. I opened my eyes on this Sunday morning to the warm body of my husband curled against me and the comfort of knowing that, for the first time since August, both of my boys were asleep downstairs in their beds. From my pillow I watched the red and gold leaves sift slowly down from the maple tree outside my window. And I thought, Well, here I am again. This sturdy body has trundled through another year; my heart relentlessly taps out its teletype messages; my brain keeps pondering and my patient ears keep hearing; and later today I will laugh and cry and watch a black dog careen over the green and unkempt grass.

Here are a few lines from Gregory Corso's "Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday," a fine and foolish poem that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it, even though he drives me crazy by randomly leaving out the articles before his nouns and I have no idea what "it might not make day" means:

The clue, perhaps, is in my unabashed declaration:
“I’m good example there’s such a thing as called soul.”
I love poetry because it makes me love and presents me life.
And of all the fires that die in me,
there’s one burns like the sun;
it might not make day my personal life, my association with people,
or my behavior toward society,
but it does tell me my soul has a shadow.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

from The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830 by Paul Johnson

[Painter George] Richmond was only 16 when he first met Blake at a party given by Tatham the architect in Saint John's Wood. He offered to escort Blake back to his house at Three Fountains Court, off the Strand. While Blake talked, Richmond said, "I felt as if I were walking on air and talking to the Prophet Isaiah. One remark of Blake's struck him with great force: "I can look at the knot in a piece of wood until it frightens me." Richmond, [fellow artist John] Linnell, and their circle used to call Blake's rooms "the House of the Interpreter." One of them, John Giles, described Blake as "a man who had seen God, and talked to angels." That certainly is what Blake believed. . . . Richmond said that when he entered Fountains Court, he used to plant a reverent kiss on the bell handle. But he admitted that Blake's room was squalid and untidy: "Once, Mrs Blake, in excuse for the general lack of soap and water, remarked to me: 'You see, Mr Blake's skin don't dirt.'"

Friday, October 5, 2012

For the past several years I've been having a recurring dream. It's always set on a cute, Vermont-ish, diversified animal farm: foals in one patch, goat kids in another, sheep in the meadow, cows in the corn; that kind of place. I'm supposed to be doing morning chores--feeding, watering, milking, mucking out--but all of a sudden I realize that for weeks I've entirely forgotten to take care of all the lambs or all the calves or whatever the livestock variety du noir might be. Panicked, I rush into that particular animal shed or out into that particular field and find, not dead or even dying animals, but confused, reproachful ones, usually lined up along the fence line or perhaps huddled into small groups, waiting for me to do the job I keep forgetting to do. Last night's dream had an additional feature: I was sharing a farmhouse apartment with a hip new roommate who turned out to have left lice all over the bathroom towels, although the bathroom itself was more like a beauty salon and not at all like the kind of bathroom one would really find in a farmhouse.

What-would-a-psychoanalyst-say-? does not especially interest me, nor would her remarks be too difficult to guess. It's the details of these dreams that cling: the whiteness of the lice-infested bathroom towels, the shape of the hills behind the sad knock-kneed calves, the sight of my mud-booted, hurrying feet as I rush to feed everything that needs to be fed. And all the while my glittering omniscient eye stares at exactly what I always forget to tend.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Probably you're sick of these quotations from my reading, but I think this book is interesting. Anyway, I've already had one of those days--beginning with staying up past midnight as I drove 80 miles back and forth to school to pick up boys coming home from a soccer game in Bar Harbor, a trip accompanied, first, by the Red Sox losing the final game of the season in spectacular yet predictable fashion and, second, by endless and tedious presidential-debate detritus; followed by "Didn't I tell you to put that iPad away and go straight to bed?"; followed by tossing and turning all night; followed by a non-ringing alarm clock that my husband mistakenly un-set after I'd set it; followed by rushing around without enough coffee; followed by driving 80 miles back and forth to school because the kid had, in response to the non-ringing alarm clock, missed the bus. In other words, unless you want to listen to me sulk, you'd better just settle for a history lesson.

from The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1918-1930 by Paul Johnson
The intuitive physics of Kant and Coleridge foreshadowed electromagnetic theory, but they did not explain the nature of matter, on which the forces played. Kant, indeed, by positing immaterialism, actually pointed in the wrong direction. Coleridge at least was moving in the right one, taking Davy with him. He rejected the prevailing notion of an imponderable fluid, often called phlogistron: It was a "vulgar idea like that of the peasant, everything done by a spring; so everything must be done by a fluid." A more likely explanation, in Coleridge's view, was that "all power & vital attributes" depended on "modes of arrangement." [Pioneer scientist Humphry] Davy, thus prompted, put it in more "scientific" terms: "forms of natural bodies may depend upon different arrangements of the same particles of matter." This foreshadowing of atomic theory is a striking demonstration of the importance of imagination in forming scientific hypothesis: Coleridge and Shelley could see possibilities in nature with the intuition of poets and so open the eyes of the experimental scientists. The early 19th century was a great age of science precisely because it was also a great age of poetry.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I'm starting the day with a book rejection and a band collapse, but neither of these events is entirely bad. The Vagabond rejection was kind, personal, and just what I expected to hear. As Phillip Lopate says, the essay has long been "an underutilized, low-status genre, neglected by both the academy and commercial publishers. . . .  Those gifted essayists who are trying to get their first collections published still face daunting odds." And though I am not co-opting the adjective gifted as a way of making myself feel better, I also know that I'm not an apprentice essay writer and that the quality of my prose has nothing to do with why no one will publish this book. Contemporary publishers prefer nonfiction that streams, novel-like, from beginning to end. Would any of them now publish an unknown Virginia Woolf or E. B. White, whose Common Reader and One Man's Meat were collections of previously published, stand-alone pieces bound together with a loose thematic ribbon? I think that's a reasonable question to ask; and if I were a publisher, I would stand back and ask it of myself. But then again, I'd rather eat rats than be a publisher.

And now for the band collapse. One of our members has a mortally ill child, and the rest of us knew that it was just a matter of time until he admitted that he would have to bow out. We've been limping through gigs, never being sure he'd show up, never knowing what songs we'd be able to play. So now we're officially a trio--Sid Stutzman on vocals, guitar, mandolin, and banjo; me on vocals and fiddle; and Brian Smith on guitar, bass, and occasional vocals--and though I'll miss Craig's presence terribly, at least the rest of us can start figuring out what we really need to practice. I think we'll probably be temporarily working under the monicker of Doughty Hill, which has been a fall-back name for the various groups of musicians who've worked with Sid over the years. I'll keep you posted on what transpires.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Yesterday the mailman brought me the current issue of The Fourth River, which features several of my western Pennsylvania poems. It also features an essay by Phillip Lopate, whose beautiful anthology The Art of the Personal Essay has been a model and a support during my own venture into the world of anthologizing. I have not yet finished the essay he contributed to The Fourth River, but already I can see that what he writes will matter to me.
from The Future of the Essay by Phillip Lopate
The true essayist is not only antiquated but an antiquarian, who gladly draws on and plays with the form's historical traditions. It has been that way ever since Montaigne quoted and jousted with the ancients, Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero, or Lamb invoked in his mannered prose the shades of Thomas More, Robert Burton and the Duchess of Newcastle. Hazlitt wrote about Montaigne; Virginia Woolf wrote about Hazlitt and Emerson. Essayists are in a conversation with their ancestors, trying to explore from a new angle the same preoccupations about how to live; about friendship, conversation, manners, and solitude.

Monday, October 1, 2012

On French novelist George Sand, pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876):
To Baudelaire she was "a latrine." (This kind of abuse continued; later in the century Nietzsche called her "a writing cow"; in our own time, V. S. Pritchett used the expression "a thinking bosom.") In fact, Sand was neither doctrinaire nor promiscuous in sexual matters, though she was often inconsistent. Her views on women strike one today as sensible and moderate; she might be called a skeptical feminist. . . . She wrote, in her diary: "[Women] are mistreated, reproached for their stupidity imposed on them, scorned as ignorant, their wisdom mocked. In love they are treated like courtesans, in conjugal friendship like servants. They are not loved, they are used, they are exploited." [Yet] Sand inherited from her mother, who was immensely gifted with her hands--she could tune a piano perfectly, for instance--a passion for needlework, and defended it with equal ardor. Indeed she approved of all kinds of housework: "Housework dulls the mind only for those who spurn such tasks and do not know how to look for what can be found in everything--skillful work, well-performed" (from Johnson, The Birth of the Modern).

And as an echo of Sand's defense of housework, and because I am bad at needlework and have never tried to tune a piano: this is what I made for dinner last night--
Tuna steaks cut into quarters; rolled in a mixture of brown mustard seeds, crushed green peppercorns, and salt; and hastily seared. Arranged alongside baked mashed delicata squash, steamed beet greens, and sliced red and yellow beets; topped with a balsamic vinegar reduction and minced cilantro.
This made a beautiful plate of food, and I should have taken a photo for you, but I was too hungry to remember.