Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tom's new website is finally up, and I think it's beautiful.

A spray of white lilac is blooming on my kitchen table.

I'm rereading John Fowles's The Magus, which for some reason is one of my favorite novels, though I really don't understand what's going on in it.

Saturday morning, Saturday morning. What shall I do with it? I can't decide.

The poem is coming along. It may or may not be finished. I may or may not glance at it. I may or may not despise it if I do.

I wonder if other animals get headaches, or if they are only a human burden?

Friday, March 30, 2012

I've been revising a poem, and I'm gloomy. My gloom has nothing to do with whether or not the poem is going well. It's just a side effect of working on a poem, like stomach aches go along with stage performances. But even though I'm accustomed to this equation, I can never quite get over the feeling that I ought to be happy to be writing instead of slightly sick.

Anyway, later I will take time away from my gloom and make a raspberry cake. And maybe the sun will shine and the temperature will rise above freezing and the snow will melt away from my sad little crocuses. (Recently Paul spelled that word as "croakuses," which has led me to imagine some sort of combination of spring flowers and spring peepers. I haven't yet figured out what they would look like, but I think they would be loud.)

And now I think I will copy out some John Milton for you . . . because I am considering how my light is spent, and remembering that they also serve who only stand and wait and that God doth not need either man's works or His own gifts, and imagining how Milton suffered over that one talent which is death to hide, lodged with him useless. This is a poem to break a poet's heart.

John Milton 
When I consider how my light is pent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide:
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,
I fondly ask; but patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's works or His own gifts; who best
Bear His mild yoke, the serve Him best; His state
Is kingly; thousands at His bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Winter has returned. Siftings of snow on the crocuses, on the budding forsythia, and a sharp whipping wind in the treetops. The morning is bleak, and my sentences beg to be fragments.

I spent a few hours yesterday reading the poems of Phillis Wheatley, who sounds, here, almost like a forerunner of Keats--

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

This is a single stanza from a longer work, "On Imagination," that otherwise mostly recalls Pope. But this section reminds me so much of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." It's eerie, really, how much it seems to predict that sonnet. I wonder if Keats ever read Wheatley.

By the way, I keep forgetting to mention that next Thursday I'll be in southern Maine reading at North Yarmouth Academy. It's open to the public, and I hope you can come. I realize that it's also opening day for the Red Sox, but maybe you can listen to the rest of the game on your drive home.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Suddenly I have rediscovered the prose of Lytton Strachey. Perhaps a decade ago I read his biography of Victoria and loved it then, and somewhere along the way I acquired a copy of Books and Characters (1922), but I can't remember ever having opened it until yesterday, when I found this, from Strachey's essay "The Last Elizabethan," about nineteenth-century Gothic poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes--

His character, so eminently English, compact of courage, of originality, of imagination, and with something coarse in it as well, puts one in mind of Hamlet: not the melodramatic sentimentalist of the stage; but the real Hamlet, Horatio's Hamlet, who called his father's ghost old truepenny, who forged his uncle's signature, who fought Laertes, and ranted in a grave, and lugged the guts into the neighbour room. [Beddoes's] character, like Hamlet's, was the tragedy of an overpowerful will--a will so strong as to recoil upon itself, and fall into indecision. It is easy for a weak man to be decided--there is so much to make him so; but a strong man, who can do anything, sometimes leaves everything undone. Fortunately Beddoes, though he did far less than he might have done, possessed so rich a genius that what he did, though small in quantity, is in quality beyond price. "I might have been, among other things, a good poet," were his last words. "Among other things!" aye, there's the rub. But, in spite of his own "might have been," a good poet he was.

This is the sort of prose I would love to write myself, prose in which the sentences do their own thinking, clause by clause, with a formal, measured music. But I am not stately enough, or English enough, or linked closely enough to the nineteenth century. I write like a vulgar colonial who admires those who are not.

Here's a sample of Beddoes's poetry, from Death's Jest Book--

We do lie beneath the grass
    In the moonlight, in the shade
  Of the yew-tree. They that pass
    Hear us not. We are afraid
      They would envy our delight,       
      In our graves by glow-worm night.
Come follow us, and smile as we;
    We sail to the rock in the ancient waves,
Where the snow falls by thousands into the sea,
    And the drown’d and the shipwreck’d have happy graves.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Last night's dream subjects: Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. I think I may have been playing the part of a young and callow Lancelot, but sometimes the three of us also seemed to be tapestries-in-progress under the omniscient eye of a Trollopian me. And whatever was going on involved a lot of pink.

His mood was often like a fiend, and rose
And drove him into wastes and solitudes
Of agony, who was yet a living soul.
[Tennyson, Idylls of the King]

Do any of you ever read Tennyson? Every once in a while I do, all the while feeling like the last Tennyson reader on earth. It makes me sad to consider how the Victorian poets have decayed in our collective imagination while the Victorian novelists continue to thrive.

And then there is Victoria herself.

When, two days previously, the news of the approaching end had been made public, astonished grief had swept over the country. It appeared as if some monstrous reversal of the course of nature was about to take place. The vast majority of her subjects had never known a time when Queen Victoria had not been reigning over them. She had become an indissoluble part of their whole scheme of things, and that they were about to lose her appeared a scarcely possible thought. She herself, as she lay bling and silent, seemed to those who watched her to be divested of all thinking--to have glided already, unawares, into oblivion. Yet, perhaps, in the secret chambers of consciousness, she had her thoughts, too. Perhaps her fading mind called up once more the shadows of the past to float before it, and retraced, for the last time, the vanished visions of that long history--passing back and back, through the cloud of years, to older and ever older memories--to the spring woods at Osborne, so full of primroses for Lord Beaconsfield--to Lord Palmerston's queer clothes and high demeanour, and Albert's face under the green lamp, and Albert's first stag at Balmoral, and Albert in his blue and silver uniform, and the Baron coming in through a doorway, and Lord M. dreaming at Windsor with the rooks cawing in the elm-trees, and the Archbishop of Canterbury on his knees in the dawn, and the old King's turkey-cock ejaculations, and Uncle Leopold's soft voice at Claremont, and Lehzen with the globes, and her mother's feathers sweeping down towards her, and a great old repeater-watch of her father's in its tortoise-shell case, and a yellow rug, and some friendly flounces of sprigged muslin, and the trees and the grass at Kensington.
[Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria (1921)]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Sound of Trees
Robert Frost
I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of page,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

[from Mountain Interval (1916)]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I woke up at five o'clock to a banshee: a fisher cat was shrieking under my bedroom window. The banshee comparison is not an idle one. This animal sounds like it's either killing babies or is itself a baby being killed, and it screamed on in this blood-curdling way for about 15 minutes before it decided to wander back into the woods.

Fishers are mean and nasty, famous consumers of housecats and Yorkshire terriers. I am hoping I won't go outside this morning and find half a dachsund or anything.

Meanwhile, I have a literary discovery. I know for a fact that Barbara Pym the novelist was familiar with Ivy Compton-Burnett the novelist because somewhere--I can't remember in which book--she mentions her offhand as the sort of uppity writer one of her characters might read. But yesterday I determined that Barbara herself had not only been reading Ivy but experimenting with the Ivy touch. Here is a line of dialogue from Pym's "No Fond Return of Love." It seems, and is, a minor remark by a minor character, and Pym goes no further than this with it. But it is composed in exactly the sort of weird, foreboding, and blackly melodramatic/surreal/hilarious style that thickens Compton-Burnett's plots.

"Deep apricot tart," said Miss Lord, suiting her tone to the words.

I suppose it's possible that I'm the only person awake on a Saturday morning who thinks this is a funny sentence, but really, what tone suits "deep apricot tart"? Once again, a sentence like this makes me think that Pym could have been more than a mediocre writer, and once again, I imagine writing "The Case of the Minor Lady Novelists," an essay I have been planning for about a decade.

[P.S. Tom says it was a fox, not a fisher.]

Friday, March 23, 2012

Yesterday was a good day. I read a breathtaking essay by poet Garth Greenwell, who is generously allowing me to include it in my anthology. I got a surprise telephone call from a stranger who just wanted to let me know how much he liked my piece in the current Sewanee Review. I taught a Gillian Welch song to the boys in the band. Tom took down the storm windows. I wore a summer dress and hung towels on the line. A crocus bloomed, and I finished copyediting chapter 10.

Today I might dig in the dirt. I might try finishing my Hindenburg poem. I might consider the parameters of an essay about cooking. Or I might sit on the back stoop and close my eyes and listen to birds. There are so many birds in this clearing--such a motley, vivid wave of pioneers taming this little scrap of springtime Earth.


Dawn Potter

So wild it was when we first settled here.
Spruce roots invaded the cellar like thieves.
Skunks bred on the doorstep, cluster flies jeered.
Ice-melt dripped shingles and screws from the eaves.
We slept by the stove, we ate meals with our hands.
At dusk we heard gunshots, and wind and guitars.
We imagined a house with a faucet that ran
From a well that held water. We canvassed the stars.
If love is an island, what map was our hovel?
Dogs howled on the mainland, our cliff washed away.
We hunted for clues with a broken-backed shovel.
We drank all the wine, night dwindled to grey.
When we left, a flat sunrise was threatening snow,
But the frost heaves were deep. We had to drive slow.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Thursday, March 22, 2012

James, my non-bookish son, recently asked me if I owned a good translation of the Iliad because he thought he'd like to read it. Paul, my bookish son, has been begging to be taken to the Hunger Games movie because he's read all the books in the series about ten times each. Tom, my semi-bookish husband, is reading a large tome about the history of portraiture in European art. I, the writer, am reading time-wasting Barbara Pym novels.

Of course I am also reading a million and a half potential anthology entries as well as editing two poetry manuscripts and a book about nitrogen. I just never seem to believe that work reading counts as real reading, which is absurd. Yet I used to have a parallel belief about school-assigned reading versus sitting-up-in-bed reading, except then I believed that it was the sitting-up-in-bed reading that didn't count. Apparently in the two decades since I last took a college class, my conception of "real reading" has entirely reversed itself. How odd.

I imagine that I could easily find a Virginia Woolf remark that would explain this shift. V knows all about my reading habits, although she is snottier than I am. Probably she would lump me into the vulgar colonial category, along with Katherine Mansfield. But she took Mansfield seriously nonetheless. Also, V and I both like dogs, and people who care about dogs make a bit of room for one another, even if they're also suspicious. That sounds like a frivolous statement, but aren't a person's habits and affections as central as her intellect? Mine are more central, most of the time. And I've seen photographs of V and her dogs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The snow is melting away. Now I can see my garden, and I can see the apple tree that fell into my garden last autumn. Coltsfoot, that peculiar weed, is blooming along my cellar wall, and I have taken the brazen step of turning on the outside water faucet.

I feel cheerful but prosaic, as if all my ideas are wending into plowed furrows. It is a surprise to remember that I have written several books.

According to Gerard Manley Hopkins, "What you look hard at seems to look hard at you." This is true of rivers and dogs and dirty barns and coltsfoot (that peculiar weed), as well as large photographic portraits of Civil War-era ancestors hanging in the dark back hall of a New Jersey ranch house. I  wonder if it is also true of chain-store merchandise, and today I will try to find out. It is a shame to spend the first day of a false summer at the Bangor Mall, but someone has to undertake that penance, and today is my turn in the stocks.

I hope you're enjoying these mixed metaphors. You might think of them as chain-store merchandise in awkward sizes and colors that poorly paid seventeen-year-old sales associates have crammed higgledy-piggledy into the clearance racks. By the way, I have never tried to write higgledy-piggledy before. It's not as easy as it looks.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did you know that the Nobel Foundation allows people to reprint Nobel lectures for free? Hah, take that, way-overpriced Harvard University Press. But enough of this permissions chatter. It's the first day of spring, the forecast claims that it will be 78 degrees in Harmony, and I'll be hanging laundry on the line and listening to pileated woodpeckers shout romantically among the tameracks. What could be better?

God's Grandeur

Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Perhaps this question is bothering me this morning because I am entangled in the world of anthology reprint permissions, but I've been wondering: why do so many blog writers, discussion fora, etc., feel as if they have the right to reprint other people's copyrighted poems with impunity and without permission from the poet?

Poetry and prose do not operate by identical fair-use standards because, in general, poetry contains many fewer words. According to nearly everything I have read about fair use of poetry, you should not quote more than a stanza unless you are writing a book review, and even then you should be careful. Copying someone else's entire poem onto your blog is stealing, unless it's in the public domain (published before 1923) or you get permission from the rights' holder: that is, the poet, the publisher, the author's representative, or the estate.

I want to say that I don't presently have a personal beef with anyone about illegally copying my work. I've simply been noticing how rampant this practice is, and I think people should have better manners. Even though most poets don't expect to make money off our work, civility is not only a comfort but our right. Ask to copy my poem, and I will most likely say yes, and my publishers will most likely say yes, and we won't charge you to do so.  Ask is the important element here.

But some poets and their publishers do expect to make money off reprints. So if the blog owner doesn't want to pay that fee, then he or she should do some research and find another, more flexible poet to feature. There are a lot of poets in this world, and many are just as interesting as the famous ones are. Many of them are more interesting.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Strange as it sounds, I may be outside today clearing out a flower bed or two. Although we still have a lot of snow on the ground, mud patches are appearing around my house and driveway and a bracket of daffodil points is breaking through the leaf litter. All of this is happening far too early for central Maine, but it's hard to be sorry about the arrival of spring

Except for yesterday's town meeting stint, we've been on holiday time this weekend. Between making meals and doing laundry, I've mostly been sitting on the couch watching tournament basketball and passing a mandolin back and forth to Paul, who has taken a shine to it and has been practicing chords during the games. So far I've taught him "Goodnight, Irene," and now I've got him working on "Moonshiner." Who says that television is a waste of time?

In the meantime, James is reinstalling the comic elements of his bedroom, and Tom has invented a new printing strategy that makes his portrait photographs look like abstract carpet patterns. They're quite lovely.

Dinner last night: poached salmon topped with fresh salsa and home-canned corn relish, alongside spinach salad and spoon bread. (The salsa included chopped tomatoes, minced onion, crushed garlic, cilantro, and a spoonful of bottled jalapeno salsa in lieu of fresh hot peppers.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Damp, and faintly misty, on this Friday morning. It's a teacher-workshop day, so the boys are still comfortably wallowing. Only the poodle is awake with me, and even she is fading into a nap. I'm glad to have this slow hour because tomorrow at this time I'll already be up and out, with sleepy son in tow, to spend my Saturday with eighth graders selling coffee cake and doughnuts to grumpy old men at town meeting (i.e., those cranks who waste an hour on complaints such as "It says here on the warrant the town spent such-and-such an amount of money on duct tape, and I want to know why the road commissioner  needs so much duct tape"). If I were a knitter, town meeting would be a great venue for finishing a sweater, except that the aggravation would make my stitches watertight.

But that's all in the future. Today I should, of course, be editing furiously. But I might take some time out to watch that Miss Bituminous Coal documentary or research the variations in polka styles or check out some tournament basketball and crow over my thus-far very successful bracket choices. Only last week I was clambering among the rigidities of H. C. Frick, and now here I am immersed in frivolity. That's what happens when one is the minor regional poet-historian of a minor region (although if I were writing a deconstructionist expose of this project I could compose a long passive-voice sentence highlighting the "minor/miner" contiguities . . . which is suddenly leading me to imagine Mad-Libs based on the prose of Lacan and Derrida . . . ).

Anyway, maybe your day will be less silly than mine is shaping up to be.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

My eighth-grade son Paul is working on a new story, a sort of ancient-Welsh-myths-flavored seafaring adventure; and as usual, he likes to discuss his progress with me, writing out a page or two and then carrying his laptop into the kitchen so I can read it. Last night my minor critique concerned consistency of diction. For the most part his narrator would speak in slightly archaic, Welsh-myths-flavored language, but once in a while he'd drop into 21st-century boyspeak. All I needed to do was mention the issue, and Paul honed in on the details: "Oh, I can change crazy to mad here," that sort of thing. He's quick, and he has considerable technical confidence. The story isn't advanced enough (and may never be advanced enough . . . stamina is always an issue for young writers) for us to be able to discuss characterization and plot devices, but the boy does comprehend sentence control.

Because he's an intense reader, rereader, and listener to stories, I asked him what writers' styles he was using as a model for his own. He immediately answered, "I think of Dickens when I'm writing regular sentences and Twain when I'm writing dialogue." Now that's a grandiose response for a 14-year-old fiction writer and is probably more wishful thinking than fact, but in truth Paul is very familiar with David Copperfield and Huck Finn because he used to wallow in them as audio books before he learned how to read fluently. And every once in a while he'll get David off the shelf and read a few pages before turning to something else . . . exactly what I did with War and Peace when I was young.

Influence is complex; and I know that a pack of young-adult dystopian novels, plus 1930s John Tunis baseball narratives, plus Tolkien and his followers, etc., etc., are collecting themselves in his brain, alongside Dickens and Twain and the Comic Book History of the Universe and the Frog and Toad series to create an amorphous and ever-growing library of literary influence. But even as a middle-school boy he talks like a writer . . . we talk to each other like writers.

Yet this year, according to the heinous New England States' standardized middle school hell-test, Paul's writing skills were subpar. How could this be? He can spell, punctuate, write complex yet complete sentences, organize his thoughts, and draw a conclusion. So why was his score so low? I asked him to describe the test. He said it was a single question that required him to take a side for or against school uniforms. "And, Mom, there's nothing interesting to say about that. They gave us four sheets of paper for that stupid question, and I said everything that needed to be said on less than one sheet."

Ah. So this is the point of standardized tests: to encourage our children to produce pages and pages of swollen, pointless blather about a topic they don't care about. Excellent.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"For my part I like to live in a classic atmosphere, full of my own gods and to be true to them until I have some better authority than a merely contrary opinion for not being true to them. We all have to learn to hold fast." (Wallace Stevens, letter to Jose Rodriguez Feo, May 23, 1947)

"This is not easy road." (Jan Lewan the Pennsylvania Polka King and erstwhile Ponzi schemer, recently released from prison and now working on a comeback that includes a shift to polka-rap)

Meanwhile, my yard is a mud hole and daffodil leaves are poking up through the snow scum. I am trying to write about what it would have felt like to listen to my son broadcasting the Hindenburg disaster, while I'm also trying to edit somebody else's poetry manuscript, while I'm also trying to organize an 8th-grade breakfast brigade for town meeting and invent a fiddle break for Bob Dylan's song "Senor."

Living a life in poetry is a messy business. I wonder if that's what Stevens meant by "classic atmosphere." I bet not.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I'm slowly rereading Richard Holmes's biography of Shelley and have reached the hard-to-face point at which Shelley leaves his wife Harriet for 16-year-old Mary Godwin. This is such an ugly episode, and his self-justifications are impossible to stomach. The following is from a letter he wrote to Harriet after he had deserted her, saddled her with a stack of unpayable bills, and then tried not only to borrow money from her but also to convince her to join his new household as "a sister."

I was an idiot to expect greatness or generosity from you, that when an occasion of the sublimest virtue occurred, you would fail to play a part of mean and despicable selfishness. The pure & liberal principles of which you used to boast that you were a disciple, served only for display. In your heart it seems you were always enslaved to the vilest superstitions, or ready to accept their support for your own narrow & worldly views. You are plainly lost to me forever. I foresee no probability of change.

Harriet's side of the correspondence has been lost. A few months later she drowned herself.

It is a truism that great artists are not necessarily great human beings, and art doesn't excuse or erase cruelty or indifference. Nonetheless, the art does exist and is glorious; and like nature's (or God's) beauty, cruelty, and indifference, it is simple/complicated/impossible to explain.

But poor Harriet.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Yesterday's comments about electronic publishing have given me pause. I have always thought of e-publishing as an "in addition to" option, not an "instead of" one.

I do not own a Kindle or an iPad. Even though I write on my laptop, I read books, and I always envision my own as holdable, turnable, bendable, losable objects. It's hard for me to imagine publishing in a format that I have never used myself.

Moreover, I care deeply about the purities of book and page design. If I were to self-publish a book, I would need to spend a significant amount of time on those elements. I would not be able to download text into a predesigned template and call that a book. What looks beautiful on a page does not necessarily look beautiful on a screen and vice versa.

I'm not dismissing your suggestions; I'm just nonplussed.

(By the way, I also still listen to records on a record player.)

Last night's dinner: Maine bouillabaisse. Stock ingredients: onions, garlic, tomato, thyme, bay leaf, saffron, salt, smelts, water, boiled together for a half-hour and then pressed through a sieve. Fish ingredients: hake, haddock, scallops, mussels, steamers (fish and scallops diced, shellfish still in the shell), all dropped into the boiling strained stock and cooked for 5 minutes. Served with tiny sourdough rolls and a mixed lettuce salad. Afterwards we watched hockey.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I have never before considered self-publishing anything, but I am almost to the point of allowing myself to think about the possibility of exploring the idea of self-publishing The Vagabond's Bookshelf, my "essays about rereading" ms. What do you think? Is this the bad plan that I fear it is? That is, is self-publishing merely a sop for my own vanity or a misguided assumption that other people ought to read this book? I can't really figure out any other reason for self-publishing other than "my words must be released to humanity." Of course regular publishing has exactly the same motivations, except for the large caveat that the writer isn't paying up front for publication. And because money is such a fraught issue in my hand-to-mouth life, paying up front for a book seems like a particularly difficult step to take.

In the art world, people routinely self-publish because issues of reproduction quality, format, and paper expense are so extreme that tiny print-on-demand runs make far more sense for almost everyone. If my husband the photographer were to decide to self-publish a book of photographs, I would be enthusiastic and supportive. I cannot seem to dredge up such enthusiasm for my own self-publishing adventure.

On the other hand, I like the book I wrote. And some of you have liked the essays that you've read from the book. And many well known journal editors have praised those essays as well (and have published them in their journals). Yet there the book sits, upstairs on a shelf in the backwoods of Maine--ready to print and (as the publishers and agents tell me) impossible to sell . . . simply because essay collections are unfashionable unless the writer is already famous for some other reason.

Unfashionable. It's hard to keep wearing that label and not want to fight back. Self-publishing is beginning to look like the only sandlot available.

So as a start, I will share the cover letter I've been enclosing with the ms. This is the me that's on paper. This is my unfashionable book. If you were in this position, what would you do?

Dear editors:

Enclosed is a chapter from my nonfiction manuscript, The Vagabond’s Bookshelf: A Reader’s Memoir, which I think may be appropriate for your memoir/literature list.

This is my second book of nonfiction: my first, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, was published in 2009 by the University of Massachusetts Press and went on to win both a 2010 Emerging Writer’s Award from the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the 2010 Maine Literary Award in Nonfiction. It also received a special mention in that year’s L. L. Winship/PEN New England Awards. According to essayist Sam Pickering (a well-known writer and teacher as well as the model for Robin Williams’s character in the film Dead Poets Society), “Potter writes beautifully. Her prose is as clear as the song of bell bird. . . . Reading this book was an intellectual joy.”

Like Tracing Paradise, The Vagabond’s Bookshelf traces my personal relationship with works of literature—in this case, a handful of books that I have obsessively read and reread over the course of my life. But it is in no way a scholarly work. Rather, it treats literature as one aspect of my daily human interaction with the world. I live in the woods of remote rural Maine, where I raise livestock and care for my children and incidentally read and write. In other words, my physical life is woven into my reading life, and my bonds to the books I read have changed as I have changed. This book celebrates that world. Authors under discussion include Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mary J. Holmes, James Baldwin, Daphne du Maurier, Malcolm X, and Elizabeth Bowen, as well as many others who are incidentally mentioned. The manuscript is 133 pages long (35,133 words) and is complete. It has no illustrations or poetry/lyric reprint issues.

Nearly all of the chapters in this memoir have been contracted for publication as stand-alone pieces, and all of those publishers are major literary journals: the Sewanee Review, the Threepenny Review, and the Southern Review in the United States; the Reader in Great Britain. So far, response to these pieces has been excellent: I’ve received numerous unsolicited letters from readers; and in fact, the Sewanee Review website has announced that chapter 5, “In Defense of Dullness” (about Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), is one of the journal’s most popular downloads.

The Vagabond’s Bookshelf should be marketed as a trade book aimed at creative writers and general readers of literary fiction. Related books include Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same (Mariner Books, 2002), which chronicles the author’s project to deliberately reread books she’d last read many years earlier, and A. S. Byatt’s Passions of the Mind (Vintage, 1993), which collects her essays about the work of writers whom she admires. My book is unique, however, in dealing with books that I’ve never stopped rereading and in allowing personal rather than critical reactions to guide my writing trajectory.

In addition to my nonfiction writing, I have published two collections of poetry, with a third contracted for publication. Like my prose, my poems appear in major literary journals, including the Green Mountains Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, and Prairie Schooner. I am also the editor of The Poets’ Sourcebook (Autumn House Press, 2013), a forthcoming anthology of writings about poetry. Currently I am associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, held each summer at Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, New Hampshire.

Thank you for taking the time to read this sample. Please let me know if you have any questions about it, or me.

All best---

Dawn Potter

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Last night, for the first time, my son drove for 45 minutes in the dark, on the interstate, through road construction, with a carful of teenage boys, to go see a movie. Needless to say, I was anxious. Needless to say, he behaved beautifully. But I did spend all evening trying not to imagine what might be happening to him . . . errant deer, drunk drivers, asshole cops, patches of black ice, distracting chatterbox friends. . . .  One remarkable thing about this boy is that he is patient with my fears, but he also doesn't let them turn into his fears.

Here is Joe Bolton's poem about dead teenagers: "In Memory of the Boys of Dexter, Kentucky." It is so hard to read, yet it feels so true to me, even though my own teenager is alive and fast asleep in his bed, even though I haven't been a teenager for 30 years. I love them so, those fragile, reckless, beautiful, painful, ignorant beings that we are, that we were.

Friday, March 9, 2012

This week, as I continued my research for my Chestnut Ridge poems, I made a few discoveries--notably, that Herbert Morrison, the radio announcer who vocally captured the Hindenburg disaster, was from Scottdale, Pennsylvania. If you listen to a snatch of that recording (hit the contents link to reach the Hindenburg segment), you discover how important line breaks were to 1930s radio style, even in the midst of trauma.

I'm so glad to be working on this project again. March, blessedly, is a quiet calendar month--boys in school, no teaching gigs, a fast straightforward editing assignment, and 20th-century poets on the anthology docket. I've already reached Theodore Roethke! Why, I'm practically done! (Well, not really; there's that pesky introduction to write.) But I am getting a chance to wander through the Internet archives, following various Fayette and Westmoreland County leads; and this Hindenburg discovery is a big one. I also discovered that 50s teen idol Fabian married a western Pennsylvania girl--none other than Miss Bituminous Coal herself. Talk about subject matter. . . .

There's so much to write about, and I still have so many holes in my verse-history timeline. I don't know when I'll ever manage to finish it. This could easily be a 10-year project, or worse.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Last night's copyeditor nightmare
I learned that for years I have overlooked a fundamental style rule: all paragraphs written by men must include exactly seven sentences; all paragraphs written by women must include exactly eight sentences.

I would appreciate your analysis of this dream. The eighth grader's response was "Jeez, you must really love your job." I think he wasn't being ironic, but I'm not sure. He is not yet perfectly in control of his tonal repartee.

Last night's dinner
At the eighth grader's request, we had a double batch of toad-in-the-hole. My version involves frying up tiny sausage balls (Harmony-grown ground pork that I season with fennel seed, garlic, red pepper, sage, and salt) and baking them with Yorkshire pudding batter. Five minutes before it's done I sprinkle on freshly chopped parsley, just time enough to let it crisp up but not lose its color. I also made cranberry-orange-green apple relish and a plain spinach salad. You can't be interested in this information, can you? Because I'm barely interested. Winter cooking is a drag.

A few weeks ago an acquaintance showed me a picture of her version of toad-in-the-hole: an egg fried in a hole she'd cut out of a piece of toast. But in my patois this dish is called eggs a la dump truck because I used to have a heavy-equipment-loving toddler who would eat anything with truck in its name.

This week's Frost Place newsletter
Check it out here. Then sign up and come visit me this summer. We have brand-new scholarships available only to teaching conference participants, so tell your friends.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Here I am, at the age of 47, finally singing in a band. Who would have believed it?

Should Mephistopheles have shown up in my alchemical workshop ten years ago and offered to swap my soul for Aretha's voice, I might have been tempted. Aretha Franklin, Sam Cook, Otis Redding . . . they're the real singers. I am merely a dedicated car warbler who likes to switch back and forth among all the Belle & Sebastian harmony parts just for the fun of it. But last night, as we were practicing that Crosby, Stills, & Nash song "Love the One You're With" (full disclosure: I am not a CSN fan, possibly because of David Crosby's horrible hair), and we got to the chorus, and our three voices hit the song's final high meshed chord, I could tell we all had the frisson. There's such glory in getting those sounds exactly right. Who cares if we ever perform it in public? The moment itself was perfect.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

So it looks like I will have work in three separate 2013 tomes: The Poets' Sourcebook, the Autumn House  Press anthology I'm compiling myself; The Waiting Room Reader, edited by Rachel Hadas, a CavanKerry Press anthology that will be distributed free to medical waiting rooms; and Eating Our Words, edited by Kurt Brown, a poets' cookbook to be published by Tupelo Press. You might not be surprised to learn that my recipe is Emily Dickinson's Black Cake--and of course my write-up gives all due acknowledgment to my mother-in-law, Carol Birtwistle, former curator of the Dickinson Museum and a stunningly good cook. I look forward to sending her a copy.

The funny thing is I didn't even submit work to this cookbook, nor do I know the editor. Believe it or not, I was solicited. Doesn't that sound demimondaine?

And I actually didn't realize how busy 2013 would be until a couple of days ago, when I decided that I really ought to overhaul my resume, a job that I avoid because I hate messing around with page breaks and spacing and clutter and "is this important enough to include?" and "does this look dumb?" etc. There's nothing a like revising a resume to simultaneously make me feel like an ant and a braggart, which is why I didn't mention these publications to you until today, which is why I am an inept promoter, which is why it's a good thing I didn't dream of becoming a circus barker.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Even though I live in a coastal state, I struggle to find affordable, wild-caught, non-frozen fish for dinner. Mussels are reliably good and inexpensive, but J doesn't like shellfish; haddock and pollack are dull but predictable; smelts are delicious but there aren't that many different ways to prepare them. . . . So yesterday I settled for haddock, which I cut into serving-size pieces and breaded with seasoned flour, egg, and a mixture of sourdough bread crumbs (from my own bread), parmesan, fresh parsley, and garlic. Then I browned the pieces in a small amount of peanut oil. The result was fine but not scintillating: next time I'll use olive oil and lots more garlic. The problem is that haddock tastes like nothing, which I find disheartening in a meal. Fortunately I also made butter-and-parsley potatoes, which tasted like real food, as did the arugula and tomato salad. I tried to think of them as a pleasant outline around the negative-space main dish.

Meanwhile, Monday has arrived with a bang (i.e., the dog threw up on the rug).

What would John Fletcher say?

Weep no more, nor sigh nor groan,
Sorrow calls no time that's gone;
Violets plucked, the sweetest rain
Makes not fresh nor grow again;
Trim thy locks, look cheerfully,
Fate's hidden ends eyes cannot see.
Joys as winged dreams fly fast,
Why should sadness longer last?
Grief is but a wound to woe;
Gentlest fair, mourn, mourn no moe.

[from The Queen of Corinth, c. 1617]

I hope you made it all the way to the end of that ditty and are now laughing.

Also, if it's any comfort, Fletcher died of the plague, which I think I can safely say will happen to none of this blog's readers today. Don't you think there's something uplifting about starting your day confident in the knowledge that you won't die of plague? I mean, look for your joys where you can find them.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Home again. My student workshops were exciting but a few minutes shy of endless, so I'm tired, and now my house smells like polyurethane and the living-room rug is covered with sawdust and we're out of dog food. Boy Land took over while I wasn't looking.

But at least I got to spend a lovely Friday evening with my friend Charlotte, whom I love. At her house she manages a somewhat different version of Boy Land, so it's fortunate that I am fluent in Nerdy Eighth-Grade Boy. That makes visiting so much easier on all of us.

Charlotte said I should go back to writing blog letters about food, and it's true that I have purposely drawn back from the food chatter here--partly because I couldn't imagine that you wanted to wade through so much repetitive housewife stuff, partly because winter cooking excites me less than garden-season cooking does. Still, I will attempt to start them up again . . . but not this morning because, as far as I can tell, we have no food in this house, unless you count the jar of maraschino cherries someone bought (while neglecting to purchase dog food). Maraschino cherries. These are the depths to which they cheerfully fall when I'm out of the way.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

I was planning to link you to my Ovidian poem "Driving Lesson," scheduled to appear this morning on Best Poems. However, it's not there yet; so if you're interested, you'll have to check back later and see if conditions have changed. Otherwise, I have nothing much to report, except for snow, plenty of snow, and a couple of cranky children who had to go to school anyhow. Anyone who is everyone in the poetry world (or so the Facebook posts might lead one to believe) is presently at AWP, but I wrote about that last year and have nothing new to say. I expected to be driving to Massachusetts today, but the snow says no, so instead I have a day to fill with something else, most likely my regular schedule of editing and anthologizing and laundering, but who knows? I'm feeling reflective yet unformed, possibly gloomy, perhaps merely patient. Sometimes it's hard to sort these things out.

P.S. Here's "Driving Lesson" after all.