Thursday, February 28, 2013

What's the Most Important Word?

Dawn Potter
On the surface, this is one of the simplest questions a reader can ask about any poem. Words (unlike, say, figurative language or meter) don’t presume that we’ve already soaked up some amount of purposeful poetry instruction. Words are words: any English reader, however innocent or sophisticated, can identify them, react to them, and talk to each other about them.
            Words are also a poet’s solid artisan materials, which she grasps, and throws down and grasps again, as she struggles to construct a poem out of silence. In this way, making a poem is very much like building a stone wall. Poets create something out of nothing; they use words to shape what has, till now, been wordless. “How should this grief be properly put into words?” is how Roman poet Horace chose to open his ode “To Virgil.” The way in which he wrestled with that question is the way in which he created the poem.
            So when a reader asks, “What’s the most important word?” she’s starting to think about a poem as a poet thinks about it. She’s also starting to realize that her answer is impermanent. Great art, unlike so much else in our workaday lives, requires us to come to terms with our own fluidity. As a reader becomes more familiar with the poem, her choice may change. As she grows older, her choice may change. As she experiences some momentous event in her own life, her choice may change. These shifts are themselves part of the ongoing poetic conversation; in some sense, they become part of the poem itself. A reader with a long, intense relationship to a particular poem might even agree with Adrienne Rich that “the moment of change is the only poem.”

[from a draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Blue in Green

Dawn Potter

Talk about art being its own worst
story: once I made the mistake
of playing Kind of Blue to snare
a baby into slumber.

Compare the crime
to those water-green lilies that teachers
Scotch-tape over the reading corner.
Now picture Monet shuffling the hallways
among our fluorescent children.
He would die of remorse. Meanwhile,
I knifed Miles for the sake of an hour’s
enchanted sleep. Who knew how soon
that breathing baby would light out
screaming into the blue? 

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Saturday's MWPA Workshop: The Art of the Lyric Essay

Philip Lopate writes:
The essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method. This idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writings. To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. . . . There is something heroic in the essayist's gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found.
I expect that Lopate's explanation sounds very familiar to poets, who are constantly using language "to make a run at something without knowing whether [we] are going to succeed." But for those of us still trapped in the vortex of the high school research paper or who have fallen into situations that require journalistic or argumentative patterns of writing prose, the lyric freedom of the essay can seem mysteriously daunting.

Barring the onslaught of yet another snowstorm, I'll be leading a workshop, "The Art of the Lyric Essay," this Saturday afternoon, March 2, from 1 to 5 at the University of Southern Maine's Glickman Family Library in Portland. I'm quite excited about this workshop, which will be an in-depth chance to teach essay writing as I teach poetry--which is to say by means of the propulsion of the language rather than by anecdote, argument, or other such approaches. We'll be studying the work of several very different writers--Seneca, Natalia Ginzburg, Zadie Smith, and Richard Rodriguez--and then trying out various drafts using the techniques that propelled these essayists into discovering what it was they needed to say. If you live in the area and are at all interested, I hope you'll consider signing up. The class is definitely full enough to run, but we do have a handful of spaces still available.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Yesterday I received a sort of compliment that I'd never received before--at least not to my knowledge. A fellow poet who had read "Mr. Kowalski" told me that he's going to use several lines as an epigraph for a poem of his own. I feel ridiculously pleased.

And two days ago I received another email about the poem from another poet friend, who said, "I love your poem in all its dimensions, especially the endless musical ones--the sonorous forms and steps, among other advancements or recessions, achieved by, or perhaps not, discipline, that may shape a child and bring her to the moment of the poem."

I know sharing these bits of news might come across as pompous prating. But I hope you forgive me. I am just so happy to be read.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reason no. 5010 for why I love Robert Louis Stevenson:
I could have kissed her for that word, not with a lover's mind, but in a heat of admiration. For it always warms a man to see a woman brave.
[from Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, which recently fell into my hands at the Goodwill: 2 dollars exceedingly well spent on a sturdy little Thomas Nelson hardback, circa 1918]

Saturday, February 23, 2013

from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

You see—I have copied your sonnet, because I found that it is lovely and simple and born in the form in which it moves with such quiet decorum. . . . And now I give you this copy because I know that it is important and full of new experience to come upon a work of one’s own again written in a strange hand. Read the lines as though they were someone else’s, and you will feel deep within you how much they are your own.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Little Love Note for My Frost Place Friends

As I began working on the introduction to my new book, I found myself thinking of the Frost Place, and our circle of teachers and poets, and the way in which, year after year, as we sit in that cold barn, we unfold again the gift of conversation. Thank you for everything, dear friends.

“A poem is the act of having an idea and how it feels to have an idea.” Robert Frost scrawled those words in one of the more than forty notebooks he filled with thoughts, complaints, teaching ideas, and poem drafts over the course of his writing life. The sentence was his own private remark, meant for no one but himself; yet when I, nearly a half-century after his death, stumbled across the line, I immediately, with a swift conviction of wonder and completion, recognized the shape of what he, too, had so swiftly recognized. Yes, I thought. You have said exactly what I have never said myself. You have said it, and I now I have heard it.
In a later notebook entry, Frost commented, “‘There there you are—you’ve said it’ is the most influencing thing you can say to a person. Or I know exactly—you get it just as I have felt it.” By means of this simple interchange, the speakers share, in Frost’s words, “fellow feeling and common experience.” At this instant, they are no longer engaged in instruction or chat, in argument or even discussion. They are participating as equals in a conversation that has crystallized around a suddenly shared perception. And that is exactly how I felt when I read his definition of a poem.
I’m sure that you, too, have been transported by a rare conversational moment when intellect and emotion and attentiveness synthesize into a “fellow feeling” of not only exquisite understanding but also exponential possibility. The conversers may be parent and child or student and teacher; they may be colleagues or lovers or accidental travel companions; they may be reader and poet, painter and viewer. They may be any two human beings in any time or place. What is necessary is the sense, whether actual or inferred, that one converser has articulated some vital working of mind or heart and that the other converser has heard and acknowledged a shared, intense comprehension.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

As the Holly Groweth Green

King Henry VIII

As the holly groweth green,
          And never changeth hue,
So I am, ever hath been
          Unto my lady true;

As the holly groweth green
          With ivy all alone,
Where floweres can not be seen
          And green wood leaves be gone.

Now unto my lady
          Promise to her I make,
From all other only
          To her I me betake.

Adieu, mine own lady,
          Adieu, my special,
Who hath my heart truly,
          Be sure, and ever shall!

Why is stanza 3 so badly constructed? Clearly, as the other three stanzas prove, Henry could handle basic song meter.   I hate to imagine what might have been distracting him at that moment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Clementine-Flavored Layer Cake with Lemon-Mascarpone Frosting

This is my own version of a basic lemon layer cake--a fortuitous combination of trial-and-error experiment and empty-the-refrigerator desperation. You do have the option to make it less caloric; but the density of the full-fat ingredients produces the most delightful results. The proportion of clementine-to-orange juice is infinitely variable, depending on what's in your fruit bowl. You can even use all-orange juice or change everything to lemon. All-clementine juice is also a possibility, but you should still use orange zest because clementine peels are waxy and often unpleasantly bitter.

The Cake

2 1/2 c. sifted unbleached cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp. grated fresh orange zest
1 1/4 c. granulated sugar
2 large fresh eggs
1/2  c. sour cream (or yogurt)
1/2 c. freshly squeezed citrus juice: a mixture of clementines and oranges

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

3. Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the orange zest. Gradually beat in the sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time, until the mixture is light.

4. Beat about 1/4 of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Beat in all of the sour cream (or yogurt). Now, alternating with the orange-clementine juice, beat in the rest of the dry ingredients.

5. Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake about 25 minutes, or until the tops spring back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

6. Cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Then turn out the layers on a rack and cool to room temperature before frosting.

The Frosting

1 8-oz. pkg. mascarpone (or cream cheese or neufchatel cheese or even plain white goat cheese)
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 c. sifted confectioners' sugar
1/4 tsp. lemon extract (more to taste, if needed, but a little goes a long way)

1. With your electric mixer, cream the mascarpone (or optional cheeses) with the butter. Beat in the sugar, a 1/2 cup at a time, until the frosting is smooth. Beat in the lemon extract.

2. Frost the cake. This recipe makes a generous amount (almost 3 cups), so don't be afraid to spread plenty between the layers.

3. Chill to set the frosting.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

As a respite from yesterday's rant, I offer you a moment of quiet from one of my favorite books on earth.

from The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien 
"The years . . . instructed her, as she studied her father's candid, intelligent face in the sunny parlour of Place des Ormes, that a soul should not take upon itself the impertinence of being frightened for another soul; that God is alone with each creature."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday Morning Rant

Following is a call-for-submissions entry that appeared on the website of a well-known literary clearinghouse. It illustrates a common situation among aspiring young writers: the assumption that the past is dead and gone, that all unfashionable poets were always old fogies, that anyone who continues to read them is absurd. This, in a nutshell, is why I'm concocting my new book project.
_____ Review is looking for savvy, sharp, well-polished literature that captures life in a post-natural world. We will be open for submissions until March 1st, seeking work which is outstanding and motivated by concerns with human’s place in the world. This isn’t your grandmother’s moldy copy of Shelly poems. Show us the “new-nature” with your place, post-colonial, post-gender, and activist writing. Cast new light on rapid species extinction, climate change, food production, technology, sustainability and community. Show us what it means to exist in an ecosystem, a biosphere. Most of all inspire us. Give us hope.
The editors of this journal seem to be entirely ignorant of Shelley's political, scientific, social, religious, and sexual activism, let alone his singular contributions to English poetry. If Shelley wasn't concerned with "human's [sic] place in the world," I don't know who was. Meanwhile, the editors toss around jargon such as post-gender (um, Shelley? Mary Shelley? waving the banner of women's sexual and intellectual freedom? the physical and emotional complications that ensue when one tries to pretend that gender is irrelevant? and how can this complexity be reduced to "moldy"?). They make reference to so-called 21st-century problems such as food production, technology, and species extinction. Apparently it has not occurred to them that Shelley, as a poet who came to power in the rising industrial age of the early 19th century, as a man who was keenly involved in hands-on scientific experimentation (to cite only a single example of his wide-ranging studies), might be exactly the writer they should be reading. The fact that these editors can't even spell Shelley, let alone handle an apostrophe, is the least of the problem here. The short-sightedness of their editorial vision reminds me of nothing so much as the present state of our blinkered Republican party--yet I daresay these writers are progressive voters with strong liberal ideals. That irony does not give me much hope.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

And now it is official. I have signed the contract. I will be publishing a new book with Autumn House Press, tentatively titled The Conversation: Learning to Become a Poet, forthcoming in mid-2014. I'm thinking this might be a stupid and/or pompous name, but I had to dredge up something for the contract, and perhaps the title will grow on me.

Yesterday I shared my bare-bones conception of the book, and I much appreciate both your support and your suggestions. I hope you will continue to share your conversation with me. I want this book to be personal but also useful; so if any of you teachers and poets would be interested in vetting chapters as I finish them, I would be exceedingly grateful. Believe me, your name will be in lights (which is to say, in the acknowledgments).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

This is what happened to me yesterday. I got an email from a publisher who said he was so pleased with the previous book we'd done together that he'd like to do another. "So what sort of book might you like to write for us?" he asked.

Once I caught my incredulous breath, I came up with this idea. Dear teachers and readers, what do you think? I welcome all comments and suggestions for tweaking a very raw notion.

I'm picturing a book that anthologizes 5 or 6 poems--not contemporary ones but writings from previous eras. Accompanying each poem would be an essay-discussion of the piece from the point of view of a working poet, followed by suggestions for generating new writing based on the poem and the discussion. In other words, I would, as much as possible, follow our Frost Place pattern of reading-conversation-writing in the creation of the book.

I am choosing to use older pieces because most writing manuals tend to focus on contemporary poetry. Meanwhile, English teachers are still responsible for teaching canonical work, yet with such work they don't have many options for moving beyond close readings into creative inspiration.

The publisher seems very pleased with this idea, but what do you think? Would this be useful to you as a teacher? Would this be interesting to you as a writer? Would you pick up this book if you were merely curious about the poems?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Marie de France: A 12th-Century Literary Miracle

Truly, as Marie de France says in her lai, Equitan:
Whoever indulges in love without sense or moderation
recklessly endangers his life;
such is the nature of love
that no one involved with it can keep his head.
And yet, as she remarks in another lai, Guigemar,
Whoever deals with good material
feels pain if it's treated improperly.
Listen, my lords, to the words of Marie,
who does not forget her responsibilities when her turn comes.
Here, on this grey Friday morning, I am thinking about this mysterious twelfth-century writer--how shrewdly, even matter-of-factly, she comprehends the two propulsions of the poet: the reckless abandonment to emotional experience; the cool-headed manipulation of her material.

As I write in A Poet's Sourcebook, "Marie de France’s Lais, a set of twelve verse narratives based on Breton legends, are key texts in the literature of chivalry and courtly love and were among the first writings to mention King Arthur and his court. They have influenced poets from Spenser to Keats, and their coupling of the Celtic supernatural with the formalized code of chivalry has been a primary influence on the conventions of European fairy-tale literature." But no one knows exactly who she was, other than the fact that she was born in France and, according to translators Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, "wrote either at or for the English court, which as a result of the Norman Conquest, was French-speaking in her day."

In an afterword to his own translation of her lai Eliduc, novelist John Fowles noted that Marie may have gone to England as a member of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. "The king to whom she dedicates her Lais . . . may have been Eleanor's husband, Henry II; . . . and there is even a plausible possibility that Marie was Henry's illegitimate sister." In any case, "it is very difficult to imagine the Lais being written by other than a finely educated (therefore, in that age, finely born) young woman."

A fluent scholar of French, Fowles was deeply interested in the stories and legends that lie beneath so much French and English literature. But what also attracted him to Marie's work was the way in which she "grafted her own knowledge of the world on new material. Effectively she introduced a totally new element into European literature. It was composed not least of sexual honesty and a very feminine awareness of how people really behaved--and how behavior and moral problems can be expressed through things like dialogue and action. She did for her posterity something of what Jane Austen did for hers--that is, she set a new standard for accuracy over human emotions and their absurdities."

Though I'm always irritated by Fowles's tendency to use patriarchal shorthand--"a very feminine awareness," forsooth--I think he is incisive about Marie's remarkable ability to create new and complex characters and situations within the framework of what were, to her first audiences, already familiar narrative patterns. In Chaitivel, for instance, she tells the tale of a lady who is courted by four knights. After three are killed in a tournament and the fourth is gravely wounded, the lady "mourned for each by name."
"Alas," she said, "what shall I do?
I'll never be happy again.
I loved these four knights
and desired each one for himself;
there was great good in all of them;
they loved me more than anything.
For their beauty, their bravery,
their merit, their generosity,
I made them fix their love on me;
I didn't want to lose them all by taking one.
I don't know which I should grieve for most;
but I cannot conceal or disguise my grief."
When I read a passage such as this one, I almost feel as if Marie has reconfigured the notion of chivalry. Rather than the ideal of a singular devotion--one knight devoted to one lady--the notion takes on a new coloring: that of an individual's responsibility to the bearers of the chivalric ideal. The lady in Chaitivel shoulders the weight of loving all of those men who have graciously loved her. Is the poet hinting that a woman's sexual freedom can be not only an honorable choice but also a deeply moral one? If so, this is a breathtaking moment in the history of human conversation.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

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, 2014)]

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Prayer from William Blake

Letter to Thomas Butts, April 25, 1803 
I have a thousand & ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity. I percieve that the sore travel which has been given me these three years leads to Glory & Honour. I rejoice & I tremble "I am fearfully & wonderfully made". I had been reading the cxxxix Psalm a little before your Letter arrived. I take your advice. I see the face of my Heavenly Father he lays his Hand upon my Head & gives a blessing to all my works why should I be troubled why should my heart & flesh cry out. I will go on in the Strength of the Lord through Hell will I sing forth his Praises. that the Dragons of the Deep may praise him & that those who dwell in darkness & on the Sea coasts may be gathered into his Kingdom. Excuse my perhaps too great Enthusiasm. Please to accept of & give our Loves to Mrs Butts & your amiable Family. & believe me to be be-- 
Ever Yours Affectionately 

This is the prayer I would like you to read at my funeral service. Please also play Aretha Franklin's version of "Train to Jordan" and either Otis Redding's or Sam Cooke's version of "A Change Is Gonna Come." Then I want you to eat good food and do a lot of laughing.

The full text of Blake's letter appears in A Poet's Sourcebook. If, by any chance, you own the book, and can bring yourself to do so, I would be so happy if you'd consider reviewing it. Even the briefest of Amazon remarks would do . . . a blog mention would be delightful . . . but you might consider literary or educational publications as well. They are frequently on the lookout for reviewers. And thank you, as always, for your friendship.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I've been reading an essay by Dwight Allen that ponders novelist Philip Roth's decision to quit writing novels. Various people have reacted with shock and skepticism to that announcement, and perhaps their disbelief has some foundation. Just as it's hard to imagine a retired butcher who neglects to display his knowledge of knives, or a retired businesswoman who refuses to opine about loans and collateral, it's hard to imagine a novelist, especially one as prolific and ambitious as Roth, who flat-out refuses to spin a tale. Dickens died at his writing desk, his head pillowed on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and this ending seems apt and even noble. If Roth declares he has no such intention, does he dishonor the art to which he has devoted his life? Of course not. And yet.

I think now of a friend, one of the best poets I know, who tells me that he no longer writes poems. Poetry is over for him, he declares. He has nothing more to say in verse. I think of various musicians I've known--men and women who have played in professional orchestras or jazz bands or chamber groups, who, one morning, decide that they will never again pick up their cello or their trumpet. Just like that. I quit. No more. Enough.

And I begin to understand the relief that might accompany that decision. There is enormous strain in the perennial push to articulate. As Allen notes in his essay, art, like baseball, is a performance. Writers work in solitude, but the audience is there, poised for the agony of defeat, the thrill of victory. The fact that, for most of us, the audience is largely imaginary does not mitigate the drama, or the exhaustion, of the performance. But for a writer with a readership as large as Roth's has been, the performance may finally become unbearable.

Monday, February 11, 2013

2013 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

Applications are now open for the 2013 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching! I direct the program, Teresa Carson will be my associate director, and our guest faculty will be Terry Blackhawk and Jeff Kass, both of whom are doing magnificent work with young people in Michigan. And to top it all off, director emeritus Baron Wormser will be leading a special day-and-a-half workshop called Teachers As Writers--an optional add-on for teachers who want to spend extra time honing their own writing skills.

Some of our participants teach kindergartners; others teach Ivy Leaguers. Some have been teaching for 30 years; others are simply thinking about the possibility of teaching. Some teach in crowded urban schools; others teach in sparse island schools. Some work with poor rural children; others teach in the most famous prep schools in the country. Some focus on vocational programs; others offer programs to retirees. Some consider themselves poets with a day job; others are afraid of poems. As you can see, whoever you are, you'll fit right in.

Thanks to the generosity of several former participants, we have more scholarships than ever. So apply early; I can't wait to see you.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Leading Citizens

Dawn Potter


Mr. Bair was elected principal of the Scottdale schools.
In 1881, after two years of work,
He resigned and moved to Greensburg. For many years
Mr. Fairchild, whose home is at Scottdale,
Was a leader in the coal and coke industry.
He never sought or accepted political favor

For himself. The Honorable Abraham Lincoln Keister,
of Scottdale, lived in an atmosphere
Of righteousness. His earthly efforts were an inspiration.
The remains of the late Mr. Wilson were interred
Beside those of his forebears at Scottdale this afternoon.
Admirers from every part of western Pa.

Attended. When Mr. Kough outgrew the Scottdale gallery
Of H. J. Springer, he went elsewhere and under better
Artistic conditions developed a rare skill.
He had few other hobbies.
Mr. Zimmers is one of those all-around men.
His tastes are of the wholesome out-of-door variety.

He is devoted to motoring. Benjamin Harrison Willard
Presides over the Grocers’ Protective Association.
A staunch Republican, he supports his party’s principles
Ardently. Domestic instincts: such is Mr. Willard,
And Scottdale might surely be proud.
He is also interested in the Boy Scouts.

Mr. Hill removed to Scottdale and established
The Model Laundry Co. He is an active
Member of the Good Roads Club. Albert Keister
Enjoys all of his faculties at their full powers.
Frank V. Perry is first cousin of Commander
Robert E. Peary, discoverer of the North Pole.

Scottdale may well congratulate herself
Upon the acquisition of so energetic a citizen.
Mr. Hardy organized and taught
The Scottdale Narcissus Mandolin Band,
Though it is doubtful whether his neighbors could give
A satisfactory answer to the question here implied.

[first published in Hawk & Handsaw (2012)]

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Of course I have to talk about the snow, though I'm sure that all of you who are not experiencing this storm are sick and tired of eastern New England's one-track mind.

Friday we watched flurries all day, and then at some point overnight the real storm kicked in. When I opened my eyes this morning, the air was gray with snow, as it remains. The particles are tiny and icy, though the temperature is hovering close to zero, and the wind is howling, which is fairly rare in our tree-protected clearing. Now would not be a good time to stroll in the forest. Branches must be coming down everywhere, but more from the strength of the wind than the snow weight. The snow itself is so light that it constantly scours off into troughs and dunes. Certain places are almost bare; others are sculpted into mysterious curves. But to me most notable is the color of this storm--not white at all, more like a whirl of translucent steel.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Long Poem

The new issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal has been released; and unlike most of them, it's entirely available online. That's because there are only six poems in the issue. The editors have chosen to center their attention on a handful of highly variable approaches to the long poem, and soon they will be hosting an online discussion forum among the six featured poets: Bruce Bond, Philip Metres, A. E. Stallings, Margaree Little, Susan Tichy, and myself. For now, however, you can get started with the poems.

I received my print copy in the mail yesterday, and already I am amazed at the diversity of styles among us. People's brains work so differently. A couple of us are frankly narrative; several of us are not; all, however, required spaciousness to arrive at some kind of denouement, some kind of synthesis, some kind of relief or emptiness or conclusion. In the words of the issue's introduction, "the world's a big place, after all, bigger than the inch of turf trod by too many contemporary poets."

Later you'll hear from each of us about the process of writing long poems, and I am anxious to hear how the rest of them manage to do it. It's very easy, as a writer, to become trapped in the coils of one's own inventive passageways. Perhaps there's really no other way to write, but it's nonetheless a refreshment to listen to someone else's story.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My post is late this morning because I had to drive Mathilde, our old barn dog, to the vet and have her put down. She was a Great Pyrenees (i.e., a dog version of the abominable snowman) and 15 years old, which is about three times as long as the breed's usual life span. Although she was very sweet-tempered and affectionate, she was also singularly boneheaded. She would trip over an idea--say, "gotta dig a hole gotta dig a hole gotta dig a hole"--and for five or six days nothing would turn her from it. Even though, at age 15, she was now toothless, half-blind, three-quarters deaf, and afflicted with a permanent case of the staggers, she continued to believe that every half-assed notion in her head was the best plan ever. So two nights ago, with her usual obstinate verve, she had a burst of energy, decided to bust down the gate in the middle of the night, and thus spent several hours sprawled on the ice in the driveway. Tom found her in the morning and we brought her straight into the house, but she never really recovered from her dumb adventure.

Poor old girl.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Today, before I leave for Ellsworth to judge the Poetry Out Loud regionals, I plan to spend a little time with Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

It occurred to me last night, as I sat among the Stutzman family, playing music and eating lashing of desserts donated by anxious friends (who, when all else fails and they can't think of anything else to do, show up on the doorsteps of the bereaved with yet another pie), that watching this child die has been an ordeal analogous to the sorts of ordeals one finds in Malory. The knight crosses into the dark wood, he meets the black knight, something life-changing happens--death, victory, magical intervention--and then the knight crosses out of the wood. In other words, the ordeal is terrible but it has finite edges. Of course a new ordeal may begin just beyond the next grove of trees, but for the moment the knight looks up into the sky, and the world really is what it seems to be.

I felt last night as if the family had reached the far edge of the ordeal, that they were beginning to look up into the sky, to rediscover a world beyond their terrible, hallucinatory battle with the black knight. This is not to say that they have shed their scars. That, of course, is impossible. Simply they are looking up and outward again, after many months of doing neither.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lately, over each day's various cups of coffee and tea, I have been paging through a fat book of photographs compiled and annotated by costume historian Joan Severa: Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900. Reading this book bears some resemblance to reading People at the dentist's office. The experience is strangely compelling--giving rise to bemusement, amusement, irritation, disgust, embarrassment, boredom, and occasionally awe.

Dressed for the Photographer opens with a quotation from Quentin Bell's On Human Finery. (Bell was Virginia Woolf's nephew. I knew he'd written a biography of his aunt but had no idea he'd written a treatise on fashion.)
In sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics. Here at a glance we can perceive phenomena so mobile in their response to varying stimuli, so rapid in their mutation, that the deceptive force of inertia, which overlays and obscures most other manifestations of human activity, is reduced to a minimum. In obeying custom we undergo distresses which are needless and futile. We do so for the sake of something that transcends our own immediate interests. There are some who can rejoice in fashion, others may detest it, but as any photograph will show, there will be very few ready to defy its laws.
The exact photographs in the book are not available online, but most are very like these in the daguerreotype collection at the George Eastman House--family groupings, wedding poses, pictures of children with pets, young men in fancy new hats, pretty girls in homemade dresses, etc. Severa organizes her choices by decade, and next to each photograph she comments on the specifics of the outfit: how stylish or old-fashioned it is; whether it was homemade, bought ready-made, or made by a tailor or milliner; how common or unusual it was in this particular setting. She notes details of arm width, corset style, pleats, and trimming, and she muses about how the person wearing the outfit was struggling to do the best she could with what she had to work with. The book is both predictable and intensely peculiar--an immersion into the frets and follies of another century that is also familiar and touching. I say this as a person who can barely sew, who admires a beautiful dress, who has spent much of her life feeling as if she's never quite figured out how to wear one herself. It seems that many nineteenth-century women weren't much different from me.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Upcoming events

Stuff I'm doing, and will you be there?

This Wednesday, February 6, I'll be at the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth to judge the northern Maine regional finals for the state Poetry Out Loud competition.

On Saturday evening, February 9, I'll be at the East Sangerville Grange in Sangerville, Maine, playing fiddle and singing with Sid Stutzman and Brian Hall and looking forward to our next show, when--we dearly hope--Craig Stutzman will be back to playing in the band.

On March 2 I'll be leading a workshop in Portland for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance: "The Art of the Lyric Essay." I'm very excited about getting a chance to stretch my prose-teaching wings.

On March 7 at 10 a.m. I'll be in Boston at the AWP convention, signing A Poet's Sourcebook at the Autumn House table.

And on March 22, I'll be leading a workshop about poetry in the classroom at the annual convention of the Maine Council of English Language Arts in Northport.

On the horizon is a big reading in April at the University of Southern Maine featuring several well-known Maine women poets. I don't have details about that event yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Ambiguities of Terror

from Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell 
In his book [My Life on the Plains] Custer reproduced a telegram from [General] Sherman to [President] Grant, dated one week after the slaughter, which says in part: "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children. Nothing less will reach the root of the case." If one word of this extraordinary telegram is altered it reads like a message from Eichmann to Hitler.
"The slaughter" to which Connell refers is the 1866 incident in which a band of Oglala Sioux massacred eighty soldiers, under the command of an idiot named Captain William Fetterman, who disobeyed orders, marched his men onto Sioux-controlled land (where he was distinctly told not to go), decided to chase down a few Indians, and was lured into an Oglala trap. My poem about the incident arose from reading the eyewitness accounts of the troopers who were sent to clean up the battlefield. I know I've posted it here before, but I'll give it to you again.

The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command


At first light we saw our enemies
on the bluff
silver flashing in their hair

a glory of sun as they rode away laden
with tunics saddles boots arrows
still piercing the cracked boots

piercing our silent comrades
and just visible in the dawn
we saw wolves and coyotes

skulking along the verge
crows buzzards eagles circling
the sun-spattered meadow

but not one white body was disturbed
for we hear that salt permeates
the whole system of our race

which protects us from the wild
to some degree but it was strange
that nothing had eaten the horses either

except for flies which swarmed in thick
like the stench
all day we waited

till the doctor finished his report then
they told us to pack our friends
into the ammunition wagons

this was our job they said to retch
to stumble into the field to grasp
at wrists at ankles dissolving to pulp

under our grip to vomit to weep
to stare at masks pounded bloody with stones
bloated crawling with flies who were they

this was our job but we could not sort
cavalry from infantry all stripped
naked slashed skulls crushed

with war clubs ears noses legs
hacked off and some had
crosses cut on their breasts

faces to the sky
we walked on their hearts
but did not know it in the high grass

This poem will appear within an essay that is forthcoming in the Sewanee Review, a piece that is ostensibly about William Blake but deals more particularly with the way in which poets risk not only their readership but their own aesthetic values for the sake of an unquenchable, insoluble moral distress.

The Fetterman incident continues to haunt me. It seems emblematic of the way in which the intense personal nature of fear can so easily obscure the far larger horrors of genocide--and yet the individual's fear and terror remain entirely recognizable and compelling. So much slaughter continues to arise from these pockets of horror and desperation.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In 1580, a father weeps

Here's one of the saddest, sweetest poems I know, and because today is both sad and heartbreakingly sweet--the day of our friend Aliza's funeral service--I'll share it with you. The poem was written in the 16th century by a Polish poet and scholar named Jan Kochanowski; and beyond the father's grief, which is so immediate all these centuries later, it is remarkable as a moment in which a male celebrates a female as his artistic equal.

Threnody 6

Jan Kochanowski

Dear little Slavic Sappho, we had thought,
Hearing thy songs so sweetly, deftly wrought,
That thou shouldst have an heritage one day
Beyond thy father's lands: his lute to play.
For not an hour of daylight's joyous round
But thou didst fill it full of lovely sound,
Just as the nightingale doth scatter pleasure
Upon the dark, in glad unstinted measure.
Then Death came stalking near thee, timid thing,
And thou in sudden terror tookest wing.
Ah, that delight, it was not overlong
And I pay dear with sorrow for brief song.
Thou still wert singing when thou cam'st to die;
Kissing thy mother, thus saidst good-bye:
          "My mother, I shall serve thee now no more
Nor sit about thy table's charming store;
I must lay down my keys to go from here,
To leave the mansion of my parents dear."
          This and what sorrow now will let me tell
No longer, were my darling's last farewell.
Ah, strong her mother's heart, to feel the pain
Of those last words and not to burst in twain.

translated by Dorothy Prall

Friday, February 1, 2013

Incident at Jacobs Creek


Dawn Potter

Behind the vending-machine house,
down by the crick, is a dug-out lake,
nasty green and dark. “Keep Away!!”
says the sign and the lake’s roped off,

I don’t know why. Our ma swam there
when she was a kid but not us, we’re stuck
with this bleach-stink pool and big wet
boys in their cutoffs are always flicking 

Salem butts into the shallow baby end.
When by mistake I breathe in that blue
water, my nose smells like dirty socks.
I hate that. Me and my sister take turns

running into the vending-machine house
to buy melty ice creams and so we can stuff
more dimes in the jukebox. We earned them
from seven-card stud with our grandpap.

On the jukebox we like to play songs we hate
which is songs like “Afternoon Delight”
and “Silly Love Songs” and “That’s the Way
Uh-Huh Uh-Huh I Like It I Like It.”

These are the stupidest songs ever sung
on the radio but they are funny
and we laugh like monkeys
to show we’re having a great time,

then we call each other retarded.
My sister is younger than me but taller.
People think we are twins.
I hate that but she hates it worse

because she is more beautiful
our granny says. But her bathing suit
is uglier in my opinion. Mine
is almost just as ugly though.

In that nasty lake down by the crick
some ducks are paddling around.
Maybe somebody died in it a while ago
so they won’t let kids swim there

because they never found the body.
My idea is they should write a mystery
about this place but probably in real life
the true facts are way too boring to care.

[first published in The Fourth River (2012)]