Friday, January 31, 2014

"Like many creative writers, [Bruce] Springsteen creates a time and place that people can relate to but that may not necessarily exist:
* The story of 'Highway Patrolman' is set in an area where one can drive into Canada; however, 
* The lyrics say Joe is 'a sergeant out of Perrineville.' The only American city with that name is in New Jersey. . . . 
* While the lyrics state, 'I musta done a hundred and ten through Michigan county that night,' in actuality there is no Michigan County anywhere in the United States. 
* The chorus refers to 'dancin' with Maria as the band played '"Night of the Johnstown Flood."' There was no song with such a title when the song was released."

[from the Wikipedia page for "Highway Patrolman"]

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Husbands (2004)

Dawn Potter

Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.

In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
Televisions gabbled,
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.

They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.

They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
they sat.
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse history (in progress) of southwestern Pennsylvania]

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I'm still struggling with the Johnstown Flood poem, but suddenly I've also found myself juggling a companion piece: a poem about the members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, which managed the dam that collapsed and destroyed Johnstown. The list of club members is a Gilded Age who's who: manufacturers of mine explosives, members of Congress, art patrons, an attorney general, window-glass millionaires, railroad executives, and so on and so on. And as I pondered this list, I suddenly thought of card tables and old guys in tuxedos drinking brandy, and surreptitious belching. So poem number 2 is slowly taking the form of a whist party: that is, I'm breaking the poem into card-party groups of four names, and interspersing them with commentary that riffs on the Hoyle instructions for whist.

What excites me about this verse project, as much as anything, is the way in which each subject seems to discover its own poetic structure. This is a whole new world for me, one that requires me to slough off many of my preconceptions about form and line and sound. To be honest, I'm kind of scared.
"Make sure of winning at the earliest opportunity, but take any risk if that is the only way of saving the game."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I spent much of yesterday working on a poem about the 1889 Johnstown Flood; and though I came into this project hoping that I could incorporate the "young Chaucerian professor" voice that we were talking about a few days ago, I ended up being unable to find my way into a poem through that angle. Instead, my opening was a contemporaneous recollection that appears on NOAA's Historical Weather Service site. The site quotes only bits and pieces; and I have no idea whether this writer, Willis Fletcher Johnson, was a survivor or a reporter or an outsider involved in the rescue effort or none of the above. But he published his account during the year of the flood, and his word choice and syntax caught my ear.

The poem, of course, follows its own course. Not much of the real Willis Fletcher Johnson remains, though his biblical cadence and imagery became increasingly important as I reworked the drafts. And that process was tiring. The Johnstown Flood is not a cozy subject to revive, relive, or rewrite.
A dark day, and a day of storm,
and amidst the darkness
the angel of death spreads his wings over the valley.
I don't often feel comfortable using a phrase such as "the angel of death"; but that was the image that Willis Fletcher Johnson chose to evoke, and I think it was the right one. It's a prim, ministerial sort of cliche; it's a terrifying metaphor for earthly chaos and human helplessness. So the angel of death spread his wings and flew into my poem, and he was difficult and demanding company.

You may not be surprised to hear that I also found myself required to reread Milton's evocation of the battle between Satan's fallen angels and God's faithful angels.

It was a hard day.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I haven't updated the Milly Jourdain Archive since last summer, and today is the day to remedy that lack. As luck would have it, I've reached what I think is the most beautiful poem in her collection. I like this first poem so much that I'll be including it The Conversation, although the one that follows is also lovely. Both are Jourdain at her best: focused, precise, patient, lyrical.

Watching the Meet

Milly Jourdain

The air is still so new and fresh and cold,
It makes a warm excitement in our hearts
To drive beside the sad and lonely fields.
And now we see a wider space of road
Where groups of horsemen moving restlessly
Are waiting for the quiet-footed hounds.
The hounds come swiftly, covering the way
Like foaming water surging round our feet.
And then with cries and sound of cracking whips
All, all are gone: the distant beat of hoofs
Like trailing smoke of dreams, comes fitfully
To tell how near they were a moment past.
But we see only winter trees again,
And turning homewards meet a drifting rain.

The End of a Hunting Day

Milly Jourdain

The dusk is creeping up the vale
While on the hill we rest,
And look across the wint'ry fields
Towards the dark'ning west.

A ringing sound comes changefully
Along the narrow way--
Some horsemen going to their homes,
After a hunting day.

They call "Good-night," and soon the dark
Has swallowed them from sight:
But still the sound lives on a while
Lingering like a light.

And now it all grows lonelier
Under the quiet sky,
Until some sparks of life shall come
And burn and then pass by.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Sunny and cold, with a high near 10. Wind chill values as low as -17. West wind 10 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 30 mph," chirps a brisk little predictor at the National Weather Service. Sounds almost idyllic, almost as if I might be able to spend fifteen minutes outside without suffering.

I've been having so much trouble with my hands; I can't seem to keep them warm, even when I'm wearing three pairs of gloves. Ice is creeping under the front door. Yesterday I ran forty times around the circuit of my kitchen and living room and never felt like I needed to take off my sweater. Our house is small and reasonably well-insulated, and the woodstove burns and burns. But I can't stop shivering.

It would help if we could get some sunlight blazing through these south-facing windows. Maybe today really will be better than yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I have written many letters this week. Two were long ones to old acquaintances that I haven't seen for years, so they were autobiographical in a "let me tell you what I've been doing for the past 20 years" kind of way, though I found myself scrupulously avoiding all mention of writing. Why is that, I wonder? Both of these old acquaintances knew me in high school, when all I did was read books, play the violin, and moon over boys and animals. Thirty years later, that's still all I do. I've led a very consistent life. But in my letters to these friends, I found myself focusing on my children, how Tom and I ended up in Harmony, how I'm looking for a job but am, of course, unhireable. I make myself sound like an undereducated hausfrau, and I know it's because both of these friends have relatively high-powered, well-paying, prestigious-sounding "real" careers. It's so stupid of me to act like this: the best I can say is that I'm well aware that it's stupid, but at least for this first round of reconnection, I'm not able to override it.

But I also wrote a different sort of letter. This correspondence was with another old friend, not a high school acquaintance but a woman whom I'd met when I was looking for a place to board my goat while Tom and I were living in an apartment in Providence and he was going to RISD. She was older than me, a grown-up when I was still a callow youth, but we really liked each other. I spent a lot of time on her farm, and we were both frantic consumers of books. We began sharing volumes back and forth: all of Trollope's novels, contemporary novels and histories, books and books and books. I was at an age when I read anything that anyone would hand to me, and she introduced me to many books, good and bad, that I would never have otherwise met. After I moved to Maine, she moved out west and we gradually lost touch. But recently her house burned down in a wildfire, and she lost all of her possessions, so she wrote to us, asking if Tom had negatives of any of the photos he'd taken of her Massachusetts farm. He printed a stack of new pictures for her; and then the other day I got an email from her in which she said she was re-buying all my books. It was news to me that she'd ever owned any of my books, but it turns out that she had, that she'd been reading what I was writing. You are so lucky to be living your dream, she told me, which was also news to me. Have I been living my dream? I suppose I have. Truly, I never fantasized about having a job that paid the bills. I did fantasize about books and books and books, with a little bit of music thrown in, and a great deal of romance cementing the whole. And while the entire structure of this fantasy has turned out to be more like a slapdash and unsteady Lego parking garage than a Frank Gehry museum, still, here it is, not quite toppling over.

Finally, I wrote a third sort of letter--to another poet, whom I have never met, never corresponded with before this week; about whom I have few preconceived notions . . . but our letters have been whirlwinds of "oh, my God, this is what I see, and this is what I did, and this is what the past was like, and this is how I walk down the street, and this is what the words don't say, and this is what I understand just barely how I might rethink, and. . . ." In other words, I have had an epiphanic mind-meld conversation with a complete stranger and I'm fairly sure that she feels the same way that I do, and the sensation is a 50-year-old poet version of a teen crush. Who knows if it will last? Very likely not. But golly.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Earlier this week I spent a day responding to a series of interview questions about Same Old Story. My interviewer was Nin Andrews,  who has published a number of poetry collections (Syd Lea calls her "the most accomplished and affecting poet of the erotic in America") and is a regular contributor to the Best American Poetry blog. Nin is also a CavanKerry Press author, and she donates an extraordinary amount of time and energy to the press. Just before CKP is ready to release a new book, she takes it upon herself to interview the writer--and this isn't just one of those "Do you like being a poet?" interviews but a close questioning about the roots and structure of the book itself.

It took me hours to answer her questions, but that was fine because they were interesting to me: how was I thinking about the permutations of story when I organized the book? how did those fairytale poems take shape? why don't I write songs? do I really believe what I say?
Nin: How does Same Old Story differ from your previous books?

Dawn: I hope the writing is better. But that’s what I’m always hoping: that all my life I will continue to get better at using words to contain the invisibilities of poetry. I want the words to be the glass bottle around the djinn, not a distraction or an advertisement. Of course djinns assume an infinite number of forms, so the bottles, too, must be infinitely variable.
If only that could be true! If only, if only--

[And if only I could write the word djinn every day of my life.]

Thursday, January 23, 2014

You have been reading Byron. You have been marking the passages that seem to approve of your own character. I find marks against all those sentences that seem to express a sardonic yet passionate nature, a moth-like impetuosity dashing itself against hard glass. You thought, as you drew your pencil there, "I too throw off my cloak like that. I too snap my fingers in the face of destiny." Yet Byron never made tea as you do, who fill the pot so that when you put the lid on the tea spills over. There is a brown pool on the table--it is running among your books and papers. Now you mop it up, clumsily, with your pocket-handkerchief. You then stuff your handkerchief back into your pocket--that is not Byron; that is you; that is so essentially you that if I think of you in twenty years' time, when we are both famous, gouty and intolerable, it will be by that scene: and if you are dead, I shall weep.

[from The Waves by Virginia Woolf]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Yesterday Paul and I hauled fifty or so books to the Goodwill, but of course we did not come home empty-handed. Give away fifty books, replace them with five: such a minor number allows me to continue feeling like a Virtuous Housekeep rather than a Reckless Acquistor of volumes that I may or may not ever get around to reading.

Here are my new Goodwill spoils:

* Margaret Atwood's 1995 poetry collection Morning in the Burned House, which contains intriguing titles such as "King Lear in Respite Care" and "The Loneliness of the Military Historian." Did you know that in 1995 Atwood had 27 books on her list of "Other Books by Margaret Atwood"? How is that even possible? She must have sent away for some kind of "You, Too, Can Write As Many Books As Trollope and Updike!" correspondence course.

* T. S. Eliot's Selected Essays, a demure black hardback owned in November 1953 by someone from Storrs, Connecticut, with an unreadably curly signature that seems to say "ChaelllOcoenJr." I cannot tell whether Chaelll ever read any of these essays and I cannot tell whether I will either because as soon as I looked through the table of contents ("The Metaphysical Poet," "Modern Education and the Classics," "Four Elizabethan Dramatists," etc.), all I wanted to do is give this book back to Chaelll and go read Virginia Woolf's Common Reader instead. However, now I'm stuck with it.

* J. M. Coetzee's Youth, a 2002 novel in a Penguin paperback edition that may never have been opened before I decided to look inside, although the "Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature" sticker on the front is dinged and worn, as if the book has spent much of its life being packed up in boxes and moved around in the backs of pickups and then unpacked in order to be inserted yet again into tight quarters on a bookshelf made of milk crates. According to the cover blurb, this novel will make me "angry, amused, scornful and sympathetic by turns."

* Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, a slim novel first published in 1923 but reprinted here in a flowery paperback circa 1990 especially designed to attract middle-aged female readers looking for light literature and perhaps not realizing that the book is all about a middle-aged woman who is losing her looks and leading a dead-end life in a no-account burg, which, I suspect, is not a story that many middle-aged female readers will wish to open as they lie in bed after a long day of shopping, baby-sitting, being ignored, eating unhealthy food that makes them gain weight, etc. I am an exception insofar as it is exactly the kind of book I'd be likely to open, though I do hate the cover.

* E. L. Doctorow's 2005 Civil War novel The March, which, speaking of covers, is notably different from the Cather, being one of those oversized yet cheap hardbacks with a manly pebbled dust cover featuring giant serifed type, a big cannon silhouette, and a fiery orange sunset behind the cannon. The whole effect is Herman Wouk-ish or James Michener-esque, which if I were E. L. Doctorow would make me gloomy but maybe he likes it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Harmony has retreated into the polar doldrums, which means another week of not being able to throw Ruckus out on his ear every time he does something awful. Tom said, "I can't believe you check the weather to see if it's too cold to throw the cat out," and I replied defensively, "I check it for more than that--like, for instance, there's the question of 'Can I take a shower before I go outside to deal with firewood, or will my slightly damp hair freeze to my skull?'" For his part, Tom is in a much better mood about the vortex now that he's finished building an open pole barn in a middle of a windswept pasture and is cozily renovating someone's spare room.

I've been rereading Virginia Woolf's The Waves, though I'm not very far into it because I've suddenly dipped into periodical reading. I can go for months without ever looking at a magazine, but something triggered me to catch up on New York Reviews, so I've been perusing articles about Jimi Hendrix, Margaret Drabble, and Twelfth Night, and here are my capsule reactions. The Jimi Hendrix review prompted me to Google photos of all his girlfriends, the Margaret Drabble review made me grumpy because no one had invited me to write a Margaret Drabble review, and the Twelfth Night review made me long to see the Shakespeare's Globe version of Twelfth Night, currently at the Belasco Theatre. If you live in NYC, please, please go see it so you can tell me how wonderful it was. It's been a long time since I've been so stricken with desire to see a play.

Monday, January 20, 2014

This morning's post is late because I've been driving in snow--up and down hills, and around sharp curves, and avoiding wild turkeys--so that Paul could catch a bus to a track meet. This particular snow was forecast to be flurries yet clearly was not. Still, it was not freezing rain, and the temperature was a moderate 25 degrees, and I was driving in daylight, and the grocery store was empty at 8 a.m., so for a change I was not accosted by peculiar small men in camouflage hats asking me if the new Sound of Music has been released on DVD or begging for advice on canned goods.

I spent a chunk of the weekend reorganizing the bookshelves; and believe it or not, I even managed to choose a whole boxful for the Goodwill. I won't tell you the names of any of these discards because I don't want to make them feel bad. But when I opened one, I found a letter from a high school friend whom I haven't heard from for years. Dated 15 July 1982, it is two pages long, closely handwritten on United States Army stationery. A forgotten epistle from basic training! Here's a sample of what I learned:
Sunday we went to battalion competition. (There are 7 companies in a battalion, each company had a platoon to represent it.) We lost that but came in a close second. We felt that we had won but we didn't. We were hoping to beat those 5 male companies because no female company in the last 9 cycles of training has won. OK enough of that. July 3rd we went to a large field on post and watched the fireworks. We also sat next to a male company by the end of the night the 2 companies were rather close.
There's quite a bit more of interest, including a description of tear gas training, but I'm not going to share it now because I foresee that a letter like this could be a useful primary source in my western Pa. project--something along the lines of "Eighties Girl from Fayette County Joins the Army." Not that my friend was from Fayette County but I can readjust. Just having the voice is such a gift. I wonder where she is now.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Testimony of Various Witnesses (1859)

Dawn Potter

There was noise in the field.
No moon. Sky was clear.
I could distinguish a white man a rod off.

We live in a brick house, last one on the right.
When they got to the hill,
they went in all directions, except back.

I live in the third house from the bridge, as you go down.
Before I saw Z. dead in the morning,
I was awakened by the firing of guns.

Was in bed at the time of the firing,
till I heard men gathered in front of my house.
From their talk I took them to be whites.

Saw between 15 and 20 negroes running up.
Heard one say, “Come, boys, we will surround this place
and have the damned rascal” (or words to that effect).

I knew there was a fuss between the whites and the negroes.
C. called on me for a revolver, a day or two before the murder.
He did not get one.

From the appearance of the eye,
the gun was in close proximity to the face
when fired.

S. told me times were desperate below town,
that the whites were molesting them, that he was afraid.
This was about 2 days before the murder.

I have often repaired his firearms.
I don’t recollect him saying
he wanted the gun fixed so as to shoot squirrels.

A negro had been knocked down in the street.
For fun I struck at him.
He pulled out a pistol and said, “Look here.”

I did not say
that any person who took the darkies’ part
was a damned mean man.

In D.’s barbershop on Monday night,
two or three present were talking of trouble
between the whites and negroes.

D. was shaving a man.
He remarked,
“If they do not be careful we will have bleeding Kansas here.”

I heard nothing but the tramping of horses in the field.
I only went because they asked me.
As soon as I got into the corn, I squatted down.

I was facing eastward, in front of the stone quarry.
Then I got behind an apple tree
and whistled a little.

It was after prayer meeting.
The company took no liquor before starting.
I don’t know whether they stopped at hotels or not.

The field begins just beyond the yard.
Z. carried a club of some kind.
I recall they all wore hats.

Drank at T.’s.
Can’t tell whether I was at the marble shop.
Can’t tell what the row was about.

I was in a doze.
Something alarmed me.
Put my head out the window and heard a terrible swearing.

My husband and J. are cousins.
The swearing I heard was by black men.
On Sunday I swept shot off my porch.

I arrested D. in his barbershop.
He was shaving a man.
D. said he did not know what he had done.

I went along to arrest C.
He was eating.
Then he quit eating and commenced rubbing his hands.

I saw Z. raise his club and yell like an Indian.
The yell was such as the Indians gave
who were with the traveling show.

I said, “I am no nigger.”
He replied, “It’s well you spoke.
I might have killed you with this club.”

I think I had my pistol out.
I said my revolver was for six of them
if they jumped me.

A darkie came along
and Z. said he sauced him
and he knocked him down.

I saw a darkie enter D.’s barbershop with a shawl on
and something under his shawl.
I do not think it was a fiddle.

Went to T.’s, knocked 3 or 4 times.
T.’s wife told me not to put my hand
on the broken pane of glass.

I have known them long enough
to know them anywhere.
The place is a house of ill fame.

S. was in bed all that night.
He was sick.
His mother came to the door to speak with him.

Mr. N. rode down to our house
and asked whose gun that was.
My sister said it was the one Pap borrowed.

We were going across the creek after firewood.
When we came back,
the gun was gone.

I remained on the brow of the hill.
The path turns off
just before you get to the first apple tree.

J. was badly scared, tolerably drunk,
and suffering some pain.
He did not faint when I extracted the bullet.

He was in a chair he could not fall out of.
My opinion is that he did not know what he was saying.
This was his state pretty much the whole time.

On the day Z. lost his life, he came to the well.
He said, “The niggers about this place
have been carrying on with a high head.”

I never mentioned the conversation to my wife.
I took a drink, went directly upstairs.
I had a bottle of medicine I had got for her.

I opened the directions
and was in the act of reading them
when the firing took place.

I assisted in reaching Z. after the incident.
I found no weapons on him.
The night of the murder was a clear, starlight night.

[First published in J Journal (fall 2013). My mother, Janice Miller Potter, also has a poem in this issue. Hers, "Rat Night," is set in the same town as my poem is. We didn't know we were writing about the same town or that we'd both sent poems to the same journal till we got the magazines in the mail. As far as I know, the journal editors have no idea they've published a mother and daughter. Spooky all around.]

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Here's the publisher's draft cover for The Conversation, and I think those wild turkey feathers in that inkwell are lovely, though in the real world probably not suitable for quills, a metaphor that I am going to stop pursuing now.

It is quite exciting to have two books coming out so close together, but I'm also getting a bit rattled about how to juggle the publicity issue. On the one hand, both books focus on poetry. On the other hand, one is instructional and the other is a collection. On the third hand, they're coming out from different publishers, and on the fourth hand, small publishers need authors to help with sales, and on the fifth hand, all my blog visitors and Facebook friends are sick to death of hearing me hawk my books and are secretly begging me to post more cat photos, and on the sixth hand, I actually think my new books aren't half-bad as far as books go and it would make me happy if you would consider reading them if you had time and inclination, and on the seventh hand, my cold-weather-Protestant soul is constantly slapping me upside the head. Here's how Alice Munro describes that soul in her story "No Advantages":
Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family. Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn't exactly that word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or yourself. And when I study the people I know about in the family, it does seem that some of us have that need in large and irresistible measure--enough so as to make the others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension. That's why the judgment had to be given out so frequently.
My friend Angela told me this week, "You have a super-strong work ethic with Calvinistic overtones. Very similar to mine, but Catholics drank more, and had all those statues and stuff."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Learn in school to quote your teachers correctly so that all your life long you will quote as gossip or reporter you will quote everybody correctly except when from malice or mischief you [illegible] misquote people on purpose. Formula for examination questions: What do you think I (the Teacher) think was the date of the battle of Hastings? of Yorktown

[From The Notebooks of Robert Frost, notebook 4. The entry is undated but seems to have been written at some point after 1939.] 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Finally I've had a chance to turn back to my western Pennsylvania project. This week I've been working on a piece about the Whiskey Rebellion, but it's taken me a while to figure out the necessary form. I'm learning that (1) voice and (2) structure are the keys to beetling my way into these poems. In a way this approach feels dry and unimaginative . . . but maybe unimaginative is the wrong word. Maybe exterior is more accurate. Because the subject matter is exterior to myself, I have to find a perch, a place where I can linger and bring that voice and structure into myself as I imagine the final poem. The process is like finding a backdoor into my imagination rather than letting my imagination burgeon outward into an exterior solidity.

In any case, this current poem, which deals with opposing political reactions to a particularly ridiculous mob action against a tax collector, has fallen into columns, each with its own spelling and typeface peculiarities. The poem is dated 1786, so the spelling and type variations are typical of the time period. But setting them face to face across the page gives them a partisan grouchiness and separation that, of course, links to my contemporary cynicism about our own wretched Congress. The rebels in the Whiskey Rebellion were mostly drunks who didn't want to pay taxes on liquor, but they were manipulated by government and special interests. The Tea Party parallels are legion. None of this is imagination, yet creating a page arrangement that mirrors the situation has helped me imagine the speaking characters: two pompous old farts trying to describe a mob action in a way that supports their individual preconceptions.

Here's a sample of a stanza pair. Blogger isn't very reliable when it comes to columns, so you'll have to pretend that the righthand one is evenly flush left. If the poem is ever typeset for publication, I hope the designer will find a way to more accurately replicate the old-fashioned "f" for internal "s" style. For now I do the best I can.

The Mob then slic’d off his queue                A perfon of fairer character
and arrange’d his Hair in a manner               and greater difcretion
that render’d him Most conspicuous.            would have been neceffary
In the above Plight he was march’d              for the fuccefsful difcharge of that truft,
to the frontiers of Westmoreland-County.     but fuch did not apply.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Yesterday evening, Paul suddenly said, "Let's find out who you were before you got resurrected!" His criterion was "a person who shows up on Google who died on your exact birthday." Quickly he discovered that Tom had spent a previous life as either a Bulgarian violinist or the low-level sailor on the Titanic who first spotted the iceberg. Paul had spent his own previous life as either an immunologist or a Hammond organist. My choices were either an economist who became an extremely efficient Communist spy or a very bad baseball catcher. It was immediately clear to all of us that I could never have been an extremely efficient Communist spy in a previous life. Thus, I had to embrace my terrible baseball past; and I thought you might like to hear a bit more about the ineptness of my past life, which went far beyond baseball.

Who Was Charlie Armbruster?

This is how sports historian Bill Knowlin sums up Charlie Armbruster's impact on baseball:
After catcher Charlie Armbruster broke into the major leagues, he hit .198 for Boston his first year and was invited back. He hit .144 his second year, and was invited back. He hit .100 his third year and was sold to Chicago, where he hit .000 and ended his major-league career. 
Charlie Armbruster (August 30, 1880–October 7, 1964) was born in Cincinnati (on the same day as Ted Williams, which did not otherwise bring him any sort of luck). He was a stocky man--one sports writer described him as a "Porkopolitan backstop"--who began his career as a machinist while playing local semi-pro baseball on the side.

In 1901 he signed with a team in Poughkeepsie and moved on to teams in Brooklyn and then New London, where he stayed till 1905. Knowlin writes: "On June 27, [Armbruster] earned some attention (and a five-dollar fine levied by umpire Shannon) when he was so angered by a strike call that he fired his cap onto the ground." In New London Charlie achieved his highest baseball success, playing in ninety-one games and and earning a .300 batting average. However, a 1904 edition of Sporting Life also noted that “Armbruster, the New London catcher, and Wee Willie McGill, of the Norwich team, are reported as having recently gone slumming and got lost.”

In 1905 Charlie's batting average was still pretty decent, and the Boston Americans decided to acquire him for $1,750. Things did not go well. A writer at the Washington Post declared that “the general opinion around the American League circuit is that Catcher Armbruster is long on name and short on ability.” Another at the Boston Herald remarked, "His work is characterized as something wretched. Most men who have followed Connecticut League ball have wondered that he has been kept so long."

In Charlie's defense, I should clarify that he wasn't the only rotten player on Boston's 1906 roster. The whole team was horrible: it lost 105 games that year and finished last in the league--45½ games out of first place. Knowlin writes: "One of Armbruster’s battery mates, pitcher Joe Harris, had a 2-21 record. Even Cy Young lost 21 games, winning just 13." Despite Charlie's bad showing, Boston apparently planned to bring him back for 1907. However, in the off-season, he vanished. Eventually a Boston Globe headline announced, “Armbruster Located in Wilds of Ohio,” after spending a winter becoming “grossly overweight.” But spring training apparently did the trick, and the team assured the newspapers that Charlie was now as “fit as the proverbial fiddle.”

Yet the bad karma continued. Manager Chick Stahl had committed suicide in the off-season, which can't have helped anyone's state of mind. Then in August, replacement manager Deacon McGuire suspended Charlie for unknown reasons. In early September, the Chicago White Sox bought his contract. But Charlie played in only a single game that year, getting no hits and managing to pull a walk.

Charlie's career petered out after this. He ended up owing the White Sox money and sank back into minor league and semi-pro ball. Yet in 1910, when his Portland, Oregon, team released him (Knowlin says, "He had only appeared in eight games, and was 2-for-11"), a reporter for the Los Angeles Times defended him: “Armbruster last year could not leave booze alone but McCredie told him he would give him another chance this season if Armbruster would behave himself. The catcher has kept his promise faithfully, and the fans believe he should not have been turned loose now." Why the fans wanted to keep him is a mystery. Maybe he was a nice guy.

After Portland, he seems to have never played baseball again. But he did live on, until the age of 84, when he died, on the day of my birth, from injuries “apparently inflicted when his .22-caliber rifle went off accidentally while he was cleaning it.” According to his death certificate, he had most recently worked as a commercial fisherman.

In sum: in my past life I was a Porkopolitan backstop who played terrible baseball, went fishing, had trouble staying in shape, drank too much, got lost "slumming" in New London, and forgot to take the ammunition out of my gun before cleaning it. Also, someone spelled my name wrong on my baseball card. A strangely compelling history, in its own hang-dog way.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

More Thoughts on Rejection and Mediation

When Nate Fisher first shared his thoughts about editorial rejection with me (a version of which I posted yesterday), I told him I thought the issue was both simpler and more problematic. But I also thought that his perception of the need for mediation was humane and idealistic. In a way, it reaches back toward dreams of a philosopher-king, in this case a literary decision maker who always, and always for the right reasons, places the long-term best interests of the stumbling, burgeoning poet at the heart of his rulings.

This idealism isn't misplaced, though its reality is rare, especially in the world of literary journals. In my own experience, such a connection is more likely to exist in one-to-one mentor-student relationships, in which students willingly concede a certain portion of their iconoclastic pride because they must trust that their chosen teacher will light them at least a few steps into the forest of thorns. But for the most part, journal editors don't have the luxury of such concentration. Every year an editor must read thousands upon thousands of submissions; and in order to accomplish that task she has to narrow her focus, conscript her time, scan rapidly, rely on first impressions, react swiftly to missteps or bagginess or punctuational tics or generalizations or repetitions, and so on and so on. Any sense of mediating between the writer's hopes and the magazine's requirements is subsumed in a torrent of what can become cynicism or desperation but is often simply weariness.

Beyond this conundrum, there's another question. Does the submitting writer want to think of the editor as a mediator? After reading Nate's post, a novelist friend sent me the following comment:
I guess I am old-fashioned enough to believe that pain is good. That rejection leads to self-examination. That even hatred (engendered by being turned down) forces one to see, however unpleasantly, just who and what one is. The aim is not pleasure. The aim is to produce something that exists, in the face of all that--despite glitz and ephemeral approval--does not. When I actually sell something, I don't feel I have pleased the editor. I feel I have rammed it down his throat or shoved it up his ass. It is a losing battle, with temporary, pyrrhic victories. That's what makes it interesting. That's what makes it a life. . . . I realize this is not the attitude you can bring to, say, the Frost Conference, but don't you think a complete denial of the dark side of the creative process risks great losses?
He's right; I know he's right, and moreover, I know, when Nate reads this, he'll agree. We're all three of us, even in the midst of our humanity, misanthropes and isolates. I haven't come across many serious writers who aren't--including Robert Frost, whose rude and cranky spirit is a constant reminder that both/and is where it's at. As writers, we can be humane while reveling in misanthropy, and don't imagine that we shy away from that truth at the teaching conference. As a matter of fact, we work hard to demonstrate that poetry isn't necessarily therapy or pleasure or fun--that engagement with a work of literature is crucial precisely because it takes us to that both/and place--where, say, hate and love or anger and joy can and must exist in tandem.

But getting to that place takes time. It also takes daring. Journal editors, in a perfect world, would have both, but in truth few of them do. What most have are deadlines and preconceptions that they often mistake for daring. There's not much room for mediation in that mix.

Should there be? I'm just not sure.

Monday, January 13, 2014

On Rejection and Mediation

A guest post by Nate Fisher

I can't and won't ever claim to have some enormous, groundbreaking outlook regarding rejection as I've only worked a short while in the world of editing and the literary journal, but I've come to a point in thought that addresses some of what Jeff Shotts says about the characteristics of "authority" in the language of rejection. As both writer and editor (pretty much synonymous anymore, right?), I refuse to claim an authority in the sense of pushing a writer's piece back across the table to him or her as if it's an offer that I'm declining. I believe instead that if one is to see writing as a shared tradition and lifelong apprenticeship like any other art, one has to revise the language of rejection to reflect a concept of mediation, as this term encompasses the entire procedure of contemplation, consideration, reconciliation, and decision that demonstrates a great deal more humanity and dimension than a binary of "accept/reject."

When I sit down as editor, a piece presented to me is, in itself, representative of the writer saying, "My work belongs here, and in this way." This state of lower immediacy that artist-laborers often finds themselves in is something like a tangle of spontaneous impulses and feelings that demand immediate gratification. While neither a good nor bad thing, this immediacy tends to be very short-lived. A reader who works to discover a longer lifeline (though one may not, in the end exist) is working to mediate. For example, in mediation of a piece, an editor might pose this question: if the author were to hold an eventual wake, funeral service, and burial of the work in question, could he or she deliver the eulogy, saying, in all honesty, "This poem/story was an individual"? Or would he or she have to admit, however painfully, "This poem/story was a particular"? Though I admit that this is a very general way to think of craft and that there must be, of course, a much more in-depth evaluation and reading of any work involved, I believe the approach re-purposes the potential negative energy of the rejection. Instead, it honors an inclusive artistic community that reinforces tradition rather than the politicized flocks of exclusivity that, raven-like, tear the life out of some journals.

 Though calling rejection by a different name doesn't eliminate all of the issues that a mediation might bring with it, I do think it presents the concept of "we can't accept your work" in a more productive and generative light. A well-managed, content-fantastic, and historically relevant literary journal gathers together a congregation of individual pieces of literature, high-quality work that can communicate across a shared tradition of readership. An editorial board that is searching relentlessly for content that provides this sense of higher immediacy won't settle for work that doesn't quite make a complete, unconditional commitment to craftsmanship. But what's the harm in thinking of the editor as a builder of bridges, one who establishes empathetic dialogue across the tradition, even if it ends in a “no way” type of rejection? What's the harm of trying to circumvent the writer's sense that he or she is submitting work to a crossing guard or a doorman? I mean, in mediation, at least the doormen take off their coats.

Nate Fisher is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Idaho. A teacher and a journalist, he has worked on the editorial boards of several literary journals, including Sou'wester and the Beloit Poetry Journal.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Letter to Will

Dawn Potter

He is chainsawing
And has decided
To love me
Again, I think.
Last night he
Ran his hands
Through my hair,
Down the nape,
Of my neck,
Kissed me between
The shoulder blades,
And so on.
But I lay
On my side
In another world.
It was like
Having the flu,
Or wearing 3-D
Glasses. I was
Tired, not knowing
What he meant
By kissing me.
Maybe tonight he’ll
Still be happy
Enough, almost talking
To me, eating
Sour apple tart,
Watching a French
Movie with his
Head in my
Lap. We stumble
On and on.

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

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Yes, there's another glorious weather event this morning. On today's menu--sleet, twenty-five degrees above zero, a long narrow driveway that's been Jackson-Pollocked with ice since last weekend, and an imminent high school track meet that has not yet been canceled. The weather guy announces that the sleet will shortly transform into rain. Will this make the driveway better? Will this make the driveway worse? Given the lessons of recent history, I vote for worse.

Question of the day: It seems that entomologists are cheering the Polar Vortex [insert cartoon representation here] because he [note anthropomorphic pronoun] will kill off many ticks and tree-infesters and the like. However, they assure us that the beneficial insects won't die off as well. Why are bad bugs easier to freeze out than good bugs are? Does the Polar Vortex [insert cartoon representation here] share humanity's blinkered moral code about insects (i.e., bad = annoys me, good = pretty and/or makes something I can use)? Does the idea that the Polar Vortex is out to squash bad bugs influence your image of him/her [note complications of anthropomorphic pronoun] in any way [insert updated cartoon representation here]?

Pardon my flippancy this morning. I've gotten kind of tired of arguing with my driveway and, no, I haven't gone outside yet and, yes, the woodbox is almost empty.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Here's the top view of the torte. I had no idea it would look so much like a Georgia O'Keeffe flower.

And now on to the casserole-roasted duck with baby turnips, the homemade potato chips, the roasted zucchini with rosemary and garlic, and the arugula and grapefruit salad. I'll let you know how they turn out.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Sorry about today's late post: I had to fly out of here for an appointment this morning, and the same thing will happen tomorrow, so expect even more lateness, and while you're at it you might also demand that I correct the inaccurate word fly, which should have been bump-slide-crawl-slide.

After a refreshing eight-below start to the morning, we're now basking in an eight-above heat wave, and I am parked beside the wood stove trying to pretend that I'm warm. The bread is rising at the speed of snails, and I'm afraid I'll never get it baked in time to start the first steps for Tom's tomorrow-birthday-cake. I'm hoping this cake will be an Austrian hazelnut torte but we'll see if I can manage all the complications. It's got about a million different steps, including caramelizing sugar, making a buttercream that contains three sticks of butter and a truckload of chocolate, and concocting a remarkably expensive orange-marmalade and Cointreau filling. Most daunting, it's structured with six thin cake layers that I'm supposed to bake on the bottom of turned-over cake pans. The more I think about this cake, the more I think I ought to have a backup plan. For instance, when it collapses in on itself, I could just call it North American slump.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Only minus-two today: a warm spell. The giant bluejays under the feeder are puffed up like partridges or pullets. In The Waves, Virginia Woolf writes, "Come, then, let us wander whirling to the gilt chairs. The body is stronger than I thought. I am dizzier than I supposed. I do not care for anything in this world. I do not care for anybody save this man whose name I do not know. Are we not acceptable, moon?" This passage does not seem to have any relevance to my life. But why should it? Rough ice, four inches thick, plasters my dooryard, and the moon is distant and blurred. "They touch their waistcoats, their pocket-handkerchiefs. They are very young. They are anxious to make a good impression. I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me." The washing machine bleeds gray soap into the earth. A clock ticks. "We go in and out of this hesitating music."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Such rage as winter's reigneth in my heart,
My life-blood freezing with unkindly cold;
Such stormy stours do breed my baleful smart,
As if my year were waste and woxen old.
        And yet, alas, but now my spring begun,
        And yet, alas, it is already done.
What a grumpy stanza that is. Edmund Spenser published his description of January in 1579, but I guarantee that the weather he was complaining about was not anywhere close to twenty-below-zero in England or Ireland or wherever he was at the moment. I will admit that his central heating was much worse than mine is. What could be more unpleasant than a dank 16th-century castle?

Nonetheless, winter is unquestionably kicking our collective ass this year. With that in mind I've changed this blog's opening photo to a June rainbow over Lafayette Mountain. This, believe it or not, is the view from Frost's front porch. I am exceedingly ready to see it again.

The application is up on the Frost Place website, and I also want to introduce our inaugural teaching fellow, Alyssa Kelly, who will be helping Teresa and me manage important stuff like coffee and conversation. Despite her youth, Alyssa has been a long-time participant in the conference, and we are thrilled to have her back in this new position.

Alyssa Kelly is a high school English teacher, poet, and singer-songwriter. She has ten years of overall teaching experience in grades 7-12 as well as at the college level. Her educational passion lies in poetry instruction, particularly among students who struggle to find success in a traditional language arts classroom. She has developed a year-long poetry curriculum aimed at engaging vocational high school students in the study and composition of verse. Her own poetry was recently published in Uncommon Core (Red Beard Press), a collection of contemporary poems meant for classroom use. A three-time attendee of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, she considers it to be “an ideal professional development community for teachers seeking practical resources, refreshing inspiration, and genuine support for the relevant integration of poetry in the classroom.” Alyssa teaches at Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls, Massachusetts.

Monday, January 6, 2014

I got up at 5:30 with the assumption that today would be another regular Monday but no: steady freezing rain, ice everywhere, school canceled. Maine just can't get a weather break these days, though things are working out nicely for the school kids.

But since I'm awake now, I have to find something to do, so I'm going to share a little comment from Baron, who read yesterday's review/essay on his novel: "For my part (and you know we are purblind about our creations), I agree with the musical analogy. I'm a poet. Bits and riffs of time make sense to me." This pleases me because I was beginning to feel I might have climbed out on a critical limb, inventing an after-market rationale for something that never existed in any corner of the creator's imagination. [In other words, I have edited way too many English professor dissertations. It seems that one can easily get a degree and even tenure simply by wasting hundreds of pages on thin, repetitive, {fill in academically stylish subject here}-based guesses fleshed out by means of jargon and wallowing passive voice sentences and footnoted with postmodern non sequiturs.]

Ugh. Does anyone want to come over and fill my woodbox for me?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Review of Baron Wormser's Novel "Teach Us That Peace"

I’ve read more than one complaint about the travesty of book reviews written by friends of the author. The friend overstates the good, glosses over the weaknesses, pretends to be impartial  . . . yes, yes, all of that can be true. Yet a friend may have at least one considerable advantage over a stranger: her acquaintance with the arc of a writer’s work can transcend simple familiarity with his published books. Friends who have lingered together on a porch at night, slapping mosquitoes and watching the bats flit, friends who have, year after year, listened to one another agonize over their endless, arduous voyages into their unexplored selves have a window into not only the making of art but the making of a life. These two tasks can be so entangled as to be nearly indistinguishable. But how could an impartial reader know this?
            Accept the previous paragraph as my apologia for venturing to write about Baron Wormser’s novel Teach Us That Peace. Baron has been my teacher, my mentor, my boss, my colleague, my friend. In essence he has been my father in poetry, and he has been exactly as loving and ruthless as a father should be—which is to say, there’s not much impartiality between us. Moreover, we share a bond in our essential subject matter. As Baron said to me one day when we were walking through his flower garden, “I like people.” By like he didn’t mean approve of. What he meant, I think, was a driving need to make humanity the centerpiece of his art. The two of us aren’t nature poets, though we care about plants and animals and live in attentive proximity to them. We’re not idea-driven poets, though we read many books and do a fair amount of thinking. Far more often, for both of us, it’s people—beautiful, hideous, eloquent, silent, real, imagined—who trigger our poems.
            I’ve always assumed that novelists mostly feel the same way about people. Thus, in theory, writing a novel instead all of those essays about novels might have seemed like my logical next step into the literary forest. But I can’t write novels; I just can’t. And this paucity makes me all the more aware of the complications that arise—structural, narrative, imagistic, thematic, dramatic—when a writer shifts from constructing a poem, even a long narrative poem, to constructing a novel. As I read Baron’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard he must have worked to make it.

At the very end of Teach Us That Peace, Arthur Mermelstein, a white teenager from Baltimore, arrives in Washington, D.C., to take part in that watershed event, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As he and his friend John Silverman walk down the street, an elderly woman accosts them:

She seemed not just old but very old, . . . her face an intricate web of wrinkles and creases, her light-brown skin almost translucent. She was small, too, no more than five feet. She was dressed in black.
            Arthur realized that what she had motioned with wasn’t an umbrella. It was a parasol, something he had read about but never seen.
            “You boys help me along today and I’ll buy you each a Coca-Cola.” She bent toward them. Arthur reached for her instinctively so that she wouldn’t topple over, but cat-quick she grabbed at his arm. “I’ve lived most of my life right here in Washington, District of Columbia, and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, ’cept I didn’t know I was waiting.”
            “Neither did I,” said Silverman. “Neither did I.”
            “I got a passel of stories,” the old woman said. She held on to Arthur’s arm.
            “That’s great,” Arthur said. “Tell us some.”

When I reached this final line of the novel, many of the shifting thoughts in my head began to fall into place. In so many ways this is a book about the stories that people tell one another. Whether they take epic or intimate form—that is, whether their historical, religious, racial, or gender issues can be generalized into moments of universal significance or noted as a single individual’s recognition of a private life—stories help us comprehend our world. But of course our comprehension isn’t always fair or accurate; and in the larger reckoning, human stories may have done more harm than good.
Baron is fully cognizant of storytelling’s long and ambiguous role in human self-definition. He also recognizes that stories not only include people against their will but also leave people out. As Arthur’s girlfriend Rebecca wistfully notes, “‘How many Jews have ever been in a church? We spend our lives walking around and seeing these buildings’—she motioned at the imposing mass on the other side of the street—‘and we never go in.’ She looked down at the sidewalk. ‘That’s what it is to be Jewish—to never go in certain places, to always be looking and watching but never to go in.’ Her voice trembled.”
Many of the characters in Teach Us That Peace are striving, in some fashion or another, to stop “looking and watching,” to open the door into a new life story. This is eminently true of both of the central characters, Arthur and his mother, Susan. Each is trying to devise a future that makes moral and emotional sense, to find a way to honor their own inner lives while never neglecting the larger stream of humanity. And as always in a work of literature, beyond these characters is the author, struggling to devise a form, a dramatic pattern, that will shift the burden of this tale from his shoulders to the reader’s.
A poet’s approach to such a task is necessarily different from a novelist’s. First, even the longest poem pales in comparison to a standard-sized novel. A novel requires a boatload of words, whereas a poem requires the exact words. This isn’t to say that a novel is inexact. Rather, its exactness does not necessarily arise from the perfection of its individual word choice. Often, or so it seems to me, a novel writer reaches toward exactness by choosing a precise structure or framework from which to hang that curtain of words. I daresay that fiction teachers have all sorts of words for this technique, but I’ve never taken a fiction class. All I can say, as a poet looking from the outside in, is that I think that Baron chose a musical framework for his novel, which to me is very interesting, given music’s close ties to poetry, this poet’s shift into prose fiction, music’s important thematic role in this novel, and Baron’s real-life attachment to jazz and blues—an affection not only for the sounds themselves but for the way in which they infiltrated and changed the everyday music of 1960s white kids.
I’ve played the violin since the age of six, and my connection to music has been fraught and strained, to say the least. One evening, as we were sitting together on the porch at the Frost Place, Baron asked me, “Do you even like music?” The shock was that I didn’t know how to answer him. Since then, I’ve thought about his question again and again. And as I’ve watched people, both musicians and listeners, I’ve come to recognize that in many ways a serious listener can be more devoted to the art than the performer is. Making music is physical, athletic, often team-based; it is like playing a sport versus watching a sport. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard great musicians claim that they “never really enjoyed practicing the piano.” Many rarely go to concerts or listen to recordings. For these people, music is the intensity of the performance itself. In other words, a listener and a musician are not the same kind of expert. A listener may not be able to physically create the sounds, but that doesn’t mean he can’t live inside them in an entirely different, perhaps more complex way.
Baron isn’t a musician, but he is a listener, as are his main characters; and what I see and hear in his novel is an attempt to replicate a musical structure that will transform the reader into a listener alongside them. The chapters alternate between titles—“Arthur,” “Susan,” “Arthur,” “Susan”—a replication, it seems to me, of the way in which musicians alternate in taking solo leads. Yet even though the focus changes, the point of view does not: the author remains in omniscient control. I find this intriguing because other novelists have taken a markedly different approach to what, on the surface, seems like a similar structure. In The Waves, for instance, Virginia Woolf also alternates her focus among her central characters. Yet even though she frames their perceptions as dialogue, she essentially shifts the novel’s point of view from first person to first person. The narrator of Teach Us That Peace firmly maintains his omniscience, and I wonder if this, too, is a musical notation of sorts. The narrator always seems to comprehend more about Arthur and Susan than they understand about themselves. In a way, they are improvising their solos within a boundary of preknowledge. But what else is a riff than a story that every lead player has to figure out how to tell again in her own way?
There’s much more to Baron’s novel than the little I’ve said about it. It delves into a past that is older than I am but one that other readers will recognize personally and idiosyncratically. It lives inside a physical place—the city of Baltimore—that I do not know at all. It casts a close eye on that troubled generation of women—what one might call the Plath-Rich-Sexton generation—who were trapped between soul-killing stasis and their own burning ambitions. Baron has much to say about religion, race, art, class, education. It would be pleasant to listen to other non-impartial readers unravel their own links to these stories. However, I will end with this scene, which not only touches on one of my own absorptions but is also, I think, emblematic of the way in which this novel presses us to connect the stories outside ourselves with those that we carry within us.

The policeman shone a flashlight in Arthur’s face. “Just out driving, son?” he asked.
            “Yeah,” Arthur answered. “Just out driving.”
            “Nice night for it,” the policeman observed. “You’ve got a dead left taillight. You know that?”
            “No, I didn’t, officer.”
            “Probably your parents’ car?” The policeman turned off the flashlight. “You give me your license and registration and I’m going to write up a report. It says that you need to get this fixed. If we pull you over again, you get a ticket. Sound fair.”
            “Sounds fair.”
            The ballpoint pen that the policeman wrote with was barely visible in his meaty hand. Patiently he scrawled the information. “Probably a good idea to head home now, since you have that light out. We want everyone to drive safe.”
            “Sounds like a good idea,” Arthur answered. Inside himself he exhaled.
            “You like baseball?” The policeman nodded toward the stadium.
            “I do.”
            “I was just thinking of Bob Boyd tonight. You remember him, a Negro guy, played first base?”
            Arthur looked at the policeman’s face. He must have had bad acne when he was Arthur’s age. His cheeks and nose were pitted.
            “The called him ‘The Rope’ on account of he hit so many line drives. When he got a fastball he liked, he’d rip it.” The policeman shook his head. His cap tipped a little to the side, as if it were a size too large for him.
            Arthur wondered how much the cap weighed. With its visor and badge affixed to the front, it seemed heavy.
            “Stick with the Orioles, kid. One of these years they’re going to do it.” He hitched up his belt but didn’t move. “Everything comes around sometime,” he said, then turned his back and strolled toward his car. He started whistling. It was one of those Irish rebellion tunes Arthur had learned in the folk music club—“Roddy McCorley.” Arthur began whistling himself. The policeman turned around, tipped his ungainly cap, and then got into his car. Arthur whistled even louder.
           As he drove through the vast, quiet city, his home of black and white, North and South, aching feelings and thoughtless answers, he sang to himself—aloud, not in his head—“Young Roddy McCorley goes to die.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Twenty-below this morning, which means thirty-below in the middle of town. The band's show at the East Sangerville Grange, scheduled for tonight, got canceled because the heating system can't hack the cold. This is a drag: we had such a good practice last night, and our friends were going to come hang around with us tonight, and they were going to eat cake and drink coffee, and Craig and I were going to sing a new song together, and now we're all disappointed.

Ah, well. Time to face the fact that my woodbox is almost empty. Time to dress like a toddler on a sled: double socks, heavy boots, snowpants, three coats, a thick scarf, an ugly hat, two pairs of gloves. That will barely get me through five minutes of fast outdoor work.

Somebody better make another pot of coffee while I'm gone.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Yesterday our high for the day was four-below. This morning it's dropped back down to ten-below and is snowing lightly. At least we missed the blizzard that's rampaging along the coast. All we have is a wind chill warning of minus-twenty-five.

Outside for fifteen minutes--lugging a sled loaded with firewood, emptying compost pails, feeding chickadees, checking the mailbox--I feel the exposed flesh of my cheeks begin to stiffen. Weather like this is a lesson in dying.

Lately my son has been singing a song by Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers. Called "Northwest Passage," it tells the story of Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 Arctic voyage. I think Paul's passion for this song is coincidental to the weather, but listening to him has reminded me of how romantic frozen death can seem. I have never felt at all drawn to equatorial exploration--to any Heart of Darkness version of romance. But I find such strange tragedy and allure in the tales of Franklin and Peary and Shackleton and their ilk. You'd think it would be otherwise, given my long sojourn in the Scandinavia of America.

The photograph below shows the present-day state of the Northwest Passage. What could be more beautiful? That emptiness: it is like dying, or at least like ridding oneself of the clutter of living. It is terrible also, far too terrible to understand. I look at this portrait from the comfort of a warm house, and my body cannot conceive of the cold . . . despite the fact that it is banked against my own back door. Only when I step outside does the cold become real, does grappling with cold, existing with cold, giving in to cold become the only truth.

Ah, how easy it is to romanticize cold. Like all great lovers, it is austere and dangerous, as it seduces.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

I'm so happy to introduce the faculty of this summer's Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and our Teachers As Writers workshop!

Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poems, Spit Back a Boy, won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, where he is the Cyrus H. Nathan ’30 Faculty Chair for English. In addition, Pollock is on the faculty of the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.

Meg Kearney (pronounced “car-nee”) is author of two novels-in-verse for teens: The Secret of Me (Persea, 2005) and its sequel, The Girl in the Mirror (Persea, 2012), named by Mom.Me as a great mother-daughter read. Her short story, “Chalk,” appears in Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories (Persea, 2011).Meg’s picture book, Trouper, was published by Scholastic in 2013 and features illustrations by E. B. Lewis. Her collections of poems for adults include An Unkindness of Ravens (BOA Editions, 2001) and Home By Now (Four Way Books, 2010), winner of the 2010 PEN New England L. L. Winship Award. Meg has taught poetry at The New School University, and is the director of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College in Massachusetts. Her poetry has been featured on Poetry Daily and Garrison Keillor’s “A Writer’s Almanac,” and has been published in myriad literary magazines and anthologies. A native New Yorker, Meg now lives in New Hampshire.

Teresa Carson is the associate publisher at CavanKerry Press and the assistant director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. She holds an MFA in poetry and an MFA in theater, both from Sarah Lawrence College. She has also published a full-length book of poetry, Elegy for the Floater (CavanKerry Press, 2008) and a chapbook of poems, The Congress of Human Oddities (VV-UC, 2012). Her latest full-length collection, My Crooked House, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press in May 2014.

Baron Wormser is the author/co-author of twelve full-length books and a poetry chapbook. His titles include The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid,Scattered Chapters: New and Selected Poems, The Poetry Life: Ten Stories, and the novel Give Us That Peace. His most recent book of poetry is Impenitent Notes (2011). A former poet laureate of Maine, he teaches in the Fairfield University MFA program and is director of educational outreach at The Frost Place. Wormser has received fellowships from Bread Loaf, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has worked for decades as a freelance teacher and has led dozens of workshops, including sessions in Maine, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Georgia, and Illinois under the auspices of organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Writing Project, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


I'm grateful for fifteen-below because that means Tom doesn't have to go to work today. I'm grateful that Ruckus allowed us to stay in bed till almost 7 a.m. and that the poodle didn't have an accident on her blanket. I'm grateful that the pipes are not frozen, that the power lines aren't down, that the phone company replaced our broken modem, and that the washing machine is mostly fixed. I'm grateful that no animals are shivering in my barn and that I remembered to buy birdseed yesterday. I'm grateful that the sun is shining on the snow and ice, that my older son is coming home today, that my younger son spent most of yesterday writing a song. I'm grateful for lasagna dinners that attract both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. I'm grateful for wooden snowshoes with brand-new bindings. I'm grateful for a woodshed full of mostly dry firewood and a roof that won't collapse under snow weight. I'm grateful for people who talk to me. I'm grateful for my violin and my laptop and pencils and scrap paper and shelves full of books and Christmas lights and hot tea and cheese and clementines and beer. I'm grateful that most of my houseplants didn't die in our cold house while we were away. I'm grateful to have a few scraps of paid work. I'm grateful to have met three guys who wanted me to play in their band. I'm grateful for walks up steep hills in an arctic wind and for the friend walking next to me. I'm grateful to the people who trust me enough to cry in front of me. I'm grateful for readers who care about my work while also showing me how to be a better writer. I'm grateful for teachers: my own, my sons', my colleagues, my friends. I'm grateful for my sister, who coaches me through crankiness and exasperation. I'm grateful for health and vigor and hair dye and a pair of new boots. I'm grateful for sadness and sympathy and patience and impatience and melancholy and perplexity and fate and reason and euphoria and despair and memory. Happy New Year.