Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I've spent much of the past two weeks climbing very steep mountains, hauling wheelbarrow loads of manure, spading up garden soil, and setting pea fence. And then yesterday afternoon I leaned over to pick up a laundry basket and immediately yanked a muscle in my back. How does that even happen? The end result is that I am hobbling around the house this morning like an Aged Pensioner, hoping that the ibuprofen will kick in and that I will manage to plant my peas before the rains arrive.

In the meantime, I've been gnashing my teeth over this Donald Sterling affair. Of course I am appalled by his racist remarks and of course I am glad that the NBA has banned him. But why are so few media outlets noting his equally appalling behavior to the women in his life? Why do people find public racism intolerable but overlook, again and again, situations in which powerful men publicly treat women like chattel? Why bother giving lip service to domestic violence prevention when our society tacitly accepts a man's right to tell a woman what to do, what to wear, and how to think?

Because this is what happens when men believe they have that right.

According to Our Sources

Dawn Potter

The man owned “maybe twenty, twenty-one
firearms” and had bought, “I don’t know,
seven or eight BB guns” for his ten-year-old.

That boy “was the apple of his eye, no question.”
The girl, “well, not so much.” Still, he was “a good feller,”
“a go-getter,” “he’d always been a doer not a thinker,”

he just needed “to relax now and again, nothing serious.”
“Some people can’t take a joke, you know what I mean?”
or else “things might of ended up different.”

It was “weird but also a little bit crazy funny, you know,”
when he sat in the La-Z-Boy and shot the ornaments
off the family Christmas tree, and, “oh, sure,

sometimes he did dumb stuff,” not like “pills or booze,”
more like “laughing too much when his daughter cried.”
It was “common knowledge” he kept a loaded pistol

holstered on his bedpost, and “he could be mouthy”
at “kind of the wrong moment”—for instance, that party
when he told his friends he’d be “dragging the wife home”

to give her a “hate fuck.” “A couple two, three times”
he threatened to use her dad as “knife practice.”
 And “what some heard” is, after he “kep a gun on em”

for an entire summer night, and she “broke down”
and called in the cops, “well, soon’s he seen the blue lights,”
he swiveled round to his son and told him “real calm,”

“Now your mother’s done it.” Which is to say
“most folks agreed the man had his angers,”
but “who’d a thought he’d turn out so dangerous?”

[first published in 5 AM, no. 37 (2013)]

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rhubarb thrusts thick knobs out of the cold stony earth.
Then the leaves, creased and damp and full of poison,
slowly unfold.

Ruckus enjoys a chipmunk hunt along the stone wall.
The neglected treehouse collapses into mossy dismay.

A forest throne awaits an absent sovereign.

Someday this will all be strawberries,
if they don't shrivel in a drought or rot in a flood.

The scylla flowers are smaller than a thumbnail.
Every year I accidentally step on one.
Then I sit on a rock and cry.

Chive birth ornaments chive death.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sky blunders into trees.
A fox, back-lit, slips across the road
and vanishes into an ice-clogged culvert.
Yesterday I turned over the soil in two large garden beds, mulched paths, and hauled ten or so wheelbarrow-loads of composted manure for the garden space I've decided to reclaim from grass. My hope is to fill at least two of the new beds with ever-bearing strawberries, if I can find a variety to suit my terrible climate. Lettuce is sprouting in the greenhouse, and tiny blue scylla flowers are scattered along the stone wall. Daffodils and white forsythia are budding. The green tips of chives and green onions and garlic and sorrel are pushing through last fall's mulch. In the forest, pileated woodpeckers are screaming their love, and the paths are treacherous with pools of snowmelt.
The town rises from its petty valley.
Crows, jeering, sail into the pines,
and the river tears at the dam.
Spring is why I love my forty acres of stones and snow. I lean on a mud-crusted shovel, breathing in the fragrance of thawing earth. A pair of jittering doves cuts a quick line through the wind. A brush of green tints the mole-damaged grass. Nothing around me is beautiful, but beauty is possible. There is a future. My friend Weslea, who spent our horrible winter undergoing cancer surgery, told me last week that she planted garlic in the fall with the assumption that she'd never see it. But now it is April, and she is alive and recovering, and her garlic is sprouting.
Everywhere, mud.
Last autumn's Marlboro packs,
faded and derelict, shimmer in the ditch.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

From this week's correspondence

It has been a week of miraculous letters.

One friend sent me a letter about stumbling across my first poetry collection, Boy Land, in the stacks at the Strand. He read it while sitting in the grass of Prospect Park and watching "a group of Orthodox Jewish men and boys . . . playing baseball."
So I read your book and while doing so felt alive, melancholy at times, very content at others. The boys and men in their yarmulkes ran after balls, and flubbed almost every single play. It was a miracle when one side finally got three outs. I suppose Brooklyn is my Harmony. You should not feel so far from the action, as it turns out to be everywhere. If you have a good book to read.
Another friend told me he had just finished Same Old Story and had the sudden thought that my poem "'Valentine’s Day' is the rural Maine version of Lou Reed’s 'I’m Waiting for the Man.'"

To add to the richness, I got letters about Same Old Story from each of my parents. My mother the poet, among many sweet and particular remarks about the book, mused, "Isn't it strange how the silly and the sad keep changing places in our emotional responses?" And my father, also lavish with kindness, ended his letter with "Got your peas in yet?"

I am so fortunate.

But, no, I haven't got my peas in yet. Not even close.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sorry for not writing to you yesterday; but even though I've ostensibly been home since Wednesday, I've hardly been in the house except to sleep. I'm not sure why schools seem to define spring break as "seven days when students can devote even more of their time to school activities," but so it is. We had to steal our own child away from his practice schedule in order to go on vacation with him during his vacation.

Tonight my band is playing at the East Sangerville Grange, so come by if you're so inclined. In other news: much of the snow has finally melted from my yard; and if it doesn't rain all weekend, maybe I'll get to dig up some garden soil. In the meantime, I'm slowly working my way through another set of interview questions, this time for the Haverford College alumni magazine. I don't know why such questions always seem so difficult to answer.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Dawn Potter

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

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Cadillac Mountain is the highest summit on the island. There are a number of trails to the top, as well as an auto road, but we took the west face trail--the shortest route but by far the steepest.

Most of the trail consists of boulder fields and steeply pitched granite faces. This would have been less scary if the ledges hadn't, in places, been slick with snow melt.

These photographs look like pleasant forest pictures; what you can't see is the sheer drop in front of us.

One ought to be fully dressed when hiking this trail. Yet Paul found a pair of very large pants hanging neatly over a tree branch. They smelled strongly of Tide laundry detergent. Paul made Tom pose with them and then we hung them up again for the next person. You never know who might need a pair of large clean pants.

Here's Paul on the summit, patiently waiting for Tom to photograph lichen.

And here's the mountain and the Atlantic on a cloudy spring day.

 But today it is raining and we go home.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This is the Beehive, site of one of the most difficult climbs in Acadia National Park. Although it is not particularly long, much of the way up is scrambling rather than hiking. The cliffs are sheer, the ledges are narrow, and hikers have to depend on iron bars and in one place a dreadful iron bridge that I refused to walk on so scooted across on my butt. I was, in two places, ready to give up and go back. I am athletic-enough as a hiker and climber: this was not a physical problem but a mental one. But Tom stayed behind me and coached me through everything that I thought I couldn't do. His voice was peaceable and confident. He didn't hold me up but at moments of terror he would lay a hand gently on my back. I never want to hike anywhere scary without him. He always gets me to the top and he is never, ever a jerk about my fear.

And when I did get to the top, this is what I saw. To the bottom left is Sand Beach, Acadia's only saltwater swimming area. It faces directly into the Atlantic, and the waves can be high. On the day we were there, the air temperature was about 50 degrees, the breeze was steady, and silly teenagers were wading around in the surf. Later on the hike my own silly teenager dunked his head into a pond. He said it was because he liked the smell of ponds. Then he ate a lot of shortbread cookies.

Here is a view of the Beehive from the other side, as we headed back down toward the beach. In the summer, when the birches are in leaf, it will be invisible from this angle.

Our friend Keith, who was hiking with us, then took us on a short walk down the road to Thunder Hole. In the summer Thunder Hole is surrounded by RVs and minivans and oblivious tourists who don't understand that the carefully delimited walkway and railing mean that their children should not climb over the side and run around on the ledge and throw rocks at Uncle Claud. During hurricanes and nor'easters, these same families are particularly eager to congregate around Thunder Hole. Since we've lived in Maine, at least two people, both children, have been washed away to their deaths here.

When the tide is right, Thunder Hole really does thunder. Yesterday it was more like Burping Gurgling Hole, which as far as I was concerned was just as enjoyable.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Acadia National Park, Ship Harbor, 50 degrees, windy, bright; Tom watching the tide begin to turn

Snails in a tide pool

The view from the window of our sweet little carriage house lodging

The kitchen area of the sweet little carriage house lodging

More ocean, because your eyes might be longing for more ocean

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Among the words I dislike, schoolmarm has got to be near the top of the list. The word reeks of insult. It is physically pejorative, conjuring up the image of a stupid, prissy, badly dressed, plain-faced martinet; it belittles both a vocation and a gender.

Of course, in the larger picture, schoolmarm is no worse than, say, fishwife, because, God knows, no one admires a woman who rolls up her sleeves, raises her voice, and carries heavy loads. Just as bad is the dreadful poetess, with her fluffy hair and weak mind and sentimental palaver.

By way of these three words, I could sketch a dreadful portrait of my life. It's a good thing that my pencil has an excellent eraser.

Friday, April 18, 2014

School vacation starts this weekend, and we'll be venturing out of mud-slogged Harmony to spend a few days by the sea. So if you don't hear from me for a few days, assume that I have no Internet connection or that I'm standing on the top of a cold mountain staring out into choppy Penobscot Bay or that I'm trying to cook Easter dinner in a microwave.

Probably I am one of the very few Americans who has never owned a microwave and doesn't know how to use one. To deal with this problem, I am pre-making Easter dinner today, and will let some other person at the party deal with the microwaving.

Here's the menu:

* Two square pans of pre-baked vegetable lasagna that will fit nicely into a teeny-tiny cottage refrigerator. If Tom is not too exhausted after work tonight, he will make the noodle dough. In the meantime, I'll make fresh sauce, mix the filling, prepare the vegetables (zucchini? spinach? mushrooms?), and then we'll stay up late and listen to baseball and drink coffee and put it all together.

* Sourdough baguettes. Presently my kitchen counter is covered with bowls of proofing dough, and already I am wondering how I will possibly manage to get everything baked.

* Baby lettuce salad, unfortunately store-bought because my garden is nothing but snow and snow and snow.

* Chocolate-orange mousse, easy to whip up, easy to transport, easy to fit into a teeny-tiny cottage refrigerator. What I'd really like is lime meringue pie, but that's not practical as road food.

* A double batch of shortbread cookies. Too many cookies is always the right amount when one is hiking with a 16-year-old boy.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

CavanKerry Press will be releasing a pair of study guides--one for high school students and teachers, one for book groups--to accompany my poetry collection Same Old Story. I am not writing either guide, so I will be as surprised as you are to discover what's worth studying in my book. However, the managing editor did ask me yesterday if I had anything to share about general themes; and after some thought, this is what I said:
(1) storytelling as retelling: e.g., the prologue and epilogue poems retell episodes from a Greek myth as retold by a Roman poet; "The White Bear" retells a Scandinavian myth; "Mrs. Dickinson" retells a comment by Emily D. from the point of view of her mother. Art goes backward as it goes forward: it dips into the past and reshapes or repositions it. 
(2) form as storytelling: e.g., the sonnets sprinkled throughout the book arose deliberately from two actions: (a) I copied out all of Shakespeare's sonnets word for word over the course of a month; and (b) I kept a diary for a month in which all my entries had to be Shakespearean sonnets: that is, I had to write about whatever daily issue struck me within the boundaries of this form. So I had to learn what sorts of stories sonnets were best at telling.
Here's a sonnet from the collection that I think speaks to both of those impulses.

Shouting at Shakespeare

Dawn Potter

How can you make such outrageous modest claims—
“I think good thoughts whilst other write good words”?
Why invite pity from the copyist mouthing your refrains
Like an accurate parrot? Why burden me with this absurd
Maudlin plea? The problem, big Will, is that no one
Can possibly trust your coy ignorance—these self-slamming asides,
These parenthetical sighs. You toss me a melancholy bone,
A morsel to sustain me as I dutifully admire your rhymes
And indiscretions. It’s too much like dealing with the man
Who broods so charmingly on why he’ll always love
My husband. I clutch the phone to my ear and fan
A panicked SOS into the resigned aether. Enough.
I’ve grown used to the common pain
Of being less. But don’t you complain.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

After a day of drenching rain, I woke this morning to a yard that is now a snow-frosted marsh dotted with ice mountains. The crocuses have vanished; schools are delayed because of impassible roads. Still, there are compensating reasons for living here. Comedy is one of them.

Yesterday, for instance, as I sat at the gas station waiting for the guys to ream the mud out of the axles of my car, I listened to the owner and his friend muse about the weather.
Owner: Will it be like the flood of '87 tomorrow? 
Friend: Mmm. I remember getting that call from Earle, his wife was stuck there at the farmhouse where the stream had flooded, could I get her out? he wanted to know. 
Owner: Mmm? 
Friend: You know [pause]. She's a big woman [pause]. Hard to carry through that lake. 
Owner: Mmm. 
Friend: [pause]. And then I shut her foot in the car door.

That friend wandered off, and another friend wandered in.

Other Friend: I'm off to Wal-Mart. Need anything? 
Owner: I can't think of anything. 
Other Friend: I'm gonna buy a new belt. 
Owner: [looks closely at Other Friend's belt]. You can't get another five years out of that one?

Later in the day, on my way north to pick up my son at school, I stopped to run a few errands. First, I went to the feed store to buy some new work gloves. While Clerk 1 was ringing up my purchase, Clerk 2 bustled over and started bossing him around.
Clerk 2: Time for you to go do [something unexplained in another part of the store]. 
Clerk 1: It's been a long time since I done that. 
Clerk 2: It ain't hard, go on and do it. 
Clerk 1: But first I'm gonna go outside for a minute. 
Clerk 2: Take a phone with you. Which phone you gonna take? 
Clerk 1: I'll bring number 6. 
Clerk 2: [darkly]. Ah. You're taking The Aggravator.
After buying my gloves, I walked next door to the grocery store. There, in front of the entrance, was the woman who grooms my dog. She was just standing there, going nowhere, holding the leash of a young springer spaniel.
Me: Hi, Sue! What are you doing? 
Sue: I'm teaching him to meet people! 
Young Springer Spaniel: [bounce, leap, bounce, leap, bounce, leap, bounce, leap].
I'd like to say that this was the same day I saw the Amish family purchasing (1) a package of lunch meat, (2) a box of factory-farmed eggs, and (3) a jumbo-sized bag of Cheerios, but that was last week.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prose Sentences versus Poetic Sentences: Looking at Whitman

[The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Deerbook Editions, summer 2014).]

When we think about sentences, most of us tend to think about prose. What’s the difference between a sentence in prose and a sentence in poetry? As a way to begin thinking about this question, let’s look at some samples from Walt Whitman’s writing. First, here’s a prose extract from his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:

Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight? The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world. A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments and books of the earth and all reasoning. What is marvelous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague? after you have once just opened the space of a peachpit and given audience to far and near and to the sunset and had all things enter with electric swiftness softly and duly without confusion or jostling or jam.

            On the surface, the language in this excerpt is almost stereotypically poetic. Whitman’s word choice is varied and memorable; the sentences float smoothly off the tongue; he uses rhetorical devices such as the repetition of questions to intensify the musicality of the passage. So let’s try breaking the sentences into the long, dense lines typical of a Whitman poem. What has changed in your reaction to this passage now that I’ve transformed it from a block of prose into a series of sentences in lines?

Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight?
The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof
     but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world.
A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments
     and books of the earth and all reasoning.
What is marvelous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague?
     after you have once just opened the space of a peachpit and given audience
     to far and near and to the sunset and had all things enter with electric
     swiftness softly and duly without confusion or jostling or jam.

While you’re still thinking about the previous sentence experiment, let’s look at a passage from an actual Whitman poem and start drawing some comparisons. Here’s the opening of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious
     you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home,
     are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me,
     and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

One difference that I’m noticing is the place in which the repetitions tend to appear in the sentences. In the prose excerpt, Whitman repeats “what is?” to begin a series of internal mini-sentences: “What is marvelous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague?” In the poetry excerpt, his repetitions appear at the ends of sentences. “I see you face to face!” is followed by “I see you also face to face.” “How curious you are to me!” is followed by “are more curious to me than you suppose,” which is followed by “more in meditations, than you might suppose.” Notably, those sentence endings are not exact matches but variations on a phrase. The initial phrase is always the most concise, whereas the repetitions add or replace words and substitute new punctuation marks.
There are other differences as well. The sentences in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” are shorter and airier than most of the sentences in the prose extract. I never think of Whitman as a poet who writes in compact sentences, but his prose seems to be much denser than his poetry. Yet the opening question of that prose extract is so evocative! What would have happened if he had used that sentence to open a poem? 

Monday, April 14, 2014

We still have plenty of snow, but the driveway ice has melted, and bare ground is expanding outward from the warm roots of trees.

The crocuses have taken immediate advantage of the situation: they've sprouted and budded within the space of 24 damp hours.

This weekend I started rereading Jane Eyre for the thousandth time. Perhaps you recall the very beginning of the novel, when Charlotte Bronte describes the child Jane's reaction to pictures "of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland. . . . Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking."

You might assume that those words drew me because of their wintry imagery, but no: what I thought about immediately was Nabokov and his novel Pale Fire, for which he created Zembla, "a distant northern land." Not surprisingly, Nabokov's Zembla feels distinctly Eastern European, but Bronte's Nova Zembla is a real place in arctic Canada; and now I am wondering how Nabokov's process of invention worked. Did he deliberately scan maps in search of an eloquent name? Did he come across the name by accident? Did he read Jane Eyre?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A really good day yesterday. I spent a chunk of it participating in a lively and interesting panel on poetry and education, and then I got to hang out with a handful of Maine teacher- and poet-friends whom I like a whole lot. Then I drove home through the sunshine and the wind, and then Tom and I drove north to our son's high school for the International Students Dinner and accompanying high school rock show.

Basically this was a day that reminded me of why I love teenagers so much. I spent the morning with teachers who are devoted to them, and then I stood around in a sloppy school gym spooning up tepid miso soup and listening to kids perform covers of Guns and Roses hits, and everyone was so happy! All the performers' friends danced and swayed and cheered and climbed on each others shoulders and waved their phones in the air. The singers bounced here and there, imitating rock-star posturing with 15-year-old insouciance and joy. My son, beaming, was sharp and accurate and dramatic in his debut as a drummer. He even snapped a drumstick in the middle of a song, which for some reason thrilled him to no end. ("Mom! I'm keeping this broken stick forever!") The sound system was a terrible muffled mess. Tom and I laughed and laughed and cheered and cheered. We had the best time watching all this goofiness, and so did the teachers and the janitors and the lunch ladies and the other parents. What a lovely, silly evening.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

From this week's correspondence:

One friend sent me a note about the first day of spring in central Maine:
I had an ice cream cone in Newport before coming home.
Everyone was out. The weary old interstate stop felt like a festival.
The young guys with loud mufflers and sunglasses smoking cigarettes
with their arms hanging out the windows. The dirty snow, the pot holes,
all of it beautiful in the light of spring.
We survived . . . again.
Another friend sent me this quotation in response to Fulke Greville's poem about Sir Philip Sidney, which I posted earlier this week. (Zutphen is the battle where Sidney was killed.)
You might say that Greville was a Sidneuis Dimidiatus, or half-Sydney. That half, living on through the long years after Zutphen by itself, would easily become the Greville of the Treaties, the man who said, "I know the world and believe in God." But the commonplace words are in his mouth terrible: for they primarily mean the perpetual consciousness of an absolute gulf between the two, the incurable "oddes between the earth and skie."

        --C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
A third friend sent me this note about my poem "Last Game" (in How the Crimes Happened).
I think I'm going to read it to my class to show them what parenting can feel like. They're 14, so they won't get it, but we're in the middle of reading Frankenstein, and the creature is just at the point where he's asking Victor to act even the slightest bit like a father (let alone like a god, whom he perhaps resembles a bit more closely . . . but that's my cynical side speaking). And 14 though they are, I'm sure that they won't be able to escape noticing the gap between the Harmony parents' instinct to "circle the wagons" and Victor's urge to flee. Thanks for that poem, and for your news from the north posts, and all that.
"The young guys with loud mufflers and sunglasses smoking cigarettes / with their arms hanging out the windows." "The incurable 'oddes between the earth and skie.'" The creature and Victor. "They're 14, so they won't get it." Such a glorious elegy in this richness--so many characters, readers, celebrants, and mourners: and all from two short emails and a quick Facebook message.

Yesterday evening, after dinner, I sat on the couch with the New York Review of Books and read Leo Carey's review of The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, the grandmother of Edmund de Waal, who wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes, "a best-selling history of his Jewish banking family, and of the art they collected and lost to the Nazis." Like her grandson, Elisabeth was also a writer, a novelist with two books that were never published during her lifetime. One of them, The Exiles Return, has now been released; and while Carey writes sensitively about it, he concludes, regretfully, that it is severely flawed, not merely through "technical incompetence" but because of "a deeper confusion": for instance, among other struggles, she "cannot decide which viewpoint to inhabit."

I have not read the actual novel, only its review, so I have no way of knowing whether or not Carey's conclusions are accurate. But he does quote de Waal's own heartrending words about her failure as a writer:
I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published. . . . But I think I write in a rarefied atmosphere. I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves.
I cannot decide whether her words are arrogant or blind or clear-eyed or humble. But no matter how I read the statement, they are extraordinarily sad. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

I spent much of yesterday working on Frost Place business: writing letters to faculty, letters to teacher-consultants. We are doing very well with applications so far (roughly twice as many as we had last year at this time), and the office hasn't even begun its full-fledged marketing push. So I am very pleased and excited.

Some of you international readers have spoken to me in the past about whether or not you should apply, and I want to encourage you again: yes, please do join us. I daresay most American teachers know almost nothing about the place of poetry in other national education systems, let alone humans' everyday relationship with it around the globe. We already have one non-U.S. applicant, and the presence of more of you would be an enormous gift to all of the faculty and participants. So if you want to speak to me privately about the logistics of applying, email me at ironduke at tdstelme dot net.

When you go to the Frost Place website, you'll note that the sidebar now includes a poll on "teachable Frost poems." This was the brain child of one of our teacher-consultants, who hopes it will be a way to draw more teachers into the conversation. If you're so inclined, take part in the poll and/or share it with your colleagues.

And by the way, remember that our participants aren't simply K-12 teachers. Some are, yes. Others teach at the community-college or university level; others are teachers-in-training. But many participants aren't teachers in any traditional sense. They work in government offices or in social-service settings. Some are volunteers. Some are simply individuals who love poetry, or worry about poetry, or wonder why it matters. The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching is the only major teaching conference in the United States that welcomes such a broad array of applicants, and we've been thriving with this approach for more than a decade. So please consider joining us. And if you are looking for references or reviews of the program, I would be happy to put you in touch with previous participants. Just let me know.

Tomorrow I'll be participating in a panel discussion on poetry and education, a feature of this year's Plunkett Poetry Festival at the University of Maine at Augusta. In March, I spent two days at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, a visit sponsored by the festival, and I'll probably be answering a few questions about that visit as well as more general questions about the topic. Though I won't be reading any of my own work, I will bring along copies of Same Old Story and A Poet's Sourcebook in case you're interested in acquiring either one. If you want one of the older books, just let me know before tomorrow morning.

In other news: believe it or not, I saw a robin in my yard.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What is a friend? This is what I've been asking myself this morning. It's a silly question, on one level; an impossible one, on another. There are people I call friends and people who call me a friend. Sometimes these roles overlap, but sometimes they do not. There are self-proclaimed friends who flatter and coddle me, and self-proclaimed friends who enjoy pointing out my failings. Sometimes these friends overlap, but sometimes they do not. There are friends with whom I maintain a distant, almost ascetic collegiality; and there are friends who say, "I love you!" every time we speak, whether in person or on the phone or by note. There are friends who say we are friends but who behave like enemies, and there are friends who say we are strangers but behave like lovers. There are friends who used to be lovers, and friends who used to be the lovers of those lovers, and friends who betrayed me and friends whom I betrayed. There are friends who hate the word lovers. There are friends who are Friends, which is to say Quakers, and there are Friends who are me, who was raised as a Friend. There are Facebook friends, a kettle of fish that you can stir yourself. There are friends who are relations, and there are relations who are friends, and there are relations who are not friends and there are friends who are not relations, and sometimes these links involve blood ties and sometimes they do not. There are friends who bring out the worst in me, and friends who bring out the best, and there are friends who are dead but speak to me in dreams. There are friends who make me jealous because I worry that they love other friends better than they love me. There are friends who want more love from me than I can give them. There are friends who used to be friends but have now forgotten me, or given me up as a bad job, or disappeared into their own crowded histories. There are friends who never answer letters and friends who answer every letter and friends who only telephone me when they're blind drunk. There are friends who hate poetry and love music or hate music and love dogs or hate dogs and love cooking or only contact me when the Red Sox are winning and/or losing. There are friends who love me because they can cry in front of me, and friends who offer to do my clothes shopping, and friends who want to hike up a mountain with me and talk about the bands of our youth, and friends who disagree with every single thing I say, and friends who try to make me read books I don't want to read. There are friends who embarrass me in public and friends whom I embarrass in public. There are friends who don't know they are my friends, and friends that are tree frogs or lilies, and friends that are the sound of Bach over a crackling car radio, and friends that are a high gale in the white pines.

Elegy for Philip Sidney

Fulke Greville

Silence augmenteth grief, writing increaseth rage,
Staled are my thoughts, which loved and lost the wonder of our age;
Yet quickened now with fire, though dead with frost ere now,
Enraged I write I know not what; dead, quick, I know not how.

Hard-hearted minds relent and rigor's tears abound,
And envy strangely rues his end, in whom no fault was found.
Knowledge her light hath lost, valor hath slain her knight,
Sidney is dead, dead is my friend, dead is the world's delight.

Place, pensive, wails his fall whose presence was her pride;
Time crieth out, My ebb is come; his life was my spring tide.
Fame mourns in that she lost the ground of her reports;
Each living wight laments his lack, and all in sundry sorts.

He was (woe worth that word!) to each well-thinking mind
A spotless friend, a matchless man, whose virtue ever shined;
Declaring in his thoughts, his life, and that he writ,
Highest conceits, longest foresights, and deepest works of wit.

He, only like himself, was second unto none,
Whose death (though life) we rue, and wrong, and all in vain do moan;
Their loss, not him, wail they that fill the world with cries,
Death slew not him, but he made death his ladder to the skies.

Now sink of sorrow I who live—the more the wrong!
Who wishing death, whom death denies, whose thread is all too long;
Who tied to wretched life, who looks for no relief,
Must spend my ever dying days in never ending grief.

Farewell to you, my hopes, my wonted waking dreams,
Farewell, sometimes enjoyëd joy, eclipsëd are thy beams.
Farewell, self-pleasing thoughts which quietness brings forth,
And farewell, friendship's sacred league, uniting minds of worth.

And farewell, merry heart, the gift of guiltless minds,
And all sports which for life's restore variety assigns;
Let all that sweet is, void; in me no mirth may dwell:
Philip, the cause of all this woe, my life's content, farewell!

Now rhyme, the son of rage, which art no kin to skill,
And endless grief, which deads my life, yet knows not how to kill,
Go, seek that hapless tomb, which if ye hap to find
Salute the stones that keep the limbs that held so good a mind.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I have learned that I was on the short list for a major teaching position: an endowed "chair in contemporary American letters." Don't get excited about congratulating me because I wasn't a finalist. Still, it felt good to make the short list--to know that there really are a few places out there that don't judge a candidate by her degree. This search committee took my application seriously, even though I don't have a single graduate credit to my name. I don't need to tell you how rare that attitude is in the academic world. So even though I wasn't offered this position, I am feeling revitalized. Spring is coming, even to snow-besieged Maine. A university English department took me seriously as a professional. The cover of Same Old Story makes me happy. I'm might have figured out how to salvage the awful poem I've been trying to write.

However, I still can't get the car out of the driveway.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I was wrong about getting my car out of the driveway yesterday. And today the rain is pouring, pouring down, which could be good news (dissolving ice) or bad (deep mud and floods). Standing at my desk in the little eyrie where I write, I hear the rain beating on the porch roof below the windows, the snowmelt dripping from the eaves. Every step toward spring is a conversation. Paul describes the mugginess of the air as he drinks his breakfast tea. Tom and I call each other to the doorway to admire the shrinking snow cap on the henhouse roof, the patch of bare ground over the septic tank.

In "The Chain," Hayden Carruth writes to his wife: "I am a poet and you are too and so are all people / except the monsters of this world / out there planting / mines in the mud and snow." These lines are as terrible as they are loving, but today I raise my standard over the loving; for the conversation--the brief words shared; eyes, sympathetic, observant; laughter at the cat's foolishness; a head in a lap. This is the poetry of family. And though a family inevitably contains much dross and tedium and despair, after such a terrible winter I feel as if the three of us today are balancing our spring songs as a highwire artist might balance a pole before she neatly, swiftly, walks over the chasm.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Today might be the day I try to get my car out of the driveway. I haven't been able to move it since March 28; but Tom and Paul spent much of yesterday afternoon beating at the ice pack with shovels and iron bars, so maybe the car will finally have a chance to escape. Driving to the gig on Friday, I saw a single hungry robin fly across the road. Here in my own yard the juncos and the purple finches have returned. The snow pack is still deep, but sun warms the glassed-in porch so that I've been able to dry laundry out there. The air is beginning to soften. I let the fire in the stove die down in the afternoons, and the poodle tracks fresh mud onto floors I've just swept. When I stand on the stoop and gaze out over the snow, the weary bare branches, the rutted tracks, my skin senses what my eyes cannot see: that winter's siege has finally broken.

Elizabeth Bowen writes:
No moment in human experience approaches in its intensity this experience of the solitary earth's. The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with conventional gaiety. But her first unavowed presence is disconcerting; silences fall in company--the wish to be either alone or with a lover is avowed by some look or some spontaneous movement--the window being thrown open, the glance away up the street. In cities the traffic lightens and quickens; even buildings take such feeling of depth that the streets might be rides cut through a wood. What is happening is only acknowledged by strangers, by looks, or between lovers. Unwritten poetry twists the hearts of people in their thirties. To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but dream.
Bowen writes with an urban eye, an urban romanticism. But even here, so far from her London parks and streets, I feel what she means. Nonetheless, spring in Maine is a difficult birth. When my son called home from college last night, he asked if we would still have snow in June. I hope not, but we might.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A man must live. Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people's lives--or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours. Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do. It is the emotion to which we remain faithful, after all: we are taught to recover it in some other place.

--Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

Notes from a Traffic Jam

Dawn Potter

Roadmaster truck creaking up from its netherworld,
swaying past the fizzing lights of a diner,
then sliding like a boxy snake into the unremembered night—

Window glimpse of optimists on a couch,
bending forward in eager profile to toast Fortune
with a pair of giant paper cups—

Oh, sometimes I fear I’ve lost the will to imagine
this comedy, this ugly beauty, this moving-picture world.
On and on it runs, trundling out the bumpkin tale of our species

yet wanting nothing from me: neither eye nor heart,
nor sneer, nor timid idle word. I bide my time in this car
like a beetle trapped on a floating weed, biting my nails,

squinting into the disembodied glare of your lanterns,
but you, you, you are a million dream-years away—
You, closing your India-print curtains against the dark;

you, shifting your haunches, humming your tune.
When I remember to hate myself,
I hate myself for not loving you enough—

you, who never lay a thought upon me.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A four-hour, late-night gig at a crowded, noisy bar, followed by two hours of snow and slush and unplowed roads and slipping tires and 3 o'clock in the morning and AM talk radio.
Radio host [with immense gravity]: Well, as director of the Extraterrestrial Research Institute, you have a special interest in why rock-and-rollers seem to have such an unusual attraction to UFOs.
Radio guest [equally grave]: Yes. Yes, I do. 
Radio host: I'm curious, of course. Do you have any theories as to why this might be? 
Radio guest: Yes. Yes, I do. [pause] And what my research tells me is [pause] rock-and-roll stars are on the road all the time. So they see more. 
Radio host [respectfully awed]: Mmm, yes, mmm.
Punchy driver and passenger collapse in hysterical laughter. Fortunately van does not go off the road. [P.S. We did not see any UFOs, but that might have been because of the heavy snowfall.]

Friday, April 4, 2014

My band is playing tonight at Paddy Murphy's in downtown Bangor, 9 to closing, which means I will be up all night on purpose for the first time in decades. I hope I survive because I'm not all that good at being up all night. If, by any chance, you live near Bangor, and you plan to swing by to watch me swill pails of black coffee between sets, and you also have an interest in acquiring Same Old Story, send me a note this morning. I'll already be bringing along a copy for one friend, so I might as well bring along copies for two friends.

By the way, the Bryant Park Word for Word reading series has fixed its website calendar. The CavanKerry Press feature is now correctly scheduled for June 12 at 12:45 p.m., and I'll be reading with press authors Teresa Carson and January O'Neil. Teresa is CavanKerry's associate publisher as well as associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, January is a professor at Salem State College and executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and I am a person who suspects that summer in the city is a mirage.

For now I am off to haul firewood and bake bread and hang laundry on the porch lines and sweep dried mud off the kitchen floor, and it is so hard to imagine a world where none of this exists. Can there really be a place where people cram themselves into already crammed subways and jostle one another on dry pavement and wear nice shoes that have no mudstains on them and look at Rembrandts and ancient Japanese armor whenever they feel like it and stay up all night at bars without having to drive an hour there and back while worrying about hitting a moose or skidding on sleet or destroying the car's suspension on a frost heave?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

In her novel The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen writes:
"Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little--even if one did once know what one meant. . . . There are ways and ways of trumping a thing up: one gets more discriminating, not necessarily more honest. . . . 
"Style is the thing that's always a bit phony, and at the same time you cannot write without style."
As an extract, this passage looks as if it might be genuine and thoughtful commentary on writing, yet in the context of the novel Bowen places the remarks in the mouth of one of her more dislikable characters: a cold fish named St. Quentin Miller, who is a very successful novelist but also a shallow cosmopolitan aesthete who would do anything to avoid opening his inner self to another human being. His opposite is Bowen's principal character, a 16-year-old innocent named Portia Quayne, whose vulnerability, ignorance, and acuity embarrass and disturb nearly every adult in the novel, eventually pushing them into betrayal and moral disfigurement.

Portia is an immensely sympathetic character, witness to the corruption and weakness of the so-called civilized society around her. St. Quentin, on the other hand, is a gossip and a fake. Yet like him, Bowen is a novelist who is preternaturally concerned with style. Her prose, in certain of her works, is so mannered as to "look like affectation" (in the words of critic Hermione Lee). So it's possible that St. Quentin's comments about style are, to some extent, Bowen's own self-examination--a portrait of what she sees, or fears to see, in herself.

For the comments are not wrong. "To write is always to rave a little." This is what my sons mean when they complain, "Mom, you exaggerate everything." This is what my husband means when he complains about the way I "self-mythologize" in my writing. "Style is the thing that's always a bit phony, and at the same time you cannot write without style."

The great writers always do more. They are terribly, excruciatingly vulnerable--they never lose what Portia has: a tragic naivete about the world. Their emotions are always raw; they are forever adolescent in their intensities. But that's not enough for a great writer; that's not close to being enough. They have to write, and they have to work with the truth that "nothing arrives on paper as it started." To write is to deaden the original impetus for writing, but at the same time the act allows the writer to begin to fashion replications and variations of that original impetus, which have the potential to become intensities in their own right. "There are ways and ways of trumping a thing up." Dickinson was skilled at such trumping up. So was Whitman. So was Shakespeare. At the same time they balanced the equivalent truth, that "one gets more discriminating, not necessarily more honest." This is one explanation for why writing becomes progressively more difficult as one get better at writing.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Yesterday, on my way outside to hack at some slush, I discovered three boxes sitting on my stoop. No UPS van had attempted to forge up the driveway, and I don't see how the driver could have maneuvered a hand truck through the mess either, so she must have staggered all the way up through the morass under the weight of three boxes of books.

Thank you, driver, for your Pony Express grit, because the boxes contained 75 copies of Same Old Story, which means that any of you who have ordered the collection should shortly receive your copies as well.

If you haven't ordered a book yet and/or are interested in getting a signed copy, please let me know, and I will mail you one. The charge would be list price, $16, plus postage; my email is ironduke at tdstelme dot net. As I've mentioned before, if you would like a PDF or a review galley, please contact I always feel squeamish about asking, but any kind of mention, even a little capsule Amazon notice, would be so helpful . . . though of course if you hate the book you should say so too.

I'll be reading from the collection in New York City on June 12 (though the Bryant Park website incorrectly lists the date as June 19). If you have ideas about other reading venues, as well as workshops, classroom visits, interviews, etc., just let me know. However, don't suggest anything for this week because I still can't get my car out of the driveway.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Yesterday I managed to get a  4-wheel-drive truck stuck in the 8 inches of mud/slush that is our driveway. My response was to burst into tears and sit there weeping until Tom came outside and rescued me. This is, no doubt, why Gustave LeBon felt justified in saying that women "excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason" because Tom managed to extricate the truck from the mud hole without much trouble. And I knew, as I sat there wailing, that I could do it too, if only I could stop crying, set my jaw, straighten out the steering wheel, put the transmission in reverse, and gun the engine enough to get the back tires over the slush bank. But I allowed myself to collapse into frustration and dismay, and thus became the woman that smug LeBon knew I was hiding behind my two gorilla heads.

Let's hope that April will be better than March because I don't want to give that man another chance to be smug.