Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Introvert's Lament

Next week I'm flying to Minneapolis for the AWP conference, where I'll mostly be staffing the CavanKerry Press table at the book fair. This will be my second AWP experience, and the first time I only spent a single day at what my friend Baron describes as Writer Circus. I was overwhelmed by the circus then; and now, as my departure date approaches, my sense of dread is increasing. It will all be fine: I will see people I like, I will find amusing things to watch, I will learn about new books and the human condition, and I will hear literature in the air. But I will still feel like a freak, and a week before departure I am already wasting way too much time fretting about what to wear--a sure sign of nerves. At least I will have a job to do when I'm there. I am proud of CavanKerry and its books, and I'm pleased that the publishers trusted me to promote them. It's good for me to join the circus, now and again. Anyway, that's what I'll keep telling myself.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Daily Courier (1918)

Dawn Potter

Influenza resulted in the loss
of Raymond A., 18 years, residing
in Dunbar until this morning.
Also Miss Grace B. age 15, of Liberty,
died early Thursday, as did David C.,
age 1 year, of North Union Township.
Mary D., small daughter, will be
interred in the Greek Cemetery.
Miss Ora E., spinster, died at her home;
likewise Mrs. Ada F., her husband
being located there with a sawmill.
Dr. Tobias G., Worshipful Master
of King Solomon’s Lodge No. 346,
now sings with the angels. On Tuesday
patient H. smiled before expiring.
Tax collector Lewis I. has lost his infant boy, J.
David K., president of Pioneer Gas,
rose to be with His Lord.
Cecil L., 13 years old, died after a brief illness.
Joseph M., miner (age unknown), collapsed.
Felix N., bachelor, age 35, perished
at the emergency hospital. The funeral
of Mrs. Catherine O. is open to all friends
tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock.
Mrs. Anna P., a young bride, has left us.
William Q., 15 years old, of So. Connellsville,
died peacefully last night. His father, John Q.,
died two weeks ago of the same malady.
Mrs. Marguerita R., 26 years of age,
is now among the elect,
though one of her sons survives.
Robert S., a well-known farmer,
crossed over this morning, as did Eli T.,
who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg
and was a pit boss. Mrs. Mary U.,
age 18, relapsed after a brief recovery.
Mrs. Nancy V., age 80, had a long life
cut short. Melvin W., infant,
slumbers in the loving arms of Jesus.
Frank X., 52 years old and born in Italy,
has left a widow and a family of children.
Rev. Charles Y. served as our priest for 16 years,
which a few may recall.

In related news,
Lieut. Arthur Z., age 23, late of Uniontown,
succumbed to his wounds.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse history of western Pennsylvania]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

from A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

Life is never as bad nor as good as one thinks . . . When? At the instant of calamity, at the edge of fear? when the bad news is brought, and the trap felt sprung, or the loss strikes home? At low ebb, in tedium, in accidie? In the moments of renewal? the transfiguration of love, the flush of work, the grace of a new vision, the long-held now? Or later, when the doors shut, one after another, and regret moves in the heart like a steel coil? Never as good, never as bad, but a drab, bearable half-sleep banked by a little store of this and that, subsiding after visitations and alarms, a drowsing, often not uneasy, down the years, an even-paced irreversible passage--life, the run of lives, the sum of life? Is it consoling? is it the whole truth? Is it inevitable?

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Rant about Standardized Tests

My son is a junior in high school. This May he will be taking the SAT, an AP U.S. history test, and an AP macroeconomics test. He is also scheduled to take the brand-new Maine Educational Assessment, designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which sounds like a club for margarine fanciers.

This new margarine test will absorb significant class time. And what classes will my son miss? Why, his AP U.S. history and AP macroeconomics classes. In other words, he will compromise his scores on one set of standardized tests in order to fill out the little circles on another standardized test.

Let's talk about money: In the past, the high school has paid the costs for all juniors' SAT tests. But no more: now it is only paying for the margarine test, so I will be footing the bill for three of these delightful tests. I have not yet heard how much the SAT will cost, but together the two AP tests come to $164. I estimate that the total will be $250-300. [P.S. I will probably have to pay for another SAT test next fall.]

To recap: Boy's parents fork out a large sum of money so that Boy can take tests. Boy wants to do well on these tests that cost a large sum of money. Boy is worried about missing the classes that will help him do well on these tests that cost a large sum of money and may also affect his college admissions prospects.

Okay, you say. Wait a minute. I get why your son has to take the SAT. Most colleges still require it. But why are you, with your commitment to personalized progressive arts education, encouraging your son to sign up for AP tests. Aren't those optional?

The answer: In my son's high school, many of the upper-level honors classes have been replaced by AP classes. Ergo, anyone who wants to take honors-level physics has to take AP physics. The senior English situation is particularly silly. All seniors who want to take honors English have to take AP English . . . but they don't even take the AP exam until after they've all been accepted to colleges. If they don't take the exam, they fail the course. [And don't get me started on the fallacy of assuming that a high AP score means that you can automatically skip intro-level courses in college. You can't.]

Let's get back to the margarine test: My son is by no means the only kid in this bad position. Nearly every high-achieving junior is in exactly the same situation. Thus, many of their parents have told the school that they want their children to opt out of the margarine test. The school, however, is caught in an unpleasant bind. If all of the AP-taking juniors opt out of a state assessment, then the school's overall test scores are likely to be low. In Maine's current political climate, this means public shaming, and worse.

In sum: Throughout the United States, 11th graders are burdened with a ridiculous number of standardized tests. Why is the state torturing them with yet another high-stakes exam--and in the midst of what is already an insane standardized-test season?

How can teachers prepare students for an AP test when students cannot attend their AP classes? How can students feel confident about taking these difficult tests when they can't study for them with their teachers?

Why should a school be penalized when, by opting out of an extraneous assessment, its best students are making mature decisions about their futures?

Why, oh, why, must students, families, and schools continue to deal with these crazy Kafka-esque conundrums? If teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn, how can an assessment have any point at all?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

* CavanKerry Press asked me to write a short essay about the experience of judging the 2015 state finals of New Jersey Poetry Out Loud.

* I am sorry to report that Ruckus ate a junco yesterday.

* Today is Robert Frost's birthday, and I wish I were sitting on his front porch with you. The Frost Place been getting a steady stream of applications for the 2015 Conference on Poetry and Teaching. The conference is open to anyone, teacher or otherwise, who is eager to make poetry an essential element of his or her daily life. If you teach school, lead poetry workshops, run online courses, or offer lifelong-learning classes; if you work in social service, administrative, or government settings; if you are involved in social media outreach, are frightened of/overwhelmed by/delirious about poetry; if you are longing for collegial conversation; if you have written hundreds of poems or have never written a single poem; if you primarily work in another genre but have been looking for a chance to immerse yourself in poems and poem talk and friendship, well, then the Frost Place is the place for you. Please, please consider joining us.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Yesterday afternoon I sat outside on the stoop, in the sunshine, for 10 minutes, without dying of exposure. I might snag 15 minutes out there today. Although the temperature is currently 10 degrees, it's forecast to rise to 40. But rain is on the way for tomorrow, and we still have several feet of snow on the ground. The result will be a mess. At least it will be a change.

In Harmony, at the end of March, the sap still hasn't started running in the maple trees. Gardens are hidden under snow, firewood piles are dwindling, and the big watershed rivers--the Penobscot, the Kennebec--are jammed with icebergs. Slivers of bare ground show in a few open fields where gales have torn away the snow. But a few yards further down the highway, the plow piles are so high that passing drivers can't see anything beyond them.

Everywhere, the tarmac is buckling. Town thoroughfares are pitted with holes. "Bump" warnings decorate the roadsides; "Heavy loads limited" warnings glimmer on the telephone poles. There are too many warnings to notice. Anyway, if you took your eyes off the road to read them, you'd hit the next frost heave too hard.

"This is the season of mud and trash, broken limbs and crushed briers," said Hayden Carruth. 

"Defeats and victories and / Sunlight licking the frosted windows," said Baron Wormser.

"Everything is an argument," I said.

But "I'll tell you how the Sun rose," said Emily Dickinson. And now I remember last night's moon, narrow and new, curled like a cat in a chair, framed in the windowpane above my bed.

[The Carruth line is from "Birthday Cake," in Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey; the Wormser lines are from "Mulroney," in Mulroney and Others; my line is from "Spring on Ripley Road," in Same Old Story; the Dickinson line is from Poem 318.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yesterday I participated in a Twitter chat about teaching poetry, moderated by a Frost Place teacher. I use the word participated loosely, as most of my contribution involved blinking and gawking. The Twitter medium has almost nothing to do with how my brain works: I read last night's "conversation" as quick, abbreviated interruptions and announcements, but clearly many excellent English teachers love it and find it useful.

For me, the experience highlighted the importance of staying patient and open-minded about the ways in which people learn. This isn't about being old-fashioned versus cutting edge. Plenty of those eager chatterers are as old I am, whereas both of my screen-savvy sons hate Twitter.

Thank goodness our Frost Place teachers are eager to step into arenas where I do not shine. I can write 20-page essays and synthesize ideas from various historical eras and listen and support and suggest, but I cannot coherently disseminate 140-character poetry lesson plans via #s and @s.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Chestnut Ridge: A Preface and a Poem, from a Collection That Might Finally Have Found Its Form

The Chestnut Ridge region of southwestern Pennsylvania—also known as  the Laurel Highlands or the Connellsville seam—stretches alongside the Allegheny Mountains from Latrobe down to Uniontown, near the West Virginia border. When I was a child visiting there in the 1970s, I thought of it as The Land Where Nothing Has Ever Happened or Ever Will. But in truth, the region has, over a span of 250 years, undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis, shifting from dense wilderness to chaotic industrial hell before collapsing into the exhausted Rust Belt desolation I knew so well.
As a gateway to the Mississippi, the Allegheny region was, for early travelers, a primary river and land route south into the Appalachians and north into Canada. Thus, it has long attracted wanderers, pioneers, missionaries, immigrants, and schemers; and its strategic importance made it a major battlefield during the French and Indian War. Young George Washington, who suffered a spectacular defeat there during the first battle of his career, returned to the ridge as an aging ex-president, hoping to recoup what he’d lost in unprofitable land speculation. In the 1840s, writing in his travel journal, Charles Dickens mused over the cabins he saw clinging to the hillsides, wondering who might live in this lovely, remote, alluring, mysterious place.
Humans have had an incalculable influence on every inch of our planet, but their impact on the Chestnut Ridge has been particularly brutal. The impetus behind the region’s rapid shift from frontier to furnace was coal—not the hard, relatively clean-burning anthracite coal of northeastern Pennsylvania and the western states but the smoky, soft, polluting, bituminous coal that was the fundamental ingredient in coke, fuel of choice for making steel. The coal beneath Chestnut Ridge was key to the wealth not only of Henry Clay Frick, who controlled most of the area’s coking operations, but also of Andrew Carnegie, who built U.S. Steel on the back of Connellsville coke, as well as financiers such as Andrew Mellon and Charles Schwab and transportation magnates such as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Thomas Scott.

Meanwhile, the coke ovens burned. The miners carried their lunch buckets down the shafts, into darkness. Children were born, and old men died. In Scottdale—my mother’s hometown, and also Frick’s, a hamlet once known as Fountain Mills but renamed in honor of Scott the Railroad King—I whiled away the summer climbing hay bales and pitching bottles into the quarry and listening to my grandfather try to cough up the coal dust trapped in his lungs. Meanwhile, Frick’s coke ovens, cold and empty, crumbled into the roadside weeds. One might say that the land was reasserting its claim to itself. But the scars—in stone, in flesh: even then I knew they would remain.


The Historian’s Wife Describes the Appalachian Plateau (1930)

Dawn Potter

Imagine a massive dining-room table
spread with a damask cloth whose starched
folds are difficult to climb. Once this table-
land was ironed smooth. Then up lurched

Chestnut Ridge, unruly as a soup stain
or a badly darned tear. In those days the sea
came and went, and came and went. When
the waters left, the table was the property

of trees and humid swamps and ferns as grand
as modern man though now he rules supreme.
Then the sea rushed back, and with it sand;
and again the waves fell back, again they streamed,

spoiling the ferns, rotting the trees and their fruit.
Meanwhile, time applied her bitter tinctures;
the careless sea swept in her dustpans of silt.
It was a vast tedium that contrived our future.

[Versions of these pieces appeared in Hawk & Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability, vol. 5 (2012)]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lately I've received a little flurry of requests for manuscript reviews. This has been a real pleasure as I love reading and talking about work in progress. In my copyeditor role, I spend much of my day doing line-level repair work. When I judge a contest or choose work for a magazine, I have to think competitively: what's better? what's worse? what pieces speak to one another in this context? Manuscript consultation is a whole different story. I get to focus on larger questions such "What's going on in this piece?" That kind of question may seem obvious; but as a professional reader who gets hired to work at many specific levels, I've had to learn to hone my reactions to the situation. If I've been contracted to look at passive-voice and capitalization problems in your academic prose, I'm not going to have the luxury of standing back and saying, "So what internal pressure pushed you to write this book?" Neither the publisher nor the author has any interest in pursuing that question with me.

But when an author asks me to look at a work in progress, my eyes shift. It's like looking through a different glass: new elements come into focus; others withdraw into blur. My task now is to absorb these voices, these images, these characters; to exist within these structures and frames; to note where they wobble, veer, contradict; and to ask questions about those movements.

I don't want to make the author write like me. I want her to write more like herself.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My band Doughty Hill is performing tonight, 7-10 p.m., at Pat's in Dover-Foxcoft, so put on your big boots and your down coat and come listen to us. As side activities, you can also eat pizza and watch your basketball bracket continue to crash and burn.

Basketball brackets are one of the childish amusements I share with Paul. We make them together every year, and every year they are awful. This year we also made them for the pets, Ruckus and Anna, who are currently doing much worse than we are. The lesson in this is that my son and I seem to be very skilled in making stupid choices and stupider choices. We have a weakness for comical mascots, places we've been, Cinderella teams from previous years, and teams not coached by obnoxious old lizards. This is not scientific decision making.

Friday, March 20, 2015

To his great and delirious joy, my seventeen-year-old son has just been cast as Guildenstern in his high school's spring production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Probably many of you teachers and writers already know the schtick of this play. The two central characters are minor figures in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the action of Stoppard's play mostly takes place in Hamlet's wings--which is to say, we're supposed to imagine that Hamlet is being performed on the real stage while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is happening offstage.  The other characters in Hamlet make brief appearances in this play, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mostly confused about what's going on in that drama.

Stoppard's play is often described as "an absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy," and my son wonders how an audience of local parents will react to such a thing (though apparently a few of the teachers are quite excited about it). In our memory, there has never been such weirdness on his high school's stage. Yet the play was first staged in 1966; it's almost a half-century old.

As I was waiting around for a parent-teacher conference yesterday, I overheard banter between two teachers, one of whom was sitting in a chair in the hallway looking at his phone.
Teacher 1: Are you disguising yourself as a parent? 
Teacher 2: What parent would be wearing a tie?
In a way, this conversation sums up the complications of daring to stage a mid-twentieth-century absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy in early twenty-first-century rural America. The simple acquisition of a public school teaching job opens an enormous chasm. Whether or not the people on either side are more or less innocent, more or less insular, more or less patient with strangeness and the unknown, one side wears a tie, and the other does not. So many complications arise: defensiveness and scorn and embarrassment, a tendency to retreat into oneself, or to become a windy blowhard, or to pretend that what we don't know doesn't matter, or to suspect that the outside world is conspiring against us.

In fact, this is exactly how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Love Note for Teachers on Parent-Teacher Conference Day

Today is Parent-Teacher Conference Day at the high school. As a parent, I have the easy part of this deal: three 10-minute sessions in which my child's individualized weirdness is distilled into (1) has an amazing variety of arcane information in his head, (2) gets distressed easily, (3) gets excited easily, (4) does his homework too fast. The teachers have the hard job. Drooping under fluorescent lights till well past their bedtime, they get to purvey hundreds of kid generalizations to a passel of parents who are more or less upset that their children won't stop being wacky and imperfect.

Dear teachers, I just want to let you know, in case it doesn't come up in our 10 minutes of examining quiz grades and discussing performance gaps, that wacky and imperfect are exasperating but fascinating. I don't expect you to fix them, though I'd be happy if you enjoyed them. Melodrama has a noble history, and homework is boring, but nail him if he doesn't get it done.

Now go home, have a cup of tea and a hot bath, sit down in a comfortable chair, and start reading a book you will never, ever have to teach. Didn't you become a teacher because you loved your subject? Don't forget to keep loving it--for yourself, first. Because if students start to figure out that their teachers are passionate and curious, then wacky and imperfect might begin to seem like the first awkward steps into a broad and mysterious future.

In "The Tears of the Muses," Edmund Spenser wrote:
Through knowledge we behold the world's creation,
How in his cradle first he fost'red was;
And judge of Nature's cunning operation,
How things she formed of a formless mass:
By knowledge we do learn ourselves to know,
And what to man, and what to God, we owe.
Spenser wrote this poem in 1591. His allusions may not match your contemporary conceptions of nature, religion, or humankind. But there's no getting around the truth that "by knowledge we do learn ourselves to know" and that such knowledge helps us figure out what we owe to the world outside ourselves.

On a side note: Spenser dedicated this long poem "to the Right Honorable The Lady Strange"--a real woman but also, perhaps, a metaphor for mystery and oddness; for those unexpected, jarring, epiphanic moments of synthesis and perception. Dear teachers, I'd like my wacky and imperfect child to meet The Lady Strange in your classes--now and then, between tests and quizzes and homework reviews. She is, as Spenser writes, a "most brave and noble Lady," and her presence can change the direction of a life . . . not just theirs, but yours. The vitality of your passion and curiosity is the greatest gift you share with your students. "Through knowledge we behold the world's creation," and that world includes your inner life. By treasuring it, you teach our children to treasure theirs.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I spent some time yesterday afternoon copying out a few Hayden Carruth poems, working to reorient myself within the thought-landscape of poetry. The cadences under my fingers; the grammatical peace; the hairpin turns of lyric and narration, anger and pleasure: the experience of copying out those three poems was so satisfying that I wonder why I haven't done more of it lately.

In "Particularity" Carruth laments, "How it is blurring, oozing / slowly away from / me. This is an / awful moment / / every time." The lines evoke both the withdrawals of aging and the imaginative drought of the creator. The speaker is left with "only this invisible / hereness where I am," "the center of mystery," the flicker in the oil lamp.

The gift of the poem is the way in which it does not say, "I am almost dead."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hard to Love: Two Poems for March

It is March, and it is snowing in Maine. So in honor of this month, which is so hard to love in the north country, I will share two poems about March written by poets whom many people also find hard to love.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is most famous for a collection titled Poems of Passion. She was very popular in her time--a sort of Rod McKuen of the Gilded Age, nearly as celebrated as Kipling--but today is mostly laughed at. Certainly she was prone to sentimental moralizing, and her endings are uniformly tiresome. Still, there are moments in her poems when she moves, almost in spite of herself, into more ambiguous relations with her subject. And because her writing style tends to be direct and uncomplicated, these fragile moments can be poignant.

A March Snow Poem 
Ella Wheeler Wilcox 
Let the old snow be covered with the new:
The trampled snow, so soiled, and stained, and sodden.
Let it be hidden wholly from our view
By pure white flakes, all trackless and untrodden.
When Winter dies, low at the sweet Spring's feet
Let him be mantled in a clean, white sheet.

Let the old life be covered by the new:
The old past life so full of sad mistakes,
Let it be wholly hidden from the view
By deeds as white and silent as snow-flakes.

Ere this earth life melts in the eternal Spring
Let the white mantle of repentance fling
Soft drapery about it, fold on fold,
Even as the new snow covers up the old.

On the level of public adulation, Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909) was in a different category from Ella Wheeler Wilcox. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize eight times, hung out with the Pre-Raphaelites, invented the roundel form, and was celebrated by writers and critics such as Arnold, Housman, Lovecraft, and Saintsbury. But the modernists were not so enthusiastic. Writing of Swinburne's prose, T. S. Eliot remarked, "Swinburne stops thinking just at the moment when we are most zealous to go on."

The following poem, "March: An Ode," exemplifies Swinburne's flowery, word-drunk style, so often ridiculed by later poets and critics. But try reading this poem aloud, and then tell me what you think.

March: An Ode 
Algernon Swinburne 
Ere frost-flower and snow-blossom faded and fell, and the splendour of winter had passed out of sight,
The ways of the woodlands were fairer and stranger than dreams that fulfil us in sleep with delight;
The breath of the mouths of the winds had hardened on tree-tops and branches that glittered and swayed
Such wonders and glories of blossomlike snow or of frost that outlightens all flowers till it fade
That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than the day, nor the day than the night,
Nor the winter sublimer with storm than the spring: such mirth had the madness and might in thee made,
March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite.
And now that the rage of thy rapture is satiate with revel and ravin and spoil of the snow,
And the branches it brightened are broken, and shattered the tree-tops that only thy wrath could lay low,
How should not thy lovers rejoice in thee, leader and lord of the year that exults to be born
So strong in thy strength and so glad of thy gladness whose laughter puts winter and sorrow to scorn?
Thou hast shaken the snows from thy wings, and the frost on thy forehead is molten: thy lips are aglow
As a lover's that kindle with kissing, and earth, with her raiment and tresses yet wasted and torn,
Takes breath as she smiles in the grasp of thy passion to feel through her spirit the sense of thee flow.
Fain, fain would we see but again for an hour what the wind and the sun have dispelled and consumed,
Those full deep swan-soft feathers of snow with whose luminous burden the branches implumed
Hung heavily, curved as a half-bent bow, and fledged not as birds are, but petalled as flowers,
Each tree-top and branchlet a pinnacle jewelled and carved, or a fountain that shines as it showers,
But fixed as a fountain is fixed not, and wrought not to last till by time or by tempest entombed,
As a pinnacle carven and gilded of men: for the date of its doom is no more than an hour's,
One hour of the sun's when the warm wind wakes him to wither the snow-flowers that froze as they bloomed. 
As the sunshine quenches the snowshine; as April subdues thee, and yields up his kingdom to May;
So time overcomes the regret that is born of delight as it passes in passion away,
And leaves but a dream for desire to rejoice in or mourn for with tears or thanksgivings; but thou,
Bright god that art gone from us, maddest and gladdest of months, to what goal hast thou gone from us now?
For somewhere surely the storm of thy laughter that lightens, the beat of thy wings that play,
Must flame as a fire through the world, and the heavens that we know not rejoice in thee: surely thy brow
Hath lost not its radiance of empire, thy spirit the joy that impelled it on quest as for prey. 
Are thy feet on the ways of the limitless waters, thy wings on the winds of the waste north sea?
Are the fires of the false north dawn over heavens where summer is stormful and strong like thee
Now bright in the sight of thine eyes? are the bastions of icebergs assailed by the blast of thy breath?
Is it March with the wild north world when April is waning? the word that the changed year saith,
Is it echoed to northward with rapture of passion reiterate from spirits triumphant as we
Whose hearts were uplift at the blast of thy clarions as men's rearisen from a sleep that was death
And kindled to life that was one with the world's and with thine? hast thou set not the whole world free? 
For the breath of thy lips is freedom, and freedom's the sense of thy spirit, the sound of thy song,
Glad god of the north-east wind, whose heart is as high as the hands of thy kingdom are strong,
Thy kingdom whose empire is terror and joy, twin-featured and fruitful of births divine,
Days lit with the flame of the lamps of the flowers, and nights that are drunken with dew for wine,
And sleep not for joy of the stars that deepen and quicken, a denser and fierier throng,
And the world that thy breath bade whiten and tremble rejoices at heart as they strengthen and shine,
And earth gives thanks for the glory bequeathed her, and knows of thy reign that it wrought not wrong. 
Thy spirit is quenched not, albeit we behold not thy face in the crown of the steep sky's arch,
And the bold first buds of the whin wax golden, and witness arise of the thorn and the larch:
Wild April, enkindled to laughter and storm by the kiss of the wildest of winds that blow,
Calls loud on his brother for witness; his hands that were laden with blossom are sprinkled with snow,
And his lips breathe winter, and laugh, and relent; and the live woods feel not the frost's flame parch;
For the flame of the spring that consumes not but quickens is felt at the heart of the forest aglow,
And the sparks that enkindled and fed it were strewn from the hands of the gods of the winds of March.

Monday, March 16, 2015

I had a lovely time in New York, and I should have stayed there. After disembarking from an 8-hour bus trip to Augusta, Maine, I chipped several inches of snow and ice off my parked car and then spent the next two hours crawling home through hypnotically swirling snow . . . passing speeders in ditches and police cars flashing their lights beside busy tow trucks, only to get my all-wheel-drive car stuck in the foot or so of snow in my own unplowed driveway. Ugh.

Anyway, here I am.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It's pouring rain in Brooklyn, I think. The wind of the cars and the drops spattering off the air conditioners may be exaggerating the sound. I am doing what I do every morning--sitting in my pink bathrobe at the kitchen table waiting for the coffee to brew, thinking about what words to write to you--but the noises around me are so different: airplanes, sirens, the slam of car doors, idling motors, a bus hissing past, snatches of pedestrian conversation, rain slapping at the windows, cats galloping across the floor in the apartment overhead

I have a day to myself. I thought of going to the New York Botanical Gardens to find a crocus, but the crocus will be so wet. So I think I will go to the Met and look at pictures.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Greetings from scenic northern New Jersey, where I sit, all dressed up and shiny, at 6:30 a.m., waiting to head south to scenic central New Jersey for the Poetry Out Loud fest.

So far I have eaten dinner at the Coach House Diner, marveled at the glittery Manhattan skyline from the Weehawken shore, and laid my eyes on the actual rock that pillowed Alexander Hamilton's head after Aaron Burr shot him.

The town of Weehawken stores the rock directly behind the more photogenic statue of Hamilton's head on a column. The effect is very odd, more like accidental attic jumble than a display.

However, when I called my son to tell him about the rock, he was thrilled because he is in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton Mixtape." He knows it all by heart.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Are the mothers of men who rule the world found among the loose-robed women, or among the women who dress in closer-fitting apparel?"

--Sarah Josepha Hale, Godey's Lady's Book (April 1865)


Hale's question becomes even more bizarre when I consider what else was happening in April 1865: Grant and Lee's meeting at Appomattox, Lincoln's assassination.

In Specimen Days, Walt Whitman recalled: "The day of [Lincoln's] murder we heard the news very early in the morning. Mother prepared breakfast—and other meals afterward—as usual; but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us. We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all. Little was said. We got every newspaper morning and evening, and the frequent extras of that period, and pass'd them silently to each other."

But you're probably asking yourself: was Mother wearing loose robes or closer-fitting apparel?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I received some excellent news yesterday evening: the Academy of American Poets will be publishing one of my teaching essays on its poets.org site and will also be featuring a couple of curriculum pieces created by dedicated Frost Place participant Jean Kanzinger. In other words (and because I love the torture of a mixed metaphor), our Frost Place pedagogy will get a chance to stand in the bully pulpit. Hurray! [Now draw a cartoon of that.]

To continue the educational theme: on Thursday I'll be heading south to NYC, and on Friday morning I'm off to Princeton University, where I'll be judging New Jersey's Poetry Out Loud state finals and talking to teachers and arts administrators about the Frost Place. [Now draw a cartoon of Dawn in the cloak of an Expert. See Mark Twain's essay "Taming the Bicycle" if you need any suggestions about how to portray Experts.]

In the meantime, I will be Expertly hauling firewood and emptying the compost pail.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Introducing Marcus Jackson: 2015 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching Faculty

The days are lengthening, the chickadees are singing their phoebe songs, my friends and I are discussing our our upcoming battle strategies for Japanese beetles and poison ivy, and I've been working on Frost Place schedules and plans.

A few weeks ago I introduced you to Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, who will be a guest poet at the 2015 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Today I want to introduce you to our other guest poet: Marcus Jackson. Marcus was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. After earning his B.A. at the University of Toledo, he continued his poetry studies in NYU's graduate creative writing program and as a Cavem Canem fellow. His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and the New Yorker, among many other publications. CavanKerry Press published his debut full-length collection of poems, Neighborhood Register, in 2011. Marcus lives with his wife and son in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches at Capital University. 

Writing about his teaching philosophy, Marcus has said:
The idea of obsession is something I want the poets in my workshops to embrace. Becoming obsessed with a great poem—or one specific element/trait of a great poem—can yield multitudes in the development of one’s own poetic voice. For example, if a student is struck to the bone by Yuesf Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters,” the student should get obsessed with figuring out what exactly in the poem causes his or her reaction. Is it the poem’s juxtaposition of tenderness with the gnarly tools in the shed; is it Komunyakaa’s ability to break lines on a great array of nouns; is it the way the poem balances on its axis—the last word in the penultimate line, “almost”? Answers to these queries will give the student a clear look into the movements his or her own poems should be trying to make on the page. As soon as students have a grasp of what they want to emulate, their drafts will have standards and, better yet, blueprints to which they might make their own additions.
For a sample of Marcus's poetry, visit his website. And please be in touch with me if you'd like more information about the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching--including information about graduate and professional-development credits, scholarships, participant reviews, gorgeous views, delicious food, and amazing camaraderie. Past participants have included K-12 teachers, university professors, graduate students, poets who lead private workshops, businesspeople, school administrators, and civil servants. We are open to everyone who wants to make poetry a more intense part of their working life.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fragment from a Ladies' Book (1851)

Dawn Potter

We stand on the lofty ridge of Time!
The fashion of stiff corsets never will resume.
We are constrained to note, “The female mind
could never have devised the loom.”

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


Fashion journals such as Godey's Lady's Book had an enormous impact on American women, particular those who lived in the hinterlands. They democratized fashion: the Ingalls women, for instance, copied Godey's illustrations when they designed their new go-to-church dresses in the western territories. But magazines such as Godey's also reinforced a philosophy of womanhood: emphasizing appropriate family roles and spheres of feminine interest, and subtly (or not so subtly) dismissing woman's capacity for curiosity. At the same time, they were instrumental in promoting gradual improvements in one of the most galling of feminine fashion requirements: the corset. As period photographs make clear, corset styles changed in every decade of the nineteenth century. Whereas 1840s corsets compressed and flattened women's curves, 1890s corsets emphasized a more natural figure. A late-century woman wearing a corset could actually ride a bike or play tennis, and thus the history of middle-class leisure began to change.

For a fascinating history of the everyday dress of nineteenth-century American women, check out Joan Severa's Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900.

And never forget: "Taste and ingenuity, with a very small amount of cash, will enable a lady to appear always fashionably attired. . . . No excellence of mind or soul can be hoped from an idle woman" (Godey's, September 1845).

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Teachers and Ridicule

There's yet another Internet brouhaha about MFA degrees. A former fiction teacher at a low-residency program has published an article in which he disses a number of his students as untalented, lazy, posturing, etc., etc. The article is flippant, certainly, and I'm sure it was extraordinarily hurtful to his former students. But for me, it brought up a few questions--notably, since when is a teacher responsible only for teaching students who have the potential to be great?

Let's set aside all the many complaints (conspiracy-theory and otherwise) associated with MFA programs in writing--e.g., universities making money from students who will never get jobs, canned approaches to creative exploration, a focus on contemporary poetry at the expense of a deep knowledge of the past, a clubby exclusivity that damages the hopes of serious writers who don't have graduate degrees. Beyond these issues is the responsibility of teacher to student. Is the teacher tasked with transforming this person into James Joyce? Or is the teacher tasked with seeing the student as an individual striver, with her own knowledge and curiosity and ignorance, and helping her move more deeply into an apprenticeship with the art?

Any public school teacher can share stories about a student who, say, after an entire year of fifth grade, has finally learned to write his name, even though everyone else in the class has moved onto long division. This student's success, in that moment, reflects the enduring joy of the profession.

Perhaps one expects graduate-level work to be more dazzling. But many programs accept students who do not have strong backgrounds in creative writing, or even any background at all. Should schools call this training "master's level work"? This is a reasonable question. Meanwhile, however, the teacher must work with the students who appear in her classroom, and she owes them care and respect.

Students, especially those who are paying for a graduate degree, also have responsibility to the teacher and to the art. They need to be willing to read, for instance; and if they aren't, they shouldn't be allowed to graduate. But teachers are always going to have some students who try to get by without doing the work, others who find themselves drowning in it. At the same time teachers will have students who make vital discoveries about themselves, the world, and the work of writing--even though they may never become technically skilled enough to publish a single poem. And as human beings, these students matter a lot.

Regular readers of this blog know that I don't have an advanced degree. While I have occasionally worked as a visiting writer in graduate programs, I have done all of my own creative work outside the academy. Thus, I'm in no way spouting canned support for the status quo of the MFA. My interest is in the relationship between teacher and student. And at every level--kindergarten through postdoctoral study--the ideal should be respect as well as rigorous attention to the individual's particular needs and abilities. Ridicule has no part in that ideal.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The streets of Portsmouth may be confusing, but the arts are hopping in that town. So many people were at my reading! It was lovely and encouraging to have so many attentive and engaged listeners.

But life has now returned to its previously scheduled program--which is to say, it's twelve degrees below zero, and I'm doing laundry and editing other people's books. At the same time, however, I'm mulling over a few conversations I had in Portsmouth about the art of reading aloud. For me, it all comes down to the advice my dear, dead best friend gave me, in the days when she was thriving as an actress and I was fighting poet stage fright: "Respect your punctuation." This simple advice has improved not only my performance skills but also refined my approach to revision. If I can't say the poem effectively, then there's something wrong with the poem.

I think being a musician has also helped me. For instance, many songs slow down in the final few measures. Often the pitch drops back to the root note of the key and/or is held for an extra number of beats and/or becomes softer. In more dramatic endings, the final note may become louder or denser, as more instruments join in on related pitches or change their long smooth notes into tremolos. (For bowed-instrument players, this means repeating the same note using a succession of rapid bow changes. For other instruments, it may mean alternating rapidly between two different notes.)

Anyway, I think about these musical messages when I think about how to revise or to read a poem, and I would enjoy leading a class about performance strategies.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing about Otters

See the little sled marks, heading straight into open water at the base of the tree? I'm fairly sure they are signs of an otter slide. Do you know what this means? It means that otters are gamboling within shouting distance of my house.

According to Dorothy and Nils Hogner, in their 1942 The Animal Book,
groups of Otter[s] go tobogganing together. . . . In winter they choose a snow bank with an icy pool of water at the bottom. With their short legs turned backwards they slide down these slippery places. They toboggan for the joy it gives them to whizz downhill as children enjoy coasting. The several Otters which use one slide seem to enter into friendly rivalry in their play which has no connection with the rough play of mammals in the breeding season.
While the Hogners shamelessly humanize every mammal they discuss in this book, their prose also displays a midcentury charm--a comfortable storytelling urge that I've noted in many other works of nonfiction published during this era. The descriptions in Olaus J. Murie's 1954 Animal Tracks (later reprinted as a Peterson Field Guide), though more exact, are almost as cozy as the Hogners':
One wintry day in southern Hudson Bay territory I was snowshoeing up a small stream when I spied a movement on the snowy streambank ahead. I realized that it was an otter, and the next moment it slid down the bank. Another one appeared, clambered up the bank, and slid down. A third appeared from a hole in the ice, and for several minutes I watched these frolicsome animals, climbing, sliding, climbing, sliding, over and over again--until they all disappeared under the ice. Their playtime was over, and they went on their way beneath the ice, as they so often do.
Compare those styles with the precision of Thoreau's December 6, 1856, journal entry:
Just this side of Bittern Cliff, I see a very remarkable track of an otter, made undoubtedly December 3d, when this snow ice was mere slosh. It had come up through a hole (now black ice) by the stem of a button-bush, and, apparently, pushed its way through the slosh, as through snow on land, leaving a track of eight inches wide, more or less, with the now frozen snow shoved up two inches high on each side, i.e., two inches above the general level. Where the ice was firmer are seen only the tracks of its feet. It had crossed the open middle (now thin black ice) and continued its singular trail to the opposite shore, as if a narrow sled had been drawn bottom upwards.
Thoreau goes on to describe the consistency of otter scat ("a mass of fishes' scales and bones") as well as variations in the animals' movements: "Sometimes one had trailed his tail, apparently edge-wise, a mark like the tail of a deer mouse."

To my surprise, my edition of James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1922) has nothing to say about the otter as a mythological force. All that human-like play should be ripe fodder for magical significance. But my abridged version of the journals of Lewis and Clark does contain a single reference to the animal, in Lewis's August 20, 1805, entry:
The tippet of the Snake Indians is the most eligant peice of Indian dress I ever saw, the neck or collar of this is formed with a strip of dressed Otter skin with the fur, it is about four or five inches wide and cut out of the back of the skin the nose and eyes forming one extremity and the tail the other. begining a little behind the ear of the animal at one edge of this collar and proceeding towards the tail, they attach from one to two hundred and fifty little roles of Ermin skin . . . covers the solders and body nearly to the waist and has the appearance of a short cloak and is really handsome. these they esteem very highly, and give or dispose of only on important occasions.
In his own journal entry, written fifty years after Lewis's, Thoreau notes the long history of otter hunting in North America ("the Pilgrims sent home many otter skins in the first vessels that returned [to England]") yet also remarks that "it is surprising that our hunters know no more about them." It seems that only Thoreau and his companions were hunting the otters of Concord, Massachusetts. "Our eyes go searching along the stems for what is most vivacious and characteristic, the concentrated summer gone into winter quarters. For we are hunters pursuing the summer on snow-shoes and skates, all winter long. There is really but one season in our hearts."

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

I was so surprised and happy yesterday to discover Maureen Doallas's review of my anthology, A Poet's Sourcebook. Reviews make me nervous, always--not only because I fear that someone will hate my book but also because I can't help perceiving glitches between what I did in the book and how someone else absorbed it. My Milton memoir has been particularly prone to such readings. This is normal, and is often even enlightening, but I worry anyway ("I'm so stupid, why didn't I see that before, people will think I'm an idiot," and other such pointless flagellations).

But Maureen seemed to take in the anthology in a way that paralleled my intentions. This may be easier in an edited work as opposed to an entirely original construction; but as I discovered while I was working on A Poet's Sourcebook, compiling an anthology is subjective. There are no obvious selections to include. For instance, is Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" necessary and exciting or the tedious emotings of Nineteenth-Century Important White Guy? I fall into the "necessary and exciting" category, but plenty of other people don't. All the syntheses that I perceive between Shelley's treatise and the writings of subsequent poets and critics (John Berger, Audre Lorde, etc., etc.) may not register with other imaginary editors.

In any case, I'm grateful to Maureen for sharing my fascination with "the kinds of serendipitous discoveries that accompany re-familiarizing oneself with the texts of Plato, Aristotle, and Ovid; re-engaging with the likes of Shakespeare, Bradstreet, Milton, and Blake; re-considering Shelley and Keats, Bronte and Whitman, Dickinson and Rilke, Woolf and Pound; and recalling the depth of inspiration and breadth of influence of Rich and Levertov, Snyder and Milosz." I have spent a lifetime fluttering here and there among my books, and one of the gifts of this project was the way in which it forced me to annotate, and thus justify, my desultory reading patterns.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Last night, a dust of snow. This morning, a clean opaque dawn and 15 degrees above zero.

Small birds barrage the empty feeder. I feel the pressure of words--unformed, unthought--behind my skull.

I have been reading a small Harold Pinter play, "Night," which opens like this:
Man. I'm talking about that time by the river.
Woman. What time?
Man. The first time. On the bridge. Starting on the bridge. 
Woman. I don't remember.
The pressure of words behind my skull resembles their interchange.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The radio guy announced, "Saturday will be a great day for winter sports!" So despite the cold, we decided to go on a long snowshoe trek with our friends Sue and Dave.

Below you see can the stream bed, with Tom and Dave far ahead of Sue and me. We were slow because we kept looking at animal tracks. I know very little about tracking but Sue knows quite a bit, and I love to be instructed in such things.

Here is one of many crevasses on the stream. Despite the subzero temperatures, the water continues to bubble and run. 

The sky was a miraculous blue. But the birds were silent.

The stream opens into this bog. The small scrubby trees are alders, and on a few of them the buds are beginning to swell. Think of this as a photograph of spring.

According to Sue, these are mink tracks. After she showed me the tracks, she told a story from her childhood: one day the kids came to the school and found an ermine inside.

See this print that looks like a lobster's snow angel? This is the track of the snowshoe hare.

Here's another crevasse, this time on the bog. Because the water is quieter than the stream's, it has formed these ice flowers.