Sunday, May 31, 2015

I woke up this morning to the chatter-shriek of a squirrel smackdown in the tree right outside my window. I've never heard anything so rude in my life, and I don't even speak squirrel.

This morning is as dank as a cellar hole--dark green light, swirls of wet air, tick of runoff in the gutter. The lilacs, loaded with purple, are bent nearly to the ground with their weight of rainwater.

In an hour or so, I'll drive off to Stutzmans' Cafe in Sangerville to play music--and not the theme from Gilligan's Island, in case you were wondering. Meanwhile, the grass will grow at the speed of light, and squirrels will hurl invective at their enemies.

But when I come home, I will ignore them because I will be too busy reading a Ford Madox Ford novel to care about squirrel politics. Also, I'll be trying to pretend that my house doesn't smell like a musty old sock.

This is classic June weather in northern New England. Fresh bread starts molding as soon as it's baked, and the covers of paperback novels curl up like cannoli shells. Male family members who never take off their workboots track wet driveway dirt all over the house, and the fog-ridden air bears a physical resemblance to the atmosphere of a 1975 high school teachers' lounge. Everyone is freezing cold and boiling hot and clammy at the same time, a situation that leads middle-aged women with hot-flash problems to spitefully remark, "Now you know how I feel all year round."

Saturday, May 30, 2015

After a swift overnight in Portland, I rushed home to mow grass and then rushed north to watch my son run in the Penobscot Valley Conference finals, where I'm happy to say he did really, really well . . . though unfortunately I missed the exciting moment when a hot-air balloon crash-landed on the discus field because Tom and I had slipped off to Pat's Pizza, where we were eating steak and sausage sandwiches and trying not to listen to the hired guitarist's painful rendition of various songs I never need to hear again. I mean, what kind of performer believes that the theme to Gilligan's Island is the perfect choice for a Friday-night gig at a central Maine bar?

As expected, I did not win the Maine Literary Award in Poetry, which deservedly went to former state poet laureate Betsy Sholl. It was a pleasant evening, especially when my dear friend Martha and I were sitting over a late dinner in the Old Port, where the air was tender and soft and the thunder clouds were whipping out to sea.

Here's my boy (# 6 in the 400 meter) at the awards podium on a sweet spring evening. He didn't even think he had qualified to run in this race, but now he's heading to states!

Nothing can lift my heart like the sight of my boy threading his way toward me through a crowd, waving his ribbon, throwing his arms around me in joy. No literary award can compare.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Later today I'll be heading to Portland for this evening's Maine Literary Awards ceremony. In 2010 I won the nonfiction prize for Tracing Paradise, and I have since been a finalist for poetry (How the Crimes Happened) and anthology (A Poet's Sourcebook). I think it's unlikely that I'll win this year: my competition includes former state poet laureate Betsy Sholl, Bates College professor Crystal Williams, and University of Virginia lecturer Claire Millikin. On the other hand, it's surprising and gratifying to be on this list at all . . . which is to say, famous people such as Richard Ford are also finalists, and who knows, I might step on his feet or spill a drink on him or something.

What I am actually trying to explain is: Argh, I have no idea what to wear.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


at school is against the rules,
so when a spike-haired

first grader in need
butts up against your hip,

don’t you wrap your arms
round his skinny bones, don’t you

cup his skull in your palms,
smooth a knuckle up his baby cheek:

he’s got lice, he’s got AIDS;
you kiss him, you die,

or worse: late nights, he’ll hunch up small,
stare into some laugh show

and whisper what no half-pissed dad
cares to hear from his wife’s

kid at the end of a long day
of nothing, when sleep

is the only country,
anywhere else, terror:

a father you’ve marked
before, slouching into parent night,

two hands trembling
along his thighs like birds

shot down,
black eyes wary as a bull’s:

he blinks at the butcher,
you smile, you fold

your unheld hands;
what roils in his wake is the one

you won’t teach
to beg an answer from love.

[from How the Crimes Happened, by Dawn Potter (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dear teachers, help me.

How do you cope with sorrow over a former student--a boy you taught years ago, when he was twelve years old; a boy who probably has no recollection of you as a teacher, who spent six months in your company, for one hour every week, and then vanished from your life?

But you remember him. He may have been the dirtiest human being ever to appear in your classroom. His nails were encrusted with filth. His clothes were torn. Everything he wore was too large or too small. He did not even own a pencil.

You spent one hour per week with him. For half an hour you taught him to sing songs. For half an hour you asked him to write poems.

He wrote the most powerful, imaginative, frightening poems you've ever seen a middle-school child write. One featured the letters of the alphabet. They were engaged in a street fight, gang warfare, and each letter had its own particular voice, and the poem revealed with a dreadful clarity that this child had seen and suffered violence, and that he was determined to synthesize it into art.

The child vanished, in the middle of the school year. This happens all the time in schools. A household disintegrates; a mother runs; children wake up in yet another strange and terrible place.

You spent one hour per week with this child, but a good portion of that hour was spent deflecting the sallies of the class bully. You were famous in the school for your ability to get this bully to occasionally act like a decent human being. You sometimes think that's why the superintendent let you stay in that job for so long. You were a bully whisperer. But the other child needed something more than civility. Something larger. Something you might have been able to give him, if you hadn't been managing the bully.

One hour per week is not much time.

And then, this week, almost a decade later, you discover two things. First, there was a miracle. The brilliant, sad, hopeless child not only survived but conquered. Other teachers in other places saw him for who he was, and they stepped up and they gave him what he needed. And now he was a student at one of the best and most famous colleges in the nation. A miracle!

But how did you discover this? Because he'd been arrested for a violent crime and you read about him in the newspaper.

Dear teachers, this was a boy I barely knew, a boy I barely helped. He was a twelve year old in my music class who wrote a poem, and then he was gone. And I am filled with sorrow.

Monday, May 25, 2015

On Boredom and Cynical Indifference, or What I Hate about Bad Poetry

I am not the sort of iconoclast who believes that everyone should write poetry as I write it, or think about poetry as I think about it, or define poetry as I define it. But of course, on a personal level, I have my likes and dislikes--thematically, stylistically, morally--and am perfectly willing to admit that this predilection circumscribes me. I'm not attracted to language poetry; I'm not in love with imagism and its descendants. I'm drawn to the sinuous power of the sentence rather than its fractures, and my greatest influences are poets who have worked the ancient vein of story and song.

Which brings me to the current giant poetry-network kerfuffle over the work of conceptualist poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. In March, at a conference at Brown University, Goldsmith (a white man) read a poem, "The Body of Michael Brown," that was essentially a remix of Michael Brown's autopsy report and ended with a focus on his genitals. (Brown, as you'll recall, was the black teenager who was shot last summer by police in Ferguson, Missouri.) Meanwhile, Place (a white woman) has been tweeting Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, verbatim. Though she calls her project "provocative" and sees it as art, others have seen it as "racially insensitive, if not downright racist."

Being out of the loop as I am, I didn't have many preconceptions about these poets. So when I decided to look into what they were doing, I was open to complications and ambiguities. But what I found was something more basic. What I learned is that conceptualism is boring.

You can do your own googling and come to your own conclusions. But in my opinion, basing an entire career on copying other people's writing is a dull approach to art. And when cries of "racism" become the most exciting thing about that art, then something has really gone wrong.

I, too, have written poems that borrow from primary sources. I am in no way denying the power of reworking and recontextualizing the words of others. But it seems to me that, to push that borrowing into art, the poet must be engaged in the creative exploration of drama, character, lyric, theme, morality.

Perhaps I am overlooking something in the productions of these conceptualists. Perhaps I am too provincial. But their work reminds of me of the stream of tedious undergraduate art shows I attended in the 90s, when my husband was getting his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was 25 years old, and those shows, swathed in deconstructionist black, made me feel like the most unhip person on the planet.

Today I'm 50, and I've never gotten any more hip. However, I also no longer care. If the emperor doesn't want to wear clothes, that's fine with me, but I'm not going to stand around admiring the fabric. Free speech is an inalienable right, yet it seems to me that an artist should have a powerful reason for hurting other people on purpose. Cynical indifference doesn't count as a powerful reason.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Yesterday I mowed grass while wearing a winter coat. The machine was an old non-self-propelled push mower requiring considerable yanking and pushing and muscular commitment, the grass was tall and springy and combative, and the coat was zipped up to the neck. People should think twice before moving to green lands filled with lilacs and birdsong.

And this morning the temperature again sits at 30 degrees. According to the weather report, it's supposed to rise to 74, but who could believe such lies?

I'll tell you what creature likes this weather: rhubarb. It is this week's garden star, plump and flourishing amid the stones. One might mistake it for a Benevolent Leader.

Need any rhubarb?

I'm not actually as grouchy as I sound. I'm not actually grouchy at all. The blossoms in my yard are stunning, and there are no weeds in my tidy planted garden, and I've kept up with the mowing and the pruning, and the clotheslines are filled with clean towels, and the pets prance on the sward.

I would like to be warmer, but if I were warmer, the blackflies would bite me and the poison ivy would spread. C'est la vie in the garden that is not Eden.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Fate goes ever as fate must."

--Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney


Here in central Maine, on the nominal first weekend of summer, the thermometer stands at 30 degrees, the skies are the alien blue of a white cat's eyes, and a wild cold gale is tearing at the buds and blossoms.


I dreamed a poem last night, a poem full of anger and wind.


"Time and again, when the goblets passed
and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
and wait for Grendel with whetted swords.
But when dawn broke and day crept in
over each empty, blood-spattered bench,
the floor would be slick with slaughter. And so they died,
faithful retainers, and my following dwindled."

--Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney


"Exactly right takes many, many elements into account: definition, connotation, sound, cadence, visual appearance, even the poet’s private associations with the word. For instance, if you were to note the words dawn or sunrise or rosy-fingered in my poems, you would not be wrong to suspect a personal resonance, any more than I am wrong to suspect a parallel resonance in Robert Frost’s many references to snow and ice. Our names, after all, are among the oldest echoes in our own minds. 'Where was the child I was, / still inside me or gone?' asked Pablo Neruda in The Book of Questions."

--Dawn Potter, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet


"But when dawn broke and day crept in
over each empty blood-spattered bench,
the floor would be slick with slaughter."


"Where was the child I was,
still inside me or gone?"

Friday, May 22, 2015

Last night, more or less on the spur of the moment, my band performed at an open mic at the Lakeshore House in Monson, Maine, a restaurant/bar so close to the edge of Lake Hebron that it looks like it might be in danger of falling in. To my surprise, the place was sardine-packed with people. It was so full that we had trouble getting our cases in through the door.

We were scheduled to play five songs, but then, as I'd already pointed out to the boys in the band, we'd have to leave because I had to go pick up my kid, who'd been away overnight at a Maine Junior Classical League Convention (aka Latin Camp, aka The Only High School Activity That Is Nerdier Than Math Team). But it was an open mic, right?, so someone else would be champing to perform, right? That's how it works at poetry open mics anyway.

What happened, though, is that we turned out to be a hit, and the sardine-crowd clapped and cheered and whistled and begged begged begged for more, and the owner offered us a paying gig, and the boys were smitten with performance glory, and I had to drag them away after ten songs and was almost late for the Latin Camp bus.

As I was adding wailing fiddle solos to Hendrix songs in front of a lot of happy people with beers, Tom was giving a successful and well-attended artist's talk at the Maine Media Workshops gallery in Rockport and Paul was gloating over his SAT scores and reliving the glory of placing first in a 13-school Latin poetry translation contest. In real life, Tom fears and despises public speaking, and Paul has never said a single word to me about Latin poetry. Everyone's night was very strange.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mourning dove crooning among the pines. Apple trees glazed with pink buds. Grass overrun with violets. Air scented with plum blossoms. Temperature: 40 degrees, because not everything can be perfect.

Yesterday I planted potatoes and picked nettles (carefully). I'm sure you're tired of recipes so I will only mention the polpettone we had for dinner: beef rolled up around caramelized onions, fried nettles, and slivers of home-pickled hot peppers, with a side of quinoa and a salad of roasted parsnips and carrots tossed with chervil.

I am reading Margaret Drabble's The Middle Ground and Anonymous's Beowulf, composing intros for Frost Place readings, finishing up an editing job, and considering the viability of writing a book about poetry and music.

Viability is probably the wrong word. Maybe what I mean is possibility or suitability or would this bore my readers? or can I remember how to write?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Okay, I'm back--with a new hard drive, a sunny day, and a recipe for sorrel soup.
Go into the garden and pick a dishpan full of fresh sorrel leaves, 1 large scallion, and 5 or 6 spears of asparagus (or acquire them by nefarious or commercial means). 
Root around in your cupboards and find 1 onion and 5 red potatoes. Peel and slice the cupboard vegetables. Wash and dry the garden vegetables. 
In a soup pot, brown the onion in 3 tablespoons of butter. Sprinkle with salt. Add the sorrel and stir until wilted. Toss in the sliced potatoes and let everything cook together for 10 minutes. 
Add water to cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil; then cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender (roughly 40 minutes). 
Meanwhile, cut the asparagus into bite-sized pieces, and chop up the scallion. 
Run the soup through a food mill, using the coarsest strainer. Return it to the soup pot, add salt and pepper as needed, and reheat to the boiling point. 
Add the asparagus to the soup; continue to cook for about 3 minutes. Add the scallions and serve. 
This soup is excellent with sides of home-fried tortilla chips and a radish-turnip-carrot slaw.
Suggested experimental options: (1) Instead of a potato-based soup, make an Italian-style rice-chicken broth-parmesan version. Marcella Hazan cookbooks will give you the basic rice-soup-with-greens pattern. (2) Start with garlic instead of onion. Substitute chervil or what-have-you for the scallions. (3) Replace the sorrel with spinach and add the juice of half a lemon. (4) Add asparagus stems to the initial brew, run them through the food mill with everything else, and reserve the tips for the final serving prep. (5) Serve with a small dab of freshly made salsa. (6) Dice the onions and potatoes, mince the greens, and don't puree the soup. (7) Make the original recipe but add a half-cup of heavy cream when you mix in the asparagus.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

What I'll be doing today: Planting kohlrabi, turnips, calendula, and forget-me-nots; mowing grass; weeding the herb garden; hanging sheets and towels on the line; baking rhubarb crisp; reading Beowulf and Phineas Finn; listening to a Red Sox game; vacuuming and dusting; trying not to jump when New-Haircut Son walks into the room.

What the blackflies will be doing today: Ripping small bloody holes in human flesh.


Tomorrow my computer will be going to the computer doctor, so if you do not hear from me, do not despair. Of course, New-Haircut Son is trying to make me nervous.

"It's getting a lobotomy," he says calmly.

"Oh, no!" I cry. "It won't be able to write poems anymore! It will only shop online at Walmart and play interminable rounds of Candy Crush Saga! Oh, no!"

"That's right," he says calmly.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Instead of spending today in the garden, I will be spending today at the mall, buying Paul shorts, track spikes, and [gasp] a haircut. As I far as I know, he is currently the only long-haired boy at his high school; and because his long hair is dense and curly and bouncy in a Robert Plant-like way, it is hard to overlook. On Monday, his vanished locks will be the talk of the school, no question.

I dislike the mall, but at least Bangor's is podunk and low-key. Last time I was there, the center walkway was filled with local stockcar racers and their cars--a close-up-and-personal look at painted-over Bondo, not-quite-matching spoilers, peculiar advertising, and lawn chairs. This kind of thing improves a visit to the mall, and I believe that most of the retired husbands (the ones who ordinarily spend their mall-purgatory sitting on benches or teetering on the edges of frozen massage chairs, where they chew Double-Mint gum and wait gloomily for their wives to finish up at Sears) would agree with me.

Friday, May 15, 2015

We've been harvesting fiddleheads, dandelion greens, chives, scallions, sorrel, and chervil. This weekend the nettles should be ready, and conceivably I can start thinning radish, lettuce, arugula, and spinach sprouts. Yesterday I planted parsley, cilantro, beets, and carrots and wrote two short speeches about Frost Place guest faculty. Tom reconstructed our mailbox post (it was smashed by a snowplow) and saw a yellow-rumped warbler. James telephoned us twice to dither over his exciting summer internship plans, and Paul ran his first-ever 400-meter race in stellar fashion.

The Frost Place conference is approaching rapidly, and suddenly I've received a spate of good news about our faculty. Associate director Teresa Carson's most recent book, My Crooked House, was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. If I tell you that the winners were B. H. Fairchild and Ted Kooser, you'll understand why her head is spinning. Moreover, guest faculty member Gibson Fay-LeBlanc was just named poet laureate of Portland, Maine--a great honor in a city renowned for its commitment to the arts.

We do have a few openings left at the conference, and I do hope you'll consider attending. When I say you, I mean you, dear regular reader and commenter; dear emailer of reading recommendations and sharer of posts on Facebook; dear friend of poetry who does not write poems but needs them in his heart; dear friend of poetry who does not teach but wants to make poetry a more intense part of her workaday life; dear teacher who loves poems, or is afraid of poems, or can't figure out how to open his students' eyes to them, or is obsessed with opening her students' eyes to them.

You are the people who will stand on that hillside, gazing out into the complicated skies over Mount Lafayette--blue, mist, cloud, rainbow--watching the eagles shift on their thermals, watching the wet granite shine like a dragon's hoard, and know that this is the place where you need to be.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Day in the Life of a Visiting Writer

Yesterday I worked with two sets of New Hampshire high school students: a smallish class of sophomores who were studying English lit and a large combined group of juniors who were taking college-level composition classes.

Not surprisingly, I had more personal interaction with the smaller class. We spent the class period talking about Beowulf, which they had read (in excerpts) earlier in the year. The conversation was informal: my goal was to draw them out to speak thoughtfully but naturally about their reactions to the epic, and a number of students got very involved in the conversation. For instance, a couple of boys were working on a Beowulf video game project, and they shared interesting ideas about the necessity, in game design, of creating the illusion of choice. "Ah," I mused, "so you have to be Fate." Thanks to those boys, I am far more interested in the philosophy of games than I ever was before.

Thinking back to my recent rant about the importance of exposing young students to old, difficult, canonical work, I also asked the sophomores if they thought reading books such as Beowulf was a waste of time or useful to them in some way. I tried to make it clear that I wasn't leading them to say what they thought I wanted to hear, and I hope that's how they understood my question. Of course the kids who didn't speak at all might have had an entirely different opinion, but all the rest of them (two-thirds of the class were regular talkers) said they were glad to have the opportunity to read these kinds of works. One girl told me, "We've heard about these books for so long, and we used to think of them as too hard for us, but now, when we get the chance to read them, we find out We can do it!"

I spent about an hour with the sophomores, and then my workshop with the thirty essay-writing juniors took up most of the rest of the day. The workshop was intense, and exhausting. Between 9:30 and 2:30, these kids wrote five separate essay drafts--not complete top-to-bottom pieces but sizable beginnings that were each several pages long. Given the size of the class and the intensity of the task, we didn't have much chance to comfortably converse. Most of our talking time was spent on reading aloud essay samples, quickly discussing structural approaches, and then shifting into related writing prompts. All of the prompts focused on ways to generate material for personal essays or gave them tools to create useful organizational strategies for that new material. (If you're interested in seeing a syllabus, I'd be glad to share it.)

With so many kids and such a long work session, I did have to shift into teacher-voice mode, cruise the room with sharklike efficiency, employ the steely eye, and keep the discussions crisp. Carlene took over at the end of each exercise. She focused on synthesis, asking individual students to share and comment and pushing them to make connections with other classroom experiences. In other words, we worked as a tag team: I provided new content, and she tied the new content to previous learning.

This was not something we practiced ahead of time. We just did it on the fly . . . which is one of the things I love about working with good teachers. They are master improvisors. Jazz solos and great teaching have much in common.

Then, after this intense session, I wended my four-hour way through the White Mountains and back to Harmony--listening to the Red Sox not quite lose a game against Oakland, glimpsing a bittern standing frozen beside the road, following the progression of blossoms--azaleas, tulips, forsythia. In the midst all of this busyness, I'd learned that Same Old Story is a finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Poetry. It was a good day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sorry I didn't write to you yesterday: I was stricken with a sudden stomach bug, which fortunately ran its course quickly. I am now in fine shape to drive to New Hampshire this afternoon and to spend all day tomorrow in the classroom of master teacher Carlene Gadapee, who also happens to be my dear friend.

The drive across Maine and the White Mountains should be glorious. Two days' worth of rain have transformed the red-brown landscape into real spring. Grass has greened, leaves are unfolding, pale blossom buds are swelling on the fruit trees, soldier tulips are cracking their stiff petals.

Because I have to start working very early tomorrow, I probably won't write to you again till Thursday. But I'll be excited to share my teaching day with you. This will be the third visit I've made to Carlene's school, and I know that tomorrow's workshops will reinforce what I've already learned: that she is engaged, brisk, open-hearted, and demanding; that her students see her classroom as both a safe space and a door into the thrilling unknown; that she nurtures curiosity and risk as well as civility and responsibility. I always learn so much from watching her in action.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mothers and Mentors

As a holiday, Mothers' Day never receives too much attention in my family. We celebrate birthdays ardently, but none of us is very interested in the obligatory consumerism that surrounds these kinds of generalized occasions.

By chance, though, I did spend this year's Mothers' Day weekend with my own mother--a weekend in which we were both wrapped up in doing the concentrated work of being parent and grandparent rather than focusing on what kinds of celebratory attentions were due to us as mothers. Our days together were invested in cheering and coddling and supporting my son, showing him how happy we were in his delight, how proud we were of his growth as an artist. His response was intense gratitude and sweetness but, just as importantly, a vivid joy in sharing how he had come to grips with his role in a difficult play, in chattering about his creative excitement.

It struck me, as we talked, that we were three bonded generations for whom a life in art was as automatic as breath. The importance of our connection did not center in "I am your mother" but in "we speak the same language."

I am a writer because my mother gave me difficult books to read. She showed me that I had a right and a duty to procrastinate on housework because I was in the middle of an exciting part in David Copperfield. She talked about what she was reading and listened to me talk about what I was reading. Books were never, ever, a waste of time. Nor were they distraction or relaxation. Serious engagement with literature was a necessity of life.

Yet I am also a writer because my sons taught me how to work. I learned how to negotiate boredom and misery and exhaustion and anger. I learned to find space, to keep going. I learned to live outside myself, even as I lived within myself. I learned that responsibility to them meant responsibility to myself . . . and that such responsibility includes serving as both model and mentor. If I don't take myself seriously as an artist, if I don't do that work in front of them, fervently, rigorously, and consistently, how can I show them that they, too, must cultivate their flame?

On the page, these words may sound self-satisfied, sentimental, smarmy. Reality is messier. Commitment wavers; accidents swerve us toward good or evil; selfishness is power.

But there are moments when model and mentor, parent and child, cluster together around the flame. Dear ones, it is an honor to be in your company. Happy Mothers' Day.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

There are moments, clear as wine, when a parent sees the adult-to-be step forth from the child-who-is. The child swings a bat, or lifts a camera, or slowly reads aloud the sad words of Chief Joseph, and suddenly a door opens, and now, in this brief draught, the child reveals the body's coiled future, the mind's secret room.

That happened to me last night, when I watched my son on stage. I have seen him perform on stage since he was a second grader--first as a musician, later also as an actor. But last night I saw my son step forth as an artist.

It is hard to explain how moving this was: to watch him enact the role, and then, as the door swung open, to watch him become the role.

Nothing could be more beautiful.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Cousin Tanya

Dawn Potter

Clumsy as a half-growed hog,
shy as a goat and twice as dumb,
you were the candy apple of your daddy’s eye,
which goes to show that daddies
will love anything.

Balanced like a suitcase on his lap,
you’d toss your beef head, set those Shirley
Temple curls a-flutter.  He’d goose you
just to hear the squeal. “Ain’t she timid?”
he’d admire. It tickled him to think he’d spawned

a sweet young thing. “Don’t worry, sugar,”
coaxed your daddy, patting his old squeezebox.
“That’s no tommy gun.” You’d bellow then,
two-ton Faye Wraye primed for every panic cue,
the dopiest young stooge to wreck the set.

He’d named you after Tanya on that Lawrence Welk,
a moon-faced dame floating in a spangled gown,
and she could yodel, tap-dance, polka with the boss,
hawk Geritol and Special K, but never once
quit smiling. Yes, your daddy was a sucker

for accordions and romance, though your mama
drove a Farmall, wore a mustache, and outweighed him
by a hundred pounds. Husbands are a riddle.
Daddies, now—they’re easier to puzzle:
men who hoist a slack-jawed changeling

off a sagging couch and haul her up to bed,
girl-baby of their dreams,
no matter if she’s mute or scraggly,
cranky, mean, or mealy-mouthed.
When your daddy’s gone, you miss him.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Next week I'll be on the road again, teaching the first in a series of workshops on the lyric essay. This should be an interesting set of classes because, while the materials will remain essentially the same for each workshop, the participants will vary considerably. One group will be northcountry high schoolers in a college-level composition class; another will be community members at a seaside continuing-education center; and yet another will be graduate students in an urban MFA program. I almost wish I had a research assistant along for the ride--someone who could focus on taking copious notes on both the discussions and students' responses to the writing prompts.

To avoid any signs of conflict of interest, I've avoided mentioning the contest I just finished judging. Now that it's over, though, I can tell you that I spent a large chunk of April reading poetry submissions for the Frank O'Hara Prize. When the contest coordinator asked me to share some comments about how I went about the job, I told him this:
As I read the entries, I focused on several issues: (1) poems that used language in interesting ways, (2) poems that were dramatically cohesive, (3) poems that expanded beyond the speaker's own personal situation to address a more complex theme or issue, and (4) poems that did not seem to have preconceived endings. Gradually I whittled my stack down to the poems that seemed to do all of these things best.
 As you teach or write or read poems, how do you find yourself "judging" work? Do these criteria seem reasonable to you?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

This morning, I received the good news that Vox Populi will be publishing my essay on heartbreak.

Writing a sentence that includes both good news and heartbreak does feel odd, though, really, all the words under my fingers suddenly seem to be important and prescient. Despite my crazed spring-cleaning/garden-digging/overwrought-son-propping-up blitz, I've found myself suddenly bubbling over with ideas for new poems, with inspiration from Trollope, track meets, the pileated woodpecker hopping up the driveway (that was a peculiar sight), and so on, and so on. My poetry mind feels alive.

Trout lilies are blooming, trilliums are budding, asparagus is poking up through the compost, dandelions are flaunting, violets are uncurling, pond and tree frogs are burbling and squeaking and buzzing, spring is a breathless rush, and comma splices are required.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I did not write to you yesterday because I was not anywhere near my desk. Instead, I was immersed a long stream of appointments, furniture moving, carpet cleaning, dog grooming, and miscellaneous errands. But now the storm windows are off, the windows are open, and the soft air is drying the sopping carpet. Also, hanging out on a couch that's been temporarily parked in the middle of the yard is more fun than you'd think.

I finished up one editing job over the weekend and am waiting for another to return to me, so I'm seizing this fine weather to spring-clean before my parents arrive later in the week. And then our family will be all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all the time. Already I feel as if I could easily understudy for Rosencrantz, should an emergency arise.

In the meantime, I'll share the opening of a poem. I won't reprint the entirety here because it's under copyright, but you should search it out and find it for yourself. I don't love every single word, but I love a lot of them.

from Herman Melville by W. H. Auden

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went across each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Spring really has arrived in Maine: 70 degrees yesterday, the same forecast for today, and the birds are screaming in elation. I am considering wearing sandals to my gig this morning, as risky as that sounds. And then I will spend all afternoon in my mud boots, digging up garden beds and planting beets and carrots.

Oh, please, let this sweet soft air be real life.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

My band, Doughty Hill, is performing tonight at the East Sangerville Grange, opening at 6:30 for the Old Blues Kats. And tomorrow morning Sid Stutzman and I will be the brunch entertainment at Stutzmans' Cafe in Sangerville, 10 to 1. Come keep us company if you can.

In other news, Hamlet, Horatio, and Guildenstern's relay team came in first. Talk about an unexpected plot twist.

Also in other news: this week's New Yorker is singing the praises of Anthony Trollope, Coleman Hawkins is playing on the stereo, overwrought Paul is overwroughtly taking his SAT tests, and I planted lettuce, arugula, spinach, and French breakfast radishes yesterday. Today's jobs: planting beets and cilantro, cleaning up log-splitter rubble, and feeding ice cream to the overwrought SAT-er.

French breakfast radish is one of my favorite plant names.

Speaking of terminology: those Baltimore cops were charged with depraved-heart murder. The law professor interviewed on NPR said that his students are shocked and excited by that kind of archaic language. Of course they are. I can't stop thinking about it either.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Welcome to May. The temperature is 40 degrees under a lowering sky, just like it was in April. However, most of the snow has finally disappeared, and a few daffodils are bobbing in the dank wind.

This afternoon Paul will be running in his first track meet of the season. His 4 x 8 team includes three cast members from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Imagine: a relay team anchored by Hamlet, Horatio, and Guildenstern. Something tragic-comic-existential-absurd will inevitably ensue. I'm a little worried.
Rosencrantz: Well, shall we stretch our legs? 
Guildenstern: I don't feel like stretching my legs. 
Rosencrantz: I'll stretch them for you if you like. 
Guildenstern: We could stretch each other's. That way we wouldn't have to go anywhere.