Monday, August 31, 2015

Interesting information about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century northern New England

1. When a husband died, his household's goods went into probate: every single item, no matter how modest, was listed and priced, and the inventory became a matter of public record. Numbers of these inventories still exist, and in Good Wives historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich uses them as a way to learn how household work varied from woman to woman and place to place.

In 1670, what is now Maine's York County (Kennebunk, Ogunquit, and so on) was frontier. Along with Essex County, Massachusetts (Ipswich, Salem, and so on), it was the colony's northernmost stretch. Salem was a thriving seaport town, but most of the other communities were rural, and many were still battlegrounds in skirmishes among the British, the French, and the native tribes.

According to the 1670 probate inventories for these counties, not a single householder owned a fork. However, several owned mirrors (3 percent in York, 4 percent in Essex).

No forks. None. Not even in Salem, which received shiploads of imported English goods and probably had pewter and silversmiths. (Pewterware does exist in the inventories.) Yet a few Puritans did enjoy looking at themselves in mirrors.

2. "Sometime before 1782 Ruth Belknap, the wife of the minister at Dover, New Hampshire," wrote a comic poem about housework: "The Pleasures of a Country Life . . . written when I had a true taste of them by having no maid." Here's a sample:
Corn must be husk'd, and pork be kill'd,
The house with all confusion fill'd.
O could you see the grand display
Upon our annual butchering day,--
See me look like ten thousand sluts,
My kitchen spread with grease & guts,--
3. The poet Anne Bradstreet had a younger sister named Sarah Dudley who married Benjamin Keayne, "the son of a Boston merchant." In 1646, the couple visited London, where things did not go well for the pair. Sarah returned home alone and began to get into trouble with local church authorities for misdeeds such as "irregular Prophesying in mixt Assemblies" and, mysteriously, "Refusing ordinarily to heare in the Churches of Christ." Meanwhile, Benjamin was writing letters to his father-in-law and his childhood pastors, claiming that Sarah had "unwived herself." "[I have] hazarded my health & life, to satisfy the unsatiable lust of a wife" who, he said must also have been unfaithful, because she had given him a venereal disease. (Not his fault, he assured the ministers: no other woman had received, from him, "the due benevolence of a wife.")

Sarah's father, who was a mover and a shaker, managed to secure a civil divorce for his daughter, though she was subsequently excommunicated from the church for "odious, lewd & scandalous behavior" with a guy from Taunton, Massachusetts. Yet despite these black marks on her name, she did marry again, and then she and her second husband, Thomas Pacey, vanished into history. Let us hope he was more fun than Benjamin had been.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday morning, at the tail end of August. A jay is screeching in the white pine by the window. The refrigerator hums, and an empty log truck rumbles and jounces down the road into town. The rooms, for the last time this season, are full of sleeping boys, and in about five hours my kitchen and living room will be draped with giant slouching bodies cooking waffles, laughing, pondering computer glitches, updating me loudly on Premier League soccer scores, poking the cat, and satirizing presidential candidates.

But tomorrow J's friend goes back to his job, and both of my boys go to school, and I will step into the first writing day I've had for weeks or months or forever. Even during this summer's six boy-free weeks, I had so much editing to do that I could rarely snatch an opening for myself. So despite tomorrow's requisite tears, I hope the day will be an island.

Floating Island 
by Dorothy Wordsworth 
Harmonious Powers with Nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake, and sea:
Sunshine and storm, whirlwind and breeze
All in one duteous task agree. 
Once did I see a slip of earth,
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold; — how no one knew
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind. 
Might see it, from the mossy shore
Dissevered float upon the Lake,
Float, with its crest of trees adorned
On which the warbling birds their pastime take. 
Food, shelter, safety there they find
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives — and die:
A peopled world it is; in size a tiny room. 
And thus through many seasons’ space
This little Island may survive
But Nature, though we mark her not,
Will take away — may cease to give. 
Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn — the Isle is passed away. 
Buried beneath the glittering Lake!
Its place no longer to be found,
Yet the lost fragments shall remain,
To fertilize some other ground.

Tu Fu readers, how are you doing with your prose experiments?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

I haven't talked much about cooking lately, but of course late-summer food is the best there is. Yesterday I mixed up an enormous macaroni salad: whole-wheat orecchiette, diced red tomatoes, halved yellow cherry tomatoes, diced fresh mozzarella, tiny boiled green beans, fried scallions and garlic, ribbons of basil, olive oil, red-wine vinegar, salt and pepper. As a side dish, I made a turnip, carrot, and radish slaw, tossed with rice vinegar and salt and pepper. Musical accompaniment: The Basement Tapes. Conversation: why we can't stop looking at the glorious color photograph of Ingrid Bergman in the New Yorker.

I've started reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Northern New England Women, 1650-1750, which is just as mesmerizing as I'd hoped. Part 1 opens with a long epigraph from Proverbs 31--the King James Bible version of the "Who can find a virtuous woman" passage, a blueprint for Puritan women. Here's an excerpt:
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
In other words, to quote Virginia Lee Burton's Katie and the Big Snow, "Katie was big and strong, and she could do a lot of things."

In other words, to quote my poem "The Skillet Toss,"  "Men are proud to have a wife who can / fracture skulls, if she thinks it's worth her while."

As Ulrich writes, "The Puritans called this paragon 'Bathsheba,' assuming rather logically that Solomon [the supposed author of Proverbs] could only have learned such an appreciation for huswifery from his mother."

Friday, August 28, 2015

Tu Fu readers: You have, as far as I know, been reading poems XIII-XXIII. Many of you tell me that  you don't consider yourselves to be poets, and I know that some of you who do think of yourselves as writers work more often in prose than in poetry. Yet as a novelist friend was reminding me last week, reading poems can spark other forms of writing, just as (for me) reading prose often sparks poetry.

So I'd like you to choose a line from one of these poems, a line that speaks to you, and let it become the trigger for a few paragraphs of prose. Your prose can be fiction or nonfiction, memoir or criticism, journalism or scholarship, whatever you like. But let your relationship with the line drive your exploration. Let your emotional and visceral reactions lead you into your sentences.

As you did with your poem drafts, post your results here or email them to me privately.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Today is the first day of my younger son's last year of high school. Next week my older son leaves to begin the first day of his last year of college. For twenty-one years, they have been my first thought. Of course I am elegiac, but elated also--as if I have brought the horses to the gate, and now I am waiting to open it, waiting to let them run.

Someone recently told me, "You're only as happy as your saddest child." That's true, terribly true, but there's also the sense, in raising children, of teaching oneself out of a job. If I do it right, if the stars align, if the fates decree, they won't need my worry any more. The gate will be open. They will be running.

Worry is a shorthand for all the fear: of accidents, of heartbreak, of self-destruction. Worry is a shorthand for the care: the food, the clean clothes, the conversation, the books, the music, the laughter. Worry is a shorthand for the hungry, rusty partnership of parents, starved for time and space and love, fenced by schedules and labor and weariness. Worry is a shorthand for my own life, my private life, my selfish self: pigeon-holed into scant hours, hidden like a talisman . . . the life I share with no one, no one at all, the place where the small voices scratch their rough tunes.

What I write here is a splinter of slate, a narrow outcrop.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last night's storm was a disco extravaganza: strobe-light flashes, thunderous applause, and in the middle of the excitement an old poodle mildly pottering into the raindance as I stood at the door wondering whether our aged dog was going to die of a lightning strike while taking care of business at 2 a.m.

The end result of all this excitement was that I slept through the alarm and woke up to a dark-green morning that might as well be nine o'clock at night.

It's the last gasp of summer vacation, which means a day crammed with dentist appointments, piano lessons, soccer practices, summer term-paper revisions, emergency laundry, and rain rain rain. I have started reading Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, a novel I loved in college, but now I am maddened by the anti-Semitism and not sure I can keep plowing through it. My desk is heaped with books and papers, and the ficus tree is shedding leaves all over the floor, and the cat is leaving muddy paw marks on my time sheets, and all of the bath towels smell like the Wrestlers Spend a Week at the Beach, even though I put out clean ones yesterday morning.

I dreamed about spending the night in a small-town bus station that was also an indoor campground, and everyone there knew all about the latest Frost Place gossip, but refused to tell me what it was.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tu Fu readers: I know that several of you are heading back to school this week, so let me know if you want to put this project on hiatus. If I don't hear otherwise, I'll assume that you've found time to read the next ten poems, XIII through XXIII.


The weather continues to be moldy and sticky and lowering and dank. I am driving back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to Dover-Foxcroft; picking wet vegetables between the downpours; editing manuscripts; cooking for insatiable appetites; trying to read books but spending too much time on crossword puzzles; tossing and turning between hot sheets in a hot bedroom with a loud fan.


"Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never before seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life. I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it." --Joan Didion, "Quiet Days in Malibu"


I wonder why my sons aren't bored out of their skulls in this town, and they probably are, in fact I know they are, because they tell me they are; yet their smiles are cheerful, and they are always busy-- ferreting away among their toils and devices, bouncing into the kitchen to cook eggs, yodeling up the stairs at me, poking the cat. They undertake annoying tasks without prompting--for instance, picking Japanese beetles off the grapevines. They listen to Pet Sounds three times in a row because they're thinking of writing a play about Dennis Wilson. They take lavish interest in each other's jokes.


My son brings me my straw hat
And I go out and gather
A handful of fresh vegetables.
It isn't much to offer,
But it is given in friendship.

--Tu Fu, "Visitors," translated by Kenneth Rexroth

Monday, August 24, 2015

For the past six months or so, one of my daily activities has been to check the Somerset County Sheriff's booking log. Every arrest is listed by name, birthday, height, weight, body type, and crime and includes a mug shot: for example, Harli Davidson Jones, 11/2/92, 5' 2", 280 lbs., obese, burglary. (She's fictional.) I've been trying to figure out why I find this booking log so compelling, though I do know it goes beyond a prurient gossipy interest in looking at people I know in a bad situation. The mug shots in particular are fascinating. There are the sad, worn, drug-addled faces, and the mean wife-beater faces. There are the young girls who pose for the camera like they'd pose for a selfie. There are the confused, humiliated faces and the resigned faces and the impassive faces. But I've slowly discovered that a key element of my interest, and a key opening into figuring out how to write about this log, involves the t-shirts that people are wearing.

Every day I write down the words on the t-shirts. I include only the words I can see, even if I can guess what the rest of the shirt might say. I now have a longish running list, maybe a fifty different t-shirt quotations. Here's a sample, in the order in which I wrote them . . . which is to say: not purposefully composed into any narrative arc.
Out of the darkness
It’s tricky
Save the drama for your
This guy
 Now do you see why I can't stop looking?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sorry I didn't write yesterday, but I had to get a boy to school for a soccer tournament, and then I had to come home and tie up all of the sunflowers that the rain had bashed to the ground, and then I had to help load some nasty old mouse-smelling items into the back of Tom's truck for a dump run, and then I had to stand around and marvel at the goat barn that Tom is turning back into a garage. If all goes well, this winter I will be parking my car under a roof behind a door that closes. I feel so suburban. Of course, on the plus side there will be no electricity, no automatic door opener, and a long dark slippery downhill walk to the house. At least I will be able to feel like I live in the 1940s.

Little by little, my editing life is becoming more manageable; and it's possible I may be able to begin writing again. Those 1970s Didion essays I've been reading, combined with the Kenyon poems, are leading my mind in various, possibly productive directions; and once I get Beowulf back from my son (he's borrowed it for a school paper), I can return to that project as well. School starts for one boy later this week, for the other the following week. Our household crush 'n' fun will diminish, and the days will get shorter, and the grass will stop growing, and at some point I will be able to open my eyes and look outside the circle again.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about an email I received about the way in which I write about poetry: "You . . . talk about how poetry is baked but never seem to get it out of the oven." The note was from an acquaintance with whom I've had a long and difficult correspondence. It's not a random trolling remark; nonetheless, it was certainly intended as criticism--in particular, of my inability to expound on poetry as philosophy, ideas, concepts, whatever term you prefer. He dislikes my focus on concrete details of language as a centerpiece for discussion; he thinks that true poetic conversation should be more exalted.

I cannot talk that way because I cannot think that way. My mind shuts down, just as it shuts down when anyone starts discussing calculus or Kant. Do I believe those topics are stupid and useless? No. Please, talk about them all you like. Please, discover something wonderful in the process. Please, use your discoveries to enhance your creative and moral life. Please.

But I think there's something terrible in presuming that different thinking is lesser thinking. I spent so many of my early writing years, in my teens and 20s and 30s, weighed down by my non-scholarly "female" mind. I did not want to be a Muse, I did not want to be a Philosopher, I did not want to be an Academic, I did not want to be a Poet. I wanted to make something . . . something rough and round and small and mine.

So what I want to say here is: Please. There is grace in saying, "I don't understand why this matters to you, but I am happy that you are excited."

I promise that I will try to do this for you as well.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Harmony has rain this morning, our first rain for a while. I guess this means I won't be mowing grass at 7 a.m., which during our heat wave has been the only way I've been able to manage to keep up with my chores. And it is pleasant to sit quietly and drink coffee instead of rushing around to beat the blaring sun. Of course, because Harmony only ever has three or four days of blaring sun, I also feel vaguely elegiac. There goes summer.

September is shaping up to be an extraordinarily busy month. On the 6th, my band Doughty Hill is performing at the Harmony Fair (and I am also running the exhibit hall this year: want to judge anything?). On the 11th, I'm reading with Baron Wormser at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell. On the 12th and 13th, I have band gigs in Dover-Foxcroft and Monson. On the 18th, I'm co-hosting (with Colby College professor and poet Adrian Blevins) the first installment of Two Cent Talks, a new reading series in Waterville, which will feature novelist Carolyn Chute. On the 26th, I'm reading at the Local Buzz in Cape Elizabeth. On the 27th, I'm reading at the Frank O'Hara Poetry Awards ceremony in Worcester, Massachusetts. On October 1, I'm reading with Teresa Carson at the Collected Poets series in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Then I can go home, climb into bed, and turn 51.

However, as long as you don't invite me to do anything in September, I am looking forward to visiting your school, reading in your gallery, hanging out in your library, or playing music in your bar, so be in touch with ideas. All of a sudden I am hearing buzz about The Conversation--by which I mean: people I don't know are posting nice things about it on websites and Facebook pages. This surprises me as I expected almost no sales or interest beyond my Frost Place friends. It seems, however, that other people are finding the book readable and useful, which makes me very happy.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

From "The Women's Movement" by Joan Didion (1972)

In 1972, in a "special issue" on women, Time was still musing genially that the [women's] movement might well succeed in bringing about "fewer diapers and more Dante."

That was a very pretty image, the idle ladies sitting in the gazebo and murmuring lasciate ogni speranza, but it depended entirely on the popular view of the movement as some kind of collective yearning for "fulfillment," or "self-expression," a yearning absolutely devoid of ideas and capable of engendering only the most pro forma benevolent interest. . . .

[Women] were being heard, and yet not really. Attention was finally being paid, and yet that attention was mired in the trivial. Even the brightest movement women found themselves engaged in sullen public colloquies about the inequities of dishwashing and the intolerable humiliations of being observed by construction workers on Sixth Avenue. . . . They totted up the pans scoured, the towels picked off the bathroom floor, the loads of laundry done in a lifetime. Cooking a meal could only be "dogwork," and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one's own forced labor. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their "freedom."


In 1972 I was eight years old: "an odious mechanism for the spilling and digesting of food." It is so strange to think of myself as both specific cause of the problem and specific inheritor of the problem.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Thinking about Your Tu Fu Poems

Three of you sent me poems written from the prompt I gave you a few days ago. All were remarkable first drafts--very individual to the poet and his or her world yet sharing an immediacy and a patience that shows me how much richness you have absorbed from your study of Tu Fu's work. Not all of you cared to share your work publicly, but I hope you don't mind if I quote brief passages from each poem.

Poem 1 is set at a historic village in New England. These lines appear in the latter half of the poem:
Suddenly the light shifts,
fields glow, and through open doors
windows on the bare stone walls slouch
into gloom.
"Slouch into gloom"! What a vision! And the transitions within this sentence--from "Suddenly" we move from light, to fields, to interior, to darkness. This is a stunning moment, mirrored by a beautiful sentence. The poem began with much simpler sentence structure, so, to me, this shift into complexity almost feels like a volta--the point in a sonnet when the discussion or argument turns toward revelation.

Poem 2 is set at an airport in a Canadian city. These are the opening lines:
From a high ceiling ad banners
hang silent over vast floors.
Outside in the dark,
cars wait for planes to land.
Immediately the poem conjures up an image of cavernous quiet. At the same time the poet is also constructing two settings at once--inside and outside--which will allow him, in the rest of the poem, to play with the ideas of seen and unseen, isolation and community. His sentence structure and word choices are plain and exact, with a somber elegance of pacing. 

Poem 3 is set at at Atlantic beach. These are the closing lines:
Grit, salt, and sweetness.
Why would I wash this all away?
Throughout the poem, the poet has been pondering the physical immediacies of sand, salt, and sugar. Her speaker is happy and grateful, and the poem focuses on the pleasures of the moment. Yet it ends with a question: the poet introduces an ambiguity that doesn't necessarily equate with pure joy. In other words, she gives the reader the choice of imagining either option: I won't wash this away. I will wash this away. This, to me, feels like a step into fear: a risky question, and one that the poet doesn't necessarily want to face. Yet framing a Tu Fu-like question has pushed her toward that cliff.

These three first drafts were powerful responses to your reading. I'd be interested to hear more from you about the experience of writing and also what aspects of Tu Fu's work resonated most with you as you worked.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sports Training and Arts Training

When I picked up my son after soccer practice yesterday, he was, as I expected, hot and tired. He hadn't played soccer all summer and had gone running only occasionally, and on his first day of practice he'd been doing drills in 90-degree heat. But after gulping down a bottle of Moxie, he said that, in fact, he felt in better shape than he ever had before and that his touch on the soccer ball was surer. Why? Because he'd spent his summer dancing and doing physical theater exercises. Not only was he stronger, but he felt more confident inside his body.

This makes complete sense, of course, but I daresay few high school sports coaches would consider integrating artistic techniques into their training regimens. I take that back: maybe a few coaches of girls' sports might try it.

Once in a while I'll hear a story about a professional football player who takes dance classes, or a major-league manager who makes everyone on the team do yoga. But who needs body confidence more than a gaggle of awkward, rapidly growing, self-conscious teenagers--boys as well as girls? Shouting at a boy to "Be tough! Power on through!" doesn't teach him much about living inside his own skin.

I have never been an athlete. As a young person, I hated playing all sports and felt like a freak on every team. I dreaded gym class and was horribly self-conscious about my clumsiness and my appearance. Simultaneously, however,  I was studying the violin at a fairly high level--learning physical control and breathing techniques; honing my stamina; absorbing lessons about the elegance of performance, about the link between relaxation and concentration, about how to exist in the moment, about how to take the leap.

No violin teacher ever suggested that playing a sport might intersect usefully with my violin studies. The implication was "Don't waste your time. What if you break your fingers? Just practice more." No coach ever considered that my musical training might intersect usefully with any other kind of bodily training. The implication was "You're an athlete, or you're nothing."

I know things are different today. The passage of Title 9 has made an enormous difference in extracurricular life. Now that girls must have equal access to high school sports, high school sports have have adjusted to "girlishness" . . . at least in girls' sports. And I think arts programs have certainly come to terms with athletics, partly because they've had to adjust in order to maintain administrative commitment to their curricula but also because teachers truly do recognize the overlaps among different kinds of performance skills.

Nonetheless, dance training for varsity boys still seems fairly unlikely. I can already hear the sniggers and complaints.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Tu Fu readers: You are fast workers! I've seen two poems already, and the rest of you should keep the drafts coming, either by email or posted as a comment. I'll talk after I collect a clutch of them.

This will be a crazy week for me. Soccer preseason practice starts today, which translates as driving driving driving punctuated by editing editing editing. I will do my best to be a good correspondent, but forgive me if I flag.

One thing I did want to ask: If you've had a chance to read The Conversation and feel moved to write a short Amazon review, I'd really appreciate it. Those reviews are very helpful for sales. And if you feel like writing anything longer, interviewing me for your own blog, whatever, whatever, please let me know how I can help.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

--Joan Didion, "The White Album"


Today is the morning of the hottest day of summer. Somewhere above the verge of the forest a young red-tailed hawk is burring. Closer to the window I hear the nasal ankh of a nuthatch, the long rattle of a grasshopper. Light brushes the tumbled red dahlias, the thicket of lavender and white phlox, the tight lemony shrubs of marigold. Under the maples the grass is thick with dew. A brown spider launches a sticky strand across the clotheslines. Soon I will lumber outside with my baskets of wet laundry and destroy her work.

I have spent this past week driving, and talking, and scheduling, and cooking, and tending my young nephews, and editing, and mowing, and harvesting, and getting a poetry collection rejected, and I am tired. Some of the stories we tell ourselves in order to live don't move the people who hear them. I am not complaining or resentful. This is just the way of things.

Still, the stories exist, and we have told them. "We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices," continues Didion.
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. 
Or at least we do for a while.
Today is the morning of the hottest day of summer. Already, in this letter, I have told its story, one of its stories. I left out the robin's song and the shadow of the brussels sprouts sloping over the dusty soil. The bird in the forest may or may not have been a red-tailed hawk, young or otherwise. The spider may have removed her web to a blueberry bush. The only sure ending is the laundry.

"You couldn't write a bad poem if you tried," said a voice on the telephone, but this of course is untrue. I can write a false poem, a flippant poem--easily, with scarcely an effort. I can labor over poems that I love and politely listen to readers explain why they hate them. There's a cost to all of this, as you know--you who love your stories as you love your awkward, imperfect, heartbreaking children.

"I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative's intelligibility," writes Didion, "but to know that one could change the sense with every [movie] cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical."

Today is the morning of the hottest day of summer. "The experience [is] rather more electrical than ethical." Already the light has shifted from fairy tale to furnace. I am forcing myself to write about it, to avoid living inside it.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tu Fu, Poems XIII-XVII

During the past few weeks, you've talked about various ways in which Tu Fu's poems trigger an emotional response. We've mentioned word choice (simplicity of nouns, for instance), point of view (first person, present tense), links to other writers (Shakespeare, Hemingway) and forms (haiku, sonnets). You've considered the endings of his poems, their line breaks, and the translator's decisions.

With all of that conversation murmuring in your mind, I want you, now, to write your own poetic response to the reading you've been doing. My prompt is very general, very open: take it where you will.
Who are you, right now, at this moment in time? And what are you looking at?
I suggest that you stay in the present tense, keep your sentence structure simple, and use I. When in doubt, describe what you see/hear/touch/smell rather than what you feel. The emotions will seep out on their own. Refer back to Tu Fu's poems as models, focusing in particular on how he talks about the seasons in this set.

When you're ready, post a draft in the comments or, if you prefer, email it to me privately.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sadly, I came home from Vermont to discover that all of my beautiful loaded tomato plants had been stricken with late blight. For those who don't know: late blight is the fungoid disease that caused the Irish potato famine, and it strikes apparently healthy plants late in the growing season, just before harvest. The fungus can be passed by wind and infect every tomato and potato on the property, and it overwinters so you can't compost the plants. The good news is that my potatoes are far away from my tomatoes and look fine. The bad news is that James and I spent a glum and tedious afternoon yanking up my tomatoes and burning them.

Ah, well.

Otherwise, life in Harmony has donned its August cloak. Locusts are humming, and the goldenrod is blooming. I am reading the poetry of Jane Kenyon and the essays of Joan Didion and the detective fiction of Dorothy Sayers. The boys and I are listening to a terrifying but compelling podcast series called "Charles Manson's Hollywood." The boys are reading Beowulf and Infinite Jest and the shorter plays of Beckett. In the evenings we watch episodes of Better Call Saul and eat enormous bowls of raspberries. All of us are laden with graduating-from-college work/editing work/getting-into-college work/hard-physical-labor work, but we are mostly cheerful and even sometimes productive. Facsimiles of Dave Brubeck and the Band rise from the digital piano. There are never any leftovers, and the refrigerator is always empty. The bathroom cupboard is cluttered with strange hair-care products advertised to create "that just-got-out-of-bed look." Late at night I hear the voices of young men as they walk around the yard under the stars and murmur to girls on their cell phones.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Well, I'm home again, and scrambling to deal with an overflowing stack of work and home stuff. So this note will be brief.

1. I will get back to talking about the College Essay Torture Chamber. To this point, all of my prompts have involved working to balance the boy's concrete/abstract, fact/feeling impulses. We are entering the narrative stage now, but are still wrestling with self-revelation. Style has not reared its head, but it will, it will. Coaching a teenager into writing a personal essay is like trying to knead bread with a twig.

2. Tu Fu readers: The comments on poems XI and XII are fascinating, so keep them coming. In the meantime, move on to reading poems XIII through XVII. In a day or so, I'll give you a writing assignment. Yes, you read that correctly: your poems are next.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Seven a.m. on a wet morning in the land between the mountain ranges. Last night four boys, ages 10 to 21, lay on the living room floor playing Parcheesi and listening to out-of-date top-40 hits and laughing their heads off. Watching them was like being in a time machine: 35 years ago in central New Jersey, six kids lay on my aunt's living room floor, playing Operation and listening to Donna Summer 45s and laughing their heads off. I think the love that my cousins and I have for each other, wordless and archaic, is rooted in these bell-jar moments of communal silliness. As adults, we have little in common, other than our solidarity at funerals and marriages. But we do have the memory of arguing over who got to use the Spirographs, and we can all tell you about the time Peggy Sue puked in the hall after my dad smoked a cigar in the house and how Uncle Bob said he was going to whale our tails after he found out we'd been playing Hide-n-Seek in his wheat field.

Monday, August 10, 2015

My home is in the woods but for a few days I am surrounded by fields and sky. To the west the land flows down, over hedgerows and orchards, toward the southern tip of Lake Champlain, invisible, though it is only a mile or two away. Beyond the hidden lake rises a bank of blue hills, the Adirondacks. To the east, the land ripples up, across pastures and hayfields, past church spires and copses, toward the Green Mountains--the foothills banded with forest, the eastern steeps as blue as the west.

Nothing circumscribes the eye. Between mountain range and mountain range, the landscape is as peaceable as a daisy, the work of three hundred years of cultivation. Here, if nowhere else, rural America plays the role of an English shire . . . the mask of age, of a long-tamed planet, of country life as Arcadian harvest feast.

Sir Philip Sidney

Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust;
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust;
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That both doth shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heav'n, and comes of heav'nly breath.
Then farewell, world; thy uttermost I see:
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Greetings from scenic Vermont, where I am trying to teach my nephew to play the first two guitar chords in a Macklemore song, though after some frustration over a D chord we have now switched to "Smoke on the Water," every non-guitar-playing ten-year-old's favorite first riff. Soon we will have to take a break to eat ice cream and play mini-golf.

In other words, if you don't hear from me regularly for the next few days, assume I'm busy watching a PG movie, ordering pizza, or making a middle schooler clean the cat box.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tu Fu, Poems XI and XII

These two poems share the same title, "By the Winding River"; and when I was rereading them this week, I found myself thinking about Shakespeare's sonnets--154 poems in the same form about more or less the same subject.

Poets tend to obsess, mull over, second-guess, perseverate, so it's no surprise to me that Tu Fu was rehashing his subject matter. But the fact that they share a title makes me wonder if he was trying to work something out in this pair of poems.

How did copying out these poems affect your ability to recognize their similarities and differences?

Did each poem take you into a different emotional or imaginative place? Or did you feel as if both poems brought you to the same place?

What elements of language (word choice, syntax, etc.) seem individual to each poem? Or shared by both poems?

How have you, as a writer, as a human being, dealt with subjects that you can't seem to get out of your system?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

I have been wasting time this morning scanning Virginia Woolf's letters from 1925-26 in search of learning more about her hopes and fears for the manuscript of To the Lighthouse. It seems, however, that most of her letters from that period are flirtations with Vita Sackville-West or gossips with her sister, Vanessa--interesting, of course, but not what I was looking for.

Not that it's any surprise, really, to watch a writer avoid talking about her writing.

I was looking at some of my recent poems this morning--thinking about the western Pennsylvania manuscript, thinking about the poems I've written concurrently that have nothing to do with that manuscript, thinking about how difficult it is to manage the expectations that readers have about one's writing. It is not interesting to keep writing the same kinds of poems, but so many readers are drawn to the familiarity of a style. It is not interesting to keep writing the same kinds of poems, but the experiments feel strange and unwieldy and dangerous. One reader says one thing, one says another, and in the end no one is any help at all. Nonetheless, the poems exist: sanded, polished, arranged on their rack.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Our household is trapped in the summer doldrums of daily thunderstorms, bionic lawn growth, a broken dryer, and towels that never, ever dry. Nonetheless, life is pleasant. One boy is eating a dozen plums and shouting out thoughts about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The other is writing a "very American noir" screenplay and frying eggs. I am kneading bread, giving one boy the backstory of Mary-Percy-Harriet-Clair-Byron-Wollstonecraft-Godwin, asking the other, "What does 'very American noir' mean?," wondering if we're out of coffee and who's going to drive Boy 2 to his piano lesson, and meanwhile I've been reading straight through the collected poems of Jane Kenyon and realizing that our subject matters completely overlap yet our themes and tones and moods are entirely different.

Partly it's the present clutter of my life that has made me realize that many of her poems center on only one or two characters. They are spacious, even when they are tiny. Her poem "The Sandy Hole" is a four-line version of Frost's "Home Burial."  Four lines. I was overwhelmed.


Because Carlene, at least, seems interested in my college-essay prompts, here's the assignment I gave my son yesterday.

College Essay Exercise #2

1. Using your list of starred words as prompts, write 5 sentences that focus primarily on the story of the event.

2. Using your list of circled words as prompts, write 5 sentences that focus primarily on your own reactions, feelings, experiences during and after the event.

The sentences do not need to connect logically, nor do the two parts of the exercise need to be linked. Your goal is simply to start expanding your initial word impulses into more detailed sentences.


Today's prompt will probably lead him into building a narrative structure for his forthcoming first draft.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tu Fu readers: Feel free to continue commenting on Sunday's post, but let's also move on to a third reading assignment. This time we're going to focus on just two poems: "XI: By the Winding River I" and "XII: By the Winding River II." At some point this week, copy out each of those poems word for word, and on Friday morning I'll give you a conversation prompt.


In addition to ushering you through these Tu Fu poems, I've begun working with my son on his Common App essay. We're starting close to ground zero: which is to say, he has a general idea about his topic but has not written a word about it. After we agreed that he had to treat my assignments like classroom work rather than annoying mom nagging, I gave him this exercise.

College Essay Exercise #1

1. Working as fast as you can, without overthinking your choices, write down at least 25 words that come to mind when you think about the event, your relationship to that event, your place in the world at the time of the event, your feelings about the event then, your feelings about it now, etc., etc. Don’t try to reach for fancy language or be incredibly exact. The point is to throw a lot of material on the page and see what shows up.

2. Take a half-hour break. Now go back and reread your list.
a. Star all of the words that seem central to the story of the event.
b. Circle all of the words that seem central to the story of you.

The list he left on my desk is very, very interesting. Many of the starred event words are verbs and concrete nouns. Many of the starred you words are abstract nouns. Anyone who has ever taught writing to a teenager will recognize how often they reach for abstractions in their poems and essays. However, the particular way in which I structured my question helped me understand that young writers may be reaching for abstractions as a way to frame and define their own identities. Adolescents are acutely aware of the disconnect between the physicality of their bodies and their chaotic, amorphous inner selves. So perhaps, when guiding my son into writing an essay about himself, I need to help him make use of his natural linguistic shift between the physical and the intangible. In any case, that's my idea at the moment. We'll see what happens.

Monday, August 3, 2015

After six quiet weeks, Boy Land is in full swing again. The eating, the chattering, the thumping around in bedrooms at 3 a.m., the hot-water use, the piano noodling at 3 a.m., the ironic playing of Devo records, the "let's sell this on EBay" ideas, the eating, the eating, the device cords plugged into all available outlets including the counter on which I am trying to make dinner, the conversations about Becket and Chinatown and Cheez-Doodles, the beard growing, the hair dyeing, the cuddling of cats, the long walks in the woods, the coma-like sleep till 1 p.m. followed immediately by "let's climb Mount Katahdin!" . . . you're getting the idea, I'm sure.

Suffice it say that I have returned to my "make bread every day" schedule.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Responses to Tu Fu, Poems VI-X

Last Thursday I had three experiences that, in their brief overlap, seem to connect to what you readers have been experiencing with this week's Tu Fu poems. In the morning, a writer acquaintance introduced me to a stranger as "the poet Dawn Potter," and this person looked at me with so much wonder and respect that I thought I would sink into the ground in humiliation. I came home after that incident to discover a personal letter from the poet Donald Hall sitting in my mailbox. My first response was to be afraid to open it in case he was angry about something I'd written. And in the evening my younger son called to tell me that, during a conversation, the director of his theater program had said in amazement, "Your mother is Dawn Potter? I've read her books!" My response was terror that the director might say something to me about this when I met him the next day.

I'm giving you my first raw response to each of these incidents. Of course, my reactions immediately became more complicated mixtures of pleasure, curiosity, comedy, confusion, elation. I hope I managed to respond with a reasonable amount of dignity. But I've been thinking about this strange burst of public acknowledgment and trying to parse the way in which my everyday sense of myself kept spontaneously fleeing from the identity of Poet . . . even though this is an identity that I've been cultivating for much of my life.

The reason I'm bringing up these anecdotes here is that I felt, from your remarks on the Tu Fu poems, that you were beginning to ponder the way in which the specifics of language not only build a particular piece of work but also build a particular poet's identity within the larger body of his work and the lifeline of literature. I have no idea if Tu Fu read Japanese poetry. I have no idea if Hemingway read Tu Fu. But you have: you are the reader who is drawing those connections, nurturing that spark among the writers.

This is the reader's gift to the writer. But would the ungrateful writer respond graciously to your gift? On Thursday, I certainly did not respond that way to my sweet readers. And that disconnect resonated with Carlene's thoughts about lingering over lines such as "It is / Sad, meeting each other again," with David's thoughts about soldiers at the Battle of the Wilderness. Ruth wrote, "How often we meet the past and expect one thing, but find it doesn't match our expectations." The poetic imagination--the inner flame, the artistic self, whatever one might call it--cannot help but clash with the actuality of the world. And it is so sad, and so painful, and I don't know why it happens. That collision can itself be hugely influential in the conversation between actor and spectator: I think this may be true especially in the performing arts. But it hurts.

In his letter to me, Donald Hall was responding to the copy of the The Conversation he'd just received. The book reprints a poem by his late wife, Jane Kenyon. It's a long, many-sectioned piece titled "Having It Out with Melancholy," and Don said to me:
I'm delighted to see Jane there, in her glory. Most folks just print "Let Evening Come." I suppose it's Jane's "Lake Isle of Innisfree." [But "Having It Out with Melancholy"] was probably the poem that Jane was proudest of.
I reprinted Jane's poem because I, her reader, admire it immensely. Her husband, who loved her dearly and nurtured her work, wrote to tell me how much this poem mattered in their shared lives.

How would she respond to our pleasure and admiration, this poet of elegy and sadness? I don't know. But I do know that she would struggle, she would have to struggle. How could she not? For she is the poet who wrote, in "Evening Sun,"
                                        And I knew then
that I would have to live, and go on
living: what a sorrow it was; and still
what sorrow burns
but does not destroy my heart.