Thursday, July 19, 2018

A photo of the forest fire situation near Temagami, Ontario

Last night, I got a note from my younger son, who's been incommunicado in Ontario, where he works at a wilderness canoe camp. It turns out he's smack in the middle of a giant firefighting operation. Forest fires are rampant in that area of the province, and Temagami, the town closest to his base camp, is particularly at risk. He says the camp itself is not in danger, but of course all of their local canoe trips have been affected, given road, river, and forest closures. Plus, there's the general anxiety of being responsible for the well-being of all of those campers. He sounds exhausted.

So that's a new worry. Nobody wants their kid to be in a forest fire. But now that he's got wifi again, I guess I can tell him about our downburst damage. We can swap awful tree stories.

At the moment, however, Portland is serene. Yesterday I planted two blueberry bushes in the front yard, washed a load of sheets, and submitted some poems to journals. Nothing fell over or caught on fire.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

After last week's downburst mess, I was nervous about yesterday's severe thunderstorm forecast. But as it turned out, we ended up with the best possible scenario: hours and hours of steady rain and almost no wind. So after getting a batch of editing finished, I spent my rainy day sitting on the couch and revising yet another new poem. This makes nine. Nine! I can't believe I'm still rolling.

Today the yard and garden are green and wet. Everything looks joyous. I'm planning to hang sheets on the line, mow some grass, do some weeding, run some errands. Maybe write poem number ten. A new editing project is due to me by the end of the week, and then my writing honeymoon will be over. But no one can say I've wasted my time. [Actually, many people could say it, and most people probably would.]


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

I struggle to concentrate on my daily routine when the so-called leader of my nation is blithely burbling treason. I muck around with my little garden projects; I frost a cake; I make a pot of coffee for friends. But the man is a terrifying, fawning, narcissistic idiot. It's hard to avoid comparisons to Mussolini.

Anyway, here's the cake I made.


Monday, July 16, 2018

A faint and foggy morning. I wish it would rain, but the forecast says no. Today I get to loll around at the auto shop waiting for a state inspection and an oil change, and then I get to come home and bake a chocolate birthday cake for a dear young person. One of these things is better than the other.

My new garden bed is now complete, at least dimension-wise, for I have run out of compost-mulch. Already I've been able to transplant a few sad iris roots into fresh digs. At some point this week I will wander off to a nursery and see what other perennials I can find/afford.

I did zero writing over the weekend, which was just as well. My body needed some action. Something poem-like may happen today, in between car inspection and cake baking and floor washing. I'm still waiting for editing projects to return to me; I've got a band gig on Friday; distractions are heating up. But that doesn't mean the poems are dead.

And I need to find something to read.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Yesterday Tom and I crammed two loads of storm-damaged branches into a borrowed pickup, and he hauled them off to the dump. Then he came home and worked on the desk he's building, and I made some progress on a garden reclamation project.

On a strip of ground on one side of our driveway, some long-ago homeowner once tried to establish a perennial garden, even going so far as to make a stone stairway between our driveway and the neighbors'. But the plot has been neglected for years and is now a horrible mess of goldenrod, nightshade, burdock, maple saplings, rocks, and tree roots. For the past couple of months I have been keeping the weeds in check with a trimmer, and in the process I've uncovered some pathetic lilies and iris, a few unhappy rosebushes, and a limp peony. Now I've begun the next stage of garden recovery: spreading wheelbarrow loads of the compost-mulch I've been cooking since last fall. The mixture combines new soil from my two compost bins with last year's fallen maple leaves, which I had raked into a corner of the backyard and have been turning from time to time. My goal is to gradually spread a thick layer of the mixture on this ugly strip of ground, thus creating manageable and arable beds while suppressing the ferocious weeds. It's what a friend calls the pancake-makeup approach to gardening.

When I told Tom last fall that I was planning to keep all of the leaves that fell off our trees--and the trees are enormous, so there are many, many leaves--he was not enthusiastic, but he didn't argue. Still, I clung to what I hoped would be a good idea, though I wasn't sure the leaves would break down fast enough to be useful . . . or that I could get them out of the pile before the next batch of autumn detritus arrived. Yet here I am, less than a year later, with yards of fine free soil.

Chainsaws and giant compost piles: who knew how handy country-honed skills would be in the city?

Plus, after we finished working, we tidied up and took a long sweet walk into town for one of the best dinners out I've had in quite a while.

We're doing okay here.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The finished poem count has reached eight. I'm starting to feel like a baseball team with a win streak.

Unlike past writing sieges, this one has required physical stillness. Instead of wandering around staring out the windows or running up and down the stairs doing idle little chores, I've had to sit quietly on the couch, letting my mind perambulate and my body sag. I wonder why the creative mind requires these kinds of physical maneuvers. In a way it will be a relief to step aside from such mental bossiness and do some regular outside work this weekend. Not that I'm dying to haul storm detritus, but sitting on the couch for hours is a dangerous habit.

Between bouts of writing I've been reading John Banville's The Blue Guitar and my childhood copy of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. Yesterday, on a forced walk, I found a hardcover copy of Barbara Tuchman's The Distant Mirror in a free box. Somewhere in this house is a paperback copy of that book, which I've already read several times. But it occurred to me that a dip into the fourteenth century might be a good backup activity, so I've added it to the stack of coffee table entertainments.

And it opens with one of my favorite epigraphs of all time--a quote from John Dryden's "On the Characters in the Canterbury Tales":
For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Since returning from the Frost Place I have finished--not just drafted, but finished--seven new good poems. I haven't experienced a flurry like this for years, maybe not since the early days of Chestnut Ridge, back in 2014 or thereabouts.

Every morning I sit on the couch, pull four random words out of whatever I'm reading, and immediately fall into the making lake. By good fortune my workload has been light, so I've been able to drop everything to write. That will have to change once my editing and teaching obligations start rolling in. But for the moment, I can hang on to the illusion of being invincible.

One funny thing about this trip into the zone: The act of writing isn't feeling like inspiration or exaltation or anything fuzzy at all. Instead, it all feels very prosaic and obvious. What's notable is how fast I am working. I make quick decisions about content and about structural and language elements; my sentences move swiftly. I've always been a person who writes by ear--that is, I hear a cadence before I put words to it--but those cadences in my head are particularly vibrant right now, and the voice in each poem seems to leap out fully formed.

It's like I am crackling with electricity.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Sadness of Poets Who Are Cruel to Their Own Gifts

During the past week I have been corresponding with a friend who is struggling--as many of us surely do--with the disconnect between how he perceives his talents (as minimal) and how others perceive them (as considerable). I think there are so many ways in which we dampen our own lights. My friend remains diffident about his status as a poet and a thinker, yet to me he is an intellectual and emotional beacon. This is not flattery. This is truth. So how does the gap arise between what seems self-evident to this person who is looking at himself and what seems self-evident to the people who are watching him exist in the world?

I recognize this disconnect in myself. For instance, I know I am a good teacher and a good poet, but my lack of educational credentials is a major source of inner anxiety. As soon as other writers start chatting about their MFA programs, famous mentors and pals, etc., I fall down a hole and begin beating myself up as inconsequential, unknown, provincial, and so on and so on. Someone will yank me up out of that hole and slap me around a little, and, dazed, I'll look at her and say, "Oh. Okay. I'm fine, then." But next chance I get, I'll fall straight down the hole again. It's stupid, just like it's stupid (and I use the word in the nicest possible way) that my correspondent downplays his own inimitable gifts.

We all have our little hamster problems, and I'm tired of them. I want my friend to honor and publicize his necessary gifts. I want other friends to do the same. This world needs to hear from you all. Likewise, I want to kick my own self-loathing to the curb. I mean, what the hell? I would never judge anyone else by their diploma. So why can't I give myself the same permission?

Earlier this week I posted about the way in which, as a teacher, I try to recognize my deficiencies, try to model that recognition, try address the process of working through the ways in which I hamstring myself. I think that so many of the people I love and admire are devotees of humility. But humility is double-edged. It keeps us open and loving, but it also keeps us from throwing back our shoulders and striding into the world we long to inhabit.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

So three days ago I posted all of those cozy photos of my garden, and now you get something completely different: the aftermath of yesterday's microburst: aka 30 seconds of backyard devastation. Two minutes before this happened I was sitting on the front stoop with the cat, quietly watching storm clouds move in.




By some miracle, nothing was damaged except those two lawn chairs. Branches brushed against the house and against my car, but didn't land directly on either. But what a mess! And thank goodness for Tom, who can do everything. He came home from work five minutes after the havoc, looked around in amazement, laughed and shrugged, then got out his chainsaw and went to work. Now our yard is littered with firewood and we have giant brush piles in the driveway, and it's like being back in Harmony again.

On the plus side: Tom and I have a certain comic camaraderie in such situations. Otherwise, how could we have survived Harmony for so long?

P.S. Here's a new poem, out in the currrent issue of Salamander. It's the title poem of my collection-in-embryo.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Negotiating the Poet-Teacher Balance

I drafted yet another poem yesterday. The beat goes on, apparently. And it seems that I'm not the only Frost Place person to be in the zone. Since last Friday, four participants have either shared new drafts with me, asked for revision advice, told me they were writing furiously, or talked at length about poems they were reading. Given that several of these people do not feel comfortable calling themselves poets (or, I should say, have not previously thought of themselves that way), this is a momentous turn of events. Something large has happened, creatively.

The director of any program must attend to tricky points of balance. Her job is to facilitate the session in ways that make it most useful to the participants. She cannot take her own gaps and lacks into primary consideration. In other words, she has to behave like a teacher. In my case, the irony is that I'm leading a program that focuses on breaking teachers out of that mold: that is, the impulse to neglect their own inner lives for the sake of their students' inner lives. Metaphorically, you could say that I'm working to help our participants fill their own cups so that those cups will then overflow into the lives around them.

In the process, I sometimes find myself doing exactly what I'm attempting to keep the participants from doing: that is, I put my students first, put myself last. I say sometimes because I'm aware of what's going on. And when I can do so gracefully, I try to show them that habit and model how I work to shed it. My conference is all about trying to figure things out, to consider how to integrate our responsibilities with our ideals, to deal forthrightly with our own longing to create emotionally and intellectually satisfying work even as we support others' longing to do the same.

In the privacy of my own room, I am full of arrogance about my poetic vocation. I think such inner confidence is vital. If I don't love my own work, who will? And why should I bother trying to make something that I don't value? But in the act of teaching I dowse my light. That's important: no one wants an arrogant teacher. Still, I need to figure out a way to model the vitality of this private confidence without being pompous and self-aggrandizing. I want every one of my participants to go home aflame.

Monday, July 9, 2018

It was good to have a weekend at home. I caught up on gardening, spent the afternoon with a dear young person, went out for dinner with Tom, walked in the shade. Tom started making bookshelves and a desk; I read three books and cleaned two bathrooms.

Today, housework and writing. Maybe some errand running. I've got another teaching session to plan for--an environmental-writing retreat for high schoolers--and at some point I should turn my attention to that. But for the moment I'm in between editing assignments and I don't need to travel anywhere, so in theory I've got a luxurious week of reading and writing time ahead of me. I hope I can live up to it.

Sunday, July 8, 2018


I wish I could figure out how to take photos that look like something, but I guess we all have our ineptitudes. (Also, don't ask me to do simple addition.) Anyway, here are a few hard-to-focus-on pictures of the current status of the front-yard farm. To the left, a row of sunflowers coming into bloom. Straight ahead, jungle-like tomato, cucumber on a trellis, and an artichoke, plus some bok choi and kohlrabi and marigolds.


 Another view of the jungle-like tomatoes and the cucumber trellis, fronted with a row of purple string beans.


Blurry herb garden, suitable for people without their glasses on. Mounds to the right are parsley. Fluffy stuff to the left: edible chrysanthemum and cilantro.


Finally, a clear photo. This is my herb-drying system. Note the handy antlers. They were on the wood shop in Harmony when we bought the place, and Tom decided to bring them with us to Portland.


Ruckus in Tom's toolbox, "helping." I did not take this photo, which is why it is good.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Finally, the heat has broken. What a relief. I mean, I love summer and all, but 90 degrees and dense humidity transform me into jelly. Thursday night's gig was an ordeal--we played a 2-hour outdoor show in that weather--so no wonder I came home feeling like a sea slug.

Today, though, I hope to begin to catch up on all the gardening I haven't been able to face. I've got fall greens to sow, exhausted plants to pull, compost to spread, compost piles to turn. Even a tiny, tiny vegetable farm has its perpetual chores.

Right now we are awash in chard and lettuce. I am drying sage and dill for winter use, and 30 heads of garlic are curing in the shed. Peavines are pulled, the last picking of peas is in the freezer, and tiny string beans are beginning to appear. Tomatoes and peppers are swelling, cucumbers and eggplant are in flower, everbearing strawberries are setting fruit, and my sunflower hedge is blossoming.

Last year, when I came back from the Frost Place, all I knew about this cottage was that it had just come up for sale. Tom and I went to the open house, breathed in the heady perfume of too many cats and dogs, examined the overstuffed rooms and barren yard and falling-apart kitchen, shrugged, and made a low offer. On July 4, we signed a contract.

In other words, a year ago we were just beginning to wonder if we'd made a mistake. As it turns out: no.

Now I am sitting in our small tidy living room and thinking about the poetry collection I tore apart yesterday. It had to be done, and I'd been stalling for months. But with a sudden influx of new poems, I began to recognize what was wrong with it. I took out some poems, added others, and completely changed the order and thus its dramatic thread. I gave it a new title: Dooryard.

This morning I'm feeling energetic about the changes. I like the simplicity of the current title. I like that it's both a common Maine idiom and a reach back into the poetic aether. I like that it can be a metaphor or not. I like that it's a single word. I like that, no matter if you live in the country or the city, you can have a dooryard . . . a dirt driveway, a stoop. Go out and sit there and breathe in the cool morning and pet your cat and watch a kid crouch down to examine a bug. Listen to the train go by. Shell your peans and snap your beans.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

And the heat continues. It's supposed to be even worse inland, which is where I'm headed today: up north to Greenville for a gig. Last time I performed there, a giant wind was blowing off Moosehead Lake, and I made the mistake of wearing a short dress, and given that I play an instrument that requires me to keep two hands in motion at all times . . . well, all I can say is that today I'll be wearing a pair of linen pants.

Tom and I spent a peaceful Fourth at home and then walked down to Back Cove to watch the fireworks. Just as we were getting ready to leave the house, I received an email from a poet I admire very much. She had written to me, "Your work is freakin' awesome!" And "I came home talking about your poetry! Consider me an advocate for you going forward."

So, of course, I am feeling like a puddle, sloppy and soggy in the best possible way. Her words were completely unexpected, entirely unlooked for. I feel like I should hang her note on the wall, as magic for the dark days.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Yesterday was a scorcher; last night was a sweat box; today and tomorrow and the next day will be repeats. For a few days, the Alcott House, ensconced beneath its enormous maples, stayed relatively cool; but now it's just as hot here as it is everywhere else. Fans run continuously. I brew fresh ice tea several times a day. The cat flops underfoot. I find myself asking dumb questions such as "Will listening to cool jazz help me feel cooler?"

For dinner I put together spring rolls (filled with lettuce, cucumbers, and herbs) and sashimi (bluefin, Scottish salmon, local scallops). Then later in the evening we welcomed a surprise overnight guest--a Frost Place friend who was in town unexpectedly--and I felt embarrassed about our lack of air conditioning. It's hard to believe that this time last week she and I were shivering in a 40-degree barn.

Believe it or not, I wrote yet another decent poem draft yesterday. And I'm starting to dream about my imaginary baby daughter again--always a sign that something is burgeoning in my poet life. For nearly two decades I have dreamed off and on about this little girl. She is dark eyed, with dark curly hair, and looks nothing like my sons. But she is clearly mine. From the beginning, my friend Jilline (my dear comrade, dead now for thirteen years) declared that this apparition was an art baby, not my hormones trying to convince me to have another child. And so now, whenever my imaginary daughter appears, I know that things are looking up, that I am writing and will be writing, and also that Jilline is somewhere crowing, "I told you so." I have not seen my art baby since I left Harmony, but last night she found me, she's figured out where I've been hiding, here she comes scooting across the floor in her little sage-green dress, and she's laughing.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Thanks to a sea breeze, Portland had a bit of a respite yesterday, weather-wise, but the heat will be back today. I took advantage of the relative coolness to chop weeds along the stone wall, run the vacuum, cook a hot meal. That means today I can save my energy for some desultory dusting, hand-washing winter woolens, and making spring rolls and sashimi for dinner. I will have to pick peas, but I'll save that for late in the afternoon.

Midday I'm hoping to find a bubble of time for writing. I still feel twingy and edgy about poems, and that's a good sign. And here's a note my friend Nate sent me this morning. It's something to ponder.

"The metallurgist, like the blacksmith and, before him, the potter, is a 'master of fire.' It is by means of fire that he brings about the passage of the material from one state to another."
It was your namesake that first caught my attention, however simple--I'd like to think of you, and poets in general, as "master[s] of fire" that transforms material. The metaphor is most likely not original, but it's cool, nonetheless.
And in continuing to read this (Mircea Eliade's A History of Religious Ideas) it discusses how most blacksmiths depicted as making divine weapons to defeat monstrous adversaries were also songsmiths and poets.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Maine Arts Journal has published a sheaf of poems from my forthcoming collection Chestnut Ridge. I know you've seen some of these poems on this blog before, but Betsy Sholl (a wonderful poet, a former poet laureate of Maine, a dear supporter of her fellows) decided she'd like to reprint them together as a group. In fact, she invited me to submit them after I'd asked her, with itchy embarrassment, to write a blurb for the new book. That's the kind of sweet person she is.

My friend Christian Barter also has a sheaf of poems in this journal. They focus on Acadia National Park, where he has worked for years on trail maintenance. I guess Betsy was in the mood for poems about place, when she tapped us.

I've spent the entire weekend in a fog of intense physical laziness--sort of a reaction to the hot weather but mostly a convalescence from my Frost Place exertions. I came back from Franconia with my poet self bouncing and yodeling and my everything-else self feeling as if it had been crushed by a rockslide. I gave into the torpor for three days, but now I have to resurrect my enthusiasm for moving my arms and legs. I've got desk work to do, housework to do, yard work to do. On Thursday night I'll be back in the gig saddle, with a show up in Greenville. I need to figure out how to be peppy again.

At least I've managed to do some summer cooking: infant peas (from my patch!), gazpacho (my favorite M.F.K. Fisher recipe in which all liquids are measured in glasses, not cups), grilled marinated flank steak (okay, Tom cooked it), leftover grilled marinated flank steak turned into steak salad (with wild rice, tomatoes, scallions, garlic scapes, more wonderful peas, and a hedge's worth of chopped cilantro).

My garden has turned out to be a local conversation piece. I seem to be the only person in this neighborhood (no surprise) who has turned her front lawn into a vegetable farm, so I get a lot of chat from passersby. But they seem to like it. The plot is pretty, and meanwhile I sit on the front stoop in a faded summer dress and shell peas into a dishpan, just like a regular old-fashioned farmwife. It's a disguise I enjoy.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Yesterday I did what everyone--cat, squirrel, or human--should do on a hot day: I scampered around early and late and spent the middle hours flopped quietly in the shade. Ruckus the cat preferred to flop in the driveway in the shadow of my car. I preferred to flop on the living room couch in front of the fan, but it all came to the same thing.

I spent my quiet afternoon reading Margaret Atwood's novel The Robber Bridegroom and writing a new poem. Given that I'd had such good fortune with the word-trigger prompt that Vievee gave us earlier this week, I reconstituted the idea for myself: I opened Atwood's novel and randomly poked a thumb into four of her words. Then I typed them at the top of a blank page and let myself go.

In Vievee's workshop I ended up using all four of my words in the subsequent drafts. In this case, only one of the words remained in the version I'd concocted by the end of my siesta. Nonetheless, the process and sensation were parallel: by focusing on these unexpected (even unexciting words: one of them was something) rather than trying to dredge up material from my own predictable stream, I found myself writing a strange and surprising little fake-instructional poem, one that borrowed from adages and idioms, even famous lines of poetry, but replaced the expected nouns with near rhymes and in this way constructed a pastiche of imitation wisdom about how to be a coward.

I've never written such a poem before. I don't know if it's good or bad, but I'm interested in it . . . and this is the crux: poets can get bored with their own patterns, and for me Vievee's use-four-words-that-belong-to-someone-else trigger has quickly increased both the excitement and the curiosity that are necessary to my endeavor.