Wednesday, February 20, 2019

It's a bitter 4 degrees here in Portland, and the sky is an odd shade of pink. My wrists ache from too much computer work: I've been pressing hard to get these editing and proofreading gigs under control before I go back to school on Monday, and my carpal nerves are barking. But I think the worst is behind me now. Today I can focus on my essay class and read some high school drafts and give my poor wrists a break.

I've been reading Updike's Bech at Bay, which is a peculiar and not entirely likable book. It's a group of linked short stories about an aging famous author who is, surprisingly, not a Massachusetts or Pennsylvania Protestant but a Jewish New Yorker. Was Updike trying to enact what it might have felt to be Philip Roth or Chaim Potok or Saul Bellow? The result is odd . . . not least because it also feels like one of those David Lodge/Kingsley Amis "let's reveal the dirty underclothes of the academic literati" books. Plus, it's set in the 1980s and 1990s, so all the nubile youngish women who for some reason want to sleep with these aging writers are basically the age I was then. In other words, I've been rolling my eyes a lot.

However, the book is a candy-corn sort of read, and my eyes are tired, and I'm reading lots and lots of things for work, so I'm not sorry to have a chance to be detached and mildly scornful. That can be relaxing in its own way.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

I finished up an editing project yesterday, started a proofreading assignment, went to a yoga class, washed floors, cooked Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives, sewed, fell asleep during a nature show about giraffes. Today I'll be reading essay drafts, maybe finishing the proofreading assignment, maybe switching over to my own poems.

I've been reading the closing comments about our Richard III project, and I've been thinking about  how honored I am to have such persistent readers as friends. Because of the exigencies of my schedule, I had to pull back from full participation in the project. I kept planning and facilitating and commenting, but I stopped doing the writing prompts, and I felt guilty about it. Clearly, however, my guilt was a waste of energy. The readers continued to work and write with great persistence and perception, and I once again learned the teacher's lesson: I am not the most important person in the room. May that lesson stick.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A few vague snowflakes twist down from the weighted sky as Monday's first light lingers over the houses. Here and there a golden window glows--a riser, risen. I have made coffee. I have carried a cup to Tom. I have let the cat out, and in.

My busyness on Sunday made up for my lassitude on Saturday. I dusted, scrubbed bathrooms, washed clothes, cleaned the refrigerator, consulted seed catalogs, traced and cut out a pattern for a shirt, sewed on my apron, read an Updike novel, sat for a new headshot, split kindling, roasted cauliflower, played Yahtzee, polished a table, talked to Tom. Meanwhile, the sun shone on the glossy snow, and the front door stood open to let the brilliance into the living room, and Tom said, that for a split second, his mind assumed that of course I was outside in the garden.

Anyway, here's the best we could come up with, headshot-wise. All the smiling ones made me look coy. I hope I'm not too forbidding in this one. And goodness, how the gray does show.



Sunday, February 17, 2019

Richard III: (Conversation, Final Act)

So Richard is dead. Is his world better off without him? Or did he serve a purpose, bring his cohort to some new realization, carve a new course? Let me know what you're thinking, how you're reacting . . . to this final act of the play, to the play as a whole, to the experience of existing so intensely within the reading process, to the task of responding in multiple forms and genres.

* * *

I am feeling much less grouchy today after a real night's sleep. "Manana," Tom said about the author photos he was planning to take yesterday. I think that may have been a hint that I was not looking my best. Here's hoping that today will be more auspicious.

Yesterday I started reading Toni Morrison's Paradise but was immediately roadblocked by a gruesome mass murder in the opening chapter. I have never been able to read text or (especially) watch movies involving extreme violence; I get physically distressed, sometimes ill, and this has reduced, especially onscreen, the kinds of things I'm able to manage. I will never be able to watch Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or most Tarantino movies; I can't read Mishima novels, and now, apparently, I can't read this Morrison novel. My reaction is very childish--it is, in fact, a direct link to my childhood, when I used to vomit after watching something scary. In real life, though, I manage blood better than Tom does. He's the fainter; I'm the coper. So I don't have a good explanation for my reaction to fictional violence. But, sadly, Toni Morrison's novel is back on the shelf.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Why yes, here I am, making coffee at 4:15 a.m. on a Saturday. Gee, I bet you wish you were me. Yes, there's nothing like a full-blown insomniac attack to bring out ye olde inner cranky misanthrope. I suppose I could look on the bright side and chirp, "Good thing I have nothing more demanding on today's list than cleaning the refrigerator!" Or I could do what I'm actually doing, which is muttering about wasting a perfectly good unscheduled Saturday morning by being awake.

Oh, well. Happy School Vacation Week. I won't be in the classroom, but I will be working on curriculum and commenting on the high schoolers' drafts. And I've got two weeks left in my online essay class. And I've got editing to do. And I've got company coming. I'm sure it will be a fine week, once I get a night's sleep.

First, however, Tom and I have a familiar horrible experience ahead of us: it's "take a new headshot of Dawn" day, which we both thoroughly hate. You'd think a guy with a camera and a writer with a bookshelf could work out some kind of easy detente about this. But I am a bad sitter, and he is a bad coaxer. However, he does promise that he won't make the reflections off my glasses look weird, so that's something. I should be too old to fret about not being beautiful, but I think I'm justified in wanting to avoid looking like a giant housefly.

Anyway, why are you even awake reading this grumpy post? Go back to bed like a sensible person.

Friday, February 15, 2019

. . . and here I am, acquainting myself with another morning, as a hairbrained cat rumbles and tumbles up and down the stairs, and the dishwasher churns because we forgot to push "Run" last night, and too many coffee grounds float around in my cup.

School today, and editing, and online classwork. Rain, snow, and grocery shopping in the forecast. It's trash day. I need to clean the ashes out of the stove. I should wash towels and sheets. There's nothing new under the sun . . . though I'm not sure I'd call today's weak-minded orb a sun. It's not very sure of itself this morning.

Yesterday I applied for a fellowship that I'll never get, and I wrote up a author bio for the Frost Place newsletter that makes me sound like I must be earning more money than I really am. I suppose that's some sort of version of success, but I can't quite put my finger on why.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

An Anti-Ode to Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day. I have a poem by that title, about a snowplow guy smoking a joint. Maybe that's emblematic of the role that this holiday plays in my life. Last year Tom and I had a big fight on Valentine's Day. We hardly ever have big fights, but that's the sort of day that Valentine's Day often turns out to be. It's a day for getting into a minor car accident, or being stuck on hold for an hour with the phone company, or ostentatiously not talking to the person across the dinner table.

This year, nothing annoying has happened yet, but the day is young and I am suspicious. Still, I plan to make a good-faith effort to be semi-romantic. I might buy some sort of nice food that Tom likes--say, cannoli from the Italian market: the sort of food I might also buy on a regular day, because it's important, on Valentine's Day, not to be gushy. Gushy always leads to unforeseen consequences, such as having to talk to an insurance adjuster or sleeping downstairs on the couch. There's a large likelihood that even if we aren't crabby at each other, Tom will entirely forget to hold up his part of the commercialized bargain. He's been known to bring me flowers, but I'm always shocked when he does. Really, the fact that we actually got married still surprises me. All that fuss, having to dress up and talk to people and such. Why bother?

The thing about Valentine's Day is that it reminds me of how dumb it is to judge a long and deep affection by whether or not a man who's spent all day framing a house or cutting up plywood on a table saw remembers to stop at Hannaford after work and buy a bunch of overpriced roses. What he does remember is that he is looking forward to coming home. Which is where I am. Which is where we are. Valentine's Day or not, we can look forward to sitting under the same couch blanket after dinner, watching ancient reruns of Hill Street Blues, eating cannoli and accidentally smearing powdered sugar down the front of our sweaters, pretending to talk in the voice of the cat. They should name a holiday after that.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

All night I kept waking to the sound of wind whipping sleet against the windows, and now that I am up I can confirm that this storm is even nastier than I'd guessed. We have maybe six inches of snow-sleet, and now rain is falling on top of it, transforming the mixture into a concrete sponge. O how I hate the thought of shoveling. But my school has only a two-hour delay, so shovel I will . . .

Well, as I said yesterday, it's better for the residency schedule to avoid a snow day. But.

In more pleasant news, I've started reading Alice Munro's story collection Too Much Happiness, and, as always, reading Munro makes me wonder why I ever read anything else. How can a writer be so good, in so many ways, reading after reading after reading? Her books stun me.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Today is a home day: reading essays, mostly, but also running errands before the snow starts to fall. My teaching partner and I are fretting a bit about tomorrow's forecast. A snow day would be fun but would also mess up our residency schedule. To think that I would ever be ambivalent about a snow day! But when you only have a brief block of time, without much stretch in it, losing class time is a problem.

I've been copying out both Dante's Inferno and Manning's Bucolics. I've got the poem drafts I scribbled in Longfellow's house to mess around with. I'm still plowing through Johnson's The Birth of the Modern. I finished Waugh's The Loved One and I may start rereading some Alice Munro stories today. I've got a Mozart violin concerto on the music stand, and an embryo apron in my sewing basket, and I ought to think about ordering garden seeds. There will be plenty to do when the essays run out.

Lately I've been feeling so bee-busy, bustling around my daily flower garden, bumping into this and that . . . reading a manuscript here, checking a proof there, planning a workshop beside the honeysuckle, editing a poem under a leaf, dipping into this book and then that book, buzzing out into the open field. It's an odd present-tense satisfaction: all of this small bumping and browsing constructs a pattern of motion . . . backward, forward, toward, away. And I'm not worrying about what it means, what I'm accomplishing. Very likely nothing. But the bee is unconcerned.

Monday, February 11, 2019

. . . and here we are at Monday again. I spent yesterday doing housework, taking a walk, making meatballs, reading Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, and beginning a new sewing project. On Saturday, after my workshop, I, with much diffidence, bought material to make a shirt. But I'm still not satisfied with my handstitching skills, so before I take that plunge, I've decided to make second scrap apron. In the afternoon I started stitching together small pieces to make a larger piece. I have plenty of the same kind of material for this apron (unlike the previous one), but I don't have whole cloth, just strips of varying widths and lengths. The job will require some design ingenuity.

Meanwhile, Tom bought plane tickets so we can fly to Chicago next month, and he revealed that he's figured out a way to fit a dedicated spice cabinet into the kitchen, and he's started hanging art on the walls, all of which made me more cheerful about scouring bathrooms and mopping floors.

Today, the usual: essay class, school residency, some Frost Place work, maybe some poem revision. Tonight Tom and I are going into town to watch Rififi, a French heist movie from the 1950s.

I'm still feeling pretty cheerful about Saturday's Longfellow House workshop; I'm still feeling odd but good about last week's conversation about my papers.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Richard II: Assignment (Act V)

Well, we are reaching the bitter end of this play. This week I am assigning you the entire final act, and I'm hoping that you'll pull together some thoughts about the experience of existing inside both the play as a whole and this denouement. Does the ending change your feelings about Richard or about any of the other characters? Did the act of reading the play influence your thoughts about how an artist might approach a task, or how that task might shift during the process of creation: think language, story structure, characterization, and such? How does your engagement with a work such as this one affect your daily life? We'll reconvene next Sunday to share thoughts.

* * *

So yesterday's love-poem workshop turned out to be wonderful. My class was small but extremely engaged, and we were invited to not only meet together inside the Wadsworth-Longfellow House (Henry's childhood home) but to wander around it, to sit and write in any rooms we liked. The house was not open to the public yesterday: we were the only ones there. The blinds were closed, the light was dim, the sound of the house was private to itself. I sat in the kitchen, in front of the cold fireplace with its iron pots and tongs, its laundry boiler, the willowware on the dresser, the child's rocking horse still and silent, and worked on a draft. I worked on a second draft in the dining room, and discovered, to my pleasure, that the Longfellows also used their dining room as a library, just like Tom and I do. The experience was so enjoyable . . . and apparently, according to the Maine Historical Society education coordinator who hired me for this gig, it's the society's first foray into making connections between the house and contemporary poets. I was all "You ought to have a poet in residence! You ought to be getting contemporary poets to suss out links between their work and Longfellow's! You ought to . . . !" And she was all "Yes Yes Yes!" To this point the house has been primarily presented as a period relic, but there are so many possibilities for enlivening the poetry link. It was exciting to be there, experimenting with that connection.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Well, the week goes on and on: teaching and editing all day yesterday, and today another afternoon of teaching. Last night Tom and I walked out into the gale to a restaurant around the corner--another strange luxury unknown to Harmony. There we drank beer and ate cod and mussels and puzzled over the identical haircuts of 35-year-old men. Why do they all want to look like Justin Timberlake?

So now I am gearing up for more teaching. Just in case you want to create your own private love-poem-writing party, I will share the titles of my study poems with you: Akhmatova's "We walk along the hard crest of the snowdrift," Whitman's "A Glimpse," Kenyon's "The Shirt," Clifton's "blessing the boats." And here's the Whitman for your delight.


A Glimpse

Walt Whitman

A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking and oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Yesterday a very odd thing happened to me. An archivist at one of the Maine universities suggested that I consider bequeathing my papers to the collection she manages. We were having coffee, enjoying each other's company, I was asking questions about the challenges of digital archives, she was telling me about all the housewifery books she had in her collection, when suddenly the topic of my papers arose.

Since then, I have been feeling strange. As Tom said to me immediately when I told him about the conversation, this is a such a good thing for the boys. They won't have to make decisions about what notebook scrawlings and computer files to keep or throw out. They'll know that these materials will have a home. But of course the strangeness arises in the notion that someone thinks they should have a home. All these years of my life, as I've read and written and puttered and scribbled, I haven't been thinking about anything beyond the circle of my own years. When I'm done, the work will be done. Imagining that someone, after my death, might want to try to figure out who I was from my paper scraps seems entirely unreal . . . though of course I do it to other people all the time.

Anyway, I won't dwell on the issue here. Suffice it to say, I'll likely begin thinking seriously about ways to plan for this transfer. It's undoubtedly the right thing to do for my kids, no matter how odd I feel about it otherwise.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

It snowed last night, a thin scraping over windshields and sidewalks, but that will likely vanish under a spatter of drizzle. Still, I'm glad not to be driving. Today is another home day: classwork and workshop prep, then a walk up the street for afternoon coffee with a friend. How strange that still sounds to me: walking out for coffee. What a luxurious thing to be able to do.

I've been working on, of all things, a Harmony poem. You'd think I'd have gotten that place out of my system by now. But no. The poem is about walking down my road, at this time of year. About how the log trucks fly past. About people picking bottles and cans out of the sodden ditch.

Sometimes I think Harmony becomes even clearer to me now that I'm not in it.

Anyway, I have a new poem, with a blunt little ending.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What a day to be outside . . . high 50s, a springlike wind, the streets running with snowmelt, windows open, and me squinting into the sunshine with a book and cat on the front stoop. But that was yesterday. Today we're back to winter, with freezing rain on the docket for tonight.

The essay I assigned my class for this week was James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son." If you have not read it lately, you need to go back to it. I think it may be one of the most extraordinary pieces of prose of the twentieth century. I'm no scholar, but this essay is on fire.

So that's how I spent my hours yesterday: reading Baldwin, reading student drafts, reading a writer friend's wonderfully strange verse-fiction manuscript, splashing in puddles in the spring air, working on a poem draft, planning my love-poem workshop, folding laundry, talking to my mother, roasting a chicken. It was a day from heaven.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

This new driving/teaching schedule is manageable only because it happens every other day. I love teaching but I would be a miserable full-time employee. Today, thank goodness, I'll be home--reading manuscripts in my yellow chair, organizing Frost Place stuff, mucking around with ideas for Saturday's love poem workshop, catching up with Richard III.

The weather is supposed to rise into the 50s this afternoon, and the trees must be so confused. From my bedroom window I can see the buds swelling on my neighbor's lilac. I know spring comes earlier in Portland than it does in Harmony . . . but not this early. Still, there's nothing to do but enjoy the moment. Walking the muddy streets with an unzipped coat and no hat, in February: it's hard to complain about that.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Yesterday's reading turned out to be a lovely event. It was held in a beautiful room at the Brunswick library, filled with couches and a working fireplace and many attentive listeners. I even sold a few books. There are two more readings in this series, coming up next Sunday and the Sunday afterward. So make your way there, if you're local.

Today I'm back to high school teaching, online teaching, manuscript reading . . . My brain is fizzing with "Don't forget" instructions to itself. In the interstices I'm still rereading Toibin's stories, still dipping into Dante and The Birth of the Modern, still muttering over my new poems. I need to find a way to fit some physical activity into this new schedule. Yoga class is impossible, so it will have to be cemetery walking, if I can manage to snag some afternoon daylight.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

I've got a reading this afternoon (at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, 1 p.m.), where I'll be sharing some Chestnut Ridge pieces along with an excerpt from my fairy tale poem "The White Bear," which I haven't read out for a while. Winter feels like a good time to resurrect poems about woodland cottages and enchanted animals.

Though I've got so many new poems, I've decided to let them lie for the moment. They don't feel quite ready for air . . . though most of them are finished on the page. Along with the "selling books" conundrum, which is always an issue at readings, I often find myself wrestling with the timing of performance. Is it the moment to read a particular piece of work? Some of this has to do with audience as well. What will engage a particular group of listeners most: the knowledge that they can reread on the page what they've just heard? or the pleasure of hearing something fresh and evanescent?

I've thought of organizing a reading only for work that has never been published.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Richard III: Conversation (Act IV, Scenes 3-5)

I'm looking forward to your thoughts about the tragedy of the little princes in RIII.

* * *

Today I woke up late, with cold morning peering over the blind. Yesterday's class went well enough, and I think the residency will be fine, so long as I don't end up with any horrible snow commutes.

I've got tomorrow's Longfellow Days reading to prep for, and next weekend's love poem workshop at Longfellow's house to prep for . . . so much Longfellow this month! But perhaps Maine is the last bastion of Longfellow honor. I don't think he's been stylish anywhere else for a long time.

I had to take a break from The Birth of the Modern because I was trapped in a swamp of economics and bank policy. I'm sure someone would find it fascinating, but I could not. So as relief, I reread a short Trollope novel (Dr. Wortle's School) and now I am rereading Colm Toibin's story collection Mothers and Sons.

More work keeps coming in. It's so funny how that happens all at once: workshops, a few private manuscript reviews, and now I've been tapped to proofread a well-known literary magazine.

Here's a Longfellow poem . . . a beautiful heartbreaking one.

Mezzo Cammin

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Friday, February 1, 2019

This has been a good week for writing. I've produced some drafts that feel new to me: in their storytelling moves, in their use of repetition, in the solidity of their endings. Today, as I shift into work overdrive, I'm feeling as if I haven't wasted these few days of unexpected freedom . . . though often, when I'm in the midst of writing days, I feel as if I am getting nothing much done. 

So classwork this morning: then a long midday drive to school: then back north to the city for errands, housework, dinner prep . . . I'll almost be like a normal going-to-work person. How strange.

By the way: I'm reading at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick this Sunday at 1 p.m.--part of the town's annual Longfellow Days celebration. Maybe I'll see you there.