Thursday, October 21, 2021

This morning I'll do some editing and laundry and final class prep and then after lunch I'll head north to Wellington, where I'll spend the night before teaching at Monson Arts in the morning. I'm looking forward to all of it: friends, kids, poems, and the homeland. I'll arrive bearing a loaf of fresh-baked bread, and we'll wander down into the garden, or maybe up the gravel road, and the darkness will roll in, and the fires will be lit, and food will glow on the plates, and outside my bedroom window the stars will rush and an owl will cry.

After weeks of prep, waterline replacement has finally begun in earnest on my Portland street. So life is jackhammery down here, and my front garden is not so fun to hang out in. But from my study I look out into the back garden, at the new shrubs beneath the massive maples, the bird feeder with its annoying squirrel, the little mixed flock of town birds--cardinals, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice--that flutter among the branches, the chipmunk bustling from woodpile to stone wall.

I was able to steal an hour yesterday to work on my poem draft, so I'll be leaving home with a light heart, writing-wise . . . a new piece to carry along with me, whether I look at it or not . . . the secret happiness of knowing that the work is bubbling up, quietly, and waiting for me.

I wonder if what I wrote here yesterday about my practice was annoying. I didn't mean it to sound gloating or instructional or anything of that kind. Mostly I suddenly realized that I was intrigued by the flexible notion of practice. When I was a kid with a violin, it meant standing in the living room for an hour and running through a prescribed list of teacher orders: scales, exercises, etudes, pieces, ad infinitum. But that's not anything like what practice means for me as a writer. Yes, I write every day. But I don't make art every day, or even try to. And the shifts among rigor/non-rigor, audience/no audience, edited/not edited . . . that seems important somehow, and I'm curious about why and how. Still, I'm sorry if I was irritating.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Another chilly morning, and the furnace is grumbling quietly to itself as I sit in my couch corner tapping out this note to you. According to my dream book, the familiar is peculiar:

Was there special beer? I think so, and I think Tom was worried about it. He was wearing an apron and was taller than usual.

That's this morning's entire entry, and I find it quite snappy. Don't you think it would make a fine opening to the short story I will never write?

I did write a poem yesterday, so no need to regret the aspirational fiction. And I do think that my dream book practice is already starting to show up in how my poem drafts have been switchbacking down the page.

Dawn's Writing Practice: What Is It?

1. First thing, before coffee or letting in the cat, write down last night's dream in my notebook. If I can't remember, make something up. [Private, unrigorous]

2. Drink coffee. Write a blog letter to my friends. [Public, edited]

2. Work on other people's stuff: manuscripts, class plans. [Public, highly edited]

3. Read a crazy mishmash of books. Currently: The Iliad and The Bungalow Mystery (Nancy Drew), both of which I'm reading with friends. Braddon's Aurora Floyd (novel) and Oswald's Falling Awake (poetry), which I'm reading privately.

4. Grab a handful of words from those books and use them to trigger poem drafts. For the past several years this has been my most reliable self-motivating prompt. [Private, rigorous]

5. Do a lot of physical activity between all of these things: housework, exercise class, walking, gardening. [Public or private]

I noted public or private because I realized as I was jotting down the list that a balance of "just for me" and "other people are involved" affects what I'm doing and how I do it. Working for an audience, working for myself: both seem to be important parts of practicing. Likewise, the balance of rigor and lack of rigor; edited and highly edited: there are necessary variations in how word work emerges. Some are linked to audience, but some are linked to control. I try not to control the dream writing, whereas I revise and revise and revise a poem.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Well, I broke down and turned on the furnace this morning . . . though broke down is the wrong term because what I really did was sigh and flip the switch. No weeping necessary. It feels weak to admit to needing oil heat, but then again I live in Maine and we're on the downslide toward November, so the only surprise is that I didn't turn it on sooner.

Still, we haven't had a frost yet, which is weird. Yesterday I was out in the garden picking peppers and marigolds. The zinnias and dahlias are blooming bravely. I'm ripening tomatoes in the house, and picking honey mushrooms in the backyard. My basement baskets are full of potatoes and onions, and the freezer is packed with sauce and produce. Alcott House as cornucopia. 

Today, after my exercise class, I'm going to shift straight into class planning for my Friday high schoolers. I'll be running back-to-back hour-and-a-half sessions with two sets of students; the ones I'm not teaching at the moment will be drawing with Alan Bray. I think I'm going to focus on stealing words--from ourselves, from each other, from what we read--and using that theft to create new work. Kids always like to steal stuff, and everyone always tells them they can't, so I think they should enjoy the novelty. This is the poem I'm going to use: Matthew Olzmann's "Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session after the Reading, Asked for Career Advice." My friend Zanne shared this with me the other day, and as she said, "Pretty perfect for high school students, huh?"

Eventually this morning I'll get back to editing, and I'd like to do some Iliad reading too, but we'll see how my brain holds up. There's nothing I'd rather do than word work, but it does knock the stuffing out of me after a while, and then firewood hauling and floor washing start to seem like the best jobs on earth.

Monday, October 18, 2021

After a lush and beautiful afternoon, the temperature has plunged to 45 degrees this morning, which feels cold, but in fact is not as cold as we usually are at this time of year. There's still no sign of frost. How strange to be harvesting peppers from the garden in mid-October.

Yesterday's poet party--down on the New Hampshire border, with the rivers embracing the autumn brilliance--was a chit-chattery pleasure. I am surprised, always, whenever I feel at ease in these kinds of groups. I expect myself to be shy and accidentally standoffish and desperately uncomfortable, but I spent yesterday talking easily with whomever happened to be at my elbow. Maybe I am finally not 15 anymore.

By the time I got home, Tom had started dinner, so I spent the evening lolling on the couch, enjoying a rare reprieve from the meal chore. As a result, I am beginning my Monday with the feeling of having had a little vacation, which is good, because this week will not be anything like a vacation. I've got a ton of editing on my desk, plus prep for Friday's Monson class, plus contest manuscripts to read, plus something else I'm probably forgetting . . . a slog week, and I'm glad to be entering it with a rest day and a good night's sleep behind me.

I have some books I want to talk to you about--Alice Oswald's collection Falling Awake, M. E. Braddon's Victorian bigamy novel Aurora Floyd--but I haven't quite organized my thoughts about them. I suspect that's because the Iliad is dominating my reading brain right now. Rereading it is such a massive, terrifying, tedious endeavor. Even though it's not the only thing I'm reading for "pleasure," it seems to take up all of my word space.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Another very wet night. So many leaves have come down in these two rainstorms; even in this dim morning light I can see that the view from my windows is on the way to becoming to its winter version--a flattened sky, flash of a passing train, stark cutout of a steeple.

I spent yesterday morning reading contest manuscripts and the Iliad, and then Tom and I drove into town to watch Todd Haynes's documentary on the Velvet Underground, which was being screened at the Portland Museum of Art. I liked it quite a lot, especially the interviews with John Cale explaining how he had come to add the viola drones underneath songs like "Heroin" and "Black Angel Death Song" . . . talking about the way in which overtones work and their effect on listeners--all of which made perfect sense to me.

I first heard the Velvet Underground in college, in the 80s, well after they'd disbanded. At that time I had very little understanding of pop music or rock-and-roll. I'd been classically trained as a violinist, and I wasn't allowed to play pop radio in the house, so the only contemporary music I heard was ambient. But my college boys took me on as project, pouring on everything they thought I should know. Much of it I found, at first, impossible to hear. My ear could not even comprehend a twelve-bar blues riff: that's how untrained it was, in that realm. But gradually I began to sort out what I was being offered, and the Velvets became something of an obsession. Perhaps, somehow, I was hearing that Cale, too, had entered this door via the classical world. I never thought of that then; I was drawn to the lyrics, and the hypnotic way in which the music enacted them. I was not a poet at this time, nor did I imagine becoming a poet. But I suspect my poet brain was at work, trying to absorb the both-and elements of sound and sense that enwrapped these songs.

Today I'm going to an afternoon party of poets in far-southern Maine, so I need to finish up this letter soon and go start the bread I'm baking for the occasion--an Italian herb bread that I discovered earlier this week, a very pretty, simple twist, with the surprising taste of coriander seed mixed among the rosemary and thyme. The rain should clear out, and the sun is supposed to shine, and I'm looking forward to sitting by the river and being sociable.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The rain has been pouring hard for three or four hours, and now, at daybreak, lightning and thunder are rumbling in. This is our first downpour for weeks, and it's a very comfortable sound for a lazy Saturday morning. The garden must be delighted, and I know I am. There's nothing like a rainstorm for making a little house with a tight roof feel like paradise. And I have new electricity in mine!

In my dream book this morning I wrote: "Setting: a version of the Harmony land but much hillier, no house visible. For some reason I am back there again, and trying to dig a garden spot on a rocky, rooted, hilly spot that also seems to be half asphalt. It's like the perfect metaphor for trying to do anything in Harmony."

I suppose dreaming that metaphor is affecting my mood this morning, which I guess could be summed up as "feeling my age." I don't mean I want to blather on about hip replacements or complain about kids these days. More, I'm just suddenly aware of how hard I've worked, for so many years, under such gnarled circumstances, and am feeling amazed by it. Labor of the body, labor of the mind. In memory I find them difficult to separate. Read a few Hayden Carruth poems, and they'll explain what I mean better than I can myself.

I don't really have an agenda for today. I cleaned floors and bathrooms yesterday, and caught up on a pile of laundry, so I'll probably retreat upstairs to the Iliad for an hour or so. Tom wants to go watch a documentary of the Velvet Underground this afternoon, so I might go with him. Baseball starts mid-afternoon. I'd like to write, I need to pick up a book at the library, I've got to finish cooking down the pheasant stock, probably my children will phone . . .

It's not like we don't have challenges in this house--bathroom leaks and wonky power and unfinished renovations and a raw backyard--but daily life is so much easier. No brutal barn chores, no constant firewood, no more acres to mow, no little boys, no mesmerizing loneliness, no perpetual awareness of being an outsider and a stranger and a freak. I feel guilty about it sometimes, as if I've given up, gotten soft, here in this mild liberal neighborhood, with trash pickup once a week and a flurry of poets around the corner.

But here I am.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Yesterday was a flurry of electrical excitement. All day two young men sawed through drywall, snaked wires through walls, fiddled with boxes and connections, and by late afternoon we had new kitchen lighting, up-to-code outlets and wiring in the living room and dining room, a new outlet on the living room floor where we can plug in lamps under the couch instead of coiling extension cords all around the room, and three working, grounded outlets in my study. This means that most of the house's horrible, scary-looking, tangled, 1940s-era wiring is finally a bad memory . . . not all of it, but certainly the bulk.

What a huge relief. We're both so glad to have this done. Wiring is not a romantic renovation, and it's expensive, but now I can actually plug a vacuum cleaner into a living room outlet without tripping a breaker.

While the electricians worked, I perched variously in the back room or outside in the garden, beetling away at my editing project and my teaching syllabi. I ended up getting a ton of work done, despite the uproar. So today I can take a bit of time to do some post-electrician cleaning, bake bread, do some writing,  listen to playoff baseball, make some stock from the bones of the pheasant we had for dinner last night. Yes, I did impulse-buy a pheasant a few days ago at the meat market, and it turned out to be delicious, though the cooking process was odd. I served it with roasted red-flesh potatoes (my father's, and they were gorgeous), kale, artichokes, and little pheasant-liver toasts . . . Frenchier than my usual cooking style but it all came out well.

Meanwhile, Tom gazed at the bright new kitchen task lights and mourned, "They show up all of the mistakes in my sheetrocking," and I gazed at them and mourned, "I thought I was cleaning the backsplash better than I really I am." Apparently, new luxuries create new miseries . . .