Friday, September 30, 2011

Some stuff you might want to know:

1. If you haven't already read this article in the New York Review of Books, you might want to read it now, especially if you're a teacher. Diane Ravitch is brilliant about the flaws of so-called school reform and the power of humane, intelligent, loving teachers.

2. If you don't already know that my son James is hilarious, you might want to watch this short movie, made last summer at the Maine Media Workshops. He stars as Lloyd, professional numskull and flaunter of a hideous bear-patterned shirt.

3. If you plan to be here purchasing bagels and cream cheese in Bangor, Maine, at 9:30 tomorrow morning, you will undoubtedly get to hear me read. I'll be excited to see you!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I've been reading Dostoyevsky for the first time in decades, and apparently my adolescent preconceptions still hold true: when it comes to the Russians, I fall into the Tolstoy camp, not the Dostoyevsky one. Still, I'm not sorry to be reading Notes from Underground. The central character's obsessive self-loathing is, in its revolting individualism, a check on my own self-preoccupations; and the frenzy of the writing is rather like listening to Paganini--lots of crazy runs and trills and hard-to-manage technical showmanship but also a certain emotional and aural clutter. In the end, though, all I can conclude is that sometimes the modern era makes me sad. Why am I able to imagine writing Notes from Underground but not able to imagine writing Beowulf? I'd much rather write Beowulf.

I realize this is a dopy, unexamined reaction to Dostoyevsky. Most serious readers seem to love his books, but I just can't. Maybe I will get a cranky comment, like I did when I wrote here about not adoring Roberto Bolano's books. So be it. Internet litterateurs have the bad habit of believing that everyone should like what they like because it is the best. So I want to remind you to feel very, very free not to like what I like or agree with what I say. Very possibly next year I won't agree with it either, for what's wrong with ebbing and flowing among one's books? Why should I like the poetry of Wallace Stevens this morning? Or why shouldn't I?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Apparently, fate decided to deliver a venomous bite to yesterday's early-morning post about struggling to write because what really happened during the rest of yesterday is that all my bumbling bumbled itself together and I wrote a first draft that made me happy. As I've already mentioned, I've been searching for a way to impersonate immigrant western Pennsylvania voices without resorting to imitation accents. One of those voices is a character I've borrowed from a friend's family history: an Italian-immigrant miner who loved Dante. The idea of such a character has revolved in my thoughts ever since she told me the story. So finally, yesterday, I figured out what I needed to do: I needed to copy out a section of Dante in the Italian and then write alongside it . . . not a translation but a reaction to the visual impact of the Italian and the muscle memory of the meter under my fingers. And it worked! It really did work! I wrote a poem that I think will be, in some future draft, a real piece; and I am so pleased because I love this character dearly and I want to give him a life.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

With the boys back in school and Tom back to work, I am trying to learn how to be a writer again, which for the moment involves reschooling myself in how to gracefully manage lack of production. Considering that my essay "On Not Writing" is forthcoming in this winter's Sewanee Review, you'd think I'd have plenty to say now about the graceful management of creative struggle. But no. Every reschooling is a brand-new schooling, and I never get any better at the balance between worrying and not worrying. Merely I get better at recognizing the pattern.

In any case, among puttering over half a sentence clause (try these words; delete them; try these other words; delete them; try a different metrical opening; choke up in horror; delete it; reinsert the original words; delete them. . . . ) and writing a grant application and reading Nabokov and washing soccer socks and dragging brush into the woods and prodding the sauerkraut and frying pork chops and copying out poems and wondering if I have time to clean the barn and editing someone else's poetry collection and buying chicken grain and driving to piano lessons and organizing the eighth-grade dance and making four loaves of bread every other day (I wish I could tell you I was exaggerating about this), I find graceful management of anything difficult to imagine. I feel like I move through my days like a bumblebee moves through a garden: bump, bump, buzz, bumble, bumble, bump.

I am writing. But the process is so unprocessional.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Dawn Potter

Like a flour smudge on an old blue apron,

A lunchtime moon thumbprints the sun-plowed,

Snow-scrabbled heavens of Harmony, Maine.

Last night three cops shot Danny McDowell

On South Road, down by the shack you and I rented

That hard winter when the northern lights glowed

And the washing machine froze and I got pregnant.

I built a five-inch snowboy for our half-inch embryo.

You took a picture of it cradled in my mittens.

But today, too late, too late, I see I forgot to worry

About this moon, this ominous rock waxing half-bitten

Over our clueless sentimental history.

Picture it falling. A white egg, neat and slow.

It doubles. Redoubles. Till all we see is shadow.

[first published in Solstice (spring 2011); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2013 or thereabouts)]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I went for a walk in the forest yesterday, expecting nothing mycological, but came home with a bucket full of chanterelles. I have never seen more than one or two of these mushrooms in our woods before, but yesterday I found two large clusters, brilliant yellow in the gloom, a miracle. Last fall, I brought home pail after pail of honey mushrooms. This fall, I have not laid eyes on a single one, though the forest is filled with mysterious fungi--brilliant pink toadstools, tiny delicate corals, a strange orange variety shaped like green beans, pale gray disks on logs, white stalks thrusting up through the leaf litter. And now these chanterelles.

Scavenging for wild food gives me enormous pleasure. I love picking dandelion greens and fiddleheads in the spring, hunting for blackberries in late summer . . . all that quiet circular wandering, my sharpened eyes, the animal sounds, the glow of the berry under a leaf. Last fall was my first serious foray into mushroom hunting, and of all my hunts I may enjoy it most, though I will change my mind about its supremacy once fiddlehead season returns. It is more difficult than, say, berry picking (because mushrooms don't reappear as predictably as plants do) but also easier (no yogic bending and balancing among the thorns). And mushrooms are such strange, otherworldly growths: so frankly erotic in their allure; so alarming, elegant, and hideous. And then there is the scent of the forest in autumn: breathing that air is like breathing a special, rarefied oxygen composed of cavern secrets and forgotten childhoods.

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov talks about his mother's penchant for mushroom hunting:

One of her greatest pleasures in summer was the very Russian sport of hodit' po gribi (looking for mushrooms). Fried in butter and thickened with sour cream, her delicious finds appeared regularly on the dinner table. Not that the gustatory moment mattered much. Her main delight was in the quest. . . .

Rainy weather would bring out these beautiful plants in profusion under the firs, birches, and aspens in our park, especially in its older part, east of the carriage road that divided the park in two. Its shady recesses would then harbor that special boletic reek, which makes a Russian's nostrils dilate--a dark, dank, satisfying blend of damp moss, rich earth, rotting leaves. But one had to poke and peer for a goodish while among the wet underwood before something really nice, such as a family of bonneted baby edulis or the marbled variety of scaber, could be discovered and carefully teased out of the soil.

On overcast afternoons, all alone in the drizzle, my mother, carrying a basket (stained blue on the inside by somebody's whortleberries), would set out on a long collecting tour. Toward dinnertime, she could be seen emerging from the nebulous depths of a park alley, her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her. As she came nearer from under the dripping trees and caught sight of me, her face would show an odd, cheerless expression, which might have spelled poor luck, but which I knew was the tense, jealously contained beatitude of the successful hunter. Just before reaching me, with an abrupt, drooping movement of the arm and shoulder and a "Pouf!" of magnified exhaustion, she would let her basket sag, in order to stress its weight, its fabulous fullness.

Near a white garden bench, on a round garden table of iron, she would lay out her boletes in concentric circles to count and sort them. . . . As often happened at the end of a rainy day, the sun might cast a lurid gleam just before setting, and there, on the damp round table, her mushrooms would lie, very colorful, some bearing traces of extraneous vegetation--a grass blade sticking to a viscid fawn cap, or moss still clothing the bulbous base of a dark-stippled stem. And a tiny looper caterpillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child's finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Questions without answers

1. Why do cheerleaders prefer to spell out all their words?

2. Why does the dog get fleas forty-eight hours after I've wasted an hour driving to the vets' office to buy her fifty dollars' worth of incontinence medicine?

3. Why do teenage boys spend so much time sleeping? Why are five-year-old boys always so terribly, terribly awake?

4. What disease does the guy at Goodwill imagine that a pair of donated crutches might spread throughout central Maine?

5. Why do so many funny-looking people drive cars?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Well, yesterday's odd little surrealist poem has taken an unexpected but welcome turn: suddenly, it has metamorphosed into a western Pennsylvania poem. All summer my western Pa. project has been singeing its hair on the back burner while I've been working on other people's manuscripts. But apparently it is not dead yet. Moreover, I've even made a breakthrough.

One of my niggling worries about the project has been how to manage the immigrant voices that are such a huge part of western Pennsylvania's coalfield history. I can't write in Polish or Italian or Czech, and I would like to avoid clumsy imitations of foreign accents. But my reading fates have managed to help me solve the problem. They told me to start reading Zbigniew Herbert in translation and Vladimir Nabokov in his strange original English. And then yesterday, as I was copying out Herbert's poem "Parable of the Russian Emigres," I realized that these were the voices I needed to probe: these voices that encapsulate English and strangeness within themselves. In other words, I don't need to imitate a Polish accent; I need to study how a Polish writer's thoughts and sentence structure interact.

What happiness to know that spending an entire day doing nothing can turn out to be something after all! I am jubilant! . . . and this despite the fact that today's "doing nothing" will be spent at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I started an odd little linguistically surrealist poem yesterday, which rhymes and is metrically jerky and is nothing at all like what I usually write. Probably it's awful, but nonetheless it's an interesting exercise in aphoristic confusion . . . though, now that I consider the matter, I remember that William Blake was also prone to aphoristic confusion, so perhaps this formula is more traditional than it feels.

My plan is to spend the entire day being a poet, which does not presage laundry or catsup canning but does require me to slavishly follow the windings of my illogical mind, to conceal the kitchen table beneath splayed-open books, to take notes about everything, and to be on guard against the simplifications of end-stop punctuation.

Here's what I think. When writing a first draft, you should never trust a period. It shuts a door to a secret passageway, hung with spiderwebs and black beetles and stacked with dusty steamer trunks crammed with unpaid bills and first editions of novels by faded ladies and shrunken whalebone corsets and false mustaches and cruel letters home from college. But if you don't open that door, you will never know they exist. If you don't erase that period and replace it with "and" or "which" or "while" or "because" or "despite," all you have on your page is what you already knew anyway. And what's the point of that?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I can't decide what to do about the handful of poems (forthcoming in the new collection, Same Old Story) that no journal seems to want to publish. Do I just keep sending them out? Do I publish them here? Do I forget about them for three years till the book comes out? Do I decide that they're not really very good poems and delete them from the collection? Do I grit my teeth and mutter, 'But I like them,' and keep them in the collection anyway?

I also can't decide what to do with the box of canning tomatoes ripening on my porch. Do I cook them, and then puree them, and then boil down the puree into catsup, for a sum total of three half-pint jars after an entire day spent cooking? Or do I settle for five more quarts of plain old tomatoes? Either way I have to scald and peel them, which makes my hands burn and makes me wonder why I spent $12 for the so-called pleasure of home canning. On the other hand, there is hardly anything more beautiful than a row of shelves lined with glass jars of tomatoes, pickles, and jelly.

Well, if you have any answers, let me know.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

From my upstairs window I hear a log truck jake-braking up the rise by Huntress Cemetery, then sputtering, then fading down the road toward town. Yesterday Paul scored all three goals in Harmony's first soccer game of the season as I sat in my broken lawn chair and flapped at a cloud of desperate, late-season midges. I felt, as one does feel with growing children, as if the world no longer belongs to me. It is a melancholy sensation but bearable, though in my case unreliably mixed up with head-cold apathy. Tomorrow, perhaps, my vim will reassert itself. I would like to imagine that I am intelligent, energetic, and passionate, and I have hopes of being so in the near future. Nonetheless, there is no returning to those moments of youth, when a child suddenly realizes his body's potential for adult flight. I sit in my midgy lawn chair and I am glad for him, but my eyes prickle with what might be tears or might be an oncoming sneeze, and in the meantime the sun shoots its last cloudy rays over the field and parents next to me complain about something or other and I blow my nose and soldier on.

Monday, September 19, 2011

In addition to reading English, Pig Latin, and musical notation, I am a relatively fluent reader of Middle English. This is not much to crow about, I realize. Still, every once in a while I find it bracing to copy out a random passage from Chaucer or Malory; and when, as if by magic, that random passage concerns one of my own betes noires, insomnia, I feel once again as if the literary gods are slipping me a set of (as yet) unreadable instructions.

from The Book of the Duchess

Geoffrey Chaucer

I have gret wonder, be this lyghte,
How that I lyve, for day ne nyghte
I may nat slepe well nygh noght.
I have so many an ydel thoght
Purely for defaute of slepe
That, by my trouthe, I take no kepe
Of nothing, how hyt cometh or gooth,
Ne me nys nothyng leve nor looth.
Al is ylyche good to me,
Joy or sorowe, whereso hyt be,
For I have felynge in nothynge,
But as yt were a mased thynge,
Alway in poynt to falle adoune;
For sorwful ymagyacioun
Ys alway hooly in my mynde
And wel ye woot, agaynes kynde
Hyt were to lyven in thys wyse,
For nature wolde nat suffyse
To none erthly creature
Nat longe tyme to endure
Withoute slepe and be in sorwe.
And I ne may, ne nyghte ne morwe,
Slepe; and thus melacolye
And drede I have for to dye.

[Following is my own quick, inartistic translation of the passage.]

I wonder greatly, by this light,
How I live, for day and night
I barely sleep.
I have so many idle thoughts,
Purely from lack of sleep,
That I swear I care about
Nothing that comes or goes;
Nothing is pleasant or loathsome.
All is alike to me,
Joy or sadness, whatever it be,
For I have feelings about nothing
But am a dazed thing
Always about to fall down;
Sorrowful imaginings
Fill my mind,
And well you know, it is against nature
To live this way;
Nature does not intend
Any earthly creature to endure
Sleeplessness so long and be in sorrow;
And I, neither night nor morning,
Can sleep; and thus I am melancholy
And dread that I will die.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I'm tired and cold-ridden and tired. Lugging a load of laundry down to the washing machine seems like more trouble than it's worth, though of course I'm lugging it anyway. And then I'll haul it out to the line and hang it up, where probably sharp air and blue sky and geese honking their migration chorus and the foolish daytime owl who keeps hooting and making the dogs bark will combine to cure me of this laissez-faire.

Spring on the Ripley Road

Dawn Potter

Knick knack, paddywhack,

Ordering the sun,

Learning planets sure is fun.

--Paul’s back-seat song

Five o’clock, first week of daylight savings.

Sunshine doggedly pursues night.

Pencil-thin, the naked maples cling blankly to winter.

James complains,

“It’s orbiting, not ordering.

Everything is an argument.

The salt-scarred car rockets through potholes,

hurtles over frostbitten swells of asphalt.

James explains, “The planets orbit the sun.

Everything lives in the universe.”

Sky blunders into trees.

A fox, back-lit, slips across the road

and vanishes into an ice-clogged culvert.

Paul shouts, “Even Jupiter? Even foxes?”

Even grass? Even underwear?”

Trailers squat by rusted plow trucks;

horses bow their searching, heavy heads.

The car dips and spins over the angry tar.

James complains, “I’m giving you facts.

Why are you so annoying?”

The town rises from its petty valley.

Crows, jeering, sail into the turgid pines.

The river tears at the dam.

Paul shouts, “Dirt lives in the universe!”

I want to be annoying!”

Everywhere, mud.

Last autumn’s Marlboro packs,

faded and derelict, shimmer in the ditch.

[first published in Solstice (spring 2011); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2013 or thereabouts)]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No frost last night, but close. Time to fix the woodstove, clearly. Yet the dahlias and the scarlet runners are still blooming bravely, even though, sadly, I have been driven to wearing socks. For now it is autumn, which means soccer season, which means huddling in a lawn chair under the last, chill, late-day sunbeams and watching one or the other boy, in his tall socks and shit-kicker cleats, zigzag through a muddy field as the maples redden and the crows complain about their annoying relatives. Today I'll be watching the 12th grader, who is a modest, sturdy second-stringer; on Monday I'll be watching the 8th grader, who is a bragging, high-fiving star scorer. It has been instructive and painful to perform both roles: parent of good athlete who loves to play, parent of mediocre athlete who loves to play. It is sad to watch your senior in high school spend his final season stuck in the J.V. midfield; but it is lovely to watch him shrug his shoulders and play anyway, with a wry smile, without complaining. It is glorious to watch your thirteen-year-old boot a ball into the goal and then raise his skinny arms in triumph and terribly fearful to watch him fail . . . because victory matters too much to him, because he can't conceive of not being the best.

Meanwhile, I will be sitting in my lawn chair, shivering.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On the whole, I hate being interviewed. Invariably I say something silly or start coughing or accidentally refer to stanzas as paragraphs. And, yes, for yesterday's video interview, I did forget to wear shoes; but today, thinking back on my hour in front of the camera, I find myself mostly not wincing or trying to imagine how one might PhotoShop them in.

Much of my happiness about this interview came from the interviewer himself. I have known Brad LaBree since he was about eight years old. His parents owned a general store in Harmony, and they were among the first people Tom and I met when we moved here. The LaBrees did my chores, helped me out when my well ran dry, and encouraged my overwrought toddler to run rampant up and down the beer aisle. In the meantime Brad grew up into a funny, sensitive, smart, ironic, crazy-idea, un-Harmony-like kid and eventually moved to Chicago, where he went to Columbia College and became a standup comedian, and where he also joined the staff of the Handshake. And it was in his capacity as one of the magazine's editors that he called me up and asked if he could interview me.

Naturally I said yes, and naturally I was anxious and kind of wishing he would forget or find something more interesting to do. Who believes that children, grown up or not, actually want to spend time with their parents' friends? But Brad persevered and arrived with his camera, and we had a lovely, lovely time together.

One thing that made this interview special was the fact that I was talking to a smart, ambitious, sweet, self-effacing apprentice to his craft who also recognizes, in some deep way, the mysterious elegiac power that Harmony, Maine, holds over his life. Like me, he stands both inside and outside of this town. He sees its gothic terrors and its sentimentalities. He has watched his schoolmates stutter in their tracks, fall victim to alcohol and opiates and poverty. He has transformed himself, shifted himself into a different life, and he knows that he cannot retreat behind the walls of this north-country Brigadoon. But he also knows that some part of him will never leave . . . and should not leave: because the place is his history, his imagination, a key to the world and his art.

Yesterday, as Brad was getting ready to walk out the door, I told him that one of the greatest pleasures of living in the same spot for so long has been watching my friends' children grow up to become my friends. It makes glasses and gray hair worthwhile. It really does.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dear journal editors:

Please do not send out rejection letters that include intended-to-be-encouraging comments such as "We enjoyed reading these two, the voice is very good." Yes, I know the voice is very good. I've spent twenty years refining it. I also know what a comma splice is.

Pardon the snottiness, but really: condescension is avoidable. You don't need to accept a poem you don't like, but you ought to be able to recognize the work of an experienced writer, especially since you presumably have read the biographical statement that your guidelines requested.

And now, with great exasperation, I will become polemical about punctuation. Anyone who teaches or edits writing--at any level, kindergarten through graduate school--should know how to avoid a comma splice. For God's sake, this is a ninth-grade grammar topic. Or perhaps I'm being too generous here: maybe it's a seventh-grade grammar topic. I am not talking about artists who purposely use comma splices for effect: Iris Murdoch, for instance. I am talking about basic communication. If you are an editor or if you teach writing, do not send anyone a business letter that includes a comma splice. Possibly your recipient might overlook the fact that you don't seem to know the different between a common noun and a proper noun. Possibly she might forgive your misuse of semicolons or your love affair with utilize and signage. Certainly she will understand that sentence fragments have their uses, and she will ignore typos because we all make them. But a comma splice guarantees that you, the letter writer, will look like an idiot. And because you are most likely not an idiot but an intelligent, perceptive human being, you would be well served to either hone your grammar or switch to a vocation that doesn't depend on demonstrated control of written English.

In some future rant, I may take up the subject of fatuous apostrophes as well as the mysterious disappearance of the comma in direct address. Till then, this blog will return to its usual tantrum-free programming.


The Crank

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In a way, the clarity of Nabokov's Speak, Memory disturbs me. My own recollections of childhood are, comparatively, so fractured and self-serving. They feel both unreliable and episodic, as if my life has been a jumpy homemade filmstrip rather than a smoothly unrolling panorama. I suppose the way in which one remembers must influence a memoirist's writing style, but my own memory rhythms also remind me why I'm primarily a poet rather than a memoirist. Jumpy episodic dramas are far easier to manage in poetic form: they lend themselves to image and sound experiment, to unexpected juxtapositions and ambiguity; whereas the smooth unrolling of history, a la Wordsworth's Prelude, seems to create long stretches of tedium in poetry. Later in Speak, Memory Nabokov talks about how he learned that he was not a poet, and when I get to that point again, I'll tell you what he says. I do remember that, when I first read it, his explanation made perfect sense to me and I'm hoping that it will again this time.

Nonetheless, despite the writer's self-declared non-poetic status, his memoir includes passages of great sensory beauty, both in sound and in image--for instance, this one:

We children had gone down to the village, and it is when I recall that particular day that I see with the utmost clarity the sun-spangled river; the bridge, the dazzling tin of a can left by a fisherman on its wooden railing; the linden-treed hill with its rosy-red church and marble mausoleum where my mother's dead reposed; the dusty road to the village; the strip of short, pastel-green grass, with bald patches of sandy soil, between the road and the lilac bushes behind which walleyed, mossy log cabins stood in a rickety row; the stone building of the new schoolhouse near the old wooden one; and, as we swiftly drove by, the little black dog with very white teeth that dashed out from among the cottages at a terrific pace but in absolute silence, saving his voice for the brief outburst he would enjoy when his muted spurt would at last bring him close to the speeding carriage.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This morning I plan to spend some time reconfiguring the Milton talk I led at this summer's Frost Place Advanced Seminar. Right now it's organized as banter, but it could be reorganized as an essay, though I'm not sure that any of my eight readers really wants more yak about Milton. But if nothing else, rewriting that talk will be a first step in learning how to be a writer again, as opposed to being a full-time copyeditor-and-harvest-frau.

I am glad to say that I spent more time with Zbigniew Herbert yesterday (in between canner batches), taking occasional breaks to eat apples and finish Pride and Prejudice. And this morning I pulled Nabokov's Speak, Memory off the shelf. I'm suddenly anxious to read it again; for it's not only a beautifully composed elegy for a vanished world but also a fine disquisition on what life feels like when one suspects that one might be about to grow up and become a writer.

I, too, would like to grow up and become a writer; and now that I've got a season of school days to myself and no editorial distractions, I'm in a hurry to get started. I suppose I should also consider the possibility of submitting some finished poems and essays to journals. To be honest, however, I must say that even vacuuming might be more intriguing than sending work to uninterested journal editors.

When I first started writing, I wanted to send out every piece instantly. Now I find myself forgetting to submit work. Overall this shift has probably been good for my writing, though it's been no good at all for my career (such as it is).

Actually, just saying the word career is a little embarrassing. I think I'll pretend I didn't.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I've been rereading Pride and Prejudice for the five hundredth time and in the meantime scrubbing soot out of the stove pipe, shoving a recalcitrant mower through too-long grass, harvesting bucketloads of filthy potatoes, and wondering what Mr. Darcy would think about it all. It seems likely that I would make a better wife for Mr. Collins, which is too depressing an idea to consider any further. But of course, in truth I have reached the age of Mrs. Bennet and should be content with chaperoning balls, playing whist, and striving to protect my seventeen-year-old from the predations of charming yet portionless females.

Here's a sonnet by William Cowper. Fanny Price, heroine of Austen's Mansfield Park, was a Cowper fan, as was Jane herself. It's rather hard to see why, but I am trying.

Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esquire

William Cowper

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Hears thee, by cruel men and impious call'd
Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th' enthrall'd
From exile, public sale, and slav'ry's chain.
Friend of the poor, the wrong'd, the fetter-gall'd,
Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain.
Thou hast achiev'd a part; hast gain'd the ear
Of Britain's senate to thy glorious cause;
Hope smiles, joy springs, and though cold caution pause
And wave delay, the better hour is near
That shall remunerate thy toils severe
By peace for Afric, fenced with British laws.
Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love
From all the Just on earth, and all the Blest above.

No wonder, when faced with such ponderous, flat-footed epistles, Alexander Pope became jaded and sarcastic. For a bit of eighteenth-century variety, perhaps you'd like to read a few lines from his very cranky Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot:

Why am I ask'd, what next shall see the light?
Heav'ns! was I born for nothing but to write?
Has Life no Joys for me? or (to be grave)
Have I no Friend to serve, no Soul to save?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All week I've been trying to ignore the ever-increasing frenzy about the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. The more I hear, the more silent I want to become. Yes, I remember what I was doing that morning. I was sitting at my desk editing when my friend Allison called to tell me what had happened. And yes, my first response was horror and fear and a desperate, irrational anxiety about my children, one of whom was at school interrupting his second-grade teacher without raising his hand first, the other of whom was watching Teletubbies and spilling American chop suey down the front of his overalls at my friend Tina's house. I had no reason to fear for them, but I was terribly afraid.

Three of my classmates at Haverford College were killed among the Cantor Fitzgerald casualties. Several of the terrorists made their way to New York by way of Maine. Friends who were living in Brooklyn recall that the sky was filled with ash and paper for days. It was a terrible moment. Yet Americans, as is our wont, have translated this violence into an exemplar of singular and specific American suffering. For the most part, the students I teach have almost no comprehension of the history of terrorism beyond their own borders. When I introduce them to Wislawa Szymborska's poem "The Terrorist, He's Watching" and then tell them it was written in the 1970s, they are shocked.

So when anniversaries such as this one come around--these public moments that herd us once again into bovine Americana--I don't find myself rallying around the flag. I love my country and I grieve for our loss. But I also grieve for our blindness and our ignorance, and for the way in which we continue, as a people, to celebrate these flaws as strengths.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Structured solitude is the phrase Maureen used in her comment on yesterday's post. Formalized loneliness is the phrase that came to me in the midst of my huswifery. The two seem nearly synonymous, yet to me they connote different attitudes within the task of poetry . . . though I'm not sure attitudes is exactly what I mean. I will try to think of a better word.

In any case, structured solitude implies a purposeful use of time, as in "I have six hours to write today. I will not answer the phone or the doorbell. I will use my first hour to copy out the first six pages of The Wasteland. I will use my second and third hours to revise the line endings on pages 18 and 19 of my own Wasteland-induced epic. Etc."

Structuring solitude is the way to get something done, but formalized loneliness is a way of being in the world. Some poets have chosen to separate themselves physically: Robert Frost moved to New Hampshire; John Haines moved to Alaska. Some have refined illness, drug use, or unhappiness into strategies of creation: John Clare, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath. Not everyone's strategy is so obvious, however. One of the conundrums of Shakespeare is that we don't know enough about his history to recognize how he built this boundary, this fence, around his inner world. Yet given this closing couplet in Sonnet 98, I think he must have.

Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Yesterday, among all my canning and krauting tasks, I managed also to find time to begin copying out Z. Herbert's poem "Trial." And as I was transcribing the first stanza, sitting with my notebook at the kitchen table, with the harvest bubbling or burping on stove or countertop, a sentence, which was also an idea, suddenly came to me:

The creation of poetry requires a formalized loneliness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

1. All mod cons this morning. Ergo, tomato canning and cabbage brining.

2. According to Wikipedia, "[Zbigniew Herbert] was a distant relative of the 17th century poet George Herbert." Can this be true? Because later in the article, the anonymous claimant merely asserts that "the [Polish] Herberts probably had some English roots."

3. Whatever the ancestral facts might be, a study of the poetry of G. Herbert versus Z. Herbert would make a bizarre compare-and-contrast essay.

4. If Z's poems weren't still under copyright, I would share one with you. Since they are, however, I can only give you a single stanza. Here's the ending of "Tale of a Nail":

a leaf and a stone fall so do all things real
but ghosts live a long time stubbornly despite
sunrise and sunset revolutions of celestial bodies
on the disgraced earth tears and things fall

5. G's poems are fair game for reproduction, but their wacky formatting makes them hard to replicate on this blog. Anyway, to be fair to Z, I should give you only a stanza. Here's the opening of "The bunch of grapes":

Joy, I did lock thee up: but some bad man
Hath let thee out again:
And now, me thinks, I am where I began
Sev'n yeares ago: one vogue and vein,
One aire of thoughts usurps my brain.
I did toward Canaan draw; but now I am
Brought back to the Red sea, the sea of shame.

6. Moralizing without punctuation versus moralizing with it. See what I mean about the odd potentials of that hypothetical Herbert versus Herbert essay? It's possible, however, that someone else has already written it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I really had been looking forward to today. Both children would be back in school, the fair would be over, I would be on an editing hiatus, and I would be immersed in a day of canning tomatoes, making relish, picking grapes, and digging potatoes. One of those Keatsian "mellow fruitfulness" days, you know? But instead, as I was heating water for coffee this morning, the propane ran out. "Oh, yes, we were supposed to deliver that yesterday," said the fuel company dispatcher cheerily, when I called her at 6:30 a.m. to find out why.

Believe it or not, we do not own a microwave or a toaster oven. However, thanks to our ever-resourceful James, we discovered that one can boil a kettle on an electric panini maker. Unfortunately, he had already left for school by the time I learned that the toilet had stopped flushing. So next on my list of things to do is to jerry-rig a paperclip to the chain. I haven't even fed the animals yet. Sigh.

But I suppose this all gives me extra time to read the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, doesn't it?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Harmony Fair is over, which means, I suppose, that fall is really here. The rain is pouring down, down, down; and all the eighth graders who are supposed to pick up cans and bottles on the fairgrounds today will be miserable. Meanwhile, I will be driving the embarrassingly ungroomed poodle to the groomer's and then returning home to catch up on the editorial minutiae that's accumulated on my desk--those end-of-project issues involving irregular reference dates and new figure titles and "sorry, can't open the file you sent me" emails. One thing I'm hoping to begin doing later this week is to can tomatoes. Another thing I'm hoping to do is to read more Zbigniew Herbert poems. We'll see.

By the way, I just received my schedule for the Bangor Book Festival. On Saturday, October 1, I'll be reading at Bagel Central, beginning at 9:30 a.m., which is perfect timing for a bagel. I'm not sure I've ever given a morning reading before. I wonder if it will be odd or if cream cheese and lox at a reading will be just as suitable as wine and little crackers usually are.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Okay, here I am again, with an unexpected few hours off from my exhibit hall coordinator duties. Despite spreadsheet snarls, a giant power-killing thunderstorm, dangerous balloon animals, two weird drunks, and a son smeared, at various times, with mustard, ketchup, chocolate pudding, and oatmeal, things have gone well. We had an unwontedly large submission of apple and blueberry pies, a very small boy took Best of Show for a lovely trout photograph, I heard much local gossip, nobody has yet broken anything on display, my food-smeared son won the Gross Games, and we managed to escape on Saturday afternoon to attend a wedding in southern Maine, where the aforesaid son was too shy to dance but not at all too shy to spend half an hour walking among the wedding guests while balancing a gourd on his head. Boys are inscrutable.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Harmony Fair opens tonight, which means you may or may not hear from me regularly this weekend. This is my last year of running the Exhibit Hall, which is bittersweet for me since I've been doing it for a decade. But it's also crazy and exhausting; and because next year my son will be heading off for college at about this time, I want my attention and time to be his.

Thanks, by the way, for your comments about both "Son-in-Law" and the LocusPoint project. They mean a lot to me.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Yesterday afternoon, as I was baking bread, the electric igniter in my gas oven burnt out. This has happened before and, as household pain-in-the-ass situations go, is not a big deal. Except for the fact that the man who used to repair such items has since murdered his family and then killed himself.

This leads me to darkness and to yesterday's comments and to my opening essay in LocusPoint. I love Maine and my town and my family. I laugh often and find many aspects of life amusing, touching, and joyous. I see beauty and am seduced by it. However, we all have roles and responsibilities as artists . . . and we do not all have the same role. Mine has evolved along a continuum that includes poets such as Shakespeare and Milton and Frost and Carruth and Bolton. This is not to say that I rank myself among them as a wielder of art. But all of these men have forced me to face the evil in this world, and in myself. They know there is darkness, and that love and good intentions do not always triumph. They recognize the glory in the hideous, the comedy in the pain, the elegy in the murder, the love in the anger, the sweetness in the polemic, the desire in the loneliness.

I have a friend whose son has become addicted to bath salts. Imagine: the child you once held in your arms is now hallucinating, terrified, and repeatedly threatening to hurt you.

I have a friend who tried to love the man who murdered her child and grandchildren. Here's the poem I wrote about the two of them . . . a year before he succeeded. It's a poem that will give me nightmares for the rest of my life.

The poets I invited to submit to LocusPoint are writers whom I have watched, over the years, work to deepen their (for lack of a better word) moral relationship to poetry. This does not implying moralizing but rather a groping for the truth beyond the truth, the complications, the confusions, the unanswerable. I chose six poets who do not stylistically write like I write, or live in the region where I live, or experience in everyday life what I experience. It was hard to narrow down this choice because Maine has many serious, accomplished, and striving poets . . . for instance, Kristen Lindquist, who writes exquisitely about birds; Weslea Sidon, who speaks with great pathos about old cars; David Moreau, so eloquent about the middle-aged, mentally disabled men who wander the aisles of Wal-Mart; Carol Willette Bachofner, who has undertaken a fascinating writing project about her old boyfriends. But LocusPoint is a project about place, so I needed to build geographical variety into my selection. This was difficult because most of the poets I've just mentioned live in the midcoast region of the state. Most, also, are women. I feel sad about losing their voices. I also feel sad about my conscious decision to eschew the voices of Maine's nationally prominent poets: Richard Foerster, Betsy Sholl, Wes McNair, and many others. If nothing else, the LocusPoint project has helped me see how interesting it would be to compile a real Maine anthology.

Nonetheless, I think there are lovely poems in this folio, and I am honored to have been the means of sharing them with you.