Monday, December 31, 2012

It is the last day of the year. In time, I am forty-eight years old. In accomplishment, I have lived with the same man since I was twenty-one, have somehow managed to raise a son to adulthood, another to callow-youthhood, and within the past decade have written six books and part of a seventh, along with myriad uncollected bits and pieces of essays and poems. In space, I am a denizen of le grand bois du nord. Crows fly overhead. The firs creak and sway in the cold morning air. In the mirror, I am blue-eyed. In my dream, I lie in the berth of a rocking train, swiftly pulling me into the horizon. In song, he done me wrong. In truth, no and yes and I also and what difference does it make? Happy new year to all of you.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Another year draws to a close, and I sit here, drinking the same coffee, at the same old Formica table, in the same small red house, in the same clearing, in the same forest, under the same snowfall, avoiding the same chores. Something must change. Clearly something has already changed. One son is gone; the other is large. The dog's eyes have become cloudy, and my hair has become grayer. I consider a future in which I might possess the only key to a door. I consider waking up in a two-room flat at the top of a windy hill. I consider dinner for two, night after night; dinner for one, night after night. I consider never canning another tomato again. Which joke, which embrace, will be the last?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (12)

This is my final snapshot from A Poet's Sourcebook, which will be released on January 1, 2013. All of the poets and readers featured in this section are young accomplished writers from around the world, and the final entrant was only ten years when he wrote his remarks.

from Mike Walker
Often, the very reasons we write are tied to the stressors that nearly prohibit our writing.

from Autumn McClintock
Allow me to say this: the idea that time heals wounds and allows us to get over someone's death is bullshit.

from Garth Greenwell
So many of the moments that seem most constitutive of who I have become, as important as my encounters with poems or with men I have genuinely loved, have been passed in these cramped, ill-lit, often unclean spaces.

from Rory Waterman
At least part of finding out must be in the writing, surely--or, as E. M. Forster put it, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"

from Mthabisi Phili
no there is no poetry these days
no meat no food--even water goes on vacation

from Ethan Richard
Poetry is like a very well read 3 year old, it uses terrific words, but uses them so strangely and it always spouts the truth you don't want other people to hear in public.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Snowbound in Vermont. Three dogs snore as the wind whips around the house. It is a glorious day in which to shelve our plans to steer a two-wheel-drive car over the White Mountains.

Though I have time and solitude, I am finding it difficult to settle down to reading or writing, and "no private space in which some male family member isn't sleeping" is more or less of an excuse as I have been known to write poems in airports. So instead I'll quote James Baldwin:
The only useful definition of the word "majority" does not refer to numbers, and it does not refer to power. It refers to influence. Someone said, and said it very accurately, that what is honored in a country is cultivated there. If we apply this touchstone to American life we can scarcely fail to arrive at a very grim view of it. But I think we have to look grim facts in the face because if we don't, we can never hope to change them.
Nevertheless, here I sit in a chair by the window, snowbound in Vermont.

The quiet truth, the hideous truth. Consorting in combination, these two are an analogue for many a Frost and a Dickinson poem. That is not a news flash, I know. But I am sitting here in my chair consorting again with those truths and those dark ancestors.

Says Frost, "All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars."

And Dickinson replies, "This World is not Conclusion."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Today we forge west over the mountains for Christmas with my family. No doubt, my posts will become spotty and distracted over the next few days; so while I still have the chance, I want to wish you a peaceable yet comic holiday in which you are able to set aside all petty disputes with your loved ones while enjoying faux-bloodcurdling competitive card games or fireside chats about dogs you have known.

Much love to you all--

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Another New Convulsion: Americans, Intellect, and Bad Faith

In his 1959 essay "Nobody Knows My Name: Letter from the South," James Baldwin wrote, "The South . . . was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people. This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.)"

A half-century after Baldwin wrote those words, I lay in bed reading his essay. I'd spent a week weeping over the schoolhouse slaughter in Connecticut, and now I was fuming over the subsequent "not our fault" press conference of that ass Wayne LaPierre, spokesmodel for the neanderthal organization known as the National Rifle Association. And Baldwin's words leaped from their context into mine--for yes: this, too, "is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people."

Any member of my household would be the first to confirm that I am irrational, illogical, and unscientific in my approach to living. I'll do almost anything to avoid a world that involves formulae. I am a devotee of wishful thinking; I cling to the old ways; I fall apart in arguments. But despite my failings as a rationalist, I have always believed in the scientific method as a reliable pattern of discovery. When trained and careful scientists, one after the other, explain the causes and effects of global warming, I tend to believe them. Likewise, when trained and careful researchers explain that the simple equation more guns = more deaths is exactly accurate, I also tend to believe them. Why do I tend to believe these people whom I don't know personally, whose endeavors are mysterious to me? Because they are intellectuals--that is, people who actually think. I believe in the workings of the intelligent brain.

On the other hand, I have spent most of my adult life in a section of rural America that worships guns, hunting, and traditional definitions of manliness; that devalues education and art and independent thought. In Tracing Paradise I wrote extensively about why and how I live in this place, even to the point of including a long chapter on why I purposely asked a friend to shoot a goat. I may not own a gun, but I understand their utility--in this case, as a way to quickly and humanely kill a large sick animal. It was a relief, and a gift, to have a friend who was willing to do this for me, and to do it not only respectfully but with full cognizance of his, and my, moral ambiguities in the matter.

I love my homeland, and I respect my neighbors for reasons that have nothing to do with education or politics. Simple contiguity has, over the years, pressed us to cross such divides, and this necessity has--and I feel this deeply in my heart--allowed both of us, on both sides of the chasm, to learn to love one another and value one another as individuals rather than stereotypes. Nonetheless, I fear--I know--that many of these individuals, whom I can embrace with genuine affection over the bed of a sick child, also automatically accepted the idiocies that LaPierre spewed in his press conference. These are the same people who suffered with me through the horrors of the murders in Dexter a year and half ago; they are, for all I know, the parents of the murdered woman. I would not be surprised, not at all, to learn that most of her family and friends assume that LaPierre's claims are facts.

I am frustrated, and sickened, and terrified by such perpetuated blindness. I have no idea what can be done to change it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's been snowing here for days; and though accumulations are light, the air shimmers day and night with clusters of flakes, and even the tiniest twigs are coated with new white. Our yard looks like a snow globe. In the meantime the cars are falling apart. Already this week I have had a rear brake failure on one vehicle and a windshield-washer pump failure on another, and this morning I have to deal with a dead headlight. Add to these crappy cars and messy roads an intense need for fresh baking supplies, not to mention dog food and toilet paper, and you can guess how I will be unjoyfully spending a few of my morning hours.

As the flurries and I drove home together from band practice last night, I was listening to Boston's Handel and Haydn Society perform their annual rendition of The Messiah at Symphony Hall. I lustily sang along with the counter-tenor (he sounding like butter, me sounding like some demented ugly frog princess) and imagined how lovely it would be to spend an evening listening to The Messiah at Symphony Hall and then walk home among the perpetually falling snowflakes with no broken-down car or slick pavement to distract me from my holiday cheer (as if twenty massacred babies hadn't already pretty seriously distracted me). And then I imagined how difficult it would be not to sing along with the counter-tenor like a demented ugly frog princess but have to sit nicely in my plush seat for a million hours till the program was over, and then it became hard to decide which option was better: the real or the transmitted, the walking sweetly or the driving unsweetly. In theory I am all for live music. In truth I am a terrible fidgeter.

But back to the counter-tenor. My familiar version of The Messiah is the recording my parents had when I was small and which I still own. This is one of those thick four-disk sets that forces a listener to flip the record every ten minutes, and it stars, as bass soloist, the guy who sang "Old Man River" in Showboat. It's very likely that, in 1962 or whenever this was recorded, no one in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had ever heard of a counter-tenor. (Perhaps they still haven't.) So instead the recording features a contralto, and I have to say it took me all of yesterday's ride home to come to terms with this counter-tenor "interloper," who I understand was no doubt more faithful to Handel's intentions but who rolled his r's distractingly and added a touch of coyness to "He Was Despised," a part that I had always taken for granted as "big lady singing a sad song." In real life I am quite fond of the sound of a counter-tenor, but I know that I am also the last person to warm up to change. Call me a reactionary, but The Messiah is its own version of Tolstoyan familiarity. Just don't give me a new version of War and Peace in which Prince Andrey shows up as Prince Andrew. That's all I ask.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (11)

from Naomi Shihab Nye
She knew what I meant. That was a wing to fly on all the way home, or for the rest of a life.

from Rita Dove
And when someone tells you your poem is bad, it doesn't mean that your heart is bad.

from Sam Watson
In November 1974, a BOAC aircraft was hijacked in Dubai by Palestinian terrorists. The aircraft was flown to Tunisia and held on the tarmac for three days. [Indigenous Australian poet] Kath Walker, member of the Steering Committee for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, was on that plane. Walker pleaded with the hijackers on behalf of the passengers, particularly a German banker who had been targeted for execution.

from Lynda Hull
Gone to seed, ailanthus, the poverty
     tree. Take a phrase, then
fracture it, the pods' gaudy nectarine shades
          ripening to parrots taking flight, all crest
and tall feathers.
                                       A musical idea.

from Teresa Carson
I admit that, in some ways, it would be hard to find two poets more different in personal or poetic style. It might be easy to elevate Keats as a "true poet" and dismiss Jack [Wiler] as a "loud poseur." Keats was Apollo; Jack was Lear's Fool. Keats lived on Mount Helicon; Jack lived in Jersey City. Keats was a prophet; Jack, by his own admission, was "the jibbering monkey." One imagines Keats standing in a Greek amphitheater, intoning "Ode to a Nightingale" to hushed acolytes. One imagines Jack commanding a makeshift stage in Starr's Bar, shouting "How to Succeed in Pest Control" to heckling drunks.

from Dawn Potter
Great art grows from the intensity of an artist's interaction with her own life. I don't mean to imply that her life has to be dramatic or even all that interesting. But the artist must make long acquaintance with her days--days that are rarely trancelike but that plod through the seasons: that strip the beds and ream out the barns and trudge through the snow to the insurance office.

from Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
After all, we had not studied
the masters' poesy, we knew
nothing about central metaphors,
conceits, literary vehicles.

from Brenda Shaughnessy
Sometimes dangerous girls meet each other and it's almost as if they are time-travelers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

from James Baldwin, "What It Means to Be an American"

Of course, the reason for Europe's comparative clarity concerning the different functions of men in society is that European society has always been divided into classes in a way that American society never has been. A European writer considers himself to be part of an old and honorable tradition--of intellectual activity, of letters--and his choice of a vocation does not cause him any uneasy wonder as to whether or not it will cost him all his friends. But this tradition does not exist in America.

On the contrary, we have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, the myth of America to which we cling so desperately). An American writer fights his way to one of the lowest rungs on the American social ladder by means of pure bull-headedness and an indescribable series of odd jobs. He probably has been a "regular fellow" for much of his adult life, and it is not easy for him to step out of that lukewarm bath.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Teaching project: week 8

After a three-week gap created by another job and a snow day, I finally limped back to school, bumbling my way north as the slush fell thickly from the sky and the old Subaru's windshield-washer pump gasped and died. Originally the classroom teachers and I had planned to run a little performance contest; but given the events in Newtown and the generalized shell shock that all of us who work in schools are fighting, the teachers weren't exactly in the mood for the sort of hyper-management this would require, which was a good thing, because neither was I.

So before we got started on a low-key version of a public reading, I sat down and reminded the students of the Dexter murders, a local horror that lives vividly in all of our minds, and told them I had written a poem about the event a year before it had even happened. And I said, This is a hard thing for me to keep facing. But poetry is what people turn to when they can't make sense out of anything.

And then I read them this poem, "Rain," by Naomi Shihab Nye.

And then for the rest of the class, I sat in a corner and let them read their own work.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (10)

from an interview with Toi Derricotte (the interviewers were eighth graders)
Ms. Derricotte: I used to hang out with groups of people who were what they called "beatniks." And beatniks were like people in the fifties, who were really intellectuals. They liked to read, they liked to talk about ideas, play chess, they like jazz. People like that. What are people like that called now? 
Joseph: Old-timers?
from Galsan Tschinag
Defence of poetry thus means: defence of humanity, defence of authenticity, it means defence of the stone against plaster, defence of wood against plastic, defence of the word of the mother tongue against the foreign word, the technical jargon, defence of feeling against hypocrisy and finally defence of everything real and true against the fashion of the day and intentional lies.

from Yusef Komunyakaa
Emotional texture is drawn from the aesthetics of insinuation and nuance. But to do this well the poet has to have a sense of history.

from Baron Wormser
If T. S. Eliot's weirdly magisterial poem The Waste Land were cast into the form of a television show, what would it look like?

from Bei Dao
an alien voice sneaking into the dictionary
a dissident
perhaps a form of distance from the world

from Elizabeth McElrea
On the subject of drugs Auden speaks from experience. His criticisms of marijuana use are that it reduces coherence, inflates egos, and for the young especially, prevents one from discovering his own identity. Artistically, he found the experience uncommunicatable and hence useless. With LSD, "nothing happened."

from Charles Bernstein
My poetry doesn't convey what I know, it explores the conditions of how I know it.

from Jack Wiler
This is high school. 
And since it's high school every fucking one of them has to pretend that nothing happens outside their door. They have to act like mommy and daddy are nice and the kids are okay and it's a good idea to invade various small countries and the best way to get along is go along and so we can't have any fucking, queer, poet, shithead going around saying cunt in front of the kids because god knows where that would lead.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I have received one of the nicest Christmas presents ever. My college boy, home for the holiday, remarked to me in the car, "You know, all that work you made me do on my college essays really helped me out. And this year, when a friend asked me to look at her essays, I used what you taught me as way to get her to fix up her writing." And then he said, "One thing I'm finding out is that writing is a way to figure out new ways to think about what you don't know, and understanding grammar and parts of speech and stuff is really, really helpful when I'm trying to do that."

Oh, the torment of last year's college essays! He was so grumpy and defensive and procrastinatey, and I was forced to be the nag queen, and it was all so unpleasant. So I couldn't have been more surprised, and more delighted, to receive this unexpected thanks and to know that he continues to find what I taught him useful and compelling.

If you're interested in reliving my three-part emergency college essay intervention strategies, check out these links from last year.

Revision strategy 1
Revision strategy 2
Revision strategy 3

Of course, I tailored these strategies, particularly the third one, to address specific weak points in my son's drafts; but as I reread them again after a year of not thinking about them, I believe they do cohere as a valid, layered approach to guiding a writer structurally while not damaging her voice or point of view. In real life, I also required a fourth step, which for some reason I didn't document: the proofreading stage, in which the writer hunts down the final typos and mechanical errors. With kids I often find the best way to get them to focus on these picky details, especially missing words, noun-verb agreement problems, etc., is to have someone else read the essay aloud, slowly, while the writer follows along on his own copy and circles or highlights the mistakes as he hears them. Then, on the final pass-through, he can focus on caps and punctuation without being distracted by the typo issue.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yesterday's slaughter of the innocents has distressed me more than I can coherently say. I love my own children so much; I spend so much time working as a poet in so many different schools; I am so committed to the teachers who invite me into their lives; and my heart breaks so much for those lonely young men whom I don't know how to reach in even the most rudimentary of ways. It seems as if every character in this morality play has wound itself into my vocation . . . as I've both succeeded and failed in it.

But here is a glimmer of light. Adults will lay down their lives for children, even at moments of unspeakable terror. This is not sentiment but an instinct of our humanity.

Here is another glimmer. When I cry, "I love you," you cry in return, "I know. I love you too." And this, too, is not sentiment but an instinct of our humanity.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My memoir-essay, "The Cumulative Shrinking Effect of Explanation," is out today in the current issue of Solstice Literary Magazine.
The last sentence of Dickens's Little Dorrit may be my favorite last sentence in all of the books I have ever read. When I finished the novel (again) last night, all I could do was close the cover and lay both hands on it and let the tears prickle behind my eyelids. I felt as if I were listening to the one line of a song that, no matter where I am in this life, comes back to me and back to me, the one line that tells the story of every song and every listener, now and forever.
They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (9)

from Hayden Carruth
Once the poet was our spokesman and not our oracle, our advocate and not our secret agent, or at least he was as much the one as the other; and if he did not speak for us, all of us, fully and warmly, if his poems lacked the larger vision of humanity, we said he was deficient in one of the qualities that, virtually by definition, make a poet.

from Philip Larkin
It is fatal to decide, intellectually, what good poetry is because you are then in honour bound to try to write it, instead of the poems that only you can write.

from Denise Levertov
And in a dream these things danced together and reassembled.

from John Berger
One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god.

from Philip Levine
What Lorca gave me as no other poet had was a validation of my own emotions, which meant a validation of what I was trying and failing to write.

from Adrienne Rich
My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.

from Gregory Corso
When I got the proofs I felt both good and sad, good because there are some very good poems in book, and sad because there aren't any poems that bespeak my dream my idea my lyric, God knows what, but I definitely feel the book lacks the dessert of my poetry.

from Gary Snyder
You cannot communicate with the forces of nature in a laboratory.

from Audre Lorde
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My mom, Janice Miller Potter, has just released her collection Meanwell, a series of 24 poems told from the imagined point of view of Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet's servant. I read it for the first time myself yesterday, and it really is a lovely and tragic tale of the history of women's speech and silence.

In other news, the freezer-delivery men arrive this morning, and Little Dorrit's father has just died in Rome. Also, to add a surreal note to these mundanities, my vet has told me that my poodle is addicted to water. Who knew such a thing could happen to a perfectly nice middle-class dog?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A dark morning, glimmering with snow. I can hear the town plow trucks beeping and clanking at the sand pile, the tires of cars grating over the pebbled slush on the road. I expected to be on my way to high school this morning, primed to teach another poetry class; but yesterday's snow day has thrown off the weekly schedule, so instead I am sitting here in my pink flannel bathrobe listening to the downstairs burble of headlines, to the trucks at the sand pile, to the hum of a refrigerator busily recharging its ice after an overnight without electricity.

I've been reading Little Dorrit--more like swallowing Little Dorrit in greedy chunks, forgetting to chew, and occasionally choking on it. What is it about Dickens that transforms me into such a sloppy reader? I've been filling out crossword puzzles, filling out Christmas cards, reading recipes, editing manuscripts, circling and circling my own work like a bemused shark. I can't seem to stop inventing mixed metaphors or scrolling through car-radio stations. What am I hoping to find there? My choices are (1) Rush Limbaugh, (2) Rod Stewart, (3) Taylor Swift, (3) football announcers, (4) public radio news yack, none of which fits my bill, whatever that bill might be. And all of this scanning is foolish, considering that my husband has the largest record collection in the western hemisphere. I could listen to Lionel Hampton all day long. But for now all I listen to are sand trucks and squirrels and my own accidental hiccups and murmurs.

Give me a reason for living, plead the radio voices . . . even Rush. How he must suffer under the weight of that hideous soul. Beyond a film of trees, a school bus rumbles over the gritty pavement. My thoughts are mundane. I cannot disguise my ordinary eye. I read Little Dorrit like a schoolgirl reads Twilight. Sometimes I think, All I have to share is pity.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (8)

from Edward Thomas
Possibly at nineteen Herrick really believed that in the country all was "purling springs, groves, birds, and well-weav'd bowers, with fields enamelled with flowers"; that there were none of those "desperate cares th' industrious merchant has"; that men there ate only "to cool, not cocker appetite," and "content makes all ambrosia"--"boiled nettles" and all. But it is more likely that Herrick got it all from books.

from Wallace Stevens
For my own part I like to live in a classic atmosphere, full of my own gods and to be true to them until I have some better authority than merely a contrary opinion for not being true to them.

from Lytton Strachey
[Thomas Lovell Beddoes's] tragedy, like Hamlet's, was the tragedy of an overpowerful will--a will so strong as to recoil upon itself, and fall into indecision.

from Virginia Woolf
They were boastful, triumphant; it seemed to both that they had read every book in the world; known every sin, passion, and joy.

from Ezra Pound
Obviously, it is not easy to be a great poet. If it were, many more people would have done so.

from T. S. Eliot
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.

from Vladimir Nabokov
The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions.

from Theodore Roethke
You know how things get from too much laundering: the rubber in the various intimate equipment disintegrates, the string would bust in my sweat pants; there'd be a hole in my racket. Well, do you get the analogy: that's me and free verse.

from Czeslaw Milosz
For we all who are here, both the speaker and you who listen, are no more than links between the past and future.

A Keresan Poet
I refuse to tell it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Today's activities. More cookie baking, more wood splitting, more throwing pieces of bark for the poodle to chase, more pots of strong coffee, more jokes about the ineptitude of the poodle in finding the bark that was thrown for her, more wood splitting, more wood splitting (sigh), more trying to wake up the teenager, more cookie eating, more picking burs out of the poodle's curls after she hunts fruitlessly for the bark in a pricker patch. Etc.

But regarding the photo above, what do you think: does that rhino look cute or as if he's suffering from a skin disease?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (7)

from Charles Sangster
Our life is like a forest, where the sun
Glints down upon us through the throbbing leaves;
The full light rarely finds us.

from Matthew Arnold
The grand power of poetry is its interpretive power; by which I mean, not a power of drawing out in black and white an explanation of the mystery of the universe, but the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new, and intimate sense of them, and of our relations with them.

from Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days.

from Walter Pater
Well! that is because any writer worth translating at all has winnowed and searched through his vocabulary, is conscious of the words he would select in systematic reading of a dictionary, and still more of the words he would reject were the dictionary other than Johnson's; and doing this with his peculiar sense of the world ever in view, in search of an instrument for the adequate expression of that, he begets a vocabulary faithful to the colouring of his own spirit, and in the strictest sense original.

from Emily Dickinson
Mr. Higginson,--are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?
from Paul Verlaine
The tune is everything--
     so prefer the the irregular
          line that dissolves in the air,
to the stodginess of "meaning."

from Gerard Manley Hopkins
What you look at seems to look hard at you.

from William Butler Yeats
I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find, but as yet we do not know truths that belong to us from opinions caught up in casual irritation or momentary phantasy.

from Robert Frost
I slumbered with your poems on my breast.

from Rainer Maria Rilke
Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative moments.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I'm going to talk about food today. It is always a notable shift for me--these dark evenings of the waning year, when I begin to forsake the garden for preserved food. I have harvested the last of my brussels sprouts and nearly all of my kale; already I have made a sizable dent in my prideful display of canned tomatoes, and I'm back to buying grocery store lettuce. Still, the freezer and the cupboard are not bare yet, and I've made a couple of meals recently that remind me that stored or preserved foodstuffs do not imply any lessening of quality. To wit:

December Risotto

Broth base: 1 quart clam liquor (left over from a summer steamer feast, then strained and frozen) thawed and heated along with 3 cups of plain water to reduce the saltiness

Minced and then sauteed together: 1 small onion (from the grocery store because my onion crop was a big failure), a small handful of wild honey mushrooms (picked in October, dried over the wood stove, then soaked in warm water for half an hour, rinsed, and squeezed dry), a tablespoon of red pepper flakes (from my own hot peppers strung up to dry in the kitchen and then scissored into the pan), 3 tablespoons of olive oil (you'll be surprised to hear this, but for some reason I can't seem to grow olives in Maine).

Add 2 cups of white arborio rice, stirring until the grains are thoroughly oiled.

Slowly, over the course of 20 minutes or so, ladle in the broth, stirring more or less constantly as the rice absorbs the liquid, although it's fine to take breaks to replenish your wine glass or to turn the page of the Dickens novel you're reading while you're standing at the stove.

When the rice has absorbed all the liquid and is no longer crunchy, stir in a pat of butter and a spoonful of minced parsley (which several months ago I emulsified in the food processor with a touch of bland oil, which helps the leaves keep their color, then froze in small containers and now thaw as needed). Finally, stir in a half-cup of grated good-quality parmesan (purchased along with the aforementioned wine at Miccucci's Grocery in Portland, Maine, during a foray into civilization).

Set the table, light the little angel chime candles, and serve with a salad: organic baby arugula from the grocery store combined with split brussels sprouts quickly pan-roasted with olive oil and garlic from the stash under the sink (fortunately my garlic plants thrived, unlike those stupid onions); add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a soupcon of salt and pepper, and you're done.

For two or three people, this lovely simple supper does not require any other additions: there's plenty of rice available for seconds. That's not say that a warm baguette wouldn't be nice too, if you had one.

If you do end up with leftovers, heat some peanut or grapeseed oil in a skillet, form the risotto into patties, and fry them up. Tom eats these for breakfast. They also make a good layer under the next day's sauced chicken thighs or marinated pork chops.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (5)

from Thomas Carlyle
Let a man but speak forth with genuine earnestness the thought, the emotion, the actual condition of his own heart; and other men, so strangely are we all knit together by the tie of sympathy, must and will give heed to him.

from Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Deal with us nobly, women though we be,
And honour us with truth, if not with praise.

from Edgar Allan Poe
A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect.

from Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov
I am not Byron--yet I am
One fore-elected, yet one more
Unknown, world-hunted wanderer,
A Russian in my mood and mind.

from Henry David Thoreau
Here is a small reddish-topped rush (is it the Juncus effusus, common or soft rush?), now a foot high, in the meadow with the cowslip. It is the greatest growth of the grass form I have seen. The butterflies are now more numerous, red and blue-black or dark velvety. The art of life, of a poet's life, is, not having anything to do, to do something.

from Frederick Douglass
In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

from Emily Bronte
The kitchin is in a very untidy state. Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major. Tab[b]y said on my putting a pen in her face, "Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate." I answered, "O Dear, O Dear, O dear, I will directly."

from Walt Whitman
The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready plowed and manured.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I'm on the road again today--a quick trip to southern New Hampshire, where I'll be working with a  group of eighth graders as well as few assorted parents and teachers in an after-school writing consortium. And then (except for my local high school project), my teaching travels are over for the season. Thanks to the Schafer family, who funded the grants that have allowed me to take the Frost Place on the road, I've had an unusually busy autumn. Still, I am looking forward to a snowy month or two at home. I seem to be on the cusp of another bout of writing, and it would be  a relief to have time and space for that seizure. I continue to slowly copy out Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, and I've finished another western Pennsylvania poem. But I also have a sense of emotional immanence, a kind of migraine aura without the physical pain, that so often presages my most productive periods. And I am beginning to reread my old childhood novels--Alcott, Dickens--those books I crave before I start my own writing. They are like a longing for mashed potatoes and hot vanilla pudding--a rich, predictable, invalid reading diet. They tell me, I hope, that I am getting ready for the work.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (4)

from William Blake
I have a thousand & ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity.

from William Wordsworth
They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness.

from Dorothy Wordsworth
We were glad to leave Dumfries, which is no agreeable place to them who do not love the bustle of a town that seems to be rising up to wealth. We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground.

from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to one is involved in the solution of the other.

from George Gordon Byron
Ye, who aspire to "build the lofty rhyme,"
Believe not all who laud your false "sublime."

from Percy Bysshe Shelley
The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world.

from Johann von Goethe, as transcribed by Johann Peter Eckermann
If a poet would work politically, he must give himself up to a party; and as soon as he does that, he is lost as a poet; he must bid farewell to his free spirit, his unbiased view, and draw over his ears the cap of bigotry and blind hatred.

from John Keats
A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Saturday Night in Sangerville

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky;

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever.
I will.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (3)

from Jan Kochanowski
Dear little Slavic Sappho, we had thought
Hearing thy songs so sweetly, deftly wrought,
That thou shouldst have an heritage one day
Beyond thy father's lands: his lute to play.

from Sir Philip Sidney
Now therein of all Sciences . . . is our Poet the Monarch. For hee doth not onely shew the way, but giveth so sweete a prospect into the way, as will entice anie man to enter into it.

from William Shakespeare
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.

from John Milton
For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are.

from Anne Bradstreet
I wash'd thy face, but more defects saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.

from Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
But, lady, as women, what wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo spoke well when he said: how well one may philosophize when preparing dinner. And I often say, when observing these trivial details: had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.

from Samuel Johnson
But whatever be the advantage of rhyme, I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is; yet, like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than imitated.

from David Crantz
If a Greenlander thinks himself aggrieved by another, he discovers no symptom of revengeful designs, anger, or vexation, but he composes a satirical poem.

from Phillis Wheatley
           Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?

Friday, November 30, 2012

So as not to bore you with the Poet's Sourcebook snapshots, I am taking a break today to tell you that YES, FINALLY I WROTE A POEM ABOUT FOOD! Why has it taken me a lifetime to figure out how to do this? Jeesh.

In teaching news, I want to mention that on March 2 I will be offering my first-ever nonfiction workshop, "The Art of the Lyric Essay," for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. I'm quite pleased about this opportunity; so if you're in the area and feel like being a lyric-essay lab rat, I hope you'll come lounge around with me in Portland that day.

In romance news, Tom and I have decided to give each other a chest freezer for Christmas because there is nothing more lover-like than two people who share an energy-efficient appliance that does not require them to hack out six inches of frost twice a year with an oyster knife.

And in music news, my band and I are playing and singing tomorrow night at the East Sangerville Grange, opening for Denny Breau. Come hang out with Tom and me afterward as we drink coffee and buy ten or so pieces of cake for our bored yet insatiable teenager.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (2)

From Aristotle
The poet, being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects: things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be.

From Horace
But when I meet with beauties thickly sown,
A blot or two I readily condone,
Such as may trickle from a careless pen,
Or pass unwatched: for authors are but men.

From Ovid
Why, then, do I write, you wonder? I too wonder, and with you I often ask what I seek from it.

From Suetonius
When Virgil was writing the Georgics, it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape.

From Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadhani
Tell me what verse is that, half of which elevates and half repels? And what verse is it the whole of which slaps? And what verse is that half of which is angry and half jests? And what verse is it the whole of which is mangy?

From Li Ch-ing Chao
                              I try
To write a poem in which
My tears will flow together
With your tears.

From Marie de France
Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.

From Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest, savage, rough, and stern
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

From Francesco Petrarch
Strangely enough I long to write, but do not know what or to whom.

From an Aztec poet, translated by Denise Levertov
The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of the face of things,
works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (1)

I thought I'd offer you a glimpse of what I've included in A Poet's Sourcebook: Writings about Poetry, from the Ancient World to the Present. Here's how the anthology opens, and over the next few days I'll gradually work my way through the rest of the book.

From the epigraph
It was one of the great merits of [science pioneers Humphry] Davy and [Michael] Faraday that they were prepared to read and listen to the poets.
--Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830

From the secondary table of contents, organized by theme and author
Bei Dao
John Berger
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Hayden Carruth
David Crantz
Frederick Douglass
Johann Peter Eckermann
Czeslaw Milosz
John Milton
Mthabisi Phili
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Gary Snyder
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Mike Walker
Sam Watson
Jack Wiler
Baron Wormser

From the introduction
Why do we hover between reading a poet and reading about a poet? How does poetry come from where we live and work? And how does poetry reach beyond itself, into the broader purviews of art, science, politics, economics, and other human endeavors, while also drawing on those disciplines as its own creative source?
--Dawn Potter

From Homer
I will begin with the Muses and Apollo and Zeus.

From Lao Tzu
All these people are making their mark in the world,
While I, pig-headed, awkward,
Different from the rest,
Am only a glorious infant still nursing at the breast.

From the Book of Genesis
And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.

From Sappho, translated by Sir Philip Sidney
My head doth ake, my life faints
My sowle begins to take leave

From Plato
We know that poetry is not truth and that a man should be careful how he introduces her to that state or constitution which he himself is; for there is a mighty issue at stake--no less than the good or evil of a human soul.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Teaching project: week 7

Today was workshop day; but even though the ninth-grade teacher was out sick, and the ninth graders straggled into the eleventh-grade room looking homeless and unsettled, and the late-arriving substitute was a shop teacher, the day went beautifully.

I began with Anne Sexton's "Hog," which I haven't found online but can send you if you are interested. "Hog," to me, is an example of a poem that starts off tremendously but then peters out into distraction; and I wanted the students to see that Pulitzer Prize winners are no better than the rest of us when it comes to making questionable decisions about revision. (Also, I wanted them to see that, every once in while, you find a poet who's just as sexy as Marilyn Monroe.)

I explained the revision principle of two stars and a wish, which we use at the Frost Place as a way to help students and teachers constructively discuss other people's poems. A star is a particular element the reader likes about the poem; a wish is a "what if" question about possible changes--as in "What if this poem were written in rhyming quatrains?" "What if you changed the tense from past to present?" While every poet enjoys hearing, "I love this poem!" that's not a particularly helpful revision aid. Nor is "If this were my poem, I'd add the word 'monster' after every third line and make it be about my ex-boyfriend." Nor is "Stanza 2 sucks, but stanza 3 is kind of okay." It's important for the poet to hear what readers believe works well in a poem, but it's equally important for readers to give the poet concrete suggestions that don't meddle with the writer's imaginative jurisdiction or cast him into a tar pit of gloom and loathing.

Now the class broke into four groups of about ten students each (the same groups they'd worked in during the week I was in New Hampshire). In each group one person was assigned to be the note taker who kept track of comments on all of the poems. Two groups stayed in the eleventh-grade room, two went to the ninth-grade room with the shop teacher, and the eleventh-grade teacher and I circulated from room to room.

My strategy, at first, was to say nothing. That worked well for three of the groups, in which the students quickly worked out their own patterns of sharing. A student would read; the listeners would clap or snap their fingers in appreciation. Then I heard "I like this," "I like that." As one might expect, they had a more difficult time saying "I wish" or "What if?" Some of that reluctance was good manners, but some was inexperience in recognizing what confused them or distracted them in a poem. But as the hour went on, they got better at identifying their wishes. They began to hear meter and caesura, although we had not discussed those terms in class. They began to understand that when their attention began to wander, that might indicate that the poem, too, was wandering.

(Bemused in his corner, the shop teacher said, "Is this kind of like a coffeehouse?")

The fourth group lagged behind the other three in conversational progress. But after I tossed out a a couple of my own stars and wishes, two or three students took charge and began prodding the rest of the group to move forward. By the end of the class, they were functioning much better as a group, though it would probably do everyone a service to reorganize them into new formations for next week's second-stage workshop.

It was interesting for me to wander more or less silently through these talking students. What I overheard several of them say was how much they had enjoyed the Whitman exercise in week 1: how well it had pressed them into writing down fairly complex ideas that they could expand on in revision. As you might expect, this made me very happy. These students had been my lab rats with this prompt, which I've since taken into other classrooms with equivalent success yet highly disparate results--which tells me that the prompt works without being gimmicky or controlling . . . two things I hate, hate, hate about the vast majority of textbook prompts aimed at K-12 students.

Before class ended, we all reformed as a large group. I told them how happy I was about the Whitman prompt, and then I offered a couple of "what if" questions that they could use for revision if they weren't quite sure what to do with the advice offered in their groups.
What if the poem were shorter?
What if the poem started in a different place?
For homework they need to make at least two major changes in their workshop poem, based on the group conversations and/or my "what if" questions.

Next week I'll be teaching out of state again, so the teachers will run a second-stage revision workshop, in which students listen to the revised poems and consider how those changes have affected the first draft. Then we'll move on to performance practice and finally a videotaped reading for the school's news feed.

For links to the previous weeks' activities, go here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Editorial distractions and hot flashes and a dream about the elementary-school janitor and a snoring husband and looming classroom prep and tiresome fantasies about a flat tire conspired to wake me at 3 a.m. Now here I sit on a black Monday morning drinking an entire pot of coffee alone. Even the dog knows it's not time to get up yet. On the bright side, when I checked my email, I discovered an acceptance letter--"an ironic inventive essay," the editor called the piece, and "I do love your humor." Considering how humorless I was feeling at the moment of receipt, I found this comic, in a grouchy-old-man way.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A vagary of snowflakes swirls in the throes of each battering gust. We three are home again, if one can call a slowly thawing house a home. Warmth, apparently, is the sentimental link.

Per publisher request, I am compiling a list of potential reviewers or talkative teaching champions of my forthcoming anthology, A Poet's Sourcebook, which is scheduled for release on New Year's Day. If you might be one of those people, please let me know as soon as possible so that I can add your name to the desk-copy list.

It also appears that I will be signing copies at AWP in Boston this March. Reread this post to learn why I am bemused by such a turn of events.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

If first daylight were greener, then these bare oaks, under their small breeze, would glow like seawater.  As it is, however, only the horizon, pure as a clouded eye, intimates visions.

I am not at all sure what I mean by these words. Merely, I have been sleeping far later than usual, and the hues of morning surprise me. Still, in this large house only the dog and the furnace are also awake. The dog cannot resist the long windows, the daybreak stage-show of titmice and tiny woodpeckers and an enormous sluggish squirrel; but even she seems resigned to the rigors of holiday rest. The furnace, alone, soldiers on, roaring hoarsely into the ducts and registers. In this suave building of steel and wood and glass, it sounds as if someone else's leftover troll is complaining in the cellar.

I have been reading a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, who always has a constricting effect on my subsequent subordinate clauses. That, in addition to long walks and long card games, seems to have not so much attenuated my syntax as flattened it. My sentences feel like dough rolled to windowpane thickness on a marble board. That makes no sense, possibly. But this is by no means the first time I have felt as if grammar has become a sort of stretching unarticulated warmth beneath my metaphorical hands, though it as yet has no real speaking purpose. I am awake and slowly becoming accustomed to the colors of daylight. The dog lies on the rug beside the glass door. The furnace blusters beneath my feet. These words are neither poetry nor purpose, but they may presage.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Because I'm feel slightly jaded about the "I'm so thankful for" gushes that everyone is posting today, I thought I'd counter with a poem about sin. I'm thankful for a poet who can write about it.


            George Herbert

Lord, with what care hast Thou begirt us round!
            Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,

Pulpits and Sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
            Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in.
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,

Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
            The sound of glorie ringing in our eares:
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.

Yet all these fences and their whole array
One cunning bosome-sin blows quite away.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

As I prepare to undertake my Thanksgiving sous-chef responsibilities, I am checking in here to wish you all a cheerful and temperate holiday weekend. I have no idea what I'll be chopping and slicing, but I'm sure my mother-in-law has something outstanding planned. In the meantime, I'll leave you with yesterday's romantic pork chop dinner for two, prepared while the teenager was eating a Subway sandwich and rehearsing carols with the select choir.

At about 3 p.m., I rubbed two pork chops with a mixture of salt, black pepper, and cayenne and let them sit in that mixture for a couple of hours. When I was ready to cook, I preheated the oven to 325 degrees, dried off the chops on paper towels, and browned them in hot grapeseed oil. Removing them from the pan, I poured out the fat and replaced it with garlic butter (left over from yesterday's garlic-bread project). Once the foam began subsiding, I added about a half cup of vermouth, turned the heat to high, and let it boil off. Then I returned the heat to low, added the chops, turned them over a few times, covered the skillet, and put it into the oven. I let the chops cook for about 40 minutes, turning them over once. Meanwhile, I made quinoa (which proportion- and time-wise cooks more or less like basmati rice) and a salad of baby mixed greens, minced raw carrot, and an olive-oil-balsamic-vinegar dressing. When the chops were done, I mixed a dollop of cilantro into the quinoa (along with salt and pepper), laid out a flattened spoonful on each dinner plate, topped it with a chop, and poured on the pan juices. I arranged the salad along the edges of the plate and added a side of home-pickled red and green hot peppers. Then I lit the candles, and voila--

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teaching project: week 6

The school where I'm teaching has a significant population of international students, mostly from China, and it seemed to me that the day before Thanksgiving vacation would be an excellent time to give these kids the floor. So last week I sent the teachers dual-language copies of three poems by Cold Mountain (Han Shan), which they then shared ahead of time with the Chinese-speaking students, who would get extra credit for their participation in this lesson.

Yesterday, a teacher emailed me to say that one student had pointed out to her that the poems were in classic Chinese rather than modern Chinese so that direct translation would be challenging for them. In response I came into class today armed with my battery of language-evolution examples. On the board I wrote three lines: one from Beowulf, one from The Canterbury Tales, and one from Romeo and Juliet. After reading each of these lines in the original, I drew the students into a quick chat about the shift from what, to us, seems unreadable, to what seems familiar yet strange, to what seems like regular formal English. (By the way, this is a great way to ease your students' fears of Shakespeare. By the time we got to the R&J line, the kids were completely cool about him.)

My goal here was to prepare the students to turn to Chinese poems that, for our international students, were the equivalent of Chaucer: familiar yet strange. What I did not expect was the graceful interposition of a ninth grader from China, who stood up in front of the class and read a poem that all the international students recognized from their schooldays at home. (Because I neglected to stick the photocopy into my bag, I can't at the moment tell you what it was called, but I will rectify this mistake shortly.) After her American friend read a translation of the poem, the Chinese student discussed some of the differences between the two versions: rhyme scheme came up, as did shifts in mood and character. The moment was quite lovely.

Then we turned to the Cold Mountain poems. I asked English-speaking students to read them (I used translations by Red Pine [Bill Porter], which I am not finding on the Internet, but I can email them to you if you're interested), and then asked the Chinese-speaking students to talk a bit about the original. They were shy, mostly because they are uneasy about their English. But they did point out that the English versions worked to keep the tone and mood rather than the exact wording, except for a single line, which was translated verbatim. To prompt their talk, I asked a question about punctuation in Chinese, but mostly I didn't want to put too much pressure on them. My real intent was to spend some public time respecting their knowledge and their heritage. One of the downsides of the immersion approach to learning English is that the international students don't have many classroom opportunities to celebrate their own language, and that seems sad to me.

Now I told the class that they were going to be translators themselves, and I asked them to turn to the next poem in their packet: "Elg" by Jan Erik Vold . . . in the original Norwegian. This is an excellent choice for a fake translation because it looks simultaneously bizarre and familiar. Working in pairs or groups, the kids immediately fell into silliness. They had so much fun with this, and they approached it in different ways. Some played with online translators; some peeked at the existing English translation as a starting point; some just jumped straight into bizarreness. At the end of the class almost every single group read their poems aloud--such a big difference from last week's lethargy. We heard about Las Vegas, hairy elves, fairy godmothers, barking, and Target. The teachers and I couldn't have been happier.

I gave them no homework over the holiday but told them that next week we're going to break into small groups and spend some up-close time with each other's workshop poems.

For links to the previous weeks' activities, go here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Here is a link to a--what can it be called?--an explosion?--featuring the poet Franz Wright's vitriol. Full disclosure: the object of his rant is Meg Kearney, who is my friend. Full disclosure: I am, as they say, profoundly ambivalent about MFA programs. Full disclosure: I, too, have taught at Meg's program and would take a full-time job there in a heartbeat because I am a poet who needs a job and health insurance and, damn it, Jim, I'm a good teacher too; and because in the long run, does it matter if one's students have no chance of becoming Shakespeare? If I have no chance of becoming Shakespeare? (Of course, it matters; that's why I cry all the time.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

After dreaming of crayons for two nights in a row, I went grocery shopping; and as soon as I caught sight of the boxes of crayons on the shelf, I was overwhelmed with a desire to color. As a child, I was an intent and serious colorer. Sometimes I drew the pictures I colored, but often I just filled in whatever coloring book was handy. Neat coloring was very important to me: I have always been infuriated by that silly free-spirit-esque "creative people don't bother to color inside the lines" claim. Sorry: being creative doesn't mean being messy.

Anyway, my dreams were all about the big, brand-new, 64-crayon box of Crayolas, but I thought that buying one of those would be an indulgence, so I forked out 2 bucks for a box of 24. When I opened the lid, I was immediately overcome with the familiar warm excitement of owning a box of beautiful, sharp, pristine crayons. I breathed in that good, clean fragrance of wax, and then closed the box and let it sit on top of the piano for 2 days. I didn't want to waste those pristine crayon points on just anything.

After much thought, I decided not to buy a coloring book. I also decided that I didn't particularly want to draw pictures of anything. What I wanted was to re-experience the feeling of crayon-meets-paper, only this time I wanted better-quality paper. After watching me dither over how best to start using my virgin crayons, Tom unearthed a watercolor sketchpad and gave it to me. So yesterday, finally, I sat down at the kitchen table, opened the sketchpad, and began penciling in random geometric shapes. Then I outlined the shapes with black crayon. And then I started coloring them in.

The moment was blissful. For the first time in a very long time, I felt all sense of ambition drain away from me. I sat at the kitchen table and quietly colored. My mind emptied, time slowed; I filled in one shape after another, carefully, thoroughly. The crayons lay before me, clean and straight and sharp.

Coloring, where have you been, lo these many years? I am so glad to find you again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Driving Home

Dawn Potter

In the mirror, a hitchhiking Hasid
raises a hand, coat flying in the breeze.
Behind him the green-hazed hills
fold one upon another.
Everything is a poem.

Full as a cup,
delicate as a peeled egg,
I write my love on air,
on sunlight stealing through a murky
window, on a traveler’s windswept beard.

The distance between us narrows like a wish.
At sunset, you will step into my kitchen,
your eyes singing, “I love you.”
I am driving home to you so fast.

[from Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004)]

Friday, November 16, 2012

An open letter to some New Hampshire ninth graders

Thank you all for your letters. It is hard to go into a school as a visitor, knowing that everyone is a stranger and that I might never see any of you again. Yet every time I visit a school, I hope to build some kind of personal bond, some kind of connection that will last. I know that you and your reactions continue to matter to me; and now that I've read your letters, I am honored to know that some of what I did in your school last week continues to matter to you.

You asked good questions in your letters, and I decided to answer them here on my blog because it's possible that other students, teachers, and readers might have similar questions. Because some of your questions overlapped, I didn't reprint every single person's comments here, but I hope that I covered all the information that everyone brought up.

I would have liked to know more about how you write your poems and where you get your inspiration and i would also like to know about what you mostly write about. I would also like to know about those words that you used at the beginning of the sentences to make it easier to write the poems but i forget what they were called. 
I don't write poems every day. They seem to arrive suddenly, in batches, so I often end up writing really hard for a few weeks. In between times I read novels, poetry, history, biography, obituaries, police reports, magazines in the dentists' office, cereal boxes, people's weird Facebook statuses, etc., and I get many of my writing ideas from those sources. I also write about things that happen in my daily life. A teacher once told me, "You have to write about your own stuff," and I try to keep that in mind, especially when I start imagining that everyone else in the world has a more interesting life than I do. 
Regarding those words at the beginning of sentences: I think you are referring to Walt Whitman's poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." The words at the beginning of the lines were mostly prepositions: out, from, up, down, and so on. Prepositions are a useful way to break through writer's block because they are always followed by a noun phrase: "out of the Camaro," "from the garbage pail," "up the ridiculous mountain," "down the bear's gullet." My guess is that one of your English textbooks has a list of prepositions, which you could throw into any old order and then challenge yourself to write a poem.

One question I have, and its hard to answer,
Do you write about health like diabetes and cancer?
Because whenever I write, it seems to be,
all hospital scenes and I don’t mean it to be.

This lovely rhymed question goes back to what I mentioned in my previous remark: how you have to "write about your own stuff." I don't tend to write about health issues because, at least to this point in my life, they haven't had a major impact on me personally. No doubt that will change, and then I will probably find myself writing about them. I know that sometimes it feels boring to discover that you keep circling a single topic, but obsession is one of the things that poets do really well. If you read all of Shakespeare's sonnets, you'll realize that he's basically writing over and over again about a messy love affair. Some of the sonnets aren't that good and some are great. But if he hadn't spent all that time on a single topic, he wouldn't have figured out how to write so well about it. 
If you are interested in a book with a health focus, you might check out Jane Kenyon's poetry collection Constance in which she writes about the experience of dealing with a lifetime of clinical depression and also about her husband's cancer diagnosis. (By the way, she lived in New Hampshire.)

I wanted to learn more about famous poets and what they wrote about.  
The Poetry Foundation website is a good place to go if you want basic information about many different poets. It features poets from the past and the present, offers brief biographies, and includes samples of their poems. You can also search the site by topic: say, if you want to read poems about love or childhood or economics or monkeys or whatever.

I wanted to learn a little bit more about the different formats of poetry and if there are any kinds that are just like a story. When did you start writing poetry professionally? Did you go to college for poetry? 
There are so many different poetic forms that I can't even begin to list them all. If you go to the "Verse Forms" section of the Poetry Foundation website, you can sample some common types--sonnets, sestinas, haiku, etc.--that poets have traditionally used. Many poets also invent their own forms and patterns. 
Regarding your question about poems that are just like a story: Yes, there is a very long tradition of what is called narrative poetry, and I'm going to share a link to one of my own poems, "First Game," which tells the story of a really bad elementary school basketball team. As you'll see, I wrote this poem in lines, so that it looks like a traditional poem, but the piece has plot structure, just like a short story does. Some people also write what are called prose poems: they tend to include many images, or word pictures (for instance, like that Whitman poem did), but on the page look like a regular prose paragraph. 
Regarding your question about "writing poetry professionally": I graduated from college with a degree in English. I thought that I might want to be a fiction writer, but I turned out to be fairly bad at writing fiction. So I went through several sad years when I really didn't believe I had any writing talent or ability, and this just about broke my heart because, for my whole life, I had believed that writing a book was the greatest thing anyone could ever do. When I was little, I saw writers in the same way that other kids saw movie stars or homerun hitters or the president: as if they were more like Greek gods than like regular human beings. Anyway, when I was in my late 20s, I started trying to write poems, and all of a sudden I began figuring out that this was the form I needed. And then I met a teacher of poetry, who asked me if I'd like to work with him. So for about five years, I studied with him--not in a school but privately, one on one. And then, about ten years after I began, my first book was accepted for publication. (Along the way I also discovered that writers are nothing like Greek gods.)

I was slightly puzzled during the school-wide session. I did not really see the whole point of rewriting the first poem and making our own after. I understand that it could be a better way of learning what the poem really means, but I did not find it so efficient. I would really like to learn more about how to start a poem and keep it interesting throughout the entire piece. 
First off, I'm going to say that I think 250 kids in an echoing gym is probably not an ideal venue for almost any poetry exercise. In a classroom, with fewer students and a more concentrated atmosphere, maybe the dictation exercise would have made more sense to you. In any case, here's the rationale for the approach: When you copy out a poem word for word, comma for comma, capital letter for capital letter, you are as close as you'll ever be to sitting inside the poet's brain as he or she figures out how to create the poem. That is a very, very important place to be if you're trying to learn how to be a writer--because if you don't spend such intense time with the details of the language, you won't begin to learn exactly what the language is capable of doing. As I said to you during class, the bits and pieces of our language--grammar, word choice, letter sounds, punctuation, etc.--are the tools we poets have to work with. They are our version of a painter's canvas, paints, brushes, color mixtures, etc. The dictation exercise is a way for writers to focus intently on exactly what one poet chose to do with those tools.
Regarding your interest in learning more about how to start a poem and keep it interesting: Ah, that's the 6-million-dollar question! No matter how long a poet has been writing poems, the process never gets easier. That's because each poem is different: sometimes a poet deliberately decides to write about a topic she's researched; sometimes she's overwhelmed with emotion and the words come in a rush and blur; sometimes she's wrestling to fit her thoughts into a form or pattern; and so on and so on. All I can tell you is that you need to read other people's poems, you need to write your own, and you need to start becoming aware, as you go back to revise your work, of what parts of the poem seem most exciting to you--not the parts that you think ought to be most exciting but what words, sounds, shapes, images keep drawing your attention. You have to fall in love with your own words, and then do your best to make all of the poem--every single element--match that high standard you've set for yourself. If this sounds impossible, that's because it is. But, hey, that's the story of art, and that's why being an artist is so demanding and exciting and heartbreaking and absorbing, and why people keep being drawn into the challenge of creation.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The following comment appeared in this week's "Speak Your Piece," an anonymous-complaint column that is a regular feature of the Mountain Eagle, the weekly newspaper of Letcher County, Kentucky. Even though I have never been to Kentucky, this is the only newspaper I have ever subscribed to; and Tom and I have been reading it faithfully since 1983, when we first met our dear friend Ray, son of the owner-editors.  Ray's dad, the great Tom Gish, was, among other things, a major voice in the early fight against strip mining; and the newspaper received many national awards and honors for its dogged fights against corruption, pollution, and poverty. Yet despite its journalistic fame, the Eagle has always been a venue for local issues . . . even very, very small local issues.

I feel this commenter would not be out of place in a Dickens novel.
Have any of you looked in the new telephone book? There isn't a phone number for the Kentucky Power Company. And if you were to find one, please let me know. I have looked through the entire phone book and can't find a phone number for the power company. I called the phone company and was told that the power company probably didn't use them as a carrier. People from the power company say that the number is in the phone book. Somebody is wrong. I have been wrong before, but not this time. We finally found the phone number and it is in the yellow pages under the electric company. Apparently they don't want you to know the phone number.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teaching project: week 5

Last week, when I was teaching in New Hampshire, I found myself in the position of having to invent a class assignment off the top of my head. To my delight, that activity went swimmingly in the workshop; but when I tried it during today's freshman/junior session, it felt less exciting. The big difference was that today's students were mostly unwilling to share their work. They may have been tired, and they certainly were distracted: it was one of those mornings when the office secretary gets on the horn every five minutes to drag kids downstairs for their flu shots, so students were coming and going, and their sharing and concentration were constantly interrupted. As every teacher knows, certain days conspire against anyone's ability to get anything done. Still, despite today's lackluster ambience, I definitely plan to try the lesson again. It worked remarkably well with the young New Hampshire poets, who immediately latched onto the idea of stanza placement as both an organizational concept and a revision strategy; and even in this large and disparate amalgam of skills and enthusiams, the kids definitely comprehended what Rilke was doing organizationally.

While I was on the road last week, the teachers had divided the double class into small groups, which shared and discussed their poem drafts; and each person had chosen a piece to revise more thoroughly. So with revision as my guiding focus, I started the lesson by dictating Rilke's "The Panther," using Stephen Mitchell's translation, which I adore. After a brief conversation about ways in which Rilke had used his stanzas both to organize information and create a visual frame around images of the imprisoned panther, I gave the students the following exercise, tossing out the numbered instructions at about five-minute intervals.

Think back to an event that happened yesterday. It can be momentous or trivial; it can even be a lie. 
1. Write four lines describing the event. 
2. Skip a line to start a new stanza, and write four lines that tell what you saw during the event. 
3. Skip a line to start a new stanza, and write four lines that tell what you remembered during the event.

After a few students had shared their drafts, I then gave them the following revision exercise:

Go back to the three-stanza poem you just wrote. Change the order of your stanzas, rewriting as necessary. Then, in the middle stanza, add at least two questions.

The point of this revision, I told them, was to shake up their thoughts about the way in which one detail links to another. And adding a couple of unanswered questions is a way to open oneself to a bit of uncertainty, which is a very important element of art. They seemed to find this idea unnerving.

We heard a few versions of first and second drafts; and in every case, in both today's and last week's New Hampshire session, the second draft was richer and deeper, the poet's questing awareness far more palpable. So even though today's classroom atmosphere was blah, I'm convinced that the activity is a valuable tool in teaching students how to create more complex poetic connections.

For homework, I had them turn back to the workshop poems they'd chosen last week:

1. Break your poem into a series of three-line stanzas, rewriting as necessary. 
2. Swap the order of at least two of those stanzas, rewriting as necessary.

For links to the previous weeks' activities, go here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I was thinking last week, as I watched my college-age son walk away from me across the campus, as I prepared to drive out of the visitors' parking lot and leave him to his own devices--as I considered that, in truth, I was dry-eyed and reasonably cheerful about doing so--that one is never, ever prepared for the surprises of parenthood. I fully intended to dote upon my infants yet to my dismay discovered that I didn't have a natural touch with babies. I had been led to believe that teenagers would be impossible to stomach but discovered that I adore spending time with those lanky, charming, foolish beings. And I feared that sending my son away to college would sever the easy, comedic affection we'd built up together over his middle and high school years; that he would go his way, and I, in tears, would wend down my own lonely road.

The actuality has been different. The phone rings, mid-afternoon. I pick it up, and there's James, amused to tell me about a course in tinkering he's signed up for. I laugh, we chatter about this and that, and five minutes later I'm back to work or baking and he's back to manning his work-study station in the film building. First thing in the morning, I send him a one-line email announcing that cookies are on the way and asking for his opinion on the Petraeus incident. He responds, briefly, dryly, cogently. We are working out a new conversational strategy.

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram, a reserved, loving, yet uncharismatic father, gradually develops a sweet relationship with his grown-up niece and nephew, Fanny and William, in large part because he discovers that he likes to listen to what they have to say: "Sir Thomas, by no means displeased, prolonged the conversation on dancing in general, and was so well engaged in describing the balls of Antigua, and listening to what his nephew could relate of the different modes of dancing which had fallen within his observation, that he had not heard his carriage announced." This sounds like a minor incident, yet by means of such incidents Sir Thomas discovers the pleasures of a new sort of parenthood, which begins at that moment when we find ourselves shifting from preceptor to student. Our children are now having their own experiences, creating their own knowledge, and we have the pleasure of learning from them.

Last week, hanging around in my in-laws' kitchen with my son, I could tell that his grandparents felt just as I did: that it was a delight to listen to James discuss, with modest confidence, his thoughts about the election results. He knew things that we didn't know, things that we wanted to know, and he spoke to the point, not obnoxiously but coherently. Ten years ago, he would have been asking the questions. Now we were.

And, you know, I liked it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It's Black Cake season again

Today is the day I mix up my annual batch of Emily Dickinson's Black Cake. I thought I was running late this year; but when I went to track down the recipe link, I noticed that in fact I'm right on time. Unfortunately, once again I cannot find candied citron in any local store, and I refuse to substitute that nasty lurid stuff labeled "fruit cake mix." Last year I used dried pineapple, but I didn't think it was particularly interesting, so this year I'm going to try dried cranberries. My hope is that they'll add a soupcon of tang to the mixture, which was one of the nice things about the citron. And to make up for the lovely glassy paleness of the citron, I'm going to increase the proportion of yellow raisins. I'll let you know how it all works out.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Incident at Jacobs Creek

Dawn Potter

Down by the crick the Dogs again are barking
Trouble I fear John Thank God has ceased
Dragging Stumps from the far Patch he names
A Meadow how I long To see Home.

Clover grows thick in the Bottom the girls
Have gone to pick for Stone-Coal it burns hot
In the Winter months we hear. Down by the crick
The Dogs bark and Bark.

John sallies from the lean-to with his Gun
And Were I not slowed by this eight-months
Burden I would Run to him Run O my girls
Have gone away to pick for Stone-Coal.

The Dogs are barking barking the Dogs
Howl now Yelp Yelp John grips his Gun.
The Dogs fall silent. Clover in Flower pink
And white. The girls did walk by the Crick.

A hush. Bees mutter in the Garden. Then
In says John. In says he and Bar the door.
The Trees Cut out the Sun My girls
My Two girls. I Fear the Worst.

[first published in The Fourth River, issue 9 (2012)]

from The War That Made America by Fred Anderson

The frontiers of the central colonies collapsed when the first parties of Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo warriors left their Ohio village in the company of troupes de la marine and French-allied Indians from the Great Lakes who had gathered at Fort Duquesne. Their descent on the frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia reflected a cold calculus of terror, for the goal was to bring anarchy to the backwoods communities that even in time of peace were were fragile, unstable, and intensely localist in orientation. The fifteen hundred frontier farmers whom the raiders killed and the additional thousand whom they took captive during the last months of 1755 served the strategic purpose of terrorizing hundreds of thousands of settlers and creating a massive refugee crisis to which colonial governments were utterly unprepared to respond. . . .

According to careful modern estimates, the frontier counties of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania lost between one-third to one-half of their populations between 1755 and 1758. During that time approximately 4 percent of the area's prewar inhabitants were either killed or taken captive.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Teaching project: On the road in New Hampshire

After an eleven-hour stretch in my own bed, I have woken up feeling pretty lively. For whatever reason, this teaching trip was fairly exhausting. Part of that was election residue: I stayed up way too late watching the returns and then never did quite catch up on any functional sleep. But also guest teaching is tiring: I don't know the students, I don't know the teachers, I don't know the venue, and this lack of predictability means that I'm always pushing myself to stay preternaturally alert. Nonetheless, I learn a lot from the pressures of the situation, not only about my own strengths and weaknesses as a teaching poet but also about the range of ways in which other teachers deal with their presence in the classroom--in particular, how they enact those flexibly defined teacher attributes known as classroom management skills.

So in today's summary of the week's teaching activities, I'm not going to lay out the "we did this and then we did that" story of my days. Instead, I'm going to muse about the varying behaviors of teachers who choose to invite an unknown guest poet into their classroom. And there are, strikingly, teachers who exude the confident belief that neither they nor their students will learn anything from my visit. In this week's case, an early-elementary-level teacher was given the option of a poetry session: no administrator or department head forced her to disrupt her schedule. She deliberately decided to invite me into her classroom, which one might have assumed meant that she was actually interested in having me there. But when I arrived, I was led into a circle of very antsy small children, and then the teacher went off into a corner of her classroom, turned her back, and left me to it. About ten minutes before the end of class an aide arrived, sat down outside the circle, and proceeded to daydream. When another faculty member appeared with a camera to take photos of the session, the teacher miraculously reappeared alongside her students. Otherwise, she might as well have been on Mars.

In short, I spent a classroom session learning to babysit eleven very young children whom I had never met before. This isn't to say we accomplished nothing. We read a poem; we wrote a poem. But the process was significantly marred by the teacher's entire disinterest in her students' actions or what they were learning. Moreover, she made it clear that she believed that I had nothing to share with her. She had no intention of following up on this lesson, borrowing from it to jumpstart her own ideas, or in any way putting the money her school had spent on my visit to any good use. My purpose, in her eyes, was to distract her students long enough so that she could get something else done. This is a harsh summary, and I mean it to be harsh. I have boundless sympathy for teachers who struggle with insecurities, mistakes, sidetracked good intentions, frustrations, distractions, and distresses. I have no sympathy for indifference.

Fortunately, this teacher was an anomaly. This week I worked with several teachers who were second-guessing their curricular approaches, unsure about what poetry might contribute to their classroom, inconsistent in how they dealt with student misbehavior, yet nonetheless eager and curious to watch how a poetry session might affect the classroom climate. I think that curious is the key word here: if a teacher is curious about learning, then anything is possible in the future of her classroom. If she's not, then nothing is.

I also had the good fortune to watch several master teachers at work in their classrooms. And when I say "at work," what I mean is "at ease." Some of these teachers simply sat in a chair during the entire session; some moved excitedly around the room. My definition of "at ease" refers not to body action but to the way in which a person can exude the consistent, relaxed message "I am here with you." I, the visiting writer, basked in that easeful gaze; the students, too, rested in the security of that teacher's care. And, in my view, that alert and tender care is one of the greatest gifts that humanity gives to humanity. It was a privilege to learn from these masters; it was a privilege to watch the students learn.