Monday, July 30, 2012

The brand-new adult and I are leaving today for a road trip to Vermont. We will drive and drive and drive and eat a picnic lunch and drive and drive and stop and say hello to some friends and drive and drive and end up at my parents' house, where we will eat and eat and eat and walk dogs and eat and walk dogs. See you on the other side. Or maybe in the midst, if the dog walking so allows.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

from Notebook 23 (1935-51) by Robert Frost
I have heard poetry charged with having a vested interest in sorrow.

from Another Country by James Baldwin
He was a kid . . . from some insane place like Jersey City or Syracuse, but somewhere along the line he had discovered that he could say it with a saxophone. He had a lot to say. He stood there, wide-legged, humping the air, filling his barrel chest, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd years, and screaming through the horn Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? And, again, Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? . . . The silence of the listeners became strict with abruptly focused attention, cigarettes were unlit, and drinks stayed on the tables; and in all of the faces, even the most ruined and most dull, a curious, wary light appeared. They were being assaulted by the saxophonist who perhaps no longer wanted their love and merely hurled his outrage at them with the same contemptuous, pagan pride with which he humped the air. And yet the question was terrible and real; the boy was blowing with his lungs and guts out of his own short past; somewhere in that past, in the gutters or gang fights or gang shags; in the acrid room, on the sperm-stiffened blanket, behind marijuana or the needle, he had received the blow from which he never would recover and this no one wanted to believe.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Today is my son James's 18th birthday, and in a month he will leave home for college. Don't take it the wrong way if I say he's grown up far better than I expected. I think it's not possible, when one has a squalling newborn, to imagine that he will ever grow up to be a young man ready to leave home . . . let alone a self-possessed, self-reliant, large-hearted, hilarious, gentle, ambitious, adventurous young man who can spend all day scraping paint off a house, knows how to fix a broken vacuum cleaner, consumes as much guacamole as he can get, tells jokes so dry that it takes several beats to figure out he's messing with you, spontaneously hugs the people who love him, buys bright red pants, wants to install CB radios in all three family cars for no particular reason, enjoys Latin and old episodes of the A-Team, is enthusiastic about going on a road trip with his mother, has clung to the same best friend since babyhood, cogently discusses art with his father, dislikes the works of Dickens, refers to his parents by their first names because "that seems friendlier," eats what he is served, says please and thank you to everyone except his brother, refurbishes stereo speakers he found at the dump, has a well-developed sense of political irony, plays Eagles songs at top volume for the sole purpose of making his mother bounce up from her desk and shout, "Turn that shit off!," thinks that Moxie actually tastes good, asked for key-lime pie for his birthday dinner, and adores his dog.

Happy birthday, dear boy.

Boy Land

Dawn Potter

Shoving together
a snowman from slush
and mud and grass,

the boys dance around him
in the sleet, shrieking;
then knock him down

and eat his carrot.
They rip the sails
off a birthday-present

pirate ship that took
all afternoon to assemble.
On sunny days, they pound

shiny Matchbox cars
with rocks to make
demolition derby junkers.

They choke trees with duct
tape, hold up peaceniks
with cap guns,

inform their teachers,
“Well, shit, you know
I hate math.”

On report cards,
a teacher writes: “Work
does not show best effort,”

and sends home a science
paper with one casual
slash of red crayon up the front.

Instead of cleaning their messy
rooms, new cell-phone Ken
and punk-rock Barbie

with no clothes
argue behind closed doors.
Barbie: “Hey!  I don’t like you!”

Ken: “Well, I’m going to live alone!”
Aliens drag Barbie away.

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

Friday, July 27, 2012

Here's a sentence from Thoreau's The Maine Woods that might be the envy of Hemingway. I dare you to write the sequel to this very short story.
"How they got a cat up there I do not know, for they are as shy as my aunt about entering a canoe."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The new collection will include a fair number of sonnets, including this one.

Cover Song

Dawn Potter

Once I had a boyfriend (you’ll laugh, I know)
Who strolling at midnight through a yellow-brick alley
Grasped both my cold hands and sweetly bellowed
“My Girl” into the small wind that ebbed and sallied
Between our shadows. I’d known him for a week.
He stared into my eyes and slowly decanted Motown
Into the chill particulate air. Ignoring us, a plane idly streaked
Toward Philly, a bus hooted, a few cars sifted by. I looked down
At our four trapped hands: bowled over, yes, though fighting
A queasy embarrassment. But you know, better than most,
What I mean: how unreal it feels to play at romance, gliding
Slickly beyond your homely self like a ballroom ghost,
As if your everyday, tempted, shivering skin
Couldn't perform a truer rendition.

[first published in the Aurorean (2010); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sometimes a person reads the right book at the right time . . . and sometimes that book is Thoreau's The Maine Woods, which until this week the now-amazed reader has never had the slightest inclination to take off the shelf.

For instance: Three nights ago I was in Sangerville, Maine, playing "The House on the Hill," a song written by my bandmate Sid Stutzman about his farmhouse, which was built in Sangerville in 1851 on land that his family has farmed ever since. Last night I was reading Thoreau's description of a September 1853 walk from Bangor to Moosehead Lake: "The country was first decidedly mountainous in Garland, Sangerville, and onwards, twenty-five or thirty miles from Bangor. At Sangerville, where we stopped at mid-afternoon to warm and dry ourselves, the landlord told us that he had found a wilderness where we found him."

That's not an earthshaking statement; but given who and where I am, in place and in time, this description and others like it have been pulling me into a kind of netherworld that is both real and imagined. I have an eerie sense, as I read Thoreau's accounts, of standing in two places at once. Past and present overlap; the trees creak in the wind, and the fish hawks wheel over the lakes. There is something about the interior of Maine, some essential loneliness, an ends-of-the-earth circle of sky and forest, that lingers today, despite highways and log trucks and Wal-Marts. My eyes look through Thoreau's eyes. This is not what I expected when I opened the book.
Thus a man shall lead his life away here on the edge of the wilderness, on Indian Millinocket stream, in a new world, far in the dark of a continent, and have a flute to play at evening here, while his strains echo to the stars, amid the howling of wolves; shall live, as it were, in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man. Yet he shall spend a sunny day, and in this century be my contemporary; perchance shall read some scattered leaves of literature, and sometimes talk with me. Why read history, then, if the ages and the generations are now? He lives three thousand years deep into time, an age not yet described by poets. Can you well go further back in history than this?

Monday, July 23, 2012

from The Maine Woods

Henry David Thoreau

What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star's surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,--that my body might,--but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature,--daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,--rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Last night's show was held on the front porch of a camp in the middle of a vegetable farm and mostly seemed to attract people who were related to one another, or had known each other their entire lives, or had once picked vegetables on this farm. But after our band finished our second set, a man I'd never seen before came up to me. He told me that he was from New York and had once gone to see Joshua Bell play, and he said that's what my playing sounded like.

This is strange on a few levels--not least because this man was from somewhere other than Sangerville, Maine. The Joshua Bell of whom he speaks is a top-tier, internationally feted violinist with considerable technical prowess. I was performing with a four-piece local acoustic band and spent most of the show playing simple, long-bow notes in first position. And when I say simple, I mean A A A A A A A G# A A A A A. . . . You get the idea.

Thus, his comparison could have nothing to do with complexity. What I think he must have remembered from Bell's performance is what I call "the big tone." This sound is, to some degree, dependent on instrument quality, but Bell's violin is at least $100,000 better than mine. So I think the comparison must have been triggered by bow control.

Bow control is a primary differential in the subtleties of sound. Without a bow, a violin is pinched and dull, the least resonant of the plucked instruments. With a bow, a single, unamplified violin can fill a concert hall. Yet in a band of singers, the violin is a mostly a support instrument rather than the lead voice, so I have had to learn to focus on tonal color rather than melody. When I play A A A A A A G# A A A A A, every A has to count, has to speak, has to pull some emotional string, but it can't overwhelm the singer or gobble attention.

"Gobble attention" more or less describes the career path of a solo violinist. It's Joshua Bell's job to gobble attention. It's also his job to make every sound count, to feel the shifting, fluid, pressured movement of the bow on the strings. Somewhere in our tasks we overlap; and to someone listening, that link was apparent.

People are always asking me, "Do you play fiddle or violin?" Mostly I tell them that the name choice depends on the style of music I'm playing. But that's not really true. Even when I'm playing fiddle tunes, I'm playing the violin. Those are the skills I learned, and those are the skills I'm stuck with. The big tone is part of that toolbox, and I'm grateful to my bandmates for not trying to wean me away from that sound but working instead to use it productively in the group. That's not always been the case: I've been in situations in which other musicians complained that I didn't sound like a "real fiddler"--in other words, that I don't have that thin, rustling, slightly shrill, brushy bow sound that equals fiddler in their minds. It seemed uppity, somehow, to use the bow as anything more than a simple noise producer.

I like that old-timey style, and sometimes I wish it were mine. But it's not my sound, and it can never be mine. I have to do the best with the voice I have to work with.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lobster and oysters last night, singing and fiddling tonight. In the meantime weeding and laundry and grass mowing. Possibly I'll find a spot to insert a verb into this litany. Possibly not. It seems to be a gerund kind of morning.

What would Milly Jourdain say?
White Poplar 
Milly Jourdain
The sunshine lies along the winding road
And white dry leaves are falling from the tree;
We stay and watch them fluttering to the ground,
For now we know the silver leaves are free.
The leaves like still about the sun-dried lane,
Waiting until the winter winds shall blow
Their patient selves to heaps of sodden mould,
Ready to help some other plants to grow.
Well, that's rather disappointing, isn't it? The first line is nice enough, but the poem rapidly descends into Hallmarkian tedium. I can imagine a needlepoint version of this poem. Oh well. I should have stuck with my gerunds. 

To cheer us all up after that disappointment, I offer you a few lines of a real poem: Beowulf, in Seamus Heaney's remarkable translation.
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold.
How do you think this would look in needlepoint?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Twenty-one years ago today, Tom and I got married. For days beforehand, the temperature had been brutally hot, and our wedding day was the culminating worst in a series of bad. Even at ten o'clock in the morning, the shady, dank, little Friends' Meetinghouse was almost unbearable, and the reception in my parents' yard was absurd. My wedding cake, which I'd baked myself, was sliding apart at the layers; my father, in a fit of hysteria, starting dropping ice down the front of my best friend's dress. It was the sort of day when everyone, old and young, longs to strip off his clothes and toss them into the garbage. Nonetheless, we all managed to stay clad, though the sweat stain on the back of the best man's jacket did make him look as if he were wearing the Shroud of Turin.

Tom and I spent our wedding night in our un-air-conditioned apartment, balancing at opposite sides of the bed, doing everything possible to avoid having our skin touch.

Twenty-one years later, I'm glad to report that the weather has improved.

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
            For as the sun is daily new and old,
            So is my love still telling what is told.

--William Shakespeare, sonnet 76

Thursday, July 19, 2012

For the past couple of days I've been reading Thoreau's The Maine Woods, an account of his 1846 trip into my neck of the state. Thoreau has always irritated me: I have small tolerance for people who smugly expatiate on the right way to live. But I'm enjoying this book more than I expected I would. Perhaps because T is out of his element--"from away," as they say up here--he seems more wide-eyed and less sententious than I remember. Or maybe I was reading Walden in the wrong way. Of course it's always interesting to read a book about one's own neighborhood, and Thoreau's descriptions of the north woods are surprisingly recognizable, even 160 years later. And then there are the lovely, poignant remarks that arise in the midst of his journalistic record--
Before our companions arrived, we rode on up the Houlton road seven miles to Molunkus, where the Aroostook road comes into it, and where there is a spacious public house in the woods, called the "Molunkus House," kept by one Libbey, which looked as if it had its hall for dancing and for military drills. There was no other evidence of man but this huge shingle palace in this part of the world; but sometimes even this is filled with travelers. I looked off the piazza round the corner of the house up the Aroostook road, on which there was no clearing in sight. There was a man adventuring upon it this evening in a rude, original, what you may call Aroostook wagon,--a mere seat, with a wagon swung under it, a few bags on it, and a dog asleep to watch them. He offered to carry a message for us to anybody in that country, cheerfully. I suspect that, if you should go to the end of the world, you would find somebody there going farther, as if just starting for home at sundown, and having a last word before he drove off.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Because I haven't given you any food updates lately, I'll try to remember what we've eaten recently. The day before yesterday I made Greek meatballs, stuffed grape leaves, and tabouli for dinner. Last night we went to the movies at dinnertime, so for a late-night supper Tom made tomato-and-cheese omelets along with a salad and a baguette I'd baked and frozen for such emergencies. Tonight seems likely to be chicken breasts breaded with sourdough crumbs and parmesan, roasted green beans, and baby red potatoes if I can find any hiding under the mulch. In the past week or so I've made strawberry sorbet, strawberry ice cream, and sweet cherries topped with whipped cream. Today I think I'm going to invent some sort of fruit gelatin--possibly with strawberries (yet again), possibly with oranges--but maybe I'll change my mind and make panna cotta instead.

In other local news, my band, String Field Theory, is performing this Saturday evening at the Eighth Annual Strawberry Festival, held at Stutzman's Farm on Doughty Hill Road in Sangerville, Maine. The cookout starts at 5 p.m.; music begins at 6 p.m. We are one of several acoustic groups playing short sets. Price for meal and music is $12 for adults, $6 for children under 12.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I got up before the birds this morning, or at least before the mourning dove that was still fast asleep in the feeder tray. What's the point of staying in bed when the air is so heavy and wet and the sheets feel like plastic tarps wrapped around my ankles? Better to get up and laugh at the shock-headed mourning dove, who looked like he'd fallen asleep on a bar stool and was liable to get an earful from the management when he woke up.

Already this letter has too many similes. I blame them on the weather.

I get to spend today running errands, and I'm thinking of wearing heels, just for the hell of it. Sometimes the country life drives me to glamorous exigency. When I lived in the city, I never wore heels.

No doubt the temperature will be gruesome, but at least Thomas Carlyle won't be reviewing my latest book. Not that he's always wrong, but oy. . . .
Poor Shelley always was, and is, a kind of ghastly object; colourless, pallid, tuneless, without health or warmth or vigour; the sound of him shrieky, frosty, as if a ghost were trying to "sing" to us; the temperament of him, spasmodic, hysterical, instead of strong or robust; with fine affections and aspirations, gone all such a road:--a man infinitely too weak for that solitary scaling of the Alps which he undertook in spite of all the world.
[from Carlyle's Reminiscences, quoted in Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture]

Monday, July 16, 2012

Can a person be taught to be a poet? Or can she only be taught to appreciate poetry? In other words, are all poets actually self-taught? And are writing workshops essentially useless--either "warm and fuzzy" or "butcher block"?

If you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the disputants bring up, questions that I find both tedious and germane. I do get weary of these what's-the-point-of-an-M.F.A. quarrels, but I also know that nearly all the poetry workshops I've attended have been either "warm and fuzzy"--e.g., "This is such a great poem! I love it!," which is flattering yet unhelpful--or "butcher block," in which a participant prepares to be publicly humiliated for breaking craft rules, focusing on unfashionable subjects or forms, or not respectfully imitating the teacher's style. Of course there are variations on these two extremes; of course there is also the personal bond (or lack thereof) between a student and a mentor; of course there are the issues of stage of growth and prior experience.

You can read about approach that Baron and I use at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which involves neither cuddling nor hatchets. But, in the end, is this method more effective than any other at teaching a writer to be a poet? We work primarily with teachers, who, even if they think of themselves as poets, are for the moment focused on bringing poems to their students. In other words we are trying to teach teachers to be the kind of mentors that we, as young embryo poets, did not have ourselves.

Nonetheless, we grew up to be poets anyway.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Through the open window, layers of sound--a finch fluttering its wings against the feeder as a squirrel shrieks in the spruce behind it, and beyond them a burbling robin.

I finished Rabbit Is Rich, and I don't know what to read next. I tried Rabbit at Rest but discovered that I had no interest in reliving Harry Angstrom's decay, not just now.

The house has become weary of this humidity, and now I notice that my living room rug smells odd, making me wonder what the dog's been up to.

I should go for a walk, mow grass, weed gardens, solve the rug problem . . . do something. But now that I have glanced at my bookshelves, I can tell you one thing I won't do and that's try to reread Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. That novel contains some of the ugliest sentences I've ever met. It rivals an unpublished dissertation in the sheer grinding awkward pretentiousness of its prose. Why do I still own that book? Ugh.

I also don't know why I've suddenly plummeted into such a bad temper. I was perfectly placid before I started thinking about those sentences.

But now that I'm on the subject of boring and pretentious: don't try to tell me that Jim Morrison is a poet . . . unless your definition of poet is self-satisfied baritone with a weakness for organ noodling. Have some real bad-boy poetry, why don't you? 

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

            George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

So we’ll go no more a roving
            So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
            And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears the sheath,
            And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
            and Love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
            And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
            By the light of the moon.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Here's a poem forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014), another one I have lumped into the category of "Poems Rejected So Many Times That I've Decided Never to Submit Them to Anyone Ever Again Though I Admit I Still Plan to Include Them in the Collection Which May Be a Mistake." Like "Mrs. Dickinson Waits in the Car," posted a few days ago, this poem drove itself, as I wrote, into a particular form--in this case, not a rhymed structure but a narrative one in which various so-called characters/points of view/imaginary voices react to the title of the poem, which is also the title of an untold story. And I'm sorry that this introduction uses the word "which" three times. Please forgive me.

Girls and Their Cats and Their Stories

Dawn Potter

was the title of a work I composed last night.
beneath the sweetly chimerical blanket
known as dead-dog sleep.

Grammar mattered in this tale,
and Not was its first word.
The story was priming itself to inhabit
the white space around a silhouette.

Yet in my dream I also glimpsed a picture—
a portrait, perhaps, of Not.
What I saw was a door: dark, paint-streaked;
blue-black as a bruise but dense, as if the painter
had concealed the door’s true color
beneath layer upon layer of evasion.

And after I dreamed this door,
I dreamed the second word.
The word was the.

Now the story was donning its allotted garments;
now grammar, in silks and velvet,
had paced its first long strides
down the broad and noble corridor.
For the is an article of faith
binding itself to weary flesh and ancient cities,
even to the ambiguities of hope—

for, yes, now house reaches out to clutch
the’s small and eager hand.

A house, a door, a negative, an article of faith.
They tried to tell a story.
But the only other word, the final word, was that.

No dash, no question mark
no busybody verb or self-indulgent pronoun.
Neither cat nor girl.
No person from Porlock to blame, as Coleridge did;
not even “and then I woke and learned it was a dream.”

Merely, there was no sentence.


Donna’s story:
“When I was a girl I had cats.
In our kind of family my cat was all I had.
Knowing that she was going to purr in my ear
as I fell asleep was a comfort and I felt like
at least something might love me.”

Dawn’s story:
“My mother and I invented long
elaborate tales about a cat whose mother
lived on Pointy Head Street and belonged
to an evangelical congregation called
the Church of the Trap Door.”

Dawn’s other story:
“Not the house that
I dreamed of: where I ran up and up
the endless stairs clutching the cat
to my chest so the cat skinners wouldn’t kill it
and then the cat began wailing howling yowling.”


When is a dream not a dream
but the sentence I never wrote?
When is the person from Porlock
the cat scratching at the door? When
is the door the trapdoor, the cat
the cat killer, the sentence
            the dream?


“Girls and Their Cats and Their Stories”
was the name of the work I meant to write

before I was interrupted by the person from Porlock
disguised as a fragment of Not.

As Auden remarks, Coleridge should have tried harder
to finish “Kubla Khan.” As Auden might have remarked,

cats are a sentimental trap, and here Coleridge interrupts
to mention that he himself admires cats from Porlock

though he usually neglects to feed them.
The Khan remains silent.

No one in this poem forgets
that he slices off the heads of cats for sport.


The person from Porlock’s story:
“‘Girls and Their Cats and Their Stories’
was the title of the final poem she wrote
before she fell silent. And I’ll be honest with you:
nobody likes this piece. It’s an irritant,
a flake of grit in the eye of the tiny public
that adored those cheerful verses
about children and Keats and country hi-jinks
that she cranked out so reliably
and published to such moderate acclaim.
This poem . . . I’ll be honest:
it’s a mess, as if she wasted too much time
poring over literary magazines
while running a high fever.
A shame, I’d say,
that this is what we’re stuck with—
a few maundering flippancies;
a hand with a flashlight groping in the dark,
mistaking the cat
for the bathroom switch.”


(Meanwhile, the door remained shut.
The glow of a streetlight picked out the runnels of paint—
blue-black, scratched here and there as if someone
had picked at it with the tines of a fork.
Under the streetlight, the paint
clung to the door like mud.
A smell of cat rose from the gutters;
and now the rain, which had threatened all day,
began to fall, the first slow drops striking
the low roofs, the blank-faced walls, a slop-
shouldered girl who was singing to herself
as she shoved a lame shopping cart
up the crooked brick sidewalk.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Yesterday I finished the last, tiny, touch-up revisions of Same Old Story. I even printed out a clean copy and wrote "Final" in the corner of the manuscript, which now dozes tidily on the shelf, handsome and unscrawled-upon . . . though I can't send it away to the publisher till I undergo the trial of posing for a new author photo. And why that should be such a trial I don't know. You'd think that after all these years of living with a photographer, I would have worked this problem out.

Today, after taking the dog to the vet, I get to crouch in the garden in 90-degree heat picking our first batch of beans. Deer flies will be dive-bombing my head, and bean rash will be spreading over my forearms, all for the sake of a colander of tiny, tiny slivers of new beans. Before enlightenment I hauled water and chopped wood. After enlightenment I hauled water and chopped wood. Did you notice that Thoreau and Woody Guthrie have birthdays in the same week? I think I will invite them both over for dinner tonight. I bet they like beans.

In the meantime I think I'll give you a random sample from the anthology. . and apparently what you're getting today is from Ornithology, poet Lynda Hull's tribute to Charlie Parker--a bracing cityscape break from my country-mouse chatter:

         . . .Women smoked the boulevards
   with gardenias afterhours, asphalt shower-
slick, ozone charging air with sixteenth
        notes, that endless convertible ride to find
the grave

Thursday, July 12, 2012

This is, ideally, my summertime work schedule, and for the past couple of days it really has been my schedule.

Get up at 6:15. Make coffee and read comical newspaper headlines to my son before he heads out to his painting job. Feed animals. Eat breakfast. Make bread and/or do laundry. Sit down at my desk. Eat lunch. Go back to my desk. Mid-afternoon, go outside and mow grass, weed, harvest garlic, pick peas, take clothes off the line, feed animals once again, etc. Open beer. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Sit on the couch and read while Tom washes dishes. Watch an episode of the 1936 film-serial version of Flash Gordon (a peculiar and amusing spectacle). Go to bed and read a few more pages before falling asleep.

During the past few days I've spent my desk time working on an editing project and some residual Frost Place stuff, but today I will turn my attention to the anthology, due to the press by the beginning of October, and my forthcoming poetry collection, due to the press by the end of August. I am, in fact, ahead of schedule on both of these books and am feeling hopeful about being able to go back to the western Pennsylvania manuscript in the fall. Altogether, I am in a hopeful state of mind. I still don't have a real job, but I do feel as if the strands of my vocation are finally falling into place.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I've been thinking about "Mrs. Dickinson Waits in the Car," the poem I posted yesterday. It's an overwrought piece, as you can see--tonally controlled by the hepped-up verbs and adjectives but also by the rhyme scheme, which plays into the melodramatic hands of those grasping parts of speech. (Ah, mixed metaphors; what would we do without them?). In my own writing, I find that sound almost always controls word choice, which in turn almost always controls imagery. That is, I do not create the picture first and then dig around for words to describe it. Rather, I hear a syllable rhythm and then find a word that fits it, which in turn leads me to imagine what else would go with that word sonically and visually. Because I am primarily a narrative poet, I sometimes wonder if this is an odd approach to writing; but then again, most of the time I'm convinced that Dickens must have invented Sam Weller and Mr. Micawber in just the same way.

The other day, after my reading in Shelburne Falls, poet Peggy O'Brien commented kindly about the way I move from voice to voice in my poems. I was so pleased: I hate it when people mistake all my I characters for me. Even the ones that are kind-of-sort-of about myself are dramatized versions of an exaggerated me. Poems, as I'm always complaining to you, are not journal entries but entities unto themselves--canvases, musical scores, notations for a one-woman show, tiny landscapes that I pepper with mudholes and dandelions, miniature governments that I overthrow . . . often ineptly, to be sure, but sometimes everything does work out for my subjects, at least temporarily.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mrs. Dickinson Waits in the Car

Dawn Potter

My Mother does not care for thought—
                                    Emily Dickinson

A few meager stars, a hazy moon
brighter than old Kentuck,
and a bulge of frost spooned
across the windshield like a plucked,

flash-frozen chick. Into this arctic
chariot, the heater chafes and spouts
its idiot vows. Yes, I lied about Kentuck.
No doubt, it’s glowing like all get-out,

like a pair of gibbous moons, like molten
honey dripped into a summer lake.
Blame art, then: I’ve been soaking up Bolton’s
poems, and now I’m acting like a fake

southerner, which is to say gothically
depressed while making love to every rum-
soaked predicate I meet. Treat gothically
as a ringer for New England numb.

Today a friendly rube lauded my skill
at prosy contemplation, but what a crock.
Call a heart a spade: call me a fading, moody kill-
joy with a romance eye for loss and schlock.

The car fan chatters hopelessly; newsmen
chant wind-chill rates and hockey stats.
Like any hausfrau I fret over loaves in the oven,
socks on the line, carboys of milk, and ruinous vats

of soup. There they burn or boil.
Here I dally in this wrapper-strewn capsule,
this (laugh with me!) bell jar. Can I stand loyal
to her, cruel queen of diction, and also rule

my roost, my squat piratical outpost?
I shiver; I prop my tome of poems
against the cruiser’s plastic wheel. I boast
that they age for me: these jeroboams

of syntax, these sherry cups of rage.
Yet these tired hands; yet these cold feet.
Go ahead: remind me to shut up, to flip the page,
to change the station, to bleat

            of Mother’s lonely vigil.
I’m not proud of my idle arrogance.
Meanwhile, the rye loaf chars and the milk spills.
            They’re out of my ken, for a hatful of minutes.

                        Let me claim to be oracular.
“Poetry is not like reasoning,” urges Shelley.
And I reply: “nothing in particular”
            is the maiden speech of every tragedy.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Monday, July 9, 2012

I warned you that I was planning to redesign this blog, and months later I finally did. If you hate the format, let me know; but it did seem to me that the sidebar style had become awkward and unwieldy. If you can think of anything else I ought to include on the site, leave me a note.

Today we have the sort of weather that people in South Carolina must picture when they imagine Maine: blue-eyed, clean-sprung, cool but with the promise of modest heat. Yesterday I made strawberry ice cream; today I will make lists. But also I am thinking about bardic poetry . . . and what one poet's private, humble call to bardic might be. For don't you, too, have moments when you know you must speak to anyone who will listen?

from Letters to a Young Poet 
Rainer Maria Rilke
And about emotions: all emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up; that emotion is impure which seizes only one side of your being and so distorts you. Everything that you can think in the face of your childhood, is right. Everything that makes more of you than you have heretofore been in your best hours, is right. Every heightening is good if it is in your whole blood, if it is not intoxication, not turbidity, but joy which one can see clear to the bottom. Do you understand what I mean?
trans. W. D. Herter Norton

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A small wind at 7 a.m. The sky is blue and clear, the air lighter than it has been for days. I am sitting in my darkened kitchen listening to the faucet drip. A squirrel scrabbles at the bird feeder; the small wind slips into the room through the open windows. Before I fell asleep last night, I read two pages of Rabbit Is Rich. Then, much later, I woke with a jolt. A thousand memories, forebodings, dreams were tumbling through my mind; and it took a long time for that dust to settle back onto the tables and pianos. To quiet my thoughts, I dug out my childhood trick of imaging myself on a swing, and now that it is morning again I find that I am thinking about this poem from A Child's Garden of Verses, which I loved very much when I was very small.

The Swing
by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
   Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
   Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
   Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
   Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
   Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
   Up in the air and down!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

I'm home again and ready to stop traveling for a while. Today one boy goes off to camp for a month; on Monday the other one goes back to his paint-scraping job. Tom is finally employed again, and I will be editing again, and we will slip into some kind of summertime routine that might even involve getting paid. But it is so extremely muggy here. Everything in the house smells musty and stale, the grass is too tall and the weeds are too thick, and I don't know how I will possibly catch up on any household chores when just walking across the kitchen makes me break into a sweat.

Among other things I must do this weekend is remind Tom that I need a new author photo for the next poetry collection. This won't make either of us happy: I hate posing for pictures, and he hates taking posed pictures. On the bright side, however, we also have to start thinking about a cover photo. It does make me happy to see his artwork on the covers of my books. And if you haven't looked at what he's doing with pixels, you should check them out. He's been printing these images onto watercolor paper so that the colors slightly bleed into one another. The result is very beautiful.

Friday, July 6, 2012

from the first draft of my introduction to A Poet's Sourcebook: Writings about Poetry, from the Ancient World to the Present, selected by me [Autumn House Press, 2013]:

“How far we are going to read a poet when we can read about a poet is a problem to lay before biographers,” wrote Virginia Woolf, in a not entirely complimentary essay about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh. Yet as Woolf well knew, the back story offers its own illuminations; and “we may suspect that Elizabeth Barrett was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work, is the true place for the poet.”
As I sifted among my choices for this anthology, I found myself returning again and again to Woolf’s remarks. Why do we hover between reading a poet and reading about a poet? And how does poetry come from where we live and work? These are questions that poets, and the watchers of poets, have been pondering for millennia; and if there is any overarching theme to A Poet's Sourcebook, it lingers within those perplexities.
Neither a craft handbook nor a theory manual, this anthology is merely one reader’s record of the long human need to make poetry. For no matter how distant in time those individuals have become, reading about that need, in both their own words and the words of others, keeps our relationship with them intimate and immediate. Suetonius explains Virgil’s revision process; Sir Philip Sidney argues with Aristotle; Emily Brontë peels potatoes and creates an imaginary country; Phillis Wheatley tries on John Milton’s syntax for size; Walt Whitman invents a manifesto for a poetic tribe that doesn’t yet exist; Audre Lorde sings the body electric; Jack Wiler rants about high school; ten-year-old Ethan Richard complains that poetry “always spouts the truth you don’t want other people to hear in public.”
In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot writes:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood. 
As I worked on this anthology, I became increasingly aware of my “tender kinship” for these writers, past and present, distant and near, who are, in some deep ancient way, my flesh and bones. The native land we share is poetry, and the very act of choosing these particular voices from among all the other voices of history was like embarking alongside them on a voyage to our collective home. Yet at the same time I was discovering how personal any such compendium must be; how, despite all efforts at universality, it ends up reflecting its editor’s obsessions and limitations.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Frost Day, the board and staff of the Frost Place will be honoring Baron Wormser. If you're a friend, student, colleague, or admirer, please consider dropping by the Frost Place on Sunday, July 8, to join them in the celebration. Or, if you can't make it (and, rats, I can't either because I have to drive a kid to camp that weekend), perhaps you'd consider sending me an email or a comment that I can forward to the executive director for sharing.

This is what poet Gray Jacobik says about my forthcoming collection, Same Old Story:

"Potter marries the quotidian and the sublime pretty much line by line. That pairing is dictional, syntactical, rhythmical, and often conceptional as well, but always, always, the scope is sweeping and the affect--in this reader’s experience--unparalleled."

I don't know how to explain how it felt to receive that email from Gray. As if she must have been talking about someone else. As if it never gets easier to believe that what I write makes sense to anyone. As if, when I close my eyes, I will wake up and discover that I never wrote a poem in my life.

Because, at this moment, how much luckier could I be?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Years

Dawn Potter

Dreamy as Tarzan, the years murmur
their old tune as we stride away from them

into our spotlit lives. Like fathers, they armor
themselves against loss, hawking phlegm

into coffee cans, scratching their scaly pates,
though a Nehi odor lingers in their cough,

faint as sour cream. Behind their rusty agate
stare slides a slow-rolling map of sloughed-

off days along the river. Scabby grapevines
grip the porch rails, courting light. A peahen

chitters in the weeds, and on the clothesline
the half-yellowed shirts of sweating men

sag like idle hands. The years hum our quavered names.
We clench our fists: panicked, ruthless, dumb, ashamed. 

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tomorrow I head down to Massachusetts on a brief road trip with my eldest son. I think this may be our first trip alone since his toddlerhood, and it will surely be more pleasant than our earlier ones were. J was not fond of his car seat,  nor was he amenable to sitting in the backseat by himself, nor was he lured by contemplative silence or comic radio songs or the hijinks of a plush Humpty Dumpty or a bottomless cup of apple juice or the soothing hum of the engine. After 45 minutes he was screaming, and then he kept it up for the next five hours. Traveling with J was a two-parent job, and it's a wonder we ever got anywhere.

Tomorrow will be so much better. We will swap off with the driving chore, and stop for coffee, and make ironic remarks about items for sale at the rest area, and order Vietnamese sandwiches in the backwaters of Portland, Maine. It's true that he still doesn't care for riding in the car, but at least now he lets the stereo do the screaming.

On Thursday at 7 p.m. I'll be reading at the Collected Poets Series, held at Mocha Maya's in Shelburne Falls, and then back I go to Maine, ready to haul Son Number 2 off to canoe camp and return Son Number 1 to paint scraping. But what's teenage summertime without a crappy job? Merely sleep.

Monday, July 2, 2012

It is difficult to return to a world without conversations about poetry, but strawberry season helps. Yesterday I weeded beets in a downpour, pitted cherries, listened to the Red Sox barely beat the Mariners, cooked steamers, and watched the evening sky fade to a watery shadow. Today, however, I return to copyediting. I can't say that I'm thrilled--though if there is scant excitement in copyediting, at least there is a great deal of blunt, unromantic language practice.

Here's a little comment on poetry from Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Night's Dream. It makes poetry sound nothing like copyediting, which probably means I shouldn't be thinking about it this morning. I may become restless and dissatisfied with my poky lot.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
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.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The spirit of Whitman seems to be floating in the aether. Though Frost is always chief ghost at the Frost Place, Whitman joined us early in the week and would not leave. Rather by accident, I read a passage; then later a participant read a passage; today another participant sent me another passage.

We seemed to need him last week. We seemed to need to hear him. For the first time in my life I really, truly absorbed his lines as biblical. We sat in Frost's barn and listened to the Gospel of Walt. And I think part of what made these moments so compelling was the fact that, like a church service, they were communal. We listened together; we read together; we responded together. We suspended our disbelief.

Somewhere in San Francisco there is a place called Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The mere existence of such a place makes me wonder why Walt doesn't have one too.

part 9 of  Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

           Walt Whitman

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women
generations after me!
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Manahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsty eyes, in the house or street or public assembly!
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name!
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small according as one makes it!
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly yet haste
with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes
            have time to take it from you!
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head,
            in the sunlit water!
Come one, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners,
            sloops, lighters!
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset!
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at night-fall!
            cast red or yellow light over the tops of the houses!
Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are,
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul,
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas,
Thrive, cities—bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers,
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,
Keep your places, objects that which none else is more lasting.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.