Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bad review.
In 1821, when Sidney Owenson, Lady Morgan, published her two-volume Italy, the wolves were out. [Reviewers] hated Lady Morgan as a woman writer; as an ardent Irish nationalist; and, quite possibly, as a revolutionary, and they were further incensed by the news that the publisher Colburn had paid her the immense sum of £2,000 for her book. Byron hailed the book as "fearless and excellent" in the Quarterly, but [John Wilson] Croker began the attack by calling for a Royal Commission to inquire into her age, not doubting it would pronounce her "a female Methuselah." . . .
The Edinburgh dismissed her as "an ambulator scribbler of bad novels," adding for good measure an attack by [William] Hazlitt on her book on [the Baroque painter] Salvator Rosa, in which he asserted that women had no business involving themselves in art history and criticism. Blackwoods, another Edinburgh review, described her as "the ci-devant Miladi," a "petticoated ultra-radical author" who had produced "a monstrous literary abortion." The Anglican British Review assailed her in verse: "She spewed out of her filthy maw / A flood of poison, horrible and black / Her vomit full of books and papers. . . . " Then, contradicting itself, it accused her husband of writing it, pronouncing him guilty of "intellectual hermaphroditism." When Lady Morgan rebuked her critics in the second edition, the Edinburgh returned to the attack. She was "an Irish she-wolf," a "blustering virago," a "wholesale blunderer and reviler"; she wrote while "maudlin from an extra tumbler of negus in the forenoon," and, noting that her father was an actor, the Edinburgh ordered her to return to "the stroller's barn where she was bred."
[from Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830]

Saturday, September 29, 2012

If, by any chance, you were planning to come watch my band play at Treworgy Orchard in Levant, don't bother: rain has canceled the show. Instead, I will be slopping around the house in slippers, folding towels and sheets, assembling a vegetable soup, reading 1940s detective novels, checking anthology proofs, and napping. None of this will be a waste of time.

For, in the translated words of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a scholar and poet born in colonial Mexico in 1648, "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."

P.S. This is the kind of stuff I've put into the anthology. Does it make you as happy as it makes me?

Friday, September 28, 2012

No Day Is Safe from News of You

Dawn Potter

Morning breaks like glass.
I sidle through the kitchen,
naked as a hoptoad, but nary a glance
hipes my way.
My love, he loves me with an H; he feeds me
with hay and hieroglyphs. Hélas.

Cold wind blusters under a second-rate sun.
The speckled rooster hoicks his brag to heaven.
Our only news is bad news,
squawk his twelve insatiable hens.
Their feathers blow backward. In the patchy daylight
they shimmer like a straggle of dahlias.

Sing ho for the new year, croons the magazine to an empty room.
The stovepipe ticks,
but Nothing, nothing, nothing, says the clock.
My love, he loves me with an H; we breakfast
on hum-birds and humble pie,
though yesterday we ate husks.

Time flies! shouts the rooster, and the yeast agrees.
It swims in a blue bowl,
morning-glory blue, color of a blind eye.
Every headlong day my love’s heart sings,
Weariness, yes, weariness, and never enough cash.
O holy night-before-last, when it forgot the words,

when I dreamt of turrets and stairs. Only
the radio kept muttering the tune.

[first published in Poetry Salzburg Review, spring 2012; forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I'm back again after a brief whirlwind of family visitors. The poodle had a great time and is now comatose by the wood stove, sleeping off the thrill. Thanks to my zealous father and a friendly neighbor, I now have a refrigerator full of okra, sweet peppers, and fennel, but I also have only two people available to eat all of this stuff because the activity-laden boy won't be home for dinner for the foreseeable future.

At the moment, however, I'm going to try to push all thoughts of this vegetable bounty out of my mind. Not only do I have an editing project that I must finish, but the proofs of my anthology have arrived. I feel overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of typos.

But yesterday I did purchase a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841 by someone named Charles McKay, LL.D. With chapters on subjects such as "Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard" and "Popular Follies of Great Cities," it is sure to be worth every penny.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

from The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830 by Paul Johnson

Until about 1825 it was considered quite proper for a lady to comment on a gentleman's legs, which were carefully observed and compared. Men did the same. . . . When Thomas De Quincey published his reminiscences of Wordsworth, one of the passages that gave most offense to the poet, his wife and sister concerned legs: '[Wordsworth's] legs were pointedly condemned by all the female connoisseurs in legs that I ever heard lecture upon that topic; not that they were bad in any way which would force itself upon your notice--there was no absolute deformity about them; and undoubtedly they have been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of human requisition; for I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles--a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of wine, spirits and all other stimulants whatsoever to the human spirits; to which he has been indebted to a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings. But, useful as they have proved themselves, the Wordsworthian legs were certainly not ornamental; and it really was a pity, as I agreed with a lady in thinking, that he had not another pair for evening dress parties, when no boots lend their friendly aid to mask our imperfections from the eyes of female rigorists.'"

Monday, September 24, 2012

Unless I'm engaged in research, I don't usually undertake more than one prose reading project at a time. Despite its long stretches of tedium, I've kept my commitment to The Birth of the Modern, which has included bringing it to bed with me. But this weekend I finally decided that something must change. It's not that the book is too "heavy" for bedtime; rather, the book is too heavy for bedtime. If I prop it on my stomach,  the bottom paragraph of each page gets stuck in the fold of the sheet. If I try to hold it in the air, my wrists hurt. Even tomes have their down sides, as you can see.

To alleviate this problem, I decided to choose another bedtime book; and as I nearsightedly cast my eyes around the room, I landed on Heidi. This is the edition that nestled among the volumes of my parents' matching set of "Great Books for Children"--books such as Tales from Shakespeare and Robinson Crusoe--and it was the only spine with a one-word title. At the age of three or four I would sit up at the lunch table staring dreamily at the shape of the word and saying to myself, "Heidi, Heidi." I didn't really know how to read the word; I only knew what it looked like. To this day I retain the distinct memory of recognizing words by shape only, and I think perhaps that this is why I turned out to be a good speller: because I think of words not as sets of phonemes but as visual patterns.

So, filled with sentiment, I took this familiar volume of Heidi  to bed with me. But when I opened  it to the 1961 introduction, written by Adeline Zachert, "formerly state librarian, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," I was greeted by horrible news: 
In this edition of Heidi the delightful atmosphere of the story, the colorful descriptions, and the human appeal have been retained. The story has been slightly adapted so as to give pictures of life in a foreign country, but it is free from troublesome foreign idioms and allusions.
What! How is it that until this point I had no idea I'd been devoting my memories to a bowlderized version of the novel? Where are all those troublesome foreign idioms and allusions? Ay-yi-yi.

However, it was too late; I was already in bed, so I read the damaged goods anyway, and I even managed to enjoy myself, though I still don't understand how the Alm-Uncle can toast rounds of goat cheese till they're golden brown without using any bread to hold the cheese. Why don't the rounds disintegrate into a melty mess? But Heidi's bed in the hayloft, with the round window looking straight into the stars and the three fir trees outside blowing in a perpetual mountain breeze, remains one of my ideal sleeping places. (I also have a weakness for descriptions of houseboats and overnight trains.)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

News about the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

I am thrilled to announce that Teresa Carson will be the new associate director of the 2013 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching!

Teresa is an accomplished poet and a stellar teacher with a long relationship to the Frost Place. She brings to the Conference both her tremendous talent as a writer, teacher, reader, and facilitator and her strong background in administration and development. Teresa will be working closely with Baron Wormser (director of educational outreach at the Frost Place) and me (director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching) as we deepen and expand our educational programs, and everyone is very excited about her new role.
Teresa grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, the youngest of ten children in a blue-collar family. Currently she is associate publisher and development director at CavanKerry Press, but at the age of eighteen she was one of the first women hired to work in a non-traditional-for-women technical job at the local phone company. For more than thirty years she held various union and administrative positions before retiring in 2003. Meanwhile, she managed to acquire not one but two MFA degrees—one in poetry, the other in theater, both from Sarah Lawrence College.
Teresa’s extraordinary first collection, Elegy for the Floater, was published in 2008. “Though these poems can be harrowing,” writes Tom Lux, they are also filled with “relentless honesty, clarity, understatement, humor, and skill.”  She has since finished a second collection, The Congress of Human Oddities, which tells the story of a circus sideshow traveling through Ohio during the Civil War. She has adapted this book into a full-length play, Mister V.’s Congress of Human Oddities, which was produced at Sarah Lawrence College as part of the theater department’s spring 2009 season.

Friday, September 21, 2012

This week, I received the hopeful news that yet another publisher is slightly interested in my rereading manuscript. This poor book is constantly being lost, forgotten, and forsaken . . . and I use all of those words in the most literal way possible. I have never known a manuscript so liable to be misplaced. But for the moment someone, somewhere, seems to know where it is. Most likely the publisher will reject it, but I feel successful in merely managing to keep the book visible in a pile on a desk.

This is the time of year when I clutch at every spiderweb hope because it's the time of year when I expect to be creating new work; and when creation is clumsy, I tend to stab metaphorical knives into my eyes. I'm copying, copying, copying and, yes, the practice is drawing me down into a place where I begin to sense how I need to work and, yes, I did write a poem this week that I sort of like but, yes, in the meantime all I do is wonder why I'm not writing the stuff I thought I would be writing and instead am falling into a completely different pit. And the metaphorical knives glint in their sheaths.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Shouting at Shakespeare

Dawn Potter

How can you make such outrageous modest claims—
“I think good thoughts whilst other write good words”?
Why invite pity from the copyist mouthing your refrains
Like an accurate parrot? Why burden me with this absurd
Maudlin plea? The problem, big Will, is that no one
Can possibly trust your coy ignorance—these self-slamming asides,
These parenthetical sighs. You toss me a melancholy bone,
A morsel to sustain me as I dutifully admire your rhymes
And indiscretions. It’s too much like dealing with the man
Who broods so charmingly on why he’ll always love
My husband. I clutch the phone to my ear and fan
A panicked SOS into the resigned aether. Enough.
I’ve grown used to the common pain
Of being less. But don’t you complain.

[first published in LocusPoint and forthcoming in Same Old Story
(CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A warm and blustery night, with wind-torn showers and gusts hurling specks of rain onto my face as I lay in a bed that felt like a treehouse--

I drafted a poem yesterday, and now I know I have a purpose on earth that has nothing to do with driving carloads of unlicensed teenagers back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth.

I have been copying out Ted Hughes's collection Birthday Letters, which according to the jacket copy "are addressed, with just two exceptions, to Sylvia Plath . . . and written over a period of more than twenty-five years." A book reviewer led me to believe that these are bad poems, but he was wrong. They are heartbreaking and beautiful, though of course flawed, which is to say that the beauty shines through the rents and tears, which as far as I am concerned intensifies the heartbreak.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In addition to "A Statement of My Teaching Philosophy" (which I shared yesterday), the job application I'm working on requires "A Statement of My Creative Interests"--another easier-said-than-done assignment. As you can see, the following version leaves out baking, gardening, romance, dogs, boys, Sam Cooke, Harpo Marx, Loretta Lynn, baseball, 70s cop shows, and the Ramones.

I consider myself to be primarily a narrative poet, but I also write memoir and personal essays, often about literature. As a reader, I have a particular interest in pre-twentieth-century canonical poetry, although I have been significantly influenced by twentieth-century writers such as Wislawa Szymborska, Hayden Carruth, and Joe Bolton. In addition, both my poetry and my prose owe a great deal to nineteenth-century British and Russian classics as well the work of modernists such as Woolf, Bowen, Compton-Burnett, and Green. It has been important to me, as a woman poet, to deal forthrightly with ways in which my work has been shaped, for better or worse, by the work of “famous men”; that, among other things, was the impetus behind the writing of my memoir, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton.More recently I have found myself turning to history as a trigger, and presently I am in the midst of writing a history in verse of the Chestnut Ridge region of southwestern Pennsylvania, site of numerous battles during the French and Indian War and later the center of industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s coking operations. I have also completed a manuscript of essays about books I obsessively reread as well as an anthology of writings about poetry, which as I explain in the book’s introduction is “neither a craft handbook nor a theory manual, . . . 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 addition to being a writer, I’ve played the violin since the age of six, and that long relationship with music has been integral to how I compose sentences and lines, which is essentially by ear—that is, I hear the sound of the next word before I know what the word might be. Lately I’ve begun writing more intensely about music and memory, and next spring the Beloit Poetry Journal will be featuring a long poem about my violin teacher, Henryk Kowalski, whose bizarre history (there’s a Wikipedia article, if you want the bare-bones tale) intersected my teenage struggles to reconcile art with failure and fear.

Monday, September 17, 2012

As I spend yet another morning applying for a job I won't get, I find myself in the position of having to write "A Statement of My Teaching Philosophy." I have no idea if this is what the institution wants from me, but this is what it's going to get.

According to Robert Frost, “a poem is the act of having an idea and how it feels to have an idea.” A key element of learning to enact this process—that is, of learning to read, write, and revise poetry—is to recognize the way in which unfolding details of grammar and syntax guide, for instance, intellectual, emotional, narrative, or sonic revelation. For as Frost also noted, “a poem should be a set of sentences,” and attention to the way in which a poet engages with the sentence not only leads us toward a focus on line, metaphor, image, diction, form, and other devices but also helps us as writers to discover what it is that we truly need to say. Frost declared that “no one can imagine a planned poem,” but in truth many apprentice poets wrestle with exactly this problem. So a focus on the movement of the sentence is one way to help them learn to envision poems as vehicles of discovery, to take risks with the unknown and the unconsidered while refining their ability to handle the tools of the language.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Dawn Potter

Once upon a time there is an hour,
rainless, starless. And then
a subtle hand unmasks a claw.
Bone speaks to bone. A cower
roughens a curve; famine gnaws
at tender flanks, grips bone, again,
again, tearing, shredding, once upon a time
sleep pretends to fight, once
an hour shivers into dead rain, dry stars;
into glory, first maculate chime 
of defeat—bruise or savor, a barred
owl’s wail, the shrew that it hunts. 

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

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Yesterday I received an invitation to lead an essay workshop this winter. Although I write and publish essays, I'm rarely asked to teach classes that focus on them; so this challenge will be tonic. I know that some of my eight regular readers are also interested in nonfiction prose and in some cases write it themselves. So, readers, I toss you these questions:
What initially attracts you to a personal essay? What maintains your attraction? Subject matter? Narrative persona? Dramatic arc? Does lyrical prose matter to you?
And now, writers:
What troubles you most as you write? Maintaining a balance between subject and speaker? Organizing your ideas? Wrestling with a narrative persona? Dealing with a topic that doesn't have a neat or predictable conclusion? Managing the flow of your sentences and paragraphs?
Of course all of these questions are interrelated, and of course there are a million more questions to ask. But these are a few off the top of my head. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Yesterday I copied out poems. I wonder if you might like to see what I saw.
from Walking Home from "The Duchess of Malfi"
Gary Snyder 
Months in the cabin: rain,
          cold, hard floor, leaking roof
          beautiful walls and windows--
                      feeding birds

from Of Michelangelo, His Question
John Haines
Muscular night stands over Persia;
once more the whirlwind sweeps
the dark-tongued leaves
to the lap of a woman so old
she is a child who cannot remember
when her book of the marvelous
came unthreaded
and the pages were scattered.

from The Rain's Consort
Brigit Pegeen Kelly
So, the lion, so his stiff wings, so the black moss that stains
Both his mouth and his wings, moss the color of fruit blood,
Or of pity, pity for the self that labors and labors
And spins only the wind, bride of the wind, oh foolish one.
What struck me as I copied out these poems? The supple power of poets whose hands reach unerringly for the tools that a particular poem requires. In these examples, for instance--
Snyder's subtle control of the white space around a burst of simple images 
Haines's clean grammatical turns as they swiftly sketch not only a character but also a setting and a history 
Kelly's single strangely placed comma at the beginning of her poem; how its sonic oddity gives birth to a dense, mysterious, almost mythic vision of a static moment
And I, too, want to be the hand that does these things so well. I want to be the hand that holds the brush, the mind that does not prompt the hand, the hand that paints without prompting, the idea that is only in action, the action that is thought, the thought that is the paint shining on the page.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Within the space of a week, the new ninth grader has managed to lose three water bottles and his school-picture money, although his grades are pretty good and he can tell you anything you might want to know about bubonic plague. Because it is aggravating to be his caretaker, I keep trying to remember that I was just as much as of a dipshit. (My downfall was mittens.) I've begun to conclude that the interior of a teenage brain must look like Jarlsberg: dense and waxy and sprinkled with holes.

Meanwhile, I am trying to reacquaint myself with solitude. Today, for the first time in months, a space of writing time spreads before me; and as always, I am both excited and intimidated by the prospect. In The Birth of the Modern I am reading about Barbary pirates. In the garden I am concentrating on Swiss chard. The western Pennsylvania project beckons. I think I can rise to meet it, but something, anything, may insert itself between us. What I will actually compose, as I sit at the kitchen table surrounded by the detritus of myself, is anyone's guess. I will produce my little scratchings, and then I will rise and return to the stove and the woodshed. I will drive to Dexter and buy my idiot ninth grader a new water bottle. I will threaten to make him pay for it but will probably forget to collect the money. Tonight we will sit on the couch together eating coconut popsicles and watching Star Trek, and the big lug will sag against me and drop his head onto my shoulder and drip popsicle juice down the front of my shirt. "And it is true," says Rilke, "that life goes by and leaves you no time for omissions and the many losses; particularly true for anybody who wants to have an art. For art is something much too big and too heavy and too long for one life."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Not Writing the Poem

[first published in the Sewanee Review, winter 2012]

According to Henry David Thoreau, “the art of life, of a poet’s life, is, not having anything to do.” W. H. Auden quoted this line just before launching into “Making, Knowing and Judging,” an essay based on a lecture he delivered after he was named Oxford Professor of Poetry and which he opened by querying the very terms of that distinguished position: “Even the greatest of that long line of scholars and poets who have held this chair before me . . . must have asked themselves: ‘What is a Professor of Poetry? How can Poetry be professed?’” 
This isn’t a question that many people ask nowadays. As recently as 1948, Robert Graves was still declaring, “Though recognized as a learned profession [poetry] is the only one for the study of which no academies are open and in which there is no yard-stick, however crude, by which technical proficiency is considered measurable.” Tragically, however, that long tradition has vanished. Today, poetry has become a career rather than a vocation; and at least in the United States, poets who refuse to buy a degree for the sake of a job (or, more often, the shadowy dream of a job) are generally ignored as serious artists, at least by the collegiate elite.
Yet Thoreau had it right: art doesn’t require a certificate of proficiency. It requires long stretches of emptiness, not only so that artists have spans of time to produce new work but, more importantly, so that they can attend to the plain routines of living. 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. In this sense, then, to “profess poetry,” a writer simply needs to pay attention to her hours, read the words of people who paid attention to their hours, now and then follow an urge to hammer those hours and words into her own poem, and occasionally be willing to talk about that task. As Auden said, “There is nothing a would-be poet knows he has to know. He is at the mercy of the immediate moment because he has no concrete reason for not yielding to its demands.” In other words, he is merely awake and alive.

There are days when I believe that being awake and alive is the only thing I’ve managed to accomplish with my life. Accidentally I seem to have followed Thoreau’s instructions to avoid “having anything to do.” Instead, I’ve spent, or squandered, most of my career years in being a cook, a laundress, and an underemployed, mostly self-educated, reader and writer of small obscure books. Talking about his trajectory as a novelist, John Fowles said, “I had been deliberately living in the wilderness; that is, doing work I could never really love, precisely because I was afraid I might fall in love with my work and then forever afterwards be one of those sad, faded myriads among the intelligentsia who have always had vague literary ambitions but have never quite made it.” My actions have been neither so ascetic nor so ruthless. Nonetheless, there’s a selfishness about a life spent doing nothing, especially when one has growing children and a tired husband. Twenty years of well-cooked meals and clean socks are not substitutes for a paycheck.
This tradeoff seems even worse when I’m struggling to write, as I have been during the past few months. If I’m not managing to do anything remunerative, shouldn’t I at least be writing? In truth, however, my problem is not “not writing” per se. Clearly, at this very moment, I’m writing this essay. Almost every morning I write a longish blog post about reading and writing. I read seriously every day, I’ve been steadily revising a poetry manuscript, and I’ve even composed a few decent poems. I’ve finished a memoir and written the text of a magazine photo-essay. When I stand back and look at my output, I do see that I have no right to complain about not writing. Nonetheless, something is amiss: I’m not, to borrow my friend Baron’s terminology, “in the zone,” and I haven’t been in the zone for what feels like a very long time.
Being in the zone is rather like writing under the influence of a writing-specific drug: every step of the task vibrates with meaning, and the work seems to take charge of itself. Fowles said, “I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself.” When I’m in the zone, I still produce words and revise, produce words and revise; but somehow my decision making feels sharper and more incisive. I don’t plod through time, dragging at words like I’m yanking an obstinate goat up a mountain path. Weightless, I fly.
Yet being in the zone does not guarantee that what I produce is any good. As Auden pointed out, poets “cannot claim oracular immunity.” The writing trance may be an intoxication, but the art that results is not dependable. Auden’s example was Coleridge’s famous fragment “Kubla Khan,” composed, according to the author, during an opium dream in a “lonely farm-house.”
The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. 
Despite historical precedent, one is not required to take laudanum or drink whiskey for breakfast in order to work in the writing zone. But drugs do add their own je ne sais quoi to the situation; and thus Coleridge’s opium-induced zone cannot really parallel my own non-opium-induced haze. Yet his description of the experience is nonetheless familiar. “All the images rose up before him as things”—yes, I, too, recognize those moments, breathtaking, yet also as simple as water, when the abstractions of thought assume a swift and automatic solidity.  “With a parallel production of the correspondent expressions,” the words for those images appear under my fingers—easily, exactly, “without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
            But trouble always looms. Waking from his dream, Coleridge “instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At that moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock . . . and all the rest [of the dream poem] passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.” 
            Oh, that aggravating person from Porlock! How well I know him. He has been sitting on the other side of my desk for about six months now, kicking the table leg, snapping his gum, and trying to interest me in political candidates and asphalt shingles. He is the anti-zone, and he interrupts every single word I write. Sometimes I manage to soldier on in spite of him, but sometimes I just give up and take him out for coffee. Coleridge, however, was unable to persevere against distraction. Daily life intruded on the trance, and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished and unrevised. Though the author did publish the fragment, he did so only “at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.” 
            Despite the poet’s disclaimer, the fragment is, in truth, a wondrous piece of work; yet as Auden noted, “Coleridge was not being falsely modest. He saw, I think, as a reader can see, that even the fragment that exists is disjointed and would have had to be worked on if he ever completed the poem, and his critical conscience felt on its honor to admit this.” In other words, “Kubla Khan” is a lovely scrap, but it could have been a polished work of art if the poet had been able to step outside the trance zone into the lumpish everyday world of banging words together and taking them apart, banging words together and taking them apart—a quotidian job that is rather like trying to assemble a mechanical device that seems to be missing various indispensable gears. There’s nothing particularly joyous or intoxicating about the project, but it’s the job that gets the work done—and a job that Coleridge knew very well he had once been able to do.
            Yet there’s another side to this quotidian writing story. What about the reams of work that people produce by means of prompts and “write-a-poem-every-day-for-a-month” challenges? Aren’t such assignments a way to keep the juices flowing during those long tranceless droughts? Aren’t these efforts both a form of education and a way of professing poetry?
To me, such force-fed production is almost too distasteful to contemplate. I don’t want to write, as one poetry blog suggests, “a love poem in the form of a traffic ticket” or, worse yet, a “blitz poem,” which is, according to another poetry blog, “a 50-line poem of short phrases and images” compiled according to specific rules:
Line 1 should be one short phrase or image (like “build a boat”)
Line 2 should be another short phrase or image using the same first word as the first word in Line 1 (something like “build a house”)
Lines 3 and 4 should be short phrases or images using the last word of Line 2 as their first words (so Line 3 might be “house for sale” and Line 4 might be “house for rent”)
Lines 5 and 6 should be short phrases or images using the last word of Line 4 as their first words, and so on until you've made it through 48 lines
Line 49 should be the last word of Line 48
Line 50 should be the last word of Line 47
The title of the poem should be three words long and follow this format: (first word of Line 3) (preposition or conjunction) (first word of line 47)
There should be no punctuation
The blog assures me that this is “a pretty simple and fun poem to write once you get the hang of it.” Ugh. 
The prompt approach pretends that writing poetry is a pleasant activity analogous to solving a New York Times crossword. It lays out the structure: all the pencil-holder does is fill in the blanks. There’s no real labor involved, no hard-won synthesis of emotion and diction, grammar and imagination, sound and intellect. Nonetheless, a person can sit down at her desk every day and fool herself into believing she’s producing a body of work.
These kinds of writing gimmicks infuriate me. Since when is poetry supposed to be “pretty simple and fun”? Yet out there in the world today, thousands of people may be writing their so-called poems as I sit here not writing any poem at all. Without sweat or inspiration, they are nonetheless making something; and we’ve all been taught to believe that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Which brings me back to Thoreau. If “the art . . . of a poet’s life, is, not having anything to do,” then I think that perhaps we, as writers, need to negotiate better terms with nothing. In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince, the character Bradley Pearson, a novelist who rarely writes anything, comments on “how much I was dominated during this time by an increasingly powerful sense of the imminence in my life of a great work of art.” At the time he had no idea what his imaginary book would contain, but he felt it as “a great dark wonderful something nearby in the future, magnetically connected with me: connected with my mind, connected with my body.” Bradley is an unreliable narrator, yet his thoughts about the sensation of “not writing”—perhaps I should say the sensation of “not writing yet”—remind me that the trance and the labor, the mind and the body, cannot be divorced. But neither can they be impelled. As Bradley explains, “an artist in a state of power has a serene relationship to time. Fruition is simply a matter of waiting.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Teaching K-1 Students to Write Poems

I've been thinking about that little poem I posted yesterday. It was composed during a half-hour poetry session that I led weekly for a combined kindergarten/first grade class. We always began our sessions by reading a poem or a poem excerpt. Before class I would write out the piece on large chart paper, and once we were together I would read it aloud, letting the students follow along. Then one or two of them would want to read it aloud as well. After our reading we would talk about things we noticed in the poem: repeated words, repeated sounds, repeated punctuation, word pictures, the feelings we had about the piece. Then, using this poem and our discussion as prompts, we would create a group poem of our own.

Here's the prompt-poem I used on this particular day in November 2004:
The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow,
And what shall poor robin do then, poor thing?
He'll sit in a barn
To keep himself warm
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.
I don't remember the details of the class discussion, nor do I remember exactly how I prompted them to begin composing their own piece. But in general, with children at this level, I give them structural rather than word cues. They have vivid, chattery imaginations but not much plot or syntactical control, so my goal is to help them build a natural framework to support their ideas.

I suspect that I began by giving them a choice: "Should the north wind talk to the robin, or should the robin talk to the north wind?" Then my line prompts went something like this:
"Okay, now somebody give me a line; somebody tell me the first thing the north wind said to the robin."
"Now I need a second line; what else did the north wind tell the robin to do?"
"Okay, line 3: why does the north wind want the robin to get off the tree and go south?
"Hmm, very interesting. What will the north wind do while the robin is gone?  Let's look out the window and see what it's doing now."
"And how will the north wind feel without the robin around?" 
Here, again, is the poem they created:
The North Wind Talks to the Robin
Get off my pine tree.
Go down south.
I want to be alone
to play with the windy clouds
and blow the leaves off the trees
and be sad because you’ve gone
and I want you to come back.

As you can see, my questions did guide dramatic structure, but they didn't put words into the students' mouths. Nonetheless, I always push even young children to rethink snap decisions. I'm sure I asked, for instance, "What kind of clouds?" and that some kid shouted back, "Windy clouds!" and that some other kid screeched, "Windy-windy clouds!" and that three or four kids instantly starting making wind noises. C'est la vie in a K-1 poetry class.

This poem gives me pleasure because the structure reflects the actual thinking process of five- and six-year-olds. It's typical for young children to say, "Go away!" and "Come back!" in nearly the same breath, but this little poem shows how they are using these rapid contradictions to figure out the balance between actions and consequences, solitude and companionship, now and later, bossiness and wistfulness. Moreover, while it's not a poem that most adult minds could write, it is a poem that an adult reader can take seriously, can learn from, can ponder.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Yesterday my friend and colleague Pat Harrington died. Pat was the K-1 teacher at Harmony Elementary and the person who introduced our family to the world of school. I vividly remember dropping off James on that first morning of kindergarten--how excited he was, how excited his little brother was, how much my throat ached as I tried so hard not to weep. As another friend noted yesterday, kindergarten teachers have a task that goes beyond teaching children; they must also teach parents how to let go. Pat helped me learn that lesson, but she did more. She also encouraged me to become a useful part of her class. Thanks to Pat, I began coming into school once a week to sing songs with her kids. Then we expanded to weekly poetry sessions. Then, suddenly, the school offered to hire me as a K-8 music teacher, a temporary job that lasted for seven years. Without Pat, I would not have had the confidence to accept that job.

I had some skills and some knowledge, but I didn't have any experience in classroom management or lesson structure, so I began to watch Pat. And she was masterful. She was the quintessential no-nonsense teacher--firm, organized, unwilling to take crap. Yet even though she ran a tight kindergarten ship, she was no martinet. She knew that structure makes freedom possible, and both my sons thrived in her class because she required civil behavior while also encouraging curiosity and independence. This is how self-directed learners are made. She herself modeled those attributes, for if she was organized, she was also flexible. I so clearly remember her telling me: "Well, this morning during reading, James raised his hand and said, 'Mrs. Harrington, I've got an idea about how we should do this.' So James taught the class, and he did a great job."

The lessons I learned from Pat have been invaluable in my own teaching, no matter the subject, no matter the age or experience level. Without her brisk encouragement, I would not be a teacher today. Rest easy, Pat. And thank you.

Here's a poem that Pat's K-1 class wrote together in 2004, after we read "The North Wind Doth Blow."

The North Wind Talks to the Robin
            by K-1, Harmony, November 2004
Get off my pine tree.
Go down south.
I want to be alone
to play with the windy clouds
and blow the leaves off the trees
and be sad because you’ve gone
and I want you to come back.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What a lovely day I had yesterday . . . nine intent, enthusiastic writers talking about Frost, Shakespeare, and Browning; every one of them writing terrific first drafts; every one of them talking kindly yet cogently about one another's revision possibilities. Plus, I found two giant edible puffballs in the grass. Plus, I learned from a participant that I have a clutch of Australian readers. Imagine!

There are days when teaching seems like the easiest job on earth. . . . I merely dictate a poem, and the class dissolves into talking, thinking, laughing, searching, writing.

Of course there are even more days when teaching feels like breaking rocks in the hot sun. Yesterday those moments were a pleasure to forget.

I'm beginning to schedule school writing workshops for the fall, and in early November I'll be on the road, starting with two days in New Hampshire. If you're interested in arranging a school visit, a workshop for adult writers, a reading, or some other sort of literary hoo-hah, now's the time to let me know. And remember, ex-teaching conference participants, the Frost Place's Shafer Family Fund is specifically designed for you. Please, please, please make use of this wonderful financial resource. Send me an email, and we'll talk.

Friday, September 7, 2012

I spent most of yesterday canning, a tedious rigmarole involving huge heavy pots, scalding water, and 40 pounds of tomatoes. But, as always, the 14 scarlet quarts cooling on my counter make up for everything. They are beautiful; they are like money in the bank; they are September in a jar; and when February arrives and I'm shoving towels into the washing machine, I will look up at these quarts glowing on the shelf, and my eyes will rejoice.

Today I will make bread, freeze sweet corn, mow grass, edit a manuscript, prepare for a workshop, go to a JV soccer game, and think about history. I am engrossed in Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830, which overlaps my western Pennsylvania project in more ways that you might think. Reading about the early frontier era is what jumpstarted the project in the first place, and this book is full of information about steam engines, road building, and the importance of the piano in the rise of the middle class during that very era, though of course it doesn't limit itself to Pennsylvania. Now I am itching to write a poem that combines pianos and steam engines. I just have to figure out who should be talking.

So as you can see, a day spent canning tomatoes is not a waste of literary time, no matter what the edgy magazine writers tell you.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Poetry workshop

On Saturday I'll be teaching a daylong poetry workshop for the Lincoln Arts Festival in Boothbay, Maine. I've decided to focus on lyric poetry in the morning and dramatic monologue in the afternoon. Using the teaching model we've refined at the Frost Place Conference and Teaching, I'll be dictating poems, facilitating discussions, offering writing prompts, and talking about revision strategies. The cost is $60, which seems fairly reasonable for a full day spent with the likes of Frost, Shakespeare, and Browning.

This workshop is open to everyone. You don't need to know how to write poems; you don't need to know anything about the poets under discussion. You just need to be curious.

I'll be driving down in the morning from Harmony; so if you live anywhere close by (i.e., within an hour of me), we could travel together. Just let me know.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dear person from Honolulu who googled "meaning of poem nostalgia by dawn potter":

I imagine the weather is more beautiful where you are, although at the moment you are probably sleeping through it. Here in Maine it is pouring rain, and once again, at the wrong time, I have just remembered that my barn raincoat has a big hole in the shoulder seam, perfectly placed for roof water sluicing off my hood.

Re the "meaning of poem nostalgia by dawn potter," tell your teacher it's a secret that a reader can unlock only by means of word choice. Here's what you do: Find a word in the poem that you like/hate/are puzzled by. Write 5 sentences that explain why you like/hate/are puzzled by the word. Voila. You have figured out something about meaning.

Feel free to write to me and let me know what you discovered. I will be surprised.

Your friend,


P.S. About meaning: It worms its way into the poem after the poet writes down the words. Think of it as a parasite infestation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Driving Lesson

Dawn Potter

Neither son nor father slept that night.
Tangled in sheets, the wide-eyed boy
stared into the chamber’s pearly dark.
He twitched his hands on the pillows,
guiding the heads of invisible horses.
From the apex of heaven, he saluted
his awestruck mother as her neighbors
sank to their knees in tardy admiration.

His father made no pretense of dreaming.
Late into the night, he sat in his throne room
watching the stars wander the heavens—
braggart Orion cinching his belt, the clumsy Bull
pawing at a black meadow. But toward morning,
before Dawn could arise from her bed in the east,
the god was in the stable, running practiced hands
over wheels and axle, checking hooves for stones.

When Phaeton appeared, crumpled and shining,
the Sun was leading his winged horses from their stalls.
Rested, well-fed, they tugged against their halters,
and at each breath, fire flared from their nostrils.
Through the stable gate, the god and his son glimpsed
Dawn unfolding her rosy sash on the horizon.
The Moon’s curl had vanished, and far below the palace,
Earth’s blue outline trembled under coils of mist.

As the Sun harnessed the stamping horses,
backing them four abreast, snorting and dancing,
into the chariot’s jeweled yoke, he advised Phaeton
on how best to manage the unruly team.
Though his voice was steady, his gestures calm,
his heart was heavy with foreboding.
After each caution, the boy nodded.
His eyes glowed. Perhaps he was listening.

“Leave the whip alone,” said the god.
“Keep your weight on the reins.
Holding back is your hardest task.
Earth and sky need equal magnitudes of heat.
Follow the middle road; my wheel tracks are clear.
And there is still time, plenty of time, to change your mind.
Give me the reins; go, eat something,
and we will sit together under the Moon tonight.”

But the boy had already climbed into the chariot.
There he stood, tense as a hare, clutching the reins—
joyful, oblivious, smiling up at his father.
Where was the terror that yesterday
had burdened him like a barrow of slag?
The horses snorted, snapped their gilded wings,
rang their hooves against the bronze bars of the gate.
The chariot trembled on its gleaming wheels.

Leaning into the car, the Sun kissed his child.
Then he lifted the fiery crown from his head,
tightened it, and slipped it over Phaeton’s curls.
“You see, it doesn’t burn me!” cried the boy,
proudly tossing his cumbered hair. “Father,
watch me at noon! Watch me wave to you!”
But the time for talk was gone. Dawn’s gaudy robe
blanketed the sky, and the Sun heaved open the gate.

[Forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014). A version of this poem also appeared in the online journal Best Poem.]

Monday, September 3, 2012

What was going on in Europe in early March 1815, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba?

1. Austen was finishing the last chapters of Emma.

2. Shelley had just run off with Mary Godwin.

3. Dickens was a chubby toddler.

4. Rossini was writing The Barber of Seville.

5. Beethoven was composing his piano sonata no. 28 in A major.

6. The Duke of Wellington was practicing the violin.

7. Humphry Davy was inventing the first miner's safety lamp.

8. Franz Mesmer, father of the theory of animal magnetism, was dying.

9. Wilhelmine Luise Mencken was eight months' pregnant with a child she would name Otto von Bismarck.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

String Field Theory is playing at the Harmony Free Fair tonight, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Come eat fried dough and sausage sandwiches and cotton candy and french fries and hot dogs and admire the cute ducklings and heifers and the baby alpaca and the cranky turkens and watch the Democrats and Republicans glower at each other from under the safety of their matching tents and sit with a cup of coffee and your sweetheart on the chilly bleachers and listen to us sing to the cloudy-starry-moonlit autumn sky. And then there will be fireworks.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Here's a historical novel waiting to be written. Or maybe it would make a good YouTube video. Or a Monty Python skit. Or a poem written in the style of Alexander Pope. Or a tragic opera filled with heartbreaking arias. Oy.
The Habsburg monarch, Francis, could no longer call himself Holy Roman Emperor, since Bonaparte had abolished that ancient entity, which went back to Charlemagne. Francis himself was a feeble figure, who spent his time making toffee and endlessly stamping blank sheets of parchment with specimens from his huge collection of seals. When Bonaparte, who had discarded his wife Josephine for failing to give him an heir, demanded of Francis a further sacrifice in the shape of his eldest daughter, Marie-Louise, the head of the House of Habsburg, then the grandest ruling family in Europe, felt he had to assent. It is true that the Habsburgs had made their way in the world less by winning battles than by judicious marriages. But the shame was fearful. Marie-Louise, then 18, had been brought up to call Bonaparte "the Corsican Anti-Christ." It was as though the Britain of 1940, having surrendered to Hitler, had been forced to deliver Princess Elizabeth, elder daughter of King George VI, to the Fuhrer as his bride. Marie-Louise, hitherto interested chiefly in whipped cream and her pet ducks, was happy to escape from her governesses and inquisitive priests to the glamor of the usurper's court at Fontainebleau. But the Courts of Germany felt the horror of an alliance which, in effect, sanctioned the murder of Marie Antoinette, another Habsburg princess and the bride's great-aunt, and legitimated a plebeian tyrant.
[from Johnson, The Birth of the Modern