Friday, November 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Teaching project: week 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2012

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


            George Herbert

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teaching project: week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

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

Sunday, November 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Driving Home

Dawn Potter

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

An open letter to some New Hampshire ninth graders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teaching project: week 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

And, you know, I liked it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It's Black Cake season again

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Incident at Jacobs Creek

Dawn Potter

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

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

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

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

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

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

from The War That Made America by Fred Anderson

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Teaching project: On the road in New Hampshire

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Am I jubilant about this election? Yes, I am! But everyone can do better, so here is a poem, written by a Detroit school child, with a few suggestions for the president. She wrote the poem during a class sponsored by the Inside Out Literary Arts Project, and here's the article in the Detroit Free Press about it. (Do not forget that Terry Blackhawk, founder of Inside Out, will be at the Frost Place this summer.)

Always help the homeless.
Keep your tongue out of your nose. 
Watch out for pointy hats.
Never eat paper. 
Remember to share cucumbers.
Give the rich to the poor. 
Keep your shoe out of your ear.
Follow your instincts. 
Don’t help half the world.
Help all of the world. 
Don’t bail on us.
Stay strong. 
Love the people.
Make this a new world. 
--Talandra Royal, Mark Twain Elementary-Middle School

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

To the States

Walt Whitman

To identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidential

Why reclining, interrogating? why myself and all drowsing?
What deepening twilight--scum floating atop of the waters,
Who are they as bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol?
What a filthy Presidentiad! (O South, your torrid suns! O North, your arctic freezings!)
Are those really Congressmen? are those the great Judges? is that the President?
Then I will sleep awhile yet, for I see that these States sleep, for reasons;
(With gathering murk, with muttering thunder and lambent shoots we all duly awake,
South, North, East, West, inland and seaboard, we will surely awake.)

[Are those really Congressmen? Alas. Nonetheless, I plan to vote.]

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tomorrow I leave for a week on the road: three days of travel, two days of teaching, one evening of visiting with my college boy. So if you don't hear from me, assume that I'm driving through mountains in snow, or inflicting poems on high school science teachers, or touring an infinitesimal dorm room.

I'm able to take this trip thanks to a gift from the Schafer family, which has generously decided to help fund Frost Place outreach programs in the schools. If you've ever participated in the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, you're eligible to apply for this funding, so please be in touch if you're interested.

Plans for the 2013 conference are well underway. The inimitable Teresa Carson steps up as associate director, and we have lined up two wonderful poets as guest faculty: Terry Blackhawk, who founded and directs Detroit's acclaimed Inside Out Literary Arts Project, a poets-in-the-school program that serves more than 5,000 students every year; and Jeff Kass, a high school teacher who also coordinates the literary arts programming at the Neutral Zone, a teen center in Ann Arbor. Check out Terry's thoughts about teaching, which appear regularly on the Huffington Post blog, and here's a review of Jeff's book about teenage boys. You might also be interested in one of Teresa's projects, bringing poetry to health care workers. And to top off the list, here is an essay about teaching by Baron Wormser, emeritus director of the conference and now the Frost Place's director of education outreach.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

With an excruciating slowness, I've been hammering out the paragraphs of an essay. Really, what I've been doing is hammering out the sentences of the paragraphs of an essay. Really, what I've been doing is moving those sentences around within the body of each paragraph and thinking about how they are speaking to each other. When a sentence swims into a new position, strange thoughts bubble to the surface.

So far I've reached the end of the second page. If I were a pitcher, the manager would have already taken me out of the game.

I've been writing and not writing, reading and not reading. Yesterday I split firewood and pushed quarters into the ravenous maws of commercial washing machines. Tuesday, I leave for a week on the road. Perhaps I will have broken into page 3 before then.

I still have no idea what I'm trying to say.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Barn cleaning today, and also the laundromat, and also helping my son pull together his costume for tonight's Masquerade Ball. He is going as Garage Wizard, which will involve accessories such as an oil-funnel hat, a driveway-reflector staff, and a pine-tree-air-freshener medallion, along with assorted bungee cords, orange extension cords, a tool belt, and a cape. No doubt he will look stunning, but I have doubts that his funnel hat will fit into the car while it's on his head.

This autumn's theatrical debut seems to have given him leave to release his essential public goofiness. On Halloween, he trick-or-treated in Harmony in drag . . . no small feat, let me tell you, in this Bastion of Morality. Yesterday, trapped in a car full of kids, he sang and sang and sang till they started sending him text messages pretending to be residents of distant planets who really, really wanted him to shut up. Paul was unmoved.

It never gets easier, watching children leap off into strangeness and delight, slipping away from us into their own lives.

Night Sledding

for James and Paul

Stealthy as an owl, and more silent,
the trail kneels before us, our mystery.
Now we are the breath of the world,

the moving life.  Our boots skirl
a brave cry.  Around us, vague
snow feathers the black air, a whisper,

a sweet, uncertain kiss.
The trees of the forest tender their bare hands.
And beyond them, the white hill opens,

magic lantern of night.
Shouting, you run forward
and hurl yourselves onto your sleds:

two thumps, the hiss of flight: and you are gone.
A swift weight presses on the earth.
I feel the prickings of fear.

In the pines, a small wind quivers.
The owl shakes out her soft wings.

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

The basement is still full of post-Sandy flood water, though my rigged-up garden-hose siphon seems to be working, albeit slowly. Ergo, I'll be spending some time in the laundromat. In other tedious news, along with 1,733 other people, I didn't get an NEA grant this year. I did, however, get a busted snow tire. [Cue heavy sigh here.]

But before I become entrenched and unreasonable, I will quickly transfer this brow-mopping and hand-wringing to some chronicler from the past and let her do the tragicomic moaning.

From a letter to Mrs. Russell from Jane Welsh Carlyle, 23 February 1862
The longer I live, the more I am certified that men, in all that relates to their own health, have not common sense! whether it be their Pride, or their Impatience, or their Obstinacy, or their ingrained Spirit of Contradiction that stultifies and misleads them, the result is always a certain amount of idiocy or distraction, in their dealing with their own bodies! I am not generalising from my own Husband. I know that he is a quite extravagant example of that want of common sense in bodily matters, which I complain of. Few men (even) are so lost to themselves as to dry their soaked trousers on their legs! (as he does) or swallow five grains of mercury in the middle of the day, and then walk or ride three hours under a plunge of rain! (as he does) &c. &c. But men generally--all of them I have ever had to do with--even your sensible Husband included you see!--drive the poor women, who care for them to despair, either by their wild impatience of bodily suffering, and the exaggerated moan they make over it, or else by their reckless defiance of it, and neglect of every dictate of Prudence.

Come on, isn't that funniest sad-but-true thing you've read all day? Of course for balance we ought to have a "women, you can't live with them, you can't live without them" rebuttal from Mr. Carlyle. I'll keep my eye out for his side of the story.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Next week I have to give a presentation to skeptical non-English teachers about ways in which to incorporate poetry into their classrooms. Among the many poems I read were these two.

Poem 202

Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

The Secret of the Machines

Rudyard Kipling

(Modern Machinery)

We were taken from the ore-bed and the mine,   
   We were melted in the furnace and the pit—   
We were cast and wrought and hammered to design,   
   We were cut and filed and tooled and gauged to fit.   
Some water, coal, and oil is all we ask,
   And a thousandth of an inch to give us play:   
And now, if you will set us to our task,
   We will serve you four and twenty hours a day!

      We can pull and haul and push and lift and drive,   
      We can print and plough and weave and heat and light,
      We can run and race and swim and fly and dive,   
      We can see and hear and count and read and write!

Would you call a friend from half across the world?
   If you’ll let us have his name and town and state,
You shall see and hear your crackling question hurled
   Across the arch of heaven while you wait.   
Has he answered? Does he need you at his side?
   You can start this very evening if you choose,   
And take the Western Ocean in the stride
   Of seventy thousand horses and some screws!

      The boat-express is waiting your command!   
      You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
      Till her captain turns the lever ’neath his hand,   
      And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

Do you wish to make the mountains bare their head   
   And lay their new-cut forests at your feet?   
Do you want to turn a river in its bed,
   Or plant a barren wilderness with wheat?
Shall we pipe aloft and bring you water down
   From the never-failing cisterns of the snows,   
To work the mills and tramways in your town,
   And irrigate your orchards as it flows?

      It is easy! Give us dynamite and drills!
      Watch the iron-shouldered rocks lie down and quake   
      As the thirsty desert-level floods and fills,
      And the valley we have dammed becomes a lake.

But remember, please, the Law by which we live,   
   We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
   If you make a slip in handling us you die!   
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings—
   Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-
Our touch can alter all created things,
   We are everything on earth—except The Gods!

      Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
     It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
      Because, for all our power and weight and size,
      We are nothing more than children of your brain!