Thursday, January 31, 2013

1. Vice president of the week. For two election cycles and one complete presidential term, I have been indifferent to Joe Biden. But during the past few weeks, I have become more and more impressed by the deliberate, nonhysterical, non-self-aggrandizing way in which he is handling his task of working out reasonable recommendations for gun control. Whether or not anything comes of his work remains to be seen, of course.

2. Weather of the week. What the hell? Four days ago the temperature was 10 below zero. This is morning it's 45 degrees above zero, with pouring, wind-whipped, October-like rain. Meanwhile, the driveway is a rink.

3. Recording artist of the week. Little Brenda Lee, in the "why haven't I ever paid attention to her before?" category.

4. Literary quotation of the week. "One is given to theories of language, of fiction, of illusion; and also to silly fancies. Like dreaming one is a book without its last chapters, suddenly: one is left forever on that last incomplete page, a loved face kneeling over wild orchids, a voice breaking the silence, a stupid crack--transfixed, for ever and ever, like a bad photograph." --John Fowles, "The Cloud"

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Carrot Pie

Yesterday was apply-for-grants-I-won't-get day, but it was also invent-a-new-vegetarian-dish day. Several months ago Paul suddenly decided to stop eating meat, so I have had to completely reconfigure my cooking. This switch hasn't actually been all that difficult for me: I grew up with 70s-style vegetarian parents, which is to say they ate a lot of cheesy brown rice. It's been fun to look beyond that old-fashioned starchiness: I've been learning about basic Asian and North African options and have been reimagining meat-flavored dishes as vegetable-based versions.

Here's what I invented last night: quiche lorraine remade as a delicate winter pie.

Make enough pie dough to fit into a French-style tart pan with a removable bottom. Partially prebake it. (If anyone wants detailed instructions, let me know.) 
For the filling: trim and peel 2 medium-sized carrots, then grate. You should end up with about  3/4s of a cup. 
In a skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter over low heat. Press a big clove of garlic, and add it to the pan. As soon as the scent starts to rise, add the grated carrots. 
Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally; salt lightly, and then add 3/4s of a cup of freshly chopped parsley. Scrape the mixture into the pie shell. 
Grate 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese over the vegetable mixture. 
Now beat 3 large eggs with 1 cup of milk. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Pour the mixture into the pie shell, and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.
Unmold on a board or a flat serving plate. 
The result is both pretty and delicious, and your vegetarian son can take the leftovers to school for lunch.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

James called home a couple of days ago and mentioned that he was taking a class that required him to read a lot of Marxist theory along with Baudrillard, etc., etc. Later I said to Tom that this must be some kind of liberal-arts-college hazing that every youth still must undergo. Tom, in turn, reminded me that sometimes badly written stuff does have value. And I sighed.

Baudrillard et al. is why I spent so many years believing that I was a non-intellectual idiot. Somehow I had managed to get into a top-notch college, but when I was presented with Foucault and Lacan and Derrida and Cixous and their ilk, I could not keep my mind on whatever it was they were saying. I could not bear the way the stuff sounded in my head. It took me many years to figure out that I read by ear and that badly written stuff is a torment to my perceptions because I am both a poet and a prose stylist.

But James isn't interested in being a writer, I thought. He can probably manage to overlook the awfulness.

And then last night, while I was making dinner, the phone rang. It was James. "Mom, I really hate that class and I need your advice about a literature class to take as a replacement."

Turns out that the boy has decided he'd way rather read Dostoevsky and Dickens than Baudrillard and Foucault. I am ridiculously gratified.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Ode to My Son's Audiobooks

[first published in the Sewanee Review, fall 2012]

My younger son, Paul, is an eighth grader at Harmony Elementary School, a down-at-heels K–8 building in rural central Maine that houses about ninety students and a handful of underpaid staff members. So a few weeks ago, when he carelessly remarked, as he was pacing around the kitchen gobbling a pastrami sandwich, “You know, Mom, I think my writing style is most influenced by Dickens and Twain,” I stifled a laugh. Not much Dickens gets read at Harmony Elementary School. Yet with a second sandwich in hand, he continued to chatter on, cogently discussing the novelists’ variable syntax and sentence strategies, their interest in the minutiae of dialogue, his own dependence on hearing the sound of a sentence rhythm before knowing what he was going to write, and on, and on.
My hands buried in bread dough, I turned to gape at him. This boy, devourer of every teen dystopian novel that comes down the pike, not to mention The Comic Book History of the Universe and all of John Tunis’s 1940s baseball novels, was speaking of Dickens and Twain as if the sounds of their sentences were a part of his own brain structure, his own progressions of thought. Yet he had never read their books. What he had done was buy recordings of them from iTunes and then listen to them again and again and again.

“Read to your children!” tout the school-library posters; and, indeed, as long as your kids remain literary naïfs, reading aloud is a reasonably good way to lure them into books. Although five hundred consecutive performances of Good Night, Moon can drive a tired father to near-insanity, repetition is what children long for: they need to hear the same words over and over again; and if that comatose parent happens to mumble “fork” instead of “spoon,” his toddler will give him an earful. But as my husband and I soon discovered, a daily read-aloud menu of mediocre children’s literature was rotting our cerebella. And if it was softening our brains, how could it be really be nourishing our children’s?
Herein lies the problem: listening to literature over and over again is invaluable for growing minds of every age, but listening to stupid literature over and over is analogous to existing on a diet of Doritos. Of course Doritos have their charms, just as a certain amount of stupid literature can be tonic and invigorating. For instance, even though my ear finds the dialogue of the Harry Potter novels excruciating (“Harry, don't go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you. . . . ” “Wow, I wonder what it’d be like to have a difficult life?” said Harry sarcastically), it thinks that the dialogue of the Hardy Boys’ novels is hilarious. (Meanwhile, Biff had untied Chet. The heavyset teen had slumped to the ground in a dead faint. “Out cold,” Frank said. . . . Chet opened his eyes and blinked. “I'm alive!” he exclaimed.  “Thanks, guys.”) But how would I know the difference if I hadn’t read both? The issue, then, isn’t having a reading diet that includes third-rate literature but the importance of developing a close familiarity with complex and various writing styles—of gaining an intense familiarity with their sounds, patterns, shifts, and surprises of language, character, structure, and theme—and learning to ask conscious and unconscious questions about those elements.

My children were not reading prodigies. Although they were always at the top of their primary-grade reading classes, they, like most of their peers, struggled with the exhaustions of decoding multisyllable words and tracking syntactically complex sentences. Yet their ears could comprehend those words and sentences—and they were eager to hear them. As their before-bedtime reader, I could not keep pace with their intense interest in stories—particularly Paul’s enthusiasm for repetition. Thus, I latched onto recorded books as a way to keep him not only engaged in complicated tales but also gainfully distracted from me.
I wasn’t altogether comfortable about taking this route. Those pedantic library posters had convinced me that I was probably a bad parent because I would do almost anything to be allowed to read silently to myself rather than aloud to my children. Moreover, I myself had zero interest in listening to audiobooks. I needed my own imagination to invent the sounds of my favorite characters; I didn’t want to poison them with someone else’s voiceover.
If, in the years of my callow new-parenthood, someone had claimed that listening over and over to a recording of David Copperfield would count as rereading David Copperfield, I would have crankily shouted, “No!” Yet the enormous impact of aural repetition on my son’s reading and writing skills has forced me to retract that reactionary shout once and for all. No, Paul hasn’t learned to love sentences in the same way that I learned to love them. If anything, he’s been luckier. When I was fourteen years old, my Dickens adoration was focused entirely on character and plot: it never occurred to me to listen to how the writer had invented them. In other words, I was learning Dickens by eye, whereas my son is learning Dickens by ear. What’s taken me till middle age to absorb he has absorbed before starting high school.
            But a comprehension of sentence craft is not the only gift these books have given him. One day, when he was about nine years old, after a long afternoon spent sorting baseball cards and listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my son walked into the kitchen and said, “Mom, I don’t understand something. How come Jim has to do what Huck says, even though Jim is the grown-up?”
 When a rural fourth grader in one of the whitest states in America is able to pinpoint, with a single, wide-eyed question, a central theme not only of Twain’s great, complex, ambiguous novel but also of our national history, of the terrible immoralities embedded in the human condition, then technology has done the author an immeasurable service. For it has helped my young child to learn, in the words of essayist John Berger, that “the boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity. Even a term of endearment: the term is impartial; the context is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience. Everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable.”
If it takes an iPod to deliver that message to our children, then so be it.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Instructions for Foreigners


Dawn Potter

Eloquence is not required;
we explain every word that you say.
There is no charge to enter,
merely a charge to stay.

A nail in a hoof is worth two in a hand.
Thoughts are like men in a boat.
If a sentence is trapped on a sandbar,
only its bones will float.

As melodies flit, you should count them
before you prepare to cry.
For lack of a nail, your horse was shot.
Burn the barn, and your eyes will dry.

[first published in Hawk & Handsaw, issue 5 (2012)]

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Visit with Godey's Lady's Book

I spent time yesterday with the January 1851 issue of the influential and ubiquitous Godey's Lady's Book, a Philadelphia women's magazine that is mentioned over and over again in 19th-century fiction . . . although interestingly, when I told my husband, "I'm reading Godey's Lady's Book!" he had no idea what I was talking about.
I have always thought of it primarily as a fashion magazine, so I was surprised to discover that clothes ("Figs. 3 and 4 are some of the new fashionable undersleeves. It will be noticed that they are very full, and edged with double frills.") and household hints ("The practice of boiling arrow-root in milk is at once wasteful and unsatisfactory.") are merely the frosting on the cake. The journal overflows with poems ("Her eye of blue, like azure sky of clear pure light above, / With soft silk fringes on the lids, shading the deepest love"), stories ("The voice of the speaker sank into a low moan, and was lost in a stifled sob."), musical selections ("We may not on the green-sward dance as in the summertime, / But there our horses proudly prance, as in Arabian clime"), inspirational prose ("The ever-flowing spring, whose heart was never dried up either in summer or winter, had murmured to her of—'Faith.'"), and historical essays ("It is commonly said, and appears generally to be believed by superficial students of history, that with the reigns of the Plantagenets, with the Edwards and the Henrys of the fifteenth century, the age of chivalry was ended, the spirit of romance became extinct.")
Moreover, it includes a very peculiar set of reviews, under the heading "The Editor's Book Table." Here is just a sample of the riches therein.
THE POETICAL WORKS OF JOHN MILTON. Edited by Sir Egerton Brydges, Bart. Illustrated with engravings, designed by John Martin and J.W.M. Turner, R.A. We noticed an edition of "Paradise Lost" in our November number. Here, however, we have a complete edition of the modern Homer's works, including "Paradise Regained," and all his minor poems, sonnets, &c. These editions are pleasing testimonials of the renewed interest which the public are beginning to manifest for the writings of standard English authors, in preference to the light and ephemeral productions of those of the present day, who have too long held the classical taste and refinement in obedience to their influences. The illustrations of this edition are very beautiful. [The "light and ephemeral productions" of 1851 include Moby-Dick, The House of Seven Gables, and Cranford.] 
THE RACES OF MEN. A Fragment. By Robert Knox, M.D., Lecturer on Anatomy, and Corresponding Member of the National Academy of Science in France. The character and tendency of this "fragment," or "outlines of lectures," to use the author's own terms, are such as cannot be suddenly determined upon or understood. This will appear the more evident to the reader from the assurance which he also gives, that his work runs counter to nearly all the chronicles of events called histories; that it shocks the theories of statesmen, theologians, and philanthropists of all shades. He maintains that the human character, individual and national, is traceable solely to the nature of that race to which the individual or nation belongs, which he affirms to be simply a fact, the most remarkable, the most comprehensive which philosophy has announced. [Oy.] 
RESEARCHES ON THE MOTION OF THE JUICES IN THE ANIMAL BODY, AND THE EFFECTS OF EVAPORATIONS IN PLANTS; together with an Account of the Origin of the Potatoe Disease, with full and Ingenious Directions for the Protection and Entire Prevention of the Potatoe Plant against all Diseases. By Justus Liebig, M.D., Professor of Chemistry in the University of Giessen; and edited from the manuscript of the author, by William Gregory, M.D., of the University of Edinburgh. A valuable treatise, as its title sufficiently indicates. [Who doesn't love a book review that's shorter than the title under review?] 
MOSAIQUE FRANCAISE: ou Choix De Sujets Anecdotiques, Historiques, Littéraires et Scientifiques, tirés pour La Plupart D'Auteurs Modernes. Par F. Séron, Homme de lettres, l'un des rédacteurs du Journal Française; Les Monde des enfans, Revue Encyclopédique de la jeunesse de 1844 à 1848, etc.; Professeur de Langue et de Littérature Française à Philadelphie. This work appears to have been compiled with great care, from works by the best French authors. Every subject has been carefully excluded that could in any manner wound or bias the preconceived opinions of the American reader in relation to religious or political freedom. [Thank goodness none of my preconceived notions will be affected by those crazy French writers.]
In addition, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book takes great pains to remind his readers of their "womanly" status. Here is a snatch of his opinion piece:
The female mind has as yet manifested very little of the kind of genius termed mechanical, or inventive. Nor is it the lack of learning which has caused this uniform lack of constructive talent. Many ignorant men have studied out and made curious inventions of mechanical skill; women never. We are constrained to say we do not believe woman would ever have invented the compass, the printing-press, the steam-engine, or even a loom. The difference between the mental power of the two sexes, as it is distinctly traced in Holy Writ and human history, we have described and illustrated in a work soon to be published. We trust this will prove of importance in settling the question of what woman's province really is, and where her station should be in the onward march of civilization. It is not mechanical, but moral power which is now needed. That woman was endowed with moral goodness superior to that possessed by man is the doctrine of the Bible; and this moral power she must be trained to use for the promotion of goodness, and purity, and holiness in men. There is no need that she should help him in his task of subduing the world. He has the strong arm and the ingenious mind to understand and grapple with things of earth; but he needs her aid in subduing himself, his own selfish passions, and animal propensities.
However, he does go on to assure his readers that "the chivalry of the American press will ever sustain a periodical devoted to woman." What surprises me most in this sentence is that woman is not spelled Woman, a form of address that would seem to more or less sum up his attitude to "the fair sex." 

Friday, January 25, 2013

This is the screamer that appeared in the Mount Pleasant Journal, on February 2, 1891. It concerns what became known as the Mammoth Mine Disaster, when, according to the New York Times's "special from Scottdale, Penn.,"
by an explosion of fire-damp in the Mammoth shaft of the H. C. Frick Coke Company 110 sturdy miners were hurled into eternity and a number seriously injured. The explosion occurred this morning shortly after 9 o’clock and it is supposed was the result of the ignition of a miner’s oil lamp. The after damp which followed the fire-damp explosion suffocated nearly every workman. A few men realizing the awful situation fell to the ground thereby preventing the gas from striking them. The persons not killed are in such a critical condition that their deaths are momentarily expected. Up to this writing sixty bodies have been recovered, all without a sign of life. The mine is on fire and it is feared that the rest of the bodies will be cremated.
Almost all of the dead were immigrants, most from Poland and Hungary.

The mine superintendant was the first of the managerial staff to arrive. He and several other managers had previously been up all night at a Robert Burns birthday celebration at a local hotel.

Researching the Mammoth disaster took up most of my day yesterday. Between this festering history and the raw present tense of Aliza's death, my outlook assumed a rather sullen color. Yet late in the day Tom and I went to our first ballroom-dancing class and and were clumsy and stepped on each other's feet and laughed and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Later in the day I was asked to help organize a chorus of local children to sing one of Aliza's favorite songs at her funeral next weekend. Later in the day my son Paul said, "I will figure out all the vocal parts. I will make this happen. I know we can create something beautiful." In other words, it was a ratchety difficult painful dreadful day that nonetheless had its expanses of sunshine.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Harmony Kids

Our friend Aliza died yesterday morning. She was thirteen years old, and our family had known her since infancy. During elementary school, her older brother was one of James's best friends; her father was one of my primary supports during the years I taught K-8 music; and thus, as schoolmates, she and Paul automatically became comfortable, snappy, teasing, cousin-like friends.

I have such a clear memory of Aliza during her first winter concert, when she stood up with the preschoolers and blithely had an accident on stage while continuing to sing. That happy-go-lucky goofiness was a lifelong trait and a centerpiece of her charm. She was a funny, affectionate, lighthearted child. 

Last night, when Paul walked in the door, he immediately put his arms around me and we stood there, in the kitchen, embracing for a long time. On his Facebook wall, he had posted a quotation from a favorite book, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars: "the risen sun too bright in her losing eyes."

I share that line here because I think it is beautiful, not only in and of itself but because it is emblematic of the way in which our Harmony children have learned, the hard way, to weep together. The murders of Coty, Monica, and Amy forced them to shed their defenses, to cry with and for one another. Now they have lost another friend, and they continue to stand together, in solidarity and in pain.

It is terrible as a parent to watch other parents suffer the unthinkable loss of a child. It is terrible as a parent to watch one's child suffer the loss of a friend. But there is a richness also in knowing that, for our children, community is not defined by gender, religion, or politics but by bonds of love and respect. It continues to be an honor and a gift to be the parents of such human beings.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ten below zero this morning, and my friends' dying little girl has taken a turn for the worse. Nevertheless, the animals in the barn look cheery enough, despite their unheated night. Chickadees mob the feeder. My ninth-grade goofball chortles songs from Rent while brushing his teeth. Year after year, we living creatures manage to overflow with joy, with despair, with joy again. The pleasure of a hot drink on a cold morning. The pleasure of a healthy silly child. And all the while I think of two parents beside a hospital bed, watching their daughter struggle to stay alive.

On the page my words look sentimental, obvious, stale; as art, they perpetuate a tedious aesthetic.

But in the metaphors of real life, hearts do swell, and they do break.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

This is (thus far) the first poem in my Chestnut Ridge manuscript as well as the shortest one. It also the first haiku I have written for about a million years, though of course it is a faulty example because, for tragicomedy's sake, it required an extra line. Still, I think there's something to be said for a project in which researching bills of sale dragged me into borrowing a poetic form that I essentially dislike.

Wartime Prosperity


Dawn Potter

Fr the Beaver-pelt
The French-man payd 1 Bullit
Whch the Shawnee-man


[first published in Hawk & Handsaw, issue 5 (2012)]

Monday, January 21, 2013

What with cross-country skiing all day yesterday with Tom and Paul, and driving to piano lessons this morning, and grocery shopping, and bread baking, and being on boy-bedroom-ream-out patrol, and taking the boy to the mall tomorrow to buy dress-up clothes for a choral performance, I'm not at leisure to perseverate here. In my stead, I'll leave William Blake. He never gets easier to read, does he?

Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime,
Where the traveller's journey is done;

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

So long to the Stan the Man--the great Saint Louis Cardinal Stan Musial, from Donora, Pennsylvania, who's been on my list of subjects for my western Pa. poem project. He was my father's favorite player, when my dad was a little boy; so for his 72nd birthday, I gave him a vintage Stan Musial button.

Stan was a grown man when my father was a kid listening to the radio. Then they both grew up to be old.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Incident at Jacobs Creek


Dawn Potter

So many nights we’ve squandered,
poking at this goddamn everlasting bruise—
why he doesn’t love me, whether he loves you.
knowing all the while that nothing shifts:
the jukebox downstairs keeps pumping out
its drinking songs, the man we love won’t love us back.
Night winds to an end, but if a lurid sunrise
glowers in the east, we’re not bothering to look.
It’s closing time.

Downstairs, a barkeep drags a metal shade across a window,
slams it into silence like a stockyard gate.
Trapped up here with us, old blockhead Charlie Rich
haunts this lonely town, searching every alley,
buttonholing every man, and, hey,
did you happen to see,
the most beautiful girl, in the world?
And if you did, was she crying, crying?
She was, she surely was,

but let’s you and I wait, and cry tomorrow,
when the tale starts mattering again.
Tonight let the one we love not love us,
if that’s what he thinks he wants.
We’re leaning together on this yellow couch
listening to police cars scream around the corner.
Let’s you and I pretend we have no story.

[a radically different version of the poem first appeared in Passion and Pride: Poets in Support of Equality, ed. Bruce Spang (Moonpie Press, 2013)]

Friday, January 18, 2013

More Praise for "A Poet's Sourcebook"

I am very, very happy and relieved to have received these notes about A Poet's Sourcebook.

"It's not really a literary book in any conventional sense, or so it seems to me. It's more about how poetry is language that speaks essentially to people. The various fads and fashions don't figure much in your book and that's to its lasting credit." --Baron Wormser, director of educational outreach at the Frost Place and a contributor to the anthology 

"I have just spent the week-end reading through A Poet's Sourcebook and what pleasures it gave me. Of course, I have not read it all, but what I have read has--truly--so pleased and enriched me!  . . . I will recommend it to my students with utmost enthusiasm." --Laure-Anne Bosselaar, poet, teacher, and translator

"Reading some fairly incomprehensible Lit Theory so I can get my master's so I can teach poetry writing/appreciation. And when I do, this is the sort of book I will have my students read." --Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, publisher of the Aurorean and an alum of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

"It's now on my short list of desert island books. . . . And I am honored to have my essay rubbing shoulders with some writer-gods of mine." --Teresa Carson, associate publisher at CavanKerry Press and a contributor to the anthology

"Cynndarae Horace salutem, Tibi maximus gratias ago." [Oddly enough, this last comment seemed to come from Teresa Carson's email account. . . . ]

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Today's list of stuff to do: shovel snow, check proofs of the giant poem that's coming out in Beloit, lament over my broken snowshoe, figure out how to make a vegetable broth for soba noodles, pick up kids after play practice, learn some fiddle licks to go with (1) "Ain't Misbehavin" and (2) "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," try to get readers and teachers to think about the faint possibility of considering the idea of buying and/or reviewing my anthology [sigh], transcribe more bizarre and distressing commentary from the 1859 blow-by-blow newspaper article "Trial of the Negroes for the Murder of W. Sealy Zimmerman," think about Mennonites, make my kid fold his laundry, make my husband stop telling my kid to stop repetitively singing the same Canadian folk song about the doomed Franklin expedition ("and, honey, you need to also quit trying to drown him out with Yo la Tengo"), grapple with the irritations of social networking, prepare the barn animals for another round of intense cold, shovel snow, read Mr. Bridge, think about Andrew Carnegie, haul firewood, apply for jobs, buy more toothpaste, let the dog in, let the dog out, let the dog in, drink tea, remember to eat lunch, sit in the yellow chair, write, second-guess myself, write, second-guess myself, shovel snow, let the dog in, read Mr. Bridge, think about the murder of W. Sealy Zimmerman, think about murder, think about the witnesses who weren't witnesses but imagined what it might have been like to be witnesses, think about the confusions of fear and memory and assumptions and anger, let the dog out, write, sit in the yellow chair, remember that I still haven't figured out how to make that vegetable broth for soba noodles.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why Are Writers Such Idiots When They're Writing?

Last night Tom was asking me questions about my western Pennsylvania history-in-verse project--my illogical research; my imaginative process; worst of all, my definition of precision--and all I could do was stammer out inanities. Although he was friendly and interested and ready to have an artist-to-artist conversation, I could not give him any coherent explanation for what sounded, in the air, like a really stupid approach to history, diction, narrative structure, character development, etc., etc.

The moment was disheartening, especially given the fact that we have so little opportunity to talk to one another as colleagues. One or the other of us always seems to be doing the grunt work of living while the other is thieving time and money to muddle with art. We pass the ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. At the moment it's on my side of the court, while he is spending his days dealing with a horrible dog-kennel owner who keeps making him tear down the stuff she asks him to build after she suddenly changes her mind about it. Meanwhile, he's cold and dogs bark at him all day long.

Nonetheless, he smiles at me when he gets home, and this is one of the enormous gifts of our partnership--that he can, more often than not, still manage to smile at me, even though he knows I've been sitting in front of the wood stove reading a page, messing around with five words, staring at the ceiling, drinking tea, staring at the ceiling, drinking more tea, staring at the ceiling, reading a page, and earning no money whatsoever. I fear that, when I'm in the grunt position and he's in the muddling-with-art position, I am not always so forbearing.

Last night I wanted to assure him that I really was accomplishing something, was moving along effectively, was making something beautiful. What I sounded like was a stammering, slack-jawed time waster.

Dear writer friend, if you were telling me this story, I would staunchly declare: "Of course you feel that way. You're in the zone. Your brain doesn't have the capacity to do anything other than create the work right now. It can't talk about the work. Why expect it to?"

You would sigh and look glum and say an unconvinced voice: "I guess you're right."

Yesterday I spoke briefly with my friend Teresa, who is also in the zone. We made a few half-hearted jokes about the things that Real Writers do when they're in the zone, like forget to take showers and drink too much and absent-mindedly seduce their friends' spouses. Our chatter was supposed to cheer us up, and it sort of did, in a stammering, slack-jawed, time-waster sort of way.

Although it did remind me that I'd forgotten to take a shower.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Quartermaster


Dawn Potter

At night the Wolves and Owls of the Ohio Lands
make a Great Noise, and the Forest abounds
with Turkeys. To hunt these Curious Fowl,
one must travel by Moonlight, approaching with Stealth

the Branchy Trees on which they roost.
One commonly detects Four Score or more
of these Slumbering Giants in a single Oak.
Hitherto soundless, the Hunter now fires a Shot,

and five Turkeys tumble from the Boughs.
Wakened, their Brethren do not fail to Screech—
forthwith, the Hunter stills his Anxious breath
till they relapse into their customary Doze.

Then again he shoots, and again falls Silent,
and shoots again, to the end that all are Killed.
At length his men gather the Corpses.
Staggering beneath their Unexpected Weight,

they bear them to the Canoe and, with weary
Dispatch, proceed Down-river to the Fort.
All the while, unseen among the shades,
Owls consign their vasty Wailings to the Air.

Twice or thrice, a Trembled Wing
brushes a Paddler’s face, and he Flinches:
for there is, in this Boat laden with Relics,
a general Consensus of Fear:

as if, adrift, a Phantom hath risen
from the Slain beneath our Boots
and now delivers to us a Message.

[first published in Hawk & Handsaw, no. 5 (2012)]

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Teacher Talks about "A Poet's Sourcebook"

Here's a small review of A Poet's Sourcebook, from one of the readers who matters most to me--a teacher who is committed to bringing poetry to young people:
This book has given me so much to think about. I can't imagine how we've all lived without it for so long. Thank you for taking the time and care to assemble something so thoughtful and useful. I was especially excited to see the final entry--something that was newly discovered when I traveled to the Frost Place in 2010. Still remember seeing the original page and carefully transcribing those very words in my notebook while sitting in the barn. As a teacher interested in drawing in students, I think that last entry is really important. It validates their experience and inspires them to think about their own ideas about poetry. If I were teaching a high school poetry class, this book would be in every student's hands.
The final entry to which she refers was written by a ten-year-old boy from New Hampshire. And I've just learned from his teacher, another Frost Place alum, that his entire school is thrilled about his success as a published author. The principal lauded him over the PA, and he gets to be featured on a poster in the library. I'm so grateful to that teacher for sharing his writing with me, and the world.

Here it is:
Poetry is like a very well read 3 year old, it uses terrific words, but uses them so strangely and it always spouts the truth you don't want other people to hear in public. . . . It'll act all cute and funny and make you smile for its cleverness, then keep you up all night yelling and screaming about something you don't understand at all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

I spent yesterday scrolling through various vintages of Mennonite hymnals, tracking down the major historical events of 1837 (Oliver Twist was serialized, Victoria ascended the throne, Daguerre invented the daguerreotype . . . ), beginning to read slave documents from antebellum western Pennsylvania, and typing up an index of what I've written so far.

The sidetrack possibilities are infinite. I'm not sure how I'll ever manage to get this book under control, but I am beginning to think that one way to do it is to start recognizing repeated themes and to make sure that they appear cyclically throughout the 200 years under study. Descriptions of loss seem to be one of those themes (obituaries, tombstones, letters, word of mouth, etc.); music is another. And the more I read about the Mennonites, the more I learn about the centrality of music to their worship. In the words of one commentator, congregation members think of group singing as "a conversation."

For years, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, was the home of the Mennonite Publishing House, which released edition after edition of Harmonia Sacra, a shape-singing hymnal first compiled in 1832. How one incorporates shape singing into a poem is something I have not yet worked out.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Evan S. Connell

Writer Evan S. Connell died this week, but I have seen and heard almost nothing in response to his death. So I will respond.

Connell's Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn has been one of the most influential books of my adult life. By way of this history, I began to recognize not only the tortuousness of moral beliefs and good intentions but also the ways in which one might begin to address them as an individual writer, observer, and sufferer. Connell's prose is exquisite and so was his ear; for he was able to collect the voices of participants on every side and from every level of that struggle, to balance and mingle them, and thus create a record that was far, far more complicated than a good guys versus bad guys story. This book is why I am able to even imagine writing my western Pennsylvania poems. You should read it; and if you've already read it, you should reread it. That's what I'm planning to do.

The following extract is just one example of the complications that Connell is able to reveal, and he does this everywhere, for every major character, both Sioux and white, throughout the book.

In October the Seventh returned to winter quarters at Fort Leavenworth where [Custer] had even less to do. Earlier he had written a series of articles for a sportman's journal under the pseudonym "Nomad," and now he wrote a few more. 
"The Hunt on the Plains," which appeared in a November issue of Turf, Field and Farm, tells about "nine ardent lovers of sport" who set out from Detroit in a Pullman car, bound for the Seventh Cavalry camp at Fort Hays. . . . 
It concludes with a sentimental and instructive example of Custer's poetry. One of his dogs, Maida, had been killed by a soldier. 
Poor Maida, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend;
Whose honest heart is still your master's own,
Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
But who with me shall hold thy former place,
Thine image what new friendship can efface,
      Best of thy kind, adieu!
The frantic deed which laid thee low
       This heart shall ever rue.
What happened to the perpetrator of this frantic deed, he does not reveal. 
He loved animals, including those he killed and stuffed, but dogs and horses were his favorites, and the dogs most clearly returned his affection. [His wife] Elizabeth reports that whenever he took a nap the dogs would lie down as close to him as possible. "I have seen them stretched at his back and curled around his head, while the nose and paws of one rested on his breast."
[from Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, 1984]

Friday, January 11, 2013

My great-grandmother's funeral took place in Everson, Pennsylvania, on April 12, 1927. Here's what else happened that week:
* Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death. 
* The Irish Free State came into existence. 
* Chiang Kai-shek gave orders for what became known as the Shanghai Massacre. 
* The Great Mississippi Flood began. This was the largest recorded rainfall in American history. New Orleans received almost 15 inches of rain within 24 hours.

Meanwhile, five little children cried for their mother. History is a strange amalgam, is it not?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

It's Tom's birthday today, and this is what he'll be eating tonight.
Antipasto: sourdough bread, olive oil, salt, dill beans, pickled peppers 
Slices of smoked pork shoulder, with a sauce of tomato, cannellini beans, and garlic, arranged over a square of Yorkshire pudding 
A salad of pears, arugula, and toasted walnuts 
Clementine gelee with Cointreau-flavored whipped cream and butter cookies

Dog in Winter

Dawn Potter

Up the boggy headland, frozen now, where a stone fence
Submerged in snow and earth-sink hints at pasture
So long vanished that the woods are convinced
Grassland never existed, two bodies climb—one fast,
Black, doe-agile; one slogging and foot-bound
Like a superannuated tortoise.  Guess which is me.
Easy to badmouth my grace but oddly hard to expound
On the postcard beauties of our workaday scenery—
Giant pines draped with frosting, wisp of chimney cloud
Threading skyward, and behind the frosted window
A glorious wall of books, lamp-lit; a dear bowed head.
In tales, common enchantment always merits less than woe,
            And perhaps I should collapse on the stoop like a starved Jane Eyre,
            Pleading heat and mercy. But I earn my joy. I mean, I live here.

[reprinted most recently in Favorites from the First Fifteen Years, an Autorean anthology (Encircle Publications, 2012) and forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Yesterday, I'm glad to say, was a productive and energetic dip back into the world of my western Pennsylvania project. Sitting with my feet under the wood stove, I wrote two new drafts, revised three, and did a great deal of research. And in the midst of all this busyness, as I was scrolling through obituary entries from the Connellsville Daily Courier, I happened upon the following, dated Monday, April 11, 1927.
SCOTTDALE, April 11 - The funeral of Mrs. Barbara Kulbacki of Everson will be held at St. Joseph's Church at Everson at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning. Burial will be in St. Joseph's Cemetery, Scottdale.
This is my great-grandmother, a Polish immigrant, who at various times operated a corner store and ran a boarding house for laborers, who married twice (the first time at fourteen, to a man whom I believe she met on the boat), who had two large batches of children, and who died at age forty-two during surgery for uterine cancer. She left behind a straggling and destitute family, the younger children entirely dependent on the older ones; she left behind a drunken widower, handsome and improvident, who could dance like a Cossack; she left behind my beautiful and very fragile grandmother, Czeslawa, later known as Jessie, later known as Sally, who loved the movies, who was afraid of the nuns, who was nine years old when her mother died, who believed that the forks in the drawer were plotting against her, who sank into darkness and distress, who never recovered from this grief.

I was not looking for Barbara, but I found her nonetheless. What does this mean? Originally I had no intention of including any version of her in the collection, but do you think she is telling me that she ought to be in there?

Here's a photograph of her. I'm not sure how old she was when it was taken: I'm guessing her early thirties, but she could just as well have been much younger. Genetically Barbara's influence was powerful. The cheekbones and the eyes are my grandmother's, my mother's, and mine.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Versions of time--of wasted time, of stopped time, of forgotten time--flit along the roughened, shadowy borders of this sentence. There is a grammar, unspoken, that becomes a thought, a thought that becomes a scaffold. Should I resent the lost avenues, the nightmares that fade from horror to weariness to comic breakfast-table chatter? Last night I dreamed that my son had run away from home to hide, angry and unkempt, in a crack house by the sea. But when I repeat the tale, he laughs. Pedantry, protect me from pain. "Zip your coat, find your gloves," I order. He pulls up his hood; his hug is a stranglehold. He has a secret life beyond my ken. Oh, the cold has such a grip on us. Even the shingles groan, even the roots of the trees.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My very long poem, "Mr. Kowalski," will appear in the upcoming issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal. Although I used to sit on the editorial board of this journal, I've since received several rejections from the new contingent: the editors are a hard nut to crack, and acquaintances have as much trouble as strangers do. This is not at all a complaint; and in fact I feel better about the acceptance, knowing that the readers might just as easily have rejected the piece.

One thing has always been true about Beloit: the editors are open to long poems. Apparently in this forthcoming issue they will be featuring several of them, and so they have asked us to take part in an online forum about the place of the long poem in twenty-first-century literature. Because the group includes some fairly renowned poets, I'm honored and a bit flabbergasted.

I spent some time yesterday toying with various thoughts about the composition of the piece, about long poems in general, about narrative poetry, about the revisional variants in working with a long versus a short draft, and so on and so on. I always find it interesting to go back and think about how a poem came to be, but at the same time I am wary about assuming that my own private behaviors have anything much to do with "the place of the long poem in twenty-first-century literature." This is what I find impossible: to manufacture a statement of generality. Yet of course continuities exist, if only I knew what they were. In other words, I am looking forward to finding out how the other poets in the forum react to this assignment.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A quiet morning. The dog did not have an accident on the rug. No pipes came close to freezing. The electricity works perfectly, and the wood in the wood stove is dry enough to burn. The washing machine, though aged, is grumbling more or less adequately. No one sent me a rejection letter, nor does the car does possess a single flat tire. I am rereading Pale Fire, a repellent book I desperately admire. I do not have to drive two hundred miles in a snowstorm, grade any papers, dose a mean goat with vegetable oil, or talk to anyone at the phone company. I have plenty of fresh lettuce, some farmstead cheese, and a bottle of mead. I am not fretting about typos in my new anthology. My son spent the night at a friend's house. The old Mission, Impossible is an amusing show to watch while sitting under a couch blanket drinking Scotch with the man I love. Next time the sourdough bread will turn out better. I have a warm white coat with a furry hood. Two crows are perched at the zenith of a tamarack. I know that the word zenith is inappropriate in this context, but I have decided to use it anyway. Another bag of French roast lurks in the freezer. And now I am going to go downstairs and peel a tangerine.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Old General’s Equipage Trunk


Dawn Potter

It shields my tangled affairs:
2 leather Cases, 1 linen Valise,
alongside my Marquee, Sheets,
Quills, and Camp-chairs,

my Tent-poles and Pins, flasks
of Madeira and Cherry-bounce,
Oil, Mustard, Spices, an ounce
of Laudanum, a grand Damask

Table-cloth (tho’ not enough
whole Finger-wipes remain). Tea,
a Sugar-loaf, 2 Kegs of Whiskey,
Silver Cups and Spoons, Rough

Towels, a trifle of paid Rent,
Horse Blankets, Sheaves of Deeds,
a Telescope, 3 Missives yet to read
from that Rarity: a Sensible Tenant.

1 Survey-chain, 8 Cookery-Pans,
the vicious Slanders of a Citizen
evicted from my Denizens,
the drawing of a Tavern plan.

Map of this Road we broke
2 score and 10 strange Years ago—
Braddock’s last Memento.
Ah, my slipping Days. A Yoke

of Oxen, fat and slow, halts cheerfully to lie
in Meadows where I once thought to die.

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

Friday, January 4, 2013

Book gloom seeps in, and the miserable weather is not an aid.


For an hour I let that sentence stand alone as a post, but I have since decided that it is not only unpleasant but possibly even bratty and that all it does is try make you gloomy alongside me. And why should you be? Why should I be, for that matter? Still, I'm not going to erase it: the statement is, after all, a truth of sorts. So instead I'll qualify it.

Snowflakes are sifting slowly, slowly from the iron sky. 
I am writing down one word, then a second word, then a third, until the sentence ends. 
Hot water gushes from the faucet. At the window two chickadees briskly burrow into the silted feeder tray.
This is by no means a poem . . . simply, a narrowing. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Edna St. Vincent Millay

No matter what I say
All that I really love
Is the rain that flattens on the bay,
And the eel-grass in the cove;
The jingle-shells that lie and bleach
At the tide-line, and the trace
Of higher tides along the beach:
Nothing in this place.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I spent most of New Year's Day clearing Christmas out of my house--vacuuming, dusting, emptying cans, emptying cupboards, all in hopes of snagging today for myself.
Were today to go as imagined, I would be copying out poems (say, Hughes, Dickinson, Lawrence, Herbert, Millay, Shakespeare), reading Sybille Bedford's A Legacy, reading Nasaw's biography of Carnegie, musing over W. Eugene Smith's photographs of the Pittsburgh coke industry, mooning around the house and staring out the window, drinking another cup of tea, writing five words, writing six words, writing four words. . . .

But today is just as likely not to go as imagined because the goat, who is typically the queen of greed, has stopped eating. Yesterday morning I dosed her with vegetable oil to move along whatever ruminant blockage might exist (not a simple task with a strong, cranky goat who weighs more than I do), and by late afternoon she showed signs of improvement. But having not yet laid eyes on her today, I am steeled for bad news. C'est la vie with elderly livestock on cold, cold January dawns.

Goat update: I can't say she looks exactly overjoyed, but one might chalk that up to the zero-degree morning. She is, however, chewing her cud, and with ruminants that is always a promising sign. I'm thinking that my day has a chance of being almost as selfish as I'd imagined it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Today is the release date for A Poet's Sourcebook; and though as of 8 a.m. Amazon says that it's still not available, the publisher tells me he has mailed my copies, so indeed they do exist.

With three books already behind me, I am well aware of the postpartum depression that usually accompanies publication. So much work, so much anticipation seem to result in exactly nothing . . . which is of course a tremendous exaggeration, but that is depression's way. Still, this morning I don't feel too melancholy about the fate of my book, though simultaneously I am also not picturing accolades in the New York Times. Perhaps, by the the fourth child, one becomes sensible. Or perhaps melancholy remains crouched behind the curtain.

For the moment, however, I am going to continue to imagine that I have merely become sensible. If you are a teacher or a potential reviewer and would like a desk copy, please do contact Autumn House Press. If you have something to say about what you've read, perhaps you could write a little comment on the Amazon page or Goodreads or the like. Perhaps you could mention it on your blog, Facebook page, or listserv or otherwise share information about it with your friends or colleagues. I am also more than happy to talk to anyone about the process of creating the book. My hope is that this anthology will find a small corner of usefulness in the world, and I would deeply appreciate any help you can give it. That is as expansive as I dare allow myself to be this morning.