Sunday, March 31, 2013

A good, long, exhausting String Field Theory show last night; then home for a bottle of rioja with my sweetheart and an oddly entertaining conversation about nineteenth-century voting laws in England and the United States. Today I'm the only one awake so far: soon I'll get the hot-cross-bun dough out of the refrigerator, leave it on the counter to warm up, go feed the goat, and then come back in to cut pineapple, shape the buns, and arrange the eggs that Tom and Paul colored yesterday while I was out doing a sound check with the band. Dinner will be lasagna, spinach salad, and lemon pie. Already the sun is shining. I hung laundry on the line yesterday for the first time this season, and there it still waves--a spring greeting, along with the mud and the melting snow and the broken branches and the daffodil shoots and the air like wine. A graciousness, a gift--Zeus softens his heart; pale Persephone climbs up from the caverns into the sunlight; her mother beams and opens her arms. Spring is the myth that becomes the truth, year after year after year.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hey, String Field Theory is playing tonight at the Harmony Community Center. Doors open at 6:30. Dessert, coffee, a big crowd, a good cause, wonderful acoustics, and a band that's really, really happy to be playing together. I wish I had a better photo than one that makes me look fat, but you know how women are (she says coyly, full of ambiguous recognition that she is obnoxiously dilly-dallying with feminist ironies, plus I'm pushing 50 so why should I care, but then again, you could ask my mother the same question: she won't go to yoga because she doesn't like how she looks in her yoga pants). 

Sonnet 8

William Shakespeare

Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
    Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
    Sings this to thee: "thou single wilt prove none."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Yesterday afternoon the publisher and I came to an amicable agreement about the table of contents for The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet. Naturally I am overwhelmed by the scope of this burgeoning project, but I'm also very pleased with it and grateful to Mike for prodding me into making it so comprehensive. Here's the bare-bones outline as it stands (though I have not begun applying for reprint permission so things may change:

Part 1: Watching a Poet Make a Poem
This will include in-depth discussions of works by Shakespeare, Dickinson, Shelley, Hopkins, Amy Lowell, Robert Hayden, Joe Bolton, and John Donne. Each chapter will also feature five additional poems for study, from a broad range of time periods and in widely varying styles.

Part 2: Writing about a Poet and a Poem
This will focus on long poems by Blake, Milton, Coleridge, and Brigit Kelly.

Part 3: Meeting a Poem in Its Context
This will feature a chapbook-length selection of poems by a single poet followed by an interview with her. I'm not going to mention any names because I haven't asked her for permission yet.

Part 4: Talking about Poetry
This will reprint all of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, followed by transcriptions from the online readers' group I hosted on this blog several years. If you are one of those readers, I will be contacting you shortly for permission to use your comments.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

This poem, written by a woman who was born in 1830, is startling in its blunt erotic misery, its ambiguous coded language, its independence, its dependence, its religious resignation, its refusal to align itself with such automatic resignation, its strange and disturbing final line.


Christina Rossetti

I took my heart in my hand,
            (O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
            Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak—
            (O my love, O my love)—
Yet a woman’s words are weak;
            You should speak, not I.

You took my heart in your hand
            With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
            Then set it down,
And said: It is still unripe
            Better wait awhile;
Wait while the skylarks pipe,
            Till the corn grows brown.

As you set it down it broke—
            Broke, but did not wince;
I smiled at the speech you spoke,
            At your judgment that I heard:
But I have not often smiled
            Since then, nor questioned since,
Nor cared for corn-flowers wild,
            Nor sung with the singing bird.

I take my heart in my hand,
            O my God, O my God,
My broken heart in my hand:
            Thou hast seen, judge Thou.
My hope was written on sand,
            O my God, O my God:
Now let thy judgment stand—
            Yea, judge me now.

This contemned of a man,
            This marred one heedless day,
This heart take Thou to scan
            Both within and without:
Refine with fire its gold,
            Purge Thou its dross away—
Yea hold it in Thy hold,
            Whence none can pluck it out.

I take my heart in my hand—
            I shall not die, but live—
Before Thy face I stand;
            I, for Thou callest such:
All that I have I bring,
            All that I am I give;
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
            But shall not question much.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The publisher and I are still wrestling over the details of the new book I'm contracted to write for Autumn House Press--and I mean wrestling in the nicest possible way, though worries keep dogging me. Am I the person who ought to be writing this book? Do I even have the stamina? I know that everything will work out, but I'm feeling anxious.

Here's the general structural plan we've hammered out thus far, and I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on the matter.

Part 1, titled something along the lines of "Watching a Poet Make a Poem," will contain eight chapters, each of which discusses a specific poem in terms of a question (i.e., "What's the Most Important Sentence?"), suggests a writing activity, and includes five other poems for further study.

Part 2, titled something along the lines of "Talking with a Poet and a Poem," moves the reader toward ways of creating her own personal reader-response to poetry. It will include two chapters, each of which reprints a large, complex work (something from Blake maybe, something from Milton maybe) and a response essay. The third chapter will reprint yet another largish piece and then offers suggestions for ways in which a reader might approach her own response essay to the piece.

My thought here is that students and teachers of poetry need to do both: they need to write poems and they need to write about poems. What do you think?

P.S. I should add that I've decided to mix old and new poems throughout the book, thanks to your suggestions. I think it makes to sense to demonstrate a continuity of conversation, as you were arguing.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Finally, health seems have to returned to my household. The Infected One has returned to college and assures me he feels great. The Puking One ate a good breakfast and emoted about the Florida Gulf Coast basketball team before tromping down the driveway. In other promising news, daffodil shoots are poking through the snow, my onion seeds have sprouted, the dog has not yet become overwhelmingly muddy, I managed to edit another chapter of a for-hire manuscript and also make progress on my new book's table of contents, and String Field Theory is getting ready to play its first four-person show after almost nine months of hiatus.

We are a different band than we used to be . . . a sadder one, of course, having undergone the suffering and loss of a child. But while Craig was gone, I was forced to step into a more prominent singing and lead-playing role; and now that he's back, we've discovered that this has turned us into a more interesting and flexible ensemble. We sing much more confidently together; our harmonies are more complex; my fiddle playing is more relaxed but also more experimental. It feels really good to be playing music right now.

Monday, March 25, 2013

I had hopes that this week would return us to some kind of normality, but Saturday night Paul started throwing up, and today he is still too gastrointestinally challenged to go to school. Meanwhile, I am changing sheets and washing sheets and changing sheets and washing sheets. There is nothing more romantic than the life of a poet.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dear employers,

Before you decide that I am the wrong person for your job--so wrong that you can't even respond to my application, let alone grant me an interview--please consider this:

Spending eighteen years at home with two boys does not equal "has no experience." You might instead try thinking of it as "works easily and flexibly with students of all ages and levels." Or "responds quickly and efficiently to crisis." Or "accustomed to shifting schedules, tasks, and priorities to suit current needs." Or "skilled at facilitating compromise and juggling multiple demands." Or "arrives to work on time; is well organized; is patient and friendly; learns new things quickly; is an efficient decision maker."

You don't care to learn that I'm almost fifty years old? And why don't I hide the fact that I have loved being home with my children, my animals, and my land and that a change in our circumstances will make me sad? Surely this is evidence that I will be incompetent in the workplace. How could it be possible to imagine that an applicant's evident sadness is proof of a loving, attached heart? Could your workplace use a few more of those hearts? But of course that's the kind of information that doesn't really show up on a resume, does it? Unless, perhaps, you were to go back and rethink that "eighteen years at home with two boys" issue.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Dawn Potter

And on her mind is all the waste
and the waiting, and the pain
of wanting someone to listen
to the pain she can’t talk about, like how her lover
is a drunk, and how she is afraid
of time and of her mind
circling its mud-wrenched, idiot track.
And meanwhile a neighbor expires
in a strange bed, little birds
flutter in the bony lilacs,
            her lover slides another blank-faced bottle
                        under the torn seat of his pickup.
Wind blunders among the empty branches,
            raking their frail tips against a livid sky.
                        Another hour lost, she thinks, but hours later,
in the medicated dark, her mind
and what’s on her mind keep ticking, ticking,
stupidly ticking on.

[first published in Sou'wester (fall 2011); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Friday, March 22, 2013

I'm heading off to the Maine Council for English Language Arts annual convention today, where I'll be doing a presentation on the Frost Place dictation approach to teaching poetry. The drive will be longer than the event, but at least it's not snowing, it's not dark, and I'm not going to the hospital. Then I'm coming home to make west African-style falafel (black-eyed peas, fresh ginger, scallions), homemade pita, and a big avocado salad. No doubt I'll also listen to plenty of grousing from Son Number 2, whose NCAA bracket is highly pissed off at Harvard University's upstart basketball team this morning.

Last night, when I got back from band practice, James was sitting on the couch consuming a large bowl of ice cream and making rude personal comments about magazine ads--all of which fills me with joy and relief. We walked along the edge of a black chasm, but the fates saw fit to pull us back. I looked further down that abyss than I ever want to look again.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Well, here I am, back at my desk . . . overwhelmed, of course, which should be no surprise to anyone. I have band practice tonight, a workshop to teach tomorrow morning, a convalescent son to coddle, and a perfectly healthy son to prod; also, a book to write and a manuscript to edit and an absolutely filthy house to clean. Clearly Tom and Paul spent five days alone in the house without taking off their boots.

Meanwhile, as I sat around in James's hospital room for those five days, I received, count them, four rejection letters. You'd think these journals had colluded in figuring out just how obnoxious their timing could be. It was comical, in a squash-a-poet-into-a-trashcan kind of way. Anyway, I now have a whole bunch of western Pennsylvania poems available for submission and not one speck of energy to do any research into who might care to read them.

Tomorrow morning I teach a Frost poem to whatever teachers show up at my session at the annual Maine Council for English Language Arts convention. If one of those teachers is you, I promise to be sunnier than I'm feeling at the moment. One more complete night's sleep is sure to help.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Looks like we'll finally be heading home today. What a relief. Thanks to everyone for the good wishes you've shared. It's been a great comfort to know that so many people have been sending us so much support. Sometimes I picture myself as cranky old hermit with no friends, but I haven't felt like that at all this week. Much love to you all.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Last night's down-the-throat-with-a-scalpel procedure brought the boy to his lowest point yet. Despite the high-tech atmosphere of the hospital, the ordeal bore considerable resemblance to the scenes depicted on Puritan-era woodcuts of apothecaries at work. After a bad night, punctuated by morphine and misery, the doctor decided to put J under general anesthesia, remove the tonsils, and scrape the infection out of the throat walls. This, thank goodness, seems to have been the solution. J came out of surgery hungry, cheerful, and relieved. It looks as if we might manage to get discharged tomorrow, and then this blog can return to its regularly scheduled, non-medical-emergency programming.

Monday, March 18, 2013

We're still in the hospital, unfortunately. J's white-blood-cell count, which was very high, has come down slightly but doesn't warrant taking him off the IV antibiotics. Shortly he's headed off for another CAT scan of his throat so that the doctor can get a better idea of the status of the abscesses. Best-case scenario is that they will be ready to be lanced with a scalpel. So you can see that we are not overflowing with joyous anticipation. Nonetheless, J's wit remains sharp, though he's starting to fade into dull melancholy this afternoon. Being in the hospital is so tedious, yet it's also impossible to concentrate on getting anything else done. In theory, I should have been able to post this note to you this morning, have edited a chapter of manuscript, answered a lot of correspondence, and read a few hard books. In actuality I felt proud to have done an hour's worth of billable work, and the only book I've managed to read is P. G. Wodehouse. Then I sent a letter full of typos to the Frost Place faculty, went shopping at Rite-Aid, and longed forlornly for a hot shower.

I am sure we'll be spending at least another night here, probably two, which is just as well since Lewiston is forecast to get a foot of snow tonight.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

We're in somewhat of a family crisis here. My older son, on his way home for spring break, has ended up in the hospital instead. Since picking him up at the bus station on Friday evening, I've accompanied him through two ERs, an ambulance, and finally a third-floor double in Lewiston, where he's on massive IV doses of antibiotics for a severely abscessed throat. They won't discharge him until the medicine shows some signs of working, which, as of yesterday at noon, it hadn't. Late in the afternoon, Tom drove down to relieve me so that I could come home and take a shower and change out of my clothes and sleep, which I hadn't done for more or less 24 hours. And when I arrived, bleary and shellshocked, the 9th-grader poured out a glass of wine, put me on the couch under a blanket, decided I should watch some college basketball, and presented me with a lovely macaroni dinner. He also did the dishes.

We're hoping that J can be discharged today, but either the abscesses need to show signs of coming to a head (so that the doctor can lance them) or shrinking away. This is not just what we'd all planned for spring break but at least we're getting spend some time with him. . . .

Friday, March 15, 2013

Today I'm taking a break from editing to return to my new Autumn House Press project, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, a working title I used to distrust but that I'm now actually beginning to like. Over the past couple of weeks, I've shared some excerpts from my template chapter, which matches up Shakespeare's Sonnet 81 with word; and now I'm mulling over other connections. So far I've more or less finalized these pairings: Shelley with stanza, Brigit Pegeen Kelly with line, Hopkins with punctuation. But I've still got many, many other poetic elements to juggle and can only choose a few a conversation starters: image, of course, and sound; possibly metaphor, possibly detail. You can see that all of these elements mingle and overlap: a detail is an image is a metaphor is a sound. But each can be a useful opening gambit in a conversation about a poem.

While I'm thinking about the subject, I want to pass on a link to poet and teacher Bruce Guernsey's anthology Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching, which has just been released. In the introduction he describes his approach, which he honed while editing the feature "Poets on Teaching" for Spoon River Poetry Review:
My plan was to ask the many fine poet/teachers I know across the country to contribute an essay per biannual issue. The requirements were simple: a practical assignment that had been class-tested to work, one that another poet/teacher could take directly to class and use. No jargon, no theory--just a straightforward exercise of about a thousand words.
The twenty essays in Mapping the Line follow this simple, efficacious pattern. The authors include Claudia Emerson, Betsy Sholl, David Baker, and many other well-known and not-so-well-known poets, and the book could function, as Guernsey points out, as "the basis of a whole semester's work" or be equally useful for those "who have been writing on their own or have been wanting to."

I'm glad to come across such a clear and usable anthology that is also so different from the book I am working out in my head. I am always thrilled to discover new ways to approach the teaching of poetry; that's why I love the participants' presentations at the Frost Place, which, like the essays in Bruce's book, are both practical and personal. It is also wonderful to be reassured that the jargon of poetics is unnecessary and obtrusive, that shrieking Schools of Thought have nothing to do with the private task of learning to place one word after another after another, that sarcasm and cynicism and belittlement are walls, not windows.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Historian’s Wife Describes the Appalachian Plateau


Dawn Potter

Imagine a massive dining-room table
spread with a damask cloth whose starched
folds are difficult to climb. Once this table-
land was ironed smooth. Then up lurched

Chestnut Ridge, unruly as a soup stain
or a badly darned tear. In those days the sea
came and went, and came and went. When
the waters left, the table was the property

of trees and humid swamps and ferns as grand
as modern man though now he rules supreme.
Then the sea rushed back, and with it sand;
and again the waves fell back, again they streamed,

spoiling the ferns, rotting the trees and their fruit.
Meanwhile, time applied her bitter tinctures;
the careless sea swept in her dustpans of silt.
It was a vast tedium that contrived our future.

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Writing in Form

Yesterday I turned in a review of a book-length poem written entirely in terza rima--a remarkable endeavor, given our free-verse world, yet not without its problems. Please understand: I love formal poetry. I read a great deal of it, and I write it myself. But form opens a poet to all sorts of hazards, not least a superficial glissade into cynical doggerel. (I can think of at least one person who calls himself a critic and defender of form, a man who declares to anyone who will listen that any poem not written in form is automatically prose but whose own exemplars make Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics look like Wordsworth--not to mention that his lines don't scan.) The book I reviewed was a thousand times better than such tripe. It was a serious and ambitious narrative that demonstrated considerable skill and resolve. Yet it stumbled, in part because the rhyme scheme became the primary driver of the lines.

Here's a bit from the first draft of my in-progress book Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet. In the manuscript it follows my chatter about Shakespeare's Sonnet 81:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die;
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie;
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
            You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
            Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Sonnets can be dangerous writing prompts because they tend to lure poets into rhyme-scheme obsession. Those fourteen come-hither line endings often become so distracting that the poet allows the rest of her draft to fade into undifferentiated filler. Yes, a sonnet is a poem that follows a predictable pattern of rhymes; but as a glance at Sonnet 81’s two sentences will remind you, that pattern is not the principal propulsion of the poem. Sonnets should be active dramas, moving both the writer and the reader from one state of mind to another. By starting with rhyme rather than content, you risk a mire.
            So I suggest you take the opposite tack. Concentrate on the first words. To get yourself started, you might even borrow Shakespeare’s first words in Sonnet 81:

Now that I’ve erased the rest of Shakespeare’s sonnet, his first words stand out as remarkably colorless . . . at least connotatively. With the exception of the bland personal pronouns your, your, and you and a single article, the, all of the words function as sentence drivers. Or what? Although what? From where? Where to? Every one of them requires a writer to push herself to choose a next word.
When I’m teaching a class, I sometimes throw out a poem’s opening words as prompts. “The first word is Or!” I shout, and the students write feverishly. “Next line,” I shout. “The first word is Or!” I don’t give them time to analyze but push them to write quickly. The results of these rapid first drafts are always varied, but they are consistently active and dramatic, making full use of the propulsive sentence logic that fluent English speakers internalize over the course of their lives. The bland opening words force the students to keep moving down the page, yet each writer retains control of her subject matter. Simply she’s responding to an arrangement of grammatical sign posts.
If you’re working alone on a poem, press yourself to write a fast first draft using each of these words as a line prompt. Don’t slow down and start fiddling with end rhymes. If you decide to add them, you can figure them out later; and at that point, if you find that you need to replace some or all of the opening words, you’ll already have an active, muscular draft in hand. Conversely, if you discover that what you need to write requires more or less than fourteen lines, you now have a flexible framework that you can expand or contract as you revise.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

J Journal: New Writing on Justice will be publishing my latest long poem. This one is from the western Pennsylvania series and is titled "The Testimony of Various Witnesses" [1859]. The subject is a murder trial; and the poem, which arose from an actual case in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, blends the remarks of various unreliable, disputatious, racist, clueless, and secretive trial witnesses for both the prosecution and defense. The murdered man is white, the defendants are black, and yet in the actual trial transcript, it gradually becomes clear that the white judge, lawyers, and jurors are dealing with a brutal, low-life jerk who has been harassing a group of responsible businessmen who just happen to be black and that the white witnesses are conflicted, confused, and at times even honest about this situation. I wanted my poem (rather like the previous sentence) to jumble together these confusions while also revealing character and time. I also wanted to retain a degree of ambiguity; for, after reading the actual transcript, I'm still not sure who killed the dead man. Some of the defendants were found not guilty; others received relatively lenient sentences. That in itself seems remarkable. This, after all, was the era of Bloody Kansas.

I'd already been planning to read this poem at the Frost Place this summer. I always like to read rough new work there--stuff I can't yet read anywhere else. Last year, participants got a draft of "Mr. Kowalski"; this year you'll get an unsavory, tragicomic, mysterious slice of the 1859 judicial system. "He do the police in different voices," as Dickens would say.

Monday, March 11, 2013

After a considerable dry spell, I am back to academic manuscript editing this morning. This is not a bad thing: in truth, I'm tired of thinking for myself. I know that sounds awful, but I do believe that stepping back is a necessary refreshment, even though I am awash with guilt nonetheless. Manuscript editing is a bit like playing scales, whereas writing is like composing the symphony. And sometimes you just need to go back to that muscle memory--active versus passive constructions, capitalization and spelling consistency, the conventions of comma use. I also have a book review to write this week, which is weighing on my conscience. And I also have a sick kid at home, who is sick partly because he is recovering from a traumatic weekend in which a set of judges decided that, instead of using the drama competition critiques as teaching moments, they would use them as Simon Cowell "you suck and your stage sets are as ugly as sin" moments. If you're a teacher reading these words, I know you are right now closing your eyes and taking a deep breath and trying to keep your blood pressure under control. My child came home absolutely incoherent with rage and distress--not because his play had lost but because he and his cast members and, most importantly to him, his director, had been publicly humiliated for taking innocent pride in their work. No, this play did not deserve to win a regional championship. Yes, the participants deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. However, they were treated like insects. What kind of blind, self-inflated "judge" decides that crushing eager fourteen year olds is a good idea? News flash, grown-ups: do not bludgeon children with your skewed reality-TV fantasies. Your accomplishment? You convinced the cast that they will never, ever, ever attempt to perform in a one-act competition again. There's nothing like destroying the very event you were hired to promote.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

from Psychology for Living by Drs. Herbert Sorenson and Marguerite Malm (1964)

The ill effects of excessive daydreaming are many:

* It causes you to live in a counterfeit world in which you get nothing of real value.

* It makes the actual world seem so dull that you have no interest in it.

* It makes getting back to reality harder than ever.


The Groups of Occupations

The Professions

Examples: Engineers, scientists, teachers, nurses, accountants, physicians and surgeons, lawyers, clergymen, editors and reporters, foresters, pharmacists, etc.

Requirements: Superior intelligence, many years of education.

The Semiprofessions

Examples: Medical technicians, draftsmen, photographers, embalmers, designers, surveyors, radio operators, entertainers, airplane pilots, athletes, etc.

Requirements: Above average intelligence; often four years of college.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lines Written in Solitude, after Chaos

"Eleven thousand introverts milling around" is how one of my publishers described the convention to me, which is more or less accurate. There was a person dressed up as a Roman centurion, for no reason that I could perceive. There were tattooed young women with artfully ripped stockings. There was a pathetic young man dressed in a full suit, clearly in town to interview for a job he would not get.  There was a middle-aged man whose hair was dyed to match his tie. There was an earnest grad student who told me she was majoring in "whiteness studies." There was a large TV screen message sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, quoting a black poet who declared, "Never write about being white." There was me, being offended. There were journal editors disguised as carnies: "Hey, you! You like poems? Come here, read this poem! Hey, you!" There were journal editors who had no recollection of ever publishing my work. There were sweet people who shouted at me through the crowd: "Dawn, Dawn, Dawn!" There was excessive fluorescent lighting and ridiculous lines at the elevators and comic repartee among people who had never seen one another before. There were people hitting me up for a job, if you can believe that. There was a whole lot of snow. There was riding on the Green Line after dark, alone and pleased to be so. There were handsome young men at a mostly empty, red-lit Lebanese restaurant. There was dinner chatter about "famous men with whom I have had dalliances." There was me, learning new things, because I have never had any dalliances with famous men. There were embraces that were real. There were embraces that were odd. There were people I recognized but was suddenly driven to hide from. There was the balky and no doubt self-defeating determination not to attend any event that involved adulation. There was the discovery that I seem to know a lot of men named Bruce. There was palpable envy and desperation. There were moments of calm and good cheer. There was too much free candy. There were convention center employees, standing around in their cheerless uniforms, keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

I'm leaving today for AWP, and I am full of a dread composed of many parts, though bad weather, networking chatter, arrogant writer posturing, and claustrophobia are its primary components. It's not necessary to remind me that I'm being foolish and short-sighted about the networking, or that I'll be spending time with non-arrogant writers whose company I enjoy immensely, or that the claustrophobia will be manageable once I find said friends, or that a snow forecast of 2 to 4 inches in a winter-ready city that knows how to clear streets is not likely to be more than a minor annoyance. The dread hangs like a over my head like a big, flapping, wet hen.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Beloit Poetry Journal's Poet's Forum

As I mentioned a month or so ago, the editors of the Beloit Poetry Journal invited all of the poets featured in the current "long poem" issue to take part in an online forum about the place of the long poem in their own lives and in the larger world of poetry. Our various remarks now appear on the BPJ blog, and you might be interested in noting the similarities and differences among them. I've been anxious to read what my fellow long-poemers have to say; and though I feel that, compared to some, I come across as a hysterical adolescent, I also think we share certain continuities associated with time, synthesis of material, narrative structure, and literary influence. This forum is a good chance for you to step into the conversation, and I hope you do. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Blank Sheet of Paper

Writing of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Jorge Luis Borges said, “I know for a fact that we feel the beauty of a poem before we even begin to think of the meaning.” This beauty exists because the poet, “under the command of his own will” (to recall Coleridge’s Napoleonic phrasing), chose specific words to frame and articulate it. He didn’t sprawl on the grassy riverbank and say to himself, “I’m going to write a sonnet that means sadness or loss or desire.” Those abstract meanings are revealed only by way of a reader’s interactions with the solid materials of the sonnet.
For a reader, a question such as “What’s the most important word?” narrows the focus while broadening the possibilities for discovery. There’s no single correct answer; and in fact, the more answers you come up with, the more intensely you’re participating in the life of the poem. As a classroom discussion starter, this question and others like it are prime ways to light an intellectual firestorm among your students: one person’s chosen word links to another person’s chosen word, a third person begins explaining why, a fourth person disagrees, and the room becomes charged with the excitement that arises when curious, concentrated people overflow with opinions and ideas.
            If you’re a reader alone with a poem, a structured yet open question such as “What’s the most important word?” can help you sidestep distraction and develop your own conscious connections to details of a poem. But it can also help you relax. Too often, especially when faced with a canonical bigwig such as Shakespeare, our instinct is to hunch up in a corner like some sort of lesser being. Yet one day, several centuries ago, he was no better off than we are at this moment. He was faced with a blank sheet of paper. He knew he wanted to write something, but where were the words? He snatched the word Or out of the air. And so he began. By coming face to face with those bare words he chose, we become, in a way, his peer and his partner. We begin to understand what it felt like to be Shakespeare writing a poem.

[from a draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Sunday, March 3, 2013

My feeling is that yesterday's essay workshop went well. As always, I get so much plain happiness from listening to a circle of strangers discover that they can learn to talk to each other about a work of literature. My heart lifts is the silly way to explain it.

Anyway, this will be a tiny post because my Internet connection keeps fainting. Perhaps I will try to write more later.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"More folly has been written about the sonnets than about any other Shakespearean topic" was the judicious estimate of E. K. Chambers in 1930; there seems to be little reason to modify the statement now. 
--from Hallett Smith's introduction to the sonnets in The Riverside Shakespeare (1974)
News flash: Guess what? It's daunting to be a regular person who's trying write a book chapter about a Shakespeare sonnet. Why is it daunting? Well, because Shakespeare is a mountain. But that's okay: that's the challenge and the vision. The real problem is people like these snotty, patronizing English professors. Can't they find anything better to do than to frighten readers away from their own thoughts?

Friday, March 1, 2013

I'm feeling drained this morning, writing-wise. I've spent the week poring over Shakespeare's Sonnet 81 and have drafted a dozen pages about possible avenues for reading and responding to it. Simultaneously I've been rereading the essays I'll be focusing on in tomorrow afternoon's workshop. Between times I've been engaged with Rick Mullin's book-length poem, Soutine, which the editors of New Walk have asked me to review. I want to go back to that Marie de France scrap I posted here in February, which I have thoughts of expanding into a larger essay that might also talk about Phillis Wheatley and Jan Kochanowski. I have thoughts of dipping back into the western Pennsylvania poems that have so engaged me this winter. But how will I ever find the space? Spring is coming, which means digging and planting. I'll start working part time as a baker for a new cafe that one of my band members is opening. Next week I venture to Boston, country-mouse fashion, to sign books for Autumn House Press at AWP. Later in the month I teach a workshop for the Maine Council of English Language Arts. I play our first String Field Theory reunion show. April's readings are starting to accrue. The grass will grow, and the Frost Place looms. And meanwhile I apply for jobs and apply for jobs and apply for jobs, and nobody gives me the time of day--not a "we've received your application," not a "thank you for applying," nothing. [I admit that nobody is an exaggeration. Just yesterday I received an actual "thank you for interviewing" for a job that I hadn't interviewed for. It seems that the world of real employment is even more arcane than the world of literary magazines.]