Monday, September 30, 2013

Regretfully, as always, I closed volume 2 of Bleak House and slid the book back onto the shelf. Every time I finish reading a Dickens novel, I am sad all over again. How long will I have to wait till I can open it up again?

For a few hours, I fidgeted a bit, uncomfortably bookless but unwilling to replace Dickens with anything else in my imagination. Then I remembered Tom Rayfiel's new novel, In Pinelightwhich arrived in last week's mail. Tom and I have met maybe twice, but we have been sporadic epistolary acquaintances for several years. I think our reading patterns are an interesting intersection. He reads poetry but doesn't write it. I read novels but don't write them. We overlap in our predilection for writing unfashionable personal essays about unfashionable literary figures.

I already knew that Tom is a masterful manager of the sentence. But having been so accustomed to the elegant syntax of, say, his essay on Ivy Compton-Burnett, I was completely unprepared for the way in which this novel reconfigures the idea of a sentence. The entire book is narrated through the voice of an elderly man responding to questions that the reader never hears. Here's how it opens:
Mean as ever that's what he used to say about her but who are you? You say I know you well I know a lot of people or did. They're all gone now most of them. You must have been a kid when I saw you last I guess you're all grown up now but grown up from what from who I mean? Where's Rebecca? Rebecca my? No she's not here she left years ago how do you know about? Yes when Mother died he expected her Father he expected Rebecca to take her place to run the household. Five years older than me but Mother dying made her practically a grown-up in his eyes. That's what she objected to all the drudgery. Of course at the time I didn't realize anything no not consciously. I just remember the fights. Once she even threw a plate. He hit her I remember that it stops the conversation that sound. There's this rise of voices back and forth faster and faster you try turning away from it under the covers that's where I was under the covers we shared a bed he and I after Mother died I was too old to be in the same room with Rebecca anymore they go back and forth the voices when it's a fight it's like they intertwine finish each other's sentence but not the way the other one wants the sentence finished. Then there was this meaty sound and. I pretended to be asleep.
When I first read this passage, I was overwhelmed by the power of the punctuation. Look at that sentence "There was this meaty sound and." The period is like a kick in the gut. But now that I've copied out these sentences, I'm equally overwhelmed by the plot control. Time, for instance--follow the time leaps in this passage. I'm switched back and forth, back and forth, trapped like a rattling pebble inside a man's selective memories. Moreover, I already suspect he's not only doddery but purposefully unreliable. Something significant is going on, something dramatic, something hidden but relished, something terrible. And Tom makes all of this happen on page 1, simply by carefully managing sentence style and syntax. Simply, I say. What I really mean is that there's nothing simple about it.

As I said, I'm not very far into the book yet, only up to page 16, but I can tell you that the suspense just gets more intense. It's a melodrama, I think, manipulated entirely within this single speaker's voice. Maybe I'll turn out to be wrong about the melodrama part. Maybe my recent session with Dickens has made everything seem big and arm-waving. I hope not, though, because I'd love to find out that a contemporary writer can reinvent that glorious, rouged, boot-stomping stage presence without resorting to hack romance or simple-minded spy thriller. This book reminds me, in a way, of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, another disguised melodrama. I'm very excited to be reading it.

P.S. Frost Place teachers: Wouldn't it be fun to use this passage in a dictation exercise? Your students would be beside themselves.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

from "Afterword: A Few Thoughts about Publication"

Dawn Potter

“The line of words fingers your own heart,” writes Annie Dillard. “It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath.”

But when I reach the end of a draft, suddenly the aloneness of writing becomes intolerable. Someone, somewhere, must need my poem. Where can I send it? I don’t have a moment to waste! I’ve moved from concentrating on the poem to drifting into the daydream that Natalia Ginzburg describes so well:

I used to think that one day some famous poet would discover [my poems] and have them published and write long articles about me; I imagined the words and phrases of those articles and I composed them from beginning to end, in my head. I imagined that I would win the Fracchia prize. I had heard that there was such a prize for writers. As I was unable to publish my poems in a book, since I didn’t know any famous poets, I copied them neatly into an exercise book and drew a little flower on the title page and made an index and everything.

Ginzburg’s words capture the goofy sweetness of a writer’s hopes. They remind me of my own silly dreams, not to mention the sheaves of bad poetry I’ve written over the course of my life. Still, I believe it’s important to cherish ambition in its innocence, not only in our students and friends but in ourselves. Even Milton, that canonical heavyweight, once whispered, “Listen, . . . but in secret, lest I blush; and let me talk to you grandiloquently for a while. You ask what I am thinking of? So help me God, an immortality of fame. What am I doing? Growing my wings and practicing flight. But my Pegasus still raises himself on very tender wings.”

Writers yearn for readers. They are the other half of the conversation, the one we idealize in our minds as we struggle with the unwieldy materials of our art. It’s natural and right to feel this way. Our ongoing imaginary conversations not only help us frame and dramatize our thoughts, but they also remind us of the heavy moral obligations of speech. Nonetheless, you’ve no doubt read plenty of interviews in which some famous writer snarls her version of “publication is a soul-sucking waste.” Cynically, you note that this particular writer has published stacks of books and shows no signs of abandoning ship. Yet it’s hard to forget her words, for they seem to deride your own dreams.

Ginzburg reminds us that there are reasons to sympathize with the predicament of writers who have succeeded in making their art the center of their lives:
As a vocation [writing] is no joke. . . . We are constantly threatened with dangers whenever we write a page. . . . The days and houses of our life, the days and houses of the people with whom we are involved, books and images and thoughts and conversations—all these things feed it, and it grows within us. It is a vocation which also feeds on terrible things, it swallows the best and worst in our lives and our evil feelings flow in its blood just as much as our benevolent feelings.
Commitment to a vocation changes an artist. Suddenly the daydreams that sustained her as an apprentice retreat into the shadows. As she becomes more entangled in her art, she often becomes less able to endure the business side of writing: submissions, self-promotion, interviews. If she is earning enough money from her work, she can hire a publicist or an agent to help manage that rift. But this is rarely the case with poets, most of whom earn almost nothing from their books. A cranky, dismissive writer may in truth be desperately overwhelmed by the dangers of her art.

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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

I'm off to Rockland today with a sheaf of judged poems for the Maine Poets Society quatrain contest. Although I'm the featured "formal poetry judge" (as opposed to my counterpart, the featured "free verse judge"), the coordinator and I decided to leave the contest rules vague. I was interested to see what people would come up with as they worked with the idea of a quatrain. Would I get a lot of exact meter and rhyme? Would I get very little of either? The result was an interesting mixture of both. And now I have to go chatter to the poets about famous quatrains I have read, quatrains I have tried to write myself, and the quatrains I discovered in their own poems.

And it is a beautiful bright-blue day for a long drive to the coast.

And my car no longer makes terrible brake noises.

And the Red Sox clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs.

And Paul spent the evening learning how to play "Knocking on Heaven's Door" on the piano.

And Ruckus the Kat has not bitten me for 24 hours.

And I have almost finished reading Bleak House for the thousandth time and still love it dearly.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Suddenly I find myself only a few steps away from finishing the first draft of The Conversation. I can't imagine how I managed to write it.

This always happens to me: I look back at a book I've finished, and the process of making it feels like a hallucination.

Yesterday I wrote the afterword, revised the introduction, created a title page and a dedication page. Today I will work on the acknowledgments, and right now I want you to know that my primary thanks will go to my friend Carlene, who has proofread every single chapter: tracking down my typos, shortening my sentences, tightening my explanations, and pointing out my foolishness--all while continuing to teach high school English classes and write her own graduate-level papers. Quick, efficient, kind, exact, and ruthless: what a gift she has been, not least because she has put so many of the book's ideas into practice in her classroom. She is the sort of teacher that students remember forever: brisk and sensible but also demanding, freeing, and intensely curious. She loves her subject, she loves her students, and she is at peace in a classroom. I am immensely grateful to have had such a colleague.

I met Carlene at The Frost Place, where I've also met many of you who visit this blog. My association with those few acres of rocky New Hampshire hillside has changed my life as a poet, a teacher, and a human being. So when I wrote yesterday's dedication, this was what I found myself having to say:

To the teachers and the poets of The Frost Place

This is a fire I caught from the earth.
--Robert Frost

Thank you, all of you, for the fire.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

This passage is an exact description of the trouble I underwent in my twenties, when I was trying so hard to be a fiction writer.

from "My Vocation" by Natalia Ginzburg

Writing poetry was easy. I was very pleased with my poems, to me they seemed almost perfect. I could not see what difference there was between them and real, published poems by real poets. I could not see why when I gave them to my brothers to read they laughed and said I would have done better to study Greek. I thought that perhaps my brothers didn't know that much about poetry. . . . I was not happy, I was always extremely afraid and filled with feelings of guilt and confusion. . . . For quite a while I thought it was all worth it because my poems were so beautiful, but at a certain moment I began to think that perhaps they were not so beautiful and it became tedious for me to write them and take the trouble to find subjects; it seemed to me that I had already dealt with every possible subject, and used all the possible words and rhymes. . . . I couldn't find anything else to say. Then a very nasty period began for me, and I spent the afternoons playing about with words that no longer gave me any pleasure. . . . It never occurred to me that I had mistaken my vocation--I wanted to write as much as ever, it was just that I could not understand why my days had suddenly become so barren and empty of words.

[translated from the Italian by Dick Davis]

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Litany for J

Dawn Potter

We planned to be old ladies together,
smirking for the camera, cuddled
side by side on a squeaky porch swing,
Alice-and-Gertrude style, modeling

our garden-party housedresses, our pin-
curled hairdos, our rhinestone scuffs.
We planned to marry handsome, good,
educated men capable of fixing broken

lawnmowers and discussing the emotional
weight of syntax, men who would grant us
children, freedom, respect, plus
grope us under tables at fancy parties.

We planned to be artists, driven and holy,
greatness flickering in our gut; we meant
to write, speak, sing like angels on moonshine—
like fire, like sin. We planned to prop

and admire, bitch and complain, exaggerate,
gush, tease, and fast-talk, drop literary allusions
like hot tamales, split a bottle of red wine
every night, and whisper rude personal

comments about strangers. We planned
to drink tea at the Plaza, stroll arm in arm
through Central Park, and be accosted
by elderly Armenians in shorts.

We planned to cure cancer through prayer,
dip our irreligious fingers in every holy-water
font in Rome, wear flowered skirts and picture-
frame hats, dissect heartbreak and age, worship

Caravaggio, lose weight, eat fresh tomatoes,
sprawl in the grass, compose sonnets, sing
novelty songs, and wear stiletto heels,
and it took us twenty years, but we crossed

almost everything off our list, yes, we did,
even if our attainments were admittedly half-
assed and fraught with unexpected chickens
flapping home to roost. So who’s to say

we won’t be sipping a couple of tall g-and-ts
on that swing—you and me, two blue-haired
old ladies, clinking ice cubes, spouting Chaucer,
craving another sack of ripple chips,

whistling Dixie at the fat white moon?
Can’t you picture us, large as life
and twice as big? Freshen that lipstick,
darling, brush those chip crumbs off your lap.

Cheek to cheek, now; and blow a kiss to the lens.
This snapshot, it’s bound to last forever.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Voices from a Conversation

Dawn Potter

Gretel Ehrlich writes, “A writer makes a pact with loneliness. It is her, or his, beach on which waves of desire, wild mind, speculation break. In my work, in my life, I am always moving toward and away from aloneness. To write is to refuse to cover up the rawness of being alive, of facing death.” Within that aloneness comes, now and again, the grace of a conversation—with a poem, with a forest, with a circle of readers, with another burning, lonely mind.

For Robert Frost, that conversation happened with poet Edward Thomas, whom he met in England in about 1913. After Thomas was killed in the war, Frost said, “[he] was the only brother I ever had. I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life. I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He told Thomas’s wife, “He is all yours. But you must let me cry as if he were almost all mine too.”

I met my friend Jilline Ringle in the mid-1980s, when we were eighteen-year-old college students. She was an aspiring actor, I was an aspiring writer, and we began a burning conversation that lasted until her death in 2005. We wrote to each other when we were callow, hopeful, untrained girls. We wrote to each other when we began to achieve our first tiny successes. We wrote to each other at moments of misery and epiphany. Today she has been dead for nearly a decade, yet our conversation continues, as Frost’s conversation with Thomas continued for the rest of Frost’s long life.

In 1999, when I was overwhelmed by babies and solitude and the struggle to make poems, Jilline sent me a letter:

“I love, I love, she cries into the gust.” 
That is our mantra, yours and mine, each for our own reasons, each for our own sanity. This is why we have each other. There is a talismanic charm . . . that we cling to in order to return ourselves to this earth. Keep figuring it out, honey; I will be flat and frank with you if you will as well with me. If it is impossible for us to hold each other’s hands, we will charge each other’s minds telepathically, ethereally, and hopefully we will help turn on some lights in those dark corners.
With love, your lantern bearer.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Poached Pears with Pear Ice Cream

According to Paul, this may be the most delicious dessert I have ever invented. He was delirious was joy. The idea came to me after poaching pears and being left with close to a quart of aromatic syrup. My first experiment was to make pear granita with the syrup, which was also lovely. (Simply pour the quart of cold syrup into a 9 x 13" dish, stick it into your freezer, and stir it frequently until it the texture becomes slushy and opaque.) Yesterday I went a step further and used a bit of the syrup as a base for French-style still-frozen ice cream. I still have most of a quart of syrup left, so we'll have granita again later in the week.

Poached Pears

6 pears, at any stage of ripeness except squishy
5 cups water
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole star anise
2 whole cloves
1 1-inch chunk fresh ginger

Peel pears with a vegetable peeler or a small sharp knife, leaving stems on. With a melon baller, cut out the blossom end and dig out the core.

Combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower the pears into the syrup, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook till the pears are tender (10-30 minutes, depending on ripeness). Turn the pears every few minutes as they cook.

Let them cool in the syrup. Then lift them out with a slotted spoon. Strain the syrup. Refrigerate in separate containers until needed.

Pear Ice Cream

6 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup strained pear syrup

1 1/2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Using a heavy-duty stand mixer and a whip attachment, combine the egg whites, salt, cream of tartar, and vanilla. Starting slowly and gradually increasing the mixer speed to high, beat eat the whites until they are stiff. Let rest in the bowl for a few minutes.

Pour the pear syrup into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Over high heat, bring it to a boil. When large, thick bubbles appear (in 2-3 minutes), pour the syrup into a heat-safe measuring cup.

Immediately turn the mixer speed to medium and begin beating the egg-white mixture again. As the mixer runs, slowly pour a stream of hot syrup into the eggs. The hot syrup will cook the eggs, and they will become smooth and glossy. (This is a version of meringue italienne.) Once you have finished pouring in the syrup, continue beating for another 5 minutes or so to cool the egg whites. Let rest.

Using a clean mixer bowl and whip, combine the whipping cream, sugar, and vanilla. Beat at medium-high speed until the whip leaves light marks on the cream.

With a rubber spatula, delicately fold the cream into the meringue. Cover and freeze for at least 4 hours.

For each serving, place two scoops of ice cream into a dessert bowl. Arrange a poached pear on top of the ice cream. Grate a bit of semisweet chocolate over each pear.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Torrential rains, and a warm wind. It feels like hurricane weather without the fear. I slept till 7:30, which is ridiculously late for me, and I am still tired, though not in a bad way. Playing in a bar is exhausting: so loud, so full of rambunctious beer drinkers and guys who mistake me for someone younger and wink at me, but also everyone dances and claps and people play the spoons and pound their glasses on the tables and sing along, which of course is delightful.

Today will be a different sort of day: quiet, scattered with bread baking and pie baking and dusting and stove blacking and a Dickens novel and afternoon baseball on the radio. And spent with Keats also because again, and yet again, autumn murmurs its wistful song:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
            Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
            And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
            Among the river sallows, borne aloft
                        Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
            Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
            The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
                        And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

My band is playing tonight at Pat's Pizza in Dover-Foxcroft, 8-11 p.m. Apparently it's an Oktoberfest party. Notice that the calendar still says September, but I guess Pat's wanted to get a jump on everyone else's Oktoberfest celebrations.

I feel exhausted from regular worries and jumpy uncomfortable dreams, which seem to have intermingled so that this morning I'm not sure which is which. When I woke up, Ruckus the cat was sitting on my chest, and all I could remember about the dreaming was that my son had become a Mormon missionary and I'd gotten stuck in a highway traffic jam composed of power-walking middle-aged women; and both of these dream memories felt bad . . . like fruit-fly bad: overripe and rotting.

Then I got up and read a poem that a college friend had emailed me, with these lines--
as when
they lay
against each other,
kittens in a box
of sunlight
 --and now it's as if my thoughts have been taken over by that image of the kittens and the sunlight, and though the poem itself is tragic, about a dead daughter, that picture lingers as if it is my own memory, not hers. And I think again: that this is what poetry does--without warning, at moments when one feels overcome by evil or dismay, or as if one is complicit in evil or dismay, or is snarled in briars, or is at the mercy of one's own subconscious brain.

It arrives, in its plain small lines. Kittens in a box / of sunlight.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Reprint permission: "Winter's Tale" reading group

Presently I am drafting the final chapter of The Conversation, which reprints Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in its entirety. And I hope those of you who were involved in our 2010 reading-group project are pricking up your ears because this post is for you. I would like to quote some of your comments and reactions to the play, but I need your written permission to do so. If you are willing, please send me a quick email, which I'll print out for the publisher's files. Feel free to use the contact form in the sidebar if you prefer.

Because a couple of our readers were very young, my plan is to use first names, not to identify you fully. If you'd prefer to be pseudonymous or nameless, let me know.

I'd be happy to send you a draft of the chapter, once it's written, so that you can make sure I've quoted you accurately. And of course you'll receive a complimentary copy of the published book.

P.S. I don't care if you didn't finish the play. I still want the world to hear what you had to say.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Labor Relations (1891)

Dawn Potter

The road is muddy, but the night is dry.
Italian, single: shot in the eye.

"We'll meet at the store," the rioters said.
Hungarian, single: shot in the head.

Snowmelt has swollen the poisonous crick.
Hungarian, single: shot in the neck.

The deputies' lanterns burn orange and red.
Polish, five children: beaten till dead.

"Pinkertons!" "Fistfights!" "Evictions!" "Unrest!"
Hungarian, single: shot through the breast.

[from a manuscript in progress: Chestnut Hill, a verse history of southwestern Pennsylvania]

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

As always when I post the sort of thing I posted yesterday, I am full of regret afterward. Of course I am supremely grateful for your tonic words, both here and in private notes, but I feel I ought to have been indifferent to this rejection, or at least have had enough gumption to hold my tongue. Call it my internal war between Puritan and Romantic, silence versus volubility, whatever you like.

Much of my shock arose, as Maureen pointed out, from the bizarre three-year gap between submission and response. I told a friend yesterday that reading that letter felt like being hit by a Bugs Bunny slow pitch. I wasn't armed for it.

I haven't decided whether or not I should respond to the publisher or just let the issue die. For the moment I lean toward letting it die.

Anyway, onward. I'll never learn to write in any more salable way, so I might as well keep doing what I'm doing. It's either that or do nothing, which doesn't seem to be one of my character traits.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rejection Letter

I'm sure you've forgotten the saga of my unpublishable manuscript, The Vagabond's Bookshelf: Essays on Rereading. But the saga continues. Yesterday, in response to a 2010 submission, I received the following letter from a very well known independent publisher:
I very much appreciate you sending me the manuscript. I apologize that it's taken an unconscionably long time to get back to you, but everyone here really wanted to give this manuscript the time and thought we think it deserves. 
Although you've heard it before, I'll say it again: your writing is an absolute joy to read. Your love of literature comes across as clearly as your grasp of the English language, and inspires any reader with even a smidgen of taste and sensitivity to share your enthusiasms. 
Unfortunately, I'll have to follow up with yet another line you often hear: there's just no market to sell this type of book. Of course publishers and editors are going to appreciate a writer's reaction to great works of literature, but your fan base won't extend much beyond that. These "omnium gatherums" are very seldom reviewed because they are impossible to describe and deliberately eclectic. Without a real and substantial audience, miscellaneous collections like this are simply too difficult to sell. 
I would love to find something to do with this work. However, as things exist today, there just isn't enough of a market for your kind of writing to make it a viable undertaking for a small and putatively "for profit" house like this.

I opened this letter, read it, then set it down on the kitchen counter and walked away. What else could I do?

Sure, tell me to bask in the praise. You're right: praise is lovely, and having this particular publisher praise my writing is a jaunty feather in my cap. And while you're at it, you might as well remind me that I've published other books, that all of the essays in this particular manuscript have appeared in famous literary journals. Remind me that other writers are far less fortunate than I am. All of this is true.

But it is deeply discouraging to be told that no matter how well I write, no one will read my book. I mean, deeply discouraging. I mean, why bother continuing to write discouraging. Although I am inured to routine rejection letters, this one has just about pushed me over the edge. There is something so exquisitely painful in being told that high success in my art has made my art unsalable. What do I do with that information? Try to write less well about things that don't matter to me?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Tom and I climbed Borestone Mountain yesterday. It's not a long hike (about four miles round trip), but it's fairly strenuous, with a relentless uphill ascent through a stony forest and then some iron bars and rock scrabbling at the summit. Unfortunately, the mountain's website has decided to advertise this hike as "moderately strenuous" and "kid-friendly," as one kid cuttingly remarked on her way down the mountain. I suppose this publicity strategy is an attempt to increase traffic, but yesterday's result was a trail was full of slackers and carpers, including (1) the aforesaid kid, (2) a lady standing on a rock ledge and screaming at her tote-bag carrying husband ("I'M NOT GOING UP THAT!"), (3) two cheerful but tottery old ladies under the guidance of a strained and anxious slightly less elderly man, (4) a family of chain smokers, and (5) a boy with a football. I counted two hikers besides ourselves who were actually wearing hiking boots. One woman was wearing clogs, and one of the chain smokers made it all the way to the summit in saggy rapper pants and untied basketball shoes.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yesterday afternoon Tom demolished our piano.

I'm going to pause here a moment because demolished sounds sloppy, and he was anything but. Perhaps I should say deconstructed, but that sounds too detached for the vigorous circumstances. Our emotional intention was "to put the piano to sleep" but the piano shouted and groaned throughout the process. It had been built in 1901; and even though it was a terrible musical instrument, it hung onto life, hard.

We had owned this piano since 2001, when I bought it for a hundred dollars and paid another several hundred dollars to have it completely retrofitted. This seemed like a good idea at the time: doesn't every home need a handsome upright from the era of sentimental parlor crooning? Plus, its brand-name was Wellington, just like the name of our road. Our son, who was four when we bought the instrument, learned to play it, and at sixteen he still sings and plays with adolescent-singer-songwriter earnestness.

But the instrument has never been able to hold a pitch. A week after a visit from the piano tuner, it would be out of tune again. Even worse, the tuner could never fully align it with standard A-440 pitch. It was always at least a half-step flat. As Paul has gotten more interested in singing and playing with other people, this pitch issue has become intolerable. Several years ago we bought him an electronic keyboard; and gradually he shifted all of his piano playing away from the old Wellington onto the keyboard, even though it doesn't have a full 88-key keyboard. It's not that he likes the electronic noise possibilities; he just wants to play something that holds an accurate pitch.

So for the past couple of years, unusable old Wellington has loomed in our living room, crowding out the light and space. And yesterday I said to Tom, I think it's time. So we cranked up the radio Red Sox, and Tom carefully demolished the piano. Because the thing weighed a thousand pounds, the only way to get it out of the living room was in pieces. (In 2001 a brawny his-and-her team of junk-store owners moved it into our house, and I still have no idea how.) Tom saved all of the old boards, but he had to cut the strings in order to detach the metal innards. Every cut was a yowl. It was like a tragic opera, The Death of the Piano. And even after an entire afternoon of deconstruction, he still hasn't finished. The flayed corpse lingers robustly in the living room.

I am aware that my verb tenses are a mess in this note, but how does one talk about a half-demolished piano? Is it dead or not dead? Did we once own a piano, or do we still own it?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

One chapter of my new book-in-progress will include a chapbook-length excerpt of ten poems from Gray Jacobik's collection Little Boy Blue, followed by a interview with the poet. Yesterday, as I was working on my questions for Gray, I realized that this is the first interview I've ever conducted. Somehow I hadn't realized how challenging it would be to shape questions that are both focused and open-ended. I wanted them to center on the kinds of issues I'd already brought up in the book: issues of language--punctuation, sentences, characters, etc. I also wanted to highlight that this was a chance to read a larger selection of a poet's work rather than a single excerpted poem--that is, to think about the way in which a poet creates a dramatic and thematic arc in a collection.

Anyway, it took me all day to write six questions, although I do think the act of writing questions about a work of literature was in itself a productive way to think about the work.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Today's saddest poem, from Little Boy Blue, by Gray Jacobik

When you came home again, after a decade,
            in California, age forty, your marriage over,

your girlfriend chasing you out with the dogs
            while she sold the house, bedraggled

& frightened after four days & nights
            in your truck crossing the country—

I showed you the room I’d prepared for you
           & you said, Mom, this is too nice for me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A few months ago CavanKerry Press asked me if I'd take part in the press's inaugural podcast series, and here is the result. The podcast includes interviews with Marcus Jackson, Jamie Agnello, and me as well as selections from our poetry and the poems of Paola Corso and Kevin Carey, all read by a Shakespearean actor (!).

You know how squeamish I am about listening to my own interviews. I hope I said something interesting and/or rational because I undoubtedly won't be able to check. But here are the links if you care to do so.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I am rereading Bleak House, and now I can't stop thinking about that V. S. Pritchett comment on isolation that I wrote out for you yesterday. Now I am seeing every character through that lens, not to mention the fog and the public houses and the courts of law and the river and the stage coaches and all the other things in a Dickens novel that are as alive as his human characters. After so many years alongside Dickens, I am amazed to suddenly comprehend his tremendously disturbing vision of solitude. And yet it was there all the time. I've even written about it myself, without knowing what I was seeing.

Why I Didn’t Finish Reading David Copperfield

Dawn Potter

Bus three’s eight-track tape player chunks into gear,
it’s Frank Zappa again, crooning huskies and snow,
and down the back of my neck, a couple of bad boys

chant, “Mescaline, peyote, LSD.”  I’ve got this book
splayed on my lap, poor Mr. Peggotty, it’s not like
I don’t feel for him, I just can’t keep my mind off

those bony elbows and white hands, those tender,
spotty faces. Glance up in study hall, sure enough,
beautiful bad boys are scrawling “Skynyrd”

all over the chalkboard, the teacher’s slipped off
to the supply closet, everyone knows he’s got
Mrs. Kay jammed up against a stack of manila paper,

but where is my true love? I worry all the time
I’ll end up with nothing, even Barkis-is-willin’ won’t save me
a smile, I’ll be stuck on the bus with Miss Murdstone,

driver shrieking she’ll play The Sound of Music twice a day
for the rest of the year if those tramps in the back seat
don’t keep their hands where she can see them.

I could lay my head on this vinyl seat and cry,
even Little Em’ly has more fun than I do, not one bad boy
in the whole world wants me, I’ll never brush my clumsy

lips against his open mouth, taste his sweet smoky breath,
and every time I pick up this book, my mind starts wandering
in circles like an old dog that can’t find a good spot to sleep,

you hear his nails clacking back and forth across the kitchen floor,
and it just makes me so sad, sitting here on the bus wishing
I was holding hands with a boy in a Kiss t-shirt, my own wild Steerforth.

I don’t care if he dumps me after a week . . . I don’t care.
All I want is to give him everything he asks for, I’d lay myself down
in the falling snow to feel the weight of his heart,

and Little Em’ly, if you really needed me, I swear I’d finish your story.
Maybe you’ve floated too long in the cold, or the wind’s wrong,
but right now I have no idea what you’re screaming about.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

from "Table Talk" (1833) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Shakespeare one sentence begets the next naturally; the meaning is all interwoven. He goes on kindling like a meteor through the dark atmosphere; yet, when the creation in its outline is once perfect, then he seems to rest from his labour, and to smile upon his work, and tell himself that it is very good. You see many scenes and parts of scenes which are simply Shakespeare's disporting himself in joyous triumph and vigorous fun after a great achievement of his highest genius.

from "The Temple of Delight: John Keats and Jack Wiler" (2013) by Teresa Carson

Soul-level influence is not a simple pass-the-baton process; we do not read our poetic ancestors and then just pick up the conversation where they left off. Rather, we are, by nature, related to particular poetic ancestors but not to others. As J. D. Salinger said, “The true poet has no choice of material.” We and our influences cannot help but work the same vein of the Underneath, however dissimilar our surfaces may appear. If we are persistent, honest, and loyal to that vein, then we participate in and continue the conversation of poetry—a conversation that transcends time, place, and style.

from Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the water-side pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigs of great ships; fog drooping in the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice-boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

from "Edwin Drood" by V. S. Pritchett

What Dickens really contributed may be seen by a glance at the only novelists who have seriously developed his contribution--in Dostoevsky above all and, to a lesser degree, in Gogol. (There is more of Dickens, to my mind, in James Joyce's Ulysses than in books like Kipps or Tono Bungay [both by H. G. Wells].) For the distinguishing quality of Dickens's people is that they are solitaries. They are people caught living in a world of their own. They soliloquise in it. They do not talk to one another; they talk to themselves. The pressure of society has created fits of twitching in mind and speech, and fantasies in the soul. It has been said that Dickens creates merely external caricatures, but . . . in how many of that famous congress of "characters"--Micawber, Barkis, Moddles, Jingle, Mrs. Gamp or Miss Twitterton: take them at random--and in how many of the straight personages, like Jasper and Neville Landless in Edwin Drood, are we chiefly made aware of the individual's obliviousness of any existence but his own? The whole of Dickens's emotional radicalism, his hatred of the utilitarians and philanthropists and all his attacks on institutions, are based on his strongest and fiercest sense: isolation. In every kind of way Dickens was isolated. Isolation was the foundation of his fantasy and his hysteria, but also . . . of the twin strains of rebel and criminal in his nature. The solitariness of people is paralleled by the solitariness of things. Fog operates as a separate presence, houses quietly rot or boisterously prosper on their own. . . . The people and things of Dickens are all out of touch and out of hearing of each other, each conducting its own inner monologue, grandiloquent or dismaying.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The weekend was packed with nonliterary activities: a soccer game, a band gig, several canner-loads of tomatoes and peppers, and the concomitant floor and clothes washing that accompanied it all. I thought of writing to you yesterday, and then thought better of it. The truth is: I dislike scalding and peeling tomatoes. It's a hot, slimy process, involving tomato gore splattered over self and surfaces. I do, however, adore jars of home-canned tomatoes on the shelf. So I decided I was better off driving myself into duty rather than complaining about it to you. After all, canning is my own damn fault. Let me reveal another secret: I also dislike kneading bread, yet I make bread at least twice a week. Thus is a life composed.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Cover Song

Dawn Potter

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

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

Friday, September 6, 2013

Yesterday was a tomato day, and this is a photo of my sauce-to-be, which this morning continues to cook down into a thick orange mass of spicy peppers, garlic, onions, and tomatoes.

And these two photos are my plain tomatoes, ready for the canner.

And here is a bit from Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Tomatoes":

In December
the tomato
cuts loose,
takes over lunches,
at rest
on sideboards,
with the glasses,
butter dishes,
blue salt-cellars.
It has
its own radiance,
a goodly majesty.
Too bad we must

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I'll be canning tomatoes this afternoon, possibly making sauce to freeze, and certainly rushing around the kitchen with an end-of-summer chip on my shoulder. Suddenly the nights are cooling down. The roadside ferns are turning yellow and brown, and the maples are sporting their first red leaves. The air is still mild but it swarms with midges, and the hummingbirds have vanished, and tiny asters are foaming in the hedgerows. Late-afternoon sunshine stretches poignantly over the ball fields; strange mushrooms sprout along the forest paths. I glance at Laura Ingalls Wilder's These Happy Golden Years and read, "They were quite safe from blizzards because they did not go far from town. The wind was blowing, but not too hard, and everyone was so happy and gay for it was only twenty degrees below zero and the sun shone." Ah, yes. That's on the way, isn't it?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Writing a Personal Literary Essay

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

Early in this book I mentioned how common, almost ubiquitous, the I point of view has become in poetry. So often our poems are outlets for the personal, the private, the spoken secret. Even when it is an outright fiction, a first-person poem can feel as raw as a diary entry.
Literary essays are a different story. While the I does rule over many forms of creative nonfiction, it is conspicuously absent in academic and critical prose. Its scarcity is puzzling because publishers, even scholarly ones, explicitly ask their authors to avoid wordy passive-voice constructions that mute the speaker’s voice and opinions. “The book can be thought of as a waste of time” is a way to evade responsibility for announcing, “I think the book is a waste of time.” Yet time and time again, authors retreat behind that cushion of words. In doing so, they may take themselves off the hot seat, but they also retreat into obscurity, anonymity, invisibility.
As you work to become a poet, you may find yourself in a position of needing, in some deep, personal way, to write about what you are reading. I urge to you to commit yourself to saying I think—not we think, not people think. Work hard to keep yourself from falling into convoluted grammatical “objectivity.” The truth is that you should not be objective when you’re writing a personal literary essay. You should push yourself to write subjectively about your own curiosity, your own reactions. The goal is to discover what you think about a work of literature, not to create an essay that you makes you look well read or professorially remote. Please understand that I am not deriding academic scholarship or theory. Simply I am saying that, like poetry, a personal literary essay comes from a different and far more vulnerable place in the author. It’s important to push yourself to write in ways that cherish that vulnerability, not mask it.

If I sound bossy here, it’s because I believe that for many years my own writing suffered from a timid unwillingness to face head-on some of the many issues I brought up in the Blake and Milton essays I've excerpted in previous chapters. How does a contemporary poet speak to a poet of the past? How does an obscure woman speak to a canonized man? How can their speech be an actual conversation rather than rant, polemic, diatribe, or blind adoration? For creative writers who take reading seriously, these are fundamental questions that have never been easy to answer.
In the introduction of this book I mention Countee Cullen’s life-long, necessary conversation with the Romantic poets—and how some of his peers derided that need. Why, they asked, should a twentieth-century African American poet waste his time talking to nineteenth-century English white men? The question I ask is, why shouldn’t he?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On Veterans' Day weekend (November 9 and 10), I'll be leading a two-day writing workshop titled "'Fitted to the Matter': Turning to Verse, Turning to Prose." The workshop will be held at the Barred Owl Retreat in Leicester, Massachusetts, which is just outside Worcester. I've never taught here before, but my friend Baron has done so several times and has been urging me to get involved in the retreat's writing programs. He tells me it's a gorgeous house and garden with a lovely, like-minded poet-owner, and it's also easily accessible from Boston, Hartford, and northern New England.

I'm tossing out this idea to all you now so that you have a bit of time to think about your schedule. Veterans' Day is a three-day weekend, and you'd only be at the retreat for two of those days, so it wouldn't consume your entire holiday. And it would be so delightful to spend a couple of quiet, focused days with you before the winter storms are upon us.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Torrential rain, and the same is forecast for the entire day. The Harmony Fair parade is canceled, the featured band is canceled, the horse show is canceled, but interestingly the magician still insists on showing up. Eventually Paul and I will slog up to the fairgrounds so that he can work his shift at the Patriarchs Club food booth, though it's hard to imagine who will be ambling through the mud to buy cheeseburgers.

For now I am sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and feeling shell-shocked about the fact that I don't need to go out into this weather to do animal chores. I know it sounds as if I'm harping on this matter, but I'll be 49 years old in a month, and nearly all of my adult life has been structured around morning and evening barn chores. I'm like an employee who has suddenly retired from a life-long job. The idea of having a choice about whether or not I go out into the pouring rain . . . I can't explain how odd this is.

Anyway, barring a few soundcheck issues, last night's gig went well, and there was no rain, and we were not freezing, and my violin managed to sort of stay in tune despite the humidity. Plus my pie won a blue ribbon!

Summer Apple Pie Flavored with Maple Syrup, Ginger, and Lime

Pie Filling

6–8 early yellow apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup maple sugar
¼ cup white sugar
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose white flour
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
a few gratings of fresh lime zest
2 teaspoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except for the butter. Let sit for 15 minutes while you make the crust. Preheat the oven to 450˚F.

Pie Crust

2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose white flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1½ sticks), sliced
5–6 tablespoons ice water

In a large bowl, combine the flour and the salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle with 5 tablespoons of water and mix together quickly with your hands. Add the extra tablespoon of water if the mixture seems too dry.

On a floured countertop, quickly knead the dough until it is a cohesive ball (no more than a minute or two). Cut the ball in half. Roll it out with a floured pin, turning the dough and re-flouring the counter as necessary. Your goal is a thin round of dough 12–14 inches in diameter (depending on the size of your pie plate).

With a floured spatula, transfer the round to a pie plate. The pie shell should loosely drape over the edges of the plate. Spoon the prepared pie filling into the pie shell, and sprinkle the filling with the reserved butter. Brush the edges of the pie shell with cold water.

Roll out the top pie shell, and drape it over the pie filling. Trim the edges so that they extend just over the edge of the pie plate. Gently press them together with the tines of a fork or flute them decoratively. With the point of a paring knife, cut a few steam vent holes in the center and along the edges of the top shell.

Egg Wash for Glaze

1 large egg
1 teaspoon cold water
1 teaspoon large-crystal brown sugar (such as turbinado)

Break the egg into a small bowl. Add the cold water and beat the mixture thoroughly with a fork. Brush the egg wash onto the top crust of the pie. Sprinkle the crust with sugar.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350˚F and bake for another 30–40 minutes or until the crust is golden and you see syrup bubbling up beneath the steam vents. If the pie seems to be browning too quickly, lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top.

Serve at room temperature, preferably with heavy cream whipped with maple syrup.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Well, I've baked my entry for the Harmony Fair's first annual cooking-with-maple-syrup contest.

The name of this entry is Summer Apple Pie with Maple Syrup, Ginger, and Lime. It is the very first thing I have ever baked for the fair, though I have judged many baked goods in the past. How crushing it will be to lose.

My green beans and dahlias did get blue ribbons, though! And at 7:30 this evening my band is playing two sets. Please, please cross your fingers against rain. I do not want a wet violin.

And here's your annual picture of the Harmony Fair, from my first book, Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004).

The Skillet Toss

Harmony Fair, September 2002

Dawn Potter

A loose, laughing huddle of women
gathers alongside a swath of packed dirt,
hot children milling underfoot
clutching half-empty cans of soda;
and now husbands drift over, and we
arrive, who don’t throw skillets,

ready to cheer on our friend Tina,
who baby-sits our kids and doesn’t take shit.
Ask the contestants what they’re aiming at
this year, they’ll all say husbands.
Men are proud to have a wife who can
fracture skulls, if she thinks it’s worth her while.

They watch, amused but unsurprised—
married too long to doubt the plain lack
of vanity a high school sweetheart
acquires by forty. Tina practices her swing,
all knees and elbows under the sun;
the crowd watches, relaxed

and easy-tempered in the heat,
last hurrah of a Maine summer:
such weather can’t last; frost on the way:
in this town we never forget January;
so oh, the pleasure now of watching
sweat run down a brown arm,

first arc of a skillet in the heavy air
and the slow rise of dust when it lands:
Applause, laughter; Tina wipes
her forehead and takes aim for the next,
all eyes on her target: invisible Everyman
in the haze, asking for it, his voice

a low grumble of content, like oxen
flicking their tails in the barn—
and just fool enough to turn his back,
bare elbows propped on the fence,
watching a couple of ponies drag
their burden of concrete across the ring.