Friday, February 28, 2014

After reading yesterday's blog post, my older son suggested that Poetry Out Loud might make a good TV reality show. My husband disagrees. He feels that it has more potential as a Monty Python skit.

So far today, Ruckus has only destroyed one pair of shoes. The temperature is slightly above zero, and it is not snowing. I have a million pages of editing to do before attending a high school one-act festival. We are almost out of dog food. As apology for the tedium, I will now tell some lies.
Shards of ice glimmer, their iridescence shot with violet and viridian, like the plumage of a phoenix. The enormous white cat pads slowly across the frozen lake. A peacock dangles from his mouth. Above, the balloon hangs motionless. Hot air whistles in and out, in and out--asthmatic, metronomic. The basket appears to be empty; the balloon's silk is striped blue and white, like a king's pavilion.
Good. That brightened things up. There's nothing like combining Technicolor, a sweeping landscape, a beautiful predator, and the imminence of a human entrance. [Obviously there really is someone in that basket. I suspect a female. Possibly she's a thirty-year-old Elizabeth Taylor wearing gobs of eye makeup, but I'm not promising anything.]

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Did I Hear You Ask, "What Goes on behind the Scenes of a Government-Sponsored Literary Event for Young People"?

Incident 1

Well-dressed older woman peevishly washing her hands in a bathroom crowded with Poetry Out Loud contestants and their mothers:
[Buttons her coat to the neck and stalks out.]
Crowd of girls and women:
[A pause. Then a simultaneous roar of laughter.]
Soliloquy by Judge A, who was standing in line waiting to use said bathroom:
The students had just recited poems by, among others, Charles Lamb, Edward Thomas, Richard Wilbur, Countee Cullen, Edgar Allan Poe, John Donne, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Herman Melville, A. E. Stallings, Emily Bronte, and Dylan Thomas. Which is to say: THEY RHYMED, PEEVISH LADY.

Incident 2

Civil servant sitting at table busily tabulating the judges' scores:
Today I got a phone call from a legislator. He told me that there had better be rhyming poetry at this event because if it didn't rhyme, it wasn't poetry.
Judge B, rubbing his hands in anticipation:
Oooh, let me take a stab at guessing his political party!
Soliloquy by Judge A:
So was Peevish Lady working undercover? And what exactly was this legislator planning to do if there hadn't been any rhyming poetry? Expose the existence of state-sponsored fraudulent high school student recitations? ("They CLAIM it was poetry! But it was PROSE!") Might this be Maine's very own Mapplethorpe Incident?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

As CavanKerry's managing editor, Starr Troup, notes in her very sweet blog post, Same Old Story is shortly due for release, maybe even next week. I feel calm, almost bemused, almost detached, and I hope this is a good thing because I would really like to avoid another bout of postpartum melancholy. Perhaps part of that detachment arises from the knowledge that 90 percent of my poet acquaintances have flown to Seattle for AWP. But even though I have never seen Seattle and have old friends there whom I'd like to visit, I am not at all sorry to be missing the conference. I seem to have an allergy to throngs of smiling, anxious, bustling networkers. At last year's AWP in Boston all I wanted to do was huddle behind the CavanKerry table with Teresa and count the minutes till we could leave.

Still, there's always something about not going to the party--even if it's a party I don't want to go to--that reinforces my awareness of isolation. Introverts always find a way to be unhappy. For instance, this afternoon, when I show up at the Waterville Opera House for the Poetry Out Loud state finals, everyone will be acting as if this is the place to be, and then suddenly I will be back in huddle-behind-the-table mode: "Oh my God there must be some mistake I think I will just slip into a bathroom stall and read a book until this is all over."

It's a good thing I have spent a lot of time training myself to be civilized because there's a funny thing about introverts, something I've noticed in my son and even in my husband, who is by far the most extreme introvert in the family: once we override our self-defeating reactions, we turn out to enjoy the company of other people. We even thrive on performing in public, and when it's all over we are pleased and excited and proud of our bravery. "Everything will be easier next time," we think. But it never is.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

And what a privilege and a blessing it is to a poor Irish girl, who has only lived in a hovel, with scarcely an article of furniture, save the pot "to boil the pratties," to be instructed in housework!
--Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), editor of Godey's Ladies Book, chief campaigner to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, opponent of women's suffrage, and author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" as well as a collection of poems titled The Genius of Oblivion. [I am not making this up.]

It goes without saying that if the tree was hollow in whole or in part, and contained old nests of bird or mammal or insect, or hoards of nuts or such structures as wasps or bees build for their survival, the contents will have to be repaired where necessary, and reassembled, insofar as possible, in their original order, including the shells of nuts already opened.
--W. S. Merwin (born 1927), from Unchopping a Tree, a series of prose poems speculating about how one might reassemble a felled tree. I was lucky enough to acquire a galley of this beautiful book, which is forthcoming from Trinity University Press. I may need to write a review; it is truly lovely.


As is typical of freelance life, nothing has suddenly metamorphosed into everything. Today I am editing a book about the intersection of art and politics during the cold war. Tomorrow I have to judge the state Poetry Out Loud finals. Next week I head out for a two-day visiting poet job. Somehow I need to fit in time to copyedit two poetry collections. My band has to learn a lot of Irish songs for a Saint Patrick's Day gig. My son's one-act festival opens this weekend. Ruckus celebrates his first birthday on the Ides of March. I am reading a history of housework and mulling over period-specific advertisements and the contents of women's advice columns. Journals are rejecting my poems, but in a friendly manner. I have the strange urge to do a lot of crossword puzzles, but there are none in my house.


Though my lov'd country should reward my toil,
And on my lay, approving, deign to smile,
And Taste bestow the meed the muses prize,
And Fancy all her day-dreams realize;
Still, still your patronage shall be my boast--
You kindly gave it, when 'twas needed most.
--From "Dedicatory Poem, Inscribed to the Friends and Patrons of the THE AUTHOR," in The Genius of Oblivion, by Sarah Josepha Hale. [See, I told you I wasn't making this up.]

Hypocrite reader my
variant my almost
family we are so
few now it seems as though
we knew each other as
the words between us keep
assuming that we do
I hope I make sense to
you in the shimmer of
our days
--From "Cover Note," in Travels, by W. S. Merwin. [I copied out the Hale extract, and then I opened this Merwin collection, and there before me lay "Cover Song," his version of "Dedicatory Poem," which I had never read before. The Fates are lively this morning.]

Monday, February 24, 2014

Burning Questions (1991)

Dawn Potter

But why did Aunt Rose sell such bad-tasting milk?

It could have been the Frigidaire.
Aunt Rose may have been wronged.
The Frigidaire was famous
for its ancient, clanging song,

and how it never would shut tight,
so baloney would take on
a shiny tinge, like dry old men
left in the sun too long.

And why did Aunt Louise give us so many dry Twinkies?

It wasn’t only Twinkies.
It was also softened plums,
flat peaches bruised like ladies’ legs,
a box of old Dum-Dums.

She dropped them off. We ate them up.
The question now becomes:
Who were those empty children,
with their greed for rot and crumbs?

And how come we never got to go to the dog races with Uncle John?

Because adults are always vague:
“We’ll make that trip someday.”
Because our uncle’s slippery past
was undiscussed and grey.

Because old folks would rather smoke
than gamble with their pay.
Because they tend to up and die.
Now no one bales their hay.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress]

Sunday, February 23, 2014

For the past couple of days I've been reading Susan Strasser's Never Done: A History of American Housework. So far most of the history of "never done" involves fuel: chopping firewood, hauling firewood or coal into the house, managing open fireplaces, cookstoves, heating stoves. Now it's branching into light: making candles, the history of kerosene and household gas. Surely plumbing and the lack thereof will be next.

I tell you right now: I am glad to have evaded the generation of fireplace cookery. It's the fuel chore I haven't gotten past. All winter day long: fire the stove, stoke the stove, clean the ashes, adjust the dampers, sweep up the mess of dropped bark and ash, fill the woodbox. Strasser writes this book as if no one does this kind of thing anymore, which is vaguely insulting but then again I suppose she's more or less right, though I happen to know several people who still use kitchen cookstoves, gas lights, spring-fed gravity water systems . . .

. . .  but they don't own a cat who just leaped onto the counter like a demon from hell and SPILLED AN ENTIRE POT OF COFFEE DOWN THE STOVE BURNERS.  

Talk to you later. It seems I have some housework to do.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A glorious sunny morning, and a forecast claiming that the temperature will climb to 40 degrees today. I think I will now stop puzzling over the weather and simply luxuriate in the idea that I might not have to wear three pairs of gloves.

And here's another thing: I just got offered a reading in New York City . . . June 12 in Bryant Park, with January Gill O'Neill and my dear Teresa Carson. And both January and Teresa know hundreds of people who live in NYC, so very possibly we might even have an audience. And it will be summer, and I will have a new book to read from, and there won't be any blackflies, and I won't have any grass to mow, and Ruckus won't be around to break stuff, and you might even lay eyes on my towering 16-year-old.

It has been years since I've been to New York, and I do love it so.

Friday, February 21, 2014

It seems that all I do is talk about the weather, but, really, the weather is so distracting. This morning the sky is the color of dirty granite, glowering and ominous, and the pine trees have faded to bleak khaki. The brightest spots on the landscape are the red stains in the driveway where the snow plow leaked hydraulic fluid. The temperature hovers at freezing, and I am sitting here thinking about how much I don't want to drive my son to theater practice. Nothing nasty has happened yet, but that's only a matter of time.

My mood has not been improved by the New Yorker article I just read about Gordon Lish, famous asshole teacher and fiction editor, who appears to embody the stereotype of destructive, controlling creative writing instructor. That stereotype is not necessarily inaccurate. As you know, I did not go to graduate school, but I did take a few independent writing classes before I shifted to working privately with Baron Wormser. Even that small sample gave me a taste of the poisons of such a teacher--a concoction of sexual and stylistic manipulation that aims to pervert and contort a student's ability to expand into her own writerly self. Frequently that attitude cloaks a palpable sense of teacher jealousy: an anxiety to make sure that the student always remains inferior to himself. It's quite dreadful.

Still, I refuse to endorse the endless grousing and complaining over the so-called "workshop model." This is like claiming that all lecture-based classes are destructive or all hands-on classes are intellectually bankrupt. Good teaching is good, and bad teaching is bad, and a class with either sort of teacher can change a life.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

We have a bit of a weather reprieve today: 20 degrees above zero, sunshine, and a much happier Ruckus. Tomorrow, however, life returns to normal--this time in the form of an ice-snow-sleet-rain morass. Considering the height of the snow piles in my yard (10 feet high, I'd guess; maybe more), this could be a terrible mess.

For now I will try to forget all that. The sunshine is casting blue shadows on the fresh snow, the chickadees are whistling their spring songs, the cat allowed me to sleep in till 7 a.m., today's sinus headache has already retreated, and my writing room is clean and bright. I will make a potato and egg curry tonight, and stuck-pot rice, and maybe even chapatis, if I can juggle my boy obligations appropriately.

I have a friend whose response to this dreadful winter is to madly reread the late novels of Henry James while exercising at the gym. If I had a gym, I might do likewise, though I'm thinking that a glut of Faulkner might better suit my moment in history. In any case, like my friend, I will try to keep trudging and/or flailing. You try too.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Eight degrees above zero this morning, and you'd think that news would cheer me up, except that we got another load of snow last night, the driveway is impassable yet again, the town plow truck has shoved two tons of hard-packed ice in front of my mailbox, and Ruckus, offended by the weather, is rocketing through the house trying to break stuff. Also, I have a headache.

I am trying hard to remember the beauties. Here's one: My sixteen-year-old, who spent the weekend with his wilderness-trip friends at a remote cabin in Washington County, said that the five of them snowshoed three miles over a pristine frozen lake at midnight under a full moon. Nothing will ever be as glorious, he told me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Evils of Reading

In her novel The Nice and the Good, Iris Murdoch describes a young primary-school art teacher named Jessica, who “thought, or had thought, that she was talented as an artist, but she could never decide what to do.”

From her education in art she had acquired no positive central bent or ability, not even any knowledge of the history of painting, but rather a sort of craving for immediate and ephemeral “artistic activity.” This had by now become, in perhaps the only form in which she could know it, a spiritual hunger. She and her comrades had indeed observed certain rules of conduct which had something of the status of tribal taboos. But Jessica had never developed the faculty of colouring and structuring her surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense. She kept her world denuded out of a fear of convention. Her morality lacked coherent motives.

The novelist is not using Jessica as a generalized stand-in for Young People These Days: The Nice and the Good overflows with a complexity of characters, and Jessica is only one of many players. But as I read Murdoch’s delineation of Jessica’s spiritual vacuum, I allowed myself to sink, if only for a moment, into that comforting delusion of age—the assurance that, despite all of youth’s advantages, we older ones can at least depend on the solid structure of our hard-won “moral habitation.”
In my case, simple addition was all I needed to pierce such automatic self-satisfaction. Murdoch published The Nice and the Good in 1968. In that year I was four years old, younger than the novel’s youngest child, ripe for indoctrination into Jessica’s school of the “perfect but momentary,” a classroom where paper creations are crumpled and discarded, clay sculptures squeezed into shapelessness. Nothing her students construct is ever shared or cherished. “‘So it’s all play, Miss?’ a child had said to Jessica at last in a puzzled tone. At that moment Jessica felt the glowing pride of the successful teacher.”
Of course, literary time is distinct from earth time, but author and reader live in both realms. Murdoch invented a character who was from the same generation as my kindergarten teacher, and now I’m tempted to allow this character to encapsulate my glib, pushing-fifty assumptions about vapid youth culture, paltry educations, and moral incoherence.
My automatic reaction appalls me. Today my own sons are more or less the age of Jessica the character, but they are nothing like her. Their lives are not “denuded out of a fear of convention.” History matters to them, as does a moral habitation. I should never have considered lumping them into any category of vacuity, yet somehow the novelist lured me into grave error. Her description of Jessica dredged up my own moral incoherence, not theirs.
In her essay “My Vocation,” Natalia Ginzburg writes,

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.

            Part of the terror of the vocation is the way in which it encourages a writer to manipulate “the best and the worst in our lives.” She may hope that, in the long run, she consorts with cruelty for the sake of Good or Truth. But writing is dangerous and damage is done, not just once but again and again. “Evil feelings flow in its blood.”

            Reading is no less terrible a vocation. I sat down at the kitchen table and opened a novel that tricked me into making false and flippant assumptions about two young men whom I love with all my heart. It may be the task of a great writer to push her readers into the quicksand, but the reader’s task is less clear. What do I do next, now that I’ve recognized my treachery? The easy answer is “Never again make a snap judgment about another human being.” But that answer doesn’t erase my shame.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fragments from a Ladies' Book (1851)

Dawn Potter

Choosing to boil arrow-root in milk
is wasteful, yes, and less than satisfactory.
Fig. 3d is a mourning gown of silk.
Our printer’s swift advances in lithography

provide a glimpse into the winter’s pleasures.
Don your finest for Jenny Lind’s soiree.
For negro shows or evening lectures,
choose a walking costume, red or grey.

We stand on the lofty ridge of Time!
The fashion of stiff corsets never will resume.
We are constrained to note, “The female mind
could never have devised the loom.”

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress of western Pennsylvania]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

This is a photograph of "Raft," a painting by Alex Katz, on display at the Colby College Museum of Art. Though it looks tiny here, it is in fact huge. Tom and I went to Colby yesterday to check out the museum's enormous new addition. But the Katz room has been there for years; somehow I just never noticed this picture.

The woman stands just like my granny used to stand, before the osteoporosis took her down: one elbow bent, hip cocked. She even seems to be wearing one of her house dresses.

She once told my mother that the silverware in the drawer was plotting against her.

For my granny, every place in the world was like a raft in the middle of a lake.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tom and I had a funny Valentine's Day dinner last night--nothing more than hamburgers and potato chips--although I did make the chips myself, which counts for a lot. I also made strawberry shortcake, but we were too full of hamburgers and potato chips to eat it. So it seems likely we'll be having strawberry shortcake for breakfast. Paul is spending the weekend with friends, and Tom and I had some hopes we might go do something fun ourselves. But of course it is supposed to snow again today, which means we probably can't drive to Portland and visit the museum and go out to lunch and take a walk along the waterfront. And Paul borrowed Tom's snowshoes, which means we can't play in the snow. We might be stuck having to go to the yard sale at the credit union. Let's hope there's a lot of weird 1980s bank stuff to sort through.

Yesterday my friend Alyssa, who teaches English at a vocational high school, sent me some poems that her students had written for Valentine's Day. Here's one of them:
One night at the theater
Seeing her there in black everything and ripped-up jeans.
I would go outside with her in between acts,
      thinking I looked cool smoking cigarettes like someone important.
She smoked far more than me and far more than anyone should.
But who am I to judge. I just found love smoking
      a Newport outside in the cold.
I could not take her home and she could not take me,
      so we sat in the frigid air for hours.
We would have stayed til sunrise but she looked at her phone
      and saw that her curfew had crept up on us.
Maybe it was because I gave her my jacket.
Maybe it was because I put gas in her car.
Maybe it’s because I buy her cheap cancer.
Maybe it’s because I have big gauges and a hipster haircut.
Or maybe it’s because when I look at her today
I still feel the same way
As that night.
And here's another:
Love is like winter.
It is pretty harsh.
You can get caught up in storms.
You can try to ignore it, but eventually
You will have to shovel the snow.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Snow and snow and snow, which is to say that Harmony is probably just like wherever you are. My back-stoop guess is a foot or more, with more coming down, though it seems to be dwindling to flurries. Nonetheless, our driveway is impassable, school's been canceled, and high school girls everywhere are not getting the cute Valentine gifts they were hoping for.

In honor of their aggravation, I will now share an excerpt from literature's worst marriage proposal.
You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these:-- It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

No one expects a man to make a chair without first learning how, but there is a popular impression that the poet is born, not made, and that his verses burst from his overflowing heart of themselves. As a matter of fact, the poet must learn his trade in the same manner, and with the same painstaking care, as the cabinet-maker. His heart may overflow with high thoughts and sparkling fancies, but if he cannot convey them to his reader by means of the written word he has no claim to be considered a poet.
—Amy Lowell
As I was checking proofs of The Conversation yesterday, I came across the above quotation, which opens my chapter on details in poetry. To me, Lowell's statement seems simple, sensible, and eloquent. However, I've lately found myself having to defend this point of view, which another poet has more or less summed up as not only self-deceiving and reductive but even coarse. Naturally, every poet is different, and we all have individual perceptions about writing, revision, and finished work. But when I came across Lowell's remark yesterday, and then read it again and again in search of a flaw, I still could not find anything to dispute. How can it not be true?

In one of his notebooks, Frost wrote, "In the briefest the slenderest lyric poem the sentences must spring away from each other and talk to each other if my interest is to be held." But of course inspiration, ideas, conceptions, triggers: these are all vital elements in the making of art. Rukeyser addresses that complexity in The Life of Poetry:
The process of writing a poem represents work done on the self of the poet, in order to make form. That this form has to do with the relationship of sounds, rhythms, imaginative beliefs does not isolate the process from any other creation. A total imaginative response is involved, and the first gestures of offering--even if the offering is never completed, and indeed if the poem falls short. If it does, it has fallen in the conception, for the conception and the execution are identified here--whatever is conceived is made, is written. 
Essentials are here, as in mathematical or musical creation. . . . Only the essential is true; Joseph Conrad, in a letter of advice, drives this home by recommending deletions, explaining that these words are "not essential and therefore not true to the fact."
And so we come down to words again. The essentials. Lowell's explanation is artisanal; Frost's is athletic, Rukeyser's is mystical. But all lead me to the same place: the precision of language. "[My] heart may overflow with high thoughts and sparkling fancies, but if [I] cannot convey them to [my] reader by means of the written word [I have] no claim to be considered a poet."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Another miserable 10-below morning. When will this weather ever break? Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Olympic ski trails are melting. Ugh.

I've started reading proofs for The Conversation, and I'll do more of that today, along with some student mentoring and some poem copying: maybe more Atwood, maybe some Justice, possibly some Akhmatova. Maybe I'll draft another western Pennsylvania poem, but I'm also feeling as if I need to stand back from that project, that I need to breathe for a day or two. I'm brain-tired, and also fidgety, and of course I'm freezing cold. My friend Linda and I walked a couple of miles yesterday at 5-below. It could have been worse. It could have been windy. Or 10-below.

But June really does come back every year: and now Frost Place conference applications are starting to appear in my inbox, and Teresa is getting all excited about this summer's featured Frost poem, and I am vaguely starting to imagine that it might be possible to sit on Bob's front porch without wearing full Antarctic regalia.
[Frost's] first summer in Franconia was memorable. [His wife] Elinor liked having a home of her own again, after so many years, and the children immersed themselves in country pleasures: blueberry picking, long walks in the woods, swimming in the Ham branch of the Gale River, which ran nearby. Frost often played baseball with the children, and he began playing sandlot ball again with local farmhands. 
As Bob also remarked:  "The whole point of farming was shirking duties."

[Both quotations are from Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini.]

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I spent a chunk of yesterday copying out Margaret Atwood's 1995 collection Morning in the Burned House. While I have often read her poems alone or in anthologies, I had never before sat down with a entire book of them.

Like most people (I'm making an assumption here, and maybe I'm wrong), I think of Atwood as a novelist who sometimes writes poems. These kinds of novelists often exist. John Updike wrote poems, too, but do you think of him as a poet? I tend to think of him as someone who wrote poems to plug the gaps of his novel-writing life. Of course, this isn't the only way in which novel writers intersect with poetry. Emily Bronte was a poet who wrote a stunning, poetic novel. Sylvia Plath was a poet who wrote a novel that was also an intriguing and self-mythologizing memoir. My friend Baron Wormser is a narrative poet who has turned to the novel as a new narrative challenge (structurally, character-wise). My friend Thomas Rayfiel is a novelist who has turned to poetic sleight-of-hand as a challenge (pressing image and syntax into narrative service).

In Morning in the Burned House, Atwood's approach to poetry is different. As I copied out her poems, I began to feel as if they were blueprints, models, experimental drawings--beautifully colored, exquisitely arranged--for some bigger, more expansive undertaking. Individually they can be stunning. A number of these poems are persona pieces, written from the point of view of characters as varied as the Hollywood star Ava Gardner and the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. These characters are always in a strange situation (Gardner has been resurrected as a flower, Sekhmet is a statue in a museum), and the poems arise from the way in which the characters come to terms with both their present and their past as well as the expectations and assumptions of others (mostly clueless men).

The problem is that, in a collection, many of these voices start to sound similar. As I copied one after another, I thought of Rainer Maria Rilke's persona poems--"The Dwarf's Song," "The Drunkard's Song," and so on. They, too, share a similar-sounding voice. So why do Rilke's become more and more heart-rending as a group? Part of the problem is Atwood's attraction to the sound of a smart-aleck, hard-as-nails, hot-lips, I-can-shoot-you-between-the-eyes-while-smoking-this-cigarette, Raymond Chandler-esque tough girl . . . an affection that I share. But in quantity, it flattens and overwhelms. And this is at least part of the reason that the poems feel like blueprints: it's as if the poet said, "What if I put this outfit on her? Now how about this one?" In other words, the poems sometimes feel like practice for novels.

I admire Atwood very much, and not only for her clean, snappy metaphors; her gorgeous, economic interplays between static settings and dramatic tension. I also like what I've just pointed out as a flaw: the insouciance of so many of her female characters. That's the conundrum of this collection. Frankly, it is a relief to stand outside of women's self-flagellation and guilt. In her poem "The Loneliness of the Military Historian" (which is not at all Chandler-esque), her character remarks:
In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war,
should not weigh tactics impartially,
or evade the word enemy,
or view both side and denounce nothing.
Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
spit themselves on bayonets
to protect their babies,
whose skulls will be split anyway,
or, having been raped repeatedly,
hang themselves with their own hair.
These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.
Sons, lovers, and so forth.
All the killed children.
As I copied out her words, I remembered listening to a radio reporter talk about the Syrian government's recent evacuation of all non-combatants from the city of Homs. To count as a non-combatant, a person must be (1) younger than age 16 or older than age 55 or (2) female. If my family were in Homs, I would be the only member allowed to leave. I would be permitted to rot alone in a refugee camp where I could spend my hours picturing the brutalized corpses of my sons and my husband. With such an image in my mind, I found Atwood's precise irony both terrifying and tonic.

Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off, and circumstances
and the radio create another.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Ten degrees above zero at 5:30 a.m.: a warm spell! The weekend afternoons were so mild (20 degrees or so) that Ruckus, Anna, and I went snowshoeing twice. Anna adores porpoising through the snow, stopping here and there to smell deer tracks, pee on small trees, and crunch up frozen deer pellets. Ruckus rides in my hood, but once the trail is broken, he gets down and stalks/scuttles along behind us--ears pinned, spine fur mohawked, tail bottle-brushed. Mr. I-Weigh-Six-Pounds-and-a-Squirrel-Could-Wrestle-Me claims that this look will terrify any wild animal that happens to bounce out of the underbrush. Hah.

Here is a fine and suitable poem about February and cats and exasperation. Margaret Atwood strikes again. I may spend some time copying out her poems today. I'll let you know what I learn.

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Cumulative Shrinking Effect of Explanation

Dawn Potter

“Yo, Shakespeare,” said my friend Angela. “Write about unrequited love, false promises, fake IDs, blown head gaskets, radio late at night, sex with the same man after twenty-five years . . . you know.”

1. Unrequited Love
All of my loves have been unrequited, for I consistently fall in love with men who are less excited about loving me than I am about loving them. Of course, the accuracy of this claim depends on how one defines love—a word that, in my case, has perpetually adolescent overtones and that, when mixed with graying hair and housework, creates a kind of melancholy oldies-station uproar—those oldies that I can’t believe are old, those songs with the embarrassing end rhymes and predictable guitar sobs that I know I ought to despise but that keep making my eyes prickle and my throat swell shut.
But in the old teenage days, I wasn’t standing on the outside looking in: I wasn’t examining myself for the familiar, glorious signs of chaotic despair. I was just chaotically, gloriously, in tears. As Ray likes to inform me, over the phone, but kindly, “You always did like melodrama,” even though he himself has been drunk and five hundred miles away from me for most of the twenty-odd years of our friendship.
You could say that Ray is one of my unrequited loves, also the instigator of other unrequited loves, also the person who most enjoys picking the scabs off the unrequited loves that I’ve mistakenly assumed were healing up. Oh, the idiotic conversations we’ve had: the hand holding, the beer, the up-all-night-with-Tammy-Wynette epiphanies. But here I pause a moment to note that I’ve shifted into the we persona, that hopeful signal light for the unrequitedour lantern in the belfry, our torch in the corridor: as if a pronoun, a sturdy two-letter innocent, can, by grammatical  sleight-of-hand, transform distraction into union, aloofness into a gift.
It doesn’t, which is why, I suppose, unrequited comes into its own in middle age—partly because there’s more time to notice that we is a less lonely way of saying I. When I was twenty years old and infatuated with the various boys who lolled around on old couches drinking beer, smoking pot, and listening to the Ramones, I did think, I really did think, that I would become transformed into we; that just possibly one of them might love me—by which I meant light up joyously whenever I walked into a room; by which I meant overlook my ugly clothes, delight in my body, coddle my fears; by which I meant adore me.
In fact, a few of these utopian vanities did manifest themselves, briefly, and erratically, and often at the wrong moment. During orchestra rehearsal, a nasal and prematurely balding flute player was the one who lit up when I walked into the room, whereas a gay man on acid ended up being the person who happily stayed up all night coddling my fears. But delight in my body always seemed to be entangled with anxiety about my body, a distress that I tried to assuage by way of guilty trysts with people who weren’t my boyfriend. And meanwhile, the boyfriend, who I’d been sure was the man of my dreams, turned out to be a permanent exasperation. Everything grated: I was bored by his Moby-Dick mania and terrified of his habit of changing lanes on the Jersey Turnpike while making fervent eye contact with passengers in the backseat. He, in turn, didn’t like my overwrought parents or my baby-white legs. For a while, we did enjoy the histrionics of fighting and reuniting; but he, too, was prone to guilty trysts—and so eventually, amid tears and recriminations, our unrequited hysteria dissolved into misery into relief into occasional dreams into the memory of this boy I used to love so much that I thought my life would end if he left me. But it didn’t, and I married one of the other boys on the couch. As Ray likes to inform me, over the phone, but kindly, “You always did like melodrama.”

2. False Promises
The aforementioned boyfriend, at one fraught moment, made me swear that, if we ever broke up, I would not go out with any of his friends. If I did, he would never forgive me.
Considering that he himself not only fooled around with numbers of my friends but also propositioned my sister, I still don’t feel too guilty about marrying his roommate. But I do hope that, wherever he is, he’s seen fit to stop hating me. We could be friends again. We could even love each other, and write charming letters about the past, like maybe about the time we were at Arby’s in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and an old guy who looked like Howling Wolf swaggered up to us, sitting there at our plastic table. I was probably eating French fries, and you must have been eating one of those giant-sized roast-beef sandwiches with the barbecue sauce soaking through the squashy bun and dripping onto a wad of napkins. You had both hands clamped to that sandwich, your wide mouth wide open and ready to bite, and then Howling Wolf hauled over to our table and he looked at you, with that sloppy sandwich, and he looked at me, and he looked back at you. And he then he poked a big finger straight into your face and he said, loud enough so that anyone else at Arby’s who might have cared to listen in wouldn’t have had any trouble at all: he growled, “DON’T YOU NEVER HIT A WOMAN.”
I have to say, under such alarming circumstances, you did behave very well. You set your sandwich down on the napkin wad and meekly replied, “No, sir, I never will.” You might have had some barbecue sauce on your face while you were talking, but it didn’t matter, not in the least.
Which reminds me: you might be interested in learning that I once took a poetry workshop from a man with barbecue sauce on his face, and it didn’t matter then either. If you and I were writing letters to each other, I could tell you about that workshop—how this poet was like a ten-year-old boy trapped in a sixty-year-old’s body; how each morning he would carefully park a toy car on every student’s chair so we would have something to play with during class. If you didn’t still hate me, we could talk about toy cars, and then about how you used to eat corned-beef hash out of a can, and how the only thing you liked about my mother was her homemade sauerkraut, but you really liked it: your eyes would light up at the sight of kraut on your plate, and she, who on any ordinary day would have been happy to see you being dragged away by federal marshals, would sweeten up and smile.
But if you’re going to waste all this time being mad, just because I’ve been cooking dinner for your ex-roommate for twenty-five years, not to mention pinning his ragged Carhartt pants onto the clothesline and ferrying his sons to baseball games and piano lessons and whatnot. . . . I mean, come on! In retrospect, I can see you might have had fun with my sister. Imagine if you had married her. Year in and year out, I would have seen you with barbecue sauce on your face. Think of it!—think of how good it would feel to remember we’d broken that ridiculous promise, how the four of us could all be shivering outside on lawn chairs, right at this very second, watching somebody-or-other’s kid flub an at-bat while the swallows begin their circle-and-dive above our heads and the tree frogs shrill by the river.

3. Fake IDs
I have never owned a fake ID. I’m not actually certain I’ve ever even seen a fake ID, though once I did have fun watching my son and his friends construct fake ride bracelets for the Harmony Fair. The project involved hours of careful scanning and gluing; but then, at the last minute, they chickened out and refused to wear them. Since the rides at the Harmony Fair are notoriously lame, I think the only reason they labored over the bracelets at all was for the joy of proving they could do it, which is more or less the same reason I agreed to fake my neighbor’s application for a marriage annulment. I was sitting at a picnic table slapping mosquitoes and watching my kids splash in a lake when his wife tossed the papers at me and said, “Want to fill these out? He can’t be bothered.” One could hardly blame her husband, seeing as he wasn’t Catholic and had divorced his first wife so long ago that he had forgotten what she looked like. But my friend, his second wife, wanted to keep everything tidy with the Church, so I sat there at the picnic table and had a good time filling out the form. Today I can’t remember a single question it asked, let alone any of my fraudulent answers. I do recall deciding that all-capital-letters would make my handwriting look more manly. Anyway, the Church fell for it.

4. Blown Head Gaskets
Blown head gasket is metaphorical shorthand for despair. When I’m standing at the garage counter waiting for Terry the mechanic to get off the phone and I hear him mutter, “Blown head gasket,” I know he might as well be saying “Potato blight” or “Heart failure.” His mustache droops. His eyes turn bleak. No hope is what he means.
            Though, of course, automotive misery is nothing like death by famine.
What’s scary about metaphor is how it works as seduction. “Mom, you exaggerate everything” is how my sons put it.
Words jump into the pulpit: they wave their arms around; they invent a character and claim she’s me. In real life, I don’t even know what a blown head gasket is.
According to Ray, he doesn’t answer my emails because I spend too much time honing my sentences, and it makes him self-conscious. Quite possibly he’s lying and is just too lazy to answer. But on the other hand, he’s right: this morning I spent half an hour polishing a one-line Facebook update.
“I like you,” says my friend Donna, “because you’re the kind of person who doesn’t notice she’s just said anon.”

5. Radio Late at Night
is what my sons listen to when they’re sleeping. First, it’s a long, repetitive, crackly debate about whether the Red Sox should trade ailing Mike Lowell to the Rangers; now it’s a talk show with Dee Snider, ex-frontman of Twisted Sister, who snarls, “If it ain’t metal, it’s crap”; and me—I’ve been upstairs asleep for hours, wishing for sex in my dreams, when suddenly I’m wide awake and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and outside a barred owl is complaining about his meal, and my ex-boyfriend’s ex-roommate is beside me snoring, and these guys downstairs on the radio are arguing about NASCAR in their tinny little voices, and I feel like I’ve woken up from a two-year coma only to discover I’m on the lam, waiting for the snipers, holed up somewhere in a weather-beaten motel at the end of the world.
I really hate radio late at night.

6. Sex with the Same Man after Twenty-five Years

As you know.

[first published in Solstice Literary Magazine (fall/winter 2012).]

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Following is a little poem from the Chestnut Ridge manuscript. As you will see, it has a comprehensible form. However, the meter shifts; so even though it rhymes, it has an unpredictable music.

I have some questions for you: Does this variable meter make sense? Is it an irritant? If it is an irritant, does the annoyance reinforce, in any way, the subject and theme? Or is it just annoying?

The Scots-Irish Invasion


Dawn Potter

Void of Conscience or the Fear of God,
They squat on any Spot of Land.

O, spare us from these sluttish, heathen Clods,
Who murther both their Words and Fellow-man.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Weather update: Cold, cold, cold, and I think I am getting a cold.

Reading update: Skimming the expense accounts, population statistics, and escapee troubles of an 18th-century gaol is not making me feel less cold or cold-ridden, though I do love the spelling. Unfortunately the reprinted documents were badly proofread, so gaol frequently appears as goal.

Irony update: Which it was not.

Dinner update: No boy home for dinner tonight, which means that I can eat a lot of mushrooms. So I am thinking of making a quiche with green onions, parsley, honey mushrooms, parmesan, cream, and new-laid eggs.

Ruckus update: Earlier this week, I tried to go snowshoeing without him, but he put up such a noisy, yowly fuss that I had to go back and get him. Because the snow was too deep, he decided to ride in my hood. Tom says it was the silliest thing he's ever seen. No photos were taken.

New books update: Same Old Story goes to the printer this week. The Conversation is nearly ready for page proofs. The Vagabond's Bookshelf should be out in the fall.

Book-in-progress update: Chestnut Ridge will be a thousand pages long and will still never be finished.

Tragicomic rejection-letter update: "Thanks so much for letting us have a chance with your essay. Although we won't be able to take it, I learned lots from reading the piece, and am very grateful to you for sending it our way."

Teenage son update: Keeps missing the bus because he spends too much time rolling up his sleeves to just the right level.

Reaction-of-older-brother update: "I'm glad he's enjoying dressing himself."

Poodle update: "I like it when cats sit in boxes. I don't like it when they lick tuna cans. I love you. I'm going to cough up a stick now."

Cheerful self-confidence update: Working on it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain
--from "I Would Like to Describe" by Zbigniew Herbert, trans. Alissa Valles

What crazies we writers are,
our heads full of language like buckets of minnows
            standing in the moonlight on a dock. Ray
was a good writer, a wonderful writer, and his
            poems are good, most of them, and they made me
cry, there at my kitchen table with my head down,
            me, a sixty-seven-year-old galoot, an old fool
because all old men are fools, they have to be,
            shoveling big jagged chunks of that ordinary pie
into my mouth, and the water falling from my eyes
            onto the pie, the plate, my hand, little speckles
shining in the light, brightening the colors, and I
            ate that goddamn pie, and it tasted good to me.
--from "Ray" by Hayden Carruth

Before I got my eye put out
I liked as well to see—
As other Creatures, that have Eyes
And know no other way—
--from Poem 327 by Emily Dickinson

we let him out
we let him in
we let him out again
--from "Hound Song" by Donald Finkel

As we go round and round like a horse in a mill, we perceive that we are thus clogged with sound because we are reading what we should be hearing.
--from "Strange Elizabethans" by Virginia Woolf

Bright-eyed Athena sent them a swift following wind
rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea 
as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates: 
“All lay hands to tackle!” They sprang to orders, 
hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm 
in its block amidships, lashed it fast with the stays 
and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sails high. 
Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out 
and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow, 
sang out loud and strong as the ship made way, 
skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal.
--from The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles

This door you might not open, and you did;
          So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed.
--from "Bluebeard" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Yesterday, as I was writing a letter to a friend about prose poems (i.e., "how do you make them? by sentence cadence? by story line? what are they? why aren't they called little essays?"), I realized that within the past couple of weeks I have written ten new western Pennsylvania poems, all varying wildly in terms of structure and sound, many varying wildly in terms of time and subject:
1635 (geography, flora, indigenous tribes, and early European encroachment)
1717 (the Scots-Irish invasion of the backcountry)
1786 (old farts talking about the Whiskey Rebellion)
1887 (whist-playing industrialists)
1891 (Johnstown Flood)
1914 (movie censorship)
1935 (Fallingwater and anti-Semitism)
1937 (media, advertising, technology, Hindenberg)
1982 (women in the military)
2003 (the stuff at the Donegal exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike)
As usual when I am in the zone, I am suspicious of the relative ease with which I have written these pieces. ("If I've written so much stuff so fast, it must suck, right?") In addition, I am deeply unsure of the strangeness of their structure. ("How can I, the poetic reactionary, be writing poems in newspaper columns and double voices and slogans and un-musical chunks?") I know I am sounding coy and tragicomic here, and on a certain level I agree that I am mythologizing my conservative reading and writing styles for the sake of enacting the role of a sprightly correspondent who is searching for material to share with her friends at 7 a.m. on a snowy Wednesday morning. But beneath the coyness, I am startled and disturbed by this hairpin turn in my artistic life.

What is also interesting is that I am far more shocked than I was three years ago, when I first began working on these poems. Those early pieces also demanded their own individual structures, but often the demands were metrical and rhymed. Now those staid drafts have been woven into the fabric of chaos.

It's clear to me that I'm working out a way to construct a replica of life and time: I see, I hear, I understand what is going on here. I'm doing what I should be doing. But I'm still appalled at the way in which creation re-creates the creator. Appalled, it seems to me, is not too strong a word. Wasn't Moses appalled by the burning bush?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

After a few mornings of respite, we're back below zero again. This winter is wearing me down. The hours feel thinned and worn, like old towels or the skin of hands. The sun mocks and prevaricates: longer days, yes, but no heat and precious little beaming.

However, I am still reading books. There is that. One of those books is Michael Aronson's Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905-1929. The book is disappointingly dry, but one chapter, "The Morals of the Movies," does include the complete 1914 version of the Standards of the State of Pennsylvania Board of Censors, which offers up such gems as these:
Scenes showing the modus operandi of criminals which are suggestive and incite to evil action, such as murder, poisoning, house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking, the lighting and throwing of bombs, the use of ether, chloroform, etc., to render men and women unconscious, binding and gagging, will be disapproved. 
Vulgarities of a gross kind, such as often appear in slapstick and other screen comedies, will be disapproved. Comedy which burlesques morgues, funerals, hospitals, insane asylums, the lying-in of women and houses of ill-fame, will be disapproved. 
Bathing scenes, which pass the limits of propriety, lewd and immodest dancing, the needless exhibition of women in their night dresses or underclothing, will be disapproved. 
That the theme or story of a picture is adapted from a publication, whether classical or not, . . . is not a sufficient reason for . . . approval.
The conclusion I have drawn: Do not, under any circumstances, dare to make a movie based on Oliver Twist.

Also, yet another remark from Margaret Drabble's The Middle Ground has jumped off the page and bitten me. I think I will make this my motto for the rest of the winter. Perhaps you would like to borrow it as well.
You can only be one person, not a sum or cross-section of many, and if other people don't like what you do, or think you ought to do something different, they can GO OFF and DO IT THEMSELVES. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Remember that post from last fall, when I told you about the day that Tom demolished our terrible old piano? Here is a photograph of my Christmas present from him: a standing desk, which he built from the planks of our erstwhile instrument, a Wellington model made by the Cable Company in about 1914. He even managed to keep the Wellington label intact.

Before he made me this desk, I had already been doing almost all of my writing standing up, but I was balancing everything on top of a 1910s-era cabinet Victrola that was slightly too short for me and had a tiny, wrist-compressing lid. The new desk has made an enormous difference in helping me manage both my too-much-sitting hip problems and my longstanding carpal tunnel problems.

However, the Victrola is still useful: I turned it into a filing cabinet.

Nor is the desk chair going to waste.

Tom says he is thinking of making a clock from the old piano keys.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The middle years, caught between children and parents, free of neither: the past stretches back too densely, it is too thickly populated, the future has not yet thinned out. No wonder a pattern is slow to emerge from such a thick clutter of cross-references, from such trivia, from such serious but hidden connections. Everything has too much history. . . . Even the table has too much history. Everything one does is weighed down with history. The way one mixes a salad dressing, or chooses a pair of socks. Pre-history. And as for committing words to paper, it is not surprising that this exercise should present problems. When one was younger, one saw patterns everywhere, for the process of selection was so simple. One simply did not notice most things, having no means of noticing them. So they selected themselves.

[from The Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble]

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Last fall, the CavanKerry Press blog began an occasional series called "Poetry and Education," which has thus far featured four essays from people associated in some capacity with the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Guest faculty member Terry Blackhawk and I wrote the first two, but more recent offerings were contributed by Jean Kanzinger and Carlene Gadapee, both master English teachers and long-time supporters of the conference. They have written gorgeous, spoken-from-the-trenches pieces that also overflow with idealism and love, and I really think you should read what these teachers have to say. The essays have gotten a great deal of social-network attention, with good reason, and I am so honored to count these women as colleagues and friends.

P.S. Here's a bit from Margaret Drabble's novel The Middle Ground that jumped off the page and bit me this morning.
"I hate scholarship," said Kate, vehemently, wiping her fingers on her son's home-knit jersey, "I hate the way it tells you that everything you think means something else really, but I know I hate it so much because I know it's true. Sickening to be always wrong, isn't it?"