Saturday, May 31, 2014

Yesterday morning I rushed home from Portland (E. B. White did win, by the way; my predictions were correct!) and then rushed off to a high school track meet, which was eventually canceled because of torrential thunderstorms, and then rushed home (sodden) to make dinner, and then rushed through a nerve-wracking sewing project (which came out beautifully, I'm relieved to say), and then finally stopped rushing, all of which explains why I did not write to you yesterday.

In contrast to yesterday's flurry, this morning I woke up to discover that Tom had forgotten to buy coffee and that Ruckus had left a dead mouse on the living room rug. Then I managed to open a door into my head, and now I feel a lumpy bruise ripening under my left eyebrow.

Today will be the day that my older son catches a plane to France. He is so happy. I do not want to distract him by growing a giant black bruise under my left eyebrow. I would prefer to have him remember me as the mother who swiftly transformed his favorite worn-and-torn Goodwill paisley shirt into a handsome short-sleeved shirt suitable for cafe and boulevard wear.

Blue in Green

Dawn Potter

Talk about art being its own worst
story: once I made the mistake
of playing Kind of Blue to snare
a baby into slumber.

Compare the crime
to those water-green lilies that teachers
Scotch-tape over the reading corner.
Now picture Monet shuffling the hallways
among our fluorescent children.
He would die of remorse. Meanwhile,
I knifed Miles for the sake of an hour’s
enchanted sleep. Who knew how soon
that breathing baby would light out
screaming into the blue?

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Thursday, May 29, 2014

This morning, two days before the first of June, the thermometer hovered at 32 degrees. Although the house shingles and the car windshield were lightly coated with frost, the garden seems to be undamaged. Still, it's not exactly thriving in this cold spring. All of the plants are tiny, bright green, and refrigerated. Even the blackflies are refrigerated, which is a minor plus. But on the whole, I'd rather be warm and bitten.

So instead of filling baskets with fresh lettuce, I've been drafting an essay about women, poetry education, and changing definitions of the academy. I've been checking proofs for a publisher and receiving many rejection letters. I've written a couple of new poems: one for the western Pennsylvania project, one unrelated. I've been rereading Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf and making my way through Betsy Sholl's new poetry collection, Otherwise Unseeable. I've been thinking about writing a essay that centers on recent books by Maine women poets: not only Betsy's but also Lee Sharkey's Calendars of Fire and Weslea Sidon's The Fool Sings. I've been composing introductions for this year's Frost Place faculty poets and planning a pilot writing workshop for a local domestic-violence organization. I've been cheating on crossword puzzles and learning to sing Elvis Costello's "Alison" and Neil Young's "Powderfinger." I've been mowing grass and mulching raspberries and pruning lilacs. I've been taking the excitable dog-cat posse for walks in the forest, and drinking too much coffee with my college boy, and sighing about the embarrassing Red Sox with my high school boy, and beating Tom at cribbage. I've been applying for jobs and applying for grants and coaxing people to sign up for the teaching conference and fretting about what to wear to this awards ceremony tonight. I've been falling asleep during every single TV show I try to watch. I've been waking up at 2 a.m. and listening to owls and sinking into dreams in which Maine's terrible governor has transmogrified into a terrible elementary school principal. I've been rising at dawn and fixing yet another pot of coffee and watching the mist rise over clotheslines loaded with wet clothes, over a chicken-less chicken house, over the phosphorescent blooms of the plum tree. Time slips on.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

News, Etc.

* Tomorrow afternoon I drive down to Portland for the 2014 Maine Literary Awards ceremony. A Poet's Sourcebook is one of three finalists in the anthology category. The ceremony is open to the public, and there will be snacks and a bar, and you could come too. My competition includes a collation of Portland-area poets, collected by the city's current poet laureate, and a medley of E. B. White's writings about dogs, compiled by his granddaughter. It seems likely that E. B., though dead, would be the judges' favorite for almost any award, but I shall attend nonetheless. I am fond of his writings about dogs, and I like the Portland-area poets too.

* The weather is cold and wet and cold and wet. Yes, it's May 28, and, yes, I started a fire in the woodstove this morning. Blah. On the bright side, the four loads of laundry hanging on the line just got a second rinse.

* Applications for the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching close on May 31. So apply, apply, apply! Please feel free to email me at ironduke at tdstelme dot net if you have any questions.

* Rhubarb grows very well in weather that is cold and wet and cold and wet. Thus far, my family is not sick of rhubarb desserts, but I am beginning to worry.

* On June 12 at 12:45 p.m., I'll be reading at Bryant Park in NYC with two other CavanKerry Press poets: January Gill O'Neil and Teresa Carson. This will be my first visit to the metropolis in years. I'm turning it into a holiday jaunt with my sixteen-year-old, and we are very excited. So come to our reading and meet my darling beanpole.

* The beanpole tells me that he would rather visit the Cloisters than Coney Island.

* My husband Tom is one of the featured photographers in a show at the Kingman Gallery in Deer Isle. If you're wandering up and down the Maine coast wondering what to do with yourself, you could go look at his pictures.

* Here is one of Tom's photographs. It is not in the Kingman show but was part of a photo slideshow/poetry reading that we concocted together a few years back.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I had a banner day at the Bangor Goodwill yesterday: six books and a beautiful $9.99 leather jacket. My book haul was mostly contemporary fiction by writers whose books I've been meaning to read: Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Nicholson Baker's Vox. I also added to my Margaret Drabble collection with The Witch of Exmoor and found a lovely tiny Nelson Classics edition of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. My best find was Edith Hamilton's Mythology, one of my childhood obsessions. My mother owned a ramshackle paperback that I more or less destroyed with rereading. I've since tried to find my own copy but could only track down an edition that had been misbound so that large stretches of pages repeated each other. But yesterday, waiting meekly among the Lance Armstrong biographies, was a beautiful hardcover, dust jacket intact. I cannot wait to read it again.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Is it not possible--I often wonder--that the things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it--the past--as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past.

--Virginia Woolf, quoted in Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf: A Biography

"What shall I do?" she cried; but already, as her stricken parents
          begged her to stay, she had snatched up her cloak,
flung it over her shoulders, and mounted the dancing mare,
          who galloped headlong into the fog and vanished
before the father could gather strength or wits to hold her.

--from my poem "The White Bear," in Same Old Story

I am the daughter of a generation of ambitious women who believed that an education would set them free, who assumed that marriage could be a holy partnership of sex and security, who expected to glory in child rearing, who saw no reason why they couldn’t be artists as great as Shakespeare, if only they could drive themselves hard enough into the work. The end results featured various versions of disaster and disappointment. Some of these women did carve out long and illustrious careers—though, very often, as men have done for so many thousands of years, they succeeded at the expense of those who loved and depended on them. Others exploded like fire bombs. But most, for better or worse, made a compromise with mediocrity, trading the pursuit of greatness for family or financial stability; giving up restless exhaustion for a semblance of peace. This last is not necessarily a bad ending. Yet a child watches her parents, and their disappointments and distresses become their legacy. And an anger remains, dormant mostly, but wreaking its own damages.

--from an essay I'm writing

Sunday, May 25, 2014

My son managed to capture this portrait of the indigo bunting that's been flitting around our feeder for the past several days. After a winter of little gray chickadees and nuthatches, the window view is a feast of color . . . rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches, purple finches, and now this glorious shy visitor.

My son is also a feast of color, bustling around the house in his funny loud pants and his Goodwill hats with comic punchlines and his silly ironic t-shirts, drinking coffee, playing with his camera equipment, teasing the cat, hugging the dog, fixing his bike, eating all of the snacks, charming his parents. He has been home from college for a week and in less than a week will be flying off again, this time to Paris for a film class. He is an almost-twenty-year-old in all of his plumage, and every glimpse of him gives me joy and a pang of loneliness.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In his review of Same Old Story, Nick Schroeder seemed to particularly like the poem I posted here yesterday, "No Day Is Safe from News of You." I was pleased that he liked it because the poem is one of my own favorites in the collection, though I've never been sure that it would necessarily attract anyone else.

"No Day Is Safe from News of You" is a conversation poem. That is, during its construction, I viscerally felt its structure and images develop as I was immersed in the work of another poet. My partner in the conversation was Sylvia Plath, and in fact my title is a line from her poem "The Rival."

While I intensely admire many of Plath's poems, I don't always (even usually) admire her as a human being; and this tension always infects my interactions with her poetry. I'm also afraid of her. As Hermione Lee writes about Virginia Woolf, "I think I would have been afraid of meeting her. I am afraid of not being intelligent enough for her.  Reading and writing her life,  I am often afraid (or, in one of the words she used most about her mental states, 'apprehensive')  for her."

"No Day Is Safe from News of You" is an important poem to me because, as I drew together its threads, I felt Plath's presence as a colleague, a seeker, an equal. This sounds hubristic, but it is not. I am not saying that my poem is as good as a Plath poem. Rather, in those moments of our poetic conversation, I was not afraid of her, and she was not derisive about me.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

No Day Is Safe from News of You

Dawn Potter

Morning breaks like glass.
I sidle through the kitchen,
naked as a hoptoad, but nary a glance
hipes my way.
My love, he loves me with an H; he feeds me
with hay and hieroglyphs. Hélas.

Cold wind blusters under a second-rate sun.
The speckled rooster hoicks his brag to heaven.
Our only news is bad news,
squawk his twelve insatiable hens.
Their feathers blow backward. In the patchy daylight
they shimmer like a straggle of dahlias.

Sing ho for the new year, croons the magazine to an empty room.
The stovepipe ticks,
but Nothing, nothing, nothing, says the clock.
My love, he loves me with an H; we breakfast
on hum-birds and humble pie,
though yesterday we ate husks.

Time flies! shouts the rooster, and the yeast agrees.
It swims in a blue bowl,
morning-glory blue, color of a blind eye.
Every headlong day my love’s heart sings,
Weariness, yes, weariness, and never enough cash.
O holy night-before-last, when it forgot the words,

when I dreamt of turrets and stairs. Only
the radio kept muttering the tune.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In 1954 and 1955, Robert Graves, poet, novelist, and classical scholar, gave a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, which were collected in his essay collection The Crowning Privilege. In his opening remarks, he offered this general overview of the place of the poet in postwar England:
Unlike stockbrokers, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers, and parsons, English poets do not form a closely integrated guild. A poet may put up his brass plate, so to speak, without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university, reading the required books and satisfying examiners. Also, a poet, being responsible to no General Council, and acknowledging no person superior, can never be unfrocked, cashiered, disbarred, struck off the register, hammered on 'Change, or flogged round the fleet, if he is judged guilty of unpoetic conduct. The only limits set on his activities are the acts relating to libel, pornography, treason, and the endangerment of public order. And if he earns the scorn of his colleagues, what effective sanctions can they take against him? None at all. . . . 
This general privilege, as I understand it, implies individual responsibility: the desire to deserve well of the Muse, their divine patroness, from whom they receive their unwritten commissions, to whom they eat their solitary dinners, who confers her silent benediction on them, to whom they swear their secret Hippocratic oath, to whose moods they are as attentive as the stockbroker is to his market.
I find these remarks both depressing and exhilarating. I sink into gloom whenever yet another man trots out this time-worn reduction of the poetic urge. Man writes; woman inspires! In college during the mid-1980s I had a young literature professor who used to waste class time crowing about his beautiful wife. "My Muse!" he would sigh ecstatically, and my friend Jilline and I would catch each other's eyes and then look at the floor and squirm in our chairs. At that age we weren't above wishing to be Muses ourselves. But what we really wanted to be was artists; and even in our unformed yearnings, we recognized the trap.

Yet Graves's statement is more than standard man-poet emoting. It also sketches a vanished time: when "a poet [could still] put up his brass plate . . . without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university, reading the required books and satisfying examiners." Graves himself was tremendously learned, not only wedded to classical sources but deeply read in the traditional English canon. He might seem, according to one point of view, a quintessential academic. But he nonetheless perceived that poetry is a wild land, and one's ability to negotiate its thorns and chasms must have nothing to do with externally imposed requirements.

Things are different today, and not everything is worse. If Graves were to make that Muse comment at a university lecture, he would not escape unscathed. And as I've said here many, many times, a formal education in poetry can be a wonderful gift. But it's not the only way to become a poet, nor is it necessarily the best way; and it's a fact that people without MFA degrees do tend to have lower status among other poets and are almost always financially penalized.

This educational shift has created an inversion in nomenclature. Today, when people talk about poets who work within and outside "the academy," they are generally referring to the divide between poets with advanced degrees who teach in university settings and poets without advanced degrees who may not teach in any setting at all. Yet these graduate degrees are often predicated on a close study of contemporary poetry rather than an immersion in Graves's conception of the traditional canon: Milton, Dryden, Pope, and those other big men of letters. Once we would have called that old-fashioned route academic. Now, however, it is academic only if one is not a poet.

Since the mid-1950s, when Graves was speaking at Trinity, poetry education has twisted itself inside out. For the generation of women who were young and aspiring in the fifties--women such as Plath and Rich and Kumin and Sexton--that twist was both essential and destructive. In far less dramatic manner, I think it has affected most of us, for better or worse.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Yesterday I received two announcements: A Poet's Sourcebook is a finalist for a 2014 Maine Literary Award, and my chapbook manuscript Vocation is a finalist in Tupelo Press's 2014 Snowbound Series Chapbook Competition. Already, earlier in the week, I'd learned that Same Old Story had received a judges' nomination for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry. To say that I am overwhelmed is to sum up the situation mildly. More or less, I feel as if I'm walking into walls. My writing has never gotten so much attention before. And the fact that it's been directed at three different books makes the situation that much more bewildering.

My friend Will tells me I don't take flattery very well. My response was "Hey, I was brought up as a Quaker. What do you expect?" So now I'm going to change the subject and mention that people are continuing to leave comments about the accessibility topic. I'm glad that so many of you were moved to contribute your thoughts, and I continue to be delighted by your openness and curiosity.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My two previous posts have touched on the concept of accessibility, and I love reading what you have all said. At its most basic, accessibility is, I think, simply a private link at a particular moment. Milosz, in his Nobel acceptance speech, said, "I wouldn’t know how to speak about poetry in general. I must speak of poetry in its encounter with peculiar circumstances of time and place." Accessibility, then, is not only an element of the relationship between poem and reader; it is also the web that fastens a poet to history. Milosz's remark feels right to me.

Probably we've taken this subject as far as it can reasonably go, at least in the fractured context of a blog, so I'll let it drop now. But I will leave you with a bit from Virginia Woolf's review of a biography of Christina Rossetti. It is not exactly pertinent to the Milosz quotation, yet something vibrates between them.
Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures--for they are rather under life size--will begin to move and speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I'm off to play music at Stutzman's Cafe this morning. By the way, the cafe has just been named Yankee Magazine's 2014 "Best Farm to Fork Restaurant in New England," so you might want to drop by for brunch one of these Sundays. It really is excellent.

I'm enjoying the conversation around yesterday's post, and I've received some thoughtful emails on the same topic, which I hope the writers will allow me to share with you.

And here are the closing lines of Czeslaw Milosz's "Late Ripeness," which somehow feels pertinent to this green and dripping day:
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A few weeks ago my sweet friend Nick posted a few comments about Same Old Story on the book's Amazon page. In it, he made more or less the same remark that my father also made when he wrote me a letter about the book: that it was a relief to read poems that were "accessible."

Accessibility is a broad and ambiguous concept, one that might cover poets as different as Sappho and Shel Silverstein. Yet as bandied in contemporary criticism, the term can be slyly pejorative. The implication is that accessibility may add to a book's general attractiveness but may also equal naive or lazy. Accessibility, such pedants suggest, is a bone to toss to non-experts. The attitude is both insulting and stupid, tantamount to claiming that Rembrandt was inferior to Pollock simply because Rembrandt was a realist.

Both Nick and my dad are well-educated men, and both chose the word with care. For them, accessibility implies a fruitful engagement between written word and reader, a conversation rather than a battle, and I am honored by their praise. But of course accessibility means different things to different readers, and I daresay there are plenty of people out there who would tell you that (1) my poems are too hard to understand and (2) my poems are too easy to understand. Both of those reactions are true because, as readers, we are changeable. Today, for instance, I would call Dickinson's poems accessible, but I struggled with them when I was a teenager. As an older reader, I have patience with strangeness and discomfort whereas when I was young, all I sought was rapture: "give me Keats and Keats and Keats!"

So I'm interested in your take on the matter . . . not necessarily with my poems but with the idea of accessibility in general. Does it mean easy to you? Or something more complicated? And how has your private definition of accessibility changed over time?

Friday, May 16, 2014

. . . and today I will be on my hands and knees fruitlessly attempting to scrub the smell of stale dog urine out of a broad tract of 1970s-era wall-to-wall (formerly shag) brown carpeting. Such is the life of the Poet.


acting of
ambitions of
anger and rages of
anxiety of
appearance of
appendectomy of
awards and honors of
baby-sitting jobs of
birthdays of
birth of
book offers of
at camp
childhood of
clothes of
confidence of
controlling behavior of
copyright of
dating of

        --from the index of Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath, by Paul Alexander


I know there are no people on Mars, because I know Mars is a frozen body. Mars was like the Earth, but many billions of years ago. The earth will also be like Mars, but in several hundred years' time. I feel that the Earth is suffocating, and therefore I ask everyone to abandon factories and obey me. I know what is needed for the salvation of the earth. I know how to light a stove and will therefore be able to light up the earth.

        --Vaslav Nijinksy, from a diary entry, February 27, 1919


"Ach Gott, what disgusting work to do!--but the destroying of bugs cannot be delegated."

        --Jane Welsh Carlyle, from a letter to Thomas Carlyle, August 18, 1843

Thursday, May 15, 2014

So here is some news. Same Old Story has been nominated for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry.

I do not know why this has happened. According to the website, "there is no external nominating process for the Book Prizes. Authors, publishers, agents or publicists cannot propose or submit titles for consideration. Responsibility for nominating books for consideration and for naming both the finalists and the ultimate winners rests solely with nine panels of three judges each."

I've never had any interaction with this year's poetry judges. Why would they have noticed my book? I know I have no hope of even making the finalist list for a prize that poets such as Louise Gluck and Allen Ginsberg have won. But golly.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I've read a number of contemporary poetry collections lately, and a few thoughts have come to mind. First, what exactly does a critic mean when he says a poet "employ[s] the plain style with great virtuosity"? Second, does a poet's flashy ability to write in many different styles enhance or detract from the cohesion of her work? And, third, is inner chaos better revealed by way of strictly controlled poetic architecture or unframed outbursts?

Of course, there's no single answer to any of these questions. One poet may thrive on the approach that wrecks another poet's work. An apprentice poet may need to experiment with radically different styles as he searches for the conduit between his verbal skills and his mysterious inner life. A mature poet may suddenly need to reconfigure her written voice, or she may slide more intensely into the voice she has been honing all her life. Some of us are habit-driven for very good reasons; some of us cannot grow without drastic change.

Still, I've been thinking about these questions. Does a plainspoken poet use his avuncular, colloquial voice as an invitation or a shield? Do stylistic experiments allow a poet to avoid concentrating on the depths, or do they give her a new way to penetrate the darkness? Are boundaries necessary? Do they appear where we think they appear?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Yesterday morning I worked on an essay. In the afternoon I went outside and cleaned up the sticks and leaves left over from Tom's dead-tree-removal project. Then I planted beans, sunflowers, and dahlias; and then I changed my clothes and drove to a late-afternoon meeting with the executive director of a local organization dedicated to combating domestic violence. As I may have mentioned to you last fall, one of my good friends and I have been slowly mulling over ideas for joining forces in our work. She's a counselor and a social worker, I'm a teacher and a writer, and now it looks very likely that we will be doing a pilot project with the organization we visited yesterday. We will begin with a workshop for adult women; but if all goes well, it will also morph into a traveling workshop for high school girls--perhaps focusing on relationships, or parents and children, or some other topic that can be tied to the goals of the organization but will also give us a great deal of literary and creative space.

This is exactly the sort of shift I've been promoting at the Frost Place . . . a move to broaden the boundaries of teaching, to take our skills into nontraditional sites and work with individuals who are in desperate need of a voice. I came home last night in such high spirits. What could be better than working alongside people I really, really like; doing work that matters but that doesn't need to follow any sort of institutional mandate? Maybe I will even get paid, someday.

Last November I posted an essay by my friend. I'm sure, when you read it, you'll understand why I'm so excited by the idea of teaching with her.

Monday, May 12, 2014


Dawn Potter

The first word I remember reading was a scarlet
Heidi printed on the spine of a yellow
and brown hardback my parents kept
near the breakfast table, though maybe I didn’t
really read it because what I remember most
is how the letters carved out the shape of the word,
tall, short, short, tall, short, to make a sort of camel
with a misplaced hump and what I remember next
was not reading, till suddenly I read everything.

That was the year I wrote my first poem,
which I think had something to do with autumn,
and I remember I asked my mother
to type it out so that I could present it
to my father for his birthday, and I told her
I wanted her to type, “To My Father,”
but instead she typed, “To Daddy,”
which distressed me, for somewhere
I’d imbibed the notion

that real poetry required pomp, or at least dignity.
Clearly “Daddy” was for everyday use only,
but I said, “Thank you,” glued the typescript
to a sheet of green construction paper,
and gave it to my father, who said, “Thank you,”
told me how smart I was, and stuck it up
on his filing cabinet, where it hung for a thousand years,
much to my dismay. I had no intention
of ever risking a poem again,

now that I’d discovered how wrong a thought could look.
And if you believe this is a dull incident in the life of a dull child,
then you’ve never felt the knife edge against your larynx
when a shape does not take shape,
when re-reading becomes unbearable.
Do not make me live inside
this thing, this scrap of verse,
that I meant to be pure and whole and gleaming.
It never was. It was always dead.

[from Vocation, a chapbook in limbo]

Sunday, May 11, 2014

After the rains stopped, Anna and Ruckus and I walked (lurked, pranced, dashed) through the woods and down to the stream to check out the state of the fiddlehead patch. And there they were, the beautiful green coils, beginning to erupt from the silty remains of least year's drowned bracken. Only ten were ready to cut; but by the time James gets home from college this week, I will be able to shower him with dishpans full of hot fiddleheads tossed with olive oil and salt.

Here I go again, writing about walking in the woods or gardening or hanging laundry or listening to birds. Same old story, but I can't stop telling it.

I've been interviewed twice within the past few months, and both times the questioner asked me about my sense of myself as a New England poet. That label is right up there with "southern novelist" and "New York painter" in the pantheon of imagined and imaginary clubs. But of course place could be anywhere for some artists, no matter where they live. I recently read a new collection of poems by a poet who has spent nearly all of his life in New England, and his nature poems (of which there were many) could have been set in suburban Philadelphia as easily as suburban Boston. I am not mentioning this as a criticism; I'm simply saying that he is not a New England poet in the way in which Dickinson or Frost was a New England poet. For them place was the instigator, the tyrant, the inspiration. Their fate.

So in that sense, yes, I am a New England poet. What I said in the second interview was fairly close to what I said in the first:
There's no question that, for me, hardscrabble rural Maine has become a muse, a character, and an impetus. For whatever reason, a lonely engagement with place has been common to many New England poets. For instance, poets as disparate as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Hayden Carruth consistently opened themselves to the complications of their physical world as it interacted with their morality and their imagination. Relying on this relationship is a strange ascetic impulse, certainly not one I've purposely sought. But it’s there. My landscape and its weather are harsh, but they also require my close attention. I can’t forget they exist. On a ten-below-zero morning, when I have to go outside and haul firewood, my life literally depends on how I choose to interact with my environment. In many ways, the epic, mythic, tedious, everyday reality of this place has become the imaginative geography that lies beneath most of what I write, even pieces that don’t specifically concern Maine.
I might have written differently if my questioner had interviewed me in springtime--though spring, really, is only a turn of the page. Everything is still just as demanding and difficult. It's just that I, like everything else in my clearing in the woods, am intoxicated by air and warmth and the pressing distractions of creation.

Or as Frost wrote in "Mending Wall," "Spring is the mischief in me." He was speaking for the stones as well.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rain is pouring down and down, grass is greening, buds are swelling before my eyes. Radishes are up, peas are up, arugula is up. The garlic greens are six inches high. The plants seem to tremble with eagerness under the steady, soaking rain.

Yesterday Tom spent the morning working on his photographs; later in the day he went into the forest and cut cedar poles for a new clothesline. I read poetry collections, worked on an essay, then turned over garden soil and dragged brush and pruned raspberry canes. Paul was away at a track meet, so just the two of us were home for dinner. I roasted potatoes, sauteed dandelion greens in bacon, made a tomato salad. Tom washed the dishes. We drank coffee and tea. We talked a lot, about nothing in particular. It was a good day.

Today could be another one. I will read more poems; I will finish reading a novel; I will do housework and cook spicy red beans with cornmeal dumplings. Paul and I will plan our June foray to New York City.

Saturday Night in Connellsville (1994)

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky;

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever.

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

Friday, May 9, 2014

My region of Maine is terrible for farming. Centuries after it was first tilled, the earth still exudes boulders. The topsoil is thin and acid, root-ridden and ledge-bound. Dirt can be easier to dig with a pick than with a spade. Killing winters and heavy tree cover hamstring the growing season.

But every spring I plant. So far I've put in radishes, red lettuce, arugula, early beets, chervil, cilantro, shell peas, leeks, shallots, scallions, kohlrabi, dill, carrots, and pansies. I've pruned roses and grapes and tidied up the perennial herb beds. Already I've harvested sorrel and lovage and chives and dandelion greens. Soon the nettles will be large enough to cut, and fiddleheads will spring up along the snowmelt stream.

Last night Tom lit the inaugural flame in our outdoor firepit. Bundled in sweaters and jackets, we sat next to it, drinking beer and playing cribbage, laughing at Ruckus and Anna cavorting in the gloaming, listening to the peepers and the bullfrogs, watching the bats fly overhead. The evening sky was a deep blue, like wet ink soaking through paper, a sky of the sort that William Blake might paint.

I live on such a beautiful, awkward, lonely, tedious, glorious patch of earth.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

                                      It is more difficult to evade 
That habit of wishing and to accept the structure
Of things as the structure of ideas. It was the structure
Of things at least that was thought of in the old peak of night.
I do not think of myself as a devotee of Wallace Stevens. But the volume was lying on my desk, a research artifact in a recent editing project, so I opened it at random this morning and read the lines above, which end his brief poem "The Bed of Old John Zeller."

Immediately I felt the vibration. The poem required my attention. Immediately I turned back the page to read the opening lines.
The structure of ideas, these ghostly sequences
Of the mind, result in only disaster. It follows,
Casual poet, that to add your own disorder to disaster 
Makes more of it.
I do not know if Stevens is speaking to me. I do not know if Stevens is speaking to you through me. But I am writing down what he said, which you may or may not require, which may or may not terrify you.

[For copyright reasons, I cannot share the entire poem here, nor am I quickly finding a link to it online. So you will have to open your own volume to read the rest of it.]

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

At last weekend's Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I spent some time talking to Kyle Potvin, one of the editors at Mezzo Cammin, an online journal of formal poetry by women. I'd vaguely known about the existence of this journal, though I've never submitted. What I didn't know is that it is now actively seeking essays "on any aspect of poetry in form by women." Kyle tells me that the editors aren't necessarily looking for strict scholarship (though scholars are welcome to submit). They also want personal essays, craft essays, interviews in essay form, and so on and so on; and they are interested in contemporary unknowns as well as canonical poets. I'm sure that, while they are focusing on the work of women poets, they would be more than happy to receive essays written by men. In my experience, women writers and editors are generally thrilled to learn that men care about their work.

I'm passing this along because I know that most of you have strong feelings about the poets who matter to you, and this may be inducement to put pen to paper and write about one of them. At the festival Kyle and I spent some time talking about ways to make the essay archive easily available to teachers, who are always eager for source material. And what I said is that I'd like teachers to write some of these essays. How does a particular poet matter in your teaching practice? How has her use of form influenced the way in which you share that form with your students? How might your students react to the story this poet tells of her life in poetry? How do your students feel about the fact that a particular poet is your personal friend, or a strange and distant figure in history, or a striving but obscure poet working in an unfamiliar country or language?

Because Same Old Story includes so many sonnets, I, too, have been thinking lately about the role of form in my own life and practice. My attraction toward sonnets has not always been salutary: in fact, when I was writing the poems that ended up in my first collection, Boy Land, Baron suggested that I try hard not to allow myself to fall into formality. He said the form was too easy for me; that I was too facile a writer; that I used structure and pattern to avoid writing what I needed to write. As usual, he was right. I needed to push myself to speak, not hem myself neatly into corners. It took me more than a decade to return confidently to form--a decade of writing bad sonnet after bad sonnet, but also copying out other poets' sonnets, studying how they work, writing about how they work. Maybe I'm a slow learner: yet I have always loved sonnets; I have always wanted to be a formalist. What I couldn't do for so long was to synthesize the sonnet's interactive potential with my own drive to speak and dramatize. I had to shed form in order to return to it, and I wonder how many other poets have followed a similar path.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Take the Donegal Exit (2003)

Dawn Potter

50 Million Gallons
Of Gasoline Sold
In the US Every Day!
Official Fuel of NASCAR!
Try It Today! Finally
A Menu Worthy of Your
Hunger! Lowest Rates
Guaranteed! It’s All
About You! Olde
Miniature Golf! A Visit
With T. H. Gopher
Is Available by Request!
We Guarantee Chip
And Dale Quality Hunks!
New! Early Morning
Worship! Casual Dress!
Shorter Service! Let’s
Focus on Family Fun!

And then the forest thickens. 

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

Monday, May 5, 2014

Last week I was talking to a friend about the anxiety that seizes me when anyone begins to praise my writing. If I'm prepared, I can override the panic, breathe deeply, manage to thank the praiser. I tend to believe in criticism more than praise. My assumption, I suppose, is that most readers will zero in on the flaws that I did not see or could not solve. I rarely allow myself to imagine that anyone will accept the book as a finished accomplishment.

Very likely this reaction is beneficial insofar as it keeps me poised for change and instruction, whether from astute readers or editors or simply as a result of my own ongoing education in poetry. But there is something difficult about allowing oneself to accept praise. At a point of great success, when she was receiving extraordinary reviews and accolades, Virginia Woolf wrote, "It is perhaps true that my reputation will now decline. I shall be laughed at & pointed at." The praise only made her more thin-skinned, more anxious.

Yesterday I posted a link to a review of Same Old Story. I do not know this reviewer, nor had I sent a press release to the newspaper. It is an amazingly favorable piece, and I am honored and grateful. Of course I also hope that it will convince people that the book is worthy of being read. I don't imagine that this book will win national accolades. I don't live that kind of life; I don't have those kinds of connections. But with a review like this one, I begin to sense that, for the first time, I may have published a book that will not automatically disappear down the rabbit hole.

Poet Betsy Sholl was also featured in the review; and she, too, had not known anything about the piece or the reviewer. After I shared it with her, she said, "The guy was pretty nice to us." Yes, he was. So I will breathe deeply and hope that somehow I can convey my thanks to him. I want to tell him that the vulnerability that enables the creation of poetry can also make it very difficult to believe that the poems are capable of taking their place in the larger conversation. But I want him to know--I want you to know--that even when I fall into awkwardness and panic, I am full of happiness about my reader.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

I am exhausted, and my back still hurts, but I had a wonderful time in Massachusetts. People actually bought books. One of my favorite contemporary poets, Michael Casey, came looking for me to sign a book he'd already bought online. Just listening to him read has taught me more about the possibilities of voice and poetic line than I've learned from any other contemporary poet, yet I wouldn't have believed he'd even remember me, let alone go out of his way to buy my book. I am overwhelmed; I am still close to tears.

And then I came home to discover this review of the book in the Portland Phoenix.

Tomorrow I will talk to you more.

Friday, May 2, 2014

I'm heading south this morning to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where, tomorrow, Teresa Carson and I will spend the whole day behind the CavanKerry Press table at the book fair. We will be longing for company, so come visit us: we will save an extra folding chair just for you.

Please do send good wishes to my Ancient Pensioner back as it makes the long car trip from here to there. Also, feel free to nag my son to do his chores while I'm gone.

By the way, May 15 is the application deadline for the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. So hurry up and apply because I really, really, really want to sit on Robert Frost's front porch with you.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

During the throes of our bleak winter, I spent some time sorting through the stack of poems I've written during the past couple of years. Most are related to my western Pennsylvania research, but a significant number of new pieces--for instance, my long poem about Mr. Kowalski--aren't part of that project. As I sorted, I kept sensing a synchronicity--some connection overriding yet interacting with the historical theme: as if the two sets of poems were functioning as a seventeenth-century letter does, one page written crosswise over the other: a purposeful way to save paper, an accidental way to mesh disparate thoughts.

So I began mixing up poems from both stacks, trying first one combination and then another, and I started to see a common theme. These are poems about working, about not working, about finding meaning or hopelessness in work, about the work that others expect of us, about the work we expect of ourselves, about the work that happens when we are not paying attention, about the work that we destroy or that others destroy for us. This seemed like a starting point, so I kept at the task--adding and removing poems, switching their order, switching their order again--until I had a chapbook-sized manuscript of poems that I called Vocation.

But what should I do with it? The first thing I did was use the writing sample in my applications for the various state and federal grants that I pessimistically fill out every year. I rarely win anything, and the process of applying is aggravating and arcane; but on the other hand, the applications are free, so what do I have to lose other than an innocent belief in the efficacy of government?

And then I impulsively decided to enter a major chapbook contest. I tried to talk myself out of it. I told myself that this would be a waste of $25; I reminded myself that I hate the contest model of poetry publishing; I fretted over my immorality. Then I said, "What the hell," and pushed the send button.

Today, on this dark and rainy morning, I woke up at 5:30 a.m., groaned, clutched my Aged Pensioner back, and hobbled downstairs to wake up my son. I made a fire in the woodstove, I made the boy's lunch, I made coffee; and while the coffee was brewing, I looked at my email messages and discovered that Vocation is a finalist for the major chapbook prize.

Here's the first poem in the manuscript.

Statement of My Creative Interests

Dawn Potter

Death, by which I mean the sudden death
of snuff bottles and weeping willow trees,
undiagnosed roads littered with sorrows,
and postal clerks languishing along the canals.

And Sex, of course. That goes without saying.
The insatiable queen; the pale and ruminating
heifer; the snails, incompatible on a blue plate.
(You see how the links begin to accrue.)

To a certain degree Love,
but with a teaspoon of Despair—
star-crossed bats, an aging incognito ragdoll,
three Polacks stumbling into a bar.

Not Hate so much as Grudging Defeat,
as when day breaks on time
or the sparrow scorns her basin of chickweed
while the furnace belches rank and artless air.

Although Wonder, without a doubt.
Those curious prosthetics, those animalia
with their clever hums and coos,
those quivering visions of Albion.

And Yearning, always Yearning:
the one-eyed child leaning out of the highchair,
the lord protector pacing his damp yew walk
as the Calydonian hunter straggles after the boar.

[first published in Solstice Literary Magazine (summer 2013)]