Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This morning a friend wrote to me: "Listening now to a tape of the 1965 National Book Awards. [Theodore] Roethke wins, but is dead, so [Stanley] Kunitz accepts and eulogizes, during which he reveals that among R's papers were found 1200 poems by other poets written out in his own hand. 'He said he didn't know what was in a poem until he had transcribed it.'"

I've wondered what my family will think, after my death, of the thousands of copied-out poems in my computer files and commonplace books. Will they see them as nothing? Or will they be interested? Does it matter?

I don't spend too much time cogitating about the future. I am not so vain as to imagine that I will be transmitting any kind of important archive to my sons. I do not worry about whether or not they read my writing now, or if they ever will read it. Still, I do have a mild fly-on-the-wall curiosity about their reaction to these transcriptions. Thousands of other people's poems. What does one do with them?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

So far this morning, I've washed dishes, towels, and the dog. Meanwhile, a small rain taps against the shingles, and I am thinking of the apples I must buy and the checkbook I must update and the bread I must bake and the damp soccer game I must sit through. My mind is a bulletin board of obligations I did not meet while I was reading poems in coffee shops and church halls.

Outside my open window, a chickadee is back-talking a red squirrel. The rain has dwindled to drips. I wonder if a new crop of mysterious mushrooms has blossomed in the forest. I wonder why I can't stop opening my poetry readings with Jane Kenyon's "The Sandy Hole," which is a terrifying poem, maybe the scariest four-line poem I have ever read, and not a cozy way to introduce myself to strangers.

I wonder how I will write to Donald Hall about that poem, or if I will.

Downstairs, the dishwasher has ground to a halt. A single raindrop bounces from the drip-edge onto the porch roof below. In the garden, a mass of red dahlias swoons into the long grass.

If Caliban were hiding beneath the sagging deck, he would crawl out now, into the dank green daylight, and shuffle down the wheel tracks into the mother-clutch of the dark wet wood.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two readings in two days, lots of lonely driving in unfamiliar places, and a newfound trust in the navigating skills of Sweet Google-Ann's disembodied GPS voice. I sold out of Same Old Story, people seem to really like the western Pennsylvania poems, and my friend Bill says I should get black t-shirts printed up with my tour dates on the back.

Heading back north today, with a pitstop at the Italian grocery in Portland for discount wine and Sicilian slabs and boxes of cannoli. If you find yourself in need of an emergency poetry reading, just let Google-Ann know.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Because The Conversation reprints the work of other writers, I have been contractually obliged to pay permissions fees and, in many cases, to send copies of the book to the poets I've anthologized. So several months ago I mailed a stack of books to various poets or the representatives of their estates. Within a week, I received a letter from the great poet Donald Hall, who represents the estate of his late wife, Jane Kenyon. He wrote warmly about the Kenyon poem I'd chosen to include ("Having It Out with Melancholy"), said sweet things about the Frost Place and a mutual acquaintance who has recently taught there for me . . .  in short, went above and beyond any kind of response I might have expected, which was no response at all.

I felt as if I should write back, but I was anxious. I was in the middle of copying out Kenyon's poems, and I wasn't sure how to talk about them to him. So I put off writing for months.

Finally, last week, I wrote back to Donald Hall, telling him about Baron's workshop on Kenyon at this past summer's Frost Place conference, telling him what I was doing with her poems and how they were affecting my own thoughts as a poet who deals with much the same subject matter.

And he immediately wrote back--telling me in detail about the first time Jane publicly read "Having It Out with Melancholy"--which was at the Frost Place!--talking to me as if I were a real working poet with a place in the world, by which I don't mean fame or stature but simply room.

"I love what you are doing!" he wrote to me.

I am overcome--with pleasure, of course, but also with an enormous wash of humility. I don't know what I am doing that he loves. Whatever it is, I must do better, in all things.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Today's itinerary: driving north to take the boy to a cross-country meet, then driving south to a reading in Cape Elizabeth.

I won't be home again till Monday. I will try to write to you in the meantime, but forgive me if I don't quite manage it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Four Thoughts about Miracles

                             Fall sun
passes through the wine.

--Jane Kenyon, "September Garden Party"


Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable fact? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvellous is indeed an aspect of the real?

--Robertson Davies, Fifth Business


And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the soccer idol is born. He is born in a straw crib in a tin-roofed shack and he enters the world clinging to a ball.

--Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, translated by Mark Fried


The End of the Season

Dawn Potter

I drive into the dark.
The World Series sputters on the radio.
In the backseat my son weeps
and a girl holds his hand.

It is late autumn.
The eyes of cats glint along the roadside.
Jagged clouds frame the setting sun.
The sky is a riot of colors—lemon, salmon, plum—

and now soccer season is over.
The winners have taken their victory laps across the field.
Our losers have scattered into cars,
stunned and deflated.

Startled sparrows fly up from the grass
as my car rattles westward.
Chimney smoke threads from window-lit capes,
from tidy ranches and collapsing trailers.

at the strike of a shovel,
the earth will ring like a tamped bell—
muffled, ironbound.

The season is over.
My son weeps in the backseat
and a girl,
dear tender apprentice of love,

quietly holds his hand.
Oh, the small tragedies.
In the moments we live them,
they are blacker than roads.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

This week is the calm before the hurricane. On Saturday I'll be reading in southern Maine, on Sunday I'll be reading in central Massachusetts, on Monday I'll be driving home, on Tuesday I'll be attending a tense homecoming soccer game in central Maine, on Thursday I'll be reading in western Massachusetts, on Friday I'll be driving home, on Saturday I'll be playing music in central Maine, and on Sunday I'll be a puddle.

So I'm trying to catch up on home chores this week, which mostly means that I'm ripping plants out of my garden. Gone are the green beans, the sunflowers, the cucumbers. I've torn out last season's strawberries. I've harvested the remaining carrots, beets, peppers, and radishes; and this afternoon I'll start to freeze chard.

Last night, on our way home from a soccer game, the boy and I exulted in the sky . . . on our left a rainbow, on our right a swirling riot of orange and purple, mirrored in the quiet quiver of Cambridge Pond.

In her poem "The Three Susans," Jane Kenyon writes of early autumn, ending with a shift to sky and shadow--
The sun drops low over the pond.
Long shadows move out from the stones,
and a chill rises from the moss,
prompt as a deacon. And at Keats's grave
in the Protestant cemetery in Rome
it is already night,
and wild cats are stalking in the moat.
--which reminds me of my own poem, "Protestant Cemetery"--
Dying, you came staggering to Rome to live,
choking on black phlegm and gore,
dim eyes fixed on a gaudy sky.
And left behind your tired epitaph.
Nothing we make will matter.

Here it idles, scratched into the mossy
opalescent damp, embroidered with a passel
of lament you didn’t want to hear.
But too little is never enough for our people,
once we’ve been jolted to love;

and I know baby Severn’s father loved you,
dragging his nursemaid bones
down to the city limits sixty years later,
waiting out Judgment Day with you
and his child in arms, under the noon

jangle of a dozen Holy Roman church bells,
trams hissing to a stop, digger whistling an unknown
tune, my friend crossing herself, tendering
a muttered prayer for her cancer-mangled breast.
I’d light a candle, my brothers, if that were our way.
I'd never read Kenyon's poem at the time I wrote mine. Yet despite the differences--autumn and spring, sunset and noon, clutter and loneliness--we saw something mirrored.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A friend sent me a brief note about the three Chestnut Ridge poems I posted yesterday. As he is wont to do, he zeroed in on a couple of things that, to me, seem pertinent to not only the poems in this set but to the struggles I underwent in creating the collection, and which I am reliving as I try to get this manuscript into print.

The words my friend chose were voices and harrowing. He was right in noting that voices is an important word because the collection is a composite, a chorus, of humanity over time. Only the geographical place is static. So, in my ear, there is a Sophoclean echo--an inexorable non-listening woven into the multitude of sounds. In the manuscript's most recent rejection, the publisher lamented the lack of a overarching personal story. But the Sophoclean echo is not personal. I cannot pretend otherwise.

And harrowing. That is a more subtle recognition, for the word has two definitions--"disturbing and distressing" and "breaking up soil." The voices are harrowing in both senses: they evoke, recall, predict the perpetual terror of our interactions. But these characters, whether they are individuals, organizations, human constructions, fatalistic metaphors, are also plowing their furrows into the history of the earth. Harrowing is a physical relationship with time.

As the poet, I was also harrowing and being harrowed. This is the first book I have ever written in which I have lived so intensely inside the voices of other people. I've always done it occasionally, in individual poems; but to push myself to become, in essence, a sort of maggot in the ear of history has been exhausting, daunting, thrilling, and terrible. In the meantime, I've occasionally had readers who've felt compelled to manufacture a vision of me, not as poet but as their summary of Dawn, inside the voices of these others. That, too, has been harrowing. I am not claiming, of course, that I don't exist inside my own work. But emphasizing such a reading can come to seem not only pointless but demeaning. Shakespeare exists behind and inside the character of Coriolanus, but the character of Coriolanus is not Shakespeare.

Does this letter sound pompous or arrogant? I don't mean to sound that way. Mostly I am just tired. I worked hard, in this collection, to figure out something new about the task of poetry, my task as a poet. Rereading the poems now, I reprise the nausea of falling into that unknown. This makes it difficult for me to speak objectively of the collection, so I'm grateful to my friend for giving me a couple of words to borrow.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Three Poems from "Chestnut Ridge"

Laurel Caverns


In this year
two men were lost in the caverns for three days.

When found,
they were locked in each other’s arms
waiting for the end—

two travelers, eyes wide in the blackness,
ears pinned to the whisper of wings,
the seep of water.

When found, they were locked in each other’s arms.
Breath by shallow breath,
they had fabricated life.

Blind touch bound them.
They stole heat from the brush of a cheek,
the cup of a calloused hand.

And so they survived the ordeal
of never embracing again.




A dark day, and a day of storm,
and amidst the darkness
the angel of death spreads his wings over the valley.

Midday comes.
And now rumors rush down like rain.
A horseman thunders through the streets.

“To the hills!” he shouts.
“To the hills, for the love of God!”
The townsfolk stare at him, as at a madman.

They hesitate. They shake their heads
The shadow darkens,
and the hills are veiled with mist.

Upstream, rain rattles into the pretty lake
that laps against the dam.
Only the desolating angel fishes there today.

The dam is a jumble
of boulders and straw and wet earth.
Here and there a leak springs forth,

and yet another, and yet another.
Now the wall is honeycombed with tunnels.
Still the rain rattles down.

The lake laps against the dam.
Streamlets of lake spill over the stones.
Rivers of lake pour over the stones.

Midday passes.
The center stones begin to sink.
An archway opens; it totters in the churning foam.

Then, like a tiger rushing into a sheepfold,
the angel roars down the valley.


Basic Training


Thanx for writing!
Your letter was very entertaining to read.
Please excuse writing & spelling,
it’s 2 a.m. and I’m tired.

I’ve got fire guard in case your wondering.
Boy do I have a lot to tell you.
I’m sure I told you about Victory Tower.
I must have.

Did I tell you about company competition?
Well my platoon won.
We got to buy candy bars that night.
On Sunday we went to battalion competition

and came in a close second.
We thought we won but we didn’t.
We were hoping to beat those male companies.
OK enough of that story.

July 3rd we went to a large field on post
and watched the fireworks.
We sat next to a male company.
By the end of the night

the 2 companies were rather close.
I was so tired that I fell asleep
even with all the noise!
I got 4 hours of sleep that night

and then Sunday I had K.P.
K.P. is hard to explain.
Its not like the old army stories
but its also not peachy-keen and groovy

as our sergeant likes to say.
This week we learned about gas!
And nuclear bomb blasts
and first aid.

We learned how to put on our mask in 9 sec.
(not easy)
and then we went into a gas chamber of nerv tear gas.
We had to take our mask off for 30 sec.

Some people got sick
and some lost control of themselves
but I just tried to stand like a soldier
so I wouldn’t have to stay in the gas any longer.

It burned real bad.
Well I’m falling asleep on the job,
I better get up and walk around.
I hope you understand my run-on letter.


[All three poems are from my manuscript Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Laurel Caverns are now a Fayette County tourist attraction, and the poem arose from an incident noted on their website. "Flood" retells the moment just preceding the dam breach that caused the Johnstown Flood. "Basic Training" is, I hope, self-evident.] 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

I am reading the poems of Jane Kenyon alongside Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, and they do not go together at all. In fact, the combination is beginning to make me feel like that Star Trek alien who travels among the galaxies coated in what looks like glossy white house paint on one side of his body and glossy black house paint on the other. Locust is so brittle and jeering; I am struggling to finish rereading it, though I do acknowledge, even amid my dislike, its cleverness and comedy. The scenes on the Hollywood stage sets are particularly entertaining, but the characters are so tinny. The book is making me long for the real storytellers--Charles Dickens, Raymond Chandler . . .

Anyway, I have Kenyon to keep me warm.

Talk to me about what you're reading. Is it the right book, or the wrong one?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Writing and Success: A Rant

Yesterday I, and presumably many other writers, received an email from a person doing a research project. This person said that he or she had "been collecting information on authors who've appeared in the various prize anthologies (Best American Short Stories/Essays/Poems, O. Henry, Pushcart) with an eye toward being able to produce a ranking of MFA programs based on the production of the graduates of those programs." He or she "was inspired to do this because of a probably forgotten now controversy about the Poets and Writers rankings and [his or her] belief that really the purpose of an MFA should be to produce people who were better writers and that the prize anthologies were a decent proxy for determining who was producing the best writing." While the emailer did admit that they were a "limited" proxy, he or she had concluded that, "with the spare time I have to dedicate to the project, nothing else was viable." Because my name had appeared in Best American Essays, 2013, I was a candidate for the project.

This email arrived when I was in the middle of making dinner. I had been expecting a message from my son about whether or not he would need to be picked up from school after the football game; so at the moment of receipt, the ironic disconnect between my own homely concerns and this researcher's blanket assumptions seemed particularly eyebrow-twitching. This morning I feel somewhat less cynical, but not a whole lot less.

I have never taken a single graduate course, but I've managed to do okay without an advanced degree. I'm not arguing for or against MFAs, simply saying that I don't have one. So why does this stupid issue keep coming up? Even my most obvious mainstream public successes (which, I want to emphasize, are not by any means my proudest moments as a writer) can now be couched as freaky accidents. I'm like the lab rat that doesn't support the scientific findings, and this irritates me to no end. Meanwhile, all the people with MFAs who don't win obvious mainstream public prizes are now prompted to feel like giant failures. How is this a good thing for any writer, either inside or outside the academy?

Yes, it's pleasant to win a prize. Occasionally the prize even helps pay for groceries, which is especially gratifying. But prizes are not anywhere close to the heart of the matter, and that's what disturbing me today. Where is the researcher who focuses on writing for the sake of writing? On living inside the art? On teaching as a way to lead one's students into deep engagement with the world? Why must success continue to be quantified as "WON A BIG PRIZE" rather than "FIGURED SOMETHING OUT"? This is exactly what leads the Michael Derrick Hudsons of the world to manipulate their way into the prize system . . . because they have been trained up to believe in this ugly version of success.

I am so disheartened.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A few months ago I submitted an essay manuscript to a contest. A few months later I received an email informing me that I had not won the contest. Then, a couple of days ago, I discovered that my name was listed on the contest website as a semifinalist. This was news to me, as the rejection email had been just a regular old rejection email. However, I guess I can now mention that my essay manuscript, The Language of Love, was a semifinalist in the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's 2015 essay-collection competition, judged by Wayne Koestenbaum, and we can all be surprised.

In other news, it is ridiculously hot in the northcountry. Usually, in mid-September, Mainers are worrying that scattered frost will kill their tomato plants before any of the fruit turns red and are also concerned about not rear-ending the oversized campers of out-of-state retirees who have inadequately pulled onto the nonexistent road shoulder so that they can photograph their husbands in front of colorful woodlots and scenic cedar swamps. But yesterday evening, I walked out of the freezing-cold Waterville Opera House into a Washington, D.C., night--warm, thick, humid; the harsh buzz and drip of air conditioning units; the brief whine of police cars running red lights. . . . It was a very odd sensation.

Still, my lawn mower is broken again, and I have become indifferent to weeds, and my garden plants are yellow and exhausted, and the forest is filled with mysterious and fascinating mushrooms, and I spend every weekday morning listening to my son intone the local high-school soccer results, so I know that autumn really is here, despite the silly temperature.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tonight is the inaugural event in Two Cent Talks: Waterville Reading Series, which I'm curating with poet and Colby College professor Adrian Blevins. Our reader is Carolyn Chute, a best-selling novelist and a Maine literary icon, probably most famous for her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine. 

Future readers in our first season include novelist Lee Hope and poet Betsy Sholl on November 19, nonfiction writer Kate Miles and poet Richard Foerster on January 21, novelist Ron Currie, Jr., and poet/nonfiction writer me on March 17, novelist Monica Wood and poet Wes McNair on April 21, and poet Crystal Williams and poet/nonfiction writer Arielle Greenberg on May 19.

I hope to see you at tonight's reading. It's fortunate, however, that I will not be introducing Carolyn because I can barely speak. This is what comes of going to band practice with a sore throat and then spending the evening singing falsetto fills on Jackson Brown songs. I now sound as if I've had a tracheotomy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Humid September darkness. A sad son sick in bed. Insomnia, nightmares, a conclave of owls outside my window, and finally black coffee and daylight.

Mounds of marigolds bloom bravely in the exhausted garden. The red dahlias overflow into the long grass. Yesterday's clean laundry hangs motionless on the lines. A grasshopper chirrs. In the distance, I hear the basso moan of a skidder dragging trees into someone's woodyard.

A shadow of the nightmares lingers . . . images of a tiny helpless stupid woman, two small girls, a terrible black-haired schoolmaster, and now I am trying to convince the woman not to leave the girls with him, I am trying to escape from the wretched travel-trailer that is the school, and now my car keys have vanished and his dreadful fleshy face is leering against my window . . .

You know these dreams.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The new online journal, Cardinal Flower, is featuring three of my poems today. The first, "Commonplace," is fairly new, but the other two--"Granny Has a Vision" and "The End of the Season"--are collected in the Unpublishable Manuscript. In fact, regular visitors may recognize bits and pieces of "The End of the Season," which borrows a few phrases and images from one of last autumn's blog posts.

So I want to thank you, my invisible monitors and faithful ghosts. I rise in the morning and I write to you. And sometimes a letter becomes a poem.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Part 2 of Dawn's Crazy September is officially in the books, and I can advance into a relaxing schedule of school driving, Chaucer coaching, lawn mowing, vet visiting, and work. My next crazy burst involves two trips to Massachusetts in the same week, but at least I have an empty weekend between now and then.

Cramming a poetry reading and two music gigs into three hysterical days was a very odd sensation. Poetry readings are shorter, but far more mentally and emotionally intense. Playing three long sets in a bar is like running a marathon: a heady mix of exhaustion and adrenaline. Plus, there are four people on stage, not just one.  We're all taking risks together, trying to read each other, trying to cover for the others' errors, trying to ride impulses and improvisations, trying to read the crowd and respond as flexible but united compatriots.

As I was playing on Saturday night, I found myself thinking in soccer metaphors. The bass player and the drummer are like the defensive line. If they aren't completely solid, everything goes to hell. The guitar player is like the midfielder: sometimes on offense, sometimes on defense. He goes back and forth between rhythm section and lead player, but he's also calling the plays. The fiddle player is the striker, a quick diver, alert to the gaps and fissures.

But on Sunday morning, when I revealed all of this cogitation to my son, his response was "Well, who's the goalkeeper?" That blew a hole in my metaphor.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Things that happen during performances

Discovering that an audience of a good writers loves the poems in the Manuscript That No One Will Publish. "When is that book coming out? I can't wait!" cries one of the good writers excitedly. Hah.

The moment when a high school math teacher at the bar figures out that the mom from the parent-teacher conferences is also the fiddle player in the band. "Woah! I had no idea!"

Playing the last few bars of Neil Young's "Powderfinger" at the exact moment when David Ortiz launches his 500th career home run and the entire room erupts in cheers and the guitar player, in the middle of his end-of-song solo, gets very confused. "Wait. What? Who?"

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Clearly I am too old to lead the gigging life. Last night I drove an hour and a half home from a poetry reading, got into bed at midnight, got out of bed at 5:30 a.m. because the boy has a cross-country meet in Presque Isle today, which is way-the-hell-up-north in Aroostook County, and then I will be performing from 5 to 8 p.m. tonight, which means I'll leave here at 2:30 and get home at 10 or later if the Presque Isle bus is pokey about getting the cross-country team back to the high school, and then Sunday, blessedly, I can sleep till whenever the cat lets me sleep but will have to get out of the house at 12:30 or so for a gig lasting from 3 to 6 p.m., which means I'll be home by 8, with just enough time to help the boy memorize 18 lines of Chaucer, and before I know it, the alarm will go off at 5:30 a.m. and it will be Monday, and I will have spent two days playing the violin with a terrible clumsy cheap bow and eating bar food at weird times of the day and kicking myself because I forgot to sing the third verse of "Powderfinger."

In case you were wondering, the structure of the previous sentence exactly reflects my state of mind.

Anyway, yesterday's poetry reading was lovely: lots of writer friends in attendance, plus afterwards we went down the street to the Wharf Tavern and listened to a band called the Boneheads and Baron and I shouted back and forth to each other about Philip Roth novels over raucous covers of Creedence songs.

Meanwhile, the real bow, the fairy-princess bow, is winging its way to Michigan, to a bow restoration specialist.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Scandal and Shaming: Thoughts on "The Best American Poetry" Debacle

A novelist friend has asked me to comment on the poetry scandal du jour: to wit, the uproar over poet/trickster Michael Derrick Hudson's inclusion in the current edition of The Best American Poetry anthology series. You can read about the brouhaha in any number of newspapers and online forums, including this New York Times article, but here's the essence. Hudson tried many, many times to publish his poem "The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve." No luck. So he decided to try again, using the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou (which, according to recent reports, is the name of a girl he knew in high school). Fairly quickly, the prestigious journal Prairie Schooner accepted the poem, and then Sherman Alexie, guest editor of The Best American Poetry, chose it for inclusion. But no one knew that Hudson and Yi-Fen Chou were one and the same until Hudson sent Alexie his author bio, which includes a rambling explanation of the ruse.

I use the word ruse advisedly here. Literature has a long history of pseudonymity. In many cases, women have written under male names with the hope of being taken seriously as writers rather than authoresses (say, Currer Bell/Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot/Marian Evans). But men have also used pseudonyms: think of short-story writer Saki/H. H. Munro, whose pseudonym may refer to a cupbearer mentioned in The Rubayait of Omar Kayyam (itself an ambiguous work of cultural appropriation) or possibly to a small South American monkey. More lately, feminist literary sites have been agog over a writer named Catherine Nichols, who experimented with submitting a manuscript under both her own name and a male pseudonym. In the process, she discovered that agents were far more interested in her novel when they thought that "George" had written it.

Nichols's goal was to reveal ongoing gender inequities in publishing; Hudson's motives seem murkier and more self-serving. Yet both capers demonstrated that people with literary power are influenced by names. Sherman Alexie has written a candid and disarming response about his reasons for choosing Hudson's poem for the anthology:
Hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou's poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness. 
So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues. 
Nepotism is as common as oxygen. 
But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the "maybe" and "yes" piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism. 
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.
Alexie's response is long and detailed, and it's worth reading in total. He's been caught in a humiliating situation, and I give him credit for trying to be as honest as possible about his role. As a Native American writer, he feels solidarity with non-white writers so was rightfully concerned about bringing their voices into the literary conversation. As an editor, he was deluged with poems and had to make quick subjective decisions about what to include and what to pass over. Hudson's ruse proves what every editor already knows: it's really, really hard to stay fair and pure when you're reading a several hundred manuscripts.

Nonetheless, poets and readers have every right to be confused and distressed by the many ambiguous overtones of Hudson's decision. He's put us all into a bad position. White poets perceive a conspiracy against their work. Men think women may have an easier time getting published. Women are sure that men have an easier time getting published. Poets of color are outraged by a white poet's minstrel antics. Poets of color are convinced that white poets have an easier time getting published. We all exist in a tangle of distrust and complicity.

In such an atmosphere, can I say that Nichols's submission goals were purer than Hudson's? My personal dealings with several publishers have led me to believe that she is right: yes, sexism is alive and well in the book business. Yet to make her point, Nichols, like Hudson, trafficked in deliberate falsification. Does my belief in her version of truth impel me to excuse her tactics?  I don't have good answers to these questions, and I suspect there aren't any. 

What concerns me as much as anything in this mess is what another writer friend calls "the shaming impulse." Invective has become an automatic reaction, to the point that I worry that people are having trouble distinguishing between situational entrapment and the enormities of racism and sexism. Believe me: I am not standing up for blanket niceness. I am not saying that I approve of Hudson's experiment, which as far as I can tell was cold-hearted and calculating. But why is Alexie being shamed? Why is Hudson's poem--an ordinary, reasonably well crafted contemporary poem; a poem that a thousand competent poets might have written--being ridiculed as complete and utter trash? You may or may not like the way in which poetry publication works in our age of careerism, but you can't blame a single guest editor for doing his best to negotiate it honestly. We'd do better to blame ourselves.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This morning the poor violin bow goes in for a consultation. I know you are probably sick to death of listening to me wail about my bow disaster, and I apologize, but I can't stop feeling miserable and anxious. I've been trying to distract myself by submitting manuscripts to publishers, but even at the best of times submitting a manuscript is a version of torture. Copying out Jane Kenyon poems and weeding the garden in 90-degree heat have worked better. I've also been immersed in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, a remarkable and complicated novel that I've somehow never managed to read before.

For days now, the air has been been thunderous and heavy. Glasses of ice tea leave wet circles on the table. All of the bathroom towels refuse to dry. The house smells like fried eggs and old dog. Over breakfast my son crows about last night's high school soccer scores: "Thirteen to one! They lost thirteen to one! How is that even possible?" At the porch window, the dew-soaked cat yowls to come in, and I think of the opening stanza of Jane Kenyon's "The Pear."
There is a moment in middle age
when you grow bored, angered
by your middling mind,
Reading Roth's novel, I've felt the shadowy weakness of my own mind. Is my broken bow just another talisman, a physical metaphor for the stupid accidents of toil and mediocrity? Fortunately, melodrama comes easily to me, as does the ability to laugh at my own windiness. Still, the fear prickles, a portent, like the specter of a migraine. "You may not be aware / until things have gone too far."

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tu Fu readers: I am getting the distinct feeling that many of you need to take a break from this project; so unless I hear otherwise, I'm going to stop giving you reading assignments. Busy people, please let me know if and when you are ready to continue.

Poetry: On Friday, I am reading with Baron Wormser at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, Maine. Baron's new poetry collection has just been released, and it is stunning. I'm always showing up somewhere or other in Maine, but he doesn't read here very often these days, so you should really try to see him this Friday if you can. The gallery is a sweet little venue, Hallowell has good restaurants and a lovely view of the Kennebec, there's no snow on the roads, and you can sleep in on Saturday morning. So come on down (or up).

Music: On Saturday and Sunday, I'll be performing with the Doughty Hill Band: Saturday night at Pat's in Dover-Foxcroft, 5-8 p.m.; Sunday at the Lakeshore House in Monson, 3-6 p.m. Enjoy the fine ambiance of beer, and snacks, and the Red Sox on TV, and a big lake, and Oktoberfest decorations, and I promise we'll play "Wagon Wheel" only one time each night.

No news yet on the fate of the beautiful violin bow, except that insurance doesn't cover "wear and tear" or "rodent damage." On the bright side: I'm pretty sure no rodents were involved in the catastrophe.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

I have owned my violin bow for 25 years. It was a gift from my mother, with money she'd saved up from her adjunct-teaching salary. To this point I had owned only factory-made junk; and though I did have a decent violin, I was still not quite aware of what a difference a bow would make to my playing.

When my violin teacher learned that I was in the market for a bow, he began bringing a selection to each of my lessons--a mix of old and contemporary bows, all of them varying in balance, weight, poise, sound. Choosing a bow is a highly individual process. Week after week I tried out bows and began to discover how much they influenced not only my sound quality and control but also how each brought out my strengths and weaknesses as a player.

The bow I finally chose was made by early twentieth-century German bow maker Albert Nürnberger, regarded as one of the masters of the craft. Despite his fame, his bows are relatively affordable, partly because German violins of the period are famously crappy. The great violinists David Oistrakh and Fritz Kreisler both owned Nürnbergers.

My bow is delicate, lithe, elegant: beautifully weighted for my hand. It has allowed me to capitalize on what is probably my greatest strength as a violinist--subtle emotional dynamic shifts--yet has also improved my technical control of fast spiccato (a controlled bounce move), the short shifting slurs of swing violin, and collé (a sharp short motion at the base of the bow, very useful for blues violin).

But on Sunday afternoon, my Nürnberger bow snapped while I was playing.

I have not yet spoken to any other violinist who has experienced this devastation. I have not yet heard back from the luthier who will decide whether or not it can be mended. I do not yet know if my insurance will cover repair or replacement. Until I know anything more, all I can do is mourn for the friend of my right hand--my bow, my partner, as sensitive and familiar as my own fingers.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

It's Harmony Fair weekend, and I am never home, so please don't fret if you don't hear from me. On Friday I worked for hours taking in exhibits for the home and garden show. On Saturday I worked for hours coordinating judges, tracking ribbons and premiums, and corralling teenagers into helping me. Today I'll be performing with Doughty Hill from noon to 2. Tomorrow I get the afternoon off to watch a soccer game. The short answer is: no Internet, but plenty of dust and giant beets and dill pickles and baby sweaters and Red Sox clocks. Talk to you anon--

Friday, September 4, 2015

National Emergency

Dawn Potter

Whosoever travels over this Wilderness
sees it richly bespangled with Evangelical
Churches, blameless emporia, a Hopeful
tangle of high-ways, hamlets, and Smoke.
Americans are the People of God,
the Utmost parts of Earth our Possession.
Soon we shall enjoy Halcyon Days,
with all the Vultures of hell
Trodden under our Feet.

Yet a thousand preternatural Things
beyond the Wonders of the former Ages
rise every day before our eyes, and they threaten
a sort of Dissolution upon the World.
The Devil has increas’d a dreadful Knot of Witches
in the Country. Spectres inflict our neighbours;
wicked Scholars range with their Poisonous
Insinuations among the discontented People.
Publick Safety forces an Exigency. To wit:—

Witches are wont to practise their mischievous Facts
by Cursing. Observe the young Mother
wak’d in the Cloudy dawn by her Child’s lament.
Does she Leap forth, Eager to soothe him at her Bosom?—
or, obstinate and Froward, lie rigid as a Corpse,
pull the heated covers to her chin, and Curse
softly, a crafty Decoy to charm her Partner
from his well-earn’d rest and Cheat him
into Stumbling forth?

Some add this for a Presumption:
a mark whereof no evident Reason in Nature
can be given. Consider, now,
the Boy in his first flower, strong and tall,
sprouting, between Darkness and Day,
a Pimple, whereof its Exorbitance, like the fires of Baal,
devoureth all joy;—and this Boy,
once clean-temper’d as the Lamb,
doth Erupt in heathen Malice like a Fiend.

And here is Evidence of witchcraft:
That the party hath entertain’d a Familiar Spirit,
and had Conference with it, in the likeness
of some visible Creature:
as the Beldame who travels our Holy roads,
a spotted Dog her prancing consort,
suffers him to spew infernal Barks,
raise clamour and complaint,
yet, without Affliction, smiles at his Anticks.

Perchance, the suspected person
hath used Enchantments, divineth things
before they come to pass, peremptorily raiseth
Tempests:—judge ye of Weather-men
and Windy commentators; yea, even jug-ear’d
Leaders soaring aloft in Vain glorious Fits.
Says the Devil,
Think thy self better than other Men.
Be some-body.

If the party examin’d be Unconstant,
or contrary to himself, in his deliberate Answers,
this argueth a Guilty Conscience.
And yet there are causes of Astonishment
which may befall the Good as well as Bad.
To wrangle the Devil out of the Country
will be truly a New Experiment:—
Unite, then! and lay bare his Thorny
business, therein serving both God and Men.

It is a Principle, that when our Lord permits
Spirits from the unseen Regions to visit us
with surprizing Information, we must enquire.
In our Troubled Sea, Mire and Mud heave up apace.
America is stock’d with Rattle Snakes.
We must Combine to deliver our neighbours
from the horrid Annoyances of witchcraft.
We are Safe, when we make Perfect use
of Invisible Advice, as God proffers it.

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

On Detachment and Vision

Yesterday, when I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker, I immediately noticed an article about the New England witch hunts and dropped everything to read it. Over the years, I've read a great deal about this era, including Cotton Mather's 1693 apologia The Wonders of the Invisible World, essentially a practical handbook on how to use mesmerizing, eloquent prose to mislead your reader. I even wrote a poem about Wonders, "National Emergency," which appears in my second collection, How the Crimes Happened, and is a satirical demonstration of how to misread Mather's assertions.

Lately I've been working my way through Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. Though Ulrich does occasionally mention both witchcraft and Mather, she doesn't focus on them as a linked pair or even as a major issue. She's far more interested in Mather's writings on Hannah Duston, the "Viragoe" and "Indian fighter," than in his witchcraft speculations. Nonetheless, her book has primed my mind for Puritan weirdness, so I was excited about the synchronicity of the New Yorker article.

The author, Stacy Schiff, has clearly also been infected by Puritan weirdness, and in many places her prose draws me beautifully into that dark, illogical, frightened world:
In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, and imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented. A tempest blew the roof off one of the finest homes in Salem as its ten occupants slept. A church went flying with its congregation inside.
But drawing me into that world doesn't seem to be her primary goal. She wants to maintain a modern distance--an impulse that I understand, and one that I followed in "National Emergency." In my case, I used Mather's own words as the basis for a satirical political poem. In her case, she borrows the words and imagery of historicized racism and cultural definition--"oppressed" peoples (the Puritans), "swarthy terrorist[s]" (the native tribes)--in the service of historical journalism. This, too, she might have handled deftly: she might have forced me exist inside these skewed perceptions . . . a dangerous and brilliant feat for any writer. Yet there is a disconnect, an awkwardness, at times even a flippancy, and I can't quite figure out what's gone wrong.

I'm not going to launch into any kind of reviser's critique, nor am I going to denounce her word choice and racial insensitivities. I daresay other readers will undertake both of those tasks. What intrigues me here is the way in which so many writers, in every genre, are unable to stay inside their own imagination. They surface into detachment, or aphorism, or pedantry, or polemic, or ecstasy. They turn away from the particulate glory of their own concentrated vision.

I know poets who do this--who sweep their bright images into a heap of garbled metaphor and enthusiastic punctuation. I know academics who do this--who box up their research and observations in mystical jargon. I know journalists who do this--who recognize ambiguity but reduce it to irony. It's hard, so hard, to stay inside a vision. It's just as hard to marry language to vision. And as I wonder why Schiff's editor was unable to guide her into a closer examination of such issues, I find myself worrying about how a tendency toward detachment is infecting writers, mentors of writers, editors, and everyone else involved in the production of finished work. Great writing requires rigor and asceticism and risk and humility. What are we teaching ourselves when we ignore that necessary work?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Canning Tomatoes

In the 1970s, in those western Pennsylvania summers, my mother did a lot of canning. Though she didn't often wear dresses during those years, she did have one that she saved for the hottest days of summer. We called it her canning dress: a faded early-60s-era sleeveless sundress; navy-blue with small white spots, a close-fitting bodice and waist, and a gathered dirndl skirt. The enameled canning pot was also navy-blue with small white spots, so the canning dress took on the aura of canning uniform. I knew, when my mother came downstairs in that dress, that the kitchen would shortly be filled with steam and hot empty jars and bushels of dusty tomatoes and dishpans full of slimy scalded tomatoes and the sugary burnt smell of tomatoes boiling in the canner and rows of sticky shiny scarlet quarts clicking and popping as they cooled.

Today, on what may be Harmony's last hot summer day,  I'll be canning tomatoes. But there will be no little girls snitching can after can of Cherokee Red out of the ancient, gasping Frigidaire because their mother is too busy to notice. No Granny in her filthy housedress, sitting grandly and remotely at the kitchen table in the midst of the chaos, smoking Luckies and drinking coffee and ignoring everyone. No haymakers clumping into the kitchen at noon, sweaty and hungry and expecting sweet tea and baloney sandwiches.

It is lonely to be so peaceful. In the distance I hear a skidder groaning and ripping through someone's woodlot. A faucet drips, and a clock ticks, and no birds sing. Soon, in my canning dress--navy-blue with white spots--I will stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing quart jars, lugging giant pots filled with water, cutting rotten spots out of the tomatoes, scalding and peeling and straining, dripping tomato blood onto the linoleum.

If Granny were here with me, right now, she would be sitting at the kitchen table in her filthy housedress, grand and remote, smoking her Luckies and drinking her coffee and ignoring me. We would aggravate each other in the way cats and people do, by always choosing to be in the way. My hands are covered in tomato. She smokes her last cigarette and shakes her empty pack at me and makes me go into town to buy her another carton. While I'm gone, the tomatoes boil over into the stove burners. When I get back she waves a hand at the mess and then slits open a fresh pack of cigarettes with her ragged thumbnail.

My granny spent her long life doing almost nothing, and she's been dead for more than a decade. But the shadow of her regal indifference lingers in my kitchen--this room she never saw, this table she never sat at. It's wrong to say that I miss her because she was never really present, though she was masterful at cluttering up a room with smoke and dirt and disdain. Yet in moments of busy loneliness, when I'm packing tomatoes into jars or lifting them out of their hissing steambath, she rises into my mind, as my mother also rises--the tight canning dress creasing across her shoulders as she pours hot water down the drain.

Yesterday, over the telephone, my mother said, "I'm going to can tomatoes today." I picture my father clumping in from the garden, sweaty and hungry, hoping for lunch. He has picked the tomatoes; most likely he'll even help process them. He cannot bear to be idle. Meanwhile, a poltergeist sits at our kitchen tables, smoking her Luckies and drinking her coffee and not giving a shit. Let the tomatoes rot on the vine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Tale of the College Essay

The boy's college essay went on a brief hiatus while he was writing a paper for class. But now it's back, and better than ever. Over the course of two weeks, I'd given him a series of assignments: (1) brainstorm a list of words related his topic, (2) break that list into two parts--events and feelings related to the topic(2) write sentences expanding on each of those items, (3) delete boring information and add details to more interesting information, and (4) organize the remaining sentences into paragraphs. I told him to ignore style, sentence structure, etc. He needed to focus on the rough materials.

By going through this process, the boy was able to produce a full-length draft, reasonably well organized and coherent but stylistically clunky. So my next assignment was "Set aside this draft. Now, on a clean screen, write the essay again, concentrating on creating beautiful, evocative prose. If necessary, use your first draft to help you recall your ideas and organization. Otherwise, ignore it." The result was remarkable. This draft was elegant, poignant, frightening, thought-provoking. Of course it wasn't done yet, but the piece had changed from serviceable information to well-crafted memoir.

Our next step was sit on the couch and look at the essay together as I read it aloud to him. This is an excellent way to help a young writer find typos and notice infelicities, repetition, and lack of clarity. When heard in the air, the beautiful prose is so beautiful that anything less beautiful sounds like a kicked garbage can. This read-aloud also helped him recognize that his ending was still muddled.

So this is where we are: he's doing some minor tightening, and he's rewriting the last few sentences. I expect he'll be finished by the end of the week.