Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tonight, for the first time ever, I will be playing three sets in a bar on New Year's Eve. There will be colorful flashing lights and covers of southern rock classics and a short loud dress. Who knew that such a life would ever be mine?

As ballast, I will spend my preliminary hours sweeping floors, and reading about Matisse, and working on a new poem, and shoveling snow, and speculating about the future.
"Snowbound," said my Uncle Luther. 
"Got the wood in?" Washington asked my grandfather. 
Aunt Nan recited: 
Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged heart about,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat . . . 
She giggled when she finished. 
Aunt Caroline said, "I remember when we had to learn that." 
"Miss Headley," my mother said. She turned to me. "Do you have that in school? It's John Greenleaf Whittier, 'Snow-bound.'" 
"Are we really snowbound?" I said. I liked the idea of it. I felt cozy and protected, walled in by the snow. I wanted it to keep snowing all winter, so that I wouldn't have to go back to Connecticut and school. 
"If we have to get out, we'll get out," my father said quickly. 
--from "Christmas Snow" by Donald Hall

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hour after hour the snow fell, as the thermometer clung to ten degrees. It was winter's first winter day; and now, in the dark of the morning, the dull gleam and shadow are unsettling, the way a photographic negative can be.

I have been reading a book of short stories--Donald Hall's Willow Temple--which is shockingly beautiful. I had no idea he was such an assured story writer. Reading the book has made me sad, in the way reading Alice Munro's stories makes me sad. This is a world I understand. Why can't I write these tales? Whenever I try again, my stories are terrible. I do not have the knack of prose fiction, and it seems I never will.

And yet I love it so, and I know it feeds what I am able to write. I should be content with this knowledge, but mostly I just feel skewed and unsettled. Why does a poet turn to prose for her sustenance? Why does my friend Tom, a novelist, turn to poetry for his? When I try to address this in my teaching, students sometimes glance at me suspiciously, as if they've caught me cheating. She's never read anything by Famous Poet. Hmm.

The dark has faded, and now I see that the snow is still falling, lightly, lightly. In the house the quiet mutters to itself. On the kitchen table a tiny potted rosebush, gift from my son, proffers two perfect blooms, crimson and incongruous. Alongside it rest a white cup and saucer, a silver laptop, a small blue book. I am thinking about how to write--how to simulate the names of things, how to invent the blood-beat of a sentence. It has taken me close to an hour to compose these small paragraphs for you, an hour of shuffling and discarding. Yet I've said almost nothing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Tamir Rice decision: I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand. How is it that stupidity and incompetence allow a police department to evade the consequences of officers' and dispatchers' actions? In general, citizens aren't cleared of murder because they didn't mean to murder someone or murdered that person because they got false information about the situation. How can this case be an exception? I don't understand.

I am sitting here, drinking Christmas coffee, wrapped in my new red bathrobe, as the falling snow settles gently onto branches and roofs. This child's parents are answering the telephone and dreading reporters, and their hearts are packed with lead.

I also was the mother of a twelve-year-old boy who took the orange tip off a toy gun. He was a goof, and he had dumb ideas, but he is white and he played alone in the forest. And nobody killed him.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

At the moment I'm teetering on the "do we travel in the snow? do we stay put for another day?" fulcrum . . . which is to say, What the hell is going on with the weather? Two days ago we were living in the faux-Oregon rain lands. Today Massachusetts is impersonating drizzly November while Maine is seething under a mixture of snow and sleet.

For the moment, anyway, the questions are moot because I am the sole weather fretter. Everyone else in this house is peacefully oblivious. Even the Christmas tree is still asleep.

In short: this is a boring post. Clearly, I should throw my petty cares behind me and get back into bed and read a book.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Guest Post: After In Search of Lost Time

David Dear

But by a refinement of exquisite delicacy the meadow upon which were displayed these shadows of trees, light as souls, was a meadow of paradise, not green but of a whiteness so dazzling because of the moonlight shining upon the jade-like snow that it might have been a meadow woven entirely from petals of flowering pear-trees.  And in the squares the divinities of the public fountains, holding a jet of ice in their hand, looked like statues wrought in two different materials by a sculptor who had decided to marry pure bronze to pure crystal. (vol. 7, Time Regained)

It has been four weeks since I came to page 532, the final page in the final volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, 16 months since page 1 of volume 1, and it would be easy now to tell you the number of words that represents (1.4 million, according to one guidebook), or the number of hours of reading (countless because I did not count them), as if somehow what was important to me and should be important to you was the very fact of the reading achievement, which at 1.4 million words is, admittedly and by normal standards, not inconsiderable.

. . . transforming itself--houses that have been pulled down, people long dead, bowls of fruit at suppers which we recall--into that translucent alabaster of our memories of which we are incapable of conveying the colour which we alone can see, so that we can truthfully say to other people, when speaking of these things of the past, that they can have no conception of them, that they are unlike anything they have seen, and that we ourselves cannot inwardly contemplate without a certain emotion, reflecting that it is on the existence of our thoughts that their survival for a little longer depends, the gleam of lamps that have been extinguished and the fragrance of arbours that will never bloom again. (vol. V, The Captive)

But after decades of bumping into him in book reviews and essays and parenthetical remarks about him and his life—how he wrote in bed in a cork-lined room, how drugs may have been responsible for much of his intensely ecstatic perceptions of the world that overwhelm from the page, how In Search is now considered the great novel of the twentieth century, eclipsing Joyce’s Ulysses, how his is the great novel of memory and time and love and death—I finally came to Proust out of a deep, deep desire to know what he had to say about memory and time, from my own interest in them.

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.  They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years. (vol. I, Swann’s Way)

For a long time I used to get up early, for an hour almost every morning for those 16 months, usually in the dark and silence before the day started.  I entered his world at the slow pace of 10 pages in that hour, pages that should not, could not, demanded not to be rushed, pages that I stopped and read over whole or in part, often more than once, sometimes several times, because they were absorbing or transfixing or both, and copied out in cramped printing in a little notebook so that they would be available to read no matter where I was.

Where I had seen with my grandmother in the month of August only the green leaves and, so to speak, the disposition of the apple-trees, as far as the eye could reach they were in full bloom, unbelievably luxuriant, their feet in the mire beneath their ball-dresses, heedless of spoiling the most marvellous pink satin that was ever seen, which glittered in the sunlight; the distant horizon of the sea gave the trees the background of a Japanese print; if I raised my head to gaze at the sky through the flowers, which made its serene blue appear almost violent, they seemed to draw apart to reveal the immensity of their paradise. (vol. IV, Sodom and Gomorrah)

He was compelling and captivating, with sentences and paragraphs and entire pages rendered so beautifully they were exquisite, in the exact definition of that word, an achieved perfection, consummate, that made the world go still, completely still, in the reading of them.  The consummate perfection was of course as much the translation as anything, but they were his words and I took it on faith they were rendered in a fashion faithful to the original in spirit if not in exactitude.

As in the far-off days when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had the features, delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks flowing with a chaste expectation, with a dream of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even, which the years had gradually destroyed. Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life. A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother’s lips.  On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl. (vol. III, The Guermantes Way)

His sentences were more graceful than the cathedrals on which he claimed to have modeled In Search’s structure--sentences that turned and meandered in long, slow, rhythmic curves and asides, discursive, digressing, semicoloned or comma-ed, often moving back and forth in time before arriving at their period, and yet always with a delicate construction that was clean and clear.

I watched the trees gradually recede, waving their despairing arms, seeming to say to me: “What you fail to learn from us today, you will never know.  If you allow us to drop back into the hollow of this road from which we sought to raise ourselves up to you, a whole part of yourself which we were bringing to you will vanish for ever into thin air.”  And indeed if, in the course of time, I did discover the kind of pleasure and disquiet which I had just felt once again, and if one evening—too late, but then for all time—I fastened myself to it, of those trees themselves I was never to know what they had been trying to give me nor where else I had seen them. (vol. II, Within A Budding Grove)

In a work about memory, much of it required memory: so many characters, so many foreshadowings to volumes ahead, so many references to volumes behind.  Sometimes I could recall, sometimes not, and so went to the guidebook for help.  And when that failed I wrote it off to one aspect of memory he was effectively demonstrating: its fickleness and impermanence.  And he was funny, with a sense of humour sometimes wry, sometimes of the absurd, sometimes self-mocking (by his narrator, who is and is not Proust), sometimes laugh-aloud.

The clock—whereas at home I heard mine tick only a few seconds in a week, when I was coming out of some profound meditation—continued without a moment's interruption to utter, in an unknown tongue, a series of observations which must have been most uncomplimentary to myself, for the violet curtains listened to them without replying, but in an attitude such as people adopt who shrug their shoulders to indicate that the sight of a third person irritates them. They gave to this room with its lofty ceiling a quasi-historical character which might have made it a suitable place for the assassination of the Duc de Guise, and afterwards for parties of tourists personally conducted by one of Thomas Cooks's guides, but for me to sleep in—no. (vol. II, Within A Budding Grove)

What did I understand of his aims and purposes?  Not much.  But those hundreds of hours spent in his world and words and observations and ecstatic responses to art and music and books were transcendent.  A world of critical studies and stretches of re-reading are waiting--to come to some understanding and appreciation of what he had, in seven volumes, wrought before he died, exhausted from the work and without seeing its final volumes published; and to come, as a reader, through whatever biographies might have to say, to some better picture of the man and his life, if only to ponder and stand awestruck and inspired by the mystery of how he created the book that he did.
The transcendence, meantime, is enough.

An impression of love is out of proportion to the other impressions of life, but when it is lost in their midst we are incapable of appreciating it. It is not from immediately below, in the tumult of the street and amid the thronging houses nearby, but when we have moved away‎, that, from the slope of a neighbouring hill, at a distance from which the whole town seems to have vanished or forms only a confused heap at ground level, we can appreciate, in the calm detachment of solitude and dusk, the towering splendour of a cathedral, unique, enduring and pure. (vol. VI, The Fugitive)

* * *

David Dear works as a civil servant for the Alberta government in Edmonton. He is also a poet and a serious reader, with a special interest in the history and literature of the World War I period.

Friday, December 25, 2015

I no longer live in a household in which the children rise before dawn on Christmas Day. I am the only risen member of this family.

So Merry Christmas to these peaceable grey skies, and to the fat nuthatch skipping headfirst down the trunk of a white pine. Merry Christmas to the coffee dripping through the filter and the half-read paperback on the counter beside me. Merry Christmas to all of the invisible dogs, straining happily at their leashes and drinking from puddles; and to the doughty employees of 24-hour gas stations and convenience stores, all of whom know that you have forgotten something you were supposed to remember. Merry Christmas to the man in his cramped new apartment and to the woman who wakes up knowing that she will see her children tomorrow but not today. Merry Christmas to Bouncy Santa, faded and chipped on his elastic string, and to Santa Elvis, cut from newspaper 30 years ago, and to all of the other familiar silly ornaments that make families laugh when they see them. Merry Christmas to people who don't celebrate Christmas, and to those who celebrate it extravagantly, and to those who secretly wish it were already over, and to the wailing babies who are too big for the outfits their grandparents bought them last month. Merry Christmas to the cooks, marshaling their kitchen armies, and to the future winners and losers of the afternoon Monopoly game. Merry Christmas to the minister's husband frantically helping his wife find her single missing dress shoe. And Merry Christmas to you, dear reader, wherever you might be. Keep the day as it should be kept.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The view outside the kitchen window is wet and green. I have never visited the Pacific Northwest, but I imagine it might look like this: dark, dripping rhododendrons, myrtle and pachysandra running riot, a pale cottage visible beyond the pines, a scarlet cardinal investigating the circle of spilled millet beneath the feeder. What this does not look like is Christmas in New England, yet here we are.

This is a house with a furnace, and the furnace is running. This is a house with walls that are windows, and everywhere the bare-armed trees are bending down to peer in. There is a poet inside the house, and a poet next door, and a poet downtown. This place is overrun with poets. It's a wonder that anyone gets anything done.

The slope beside the house tumbles into a tiny pond, and floating in the pond are the shadows of branches. The graybeard sky stares at the mirror of its own face. "The world lay still and clear like a long mural," murmurs the ghost of Robert Francis, who is awake in the pale cottage next door. An invisible car passes. A kettle boils. This could be the house that you are living in. At any moment, you may walk into the room.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Today we wend our way to southern New England for Christmas. I have baked the sourdough bread and assembled the vegetarian entree and soaked Emily Dickinson's black cake in cognac. Paul has stayed up late making cookies and doing laundry. Tom has constructed the soundtrack. All we need now is a pet sitter and gas in the car.

The forecast hints at ridiculously warm weather--dripping inflatable Santas, holiday joggers in shorts, fat dogs splashing in ponds. I will try to find time to describe the view. In the meantime, imagine us in a traffic jam on Route 495, in a small silver hatchback named Tina, perhaps listening to the Wu-Tang Clan's greatest hits, or a podcast featuring two depressed British guys musing about soccer, or the mysterious thrills of a local Spanish-language talk radio host.

In the meantime, I give you this remark by Buster Keaton as a Christmas present:
Railroads are a great prop. You can do some awful wild things with railroads.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I find the extract I posted yesterday very touching, not least because of its bewilderment . . . the long perplexity of an adult child who cannot be either adult or child . . . a person who is trying to be fair. 

 I have been reading a novel I have been working, but failing, to love--Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, which so many people adore and which I am finding dull. The problem is likely just my own state of mind. My thoughts keep wandering back to the Plath poems and her daughter's words; then forward toward the closing days of my ever-more feeble dog, toward holiday responsibilities and college-application deadlines, toward classes I've agreed to teach but am not yet prepared for . . . then backward again, into the small local history of family, the faint reflections of listening to Dylan Thomas's Child's Christmas in Wales for the first time, when I was a child myself, and suddenly recognizing the pool of anecdote, sweetness, regret, fear, laughter that coheres into a local history . . . recognizing the future of the pool in my own life, but not having the story yet, just the bones of such a story, the one I was hearing  . . . "All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky. . . . "

As I said the other day, in the draft of a poem I was writing:
But this—
this is different.
This is the modern world.

Monday, December 21, 2015

from Frieda Hughes's foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath

My father had a profound respect for my mother's work in spite of being one of the subjects of its fury. For him the work was the thing, and he saw the care of it as a means of tribute and responsibility.

But the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them. The collection of Ariel poems became symbolic to me of this possession of my mother and the wider vilification of my father. It was as if the clay from her poetic energy was taken up and versions of my mother made out of it, invented only to reflect the inventors, as if they could possess my real, actual mother, now a woman who had ceased to resemble herself in those other minds. I saw poems such as "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" dissected over and over, the moment that my mother wrote them being applied to her whole life, to her whole person, as if they were the total sum of her experience.

Criticism of my father was even levelled at his ownership of my mother's copyright, which fell to him on her death and which he used to directly benefit my brother and me. Through the legacy of her poetry my mother still cared for us, and it was strange to me that anyone would wish it otherwise.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

I'm playing at Stutzmans' Cafe for the last time this season. And it's a cold morning, with a skim of snow on the grass . . . a good morning to drink coffee and eat pancakes and listen to music. You should stop by.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Announcing the 2016 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

I'm delighted to announce the faculty lineup for the 2016 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching!

Kerrin McCadden and Rich Villar will be joining us during the conference, and Afaa Michael Weaver will guest-direct the Writing Intensive (formerly known as Teachers As Writers).

I've also tweaked the schedule this year. Rather than working solo, Kerrin and Rich will share a reading and trade off teaching responsibilities over the course of two days. In addition, I've revamped the midweek revision session and have added an extra piece: a lecture-conversation about a poet whose work, to me, carries echoes of Frost and will link to our earlier conversations about his featured poem.

The conference dates are June 25-29, and the optional Writing Intensive is June 29-30.

I know that previous participants have already received pre-registration information, and open registration will begin after the holidays, when the website will also be updated. In the meantime, if you have questions about the program or want to reserve a space, please be in touch. It will be a great week!

Friday, December 18, 2015

I have just finished reading a New Yorker article about a director (whose name I can't remember ever hearing before) and her television show (which I have heard of but never watched). This is not unusual. Though I have limited interest in actual television, I've retained a certain interest in descriptions of television. I spent much of my childhood reading TV Guide cover to cover, a salve for not being allowed to watch most of the shows. I have no idea why my parents subscribed to it, but it did give me the opportunity to absorb many facts about Fonzie and Three's Company and the Ewing family and Brady Bunch reruns and thus comprehend the conversations of my classmates. I was less lucky with pop music: without a convenient stack of TV Guide-like instruction manuals in our bathroom, I was never quite sure which songs were by the Eagles and which were by Kiss until well after I graduated from college. Actually I'm still not sure.

Anyway, back to the New Yorker article:
The cast talks about "Transparent" as a "wonderful cult," but director Jill Soloway disputes this. "It's a not a cult," she says. "It's feminism." Women, Soloway said, are naturally suited to being directors: "We all know how to do it. We fucking grew up doing it! It's dolls.
I have never wanted to be a television director, but Soloway's words stopped me short. Yes, of course, dolls. I spent years and years playing with dolls. In between reading TV Guide and the Little House books and Dickens and practicing the violin and drawing crayon pictures of fairy tales and hanging upside down from trees and feeding calves and being mysteriously sad and riding my bike endlessly around the block and losing every mitten I owned, I was spreading dolls and stuffed animals around the bedroom I shared with my sister . . . arranging them into complicated households, creating plots and antagonisms, constructing a long-running serial drama that ended only when our parents threatened to box up all of our toys and take them to the dump if we didn't clean our room.
"How did men make us think we weren't good at this? It's dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the fuck happened?"

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Night of Enchantment," or, " Men and Women Like Us," or, What Would T. S. Eliot Say?

It seems that last month the Sewanee Review hosted its annual fall open house, which featured a number of readers sharing pieces from past issues of the review that they found particularly moving or resonant. One of those participants chose to read aloud my 2007 essay "Tracing Paradise: A Meditation on Milton, Chores, and a Private Life" (a piece that eventually evolved into a chapter of my reader's memoir, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton).

This is a lovely thing to discover: that a reader is still moved by something I wrote nearly a decade ago. But, wait, there's more.

In his introductory words before the event, "Sewanee alumnus and Aiken Taylor fellow Robert Walker (C’15) welcomed all attendees to this 'night of enchantment'—one that he always anticipated as a student—to experience 'a river of literature' . . . written by great authors [who] 'weren’t legends or gods, but men and women like us.'"

Here's a short list of a few of the other "great authors": Walker Percy, Billy Collins, T. S. Eliot, Edna O'Brien, Wendell Berry, Robert Penn Warren.

* * *

Just so you know: I am standing here at my desk, in my bedroom, on the second floor of my dumpy little house. I have not made the bed yet. I am wearing sweat pants and slippers and I haven't taken a shower and my new short haircut is sticking up like dog hair and I just ate a handful of cheese puffs for breakfast.

Also I'm feeling slightly queasy, for reasons that have nothing to do with the cheese puffs. Also I want to laugh, possibly even to snigger. Also I have an urge to put my head in my hands and hide both my humiliation and this immodest flood of pleasure, which I should never, ever reveal because, as Alice Munro points out in her story-memoir "No Advantages," "calling attention to yourself . . . make[s] others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension." Possibly those "others" are simply the the thousand other faces of myself. Possibly they are also you. I assume the worst, on both counts. So, it seems, does Munro, and that at least is a comfort . . . because I'm pretty sure that the ghost of T. S. Eliot isn't having any second thoughts about his stature. I'm also pretty sure he isn't wearing a pink-flowered bathrobe that's been shredded by cats.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Pause in December

December is winding toward its cluttered close, yet suddenly my desk has cleared. Edited manuscripts are winging back to authors; presses are preparing to shut down for the holidays. Despite the looming demands of Christmas, I suddenly feel untethered. What should I do with myself?

Yesterday we had our first real snowfall--an inch of fat sloppy slush that froze overnight into sugary ice. Smoke threads from the chimney, and my boots crunch and squeak as I tramp to the woodshed and the compost pile.

I am imagining this day ahead of me--ticking clocks, a snap of kindling in the stove, the small sounds. I could write down a few words that belong to me. I could puzzle over a difficult book. I could copy out a poem. I could walk in the woods. I could play a Bach partita.

I open Plath's Ariel. "And here you come, with a cup of tea / Wreathed in steam," she writes. I can't tell if she's angry at me for reading these lines. I can't tell if she blames me or is grateful.

"The blood jet is poetry," she declares. "There is no stopping it."

I say She declares but do I mean She fulminates? She crows? How can I know which voice she wants me to hear?

And then: "You hand me two children, two roses."

With that, the poem is finished: she has revealed what she chose to reveal. It's up to me to choose to accept the veneer, the sentimental cloak, or not. Any choice I make will be the wrong one. In this way, Plath is very like Dickinson, very like Frost.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," and both were the wrong road to follow.

This is how I could spend my day--following all of the wrong roads, getting lost, getting nowhere, getting sucked into the bog, never returning, no one finding my bones, my bones becoming swamp . . . and later, under a springtime sun, a red-winged blackbird never lighting upon them, never clutching at them with his frail talons, never swaying back and forth on them as he sings his April song.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a mother in her children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues--faith and hope.

--from Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

* * *

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to see,
But the feet question, "Whither?"

--from Robert Frost, "Reluctance"

* * *

For though hard rockes among
She semes to haue bene bred,
And of the Tigre long
Bene nourished and fed:
Yet shall that nature change,
If pitie once win place,
Whom as vnknowen and strange
She now away doth chase.

--from Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Courte of Venus

* * *

i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart

--from Lucille Clifton, "1994"

* * *

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

--from Sylvia Plath, "Words"

Monday, December 14, 2015

From the Travel Notes of a Celebrated Novelist (1842)

Dawn Potter

At night our river-trail wound through a gorge, cold and pale,
Shining like a Highland pass under the gleam of a narrow moon.
So hemmed in we were by the hills all round that we saw no egress
Save through the path of shadow-ripples we ourselves had made,
Until a cliff seemed to open and our barge, like a witless Jonah,
Floated forward into gaping jaws that snapped shut upon us,
Closing out the moonlight, wrapping our new course in shade.

Dawn brought relief but also sorrow, for our roving eyes were loath
To rest upon the stumps that loomed like rough-hewn graves, stark
And chill among the greening corn. A thousand rotting branches
Clotted every swamp, steeped in every wet crevasse. We marked
Great wastes where settlers had been burning, and even, like an omen,
glimpsed a twisted, withered tree-king, arms reared high aloft, railing
at the slaughter of his thanes, laying curses on the blackened works of men.

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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I'm playing music this morning at Stutzmans' Cafe in Sangerville, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., so come hang out and eat pancakes if you can. The cafe will be closing for the season in a couple of weeks, so you won't have many more chances.

Before I rush off to get ready, I'll mention that I've gotten a load of responses and reactions to my post about "Magic Words: Writing for Hope, Writing for Change," my upcoming April workshop for high school teachers. Many of those responses were from people who are not high school teachers but poets and/or citizen-activists who want to bring poetry to people who don't usually take poetry workshops or are themselves people who don't usually take poetry workshops.

Yes, sign up for this workshop, or ask me to bring a version of it to wherever you are. There's no reason to limit ourselves to the classroom. After all, the classroom is just a step into the rest of life.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

I tend to think of the academicizing of literature as a twentieth-century phenomenon (and one of its symptoms is using big ugly words such as academicizing). Of course, there have long been critics--Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle in the 19th--but apparently the Victorians also had a cluster of the sort of creative pedants who are familiar to any contemporary copyeditor of scholarly texts:
Mr. Curdle . . . had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse's husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a "merry man" in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow's affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him. He had likewise proved, that by altering the received mode of punctuation, any one of Shakspeare's plays could be made quite different, and the sense completely changed; it is needless to say, therefore, that he was a great critic, and a very profound and most original thinker. (Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby)
Ah, if only this were a joke. Consider The New Poems of Emily Dickinson (1993), "edited" by William Shurr. According to the enthusiastic marketing blurb, "although many critics have commented on the poetic quality of Dickinson's letters, . . . Shurr is the first to draw fully developed poems from them. In this remarkable volume, he presents nearly 500 new poems that he and his associates excavated from her correspondence, thereby expanding the canon of Dickinson's known poems by almost one-third and making a remarkable addition to the study of American literature."

Dear academics and your long-suffering associates: After I die, please do not "excavate" my prose and repackage it as poetry. If I'd wanted to write poetry, I would have written poetry. Somehow I suspect Dickinson was also capable of making that decision.

* * *

But back to Dickens and Shakespeare and Mr. Curdle's punctuation plan. Here's a brief speech from Hamlet.
As thou art to thyself:
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
'Tis strange.
The punctation is fairly unobtrusive; it's word choice that trumps all, along with that driving iambic-pentameter beat: "He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice." Already this is the best thing I've read all day.

Dickens's own work is filled with similar metrical power . . . so maybe it's really poetry . . . maybe we could turn it into what he really meant it to be . . . because surely we know better . . .

Friday, December 11, 2015

Following Words: A Small Voyage

Mid-December and the ground is still bare. On this dark morning, the fog is so thick that I can barely glimpse the edge of the clearing. The sky sags onto the roofs. The tops of trees are lost in cloud.

I open Bart Giamatti's book Take Time for Paradise, and he tells me:
Athletes and actors--let actors stand for the set of performing artists--share much. They share the need to make gesture as fluid and economical as possible, to make out of a welter of choices the single, precisely right one. . . . Both athlete and actor, out of that congeries of emotion, choice, strategy, knowledge of the terrain, mood of spectators, condition of others in the ensemble, secret awareness of injury or weakness, and as nearly an absolute concentration as possible so that all externalities are integrated, all distraction absorbed to the self, must be able to change the self so successfully that it changes.
I open The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to look up congeries and am immediately distracted by
constupate v.t. M16-L17 [L constuprat- pa. ppl. stem of constupare, f. as CON- + stupare ravish, f. stuprum defilement: see -ATE.] Ravish, violate.
Startled, I attempt to avoid the further distractions of Congreve ("a military rocket of the kind invented by Congreve") and conger ("an association of booksellers who sold or printed books for their common advantage"), and eventually bring my mind back to
congeries n. Pl. same. M16. [L. congeries heap, pile, f. congere: see CONGEST v.] A collection of disparate or unsorted items; a rag-bag.
which allows me to verify that Giamatti was correct to use congeries with a singular verb even though it sounds wrong in the sentence. It also leads me to consider the implications of changing the sentence to "a rag-bag of emotion, choice, strategy, knowledge of the terrain . . . ," which sounds far more like something I would write if I were writing a sentence about athletes and actors.

And this leads me to ponder the tiny differences in personality that word choice can reveal. Giamatti is a congeries sort of man, whereas I am a rag-bag sort of woman. (Notice, too, that I retain the English preference for overdoing hyphens rather than the American preference for tossing them into the winds. Who would want rag bag when she could have rag-bag?)


If anything the fog outside the window is even thicker than it was when I wrote the first paragraph. Under the lifting darkness, it has taken on a vague glimmer, like a failing flashlight in a tent. 

I reread the Giamatti extract and think about athletes and actors. I have no experiential background in either athletics or acting, but I am inclined to believe that his observation makes sense for musicians. Still, I might believe more whole-heartedly if he'd used the word rag-bag. And now I am wondering if being so distracted by words does more harm than good. Perhaps it makes me dumber than other people. I should stop thinking about being dumber than other people.


Outside, a small bird repeats itself: ank ank ank. A nuthatch. When my oldest son was learning to talk, he used to call it a birdhatch. Ank ank ank. Birdfinch and birdhatch. Those were the two birds he knew.

I wonder if conger the selfish bookseller has anything to do with conger eels? I wonder if the playwright Congreve invented the military rocket; maybe he was one of those Philip Sidney kind of soldier-writers. I bet not, though. I bet it was his more successful brother or perhaps a grandson who was rebelling against the annoyances of living in an arty family. Frankly, I don't want to think any more about constupate. It's hard to find something good to say about a word that makes rape sound like constipation.

"They share the need . . .  to make out of a welter of choices the single, precisely right one." Yes, but how can we know it's the "single, precisely right one"? I never do.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thanks to a ridiculous sequence of events revolving around a pair of non-arriving school buses and an unexpected drive north, today's post is late and may possibly exude a soupcon of crankiness. I will attempt to squelch it by describing the movie we watched last night. Incubus (1965) is not only the only movie ever made entirely in Esperanto, but it also stars a pre-Star Trek William Shatner (yes, his shirt gets ripped), evil blond demons who resemble Anita Eckberg, and "serious" black-and-white camera work of the sort that might be shot by a high school student who has watched too many Bergman movies while stoned. Fortunately it is also short.

In sum, as reviewer Luke Y. Thompson writes, "It stars William Shatner, and it's in a made-up language. If you need to know more, this film is not for you." However, I recommend it highly if you live in the kind of family where people like to pretend they're the commentators on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Poet Paola Corso's interview with me has just been posted on the CavanKerry Press blog. The focus is "Authors in the Community," so most of the questions circle back to that theme. Community, of course, is a mutable label, and I dislike the way it's so often reduced to a synonym for trade group. I tried to concentrate on the more amorphous, and perhaps more ambiguous, aspects of communal engagement; and I hope I was able to give you at least the flavor of my thoughts.

In other teaching news, yesterday I was invited to lead a January workshop at Smith College on teaching poetry in the K-12 classroom. It's part of an interterm class on "The Art and Business of Poetry," and other sessions deal with first drafts, translations, and so on. I'm especially pleased that the faculty specifically asked me to present a class on teaching outside of academia. So many young graduates end up teaching in K-12 situations, and so many of them flounder, despite their intelligence and their eager commitment to an art. I know I floundered when I was 21. I was overwhelmed by teaching's demands and responsibilities. I had no idea how to transfer what was inside my head into the lessons I was proffering; I had no idea how to structure a lesson to keep student attention and interest.

I ran away from teaching so fast . . . only to find myself back in the stew after my own children started school. By then, though, I had a few mentors and guides--local teachers whose classroom-management skills I admired, opportunities to serve as Baron Wormser's sidekick during his teaching gigs. And my seven years as a K-8 music teacher was a good launch into teaching writing classes. Music is physically active for both teacher and student. I had to learn how to manage noise and chaos and movement, and those skills transferred remarkably well to managing, say, a revision workshop because both venues require intense attention to group dynamics, body language, spoken and unspoken comforts and anxieties.

Anyway, my spring semester is getting busier and busier, and I'm so happy about it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

April Workshop for Teachers at the University of Maine at Augusta

As that xenophobe Donald Trump proselytizes his McCarthyistic "solutions" to terrorism, as Jerry Falwell, Jr., recommends that college students come to class armed, as a Nevada politician posts a family Christmas photo featuring people who are cuddling both babies and guns, as hate crimes rise, as innocents are murdered, I have been asked to come up with ideas for an April poetry workshop for high school teachers, a session that will be one element of this year's Plunkett Poetry Festival at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Mulling the various possibilities, I found myself recollecting a workshop I designed about 18 months ago for a group of clients at a domestic-violence shelter. At that time, I focused on constructing a class that would intellectually engage the participants without terrifying them, that would open a space for them to take control of their present-tense situation, that would allow them to write or not write about their personal struggles . . . that would give them a choice by leading them to see that all writers have such choices.

In our present climate, I think every one of us needs this reminder and this encouragement. So I submitted the following proposal to the festival facilitator. 
Magic Words: Writing for Hope, Writing for Change
How can classroom teachers use poetry to teach language-arts skills while also facilitating students' creative civil engagement with the world and their own inner lives?

In this workshop, we'll read and discuss poems from various time periods and cultures, focusing on the power of words, expectations of beauty, definitions of happiness, possibilities for change, and other related topics. Then we'll consider linked writing prompts that teachers can use with their students and try out some of those prompts in our own first drafts.
If you're a Maine teacher interested in attending this free workshop, please let me know and I will put you in touch with the powers-that-be. The date is April 8, 2-5 p.m., at UMA.

If you're interested in a personalized version of this workshop for your students, faculty, writing group, or other organization, let me know that too. Let's keep singing.

Monday, December 7, 2015

I spent the weekend on a mixture of Christmas and writing stuff--shopping (ick), baking Emily Dickinson's black cake (it's not too late; you can too), wandering around the woods in search of a teeny-tiny tree (Ruckus and Anna helped), cutting and decorating the teeny-tiny tree (Ruckus and Anna did not help), reading the proof of a forthcoming Sewanee Review essay (subject: the toll of art on the families of artists), answering interview questions (why is this always so hard?), and receiving rejection letters (no comment necessary). For a few hours in the middle of each day, the sun shone brilliantly and I walked around the streets and glades without a coat on. Otherwise, the sky was black or turning black or getting over being black. December is such an odd month.

And now it is Monday again, and I am back to editing editing editing editing (bread baking) editing editing editing (laundry) editing. It makes me recall one of the best things I read all weekend--the cover letter that the managing editor of the Sewanee Review sends to accompany all author proofs:
There’s no need to be demure or incensed [about editorial changes]. I hope you believe, as we do, that we are all in this together. And though we might quibble about the means, we must agree on the end: an excellent finished work that is lucid, if not revelatory.
I love everything about this--including the ambiguous final phrase. "Lucid, if not revelatory"? Does this mean "clear but not earthshaking"? "Clear and, we all hope, earthshaking"? "Clear and (as we all know) not earthshaking but the best we're likely to get"?

And there there's "demure or incensed." Ah, edited ones, you know who you are.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Future writers should remember that one of the amazing things about the holiday's ur-text, Charles Dickens's 1943 novella, A Christmas Carol, is that it's pretty grim, that is to say realistic, when it comes to depicting Scrooge's past and Tiny Tim's present. Without Dickens's eye and ear for extreme emotional and fiscal predicaments, the story's more fantastic moments wouldn't have the weight of truth." --Hilton Als, "'Tis the Season," New Yorker, December 7, 2015

Reading those lines last night, as I wallowed under the couch blanket beside a warm fire, made me realize that, of course, Dickens is what I should read next. And when I imagined which novel I should reread, I found myself longing for the comic/bathetic/grubby/enchanting theater troupe of Nicholas Nickleby. The Crummles family's traveling thespians capture the sweet cranky joyousness of constructing ensemble art--bad ensemble art, of course, but who cares? Their only literary rivals may be the mechanicals rehearsing for Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare's Midsummer.

Nicholas Nickleby has numerous plot and character doldrums, but in sheer zest it rivals Pickwick in a way none of the other "greater" novels do. And its comic-nightmare characters are unmatched: the educational Squeers family; Mr. Mantalini, that absurb Lothario; the elderly next door neighbor who romantically throws squash at Nicholas's mother. . . .

Dickens was 26 years old when he began writing and serializing this novel, which was not his first. At that age, Keats was already dead. Meanwhile, George Eliot was 40 when she published her first novel, Adam Bede. I was 39 when I published my first collection of poetry. The definition of novice is relative, that's for sure.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Here's a question and answer from a interview-in-progress, on the theme of poetry and community

Interviewer: Can you relate the relevance and importance of activating words in the community to our world today and horrifying news about war, refugees, terrorist acts, mass shootings, racial injustice, etc.?

Me: For a long time I struggled with the thought that, as a writer, I couldn’t do anything or change anything. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand that some of us are put on this earth to be witnesses and to speak about what we see. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten both more comfortable with this role and more willing to use it publicly. Poets are artists of observation and ambiguity. We seen black and white, right and wrong, but we are surrounded by politicians and demagogues who are constantly feeding us their narrow notions as truth. We are surrounded by neighbors who accept these notions, for reasons of fear, mostly. So poets must stay alert to the world, and vulnerable to it. And we must keep speaking about what we see.

This barely says what I am trying to say, and I fear it sounds smarmy and pat. But what else can I do but keep watching and talking? Telephoning my senators and demonstrating in the streets are equally useless responses. Working as a doctor might be more helpful, but few of us know how to be doctors. Giving lots of money is also helpful if one has a lot of money to give. But neither health care nor donations solve the basic problem of endemic cruelty and fear.

Friday, December 4, 2015

In yesterday's email I received three invitations to teach writing workshops, plus a request for an interview, plus a confirmation note concerning a workshop I've already contracted to teach, plus a suggestion that I apply for a state poet thing. What strange cauldron is bubbling in the mysterious caverns of arts funding? My inbox has never been so full of stuff actually addressed to me.

Meanwhile, yesterday's post about my reactions to the recent spate of gun terror seems to have resonated with several readers, judging from the comments I received on Facebook and in emails. So I want to say: if you are interested in writing a personal response to that essay (or to another post), I would be happy to consider featuring you as a guest writer on the blog. This invitation is also open to any of you who would like to share a literary essay. I've already got plans to publish one reader's meditation on Proust, and I'd love to share your thoughts too.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

This Is Not a Prayer

Like you, I am horrified, outraged, ill--about the body count; about the destruction in Paris, Lebanon, Syria, Colorado, California; about the millions of other terrors that are happening now, at this moment, invisibly . . . behind locked doors, in cheerful neighborhoods where no one predicts torture, in wild landscapes far from television cameras, in places and minds where brutality is quotidian, not breaking news.

Like you, I am unable to concentrate on the body count. I woke up, made coffee, crabbed at my son for missing the bus. Nothing I did this morning changed because people are dying, because people are killing.

Of course it is too late to stop the gun problem in the United States. I dare say every one of my own neighbors already has too many guns. Bucolic small-town life, with AK-47s. It could be a Christmas card. But someone in this town is bound to die soon--a back-talking woman, a heroin-addled grandfather, a toddler digging into his mother's purse. Someone is bound to die.

We all imagine we're safe.

We all imagine we're under siege.

In her 1945 novel The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen describes the atmosphere of London during the blitz. Night after night, Nazi warplanes dropped bombs in parks, on buildings. People died daily. Neighborhoods were obliterated. The sound of death was the backdrop of daily life.
The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens, the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran out slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep. Apathetic, the injured and dying in the hospitals watched light change on walls which might fall tonight. Those rendered homeless sat where they had been sent; or, worse, with the obstinacy of animals retraced their steps to look for what was no longer there. Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence--not as today's dead but as yesterday's living.
And what has changed in the 70 years since Bowen published those words? Nothing. London in 1940 is today in Aleppo.

Of course the only way to stop the killing is to kill the people who are doing the killing. That is the narrative of war. The plot is as neat as a fairy tale's. In the meantime, a baby and her father drown in the Aegean Sea.
These unknown dead reproached those left living not by their death, which might any night be shared, but by their unknownness, which could not be mended now.
The known dead reproach us also.

We woke up, we made coffee, we crabbed at our children. Some of them will die before we smile at them again.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Right after the new year, I'll be heading to Pine Manor College, just outside Boston, to serve as guest faculty in the Solstice MFA program's winter session. On January 6, I'll teach a class on the lyric essay, followed by a reading that evening. And the reason I'm mentioning this now is because my class also welcomes auditors. For a mere 40 bucks, you, too, can hang out and read Seneca, but registration closes on December 18, so make up your mind quickly. (I think the reading is free and open to the public, but I'll get back to you about that.)

All this essay stuff seems like good timing, given that The Vagabond's Bookshelf is finally in production. Nonetheless, it is strange to think that I'll have to treat the book as a new entity. One of the chapters is about reading Tolstoy while giving birth, and now the child I was waiting for has turned 18 and applied to college. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


And now it is December. Here in Harmony the ground is still bare, but frost glitters from the roofs, the grass blades, the drooping kale. Under the cover of night, deer have advanced into the clearing, chewing the tender tips from the raspberries, craning at the frozen apples still clinging to the branches. Slopes of ice decorate the panes, and the cold creeps in through door jambs and window frames.

The beauty of the morning mirrors the weight of my stalled thoughts, as if winter is a version of Yeats's weary lines--
The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart.
--or of Wyatt's pacing fretfulness --
The frost, the snow, may not redresse my hete,
Nor yet no heate abate my fervent cold.
Poignancy riddles these waning days of the year. O warmth and light, our beacons in the twilight. . . . A quivering candle may perform a sort of glory, but ice clutches at the heart's core.