Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dream life

1. I am sitting at a seminar table, taking a class from Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. I know it is him even though he is disguised as a very short woman in sunglasses and a head scarf . . . not a hijab but the sort that protected Catherine Deneuve's hairdo as she drove her glossy convertible through 1962-era Monte Carlo. He does not offer anyone in the class free tickets to Hamilton.

2. A college acquaintance tells me she's been reading my student copy of Ezra Pound's collected poems. Why, she wonders, did I write so many flippant and dismissive comments in the margins? Why do I hate everything so much? Wordless, I hunch my shoulders and accept yet another flaw in my character. [Real-life note: I do not write in books and never studied Pound in college. Also, I have no idea who this so-called college acquaintance is.]

3. I have moved to the city and am planning to rent an apartment. I walk toward a gray stone building, about five stories high, studded with rows of fat square windows. I am excited about exploring this new, unknown, empty space; but just as I'm about to open the apartment door, my dream mind switches to another channel. On the new channel there is nothing but static.

Friday, January 29, 2016

"Education can substitute for experience but experience cannot be substituted for education."

The above sentence appears in a job description for a part-time entry-level editorial/administrative opening at a university MFA program. I don't think I need to tell you how it makes me feel. I will, however, point out that the rhetorical balance of the sentence is terrible: why repeat the verbs but bulk up the second half with a clumsy tense change? Possibly some experience with sentences would have helped.

I try not to be cynical about the arts and education, but sometimes I can't help myself. Dear friends who "only" have experience: keep using it.

* * *

If you're in the Dover-Foxcroft area tonight, stop by Pastimes Pub and say hello. My band Doughty Hill will be performing, starting at about 6:30. The food is good; the ceilings are high; and there's an old bank vault you can peek into. We'll be playing some new songs and revisiting a pile of old friends--for instance, this one: Howlin' Wolf's "Built for Comfort."

* * *

Call it a gesture no one understood,
neither dismissal nor assent, but the thing
left midair when his juggling skewed.

--from Richard Foerster's "His Wasted Life," in River Road (2015)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Later today I'm driving to Portland to be filmed for a TV program about Maine writers. Tomorrow night my band is performing at Pastimes in Dover-Foxcroft. In the interstices I am baking bread, carrying firewood, washing dishes, doing laundry, revising a poem, emptying the compost pail, feeding animals, ferrying my son, worrying about the Syrian refugees.

I cannot stop picturing those drowned children.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I drafted a poem that appeared, first, in the guise of a Chinese-influenced nature lyric. It contained familiar imagery (moon, trees) and a quiet first-person speaker. The pacing was patient but focused; the draft flowed modestly toward its delta.

I reread the draft, sighed, fidgeted, sighed, and noted a rising urge to upset this peaceable project. From the air I snatched a title: "John Doe's Suicide Note." Instantly the gentle lyric transformed itself into a compressed portrait of anxiety and dread.

The power of titles: Browning's "My Last Duchess," Plath's "Death & Co.," Frost's "Too Anxious for Rivers" . . . if I pause too long to pore over my books for examples, I will never finish this note to you.

The point is: I frightened myself when I saw what I had done. And then I spent the rest of the afternoon sharpening the poem so that it would frighten you too. Perhaps that reaction synthesizes the core difference between inspiration and revision.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

To Lord Peter Wimsey, the few weeks of his life spent in unravelling the Problem of the Iron Staircase possessed an odd dreamlike quality, noticeable at the time and still more insistent in retrospect. The very work that engaged him--or rather, the shadow simulacrum of himself that signed itself on every morning [as an undercover advertising copywriter]--wafted him into a sphere of dim platonic archetypes, bearing a scarcely recognizable relationship to anything in the living world. Here those strange entities, the Thrifty Housewife, the Man of Discrimination, the Keen Buyer and the Good Judge, for ever young, for ever handsome, for ever virtuous, economical and inquisitive, moved to and fro upon their complicated orbits, comparing prices and values, making tests of purity, asking indiscreet questions about each other's ailments, household expenses, bed-springs, shaving cream, diet, laundry work and boots, perpetually spending to save and saving to spend, cutting out coupons and collecting cartons, surprising husbands with margarine and wives with patent washers and vacuum cleaners, occupied from morning to night in washing, cooking, dusting, filing, saving their children from germs, their complexions from wind and weather, their teeth from decay and their stomachs from indigestion. . . . Where . . . did the money come from that was to be spent so variously and so lavishly? If this hell's-dance of spending and saving were to stop for a moment, what would happen?

--from Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 1933

* * *

Around and around went Mrs. Bridge, graciously smiling, pausing here and there to chat for a moment, but forever alert, checking the turkey sandwiches, the crackers, the barbecued sausages, quietly opening windows to let out the smoke, discreetly removing wet glasses from mahogany table tops, slipping away now and then to empty the solid Swedish crystal ashtrays.

--from Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge, 1959

* * *

Reading while waiting
for the iron to heat,
writing, My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
in that Amherst pantry while the jellies boil and scum,
or, more often,
iron-eyed and beaked and purposed as a bird,
dusting everything on the whatnot every day of life.

--from Adrienne Rich, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," 1963

* * *

Eric's mother had baked a cake and filled the house with flowers. The doors and windows of the great kitchen all stood open on the yard and the kitchen table was placed outside. The ground was not muddy as it was in winter, but hard, dry, and light brown. The flowers his mother so loved and labored for flamed in their narrow borders against the stone wall of the farmhouse; and green vines covered the grey stone wall at the far end of the yard. Beyond this wall were the fields and barns, and Eric could see, quite far away, the cows nearly motionless in the bright green pasture. It was a bright, hot, silent day, the sun did not seem to be moving at all.

This was before his mother had had to be sent away.

--from James Baldwin, "The Man Child," 1965

Monday, January 25, 2016

Tu Fu, Poems XVIII-XXI

The full moon, bright as a china plate, hangs in a corner of my bedroom window. I hear tree branches crackle and groan in the cold. Inside, among the hillocks of a feather bed, the moon spreads her pale light.

* * *

As agreed, this week I am going to reignite our Tu Fu conversation. For those new to the project: several readers of this blog spent time last summer slowly reading and discussing Kenneth Rexroth's translations of Tu Fu (712-770), a Chinese poet active during the Tang dynasty. The book we've been using is One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1971). Today I'm going to restart our engagement slowly, with four short poems, in hopes that none of us gets overwhelmed by too much homework. In a day or so, I'll ask a question or two so we can think about them together.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I read this morning that the Greek islanders from the region around Lesbos have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the work they have done in service of the Syrian refugees. According to an article in the Guardian, "these people organised and helped the desperate when the governments weren’t even willing to recognise that there was a crisis. By opening their hearts the islanders sent a powerful message that humanity is above races, above nations."

While the goopy sentimentality of that statement sounds like World War I home-front propaganda, recognition of the valor of these regular working people--fishermen, students, soldiers, housewives--can only do good.

Meanwhile, here in our great nation, Donald Trump re-tweets anti-Semitic jokes about Bernie Sanders . . . and by anti-Semitic I mean gas chambers.

I've just started reading Philip Roth's The Plot against America, a novel that imagines a world in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency, publicly accuses American Jews of warmongering, and reaches a "cordial" understanding with Hitler. Roth published this novel in 2004. I can only imagine what he is thinking when he turns on his 2016 radio.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saturday morning, 5:30 a.m., and already the cat has pushed a flashlight onto my sleeping head and the dog has fallen noisily down the stairs. Ergo, I am not in bed where I belong but drinking coffee in the kitchen and mending my disgruntlement. At least the house is warm.

When I let the cat out, I stood still for a moment in the snow-packed driveway and looked up at the line of planets stretching across the dark morning sky. Shivering, I stared into those pinpoints of ice and fire; and beyond them, around me, beneath me, ghosts sighed in the shadows.

Yesterday 17 Syrian children drowned off the coast of Greece. As poet A. E. Stallings points out, that's a classroom-full.

Ghosts, now.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Grace: Or Why Community Art Matters

Last night in Waterville, after Richard Foerster's and Kate Miles's wonderful readings at Common Street Arts, more than a dozen people--an amalgam of readers, hosts, community activists, students, faculty, spouses, artists, writers--adjourned for dinner at a restaurant down the street--a gathering that morphed into chatter about poetry, politics, food, personal lives . . . conversation among disparate people, most of whom had not spent much, if any, time together socially. And you know what? It was a lovely occasion--entertaining, easy-going, comfortable. As one person happily told me, "It's like a salon!" And in a way, it was.

The idea that such an event should take place in frigid central Maine, should exist in this fabled land of snowmobiles and guns and white pines as big as mainmasts, makes me a little tearful. It's the loneliness, I think . . . and the sudden shift when the hull of that loneliness splits. Perhaps this contrast, between silence and spilling lamplight, is itself the bond among us. Maybe this is why we need art.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Another whirlwind trip is behind me. Yesterday I spent three intense hours with a dozen Smith College students, experimenting with various avenues into the art of teaching poetry. And then I drove and drove and drove into the darkness, and when I got home, lamplight was spilling through the windows onto the snow and Tom was at the stove cooking a spinach frittata.

Tonight I will be in Waterville hosting a reading--poet Richard Foerster and nonfiction writer Kate Miles. Today I will be baking bread and solving the empty-refrigerator crisis. For the moment, though, I am lingering in a breath of aloneness.

I hear the dog downstairs enthusiastically clanking an empty tunafish can against the linoleum. Now she falls silent. A ticking clock rises to fill the void. Thoughts sift, like slides . . . the faces of young women in a circle, their eagerness rising as they share tales of the teachers of their past, the teachers they loved or fought with . . . a white cat at an upstairs window watching the shadowed day break across the snow . . . my pale fingers poised over a black keyboard . . . a portrait of Sylvia Plath hanging Mona Lisa-like over the gathered young women . . . a clock ticking, ticking, ticking . . . and what shall I read today? what shall I need to read today? . . .

Next week, I will restart the Tu Fu conversation.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I am wondering if any of you are ready to get back to reading Tu Fu together. His poems have been on my mind lately, and maybe on yours as well. Just let me know, here or by email.

In the meantime, I'm leaving this morning for another work gig and will write to you again when I can, though perhaps not until Thursday. Buffeting winds are forecast, and cold temperatures, and patchwork skies. Stay warm, dear ones.

Monday, January 18, 2016

"It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, 'Wait on time.'"

--Martin Luther King, Jr., from a commencement speech, Oberlin College, June 1965

* * *

In June 1965 I was 17 months old. Now I am 51, and Dr. King has been dead for nearly as long as I have been alive.

"It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation."

* * *

Snow is falling, a wraith-pale curtain in the windless air.

* * *

"The Eye sees more than the Heart knows."

--William Blake, from Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793

* * *

Who opens the door? Who brushes the flakes from her dark hair?

* * *

"Enslav'd, the Daughters of Albion weep: a trembling lamentation
Upon their mountains, in their valleys, sighs toward America."

--William Blake, from Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793

* * *

"Everyone wants to know how
it was
in the old days
when we kissed stone into dust
eternally hungry
paying respects to the crippled earth
in silence and in tears
surely one star fell as the mountain
collapsed over our bodies
surely the moon blinked once
as our vigils began."

--Audre Lorde, from "The Old Days," 1978

* * *

"The Eye sees more than the Heart knows."

Do not wait on time.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


In a letter a friend writes "from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where the little-man made lake behind the house is unfrozen and has ducks. The Pacific Coast: always seems a massive, pleasant fraud. But the little drops of rain on bare branches are translucent buds, the sky is overcast and there is drizzle. So."

Meanwhile, I write from the island of Harmony, in Maine, where hills of lumpy plowed snow press against the scaly trunks of firs and white pines, where moody goldfinches chase each other away from the dwindling bird feeder.

Yesterday I went snowshoeing, and the dog and the cat both came along--the long-legged dog bounding gaily up the path, the cat grimly jumping from one snowshoe print to the next and occasionally disappearing into a drift. All of his hair stuck out like a bottlebrush, yet he insisted on coming along with us and howled if we got too far ahead of him.

Or, as I wrote in a recent poem,
Somewhere, island horses break trail,
high on AC/DC and street racing.
I suppose I will clean house today. I think I will eat leftover broccoli and rice for breakfast. I will read a few more stories from Modern Japanese Literature, a book I would enjoy more if it weren't as big as a house. It's a book made for library carrels, and I have always hated library carrels.

In one of those stories, "The Dancing Girl," Mori Ogai, a Japanese writer who lived in Germany in the 1880s, describes a young man who is shedding, for the first time, both his isolated homeland and his obedient self:
I felt like the leaves of the silk-tree which shrink and shy away when they are touched. I felt as unsure of myself as a young girl. Ever since my youth I had followed the advice of my elders and kept to the path of learning and obedience. If I had succeeded, it was not through being courageous. I might have seemed capable of arduous study, but I had deceived not only myself but others too. I had simply followed a path that I was made to follow. The fact that external matters did not disturb me was not because I had the courage to reject them or ignore them, but rather because I was afraid and tied myself hand and foot. Before I left home I was convinced I was a man of talent. I believed deeply in my own powers of endurance. Yes, but even that was short-lived. I felt quite the hero until the ship left Yokohama, but then I found myself weeping uncontrollably. I thought it strange at the time, but it was my true nature showing through.
In a letter a friend tells me, "I have been on a desert island of late." I imagine that her island is not Vancouver or Harmony or even a ship leaving Yokohama but more like the Scottish island in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, where David has to survive on limpets that sometimes make him sick and sometimes don't. Eventually he discovers, to his extreme embarrassment, that the island is actually not an island at all. He could easily have escaped on his own, if he'd known anything about tides and sand spits.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

I'm fighting a migraine, but at least the house is warm and I'm not driving anywhere in a snowstorm. Starting on Tuesday, I'll be off again on another teaching jaunt, this time introducing a few K-12 teaching techniques to Smith College poetry students. Somehow, though, in this week's hiatus between the Solstice job and the Smith job,  I've managed to write and revise two new poems, which brings my total number of new pieces since Christmas to four . . . five, if I count the constructive revisions on another troublesome draft.

These five are included now in a folder of twelve uncollected pieces that are beginning to accrue into a nascent book. I've even gotten to the point of recognizing a few thematic arcs, so I've begun calling the folder Songbook, which I occasionally spell to myself as Song Book. Which do you like better? The name is likely to change, but for the moment it works as a thought-handle.

And it's funny how an alphabetical table of contents can be its own sort of accidental poem.

Eight-Track-Tape Player
The Gift
John Doe's Threnody
Lingua Franca
Mr. Kowalski
Route 9
A Tale from the Old Country
This Guy in the Mug Shot
Your Fate

Friday, January 15, 2016

The fire went out last night, and now the chairs are too cold to sit on and the coffee cups rattle in their saucers.

All week I've felt water-logged and unproductive. Yet it turns out that in fact I have written poems, revised poems, read books, submitted work, received rejections, copied out other people's poems, applied for a grant, written a teaching syllabus, played music, cooked meals, run errands, dealt with my son's college applications, and gone snowshoeing. I wonder why that still feels like nothing? Brains can be so silly.

And this morning I'm bringing in the car for an oil change, which means sitting in a greasy old chair reading The New Yorker, glancing occasionally at ragged deer-hunting and air-filter posters while the minus-zero cold creeps up from the cement floor and shy men in trucker hats nod at me, half-pleased, half-alarmed, as they pass by. It's a sweet enough way to spend an hour, except for the frozen feet.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

According to Saudi law, which is based on Sharia, a Saudi woman's testimony in court is, with few exceptions, valued at half that of a man.

--from Katherine Zoepf, "Sisters-in-Law," The New Yorker

* * *

I met this young brother, Abed, today on our tour of Jaffa. A feminist and a big Tupac fan, he has a very clear analysis about what's going on. I loved the way he aligned himself with the young folks in Ferguson when he talked to our delegation. He started off with the question "why do oppressors always expect the oppressed to explain how the oppressors are oppressing them?"

His house was raided last week.

 --Facebook post of Vince Warren, executive director, Center for Constitutional Rights

* * *

When, I wondered, had I become a normal woman--the kind of woman who on her way home stops by the temple to pray to Kannon-sama and then feeds the pigeons?

--from Uno Chiyo, "A Wife's Letters," translated by Rebecca Copeland

* * *

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

--from John Keats, "La Belle Dame sans Merci"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Heavy snows last night. Shivering at the porch window on this black morning, I can see wisps of fine ice glittering down through the circle of lamplight. I can't tell yet how much has fallen--six, eight, ten inches? Enough to cancel school. I open the door to let the animals out and in and out and in, and hear only the hiss of flakes, a faint scratch of wind.

* * *

I have been writing that paragraph, those five sentences, for half an hour now; and the five final words--"a faint scratch of wind"--are the only ones worth saving. The rest of the paragraph doesn't much matter.

* * *

The floor upstairs creaks as Tom paces from bed to dresser, pulling himself together to go to work. On the rug beside the woodstove, the dog is curled up like a caterpillar. In a chair by the hearth, the cat lolls on a yellow cushion. I hear a town plow scraping down the road, heading north toward Wellington.

* * *

I am sitting here writing to you. Meanwhile, Tom is trudging through drifts, clearing snow, loading his truck, beginning the long, slow slog to his workday. The contrast between our tasks is unfair; cruel, even. I continue to sit here writing to you.

* * *

Light has spread across the low sky, and the breeze is stronger now. Around the clearing, the firs twitch under a clumsy weight of white. Flakes gust from their splayed branches. "Splayed" is the wrong word for what I mean to say. I want to describe the gestures of an aging hand . . . plaintive, resigned.

* * *

All this time spent writing, and I still haven't arranged any words more precise than "a faint scratch of wind." Tom's pictures say it better.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I've been thinking about the lines I posted yesterday. I don't think I would call them a poem. In retrospect, they remind me more of Theodore Roethke's notebook jottings, collected in On Poetry & Craft . . . though most of his are presented as teaching commentary, which mine were not. Mine were only mine.

I've also been thinking about Carlene's remark on yesterday's post--especially her physical, painful reaction to The Unicorn Defends Itself. I first saw that tapestry at the Cloisters, where it hangs among other, more famous unicorn tapestries. It's enormous, of course--castle-sized--so large and busy that looking at it is like looking at a Breughel painting or a Hogarth etching. My eye cannot concentrate on the whole, only on snapshots. I would need to stand in front of this tapestry every day for a decade in order to see it with any kind of clarity.

Nonetheless, I haven't stopped thinking about it. I bought a postcard of the central detail, which has been taped beside my desk for a year or so. It remains difficult to look at . . . the dogs snapping at the unicorn's legs, the unicorn goring a dog and kicking at the hunters, spears and blood and chaos, the bright costumes, the Arcadian field. There's no way the unicorn will win this fight, but he will do damage. The scene reminds me of the ending of John Clare's poem "Badger":
He turns agen and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd agen;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies.
So many mixed feelings. I open the Roethke notebook jottings. "There is much to be learned and wrung from terror, anxiety, fear; there are still 'forms' which the imagination can seize from those dark seas of the mind and spirit." Yes, but this is the same man who also wrote: "The damage of teaching: the constant contact with the undeveloped." And "I teach naturally; a student is a supplement to me, like a wife is to some men." And "Gradually a pile of student papers begins to smell like old meat."

A dangerous man in the classroom; though perhaps, for some students, a necessary one. "How wonderful the struggle with language is." "Look how 'wicked' we are."

Yet "The gravitas of songs, the clean swing of a bat." I'm glad to have jotted that down myself.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Eight Thoughts about Writing a Poem

Ordinary words, unfolding

Pure sound--eloquence, distortion

The gravitas of songs, the clean swing of a bat

Locked doors and a broken window

A mouse nest behind a dusty book

Forgotten dolls, gioconda smiles

News of the world, plain as dirt

A shape . . . brittle, shining, gone

The Unicorn Defends Itself, Netherlandish tapestry, c. 1495-1505, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I bought half a rack of lamb at a halal grocery in Massachusetts, and today, for Tom's birthday, I will be figuring out what to do with it. I haven't dealt much with lamb in my career as a cook: when I was younger, I didn't like the taste; and when I was older, I was learning to cook goat instead. I'm optimistic, however. Compared to sinewy goat, tender lamb should be a breeze.

Here's the proposed menu:

Appetizers: smoked salmon, goat cheese, fresh bread sticks; Allagash tripel ale

Main course: Roasted rack of lamb rubbed with garlic and parsley, mashed potatoes with scallions, roasted brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes; homemade vegetarian egg rolls for the non-meat eater; Masi Bonacosta Valpolicella 2012 (which costs $11 at Micucci Grocery in Portland and, according to the sign, tastes better than you'd expect)

Salad: red grapefruit segments tossed with pecans and mixed greens

Dessert: pears poached with star anise, on a bed of ginger whipped cream

* * *

Today's weather is forecast to be a sloppy rainy snowy mess.  It is comfort to rest my eyes on the giant bouquet of red roses and white stocks that I brought home for Tom yesterday. The boys are still asleep, the cat is pacing, the fire in the woodstove is clicking and sighing. I woke up too early this morning, gasping in a nightmare panic over schedules and responsibilities--the stupid torments of an overdutiful brain. But despite the unpleasant trigger, I'm not sorry to be awake now, sitting here in my thick bathrobe, drinking black coffee, gazing at fat red roses and a lowering sky.

I suppose I should start mixing bread dough or peeling pears. Maybe I should quote poetry or try to explain why I'm not exactly enjoying Moving On (the 1970 Larry McMurtry novel I'm reading) but why I also kind of like what the novelist is trying to figure out how to say. But recently I've been reading a series of posts on another blog that circle around painting and literature and personal reactions to them, and I've discovered that I can't understand what on earth this writer is trying to tell me. How do these particular works of art connect? Why am I unable to follow this person's leaps and declarations? I feel cowed by the impossibility of conversation, overwhelmed by the writer's pedagogical desperation, and I get worried that I might be doing the same thing to you.

So I will not talk to you about art. Today is the day that I know nothing about art. I only know that these roses on my kitchen table are beautiful but also ridiculous--too big, too red, too wrong for January in Maine . . . like looking at someone walking down a snowy gravel road in open-toed alligator stilettos.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

from Family Matters

“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique,” wrote James Baldwin. “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” And it is terrible, terrible, when what we love is also the anguish we vomit up. For how many slow hours did Rainer Maria Rilke linger in the Jardin des Plantes, suffering alongside the suffering beasts, before he began to understand how to invent “The Panther”?

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

“Writing is not therapy,” I tell my puzzled students. “Often, you feel worse after you finish a poem.” On the whole, this is not what they are expecting from art.
            Nor are they expecting the ruthlessness of creation: the melodrama, the exaggerations, the false fronts and manufactured views. Robert Lowell tried to explain its workings.

Caged in fiction’s iron bars,
I give this voice to you
with tragic diction to rebuke the stars—
it isn’t you, and yet it’s you.

Listen to the shame and hubris in his words, the helplessness, the gasping clutch at glory. But the you of the poem, sitting alone in her twilit room, no doubt heard something quite different, and perhaps it drove her to close the windows and turn up the television volume to drown out the sound.

* * *
The complete version of this essay is forthcoming soon in the Sewanee Review. Because I was teaching an essay class at Solstice this week, I felt compelled to include some prose in my evening reading, so I chose part of this piece. It felt good to read it, but it's left me melancholy. The sentences were sad; even the happy sentences were sad. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

As I was on my way out to Boston on Wednesday, I received a note from the editor of Salamander, who wanted to let me know that she was featuring my poem "Lingua Franca" on the journal's website. That poem, which circles around the ways in which people perseverate on their notions, expectations, and terrors, always makes me a little bit afraid, partly because it begins on a note of comic exasperation and ends on a distressed one. The poem propels itself down the page into nightmare. It is a piece about the way in which imagination takes over our lives, in a bad way, and it is not a safe poem for a person with intermittent highway anxiety to revisit before a long lonely drive.

I think I'm writing about the link between myself and the experience of writing and rereading my own poem because I found myself asking students to consider those kinds of questions, to examine their own writerly tendencies, during the lyric essay class I taught at Solstice on Wednesday. I've presented versions of this class to several different kinds of students: high school juniors, adults without much creative-writing experience, and now a class of graduate-level students (most of them nonfiction majors) that also included several of their faculty members. In each version of this class, the readings and the basic discussion and writing prompts have been similar, but the conversational flowering around those prompts has been very different.

At Solstice, I felt the urge to ask the students to consider their own language patterns, what kinds of patterns pressed them forward into the unknown, what seemed to hold them back from such exploration, what writings they returned to later with a sense of awe or even fear. Suddenly it seemed so important to me to let them talk about the vitality of the way in which their own individual minds interacted with the rigors of the page.

And hearing them begin to talk to each other about these matters, to listen to themselves, was an immense satisfaction. This is my favorite thing about teaching: these unplanned conversations that become the portal . . . not only for the students but for me. Attention to one's own writerly patterns, consideration of how they lead an individual into new terrain or into dead ends or just into a confused mess, is a vital element of both creation and revision. Studying other writers' patterns, considering how those writers got where they were going, is a door into studying one's own. It's also a way of reminding ourselves that the unfolding act of writing is the heart of the matter, the art itself.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

No letter today because I'm on my way south this morning. But if you're in the Boston area, you could come to tonight's reading: 7:30 p.m. at Pine Manor College, with details and directions available on the Solstice MFA program's website. It would be lovely to see you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


A cold morning in Harmony--temperature hovering below zero, woodstove clicking and groaning, white cat plastered on a red hearth rug. In the middle of town, furnace breath hangs above the school, the gas station, the store. School buses creak to a halt.

The cold creeps under doors and around window frames. On Saturday our road commissioner, a 26-year-old kid, was killed while repairing a town truck. I didn't know him at all, other than as the guy in charge of plowing, but I still feel the jolt of loss. He was a well-loved son, the father of a little girl; his wife is pregnant with their second child. Picture a moment's misstep: how many lives beyond your own would go terribly awry?

Downstairs I hear Tom's footsteps, back and forth, back and forth, across the hard kitchen floor. When I was small, I listened to many tales of men killed by tractors . . . neighbors of my parents or grandparents. A farmer would try to drive a tractor up a hill or go too quickly around a curve, and it would flip and crush him. The man who owned the feed store had lost all the fingers of one hand, caught in farm machinery. As my sister and I waited for our granddad to load sacks of grain into the trunk of the Impala, we stole looks at the finger stumps--neat, useless, innocently round.

A square of sunlight illuminates the music book on my stand: Bach, Six Sonatas for Violin Solo. I remember the shiver of imagining my own hand without fingers. I don't remember imagining the families of the men beneath those tractors.
Over your body the clouds go
High, high and icily
And a little flat, as if they
Floated on a glass that was invisible. 
[Sylvia Plath, "Gulliver"]

Monday, January 4, 2016

This week begins my downhill hurtle inside the snowball called 2016. On Wednesday I'll drive to Boston to teach and read at the Solstice MFA residency; and as the season advances I'll be teaching and/or reading in four New England states, flying to Los Angeles for the AWP conference, possibly taking a kid to New York City, and abetting the graduation celebrations of two sons in two different states. In between I'll be editing, playing music gigs, prepping for the Frost Place, and driving back and forth to high school.

It is tempting to imagine that I might also be writing. The two poems I finished this week were my first new work for months, and I was happy with the trajectories of both. Their genesis felt solid and interesting; the revisions were steady and self-clarifying rather than staggers into the abyss of "oh my God, this sucks." This doesn't mean that they will, in the long run, turn out to be great poems but that the process of making them pushed me to both write productively and to think productively about how I was enacting the process of writing. Writing and meta-writing, if you see what I mean.

And it is a tremendous relief to be making something new.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review of The Conversation

I was surprised and honored to discover this review of The Conversation on the Amazon website. The reviewer, Amy Rasmussen, teaches English in Texas and is active with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) both nationally and regionally. She's also attended the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and subsequently invited one of our guest faculty members, Meg Kearney, to be the keynote speaker at a Texas teachers' gathering.
Dawn Potter crafts a beautiful and compelling lesson in The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet: Yes, you can. Within the text we find references to poets, snippets of poems, full-length poems, and practical yet beautifully written instructions on how to let poetry seep into our souls and fly out of our fingertips. Potter’s sentences sizzle as she teaches the emotional importance of what poetry is --and does--for us, and how we can invite students into this emotion. 
Potter writes: “If you're a teacher, you know all too well how emotional your students can be. No doubt, as you’ve watched them work to express those emotions in writing, you’ve also noticed how often they feel obliged to sum up their emotional chaos with a pat conclusion--sometimes a moral epigram, sometimes a cynical shrug. In essence, they swerve away, using words to slam the door on chaos rather than allowing it to rule the poem. I think many of us succumb to a similar urge whenever we feel ourselves struggling to come to terms with, or simply articulate, the enormous, engulfing, unavoidable losses and desires that define the human condition. We want to find answers even as we run away from the questions.” 
The Conversation is more than just a book about teaching poetry. It is a book about living, enjoying, hoping, discovering, and proving. Proving the humanity in each of us as we study the work of poetic greats: Shakespeare, Dickinson, Shelley, Hopkins and learn to write as they wrote. 
Never did I imagine I would read about book about teaching poetry and fall deeply in love with the author’s language. Potter’s prose is as enticing as her poetry and as inviting as her message. I a better teacher and a better individuals because I have read this book. This book is a must read for any teacher who believes in the power of language to change the world for the better. You’ll find more strategies and poetry resources in this book than in any literature textbook, old or new, and these come straight from the mind of a living poet. Now, that’s some primary resource.
At some point in March, I'm going to be Amy's guest on the NCTE Twitter chat she curates. Twitter and I are not very close friends, but I will attempt to be coherent. If you are a happier Twitter chatter than I am, please join in and bail me out.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

I woke up thinking of Ivy Compton-Burnett and her terrible, cramped youth--that Edwardian nursery packed with unhappy, half-related children; the tyrant parents downstairs. . . . I don't know why my mind was circling this tale, for I haven't been reading any of her novels lately. But I did have the strong sense that I should reread the childhood section of her biography.

I've also been working on two poems, one almost complete, one just beginning to form itself into verse; and I've been reading intensely. Since Christmas, I've finished a novel and two collections of stories and am in the midst of another novel, plus studying Plath's poems and the strange early 20th-century "learn Esperanto" textbook that Tom gave me for Christmas. Though I am not at all interested in learning Esperanto, I am very interested in the sentences that the author suggests I should want to translate into that language: for instance,  "He tore (in pieces) the book and then he threw it about in the street, because he was very angry."

Come to think of it: maybe the tone of this Esperanto text is what's making me dream of Ivy Compton-Burnet.
I have been loved.
He has been seen.
I have been paid.
She has been drowned.
You (pl.) are (about) to be deceived.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year! I stayed up till 2 and slept till 9:15, and now I feel like a cheerful zombie. "Amie" was the number-1 most-sung-along-with song in our show, handily squelching "Wagon Wheel." Even the sloshed 30-year-olds in the corner knew the "Amie" chorus. Moreover, a comic minister, out to dinner with his wife, told me that this Christmas he'd wrapped up a bitten peanut-butter-and-fluff sandwich and put it under the tree as a present for his kids--priceless information, and a challenge for everyone who enjoys lacing holidays with absurdity. [This year I made James a pair of paper shoes, and Tom made me a card with a picture of shirtless William Shatner wishing me Merry Christmas in Esperanto.] The other notable event was that my friend John handed me a cassette tape of Sylvia Plath reading her poems at Harvard and the BBC. This does not often happen at bars in Central Maine on New Year's Eve.

Now that I'm awake, sort of, I am imagining that I might go snowshoeing today, or build a snow beast, or maybe just lob snowballs at the cat, who loves a fake skirmish. The weather is warming, the sky streaked with sun and clouds. I will read my newest Margaret Atwood find (Lady Oracle) and play the Plath cassette (presuming that one of our cassette players still works).

Writing of the BBC recordings, Plath's daughter, Frieda Hughes, said:
In December 1962, my mother was asked by BBC radio to read some of her poems for a broadcast, and for this she wrote her own introductions. Her commentaries were dry and brief and she makes no mention of herself as a character in the poems. She might expose herself, but she did not need to point it out. I particularly like . . . "In this next poem, the speaker's horse is proceeding at a slow, cold walk down a hill of macadam to the stable at the bottom. It is December. It is foggy. In the fog there are sheep." . . . These introductions make me smile; they have to be the most understated commentaries for poems that are pared down to their sharpest points of imagery and delivered with tremendous skill.
For some reason I feel inordinately pleased to have these broadcasts on cassette tape. I'm sure they're available all over the Internet, but this way seems better, though I don't exactly know why. I don't even know for sure I'll be able to hear them. But still: I have the plastic rectangle, with Sylvia's voice right there, on the magnetic tape. I can even see the magnetic tape through the little round portholes. Holding the tape feels like holding a ghost in a bottle.