Saturday, April 29, 2017

This week I spent time with a classroom full of high school students from Congo, Uganda, Jordan, Afghanistan, Guam, Haiti, Burundi. . . . Some have been in the United States for only two or three months; some have arrived without parents or siblings. I don't know their backstories. But I do know that their Portland English class is an amazing space of learning and warmth. I know that they high-five the visiting writers when we show up, that they make easy eye-contact with us and are eager to spend time with us, that they can't wait to talk and write about their memories and their observations.

I'm just a volunteer in these sessions; I don't lead the classes or prepare curriculum. So I'm getting a chance to learn and watch, to just be relaxed with the kids. It's been beautiful, really.

Tomorrow morning, early, I'll be on the road again--off to watch my son perform and to visit with my in-laws. So, once again, my correspondence will be spotty.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Yesterday was a good day. First, I sat in on an excellent class with a terrific group of high schoolers from all over the world. Then, in the evening, I debuted my poem "Duet for Uncle Paul" at a reading where I also got to spend time with the work and the company of three other fine Maine poets.

I've designed the poem for two voices, but I last night I had only myself as reader. I was glad to see, however, that the difference in the written voices made them easy to distinguish, and the audience members were very helpful in their reactions to the balance of the two parts. Of course I was nervous about bringing such a new piece into the air, but I kept telling myself, What the hell? Why not try? It was Paul's birthday earlier this week: he would have been 72. The coincidences had aligned, and I am a sucker for coincidence.

This morning I'm going back to the high school for another volunteer session, and then I will come home and open all the windows because outside it will be warm and damp and spring. I feel so energized from having spent a day being useful. I haven't felt particularly useful to anyone, for most of a year. It's a hard identity to lose.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

I may have finally found the Vietnam War book I was hoping to discover: Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. FitzGerald was a freelance journalist during the war, publishing her reports in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and other such literary venues. Her book, which won a Pulitzer, was published in 1972; and instead of focusing exclusively on combat engagements and politician behaviors, it also works to reflect the war through the eyes of everyday Vietnamese and American citizens. Moreover, FitzGerald can spin a narrative, which, I'm sorry to say, many military historians and journalists cannot. I've been kicking myself for getting so bored with most of the books I've taken out of the library. But really, the tedium wasn't all my fault.

This morning, I'm off to sit in on an ELL writing class at a local high school, and then I've got to prep for my reading in Yarmouth tonight. I just might wear my beautiful new dress.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tomorrow evening I'll be doing my National Poetry Month duty--e.g., reading with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Megan Grumbling, and Jim Thatcher at Merrill Memorial Library, on Main Street in Yarmouth, Maine. I'd love to see you there.

And next weekend I'm scheduled to teach a day-long poetry workshop for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, this time way up in Trescott, in Washington County. So if you're in the hinterlands and are looking for something to do on May 6, you might consider signing up.

Otherwise, life continues apace, as does the rain. I fetched Tom home from the airport at midnight last night, so my cloistered long weekend is now officially over. I wish I'd accomplished more writing-wise than I did, but four new pages in an essay draft that's been driving me crazy for six weeks are not nothing. On my rainy walk to yoga class yesterday afternoon, I noticed that a few flowering trees are beginning to blossom, and the parks smell of wet grass and thawed soil and joyful dogs. I am trying hard not to let my thoughts turn to my garden back home.

What I am going to do is walk out into the spring rain, and then trudge back up the stairs to the doll-house and write a syllabus, and then fix oven-fried chicken for the one I love.
This talk of art & love, the odds & ends! 
--from Hayden Carruth, "The Sleeping Beauty"

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Yesterday I received notice that my collection Songs about Women and Men was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize. This is the second time this season that I've had a collection place well in a contest: early in the year, Chestnut Ridge was a semi-finalist for the Wilder Prize.

I'm gratified that readers seem to be interested in both collections, but of course I'm also frustrated because I can't seem to get beyond that status. Then again, I haven't been applying to contests for all that long. So I guess I should be patient with myself.

Both collections are sitting on the desks of various non-contest publishers, so maybe something will happen there. Reading fashions change, that's for sure. For a while, I'd given up on Chestnut Ridge entirely, and now, since the election, it seems to be garnering at least some attention. I was listening to an interview with the playwright Lynn Nottage, who researched and wrote her play Sweat (about working-class Reading, Pennsylvania) well before Trump came to power. Yet audiences, post-Trump, are responding to it as a topical statement. The same may be true of Chestnut Ridge. But I hate to allow myself to get too optimistic. There are a lot of people out there trying to publish poetry manuscripts. I've heard that roughly a thousand people submitted to the Dorset Prize. I'm lucky to get any kind of notice.

Monday, April 24, 2017

This morning I will be having a Skype conversation with a classroom full of Oklahoma undergraduates who are studying editing. I am the exemplar of "freelance editing," and I am a little nervous about the idea that students are actually imagining it to be a lucrative career. Um, no.

I am also a little nervous about the cat's ability to behave himself for 45 minutes. If he doesn't, I guess the students will get to glimpse another downside of freelancing.

After the Skype session, I'm hoping to get some new writing started. I've been in a pattern lately: read read read read, write. Read read read read, write. It's a common-enough pattern for me, but the read sections are going on for an unusual length of time, and often they feel more like floundering among texts than like any productive gathering of information. Poem research isn't historical research, that's for sure.

Early this morning I woke up to barking, and thought, Oh someone's come up the driveway. And then I realized that my dog was dead and I don't have a driveway anymore. It was a sad way to wake up.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

This morning's view: sunshine, wet green grass, and a clear blue sea. And in frivolous news, I bought the most beautiful dress yesterday, and it only cost $25.

I spent my Saturday slowly filling time. I tried on 13 items of clothing at the store. I cooked an Asian noodle dish that required me to chop and cook small amounts of many different kinds of vegetables. I went outside into the drizzle and took a slow walk along the shore.  I spent much time reading Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. And so my day alone turned out to be a good day, a very good day.

I know that some portion of my Sunday needs to involve housework, but that's okay too. I like clean floors and tidy surfaces and a well-scrubbed bathtub. Housework is not a waste of time. It's another way to acquaint oneself with place. And because this doll-house is the only place I've got, I take its condition seriously.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Wednesday night, when I was up north, I drove blindly through a dense snow squall. Here in Portland, there's nothing but rain. It fell all day yesterday, and all through the night, and is still falling now . . . mostly as a dense drizzle, but sometimes more urgently, sometimes as a patter of drops.

Out on the deck, my row of arugula seeds has sprouted, and my stalwart pansies and herb seedlings twitch in a small wet wind. Inside, the cat is draped over the radiator. The doll-house smells of coffee and toast.

Yesterday I finished War and Peace for the the thousandth time, and now I have started reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad for the first time. I spent some time yesterday copying out Carruth's poetry and scanning through Takin' It to the Streets, an anthology of writings from the 1960s. Among them is a speech titled "The Incredible War," which the president of Students for a Democratic Society delivered at a 1965 anti-war rally in front of the Washington Monument. The president's name was Paul Potter, and he is no relation to me. He just happens to share a name and an era with my uncle.

In his speech, that other Paul Potter said:
The war goes on; the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of the Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisors thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make. I do not believe that the President or Mr. Rusk or Mr. McNamara or even McGeorge Bundy are particularly evil men. If asked to throw napalm on the back of a ten-year-old child they would shrink in horror--but their decisions have led to mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people. 
What kind of system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country [in] seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values--and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?
Three years later, in a letter to his older brother, written in early 1968, my Paul Potter wrote:
I've been having quite a time over here. I'm in the unit that does all the good stuff that I wanted to get into.
No wonder his older brother still cries when we talk about those days.

Friday, April 21, 2017

This morning has been a flurry of packing as Tom gets ready to fly to Chicago for a long weekend with our older son. He has not been on a plane for years, not since all of the new TSA regulations came into being, so he is slightly flustered by all the prohibitions . . . but also amused. "Did you know," he reads aloud to me, "that I am allowed to bring along 'artificial skeleton bones'?"

Unfortunately, we do not have any artificial skeleton bones for him to try out on the TSA guys, though we do have some deer antlers. Perhaps he should pack them.

So I will revert to last year's single life, for a weekend. I don't really have any plans, other than to go to the Subaru dealership to buy a stupid piece of plastic housing that fell off my car and maybe I'll also try to force myself to go clothes shopping so that I can acquire some summer shirts that don't have holes in them.

But this weekend I will open that folder of papers from my uncle Paul. I will finish copying out Carruth's "Sleeping Beauty." I will go for a walk beside the ocean.

And now Tom has just walked into the room to inform me that the TSA says he's allowed to travel with "gravy" and a "waffle iron." It's so wonderful they're looking out for our needs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I'm heading up north this afternoon for band practice, so I'll be on the road tomorrow morning and probably won't get a chance to write to you. I haven't played music for a few weeks and am worried about my rustiness, but c'est la vie, I guess. At least the days are longer now and I don't have to drive up in the dark. At least it's baseball season and I can listen to the Red Sox as I drive over the mud and the frost heaves to my bed at my friends' house.

Yesterday I got a flurry of Frost Place applications: four in one day! That was exciting, and it also made me realize that I should warn any of you who hopes to take part in the optional Writing Intensive but hasn't submitted an app yet: Submit now, or you risk losing your place. Because of space constraints, I have to cap the WI numbers at twelve, and we only have three openings left. So do not delay.

I also wanted to let you know that I've got some openings for manuscript work in May. A few of you have mentioned that you'd like me to look at poem sheafs or complete manuscripts, and now would be a good time to contact me, before my Frost Place rush begins. In addition, if you have visiting writer openings for the fall or can negotiate any reading/workshop opportunities, we could talk about that possibility too. I know my move to Portland has thrown me off track, but I am ready to climb back onto the train. And traveling out of state is so much easier for me than it used to be. Do be in touch.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

My poem "Petition" is up at Vox Populi today.

The piece was triggered by one of those public notices printed in the classified sections of newspapers--in this case, from the State of Maine Probate Court, which was going through the legal motions of tracking down a parent who had disappeared.

The print version of this poem includes some indents, but WordPress doesn't manage them well, so the editor and I reconfigured the format slightly. I'd be glad to send you a copy if you're interested in examining how the indentation affects the tenor of the piece.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Yesterday the Prom was populated with crowds of dogs playing Frisbee, and girls chasing each other around in their Easter dresses, and lovers canoodling on benches, and families having picnics, and small children squealing, and young women tanning in various states of undress, and a remarkable number of couples in color-coordinated outfits. Today will be quieter, but the weather should be just as warm. For now, the only action is a sailboat and three guys laughing in Spanish.

I had an early morning dream last night about one of my publishers, who turns out to be about 8 feet tall and who made scurrilous remarks about my intelligence when we were trapped together in an elevator or something. Later in the dream she morphed into Captain of the Rescue Ship during Armageddon, with her version of Saint Peter at the Gates being the crabby janitor at the Harmony School. He decided not to let one Harmony citizen onto the ship but grudgingly gave me a place. I woke up before I learned whether the publisher would kick me off the boat if she knew I were there.

As a result of this dream, I feel like I've been bonked with a cartoon hammer. I hope the coffee helps.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A teeny-tiny bit of country in the city. I am trying.
I am alone this Easter morning.

Yesterday afternoon Tom drove the boy back to college, but he'll be home tonight, in time for dinner. In the meantime I have mostly been idle. I spent some time on the deck, watching the walkers walk and the sailboats sail. I spent some time washing dishes and listening to baseball. I trudged to the fish market and bought crabmeat and a whole ocean perch for dinner tonight. I did not open the folder of my uncle's papers.

Now the window is open, and a car hisses by on the wet pavement. Remnants of last night's rain silver the deck railings, and my little herb plants are glistening in the thin wet daylight.

Yesterday, when I drove past my land in Harmony, I could see that the new owner has begun to cut some trees. I am trying not to think about that.

But today I feel so rootless. It is hard.

Friday, April 14, 2017

 A bright morning, but cool. And now, on the deck outside my bedroom window, sit two fat planters, one packed with herbs, the other seeded with various greens: mesclun mix, arugula, chard, red kale. I am inordinately pleased. I guess that's what happens when an elegist relinquishes her 40 acres . . . she can't stop staring at two containers of dirt.

Later today the boy and I will drive north into the land of mud and sodden snow and roaring woodstoves and dirty boots and black skies. Later today I may bring myself to open the folder of my uncle's papers that my father gave me a few days ago.

I have been slowly reading Marilynne Robinson's novel Home, slowly re-reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, slowly copying out Carruth's Sleeping Beauty. I have been talking to editors about both of my poetry manuscripts. I have been editing a book about censorship, and mulling over the poetry workshop I'm scheduled to teach in May, and prepping for the Frost Place conference. I have been sweeping floors and washing clothes. I have been criss-crossing the highways of New England and New York. I have been listening to baseball games, to a podcast about Grace Kelly, to birdsong, to the songs of Bob Marley, to the chatter of my son. I have been walking up steep hills in the sun and the rain.

"Place is the now / which is eternal. And we are passing on." --Hayden Carruth, "Vermont"

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Well, I'm back from Vermont, and the boy is once again in the house: sleeping, eating, listening to baseball, and making his parents watch cute-animal videos and hip YouTube explanations of how leitmotif works in Schubert's lieder. Tomorrow he and I will head north for an overnight with our friends in the woods, but for the moment we are perched here in the doll-house, and I will attempt to get some work done this morning while he is still unconscious.

Spring seems to have set her foot firmly on the ground. After a day of rain, the grass in the park is greening and the air has softened. The doll-house is suffused with the scent of hyacinths, and I am itching to plant things on the deck. Probably I won't have very good luck out there as the exposure is due north, but that won't stop me from trying. But first I have to acquire pots and soil and seeds and plants and watering cans, and I have no idea where the nurseries are in this town, and I have no idea how hard it will be to manage all of this while climbing in and out of a window onto the deck and simultaneously fighting with a cat who is plotting an escapade. There is always something new to learn in this world.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The weather was rainy and raw in New York, but I returned to Portland just in time for spring. In New York I went to the Morgan and I went to the Whitney and I walked on the High Line and I stayed up late in Brooklyn eating cuttlefish with kumquats and listening to REM outtakes. In Portland I went for a walk at Fort Williams (which is really down the road in Cape Elizabeth) and enjoyed the delightful combination of crashing waves and peculiar WWI-era fort ruins. Then I went back to the doll-house and washed the floors and listened to a baseball game and made a salad of farro and brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes and smoked tuna and fell asleep at 8:45.

Tomorrow I'm on the road again . . . off to Vermont to fetch the boy home for spring break. I'm sure my correspondence will be spotty this week, given that he doesn't drive but wants to visit friends and relatives far and near. Ah, well. There are worse things in this world than driving around northern New England singing along to the radio with my big chatty son. Many worse things. Few better ones.

Friday, April 7, 2017

And here I am in Brooklyn, New York, eating a leftover burrito for breakfast and considering a walk up to the botanical garden.

Here I am, citizen of the nation that is bombing Syria.

Cars honk; a bus whirrs past.

My children are not being gassed or lying homeless on a wet street.

I cannot stop imagining.

What does a watcher do with the simultaneity of these statements?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

You will not hear from me tomorrow morning as I'll need to leave the doll-house before dawn to catch my bus to NYC. But I hope to check in with you at some point during my wet and whirlwind trip.

Today I'll need to figure out how to fill a few spare hours tomorrow afternoon. More importantly, I'll need to decide what outfit to wear for a morning that will involve sandwich crumbs on a bus, followed by an afternoon spent walking around the city in torrential rain, followed by an evening presentation among people I've never met. What is the correct attire for such a variable occasion? I have no idea.

Yesterday I revisited an essay draft I started a couple of weeks ago, and I think maybe I've decided where to go with it. But we'll see if I have time to do anything about that idea: my new editing project has also arrived, and the next couple of weeks are going to involve a fair amount of travel. Still, even though the writing honeymoon is over, at least I got a big poem out of it.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I'm still waiting for a new editing assignment to arrive, so in the meantime I've been copying out Carruth's long poem "The Sleeping Beauty," reading a collection of Vietnam-era letters, finishing Komunyakaa's Warhorses, continuing to make my way through War and Peace, and tinkering with my poem draft, which has crept close to a final version. Yesterday afternoon I opened all of the windows, and swept the floors, and marinated two fat pork chops in lemon and fresh sage, and listened joyfully to the Red Sox win their opening-day game. But the rest of the week will be a different tale, one involving thick rain and a raw spring wind.

On Thursday morning I'll be taking the bus to NYC for a Frost Place event, and the forecast is intimating that I'll be jostling through rush-hour Manhattan in an umbrella forest instead of ambling along the High Line gazing at daffodils. Oh, well. At least I'll have the excitement of an easy commute. Getting from Harmony to Manhattan was an arduous all-day event: an hour's drive to the Augusta bus station, then a total of 10 hours or more spent getting to Boston, sitting around in South Station waiting for a connection, and then climbing onto another bus that might or might not take me directly to Port Authority. But now all I have to do is wake up at the crack of dawn, convince Tom to drive me 10 minutes to the bus station, and catch an express that goes directly to the city. Total travel time = 6 hours. Amazing.

If you're in the NYC area and interested in attending this Frost Place open house, let me know and I will send you the particulars.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Not long ago the editor-in-chief of a very well known small press contacted me to ask if I would be interested in being considered for a position at the press. Essentially that position was to be his heir apparent, and I'm going to tell you right now that I did not get hired for the job. The press ended up promoting someone from inside, at least in part, I am told, because of growing financial anxiety related to National Endowment for the Arts funding. But I was one of three finalists for a position that I never went out looking for, so that in itself was bracing. Yes, it was kind of like being an unpublished finalist in a poetry contest, but there was nonetheless a certain uplift to the experience, in a not-getting-paid sort of way.

So here I am, still the same old seat-of-her-pants freelancer, tinkering with manuscripts and such. And the temperature is supposed to rise into the 50s, and in a few days I'll be heading to New York City for a Frost Place event, and my doll-house is clean and neat, and the cat is not currently biting me, and the dentist has assured me that I do not need a root canal, and it's opening day for the Red Sox. I'm feeling pretty cheerful. I hope you are too.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tolstoy as Oracle

This morning, over coffee, I opened my copy of Garnett's translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I have been slowly re-reading for the hundredth time, and immediately fell face-first into the following paragraph:
And not for that hour and day only were the mind and conscience darkened in that man, on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it. Never, down to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of good, of beauty, of truth, of the significance of his own acts, which were too far opposed to truth and goodness, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their significance. He could not disavow his own acts, that were lauded by half the world, and so he was forced to disavow truth and goodness and everything human.
Tolstoy does not include a proper noun in the paragraph, and thus he allows it to function as a generalization in which "that man" could be any number of men, any number of humans. If I substitute "Donald J. Trump" for "that man," the paragraph assumes an ominous topicality . . . ominous because, even in his delineation of evil, Tolstoy allows us to pity this person "on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it." And when we pity someone, we make allowances for his evil.

This paragraph disturbs me, in great part, because I naturally want to believe that pity is a humane reaction, an altruism. Yet it, too, is a blinder, and that is a painful truth to face.

If you're familiar with War and Peace, you've probably already guessed that Tolstoy's "that man" is Napoleon. That knowledge adds another level of distaste to my reading of the paragraph. If I can easily substitute the words "Donald J. Trump" for "Napoleon Bonaparte," what does that indicate about the way in which the passage of time and the constructions of history twist our conceptions of hero and leader and nobility and just cause and intelligence and bravery--not to mention our aptitude for pity? I have no love for Napoleon as a historical figure, but neither have I focused on the fact that his behavior was not so different from Trump's.

As advertisement, the label Napoleon bears some equivalence to the neon lights of Trump Tower. Both names continue to blare. And it's terrible to even begin to count the similarities in the urge toward empire.

The amazing part of all this angst and ambiguity is, of course, Tolstoy. How did he know? And how does he manage to keep telling us?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

What a nasty first day of April. All night long we endured a variety show of snow rain slush rain snow wind slush wind rain snow, etcetera. You might call it a slopstorm. Now, thanks to the road salt, the sidewalks look like they've been spackled with half-melted shortening mixed with graham-cracker crumbs. The streets are a blackened mess of plow scrape and water. The ocean is hiding under a cloud, and Tom is hiding under the comforter.

Fortunately we have plenty of coffee and bagels, and we don't own a dog we have to walk. Fortunately this apartment is warm, even though the windows are drafty. Fortunately I cooked too many mussels for dinner last night, so we have a lot left over for mussel stew today. In other good news, I went to the dentist on Thursday and learned that I do not need a root canal. What news could be better?

Probably I ought to do some housework, but I don't mind that. I've got a stack of library books to study, and a crossword puzzle book for wasting time. I can play a few games of String with the cat. I can listen to records. If I can override my hatred for my kitchen, I can bake cookies. I can watch the Final Four and text about the games laconically with my son.

I've also got that new poem vibrating in its corner. I could look at it. Or I could leave it alone. Either way will feel like the right thing to do. If I choose to leave it alone, I can keep copying out Carruth's long poem "The Sleeping Beauty." I can keep considering the structure of Komunyakaa's "Autobiography of My Alter Ego."

I was thinking the other day about the difference between boredom and idleness. Idleness is a canoe floating down a placid stream, whereas boredom is a hideous sucking monster. Maybe the difference between the pair is analogous to the difference between melancholy and depression. They seem to be made of the same materials, yet one is a gift and the other is torment.