Sunday, September 30, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act II, Scenes 1 & 2)

There are major differences between cultivating a creative mind and cultivating a scholarly mind, and I can't emphasize enough how important I think it is for creative readers and writers to learn to trust and examine their own curiosity. Understand that I respect and honor much of the work that scholars accomplish, but too often academia privileges their methods as the only way to plumb a text. That is not true, not even close to true.

So, for this week's RIII assignment, choose one line from Act II, scene 1 or 2, and write a paragraph about why it matters to you. Is it pivotal plot-wise, in ways that you, as a human being, find compelling? Does it reveal something about a character or a relationship that seems important to you? Is the language mesmerizing? Does its subject, sound, shape, or word choice remind you of something in your own life? You don't need to write a thesis, but try to be as detailed as you can about why this particular collation of words bears so much weight in your world. Make explicating your own perceptions your central task. Tuesday, October 9, will be the due date for this assignment.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Today I am going to start tearing out summer vegetable plants--tomatoes, mostly, but other exhausted things also--and then Tom and I will start planning the architecture of next spring's front-yard farm. I think we'll be moving toward raised beds interspersed with flagstone pathways, and he's got some used meranti boards for the project, so it should look good. But mostly he's going to be busy this weekend installing the new wood-and-steel library shelves he's made--which means that, after two years without our books, we will finally have access to them again. This is a thrilling development. But wait, there's more: the plumber is supposed to install the kitchen plumbing on Monday. Yes, believe it or not, after 9 months spent with a bucket under one sink drain and a dishwasher boxed up in the living room, we may in fact possess a fully operating kitchen plumbing system.

Tomorrow I'll reignite the Richard III conversation, but if you haven't yet had a chance to post your experimental response to a character, no worries: you still have time. I have laid low in the conversation because everyone else has been so vigorously engaged. It's been such a pleasure to witness that enthusiasm and imagination and acumen and good will.

On another note: I want to thank everyone who has sent me such friendly remarks about my poem "Average Land," which appeared last week in Vox Populi. This summer's writing frenzy was cathartic as an activity, but of course I never know if the production itself will be worth the paper. The poems feel quite different from previous work, and it's difficult for me, at this close range, to figure out how they'll persist in the long run. To know that the poem resonated with you is a gift in more ways than one.

Friday, September 28, 2018

On Wednesday evening I went up north for band practice, so I was in the car, driving back to Portland, when I turned on the radio yesterday morning and heard the opening statements in the Ford-Kavanaugh testimony. In general, I don't tend to listen to such things; I'm working or writing or otherwise in need of silence. But I was in the car, so I left it on, and I heard Dr. Ford's statement from beginning to end.

I was stunned. I don't know that I've ever heard someone quite so convincing. She was clearly "terrified" (her word), but she spoke with earnest dignity and she described a situation that felt absolutely true, absolutely familiar. She was a fifteen-year-old girl, bewildered and frightened, in a strange place, with frightening boys, victimized by their scorn and their ridicule and their lust. Her words were lived history.

And yet. And yet.

She was outshouted by a pompous, self-righteous, hysterical, alcoholic, entitled ass, who seems to believe that being accused of sexual assault is worse than being sexually assaulted. And this man was congratulated, egged on, celebrated by a pack of aging, ravening political wolves. The scene was barbaric.

I'm not going to belabor this with you. I know and trust that you feel what I felt. But it is so painful, so extremely painful.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

from The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens (1843-44)

[The main character, Martin, is visiting the United States for the first time, and the narrator makes the following commentary on the general character of the American men he is meeting in New York City.]
All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?
* * *

I find this passage stunning. Recall that it was first published, in serial form, in 1843--175 years ago--yet it describes, almost exactly, the swamp we Americans still wallow in.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act I, Scenes III & IV)

Because I was away from the play for four days (the tome was too heavy to take camping), I'm undoubtedly behind the rest of you A-plus students. I did manage to finish the reading assignment yesterday afternoon, but I have not yet found space to begin inventing a response. I hope eventually to add my imagined speech to the comments, but I'm going to ask you to start by leaving yours. Maybe, after sharing your lines or sentences, you could add a few words about why or how this character came to you. Did specific words or images trigger the idea? Were you intrigued by the idea of the silent entourage (servants, tutors, fools) that might accompany a royal household? Did you want a clash of voices or eras? Did you hear parallels with other literary works?

Monday, September 24, 2018

I spent the weekend workshopping poems in a cabin in the Dartmouth Second College Grant, at this confluence of two small rivers. The college-owned property covers about 27,000 acres, and is located in northern New Hampshire, close to Lake Umbagog. All of the poets in attendance were associated in some way with the Frost Place, though I really only knew one of them at all well and had never met two of them before. So I was a bit anxious about the outing beforehand, in the way one might be anxious about summer camp.

But the weekend turned out the be spectacular: lively company, great food, glorious views, complex conversations, rich poems, comic snafus, and an adorable dog. And a miracle: a young yearling cow moose spent the entire afternoon loafing in front of our cabin as we sat at the table workshopping. Sometimes she napped in the grass; sometimes she stood alongside the river; sometimes she browsed in the river. Clearly she was comfortable with our presence; we felt no sense of alarm from her. She just seemed to want to hang out with us for a while. And then, eventually, she slipped away, striding down the river toward tomorrow. As you can see from this photo, she was on the thin side, which worried us, but she was up and active and eating, so we are hoping for the best, though I have my doubts that she'll make it through the winter. It was a once-in-a-lifetime afternoon, really, to spend such casual time in the wild with a single native animal. I don't expect this to ever happen again.

And here I am, with the sun setting over the river, reading a poem about cabbage rolls.

Update: Catching up on my email, I discovered that Vox Populi has posted "Average Land," one of the pieces I finished during my crazy poetry-writing summer.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

I woke up to the sound of cold rain and a passing freight train. The time is growing near for me to yank out those tomato plants, dig up some more front yard for next spring's garden, plant tulip bulbs and garlic. But not this weekend. Instead, I'll be on a camping-writing retreat in New Hampshire, off the grid and incommunicado till Sunday night. I know a couple of the people on this retreat, but not most of them, though we are all friends of the organizer. So I'm a little nervous, of course, and hoping not to be soaking wet and freezing cold and crushed about where my poems are headed.

This will be my second poetry-sharing experience in a single week; on Tuesday evening I attended my first-ever writing group, and now I've got this adventure ahead of me. That's a lot of sharing for a hermit from the woods. But I'm trying to learn how to be a regular person.

Anyway, you won't hear from me till Monday. I look forward to talking with you about Richard III and canoeing and damp woodland cabins when I return.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Richard III: Assignment 2

Okay, let's move ahead into Act 1, scenes 3 and 4. I will be out of town this weekend so I'm going to push the conversation date to next Tuesday, Sept. 25.

Here's your assignment: Choose one speech from either scene and respond to it in the voice of someone who is not a character in this play. You could choose another existing literary character or actual human being; you could invent your own character; you could respond as yourself. Whatever your choice, focus on how that character responds to these particular remarks of the Shakepearean one. For instance, how would Huck Finn talk back to Anne? How would Anita Hill talk back to Hastings? How would Emma Goldman talk back to Gloucester? How would you talk back to Gloucester? You do not have to write in verse, though you can if that seems appropriate for your character. Just try to construct at least 5 lines or sentences.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

It's wonderful to read so many thoughtful comments on Sunday's Richard III post. I'm going to give us all one more day to cogitate together, and then tomorrow I'll toss you the next assignment. This one will require a creative response, so be prepared to push your curiosity into more intense imagining.

Now I'm going to switch over to talking about 24PearlStreet. Things are moving along rapidly there: both of my upcoming workshops are now posted on the website. I've created a new "24PearlStreet" page on the blog menu above, but I'll reiterate those links here. And teachers: be aware that that the program offers continuing-ed credits, so you may be able to use professional development funds to pay for classes.

Currently I am offering two workshops in early 2019:
Interesting Minds: An 8-Week Revision Workshop for Essayists (January 7-March 1)
The Quest of Poetry: An 8-Week Master Class on Reading, Writing, and Revising Poems (March 25-May 17)
They are open to writers at all levels, novice to professional. That's always been my modus operandi: I'm eager to get everyone to talk and learn from one another; I have little interest in slotting writers into snob categories.

This opportunity is an exciting development for me, as much of my routine literary work involves manuscript editing and teacher-training. I love teaching creative writing but my lack of a master's degree has often kept me out of the classroom. The fact that the 24PearlStreet staff ignored my degree credentials but trusted my actual experience as a working writer and facilitator says much about the bent of this program. And honestly, to see my name listed under the aegis of "nationally recognized writer" is an enormous, sort of guilty, but really pretty delightful sensation.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Thanks to everyone who responded so fully on the first Richard III reading assignment. I'm going to give us all a day or so to keep talking to one another about our reactions, and then I'll post a second assignment.

I feel like I've been living under a peculiar cloud lately, mostly because I've been dealing with an odd health issue that has required a battery of tests, all of which are showing that nothing seems to be wrong, which of course is good news, but still, the odd health issue comes and goes and I'm gnashing my teeth over our horrible health insurance . . . well, you know that story. And then last night Tom and I both came down with what seems likely to have been food poisoning. Jeez Louise.

Meanwhile, there's been great news. It looks like I will be teaching poetry and essay workshops for 24PearlStreet, the online writing program of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This feels wonderful and also a bit dizzying because some of the other instructors are major poetry names: for instance, Kim Addonizzio and Carolyn Forche have both taught for 24PearlStreet. I'm not sure when my first offerings will start, but you can check out the other classes that are currently available.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Richard III: Conversation 1 (Act 1, Scenes 1 & 2)

So how was your first foray into Richard? As I mentioned in my assignment post earlier this week, today I'm hoping you'll begin a conversation in the comments focused around details that made you curious . . . and by curious I mean created interest, puzzlement, confusion, or even distrust.

I'm going to throw out my notion here, and then respond along with you in the comments section.

I wondered why King Edward's mistress, Mistress Shore, was mentioned so early and so prominently in Scene 1, and drawn as such an engaging character, yet Shakespeare chose not to make her a member of the cast.
We say that Shore's wife hath a pretty foot,
A cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue.
. . . .
Can you deny all this?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

I woke this morning to the patter of raindrops against the windows, and then the low hoot of a ship's horn at the pier downtown, and then the blare of a train's horn from the tracks at the end of the street, and then the clank and squeak of freight cars, and then the chop of a helicopter on its way to the hospital, and then the cat started to yowl to go outside.

In Harmony I also heard a lot of transportation noises--empty pulp trucks clattering down the frost-heaved roads, and skidders growling in log yards, and local pickups in need of exhaust systems snorting and belching up gravel driveways. So, for me, ships and trains retain a certain picturesque novelty . . . though the helicopter presence is different. The hospital is located across the street from the ballpark, an easy walk from our house, and as we sat there this summer watching games, we could see the Life Flight helicopter come in for a landing on the hospital roof--a slow and elegant circling and settling, and meanwhile on board some human being was suffering terribly.

The movement of people, the movement of goods: everything in flux and transition. All night long the trains rattle by, the cars sift past on the freeway, the planes rise and sink, the ships tug against their moorings, sky passengers linger a breath away from death.

And now, for a pale moment, I hear silence--only the tap of raindrops, the click of my fingers on the keys, the inner sighs of my body--and I look up and the world is dipped in mist, and it is a Saturday morning in September, on a leafy street, in a small northern city beside the sea, and I seem to live here.

Friday, September 14, 2018

I'm home today, unexpectedly . . . not feeling great and working on solving that problem, but hoping also to spend some time with RIII and get started on an editing project and otherwise make up for missing the teaching-artist training day I'm supposed to be attending. The temperature is balmy, the air thick and smelling like saltmarsh; and now that the sun has risen I can see fog draping the roofs and chimneys.

I've finished rereading Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, which I read for the first time last year, and I was again impressed by the way in which she burrowed into the language and imagery of the 16th century as she was constructing a 21st-century novel. Sometimes it was just tiny things: writing about going down the stair, for instance, rather than going down the stairs. Such subtle adjustments in word choice were hugely effective in controlling the tone of the prose, and she made them everywhere. I expect such things in a poet, but novelists aren't always so precise.

Now I've started rereading Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, mostly because I need to read something comfortably predictable while sitting in a waiting room. I may or may not stay with it; I'm not sure I'm exactly in a Dickens mood, but it's hard to find the perfect volume when all of one's books are still in boxes.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The expected stack of work has materialized: a new manuscript to be edited, teaching-artist prep, classroom invitations . . . but instead of reading Richard III yesterday afternoon, I was gabbing with a friend I hadn't seen for 30 years. It has been a strange summer of such meetings.

I haven't heard one way or the other about how people feel about the RIII reading schedule, so I hope you're okay about it so far.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

After a few cool days and a beautiful rainstorm, Portland is settling into a week of summer elegy--a last chance for tomatoes to ripen and peppers to redden; a last chance to embrace an armload of basil, whose leaves are already beginning to brown and fade; a last chance for too-many-eggplants-and-what-can-I-possibly-do-with-them? I hope to find an apple orchard today: another side-effect of moving is that I've lost my standby northcountry orchard, which I used visit almost weekly well into November.

Yesterday I finished my first-ever pantoum, a form I've been avoiding for my whole life. Yet it suddenly sprang into my thoughts as I was working my way into an amorphous embryonic shapeless draft about something or other that I couldn't identify. It needed shape in order to become whatever it was going to be. Beforehand, I think I was libeling the pantoum as another version of the villanelle, a form I've repeatedly tried and failed to master. Sonnets, I've done; sestinas, I've done; terza rima and quatrains and other rhyme patterns, yes. But all of my villanelles have been dreadful.

This pantoum, though, is okay. Plus, it turned out to be a love poem for Grendel, which was a cheerful surprise. I've always thought that some Beowulf character should have fallen in love with Grendel. Sure, he eats Danes, but so do polar bears, and they get plenty of good press anyway.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Richard III: Opening Schedule, First Thoughts

Greetings to all Richard III readers! It's been a while since I've hosted a blog reading group, and I'm looking forward to spending time with you all.

I know that you have jobs and obligations, and I don't want to oppress you with giant reading assignments. So here's your first homework: by this coming Sunday (September 16), try to make your way through act I, scenes 1 and 2. Then we'll reconnoitre and decide whether we should move more quickly or more slowly.

Some suggestions:

1. I want to create a personal relationship between the play and ourselves. So try to avoid reading critical commentary about the play until after we've finished this project.

2. On Sunday, plan to leave a response in the comments that begins with the phrase "I wonder . . . " Your response can deal with any aspect of your intersection with scenes 1 and 2: plot, character, language, author's process, poetic devices, etc., etc. Let yourself step forward into the shadows of Shakespeare's forest. You don't need to to answer your own question. Just allow yourself to focus on the mystery.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sunday was an autumn day--cool, bright, blue-skied--so naturally my thoughts turned to firewood. I spent the morning awkwardly counting stairs and watching my feet as I negotiated armload after armload down into the basement. It was a pain, but now we have at least half of our dry wood down there for easy access on snow days. Someday, when we can afford an efficient fireplace insert, I'll have to carve out a bigger space for more wood, but the tiny little stove we've currently got makes no pretensions to being anything other than a space heater. Still, a space heater can be a joy and a comfort on a rainy evening, and that's what tonight is supposed to be. So I wanted to be ready.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the neighborhood listening to the bands playing at Deering Center's annual Porchfest. They were very entertaining, with my favorite being the Fletcher Brothers, who appeared to be about 14 years old but who knew how to play their instruments and had clearly spent much time listening to their parents' Ramones records. At another venue Senator Angus King showed up and gave a brisk speech to a small crowd that mostly didn't expect him to be there. But we were willing to be friendly, and he was willing to be humane, so even the politicking was tolerable.

Today I'll clean house, grocery shop, wash clothes, try to mow grass and pick vegetables before rain, and otherwise do stuff I ought to have done over the weekend. I'm also going to write. I'm expecting an editing project to arrive at any moment, and I've got two full days of teacher training later in the week, so word space will become increasingly precious. Still, I've got a harvest to mull, even if I run out of time to make new poems. The sheaf is large enough for me to start wondering how the pieces connect and what I'll need to imagine next.

This week I also plan to move forward on the Richard III schedule . . . maybe by tomorrow or Wednesday. I'll see how my time shakes out.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

I puttered in the garden yesterday, mostly in reaction to the sudden incipient coolness in the air. I brought my houseplants into the house, picked a few drying beans from the scarlet runner, pulled out some tired lettuce. Now, this morning, the temperature has dropped into the 40s, and for the first time in months I am wearing slippers and full-length pajamas and a thick bathrobe, and considering whether or not I should lug some firewood into the house.

Yesterday afternoon we drove up to Augusta for the opening of a photo show that Tom's got some stuff in.  As we were driving back down the interstate in the evening, we kept being overwhelmed by the sky. It was a torrent of color and cloud, one of those melodramatic autumn gloamings that reminds me of bringing kids home from soccer practice and trying to ripen green tomatoes on windowsills.

I've been sending poems out to journals, and submitting the Dooryard manuscript, and organizing a thin sheaf of "future book" pieces. This week I'll likely be stepping back into serious editing, and I've got some teacher-training sessions to attend as well. But I hope I somehow manage to hold onto the writing thread that (along with the miracle garden) has sustained me this summer.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Mr. Hill left a note on yesterday's post asking me to explain the writing-prompt strategy that's been so useful to me this summer. My approach is a twist on a lesson from Vievee Francis, who taught the Writing Intensive at the Frost Place. In her session, she asked participants to write down four words that they used often in their own work. (That in itself was an interesting challenge: to distill my own language predilections.) Then we passed those words to the person on our left, and we used the new words we received as triggers for a poem draft.

The words I received were not particularly unusual: they were something along the lines of "strange," "though," "right," "sometimes"--words I already use often but that I had never thought of as touchstones. Nonetheless, just getting this handful of unexpected words was enormously generative. As Vievee explained afterward, we always have plenty of stuff to write about--usually the same old stuff that is our lifetime obsession. Yet sometimes we get trapped inside our language expectations, and this blinds us to new ways of seeing our old stories. Because I had to use new words, I had to approach my stuff from a new direction. And that act was tonic.

Vievee says that, at home, she and her husband (the poet Matthew Olzmann) often hand off four words to each other. But I don't have another poet on the premises, so I've had to make personal adjustments. What I've done is to open up whatever book I happen to be reading and randomly poke at four words, which become my draft starters. If my finger lands on "and" or "the" or some other exceedingly bland filler word, I'll choose another one. But I don't try to avoid plain words: prepositions, for instance, even common ones, are extremely generative. I also don't try to avoid crazy hard ones. Lately I've ended up with words such as "thou," "opine," and "hockey," and all have been surprisingly rich and useful.

Sometimes, as a draft moves along, I end up shedding one or more of the original words, and that's fine. Their purpose is to jumpstart ideas, so they may not fit into the final product. Still, a notable number of my recently finished poems retain all four original trigger words.

If I were to use this notion in a student classroom, I'd probably start by tightening the boundaries: maybe begin very simply--"share one word; write one line using that word" or "write a haiku using that word" or "write a rhymed couplet using that word" . . . some approach that would make students cogitate about the specifics of language within an enclosed space. I think apprentice writers might get overwhelmed by the spaciousness of the four-word endeavor. But I've found it incredibly helpful, and it would be wonderful to figure out how to guide young writers toward the experiment.

Friday, September 7, 2018

I've been working on a pair of poems that arose from memories of growing up around Quakers. My parents began attending Friends' Meeting when I was in late elementary school and remained involved with it for many years. Both my sister and I were married in Meeting, so it was certainly an important influence on us . . . though not necessarily religiously. It's been interesting to plumb that relationship, and it's also been interesting to fictionalize those memories and speculations. This summer's poems have involved a great deal of fictionalizing: very few are straight-up memoir. I chalk some of that up to Vievee Francis's "pick four words at random" trigger. That small twist has helped me find new ways to treat old stories.

Three of this summer's new poems have already been picked up for publication. That, along with the forward progress of Chestnut Ridge, makes me feel as if my poetry life is solidifying a bit, after two years of glop and ooze. I've committed to joining a local writing group, and later this month I'm going on a camping/writing retreat with a mixed group of known and unknown poets, where I've been tasked with being the workshop facilitator. So I'm attempting to step forward into some sort of regular poetic interchange--a brand-new situation for me, but maybe it's time.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I thought you might like some early-morning, late-summer photographs of the Alcott House gardens. The trellis marks where the cucumber once was. Along the path is a row of recently cut chard and another of overflowing cosmos.

This is a view from the front sidewalk: chrysanthemums backed with rapini, marigolds, and an artichoke.

Another sidewalk view, this time including the eggplant and some lavender.

A lamppost, covered with scarlet runner vines nearing harvest. On the ground are three tight rows of fall vegetables: chard, leeks, kale.

The view from my kitchen window. Note the drying peppers and the barren yard. Someday it will look like more than dirt and weeds.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Well, it seems as if Richard III is the popular pick for a reading group. Give me a bit of time to pull myself together, and then in a week or so I'll lay out a proposed schedule. In the meantime, if anyone has preferences about time management, conversational approaches, etc., please chime in. I am also wondering if anyone would like poetry or essay prompts based on the reading, or if you prefer to focus only on discussion questions. I know this is a busy time of year for teachers, and I don't want to add to your workload. On the other hand, sometimes it can be refreshing to focus intellectually on one's own mind rather than entirely on students' reactions and needs.

While I love teaching and facilitating, it's also time-consuming to manage what is basically an online class. If you feel so moved, please consider donating a few bucks to the blog. I greatly appreciate your support.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

I'm home again.

When I walked into the kitchen, Tom was getting ready to make sauce from my giant tomato crop. He'd also been working on finishing a section of the kitchen cabinets, and had sided the back of the house. So it seems to have been a labor day weekend for both of us.

But my parents' potatoes are dug, and the boy is ensconced alone in a giant dorm room, a delightful surprise since he expected to have a roommate. The poor child hasn't had a space to call his own since we left Harmony. He's been sleeping in college doubles, or our den, or in tents, so the unexpected privacy is an excellent start to the school year.

Today I've got some desk work to catch up with, but mostly I'll be pickling and canning the piles of cucumbers Tom's been collecting in the refrigerator. Teaching is around the corner, new editing projects are on the horizon, but for the moment I remain in harvest land.

I'm still engrossed in that history of the Wars of the Roses, and I'm all excited to revisit Shakespeare's Richard III, now that I've been immersed in its background story. I wonder if we should have another blog reading group. What do you think about a Henry play? Or Richard?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Yesterday my mom and dad and Paul and I got all of my father's potato crop in--many hundreds of pounds. We had a great time: digging in beautiful temperate weather, finding a few chanterelles during our walks out to the field, plus I got to drive the tractor, which I love. Today will be dry-bean day, another giant harvest project, as my dad grows large quantities of five or six separate varieties. He's been so happy to have help with all this, and it's felt good to be useful. In between times, we've been playing cards, I've been cooking meals with my mom . . . just regular stuff, but cheerful. My father's health is mending but he still has a long way to go. So I know getting this harvest done will reduce his worry, at least a bit.