Friday, January 31, 2020

I woke up this morning congested and groggy. I do hope I'm not catching something awful as I've been blessedly cold-free all season, despite hanging out with teenagers.

The forecast is for sun and low 40s. I've got a yoga class this morning; at some point I'll go out to the woodpile and move around some firewood. The longer days are doing their work on me: I'm beginning to get the itch to plant and dig, though winter's nowhere close to being over.

Today: the eternal editing stack, of course. I finish one book and the next is waiting. Hurray for steady income, but.

I've started going through my friend's comments on the embryo manuscript, and they're really helpful. I've copied out nine of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. And I'm almost finished with Pickwick Papers.  It's a young book, of course, and annoyingly packed with shrewish women, but it's also birthing ground for the great comic character sketches that have always made me pray to the angels. For instance: "He was a prim-faced, red-nosed man, with a long, thin countenance, and a semi-rattlesnake sort of eye."

Semi-rattlesnake? I have got to steal that for something. I don't think I can help myself.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Well, it's that time of year again. Applications are now open for the 2020 Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching. This year's conference features star poet-teachers Angela Narciso Torres and Didi Jackson; the optional Writing Intensive will be led by the renowned poet Major Jackson. Kerrin McCadden and I will be there all week, putting on our poetry song-and-dance show. Already, in just over 24 hours, we've gotten six applications . . . two of them from brand-new attendees. I have high hopes for a busy season! We do offer scholarships. You do not need to be an active classroom teacher or a working poet. Our arms are wide. So talk to me, please, if you have any questions or worries about applying.

* * *

Yesterday was editing, and back-n-forth Frost Place talk, and bathroom scrubbing, and chocolate pudding, which is an A-1 comfort food: fun to make and fun to eat. Also, while you are stirring it, you can read a Dickens novel. If you are feeling low, make yourself some chocolate pudding.

Today, more of the same, minus the pudding and the scrubbing, plus a look at my embryo manuscript. I also hope to spend time with Rilke, and to go for a walk, but actual writing will be difficult. I don't have many unstructured spare and lonely hours in my near future. The desk is piled so high.

By the way, New Hampshire and southern Maine friends: I'll be leading a revision workshop for the Wheaton Writing Academy, held at the McConnell Center in  Dover on March 14. I believe the cost is $50. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll give you the contact of the person who is organizing it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Another miracle class up north: I do adore those kids. This week I had them choose their own favorite from four different writing prompts: (1) expanding on a weird-but-true newspaper story, (2) making a fake translation of two short Scandinavian poems, (3) using a paper frame to zero in on precise details, or (4) rewriting Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 in their own vernacular. They wrote for 45 minutes, then shared, and then I tossed out individualized revision prompts for each first draft and they wrote for another half hour. These kids like to write. They also like to be in charge. They gave me a revision prompt for my first draft, a precise request for more character development and scene explication.

[FYI: Most popular choice: rewriting Shakespeare!]

Next session, per their request, we are going to concoct a group performance of one student's draft (an expansion of the weird-but-true newspaper story) for the art students down the street, who are going to visit us in the afternoon. I already warned my students I'm going to do some yoga experiments with them as a way to prep them for public speaking: posture, breathing, centering. I'll let you know how it works.

Today: back to the desk. I'm copyediting the translation of a Brazilian novel from the 1980s, a long but low-key job . . . more like actually reading a book than doing the heavy lifting that academic manuscripts so often require. I've also got residency applications to read, and reader comments on my embryo manuscript to check out, and bathrooms to clean, and pantry shelves to fill.

I'm grateful to have had a dose of young people this week. They revive me.

Monday, January 27, 2020

I'll be hitting the road again today--first visiting homeland friends, then teaching all day tomorrow. Omens are good: the weather is innocuous, my class plans are filled with surprises, and I get to spend time with my dear ones. But perhaps omens were good for Kobe Bryant's family too. And then they weren't.

I've been rereading Johnson's biography of Dickens and, concurrently, Dickens's own Pickwick Papers. As a child, I did not immerse myself in this one often as I did his others: my mother's copy was so battered that it was hard to squirrel away in a blanket fort or up in my favorite tree. But I'm really enjoying it now. Such a bright, laughing book, set in a kind of fairy-tale-shopkeeper England, where all of the jokes are obvious yet in the moment they are still the funniest thing I've ever read.

So I'm simultaneously floating in Dickensian lunacy, and echoing the pang of other people's loss, and grinding my teeth over the loathsome Republican Party, and worrying about my beloveds, and sometimes I wonder how such everyday emotional maelstroms are even possible to survive.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The air is a black window of salt-fog and mist, as if the sea were snaking its long fingers up into the hill streets.

I settle down, in this lamplit room, to coax an ear, an eye.

How can I define faithful?

On my tongue the fog tastes like drowning.

There are tales to tell.

And none are true.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

It's too early to be awake on a Saturday morning, but nonetheless I am on the couch and drinking coffee and listening to snowmelt drip off the roof. We are supposed to get up to two inches of rain tonight, and I expect Portland to be a mess of flooded slop by this time tomorrow. For the moment, though, there's just this ticking drip, drip; the growl of an airplane overhead; the mutter of my own breath.

Yesterday I submitted the embryo manuscript to a publisher, who also asked me to include a brief description of what I thought was going on in the collection--not a blurb but a statement of intent. I appreciated that question; I don't think any press has asked me that before.

Here's what I ended up writing:
I think of this manuscript as a poetic version of a linked short-story collection. The viewpoint shifts from a speaking "I" to omniscience; from past to present; from memoir to invention. But the collection as a whole maintains fidelity to the complex notion of blood, which may connote history and family, but also life force and violence, inheritance and loss. Through both narrative and lyric means, I pushed myself to address these conundrums: to see, to admit, to mourn.
When I reread the note, I see that it depends too much on rhetorical pacing. Nonetheless, I'm glad I was forced to put into words the impulses that arose as I ordered and re-ordered these poems.

Creating a manuscript can be difficult, but also mutable. Both Chestnut Ridge and the unpublished A Month in Summer were driven by outside forces: in one case, chronology; in the other, narrative. Those parameters created their own complications, but poem order was fairly obvious. This current manuscript, composed of a decade's-worth of poems, pulls together pieces that arrived as single works, not as elements of a larger project. What do they mean to one another? How do they speak as a unit? It's very hard to figure that out.

When organizing my first three collections, I went through a similar struggle with order. But in some ways, because I had fewer pieces to work with at that time, I also had more obvious options. By this point in my life, I have so many poems that I can't use them all in a manuscript. In fact, I'm leaving out many that have already been published in journals. They're not bad poems: they just don't fit; they don't make sense in this context; they're the wrong weight or tone. This kind of decision making is really hard.

Well, we'll see what transpires. Very possibly nothing. Getting published does not get easier, at least not for me. I'm not "emerging"; I'm not famous. I've got a stack of books that don't sell and that no one reviews. But don't think of this as complaining: truly, I'm far more successful than I ever thought I'd be. I write because I have to write, and a lot of what I've written has been printed. That's a miracle, for a not-famous person. Still, the process of trying to get people to pay attention to new work . . . it's hard, and often painful and demoralizing.

Anyway: in cheery news (cheery to me, anyway), the next issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal is going to include not only the first section of A Month in Summer but also my essay-review of recent collections by two other not-famous poets. Beloit has rejected a lot of my submissions over the past few years, so I'm especially pleased they took this longish excerpt. And I'm glad to be celebrating some other semi-invisibles who are persevering.

Friday, January 24, 2020

I made better word-progress this week than I expected, given the number of meetings and appointments I was working around. Today, after a yoga class, I'll be back at my desk--this time focusing on a syllabus for next Tuesday's class. We've got yet another storm in the forecast for the weekend, but it looks like things should be cleaned up before I have to hit the road on Monday.

I've got all kinds of writing prompts sloshing around in my skull, and I'm looking forward to sorting them out for the kids to play with on Tuesday. And I've been copying out the Sonnets to Orpheus, and that's adding ingredients to my brain stew. I kind of feel as if I might be building up to, of all things, an essay. I haven't written one for ages. I've been all poems, all the time--really, since before we moved from Harmony. A few prose bits have struggled toward the light, but not many.

And I think I'm going to take the plunge and start submitting the embryo manuscript to a publisher or two.

This poem from the ms appeared in the anthology Except for Love: New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall.
Dawn Potter
When the girls and their grandpap
Carried the slop pal down to the barn,
They discovered the hog was getting ready to die.
It lay on one side.
Its tail twitched.
Muck had crept into its snout.
It was like a rotten log in a swamp. 
The hog's breathing was heavy and slow.
Their grandpap shook his head and said,
Oh pig.
Now the girls knew for sure it was a goner.
They climbed up onto the fence
To watch the hog die.
But dying can take a long time.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

I made a giant dent in my residency-application stack, and this morning I will celebrate by taking time off to get my hair cut before clambering back onto the reading train.

[Side note: Maybe you might be interested in yesterday's meal? I believe I mentioned that I roasted a chicken on Sunday. A whole chicken is a fine and economical purchase for two people. You get a special dinner, a manageable amount of leftover chicken for sandwiches and recipes, and bones for soup and stock. Yesterday I used diced chicken and the dregs of soup as the basis for a risotto, which I accompanied with roasted purple sweet potatoes and sliced fennel. I decorated the plate with lettuce leaves and topped the meal with feathers of basil. Afterward we ate bowls of blueberries and played Yahtzee.]

I hope to spend some time with Rilke today, and maybe also my embryo manuscript. I hope to go for a walk and get the upstairs rooms vacuumed. I hope to finish Green's Loving and begin something else . . . maybe Johnson's biography of Dickens. I've got a teaching syllabus roiling around in my thoughts. I'm considering a craft essay on using historical materials as creative triggers.

And I'm thinking about disappointment--thinking about it observationally, contingently. Watching the way it sours and shrills inside a body. The way it chokes.

Here's a poem from the embryo manuscript. It appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram a couple of years ago.
Disappointed Women 
Dawn Potter 
They lived in filth. Or were horribly clean.
They piled scrapple onto dark platters.
They poured milk and ignored the phone. 
They arranged stones on windowsills.
They filled lists and emptied shelves.
They dyed their hair in the sink. 
One stored a Bible in the bathroom.
One hoarded paper in the dining room.
One stared at Lolita and stirred the soup. 
When I say emptied I mean they wanted to feel.
When I say filled I mean they wanted to jump.
When I say bathroom, dining room, soup I mean 
I washed my hands.
I sat at the table.
I ate what they gave me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Yesterday--hurray!--I finished and shipped one of my editing projects, so today I'll turn my attention to a Brazilian novel translation I'm checking and to the giant stack of residency applications teetering on my desktop.

Midday yesterday I walked to the University of New England campus to talk to the archivist about officially beginning to transfer materials to the Maine Women Writers Collection, and now, oddly, or maybe not oddly, I feel light and almost free. It is such a relief to think: okay, here is a place that cares about my muddle. Even if nobody other than a librarian ever looks at my files or papers, there they'll be, in the company of a thousand other striving, private, secretive, urgent, awkward Maine women.

One of our concerns is this very blog. It's pretty much the first thing I'm going to sign over to the archive for safekeeping. Given that I've been writing an almost daily note since 2008, and that it's already public, we see no reason to hold off. If the Blogger platform were to crash and disappear at any moment, this blog would evaporate into the crevices of the Internet. It's really the closest thing I have to a regular diary or correspondence, so MWWC will be looking into the best way to capture and preserve it on its secure servers. I feel happy about that, for no particular reason . . . except that I wrote it, and it's my history, and it's an intangible document that I cannot physically hold or protect.

Meanwhile, the Senate trial. The disappearing birds. The terrified children. The graft and the lies.

I think of you, my friends. I hold out my hands.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

One degree above zero: our coldest morning of the season so far, and I am sitting on the couch by myself recovering, in the nicest possible way, from an unwontedly social day: a morning of work, then a yoga class, then an afternoon visit with a teacher from Scotland, then an evening poetry discussion. Sometimes I forget how hermit-like my life is. I can go for days without talking to anyone but Tom. Yesterday, however, was full of talk, and the visit with the teacher was especially delightful. She is young, brilliant, committed to her students, and full of hope, and she made me feel all bubbly and excited about teaching, and I long to fly to Scotland to watch her in action . . . though where am I going to find the travel funds? Always the sticking point.

And then afterward: a focused and helpful discussion among poets, a study of other people's drafts, which is such a good reminder to me about the evolution of individual style and the gradually unearthing, in oneself, of poetic necessity.

This morning, I am doing that strange thing I told you about a few weeks ago: slithering up the icy sidewalks to the Maine Women Writers Collection to discuss the process of leaving my papers and files to the archive. Having spent the entire fall feeling extremely mortal (via that cancer scare I told you about a few days ago), I'm relieved to have this option. But also diffident, of course. Being archived is a weird place to be in, both as a writer and as a human being.

Just stick me up on that shelf there.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Today is a holiday on paper but a workday in our household. This morning Tom will trundle off to build cabinets for someone else's house, and I will clomp upstairs to coddle other people's manuscripts. In the afternoon, though, I'll be visiting with a teacher from Scotland, who, as I understand it, is researching American methods of teaching high school creative writing. I'm looking forward to that conversation. Then tonight, I have a poetry-group meeting, so it will be a varied, wordy, semi-social day.

I've started rereading one of my touchstone books, Henry Green's Loving, and yesterday I also began copying out Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. Already I can see that he is doing something unique with the sonnet argument, and "I want to try that too" prickles are rising on the back of my neck . . . a good sign for a poet in a dry spell.
She slept the world. Singing god, how did you
so perfect her that she never once
had need to be awake?
           --from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, I.ii, trans. Edward Snow  

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Theoretically, I'd love to sleep in on weekends. However, I possess a really annoying cat, and thus I am stupidly awake before dawn on yet another Sunday morning. Of course, now that he's bitten me into submission, the big jerk is enjoying a comfortable nap on the back of the couch. Oy.

I guess I'll stop grumbling now.

It's hard to tell how much snow fell last night: several inches anyway. Under the streetlights the secret gardens are sleek and glittering, each driveway a fortress walled in by the city plow.

I have a bit of book-review revision to do this morning, and shoveling of course, and some housework. Later, a chicken to roast.

I should tell you about last night's semi-German-ish dinner, which came out really well and was pretty too. I marinated pork chops for an hour in salt, pepper, sage, garlic, Meyer lemon juice, and olive oil. Meanwhile, I boiled down two cups of hard cider, reducing it by half, and (in another pan) sautéed half a fat onion, a handful of chopped shiitake mushrooms, a pinch of sage, and salt. Then I browned the chops, poured in the cider reduction and the vegetables, and braised them, covered, at low heat for 40 minutes, turning the chops once.

While the chops cooked, I slivered half a small red cabbage and sautéed it in olive oil until tender, eventually adding a splash of red wine vinegar, some salt, and a few caraway seeds. I tossed some lettuce in a plain vinaigrette. I toasted two slices of homemade bread made earlier in the day (a rye and pecan loaf). When the chops were done I laid each on a slice of toast, arranged the cabbage and lettuce in a ring around the edge of the plate, poured the cider-mushroom sauce over the top, and added a few slivers of fresh basil. Easy, pretty, and delicious, with a lot more vegetables than carbs, but still comforting.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

It's 6 degrees at almost 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I have started a fire in the wood stove, just for the pleasure of it.

I am in a good mood, and let me tell you why.

Yesterday's doctor's appointment was an anxiety. A mole on my leg had changed color and texture, and since October I'd been trying to make an appointment to talk to my doctor about it. But for a while she was away, and for a while her staff dropped the ball, and so our meeting was delayed till yesterday. That gave me three months to swallow worry.

Now, my primary concerns were not chemo, radiation, and death. Skin cancers can usually be managed more easily. But I have ACA health insurance, with a giant deductible. Insurance covers preventative care, but specialists, biopsies, tests, out-patient surgeries . . . no.

So let me sing the praises of a real, true, thoughtful primary-care physician, who, instead of shunting me off to a dermatologist, did the skin scan herself during my regular checkup and told me she thought I had nothing to worry about. Sure, I'm thrilled not to have cancer. But I'm also immensely grateful to have a doctor who recognizes and works around her patients' financial fragility.

One of these days, the shoe will drop: Tom or I will get really sick; and if we're not old enough for Medicare, we'll owe a lot of money. Yesterday was not that day.

Friday, January 17, 2020

I'll be flying out of the house early this morning for a doctor's appointment . . . if I can get out of my driveway, which the city plow has barricaded with frozen slush boulders. Ugh.

It's cold, and going to get colder. The wind is whistling, and our power was out half the night. Thank goodness for hot coffee and buttered toast, and for a furnace that is now doing its job.

Today: The aforementioned appointment. Then the fishmonger. Then home to start reading residency applications and finish editing a chapter.

January is a cruel month. Or at least a tiring one.

Here's a poem from the new manuscript. It came out in Split Rock Review last year.

Sonnets for the Arsonist

Dawn Potter

On the morning the house burnt,
Flames smoldered among the laths.
Chunks of horsehair plaster
Shattered into clouds of dust.
In the oaks, two sparrows
Sputtered into silence.
When he was done with what he did,
Pop snapped a photo of the blaze

(Such as it was)
And another of the yard beside it,
Charred yet greening,
Dandelions clawing from the rubble,
Swallowtails flitting, an old dog
Rolling joyfully in the scent of death.

Ignis fatuus was
Not a phrase
Pop admired. He
Had no use
For Molotov cocktails,
Gas cans, or
Bic lighters. “A
Fire requires,” he

Wrote, “A kitchen
Match, A pocket
Of twigs (Dry)
A steady Hand.”
He took pride in his work.
And he worked for free.

After Mama leaped out
The flaming second-story window
And broke both old legs and punctured
Her liver and the ambulance lugged her off to die,
A deer hunter ran up against Pop in the woods,
Found him striding through the ferns,
Gripping a little cardboard suitcase, 
And staring into the setting sun.

Right away Pop said,
“She asked me to do it.”
Then he sat down on a log
And unwrapped two ham sandwiches
And told the deer hunter
To call the cops.

Some say
The word means
The malicious setting on fire
Of a house, a ship, a forest,
And some say
The word derives from
Latin “ardere”—more at ardor,
But God says

The word in my heart
Is like a fire,
A fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in.
I cannot.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Snow, steady and heavy. Local schools have been canceled, though we're not forecast to get more than a few inches total. I suppose it's the timing of the storm: right at the start of the school day.

Poor Tom still has to drive to work, but only for two miles. I have no plans to go anywhere. This morning I'll be editing; eventually I'll do some shoveling; tonight we'll have lamb hash for dinner (call it necessity mess, if you like).

Yesterday I walked to the library and picked up two copies of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus: one translated by A. Poulin in the 70s, the other by Edward Snow in the 2000s. I'm looking forward to a Rilke taste test.

I also reread my embryo manuscript, which I hadn't looked at since I put it together earlier in the month. Turns out I'm not unhappy with it . . . I think maybe, possibly, it mostly works.

By the way, Erdrich's Love Medicine is a really good novel. I hadn't reread it for years and was wondering how it would stand up. It does.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The 5,000-pound desk-work anvil has dropped: two fat new editing projects, a last-minute essay assignment for Beloit, a teetering stack of residency applications, and a glimpse of me, as flat as a coyote under an Acme crate.

As consolation, last night I received this note about my embryo manuscript: "So far, the first two sections contain their own brand of dynamic energy that really set this apart from a 'poem at a time' type of collection. It is novelic in its invitation for the reader to continue on."

I'm relieved that I've managed to convince at least a few of the poems in the ms to talk to one other. I'll try to hold on to that feeling as I wade into my sea of obligation.

Outside, new snow--a blanket of wet that was supposed to be rain. Inside, a bouquet of cilantro on the kitchen counter, a pumpkin pie in the refrigerator, a cup of coffee in my hand.

I'll find time  to walk out today and pick up the three translations of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus I ordered from the library. I'll find a moment to sit with Dante. I'll read Love Medicine over lunch.

Words, words. The master and the servant.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Today is car-in-the-shop and shingles-vaccine day. O joy! But otherwise things will be pretty quiet . . . more editing, a trip to the bank, some vacuuming. I ended up ditching the poem draft I was working on last week. It was going nowhere interesting and was beginning to feel like a waste of attention. Sometimes a chore is just a chore, even when it's poetry.

So I'll concentrate on reading. That's how my creative life goes: Read read read. Write. Read read read. Write. Sometimes I forget how long these dry spells can last-- Sometimes I also forget that they're not actually dry spells but well-fillers.

My friend Teresa and I are beginning a reading project together: all of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. I'm excited as I've never read them all the way through, just as anthologized scatter. Dante is still open on my desk; my novel-du-jour is Erdrich's Love Medicine. Surely poems will come back to me.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Monday, Monday.

I'll be back to editing this morning, after a weekend spent scouring and reorganizing kitchen cupboards. The spice shelves are in, and they have made such a difference with space. Here's a quick photo of the upper set; there's a matching set in the lower cabinets.

[Eventually all the cabinets will have doors, but for the moment I've been arranging dishes visually so that at least we have something bright to look at while everything is open.]

I finished reading Villette last night and I'm considering reading Erdrich's Love Medicine or Silko's Ceremony next. I just got hired to review applications for an artist's residency program this winter, so that should be interesting/exhausting. Tom and I are going to the movies this evening (Kurosawa's Drunken Angel). Dante copying is coming along well (I'm up to Canto XIII of the Inferno).

The clock is ticking, and the furnace is humming, and the coffee is hot, and the kitchen is scrubbed clean, and I am glad to be wide awake.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

If you grew up in New England, you're probably familiar with American chop suey. It showed up on school-lunch menus in Rhode Island when I was a kid, and it was a staple at gym dinners in central Maine when I lived in Harmony. American chop suey has nothing to do with real chop suey, and Wikipedia has no detailed explanation for the name link. Basically, it's elbow macaroni mixed with tomato sauce, chopped onion, and ground beef . . . simple, bland, and very comforting.

Last night I had good tomato sauce in the freezer, plenty of onions and non-traditional green peppers, and I was too lazy to make meatballs with the ground beef I'd thawed. So American chop suey it was.  Because we are who we are, Tom and I are always looking stuff up; and though the aforementioned Wikipedia article was not particularly helpful about etymology, it did discuss American chop suey in the context of other plain, cheap, filling dishes of the Depression era, noting: "This comfort food is influenced by Italian-American cuisine as well as older New England quick and practical meals like the 'potato bargain' and 'necessity mess.''"

Potato bargain? Necessity mess? However did I miss these fabulous names? A small amount of research reveals that necessity mess (panfried cheap meat mixed with root vegetables) appears in a Martha's Vineyard cookbook, so maybe it was a Cape Cod and islands term. I haven't yet found a similar subregional mention of potato bargain, just a basic recipe for diced potatoes and salt pork. Clearly both fit into the 1930s "bulk out dinner with the cheapest possible ingredients" mode. And I love to imagine the cheerful cook who invented those names: "Here, kids! Necessity mess! Yay!"

When my older son was a toddler, I used to cut a hole in a piece of bread and fry him an egg in it. I'm sure this bread-egg combo has some real name, but I called it eggs a la dump truck because my boy was in love with heavy equipment. The name worked like a charm. His eyes lit up, and he cleaned his plate.

Oh, the secret lives of recipes.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Today Tom is going to install the finished spice shelves, which means that I'll get to clean out and reorganize cabinets and pantry--a job I will enjoy. I crave tidy arrangements, folded towels, shining cups and bowls. I'm sure I'll also be heading outside for a walk, maybe even for a bike ride. The temperature is supposed to rise precipitously into the 50s, and then plummet into rain and ice tomorrow. Now or never, apparently.

Meanwhile, I'm still reading Villette. I also spent some time yesterday copying out the Inferno, poring over Pound's first canto, and puzzling over my extreme ignorance. The Cantos make me feel like the worst student in the class. I thought maybe this time around I'd figure out what's going on in them. Apparently I'm as stupid as ever.

Well, so be it.

I'll clean cabinets and tromp down the street and cling to my female novelists. As I wrote recently in a draft poem titled "Rules for the Direction of the Maid":
The speed of your broom should match
the dust of your corners.
The dust in my corners is mostly cat fur and wood ash and kitchen crumbs. My broom keeps busy.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Because it's Tom's birthday today, yesterday I bought him a midcentury Italian-made stainless-steel fruit bowl--not expensive but airy and elegant-looking. Now it sits in the dining room next to the Noguchi-designed lamp he bought me for Christmas--also not expensive, also airy and clean. Two little nice things to look at while we eat.

Later, after work, we'll go into town for dinner. In the meantime, I've got a yoga class to get to, and some dratted insurance-company phone calls to make, and then I'll turn my thoughts to Dante and to Pound's first canto, and then I'll see if I can rescue a poem draft that is falling apart and possibly ought to be euthanized. I also ought to spend some time applying for fellowships and such and maybe sending out manuscripts. I did manage to send off one application yesterday. But that chore always feels like such a waste of time.

I've finished Howards End and now I've started rereading Charlotte Bronte's Villette. I've written about Bronte before, in my book The Vagabond's Bookshelf, and I haven't changed my mind about how difficult and prickly she is, both as a writer and as a speaking persona. I love Villette and I also want to slap her central character, Lucy Snowe, which, I think, would not surprise Charlotte in the least. In fact, I suspect she's daring me to.

* * *

I reread this post and I think, Ugh, you sound like such a bore. So self-involved. So esoteric.

I want to scream, My hands are callused! I weep for the world! I'm not from this place! My husband is killing himself with physical labor!

Both also. Both also. Both also.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Yesterday, in my Monson class, we used two poems for writing prompts: Morgan Parker's "Who Were Frederick Douglass's Cousins and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School" and my own "Walking into Town," which I posted here a couple of days ago. The day's focus was on swelling out work from fragments into larger drafts. Parker's poem seemed like a clear choice--a way for students to study how a poet can both connect with and challenge her readers. But using my own work felt risky and uncomfortable--possibly arrogant, possibly self-aggrandizing.

I decided to go ahead and take that risk because "Walking into Town" is, if nothing else, deeply local. It reflects a situation and a place that all of my students recognize--more than recognize: they live inside it, to the point that it hardly seems like subject matter to them. It's also a very small poem, with a sudden ending, and I chose to keep it spare, to leave out a lot of possible narrative angles. The students' assignment was to invent more of the story, another version of the story, new characters, new attitudes to the characters, while also honoring my original intent--e,.g., maintaining a sense of respect for the characters and the place; not turning it into farce, though of course comedy or happy endings or sudden motivational shifts would all be fair game. They are really sensitive to this difference; they recognize how easy it is to drop into cynicism; and they all attended to that limitation in the prompt.

The result overwhelmed me. We ended up with what felt like a narrative anthology: What Happened to Mrs. Richards and Her Grandson. Some lingered with her as she picks up cans in the ditch--allowing her mind to shift back to a daughter in rehab, a son in jail. Some took the point of view of the young store clerk, who can't wait to get out of town and dismisses Mrs. Richards as a smelly old freeloader. Some swiveled away from these characters to their imagined neighbors, arguing in the front yard, and expanded into a long description of landscape. Some followed the child's mind as he grew older. All of them were sharp, precise, unflinching, deeply empathetic, but without sentiment.

I tell you: moments like this are why teaching is the greatest job on earth.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

I started working on a new poem draft yesterday, kept reading Howards End, mopped floors, grocery-shopped, constructed class plans, and fretted about the forecast. I do hate driving in snow. But it looks like the weather will semi-cooperate after all, so I'll be heading north this afternoon for tomorrow's teaching gig. We'll concentrate on swelling out ideas: moving from a small trigger into a larger draft, combining drafts, choosing how and where to begin and end a piece. No doubt the kids will have much to say.

* * *

The house still feels so quiet. I haven't yet gotten into the swing of being childless again. The small rooms seem vast. I wander from one to another, wondering why we need so many.

* * *

Here's a poem. It came out in Vox Populi a while ago, and was reprinted in the Maine Arts Journal. It's the only pantoum I've ever written.

Epithalamion for Grendel  
Dawn Potter 
Cordgrass slashes rents into the wind,
but I am waiting for my lover at the river.
Close the floodgates: the tide is high
and the one I love is mud and reeds, 
yet I am waiting for my lover at the river.
He strides into storms, he wades into pools of silt,
for the one I love is mud and reeds
and my hands long to cup his jagged face. 
He strides into storms, he wades into pools of silt.
A scatter of fishes gathers in his wake.
My hands long to cup his jagged face
as herons bow to him in the saltmarsh, 
as a scatter of fishes gathers in his wake.
Close the floodgates. The tide is high.
Herons, bow to him in the saltmarsh.
Cordgrass, slash rents into the wind.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Today, on the first Monday of the new holiday year, I'll be prepping for Wednesday's class and worrying about whether or not the class will even happen. The forecast is unclear, but even the mildest scenarios predict snow during bus time. And given that my kids will be traveling to Monson from all over the north country, this does not sound like a good prognosis for us.

Anyhow, I'll be getting myself ready, along with running errands, and going to a yoga class, and cleaning floors, and working on a poem, and maybe tinkering some more with that manuscript.

Rereading Howards End is making me a little tearful, given that it's all about a love affair with a place. I don't think I could have managed to take it off the shelf even a year ago. But my Harmony wound is not so fresh as it was.

Here's another small poem from the embryo manuscript. It appeared not too long ago in Scoundrel Time.

Walking into Town
Dawn Potter 
this road is empty for most of the day but
when the log trucks whip over the ridge
jake-breaking belching diesel 
then watch out deer

the soot-stained sky glowers
snow is on the way snow
is always on the way
& the tar is always buckled with potholes &

frostheaves & in the ditch today
old mrs richards is hunting for budweiser cans
for mountain dew bottles to trade
down at the store for baloney to feed

her grandson he’s three & he’s smart
she tells me he’s three 
& his teeth are rotting out of his head

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Thing that Tom and I never do: drive to a big-box store and purchase electronics. Thing that Tom and I did yesterday: drive to a big-box store and purchase electronics . . . all for the sake of a device that would allow T to watch the Criterion Channel on our out-of-date TV, and assuage my anxiety about having purchased him a Christmas gift that he could not actually use (a classic Dawn-error).

But success! Now he can watch brooding French movies to his heart's content.

And wait, there's more: at the aforementioned big-box store, I also purchased pillows to make the French-movie-watching couch actually comfortable enough for a person to sit on for the duration of a movie. My next mission: adequate lights in the living room so that the person who isn't interested in brooding French movies can sit on either end of the book-reading couch instead of huddling up under a single tepid spotlight. I tell you: big stuff is happening around here.

In other exciting news, Tom has starting working on the spice shelves for the kitchen. We had a beautiful spice cupboard in Harmony, built flush against the central chimney, and it was hard to give up that lovely and useful space. Here, at the Alcott House, all of our renovations have been stalled for close to a year, for reasons of money and time, but our little spice-blip forward will add considerably to the kitchen's storage efficiency. Two shallow cupboards will hold pesky little jars of spices, home-dried herbs and mushrooms, small baking supplies, etc. They will fit into a corner join between the existing cabinets, kind of like a secret compartment.

So what else is going on? I finished Parker's Magical Negro and Guy's Queen of Scots and have started rereading E. M. Forster's Howards End. I am fretting about weather, which looks like it might derail my teaching schedule and/or make my drive north a nightmare. I shared my poetry ms with a friend. I sat on our somewhat more comfortable TV couch and watched Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn. I talked to a son on the phone, who told me he's been billeted during his internship in a hippie round house in which the walls seem to be constructed of cement and pieces of firewood. I worried about war.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Dining room with poetry manuscript. This was before things got messy. Eventually, however, I did pull together a paper order of sorts. Today I'll lug the poems into a digital file. Then I'll send it to a friend and he'll tell me what I've done wrong. Constructing a poetry manuscript is a great way to go blind.

Anyway, thank goodness I had a day to myself. I needed all of it . . . the time and the house.

I have no idea what I'll be up to this weekend besides sticking various forks into this pile of poems. The weather is supposed to be glum, and I expect I'll be staring out the window at it. Maybe I'll cook something to entertain myself. Maybe I'll go to a movie. Maybe I'll read about Mary Queen of Scots getting her head chopped off. Or I might skip that part. The tragic murk is getting pretty thick right now. I'm not sure I need any more of it. The morning news is providing plenty of tragic murk already.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Christmas has been dismantled, the sheets and comforters washed and folded away. Floors are swept, chicken stock simmered, firewood stacked, ashes shoveled. So this morning, after an early yoga class, I'll trudge home and address the embryo manuscript. As I work I'll try to remember these lines from the Inferno:
But look down now and pay attention.
The river of our blood draws near.
I've been reading Morgan Parker's collection Magical Negro, which my son gave me for Christmas. She ends her poem "Who Were Frederick Douglass's Cousins and Other Quotidian Black History Facts That I Wish I Learned in School" with these lines:
Is this how I am supposed to feel?
Are you sure? How do you know?
The lines have been ringing in my head, clanking against the murky sinister plots of the Mary Queen of Scots bio I've also been reading, and with Dante, of course, and with my own stack of poems.

I hope I can figure something out.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

This morning I'll drive my last two young-people visitors to the bus station. Then I'll return to our quiet house and slowly start stowing away Christmas decorations, folding up beds, washing linens,  realigning my thoughts. Next week I'll be back in class; editing projects will soon reappear on my desk; but today and tomorrow are mine. First thing is to tidy the nest. Second thing is to spread poems all over the couches and tables and chairs and seriously think about manuscript construction.

My last two collections (Chestnut Ridge and the unpublished A Month in Summer) were historically triggered, though they are very different in character. This one is more like my first three collections--an olio of memoir and invention. But the connecting thread is frayed and tangled. Every order feels like disorder. The individual poems are finished entities, but the larger pattern eludes me.

Well, I'll get there eventually, if I can convince Time to leave me alone for a little while.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Year, at Dawn

Here, in my small city by the sea, the gardens are heaped with snow. Ice glitters on streets and stairs. Against a blue dawn, the the chimneys loom like monoliths. It is a lonely time of day. A lonely time of year.

My sick boy has recovered and flown away. His brother remains in the house, fast asleep, but tomorrow he will fly away as well.

I will stand in the middle of a quiet room and listen to snowmelt tick against the sill.

A new year, a new decade. I have made no resolutions. I read and write and clean and cook and teach and garden and walk and lift and carry and breathe and try to be decent. Vanities erode. Losses loom. I am. You are. We muddle, together and alone.

Here's a poem that no one seems interested in publishing. But I like it still, and so I will offer it to you as a new year's gift . . . a small love song to failure, I suppose you might call it. Or perhaps a reminder to keep opening the wrong door.

To a School Janitor, Fired for Drunkenness  
Dawn Potter 
I miss your grin your cigarettes your
bow-legged grunt up down up
down the stairwells your bucket clank-clanking
 against the charnel walls your mop
hoicked under a meaty arm
your nod your swallowed tears a smear
 of wet linoleum snail-trailing behind you
oh lord why do we shrink
such mountains