Hi Dawn. Can you tell us about what prompted you to write Tracing Paradise?
Actually, I had no intention of writing this book. I had come to think of myself as primarily a poet, and writing a memoir had never occurred to me. But I had undertaken the weird task of copying out all of John Milton's Paradise Lost word for word, and the poem was going to my head. I was literally driving past exits because I was too busy thinking about Milton. And finally, after I'd spent yet another hour at my friend Baron Wormser's kitchen table gabbling away about what I was learning, he told me to write a book about it, promising to read the first draft of every chapter if that would help me to get my thoughts onto the page. His offer was a tremendous gift because not only did I immediately have an audience, but also Baron (who is himself a poet and essayist) is a great teacher and so was able to pinpoint gaps and ask questions at a very early stage of the project.
As readers, we can't be expected to enjoy everything. Why did you feel it was important to study - so intensely - a poem you never liked?
I should say, first, that I am not a literary scholar but a common reader in Virginia Woolf's sense of the term. She said, "The common reader . . . differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and . . . reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." In my case, while I am devoted to the western literary canon, I'm also largely self-taught and haphazard and subjective: "rickety and ramshackle," as VW says. Paradise Lost was sitting up there on the Great Books shelf, and yet I had never liked it or had any sympathy it. So I thought it was about time to try. I had just finished putting together my second poetry collection; I was at loose ends about my next project. And often, when I'm not actively doing my own writing, I'll turn to copying. I think that copying out a poem or a bit of prose is the closest way I have to getting into an author's head: it forces me to deal with every comma, every strange capital letter and line break. And often copying jump-starts me into my own writing. My friend Will refers to it as my "gateway drug." But honestly, I thought I'd copy out a page of Paradise Lost. I never, ever, imagined I'd copy out the whole damn thing. Yet I did, and it changed my life as both a writer and a reader.
What did you discover about Milton's work that impressed you?
This is exactly the question that Tracing Paradise tries to answer. I found a bewildering number of intersections between Paradise Lost and my own twenty-first-century life in rural Maine. It seemed, after a while, that everything I did, from stacking firewood to cooking a chicken, had some relation to the poem. But if I had to choose just one vital discovery, I would have to say "his sentences." They are unbelievably rich, and not merely in their beauties of sound and diction and image and syntax. What I discovered, as I copied out the poem, is that I could actively feel him working his way into his own thoughts. I realized that, very often, he didn't know what he was going to say until he started to say it: creating the sentence was the exercise of discovery. Somehow that made him so much more human to me. He wasn't just a marble bust on a shelf but a curious, grumpy, idealistic, infatuated, joyous, confused man who had once sat in a chair with his chin in his hands and tried to figure out how an angel's digestive system might work.
While going through this exercise, what did you discover about yourself as a writer?
Humility. Milton took risks that I certainly will never equal and that I think no artist may ever equal again, simply because our relationship to faith and dogma and culpability has changed so radically in the four hundred years since his death. As I say in chapter 2, he literally "laid his eternal soul on the gridiron to invent [Satan,] one of the rare literary characters who will survive in our tradition until the planet explodes. . . . And for so doing, Milton may indeed be weltering in the very hellfire he imagined, paying eternally for his hubris." That kind of risk is almost incomprehensible to us today. But this isn't to say that he doesn't also give me optimism, as I try to explain in my book's afterword: "Experiencing the poem, following its every step down every page, has given me such hope for my own work. It has shown me that the nobility of poetry lies in its artisan commitment to language as a venture into wonder. Poets think their way into mystery: deliberation builds on accident; accident builds on deliberation. . . . In Paradise Lost, Milton writes his vision of the cosmos. But he also invites me to write my own."
Would you share a little of your next book of poems, How the Crimes Happened?
CavanKerry Press is releasing the poetry collection in March 2010, which is very exciting for me. It's almost unbelievable to think that I'll have two new books out within the space of a year. Maybe the best way to introduce it here is to give you a poem. This one is titled "Eclogue," which is an ancient style of pastoral poetry. Virgil, for instance, wrote a book of eclogues before he wrote the Aeneid.
By Dawn Potter
A marriage worth of minutes we’ve stood
side by side, staring into the hooded depths
of your 1984 Dodge Ram pickup truck,
watching the engine chitter and die
for no apparent reason. I feel a crazy,
ignorant joy: here we go again, sweetheart,
struggling in harness over yet another
crappy mystery. Do you? I can’t say I’ll ever
know one way or the other what your thoughts
will do, though twenty years ago I made you cry
when I dumped you for the jerk down the hall,
and I’ll never get over it, the sight of you,
cool autocrat, in tears for a dumb girl
who happened to be me.
Now I’m the one who cries all the time,
you’re the one not walking away from me
down the hall. Just the same, you imagine
walking away, I’m sure of it; maybe when you’re
dragging another snow-sopped log to the chainsaw
pile, or we’re curled in bed waiting for a barred owl
to stammer in the pines, the barn dog shouting back
like a madwoman. It’s not that being here
is misery; it’s more like marriage is too much
and not enough at the same time: the trees crowd us
like children, our bodies betray a fatal longing.
What’s left for us, at forty, but dismay
till labor shakes us back into our yoke.
Work, work, that puritan duty—yet
how beautiful the set of your shoulders
when you heave a scrap of metal siding
into the trash heap. Our bodies linger
this side of lovely, like flowers under glass.
We drive ourselves to endure; on my knees
in the hay mow, stifled and panting,
I plant bale after bale in place: you toss,
you toss, I shove, I shove. We keep pace,
patient and wordless; the goats in their pen
blat irritably. In the yard our sons quarrel.
Mourning doves groan in the eaves.
Long hours ahead, till our job is done
and another begins.
Hunting scattered chickens in the bug-infested dew:
I watch you crouch along the scrubby poplar edge,
then circle back between the apple trees,
white hen skittering ahead, luminescent in the shabby
dark. Suddenly she drops her head and sits,
submissive as a girl. You’ve got her now; tuck up her feet
and carry her back home, then squat to mend the ragged fence.
A breath of sweat rises from your sunburnt neck,
salt and sweet. My love. Marry me, I say. You cast
an eye askance and shrug, I did. How odd it seems
that this is where we’ve landed: chasing chickens
through the woods at twilight, humid thunder rumpling
the summer sky, dishes washed, a slice of berry pie left
cooling on the counter. I’ve been saving it for you.
Can you tell us about Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching?
The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching is a week-long summer seminar for language-arts teachers working at all levels, elementary school through college, who are committed to making poetry a central element of their curriculum. These teachers spend a week together in Robert Frost's barn in Franconia, New Hampshire, where they study and talk with eminent poets who are also top-level teachers in their own right. It really is a life-changing experience for many of the participants, who may not otherwise have colleagues who share their conviction that poetry is a vital emotional and intellectual element of education. Anybody looking for details about the 2010 conference should check out the Frost Place website: http://frostplace.org/.
Where can readers learn more about your and your writing?
I have a blog, http://dlpotter.blogspot.com/, that I update almost every day and that also has links to books, interviews, etc.
Join me next week Wednesday for my Q&A with poet Penn Kemp, writer-in-residence at The University of Western Ontario.
Until Friday… happy reading!