01 January 2010

An interview with Dawn Potter

by Rory Waterman
Rory Waterman: Not least because it is so important to your new book, Touching Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, I want to begin by asking you about life in rural Maine. You grew up in Rhode Island, I believe. What led to you moving north?
 
Dawn Potter: Although I’ve spent most of my life in New England, I was actually born in Maryland, halfway between my parents’ childhood homes. My father grew up on a farm in central New Jersey, and my mother was the daughter of a coal miner in the western Pennsylvania mountains. Rather amazingly, they became academics; and our family moved to Rhode Island when my father was offered a professorship. That was in 1970, when I was about to enter first grade. My father continues to teach at the same university, although my family did move just across the border into Massachusetts when I was in eighth grade. 
 
Oddly, though, I don’t entirely identify myself as a New Englander, primarily because we spent every summer of my childhood in western Pennsylvania, on my grandfather’s farm. When I knew him, he was no longer working in the mines but was pouring steel in the local mill. We spent three months of every year living there, my father helping him make hay, my mother canning beans and running our clothes through the wringer-washer. It was five hundred miles away from my schoolhouse world, and sometimes it felt as if it could have been five hundred years away. Those summers with my quiet, remarkable grandfather taught me to love a place with the ferocity that one loves a person. They taught me about the honor and suffering and boredom of labor, and about human goodness.
 
So when I made the decision to move north to Maine, which, as Tracing Paradise explains, came about rather haphazardly, thanks to no money and a truckload of goats, I had a vision of rural life that was both idealistic and realistic but that was also rooted in a sense of displacement—and “place” really is the root word here. For various reasons, the farm had been sold after my grandfather's death. I had lost my childhood place, and I needed to find an adult place. And, miraculously, poor beleaguered Harmony, Maine, turned out to be that home.
 
It is interesting that you talk about learning to ‘love a place with the ferocity that one loves a person’ and then describe your adult hometown in such human terms as ‘poor’ and ‘beleaguered’. You seem to love Harmony as much for its flaws as for its virtues.
 
I do, and I think my mixed feelings about the town parallel my mixed feelings about Paradise Lost. Both the town and the poem are difficult to love. They require a patience and a concentration, a willingness to put up with tedium and discomfort. And I think that living in this town, raising my sons here, has led me to understand that dullness and isolation can be the prerequisites of art. I write, in chapter 8, about child rearing, but my comment has wider ramifications: “Like strict training in any discipline, the self-negations and hardships of raising children can, by means of honed boredom and obsessive observation, set a mind at liberty.” For me, this is also true of living in Harmony and of copying out Paradise Lost word for word.
 
But there’s no question that Harmony can be hard to love. It’s poor. Few of the citizens have anything more than a high school education, and many are unemployed. In chapter 2, I spend some time describing it: “It squats in the middle of the state [of Maine], far away from the ocean, far away from the ski lodges. It has no scenic New England charm. . . . Almost everyone watches a lot of TV and votes Republican. Junked pickups rust in the weeds, little children are horrifyingly fat, and men beat their wives. Mobile homes burn down. Trash piles up in the ditches.” Such a description makes the place sound dreadful. Nonetheless, this has become my home, and it matters to me, in spite of its flaws. As I say later in the chapter, "Milton's image of hell as refuge does offer some hint about the mutability of place in the human psyche. Like most overquoted lines, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n’ resonates because it strikes a familiar knell: because we are alone and changeable in all our colors and seasons; because we and our refuge are one and the same.”
 
‘A willingness to put up with boredom’. So you didn't always find Paradise Lost compelling reading, then.
 
No, I had to fight my way into the poem. Milton and I are not naturally amicable, not in the way that I am with, say, Shakespeare or Keats or Coleridge. Even though most of my literary affections are pre-twentieth century, I find it difficult to deal with a certain dogmatic, condescending arrogance in Milton. Basically, he doesn’t care if I love him or not. This may sound self-evident: after all, he’s been dead for four hundred years. But I think books last as literature because they continue, over the centuries, to create personal and idiosyncratic links between reader and writer. I did not find it easy to make that connection with Milton.
 
Do you find Milton an empathetic figure? I’m trying to understand how your relationship with him grew as you transcribed Paradise Lost.
 
I think my growing affection for Milton as a man was one of the great surprises of this project. As I began to comprehend the poem as art, I also became increasingly aware of Milton the human being. He was always lurking beneath the surface—this brilliant, obnoxious, curious, eager, grieving, sensitive character. Like all of us, he was longing for beauty and happiness but was dealing, as we all must, with the pangs of real life—of aging, of isolation. For example, Milton’s only son died young, and I think that loss, though never explicitly mentioned, is an enormously important element of the tone of Paradise Lost, especially when Milton writes about God and the Son of God. As I say in chapter 8, I sense: “that a father’s loss of his one son, whether foreseen or unexpected, whether as myth or memory, lies at the heart of the tragedy of Paradise Lost, mirrored in the poem’s rigid adherence to the doctrine of father as king as well as its idealized and distorted image of the father-son bond.” These intuitions, even though they cannot be proven by scholarship, did bring me closer to the writer; they did make the poem matter more to me than it otherwise might have.
 
What encouraged you to reach a stage where you could begin to ‘love’ him? And do you hope to encourage your readers to dust down their copies of The Collected Milton?
 
Copying out Paradise Lost word for word became one of my regular chores, just as carrying firewood and feeding livestock and kneading bread are my chores. So I learned to love Milton and his poem in the same way I learned to love these other tasks. Just by “doing my duty,” so to speak, day in and day out, I developed a structure for observation and patience, for questioning and exasperation, for laughter and passion. All those elements also make up a long marriage; truly, they are love. And sometimes we need to undergo the dull cycle of habit before we can really understand what love is. It's not a lifetime of inspiration and heady desire. It's much more complex and ambiguous. Love is a difficult knot that we can't untie. And I do feel that Paradise Lost has become one of my knots. That said, I don’t necessarily recommend Milton to everyone because one’s attachment to books is very personal and unpredictable. What I do recommend is that readers challenge themselves, in some way, to deeply address the work of an artist whom they find difficult or mysterious. It pays off.
 
I want to ask you a bit about your own poetry. What inspired you to start writing?
 
I've been a serious and obsessive reader since childhood, but primarily of fiction: Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, and the like. I was also reading poetry but always poetry of the past: Donne, Blake, Chaucer. I never thought of poetry as contemporary, as something that regular people do. (I’m still very undereducated in contemporary poetry.) So while I hoped to be a writer, I was focused on the idea of writing novels. Yet in my mid-twenties, I was becoming more and more frustrated with my writing. I could not seem to handle a plot; I kept getting distracted by individual words and sentences. I had no idea that this was an insignia of poetry because no one had ever talked to me about poetry in that way. But after my eldest son was born, I found myself needing to write as a way to preserve a sense of personal identity. If I wrote down three words, they would belong to me, not to this consuming baby. And that’s where the poetry began. The first ten years of my son’s life became my apprenticeship in the art. I did not pursue a graduate degree but worked from within my own head and my own reading background, although I did have the support and guidance of a mentor, the poet Baron Wormser, whom I met at a workshop for amateurs and who took me in hand and helped me find my vocation.
 
Your new book of poetry, How the Crimes Happened, will be published this year. Did your Miltonic odyssey feed into any of the poems in this volume?
 
One small section of the book arose directly from the Paradise Lost project: it's a short series of poems about Satan and the garden. I loved the complications of Satan's character, his swirling, intellectual inconsistencies; his cockiness; and suddenly I felt myself needing to insert that character into my own lines. Here's one of the poems from that set:
Burglar

A green taloned hedge, so massive
            dove could not flutter over, so dense
an armored snake could not slip beneath—
            This was the obstacle
between the Fiend and earthly delight!
            Thin-hipped, high-shouldered,
chin in hand, he studied the situation.
            Of course, far on the other side
of the Garden, due east, there was a gate,
            if he chose to hike the border and rap
on the front door.  What the Fiend
            puzzled over, at the moment,
was not the trouble of getting in,
            which for an angel was minimal,
but this curious pretense of a barricade—
            Why make it so fraught yet convenient
to break into a park that, no matter how
             buxom, was merely a dull facsimile of bliss?
This was the kind of setup that had always
             irritated him—the King’s cunning
propensity for dramatic ambiguity, “free will”
             with a catch, not to mention
these ridiculous processional formalities.
             “Ugh,” muttered the Fiend;
and with a contemptuous snap of his wings
              at one slight bound he leaped over the hedge,
landing on his feet as briskly as a cat
              dropping through a hen-house window
into a huddle of fat chicks.
              Then up he flew, up to the middle tree,
the highest that grew in the yard, and perched,
              kneecaps tucked to his ears,
black as a cormorant in the frilled branches;
              and there he devised his next really good idea.
Many contemporary poets, especially in America, seem to have followed a fairly conventional route: a postgraduate course in creative writing followed by a teaching post in a university. You have eschewed all of that. Do you think it benefits a poet to be individualistic in this manner?
 
There is absolutely no financial benefit to the route I chose. Without a graduate degree, I am essentially unemployable at the university level. If I were a pulp-fiction writer, this might not matter; but I’m a poet and a literary essayist, and my books aren’t going to be bestsellers, ever. So making money is difficult.
 
Yet for me, there have been great benefits to taking this road. I am a self-motivated reader and writer. I don’t require classroom structure to get the work done. And I thrive on being an eccentric reader, following my own trajectory among books. This means that I have a lot of holes in my education (e,g., contemporary poetry), but I’ve also loitered and lingered among the canonical books that have become my touchstones. Moreover, being underemployed means that I have plenty of time to write, and to wander around the house thinking about writing, and to idly eat cheese and crackers while muttering over Shakespeare’s sonnets or Iris Murdoch’s novels or whatever I’ve got in hand at the moment. Finally, I think there’s something to be said for living in the real world rather than the academic bubble. When I’m not writing, I’m not trapped in committee meetings or jousting with student theses. I’m hanging sheets in a cold wind, or organizing canned goods at the local fair, or digging potatoes, or singing “Amelia Earhart's Last Flight” with fourth-graders. Nothing dramatic here, except that it’s the solid earth. And my work needs that earth.

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