NIN ANDREWS (NA): I would love to hear you say a few words about the evolution of Same Old Story. How it began, how it developed, and maybe how it earned its title . . .
DAWN POTTER (DP): As a collection, Same Old Story came together by accident. I knew I’d been writing a lot and had accumulated a stack of poems, but I didn’t have any sense that that I was working toward a cohesive collection. And then one day, out of the blue, I realized that I’d spent the past couple of years obsessively reworking the idea of story: story as narrative, story as history, story as form, story as homage, story as repetitive error, story as the life we’re stuck with. It was such a shock to suddenly recognize, “Aha! So this is what I’ve been doing.” But as soon as I saw that theme, I immediately knew how to arrange the book. There was none of that “spread the poems up and down the driveway and beg the wind to blow them into the right order” sense of panic. I can’t say I missed that part of the process.
NA: You live in Harmony, Maine? I keep imagining being able to say, I live in Harmony. Did you grow up in Maine?
DP: Living in Harmony has its ironies, one of which is the name Harmony. I did not grow up in the town but moved here when I was in my late twenties, right before I got pregnant with my older son. So basically this town is where I learned how to be an adult, and it’s also where I learned how to be a writer. Harmony is not a particularly beautiful place. In many ways it encapsulates all the stereotypes of rural degradation. Extreme poverty, unemployment, cultural isolation, domestic violence, opiate addiction, Fox News politics, fundamentalist Christianity: they are all here, and in full evidence. Nonetheless, the place has served as a muse of sorts—a way in which to define solitude, to define community. To say my relationship with the town is ambiguous is to state the case mildly. But then again, ambiguity is the stuff of poetry.
NA: I love the New England feel of so many of the poems. It’s almost as if Maine becomes a character in some of them. I was hoping you might talk a little bit about the role that geography plays in your work.
DP: I think I spoke to some of this in my response to your previous question. But, yes, the place is more than a muse. It has become a character in my writing, as it has for a long line of New England poets. Frost, Dickinson, Carruth—all of them felt a drive to isolate themselves even as they opened themselves to the complications of their physical world as it interacted with their morality and their imagination. Relying on this relationship is a strange ascetic impulse, certainly not one I purposely sought. But it’s there. My landscape and its weather are harsh, but they also require my close attention. I can’t forget they exist. On a ten-below-zero morning, when I have to go outside and haul firewood, my life literally depends on how I choose to interact with my environment. In many ways, the epic, mythic, tedious, everyday reality of this place has become the imaginative geography that lies beneath most of what I write, even pieces that don’t specifically concern Maine.
NA: At the end of “Ugly Town,” you write, “That’s the point to remember about writing./ It doesn’t solve anything.” Do you believe that?
DP: On some days I believe it profoundly. I wrote that poem in the aftermath of a terrible local murder. Three people were killed—the daughter and grandchildren of one of my dearest friends. Her son-in-law was the murderer. My children had gone to day care with those children. It was a horrible time, not least because it forced me to see that my friend’s goodness had no power over her son-in-law’s wickedness. At the same, I recognized that the words I was writing about the murder were equivalently powerless to turn back the larger torrent of violence and ignorance that had fueled this particular vengeful act. Art can record and observe. It can hope, and it can suggest alternatives. But it can’t turn back evil.
NA: I also love your retelling of myth and fairy tales in poems like “Driving Lessons” and “The White Bear.” What inspired these poems?
DP: Even though I’m pushing fifty now, I can still fall headlong into a fairy tale, just as I did when I was eight. I love the way in which these stories so bluntly integrate everyday life—say, carrying water or making soup—with magical impossibility—say, turning into a toad or finding a pair of seven-league boots. These narratives don’t mirror the workings of a short-story plot. Yet even though they have predictable arcs and endings, they often reveal angles of moral puzzlement or emotional clarity. In other words, the narratives are both idiosyncratic and formalized.
“Driving Lessons” and “The Chariot” (the book’s prologue and epilogue) came out of my quest to figure out how the narrative of a well-told myth really worked. I sat down with Rolfe Humphries’s translation of Ovid’s “The Story of Phaeton,” and line by line I rewrote the myth, using my own words but exactly following Ovid’s narrative pacing. The exercise was enormously instructive in helping me understand just how much these archetypal stories depend on patience and compression, but it also showed me that character development is key to making an old story new again. In the “The White Bear” I tried to put those discoveries to use when I reworked the old Scandinavian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” into a poem about the difficulties of marriage.
NA: You sing and play the fiddle, too. Do you ever set your poems to music?
DP: I never write songs, which is a huge mystery to all the guys in my band. And even though I do sing, I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer. My deepest relationship to music is wordless. It is a muscle-memory action; an emotional resonance; a rhythm and a cadence. I learned to play the violin when I was six, the same year I learned to read. My small-child brain soaked up both languages quickly and very intensely, and in a lot of ways that initial childish approach has never changed. I still gobble books with the same unscholarly passion I did as a child. And when I play the violin, I still retain a sense of trance: my body is doing something complex, something outside itself, but I don’t clearly comprehend how I am able to do it. Nonetheless, I do believe that the music and the writing are linked. I write by ear: that is, I hear a cadence in a line or a sentence and find a word to fit the cadence. This is true no matter what I am writing: a sonnet, a free-verse poem, an essay, a Facebook status, a letter to my kid’s teacher. Always, the sound comes first.
NA: What is the biggest challenge for you as a writer?
DP: I’m not sure how to answer this question, partly because the challenge is constantly changing. When I first began to write poems, I had to learn how to “use my stuff” (as my teacher, Baron Wormser, would tell me) while also learning how to frame it as drama and invention—in other words, how to take something from inside myself and give it exterior shape. At the moment, however, I’m working on the opposite challenge. How can I take someone else’s story—a historical voice, for instance—and use my own inner workings to give it artistic shape? The challenge is to keep the immediacy of the poem, to be not only the poet but also the actor, the subject, and the form. It is very difficult, but very absorbing.
NA: How does Same Old Story differ from your previous books?
DP: I hope the writing is better. But that’s what I’m always hoping: that all my life I will continue to get better at using words to contain the invisibilities of poetry. I want the words to be the glass bottle around the djinn, not a distraction or an advertisement. Of course djinns assume an infinite number of forms, so the bottles, too, must be infinitely variable. It seems that I’m back to talking about challenges.
NA: What inspires you? What are your interests, hobbies, passions—outside of poetry and writing?
DP: I like to listen to baseball on the radio. I like to snowshoe and go for long walks and hang around with my sons and beat my husband at cards and complain about the cat. Music we’ve already talked about. I spent twenty years raising livestock—chickens, goats, pigs—but I’ve reduced my animal collection down to two very distracting house pets. I have a fairly large garden, though I’m quite haphazard and unscientific about it. Cooking is a big interest. I bake all of our bread; I do a lot of canning in the summer. I get considerable happiness from making a beautiful meal.
NA: You teach poetry to children and adults. And you also have a book on writing poetry, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet. What advice do you give to young and aspiring poets today?
DP: I’m a big proponent of what I’ve taken to calling the reading-conversation-writing cycle. As I say in the introduction to The Conversation, “to be a writer, one must be a questing reader, forever seeking closer intimacy with the art; and talking about its details, whether in actual conversation or merely to oneself, can lead a reader down unexpected imaginative paths. The three actions are entwined: one leads to the other, leads to the other, leads to the other.” For an analogy, think about a songwriter. Music is part of her daily life, and she absorbs it, both consciously and unconsciously. One song makes her think of another. Sometimes she studies a song purposefully; sometimes she is struck speechless by an unexpected chord. Reading and writing poetry thrive on this kind of internal conversation too.
NA: How does a poem begin for you?
DP: The moment of creation varies. Sometimes I write in a frenzy of longing and neediness. At other times the process feels almost clinical. Always, as I mentioned, I begin by hearing a wordless cadence. My job is to match words to that cadence.
NA: Who are your primary literary influences?
DP: Oddly enough, I am deeply influenced by prose: the great nineteenth-century novelists such as Dickens and Tolstoy but also modernists such as Woolf and Bowen. Among poets, I gravitate toward the old: Shakespeare, of course; Milton and Coleridge. I am a woman who likes to talk to old men. I claim this as version of feminism, though I sometimes get flak for it.
NA: What is your writing process like?
DP: Chanting noun-adjective combinations under my breath. Wandering around the house looking out the windows at nothing in particular. Driving past my turnoff and/or letting the kettle boil dry. Constantly changing stanza breaks: from three-line stanzas to five-line stanzas back to three-line stanzas up to seven-line stanzas, etc. Chanting prepositional phrases under my breath. Etcetera.
NA: I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
DP: How about this sonnet, “Astrolabe”? It seems to exemplify a number of the story permutations that arise in the collection.
Like a flour smudge on an old blue apron,
A lunchtime moon thumbprints the sun-plowed,
Snow-scrabbled heavens of Harmony, Maine.
Last night three cops shot Danny McDowell
On South Road, down by the shack you and I rented
That hard winter when the northern lights glowed
And the washing machine froze and I got pregnant.
I built a five-inch snowboy for our half-inch embryo.
You took a picture of it cradled in my mittens.
But today, too late, too late, I see I forgot to worry
About this moon, this ominous rock waxing half-bitten
Over our clueless sentimental history.
Picture it falling. A white egg, neat and slow.
It doubles. Redoubles. Till all we see is shadow.