Since its inception, CavanKerry Press has been committed to community. It’s outreach programs include Giftbooks, Waiting Room Reader, Bookshare, New Jersey Poetry Out Loud, and The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. And in return for CKP authors getting their books published, they offer free talks and workshops to underserved readers in their communities and free books to those who can’t afford them. They are also committed to sharing information with fellow writers to build a supportive and nurturing literary environment.
In this new series of interviews on community outreach, CKP author Paola Corso will speak with other press authors about these press projects and how they turn words into acts of community.
In this first interview, Paola speaks with Dawn Potter, author of, most recently, the poetry collection Same Old Story with CKP and director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which brings together classroom teachers and poet/teachers to share their experiences of how to effectively present poetry in the classroom.
The Frost Place conference is held every summer at Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, New Hampshire. Let me begin by asking who participates, how it works, what’s your role, and why is it a CKP outreach project?
Participants in the conference come from all over the United States. Most are K-12 classroom teachers, but we are drawing an increasing number of participants from government and social-service settings, MFA programs, and university departments. The geographical and economic distribution is extremely varied. We have participants from giant urban schools and tiny island schools; some teach in wealthy prep schools, while others teach in very poor districts. Some think of themselves as poets, while others are timid about engaging with poetry. My role as director is to foster an intense intellectual and emotional engagement among these disparate colleagues, and every year I am overwhelmed by the way in which a focus on poetry both creates and reinforces an intense communal commitment to the vocation.
CKP has long been connected to the Frost Place. Over the years, many CKP poets and staff members have participated or taught in its various poetry programs. Currently, Teresa Carson, CKP’s associate publisher, is the associate director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. She and publisher Joan Cusack Hander immediately recognized that the press’s educational mission aligns with ours at the Frost Place. Not only have they begun donating numerous classroom copies of CKP books to our participants, but they have also established a scholarship, linked to the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud program, which each year sends a New Jersey teacher to the conference. Their generosity has truly enriched our work.
How do you make poetry a living art there rather than an outdated literary trope and what impact does this have on community building?
Robert Frost’s poetry and other writings are the linchpins of the conference. While we do talk about many other poets, from many nations and time periods, we keep his work at the center. At the same time, we’re living and working in his barn and house—these quiet, modest structures on a dirt road in rural New England. There’s something about focusing so intently on his words, in this place where he himself worked so intently, that is tremendously vivifying. I am not generally inclined to proselytize about spiritual matters, but there’s no question that the living spirit of poetry is present in this place, and we try very hard to keep that flame burning.
Please give an example or two to illustrate your point.
We focus on the language of poems rather than their meaning. This is something that is new to many teachers: they are used to guiding their students directly into the abstract elements of poetry rather than using language itself as the stepping stone into the abstract. Meanings reveal themselves as we acquaint ourselves with the physical materials of the work. And talking in this way also means that everyone in the room is an equal colleague in the endeavor. No one “knows more” or “knows better.” Every one of us can hear a sound, a word, a comma. Every one of us can learn from what someone else has heard.
Can you relate the relevance and importance of activating words in the community to our world today and horrifying news about war, refugees, terrorist acts, mass shootings, racial injustice, etc.?
For a long time I struggled with the thought that, as a writer, I couldn’t do anything or change anything. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand that some of us are put on this earth to be witnesses and to speak about what we see. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten both more comfortable with this role and more willing to use it publicly. Poets are artists of observation and ambiguity. We see black and white, right and wrong, but we are surrounded by politicians and demagogues who are constantly feeding us their narrow notions as truth. We are surrounded by neighbors who accept these notions, for reasons of fear, mostly. So poets must stay alert to the world, and vulnerable to it. And we must keep speaking about what we see.
This barely says what I am trying to say, and I fear it sounds smarmy and pat. But what else can I do but keep watching and talking? Telephoning my senators and demonstrating in the streets are equally useless responses. Working as a doctor might be more helpful, but few of us know how to be doctors. Giving lots of money is also helpful if one has a lot of money to give. But neither health care nor donations solve the basic problem of endemic cruelty and fear.
I want to discuss your background and how it’s helped shape your writing life. You don’t have an advanced degree or an ivory tower that can come with academic affiliation. Do you think this has made you more grounded in the community, and why or why not?
You’re right that I don’t have an advanced degree. In fact, I’ve never taken a graduate class. In many ways, this has been a completely stupid life choice, and I’ve suffered both financially and career-wise because of it. But as far as my artistic life goes, it’s been a gift. Since graduating from college at the age of 21, I’ve never had to follow anyone else’s reading trajectory or anyone else’s rules for “how to be a poet.” Of course I’ve learned from other people. I’ve studied poems, and absorbed valuable advice, and studied the craft; but throughout it all, I’ve remained in charge of the tenor of my apprenticeship.
Still, I don’t think it’s the right choice for everyone, and I’m glad that writing programs exist for the people who thrive in them. I think life circumstances dictate what works for different people, though I do wish that hiring entities recognized that all artists-teachers don’t follow a single graduate-degree path toward excellence. Partly I was fortunate in being such an intense reader as a child, with a mother who not only fed me difficult books but also nurtured my autodidact urge. She left me alone with them; she let me find my own way. From the beginning I was obsessed with reading what my inner self knew I had to read.
As far as making me grounded in community: in most ways, no. I’m drawn to the old: Beowulf, Wyatt, Milton, Coleridge, that sort of thing. This is where much of my artistic urge comes from, whereas my poet contemporaries tend to be inspired by contemporary work. And for the most part, my friends and neighbors don’t read or think about poetry. We talk about other things, when we talk. And that’s okay. When the conversations do arise, now and again, with the handful of poet-lovers I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, they are always a gift and a miracle. Part of my goal as director of the Frost Place Conference is to construct a week, once a year, where these kinds of miracles happen constantly.
You live in rural Maine, what you have called a “downtrodden” place with poverty and disenfranchised people. Nonetheless, you say it’s prompted you to define solitude, and, in turn, to define community. Define them and how has this changed the way you live your life?
Maine is famous for its beautiful coastline, but many of the inland regions of this enormous state are composed of long stretches of forest, fields, and barrens dotted with aging mill towns and frontier-like hamlets. The county I live in is one of the poorest in the state, and I 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. It’s is not a particularly beautiful place. In many ways it encapsulates all the stereotypes that people have about rural America: extreme poverty, unemployment, cultural isolation, domestic violence, opiate addiction, rampant gun ownership, conservative politics, religious fundamentalism. Living here is not easy, and it is often lonely. But it has forced me to construct my own cultural life, and also to understand that community means more than common interests and like-minded eating habits. We’re all in the same boat here—suffering through winters and deaths; laughing at our children’s Little League games; sharing compassion and affection. We put up with each other, even if we don’t always comprehend each other.
I was struck by a quote of yours: “At every turn, I’ve met another person struggling to link eye with ear with hand with mind.” Tell me more.
People everywhere, in all walks of life, long to find some way to articulate their inner lives. Some of the most moving poems I’ve read have been written by teenage boys in vocational education classes—students who may never write another poem in their lives but who have used this rare opportunity to share their hearts with poignancy and grace. I find this with musicians too. I play in a band, and the guys I play with are a farmer, a contractor, and the owner of an appliance business. Week in and week out, they come together to practice—to share an emotional bond with one another, to make themselves vulnerable to feeling. It’s very moving.
What has the literary community given to you and what do you hope to give back?
Poetry is not a rarified art, but neither is it rambling anecdote. It is difficult and sustaining and terrifying. It requires nakedness and awe. It requires also that we stay to true to our own yearnings.
I do feel that discovering myself as a poet was a way of being born again. My primary mentor and model has been CKP poet Baron Wormser, and I try always to live up to what I have learned from him. I want to be the person Baron was for me, for the poets who come after me.
How has your community outreach experience with CKP been different for you than with other presses?
Unlike any other press that I’ve worked with, CKP has invited me to participate as an active member of its mission. It doesn’t just ask for my financial support; it asks for my moral support. And when it sees an area in which an author’s work and the press’s mission aligns, it works to create a collaboration. That’s certainly been the case in the partnership we’ve built between CKP and the Frost Place teaching conference.
I’d like to end with a sonnet of yours from Same Old Story that captures some of the abiguities we discussed:
So wild it was when we first settled here.
Spruce roots invaded the cellar like thieves.
Skunks bred on the doorstep, cluster flies jeered.
Ice-melt dripped shingles and screws from the eaves.
We slept by the stove, we ate meals with our hands.
At dusk we heard gunshots, and wind and guitars.
We imagined a house with a faucet that ran
From a well that held water. We canvassed the stars.
If love is an island, what map was our hovel?
Dogs howled on the mainland, our cliff washed away.
We hunted for clues with a broken-backed shovel.
We drank all the wine, night dwindled to grey.
When we left, a flat sunrise was threatening snow,
But the frost heaves were deep. We had to drive slow.