On the Frost Place
This must be real love.
That’s what I was thinking last Sunday morning, listening to the rain pouring all over my campsite, at Lafayette Place in Franconia Notch–in the midst of the White Mountains National Forest. My tent was under a canted tarp, and I’d had the foresight to trench around it,
so the water, deflected by the tarp, circled my tent on its run downhill. I was dry. Until I wanted to go outside for anything. Such as the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I had occasion to think this same thought again on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, because the Notch seemed to be in its very own weather pattern: from the campsite I could see the sunshine–all around, blazing on every place but Lafayette Place–but where I had set up my home for the week was in a flood zone.
I was there for the Frost Place. I had been urged, repeatedly, over the last five years, to apply; Baron Wormser, the director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching, had sent frequent emails over that span which read simply, “The Frost Place rocks.” Back in the ice age, when I was working on my MFA through the Stonecoast program of the University of Southern Maine, Baron had overseen my critical thesis, a monumental–or monstrous–epic about images of violence and safety in the work of three contemporary female poets. In that time I had become accustomed to raiding the refrigerator at his house in Hallowell for beer after the Harlow Gallery readings…but then he moved to Vermont, and I’ve rarely seen him since. Needless to say, his repeated emails tempted me, until this year I simply had to give in.
Add to this that the assistant director of the conference is Dawn Potter, a writer whom I first met at the Harlow Gallery, and with whom, I discovered over those aforementioned beers, I shared much, including an odd almost-relationship-by-marriage, and sons who played Little League baseball against one another. I have had the pleasure of twice being included in workshops she has run at the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance fall retreat at Haystack, when I was ostensibly volunteering there. The combination of Dawn and Baron, in the end, was irresistible. The fact that, to cut down on expenses, I opted to live at the Campground of the Apocalypse, rather than in one of the nearby bed-and-breakfast establishments, simply multiplied the adventure exponentially.
The conference, taking place at the Robert Frost homestead on a dirt road in Franconia, New Hampshire,
has been in existence for over a decade. Its aim is to spread the word amongst teachers: reading and writing poetry is not something you do in school as a unit in National Poetry Month–it’s something you do everyday, to instill the love of the language in your students. To that purpose, participants are asked to bring in examples of activities they’ve used in the classroom, for examination and discussion and perhaps theft by the other professionals in attendance. This year’s conference included elementary-, middle-, high school- and college-level teachers of English, of writing and of art; visiting artists; and people who had no classroom but were there for the love of it. We spent the first day getting to know each other, getting to know Baron and Dawn, and discussing in detail Robert Frost’s “The Most of It,” which was given to us as line-by-line dictation, the better that we should own the poem.
The Most of It
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far-distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush–and that was all.
For the rest of the week we started the day with presentations by participants, then moved to discussions with visiting poets on their favorite poems. The evenings were given over to readings by those poets. All activities took place in the barn, with the doors open to the outside air and the view across the valley to Lafayette Mountain (beyond which it was raining on my tent). We were occasionally visited by the mouse which lived in the barn; at one point it dropped from an overhead beam onto the shoulder of Andrea in front of me (ironically, as poor Andrea was the one person most freaked out by a mouse). There were bear sightings, and we were warned that, if we ran into a bear on the poetry trail, we were to maintain eye contact, sing to it, and above all not run. Deer ticks were rampant, though none got me.
Baron and Dawn split the reading time on Sunday night; I heard familiar things, as well as new, as they both have new books just out or forthcoming. Monday was Leslea Newman’s day. Though she has published 57 books of poetry, fiction, children’s literature and probably everything else, my experience with Leslea at Stonecoast was primarily as a prose writer; she had not been hired as a poet. Yet her poetry, ranging through every decade of her life, was powerful, at times funny, at times moving; after she read some poems from her forthcoming book about Matthew Shepherd, I stumbled out of the barn into the air, crying: hard work, those pieces. On Tuesday, Neil Shepherd took the stage (really a raised platform in the corner of the barn, under a collage of photos of resident poets of years past); I was unfamiliar with him and with his work, which at times featured rocks, waterfalls, Kent State, and Joe
Louis. Our final day starred Sharon Bryan, who rocked the house all day with her frank and funny discussion of the poems of others, then rocked the house in the evening with her magnificent reading: “Bass Bass” from Sharp Stars was far and away my favorite. We topped that evening off with a participant reading, but “participant” was a loose term: we teachers read; Willa the summer intern read; some visitors and former participants read; and Dawn threw in one last piece from How the Crimes Happened.
By the time the conference closed, with a final lunch on the porch (the food, by the way, was fantastic!), the twenty-one of us participating were exhausted, but unwilling to leave. As Jean, a non-practicing teacher from Ohio, said, it was amazing how we came together and melded as a class in such a short time; she thanked Baron and Dawn for facilitating that, but we all had a bit to do with it.