To My Son (A Poem)

To My Son

Last winter as snow banks

rose high above us

and we clutched our coats

tight against our necks to

fight off the cold,

 

you were cradled in the warmth

of your mother’s belly.

 

Sinew formed, bonesOtis Cole

calcified, fingers sprouted at the

ends of your tiny arms,

and the synapses in your

brain began to spark and fire.

 

When your mother

laid on the couch to relieve

the kernel of pain in her back

I rested my head on her stomach

and talked to you.

 

Sometimes you’d respond with

a kick or a punch, as if

the universe had spoken.

 

At night I’d lay awake and

listen to the whisper of snow

falling outside. I’d run through my

fears about fatherhood,

of which there are too many

to list now. And when my heart

began to beat so hard

I thought it might wake your

mother sleeping next to me,

I’d reach across the darkness,

rest my hand

on your mother’s belly,

and dream about what your

voice would sound like one day.

 

Then you were born

in the violent miracle

of childbirth. Your mother

was a warrior, bringing

you into the world

with unmedicated grace.

 

Like most of us, you will never2015-06-27 13.45.48

understand what your mother

went through so you could

come into this world. Be nice to her.

Always.

 

And now you’re here,

and I feel this world more fully

than I ever have. I cry easily.

I laugh loudly. I say things

I never thought I would.

 

You are the purest part of God.

 

I don’t know exactly what that

means, but my gut tells me it’s

true. And if you’ve taught me

anything, it’s to trust my gut

when it speaks.

 

What I’m trying to say

is that when you were born

the bones protecting my heart

were removed and thrown

away for good, and I live my life

with my heart exposed to the world,

vulnerable, aching, present.

 

When you cry, the seismographDadOtis

in the left atrium of my heart

goes off. I fear that as you get

older its sensors will become

so acute that if your heart breaks

a thousand miles away

it will shake me to my core.

 

But your heart will break.

You will try things and fail.

That’s the way life works.

But know that when the bad

things happen, as they inevitably will,

I’m here for you with my naked heart

beating to a song written by you.

University of Southern Maine, You Broke My Crooked Heart

Dear University of Southern Maine,

You’ve done it.  Broken my heart, that is.  You did it while staring into my unblinking eyes.  You never released your finger from the trigger, just waited until the dust settled from your bad press, then, when you hoped people were preoccupied by the warm summer air that finally came to us in Maine, you pressed the savage trigger and shattered my crooked heart.

It’s not just my heart, as I’m sure you know.  With your act of placing the Stone House in Freeport on the market, you’ve fractured hundreds of hearts.  As Stonecoast students and faculty members, we bled in that house.  We opened ourselves up at the breast and bled until we got our stories right.  The Stone House was made sacred by our words, and to see it so easily discarded by the trustees is heartbreaking.

Stone House Image copyWe gave you our hearts, but we also gave you our money.  Looking back on what we had, maybe the saddest truth of our relationship is that not only could you not be trusted with the magnificent gift of the Stone House and its surrounding property, you also couldn’t be trusted to be good stewards of our tuition.  Like many big institutions, you put off the necessary costs for years, until they became so extraneous that you had to cry poor.

But it’s over.  We’re over.  You’ve severed my heart.  Our hearts.  The best I can ask is that you do not move the program to the drab settings of your Portland or Lewiston campuses.  A great writing program deserves better.  The future purveyors of the written truth deserve better.

Of course, since writers are resilient people with open hearts, future Stonecoast students and faculty will make any space they enter sacred.  The program will regain its footing.  Not because of you, but in spite of you.

We had a good two years together, University of Southern Maine.  I’ll always remember the gift of my time in the Stone House.  I truly hope the sale of the Stone House allows the University system to strengthen.  I do.  Though looking at the numbers, I don’t see how it can make a big dent; however, cutting a few six figure salaries at the administrative level could surely have a strong fiscal impact.

I believe this great state deserves a great institution of higher learning.  Do not let the pain of our broken hearts be in vain.

Sincerely,

Dave Patterson

 

After Reading of the Heroin Epidemic in Vermont, I Write a Letter Home

Note: I recently finished the Rolling Stone article on the heroin problem in Vermont.  The article opens with a heroin addict from my hometown of Milton.  This poem emerged from the rush of nostalgia and visceral thoughts that the article broke open in my veins. 

welcome-to-vermont-5972688

A Letter Home

 

Milton, Vermont, the dirty poem from

which I sprung. Your syntax of trailer parks

punctuated by open fields and front lawns

littered with the corpses of rusted trucks.

 

Though you tried to kill my brother with your

wellspring of OxyContin pills, you nurtured

my mother back to her family with your green

hills and dirt roads while she fought

the death-promise of cancer.  So I forgave you.

 

And now I read that the realism of Oxy pills

you swallowed with well water have been

replaced by the opiate pinprick of heroin.

I’m aghast, but not surprised by this turn.

 

I moved three hundred miles away

to shed the rural skin you wrapped me

in only to find that even in coastal Maine,

despite the strong ocean winds, the marrow

of my bones still speaks your savage name.

 

 

University of Southern Maine, We Will Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night

Since I posted my open letter to the University of Southern Maine about their plan to sell the Stone House where I attended the Stonecoast MFA program, a lot has gone down.  This week’s Portland Phoenix explains that the University is delaying its plans to lay off faculty, and from my contacts at Stonecoast it appears that the Stone House has at least one more residency left.

The bad press over the last couple of months has frustrated the USM administrators into stalling their big plans to gut the University.  It is clear, however, that just because they are stalling, does not mean they are stopping the austerity train.  No, it seems they are waiting for the rough seas of discontent to calm, people’s anger and attention to wane, and then, when no one is watching, they plan to go right on ahead with their plan.

I say, fat chance.

Stone House Image copyFrom my sources at Stonecoast — a low-residency writing program that meets twice a year at the Stone House in Freeport — I’ve been told that University officials are going to close the Stone House in the winter, not this summer as was originally planned.  However, the rough waters of resistance will continue to rage right through to the end of any plan they have hatched.  That’s a promise.

Here’s my biggest issue with the closure of the Stone House.  USM has noted that the Stone House costs $45,000 to maintain a year.  With an alleged $14 million budget shortfall the University claims it cannot afford to keep the 96 year old waterfront estate open.  But the numbers don’t work out here.

Yearly tuition from three to four students in the program covers this cost.  That leaves the tuition from the remaining students to cover the rest of the expenses to run the program.

Furthermore, what is $45,000 in the grand scheme of a $14 million deficit?  Even if they sell the beautiful waterfront estate, that only brings in a one-time influx of money.  You can’t base a sustainable, long term budget around a quick sale of a property.  Property that will only appreciate in value.  The money they will lose from prospective students alone has to outweigh the short term gain.

What is going on with this institution of higher learning?  If I was a member of the family of Mrs. Eleanor Houston Smith, the family who donated the Stone House to the University, I would be livid.  How could this University be such a poor steward of a generous gift of this magnitude?

After reading the Portland Phoenix article, it seems that this entire budget short fall might just be a fabricated move on the administration’s part to allow them to enact vast changes to the University of Southern Maine.  Oh, humanity, I hope this isn’t the case.

I’m joining #USMfuture, a group that has helped push back the cuts at USM, and I will continue to join them in this fight as an alumnus of the Stonecoast MFA program.

USM officials, despite your greatest wishes, we will rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Philip Seymour Hoffman I Knew

Of course, I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman.  But like the rest of you, I knew the version of him that he gave us in his movies and interviews.  I loved that version because he was hilarious and serious and chubby and flawed and honest and vulnerable.

Since writing is cathartic and I’m as confused about his death as everyone else, I’m making a list of the Philip Seymour Hoffman roles that will most haunt me.  I’m hoping it helps.

5. Along Came Polly (2004)

Hoffman was the only memorable part of this movie.  It’s a Ben Stiller rom-com, so I sleepily watched it, but when the scene drops with Hoffman on the basketball court I woke up.  Hoffman nails the character of Sandy Lyle (what a great name).  I love this role, because his hilarity completely took me by surprise.  My favorite quotes bellowed by Lyle as he misses shot after shot: Make it rain!  Raindance!  Raindrops!  White chocolate!

Philip Seymour Hoffman4. Fresh Air Interview with Terry Gross (2008)

This was the interview that gave me a glimpse into Hoffman as a man.  I was in awe listening to his approach to craft.  His desire to find the flaws in his characters and make those flaws naked was inspiring.  He felt so damn human.  And humble.  I recall Gross asking him at one point about his relationship to alcohol.  He told Gross that he has no idea how anyone has just one drink.  He understood that he was an addict and one drink would lead to twenty.  That response has been with me since his death.

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Brandt!  His reaction when Bunny Lebowski (Terra Reid) propositions the Dude (Jeff Bridges) shows Hoffman’s ability to stay in character in even the wildest of moments.  It’s brilliant straight man comedy, and different from his hilarity in Along Came Polly.  Let’s recap.

Bunny: I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.

Brandt: Ah hahahahaha.  Wonderful woman.  We’re all very fond of her.  Very free-spirited.

Bunny: Brandt can’t watch, though, or he has to pay a hundred.

Brandt: Ah haha.  That’s marvelous.

2. Capote (2005)

I’m not going to say anything about his portrayal of Truman Capote that hasn’t been said.  His work in this film is genius in the real sense of the word: the voice, the mannerisms, the duplicity of character.  When I think Truman Capote, I think Philip Seymour Hoffman.

1. Love Liza (2002)

This movie ripped my heart out of my chest cavity and threatened to never put it back.  For whatever reason, it’s this performance by Hoffman that will always haunt me.  Maybe it’s the presence of his wife’s suicide letter Hoffman’s character Wilson Joel carries with him throughout the movie.  Perhaps it’s his raw back and forth with Kathy Bates.  Or possibly it’s his character’s decision to begin huffing gasoline to suppress the pain of loss.  It’s a character walking into the abyss.  It’s dark.  It’s gripping.  It’s beautiful.  Most likely all these reasons combined won’t allow me to shake this performance in the wake of Hoffman’s death.

That helped.  A little.  We’re all blessed to have laid witness to the brilliance of a great actor.  Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman.

Advice From a Reluctant Blogger

Preface

I got into blogging reluctantly.  Now that I’m in it, I understand its importance for emerging writers.  It’s a necessary component in this uber-digital age we find ourselves in.  With that said, I’m having a hell of a time blogging about writing, music, and beer.  (Especially the beer part.)

Six Reasons Why I Blog

1. A literary agent told me:

-Publishers are interested in publishing authors, not books.
-Publishers want to see that their writer can write about a range of topics in a range of genres.  (They want to see that you have chops.)
-Publishers want to see that you’re living a life in letters.

2. It gives me a weekly assignment where I can practice craft in a quick shot.  I try to give myself different ‘assignments’ for each post to keep pushing my writing.

3. My blog is a place where I play with language, ideas, and content.

IMG_60874. It’s a great way to run a low-cost/no-cost website where people can read your work, bio, and contact information.  (Good to have when you’re sending your work to literary publications.)

5. It’s a great way to redirect someone to my publications and music pages.

6. More people have read my prose on my blog than have read my fiction.  For now.

Advice from a Reluctant Blogger

1. On your blog, you don’t have to do A+ work.  Don’t obsess over the perfect post.  People consume blogposts like fairgoers consume fried food.

2. Don’t let the blog distract you from the projects most important to your writing life.

3. Aaron Hamburger, one of my writing mentors, once told me that in my fiction I should only write what excites me.  So I blog about writing, music, and beer.  Those three things make life worth living.  I am always excited to write about each of those topics.

4. Be open to letting your blog evolve into whatever it wants to become.  This blog has evolved greatly over the past year.

5. Check your stats, but don’t become obsessed.  Computers are depleting our dopamine supplies through endless satiation; don’t let your blog rob your dopamine reserves.

6. Use the any writing you already have to give your blog an immediate injection of content.  As you figure out what you want your blog to be, you can delete old work.

7. Keep each post short.  I have a self-imposed word limit of 500 words.

JaphytheWonderDog8. Include images in each post.  Fact: humans like pretty pictures.  (Just look at that picture of Japhy the Wonder Dog.)  Write detailed descriptions of your images to help with your blog’s searchability.

9. Twitter is your best friend if you’re writing about someone or something else.  Try Twitter out, and as Neil Gaiman urges, if you don’t like it, don’t do it.  Find your relationship with Twitter.

10. Facebook is a good place to toss more personal posts.  Overall, Facebook isn’t a great place to grow your blog after the first few months.  I post less than half of my blog posts to Facebook.  It induces ‘social media fatigue’ among your cyber friends.

Letter to the University of Southern Maine: Save the Stone House!

(Note: this is a letter I sent to the University of Southern Maine to urge them to keep the Stone House.  This is a house in Wolf’s Neck in Freeport overlooking the ocean.  The property is used by the Stonecoast writing program where I received my MFA.  The school is considering selling this piece of property.  That idea doesn’t sit well with me.)

Stone House Image copy

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing this letter in support of the University of Southern Maine keeping the Stone House.  I am both an alumnus of Stonecoast (’13) and a resident of the great state of Maine.  Both affiliations compel me to write this letter.

One of the greatest gifts of the Stonecoast MFA program is the Stone House.  It was a sublime backdrop to the knotty conversations about fiction writing I had in my tenure in the program.  During my residencies I made it a point to walk the winding path behind the Stone House and stand by the ocean in order to process the fertile education I was immersed in.  Learning to be a writer—a real writer who digs into the white-hot center of existence and refuses to look away—is a life changing experience.  A writer of this ilk must stand naked on the page.  A writer of this ilk must be willing to take dangerous emotional risks.  This program strips you down to your core.  It is beautiful and exhausting.  The Stone House offers the perfect setting for writers to free-fall into the writing life.  Its location is serene.  The house is storied.  The architecture is stunning.  I’m not sure I would have been so drawn to this program had it been set elsewhere.

StonehouseAs a Maine resident and a teacher at Gorham High School, I have seen the effects of the recent cuts made at the University of Southern Maine.  I have students whose parents have been laid off from their jobs at your school.  I have seen the human face of the financial decisions the University is making.  Parents uncertain of how they will pay for college.  Students anxious about having to move because of their parents were laid off.  I also have a personal friend whose position was abruptly cut without warning.  While I do not stand in judgment of your institution for making difficult financial decisions, I do feel it is my duty to write this letter to save the Stone House.  It is unfathomable that the Stone House be rendered in these budget cuts on top of all of the human positions that are being slashed.  I wonder how much the University can cut away before the heart and soul of the institution dissipates in the process.

Without the Stone House, it’s hard for me to imagine recommending the program to fellow writers.  Even the thought of this cut causes me pause in recommending your undergraduate programs to my current high school students.  The Stone House is a member of the Stonecoast and University of Southern Maine communities.  With its dismissal, part of my connection to Stonecoast and the University will wilt, making me an ineffective alumnus—someone I loathe to be.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my thoughts and the thoughts of my fellow Stonecoast writers.  The Stone House is a unique fixture for the University and shedding it from the institution threatens to destroy any individuality the school hopes to possess.

Sincerely,

Dave Patterson