Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Riddle

What has one color and seven children?

What during a pandemic can be most easily

rammed through the Senate? Which silent

bad actor can hold a Bible without irony?

How can a man with small hands still

strangle you? How can a man with dead hands

still get elected? How can a woman who 

cannot laugh laugh at your last breath?

Enigma, conundrum, brownfield, joke?

Which windows are easiest to fall out of?

How is cruelty best incorporated as power?

What’s the billionaires’ happiest hour?

Where does any policeman never dare go?

What in the heart does the grief do?

On the Current President’s Recent Illness

I would like to feel something other than hopeful.

I would love to feel something other than righteous.

But it isn’t in me anymore, those other more sensitive feelings 

like sympathy, empathy, anything not fear or anger, 

because I have lost most of my tenderness these last four years

he’s been dismantling the government and any hope

a democratic government might serve to protect people 

against corporate greed. He has given away a trillion

dollars we worked for to corporations who didn’t need

any more money when the country was deep in debt.

He has encouraged cruelty instead of listening. He

has encouraged everyone to think poverty is weakness.

He has beaten his own children and imprisoned thousands more

who wanted safety, who hoped to find it here. Even now

he will not let them free. He could not find anything

to say that was not an attack on sympathy or kindness.

If his body is now filling up with snowflakes…

If his body is now being wrestled to the ground…

If his every breath is an effort he’s never had to think about…

If his hands are restrained to keep from injuring himself…

I am happy to think of other things. For instance,

what will it take to open those cages? How can we

as a country help the millions out of work? How can we now

so deeply in debt manage to raise enough money to

help the millions of evictions about to happen, which

a government not crippled by greed and cruelty could?

How will we make the necessary reparations for the past?

How can we admit we haven’t truly loved everyone enough?

He is old, he would say himself if this illness were in someone else’s body.

He is old and, he would shrug, he’s had a very good life.

He will be missed by someone surely. He would be the first to say

goodbye and we thank him for whatever. He will be remembered,

he would say if someone wrote some words for him, for

whatever. Normally, to be honest, I would turn off the tv

and get back to whatever necessary thing I had to do.

But we are here and he is afflicted by the very virus

he said was a hoax, then nothing, then just liberal panic.

If we are to honor him, we must turn away from him

and get on with being alive, which means such and such,

but mostly not dying ourselves, anything to keep from 

feeling anything that might interfere with the body’s demand

that it go on. He wants to go on, certainly. Who doesn’t? But now

he might not. If I pray, which I can do for him without anything

like feelings, without even a god to believe in, I pray 

he undergoes whatever transformation he can bear in this life

which might free him from thinking nothing but money matters.

If he ever thought better of rape or humiliation or scorn

of whatever body he had power over, let him pray to that now. 

May his doctors be immigrants and women who can still

make choices about their bodies. May his queer nurses be 

protected by equipment and clothing he tried to use to make

state governors he didn’t like humble themselves to him. 

May his own struggle be a lesson to other autocrats to change.

May his humility come upon him the way waves on a beach

come to anyone at the end of their rope and wash his feet

with their billion glitters of fool’s gold and old shells and relief

that something is over now he thought might kill him.

Lines for my Zoomed-out Students

  1. Write a love poem without the letter e.
  2. Describe in six syllable lines a kiss.
  3. Write a poem that’s an insincere apology.
  4. Write a poem that describes a small kindness.
  5. Write a poem about someone else’s mother.
  6. Write a sonnet titled Listening to the News
  7. Write a three-sectioned history of your hair.
  8. Write a page of blank verse about your shoes.
  9. Write ten blank verse lines about a pair of hands.
  10. Write a love poem to some part of you you hate.
  11. Write a sonnet about how you learned to dance.
  12. Write an elegy that mentions seven states.
  13. Write a poem to the three bones in your ear.
  14. Write a sonnet in which thirteen birds appear.

After the First Zoom Classes: some notes

I think I listened harder to students yesterday than I do sometimes in face-to-face teaching. For practical reasons to begin with.

Students come to poetry classes largely for three reasons, based on yesterday’s discussion—poetry is an outlet for their feelings(freshmen and sophomores); Poetry is a practice that attends to language and its practitioners will have a leg up on others (seniors); there must be language with no rules because sometimes the heart wants to feel free (mixed level hopefuls).

Most students this term are informed by the Transcendentalists because that’s the last poetry they were taught, usually in high school. Only two out of 19 could name a contemporary poet.

I can reach the same fugue state on Zoom as I do in a classroom when I’m going on about something, a poet, a technique, a history of…, and I actually feel a little less embarrassed when, at last I’ve talked my passion out, I look up and say Now where were we?

I didn’t care when I saw a kid get up out of his chair and leave his screen for a bit. I said to myself, oh he’s got to pee, and not How dare he leave the room!!

I love young people and people in college generally. They’re just wanting us to be as clear as we can about the world and to show them that intelligence and empathy and humor and seriousness can be interestingly combined in adults.

I’ll need to say things over and over again. More than I feel like I should maybe. Not count on paper or screens or Learning Management Systems as much as I’m used to. In fact, an action plan for the next week ought to be articulated in the closing minutes of each class.

We can do this thing. We’ll figure it out.

Change: Weight/What Can’t Wait

I was thinking today about what we’re being “encouraged” to do:

  1. Change from one LMS to a new one at our university. Okay, not terrible.
  2. Change our teaching from single mode—ftf—to multimode—ftf, in-line, recorded, etc. Very confusing because of # 6.
  3. Change/Challenge my pedagogical paradigms and habits in I think significant ways because of the Black Lives Matter voices and needs which are so powerfully visible now. Absolutely necessary and requiring a lot of listening, rethinking old assumptions, ways of speaking, acting, thinking, processing.
  4. Change our daily personal habits because of the virus. Absolutely necessary shifts in ways of living, being in touch with others, reacting.
  5. Contain and channel my rage at the political mess in the country into something other than self-harming behaviors. Necessary and often deeply lonely work.
  6. Translate my own administrative “leaders’” incomprehensible language and expectations into something we can actually do without being driven mad.

Any one of these would be a challenge, but all stacked on one another has paralyzed me at times, I admit. I’ve gone to bed early too many nights.

Still, I try to wake up and concentrate on what I can. I tell myself I’m not going to get any of this perfect. For me, 4 is more or less done. I’m learning #1 this month. #3 I commit to and figure out tangible things I can do everyday. #5 is difficult for me but I’m trying to stay out of a deep circuitry of depression and despair. I am deciding to ignore #6 until they speak in some humane way.

As I Begin to Think About Teaching in the Fall

I again realize I don’t know that much really about how other people do this thing called writing poems.

I do think that the not knowing what we’re doing isn’t written about enough. How poets go into mystery and keep going back, bringing back bits and pieces sometimes, sometimes rescuing or producing or guiding a whole body/song/character out of silence or pain or a few vowel sounds, even out of boredom.

Some teachers teach it as simply practice, some as a kind of calling, some as a need, some even as a kind of delight. It’s all of those things of course, or the great stuff is, balancing meaning and delight and need and ambition on razors’ edges of language and breath

and any false move can make it collapse like a house made of teaspoons.

*

I used to, in my early days as a teacher, simply say Bring in a poem for next week, and the students did. The first ones would be usually dependent on cliches and language students had been told poets use—e’er, thine, wouldst, do run—and in the workshop I’d quietly just replace them with the students’ “real” voice, more contemporary diction and syntax. Slowly I’d lessen their dependence on rhyme or metaphor or symbol so they could see and learn to use all the other kinds of language that go into poems. I’d quote famous poets as challenges. We’d look at books that both changed and confounded me.

Then as I grew more used to those cliches/moves, I’d try to head them off with prompts that forced students into creative states by making them work with certain words or sounds or constraints first, things that made it harder for them to rely on cliches or the ways they’d been taught to use language to make poems. I learned to talk less and read out loud from example poems. I had students write more imitation poems. Try to write a poem like that but using the material of your life, I’d say.

Some students blossomed under one kind of teaching, some resisted. No way of teaching always reached everyone. I got used to that. Sometimes the resistors argued with me and lost. Sometimes the resistors disappeared and I asked myself why and tried to change, to be clearer or softer in my tone or remember that there are circumstances I cannot control that arise between teacher and student. Sometimes they found better teachers in my colleagues.

So, now, in a time in which so many things have changed, “changed utterly” as Yeats says in his poem “Easter, 1916,” for the rebels of the Easter Uprising, I wonder which approach to teaching will be the best for the students whose lives have had to undergo radical shifting. Should I still start by having them read Sharon Olds’ “The Takers,” and shock them with what a poem can talk about? Should I start with Terrance Hayes’ poem The Blue Terrance and ask them to, in the next twenty minutes, write their own poem about where they come from, using the same language Hayes uses (I come from, I come from, I believe, I will not)?

Where do they come from? What do they believe? What will they not do/say/put up with? The first few weeks will let me know all those things. And I may have to reconfigure everything then, change my approach. I’ve done it before. My guess this time is they’re exhausted by screens and lectures and listening. They miss being in rooms full of other humans who are trying to learn something new. It can be awfully lonely to be trying something new all by yourself.

So we need to talk about that. Probably a lot. Make some spaces where they can experiment and maybe test out some lines, ask some questions, spend some time (specific, dedicated, bounded time, not this uneasy open-ended time we have now) listening to a poem being read, listening to someone (me at first probably but soon them) talk their way through a poem, then talk their way through changing a poem without destroying it, which is very hard to do for some of them, indeed for many of us.

What is the structure I’ll use to do this? I don’t yet know. But I know there are structures already. I know I might have to invent one that works with my own way of teaching and can reach out to them wherever they are. I told some friends I might just set up a set of correspondences and write letters, but I’ll have to have some way of appearing too—on Zoom or Teams or something else—so they can talk to me in person, as a person, instead of only getting me through words. But how will it be? Would the Witch of the West get destroyed if Dorothy had seen that the Wizard was just a person, like her, who is a lucky imposter?

Final Project note for The Book as Art

Well, friends,

the time has come to open up a space for sharing our projects. I have now done that in the class’s Courseweb page.

I’m sorry that this pandemic cut us off from one another so abruptly, but I am trying to remember creative people who often feel more of other people’s suffering and worry an awful lot about the state of the world ALSO are the dreamers who figure out ways to live through and with anxiety. I’ve heard from some of you about your time in isolation, and I hope the rest of you are safe, sheltered, and caring for yourself the best you can. I hope the forum and sharing projects with one another will reinforce some of the solidarity and community we had in the actual classroom.

As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have a question or just need to talk/vent/invent.

SO: Please post photos of your whole project or a movie, if that’s possible. You can upload your work from today until the 22nd, which is about when I’ll have to start getting grades in.

NOTE: When you submit, remember that I need to be able to see the whole text as well as the images. Feel free to post close-up images of any special features you’d like me to notice. Feel free to add a note telling us what the process was like, what materials you used, any issues you faced.

If you don’t want to post (or can’t) send it to me at oaks@pitt.edu. I know that some of you ended up working on very sensitive matter, so there’s no shame if you prefer to keep that between you and me.

If we had been in the classroom, I would have bought enough pizza for everyone. Lord, I miss that ritual now. If you can, reward yourself and your hard, engaging work this term with something. Maybe it’s a pizza but it could also be something like playing a favorite song and letting yourself dance for 3 minutes. It could be just sitting and breathing in. We made it to the end.

I’m not sure what the future will hold. I know that summer classes will all be online. No one’s sure about the fall. Much will depend upon scientists and doctors and folks working to treat and find a cure/test/something. Remember that someone has to write and record the history too, and that doesn’t have to be recorded merely by Historians. Writers and artists do this work too. This class has given you a few skills, I hope, and maybe some ways to work with your hands and whatever materials are around you, and to think of ways to connect images and words in some new ways. It’s a beginning. Folks on Youtube can be great teachers of skills. There are online resources everywhere it seems. There’s instagram and wordpress and soundcloud and a whole host of platforms where your work might be needed. If you write what you need to write, there’s bound to be other folks out there who will be grateful to hear it.

It’s been a pleasure to have gotten to spend time with all of you in class. You’ve been a great group to test this slightly-experimental class out on. I’m convinced that this class does have a role to play in the curriculum, and I’ll certainly offer it again, maybe in a year.

Thank you to Jacob for being an enthusiastic and encouraging teaching assistant, always willing to help me lug all that stuff downstairs, and for his passionate interest in the work of getting images and words to talk to one another.

Thank you for all your inventive, smart, funny, and joyous work. I hope you continue it wherever you are and in whatever ways you can.

Jeff

Notes to the poets: week of April 6th

Hi all,

 

I’m checking in on a Thursday, which makes me late a bit. This has been an odd week of irritations and realizations as we’ve been readjusting to living in a one bedroom apartment with a dog. My husband in March took up smoking again because he was so anxious, and then in April he’s decided to give it up again. It’s been very hard for him to process all the anxiety everywhere. For my part, I was drinking whole pots of black tea and then wondering why I felt so crazy every morning as I was talking to colleagues on Teams, then trying to send out emails to a number of folks, then comment on student poems on Courseweb, and and and I always felt like I wasn’t doing something else I should be doing—keeping a visual journal for my The Book as Art class, working on a manuscript I told myself I’d get to now, or reading anything at all. Yesterday, thinking we were giving ourselves a treat and being good citizens, we ordered a big meal of pizza and steak and cheese grinders from a local restaurant (with a slice of chocolate cake for me!) and it took two hours to reach us.  We of course ate it but it was not exactly a treat by then; it was another sign that we were in a world that the old expectations wouldn’t necessarily work in anymore.

 

So, I’m taking a big breath today, and getting back to what needs to be done. My plan is to comment on two or three poems you’re posting on Courseweb per day.  I have a couple of big pieces from a couple of you and I’m hoping to send you some audio notes on because I realized that typing out all my comments would be completely exhausting.

 

I also wanted to call your attention to the poems I’ve been posting every day on Courseweb as my attempt to keep practicing the art even in the midst of the anxiety of the moment, and to give you a view into how I’m trying to respond to the world as it shifts and changes. My plan is very simple: to write at least 10 to 15 ten syllable lines every day. Some days have been quite a lot more. They’re not all perfectly good. Some will sound silly to me when I look back at them at the end of the month, which is when I’m reading them and not before.  So, no need to comment on them!  I’m just putting things down first as clearly as I can and without lying if I can. I’m not worrying about being smart or funny or beautiful or literary.

 

For those of you who have not posted on courseweb, you are still required to give ME poems. You don’t have to post them on CW but you will need to get me something.

 

Or you can write and let me know that you’ll be fine with the B I’ll give you at the end of the term for the work you’d done thus far (and which I’m fine with giving you, by the way, because I know this hasn’t been easy for some of you and because you can easily petition to have that grade turned into a Pass if a B is going to spoil things for your GPA).

Working Methods: some notes

First things first: get up. This can be harder than it sounds.

Second step: do something other than go lie down on the couch in the living room and turn on the tv. Note: this is much harder if you have once again slept all night on the couch. Second note: if you have a dog, this is much easier because you will get an immediate disapproving look.

Third thing: take care of the dog, who requires at least a ten minute walk to pee and poop. When you return, you must feed the dog and get him some clean water to replace the slimy puddle that is yesterday’s clean water.

Sometimes I eat breakfast and sometimes I don’t eat before working. I can’t see much difference in production either way.

In the absence of my normal coffeehouse routine, I ordered a six cup orange teapot from Amazon one day. When I got to my husband’s apartment, I found he only had some 8 oz coffee cups. I was microwaving water every half an hour.  Ordinarily, at the coffeehouse, I order a pot or a 16 oz drink and sit for an hour or two and then order something else and then I’m done. So the teapot substitutes for that time now. I sit down for as long as it takes to drink an entire pot of tea. Generally, this takes me about two hours.

English or Irish Breakfast, two bags, some lemon and honey.

Then I sit in front of the computer and check in with my students on Courseweb, my colleagues on Microsoft Teams, and the rest of the world on email.  (Social media I probably checked while I was walking the dog or while he was eating his kibble or in the gray areas between me getting out of bed and trying to resist the pull of the couch. I do have the phone close and on while I type this, incidentally, so I might be kidding myself about how much I’m checking it.)

This morning there’s nothing on Teams (thank you colleagues who are trying not to work on the weekends so we all get some kind of break!). On Courseweb there are still two Senior Seminar student poems I need to respond to, but I’m not going to do that immediately because they are both very complicated pieces. I’ve so far been only able to tackle a couple such pieces a day. Their poems have always been and still are complicated and ambitious, just as I hope they’ll be, so it’s been useful to have some time to really respond. I do feel the difference between writing by hand my comments and typing them out, however.  The latter takes about twice as much time. I also note the difference between reading them on a screen versus reading them on a printed page; it’s easier for me to read any thing as a printed page than on a screen. I can see the beginning and ending of a printed page or set of pages in the way I can’t on a screen. I know what I’m getting into when I hold the thing in my hand. I don’t know when I have to scroll and scroll. I have to keep more notes to keep my reading and then my comments coherent.

So, let’s say that’s the first half-hour of the day. It often isn’t the end of work but just the noticing of what work there is to do today. Sometimes I make a little list to the side of the computer:

TEAMS:

Check in with G about S

 

Courseweb:

Comments on L and N’s poems for SSP

Tamara and Sarah

Check in on D and K…

 

If I start all this by 8, I’m usually done by 10, and I take a little break.

When people ask me why I work so much in a coffeehouse at least a fifteen minute drive from my house, my answer is always the same: to escape distractions, which for me are mostly in my house—distracted eating, video games, and napping. I can’t really do the last two in the coffeehouse and any eating I do has to be paid for, so I can actually concentrate on what I’m supposed to do. And the drive time is just enough of a threshold to keep me from getting up and wandering back home. The pleasant things a coffeehouse offers me that my house doesn’t are the freedom from feeling the need to clean and a constant buzz of white noise from other people’s conversations, which is a feeling of not being alone. I can choose to overhear conversations or not. I am sometimes thrown an interesting word or phrase from another table.

Here in the apartment, my husband usually working away on his computers in his bedroom, I have much to be grateful for but I’m having a difficulty getting anything new to start. And yet, I’ve already written about 800 words as of this sentence. But nothing that feels like it might be a poem or a story or something we might call literary. Just sentences that seem factual, that seem descriptive. If I were my own student, I’d tell myself to just write and not care so much, so I do try to do that as much as I can. I take my pictures of the landscape as I walk the dog. I occasionally work on a painting or drawing—something about the gestures in the visual arts feels easier, not fraught with having to “mean” something in the face of the news of the coronavirus or the corrupt and inept political leadership of the President. So I let myself pick up the charcoal and grind it against the white toothed paper I brought with me. Just lines, not even shapes.

After my mother’s death in 2013, I couldn’t imagine what I was going to write about for a bit, and I finally settled on just writing “lines” of poetry, usually 10 syllable lines. It could be about anything, I said, or nothing. I probably need to go back to that system.  When I did that, I usually found that if I wrote for about 12 to 20 lines, something interesting would appear, out of the boredom of the mind or out of the deep delight of the language itself or maybe both I don’t know, and I’d have something to follow at last.

Here’s one of those poems from my new manuscript, The Things.

 

Lines Where Something Was Supposed To Be

 

I can feel where the nouns ought to be most days.

But there’s often now an odd coming-up-short

when I go to grab that thing that one needs when one

needs to open a door in a conversation and cannot

find its name. My fingers flipper the air where

I know something I know should be solid, sayable,

and simply isn’t. The door thing. The thing you turn.

The thing, you know, you can lock and unlock.

The thing, oh my god, you can jiggle, you can try.

Helpful, a friend will say, oh you mean —-,

and it will burst out of me with relief, the word,

the word, the word, I say over and over again,

like the name of a kidnapped child returned.

At least you knew it was lost, friends will say,

meaning I’m not that bad yet, I’m not one of those

whose language is really going, whose memory

is leaking away in some home full of strangers in white.

Not yet is what I hear, my hand on the knob. Not yet.

 

(originally published at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

 

 

Action Plan, Week of March 23rd: Senior Seminar

Dear Poets,

Here’s my action plan for class this week:

1) Because I don’t know what your situation is at the moment, I’d like all of you to write back to me (via email at oaks@pitt.edu) sometime this week letting me know that you’ve a) received this note and b) how you’re doing at the moment and what you think you want to do for the remaining few weeks we have. None of this has to be fancy, so please don’t stress about it. If I don’t hear from you by Friday, I’ll write you directly.

2) What I am also going to ask you to do for Wednesday is to write and post a poem by tonight if possible, by tomorrow night if not. I’ve set up Discussion Boards for that. You will be required to respond to at least five of your colleagues’ poems by Friday.

3) I’d like to continue with my plan to read a big chunk of your work and give you feedback. My plan was to get that work by tomorrow (Wednesday) night and to give you all feedback by next Sunday. But, as I’m unsure where you are and what resources you might have, I’m going to leave that as your choice. Please let me know what you’d like to do this in your email to me.

4) I’d also like to shift gears a little and invite you to write and hand in a piece of prose (Yes, PROSE, so no line breaks) of at least 250 words, describing the room where you’re writing OR a window out of which you can look. Just let us see and feel where you are.
Here’s mine:

It is 4:30 am on Tuesday the 24th of March. I am in Springfield, MA, sitting in the dark at the small dining room table in my husband’s apartment. Husband is still asleep in the next room. Dog is snoring, a dark mound on the gray couch nearby. On the stove in the kitchen, there’s a saucepan of water slowly heating to a boil. The noise the electric stove makes as it works reminds me of the creak of an old wooden ship feeling the pressure of the sea all around it, all its small parts moving back and forth with the swell of the ocean. I like being on boats, it turns out, even though I’m actually afraid of deep water. I like this feeling that I’m in the dark hold of a ship. I can write in it, it turns out. It focuses me. The windows in the apartment here look out at a parking garage which is always well-lit. Consequently, the curtains my husband’s put up are thick and usually closed. We opened them up yesterday to watch snow fall, at first barely visible and then becoming heavier and heavier until both of us were talking about our childhoods and what having a sudden day off from school meant.

He spent his day in the bedroom, which is also his office, talking to colleagues; I could hear their tinny voices as they talked to each other from wherever their homes were. He had meetings and interviews and learning sessions in there. He talked one-on-one with his manager and in groups of people working on particular projects. They set rates and debated valuations. No one said, Will the world be changed when this is over?

He broke for lunch around noon and we watched the news to see if anything had happened. He never got out of his sweatpants.

Meanwhile, I’d spent the morning deconstructing a brown paper bag and re-constructing it into a journal for my class The Book as Art. It kept my hands and mind busy if nothing else. All morning, I talked to no one except the dog and then only occasionally. I kept my phone nearby to monitor Facebook and Instagram and all the little cheering faces of friends with their little dopamine hits of likes and comments as we keep each other company. When I’d finished my brown paper book, I walked the dog to keep his boredom to a minimum. We took the stairs to get some exercise.

After all the enforced enclosure we’d been breathing, the snow was wildly bracing.

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