Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

On Emery Boards


What are emery boards made of? That red that filed things smooth. Grinding compound. The Red Dust from Shuon Optical, in Geneva, New York, where my grandfather grinded lenses during the Depression.

My mother remembered the dust on him when he came home. The red dust in small creases. The red dust he wielded against the metals of the age, even the torpedoes he was sent to Chicago to perfect, to make frictionless, to run true through the waters of World War Two. Back home, the women waited for the war to be over.

His workshop had one unadorned light bulb whose string you pulled. The million little drawers, each full of one thing. A library of metals, of parts. Spools of wire. A wall of tools, all outlined in white. He’d watched the world fall apart several times. He knew it was the little men who rebuilt it, house by house.

Her father was a quiet man with a wicked sense of humor he hid behind a mustache, a pipe, the paper. He had an enormous patience, a quiet that was part of my fear of him. I do remember how smooth his hands were.

“Crushed or naturally eroded emery (known as black sand) is used as an abrasive, as a traction enhancer in asphalt and tarmac mixtures, or used in mechanical engineering as emery cloth. ”

“The Greek island of Naxos used to be the main source of this industrially important rock type. It has been mined on the eastern side of Naxos for well over two thousand years, at least until recent times.”

“One legend has it that in the Heroic Age before the Trojan War, Theseus abandoned the princess Ariadne of Crete on this island after she helped him kill the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth. Dionysus who was the protector of the island, met Ariadne and fell in love with her. But eventually Ariadne, unable to bear her separation from Theseus, either killed herself (according to the Athenians), or ascended to heaven (as the older versions had it).”

Is this the way the Greek gods entered our lives all those years? Through the emery from Naxos? The woman filing their nails in the corners of the rooms, knitting the dust into mittens, socks, hats, waiting for men to return home, to follow through on their promises, to surprise them?

“Although the modern nail file has only appeared at the end of the 19th century, evidence of nail file-like tools exist even further back in history. Marie Antoinette was known for her obsession of the ‘lime à ongles’, which was a nail file-like tool made of the pumice stone. Seeing her perfectly shaped nails, it instantly became the latest female trend in the French Court of Versailles. In the 1830’s a foot doctor named Sitts created an “orange stick” which women used to file down their nails. Before this invention, women had to resort to using different acids, various metals and scissors to remove excess nail and shape them correctly.”

Whenever she waited, my mother, like her mother, filed her nails, which were thick and long. If she waited too long, she sharpened herself. She was a knife if she thought she’d been betrayed. There was a period of decency and once beyond its threshold, she simply packed up and left without a word. Without paying in restaurants. Without a word sometimes. Indignant. Burning. Never to return.

The slight buzz of the board on her nails meant she was nearly done waiting. There was always something more to be done, somewhere where her mind was already moving. My father had been a sad disappointment to her. Not enough grit. How many times had she saved him? She smoked alone, waiting for rescue a long time.

She never forgave her father for dying, I think now. She talked so much about him at the end of her life. Who knows if it was a hallucination or a god, the train she imagined the week she died? She was tired by then of waiting around.


Quoted material from Wikipedia)


The Need and the Work: a note to myself

Sometimes you have the need but can’t work. Sometimes you have the energy to work but not the need. It doesn’t matter what it comes to. If the need is strong, you’ll do the work, we say. If you work long enough, you’ll find a need, we say. One taken seriously will lead to the other. Almost always anyway. Just write 250 words down and see if anything rises up in you, if a face appears in the window other than your own. What do you need to say, we ask. What are you afraid to? What if you just start working with what’s in front of you? If you have a need you don’t know about, we say. Is the work to surprise yourself? Or is that the need?  The need without the work is the worst. To work without a clear need you might go back to the first silence. How’d that work? Quatrains that rhyme maybe? Five sentence paragraphs? Is a single page enough work? Is it enough to hear a lost voice again? What if you repeat the same sentence over and over, until you work the need out of it? Are you left with any joy? Can joy be work or need? What needs to happen to break you out? It doesn’t matter, we say, as long as one keeps at it, need or work. What it comes to, we mean. Just write down words. Do what you need until they work again. Seriously.

How To Survive In Literary Space Without a Book: a run-up to AWP

I was talking with my friend Noah the other day about what kinds of panels we might propose for next year, when the conference meets in Washington, DC, its fiftieth anniversary. We’ve both been to panels that were unorganized snooze-fests or self-congratulatory circle-jerks or, a pet peeve of mine, asked merely rhetoric questions–Is anyone reading nonfiction? (Duh–yes, now what’s your real question?) 

Every so often, though, comes a panel that is amazing, that really does change the way we view writing, publishing, teaching, or some important facet of the writer’s life. 

So, dear friends reading this, one reason I’m writing this post is to find out if there are any panels you’d like to see offered.  What are the burning questions you generally want to think about? 

Here are some we were thinking might be of interest and doable: 

How to survive in the literary world without a book.

Finding sustaining work as a writer or teacher or editor after 40. 

How to break into teaching after 40.
How does the older writer emerge into the world of teaching, publishing, networking, etc? 

(Our answers to the latter:

1. Buy your clothes at H & M

2. Tweet

3. Learn to be young! (Until the strain crushes you…)

4. Stop talking about your health

5. Stop picking at that freckle on your arm! It’s not cancer.

6. Stop telling kids about the old days.

7. Stop making references to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

8. Don’t ask out loud “What’s snapchat?” Don’t ask “What’s a Google?”

9.  Replace Heathers in your movie quotes wheelhouse with Mean Girls.)
Then we both realized no one would let us do old jokes for a half hour. Even though AWP now was itself turning 50, and might very well need to laugh at itself a bit more.

Then I asked,  Why don’t we just concentrate on our own work, instead of trying to be helpful? 

(How to stop being helpful to others at the expense of yourself, might be a good panel, now that I think of it.)

Then we talked about friends who were publishing at last, friends over 50. After lives of being helpful, of feeling frustrated.

Then we talked about eating our feelings–cake and Doritos for me, burgers and fries for Noah.

Then we both agreed we had to go now and buy some comfortable shoes and clothes for next week. 

Because we were no where near our ideal AWP weight. Because AWP has many of the same anxieties surrounding class reunions.

Then we both decided that, though it was the middle of the afternoon, we were both suddenly exhausted and needed naps.

And we did. 

Being Irritated

I haven’t been writing poems for a while. Or reading them much. Poetry has been irritating me, to tell you the truth. At first I thought I was just irritated after reading a few books that were mediocre to my thinking and to my ear, a thing it’s easy to brush off as my being a bad reader, a moody listener. But then that feeling didn’t go away, even when I set myself before poems I should have liked, by poets I have loved in the past or by poets people I respected trumpeted. Oh, the preciousness of line breaks made my eyes roll. The artificiality of metaphors or adjectives or dependent phrases piling up until the lines and sentences were nearly choking to death. I tapped my fingers a lot waiting for the special effects to end. The stack of unreadable books grew on my bedside table until I finally bought a new bookcase to house them elsewhere. 

I was busy, I told myself. I’d gotten married, I’d taken on much more administrative work than before, I was working on prose now and so naturally my mind and needs had changed. I was constantly long-ranging planning everywhere. I had no more of the vast swathes of quiet I used to have to just settle and grow bored in. I had just come through a period of mourning that even I had no real idea what the length was. I was probably depressed. I was eating too many carbohydrates or too much meat, growing acidic, crippling my gut bacteria, my biome, whatever. I was taking in too much of the political anxiety. It was winter.

You know what didn’t irritate me? Sentences. Sentences that were sensible and elegant and true. Sentences that told me something I didn’t know, that aimed to transmit knowledge, that knew I was there, with all my exhaustion and frustration, trying not to scream because I felt so lost. Sentences that weren’t broken into lines for emphasis or breath units or sound effects or whatever ridiculous reason a poet might articulate as revitalizing or revolutionary but which all seemed to scream “Look at me!!!” I had it bad; I’d become a grumpy old bastard. 

Usually I let myself be for a few days when I’m feeling like that. Irritation is usually a sign something in me is undergoing change, is thinking about, wrestling with, trying to inhibit some idea or energy or (dare I say?) some happiness. I play video games, eat ice cream, lecture too long to my students about some trivial issue, until their eyes look away, until finally I get bored with my selfishness, my self-indulgences. This time, when the boredom hit, I began reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl before bed. The language is clear and came in short sections. Slowly, without much verbal flourish at all, I was deeply moved by the stories in it, which began to build on one another–an acknowledgement of individual lives usually erased by capitalism, empire, industry, whatever monster you choose to think is the prime cause of evil. More than a few times I wept for strangers’ losses, of abandoned pets, of family doors taken off their hinges and evacuated, of those who could not bear to leave. To cry felt like an awful and great thing.  I hadn’t realized I’d been holding so much stuff in. 

Then came a week of intense dreams. Then suddenly I wanted to go to the gym again.
Then, this morning, I woke up with a new project in mind. In prose, I should say. Or a sort of prose I’m finding myself interested in. I’m still not ready for line breaks. 

February: some notes

In my world it is now midterm, and I’m breathing easy this time around. Next year’s schedules are in and done, and though they’ll undoubtedly have to be tweaked as things change, the whole of next year’s classes have been imagined. It’s a grand gesture toward the future. I’ve submitted a book I never imagined I’d write to an editor who’s interested. I’m caught up on papers and grading, where I’d been stalled for the last few weeks, caught up on my duties on a couple of university committees where I’m expected to say informed things, and even the smaller things–a letter of recommendation, a long overdue comment on some poems a former student sent me. Even our taxes have been submitted, our returns deposited and already spent, clearing a couple of credit cards. I feel like I can talk again to people again, without checking my phone all the time. I feel a kind of lightness I haven’t felt in a while.

Some of this is due to an unusually warm February, full of sunshine and warmth. February is usually my least favorite month, the month I hunch into, the month I simply “endure” until our Spring Break in early March. I thought this was going to be the year I’d have to replace our furnace and water heater, but neither of them got so tested by winter that they broke down. I can put off that expense a little longer, which makes me breathe a little easier, too.

There’s a bright sunshine flooding the cafe windows right now. It seems like a good world, even if the political world is impossible to speak of rationally. There is such fire and smoke coming off of every politician that it’s hard to know who is serious, who’s merely political, who is a fiction, who is a monster. The factions grow more absurd every day. Everyone is electable, I guess, in that every single cracked pot of a politician has his or her constituency, and his or her billionaire willing to back him or her up. Please choose between the Scylla and Charybdis or Gandalf or Xena. The sunlight gives me enough hope to wait, to be patient, to pay attention.

Meanwhile, the poets and novelists and essayists are working hard to address issues, to say things. A few of them get heard, given awards, disappear, are replaced by others. The artists are making statements and “organizing encounters” between Isms, trying to do good work, important work, vital work. Beautiful books are appearing. New installations, paintings, music, words, dances. There is hope. I’ve started lately collecting images on my tumblr account because I get so tired of words being drained of meaning by politicians and commentators on television whose real loyalty is to entertainment. I’ve been spending more and more time trying to sit and not speak, sketch in my iPad, write longhand in my journal. I hope to have something to say soon.







Begin Again

We finished our taxes last night, sent them off to the federal and state authorities, and got emails of acceptance within an hour.  The money’s of course mostly already spoken for–we built up a lot of debt last year we need to pay off or down–but we set some of it aside for little things we’re each doing this year. Unfortunately, the furnace is at last ready to be replaced, and we’ll be back into debt just like that. But we’ll be warm and will likely save something in the long run because of increased efficiency.

January: named for the god who looks simultaneously forward and backward.

What’s ahead? I’m trying to decide. I have a book of autobiographical prose I’m trying to finish–it’s complete but needs revisions to a couple of essays. Creative Nonfiction, the journal, just accepted the last essay of my collection for its Marriage Issue, which makes me very happy. I’m rereading that essay, thinking about what I want to change before it becomes public. I wanted the book manuscript to be done by now, but I’ve had a hard time finding enough time and ruthlessness to do the necessary cuts and rewrites a book deserves. Just when I think I can find some time, there’s a series of new initiatives that I somehow get involved in.

Lately, because we’re hiring a faculty member who might add digital work to our Writing Program, I’ve been looking at the exploding world of digital work. My friend Erin Anderson is my connection to this. You can see/experience some of her beautiful work at her website here.  I’ve already been thinking about some things I’d like to try to create. Erin, who teaches this new form, calls this kind of work digital narrative, and that seems as good a word as any other. She comes at it as someone who studied oral history, who has a phd in composition, and who has taught herself coding. I’ve already written her to ask for some practices a beginner like me might start.

One of the blessings I had when I first began to write was that there were centuries of poets and writers to read, surprise, and challenge me. The possibilities of this new form (is it new multi-media? digital narrative? electronic literature? cinepoetry?) seem at this moment endless. I’m feeling the pull of it, whatever it is. How will I use what I know as a poet with these new programs/platforms/software? You will likely see some of the results of my experiments here, since this blog has felt like it needs a little freshening up, a little more experimentation.

Janus, the god with two heads, the god of the thresholds, archways, beginnings.  I woke up to freezing temperatures and it’s expected to reach the mid 50’s this afternoon.



Are You Ready to Revise: some signs

Going to Staples to buy a lot of unnecessary crap, only to find out you don’t actually want anything but some post-its and a new legal pad.
Listening to classical music station instead of NPR or the Comedy Channel on Sirius because they aren’t serious enough.

Wanting to eat an entire birthday cake. Drinking water instead.

Wearing yesterday’s clothes because they’re close and still clean. No interest in the shower.

Days of aimless driving. Mornings filled with sudoku. Loading and unloading the dishwasher with a feeling akin to pleasure. 

Making a video of that last leaf on the tree spinning in the wintering winds. Posting it on Facebook. Leaving it there to prove something.

Checking your bank account obsessively.

Forgetting the names of common household objects and people you’ve known for years. 

Even the dog turns away from your too tight hugs. He jumps off the couch and joins your husband in the kitchen. 

You think they’re both both growing worried about you.

Some Trouble with Poetry

It’s hard to be in love all the time, I want to say. Remember when you were young, and each poem you found was like a flash bulb going off, a revelation, a new world of permissions? Maybe even poetry gets tired, I want to say. It’s so old now. But what I want to know is what’s wrong with me, I think, that poems don’t have that light right now. I was young, maybe, and didn’t know how hard the world works to erase delight, to stymie joy, to hold onto its stupidities, its angers, its fears. I couldn’t believe that once I knew about these things that the world wouldn’t crack open, because after all, who was I? Maybe this means that I’m tired. Maybe I know too much to feel hopeful now–the extinction of ocean fish by 2048 was the headline this morning’s stab in the heart. The police forces corrupted by seemingly unchecked racism, the political field seemingly corrupted by corporately sponsored inaction, the forces of art largely coopted by fools given money to create foolishness, the forces of nature burnt down to the ground or destroyed by a humanity that can’t control its own growth, the forces of the soul corrupted by loudspeakers and mega-stadiums of greed and fear.

There are amazing writers writing now. Even I would admit that, even in the midst of this current–what? sadness? blankness? inability (like Lana Turner in Frank O’Hara’s famous poem) to get back up? There are great things happening. I hear and read about them. Conversations started and joined and enlivened by new perspectives. And which of the masters I have had–Galeano, Neruda, Rilke, Dickinson, Cavafy, Heaney, Bishop, Rich, Plath, Hughes–gave up on the essential power of the imagination, of the human spirit, to subvert the dominating powers of governments, history, sadness, cruelty, shame? You can do a little good maybe just to admit to your weakness, I want to believe.

I have been using Tumblr as a place to assemble images, some famous, some contemporary art, that struck me. This morning I was looking around and found this quote from artist Richard Tuttle:

“Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental…”

And I’ve been thinking what I could do with my hands again: writing in my journal, drawing on paper with charcoal or painting again, putting together the long wished-for workshop on my third floor. Something to wake myself up again, get me out of my exhausted head. Solely for myself, I tell myself, even though I also suspect I’m fooling myself there, in the same way I fool myself sometimes into writing things for this blog by saying it’s just for me.

Yesterday I had a great conversation with one of my freshmen writers about humility, a topic he was writing about and wrestling with personally. What was an appropriate level of it, he wants to know. What’s the relationship between work and being humble, he’s wondering. He is in college to become a doctor but was struck by some short pieces I had them read and write responses to, including a few poems by my colleague Terrance Hayes. Did I have any room in my Intro to Creative Writing class next term? We sat a long time, talking about nothing afterward, the meal he was going to cook for his family for Thanksgiving (it involved thyme-butter, I remember), the difficulty of scheduling classes, how tired he was of school. The very stuff of a poetry.

Paris, Friday 13, 2015

The danger is getting stuck here.  

The danger is moving too fast away.

The danger is forgetting to breathe

again. To play music. The danger is simplicity,

the either/or, the us or them, the with

or against.  The danger is the blood

on the streets! The danger is inventing

the city of flowers. The danger is

ongoing, hours and hours of resistance

in the forms of patience. After hurt, 

therapy feels like pain. To take a step now

helps against a dangerous rigor later. How

to exercise the first muscles of hope? Bodies count.

Someone you know screams for more death. 

Grief and Gratitude: some notes

We don’t do grief well, my family. Gratitude either. Both of them require a level of vulnerability we don’t trust. Anger is much easier, especially if it’s combined with righteousness. 


I saw this the other day and of course posted it to my FB wall. Four Rituals a Neuroscientist recommends to fight depression basically. The short version is this:

1. Think of what you’re grateful for. 

2. Label your feelings

3. Make “good enough” decisions to act.

4. Touch people and animals
I noticed I had no problems with 2 through 4, but gratitude makes me itchy, uncomfortable. What’s the difference between it and privilege? Would making a list of your privileges be as good for you neuro-chemically as it seems gratitude is? 


“The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …”

All these quotations are from Alex Korb’s The Upward Spiral. I’m trying to feel for the difference between being grateful “toward others” (who have helped one see or grow in some way, I guess) and being grateful for “the things” you own as in

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.”


Why I’m interested in the difference between gratitude and privilege is a good question. There have been enormous crimes committed in the name of privilege of late, masked as a number of things–self-defense, social need, love, adherence to religious dogma. I have been, as I want to think anyone with a heart and mind is, reconsidering many things I’ve likely been taking for granted, namely, what is a privilege I want merely to hold on to because it makes me feel safe, what is something to be grateful for because it opens me up to change? 


Once I would’ve crushed without thinking the small white spider who just showed up at my elbow as I write this in the coffeehouse; spiders make me feel unsafe. But this time I didn’t kill it. I looked at it. It’s beautifully made, a thing I’ve always thought about spiders. I watched it tap and walk around the edge of the table and then disappear underneath. I felt the restless sense I always feel around spiders when they disappear around me. There is no way it can hurt me, I know. I keep writing; I put it in my writing. Am I grateful to it? 


I have a student with a theory–that those people who have to work for the things they have respect them more than people who are so rich they can instantly replace whatever they lose or break. It’s not a terrible theory to hold, but I couldn’t help but point out to him that whenever he describes the things he has worked hard for, he invariably portrays himself as guarding those things, as being obsessed with keeping them safe, as terrified of loss. Think of what an advantage the rich have then, I said. They don’t have to waste energy on preservation. And think about how trapped you can become, spending all your energy to preserve the fruits of your labor, if that fruit is only things. 


Somewhere there’s a story I read in which a beggar and a king both beg the Buddha to teach them. Everyone assumes that this will be a story in which the beggar will show himself, through his suffering, to be the king’s moral superior, but then the Buddha tests them both. He sets the king’s whole kingdom and magnificent robes on fire. Then he sets the beggar’s sole possession, his loincloth, on fire. The king lets it all burn. The beggar screams and runs away. 


Gratitude can be a way not to grieve. Gratitude can be a way to get to grief, which is why my mother poo-pooed it. She hated to feel grief. The avoidance of it was a major part of her life’s work. She told me that once. She called me as I was walking my dog along the river one evening and said, “I just realized what I’ve been doing my whole life is avoiding grief!” She had the sound of a woman suddenly standing in sunlight. I think I said Congratulations!, thinking then that she was pleased to have arrived at such an insight.  “But at seventy-six, what the hell am I supposed to do with knowledge?” she said, clearly at a loss.

Luckily for us, and I wish I could have told her then, writes Alex Kolb, “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.” 
I do remember thinking that that moment of realization did help her later, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and even later, when it was clear her time was limited. She’d long gotten rid of anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary in terms of things, so why not all the old fears and angers too? She was so grateful to have two doting sons at the end. As for grief, she worried more about ours than hers. 

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