Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Some notes on image-making

Sunflower Sonnet, 43 x 16, mixed media on gessoed paper and cardboard.

This painting started as a rather simple image of sunflowers.

The original painting.

I didn’t mind it but something about it felt not enough. It haunted me for about a year. But I couldn’t figure out what was missing. The pandemic swirled around us and other things and priorities rose and fell but I kept the sunflowers in a corner where I’d look at it now and again. Then I started thinking in sonnets again, just lately–as a way to mark space off in 14 lines/stripes, five strong marks per line or stripe.

Suddenly one night this past week I started marking off the stripes with masking tape, painted over everything, and confined myself to greens and yellow/golds, and later a bit of white.

Yesterday, as I was avoiding grading poems, I sat down with it and pulled off the tape, and this new version, much more abstract appeared. It felt right to follow this version of sunflower-ness rather than the other more representational one. It’s heavily textured now with so much paint and collages paper nearly everywhere. This one feels more complicated, has more energy in it, and may not be completely finished but feels nearly there.

Revised image. Done?


How I Managed

Today in the shower I reminded myself that somehow I managed to take the trains from London to Amsterdam then on to Paris then to Rome and then all the way back to London, when I was 21, in 1986, speaking nothing but English, with a backpack and some cash in my wallet.

So worrying about whether I will have to move my car and lose the parking spot in front of my house in the small American city where I live now ought not to cause me such anxiety.

How Do I Become Confident in My Writing?

‪A friend asked this question on her Facebook page and I thought I’d write something for the blog, since it’s been a while since I posted anything and I’d like to get back to it.

I get this question all the time!!!

Here are the answers:

1. “You don’t” (traditional but dispiriting)

2. “When you read more and learn the various ways writing may be approached and shaped” (traditional but challenging)

3. “When you do enough physical writing to make enough mistakes which you’re emotionally and psychologically able to reimagine as surprises/breakthroughs/alternatives that you’re never sure what’s going to happen next but your familiarity with the process allows you to trust that it will likely happen enough times to keep you writing. (Long but more true).

Notes in June

I write poetry to soften my own heart and/or to keep it from hardening into too much silence.

I think often of Bill Traylor’s Yellow Chicken as an image of what the deep core of art is for me: an announcement of surprise, a little dreamlike, bright and exuberant even despite the odds against joy.

Process Notes: on Ideas

I have a student who is very smart and studies the way the brain works and has asked me very pointed questions about process. Because we’re online, I’ve been writing her quite lengthy emails about how MY brain works when I sit down to write a poem. It’s been very interesting to write it down for someone else. Usually this kind of discussion happens in office hours, so normally for me this talk of process is spoken, which means it disappears after the student gets up and leaves.

This past week, she asked me about the role of “ideas”, which is a curious word, I think. Many students talk about having ideas when they sit down to write. Generally they say, they have trouble writing until they have “an idea” what they want to say. It is a way to begin, certainly, but over the years I’ve seen how having an idea before you write can limit the kind of exploration you might engage in. Almost always, an “idea” means “a thing I already think is true” —like “love is a painless joining of two people that makes all other problems meaningless” or “if I just work hard enough, all my anxiety about the past will disappear” or “my mother is a monster”. Then they go on to write a poem that proves that’s true in some way.

But what’s lost most often is exploration. How, if a poem is just about proving an idea is “true”, does anything new or surprising happen in poetry (or in one’s own imagination)?

The more I teach, the more I’ve become interested in the terms idea, meaning, and sense, and how they differ and overlap in poems and the process of making art. Anyway, that’s a long introduction to this email I sent my student and which I post as a way to help me thinking some of these things out.

Dear R,

So, when you say you think about “the ideas”, what does that mean for you? When you say you have a mental image, do you mean an image comes to you or you’re struck by an image as you walk by it? Because either way is a certainly normal way to begin writing.

But then you say you “build an idea around that”, and I’m curious about what that means.

If you see, let’s say, a pigeon on your window sill, and you write

I see a pigeon on my window sill

what kind of idea do you build off of that? I’m asking because the word “idea” feels too clinical to me, although you might not be using that way. If you mean you want the pigeon to immediately stand for something else–be a metaphor for something else

I see a pigeon on my window sill

and I think about my own lonely soul

That is a way to proceed. Is that what you mean by an idea–that you start to build a meaning around it? You take a thing outside yourself and immediately use it to say something about you or to stand for a idea about yourself that you have.

Because the thing I’d suggest trying when you find that image like the pigeon is you explore it as a literal thing first

I see a pigeon on my window sill,

gray and fat with a touch of black

on its wingtips, its beak a fierce yellow,

his eyes watching the street.

Do you see what I mean? Now, once you get that image to be full, to feel like a thing that you’re actually seeing, you can go in and notice that there are also some nice sounds from fat and black–the short a sound. Maybe you like that sound, so you keep it in the back of your mind, and maybe even make a list of other short a sounding words in the margin.

But in all of this, I’m not really creating a meaning yet. The pigeon is just a bird I’m watching, something literal I’m paying attention to. I haven’t tried to impose a meaning on it–that it’s like my soul or anything like that. I want to just watch it as a literal thing and maybe stop every so often and notice if a group of sounds are happening around it. I notice the long ee sounds of beak and fierce and street as well in the second example. I don’t know what I’ll do with that but I just notice.

Now, I “might” have an idea that I’m also thinking about–let’s say your idea about how emotion and conflict can have a genetic/generational aspect, how trauma can be passed down.

And there might appear as I’m writing about the pigeon some opening or moment when I think about what this pigeon knows about the world at birth and what he or she might have to learn, and maybe even what it might know that looks like instinct or handed-down knowledge. Maybe I’ll suddenly wonder how to tell what’s genetically encoded knowledge and what is something that is present in the external world that has never gone away and so every generation has to experience and deal with it. Now I have a question rather than an idea. But I don’t try to answer that immediately either.

I’ll never know that in a pigeon, unless there is research that deals with it, so I might ask a question about its instincts, its view of the world, the origins of its skittishness, of the long history of pigeon-nervousness, and then go back to just describing it to attend to it again as a literal creature with its own mind.

And then do that back and forth.  Maybe I’ll wonder even why I’m wondering about a pigeon’s history and think about my own and why I’m asking that question about inherited emotions.  Maybe that might lead me to think about my own family and what we’ve inherited and how when something difficult to process happens, we tend to go off alone, like this pigeon has.

Do you see what I mean?  It’s a kind of wandering around, trying to stay close to the original image but allowing yourself to ramble a little in the draft of the poem, just to feel out a number of things. The writing can get “fluffy”, in fact, but in the original draft it doesn’t really matter.  You put down everything and edit later.   It can in fact be later, when you find some fluff, some silliness, you can ask yourself:  why did I write this fluffy stuff?  Often fluff appears when you don’t’ know what to say–in the uncomfortable moment of having nothing, our minds often turn to cliches and silliness.  So finding silliness or cliches can in fact help you know where you need to dig in more–you might be distracting yourself from a very uncomfortable fact that you don’t want to say out loud. That happens all the time.  

This is another long email but I think what I’m saying in a practical sense is this: in the beginning stage, when you’re composing, you put everything down. Don’t edit yourself too much, just kind of follow your brain and what language comes to you even if it’s silly. Don’t get too attached to anything, especially some idea that the poem has to say something about an idea. In the second stage, that’s when you read things over and begin to separate out what’s interesting to you and what’s not. What’s a surprising thing that came up in the draft? That’s the stage when the poem can begin to come together. In third stage, which is often a multi-stage, you really begin to notice the sound, the shape of the lines, the line breaks, and all the smaller things.

If you already know what you want to do–say, you see a pigeon and you think How can I use this pigeon to get across an idea I have–you’re already at a disadvantage as a writer because you’re only using your subject to make a point you already know is true. And then you are not discovering anything. Does that make sense?  


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.

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