Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

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.

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 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.


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).

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