Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: January, 2013

The Economics

One thing I’ve always been suspicious of in the journals of writers is the lack of discussion of their economic lives. If there’s one thing that weighs on the minds of my writer-friends, it’s money, the lack of it, the arranging and corralling and spending of it. For me, it is one of the great mysteries in their memoirs, journals, and letters. There’s of course Thoreau’s totalling up his expenditures, but most of us suspect that he had help from other literary types to make ends meet. I remember teaching May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in my Writer’s Journals class, and students, who had no sense of who she was as an fiction writer or poet, kept asking where the money for her elaborately described gardens came from. Why does she never talk about the economics of that solitude? I think they’re right to be suspicious of anyone who can’t talk about that. They’re been raised to be mindful of the ways that wealth is supported by other people’s labor. There’s a fantastic essay by EB White in One Man’s Meat that actually tries to make an accounting of the “Nothing” that Bette Davis in Dark Victory ends up embracing, after losing her socialite life and her sight due to a brain tumor and moving to Vermont. It’s hardly nothing, needless to say. It’s one of the finest movie critiques ever.

Thinking about money was always my mother’s job when I was a kid. She was the one who scrimped and saved, protected and labored over. My father spent it like water–gambled away huge amounts of it, thousands and thousands on horses, lottery tickets, and god knows what else. He died penniless, dependent on the state. In our binary system then, spending money was immoral and saving it was a discipline that built character and spawned inventive solutions to everything. We were not poor, but then those were the days of gas so cheap you could buy gallons with coins.

One of the things I like to tell my students is that when I feel blocked as a writer, the first thing I do is to do an an accounting of my finances. What’s in the bank now? What do I know I have to spend out of that? What will I have left? What can I spend money on that’s outside of the essentials? A new coat? A couple of new sweaters? Once I establish the financial facts of my life, some part of my mind relaxes and lets the other parts of my imagination that aren’t so catastrophic get a word or two in.

For years after grad school, I lived on part-time work–teaching two classes (and luckily getting health care with that!), working at a coffeehouse, at Barnes and Noble, as a temp. I taught in a maximum security prison. I taught at an all-girls school, I taught anywhere I could find a need. For the first five years I lived on less than a thousand dollars a month, thanks to a series of cheap apartments, sometimes with lovers, sometimes alone. I didn’t have a car. I did have a bike. I took the bus when I couldn’t bike. I didn’t eat very well, but it wasn’t terrible as I remember it now. I never went without in any serious way. Once, when I was dead broke, a wealthy friend paid my rent for a month. And I knew if I really was in danger, my mother would find the money to help, although, because at that time she had just divorced my father, left her job as a secretary, and moved to Alabama where her one friend in the world lived, and remade herself as a house cleaner, I didn’t think it was ethical of me to ask too much of her. I had friends I met with in writing groups, so I kept writing. Or rather, we kept ourselves writing. It was who we were, since we weren’t anything else yet. There were many months when I had only a few dollars in my bank account at the end of the month.

I couldn’t do that now. I have a house, which has big costs. About a half of my paycheck goes into mortgage (which I have to remember to write rather than “rent”), gas, electric, water, phone, internet, groceries, and dog food. Thanks to Netflix and the internet, I don’t have cable. Thanks to my cellphone, I don’t have a landline. Then there’s the car payment and gas and parking. That’s a big chunk. This year, because I’ve been travelling quite a bit back and forth to visit my mother who’s been ill, there are credit cards which I have to be careful to watch. She and my brother, who makes good money, have been very generous in covering a lot of the expenses, but there’s still the ancillary ones–kennelling the dog most especially–that have added up.

I still take other jobs to cover these extra expenses–working as a reader for a press, teaching to adult learners, occasionally doing reading gigs. Last year, because of those extra jobs, I actually managed to end the year with zero credit card debt.

I’m also aware that I probably couldn’t do this if I had children. My dog costs enough, thank you. I would rather go without the car than the dog frankly. If I didn’t live in a section of Pittsburgh that is surrounded by hills, there’s a good chance I would get rid of the car. Next year, in fact, I’m going to experiment on a schedule that will allow me to use the bus more. It won’t lessen the car payment, but it will definitely lessen the parking and gas costs.

I’m still working out the economics of the new full-time life I have. I’m always aware I could be fired at any time, which keeps me from overspending generally. But then along comes a big need–my house had to have new fascia and some problems had to be fixed–and there goes my savings and I’m right back at being one catastrophe away from a selling the house.

I like to remind my mother that she told me that I would be locked up if I ever bounced a check. That kept me careful for a long time. When I did finally bounce one, I was almost happy to pay the extra fees rather than go to prison.

On the other hand, she gave me a great gift: anxiety about money doesn’t really impinge on my writing time that much. I know other friends who have enormous loans that never leave them alone. I’m not sure I’d be able to write in that case, but they do. I hope that a new relationship between creativity and money/debt might come out of their work. I remember when I was an undergraduate that only rich writers seemed to have made it–doctors like Williams or trust fund kids like Lowell or Bishop or Merrill or celibates like Marianne Moore or ones who sucked up (to my mind then) to rich patrons like HD or Pound. Now the idea is that you get a university job I suppose. I wonder how the new generation will reimagine the possible economics between art and basic needs. I hope they publish it, so we all might learn something.


The Art of the Dead

When I heard that yet another person has declared poetry dead, I was frankly relieved. Yes, I thought, just leave me here for dead, please. Go off into your world that has to be upgraded every year, that believes in endless linear progression, in endless smiling, in “positivity” (a word I hate about as much as I hate any word), in endless consumption, in endless trending tweets. Go away, kid, you bother me, in other words. I’m old enough now to have survived a dozen apocalypses (apocalypae?) and at least as many “Death of Poetry” essays and pronouncements.

And yet poetry doesn’t die. Neither does painting or dancing or any other art that the body and mind need to do.

I think what people mean when they pronounce poetry as dead is that it’s “dead” to them, to that particular commentator. Usually these commentators are badly read (as the most recent one seems to be) and so if the one poem they hear issuing from a living poet doesn’t map exactly onto the last time they read a poem (usually 10th or 11th grade, the poem from a late Victorian or Robert Frost), then that commentator says, “Well, that’s not a poem!” Very quickly after that comes the hopeful pronouncement, Poetry is Dead! and all the munchkins break into dancing and singing as a pair of green legs curl up under the porch like salt-sprinkled slugs.

It’s sad that more people don’t have access to the fantastic work being written now, the breathtakingly weird and funny and wild and deeply serious work that’s been written since the Kaiser lost The War. Part of the blame, to my mind, has to do with textbooks publishers’ desire to make affordable textbooks and so turning to works of literature that are in the public domain. There are enormous issues around copyright and the cost of using the work of living writers. Another issue is that many teachers, even English teachers in high schools, are still afraid enough of poetry’s complexities to not want to deal with anything other than approved poems. I’ve been lucky personally to work with and talk to middle school and high school teachers through the Western Pennsylvania Writing Program, so I know that efforts to bridge the gaps can yield great results, but I also know, from the freshmen at the University of Pittsburgh, that most of the students still think poetry has to rhyme, has to be about nature or love or death, OR that it absolutely cannot rhyme and has to be about whatever thoughts happen to wander through your head.

Of course Poetry is both and neither and is always being revived, murdered (sometimes for very good reasons), celebrated, kicked in the ass, discussed, reviled, just like any other living, changing practice. The same is true for painting or theater or politics, isn’t it?

I don’t remember which one of my friends or colleagues said, during one of the earlier pronouncements about poetry’s death, that he thought it would be great if poetry were dead, because then children would be interested in it more, the way they’re interested in dinosaurs and mummies and myths and fairy tales, but I agree. And not in any Death of the Author kind of way. Let poetry be outside the current trending topics. Maybe at the next inauguration, there should be simply a sign held up in the place between two beautiful but merely symbolic performances of our national anthem by celebrity singers:

Here is where a poet used to stand to speak; please fill in this silence yourself.

A new generation of poets might be invented that day.

And then there was silence

After that last post, in which I thanked everyone, there was a silence. I didn’t know what to write; I didn’t even know how to follow up all that public appreciation. Sometimes trying to be good, to say the right thing, gets in the way of writing. I tell my students that all the time. Not that it’s not important to name and thank. But once you’ve done the right thing, it can be hard to do the next thing, if that next thing requires you to try something new, bumble around, make mistakes, fall flat, say something stupid. It’s also true that, at least for me, part of the difficulty with being publicly grateful is that one’s gratitude sounds suspiciously like self-aggrandizement. You can take your humility so far it becomes something else; you end up advertising your own goodness. Even if you don’t mean to, you can come to admire yourself in shadowy ways that block the ability of an artist to remain open, available to the kinds of consciousness that a poem might need. Even the mean-spirited consciousness that is unafraid to kick a perfect sonnet to death in order to extract the true two or three lines. That even likes to do it. That delights in destruction as a way to test the moral worth of a line.

After my first chapbook was published, I fell into a deep silence. Here was this thing in my hands, this thing that I’d dreamed about having, and my heart felt hollow, empty. A month or two later, I developed a pain in my lower back that didn’t go away for months. I walked around like a question mark. I saw a chiropractor who was sympathetic but convinced me that my spine was decaying. I saw her mostly because she let me cry in her office, even hugged me. Finally I decided to seek a therapist, and after interviewing a few crazies, found one. At the same time, I started reading some self-help books, especially Sarno’s Overcoming Back Pain and Bernie Seigel’s Love, Medicine and Miracles. Between those three sources, I started to imagine that maybe there was something deeper at work, something beyond the strictly biological. Sarno said: keep working. Siegel said: learn to play–draw your pain, write out your anger, get in touch with it. Paul, the therapist, kept making me angry with his seemingly simple questions about my family, my career, how much money I was making. One day, I remember I sat down against a wall in my apartment and wrote down every single thing that pissed me off in my life–from big issues to the teeny, tiniest sparks of irritation. If it was possible that part of me was using my back pain to cover other things I didn’t want to or didn’t think I could bear to feel, then I was going to plumb the possibility. I wrote for pages and pages, in big ugly, angry handwriting. For hours it felt. Then I said to myself, is that what I’ve been afraid of saying? and I stood up straight, without any pain at all. Astounded and immediately pissed off. Beautifully pissed off.

This life brought to you by the kindness of

Francia Roe. Judith Kitchen. Joan Baranow. Liz Rosenberg. Milt Kessler. Galway Kinnell. Jack Vernon. Andy Tang. Heidi Rosenberg. Ellen Whittier. Deb Oestreicher. Peter Temes. Sam Truitt. Judas Mary Ellen Riley. Patrick Mansfield. Patricia Goedicke. Mark Medvetz. Gennie Nord. Lee Friedrich. Todd Frederickson. Paul Zarsisky. Lynn Emanuel. Ed Ochester. Maggie Anderson. Pat Dobler. Deb Pursifull. Geeta Kothari. Jan Beatty. Beth Newborg. Pat Harrington-Wysor. Jen Matesa. Phil Orr. Paul Allison. Kit Ayars. Jim Zukowski. Barbara McCarthy. Donna Dunbar-Odom. Toi Derricotte. Sharon McDermott. Barbara Edelman. Liz Ahl. Rob Casper. Brandon Som. Stacey Waite. Ellen Smith. Ed Steck. Paul Seigell. Jan Freeman. Judy Vollmer. Carl Phillips. Ron Mohring. Jeff Wisniewski. Paul Lyons. Noah Stetzer. Tony Hoagland. Deb Bogen. Jenny Johnson. Michael Montlack.

There are others, of course. This is a short list of the most important people, those who have taught me, pushed me, encouraged me, and challenged me these three decades I’ve been trying to be and remain a writer. Whose kindness has been vital. There have also been thousands of students, scores of graduate students, dozens of editors and fellow poets, all of whom have been important in some way or another.

Some part of this blog will be about remembering, so I thought it would be nice to name names.

Once a week, I’m going to use part of this blog to write about poets and writers whose work I love. I’m already making that list for another post.

Morning Work

This morning I was up at 4 am after a very complicated night of dreams. The last one involved my catching a kite I was flying over the neighborhood on one of my neighbor’s TV antennas. I was running over all of our roofs, the kite flying behind me. Once I realized it was caught, I tried over and over to pull it free, but only ended up wrenching the antenna out of shape. I knew I had to go back finally to just untangle it, and of course, in the cruel language of dreams, when I got back to where I thought it was, I found that the tangled kite was further separated from me by the street below. Then I realized I could simply become a bird, fly over, turn back into myself, and untangle it. That’s when I woke up.

Since the insomnia hit about a year ago, I’ve used this morning time to write a daily poem. I’ve been playing with a little, less well-known form called the triolet, so I wrote another one of those. It’s a compact form with a number of repeating lines–one of the reasons I like it is that once I get the first two lines, I’ve actually got about half the poem already written. Today’s went like this:

Triolet 3

All those little songs you sing to yourself,
what happens to them at the end of the day?
When you’re stirring the soup or dusting a shelf?
All those little songs you sing to yourself,
half remembered, half invented, to keep away
this or that urge, whatever dangerous elf
would let it all burn, would watch it decay;
all those little songs you sing to yourself,
what happens to them at the end of the day?

I post it here because I’m pretty sure no editor’s going to take that one.

Triolets are not big on depth unless you get the implication right. I hate, for example, that I felt forced to use the word “elf” which carries so much cartooniness, but once I decided on “yourself” I was stuck with shelf, Ralph, and maybe pelf as possible rhymings. But the point isn’t to make a good poem, it’s to draft a poem, which you can then later go back to and rip apart, rewrite, and revise as necessary. Most of the poems never appear again once I’ve written them out.

Then, I realized I still hadn’t seen the second episode of Downton Abbey,Season 3. I watched that, cursed Matthew for his stupid pride, felt a little sorry for silly Edith, and was happy for Mrs. Hughes.

By seven, I finally got up, washed, dressed, and hitched Andy to his leash, or leashed myself to Andy, and out we went. I like the quiet of morning walks. Almost no one else is out, so we get to see Pittsburgh more architecturally I suppose I might say. This morning the colors were particularly Andrew Wyeth-ish: rust, steel, copper, blacks, whites, frozen ground browns, river blue-grays. I’ll post a few pictures below. When I got my iPhone years ago now, I fell in love with taking photos with it. I got on Facebook at about the same time, and I decided I’d try to take a photo of something interesting every day and post it, thinking it would help me remember things I wanted to write about. It actually made me more aware of the world around me. According to iPhoto I have about 2000 photos now, including some drawings I’ve done with the Brushes application and more lately the Paint app. Morning walks began to fill up with images, digital paintings, and status updates, some of which turned into poems. And I get some exercise at the same time, which I badly need.

I need in fact to lose about ten pounds. I know how to do it–cut portions, drink more water, exercise more–but it’s always harder to do in the winter, when I just want to do as little as possible. Honestly, the first of January is a terrible time to think about losing weight! We should only resolve to get more sleep or to be less social, things that we’re perhaps more naturally inclined to agree to. It’s easier to give up potatoes and bread and sugar and caffeine and alcohol and desserts when there are fresher vegetables everywhere to replace them.

The morning in other words, is all about drafts, about getting out into it: language, the world, the body. It doesn’t have to be great or even good, I remind myself over and over and over. If you’ve trained the dog well, he’ll pull you along until you can keep up.

The Black Dog’s Triolet

The Black Dog knows I will never catch him.
He also knows without me there’s less pleasure.
The stick won’t be flung. No one will scratch him.
The Black Dog knows I will never catch him
once he starts running, an inhuman measure
taking over, making him wild. Can I match him?
The Black Dog knows I will never catch him.
Still, I call his name. It’s another pleasure.




It’s Taken Me

It’s taken me until this week to get some sense of my spring schedule. One thing I love about my job is that it’s hardly ever the same schedule term by term. Some terms I teach five days a week, some three days a week. Next fall it will be a two day a week schedule. It takes some time at the beginning of every term, though, to get used to the new timing of parking or taking the bus, preparing for class, commenting on papers, holding office hours, scheduling administrative meetings, and finding time to write, clean the house, do laundry, read, play with the dog, and all the other personal stuff. It really just takes patience. Since I’ve decided writing comes first, my house usually falls into a state of mild déshabillé I usually don’t notice until the dog hair in the corners takes on tarantulan dimensions. That usually takes a week. Sometimes two.

Then out comes the Dyson, the lemon-scented Pledge wipes, the Windex, and Arm and Hammer Detergent.

I always think of cleaning the house as a boring chore, as something someone else is supposed to do, because my mother always did it when I was growing up, but like most of the things in my life, once I begin, I find I like it. Still, I always find it a little disheartening at the end of cleaning to think that from here on, the level of dirt can only get worse; part of me will always like better living a little shabbily but with hope for a cleaner future than living always on alert for a falling away of order. Consider yourself warned, in other words, if you come by unannounced.

So my schedule this term looks something like this:

4-6 Write (thanks Insomnia!)
7-9 The dog and I walk in the park
10–12:30 I work on papers in the cafe.
1-2 Office hours or administrative stuff
2-3 Prep for class
4-6 Teach
6-7 Dog again, this time along the river
7-9 Dinner/TV/Read

The real challenge this term has been with parking around the Cathedral. In yet another cackhanded move, the City Council decided last year to abruptly change the cost of public parking from 50 cents an hour, which (in all fairness) it was for decades, to $2 an hour this year. What used to cost $4 to park for eight hours now costs $16. The argument seems to generally be that it’s a move to keep idiots from parking and drinking too long at various establishments on the Southside and other places, thereby keeping the flow of customers in motion I guess and quietly moving people out of restaurants before they can get so drunk they piss on residents’ stoops, a well-known problem on the Southside. I still don’t understand why that argument holds around the various college campuses, where students (who are not wealthy) have to park. One of these days I’ll unleash the full rant on the city’s war on students, but not now. I bring all this up now merely to say that the new cost of parking has caused me trouble too.

Today I think I cracked the system. The sad thing is I don’t want to divulge my parking routine for fear others will adopt it. I spend my whole adult life trying to become a more open, warm, confident person, and then when it comes to this one thing, this one really insignificant thing, my inner Scrooge appears. Or maybe my inner Drama Queen or inner Sitcom writer is just saving something for another post. Roll credits. Cue theme music.

Being Stuck

So here’s a list of the things I should be doing (or should have done by now, mid-afternoon): comment on student papers, write a new poem for The Grind, clean the house, finish a book I’ll be discussing with my students on Wednesday, sending out my new poetry manuscript to at least two contests, and doing laundry.

What I did do this morning was get up and walk the dog with two friends, came home, gave the dog a bath because he rolled in some shit and smelled like same, made some breakfast (ham, an apple, three doughnuts and milk), sat down on the couch for what I swear was just a minute and fell asleep for about two hours. Woke up groggy at about 1 pm, played Angry Birds for about another hour, then guiltily got up, drank a big glass of water, wrote out checks for four bills, put stamps on them, then sat down at the computer and started to write this.

So I’ve done things, but I haven’t really done anything of much use as of yet. It actually makes me feel like I haven’t washed when I don’t write. And I know that I’ll feel terrible tomorrow if I don’t get those papers commented on today. But I want to write a new poem first. Poetry and writing is the central focus around which I want my life to revolve, so I feel as if I ought to write the new poem first.

But that means I have to sit and wait. Either until I remember something I wanted to write a poem about or until I give myself a kind of writing exercise to get myself out of myself where I can begin to play and invent something to write about.

When I’m stuck like this, I usually prioritize my deadline:

The poem-draft must be done by midnight
I only have to read about half more of the book, which I can do tonight and tomorrow night
The manuscripts have a deadline of the end of the month

The house and laundry are another matter. House and Laundry need to be broken down–partialized, to use Carol Bly’s useful word–into smaller concerns. Clean the house implies I have to clean everything, when what I really mean is I need to clean the bathroom and clear up clutter around the house. Laundry implies loads of clothes, when in fact it’s really only two loads, which I could be doing while I’m sitting here writing…

Excuse me for a minute…

Okay, now the laundry is begun. And in fact, there was only one load that needed to be done. And once that happened, once I began to do something, I suddenly decided I could make myself a cup of tea and while I was out in the kitchen, decided I should tie up the garbage and take it out to the garbage bin. While out there, I realized it was getting colder out, so, after replacing the garbage bag in the can, I shut all the windows again. One thing after another, in other words.

Now that I have my cup of tea–English Breakfast–I think: so, send out your manuscript now. It might not be done (I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that there are a couple of poems I find in an old journal that might make it even better) but those poems, if they exist and aren’t another example of my mind trying to keep me from failing, are not going to be ready in time for this deadline, so why not just send the manuscript out? And yet, I’m not moving on that one like I did on the laundry.

And it’s okay if I sit on the manuscript another day. Today’s not the deadline. I can take another look at it.

Besides, I’ve now written this blog post, which means that I have written something, done something that is central to my sense of worth. I actually feel a little bit better, which will later make writing a poem easier.

As for commenting on student work, that I just have to do. I need to just take a couple of hours and run through them. I don’t have to fix them, just comment on them and give them a grade that they can then revise for a better grade if they want to.

One of the things I didn’t realize about adulthood was how much of it was about this kind of work, this kind of moving yourself forward, slowly and deliberately, day by day. It does work, although that was a hard thing to believe in my twenties, because it takes some time–decades sometimes!–before you see the fruits of all that daily labor. But, I remind myself from time to time, I live in a house paid for by poetry, by writing, work and patience.


My mother says that waking up in the middle of the night is normal “after a certain age,” and that she suffers from it too. My immediate sense is that it’s probably a mixture of certain biological changes coupled with a few psychological ones (many more things on my mind these days!) coupled with the fact that my bedroom faces the street where at 2/2:30 am drunks often stumble out into their cars, talking too loudly, selfishly, getting into arguments with other drunks. I have recently gotten a humidifier whose white noise seems to have helped; plus, it’s winter and the number of drunks out late has shrunk.

The way I handled this waking up and not being able to sleep was to write during it. I figured: Why not use it if I’m going to be forced to endure it? All of last year, in which my mother’s health declined, my sense of mortality reawakened, my dog and I bonded, and I tried to learn to love the little whats of the world, I mostly wrote between two am and four am. I learned to lean into the silences, the drunks, the strange noises (there’s one right now going on, something that sounded like the street cleaner going through the nearby intersection, although why at 4am that should happen is beyond me).

It is a little like being caught in a closet in a living room of a house of strangers. I listen to noises and try to intuit or imagine the party going on, the relationships happening simply by the sounds. I’m used to that, since I was always the littlest person in the family for a long time. I was the one who hid under the table, who eavesdropped while sitting on the stairs: which is where I found out Santa was really my parents, as well as where I listened to my parents fight when my father came home drunk at 2 am, when the American Legion closed.

Two am is a very rich time, in other words, for me. Full of drama, fear, curiosity, and excitement. If I write something–and I have already written today’s draft of a poem and now this entry–then I feel I can get up, use the bathroom, throw on yesterday’s clothes, and walk the dog around the corner so he can pee. There, in a little patch of grass he likes in an alley nearby, in a little shadow-space between houses, I get to look up at the stars, which appear mysterious and wild, now that the whole city is quiet around me.

I don’t even know half their names. Horse-star, The Wanderer, Old Love, Red Father, Bright Mother, Thirst, Hunger, The Big Cup, The Little Cup, the Cursor.

Setting up a blog

In the course of setting up this website, I went back and tried to find other work of mine that is online, that I might link to, and I discovered quite a bit. I was especially glad to read a week’s worth of guest blogs I wrote for the Best American Poetry site in December of 2010.  I think they still hold up, which is a great thing to see.  I remember the pressure I felt to be good, to be literary in the best sense of that word, and to be humane.  Stacey Harwood and David Lehman couldn’t have been nicer, and in no way did they put pressure on me, but I felt I ought to, considering the company of great poets and poetry that that site is in the service of, rise to the occasion.

I don’t necessarily feel that here, in my own blog, where no one is likely to read what I write.  Here I’m just one small fish in an enormous ocean of text, links, and media.  On the BAP site, I was still a small fish, but I felt I was being watched.  I would be held to be accountable for any bad writing.

Holding myself accountable to myself is hard for me.  I’ve come to understand over the years of dogged practice that I write better when I feel accountable to someone else, an editor, a judge.  I push myself harder if I know another set of eyes will see what I write.  It helps to have an audience.

Audience, accountability: maybe I can work on those two words for a while.

It’s probably not unrelated to why I have a dog, why I feel I need to have a dog.

Noah Stetzer

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