Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: February, 2013

Poets I’m Reading This Month, Part 2

The second book I wanted to talk about briefly is (another friend of mine) CM Burrough’s book The Vital System. In certain ways, as I said in the last post, it’s tonally and structurally different from Stacey’s book. In other ways there are connections: both books are “about” the problem of the body; both books are full of transformations; and both books are rich.

Here’s the first poem in Christina’s book, called Dear Incubator,.

These poems take place in interior spaces, in intimate spaces, in the folds of the body, between bodies. It’s much more concerned with silences, with absent and sensual bodies. It’s a poetry of metaphor. One of the sentences I wrote about it when I was first starting to read was this one: “There’s a kind of quiet between the body and the mind that the voice tries to explore”. It is deeply self-reflective, self-interrogating.

Whereas Stacey’s poems take place more often in public spaces and out loud, CM’s take space in whispers almost, in fits and starts, fragments, scraps, and as interior monologues. These poems are all about touch, taste, the inner spaces of vaginas and throats. The fingertips and the mouth appear and reappear, testing, tasting. If Stacey’s poems are nearly stand-up routines, with their own particular humor and painful revelation, CM’s take place off-stage, in spaces that are simultaneously blank and full of potential flood, change.

I should say it’s taken me a longer time to feel like I was ready to really read The Vital System. I had to be quiet enough to listen to it, it feels like it’s made of such delicate stuff. With all the work, teaching and administrative, that I’ve been doing lately, I haven’t felt like I had enough quiet in my body to do it justice.

It’s also a book that I think needs to be read as a book, as a series of correspondences between mother, daughter, lover, self, sister, and culture. Stacey’s book I think might have an advantage with many readers here in that it can be read in pieces more easily, even though it too is deeply about the body.

And saying that one of these books might “have an advantage with many readers” there reminds me of something that occurred to me in the shower today:

It’s not that poetry is dead. It’s that it’s vitally alive. It’s enormous and huge. It has ten thousand heads, ten thousand voices. It’s so vitally alive in fact that anyone raised on the poetry that came before the Modernists (which is most of the people who graduate high school, I’m guessing, and then who don’t have to take anything like a creative writing class in college) wouldn’t recognize much of what is happening in poetry as poetry. You can always tell those people by their objection that “it” doesn’t “rhyme” or “scan,” as if those things were the sole determinant of a poem, a notion that’s been done away with by at least a century of poetic practice. But poetry has been enlivened by so many other arts that it’s old relationship with song is now only one of its forms (and one that I still love, by the way). But poem as spell, poem as stand-up routine, poem as collage, poem as sculpture, poem as protest, poem as letter, poem as story/narrative, and on and on and on, those other kinds of poems often get dismissed as not “real” poems. I’ve done it myself until I make enough space in my life to be quiet, be receptive, take some time. I don’t want that to sound too condescending of those people who say they don’t think X’s poems aren’t “real” poems, as if they’re just overworked folks who deserve pity, because I do have poets I love and poets I don’t love, even poets I have strong feelings against. I have nothing against making personal lists. I just don’t love the public lists, the proclamations by people who haven’t read a poem in years that the art is over, finished. From my point of view, that is a ridiculous assertion. There is so much incredible work going on I won’t plumb the depths of in my lifetime. I love that there is work that might strike me in different ways, that the current proliferation of aesthetic possibilities is enormous. Although next week, when I arrive at the annual Associated Writing Programs’ conference in Boston, when I walk into its Bookfair where a thousand literary presses and journals will be displaying new books, new issues, new broadsides, new websites full of new writing, I will have to catch my breath for a second against the sheer dizziness of it all, before I again dive in.


Poets I’m Reading This Month

Last year I had a great idea (I thought). Every month for a year, I would choose a poet I loved or wanted to love more, read everything I could–poetry and prose, letters if possible, maybe even a couple of critical essays on the poet. I did this because I questioned how much I actually knew about some of my favorite poets and how much I’d made up or just assumed. I know that I have a habit of inhabiting the writing I most love, repeating it to myself, writing out sections of it, using quotations in classes, so that that work comes to seem like something I wrote. The danger is that sometimes what is true about a work in a historical sense often gets lost in what I want to be true about it.

On that list were some poets I also never felt like I knew enough about, like Celan, whose poems I have sometimes loved and sometimes struggled with. Like Ashbery. If I remember right, the list was about half poets I wanted to know better and poets I already loved, like Theodore Roethke, Transtromer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden. I think I might have even dared to dream about it as a book project, a “creative reading” project like Maureen McLane’s My Poets which I’d read pieces of and been intrigued by.

I started with Transtromer. Three months later, I was still on Transtromer. I read his poems over and over every night, every spare minute. I wrote poems in response to his poems. I got obsessed. I fell in love with the poems. I think it surprised me how much I loved them, maybe even that I could fall so hard in love with a poet, with poems again. I had thought I’d crossed some line between my former amateur self and my newish professional self, a professional line that required me to give up things like falling in love with anybody’s poems, that considered all writing now as “work,” as texts to be studied, lectured about, and/or assigned. A year later, I still haven’t really moved on to Celan as I intended. I’ve flirted with a few poems, opening a selected poems of his at random, but there’s no fire yet.

I’m hopeful, but as a serial monogamist, I think I’m going to have to start by just going out and reading in smaller doses than the enormous bodies of work I chose in my list. Luckily, a couple of friends’ books have come out recently, and I thought I’d spend some time reading them.

It’s weird in some ways for me to read my friends’ books when they come out. In some ways, there’s a similar problem involved in reading a “great” poet like Neruda, who comes with all sorts of expectations that can get in the way of reading the poems, as there is with reading a published friend. How much of the work is remembered from local readings, from private conversations, from being “on the inside” as it were; it’s hard to get to the poems in a fresh way, to read them without the wash of personal affection blurring everything. For a while, I couldn’t even open the two books because I almost didn’t feel I needed to.

But then this weekend, I had some spare time and wanted to use it reading a few books of the contemporary poetry I’ve bought in the last few months. My two friends were at the top of the list.

They’re very different poets, but similar is some ways too, not only because they’re both published by Tupelo Press. Stacey Waite, in her book Butch Geography, takes as her subject the difficulty of being between categories, of having always been between categories. She’s a narrative poet, mostly, and there are big-hearted titles like “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken For a Boy By an Umpire at the Little League Conference Championship,” which you can read an earlier version of

I think more is being made of it as a book about a serious subject (its category on the back is “poetry/gender studies”) which is of course good, since gender studies is still a subject of derision in some parts of the culture, and Stacey’s book gives example after example of why it’s necessary. But there’s not perhaps enough on the back about how much fun there is in the book too, how delicious a life that can slip between assumptions can be, how much creativity is required, how juicy the stories. The empathy is deep. There’s a great poem called “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken For a Man by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport” in which the narrator is subjected to a pat down by a TSA official who suddenly realizes who he’s got his hands on:

“But when I hold my arms straight out
and he traces the outlines of my underarms, he makes
that face, the face I’ve seen before,
the “holy-shit-it’s-a-woman” face,
the “pretend-you-don’t-notice-the-tits” face.”

and then a little later:

“Jimmy stares hard at the metal detector
with a kind of respect, like the arc of it became holy,
transformed me on my walk through.”

It is a book about empathy in many ways, for the self, for the family, for the ones who’ve made mistakes, for the ones who act as if nothing has happened at all. It’s full of complications. In many ways it’s about the complications of identity, a subject anyone can understand, even if they haven’t had a life full of these occasions and so had to think deeply about them. Since my new chapbook is similarly about the issue of mistakes, I’m particularly loving Stacey’s book. Maybe it’s time to admit mistakes as a culture even. The inability to do so might be our greatest threat right now.

The second book I wanted to write a bit about is CM Burroughs’ The Vital System. But I’ve run out of time this afternoon, so I’m going to devote my next post to that book.

The Next Big Thing

I’m up this week for The Next Big Thing, thanks to CM Burroughs. I’m writing about my chapbook coming out this year from the fantastic Seven Kitchens Press, run by Ron Mohring. So here goes:

What is the working title of the book?

Mistakes with Strangers

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The title poem came from reading too many memoirs in which the protagonist (I can hardly use the word Author here because the I seemed so constructed) is such a loser that the book becomes a kind of boast about how great a loser he or she is. I began to write a list of bad adventures I had, which quickly intertwined with fantastic adventures I could have had, much like that game we used to play in some classes where you’d tell three truths about yourself and one lie and everyone had to figure out the lie. At some point about two years ago, I realized I had a group of poems that all revolved around the idea of mistakes.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry. There are some prose poems as well.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I think a number of actors could take turns–Judi Dench because she’s said to never turn down an offer, Tom Hanks because at some point in my life people kept telling me I looked like him (I never saw it), Donny Osmond, and an uncredited actor whose face we never see but who is accompanied by a small quiet pack of black dogs.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Mistakes are humiliating, but humiliation might be, if Wayne Koestenbaum is right, where everything begins.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
4 years maybe?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Well, Augusten Burrough’s memoir’s title Running with Scissors gave me the start. But at a very deep level, this all started in about 1995 or 6, when my father’s second wife blurted out that I was a “mistake.” It hit me like a shovel, changing the earth under my feet and simultaneously clearing up a set of questions I think I’d been hiding from myself (i.e. why was I so much younger than everyone else in my family?). So I’ve been thinking about the issue of Mistakes for quite a while now.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I don’t think anyone will have to look up any words.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by the fantastic one-man enterprise called Seven Kitchens Press, run by Ron Mohring. This will be our second chapbook together. His enthusiasm for my work and for the work of many gay, lesbian, and bisexual poets has been remarkably generous. I owe him a lot personally, for having revived my flagging ambition about four years ago.

The Little Things

This morning I meant to write a piece about structure. I had some good ideas, I thought, and I was excited. It’s been a long couple of weeks, the weeks in February being especially long in Pittsburgh where the weather goes gray and swampy and cold just at the moment when all the energy I had for the Spring Term, saved up over the winter break, is exhausted.

I’m doing some extra work this term and it is turning out to be almost enough weight to tip over my whole apparently precariously balanced life. And I think that was one of the threads I wanted to knit with in today’s blog: how carefully I’ve structured my life. It’s becoming clear to me that I have to change that structure now. The house has grown hirsute with dog hair. There’s an enormous pile of laundry to do which I’m resisting. There’s an equally large load of laundry waiting to be folded and put into the respective drawers. I have to wash the bed covers, the couch covers, the dog blankets in the car.

I finally loaded the dishwasher last night after a week of playing a version of Jenga with bowls, plates, and pans. Now, I wonder how long it will take me to empty it.

I still need to go to the supermarket and buy the months groceries. Last night, I went to Wendy’s instead of dealing with the whole issue of what to cook.

Part of all this is because I didn’t get one group of papers done this past weekend. I should be doing them today, here at the cafe, but I’m resisting that. My unconscious is having a temper tantrum, I think. The part of me that wants to be left alone to finish the work, that wants the world to stop while I catch up, that is kicking and biting and screaming for attention is getting louder and more frightened. I want my structure back.

And then when I sat down to write something about structure, I clicked on my wordpress bookmark and got my own blog, but without the dashboard I need to add a post. For the life of me I could not remember how to log in suddenly. I sat and stared at my own last entry. I clicked on all my pages, hoping that one of them would open up the dashboard feature. Finally I googled “How to login to WordPress,” got a link, clicked on that, got teleported to a forum space where I was asked for my username and password, could not remember suddenly which ones of the ten or so possible usernames and passwords I might have used, tried a few, was denied over and over, went back to my home email to look at old wordpress emails hoping for a clue to the right name and word, found none, grew angrier and angrier, finally did something, clicked somewhere I don’t even remember now, and up came the screen with my username/email already filled in, my password already there in dots, clicked and was brought to the screen where I could, at last, write today’s post.

The blank page appeared. My mind, however, stayed blank. I couldn’t remember anything about what I’d been so keen to write on this morning. Then the word Structure appeared in my head. I had wanted to write about structure. But now, my brain awash in the chemicals for anger, frustration, irritation, grief, fear, and maybe even the beginning of rage at being denied entrance to my own blog, I had lost everything I had thought was so important.

One of my mother’s old jokes when she forgot something she was going to say, was to say, “Well, it must have been a lie.” It couldn’t have been very important if it wasn’t able to stick around.

Structure? I look around my table for a clue about what was so important to me. There are two bills–one to the electric company, one to my cellphone company–ready to go out. Was structure going to be about the economic structure of my life? I do want to write about that–be brave enough to reveal my actual finances–but I don’t think that was it. Was it about the essay I wrote a few years ago, an essay whose paragraphs are made up of the 125 arrangements of the five basic sentence structures: fragment, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex? That essay just found a home suddenly. I was afraid it was too structured (it had been politely declined from three editors I was sure would like it); then about two hours after I sent it out on a whim to a journal that was reading and was interested in longer than normal pieces, the editor wrote me back with such enthusiasm for it that I actually teared up. She took it the next day. And that gave me the strength to think about the next essay, which I’d long planned to write, and which would use the exact reverse structure of the first one.

Art is, with violence and sex, one of the things you can do with what you can’t keep inside any longer: that’s the sentence that came out of me this morning, stepping out of the shower. I wanted to write that down somewhere to think about. But that doesn’t sound exactly right now. Art is a made thing. Violence is a reaction. Sex might be somewhere in behind, or a bit of both. I don’t know. That sentence seemed like something when all I had was my memory and a towel. Sentences often come to me in the shower. It’s a kind of structureless place, blank white walls everywhere, warm rain on my skin, the smell of apple pectin rising up from my shampoo. There’s nothing to write with. Which frees up something in me to just play or try out theories, as in World War 2 was waged because Hitler was a failed painter, that the recently released paintings of George Bush Jr. suggests another would-be artist whose work wasn’t enough, who required not just one but two wars to fulfill his “vision”. Hitler the landscape artist who turned everything into ruins, ghettos, prisons. Bush who sent men to kill and die in the deserts of the Middle East, who keeps painting himself in the shower, in the bathtub, in hot water over and over again.

Writing is the thing I do when my life feels too close, too clogged, too crabbed. It’s something I can do even when I can’t put away my clothes or sweep the floor or vacuum or dust or go to the supermarket. It’s a place where I can drain off excess emotional or psychic or physical energy. When I was a kid reading about witchcraft, looking for a way to change my life, I remember there was a spell or ritual for creating a second self, a part of yourself at any rate, that you could send out into the world to work change, a spirit-form, a phantom, a doppleganger. When I heard my first poet, I felt a real shiver of excitement. That there was a way of making a life out of creating yourself, out of recreating your memories, turning them into, if not exactly solid golems, but into spirit-selves made of sound, small bits of description, song, spell, argument. You could send it out into other people’s lives if you were very skilled. You could hide yourself in it for a while until you figured out how to live again.

Alien Vs. Predator

The first book I’m going to write about is Michael Robbins Alien Vs. Predator, from Penguin. I saw references to the book everywhere last year, and thought I’d better find out what the big deal was.

here’s the title poem, publisher in The New Yorker in 2009:

A narrative poem it isn’t. In the absence of a story to follow, I look around for something to connect to. So, let me start with what I notice visually. It has regular stanzas, with occasional rhymes, some simple (too, glue) and some more complicated (chiropractor/velociraptor). Visually then, it looks like a poem, looks like a poem is supposed to look, I should say–with stanzas and line breaks and rhymes.

The drama in the poem is a drama of meaning, or of meaningfulness. Line by line, things don’t add up. The first stanza has some fairly clear links–between Rilke who is on one hand quoted and on the other hand dismissed and then later quoted and revised away from the kind of elegant language Rilke is known for. And then there’s a turn further away from Rilkean beauty toward Hell, toward slitting monkeys for a living, toward the awful. And then the narrator takes on the position of a god to be prayed to, a god who is not merciful but mean, mean as a child who’s been taunted and responding with the kind of come-back that allows him invulnerability.

Or is that too much work? Should I just be enjoying the fun of changing registers and stop trying to draw relationships? Is it more telling about me as a reader than it is about the poem? Honestly, I don’t know. In his New York Times review of the book, Dwight Garner writes that “Here’s a book to hand the (as yet) nonpoetry reader in your life.” I suspect Garner imagines the nonpoetry reader is not reading poetry because it’s too boring, that there is a group of people out there who aren’t as demanding as “poetry readers” have become, and would be simply be cool enough to enjoy the speed and nonsensical relationships in, say, the second stanza:

That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree
making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.

I wonder about that, though. I think there’s a good chance that young readers might love these poems for a certain refusal to make conventional sense. But I think there’s also a good chance that many nonpoetry readers would see in this poem, and in others in the book, the same old refusal to put things together, to be something other than more chaos in an already chaotic world.

I have mixed feelings about this second stanza. I love the last line, but the four above it seem completely arbitrary. The shifts in diction and tone don’t provoke much from me. It doesn’t reveal to me some innate flaw in language that will finally stop me from being a passive consumer of Poetry. It doesn’t concentrate my feelings about some issue or topic. It doesn’t open my heart chakra or make me more mindful of the language in any way that going to a department meeting does. It is certainly more joyous, but is joy enough? Is joy it’s own reason to exist? Are people reacting to the excitement of having their serious worlds rearranged? It could well be.

There are lines that point toward big “issues”: In front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,” swirls with conflicts. But then, just as quickly, that possible narrative is undermined with absurdity, then more childlike narcism, and then a sentence that’s silly, illogical.

The poem moves back and forth, giving, it seems to me, more space to the illogical, to sentences that sound like mash-ups, that start from a literary source and, like a game of Telephone, are morphed out of recognition by the end. Is this to remind us of the way the past gets not erased as much as silenced by overuse and so requires us to reclaim it by challenging it, twisting it like taffy until it breaks open again?

I haven’t even mentioned the title, which references that awful movie in which two perfect killers struggle against each other. And is it pointing at the choices we have as human beings now? Is there anyone left who doesn’t recognize that the lifestyle we have has been bought, is constantly being bought at the expense of other beings, other consciousnesses? Or that being conscious leads us toward an alienation from others? toward ourselves? How does one live these days with any amount of dignity otherwise?

I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with this poem, but I don’t feel closer to the poem, to language. That may well be good, in the author’s eyes. In this, Robbins reminds me of Frederick Seidel, whose poems in turn reminded me of when Fox News first came on the air decades ago. I was interested, even refreshed by Bill O’Reilly’s anger. It cleared out something that I didn’t realize was stifling the news. But it quickly became a schtick. For me, that’s the danger of these poems, this book. A whole volume of poem after poem like Alien Vs. Predator loses its unsettling power and just seems unsettled, like a tweaker who can’t stop fidgeting.

On the other hand, I’m not crazy about poems that don’t admit asides, that don’t test the limits of madness, meaningfulness, laughter. Robbins’ book seems to me to be on the side of those states other than the linear and the rational. There’s certainly room for all sorts of voices and approaches.

Let me stop here. I promised myself I’d try to keep myself to around a thousand words. I hope that other people might look at the poems and have some ways of thinking about it or hearing its voice that isn’t occurring to me. I don’t, for instance, feel the pressure of popular culture as much as I think Robbins does. Maybe some of my friends will feel less alienated by Robbins’ “code-switching” than I do. I hope not to get in any arguments about whether Robbins is writing poetry or not. Those arguments never seem to go anywhere.


It never fails to seem miraculous that my checking account fills up with funds at the end of each month. I’ve had my present job for 13 years now, so you think I’d be less surprised, but some part of me, raised among people for whom the Depression was a living memory and always seemed to be threatening to return and wipe out everything, still expects to be fired any minute and wiped out. Maybe I’m not afraid of that really, but hoping for it. I have often mistaken grief for excitement, terror for love, boredom for love, anger for grief, and so on. My reaction to change is to hide out until things return to regular patterns. I like regular patterns. I like the end of January especially, and the W-9s that appear in my mailbox. Because I have the government take out extra money per paycheck, I usually get something back from the IRS. And it usually appears in my checking account just in time for the Associated Writing Programs’ yearly conference, just in time, in other words, to pay for my hotel room, my registration, my meals and travel, and the books of friends, idols, and total strangers.

I like writing out the month’s bills, which I did this morning. I like arranging them by importance–mortgage and car payment first, utilities next, credit cards last of all. It makes me feel as if things can be organized. As if I’m giving my money to companies, rather than having them taken out electronically from my account. Plus, I know that if a corporation makes a mistake and takes out too much money, it will take forever to get them to put it back (I’m currently going through exactly this with that evil corporation Verizon). I don’t feel like depending on corporate mercy unless I’m forced to.

And I love signing my name in cursive over and over again like a lovesick adolescent.

In other news, I’ve decided I’m going to talk about a book of contemporary poetry once a week. I’m going to try this for the month of February anyway. I don’t want to review them, honestly, but to use them as a way to think about contemporary aesthetics. So I’m going to choose a few books of poetry that seem to me to represent very different approaches to the art. I’ve chosen for this experiment a couple of books by poets I don’t know personally. I’ve purposely chosen books that I have trouble with, ones that present challenges to my own sense of The Poem and even The Point of Poetry. I’m hoping not to embarrass myself too badly in the process.

One of the great gifts of teaching has been choosing books from among the legions published every year. Especially in my Introduction to Poetry class, I try to choose a variety of poetic voices, approaches, contents. Sometimes I’ve chosen a book even though I didn’t particularly like it in order to represent some school of poetry for the students. Because I’m the teacher, I knew I had to be able to mount a defense of the poems in case none of the students could or wanted to. This is how I learned to first appreciate and then love poets as different as Carl Phillips, whose syntax I was thrown by until I had to figure out how to teach students to parse it, Mary Ruefle, whose disjunctions seemed completely capricious to me, and Amy Clampitt, whose poems seemed overwritten and lethargic.

My hope is that using this public blog will make me be more careful as a reader and might lead to some discussion.

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