Methods: the Journeyman years

by Jeff Oaks

Okay, so two really good things happened two years after my graduation. The first is that I applied for and received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the second was I had a chapbook published by State Street Press. So I had a little hope that I wasn’t entirely wrong to pursue this writing thing. Those two groups of people thought I had something worth supporting. That little attention kept me going for almost ten years, in fact.

I was teaching everywhere I could–composition and introductory creative writing classes part-time at Pitt, a class at the Western Penitentiary once in a while, a class at the Carnegie Museum when I could, and the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project in the summer. I lived as simply as I could. I lived in a $300 apartment in the house of a woman who rent her second and third floors out. I had a bike I pedaled all over town or I walk or I took the bus. I ate a lot of Mac and cheese and soup and bread. After a couple of years, I worked part-time at a coffeehouse in Shadyside and then at a Barnes and Noble downtown where my friend Noah was an assistant manager. Somehow the money all came together, and except for a couple of months when my mother gave me a slightly larger than normal birthday check or that one month an older friend with money paid for my rent, I was pretty self-sufficient.

Method 1: keep on writing somehow. I honestly don’t remember much about the years after graduating. I was in motion most of that time. But I did have one good habit: I kept a journal and I wrote in it often, filling it as quickly as I could. When I’d finish one, I’d reread it and write out the poems or lines I liked into the first pages of the new journal. That way, the new journal’s formidable blankness was nullified somewhat. I found that I often wrote poems in a kind of left-handed way in my journal, as if they were just jottings or notes. When I’d look back through a journal, I was often surprised by poems I didn’t remember writing! I’d have that weird feeling that someone else must have written some of them, but there they were in my handwriting.

Method 2: This is also, I think, when I started giving myself writing challenges. Mostly these were formal but sometimes they were subject challenges. One year I wrote my way through the early edition of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms. I’d try a month of prose poems, then a month of sonnets, then a month of love poems, then political poems. I wrote a prosey poem a day for a hundred days in imitation of Williams’ Kora in Hell, then some city poems a la Frank O’Hara, then some nature poems like Robert Francis. I didn’t really have a plan; in fact I tried out all these different forms and voices looking for a subject grab me. I stopped sending poems out since nothing was being taken. I wrote anyway and in some ways it was more fulfilling because the poems didn’t have to impress anybody but me.

I was also dating, hanging out with friends, having my heart-broken and inadvertently breaking a few myself. I lived on my nerves. I flirted for free drinks at the local gay bar. I used those experiences as material. And I kept going to events at Pitt, local readings and big events, so I felt like I was still connected as a writer. I got invited to read periodically by friends and people who knew my work. That community probably saved me from drifting away from writing like so many people do after they get their MFAs.

Method 3: I also was part of a series of writing groups. At first it was with two friends from Pitt, another poet and a fiction writer. We met once or twice a month at a coffeehouse and talk about each others’ work. We were accountable to each other. We were also able to turn our individual despairs into something shared and thereby lessened. We were all in the same boat. It wasn’t just me who was having trouble. The business of writing and getting published WAS hard. That fellowship was vital and we advised and supported and urged on each other, even if we couldn’t do the same for ourselves. Even if none of us were having the success we’d dreamed would be ours for the taking after we got our MFAs.

The members of the writing groups came and went. Sometimes I was in two groups at once. Anything to keep the pressure on. Looking back, it seems like I was delusional to work so hard on something I wasn’t even sending out. But day after day I was sure I was going to be discovered and recognized as a master.

Which is not the long patience Adrienne Rich refers to. Still, who would buy a book whose title was A Long Complicated Narcissism Got Me This Far? And yet, and yet…