Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: November, 2013

Reading Chekhov

Scientists have recently found that reading Chekhov
will increase “your social skills, your empathy, your ability
to read someone else’s body language” and so get

the jump on their desires. Soon of course the military
will be folding Gooseberries into its regularly scheduled
bootcamp activities so our troops can know what the enemy

wants and get there before them. Similar tests
are going on right now around the benefits of star-gazing
in the middle of the night, dipping your feet in cool water

on hot days, learning to draw hands with charcoal.
“The whole art world, it turns out,” says one researcher,
“turns out to be astonishingly full of techniques for

controlling the minds and bodies of others. We need
to weaponize all of that as quickly as possible to protect
our national security. Believe me, the Chinese are already

learning to read our citizens, and who knows how far
certain countries in the Middle East are willing to take their
thousands of years of literacy in order to gain a tactical

advantage? We didn’t even recognize its power ourselves until
it turned out Dr. Smith who liked to disappear for hours one day
came back with an answer to a question that had honestly

been slowing us down for months. Later, when he became project
manager, we began to study his techniques. He smiled 30 percent
more than anyone else. His vocabulary was 40 percent more

enriched. He could stand around in silence. He touched
his head 10 percent of the time, his right leg 15 percent.
He rubbed the back of his neck twice an hour on average.

But the Chekhov discovery was a real breakthrough. Dr. Smith
said even he hadn’t realized what had happened. One day he’d
just been bored of the newspaper and the next day he’d solved

a big problem we’d been having with our bombs.”


Reading Irene McKinney’s Last Poems

There are quite a few books waiting on my nightstand to be opened. Some are going to be “texts” for my classes next term. Some are books by friends. Some are books by competitors of sorts. Some are hanging around because they might be useful. It’s become a weird fact of my life that books have become less and less magic and more and more subjects of investigation. Such is the professional’s life of course. The more I know about writing and teaching, the more I try to see them as “useful” to me, personally and professionally. The more I want to see them that way, in fact.

So it’s rare that feel magic in poems. I see a lot of cleverness I admire. I see a lot of skill and earnestness and adventurousness. I have read a lot of poems that made me wonder what poems are, what the poet felt after writing it, what I should do now with my life.

So when I ran across this poem from the late Irene McKinney, in her last book Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?, i was struck with what the director Anne Bogart calls betroffenheit, defined as ” the state of having been met, stopped, struck, or perplexed.” She uses the word at first in relation to the effect 9/11 had on Americans, but broadens it to refer to what audiences feel in the face of a powerful aesthetic experience. Bogart likens it to something Don Saliers, a professor of theology, describes as “a space and time engendered by the shock of the event where language ceases.” In which we meet and are met simultaneously. Equalled maybe. Is this what true love is?

Anyway, I felt met by Irene McKinney’s poems. Especially this one from which the book’s title comes:

Darkness Poem

Have you had enough darkness yet?
No, I haven’t had enough darkness.
Have you had enough fire?

Enough wind and rain?
Enough black ink?
Ask me again, later.

Have you had enough sugar?
Enough salt? No.

I haven’t had enough salt.
Are you finished with wringing your hands?

Finished with spiders and silks
and creatures of glamour?
Probably not.

Winsome looks?
Pity? Never.

I feel pity right now
for everyone who got broken,
including me. Pity feels

like a sore and swollen heart
leaking blood and tears
so hot they sting.

Imagine that. Stay there.
Have you had enough of wind?
No. Enough of earth? No.

Enough water? No, not nearly enough.
Enough dirt to walk on?

No. Never, never.

It’s a poem about meeting, about being met. It’s an elemental meeting between two voices, who cares whether it’s the poet talking to herself or a god speaking to a mortal or a discourse of texts? I’ll admit that I’m biased here. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mother who will be missing for the first time from my brothers and my life. I imagine this poem at least partly in my mother’s voice; I imagine it at least partly in my own in some future; it is also the voice of Irene whose red hair, smile, and laughter were all I ever knew of her the few times she came to the University of Pittsburgh to read.

And so I find it beautiful to read, to say out loud, to write out here. I don’t always know what poems are. Part of a good poem is always hidden from easy classification. Like the line that says, “Imagine that. Stay there.” Which seems to belong to a third voice, a voice that seems on the side of the sufferer and is part of a more complicated consciousness that mourning, if not run from, can engender.

So you might think of it as a winter poem as well. A few friends of mine are undergoing their own losses and probably asking and being asked questions similar to the poem’s. I wish they’d been spared the dialogue, but there it is. I hope they answer the same way.

So the Snow

So the snow they said would fall didn’t.
When I woke at four there was none of that

strange light and sound that makes it confusing
to know the right time or date or place or self.

Although there was silence. Because everyone
was as scared as I was? I couldn’t tell.

Even the morning’s normal freight train was absent.
Even the idiots who run the intersection every morning

were somewhere else, reduced to one or two every hour
and even they were slowed down, so that the sound

coming up was not the busy close crossing of ocean waves
but just an occasional rush of breeze. The house kept ticking

when the furnace kicked off but that just added
to the sense that nothing had in fact happened.

When I got out of bed finally, it was just a dusting,
as we like to say. Another false alarm. How many others

are standing where I am, at windows all over town,
wondering what it is they hoped to be saved from?

“Boredom is Rage Spread Thin.” Paul Tillich

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been so busy. Literary traffic, i.e. books I should be reading, is backed up for miles. Of my own work–I’m finishing (god, I hope!) a book of poems, beginning a group of poems that are already talking to one another like they’re going to become roommates somewhere soon, and in the middle of trying to write a book of essays. Then there have been the three classes I’m teaching (which this month has meant having second conferences with the students), the various administrative work I “take care of”, and so on and so forth. When I’ve come home at the end of the days, I’ve just wanted to collapse from all the talking to, thinking about, and negotiating with other people’s desires. Of course the dog also wants a claim on me too, but walking with him along our usual trail by the Allegheny River is blessedly quiet. None of this is a complaint, really. I love my job. I get to use almost all the parts of myself I admire in it, including a few parts of myself that are sneaky, anxious, and afraid to make mistakes. But at the end of the day, work has made use of almost all of me. I usually am sleep by 9.

This morning, though, I was free from almost all my responsibilities to other people. It’s the beginning of Thanksgiving break. I have a few revisions to look over, but not many. After I took the dog for a long romp in his favorite off-leash-exercise-area in Frick Park, I went home and made myself a breakfast that began with frying up some bacon I had left in the fridge and ended up with my improvising a kind of stir fry of potatoes, carrots, a bit of roast pork I needed to finish off, and some kale. I made some tea, sugared and limed it, and carried the whole magnificent repast into the living room and ate it, throwing the occasional too-crispy piece of bacon to my patient but salivatingly hopeful dog. Then we slept on the couch, me in that S shape dog owners learn to take so their dogs can fold themselves into the lower space, rest their chins on a thigh or an ankle. Well fed and tired, we were out for an hour. It was marvelous. I’d forgotten life could be like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my students’ lives though, especially their psychological health lately. Yesterday, at a meeting with some MFAs who will be teaching introductory creative writing classes soon, I found myself reminding them that most of our students are taking five or six classes a term and might not have time for actual writing, that it was okay to devote time in class to in-class writing. Students might not get any other time to write, or be able to by themselves create such a space. They are tired by financial anxieties which lead them sometimes to take on jobs in addition to their studies, leaving them even less time to write. I know too of a few who are more-or-less the backup parent for younger siblings, who are living in complicated situations with complicated parents, who are the actual breadwinners for a growing family. They look worn out when I see them in conferences. This past week three burst into tears while they were telling me why their rough drafts were late. That they STILL want to be writers is itself a miracle.

I knew I wanted to be a writer because I couldn’t think of anything else to do that would contain all the possibilities of what I might do. I needed something to fill up that boredom I felt that, when I read the Tillich quotation in the title of this post, was indeed a kind of enormous rage, as long as I might also suggest that it was also an enormous ambition to escape the conditions of my small town life, which I could tell were not going to be enough to satisfy me for long after graduation. I also thought writing would save me from a life of being busy. I’d simply write a best-seller and retire to some island in comfort, I thought. That dream seems to me now to imply that I was mad about the work of living, which at the time felt merely like work and had nothing of pleasure in it.

I’ve been thinking all day about an opinion piece, published in the New York Times last year. Tim Kreider is the writer. This struck me especially:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

That my students, that so many many students and friends and fellow citizens, all seem so exhausted seems like a important thing to think about. For the students who are trying so hard to move beyond their present circumstances there may be no easy way to fix their busyness. I’ve suggested to a few that they might try taking only four classes a term, but usually they remind me that they’re trying to graduate early so they don’t have to take out more loans. What they will graduate knowing, I don’t know. Knowing for me has usually required spending a lot of time with certain ideas, allowing them to filter through the tissues of my life. If they can’t then make that space, I tell myself when I teach now, I can make space in my writing classroom for them to feel what a gift a protected space in which to think and dream and explore can be. I don’t think most students in introductory writing classes need peer review so much as peer escape. As socially connected as we all are, and here I’m taking some ideas from Carol Bly in her great book Beyond the Writer’s Workshop, the really radical thing might be to be quiet, to allow the writer to feel what it feels like to write, to be serious about writing and not, as sometimes happens in workshop and in life, feel like a kind of ritual sacrifice for a greater good. There is a lot of boredom out there looking for a spark to transform it.

First Snow

My little light. My warm bed. The dog
as black as the darkness he makes
near my feet. His breathing like well water.
I know there’s snow outside. Ten photos

from ten different friends elsewhere in the city
on Facebook. But still I want to see it myself.
It’s still a reason to get up and look out
at the dark neighborhood, where morning’s cars

are beginning to light and hum and wipe
their windshields clear. No matter how old I get,
losing more hair each year, growing more
nervous about gum recession, arthritis in my fingers,

belly fat, retirement, long term care health insurance,
still I get up to see what used to be rain begin to change
into something ordered, fragile. More beautiful. Though it
of course doesn’t think of itself that way. My new glasses.

My bare feet on the cold floor. The house filling
with heat. It’s almost nothing really, just the first
dust of it on the roofs and hoods. Almost nothing really.
But it’s happening, I think. It’s happening. The dog

in the living room arranges himself into a patient
sphinx on the oriental carpet. Watches me for signs.
I fold one coat into another one. I get my gloves.
I get my boots. I grab the keys whose sound is like heaven’s.

The Day After the Elections

Start with what you know. The elections are over.
The train that comes up the river every morning
blows its horns. The house that’s been filling up with heat
against November stops, adjusts, begins monitoring
again. We all listen hard, the house, the dog, and me.
An old vent changes shape somewhere down the hall
I’ll have to walk soon to shower, shave, brush, floss.
Just do one thing and then the next, I’ve kept saying.
Just this present and not the future too much. In this
I am following the dog’s example. At least right now. Listen.
The train horn gone. A slight surf of traffic blocks away.
It’s a day after politics, a moment after the decisions
have been made. In the ballrooms around the city,
there are still people leaving, tired, having done what
they could, while the sound of brooms and vacuums
replace them, erase them. Who knows what beds
they have waiting? At this moment in mine the dog
is already dreaming about the chilled grass he’ll pee into.
Just that far ahead. Like everyone who has to wait now.

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