Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: December, 2013

Among Friends: a new year’s prose

All of us have something wrong. One of us is guilty. One is afraid in his silence he’s losing it. One of us has an old dog. One of us has a puppy the size of a boy. One of us might not be herself anymore. But enough of that. Who knows anything? Anyway, we were playing cards and one of us made a squeaking noise instead of a request and another of us repeated the squeak and there it went. A bonfire of laughter. A jungle of applications, medications, sign heres. One of us hasn’t been kissed in years. He lets go of the sad balloon he’s been holding onto. It floats away like a cake in a boat. We pound the table like a hull. We were playing cards for something to do. One of us is probably still drunk. One is losing his mother. Another has a father who might as well still be alive. About the rejected application. About the self-worth. About the body doesn’t breathe as well as it used to. The squeak blooms, roars, transforms drowning into a craft. The strangle turned into release. The leopard remade as a leap. Each of us barking, the way a dog will run toward the sound of a fight. To see what will happen maybe. To nip at a stray leg flashing. What the fuck do we care? The moon banging on the glass in oh my gods, in Jesuses. Each of us trying to stand. One of us lets himself fall down hard. One of us bends herself over a chair. Oh my god it’s just cards. Anyway we hurt, we gasp, we hurt. All smashed up on the floor, holding ourselves together. The dogs watch us to see if we’re wrecked. To see if any food falls out.


Notes on Santa

It’s hard work to think about someone else. I’m usually irritated when someone says that no one can ever understand another person’s mind, but I have to admit that Christmas provides good evidence for that notion. I don’t think Santa Claus was invented in order to fool children, but to provide a third party candidate for children to tell the truth to, the way they sometimes will not (or dare not) be frank with family or each other. He’s a reason to have children write lists of what they want, which of course parents need nowadays, now that we’ve committed to treating children like people, so they have some idea of their own child’s desires. The parent who helps the child to write it or promises to mail it for the child learns, I suspect, a lot of things he or she might not have learned directly.

It seems likely that it’s Santa’s distance, the child’s notion that he’ll never meet him that helps the child to feel safe about telling the truth. And it might explain why some children start screaming when they finally meet the man, are forced to sit on his lap, stare into the mirrored glass of his glasses, and are asked to repeat what it is they wanted, as at an interrogation. Who is more frightening than the smiling man who knows all your secrets? The wealthy man who laughs too much? Any big man in arterial-blood-red cloth, black leather, and the fur of otherwise invisible predatory animals? His face itself is half-hidden in a beard that may or may not be real. Around him are invariably a collection of gigantic sacks full of sealed boxes the size of children’s coffins.

As long as he stays up at the North Pole, he’s an idea like the police are: you want someone to be in charge of justice but you never want to actually talk to him. Meeting the man disrupts the illusions about time and space that his existence depends on. Meeting the man as a physical being, a being who proves to be an complicated mix of Pope, Circus Clown, Drunk Uncle, and Plantation Boss, any child whose dealings with adults has made him or her distrustful will immediately realize he or she’s in danger of being entrapped by the very people he or she has had to rely on, about to be tricked into confessing to desires he or she may now be abandoned for. Lifting a child up and throwing him or her onto Santa’s lap can be from that nervous child’s point of view shattering, the way being thrown out of a moving trunk into a wilderness would be to the unwanted puppy. An arctic doubt never again leaves the child’s nervous system.

What a relief to find out that he’s a sham, that one has been returned to a simpler world, where one only has to understand one’s own weird family members. The Easter Bunny vanishes in a burst. The tooth-fairy. A variety of characters. The world gets suddenly less mysterious and more pointed, except in dreams where everything, from coal and diamonds, get delivered by invisible means, to the sound of strange hooves and laughing, shapeshifting saints who use chimneys like elevators. We learn to forgive our poor parents who lied to us, the smell of their own milk and cookies on their breath.

Notes on Poetry and Reading

Honestly, when I was younger, I used to think about poetry constantly. I used to read anyone my teachers mentioned in class. I read everything by any poet my teachers mentioned at least three times. I didn’t classify things into mainstream and avant-garde because my teachers didn’t even talk that way. If I had, mainstream meant someone who is mentioned in the course of a normal conversation at least three times in a fairly short period of time. Who was mainstream usually shifted over the course of a few classes, as teachers quoted from or pushed us toward different writers or thinkers they themselves were interested in. Where names began to appear on multiple lists, I paid deep attention. That was what I thought the canon was.

But I don’t necessarily mean that I read those poets carefully. I would write down an important sentence maybe. Most of my critical writing as a student involved me correctly noticing that and articulating how a particular gesture a writer made had multiple meanings. I didn’t memorize huge numbers of lines as some people do. I did memorize a handful of poems, classic ones from Frost and Dickinson and Blake. What I did love about reading was seeing and then working out other poets’ structures. I loved seeing other ways of constructing and organizing (maybe I should say “patterning” because that seems more organic and less abstract than construction and organization imply). Some of my earliest poems were imitations of Stevens’ forms, which I found liberating even though I didn’t usually understand a damned thing about his poems otherwise. Using his structures (13 ways of seeing a thing was the earliest realization) gave me a way to play with my own material, which otherwise I wrote down in a kind of dutifully serious way, usually overburdening every noun with an stiffly adjectival symbolism, which I took then to be what “meaning” meant.

As I’ve grown up and read more, it’s become harder and harder to find something that surprises me, that suggests a new way to play. I’m not exactly sure when it happened but a whole lot of contemporary poetry seems like it became only play, a series of ironic gestures not (as in the “old days” of the 70s) over the nothing that we fear our lives are really made of but over the nothing that language itself is. As if there really were nothing else. So much seems simply gesture, all vehicle without any interest in a tenor. It may be that for those poets there are no tenors to depend on. They recognize the need for constant speed, being fast and furious. Holding still makes them nervous, potential targets for ridicule or worse obsolesce.

On the positive side, when I find a poet whose poems do unite (is that a word to be trusted anymore? Does unity requires the death of diversity or complexity?) or combine or mix (that seems to be a word I’m seeing lately in academic conversations as a way to think about what poets are doing when they compose (another dreary verb from the latinate dream of the sciences?)), when I find a poet whose poems fill me with delight and surprise, whose poems make both language and life seem serious, I feel deeply happy. When I was young, I assumed all writers aimed to do that, aimed at sentipensante (“feeling/thinking” to quote Eduardo Galeano who himself was quoting some Colombian fishermen who saw the separating of thinking and feeling as ridiculous).

At some point in the nineties I stopped feeling so hungry about poetry. The turf battles were tiring to read about, everyone trying to defend his or her approach, usually to the detriment of any poetry. I was busy trying to cobble together a life as a teacher. I lost hope that the poems I was writing then were ever going to be noticed, nevermind published. I spent more time putting together course descriptions than I did poems. Occasionally I’d read somebody who wrote in a style I enjoyed, that seemed without party allegiance–James Longenbach comes to mind–and whose attention to actual poems helped to renew and revise my own attention. In general, however, I came to believe that, to paraphrase the Tao the Ching, “If a poem was being talked about, it was probably being championed by partisans.”

My reading changed when I got into a serious relationship, when I bought a house, when I got offered a full-time job.I became enormously skeptical, critical, and dismissive. My tastes coalesced around a few subjects, a few styles, approaches, commentators. I picked up books and read only one poem from the middle. I abandoned the rest. I started novels and gave up after the first chapter. I mostly only dipped into books I heard my friends talk about. I read poems by poets who were coming to campus. I didn’t have time to engage with what I didn’t feel attracted to.

I used to feel (fear) that I’d become lazy, that I was being too stodgy, too narrow-minded. But I don’t think that’s exactly true. Although I do have certain aesthetic stances I’m fairly antagonistic to, I’m not as dismissive as I think I used to be. I’ve found in the past few years that my feeling and thinking have settled on a few questions, that my writing keeps revolving around a set of structures that “feel” right, that help concentrate me and so help propel me into mystery, uncertainty, and even truth and beauty I wouldn’t have foreseen before I started.

And so my reading is changing again. I feel it becoming more utilitarian than before. Now that I have a set of questions, I don’t want to read anything that doesn’t address them in some way.

I’m thinking about all this because I had an interesting exchange about reading with some students this past term. I was talking about how reading for me had changed, what I used to do, what I sometimes do, what I’d like to do more of, how and where I think I still fail as a reader. One student said, “I’m so glad someone’s talking bout this!” It turned out that she’d been feeling guilty that she didn’t read like the majors in her literature classes seemed to be reading–for themes, for examples of certain, largely sociological or political relationships. Not that there was anything wrong with that, she said, but nobody in those classes talks about structures or patterns, things she found herself increasing drawn to. Sadly, nobody in writing classes seemed to want to talk about structures though, so she’d been feeling like she was the odd person out. It was interesting, I thought, how little I’d actually talked about it myself in classes. I tend to think of reading the way I think about praying: you go into your own closet and invent it. But that can be lonely. You want to complete the circuit and talk or write about what happened to you there in that isolation booth. Maybe you have to to make it real, to return to the world.

Or to see if one’s experience makes sense to someone else as it often doesn’t to one’s self, a thing I’m finding is one of the uses of keeping a blog.

Some Updates

Hi all,

Because it’s Christmas Break for me, I’ve decided to try and work a little more on the other pages of this blog, which I set up when I first began this but have since neglected. I’ve updated the sections My Work and Thirteen Blogs. More importantly, in the Writing Prompts section, I’ve added links to a number of books I use when I’m looking for writing prompts. Hopefully they’ll be useful if you’ve come here looking for some places to start or re-start your own writing practice. Feel free to suggest other places or books you’ve found useful in the comments as well.

December Notes–New Year Intentions

It’s been quite a while since my last post. December is a terrible month for me. I lose myself in all kinds of work–wrapping up classes, grading final folders, end-of-the-year meetings about scheduling and assessment and budgets, writing the next term’s syllabi. I think of this blog as something I do with my spare time, but this month I haven’t seemed to have all that much to spare. Lest anyone think that university work is somehow full of vacation time, let me assure you it’s not. Unless, maybe, you’re one of those teachers who always teaches the same five books and reads from the same set of notes. One of the problems (which I guess we’re supposed to call “challenges” now) of teaching creative writing is that the field is constantly growing and changing, so I feel like I have to keep teaching new books, which keeps me in turn always reading, not always for pleasure.

I’m also in the midst of a set of projects I’m trying to juggle. One, a book of poems called Walking the Black Dog in the Middle of the Night, is mostly finished I think. It’s a book about the last couple of years of my mother’s cancer diagnosis. I loved writing the poems because they gave me some small sense of being able to do something, to make something out of the anxiety and grief of her ordeal. With it mostly behind me, I’m hoping to work on a group of essays that should form a small book of autobiographical prose. I like books of prose that are around 150 pages, which means that about two thirds of it is done and has been published. It is in part elegiac (for my parents and one dog) and in part celebratory (for the ordinary elements that make life worth living after such death). I’ve charted out an order I’d like it to take, a shape I’d like the essays to form. Now I have to write the last third, which will include a long piece about my mother (which I’ve drafted but still feels (will it ever not feel so?) not right) and an essay I’d like to write about living alone with a dog. I’ll admit, since both of those essays involve the deaths of people and pets I’ve loved deeply, that I’ve been putting them off. I was hoping, I think, they’d insist a bit more on being written. Maybe they’re waiting for me to knock on their doors? Maybe they are both things I need to write in spring?

Along the way, I’ve been writing poems, every day some months. Lefthandedly. At 4 or 5 am in the morning. Recently a couple of poems made me think there’s something new bubbling up which I’ve been calling North. It’s a winter book, but not in the sense of the end of the world. I think it’s in fact about finding places to begin, maybe things that seem magnetic in the absence of my lost polarized parents. What survives and how? So I’m hoping to be able to keep quietly working on poems toward that. Maybe translating some Anglo-Saxon poems to learn a new sound. I don’t think of writing so much as projects in some academic way but as a way to keep myself thinking and feeling and seeing. Since I’m not bound by reputation or the tenure-track, I can follow my own interests.

Next year I’ll turn fifty. That is weird to me. I’ve got a house, a dog, friends, a good job, a retirement account, and thanks to my mother, a small nest egg/hedge against ruin. After decades of looking over my shoulder for catastrophe, something in me has begun to settle. Maybe I have a voice I can trust a little bit. Maybe this is my life. Now, what to say? What still needs to be done?

The other thing about December in Pittsburgh is that the temperature changes in unexpected ways. Yesterday it was in the sixties and today will be in the twenties. My sinuses shut down in response to this kind of change, and unless I catch them very early, I end up with a cold. I’ve got one now. The pressure in my head made my teeth ache this morning. It’s hard to write in that condition, unless I write about it, which can only sustain so much attention before it sounds ridiculous. I’m actually looking forward to the freeze again tonight, if only so I’ll have hard ground underfoot.

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