by Jeff Oaks
Writing is being afraid. It’s a sentence I woke up with one morning not long ago. I’d dreamt that I was in an old house with an elaborate staircase. There were a few other people with me, one of them a famous gay poet. The house was more or less without color, only black, grays, and white. Long drapes were pulled against the outside.
Then there was a knock, which scared me so much I ran down into the basement to hide. Even more nervous, I found a tiny cupboard under that enormous staircase, got inside, and waited. I thought I’d be able to find out, from looking at the soles of the shoes of the visitor, if he was dangerous. I huddled down there among the dusty boxes and cobwebs, listening hard.
Then in the wall of the basement, I saw a crack in the foundation, past which something moved. I ripped it open and crawled through. It turns out there was a park around the house, full of green plants and happy couples and kids playing. Everything I’d assumed about the world around the house was wrong. I began to walk around and enjoy the large park when I woke up.
So much life stays at the level of panic and escape, in finding places to hide. How much of writing begins with being bored with being afraid or confused or unsure or angry or sad? How much of writing is learning how to see and pick at the place where there’s a seam, where you can see or push through, to find something you couldn’t have imagined before you began? How do artists find the strength or curiosity to pick at those seams, to not be happy living in the house with its enormous staircase and its closed curtains? Maybe it’s a matter of reading so much writing that you learn to recognize the familiar patterns and meanings, and so you grow impatient for something new.
I suspect, if the spate of dreams I’ve been having is any indication, that there’s something in my unconscious trying to send a message. Each dream has involved going down into the ground after buried bones or helping young men who are as pale and lifeless as hit-and-run victims get help. There’s always someone to battle or placate or outwit.
I’ve been looking at some new poems for signs of seams: trouble with tenses, weird pronoun shifts, repeating words or phrases or sentences that refuse to feel finished. I had an idea this winter that I was going to be working on a book of poems I kept calling The North, but lately that book has seemed far away. Something else is knocking on the door of the enormous house I’d imagined that book to be. Maybe a southern influence in answer? Maybe a secret garden I might enter, this time by turning the knob and opening the door.