Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: July, 2014


I sit, at the end of one of the longest month of the year, at my favorite coffeehouse. It’s the end of the month and so I’ve already made out the mortgage, water, and two credit card bills. The peel-and-stick postage stamps are of American songbirds. I’m plugged into my iPhone so I can listen to the Pretenders radio station that my Pandora app arranges for me.
I’ve already eaten a toasted bagel and bussed the plate it came on, wiped the table clear of crumbs. I’ve read about the incredible savagery being inflicted on Gazan civilians, and despaired for a humanity that seems unable to restrain itself in any way, and which seems helpless and in the grips of extremists, even and now especially small armed groups of them.

I do this almost every day, some semblance of this anyway: Walk the dog, take him to camp, come to the coffeehouse for two or three hours, go to the gym afterward, then into the office for a couple more, then pick up and walk the dog again, eat dinner, watch tv and talk about the day with Michael. I’m soothed by the routine of it. The confines of time and space together form a kind of pressure that relaxes my otherwise anxious mind enough that it can stop scanning the area for potential enemies and look over the interesting information–images, snippets of conversation, and the like. Usually I start with something simple, describing a thing I saw yesterday or this morning, or a news story or a dream image, or rehearsing a conversation I need to have with someone or had yesterday or need to have with myself about the course of my life. There’s always something there. If nothing else, I take William Stafford’s great prescription for overcoming Writer’s block and “lower my standards.” I describe another customer in the coffeehouse or what’s going on on the street beyond the big glass windows, or my hands.

My habit is to write from what I know and then to see where that takes me. I know I’m getting somewhere when metaphors begin to appear in my thinking. “The metaphors are a sign that the water is deep enough to carry your boat out to sea,” I said yesterday to my friend Elizabeth yesterday when she asked for advice about overcoming writer’s block. Metaphors break up (break through) my thinking, shattering it in new ways, casting it off into new directions. When I get to the metaphorical part of my thinking, it’s like (spoiler: more metaphors here) I’ve entered an airport, a train terminal, a place where my mind can try out new thoughts, make new connections, see in a new way. Feeling that sense of possibility open up around me is the best part of writing I think. Publishing, if it happens, is great but ultimately not the big thing I was sure it would be when I was a kid. I’m still the kid who prefers to pray alone in the woods and not to preach in public. Writing and reading are deeply private acts to me, although I am getting more comfortable publicizing work when it appears.

Tomorrow my habit shifts a bit. I’m writing a postcard poem a day to a total stranger. About ten lines every morning. Then I’ll walk the dog and so on like normal. I’ll also be writing a new personal essay I’ve been putting off. For that, I need a little more privacy than blogging allows. I’m going back to the sketch-book of my journal, whose function I’m finally understanding is very different than a blog space. The first part of that essay, by the way, I published here as Transitions. It will be the last section of a book-length manuscript I hope to have done next year. This morning I thought how happy I was to be done with this month’s blog-a-day regime. It has been fun but it was also becoming a bit of a chore. Thank you to everyone who suggested a word to write about. I’m sorry I didn’t get to them all. Maybe some of you might pick up the unused words and run with them yourselves.


Kinnell (for Bryan)

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write about Galway Kinnell. He was the visiting poet at SUNY Binghamton in 1983-4 when I was there, and I took both my Senior Seminar with him and was allowed to sit in on, with my friend Andy, the graduate Whitman seminar he ran. We were all nervous about meeting him, since he had just won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for his Selected Poems. He was at that moment as close to a god as I could want. I prayed he’d discover me the way Vachel Lindsay’d “discovered” Langston Hughes, even though I’m not even sure I knew that story yet. In those days, we had to submit portfolios to get into workshops, and so when it turned out that I’d been accepted into his, I was ecstatic.

We were out drinking in the campus pub the night I first met him. Liz Rosenberg, whom I adored as both a poet and a teacher, brought him in and they sat in a corner amid the noise. I remember running up to them, Liz introducing me, and him looking at me while I said how excited we were to have him there. He looked up at me and smiled and that was it. I read it as Get out of here, kid, made my excuses, and flew away, thinking I’d made a fool of myself. A day or two later, Liz told me that he probably hadn’t heard a thing, having confessed to her that he was hard of hearing in the ear id been standing near.

In workshop, he controlled the room. He had us memorize poems every week. When we showed up, he asked us to write out the poem on a sheet and hand it to him. From the entries, he chose a few; those people would recite. After thanking us, he’d lightly correct mistakes at the end. I remember he taught me about the difference between saying do and dew, when I read Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, a poem I still have in memory, along with Blake’s Tyger and Keats’ To Autumn.

We workshopped, but I don’t remember him saying much. He mostly let us have at each other, as most of our teachers did. What I really remember is going to his office for a conference, sitting down next to him while he read the packet of poems I handed over, and watching him work as a reader. He had a black felt tip pen he used to strike out lines, explaining sometimes why he’d struck them out, sometimes not. A few times, he’d stop reading and turn to a large dictionary he kept beside him, on his right hand. He flipped it open and track down a word I’d used, consider its definitions, and then either cross out the word in my poem or turn to me and say, this word pelt is a terrific word here, meaning as it does to hit and as a kind of fur. I felt like I’d passed some basic test of poetic skill–getting a word to work in multiple dimensions simultaneously.

We had a moment during one of those conferences, in which I’d handed him a batch of poems I’d written about my father and my relationship. He read and commented on them and then turned to me and said, You know, these are the kinds of things I think my brother feels about our father. They seemed to have touched him. It was a lovely moment, one that made me think I wasn’t crazy for wanting to write poems, that maybe my own experiences could be of use.

What I remember now, besides his gentleness and kindness at those moments, was the care he took with language, how much he loved it, loved to say words. This was just at the beginning, I think, of his long public love affair with Walt Whitman. I remember almost nothing of the graduate Whitman seminar my friend Andy and I sat in on except the sound of Galway’s voice reciting lines which might well have animated his own work in The Book of Nightmares:

The little one sleeps in its cradle;
I lift the gauze, and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.

The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill;
I peeringly view them from the top.

The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bed-room;
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair—I note where the pistol has fallen.

The blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders;
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor;
The snow-sleighs, the clinking, shouted jokes, pelts of snowballs;
The hurrahs for popular favorites, the fury of rous’d mobs;
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside, borne to the hospital;
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall;
The excited crowd, the policeman with his star, quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd;
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes;
What groans of over-fed or half-starv’d who fall sun-struck, or in fits;
What exclamations of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes;
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here—what howls restrain’d by decorum;
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips;
I mind them or the show or resonance of them—I come, and I depart.

The blab, the sluff, the clank, the flap. He hit those words with a lover’s delight. We delighted with him.

He even came to a reading I did with my friend Judas Riley. It was the first reading my mother ever came to, and when I introduced her to him, he said, You must be so proud of your son. He’s a wonderful poet. My mother, who was well-known for her unflappability, nearly swooned. She never asked me what I was going to do with my life again.

He ended up writing a paragraph of recommendation for me for grad school. It seems to have worked, despite being extremely concise. I imagined we all asked him for letters. I saw him a number of times in the years after that, but he never really remembered me, although he twice said, Your face is so familiar. I knew even then that he was being kind. I know now how difficult it is to keep former students’ names in your head, and as busy as he always has been as a teacher, reader, speaker, workshop leader, I’m sure he must have hundreds of former students who come up to him hoping to be remembered.

I couldn’t claim to know him, even though my friends all still call him Galway as if he was going to call up any moment. He existed for me the way a force of nature existed. He represented an ideal to me; he made possible certain kinds of passions I might have been holding in. I was holding in quite a few passions in those days; poetry became the one place where I could release the pressure, where I let myself play, where I felt daring, where I could keep track of my life.

I still love many, many of his poems. My favorites are still the animal poems, especially the ones from Body Rags that seem to combine Wallace Stevens, Rilke, James Wright, and D.H. Lawrence into a new voice: The Fly, The Bear, and The Porcupine.


That there could be nothing has saved me more than once. There could always be an end to suffering, which helped me suffer less. The day I first imagined negatively, that is, imagined an absence, came right after, I suspect, the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny unravelled; there had been nothing to them. I was left with an unsettled matter: why had my parents lied? What other lies had they told me? God, Heaven, Hell collapsed all around me, just stories to cover up a lack. What if nothing were the truth? it was hard to believe any adult after that. I told my parents I didn’t want to go to church anymore. It’s also true that by then I’d seen several guinea pigs and hamsters I loved die. One day I was thinking about my mother dying and I started to cry. She would be lost forever, if there were nothing. I realized that her absence, even just the thought of it, held a power. She was different than Santa, than God. Who would I be without her? A nothing, a zero, only fear. Still, that fear was a gift that jerked me into life and quietly still keeps me going back to work. How could it be possible not to see or hear or feel the constant throb of all this life I walk or ride or drive through daily? I know that some people get stuck in it. It doesn’t save everyone. Once or twice I’ve gotten close enough to speak to nothing. No answer’s come yet. Even just breathing is something.

Wistfulness: notes (for Shannon)

“A sad, pensive longing,” says the FreeDictionary. All right, I say, and move on, because on the internet I get only the page on wistful and no more. In the old days, my eye would wander onto the next few words, or across the page where I’d get lost in another set of words altogether.

In the old days, I write, which must be the prelude for most experiences of wistfulness. The “old” implies it will never come again. “In” implies it was likely an encompassing experience, unlike the present moment in which the a thousand distractions are at work, fracturing and battering any attempt at depth of thought or feeling.

Beside me right now in the cafe, two young women are having a conversation about something which I can’t actually hear as content. What I do hear is that one woman is over-responding to the other woman, constantly interrupting the latter’s story with “Yeah, yeah,” and “right” and often complete sentences which she says as the other woman is still talking. Very few things irritate me more than one person talking over another person. The interrupting woman is White, the woman trying to tell a story is African-American, and for a moment I consider whether there’s a race-based version of “mansplaining” that might be called “whitesplaining,” because the interrupting woman frequently interrupts to tell her own story rather than listen to the young African-American woman’s story. I’ve overheard men do this to women a hundred times in the cafe. It occurs to me there must be other versions of “–splaining” based on other privileged cultural “hierarchies.” Is there an “oldsplaining,” a “richsplaining,” a “straights planning”? I myself have found myself in front of younger friends launching into needless explanations of how something works only to be told that they already know.

There is a wistfulness in many places for an old form of unconsciousness, before such hierarchies were articulated–when the teacher and the taught knew their places, where the rich and poor, when men and women. Wistfulness wants an old simplicity, I would say. At least if I base it on my own wistful moments. Wistfulness is then something to be shaken off, in general, because almost always that old simplicity, that old “peace of mind” was at the expense of someone else’s silence or silencing.

Honestly, to hear my parents and grandparents talk about “the good old days,” they missed walking up hill both ways for twenty miles in snowstorms without shoes to get to school. They wished we could experience that so we could develop an appreciation for how tough they’d had it growing up, surviving the Depression. Their wistfulness had the naive writer’s curse in it: they had to simplify everything in order to heighten their point, which was the true pleasure of their texts. In his last years, when I’d asked what his childhood was like, my father said it was “wonderful,” even though he’d also told me about his mother’s depression, even though I knew his father had been cruel. His eyes would glisten and get a far away look. His was a real wistfulness. As we all know, all too well, even dictators, torturers, and idiots can be smoothed by time and missed for their ability to make trains run on time or mean well. Wistfulness makes victims and blood disappear as surely as any secret agency.

It’s not that one can’t look back and be grateful, of course. Sometimes I wish for “simpler days” when I was a kid and felt free to run into the woods and disappear. But so much of my freedom was built on my parents’ work–paying bills, keeping the house, the car, etc. All that work of theirs, much of it unpleasant and/or simply necessary, allowed me to built the imaginative foundation upon which my life exists. I am deeply grateful for all that labor.

Wistfulness is trying to get back into the mind of that young boy I was, it seems to me. It’s wanting to get back into a state of unknowing, which for adults is dangerous, is an attempt to unburden one’s self of responsibility.
It might be better to think of wistfulness then as a signal the mind and body gives off, or send out to say it’s getting overwhelmed. There are so many places and organizations that need help. We know so much more these days about the pain of the world. Corporations manipulate that pain we feel for their own ends.

I wish they didn’t. But that doesn’t make the complicated truth of it go away.

Zeus: some notes (for M.A.)

Because, considering all the news lately, why not Zeus?

He is after all a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

And wouldn’t it be tragically ironic for everyone presently at odds over which Big Sky Daddy is on their side, killing people, threatening people, destroying places where other people have lived for generations?

In the Trojan War, Zeus remained neutral. It was all the minor gods who got things going again just when peace might have broken out.

What is it you’ll be struck by if you use God’s name in vain?

Who also flooded the world?

Yawning (for Jody)

Being bored. Taking off. Coming in for a landing. In need of oxygen. When I stroke my dog’s muzzle, he automatically opens his mouth in a half-yawn that I can turn into a full one by running my hand over the soft hair over his jaws and under his ears. His jaw, studded with teeth, is impressive. His enormous pink tongue lolls out, then stretches, curling finally up. Then the whole mechanism tucks back up into his beautiful face. If your friends don’t yawn along with you, get new friends; only those humans who lack empathy can resist the urge. Even chimpanzees find it contagious.

I was trying to think of an important moment in my life that revolved around or even involved a yawn, mine or someone else’s. Nothing occurred to me at all. Yawn, in other words. But of course the presence of an absence is a form of red meat to any writer, because there must be something there, repressed perhaps or so common as to be overlooked. If yawns are a way the body relieves stress, there must be some stress surely that can be explored…

At a certain point in the evening, I find myself yawning and know I need to go to sleep. My body is very clear about that signal. Anyone who knows me knows that I can lie down just about anywhere and go to sleep.

Now that I think about sleeping, I’m yawning more and more. I’ve drunk most of a large coffee but still I can feel my brain and eyes beginning to lose focus and grow fuzzy. Have I ever yawned in a dream? Not to my recollection. I have flown, breathed water, crawled out of collapsed buildings, transformed into deer and murders of crows and vampires. I have been shot, been scared, screamed my lungs out, and wept like a baby. But not a single yawn in all those scenarios.

Vagina (for Ellen)

I know they are everywhere around me, under dresses, inside jeans and shorts, behind counters, driving by me, on the other end of the phone. I don’t think of them mostly because among the academics I’ve hung out with for the last thirty some years, no one has started a sentence with My vagina or The vagina or Your vagina or even Some vaginas. They always seem to be in what we love to call the object position in the sentences where they’ve appeared: Get your hands off my Vagina! Or they’ve been turned into clever textualisms like invagination.

Like most introverts, I don’t like to interrupt another person’s solitude. Like many gay men, I’ve never been inside a vagina. I have only observed how other men talk about the ones they have encountered or want to, and despite the many, many exuberant, brilliant, kind, and hilarious women I know, I always feel slightly sorry for vaginas in general. They seem always under fire and vulnerable. Places where men can’t see seem to make them crazy; that is, resistance makes men crazy, even angry, not vaginas. It’s also possible that men have been taught that they’re not men until they’ve entered and successfully released themselves in a vagina. When a St. Elmo’s Fire does not envelope them afterward, they believe the problem is the vagina’s and not the story’s.

I never saw my mother’s vagina. The only time I might have, I was being born and had many other concerns, like who was going to catch me. When I might have, at the end of her life when she had to submit to the indignities of an adult diaper, neither one of us could speak of it. It was bad enough that her children, both boys, might have to wipe her ass, nevermind the front. She didn’t want to be reduced to a terror. She was fierce in her independence, and being able to wipe herself was one of the signs, like making a joke, that she was still alive and kicking. Besides, she knew how often men remembered to put the seat down in the bathroom; how could we be expected to remember the correct procedures for much more delicate intimacies? Of course we would have done it; any sexual or social taboo around touching her was lost in our efforts to keep her comfortable. But we were grateful to the hospice nurses who kept us from having to do it. On the other hand, we lost the chance to see where we can been delivered into this world, how little we were.

Ubiquity (for Charlie)

Ubiquity is a synonym for God, isn’t it, the quality of being present everywhere? It’s not the only one, fortunately, but maybe it’s the one that is easiest to grasp now. People clearly disagree about the other qualities, especially whether Compassion is one of God’s qualities, or whether God might be vengeful, angry, or even dispassionate. There being no clear sense of that among any of the religions I studied, I gave up. A thing that is everywhere is in danger of being nowhere, as in the old joke where one fish asks another fish “how’s the water?” The other fish replies, “what the hell is water?” The point: it’s easy to forget what surrounds you.

I chose to write about the word ubiquity because I didn’t know what to do with it. It’s not a word I use very often, which makes it interesting: a word that means being present everywhere but which hardly ever itself appears anywhere either in a conversation or writing. Like a word I wrote about earlier–syzygy–ubiquity is so full of vowels that at first I stumble to say it. It’s like a cake with too much frosting; I expect it will be a mistake to try it.

Is ubiquity a dream of humanity? We seem unable to stop ourselves expanding, taking over what used to be the places where wild animals conducted their lives, turning “wilderness” into “civilized space”. What species beside humans might be said to be ubiquitous now? Insects like ants and beetles? Arachnids like spiders? Flies? Now that our presence has changed the climate, has global effects, have we reached ubiquity? Are we the water in which everything must now swim?

Once, not long ago Howard Stern proclaimed himself the King of Media, a Ubiquity. He has since fallen back to merely radio. Now, when I think of an example of ubiquity, I think of James Franco, who seems to be everywhere at once, as actor, writer, director, perpetual college student, who is becoming finally merely a “personality”, which is what our culture calls a person who was became famous by playing himself over and over again, who has outgrown the confines of a particular profession and “just is”. It matters little that his poems are awful or that his appearances are mostly silly. No one needs to read them anymore than anyone read Leonard Nimoy’s poems or Suzanne Sommers’. Franco will be replaced by another in his time, who will confuse his ability in one arena with an ability to be good at everything.

Once, it is imagined sometimes, poetry was ubiquitous, was the lingua franca of civilized folk. Before the written word, it (if you include songs in the definition) might have been an important source of information and imagination. Now, since most people can’t name a single living poet, it’s imagined that poetry has dried up as a tributary to the general imaginative reservoir contemporary humanity drinks from. But poetry, like all art, is always there, even if it exists only in marginal and liminal spaces where ordinary language or representations of life fail to work. Poetry’s life is intimately tied to the environments that give rise to it, and if poetry seems dead to some people, I think it’s usually because those people aren’t paying attention to the places where cruelty, helplessness, wonder, and confusion are so ubiquitous that humans must make art in order to illuminate the flood or fire they’re standing, so they can say how it is when the next fish comes with questions. In that way, poetry and the arts are that other precious Ubiquity, hope.


X-Men were mutants, which frankly we all were I learned, reading them. Who knew what power might be ready to be released by crisis? Which in a way made crisis, danger, panic, transformative if you thought about it right. Outcasts could suddenly catch fire and save the world. A quiet girl might possess her brutal father and end a beating. That a professor lead them, that a man in a wheelchair might stop a whole town merely by thinking it, was important. Not everything was on the surface. Or rather: under some apparently clean surfaces lurked the bizarre, the powerful, the wild, the invulnerable. You might breathe water. You might be able to hear a cat walking in the shadows. You might have the ability to tell happiness from terror from excitement from grief. The fact that you lived in a nuclear age might have good consequences as well as anxiety. What your parents did might quietly unfurl wings within your otherwise utterly ordinary teenage cells. You could jump tall buildings. You could become a Phoenix.


UFOs were all the rage in the 70s, I remember. As were ghosts, witches, and the idea that ancient cultures were about to reappear and jump start a new age. There were powers in the earth we weren’t tapping into, those latter three said. There were shamanic, ecstatic, artistic, and physical promises of peace, an end to war, a new way of seeing and knowing others and one’s real self. UFOs, however, were different. They were scientific, built of metal and subtle electricities. The aliens would arrive from above, speak in music, be noseless, mouthless, sexless, all one pale color, all eyes and touch, and for all that metal, as gentle as curious children. If they were, that is, like the movie versions from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which my mother and I loved. UFOs replaced angels and all that hypocritical religious claptrap we both hated. We prayed to be taken away. We dawdled in abandoned areas. We longed for the adventure which would at last equal our sense of entitlement; if we were going to be burdened with consciousness it had better be able to connect to other consciousnesses, deeper, more sophisticated consciousness. The size of what we knew to be true about the universe demanded we were not alone. Surely someone would notice us, how unhappy we were, how anxious.

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