Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: March, 2016

How To Survive In Literary Space Without a Book: a run-up to AWP

I was talking with my friend Noah the other day about what kinds of panels we might propose for next year, when the conference meets in Washington, DC, its fiftieth anniversary. We’ve both been to panels that were unorganized snooze-fests or self-congratulatory circle-jerks or, a pet peeve of mine, asked merely rhetoric questions–Is anyone reading nonfiction? (Duh–yes, now what’s your real question?) 

Every so often, though, comes a panel that is amazing, that really does change the way we view writing, publishing, teaching, or some important facet of the writer’s life. 

So, dear friends reading this, one reason I’m writing this post is to find out if there are any panels you’d like to see offered.  What are the burning questions you generally want to think about? 

Here are some we were thinking might be of interest and doable: 

How to survive in the literary world without a book.

Finding sustaining work as a writer or teacher or editor after 40. 

How to break into teaching after 40.
How does the older writer emerge into the world of teaching, publishing, networking, etc? 

(Our answers to the latter:

1. Buy your clothes at H & M

2. Tweet

3. Learn to be young! (Until the strain crushes you…)

4. Stop talking about your health

5. Stop picking at that freckle on your arm! It’s not cancer.

6. Stop telling kids about the old days.

7. Stop making references to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

8. Don’t ask out loud “What’s snapchat?” Don’t ask “What’s a Google?”

9.  Replace Heathers in your movie quotes wheelhouse with Mean Girls.)
Then we both realized no one would let us do old jokes for a half hour. Even though AWP now was itself turning 50, and might very well need to laugh at itself a bit more.

Then I asked,  Why don’t we just concentrate on our own work, instead of trying to be helpful? 

(How to stop being helpful to others at the expense of yourself, might be a good panel, now that I think of it.)

Then we talked about friends who were publishing at last, friends over 50. After lives of being helpful, of feeling frustrated.

Then we talked about eating our feelings–cake and Doritos for me, burgers and fries for Noah.

Then we both agreed we had to go now and buy some comfortable shoes and clothes for next week. 

Because we were no where near our ideal AWP weight. Because AWP has many of the same anxieties surrounding class reunions.

Then we both decided that, though it was the middle of the afternoon, we were both suddenly exhausted and needed naps.

And we did. 


Being Irritated

I haven’t been writing poems for a while. Or reading them much. Poetry has been irritating me, to tell you the truth. At first I thought I was just irritated after reading a few books that were mediocre to my thinking and to my ear, a thing it’s easy to brush off as my being a bad reader, a moody listener. But then that feeling didn’t go away, even when I set myself before poems I should have liked, by poets I have loved in the past or by poets people I respected trumpeted. Oh, the preciousness of line breaks made my eyes roll. The artificiality of metaphors or adjectives or dependent phrases piling up until the lines and sentences were nearly choking to death. I tapped my fingers a lot waiting for the special effects to end. The stack of unreadable books grew on my bedside table until I finally bought a new bookcase to house them elsewhere. 

I was busy, I told myself. I’d gotten married, I’d taken on much more administrative work than before, I was working on prose now and so naturally my mind and needs had changed. I was constantly long-ranging planning everywhere. I had no more of the vast swathes of quiet I used to have to just settle and grow bored in. I had just come through a period of mourning that even I had no real idea what the length was. I was probably depressed. I was eating too many carbohydrates or too much meat, growing acidic, crippling my gut bacteria, my biome, whatever. I was taking in too much of the political anxiety. It was winter.

You know what didn’t irritate me? Sentences. Sentences that were sensible and elegant and true. Sentences that told me something I didn’t know, that aimed to transmit knowledge, that knew I was there, with all my exhaustion and frustration, trying not to scream because I felt so lost. Sentences that weren’t broken into lines for emphasis or breath units or sound effects or whatever ridiculous reason a poet might articulate as revitalizing or revolutionary but which all seemed to scream “Look at me!!!” I had it bad; I’d become a grumpy old bastard. 

Usually I let myself be for a few days when I’m feeling like that. Irritation is usually a sign something in me is undergoing change, is thinking about, wrestling with, trying to inhibit some idea or energy or (dare I say?) some happiness. I play video games, eat ice cream, lecture too long to my students about some trivial issue, until their eyes look away, until finally I get bored with my selfishness, my self-indulgences. This time, when the boredom hit, I began reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl before bed. The language is clear and came in short sections. Slowly, without much verbal flourish at all, I was deeply moved by the stories in it, which began to build on one another–an acknowledgement of individual lives usually erased by capitalism, empire, industry, whatever monster you choose to think is the prime cause of evil. More than a few times I wept for strangers’ losses, of abandoned pets, of family doors taken off their hinges and evacuated, of those who could not bear to leave. To cry felt like an awful and great thing.  I hadn’t realized I’d been holding so much stuff in. 

Then came a week of intense dreams. Then suddenly I wanted to go to the gym again.
Then, this morning, I woke up with a new project in mind. In prose, I should say. Or a sort of prose I’m finding myself interested in. I’m still not ready for line breaks. 

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