Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: January, 2018

Lives of the Robots: some notes

Hologrammed dead-celebrities selling out auditoriums and robot priests in today’s newsfeed. Cliches called poems selling thousands of copies. Are we already the dead, choosing endless repetition, afraid of anything but the pre-programmed? Anything new is often painful, at least at first. Is this why the different, the artists, the outsiders are often endangered, because they bring with them the new, the surprise, the difficulty of moving back into life after despair (or childhood)? What change are we avoiding by being dead?

Do’s and Don’ts: some notes

Over on the Best American Poetry blog, Alan Ziegler has a good list of Do’s and Don’ts in his Creative Writing Workshop. It’s adapted from his book The Creative Writing Notebook. For those of you looking for help thinking about teaching practices, this might be useful. It’s a much better list than anything I’ve written over the years, sensitive and clear about expectations. In a couple of weeks, when my class turns to workshopping poems, I may just have students read Zeigler’s post and discuss it.


By the way, after spending some time looking up the right way to punctuate Do’s and Don’ts, I have decided to go with Grammar Girl, aka Mignon Fogarty, who writes this:

“Generally, you don’t use apostrophes to make words or abbreviations plural (e.g., CDs, 1970s, hats), but English has a few exceptions. For example, you can use apostrophes when they help eliminate confusion, which happens most often with single letters. Mind your p’s and q’s is the typical spelling, and we write that the word aardvark has 3 a’s, not 3 as.

Dos and don’ts is an especially unusual exception. The apostrophe in the contraction doesn’t seems to make people want to use an apostrophe to make do plural (do’s and don’ts), but then to be consistent, you’d also have to use an apostrophe to make don’t plural, which becomes downright ugly (do’s and don’t’s).

Style guides and usage books don’t agree.

• The Chicago Manual of Style and others recommend dos and don’ts.

• The Associated Press and others recommend do’s and don’ts.

• Eats, Shoots & Leaves recommends do’s and don’t’s.

What Should You Do? Unless your editor wishes otherwise, if you write books, spell it dos and don’ts; and if you write for newspapers, magazines, or the Web, spell it do’s and don’ts. If you’re writing for yourself, spell it any way you want. Just be consistent.”


Do’s and Don’ts offer a particular pleasure: the opportunity to chart out what you want and don’t want. It’s hard to know sometimes what we do want. Take some time to why some out for yourself. Why not write a manifesto for yourself today? Or a Do’s and Don’ts for Introverts? A Do’s and Don’ts for Presidents?

Reading Poetry: Jan Freeman’s Blue Structure

All last year, full of anxiety after the election, I read mostly poets from the past, poets who had lived through worse things than the Trump Presidency. I read Rukeyser, Akhmatova, Brecht, and Rich mostly. I reread David Young’s three translations of Paul Celan. I didn’t read much of anything else except for a few escapist fantasy novels and book and articles I was using in classes. I have trouble reading when I’m feeling anxious. (I can hardly read when happy either, if I’m thinking about my reading and its moods.)

But a year of that is enough, isn’t it? Since this year’s an election year, I think to myself, maybe we can change control of the legislature enough to stop the Republican plans to give the commonwealth of the nation to a few families who already have more money than they can ever spend. I hope we can anyway, and that hope has given me a little buoyancy as a reader, enough to spend some time with some books I read last year but had been unable to write about. I had thought to write a lot more about poetry last year for this blog, as a way to resist the awful despair I felt, but I could not overcome that despair and rage enough to actually write blog pieces.

The first book I want to talk about is Jan Freeman’s book Blue Structure. It was published in 2016 by Calypso Editions but I didn’t get it until 2017. It’s a beautifully made, slim book about grief and loss. As poetry, it is intimate and almost vatic at the same time as it traces by way of voice–often using repetition the way a bat uses sonar to build its world out of cry and ear–the spaces where the poet finds herself after several close deaths.

So voice is several things at once: a plumb line for building a house or a boundary line; a form of intimate conversation; proof of grief; and lifeboat. It is what the poet has left that might reach the dead whose presence is both inside and outside her simultaneously, who still inhabit the narrator’s space and must be re-housed as she begins to re-make that space in order to live in it. I love the beauty and strangeness of Freeman’s poems, which remind me of Rukeyser’s voice at times but are all her own.

Blue Structure is a book of you and I’s, of addresses to gone but still beloved and longed-for presences. The poems search through myth, through family stories, through secrets, as they keep talking, singing, remembering, and grieving all at once. My favorites are these: “An Old Dog Lay Down On a Sandy Road,” “A Song,” “Hands,” “Voices,” “An Accounting,” and “The Secret”.

Here’s the title poem Blue Structure, published at the Ekphrastic Review. It will give you a sense of Freeman’s voice, although there are other structures–tight, gorgeous lyrics and a couple of delicate sequences- within the book I think you’ll find equally beautiful.

I recommend the book for anyone. The grief and love throughout are certainly personal to Freeman but her voice opens the poems up to any reader who has felt that strange new world the death of a parent, close friend, or lover leaves you in.

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