By Nancy Koerbel
How much I miss being the little boy
whose father with his bare hands could repair
anything that broke. I’m still the child who listens
to birds before morning, who prefers to watch things
move around him, who’d turn invisible if possible, be
secretary to the thousand things, the billion forms.
From “Dream of the Lawns,” Little What
I met the poet Jeff Oaks for coffee at Tazo D’Oro—a beloved coffee shop in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood where he often comes to write. We talked about writing, and dogs, tools and books, and his debut book of poetry, Little What, that’s just out from Lily Poetry Review Books.
Little What is Oaks’s first book, although he is a well published and diverse writer, as well as a dedicated teacher. He’s received three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships and has published poems in a number of literary magazines, most recently in Best New Poets, Field, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Superstition Review, and Tupelo Quarterly. He’s also the author of four poetry chapbooks.
His prose has appeared in At Length, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Kenyon Review Online, and Water~Stone Review. Both poems and prose have appeared in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them.
I’ve known Oaks for many years as a colleague at the University of Pittsburgh and fellow traveler in the local poetry scene. He’s made deep and lasting contributions to the literary community here, and is now the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Writing at Pitt where he’s taught writing for over 30 years.
Hard working, generous, and fluent in multiple forms and genres, Oaks has also been painting in earnest since 2016 (that’s his artwork on the cover of Little What). On the day we met a small collection of his art was hanging at Tazo—which made the room especially colorful and warm.
Lastly, Oaks is a deft photographer and often posts photos of the Allegheny River with its bridges and warehouses and variations of light on social media when he’s out walking his dog, Andy, a rescued black Lab.
Oaks grew up just above Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the emotional contours of coming of age in that time and place ground his work. He’s a thoughtful poet whose mastery of craft makes his handiwork seamless. Oaks is always awake and deeply attentive to who and what surrounds him, even in the middle of the night. The poems in Little What skillfully transform the everyday—birds, sunflowers, parsnips, into intimate and songs of desire, celebration, and wonder.
Nancy Koerbel: How was the river this morning?
Jeff Oaks: It was good. It wasn’t super beautiful because we got there really early so it was kind of dull. There’s a moment when I’m walking along the river and the sun comes just up over the warehouses that casts where I am in shade and lights up the whole of Spring Hill [a neighborhood across the river].
NK: I deeply respect and admire your discipline and dedication to your work – is that something you’ve cultivated over time or a part of your nature?
JO: Both. [At first] I think I cultivated writing every day because of Frank O’Hara. When I was a young poet, I thought that was what poets did, write every day.
I thought if you presented yourself as a writer, the world would shower you with things. It does. But not the things you thought it would.
Then at a certain point growing older made me drop a lot of pretentions I had that I didn’t think were pretentions, and I started writing about what was there, in front of me.
I pushed past the pose of “Oh – I’m going to be a poet today and write down the important thing” to “just write something and get it down.” Then later on I’d go back and look at what I wrote and say, “Oh, that was something.”
NK: Do you feel like you’re a good judge of your own work?
JO: Hardly ever. Every so often I get it. But mostly I learned to distrust that judgment, to keep writing and go back later. Now, in order to start a new journal I go back to my old journal and reread it for poems. Then I rewrite them into the new journal as a way to get the new journal started.
NK: The structure in your poems feels really organic to me. The form never announces itself; it’s not pronounced, like, “Oh, I’m doing a sonnet.”
JO: Sometimes I do think that. But there’s so much stuff in my head, usually, that I need [structure] as a way to mark off space, so I can start somewhere.
NK: Do you think part of that’s a result of how you grew up – with your dad? With somebody involved in making?
JO: I don’t know what’s him and what’s me.
Somewhere in second or third grade, fourth grade, maybe, I remember starting to think ahead. It was probably partly when I kind of knew I was gay – there was something else going on that I was. We didn’t have the word gay then. But I knew it was also dangerous to speak of it or act upon it. So there was a certain part of me that began scripting things ahead of time.
NK: I’m just thinking of your poem, Saint Wrench, partly because I’ve been trying to understand my father through tools, something I really had no awareness of as a child. Since I’m a woman, he didn’t share those things with me, but I also didn’t ask. Tools were always his purview in a really privileged way.
JO: This was also true for the men in my family. I missed out on all of it. My brother got it. He has no problem rewiring or launching into plumbing problems or generally fixing things.
NK: But you make all kinds of things, you make art, you make different kinds of writing.
JO: Yes. As long as there’s no electricity or water running through them, I’m fine. I do like making things.
My mother’s father was the ultimate maker in the family. He was a grinder for American Can for a long time. One of his jobs during WWII he was a torpedo grinder. His job was to make them as frictionless as possible.
He had this little tool shed that was connected to the garage, [it had] all the peg boards with tools that had lines drawn around them, and all the drawers that had very specific notations about what size screw this was and what kind of bolt this was. I loved going in there. I had no idea what to do with any of it. But I loved the variety of things that it was – like a library.
NK: It’s very much like a library—the orderliness of it.
JO: It was like a dream of order.
My grandmother was somebody who could make any kind of food out of anything she had. They went through the depression. It was important that they learned how to do things early in their lives. My grandfather could fix anything and my grandmother could cook anything. They were like Adam and Eve to me. They were total makers.
Their house was Garden of Edenish. They had pear trees and apple trees and strawberries. Blackberries. Raspberries. All sorts of things. Because that’s what you did in the Depression was make your own garden.
JO: Yeah. Sometimes I would go down into the basement and look at her canning. She had all those Mason jars jam and preserves. It was like the organic version of his workshop.
NK: Did you ever write about that place?
JO: I’ve written about him. Her poems did not survive. I wrote them very early on and they’ve kind of disappeared now.
NK: I feel like there’s a prohibition on grandmother poems.
JO: There is. And I feel a little weird now at midlife, because the second book that’s done, that I think is done, that I’m going to start sending out, is all about my mother and her dying.
And I thought, you’d better write something about the present now. What does it mean to be somebody without parents? It should mean that you can see the present, and god help you, the future. As opposed to many of the poems I write are about the past or things that have happened in the past.
And I’m trying to figure out how to believably and, emotionally, for me, write about the present.
NK: Your poems have a very present kind of interiority, though. I don’t feel like they’re maudlin in that looking back way.
JO: Yes, I’m hoping not to be nostalgic about it. I think desire functions in that way for me. Desire is the thing that is the present. Or the present-making energy. Or something.
NK: Before I forget, has O’Hara been a big influence on you?
JO: He has been. Yes as a certain kind of model and no as a certain kind of model. As the urban gay model, not so much. It was really important to know that he was gay, and it was important for me to read poems of his that were about a kind of desire. So “Having a Coke with You” is much more important to me than, say, “Poem: [Lana Turner has collapsed!]”
There are two models in my head. One of them is Frank O’Hara, who was really well known and flamboyant. There was a certain kind of thing he did that I read as a young poet as a discipline. Somebody told me that Frank O’Hara would write poems on a typewriter even when he was at parties. He had that kind of facility. He would just make a poem up – and I remember thinking: “ I want that.”
The other person who was weirdly important [to me] is Robert Francis. He was a poet who lived mostly in Robert Frost’s shadow, though he was well enough known. He lived in this little house that he bought after WWII, lived a very quiet life His poems are much more like my poems used to be – about an object Much more controlled in terms of line and sometimes meter. I really adored his life, which was very intimate and full of an introverted energy and creativity. It seemed great. He’s like my rural gay poet who’s a balance to Frank O’Hara.
NK: How is your painting related to your writing?
JO: I don’t yet know what their relationship is. I’ve always sort of done little sketches and little arty things. But the art really showed up in 2016 when Trump got elected because that collapsed all my hope. I remember thinking the only way I’ll get through this is by having really bright colors in front of me. So then I started painting – big colored things—mostly on paper.
I was just talking to my students about this. Anne Bogart wrote this great book—And Then, You Act. She’s a theater director and she wrote it after 9/11 – asking what is the work of art when this kind of thing happens? She uses this great word she’s borrowed from the German – betroffenheit— an encounter that completely devastates you.
When you’ve had this moment of shock and you don’t know what to do – it has emptied you and you have to reconfigure yourself after that – or reconfigure what you’re doing, and 9/11 was certainly one of those encounters. Trump’s election was one. It reconfigured me toward shape and color rather than language and meaning.
NK: Where do you make your artwork?
JO: I work on the floor. It’s really infantile – it feels great!
After a while all the little marks you make begin to talk to each other and as you’re making your marks – almost like being a teacher in a funny way – you’re starting to facilitate the conversation between marks and making more marks – and sometimes you put down color…
NK: Painting always seems more fun.
JO: It is! It’s also been helpful in getting me back on my feet as a writer. Thank god I teach – having to work with kids has also been really helpful.
NK: You’ve taught for so long.
JO: Yeah – 32 years. I love it.
NK: Do you feel it’s impeded your work at all?
JO: No! Well, I’m sure it probably slowed down my production in certain ways. On the other hand not having a job would have created much more anxiety and I might never have written. Because I do like to nest. I always tell my students the thing I have to do in my journal often, before I will let myself write, is I have to make sure my checking account is in the black. The economic anxiety that I would have had to have dealt with if I hadn’t kept doing the same job and lived in the same city (where it used to be cheap) would have. So all of those things have helped make the world now that I’m comfortable in and happy in. That has really helped me braver as a writer and braver now as an artist. It’s letting me try art.
It did actually build me up so I would try things more. I always teach one book that I’ve never read, so I have to read it with them. And I usually choose somebody that I know from reading social media is important, someone everybody else is talking about. And very often I don’t like them. But because I have to teach I have to defend it in some way – And so I’ve ended up having to defend, and then falling in love with, lots of writers that I don’t think I would have if it were just me.
I think it saved me – I know there are lots of people who say oh, it’s gotten in my way, but honestly – being around all of those hopeful but anxious kids who do still believe that something will happen if they write. Helping them get to a space where they can write.
Way before the book got published – probably ten years ago— I guess that was my midlife crisis. Because I just said to myself, OK, what if you don’t ever publish a book, will your life still have meaning, will you still .. and I thought yep, I’ve taught thousands of students how to interact and engage with poetry or writing or something. And I think I’ve made most of their lives more interesting/ better. So – if I’m only a teacher — that’s a pretty good life.
NK: Now that you have a first book, has that changed the way you feel about writing and publishing?
JO: I’ve waited a long time for this first book. Quite a few friends who’d already published books told me, with a degree of sympathy, that getting a book out doesn’t really change your life—by which they meant none of them got rich, none of them got better jobs, none of them levitated or could suddenly jump tall buildings, or stop bullets with their teeth. But they were wrong. It did change my life, by which I mean my feeling of my life. The production of a book is a production; it’s proof that all those years writing and revising and sending things out and giving readings added up to something tangible. I was happier about my life for having produced a book. It is an achievement, even if it’s not the kind of achievement that grants me the power to lift cars over my head. It gave me hope and a feeling of pride. It is a celebration. I’m in the Library of Congress, which is something. There’s a record I was here on earth. And yes, it’s not all I’m grateful for or all that my life has been worth, but it is a real joy to have a book, and especially right now, joy is important.
Nancy Koerbel teaches professional and legal writing at the University of Pittsburgh, holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and coordinates the Pittsburgh location of the national literary reading series Why There Are Words (WTAW). Her poems have appeared most recently in One, Redactions, and The Pittsburgh Poetry Review.