Conversations with Contributors: Jessica Jacobs

Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Goingpublished by Four Way Books in March 2019. Her debut collection, Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications including Orion, New England Review, Guernica, and The Missouri Review. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock climbing instructor, bartender, and professor, and now serves as Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown, and is at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash.


Tom Bosworth: You’ve been touring since January! What has that been like?

Jessica Jacobs: Well, I received your question in NYC, where my wife, the poet Nickole Brown, and I spent a week giving readings and co-teaching a workshop, people-watching to our hearts’ content and walking the city until our feet gave out, but I’m now answering from the hammock I like to bring on the road with us, slung between two shagbark hickories outside a little AirBnb in New Paltz, where we’re taking a breather for a few days before reading and teaching at the Hudson Valley Writers Center. Which is a long way of saying touring is both exhausting and magical. What a blessed existence in which poetry has allowed me to see so many gorgeous places and introduced me to some of my closest friends—and that I get to do nearly all of it with my wife beside me.

TB: Gratitude and reverence for place and nature, like a hammock “slung between two shagbark hickories,” seem really important to you. The first section of your book begins with that beautiful Larry Levis epigraph, “I wanted to explain this life to you, even if / I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.” That section features a lot of poems about Florida like “Primer.” How did that place shape this “becoming”?

 JJ: The poems I love most are written not while gazing abstractedly through a window—the words strained through pure intellect—but written through the body, grounded in deep sensory awareness. Growing up in suburban Central Florida, reading was my way out. But I rarely read inside. Instead, I’d climb a tree and read in the branches, adventure along paths of what I now know is a scruffy local park but what I then thought was a jungle to find a quiet place alone with a book, or, when I was older, row a boat into the middle of a lake and read to rhythm of the waves from passing motorboats. Yet along with being suffocatingly conservative, Florida can also be dangerous—my first day of kindergarten was also the day of my first yelled curse word: When I opened the door to go to school, I almost stepped into the middle of a water moccasin coiled on the welcome mat. So along with what I read, I imbibed a need for attention to the natural world as a means of both wonder and self-preservation.

TB: Be it a water moccasin or the Pagan twins of “Sex, Suddenly, Everywhere,” dangerous, uncomfortable, or “suffocating” situations are often paired with a charming sense of humor. How do you hold this tension between difficulty and humor in your work?

JJ: Though I’m nowhere near as funny, Matthew Olzmann’s poems have been my masterclass in holding this tension. They often open with some quizzical fact or absurd and fantastical speculation that makes you lean in and laugh at the same time. Then, in that moment of openness, whether it’s gun violence, environmental devastation, or a heartfelt longing for connection, Matthew drops the funny and tells you what’s really on his mind and in his heart—and because the humor has lowered your defenses, the force of those concerns strikes you that much more intensely. I love how this mirrors reality’s nuance, where there’s laughter in the hardest moments and a shadow to every surge of elation.

TB: That complexity is so compelling. When I first read “A Question to Ask Once the Honeymoon is Over,” I was struck by how confessional and honest the speaker is about their own kindness. You tweeted that this is the poem that “made me take an honest look at myself and want to be different.” How do you put that vulnerability on that page?

 JJ: Usually an ardent reviser, with my poems only fully revealing themselves after many hard-fought drafts, “A Question to Ask Once the Honeymoon is Over” was a rare gift. I opened a journal I’d begun when I first moved to Little Rock to be with my wife and found the account of the turtle in the road I hadn’t taken the time to rescue—a memory I’d clearly repressed, as I read it as though for the first time. When I went to type it up, there was the memory of the old woman who used to live across the street from me in Oakland, and the rest of the poem followed, in need of little coaxing. The real test came when I read it to my wife, deeply ashamed of whom the poem revealed me to be, and wept when I came to the final lines.

Now when I share that poem at readings, it feels a little bit like my “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—the turtle, my albatross—and every time, it sinks a little deeper, a reminder that even when it’s easier to ignore someone’s suffering and keep on with my life, the person I want to be would stop and help and so that’s the choice I should make. And now, as a wonderful surprise, I have a collection of photos people have sent me after hearing or reading that poem of the turtles they’ve stopped and saved. And every one of those photos tells me that no matter how painful that poem is to share, or future poems to write, the vulnerability is worthwhile. For how could I ask anything more from my writing than static words on a static page inspiring real moments of awareness and action?

TB: When you spoke with my class at Dartmouth last year, I jotted down this nugget: “Falling in love was super useful.” Could you tell me more about that?

JJ: For me, falling in love was characterized by the falling—that plunging, out of control action that leaves you at the mercy of forces beyond yourself. My wife’s happiness and health—the former sometimes in my control, the latter entirely outside it—became a new source of gravity, a different set of priorities by which to guide my ideas and actions. In my writing, this drew me from more navel-gazing concerns to asking larger questions: Why are we here? What does it mean to live a good life? Is there a concept of God that makes sense to me? So, I’ve begun delving into Midrash, which is a collection of rabbinic writings about the Torah, a course of study that is allowing me to think alongside sages from many centuries. From this research, I’m writing poems and essays that draw on these texts, trying to capture the contemporary relevance I’ve found in these ancient stories. I wouldn’t have reached this place of wondering without the space that love opened inside me. And I should also say, given that my wife is one hell of a writer and editor, it certainly doesn’t hurt to marry your best reader.

TB: That’s a terrifying realization, that something as important as your partner’s health is outside of your control. I see all of those things coming together in the fifth section, with the arrival of a new kind of doubt in “Finding Something” followed by “In the Days Between Detection and Diagnosis.” What was writing these poems like compared to some of the earlier, sometimes humorous poems?

JJ: At the end of our first book tour in 2015, Nickole noticed a strange sensation in her leg, which turned out to be a tumor. For two months, we raced from doctor to doctor, from Little Rock to Houston, for testing. And for those two months, I had to keep myself together enough to schedule appointments, make constant phone calls to our insurance company, communicate with worried family and friends, and most of all remain positive and supportive for my wife. Yet I knew the whole time that if it was cancer, it would likely be a form of bone cancer that meant I’d be lucky to have another five years with her. So, at the end of those long, awful days of trying to be far stronger than I actually was, I began to write: all the grief, all the terror and desperation that I wouldn’t let myself articulate in the daylight hours. Thankfully, the tumor turned out to be benign and was able to be removed without any lasting physical trauma. So, the poems in the fifth section grew from that night writing, becoming the poems I needed to carry me through, and now, I hope, maybe one day keeping someone else company during a similar time of deep sorrow and uncertainty.

TB: There’s a really potent moment in “In the Days Between Detection and Diagnosis” when the speaker, while sitting in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, is unable to hide her own grief from her wife:

I kiss the back of my wife’s neck, its sun
and sweat the brightest shade
in the room,
                      then go sit closer to a canvas
to cry alone. When I turn, she is watching
my shoulders. She dips her head,
walks outside.

It’s interesting you mentioned writing these at night. Was it difficult not being able to share them with your “best reader”?

JJ: Our good friends Seth Pennington and Bryan Borland, two married poets who run the fabulous Sibling Rivalry Press, have a shared ritual. If one of them has something he really wants to write about, he says he’s “peeing on it”—a practice I’m familiar with from our dog Rocco, who by the power of his lifted leg believes he owns every lamppost and stop sign in our neighborhood. Seth and Bryan are kidding, of course, but also gently indicating to each other that they’d like custody of a particular moment or idea. Though, as women, our battles for subject custody play out a little differently, this is an arrangement that needs to be developed when you have two writers sharing not only a home but a lifetime of experiences.

While I most often write about something while it’s occurring, using the process of writing and revising as a way of better understanding what’s happening and how to handle it, Nickole tends to metabolize events more slowly, only writing about them years after they’ve occurred. So, though I needed to write these poems to make it through, I knew this was an experience of which Nickole had primary claim. Because of this, I didn’t share this sequence with her until we’d received the benign diagnosis and had a clear path forward. And now, years later, she’s written a series of searing, gorgeous poems about this experience that I can’t wait for her to send out into the world.

TB: How did you know when to end your “Memoir-in-Poems”?

JJ: Though the specific life events on which this collection draws might not always be apparent to a reader, after an initial dip into my childhood in Florida as a way of understanding my point of origin, this book’s narrative arc begins with the night I met my wife and ends after the first three years of our marriage, concluding with our move from Little Rock to Asheville. This was the first time we’d lived in a city new to us both and in a home we’d found and created together. Because of this, it felt like we were beginning a distinctly new part of our lives, which made it feel like a natural point of closure for the collection. I still have many more questions about love and lifelong commitment, but I guess they’ll have to wait until I’m ready to write another book of love poems…

TB: Gabrielle Calvocoressi says, and I don’t think this an exaggeration, “I’m totally certain Jessica Jacobs’s book is going to save someone’s life.” What writers have had that effect on your life?

JJ: Growing up as a queer kid in a conservative place, books were my salvation. They assured me there was a larger world than the one in which I felt so suffocated and unseen and that if I could just hang on until I left for college, the life I wanted was possible. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds were my earliest poetic companions, as I reveled in the boldness of their subjects and the rich strangeness of their language. Yet one of the most important books to me was Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, a beautiful record of her life and love with the novelist Michelle Cliff, which I carried with me everywhere like a talisman.

The quote you mention is from a blurb Gaby was generous enough to write for my book. It made me cry when I received it because I can think of no better definition of success as a writer than my poems keeping someone who needs it company, or making even one person feel a little less alone.


Tom Bosworth

Tom Bosworth is from Fort Worth, Texas, and studies at Dartmouth College.

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