Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You're Going, a memoir-in-poems of love and marriage, and Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of Georgia O'Keeffe, winner of the New Mexico Book Award and 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 an editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown. Learn more about Jessica's work at https://jessicalgjacobs.com/and @jlgjacobs .
Her poems, "Out of the Windfields"and "And That's How I Almost Died of Foolishness in Beautiful Florida," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Rupture.
Here, she speaks with Angela Redmond-Theodore about place, sex, and poetry godmothers.
Different as they are, your poems "Out of the Windfields" and "And That's How I Almost Died of Foolishness in Beautiful Florida" read like a landscape painting—the detailed description of a particular place, of the things in that place. And, like a good painting, the poems' details reveal the stories and sentiments that lie beneath the surface. How did each of these poems come to be?
With my poems, I try to let the particular characteristics and quirks of the landscapes that inform them help me tell their stories, drawing on each site for a sensory-rich setting and metaphors specific to that place—a practice especially helpful with these two poems.
I grew up in subtropical Central Florida, a tough place for a queer kid who loved the mountains ever since she first got a brief taste of them in summer camp. Though I left as soon as I could, when I returned to visit my family, I found myself imagining what my life would have been if I'd stayed and done what was expected of me: marry a man, live in the suburbs, have a sensible, office-bound career. With these thoughts in mind, I visited a writing group in Taos where the leader, Elaine Sutton, an incredible woman who's since passed, read aloud Mary Oliver's "Alligator Poem" as a prompt. The moment she read, "And that's how I almost died of foolishness in beautiful Florida," I was pierced by the accuracy of that line and began to write, understanding that such an alternate Florida life would have meant for me—whether in body or spirit—some kind of death.
"Out of the Windfields" grew from a similar experience of deep loneliness, though with a very different setting and situation. When I was 29, my life looked pretty good—from the outside, anyway. I had a promising career in academic publishing, lived in Manhattan, and had a lovely girlfriend. Within the next year, I'd quit my job to begin a graduate degree in poetry, left the city, and ended that relationship, which meant I suddenly found myself single, in Indiana, trying to figure out how the hell to be a writer. To fill the time between teaching, reading, and writing, I began training for races—first marathons, then 50K's—putting all those long hours to good use. In the final month of my MFA, I reconnected with the woman who would become my wife, only then recognizing how lonely I had been, how grateful I was to have found her.
In a way, the couplets in "Windfields" reflect line All I could do was write until my sentence / ended. Couplets allow you to get to the end of a sentence with pause, with ease. "And How I Almost Died," on the other hand, a series of linked stanzas of various lengths, hinges on the lines, I have no doubt / that if I'd stayed—given in to the gravity / of expectations and inertia—I'd be / dead already[…] Can you talk about (a) your approach to revealing (or is it discovering?) conflict and (b) your choice of form in the work of revelation?
Though I am occasionally—veryoccasionally—gifted with those dictation-from-the-gods poems that arrive fully formed, in need of only a little collar tightening and hair smoothing, writing a new poem is much more often an intensive, all day affair for me, with one foot in writing, one in revising, and my whole body working to find the images that will make those static words rise from the page. My first drafts tend to be rife with clichés, which I think act as a shorthand of all I'm trying to get down onto the page in that first rush. So arriving at the true heart of poem, its tension and conflict, is a matter of pressing on those clichés until they yield the message or question beneath their bland surface. Through this process, I often discover some of the wisdom my subconscious was hoarding, an experience of self-revelation I hope I can pass on to my reader.
After working toward the right words ("right," in that they are as forthright and true as I can make them), I then try and sense what form will be most in keeping with their nature. For "And How I Almost Died," the ragged, irregular stanzas cascading into each other felt mimetic of the way things grow in Florida: invasive vines choking out native trees, flowers blooming extravagantly in every season. In "Windfields," couplets felt like an apt mirror for all those parallel farm roads stretching between the fields of corn and soy, for my twinned steps across all those miles, as well as for the pairing found in the poem's final lines.
"Out of the Windfields" highlights the contrasts between domination: When the combines brought the fields / to their knees[. . .] and generosity: In answering / prayer, I folded myself into the footwell; knelt // between your knees; and between harshness: desiccated, field-stripped, brittled / down to parts [. . .] and fluidity: my mouth / to you was every water // I'd ever tasted [. . .] I would love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between sex and writing.
Sex and writing demand vulnerability, an easing of control in order to welcome mystery. And my best experiences of both surpass the confines of a single adjective, allowing room for exchanges of power, for generosity and harshness and love, for a true opening of the self to whatever revelations the body might bring.
Is there a work of literature that you turn to again and again? Please share with us the significance of the work and the author.
The collection in which these two poems appear is my newest, a book published this past spring calledTake Me with You, Wherever You're Going, and ithad three poetry godmothers to guide it.
I found Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language when I was in high school. It was the first book of poetry I owned and the first I read that assured me a life with another woman was possible. The insights found in both her poetry and prose accompany me to this day.
The second poetry collection I owned was Satan Says by Sharon Olds, a scathing account of her childhood, as well as a loving record of the early years of her marriage. From reading Olds through the years, I've learned how to write about longing and sex, as well as how to approach our difficult experiences, impulses, and desires in poems that don't hide behind obscure language or irony.
My dear friend Laure-Anne Bosselaar is the final guiding light of these poems (as well as one of the two people to whom my book is dedicated—the other being my wife). Written in the years after the death of her beloved husband, the poet Kurt Brown, These Many Rooms is a searing record of her grief, as well as a map of how she survived such sorrow—the whole book suffused with music and light. These poems help to remind me of how fortunate I am to find love and how important it is to value such love for as long as it lasts.
What are you working on, long term and short term?
I'm currently at work on two paired projects, one poetry and one prose. I'm reading slowly through the Torah—the text, along with commentary and midrash, which is interpretation and close-reading by centuries of rabbinic scholars—and writing the poems that rise from that reading, poems that strive to share the wisdom and contemporary relevance I'm finding there. My essays draw from this research and more, each circling a central topic like heritage, mortality, fear, and time. It's soul-growing work and, honestly, however the writing is received once I begin to send it out, I feel my life will be better for having written it.