Interview by Stacey Balkun
As Georgia O’Keeffe could distill time and distance on a canvas, poet Jessica Jacobs captures whole landscapes in the space of a page. How does a poet reconcile expansion with condensation? Here, Jacobs talks loneliness, love, and longing with The Normal School alumna Stacey Balkun.
Stacey Balkun: Your first book of poetry, Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press 2015) is a striking account of the life and work of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, held together by a narrative of the speaker working towards the biographical poems. Many of these poems are letters, and the result is a powerfully gorgeous honesty. How did you settle on the epistolary form of the poems in this book?
Jessica Jacobs: First off, thank you for your generous assessment of these poems! When I was doing research for this book, the bulk of my reading was letters—O’Keeffe’s letters to business associates and childhood friends and over a thousand pages of correspondence between O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer and curator Alfred Stieglitz. Reading the letters between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, which began when she was in her early twenties and continued until his death thirty years later, I was surprised again and again by the intimacy of the epistolary form, how the letters allowed me to watch them grow as individuals while also observing their relationship shift and deepen through time.
Because of this, writing the majority of these poems as imagined letters from O’Keeffe to Stieglitz seemed inevitable, epistolary poems the best form by which to capture that intimacy I’d found, as well as a way to come as close as I could to truly inhabiting O’Keeffe’s voice on the page.
SB: In Pelvis with Distance, you weave together the O’Keeffe poems with the more personal account of your time in the desert writing these poems, paralleling the relationship between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz with yourself and an unnamed poet. What was the thinking behind this structure?
JJ: After completing my first draft of that book, it became clear that I needed to answer the fundamental question of, “Why does O’Keeffe matter to you and, by extension, why should she matter to a reader?” But it wasn’t until I’d finished writing the poems that I knew the answer.
What I found during the month I spent alone in the desert was that I was trying to learn from O’Keeffe how to be. How to be a woman and an artist. How to be comfortable with solitude. And most of all, what it might mean to share my life with another artist.
That last question most of all, because the secret haunting that long solitary month was that I was deeply in love with another poet and trying to figure out if we could find our way back to each other. Those desert poems became a means of articulating that longing. And don’t let anyone tell you poetry doesn’t matter; fast forward to today and the poet and I just celebrated our fifth anniversary together.
SB: So much of your work encounters the idea of distance. What do you think about / what is your process of condensing and compressing such wide distances into the small space of a poem?
JJ: What Buddhists call monkey mind I just call "how my brain works." I love puzzles of all kinds and can’t help but make associations between seemingly unlike places and things, my mind always leaping, leaping trying to make things whole: mapping a mountain seen decades ago to the one in front of me, binding the smell of this orchard with the scent of the one I loved to sneak into to study while at college, conflating the sound of breaking waves with the traffic racing past my long-ago apartment in New York. Though this can sometimes make it hard to be entirely present, the joy of these associations is how they compress time, making the past nearly as accessible as the present, making palpable the connections between all parts of lived experience.
SB: As a long-distance runner, do you compose as you run, or is there any relationship between your runs and your writing?
JJ: Running is a huge part of both who I am and how I write. I like to wake up early to begin drafting a poem, letting the images and ideas range for several pages, writing question after question. Once I’ve encountered a point I can’t push past, I go for a run. And as the roots and rocks on our local trails demand full attention if I don’t want to face-plant in the dirt, I rarely focus on writing while I run. But once I’m back home, more often than not, I find a solution is waiting for me, my mind having used all those miles to mull over the poem just below the level of consciousness. And on super long runs, I’ll generally have to pause at least once or twice to jot down a phrase that floats in and feels like it needs to be part of something larger.
SB: It seems like landscape is a driving force in your poetry. Is your writing inspired by where you live currently?
JJ: People and events are very much shaped by their place, whether it’s the spareness of New Mexico’s high desert or the lush mountains of Appalachia. To not include landscape in my poems is like telling only half the story. In the desert, it felt like my poems needed to be as compressed as I could make them. And since I’ve lived in Asheville, surrounded by all this green abundance, I’ve found my poems growing more dense and complicated, the lines roaming further across the page.
SB: What else inspires you? What are you reading now?
JJ: For my own writing of both poems and essays, I’ve begun delving into foundational Jewish texts: the Torah, for which I’m trying to teach myself Biblical Hebrew, and surrounding works of commentary from mystics and scholars ranging across time and place.
In contemporary poetry—what an incredible time this is!—Alicia Ostriker is an essential guide in how to write poems that grapple with faith, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic expanded my idea of what a poem can be, Ada Limón’s The Carrying showed me how to write with honest vulnerability about marriage and all of the choices, struggles, and joy it entails, and right now I’m learning a great deal about how to blend the personal, historical, and political from Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood.
SB: What can we look forward to in Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going? When can we expect it?
JJ: When my wife and I got married, though we’d known each other for years we’d only been together for six months, which meant we had a lot of learning to do: What does it mean to share your life and your home with another person? How do we support each other while also allowing enough room for each of us to grow? I wrote the poems in this book to help me better understand how to be the partner and person I wanted to be, as well as to create a kind of poetic photo album of early marriage in all its complexity and joy.
And now I’m beyond delighted that Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going will be published by the dreamy Four Way Books in March of 2019.
SB: I was so excited to read “In the Grove of Self-Charging Trees” in The Normal School issue 11.1! Tell us a little about this poem—is it part of your new book?
JJ: Thanks! I was delighted to have this poem appear in The Normal School. “In the Grove of Self-Charging Trees” is nestled later in the book and explores the loneliness that can sometimes creep into a marriage, as well as the underlying love that sustains it. As much as I wanted to write only odes to love and lust and shared delight, which do also appear in the collection, it felt like the only way to write an honest collection of poems about marriage, a collection that might helpfully reflect people’s lives back to them, was to write the hard parts of being in a relationship, too.
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Pelvis with Distance, winner of the New Mexico Book Award. Her chapbook In Whatever Light Left to Us was published in 2016, and her second full-length collection Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going is forthcoming in 2019. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock climbing instructor, bartender, and professor, and now serves as Associate Editor of Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women’s National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications and former Associate Poetry Editor for The Normal School, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft.