By Robert Drinkwater
Tonight at 7:30pm in The Landing, poets Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown will be reading for us. Nickole Brown is the author of Sister: A Novel in Poems, published in 2007. Her second book Fanny Says won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry in 2015. She has a chapbook called To Those Who Were Her First Gods that won the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize. She is currently the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA. She lives with her wife Jessica Jacobs in Asheville, North Carolina.
Jessica Jacobs is the author of poems about love and marriage called Take Me With You, Wherever You’re Going and Pelvis With a Distance that is a biography of poems about Georgia O’Keeffe that was the winner of The New Mexico Book Award and the finalist for The Lambda Literary Award. She has also worked as a bartender, rock climbing instructor, and professor. She now serves as Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives with her wife Nickole Brown in Asheville, North Carolina.
Jessica Jacobs Interview
- How would you describe your poetry?
My most recent book, Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, is a collection of love poems written during the early years of my marriage, exploring what it means to share your life with another person—such as learning to balance moments of great joy with all the compromise and self-assessment such a relationship requires.
- What inspires you to write?
I’m most often driven to the page by either an image or a question. The former is often something I notice while out on a run or bike ride that I don’t want to forget, some strange sight or surprising sensation, while the latter is often more long-lasting, more reflective of some enduring obsession.
- Are you working on any projects right now? If so, what?
Well, some of those questions/obsessions that currently have me in their grip are the big ones: 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, which is allowing me to think alongside sages from many centuries. From these studies, I’m writing poems and essays that draw on these texts, trying to capture the contemporary relevance I’ve found in these ancient texts.
- Your poem A Question to Ask When the Honeymoon is Over was featured on Screen Door Review. What is the origin and meaning of this poem?
This was a poem that grew from a moment in which the person I was fell far short of the person I wanted to be. It’s a poem of deep vulnerability and guilt, but also one in which I want to hold myself accountable, hoping to chart a path toward right action in the world.
- Who are some of your favorite writers? Why?
I love writers who bring the news, by which I mean: they give the world I thought I understood back to me in a new way. In poetry, Laure-Anne Bosselaar teaches me resilience and the crafting lines with beautiful music; Matthew Olzmann, humor and abiding curiosity; Patricia Smith, how to look unflinchingly at violence and deep sorrow and write about it with honesty and style. In fiction, I think everyone should read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, one of the most moving—and hopeful—books I’ve read about our need to engage with and fight for the natural world.
Nickole Brown Interview
- When did you realize you wanted to be a poet?
The first sparks for this mad little fire started when I was fifteen, back when I was young enough to fearlessly (well, recklessly) scale a rickety fire escape downtown with a few like-minded pals to recite Rilke to a gathering of curious and cranky crows that perched up there. That was the summer of my sophomore year in high school, back when I was lucky enough to participate in the Governor’s School for the Arts, a program funded by some higher angels in the state of Kentucky who, with their gift of just a few weeks worth of poetry, changed the entire trajectory of my life. You see, books weren’t exactly a thing in my house as a kid, and being a writer was never an option I could have considered otherwise. I was raised up on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic—if you don’t count the King James, there wasn’t anything to read in the house but Cosmo or maybe a potato chip bag or two. At that tender time in my life, the exposure to poetry (nevertheless the idea that I had a voice and could learn to use it) was a revelation. I’ve held fast ever since, pushing through decades of odd jobs and failed drafts and rejections to land myself where I am today, more than a bit weary but ridiculously grateful that my compass was set at such an early age.
- How would you describe your poetry?
Narrative, mostly. And a touch irreverent, cut as it is from the cloth of my maternal grandmother, a woman who helped raise me and could tell a story a mile long and just as deep, peppered with an occasional f-bomb and always ripened with select details. From her, I learned just how story can define a person, how the right story can show a person who they are when they forget, and sometimes, how it can change the way we’re able to carry the heaviest facts of our lives. For me, this means that poetry fits together the most jagged edges of my most broken times. By this I don’t mean to say that with my writing I make
sense of things that have happened, but it does help, making what could be impossible tragedies into something possible to swallow. In my poems you’ll also see traces of the mud from which I sprung, that working-class Kentucky I once fought so hard to escape, that thistled nest of home to which I always return. The dialect of that place is in my poems, too, as are those fierce bonds of family and
origin that make me who I am, both for bad and good. As such, you’ll likely find in my writing one-too-many mentions of my mama, and forgive me if I’ve got my ear cocked to the katydids and cicadas up in the trees. I wait all summer until they start singing in June, and their humid song is the base-note and through-line of most all my signing.
3. What advice do you have for new writers?
This depends entirely on the writer, really, which is one reason why I always begin and end every creative writing course I’ve ever taught with one-on-one conferences. Writing is one of the most intimate acts of creative art there is, and while revision requires a firm grip on craft, it’s often soul work, requiring a degree of courage and vulnerability that no one piece of advice administered to a whole group could approach. I suppose if I had to think of any answer to this question, it might have something to do with my definition of a writer, and that is a person who holds steadfast to this world with a deep, muscular awareness, using all their senses to pay attention to what’s around them. If you’re a writer, you’re a noticer, someone who doesn’t turn away and who works hard never to turn experience into abstractions and generalizations. So, my advice then? Pay attention, even when it’s most difficult and it might be easier to turn away. Pay attention, even when you’re bored and think there’s nothing to see. Listen to what
your skin and tongue and ears can perceive; use your eyes to look until you un-see whatever it is you’re looking at, then look harder. Put down your phone and be exactly where you are.
4. What projects are you currently working on?
Since 2017, when I moved with my wife to Asheville, North Carolina, I’ve given myself over to something I’ve always wanted to do—to study and work with animals. As such, I’ve read fanatically every book of animal behavior and anthrozoology (the study of the relationship between humans and animals) I could get my hands on, and I’ve also been volunteering at several places that give animals sanctuary and shelter when it’s most needed, including a farm sanctuary called Animal Haven and a wildlife rehabilitation center called Appalachian Wild. I’ve worked hard to write some of what I’ve learned and experienced since, but I’m careful not to write the kind of pastorals that always made me (and most of the working-class folks I’ve known) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. I yearn for poems to speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving, and well, I’m trying to write them. A chapbook featuring the first nine poems called To Those Who Were Our First Gods won the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and this coming January 2020, Sibling Rivalry Press will be publishing The Donkey Elegies.
5. Out of all of your accomplishments, which one are you the most proud of? Why?
Tough question. I think the students I’ve had—if I can be so greedy as to call them mine—always make me feel the most proud, especially when I see them years later, thriving and still writing. But in terms of my own poems, I think the longevity of my first book, Sister, has been a surprising source of pride in my career. When I first published that novel-in-poems with Red Hen Press in 2007, I did so with much trepidation—the deeply confessional nature of the book was a tremendous risk, and I wasn’t sure at all how readers would receive poems that dealt so frankly with childhood sexual abuse. Fast-forward a decade later: not only were these poems reviewed widely and positively, but the poems seem to be a continual resource for survivors. In 2018, Sibling Rivalry Press reissued this book with a foreword by poet Rebecca Gayle Howell and an afterward by Sue William Silverman, both of whom talked about the importance of the book in the “me too” movement, a thing that didn’t even exist when I first wrote and published
those poems. I was also given the opportunity to pull together an interview of sorts published in the back of the reissue that serves as a guide particularly for those attempting to write their own way through this difficult and often devastating trauma.
You can buy Take Me with You, Wherever You‘re Going By Jessica Jacobs on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Take-You-Wherever-Youre-Going/dp/1945588268/ref=sr_1_1?crid=14T4FAUP8P5W4&keywords=jessica+jacobs&qid=1570723062&sprefix=jessica+jacobs%2Caps%2C743&sr=8-1
You can buy Sister: A Novel in Poems by Nickole Brown on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Sister-Novel-Poems-Nickole-Brown/dp/1943977992/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=Nickole+Brown&qid=1570723190&sr=8-3
A Question to Ask Once The Honeymoon is Over by Jessica Jacobs: https://www.screendoorreview.com/a-question-to-ask-once-the-honeymoon-is-over/