Interview with Jessica Jacobs

It’s been a while since we met back in 2015 at the Montevallo Literary Festival. I think about that reading often. During that meeting, you said things that really helped me begin to push aside some pretty powerful fears I had about writing. So, I want to start by asking you: what fears about writing have you had to move through in order to write the things you’ve written—and to publish them?

What most draws me to writing is also what most frightens me: There’s no hiding allowed. To write well, you must bring your entire self to your work—all your insecurities and ugliness, all the parts of yourself it would be so much easier to leave buried. This doesn’t mean you must be salacious and confessional, or cannibalize yourself into spectacle, but that you must be authentic and vulnerable, writing poems that challenge you, that matter to you so they can hopefully one day matter to a reader.

That this vulnerability can sometimes leave me feeling naked on the page, along with the fact I used to be nearly rendered catatonic by public speaking, made publishing and giving readings daunting. But what’s made it worthwhile to work through those fears is to hear from readers and listeners exactly what you said: that something I shared was helpful, that it’s made them feel they could write what they need to.

Similarly, are there things you’ve wanted to write about, and maybe even started to write about, but then changed your mind and decided to leave it unwritten?

If you asked my parents, two very private people, I’m sure they’d say they wished I left far more unwritten. But for whatever reason, perhaps this impulse to do the things that frighten me, I’ve found that once something has my interest, I follow it with a tenacity bordering on compulsion—even if I don’t understand why a particular subject calls to me.

So far, this has served me well. Stumbling on Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting “Pelvis with Distance” in Indianapolis moved me to read several biographies and thousands of pages of her letters and writings, as well as to travel around the country to see her work in person and visit the her favorite painting spots in the New Mexico desert (remember that whole compulsive thing?), ultimately led to my first collection of poems, which are largely written in O’Keeffe’s voice. It was only once I was nearly done writing that I realized I was trying to learn from O’Keeffe how to be a fiercely independent woman, how to be an artist who was true to her passions to her final days.

So I try not to censor myself, to trust my obsessions, believing they’ll take me where I most need to go.

From following you on Twitter, I see that you enjoy running a good bit. And your poetry has a strong sense of movement—especially movement through nature. Can you say something about the poetic sense you get from your runs and your physical movement through nature? What kind of connections do you make between your running and your writing?

Too often it feels to me like people believe writing comes from the head—so many poems written gazing out windows at a world the writer cannot smell or hear, where they can’t feel sun on their hair or the rain freighting their shirt. But for my money, the best poems live in the body, your sensory observations of the world allowing you to ground big abstract emotion in the concrete details of the lived world.

To these ends, running helps my writing in so many ways. It places me firmly in my body. While I’m running, the mechanics of it, as well as trying not to trip over a rock or a root, occupy the bossy, judgmental part of my brain enough that it sets the rest of my mind free to wander, to observe and make leaps I generally don’t make while sedentary. And afterward, like taking a hyper dog out for a walk, it exhausts me enough I’m able to sit still and write.

Speaking of movement, you recently wrote a fantastic ode to women’s basketball for ESPNW. What was that like?! How did the opportunity come about and why do you think it is important to appreciate the intersection of poetry and sports?

Thanks; so glad you liked the poem. I initially wrote for ESPNW in response to the first Women’s March in protest of the 2017 inauguration. So, this year when poetry month rolled around, I got in touch with the editor there and asked if they’d like to do something to celebrate sports and poetry. They chose the NCAA Women’s Championship as their topic, which allowed me to reach way back to memories of playing basketball in high school and my first year of college, as well as to learn through some research that the first-ever game of women’s basketball was played at Smith College, my alma mater.

And the best part of sending this explicitly sporty poem into the world was that it seemed to reach people who don’t normally read poetry. Of all the poems I’ve published, this is the first that both my sister and her athletic sons—my darling nephews who tease me for being their weird poet aunt—got excited about.

Your latest collection, Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, is stunning, to say the least. You dedicate the book to your wife, Nickole Brown, saying “without you, no poems.” And the final poem in the collection beautifully conveys the spoken and visual dance of marriage. There are a million questions I could ask here, but to ask a couple of huge ones: What does it feel like to have produced this collection as a queer, southern, married woman? What do you feel when you hold it in your hands and think back on the journey of it?

Again, thank you! Growing up, I was always on the hunt for queer writing, but when I found it, it was either dripping with internalized homophobia (thanks, The Well of Loneliness!) or was almost entirely about coming out or explicit sex. Though both of those subjects are certainly worthy topics of poetry, I was hungry to see an example of the future life I longed for—to see two women, in love, living out their lives together. Which was why Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, in which she writes of her beloved partner, the novelist Michelle Cliff, was such a salvation. Her poems let me know that if I could just hang on until I made it out into the larger world, the life I wanted was possible.

So, when I began my own marriage to another woman, what could I do but write about it? These poems were my way to try and understand what such a commitment means, what it means to share your life with someone, and, in the end, also became a means of learning more about the type of person and partner I wanted to be. And if my book can do for even one other person what Rich’s book did for me, to help them feel just a little bit less alone, then every moment I put into writing it was worthwhile.

Sometimes the south can be tricky to navigate as a non-heterosexual individual. What advice do you think you could give to a young LGBTQ person trying to successfully come to terms with themselves as both a southerner and a queer writer?

I guess all I can say is what I most needed to hear when I was growing up queer in the South: Who and how you are is not just acceptable but beautiful. If people have a problem with your sexuality, that problem is their burden and shame to bear and has nothing to do with you. All the quirks and tendencies that might make your life hard now are the differences others will celebrate later. And most of all, even in the worst of it, be sure to keep your eyes and heart open and take good notes; childhood will be the well your writing draws from again and again, so why not make the best of a bad time and pay good attention?


Interviewed by Alesha Dawson