Interview with Poet and Professor Jessica Jacobs

I was first introduced to Visiting Professor of Creative Writing Jessica Jacobs almost a year ago now, during an English Department Discussion Series on the words and phrases from literature that we personally have carried with us throughout our lives, or something to that effect. (Side note: Dr. Maupin is a champ at coming up with really cool things to have those talks on and if you haven’t been to one you should check it out. Anyway, I digress.) She talked about reciting sonnets to herself while she runs trails, and I realized very quickly the Jessica Jacobs is a really cool human being. So cool in fact, that despite having to put up with me twice a week in her poetry class she was still willing to answer some ridiculous questions for me and the Aonian. Below is the incredibly charming by-product of that scenario, and I hope you enjoy learning a little bit more about the Hendrix-Murphy Writer-in-Residence for next spring as much as I did. Without further ado:

KATE HENRICKS: How did you get here (by that, I mean like into teaching poetry and non-fiction at Hendrix)?

JESSICA JACOBS: Long story semi-short: When I moved to Little Rock to be with my wife, Nickole Brown, a professor of Creative Writing at UALR, after getting my MFA at Purdue, the folks at Hendrix were kind enough to take me on as an adjunct. Filling in for Dr. Jaeger during his sabbatical this year then gave me the chance to teach creative writing. Now that I’ve had the pleasure of having Hendrix students for multiple classes, I can say that watching their writing deepen and grow stronger has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.

KATE: I think I remember you saying at some point that you got interested in non-fiction later than poetry and I wondered if you could talk about why, and if/how you think that affected your poetry?

JESSICA: After college, I wrote a novel. Though it will live out its papery days in a locked drawer of my desk, what I learned from writing it was to love the guiding hand of that little thing called “plot.” The wonder and terror of poetry is that you can write about anything. So, when I began to write the poems that would eventually become Pelvis with Distance, I created a loose outline of its narrative arc, which was invaluable in helping me know where to focus my attention.

As for nonfiction, when I looked back at my novel during grad school it was clearly just thinly veiled autobiography (something true of many first novels). Like a good thug, I stripped it for parts and used it to write what would eventually become my first published essay, an account of the summer after my first year of college in which I had my first real experience with love and loss.

Now, I find essays and poetry to be fine complements for each other. My work in whatever genre tends to share the same preoccupations, but while a poem lets me zoom in closely on a particular moment or idea, essays give me room to expand and follow thoughts through more extended journeys.

KATE: I’m sure you’ve only been asked about four thousand times lately but, can you talk a little bit about your book and general interest in Georgia O’Keeffe?

JESSICA: Pelvis with Distance braids two primary strands—poems in the voice of O’Keeffe, which follow the trajectory of her life as an artist, as well as her relationship with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; and the story of a month I spent living alone in a small cabin in the New Mexico desert. As a little background, O’Keeffe was born in 1887—three decades before women even had the right to vote—to a poor family in rural Sun Prairie, WI, and went on to become one of the most famous artists of her day. Writing these poems was my attempt to try and learn from O’Keeffe’s fierce independence, the passion and partnership she found with Stieglitz, and her perseverance as an artist.

KATE: What book/author, in your opinion, should all undergrads read?

JESSICA: Phew. Answering this feels like a lot of responsibility. Everyone has a different book that’s going to call to them and creak open that little door inside of them, but here’s some possible options across three genres:

Anthony Doerr’s short story collection The Shell Collector is a master-class in capturing essential details of the sensual world; Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, though far from perfect, is a valuable lesson in writing about even the darkest moments of your life without apology; and Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems is, for my money, the finest exploration of love, loss, faith, and poetry I’ve found—though I first read him when I was 19, his poems are ones to which I’ve never stopped returning.

KATE: Book you’re currently reading?

JESSICA: At this busy time of the semester, I’m reading (more specifically: re-reading) what my students are: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, essays by fantastic writers like Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, and Lia Purpura, as well as by Hendrix students Daniel Grear and Marie Kressin, who were part of last semester’s Creative Nonfiction Workshop and were kind enough to share their work as impressive examples of undergraduate writing.

KATE: Tea or Coffee. Why?

JESSICA: Tea, because I try to limit my addictions to reading, writing, running, and my wife.

KATE: Spirit animal?

JESSICA: Patti Smith.

KATE: Last song played on your iPod?

JESSICA: Smith’s “Gloria,” from her classic album Horses. To settle my nerves before a reading, there’s nothing better than a long run and the bracing wail of Patti Smith.

KATE: Worst summer job you ever had?

JESSICA: One particularly warm Florida summer when I was 14, I worked in my parents’ law firm re-organizing their storage area. This meant hauling 100 lb. crates of crumbling files through un-air-conditioned rooms, with bonus points for the days I found flattened lizards desiccating between files.

You can learn more about Jessica and read poems from Pelvis with Distance at www.jessicalgjacobs.com

—Kate Henricks, 2014-15 Aonian staff member

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