from the horse's mouth: nickole brown and jessica jacobs
The following interview with contributors Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs was initially published in Issue 16.1, "The Duet Issue." Some of the questions refer to poems published in that issue. Both Brown (Fanny Says, BOA Editions) and Jacobs (Pelvis with Distance, White Pine Press) have new books available--we recommend both books highly.
IHLR: I’m going to start this “duet” version of FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH by asking some questions of the both of you. Where did the two of you grow up?
JESSICA: Central Florida, which in the ’80s was a strange, accentless place, populated by snowbirds, retirees, fundamentalists, Disney employees, and kids like me, who wore lizards as earrings, had teased-up mall bangs, hunted fresh-water mussels to use as bass-bait, and dreamed equally of escaping to cities and mountains.
NICKOLE: I spent half my time in Louisville and the other half in Florida, farther south from where Jessica was teasing her hair but not so far that I didn’t have some rooster-crow Lita Ford bangs of my own. And I can’t speak of the accentless place she knew, but I, too, liked to catch lizards and tease them with my earlobes until they latched on for dear life. (Yes, perhaps you can see why Jessica and I might be meant for one another.) And I, too, dreamed of other places. The night my grandmother died, I spent the duration of the evening on a rooftop on the Lower East side. I re- member looking out over the city, thinking how impossible it was I was there, considering where I had come from.
IHLR: And when did you start writing?
JESSICA: I first read Sylvia Plath as a high school freshman, discovering Ariel in my local library. At a small table tucked behind the farthest row of shelves, the room frigid with over-air conditioning and swimming with dust motes, I flipped to “Daddy”: “You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe. . . .” Two lines in and the day disappeared—that emphatic, relentless end-rhyme of the long u. The simple, mostly monosyllabic diction that nonetheless expressed complex despair and rage. History and war twining around the intensely personal. Only after “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” did I return to myself, stunned and panting, as though I’d forgotten even to breathe while reading. I started writing then in earnest, believing if I could create even one work that made even a single person feel that way, it was the finest thing I could do with my life.
NICKOLE: I, too, had my affair with Sylvia in high school—I carried The Bell Jar in a ratty satchel for two years, wearing nothing but oversized black dresses and combat boots. Writing became my lifeline during that time, but I’ll give credit where credit is due, to a summer arts program in Kentucky called Governor’s School for the Arts. I was fifteen; those two weeks saved my life.
IHLR: The two of you just recently married. How did you meet?
JESSICA: We met in December of 2007, just after Nickole’s first book, Sister, came out. We ended up at the same terrible party in the East Village, staffed by bartenders-in-training. During the very long wait for drinks, amid the crowd of close-cropped New York women clad all in black, a beautiful blonde in a white tank top with Dietrich-red lip- stick made room for me at the bar. She told me she was a poet and had a reading the next night (I groaned inwardly, imagining a potentially wonderful thing about to be ruined by sub-par poetry). But I went to the reading anyway, heard Nick’s haunting, strikingly honest poems, and was lost.
NICKOLE: I will just add that, at the bar that evening, Jessica told me she worked in publish- ing, and being equally jaded, I remember feeling pretty skeptical about what that meant exactly. Anyhow, she showed up on her little red bicycle—Geryon, she’d named it—at the A&B Bar the next night, and I, too, was lost. Perhaps too lost, I’m afraid, because like so many hokey romantic comedies, we messed things up pretty quickly. After an intense epistolary exchange (I was still living in Louisville) and a few visits to the city, we called it quits and decided we were better suited for friendship than romance.
JESSICA: But at the AWP Conference in Boston last spring—the convention-hall fount of all things— windswept and starry-eyed (or something like that), we sat down to discuss the drafts of our manuscripts . . . and the rest is history. I finished my MFA that May, moved to Little Rock, and we were married this past October.
NICKOLE: I know, I know. You do the math: crazy, right? I wouldn’t believe it myself if it hadn’t happened. But it was a perfect day, the kind you carry with you all your life. We were wed barefoot on the lawn of the Santa Barbara courthouse, with our dear friend Laure-Anne Bosselaar as our witness. I don’t think we spent more than a hundred on the whole ceremony, and yet I couldn’t imagine a more bright and shining moment.
IHLR: How does having a partner who is also a writer change your writing process, if it all?
JESSICA: When we met, I hadn’t seriously written in years. But her letters were so lyrical, they demanded I respond in kind. Soon after, I quit my job to study and teach creative writing—a difficult choice but one that brought me back to myself, a choice I wouldn’t have made without seeing the devotion Nickole brings to her writing and wanting to match that, too, in kind.
NICKOLE: It was in our vows: to be each other’s reader and witness. Jessica is my first and best reader, and not a day goes by when we don’t talk about what poetry can do. She probably believes in me and my work more than I believe in myself, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’m changed—and continue to be changed—by that.
IHLR: Jessica, it’s interesting that you mention Nickole’s letters and how they stirred you to write again. Two of your poems in this issue, “Plate 28” and “Pelvis with Distance,” are written as love letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. What drew you to this epistolary approach?
JESSICA: Epistolary poems are a neat trick in that they break you out of the confines of the “I” and allow the space that breathes in when addressing a “you” across great distances. I was also inspired to use this approach by the fact that so much of their work spoke to each other, as though their art was just another type of correspondence. She’d paint a series of wild, sensual abstractions, and he’d take a series of clouds-in-motion photographs. He’d play with compressing distance, and she’d do the same in a painting. It was a kind of call and response I tried to capture in my poems-as-letters.
IHLR: Pages and pages of letters between the two artists have been published. Did you draw on these for inspiration?
JESSICA: Their correspondence began in 1915, when O’Keeffe was twenty-seven, and ended in 1946 with Stieglitz’s death, reaching well over one thousand pages. Though discussions of her paintings, his photographs, and the greater nature of art are woven throughout them, the early letters were also wonderfully silly and lovesick and far sexier then I’d imagined. And it was fascinating to watch her grow from a sometimes tentative young woman, flirting and trying to please the much older Stieglitz, into a confident artist—one who still loved him but also pushed back and asserted her view.
IHLR: Was your goal to recreate their respective voices accurately or to re-imagine them as some- thing different?
JESSICA: While I read their letters, I took notes of passages that moved me, oft-used phrases, and period-specific vernacular, which then became the launching points for many poems. I also placed brief excerpts of letters throughout the collection to provide biographical context and allow their real voices to be heard.
But a danger with persona poems is that you can get so caught up in trying to accurately tell your subject’s story that you sink the poem with too much exposition. Though I tried to be factually accurate whenever possible, I was more concerned with finding some kind of emotional truth—imagining my way into the historic moment and then writing the poem as though that experience had actually happened to me.
IHLR: Nickole, in your genesis statement, you describe your poems as being part of a collection that is “a biography of sorts,” too. What are some of the differences between your poems and traditional biography?
NICKOLE: It’s not truth I’m after in my current collection, Fanny Says, but authenticity. What I mean by that is, yes, I do try, as best as I can, to tell the life of my grandmother, Frances Lee Cox, a woman born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but I’m only able to tell the story that I know, through the muddled and biased lens of a daughter born to the youngest daughter of her seven children. I can’t vouch for the facts, only my own perception of the facts. As I mention in my afterword to this book, if you knew Fanny and I’ve told a story different than you know, well, you also know that Fanny told her stories over and again, each time changing the details just a bit. Maybe you weren’t there on the same day I heard it; maybe she changed the truth, just for me.
IHLR: And how did you go about capturing your grandmother’s voice? Did you rely on memory? imagination? artifacts?
NICKOLE: Should our house ever burst into flames, here’s what needs to be hauled out onto the lawn right quick: one Prada bag, in bubblegum pink. It’s was my grandmother’s purse, and in it, you’ll find, among other bits, a pair of terrycloth house slippers in baby pink, size five; a mess of hard hair rollers, perm rods, and metal hair clips; a plastic cigarette filter and a gold lamé cigarette case; an empty bottle of phenobarbital; an empty bottle of Fanci-full Professional Hair Rinse, 43 Platinum Plus; a light blue brochure from Jefferson County Family Court. This was my inheritance and about all I have left of my grandmother. There are photos, too, of course, but these items I can hold in my hand, and sometimes, I swear they still have her smell. And there is her voice—almost twenty CDs’ worth—that I recorded during that last year of her life when she was bedridden and had nothing left but talk. But to this day, I still can’t bring myself to listen to the damn things.
What else do I have? My memory, I suppose, when it’s not plain unreliable or moody or dumb. And notebooks, a whole drawer of them, as I always did write down just about everything she said. Matter of fact, every poem in the collection that begins with “Fanny Says” (there is one of those here) is nearly word for word. I didn’t write those poems: I simply wrote them down, as she said them. She knew I was writing it all down, of course, and she never did seem to mind. Sometimes, I would listen to her all night, and about four in the morning, she would say, “Well, we might as well go to bed now, Koey. I think we’ve talked just about everybody. . . . Unless you think there’s somebody we ain’t covered?”
IHLR: Although “Fanny Says at Twenty-Three” is from your grandmother’s perspective, “EPO” and “For My Grandmother’s Teeth” are written in first-person, from your perspective. How did you come to these point-of-view decisions?
NICKOLE: If you can think of a story as a house, I was trying to break in, any way I knew how, sliding through the basement windows and knocking on the front door and slipping down the chimney. This manuscript uses everything I know of my grandmother and tries to make points of entry with various perspectives and narrative distances.
“Fanny Says at Twenty-Three” is my grandmother’s voice, directly dictated to me. I suppose I curated that poem, or at least transcribed it, maybe even translated it a bit (Fanny had an un- deniable accent I couldn’t get on the page), but, as I said, I certainly didn’t write it. And even though the poem about her teeth addresses my grand- mother directly, it tells a story I did not experience; the facts here—if you can call them that—were given to me as story and were experienced only through my imagination. I saw the dentures soaking on her nightstand every night, but I wasn’t there when she lost her teeth. “EPO” is written the way that it is because it’s epistolary, a letter written to my grandmother as an apology. It had to be written that way because I, in the big-headed idealism of my youth, was to blame.
IHLR: Both of you are working with voice and personae as well as the epistolary form. How about revision? Do you two edit your poems a lot or very little?
JESSICA: My rough drafts tend to be baggy, prosaic monstrosities scrawled across several pages. Working between two journals, I redraft the poem multiple times, refining as I go. Then, I go for a run, holding the words just below the rhythm of conscious thought. Returning home, I’m able to see the poem more clearly—what should stay and what should go, and I write out another full draft before typing it up, squashing it into a prose block, cutting out anything extraneous, and re-breaking it. As you can probably tell, my writing process, like my running, is far more tortoise than hare.
NICKOLE: Lord, yes. Again and again. And sometimes, then again, so many times that the whole enterprise might fall flat on its face and I have to go back to an earlier draft. (As my grandmother would say, Be careful not to tease your hair too far up to Jesus or it might fall flat.) I mean, first drafts come bright and fast and just as shitty as you can imagine, and then, the rest of the time I spend is a process of questioning each and every word, interrogating every line to make sure it deserves to be there. As I recently told my editor Peter Conners, I need a hard and fast deadline from him on the final draft of my book, not because I particularly want one, but because I need to be put out of my misery. I have until April first. Wish me luck.