What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (at AWP)

Just past the Marriott’s doors, I asked a valet, “Which way to the river?”

“What river?” he responded.

I asked two more hotel employees and heard the same question. The river that bears your city’s name, I thought, but just thanked them and took a guess. My map had showed the Los Angeles River less than two miles to the east, so I ran toward the new sun and hoped for the best. In a city like LA, I figured, it was probably less natural landmark than trash-strewn aqueduct, anyway something easy to overlook, to forget. But still. It’s hard for me to trust a city that doesn’t know its own rivers.

running clothes

Running clothes hung by an air vent to dry: my version of a Calder mobile.

Before we get to the rest of that run, however, a little background: Despite the hungover disbelief with which my admissions of daily running at AWP are often met, these runs are my only real way of confirming that, yes, year after year, the conference does indeed take place in a different city. Without running, it would simply seem as though each spring I’m wormholed to the same bizarro waystation of a fluorescent-lit convention center, with its labyrinthine set of escalators and unmarked hallways, and a hotel with geometrically patterned carpet, slow elevators, and bad wifi. But, due to my runs, I can say with some assurance that my very first AWP was in Vancouver because I can still recall the wind along the seawall there. Three years ago, I was in Boston, skidding across pedestrian bridges slick with black ice, and two years ago it was Seattle, huffing up and down steep hills redeemed by morning views of the Cascade mountains.

But my run in LA, however, made me wish I’d slept in, stayed inside, or had somehow learned to love treadmills. As I ran toward the river, I quickly understood it was not just nature the city had forgotten. Block after block was filled with men in various states of disrepair, many slumped in doorways or flat on their backs along the curb. I turned my headphones up to drown out whatever was being shouted at me. But by the time I was fully immersed in what I later learned was Skid Row, it felt too dangerous to turn back. And I couldn’t simply turn north or south, as the narrow cross-streets were choked by tents jammed close as a series of sidewalk squares, rigged from grocery carts, boxes, and ragged blue tarps. I relinquished my planned route and turned left at the first major intersection. That roofline of synthetic blue was the closest thing I saw to a river.

And as I ran into streets increasingly clean and populated, what struck me most about that long sad stretch, with its awnings scrubbed of even the ghosts of past signs, its shop windows soaped or hastily painted over, it doors ajar, buildings gutted and open to any squatter who wandered in, was how truly forgotten it seemed. I could not remember seeing a single new billboard or poster or ad of any kind, as though these people’s desires—a population that nears 18,000—that these people’s needs, with no money behind them, were not even worthy of recognition, let alone encouragement.

Two weeks later, I’m still haunted by those images. Though I’ve lived in marginal neighborhoods before, in Oakland, in San Francisco, at least those places were viable; there were families and shops and bus stops. I’ve never seen a place so completely abandoned. And no matter how much fun I had at the conference—and I enjoyed it a great deal—for better or worse, that run will be what I know I’ll remember.

Posted in on the road, posts by Jessica, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

my ghost dog, my imagination

Now, where are you going again? That’s the question we get most often.

When we first started this journey, I’d simply list our event locations in the order in which we’d plan to travel, ticking off the calendar in my head—well, this March we’ll start in Birmingham. Then on to Iowa City and Lawrence, Kansas. Then we have a few things in Little Rock, then AWP in Minneapolis. . . after that, we hit the road for real this summer, first to Asheville, then up to Tennessee for the Sewanee Young Writers Conference, then to teach at Murray State’s low-residency program and at Poets House in New York, then—oh, yes—a blissful week to write in Western Massachusetts, that will be a welcome break. After that, three readings in Provincetown and then events and workshops in Boston, Buffalo, Colorado, Taos, and Santa Fe. . . . After that, we head home, but we’ll still head out for a few more few more jaunts, to Rochester, Minneapolis, Columbia College Chicago and Charleston South Carolina, and then there’s Salt Lake City, Delray Beach, Sanibel Island, and oh, here’s some great news—we’ve been asked to teach in Thasos, Greece, next summer. . . .

That answer, I quickly figured out, was definitely not the best approach. It required me to align the logistics in my head with a dizzying, carnival ride of a shuffle that made even me nauseous, and worse, the answer was the equivalent of info dumping, making the inquisitive friend sorry for even asking. Now, if the one I was talking to didn’t excuse themselves and sneak off to another corner of the proverbial bar, they were left with the conundrum of how to respond. . . . And there are two basic choices here, either enthusiasm or dismay. The irony, no doubt, is that I still can’t choose exactly how I feel myself.

Because despite each event that goes well—each city that we drift through without experiencing theft or flat tires or a flu that leaves us curled on the floorboard for days—that dismay—that downright fretful what-the-hell-were-you-thinking response—never quite dissipates.

It isn’t only this break-neck, beat-the-streets book tour that splits my nerves at times, but of course, my recent resignation from my tenure-track job. I mean, all writers understand how hard it is to get a full-time job teaching poetry, and anyone who knows me remembers how hard I worked to get my job. It seems crazy, downright ludicrous, to let that kind of security go. And there was nothing wrong with that job, truly, no batshit crazy colleagues or unreasonable committee work; just a good, steady opportunity to teach poetry to some good and (mostly) steady bunch of students.

But Jessica and I? Well, we sat down, looked at the numbers, and realized that if we live simply with our savings, we can manage by teaching guest workshops, taking on freelance editorial work, and holding low-residency positions, as I do now at Murray State. It was the plan we made, and even though this career-jolting announcement garnered a ridiculous amount of “likes” on Facebook, in reality, it leaves most of my colleagues and friends a tad incredulous.

When they ask about this move, I reassure them I’m fine, say, really, we’ve thought everything out, but at the same time, I’m also reassuring myself. And when natural suspicions arise, I halt them best I can, say, No, everything was great at my university; I’m going to miss my colleagues and my students just terribly. And I do miss them, keenly so. I say, I was actually coming up for tenure early. I say, I can’t tell you how difficult a decision it was. Because it was a difficult decision. I love teaching, deeply so, and UALR was good to me.

So I say difficult, but it’s in a way that makes it a silly, inadequate word, something wearing mouse ears in the long, crowded line at Orlando’s airport. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that once that last long semester was over, once Jessica and I arrived in the green promised land of Asheville this past May, I promptly curled fetal and set my own weeping raincloud as a crown above my head. The darkness was palpable, grainy and deep; the fear thick enough to eat with a spoon, each mouthful sticking like wet newspaper in my throat. I couldn’t convince myself that I deserved this life, that I would ever write a word again, and to be honest, I didn’t write anything remotely worth keeping until a solid two months later—until now, really, on a friend’s fiber farm in Western Massachusetts—when I quit my quivering and gave myself permission to give this life a try.

You see, folks ask the question—Again, now tell me where you’re going? —and after I give them an answer (albeit a much-abbreviated one now), sometimes they reply with the word brave, but behind that adjective is worry, something in their eyes letting me know brave is the flipside of foolish. Perhaps they realize the only other people they’ve known traipsing around the country this much were either following The Dead or were in a garage band of some sort, a motley crew of hygienically-challenged boys who survive on a steady diet of Taco Bell, PBR, and truck stop coffee.

With friends who know me well, their worry shines through in a bevy of follow-up questions—Now, where are you going to sleep again, in the back of your Honda Element? On a fold-out futon, you say? Well, what about health insurance? And what about a doctor if you need one? And your pets at home? Who’s taking care of them? And how are you packing enough clothes for all those climates? I mean, you’ll be traveling into autumn, right? And how do you arrange these readings? I mean, who is handling all these details for you? How can you keep track?

I’ve got suitable, pragmatic answers for all of these questions, but I won’t bore you with them here. If you ask me if this is the right decision, well, I can give you that answer, but not until a few years from now. I will tell you that I believe it’s a lot easier to regret the things you didn’t try than the things you did. Jessica and I are trying to make time—not our careers, teaching or otherwise—our sacred asset, and this was the only way we could figure how to approach it. We’re not sure how it’s all going to pan out; it’s a test of faith and a blind leap. But I swear, things are coming back to me, swiftly, and I’m experiencing time again, as only I did when I was a child. Opening our lives in this way, as hectic as it may sound, has created a void for poetry to enter, an empty space that accepts creativity as it is—unnecessary, elusive, impossible to force.

Take this morning, for example. I remembered the word scythe. Jesus, isn’t that a beauty of a word? I wrote it down in my much-neglected notebook and watched it slither, sounding of tall grass cut with one muscled, shining blade. It’s housed in the same box with absinthe, a word that also shushes with dreaming, so I wrote that down too. I hardly call that a poem, but there you go. Then, of course, after I sat a while, came ardor, a word I used to carry around with me like a raw almond under my tongue. The ardor I used to have for poetry, and now, after all my scrambling and procrastinating and self-pity, that old love returns to me, tentatively, but bearing gifts. In one hand, she holds the quivering of pigeons in the darkness of the rafters in the barn here. In the other, the delicate popping of roots—basil, maybe, or young dandelion greens—the whole plant eased from the dirt.

At the Leverett Peace Pagoda.

At the Leverett Peace Pagoda.

In short, I’m not sure how we’ll hold it all together, but I’m learning. Learning to pay attention, learning to let go. Learning, most importantly, that poetry is real and valuable work in this world, and even though it makes me feel like a fool, I accept my chance at this position. I thank my wife for giving me courage to jump, for holding my hand even when I became afraid and began to let go of hers. I also thank the moon, as goddess-silly-new-age-crap as that sounds. The night before last, it was the second full moon in a month—a blue moon, to be precise—so bright that even out here, miles from the nearest town, I could follow the silvering of birch leaves turning in the wind and stopped to bury myself in the milky fur of the white dog here at this farm. He’s a Maremma Sheepdog, and I don’t exaggerate to say that white dog was glowing just like a ghost I saw once as a child, a big ghost of a dog guarding the top of the stairs. He kept me safe then, and he keeps me safe now. I know this doesn’t make sense, so let me say this plain, let me get back to the moon that night, the way it took pity on me, the way she finally moved the churning waters back. I’m not drowning or sinking to the bottom of the sea, no. Instead, I find myself on this empty expanse. It’s no place, not exactly. But with all the wrack cleared away, it’s everywhere I want to be.

Posted in on the road, on tour, posts by Nickole, where we've been | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

“everything blooming bows down in the rain”

–from “Heavy Summer Rain,” Jane Kenyon

After six glorious weeks in Asheville, we spent six days back in Little Rock, which was just enough time to see friends, figure out how to pack the suitcase equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife (three months of touring from the citified streets of New York to the dunes of Provincetown to the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico will require many costume changes), and celebrate a new age of marriage equality–both in our kitchen and somewhat more publicly on The Oxford American‘s website. Then it was back on the road, this time headed to Sewanee, TN, to serve on the faculty of the Sewanee Young Writers Conference.

early morning photos are not always my favorite

early morning photos are not always my favorite


en route, Nick dozes in the back on our folded futon

the same futon, now put to use in our shared dorm room i.e. two weeks sleeping on a twin bed--the college experience we never shared

the same futon, now put to use in our dorm room i.e. two weeks sleeping together on a twin bed–the college experience we never shared

Located on the Cumberland Plateau, just south of Nashville, Sewanee has an interesting history. In the 1800s, school was in session during the summer, where the school’s higher elevation and accompanying cooler temperatures offered the monied set’s aspiring heirs a respite from malaria, yellow fever, and cholera. Fortunately for me in 2015, its woods, many of them lush old-growth forests, are ringed by a twenty-mile perimeter trail, which I’ve been exploring section-by-section; though the near-daily rain means I’ve been running less on trails than through shallow riverbeds, flanked by flotillas of alien-appearing mushrooms–red behemoths like beached crabs, buttermilk flattops like a cache of silver dollar pancakes, and miniature clusters of pumpkin-orange fungal bouquets.

Nick and I each have a workshop of ten high schoolers and we’ve been trying out parallel teaching–giving them roughly the same readings, writing exercises, and assignments, and comparing notes to see where we can both learn from and bolster the others’ approach.

The underlying theme of our workshops is awareness. We began with Nickole’s wonderful exercise of using ostranenie, the defamiliarization of overly familiar objects, as a way into to truly experiencing the world we most often take for granted; in concrete terms, our students spent a couple of hours looking at, listening to, smelling, tasting, and feeling an apple (for details, check out her guest post on Write All the Words).


labyrinth off of Abbo’s Alley

What I’ve found I love most about working with this age group is that they’re up to try pretty much anything. Realizing their abilities to recognize and describe the visual far outstripped their other senses, I took them to a meditation labyrinth and had them take turns leading each other through it with their eyes closed, noting how differently they experience the world when sight doesn’t first impose its primacy.

They also happily explored the University Farm, first researching either chickens, goats, or bees to both inform their time there and to see how they might take something from the natural world and, by exploring it as a metaphor, use it as a back door into writing about personal material that might otherwise be difficult for them to approach in their poems.


a chicken hand-off between two life-long New Yorkers


ruminating among ruminants


We read Lia Purpura’s fantastic essay “Against Gunmetal” about the need to find fresh language instead of relying on cliches, especially when describing ubiquitous things like the sky, then happily tromped to a nearby cemetery (happily, because what Harold & Maude-loving teenager doesn’t relish getting poetic beside a tombstone?) where each student selected their own grave site and wrote a letter to its inhabitant describing that day’s particular sky.

And tonight, midway through the conference, they turned in their poems to be workshopped. Nickole and I were thrilled to see how early drafts had grown into moving, surprising poems in which the students allowed themselves to risk both clarity and emotion, to step out from behind grand abstractions and impenetrable images and be truly present on the page. We saw them using their poems to ask hard questions and then explore possible answers–or to try and accept that such answers are not always knowable. It made me not just remember how much I love teaching, but what poetry can really do for us as both writers and readers.

Posted in on craft & teaching, posts by Jessica | 2 Comments

let’s go fly, or adventures in “reparenting”

IMG_0613I’m sure someone has a term for it somewhere, but there has to be a word for treating yourself like the kid you never got to be, for not just getting in touch with your inner child but dropping all that psychobabble and being your inner child for an afternoon, letting that knock-kneed, frizzy-headed gosling I was at ten lead the way. Mostly, this means I pet goats and feed blades of grass to their greedysoft lips through some farmer’s fence, or maybe I imbibe mint-chocolate ice cream before a dinner of canned peas warmed with a little butter and salt (don’t judge—peas are an all-time comfort food for me). Other times, this means I get to things I never did when I was young, which is why I took an afternoon earlier this month to fly a kite. IMG_0606Now, when Jessica learned last year that this simple pleasure was missing from my catalog of childhood memories, she was horrified, and last Christmas, she gifted me this beauty—a bluebird of happiness, parade fangled and bright. We held on to it for all of those cold, hard-working months with no way to get her off the ground until we got here to North Carolina where the wind was Mary-Poppins perfect up on Max Patch, a mountain bald right outside of Hot Springs. It took a few tries, but then suddenly the wind took on flesh, making the string taut, jumping as if there were a fish torquing the line. Jessica bounded across the field with it too, stirring up the curiosity of a dog named Otis who leapt into the air trying to catch this marvel flying so steady in the sky.

It's official: even though all grown-up, I still run like a girl.

It’s official: even though all grown-up, I still run like a girl.


Posted in on the road, posts by Nickole | Leave a comment

things to remember

After nearly a month in Asheville–the many tromps through the woods, the heavy late day rains, reading nearly a book a day, writing new poems (!), and meeting all of these wonderful new friends (and even a little salsa dancing thrown in for good measure)–if I were to get a single poem tattooed on my body, this one by Ross Gay would be a strong contender:

Thank You

If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

Posted in posts by Jessica, what we're reading | Leave a comment

Malaprop’s, Asheville, NC

IMG_0640 (1)

Feeling the love in Asheville.



Thanks to Lauren, Virginia, and Brian at Malaprop’s for making this happen. And please note Nickole’s fancy “Staff Pick” sticker!

Post-reading ruckus at the Bier Garden: (from left) Andaluna and Laure Hope-Gill, Megan de Matteo and Josh Howerton, me and Nickole, Jeff Davis, and a skeptical Jacob Paul. Off-camera, on a TV in the corner, the gripping drama of the National Spelling Bee, as broadcast on ESPN.

Post-reading ruckus at the Bier Garden: (from left) Andaluna and Laure Hope-Gill, Megan de Matteo and Josh Howerton, me and Nickole, Jeff Davis, and a skeptical Jacob Paul. On a TV in the corner, the gripping drama of the National Spelling Bee, as broadcast on ESPN.

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Marie Ponsot and my return to writing

In my early twenties, with a shiny new degree and a recent string of restaurant gigs where people said things like, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean,” I decided that a big-kid office job was my path into true adulthood. Hence, five years in the uber-corporate environs of textbook publishing, where I got very good at spreadsheets and tossing around bloodless, soul-draining phrases like “ROI,” “skills set,” and “seamless integration,” while trying to convince myself that an expense account and a Manhattan address were far more fun than that poetry stuff to which I’d imagined devoting myself. Poetry could be a hobby: what I read on my lunch breaks; what I went, often as I could, to listen to other people read.

Then, I met Nickole–met Nickole and fell for her, hard. On tour in New York for her first book, Sister, when she returned to Louisville we began to correspond; she’d send emails that were less letters than poems, overflowing with lush descriptions and important questions, whose answers demanded I respond in kind. Which meant writing. Which meant remembering how good real writing felt. I found myself crafting and recrafting my replies to her, writing pastiches of poems when I should have been populating databases (Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” becoming my “After Office-Dwelling,” the original poem like training wheels for my creaky early efforts) , and wondering if there might be other choices, better choices for how I could be spending my days.

To investigate, I applied for a master-class taught by Marie Ponsot at New School. To prepare, I camped out on a blanket in Washington Square Park and read everything I could find by Ponsot, marveling at how she was able to capture the sensuality of the everyday, marveling at her joy.

The first day of class, I walked in to find a clutch of very serious writers gathered around a tiny woman in her eighties,  a giant yellow pin emblazoned with STILL AGAINST WAR on her lapel. Before even asking us our names, she had us write an exquisite corpse, each of us contributing a verse as our means of introduction, giving us no time to claim writer’s block or inexperience. It was terrifying and utterly thrilling and, by the end of those six weeks, I had made the choice to leave publishing behind and apply for my MFA.

So after the final class, as everyone thanked her profusely and hugged her goodbye, I nervously waited to ask her for a letter of recommendation.

“I have one stipulation,” she said, “you have to come to my apartment and sit with me while I write it.”

And so I found myself sitting on her couch, trying to memorize the titles on her overstuffed bookshelves (each shelf crammed double), trying to memorize every small sound she made as she read through the poems she’d ask me to bring.

I forced myself not to read her letter until I was downstairs, safely on the street. I unlocked my bike and propped myself on the crossbar. The first sentence was five words: “Jessica Jacobs is a poet.” So simple, and yet having someone like Marie see me as such, grant me a title that even now I have trouble taking, meant a long ride down Lexington, shopfronts blurred by my wet eyes, repeating those five words again and again.

Which is why when Nickole and I were looking for a title for our blog, her poems were the source I turned to. “Among Women” was everything we wanted: love and chances taken, a long life and a “rooted garden” and still the desire to roam.

Among Women

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”
She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.

Posted in posts by Jessica, what we're reading | 2 Comments