“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

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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).

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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.

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

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ruminating among ruminants



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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.

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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

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Feeling the love in Asheville.

 

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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.

Posted in on tour, posts by Jessica | Leave a comment

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 “skills set,” and “seamless integration,” while trying to convince myself that an expense account and a Manhattan address were more gratifying than the writing 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 the beginnings of poems when I should have been populating databases, 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 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 | 4 Comments

not all who wander are lost

Some good advice printed on a journal we saw in Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville, NC

Some good advice printed on a journal we saw in Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC

Wanderlust. We’ve got it, both of us. Bad. I was infected with it at about three when I ventured down the street into a neighbor’s empty house. I still remember playing with their baby blue typewriter upstairs, and I certainly remember the bells my mama made me wear afterward—two silver ones laced to each baby Ked that chimed with my steps, letting everyone know how far I had gone. Jessica fled her childhood home of Florida for the mountains of North Carolina whenever she could, while I tromped through the mountains of Cuetzalan, Mexico, without a dime to my name when I was eighteen. For four summers in my twenties, I circled like a greedy fruit bat around Lake Bled in Slovenia, seeking out ripe apricots fallen to the ground; after college, Jessica spent a season bartending on the Greek island of Naxos, followed by a solo bike tour of Turkey, making her parents wished they’d tied bells to her while they had the chance.

With all certainty, we both should have run out of gas, stranded on the side of a bumpy road a long while ago, but something in us won’t stop. For decades now, we’ve come home at the end of summer mud-caked and broke and bruised up; we’ve returned with radiant sunburns and salted hair and notebooks full of half-written poems. We’ve worried our parents sick, so sick that they’ve threatened to plant GPS devices in our backsides, so sick that they’ve resigned themselves to half-bitter jokes about cats, dragging themselves home tail-less and one-eyed, lugging home a sack full of dirty laundry and a whole mess of fleas.

But we’re grown now, and we’ve found each other. In our first summer together, we packed up the car and spent our first night riding out an electrical storm in Palo Duro, Texas; later that same summer, I learned exactly what a straw sunhat and a white shirt can do for a blonde in Santa Fe and why it might be a good idea to bundle yourself up before the fog burns off in the morning in Big Sur. By August, we were engaged in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where wild raspberries grow in impossible thickets of ferns, and by October, we slipped off our shoes in the green grass of Santa Barbara to be married. Oh, and we didn’t stop there—our second summer rambled from Arkansas to Santa Cruz to Asheville and back, and the photo on our home page here is from the dead center of that trip, right on the Continental Divide in Colorado.

Now, we won’t pretend these travels have been all romance—we’ve tussled many miles, and we’ve had chiggers and rashes and terrible meals (never trust Pad Thai in Munising, Michigan). We’ve crept through hotel rooms where we were afraid to slide off our flip-flops before bed, and I won’t forget the bottom of that man’s boots on the side of the highway in the Mohave Dessert. It was a terrible motorcycle accident, and it haunted us for a thousand more miles.

Nevertheless, we keep moving. We’ve only been married a year and a half, but we’ve hit the road again now—this time with a real purpose. Last May, we both had books published—Jessica’s Pelvis With Distance with White Pine Press, and my second book, Fanny Says, with BOA Editions. So this time we’re going on tour, reading from our new books in most any venue that will take us. In addition, we’re looking to throw down our bags and settle into a new home together, so all of this searching is one of the most primal of all human longing—the search for home.

That said, here is our blog. For our friends and loved ones, we hope this will be a good way for you to track us, sans invasive microchipping. For our readers, consider this an old-fashioned travelogue. We’ll let you know where we are and what we’re up to, perhaps what we’re reading and what might be worth noting along the way.

Posted in on the road, on tour, posts by Nickole | 2 Comments