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 | 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