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On Art, the Anasazi, Genetics, and a Man Named Harry [by Joy Jacobson]
Pueblo Bonito, gregorywass, flickr There is a field where my ancestors have pitched their tents. Maybe it’s like the squalid tent cities that housed the destitute during the Great Depression. But I can’t get a sense of those ancestors or what they need from me. The dead in my mother’s lineage are a tight-lipped bunch, zipped away from view. But I see the field in my mind’s eye, just as I saw Pueblo Bonito one recent evening while walking in the park. I had been working that day on a memoir of sorts about my mother’s father, a man named Harry, whom I never met. In order to write my way toward Harry I’d written about the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, a national park in northwestern New Mexico. I first visited Chaco in 1984, about a year after I moved to Albuquerque. Pueblo Bonito is the remains of what had at one time been a five-story complex housing hundreds. I touched the rough-hewn sandstone bricks and the pine of the lintels and floorboards, still visible in places, that originated from trees hauled over 70 miles. The ruins bear some remarkably intact evidence of an advanced civilization: signs of government, art, religion, agriculture, war, gambling, cuisine. But no one can say exactly why the Anasazi abruptly abandoned Chaco and other similarly elaborate dwellings in the late 13th century. Was it climate change? Battle with a nomadic tribe? Internal political strife? The riddle has captured my imagination, just as Harry has. Sometimes, while writing about him and his parents, who abandoned him when he was very young, I feel like a voyeur, listening in on a conversation I have no part in. Ghosts in their tents, barely audible. But they’re my ghosts. After a hike that day in 1984, I drove my Corolla into the campground where vacationing families had already parked their RVs and left immediately. I spread my sleeping bag on a barren rock shelf. I had never felt so alone. Or maybe for the first time I realized that I always had felt that way. As the sun set, a vertical bolt flashed at the horizon—“lightning’s jointed road,” as Dickinson put it—and everything my eye fell on divulged its hidden sanctity. I grabbed a hunk of yellow sandstone formed by millennia of wind and rain into a classic Madonna shape. I kept it for years. After writing about Harry and the Anasazi recently, 29 years after my Chaco visit, I walked with my dog at dusk in the park. I noticed the lights of a nearby apartment building shining in rows through the branches of nearly bare trees, and I saw it—Pueblo Bonito, resurrected, its civilization suddenly alight inside stone walls, its people spectacularly unaware of the ruination to come. And I knew: I have to find Harry’s grave. * When I think about Harry, orphaned by his living parents, and about my mother, left behind as a child for some years by her parents, I think I...
Posted Jan 31, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Writing, Healing, and Community Building with Veterans: An Interview with Seema Reza [by Joy Jacobson]
Seema Reza, photo by Willie Young Seema Reza is a poet who coordinates recreational arts activities at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where she works with veterans and active duty service members in the Washington, DC, area. I met Seema last fall at a conference of the Transformative Language Arts Network, a gathering of writers, musicians, health care professionals, and others using language for personal and social change. Seema, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, will turn 33 next week. She has two sons, ages 13 and seven, and holds a bachelor’s in fine arts from Goddard College, where she is set to begin the master’s program in Transformative Language Arts. I talked with her by phone this week about her work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. And please make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page for a poem by a combat veteran participating in the arts program, Joe Merritt. You’re about to enter Goddard’s master’s program in Transformative Language Arts (TLA). Why as a poet did you decide to pursue that degree? When I got my BFA, they were really kind to me at Goddard. They let me play with different forms of creative writing, essays and telling the stories of what I was experiencing. And then my father passed away, and I couldn’t bring myself to write complete sentences. He drowned while on vacation. It was very sudden, very far away. Our relationship was rocky. I was going through a divorce at the time, and hadn’t talked to my father in a while. It was a devastating loss. When you lose a parent, suddenly you feel a generation older, a little closer to that generation holding up the sky. It was a big identity shift. I decided at Goddard to learn the rules of poetry so I could reject them. I found in working with fixed-form poetry that the poems are not necessarily where I want to end, but I am able to discover things using fixed forms. I have to force myself to find the syllables and words and phrases, and I will go back to it often to try to figure out what I am trying to say. So you were discovering as you wrote what you needed to say. At Goddard I was exploring the relationship between form and content and how that connects with the primal brain. And to connect with an audience, to hit an emotional place, you have to go deep. With fixed form it’s harder to hide from the difficult stuff. Could you give an example? I had written this villanelle. I believe the refrain was, “Now we separate, divide, remove the groom, reclaim the bride.” I thought it would be a poem about the fierceness of reclaiming myself. But you’re reusing these lines, and the meaning is changing. You have to keep addressing it to find words that rhyme. And then you say “Oh, shit, that is not the poem...
Posted Jan 30, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
Relentlessly, a Mockingbird Is Making His Case [by Joy Jacobson]
A good friend and I sometimes exchange writing prompts. Last summer, as she began a sabbatical to begin a prose memoir, she asked for some prompts and I sent her a small envelope of words, fragments of poems, dictionary definitions and etymologies, quotations. Earlier this month, as she prepared to take a look at my prompts, she reread my letter and fashioned a passel of prompts for me. I received the small envelope this week. Today I offer a few jottings based on those prompts, each drawn at random, one at a time. (The prompts are in italics.) * It is strange and so human to be waiting for someone’s dying. I have written for years about my mother. In my younger poems she was not the overt subject but now that she’s gone I can see her there, in those old phrases, or the shape of her, in the words. That was my work, exhausting as it was, writing for years toward her without quite realizing it. And then she got sick. Dementia conveyed a barbed gift—disinhibition is the clinical term—restoring her to me for a time. It is strange (and so human?) to express gratitude for an illness that caused her such suffering and killed her so swiftly. We talked in those few years as we never had before, some painful facts about our shared past, and about her years that preceded me. My mother, Doris, around 1940 Dementia seemed to absolve her of bitterness and revealed her, like an eye freed of its cataract. About nine months before she died in 2005 I asked her on the phone how she felt about her illness. “I am so lucky,” she said. By that time she had lost the ability to write, though she could still read. She could no longer paint but sometimes took up a brush and dabbed some shaky color onto her old work. She was about a month away from the wheelchair; she’d been incontinent of bowel and bladder, both in bed and in public; she suffered from intractable psychosis. And yet when I asked how she felt about being ill? Fortunate. I hadn’t known I was waiting for her to get degeneratively sick. I couldn’t have wished it on her. But when she died I saw what luck we’d had, good and bad. I’m sorry, not sorry. Both are true. * The sameness of trees beside each driveway. Most of my adult life I’ve lived urban or rural, brownstone or goat path, but not landed in the comforts of the suburbs. The last house I lived in with my parents, in New Hampshire, was a split-level in a row of four across from a school. Dad put up a low cedar fence and trimmed the maple in the front yard. They labored every summer in the vegetable and flower gardens I had no interest in: perennials, annuals, pounds and pounds of tomatoes. I am at work on a series of poems I’m calling “The...
Posted Jan 29, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
What Makes a Human Being Make a Poem? [by Joy Jacobson]
Strangers. You, strangers, reading my poems. The thought makes me a little lightheaded. I’ve grown accustomed to being the solitary artist at work with words, spinning out a poem in its own idiolect. But when it comes time to send it out, so that it might find reception in the minds of strangers, I get a bit stymied. I’ve only recently begun to have poems published, realizing the primary purpose of poetry: a strange communion among strangers. Donald Hall, in his classic Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird, defined a poem as “one man’s inside talking to another man’s inside.” I like that word talking. Today I define a poem as one person’s strangeness talking to a stranger’s strangeness. But it makes me giddy to think of you reading one of my poems. Door ajar, fodwyer, flickr Which brings to mind Emily Dickinson, as so many things do. She sent her poems out in letters to lovers and friends and acquaintances, pinned them to teatowels wrapping gifts of bread, lowered them in baskets from her second-story window, enveloped them in condolence cards with pressed flowers. (Okay, I couldn’t confirm the teatowels, but it sounds like something she would have done.) During her lifetime her strangeness found reception in the minds of those known to her—until she sent a set to a stranger. Brenda Wineapple’s remarkable book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, characterizes the epistolary relationship that followed as not just life- and art-sustaining but lifesaving for Dickinson. Em had her beloved Sue, sister-in-law, dear friend, reader, critic. But the poet had to have a stranger, too. “What makes a human being make a poem?” The question opens James Longenbach’s exegesis of Dickinson in his recent book of critical essays, The Virtues of Poetry, in which he treats Dickinson’s humanity as well as her work. In a few pages we come to see her not as the frail-but-brilliant recluse unable to tolerate everyday human intercourse but rather as a threat others steered clear of. “Not many people want to have tea with the Delphic Oracle, however mesmerizing her speech,” Longenbach writes of her “volatile” and “volcanic” room-clearing abilities, an image that makes me love her all the more. When I was in graduate school I had the assignment of writing a one-word poem. It took a while but then it came to me: “Impossible.” Had the assignment asked for two words, maybe I’d have come up with “Futile. Impossible,” three words, “Not hard. Impossible,” and so on. Having more words to work with doesn’t lessen the impossibility factor, or so I’ve found in the nearly 20 years I’ve devoted to poetry. The word count of my most recent poem reaches a dizzying 184. As I revise with a mind toward publication I can’t help but think I should slice it back to my one true word. What makes a human being who’s not the Delphic Oracle make a poem? I’ve asked myself versions of that question in the...
Posted Jan 28, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
New Mexico: Rift, Poetry, Refuge [by Joy Jacobson]
Sandhills, Bosque del Apache refuge; © Tony Giancola, www.giancola.com I peek out back for new snow fallen overnight. None today. Even a dusting somehow manages to quiet the anxious crowd that tends to gather in my chest. I sit at my desk in the living room, blinds drawn, just after sunrise, and the wind sighs around the house. My partner and I have lived in this Brooklyn apartment 15 years. We came here from three and a half acres halfway up the northern edge of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. I have returned in my poems to those mountains, and to others in that state, the Jemez range, the Sangre de Cristos, the Gila, the Manzanos, the Pecos. I’ve returned to the migrating sandhill cranes picking through reeds at the Bosque del Apache refuge; to the high-desert succulents, cholla and prickly pear and agave; to the Rio Chama cutting through O’Keefe’s red hills; to the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera, a huge volcanic depression northwest of Santa Fe on one of the most breathtaking drives in the world. I never drove into the caldera but I didn’t have to. That state is mine as muse, and more: the measure of geologic time is part of everyday visible life in New Mexico, and I found my place in its sprawling yet intimate ancestry. I spent most of my 20s stumbling into it, and a part of my 30s writing poems there. My first serious poetic apprenticeship was to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Song for the Rainy Season.” I recited the lines as I walked with our dog, Bubba Ann, up and down the dirt road behind our house in the old village of Placitas—nothing more, really, than a rutted access track to the cold springs that fed the town’s water supply. “Hidden, oh hidden,” Bishop’s first line goes, and “hidden” became the truth of my road, and of my poetic diction. It isn’t one of Bishop’s more celebrated works, but it should be. It’s a paean to the place she learned to love in: the house “held in a private cloud,” the walls “darkened and tarnished / by the warm touch / of the warm breath, / maculate, cherished”: refuge. Our Placitas house was up a steep incline from the one Robert Creeley and his family lived in in the 1960s. When I lived there in the ’90s I knew of Creeley but not his work. The first and only time I saw Creeley, in 1999, a couple of years into my New York life, he performed an elegy he’d written to an old friend, “Oh Max.” I say performed rather than read or recited because as he voiced his poem he incarnated his grief. I thought he might crack in half on the stage. I had never seen anything like it. I still haven’t. In it he writes of New Mexico, where he “worked the street, like they say, lived on nothing,” and nearly resurrects Max, but the wish is made of “useless...
Posted Jan 27, 2014 at
The Best American Poetry
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