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10 Questions for Jessica Jacobs

In the original, Adam has my back—
is my back—our bodies one
body. We take turns
walking forward. With each seeing
half the world, we see it
—from "Creation Stories," Volume 62, Issue 2 (Summer 2021)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
As a kid who camped out in front of Teen Wolf whenever it came on TV, convinced I was secretly a werewolf, I wrote a short story about—what else?—a young werewolf so distraught at being separated from her true clan she became catatonic, a word I stole from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Poetry it was not.

What other professions have you worked in?
Deep breath; let’s begin at 14 and go with a selection from there: Florida lawfirm file clerk (desiccated lizards pressed like flowers between old files), kid then college-aged reporter for my local papers, rock-climbing instructor (peeling children and large men from gym walls when they too stole that word from Ferris Beuller halfway up a route), bartender and dessert-preparer (a ladder of burns from warming plates up the inside of my forearm), SAT-prep instructor, literary magazine dogsbody (where I shall reveal my age by saying layout required literal cutting out of articles and gluing them in place), textbook acquisitions editor (of mathematics and statistics of all things) professor, literary editor, and. . .who can say what else awaits?

What did you want to be when you were young?
With copious gratitude and no small amount of astonishment I find I’ve stumbled into the life I wanted: a woman married to a woman she loves, who gets to spend the majority of her time thinking about, teaching, editing, reading, and writing poems and essays she loves. This is of course minus the whole being a werewolf thing, but such is life.

What inspired you to write this piece?
While reading the Torah for the first time in its entirety several years ago, I was moved and surprised to find how intensely relevant this ancient text felt, how it could inform and deepen the way I understand the world. For “Creation Stories,” I was struck by the fact there are two entirely separate stories of the world’s creation, as well as of the humans within it.

In the first, God says, “‘Let us make a human in our image’” (Gen 1:26): adam, a human, is derived from the Hebrew adamah, earth, and is a generic name for a human being—not definitively male. This allows Genesis 1:27 to make far more sense when it seems to speak of the creation of a human with two sexes: “And God created the earthperson in God’s image, in the image of God, God created it; male and female God created them” (trans., Phyllis Tribble).

The second creation story is far more familiar—God as sculptor, surgeon, and matchmaker, molding man from the earth (Adam from adama) and then forming Eve from his rib: “. . .God formed man from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life. . .but for Adam no fitting helper was found. So God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and while he slept, God took one of his ribs. . .[and] fashioned the rib that God had taken from the man into a woman” (Gen. 2:7, 2:20-22).

The first story made me think of the melding that can happen in romantic relationships and how hard it is to want or even truly see something or someone that’s always right there. The retelling allowed me to explore how distance can inspire not only desire but choice—the choice to reach across the divide and say, yes, this person, they are the one for me.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
As someone who spends a good deal of time outside running and hiking, I tend to ground my work in the specifics of wherever I am. My first book, Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, draws deeply from the New Mexico high desert. My second, Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, which explores love and long-term commitment, was written primarily while on tour for that first book, so takes inspiration from landscapes across the country. Much of my new manuscript was written during the pandemic, while I was holed-up in my home in Asheville; so I’d say it’s my first truly North Carolina book, reflecting a year-and-a-half spent in one place, watching the plants and birds and creatures around me grow and change.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Though my wife has a curated playlist for each book she writes, I need silence to hear the music of what I’m drafting. The only time I can “write” while listening to music is when I run and often have to pause for a moment to make a quick note of an image or phrase that I don’t want to lose.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
In the hope I can write anywhere, whenever I find myself with a spare moment or two, I try not to get too precious with my writing needs. Ideally, I like a quiet morning at my desk with many hours open in front of me to write and revise (rinse and repeat), but I’ve also written on trains and airplanes (the latter a personal favorite), in a hammock beside a river filled with people cavorting in inner tubes, and mid-run on more trails and bridges and sidewalks than I can count.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife, the poet Nickole Brown, is my first reader and I’m hers—a thing we take seriously enough to have put it in our vows.

What are you working on currently?
“Creation Stories” is part of a full-length collection of poems exploring the Book of Genesis, in which I’m taking a deep dive into that book portion by portion. In the Jewish tradition of Midrash, rabbinic sages and now modern scholars and artists converse across time and place about the Torah, deepening each other’s arguments and understandings. It’s a joy and honor to engage in this tradition and to see the diversity of forms and subject matter that material is inspiring in my poems.

What are you reading right now?
In addition to regularly referencing four different translations of the Torah I keep on my desk (those by Robert Alter and Everett Fox are my favorites), I’m very much influenced by the modern Midrashic scholarship of Burton Visotsky, Avivah Zornberg, and Alicia Ostriker, as well as spiritually infused poetry by writers like Rilke, Yehoshua November, Dana Levin, Marie Howe, Kazim Ali, Alicia Jo Rabins, Ellen Bass, Claire Schwartz, Richard Chess, Matthew Lippman, and many more.

JESSICA JACOBS is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books) and Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, which won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Jessica serves as the chapbook editor for Beloit Poetry Journal and lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her wife, poet Nickole Brown, with whom she co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/ Penguin Random House). She is at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash and is an avid long-distance runner.

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