Two Poets, Four Hearts: Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs
by Philip F. Clark
I first met Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown at the University of Central Arkansas, for the AIDS Memorial Reading sponsored there by Sibling Rivalry Press and UCA’s Lisa Ference, our host for the evening, who welcomed us warmly. Yet, I’d heard of them both before my visit through my good friends, and fellow readers that night, Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington, who are the publishers and editors of SRP. It was my first trip to Arkansas, and I looked forward and was honored to be asked to read my work as one of six poets for the event. Nickole and her wife Jessica radiated an immediate warmth and energy. The evening, a tribute to those Arkansans lost to AIDS, was an emotional one for all of us, to say the least. We were also joined by Sarah Rawlinson, also a poet who lent power to the evening’s energy of tribute and memory. And it was that very power of the evening’s readings that were a testament to how poetry can be both a salve and a clarion call, and it reminds us of not only what we hold close, but how we hold close. The readings by Jessica and Nickole struck me deeply that evening. Afterwards, as we joined together for a meal of camaraderie and food, I was eager to learn more about each of them, and their work. I knew that they were both about to publish new books, and I knew I wanted to interview them for The Poet’s Grin. Their books, Fanny Says, by Nickole, and Pelvis with Distance by Jessica, are collections which bring together two remarkable women: Nickole’s grandmother, the Fanny of the title, and Georgia O’Keeffe, the remarkable artist and subject of Jessica’s book. And in reading both volumes, and in coming to know both poets, I realized that there were four hearts involved in their works: their own as poets with each other, and the incredible, strong, and completely captivating women they present in their poems. Each of the books is compelling reading, as well as celebratory of their subjects. But as Nickole and Jessica celebrate these women, and continue the great ocean that poetry is, they also provide the reader and listener a visceral experience of poetry as transformative art. — PHILIP F. CLARK
You’ve chosen to write poems about very powerful women, who also have a sense of vulnerability. This combination makes for some insightful, emotional writing. How did each of these women—Georgia O’Keeffe and Frances Lee Cox (a.k.a., Fanny)—come to fruition as subjects? How did they first appear as possible subjects and a full book of poetry?
JESSICA JACOBS: While attending a women’s college, it seemed there was an over-sexed O’Keeffe bloom on every other dorm room wall, which resulted in her work being for me everywhere and nowhere, invisible visual Muzak. But a decade later, during a cold October visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, her painting, Pelvis with Distance, demanded my attention. That title, paired with the juxtaposition of a raw pelvic bone and the high desert landscape, conveyed such a sense of longing that I ended up writing what would become the collection’s title poem on the spot, in a voice that imagined what O’Keeffe might have felt while painting it. And, with no inkling it would eventually be a book, it was a voice that seemed worth following.
NICKOLE BROWN: In one way or another, I had always written down what my grandmother said, and by the time she passed in 2004, I had almost nine notebooks filled with her—pages after pages of her recipes and raucous, cock-eyed stories, and her hot and wacky gossip. But I never intended to write a book about her, no. Initially, it was just my way of keeping her near—of hoarding all the bits and pieces I could to try, in my own small way, to keep her from disappearing. Several years after her death though, I realized that wasn’t enough. You see, I carry with me a whole arsenal of Fanny stories that pipe up constantly—just ask any of my students or close friends—but without a deeper context, I realized my remembrances of her were simple anecdotes that belied the deeper intensity (and yes, you’re right—vulnerability) that made her who she was. I began writing because I wanted to understand her even better than I did when she was alive, to look at her now that I’m a grown woman myself with a deeper understanding of what she might have endured. It was her complexity—her downright contrariness—that compelled me the most. For example, I’ve never known anyone so generous toward everyone (regardless of their color) who used such racist language, and I also wanted to get a handle on the love she had for her husband, an often deeply difficult and hard man.
Every book of poetry is a matter of directing the readers in a specific way, by the “paths” each book takes. Each of your books has an architectural structure that is unique. In each volume, there are more than simply just poems set in a linear fashion; you use a rich combination of prose, excerpts from actual dialogue or letters, remembered events seen through time. I love the “Fanny Linguistics”, and also the “Sent” sections of the books. Can you speak to how you chose to create the progression of the sections in each?
JJ: Because Pelvis with Distance is also both a collection of poems that hopefully stand on their own as well as a kind of nonce biography, I felt that if exposition about the facts of O’Keeffe’s life was needed, how better to include it than in her own voice? So the “Sent” section includes my favorite passages from the literally thousands of pages of her published correspondences, allowing both O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz moments in which they can speak for themselves.
NB: One of the things I love best about poetry is its ability to hold narrative in fragments. It’s flexible and expansive, and ultimately, the only form I’ve found that can bind together in any cohesive way my shards of deep memory and contrary facts. In Fanny Says, there are several forms that employ different kinds of architecture, each with its own purpose. On the most basic level, I tried to make the intent of each poem clear by its shape on the page and by its title. To begin, the manuscript is built around several long research poems that tackle my grandmother’s totems—her Pepsi and Clorox and Crisco, her Cadillac Eldorado and the long drive down Dixie Highway from Kentucky to Florida. Then there are the “Fanny Linguistics” poems that were, at least originally, perceived as one long poem that broached the particular way that Fanny spoke. There are also the “Fanny Says” poems—all in prose—that weren’t written by me so much as written down: as best as I could, they are word-for-word in Fanny’s voice. In between, you’ll see a scattering of more lyrical poems that deal with different aspects of her life I’m trying to understand. Many of these are stair-stepped in form and are titled similarly to one another: “For My Grandmother’s Teeth, Pulled When She Was Thirty-Six,” “For My Grandmother’s Feet, Swollen Again,” “To My Grandmother’s Ghost, Flying with Me on a Plane,” etc. I tried, as best I could, to braid these poems in a near chronological way that might make sense to the reader.
How hard, or not, was it to achieve the voice of the subjects in these works? In the case of Georgia O’Keeffe, what was some of the research that you conducted Jessica? And, Nickole, in the case of Fanny, did you use family documents such as photographs or recordings to inspire the memories in addition to your own? To what part of their character were you most responsive to develop them?
JJ: From the beginning, I was desperate to understand how this woman who was born to a poor family in 1887, three decades before American women even had the right to vote, became one of the world’s most prominent female artists. How she remained married to Alfred Stieglitz, a renowned photographer and New York City gallery owner, for more than twenty years and yet still managed to make a life for herself in New Mexico. So I went looking for answers in those letters and in the writing she did later in life about her paintings. And I was thrilled to find a woman who was certainly very serious about her art, but was also funny, sometimes petulant, and never afraid to speak her mind—a range I used to inform the speaker of the O’Keeffe poems.
NB: Fanny’s peculiar way of speaking comes from the earliest, freshest part of me, and sometimes, her voice comes more naturally to me than my own. All I had to do in this regard was listen. I did, however, have more than one artifact to help bring me to her. As I’ve said in another interview, my inheritance, so to speak, consisted of a Prada bag—her favorite—in bubble-gum pink, and in it, a pair of her terrycloth house slippers; a mess of her hair rollers and clips; one of her plastic cigarette filters and a gold lamé cigarette case; an empty bottle of her nerve pills; an empty bottle of her hair color; a few stray bullets; and a pamphlet from Jefferson County Family Court leftover from the day I took her there to file an Emergency Protective Order against her husband, my grandfather. This is what I have of my grandmother that I can hold, and I used held these fragments in my hand every day that I wrote these poems. There are photos too, but not many; my family never was one for pictures. Most importantly, there are those notebooks I mentioned—a whole drawer of them dated back to 1992—full of her stories, as I always did write down just about everything Fanny said.
Nickole, one of the standouts for me in the collection is “Clorox”—which I heard you recite at the AIDS Memorial Reading at UCA. Then it raised the hair on my neck; re-reading it again, it still does. Can you tell us the story behind this powerful poem?
NB: My mother had me when she was only sixteen, so one of the only ways she found to make a living at such an early age was to go to beauty school and do hair. As such, I was raised in the beauty shop with a fabulous gaggle of men that worked alongside my mother and cared for me in a way I’ll never forget. They pampered me, really, painting my tiny kid toes and teasing up my frizzy kid hair, and in the same way that some people might reminisce over nursery rhymes, it’s disco that brings me back to childhood and makes me feel safe. Tragically, this era coincided with the first wave of men infected with the AIDS virus, and one by one, we lost so many of those sweet and golden boys. I wrote about this in my first book, Sister, in the poem “1979,” and the grief came up again when writing “Clorox.” In this poem, the man by the name “Donason” in the second section references a young man that Fanny helped raise alongside her own seven children when he was kicked out of his home for being gay. She might have teased and said he had “a little sugar sprinkled in his pants,” but she loved him, I don’t doubt it. After he was grown, he showed up one day with deep purple sarcoma blooming on his neck, and after he left, she Cloroxed the cup he drank from twice, then threw it out. I was too young to understand what it all meant, and to this day, I don’t know if she was afraid of contamination or if pitching that glass was more an expression of grief and frustration.
Jessica, I’m struck with how the landscape is palpable in the whole volume of Pelvis With Distance. Having a great love for the Southwest, and having visited O’Keeffe’s home, I feel a direct visual and visceral connection when I read such works as “The Grey Hills”, or the “In The Canyon” sequences. Can you talk more of the direct experience of writing there among the very heart of the landscape she lived and witnessed as a painter?
JJ: Living alone for a month with no neighbors, no phone or internet, and only one really moment of contact with other people, was both immensely difficult and one of the best experiences of my life. Such uninterrupted time was a privilege, and such time with no one there to judge—my writing or my actions—allowed me take risks, to wander naked in the desert sun, to spend hours with my face to the sand, watching cicadas emerge from their burrows, or to simply sit from dawn to dusk and note how the canyon was transformed by the day’s shifting light. This allowed me to ground my imaginings of O’Keeffe’s life with concrete observations, which I’m happy to hear from a fellow lover of the Southwest seemed authentic.
Ekphrastic poetry is quite difficult to attempt — to transform into words an object that is visual, yet which is not always in the actual book of poems. Your book provides a superb descriptive index to the paintings and letters that are used, yet I can’t wait to be able to look upon the paintings again now. In one sense, your poems become a unique new version of the canvases. What was this experience like for you?
JJ: Thank you; Philip, that’s wonderful to hear you saw the poems that way. For me, I was stunned by how different her paintings were when seen in person versus print reproductions. The originals, even those painted a century ago, are so vital and filled with movement. But seeing them now, I feel almost guilty. O’Keeffe adamantly refuted biographical readings of her work. Yet, having seen in my research so many ties between her experiences and the paintings she created from specific periods, when I see even her abstractions, like the Music series, I can’t help but think, Yes, of course; her first real moments of love and lust with Alfred.
The books are complete tributes and celebrations of the women who inspired them. They are obviously lives that will continue to resonate with you, and certainly you each have given us portraits that resonate completely in the reading of the poems. Was there one particular poem that was very important for you to write—that touched you in a particular way and helped you move forward in the writing? I don’t think I will ever stop hearing Fanny’s sweet but cutting voice; and I can never now look at an O’Keeffe painting and not hear her voice also.
JJ: The first few couplets of “The Shelton with Sunspots” felt like an important milestone:
You, with your camera, are a boy with a Ball jar,
out trapping fireflies. My secret, though,
is there is no corner I cannot paint
my way out of. You want me as pupil?
Fine; I’m all aperture. All film stock—silver
salted and emulsified. But I won’t stop
with just you—I take it all in.
Something about the indignation and power in that voice felt like I’d moved beyond a simple description of a painting or telling of her story, and found my way into her voice.
NB: Thanks, Philip. I don’t think I’ll ever stop hearing Fanny’s sweet and cutting voice myself. For me, “An Invitation for My Grandmother” was an important poem to write. It didn’t move me forward with the writing, but it did provide me closure and was essentially the last poem I wrote for the manuscript. You see, one of the things I really struggle with is to imagine how Fanny would have reacted to me coming out when I was thirty, several years after she died. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have been happy with it, but I can’t say if she would have accepted it or not. In this particular poem, I invite her to my wedding to Jessica, which happened over a year ago now. I don’t try to provide an answer—if she would or would not come—but I ask her to attend, trying to beckon her back from the other side to bear witness to the happiness I’ve found.
How did you come to poetry in your lives? Who were some of the first poets that you read, and who continues to inspire you?
JJ: Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” was the first poem to knock the top of my head off. Then in college, I was incredibly fortunate to study with both Jack Gilbert and Eleanor Wilner, two poets whose life and work is never far from my mind when writing. Now, my inspiration still comes from many poets (Larry Levis, Paul Monette, Mary Ruefle, to name a few), but also from the exciting work being done by writers like Maggie Nelson, Lia Purpura, and Brenda Miller in the literary Wild West of hybrid forms. And, truth be told, I’m fascinated with trying to translate physical forms like running and cycling onto the page, to finding a way to capture that movement, that combination of stress and release.
NB: As you can imagine, Fanny did not raise me to be a writer. No, she could barely read and write herself, and we had two things to read in the house: the family Bible and Cosmo Magazine. Now, if you ask me, this makes for a far more interesting literary background than most, but I did miss out most good reads until I was fifteen when, by some grace of God, I was accepted into a summer program called Governor’s School for the Arts. Poetry did eventually come into my life then, and when it did, I was so hungry for it that I snuck up to the rooftops of the administration building to read Rilke and memorized most of Ginsberg’s Howl when my math teacher wasn’t looking. Like Jessica, I read Sylvia Plath too, and her blue-hour cadences still haunt me. Now, so many years later, I feel the presence of a great chorus of poets that constantly give texture to the air I breathe—Mark Doty, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Patricia Smith, Jack Gilbert, Maurice Manning, Brigit Pegeen Kelly. . . the list could go on and on.
Each of the volumes are rich because of the lives not only of the main subjects, but also of the other lives in orbit with them—Monroe, or Stieglitz, etc. How easy/difficult was this to do?
JJ: The poems in Stieglitz’s voice were some of the most difficult to write. His letters to her read to me as not only melodramatic and self-indulgent, but often manipulative. But it was her love of him (O’Keeffe referred often to Stieglitz as her clarifier and catalyst), as well as his very clear support of her work, that salvaged him for me.
NB: Well, it’s hard to imagine Fanny’s life without Monroe. She married him before she was even out of high school, and they had seven children together. But this doesn’t mean it was easy to write about him. Even though he was a good grandfather to me, he was often a difficult, hot tempered man, and on more than one occasion, he did real damage. No one is all good or bad, and in order to tell the truth, I had to avoid allowing his faults to trump his humanity. There are no absolute victims or villains—that’s a mantra that I held tightly when writing Sister, and the same applied with this book.
From the first, Nickole, Fanny Says had me laughing right out loud—her exuberant life force, her take-no-prisoners lack of bs, and her pure determination to live and love. But the book also broke my heart in places too. This is a hard combination to present, especially because it is rare to find poems with real humor that comes from a pure place. Can you speak to this?
NB: It was Fanny’s way, really. When things got unbearable, when death was clawing at the door, she’d get good and mean until we all had no choice but to laugh. Believe it or not, the best days I had with her was when she was on hospice care; she fussed and teased, and there wasn’t a night when we didn’t stay up until about 3:00 in the morning, talking about everybody. I knew how much I was going to miss her, and I know she wasn’t ready to go. But we didn’t have a choice, so we just found a way to cut up instead.
These are both books of conjuring: the lives you present completely live off the page and walk among us, disturbing our reading in the best way. To me, they act as dream-catchers in a way. Were dreams a part of their creation?
JJ: While out in that canyon, each night I’d pick which ever poem felt most imminent, then look at the related painting and relevant notes right before I went to sleep. The next day, I’d wake before dawn, go for a run, and pretty much go about my day—wandering around the canyon, reading, whatever felt right. But by mid-day, a line or an image would filter in and the moment I opened my notebook, there was the raw material of the poem, just waiting to be written down. As someone who can often take months to finish a poem, this felt about as close to taking transcription from dreams as I’ve experienced.
NB: Dreams, no. Not exactly. Just deep memory that reaches as far back as my waking life would permit.
For more information on the poets and their new volumes, click on the links below:
Photography Credits: Portrait of Jessica Jacobs, copyright 2015, LILY DARRAGH; portrait of Nickole Brown, copyright 2015, JOLI LIVAUDAIS.