Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs are two of Arkansas's most widely acclaimed poets and beloved creative writing professors (at UALR and Hendrix College, respectively). The two were married in 2013 and both released new books in the last month. Brown's "Fanny Says" is an intensely personal "biography-in-poems" about her grandmother, and Jacobs' "Pelvis With Distance" is a meditation both on the painter Georgia O'Keeffe and on a month the author spent alone in a cabin in the New Mexico desert. Brown and Jacobs will be leaving Little Rock at the end of the semester to pursue writing full time. Caitlin Love, assistant editor of the Oxford American, met with them recently to discuss their books, their writing lives and the future.
How do you both spend your days — days in general, but also your writing days?
NB: I find that during the semester I don't write much at all. As a professor, my first obligation is to my students, and if I give them what they need for their own writing, I rarely have time for my own. It’s just the way it is, and I don’t resent it. While the university is in session, I’ll scratch down a note here and there; I’ll write down ideas that I generally won’t be able to attend to until May, really. It’s very different than summer, when almost all my days are spent writing.
JJ: I have a very similar experience. In a way, the semester feels like a period of gestation. We get to teach books we love and talk about those texts with our students, and during that time I find myself doing the same thing Nickole does — taking down notes. Right now, we're a month away from summer; I can just feel everything I want to write building, which is exciting.
What do you do in the summer?JJ: When we have full days together, we generally wake early. Well, I wake early; Nickole wakes a little later.
NB: Yeah, it’s funny, I used to be a night owl. I used to write from eleven at night until about two in the morning, and that was always my thing.>
But Jessica has me waking up earlier and earlier. Now, during the summer, we travel off the grid — quite literally — so that we can protect our time and write. During those blissful days, we’re unhindered by other responsibilities; we'll wake early and go outside, explore whatever woods are nearby. Jessica will run, and I like to shuffle my way along a trail. We'll go out for six or seven miles, come back, have breakfast, and read for a few hours. Then we spend the rest of the late afternoon and evening pushing words around the page.
Do you share your writing with one another?
NB: Absolutely. She's my first reader. It's in our marriage vows: "I will be your reader and witness."
JJ: It's honestly more than I could have imagined. Our writing is similar enough that we have complimentary aesthetics, but where I'm always striving for compression, Nickole is trying to find more expansive ways to write. So she'll tell me when my work needs to breathe, and often I'll let her know when she might cut away a bit.
Did you always want to write?
JJ: Writing was something present from the time I was a little kid. But I always imagined myself doing it alone.
NB: Me, too. I thought this was something I had to do alone, really. But now Jessica's in my life, and I feel so blessed to know she's working just as hard, right alongside me.
JJ: Since we got married, we've grown together, and every day we work to figure out how we can maintain boundaries, both encouraging each other and making sure we're giving each other enough space.
One thing we learned early on is not to distract ourselves too much on days we want to work. So a lot of nights, we'll say, "OK, we're not going to talk until 2 or so tomorrow." Then we'll spend the entire next morning and early afternoon in silence. And that allows us to spend time together, but to also be alone and enter a creative space.
Were there certain books that sparked your interest when you were really young writers?
NB: We both cut our teeth on Sylvia Plath. When I was a cranky teenager, I cloaked myself in all black with a copy of "The Bell Jar" under my arm. And Jessica discovered "Daddy" in the library, right?
JJ: Yes. Reading that poem stopped the day cold, and made me want to learn how to write like that.
NB: We both also have a deep love for Jack Gilbert. His poetry endures in our lives. "The Great Fires" is one book I turn to again and again. His lines often have a deep wisdom to them. He lived outside of the literary and academic scene of his time. The way he talks about awareness and life, not to mention how he set out with intent to live with a deep awareness, is something that has been instructive to both of us.
JJ: He lived very simply, on next to nothing, in Greece for many years, in a little town called Monolithos, on the island of Santorini, with the poet Linda Gregg.
Something that has been interesting for us to think about are different couples who are both writers. Like Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. There's a truly amazing essay called "The Third Thing" by Donald Hall about their life together.
NB: Yes, we've read that essay four or five times to each other, dreaming about how we can spend the rest of our days together as writers.
What are the books that you've read that have shaped your relationship?
JJ: A book we've read together is "God is a Verb" by Rabbi David Cooper. It’s a book my dad gave me when I went to college, and I’ve reread it every year or so since. It's about the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish texts, and it deals with the idea you are constantly verb-ing. Like, Nickole is not just Nickole, she is Nickole-ing. And in that way, you are constantly making a choice about what you put into the world.
NB: One of the things that really binds us together, especially in our approach to creativity, is awareness. And David Cooper talks a lot about silence, he talks a lot about awareness, and the sort of deep betrayal you can do to your existence by not paying attention. That’s something we try to help each other with. Jessica will tell me, "Get off your computer. Go outside." Or I’ll say to her, "Stop reading and look out the window. Do you see that cardinal on that branch ... do you see that?" In a way, we’re constantly calling each other back to where we are.
The book also talks about — I don't know if I can even articulate it exactly — about how creation, even if you think of it in the context of the story of Genesis, creation didn't happen just once for the Garden of Eden. The idea is that creation happens every day, every single moment of the day; the world is being created over and over and over.
JJ: The ancient Midrash, which are the interpretations of the Torah, also talks about how if God is everywhere, and made the world, then in order to create space for that world, God had to first create a hole in Itself. It had to create this void in which the world could be born. That idea is also something we've thought about a great deal. We’re trying to learn how we — in the midst of the million different things we have going on, the things that are constantly calling for our attention — how we can create a space in which we can write, in which we can make poetry happen.
There’s a line from one of O’Keeffe’s letters that you’ve quoted, Jessica, that says that O’Keeffe felt like her husband Alfred Stieglitz had clarified her as a woman and as an artist. What does that mean to you, to both of you?
JJ: That’s absolutely how I feel about Nickole. She challenges me as a writer, a teacher, a person, all of that. In seeing who she is and how much she dedicates to everything in her life, I can't be satisfied with doing something in a sub-par way. Being with her means always being urged to be a better version of myself.
I want to talk a little about landscape — physical and abstract — because I think that "Pelvis With Distance" is very much rooted in the aspect of the desert as a subject. And "Fanny Says" revolves around the landscapes of class and race in Kentucky.
Jessica, can you talk more about the desert, and how it influenced your work, and how you see it in the book?
JJ: Well, in both the book and in my personal experience, there is the landscape of New York, where the earlier parts of the book take place, and then, of course, New Mexico. New York is a place where your line of sight is very limited because you can only look so far before you see a building, which makes you feel very contained. When I lived in New York, I would run or bike pretty much every day along the Hudson or the East River, seeking out the sense of expansiveness in those places.
But once you go out to the desert you have this almost limitless line of sight, which is something you can see changing O'Keeffe's work when she moves from painting primarily in New York to painting in New Mexico: Her work transforms from very tight, close-up views of flowers and architectural paintings with lots of black and primary colors, to making paintings of such distance and expanse. She began to play with perspective. She'll have bones floating in space, and they should be tiny compared to the mountains, but are instead given just as much prominence and are placed in just the same plane as the rest of the landscape, which I found fascinating.
At first New Mexico can feel really desolate. You have all this sand and low trees, and an almost oppressive sky, as though it's somehow too blue. But if you take enough time, and you're still enough, you'll notice that the desert is filled with an incredible diversity of life. I would just sit on the cabin's porch and watch the cliff swallows come out in the morning, fighting off hawks. Cicadas emerged from the ground and there were rabbits everywhere.
It was very instructive to me, to see how if you look closely enough at anything, how much life you can find in the world. As a writer, that type of observation is really key.
I also noticed how technology and this sense of constantly waiting for things to come in had obscured my inner landscape. Once those things fell away, there was much more clarity. My days would be so long out there because I couldn't waste them in front of a screen.
Nickole, Kentucky has a very strong presence in your book; but, to me, when I read "Fanny Says," the landscapes are very social, the problems of class in the South are bigger presences than the land.
NB: Well, with Fanny, everything was about class. The kind of fish you ate. The kind of soda you drank, and when you drank it, if you sipped it proper from a glass or right out of the bottle. How you sat — if you crossed your legs at the ankle like a lady. Or if, after 40, you kept your hair up and didn't let it string down like a young girl. Everything had a class signifier attached to it, and I think that's because she grew up dirt poor during the Depression in western Kentucky.
She married my grandfather very young — she was only about 15 — and even though he barely had a middle-school education, he did well by her, became a prominent builder in Louisville. They got to a point where they were very well off, so it was essential to her to separate herself from her history, from that difficult place from which she came. One of the things she said to me all the time was, "You lookin' like some trash," or "Now that's just trashy." She was teasing, in a way, but the threat of family becoming "white trash" was a real one to her.
Now, one of the more difficult things I did in writing this book was wrestle with Fanny's contrariness. She would say the worst things sometimes; and there were times in which her racism and ideas about class shamed me. But I've never seen her turn anyone away from her door, either, and a lot of the kind of folks she mouthed off about were welcomed, even loved, in her home. My first book, "Sister," is, in a way, the book that helped me try to understand where I came from. "Fanny Says" is about me trying to understand where my grandmother came from, and lord, she was not an easy one to crack.
You were both very close to your subjects before you started your books. Jessica, you said that you did tons and tons of research, that you felt very connected to O'Keeffe's paintings. And Nickole, a person probably can't get closer to anyone than you were to Fanny.
How did your subjects change for you in writing these books, assuming that they did?
NB: Well, Fanny was funny as can be. She cussed up a storm, teased her hair to Jesus, and put on mile-long fake lashes every morning. She always smoked cigarettes on long, white filters; she drove a Cadillac Eldorado with atomic red leather seats. And she was so sassy that I think that a lot of people saw her as more of a caricature, as just a funny lady. Even old friends who met her once back in when I was a kid will ask, "How is your grandmother? I remember the day I walked into her house with all the walls painted solid white, and there was all that crystal on every table ... boy, she was such a character."
You see, Fanny adopted her wacky Eva Gabor (you know, the wife on "Green Acres") sense of style and humor as her means of survival. The world didn't always offer her the best place to live, and so, well, she made her own world. Underneath she carried all these sorrows and complexities that weren't always easy to see. But I wanted to look hard and access those deeper layers; I wanted to reach into my family history like an anthropologist. I wanted to step into the history of my family like an investigative reporter. I wanted to listen to what Fanny said but then try to hear what she didn't always say. Most importantly, no matter what darkness I discovered, I wanted to meet it with compassion. I had to stop, without judgment, and ask, "What exactly did she come from? What did she say versus how did she act?"
I started with an idea of my grandmother, but ended with a portrait of a woman. I couldn't just say, "That's my Fanny," or "That's my grandmother" anymore. No. She emerged more three-dimensional than my earlier grasp of the world would have her. And, to be honest with you, I wrote this book because I didn't want her to be forgotten. My sisters have children now, and I didn't want them to grow up without knowing the good fire of hers in their blood.
Jessica, what about Georgia O'Keeffe?
JJ: Well, Georgia O'Keeffe is so visible as to almost be invisible. Her paintings are everywhere — they're on postcards and tote bags. She can seem like much more of a legend than a person, in the same way that the essence of Fanny was obscured by being thought of as only a mother and a grandmother instead of a person.
In reading letters O'Keeffe wrote from as early as her late teens and early 20s to the end of her life, I got to see her grow from a young, uncertain artist looking to this older man — this accomplished photographer — for mentorship and approval, into a woman pushing back against him and asserting herself as a person, as an artist, saying, "No, I have my own way of thinking about this." I got to see her create healthy boundaries of collaboration, and that was instructive: how she made her own life apart from Stieglitz, and eventually ended up owning two homes in New Mexico. She became a person to me when I got to see her in context and understood how astonishing she was for her time.
O'Keeffe also seemed so serious before. In every photo, she has this kind of grimace. But in her letters she's hilarious. She would poke fun at herself all the time. She wrote this letter once talking about how she got drunk off whiskey at a rodeo. It's the best thing ever.
What is the future for you guys? What are you going to do now that you've made this decision to be full-time writers?
JJ: Well, the thing that truly feeds us is our writing. Even though we both absolutely love teaching, if that was the thing we were most doing, we feel like we might not really be doing our students a service. Because to tell students they should be writing every day when we're not doing it ourselves feels dishonest.
Right now we're thinking about moving to Asheville — not completely sure, but it's at the top of the list.
NB: We also love New Mexico, and so we keep looking there, but those mountains in Asheville, those lush green mountains, are home to me. Our dream is to have a modest house with some studio space and try to live like we do in the summer, at least most of the time. In between, I'm sure we'll have to wrangle up some work at residencies and conferences to make money.
One of the things that was really instructive for me when we were out in the canyon in New Mexico together was that we had only the supplies we'd brought in, which wasn't much more than the bare essentials of what we needed. When you're in the everyday modern world, you don't even realize how many times a day you will run to the store, go get a coffee, or whatever it is. But in the canyon, I didn't miss much of the material world. I mean, if you have health insurance, a roof over your head and good food on the table, what else is it that you really need? What I want is all my books and pets, and yes, a garden, a good piece of land for a kitchen garden. I might just try to talk Jessica into a couple of chickens, too.
Anyhow, this life choice? Well, we made it because simply, this is it. We want to give this writing thing a shot. If it doesn't work, I'll return to the job market, and that's fine. But at least I'll know I tried to be a writer full time. The key thing is that Jessica and I have each other. We have a vision of what we want and how we want to live, and we've got to take this chance.
JJ: We can never know how much time we'll have, which is an idea that gives us a real sense of urgency. Jack Gilbert writes in one of his poems, "We die and are put into the earth forever. We should insist while there is still time." That's a part of making this choice, and like Nickole's saying, really taking a chance. We want to make the most of this life we've been given.
An excerpted version of this interview appeared in our print issue
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