Talking with Elizabeth
Elizabeth Jacobson and I have been friends since the day we met, ten years ago or so, in Miami, where she and her husband, David, spent part of the year and where my wife, Colleen, and I had lived for thirty years. As I remember, we met at a panel discussion I was part of. She came up afterward to introduce herself, and we immediately dug into a real conversation—one we’ve been having, on and off, ever since. Which is to say: we were friends on first meeting. With our life-companions David and Colleen, Elizabeth and I have explored Canyon de Chilly together, hiked the hills behind their beautiful home in Santa Fe and ours in North Carolina, and shared many memorable meals. She and David have visited us here in Black Mountain, and we always see them when we’re in Santa Fe visiting our son.
As I hope our interview makes clear, I admire Elizabeth’s poetry immensely for its formal and intellectual intensity, for its emotional honesty, and for what I can only call its spiritual grace—a kind of depth of engagement and vulnerability that moves me deeply each time I read her work.
--Michael Hettich, Black Mountain, 1-30-24
MH: As we get warmed-up for the digging-in of the interview when we talk about your actual poems, I want to ask a few questions by way of introduction—to set the stage, so to speak. I know you must have been writing poetry pretty seriously as an undergraduate student since you earned your MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. Then, as far as I know, you stepped away from poetry—or at least from taking part in the “poetry world”—for perhaps twenty years. Can you talk a bit about how you initially came to poetry, your apprenticeship, and why you let it go for that period of time?
EJ: Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to ask me these thoughtful questions! I did get an MFA from Columbia in 1988, but honestly I cannot say I was seriously writing then. I was around 25 years old and an MFA is/was a terminal degree, which at that time would enable me to teach at the undergraduate level. I planned to support myself this way and began teaching English courses at CUNY’s Baruch College in 1987. Initially, I started Columbia as a poetry student, but after my first year I switched my concentration to fiction and took an extra year of fiction workshops. Although I was enamored with poetry, I had become more interested in learning how to write a detailed narrative story. A few years later, after I moved to New Mexico, having been hired to teach Creative Writing, English and Technical Writing at the Santa Fe Community College, I became enthusiastic again about writing poems. But then, astonishingly fast, I got married and had two children seventeen months apart. I didn’t intend to “step away” as you say. Having recently moved from New York City to New Mexico, I had no community of poetry friends, and quite suddenly I needed to devote most of my time to taking care of my family. Although my days and nights revolved around my small children, I was able to continue to write. In fact, writing poetry became a refuge for me as it seemed considerably less demanding than motherhood! I completed two manuscripts during those years, one that was never published and Her Knees Pulled In, which came out in 2012 from Tres Chicas Books.
MH: Did you have any particular mentors at Columbia, or any fellow students whose work or approach deepened your own? What was the “atmosphere” like when you were there?
EJ: After college, there were a few things that I thought I would enjoy doing: teaching, being a journalist and writing poetry. I serendipitously ended up at Columbia. It was a charged atmosphere with many celebrated writers teaching semester long workshops, special week long workshops— I remember short dynamic sessions with Edna O’Brian, Margaret Atwood, Bernard Malamud and John Irving— and many off campus readings. There were so many opportunities to hear and work with distinguished writers, and I took advantage of that. I had classes with Joseph Brodsky, Carolyn Forche, Russell Banks, Amiri Baraka, and I took a night class with Gordon Lish who taught in the undergraduate school. All of these writers were very kind to us students. I went from college almost directly to graduate school and there were many of us on that same trajectory. For me, the atmosphere in the School of Writing was affable, fun, inspiring. I loved going to campus for classes and working in Butler library. Things are so different now: When I was in graduate school there were only a few MFA programs in the country, actually I just Googled it and apparently in 1975 there were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing and today there are 854!
MH: Speaking of mentors, or mentor-friends, I know Tony Hoagland was an important mentor and friend to you, and I know you loved him and love his work. I know too from the blurbs on both of your published books that he loved your work as well. I’d be curious to hear about your friendship and about what you might have learned from him both as a human being and as a poet.
EJ: To describe Tony in the language of koans is to say he was a “true person of no rank.” Certainly, he was a very captivating person, dazzling, shrewd and at the same time just a regular guy. We ended up in each other’s orbits when he selected my work in 2000 for the Jim Sagel Prize, which ran for only three years from New Mexico State University and Puerto del Sol literary magazine. Tony lived in Santa Fe when he was not teaching at the University of Houston and after my first book came out, he invited me to join him and another poet in a weekly poetry workshop. He was a generous friend and mentor to me for many years, and we became especially close during the last three years of his life while he was in treatment for pancreatic cancer. He would spout these great aphorisms about poetry, like “poetry is speed” and “poetry is not a teddy bear.” The speed he was talking about is the momentum in a poem, the tension and the pace at which the reader moves with the lines. Readers don’t want to be slowed down in an obvious why, so it takes great skill to keep the flow, the curiosity, and get them to the end with impact. We had a devoted poetry friendship and a lighthearted companionship. I cherished our steady correspondence. Once I emailed him and asked if he thought Negative Capability was synonymous with uncertainty.
Tony: No, E, negative capability isn't uncertainty! It's holding steady in the in-between!
Me: But, T, isn’t the in-between uncertain?
Tony was a Zen enthusiast, and his later poetry reflected this practice. Once he said to me, “The deep self is always an endangered species, and poetry is the wildlife preserve where it is protected from the noisy violence of the outer world.” This reflects a bit on what he meant by poetry not being a “teddy bear.” Poetry is tough stuff and yanks the guts from us poets. I miss him all the time.
MH: You and I grew up in the same NYC suburb, Mamaroneck, and I know that you’ve also lived in Orlando (for college), NYC (for grad school), New Mexico (for the majority of your adult life), Miami (part time) and now West Palm Beach (part time), and that you’ve also spent substantial time in Martha’s Vineyard. Since the vivid life in these natural landscapes deeply inform your work, I’m curious to know which landscapes sing most deeply to your blood. We’ll be talking more specifically about this when we turn to individual poems, and I would suspect that the landscape of New Mexico is really central to your own being, with Florida perhaps too. I’d like to hear your sense of it.
EJ: I love New York City, and feel like I’ve come home when I visit. While I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Manhattan, as did my father, and I was often there, but residing in Manhattan as a young adult and going to graduate school solidified my connection to the city. Funny, though, I don’t think I have even one poem where the city features in the background or as a subject. When I landed in New Mexico in 1989, pretty much on a whim, but with a solid job offer to teach at the Santa Fe Community College, I understood something else about my sensibilities as a writer, or more accurately, I re-discovered a part of myself that I knew as a child when I spent an enormous amount of time wandering in the woods behind our house in Larchmont— that I needed to be outside in the still wild parts of our planet in order to inspire and feel my deep self. I found an authentic home when I landed in New Mexico in 1989: the pine-wooded mountains, the rare river canyons, the inexhaustible sky.
MH: I also know from your poems and also from our friendship that you are a dedicated practitioner of Zen. Can you talk about how you came to this practice and how it has influenced your practice of poetry?
EJ: Zen meditation was integrated into the yoga practice at the studio I went to beginning in my late 30’s. It just seemed to make sense to me: Everything changes. Control is an illusion. Here I am/I am breathing. A few years later, I was really fortunate to fall into a weekly koan practice with Roshi Joan Sutherland. A Zen or Chan koan is an ancient Chinese anecdote, often in the form of a conversation or question, offered by venerable teachers. The paradoxal nature of koans pushes us to embrace uncertainty and subsequently open our hearts and psyches to new possibilities, often in mysterious and surprising ways! A group of about 20 devoted Zen students read and discussed koans selected by Joan. We would work with the same koan for many weeks or even months. A koan’s concise narrative invites us to open and explore our cognitive mind as it simultaneously shields the cognitive mind from itself, propelling us into the greater mysteries of life. In the way a Koan offers us a paradox, the process of working with a koan becomes paradoxical! For me, studying the Chan koans is analogous to the discovery of mystery, intimacy, focus and surrender in the crafting of poems.
MH: You are the founding director of the WingSpan Poetry Project. What’s this project’s goal?
EJ: Working in the greater Santa Fe county community has always been essential for me, often with individuals who might not readily encounter poetry. Some of my earlier work which precipitated founding WingSpan included hosting workshops for at-risk teenage women from the Pinon Hills facility in Velarde, NM, and at The Youth Development Program for young men through Upaya Zen Center’s Prison Project. In 2013, I founded the WingSpan Poetry Project with the objective: Cultivating Empowerment Through Poetry, and began bringing weekly poetry classes to the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families. The project grew quickly to involve four more poets teaching in other local shelters including St. Elizabeth’s emergency women’s shelter, La Familia, and the St. Elizabeth’s Men’s Shelter. We also taught at a two-year housing facility, Sonrisa (part of the St. Elizabeth’s Shelter), The Esperanza Support Center, and at Youth Shelters, in Santa Fe. As the Founding Director of this project, I was continually working to expand our teaching capacity. We established a poetry library at Esperanza and over the years the project was supported with six consecutive grants from The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. This is all to say we did meaningful work and touched numerous individuals in many areas of our community. Sadly, WingSpan closed in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic.
MH: And you served as Poet Laureate of Santa Fe from … to… Tell us more about this too. What were some of the projects you developed during your tenure?
EJ: I was the fifth poet laureate of Santa Fe, and the pandemic poet laureate! Fortunately, I had been able to do some work in the wider community before Covid hit, and one of these endeavors was working with the Railyard Art Project, an arts and environmental organization, teaching 14 free, all levels craft workshops in their community room, which opened onto the bustling railyard park. They offered me a small stipend, and we produced a chapbook of poems from the workshop participants. I had applied for an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship for 2020 before anyone heard of Covid and was thrilled to receive this fellowship in the spring, at the very start of the pandemic. My project was a poetry and visual arts venture for high school teenagers encompassing the study and crafting of poems, graphic design, silk screening, poetry tee-shirts, photography, portraiture, readings, group shows and publication of an anthology. The project was supposed to culminate with an exhibition of framed poems and photographs of the teens wearing their poetry tee-shirts at the Santa Fe Community Gallery in spring 2021. Many local partners were involved— YouthWorks; Axle Contemporary Mobile Artspace; Artists Matthew Chase-Daniel, Jerry Wellman, David Sloan; Collected Works Bookstore; the Arts and Culture Department; high school teachers and of course the fabulous teenagers— which made it feel like a community-wide festival, but because of the pandemic all public gatherings and events had to be reconsidered for the project to manifest— which it did— wonderfully— although I think much of the fun was obliterated as everything was done online or individually.
MH: Now let’s turn to your poems. I’d like to focus my questions here on poems from your two full-length books, Her Knees Pulled In, and Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air as well as (maybe) a question or two about your just-completed manuscript. We’ll save discussion of your chapbooks for another day. So, to start with a kind-of general question about your first book, Her Knees Pulled In, which was published in 2012: This is a rich and various book whose four sections contain poems that feel both formally and thematically unified, and though each section feels quite different from the others, the book feels whole. Did you write these sections at different times? What was the gestation period of this book? And do you remember how you put in together?
EJ: I do actually remember, very clearly, the thought processes and intentions of Her Knees Pulled In. I had completed a previous manuscript that focused on children, family life, and other domestic activities. I had grown weary of first person narration, and wanted to get out of my own head, get out of the grind of everyday life of taking care of small children, and so for this new book, I employed the third person voice of a woman on her own, living on the land I was living on, which was 40 rural acres about 25 miles south of Santa Fe in the San Marcos Valley. This speaker, who was a me/not me, a self living in a deeply intimate way with the creatures all around her, the inside and the outside becoming one. The metaphor in the title induced for me an image of a tightly contained inner life, being protected as it was concurrently being explored. I worked for way too many years on this book. The poems in the four sections were in a few different forms before I decided on the final arrangement. At the time, I did not understand my writing process like I do now. It’s called SLOW! I am continually writing, working on poems, starting new poems, but I like to keep them around for years, sometimes years and years, before I decide that they are ready to launch. Not every one of my poems is crafted like this, but generally this is what I do.
MH: Each section of Her Knees Pulled In reads like a sequence, and in fact sections one and three are clearly sequences yearning to articulate something impossible in any other form. I’m curious – again—to hear what your process was here, how you got the poems down on the page and the extent to which you revised them.
EJ: Each section of Her Knees Pulled In is indeed a snug sequence. I wrote most of this book in my office when we lived in Cerrillos, New Mexico on a large piece of land in the middle of nowhere. The sun came in the eastern windows above my desk, and traveled its daily course, entering the room later in the morning through the windows to the south of my desk. It was a lovely, bright and encouraging place to work. The Ortiz mountains were in the distance, as was the the Galesteo river basin, a huge arroyo edged the property; there were stunning expansions of pink and orange sedimentary rock, grassy fields, and lots of juniper and cedar trees. When I sealed myself in while my kids were at school, my imagination really was able to gallop and feel into the personas of the book – the aspects of the environment and a woman in communion with the land she was living on. It was a very long time ago that I wrote this book, and I appreciate these perceptive questions, Michael! I am embarrassed to say how very much I revised these poems over many years. The first section, “Angels of Children Circle the Planet,” was at one time, a prose poem sequence. I absolutely love the process of going back into a poem and trying to remember the specifics from my life and visualize into what I lived, what I invented. For instance, in my forthcoming book, the second section, A Brown Stone, is a long prose poem concerning my early childhood. I worked for over six years on it, going deeper and deeper into memory and into the emotional body of my very young self. Generally, this is the process for my work as I experience the selves changing with time.
MH: “Her knees pulled in” is a recurring phrase in this book, as well as its title. It’s so evocative, resonant and rich with implications. Tell me more.
EJ: There are many metaphors that I intended and some that were a surprise. The image of a woman with her knees pulled in to her chest portrays intimacy, self-protection, the tight nugget of the soul as a seed, the innocence of child’s pose, hugging oneself close, shell-like, seed-like and of course there are sexual intonations. After having children, I was curious to invent a self that did not have children, so not me as a mother, but a version of a self that also existed, yet distinct from me— an invented voice, a voice that would embody my imagination.
MH: I love the fact that, in this book of intimate and deeply personal poems, the “protagonist” is always “she” and never “I.” That is, the entire book is set in the intimate third-person rather than first-person. This really opens up the possibilities of voice and allows for a range of intimacies that are “yours” and “not-yours” at once, a kind of honesty that goes beyond the personal. Can you discuss this choice a bit? I’m struck too by the fact that you carry this approach through the entire book, never falling into the “I.”
EJ: At the time, I thought that I had exasperated my relationship to the first person “I” as the speaker of a poem. I felt a bit unsatisfied with it and was interested in not pursuing my personal “I” for a while. I decided to write in third person, to stay open to what would transpire. I was in my late 30s/early 40s when I started these poems, and I think my personal voice at that time was closer to the speaker of my poems in ways that I believe are different now.
MH: Your second book, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, was chosen by Marianne Boruch as winner of the 2017 New Measure Poetry Prize. In writing of your work, Boruch says, “Elizabeth Jacobson starts in clarity and ends in mystery,” which I think a most apt description of your work. Your poems here often emerge from what your press calls a “deep practice of close observation,” which I also think is true. Can you talk a bit about how this deep observational practice that leads to ever-larger mysteries might (or might not) be related to your practice of Zen?
EJ: It’s what I am good at and have been since I was a child: noticing things. We joke in my family that if there was a job description of Noticer, I would be a CEO of some major corporation. Recently, I listened to a podcast where Ezra Klein interviewed author Gloria Mark about attention. Klein says that he is “convinced that attention is the most important human faculty.” That old adage: the devil is in the details is not where it is at for me. The zest for life, for vitality and creativity, is in the details.
In Zen, we sit and watch the mind, or we walk and watch the mind. Sitting in a meditation hall is similar to writing at a desk in that my body is quiet as it pays attention to my thoughts. In the Zen practice, however, I watch but I try not to converse with what is floating through, while in the poetry writing practice, I seize the provocative thoughts and put them down on paper. Focused concentration, paying attention to what happens as a result, and knowing what to grab as it floats through is a lifetime practice.
I was trying to figure out a title for this collection when I read Larry Levis’s final book of poems, The Darkening Trapeze. The penultimate poem, “Threshold Of The Oblivious Blossoming” ends like this: When I knew I wanted them to mean nothing/And suggest everything, desire rushed back into things, /But not into the blossoms, & not into the air. I had a powerful sense of these lines, although I wasn’t sure what Levis meant. not into the blossoms, & not into the air felt like a familiar mystery, which is what a koan can be, and so I worked with these lines like I would a koan, speaking them to myself, writing them down and reading them. I recognized that the poems in my book, the essence of them, resounded in Levis’s lines. They are about desire, the yearning to be vital, to experience the vitality— the spirit— in everything, and how this yearning can be boundless. Desire is a necessary life force, yet this means nothing, is an empty abstraction, while at the same time, everything is contained in this momentum. Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air came to signify, for me, the devotion I have for what I recognize as existing— how full the magnificence is, and, at the same time, how empty and meaningless anything can be. A mystery and a paradox. A koan.
MH: Talk a bit, please, about the following lines, which seem to me to get at the core of one of the strains you’re digging into:
I promised to be naked
to walk on my knees up the mountain
and if the mountain doubts me,
I promise to take more off.
EJ: This poem is in the second section of Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air which begins with an epigraph from Eihei Dogen from his Mountains and Waters Sutra: All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there. I understand a mountain as a living being with stalwart energy and momentum. Mountains are always changing as is everything that exists on them. I have so much respect for mountains and in this poem, the speaker’s movement on the mountain becomes a prayer to the mountain, exposing herself down to the soul in reverence.
MH: Talk a bit about your “Perfectly Made” (which will be included in the chapbook at the end of this interview)
EJ: “Perfectly Made” was written in November 2016, and concerns the morning after the presidential election. It is a political allegory and reiterates my sense of horror with the election results. I was in a deep sleep and woke to a loud thud on the porch door next to my side of the bed. It’s all in the poem: the blood and guts to come! I love when poems arrive in this way. It is a blessed rarity, and I am grateful when I have the impetus to catch the moment and put it down. The title is both ironic in relation to who was elected and earnest in its correlation to the flicker.
MH: In “Here is a Pilgrim on a Waterless Shore,” the beautiful long sequence that crescendos your book to a close, you employ what I can only call (after WC Williams) the “variable foot,” alternating long and short lines that move across the page to create both choreography and music. I might call it “music of the mind in its dance of thinking.” I’m impressed not only by the “technical” virtuosity demonstrated here but also by the way the form matches so well with your poem’s thinking. Can you talk a bit about how you made the poem, how you managed so well to catch your mind’s movement across the landscapes of the inner and outer worlds?
EJ: This long poem is a love poem to New Mexico! I worked on it for many, many years, always going back to it with joyful enthusiasm. It is similar in texture to some of the sequences in Her Knees Pulled In in that it articulates a woman’s relationship with the land she lives on. We had moved from Cerrillos and were now living in the foothills of the Sangre De Cristo mountains in Santa Fe, in a river canyon, and the scenery had changed, the wildlife had changed, and I relished, so much, crafting these poems as I explored these beguiling and diverse ecosystems. I spent day after day walking in the mountains and the hills around the river canyon, enjoying my new surroundings, and the rare riparian ecosystems. The poem is a savoring and a celebration of the many creatures I encountered as we experienced each other interspersed with thoughts of being human in the human world. I shaped the lines of this poem in a way that would mimic this wandering, the trajectory of my walking, my long and short breath and thought patterns as I wandered, and the span between these encounters and thought.
MH: Perhaps as a follow-up to the previous question, please talk a bit about the following lines:
Most of the time there is a non-linearity of things,
but still I sense a line trying to draw me in,
tempting me as if it were the snake charmer and I the curving form;
but so curious to go against its nature,
so wanting to straighten out.
EJ: For me, these lines reflect how I sense the world. Although I am living an external life, quite successfully, I feel my internal life— my inner life— is the core of my existence, my authentic experience, and although it is not really a clash of one or the other, they do rub together and create a tension, a cadence, that gives my life a provocative momentum and flavor.
MH: Finally, though we don’t have time to talk about it here, I know you have a new manuscript of poems forthcoming in 2025. As a closing moment to the interview, could you talk about this book a bit? I’m curious too to hear about the title, There are as many Songs in the World as Branches of Coral, very beautiful and very sad too. Thank you.
EJ: My third full-length collection, There are as many Songs in the World as Branches of Coral, will be published in 2025 by Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press. The book is divided into three titled sections: Rhapsodies, Lullaby, and Devotionals. As the main title of the book intimates, many distinct voices sing in this collection often expressing the complicated, rapidly fluctuating truths of our heating planet, family function and dysfunction, and, I hope, the surprising reflections that emerge from a continuous practice of paying attention to the self, society and the greater wild world. The Chan koan, “Each branch of coral holds up the moon” is reimagined for the title of this collection in that every single thing participates in the whole of the infinite— everything holds everything up, and everything has a voice, whether we hear it or not. What we understand and what we cannot know is boundless, and so, I wonder, can I reside in this mystery? Can I stay with what is opaque, and through writing, investigate and discover a way into clarity?
Elizabeth Jacobson was the fifth Poet Laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico and an Academy of American Poets 2020 Laureate Fellow. Her third collection of poems, There are as Many Songs in the
World as Branches of Coral will be published in 2024 by Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press. Her other
books include, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize, selected by Marianne Boruch, (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2019) and the 2019 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for both New Mexico Poetry and Best New Mexico Book, Her Knees Pulled In (Tres Chicas Books, 2012), two chapbooks from Dancing Girl Press, Are the Children Make Believe?
and A Brown Stone, and Everything Feels Recent When You’re Far Away, Poetry and Art from Santa Fe Youth During the Pandemic (Axle Books, 2021), which she co-edited. She is the founding director of the WingSpan Poetry Project, a not-for-profit which from 2013-2020 conducted weekly poetry classes in battered family and homeless shelters in New Mexico. As a co-founding director of Poetry Pollinators, Jacobson’s work continues in the community with this eco-poetry public art initiative dedicated to empowering poetry, art, education and the environment in support of declining native bee populations. The first bee house, which displays a panel for a poem and an education panel, fully funded and supported by many local organizations, was installed by the Santa Fe River in June, 2022. Elizabeth’s work has been sustained with grants and residencies by literary arts organizations including eight consecutive grants from The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, New Mexico Arts, Academy of American Poets, Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Mable Dodge Luhan House,
Herekeke and East Hill. She is a reviews editor for the on-line literary journal Terrain.org and she teaches poetry workshops regularly in Santa Fe. For current publications visit:
Born in New York City and raised in its suburbs, Michael Hettich has lived in Colorado, Northern Florida, Vermont, Miami, and Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he now lives with his wife, Colleen. He holds a Ph.D. from the
University of Miami and taught for many years at Miami Dade College where he was awarded an Endowed Teaching Chair. His poetry, essays, and reviews have
appeared widely in many journals and anthologies, and he has published more than two dozen books of poetry across five decades. His honors include several Individual Artist Fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, The Tampa Review Prize in Poetry, the David Martinson/Meadowhawk Prize, a Florida Book Award, the inaugural Hudson-Fowler Prize in Poetry, and the Lena M. Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society. His website is michaelhettich.com