In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Mitchell Jacobs
Tell us about your poem “Dialogue Between Colander and Self” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
In a Middle English class, I had been comparing manuscripts of a medieval “Debate between Body and Soul.” In that poem, a corpse and its departed soul are arguing about who is responsible for the man’s misdeeds in life. I guess that form, inner turbulence taking shape as a conversation, was spinning around my brain. I also talk to myself a lot, so the form is not entirely an artifice. It’s not too far off from a transcript of myself alone at home! For me, there’s less turbulence between body and soul than between inhabiting the body and utilizing the body. A colander became my second voice because, as an actual tool, its body is all utility, and yet, how would such a body be inhabited? Its holes are as much the emptiness as the physical matter around them.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
My scalp tingles when I read a line that gets me. I swear it’s the same sensation Emily Dickinson must have had, when she said “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” The only thing common to these moments is that I understand something in an instant, in perfect clarity, in a way I couldn’t have if I were told it plainly. Sometimes I look over the line again and can’t tell what it literally means. But still, it got me to that place, maybe on the slippery stepping stones of association rather than meaning. I’m turned off by figurative language that only works on one level. I once read a novel that compared falling maple leaves to “the severed hands of babies.” I would love that visual association, over the top as it is, if there had been something violent in the atmosphere to match its tone.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you how I’d linger in parking lots when I was a toddler. I didn’t care about going into the store. I cared about identifying the letters and numbers on the Minnesota license plates, which were at my eye level. This was back when they had those raised pale blue letters. I think the embossing made the letters seem more like entities, as if they had sentience and personality. For me, that magic was there before the magic of communicating actual meaning. As I learned to write, I was fascinated by how letters were these recognizable characters—I mean characters in both senses—that I could bring into being with a pencil, as many times as I wanted.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
Too many to count, truly. Donald Platt (in WSR 19!) has been a great mentor to me, both as my thesis advisor during my MFA, and as someone to discuss challenging poems from my reading life. We talked a lot about James Merrill, whose epic The Changing Light at Sandover I’m reading again right now. I find Merrill very inspiring because I admire his dedication, wit, and breadth of knowledge, but at the same time, I am often frustrated by his obscurity and self-importance. When I’m in pure awe of someone’s work, I’m not inspired to write. I just want to absorb. But when I’m both awed and annoyed, that gives me a foothold, an idea of what I can do differently, and from there I might jump off into an idea of my own.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
Embroidery. The writing process often feels nebulous, so it’s satisfying to create something tangible, whose progress you can see directly. There are plenty of metaphors for how embroidery is like poetry—the careful rhythm of stitching a line—but I don’t actually feel that resonance while I’m stitching, which is more about technique than creativity. Most of the creativity comes in designing the pattern beforehand. There’s that initial decision of form: is this going to be in back-stitched outlines, or filled in with satin stitch? Is it going to follow the grid of the fabric’s weave or be freeform? And that helps me understand, visually, what it’s like to embark on different types of poems.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Voice, if I had to choose. I have a hard time even calling voice a craft element because it’s such an elusive concept for me personally. But it does have ramifications for my language at the sentence level. There are competing voices in my head, each of whom thinks it’s what my poems should sound like. One is sarcastic and would like to tear down the page with sentence fragments and puns. Another is elegant, a little bit haughty, and would love to keep extending the same sentence by adding phrase after phrase with commas. I think I only stumble on my true voice, and through that a more natural syntax and rhythm, by battling down these other, more exaggerated, impulses.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
How do you write when the globe is on fire? At times, the climate makes art feel urgent. At other times, hopeless. Sometimes both at once. I’ll be frank that an early impulse for my writing was to leave a record of my inner life, crystallized in beauty to last after I’m gone. Of course that record wouldn’t be permanent, since the sun will one day consume the earth and all that, but it could last a while. That idea was a bit naive, even before I understood that the world might become unlivable even during my lifetime. Art, it turns out, is for the present. I’m still not sure what that means for me, though. I believe I need to write beyond myself, but how? I hardly know who I am.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I’m interested in the limits of the mind. Sometimes that’s knowledge that can’t be accessed, like an undeciphered inscription or an ancient organism that left no fossils. Sometimes it’s relational, the impossibility of total empathy. This colander poem is about two entities trying to understand each other, but also about coping with an inherent lack. That discomfort with the mind’s limits is what often drives me into a poem: I imagine that writing will help me uncover what I cannot know. It never does uncover the unknowable, but it sometimes uncovers something else.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I write early drafts in a notebook, then move to the laptop, then go back and forth between the two. For me, drafting is more natural in the notebook because I don’t care about my page looking messy. On the computer, I’ll get worried about making everything look nice too early, but it helps me sort out the form later. I do most of my writing in my apartment, switching between sitting at a table and lying on the couch, thinking. It’s not very efficient. I wish I were one of those writers who’s off writing away at a cafe or on the bus, but I cherish absolute silence and stillness.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’m most of the way through a novel draft, which is not a project I’d ever have imagined for myself a few years ago. With a poem, I feel like I can keep the entirety of the work in my mind at one time, thinking over its shape and trajectory. With the novel, it’s so large that I can only observe it in pieces, or in summary from afar. It’s like surveying a mountain. Or painting a mural rather than a portrait.
Mitchell Jacobs is a writer and occasional comics artist from Minnetonka, Minnesota. While earning an MFA in Creative Writing at Purdue University, he served as managing editor for Sycamore Review. Afterward, he completed a Fulbright fellowship, teaching English for two years at the National University of Laos. He currently lives in Los Angeles. His work appears in journals such as Gulf Coast, Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, and Ploughshares, as well as on The Slowdown podcast through American Public Media. You can learn more about his work at his website mitchellbjacobs.com or follow him on Twitter @mitchelljacobs.