Poetry & Conversation: Bruce A. Jacobs

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By Shaileen B.

Bruce JacobsSo often, the best parts come last, and that might be true of the last event in the Pratt Library tent at the Baltimore Book Festival. From 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 29, just when the golden autumn day is lapsing, poets Bruce A. Jacobs and Jane Satterfield will share their work and answer your questions.

To show you how exciting this event will be, I asked one of the poets some advance questions. Bruce A. Jacobs is an author, poet, and musician. His books of poems are Speaking Through My Skin and Cathode Ray Blues. His work has appeared in dozens of literary journals and anthologies, including 180 More, edited by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. His current poetic performances treat words and music as one.

What book are you reading now?
I am a slow and completely undisciplined reader, so right now, at a slug’s pace, I’m reading six books: The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R. J. Smith; Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An  American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley; What Is All This?, a book of short stories by Stephen Dixon; A Tale of Two Gardens, a book of poems by Octavio Paz I can’t stop re-reading; Sacred Demise by Carolyn Baker, about the death of human civilization via industrialization; and Just Kids, a memoir by Patti Smith.

Bruce Jacobs CoverWhat three books (or sound recordings) would you take to a desert island?
If I had to choose today I would take Neon Vernacular, a collection of poems by Yusef Komunyakaa; Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, which is the wisest book about life I have yet read; and the Keith Jarrett recording Backhand, for which I have pined for years after letting go of the classic vinyl and, prodded by this question you’ve asked, I have just now finally bought on CD after all this time!   

What is one poem by someone else that you wish you had written?
There are many of them. But one is "Crab" by Sharon Olds.

Do you have a favorite line of poetry or sentence from a poem?
I do. It's from Rainer Maria Rilke's "Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 1": "Breathing: you invisible poem! Complete / interchange of our own / essence with world-space. You counterweight / in which I rhythmically happen."

How did you come to write poetry? When did you begin combining words with music?
I began writing poetry 20 years ago when, on a trip to a series of countries, I found that my usual idea of language  was useless for much of what I saw and heard and felt. I had traveled before, but something about language barriers on that particular trip clued me in to how estranged I was from our deeper, primal vocabulary.

I began writing in a language that shocked me. It was pretty traumatic at the time and it’s also kind of funny: I made a frantic phone call to a poet friend of mine and asked her what was happening to me, and she started laughing  and said, "You are beginning to write poems."

Bruce Jacobs SaxI also felt hurled into another realm when, at a reading by the poet Amiri Baraka, I began to see what is truly possible with words and spaces and sound. I am also a working musician—I play drums and some saxophone—and at a certain point I began to write poems about what it actually feels like, in body and psyche, to play music. And then I asked, "Why am I using only words for poems that are about music?"  So I broke open my dam between the two, and I now do pieces that treat music and words as a common tongue.

Please share a poem with our readers, and some musings on your process in creating it.
I am no longer on Facebook. But when I was, at one point I had 99 Facebook friends and I was thinking of what to do to mark getting my one-hundredth. I was a Facebook newbie and to me 100 friends (or any friends) seemed like a big deal. A friend suggested that I give the person a prize. This idea was so ridiculous I thought it would be fun. So I decided I would write a poem for the person: not about them, but involving them in some way.

I ended up deciding to write an acrostic that used the first letter of each line to spell out the person’s last name. My one-hundredth Facebook friend turned out to be a poet whose last name is Hamilton. Here is the poem, which I posted on Facebook in March of 2010:

Having this added language is like
A spare set of
Meanings. You can use it, for
Instance, to make dawn trees into
Living lampposts of slow brightness.
This comes in handy, since
One imagined world is
Not enough.

For more poetry and conversation, come to the Library Tent at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday, September 29, at 4 pm. Follow @librarypoems to learn about other poetry events sponsored by the Pratt Library, and join the conversation at #PrattPoetry.

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