Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Demographic Information:
Demographic Information Questionnaire:
BA English/ French University of Houston 1994
MA University of Texas 1996
MAR Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest 2000
What does it mean to have a hometown? I was born in Bay City, Texas, spent my childhood in Missouri City, Texas, and my adolescence in Alvin, Texas.
City of residence:
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (Quincy, we're religious siblings!)
White girl. Bavarian and Prussian great grandparents.
Occupations of parents:
My father was a corporate data communications salesman. My mother was a homemaker.
Some key influences at various points:
Youth: Beverly Cleary, Archie Comics, Encyclopedia Brown, Joke Books.
Adolescence: Robert Frost
College Years: Vassar Miller, Emily Dickinson, Paul Verlaine, Sylvia Plath
Now: Nick Cave, Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes, Harvey Hix, Alicia Stallings, Old Time Radio programs, Dorothy Parker, Roger McGough, Joyce Carol Oates, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Archie Comics, Joke Books...
Age at time of first publication in a "reputable" journal:
Hmm. Define 'reputable'? I first started publishing around 24.
Age at time of first collection:
Jill Alexander Essbaum is the Mae West of contemporary poetry: gutsy, smart, seductive, both feminine and tough. Her poems crack wise. They seduce through wit, through the ecstasy of the pious and irredeemable, through double entendre, through fun and silliness and, above all else, through her learned handling of form.
The first time I saw Jill read, I was amazed and delighted by the way she brings the persona of her poems to life. In Jill’s work, the page has the theatricality of the stage, and her stage presence conveys the elegance and lyricism of her precise, deftly wrought verse.
Jill already has three full-length collections under her belt: Heaven
(UPNE, 2000), winner of 2009 Katherine Bakeless Prize in Poetry, Harlot
(2007, No Tell Books), and Necropolis
(2008, NeoNuma Arts). She is the author of two chapbooks, Oh Forbidden
(Pecan Grove Press, 2005), and The Devastation
(Cooper Dillon Books, forthcoming, Fall 2009). Her poems have appeared in a variety of magazines, including Poetry
, The Christian Century
, No Tell Motel
, Gulf Coast
, and other places. Jill is also an associate editor for the online journal ANTI-
, a journal that already (in its brief, barely 18-month year history) has published work by noted poets like Fady Joudah, C. Dale Young, T.R. Hummer, and Luisa Igloria. And, just in case all of these achievements aren’t enough to impress you, let me add that on top of all her other accomplishments, Jill is currently at work on a novel.
Jill, when I reflect on the large body of work you’ve compiled in less than ten years, I’m particularly impressed by the diversity of the projects you’ve taken on. You have worked both with large and small presses and have collaborated with editors whose tastes we might not normally associate with so-called “formal verse.” For instance, you know that I’m a huge fan of Harlot
(hell, of harlots in general), and I love the fact that you placed this collection with No Tell Books, a small independent press run by the fabulous, fearless Reb Livingston. It seems to me that, when it comes to your books, you don’t worry about labels but, instead, focus on finding the press that can best serve the requirements of each individual collection. Can you talk about the experience of working with presses like UPNE, No Tell Book, NeoNuma Arts, Pecan Grove Press, and Copper Dillon Books? How did you become such a great matchmaker, learning how to recognize the needs of your books and how to find loving homes for them?
Jill Alexander Essbaum
Everything I've published came to its publishing in a very organic manner—it's been very natural, matching the manuscripts to the presses; when the book is ready, the presses show up. When I build it, they come. Partly a matter of timing, and partly it's been letting go of the idea that unless this book gets published by a BIG name press, it won't either get attention, or it won't be considered any good. You know what I mean, right? I don't think I'm speaking out of turn to suggest that we, as poets, worry about things like that. Too much. No, I don't worry about labels. And I've loved the look and feel of every collection that's come out. I hold kind of tightly to the belief that all that's required of me is to do my work honestly and hone the poems to their absolute shiniest. The rest is up to the universe. At least that's how it's happened to happen so far.
Thinking about the idea of an organic process, I’m interested to know how, as a really young writer, you first began to write in fixed and received forms. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard you tell the story before. Was your move toward form the result of some sudden and striking event, for instance the advice of a particularly influential teacher, an amazing reading that you attended, or a book that struck you to the core? Or, did you discover gradually that you had an ear for rhyme and meter?
So when I was in college, I took poetry classes (including one from Jill Rosser!) but I still fancied that ONE DAY I would write the so-called Great American Novel (such a rube, me!). Then I took a workshop in formal poetry. Turns out, I did have an ear for rhyme and a knack for forcing unruly images into tricky phrasing (it's the stubborn Prussian in my lineage, I think). And the poems that I loved had that same kind of music. And-- honestly, if this HADN'T been the case, I would have never gone any further, I fear-- NO ONE else in the class could do it as well as I could, and as far as I could see, no one in the contemporary world (again, as far as I could see, which, as it were, wasn't very far) was doing it. So, I found a niche, a nook, a hollowed-out stump.
What I've learned in the intervening years is that really, while I'm married to the practice of Formalism in principle, we have an open relationship. He's a helpful husband, and he looks the other way when I dally in other beds—hey, not only THAT, but he likes to watch and participate too, bringing along his own pair of handcuffs (sometimes fur-lined, sometimes NOT). Am I exhausting this metaphor? I think not. I could go on and on and on (that's what she said).
The first contemporary formal poet I fell in love with was Vassar Miller. I loved how she managed to bring the sacred to the carnal in her exquisite and painful poems. And Jill Rosser, too. I kept a very tight rein (reign?) on my formal skillz until not that long ago when I encountered Simon Armitage's work. I am a mad fan of his. He's my favorite—not just because I admire his poems so much (and I do! I do!)-- but because reading him taught me how to loosen the form so that the "flaw" (vis-a-vis a perfect rhythmic pattern) in the poem could heighten the dramatic tension of the piece as well as leaving the reader a little more satisfied with the sonic qualities of the poem. z.B. : Armitage's "To His Lost Lover." Form is best when it's fucked with. (Excluding many, many exceptions, of course.)
I love the metaphor that you use to answer this question for two reasons. First of all, I have one of those same “open relationships” with form; he can be a tolerant, open-minded husband, can’t he? But I also appreciate how your metaphor evokes the cheekiness of many your poems. For instance, I’m sure that you’re often asked to recite a poem like “On Reading Poorly Transcribed Pornography” (which readers can view in full here, at the No Tell Motel website, http://www.notellmotel.org/poem_single.php?id=78_0_1_0
). It’s such a crowd-pleaser, and I can’t think of many lines that are wittier than “He shoveled his duck into her posse / and all her worm juices spilled out. / Still, his enormous election raged on.”
But, in addition to the playful sensuality of much of your writing, there’s another important side to your work: the devotional, the ecstatic. Last year at the AWP conference, I was really interested to discover that you’re a member of the Lutheran Writers Project and that you often participate in their events. In speaking with Quincy, I asked about the way in which his training as a historian shaped his poetry. I’m just as interested to know how your time at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest influenced your work, both in terms of writing individual poems and, on a larger scale, in putting together book-length projects. And could you talk about the old mind-problem, how you link two experiences of the world, which many people view as diametrically opposed—the body seeking out pleasure and the spirit searching for belief?
Forgive in advance what might be seen as preachiness. But: sister's gonna preach.
I am nettled and hectored by a good dozen obsessions--more, probably. There are but three that ultimately matter to me (maybe to anyone): God, sex, death. Anything worthwhile I've ever thought or said will be about those things.
I'll discard, momentarily, the death bit and talk about sex and God. The trope of God as Lover did not begin with me; look to the medieval woman saints, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard, Christina the Astonishing—they have absolutely no reluctance speaking of their desire for God as if he were a physical, imminently present man. Or even the words used to describe the Christian story. We speak of the passion of the Lord. A saint is said to be in ecstasy. The church is called Christ's Bride. And the words of institution: this is my body, given for you. Far earlier than that, we have both the psalms of David and the Song of Solomon-- neither of which flinch at real depictions of human emotion, including sexual emotion. Why the pairing of sexual and religious expression seems wrong to our post-modern American ears, I think, is because we're all (no matter what we believe or don't) direct inheritors of a Puritan heritage that disdains human physicality (full disclosure: when I typed this, I accidentally typed "hymen" instead of human!) in lieu of pursuits of the spirit alone. But look—I'm hardly spiritual. I'm carnal. And, if you are a Christian, you believe that for a time in history, God was too. And we celebrate that. It's hard for me to explain this because it makes such natural sense to me. And yet, I realize that at times, I am both provocative and outre.
I wrote my first book while I was at seminary. And you can see that in the structure of the book-- it follows both the books of the Bible as well as the liturgical calendar. And, my most recently published book, Necropolis
, is sectioned into three parts: The First, Second, and Third Days, the days that Christ spent in the tomb.
It worries me sometimes that I write things and sign my name to pieces that ought to make me blush but don't. But I know no other way to write, to be, to believe.