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Asheville poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs document their upbringings and marriage through verse 

The eye of the beholder

Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown.

Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown.

At first, it wasn't easy for Nickole Brown to read Jessica Jacobs' poems about their relationship.

The married couple have a long history, so it wasn't really an issue of intimacy. It was simply strange and uncomfortable for Brown to see herself the way her wife sees her. She didn't know how to process it until a film critic friend put it to her in a different way.

"Aren't you lucky?" the friend said. "If you're in a room, Jessica is going to capture her perspective. Then you're going to capture yours, and you're going to have a 360-degree angle on the room."

Brown realized then that she and Jacobs function as each other's witness: even though they're in the same room, they see different things, and their poetry allows them to process and communicate this global view.

"Even though you talk about your day and we share the way we feel about things, when Nickole sits down and writes a poem about something, she can delve down into a deeper level of understanding and then I get to be there with her," Jacobs says. "I only hope she can get the same things from my poems."

This Asheville-via-Little Rock couple appears in Charlotte this weekend as part of a Charlotte Lit mini-conference on Labor Day weekend, with each teaching a separate workshop during the day on Saturday. That evening at the Pure Pizza Barn, both poets will read and Charlotte Lit will release the fall 4x4 CLT posters featuring their work. Brown paints vivid characters with bold strokes, while Jacobs tends toward intimate details and private thoughts; Brown's next project is a bestiary of sorts, while Jacobs is interested in Jewish mysticism. Though they have different approaches and passions, both poets process the real world through verse.

click to enlarge Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown will be in Charlotte for 4X4CLT: Fall Into the Words at Charlotte Center for Literary Arts.
  • Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown will be in Charlotte for 4X4CLT: Fall Into the Words at Charlotte Center for Literary Arts.

Brown and Jacobs are each other's witnesses, sure, but they're also witnesses for the lives they've lived and the people and experiences that have made them who they are today.

"I tend to understand things once I have written my way through them," Brown says. She and Jacobs both do this, and they both love storytelling: when Brown first meets new people, she wants their story. Poetry is the perfect vehicle for her to tell accurate human stories, which exist in fragments more than coherent narratives anyway.

"I think fiction requires a more solid plot than is available to me or that I actually even believe in," Brown says. Poetry can tell the story of a life through vignettes.

Jacobs addresses her own adolescence, for instance, by zeroing in on private moments. In "There Ain't Nothing Like Breck for Stop n' Stare Hair" she inhabits her mind as a young girl, watching shampoo commercials and ashamed for being turned on by the women in them. "Bare shoulders. Wet neck. Rope / of hair glistening beneath a glistening / stream," Jacobs writes. "So much skin / just off-screen / I tried to keep myself from wanting / to see"

The chapbook it appears in, In Whatever Light Left to Us, is a collection of poems about the two poets' marriage. To write that, Jacobs said, she had to understand how she came to be her adult self. So she excavated her adolescence.

There was another motivation, too: Jacobs came to terms with her sexuality early on, she says, but she still recalls the loneliness of growing up gay in conservative central Florida. Even today, she knows young people can have the same isolating experience. She'd like them to have the reading material she didn't, and to know that everything is going to turn out OK. Beyond that, she knows elements of her adolescent experiences were universal.

"Pretty much everybody grew up reading straight coming-of-age stories and straight love stories. I could read myself into that," Jacobs says. Conversely, she feels her coming-of-age poems and marriage poems could speak to the experiences of other queer people, but that straight people could find elements of themselves in them too.

click to enlarge The cover of Nickole Brown’s Fanny Says.
  • The cover of Nickole Brown’s Fanny Says.

There's autobiography to Brown's poems, too, but her focus is more outward: her second book, Fanny Says, is an ode to her maternal grandmother, a foul-mouthed Kentuckian whose voice and fiery persona Brown is compelled to preserve. "Fuck," the opening salvo of Fanny Says, explains Fanny's nuanced and surprisingly tender control of the word.

"The f-word made so fat and slow it was a basset hound, / chunky with an extra syllable, just enough weight / to make a jab to the ribs more of a shoulder shrug," Brown writes before leading into some of Fanny's choice phrases: "Come here, you little fucker, give your grandma a kiss;" "A cute little fucker, watch him go;" and "you fucker, you, don't you know / there wasn't a day when you weren't loved?"

To present a complete picture of Fanny, Brown had to preserve her Bowling Green dialect: as a student of linguistics, Brown knew it was a tough line to toe — she had to preserve the syntax and color of the dialect without rendering her grandmother a cartoon. Not everyone got it — one person involved in the design suggested putting the stereotypical yokel-with-corncob pipe image on the cover, an idea Brown shut down instantly.

"It's the difference between laughing with Fanny and laughing at her," Jacobs says.

Fanny was funny, Brown says, but serious too. In the excellent, staggeringly heavy "The Dead," Brown addresses the many tragedies of Fanny's life, which she would not speak about except indirectly. These losses were one reason Fanny kept no family photos. Forgetting could be a survival mechanism for someone surrounded by that much death. It was Fanny's mortality, too, that spawned Fanny Says.

"She got sick around 2002," Brown says. "I started to write down so much of what she said."

And once she had learned the craft of poetry, she returned to this lore, to her Kentucky roots. Brown is drawn to story because she comes from storytelling: Fanny would put on a pot of coffee in the morning and she would talk until bedtime. It's appropriate that she would write Fanny's poetic biography, and it's appropriate that she and Jacobs would document their life together in verse.

"We've made all these major life decisions together," Jacobs says. "I had so many questions about what does it mean to commit my life to someone, to make all of these choices, to truly marry someone in terms of it's not just marrying the person, but we're marrying our professions."

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