Author pho­to by Park­er J Pfister

Jes­si­ca Jacobs’s third poet­ry col­lec­tion, unalone, mines Gen­e­sis to cre­ate an extra­or­di­nary poet­ry col­lec­tion informed by the Torah and in con­ver­sa­tion with con­tem­po­rary life.

In this inter­view, Jacobs dis­cuss­es how she made these poems, being child­free, writ­ing with the ances­tors, and found­ing Yet­zi­rah, a com­mu­ni­ty for Jew­ish poets.

Julie R. Ensz­er: Con­grat­u­la­tions on this new book! Can you talk a bit about how the idea of this book began? How did it take shape to build a col­lec­tion of poems around the sto­ries in Genesis?

Jes­si­ca Jacobs: Thank you, Julie; so love­ly to be in con­ver­sa­tion with you. I wrote near­ly all of my first book, Pelvis with Dis­tance, in a prim­i­tive cab­in in New Mex­i­co. That month alone in the high desert, with­out inter­net or phone, allowed some exis­ten­tial ques­tions to emerge and take hold. As a result, lit­er­a­ture — my go-to resource for wis­dom — seemed a lit­tle thin. So in my mid-thir­ties, I read the Torah in its entire­ty for the first time. And because I can’t real­ly under­stand some­thing with­out writ­ing about it, I found myself writ­ing poems in response to what I was read­ing, amazed by how this ancient text spoke so direct­ly to my life and the larg­er world.

JRE: The poems of unalone demon­strate both a deep study of the Torah and con­tem­po­rary engage­ments with its sto­ries. As I have been reflect­ing on the col­lec­tion, I’ve been puz­zling about the tem­po­ral­i­ty of the book. It is root­ed in ges­tures that look to the past, to the sto­ries in Gen­e­sis, and yet is com­mit­ted to exam­in­ing the present. How did you think about that bal­ance in assem­bling the collection?

JJ: I wrote this book par­shah by par­shah, tak­ing a deep dive into each along with relat­ed midrash and com­men­tary, and con­tem­po­rary schol­ar­ship by bril­liant thinkers like Avi­vah Zorn­berg and the Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks (z”l), often rack­ing up six­ty or sev­en­ty pages of notes per por­tion. As I went, I inter­spersed those record­ed lines with my own ques­tions and mem­o­ries that rose up to meet the text, grate­ful again and again for the com­pan­ion­ship I found in these sto­ries and how they led me in sur­pris­ing direc­tions, forc­ing me to look at issues like the cli­mate cri­sis, sys­temic racism, and anti­semitism, as well as the dark­er parts of my own psy­che. So in a way, I think of these as poems root­ed in deep-time, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reach­ing toward the past, which serves as both a clar­i­fy­ing lens for the present, and as a spur to imag­ine what might come next.

JRE: The poems in the col­lec­tion seem to be a mix­ture of midrash and lyric poet­ry. Did you think of those as two dif­fer­ent ges­tures as you were writ­ing these poems — midrash and lyrics? Or are the two indeli­bly inter­twined for you?

JJ: Because writ­ing unalone was its own kind of study, and I believe it’s far more pow­er­ful to come to the page — and to life, real­ly — with not answers but ques­tions, I tried to let each poem tell me what it want­ed to be. While I nat­u­ral­ly focus on sound and lyri­cism as impor­tant tools in the trans­mis­sion of mean­ing, Torah and midrash was the rich humus from which they grew and so these poems inevitably car­ried those teach­ings with­in them.

JRE: unalone demon­strates new and inter­est­ing inno­va­tions in your work. What is your writ­ing process? How do your poems find their form? 

JJ: When I use forms, whether a received form like the son­net, or one more self-invent­ed, it’s with the intent to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing that might per­haps be a bit extrasen­so­ry. For exam­ple, Torah repeats the tale of a woman who was bar­ren until God, that divine obste­tri­cian, inter­venes and allows her to get preg­nant. As some­one who’s made a choice to remain child­free, though it’s a choice with which I’ve wres­tled, and as many of my friends who want­ed chil­dren strug­gled to have them, I bris­tled at the idea often expressed in these sto­ries that the only way to tru­ly be a woman with a com­plete life was to be a moth­er. So in Sing, O Bar­ren One, Who Did Not Bear a Child,” the ghaz­al, where the final word of each cou­plet repeats, felt like the per­fect vehi­cle for this rep­e­ti­tion and rumination.

For poems like That We may Live and Not Die: A Deep-Time Report on Cli­mate Refugees,” which iden­ti­fies Joseph’s fam­i­ly, in their move from Canaan to Egypt dur­ing a famine, as the first cli­mate refugees on record, it seemed only nat­ur­al to bor­row its form from a report by The Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees.

As for the shift in my work, I tru­ly believe that we write as we live. Pelvis with Dis­tance was not only writ­ten in the aus­ter­i­ty of the desert but in a time when I was still ner­vous­ly find­ing my feet as a writer; so the poems are more aus­tere, more con­trolled. Take Me with You, Wher­ev­er You’re Going was writ­ten in the love and rush of the first years of my pre­vi­ous mar­riage; so the poems there are more expan­sive, more like­ly to range across the page. In the sev­en years I spent research­ing and writ­ing unalone, I felt like the only way to tru­ly engage with this mate­r­i­al was to give myself over to mys­tery. Which is to say I had to be more of a con­duit than a con­troller, and to allow the poems and teach­ings to move through me in the ways they most needed.

JRE: The final poem in the col­lec­tion Aliyah” engages the images of the Torah and trees con­clud­ing with the line, All of us, in that over­sto­ry, unalone.” Can you talk a bit about the title, how you select­ed it, and what it means to you?

JJ: When I first learned that the Torah was also known as the Tree of Life, one which through study we could plant with­in our­selves, I fell in love with this metaphor. So when my wise friend the poet Matthew Olz­mann sug­gest­ed I might want to add one more poem to my book reflect­ing on why I’d felt com­pelled to write it and what this work had meant to me, I wrote a near­ly com­plete draft of Aliyah” in a sin­gle sit­ting (and, as what­ev­er the Jew­ish equiv­a­lent of an East­er egg is, the poem hap­pens to be eigh­teen lines, the numer­ic equiv­a­lent of chai, life). It was a beau­ti­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore the com­mu­ni­ty into which this work has grant­ed me entry, the con­nec­tions it’s allowed me to feel with oth­ers, and, as a gift, in the poem’s very final word, the book’s title made itself known!

JRE: Through­out unalone, there are many maps of your poet­ic and intel­lec­tu­al influ­ences; there are not only parashot from the Torah but also quo­ta­tions from Vik­tor E. Fran­kl, Audre Lorde, Jean Valen­tine, Wen­dell Berry, Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks, and more. I hope read­ers trace the ref­er­ences that you make. What books and poems do you return to regularly? 

JJ: For each book, I’ve found the poet­ry equiv­a­lent of a sound­track, of col­lec­tions I read to help guide me as I go and set the mood for this par­tic­u­lar writ­ing. Ellen Bass’ Indi­go taught me how to search for the spir­it while stay­ing ground­ed in the body. Marie Howe’s oeu­vre is a mas­ter­class in let­ting the messy world into a poem that asks big ques­tions. Yehoshua November’s Two Worlds Exist showed me how Jew­ish teach­ings might illu­mi­nate and inspire. Rilke’s The Book of Hours was the lyric com­pan­ion for my series And God Speaks.” And pret­ty much all of both Ali­cia Ostriker’s and Eleanor Wilner’s poet­ry and prose feel like both ora­cles and wells, sources to which I am con­stant­ly returning.

While I nat­u­ral­ly focus on sound and lyri­cism as impor­tant tools in the trans­mis­sion of mean­ing, Torah and midrash was the rich humus from which they grew and so these poems inevitably car­ried those teach­ings with­in them.

JRE: And giv­en that each par­shah is asso­ci­at­ed with a week in the Jew­ish year and that Gen­e­sis cov­ers only a part of the year, will there be more col­lec­tions that con­sid­er the oth­er books of the Torah?

JJ: For­tu­nate­ly for me, Exo­dus through Deuteron­o­my are all in con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er, which I think means my next book will be able to cov­er more bib­li­cal ground. As I’m now in my for­ties, new­ly unteth­ered from mar­riage, I’m very inter­est­ed in the jour­ney through the wilder­ness as a way to explore the con­cept of our move­ment into and through mid­dle age. And, don’t tell my poems, but I sus­pect this next book might well be prose …

JRE: The found­ing of Yet­zi­rah, a non­prof­it lit­er­ary orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to sup­port­ing Jew­ish poets and Jew­ish poet­ry, pro­vides a con­text for this book and the work that you are doing in it. Can you talk a bit about Yet­zi­rah and your path to found­ing it? How do unalone and Yet­zi­rah connect?

JJ: When I first began this study, I was sur­prised by how dif­fi­cult it was to find oth­er Jew­ish poets and their work from which to learn and be in conversation.

At the same time, there were ter­ri­fy­ing anti­se­mit­ic attacks occur­ring through­out the coun­try, includ­ing the white suprema­cist Unite the Right ral­ly in Char­lottesville and the shoot­ing at the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh. This made it feel all the more urgent for Jew­ish poets to have a safe and sup­port­ed space, a place of real com­mu­ni­ty with­in the lit­er­ary world – which has proved dou­bly true since Octo­ber 7. Yet­zi­rah wel­comes and sup­ports Jew­ish poets at all lev­els of their writ­ing careers, which includes Jew­ish poets of all denom­i­na­tions, degrees of reli­gious engage­ment, polit­i­cal beliefs, and iden­ti­ties, and wel­comes allies of all tra­di­tions to join us at our events. 

As poets, we write in cho­rus and com­pan­ion­ship with our ances­tors and con­tem­po­raries. And as Jew­ish poets, whether we write direct­ly into and from our reli­gion, cul­ture, and his­to­ry or not, we are part of an ancient tra­di­tion, one I want to explore with writ­ers I admire. Toni Mor­ri­son said, If there’s a book that you want to read, but it has­n’t been writ­ten yet, then you must write it.” Yet­zi­rah is a com­mu­ni­ty to which I want­ed to belong; but it didn’t exist yet, so with the efforts and encour­age­ment of our hard­work­ing board and many around the US and abroad we are cre­at­ing it.

JRE: What are you read­ing now and what are you look­ing for­ward to read­ing next?

JJ: I’m just fin­ish­ing In This Place Togeth­er: A Palestinian’s Jour­ney to Col­lec­tive­Lib­er­a­tion, writ­ten by Pen­i­na Eil­berg-Schwartz with Sulaiman Khat­ib. Khat­ib is the cofounder of Com­bat­ants for Peace, a bina­tion­al, grass­roots non­vi­o­lence move­ment in Israel and Pales­tine, and this book feels like a vital win­dow into the Pales­tin­ian expe­ri­ence, as well as the pos­si­bil­i­ties of joint non­vi­o­lence and the full recog­ni­tion of everyone’s shared human­i­ty as a bet­ter way, and real­ly the only way, to move for­ward. As for my tow­er­ing to-be-read pile, I fear it might one day top­ple and I’ll be found trapped beneath it. For new poet­ry, I’m excit­ed to dive into Andrea Cohen’s The Sor­row Apart­ments and to spend more time with Philip Metres’ Fugitive/​Refuge, with which through a won­der­ful twist of fate my book shares a cov­er image. And from my dear friend and chavru­ta Rab­bi Bur­ton Visotzky, to whom unalone is ded­i­cat­ed, I have The Road to Redemp­tion: Lessons from Exo­dus on Lead­er­ship and Com­mu­ni­ty to accom­pa­ny me into the rest of the Pentateuch.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.