Elizabeth Jacobson on community, inspiration, and compassion

You are the author of the chapbooks Are the Children Make Believe? (dancing girl press) and A Brown Stone (dancing girl press), as well as two full-length books of poetry. Talk about your experiences with writers groups, workshops, and feedback from other writers. Do you meet regularly with a writing group or swap work for feedback with a peer or engage in other ways that promote dialogue on new work? What sorts of ways have these discussions supported you as a poet? Discuss how community has enabled you to take risks, experiment, and stretch and grow?

Community and conversation are undeniably an integral component of writing poems for me. I was lucky many years ago to start working with two amazing poets, one of whom became my mentor and dear friend, and who opened me in ways I had not been able to discover on my own. This happened mostly through his respect and thoughtfulness for my work— I felt seen as a poet, maybe for the first time. So Yes! I meet regularly with other poets whose work I admire. Poetry friendships are one of the sweet spots of being a poet, and the support from friends for my work helps to keep creative energy moving. I worked for many years on A Brown Stone before I showed it to anyone, and when I did give it to my writing group I thought I had a sense which of the sections were not completely successful and which hopefully were. And of course they had entirely unexpected, invaluable insights, which eventually led to the long poem’s completion. Knowing that another poet is out there, interested in my work and motivated to share poems whether in person, through email or via Skype, makes the solitary process more fun.


Talk about the inspiration to A Brown Stone. Given that you worked on the sequence over the period of years, what kept your renewed interest in the series?

A Brown Stone, a long prose poem divided into four sections which comprises the chapbook of the same name, is a combination of what I could remember as a child having had this complex family situation and then imagining into these memories to write the poem.  Over the years, before it was published, putting it down for a while and then going back to work on it helped me to remember more of what happened in our family— in a way this thrusted me into my memories and then propelled them forward into the poem, a very compelling process. A Brown Stone is also a period piece— suburbia in the early 1960’s— so besides telling the story of the one year the speaker’s younger sister was alive, it is also a social commentary of that period.  Another thing which happened for me during the stretches I worked on the poem, and over the years since the chapbook has been out, is that the process, and the piece itself, enabled a truer understanding of my relationship with my younger brother, and to realize possibilities for improving friendship and communication with him.


Your chapbook Are the Children Make Believe? is written from a variety of viewpoints that document a generation. Your poems “Grown-ups” and “Millennial” explore the “which tools” of suicide and self-harm with a sharp, action-focused inquiry. Talk about care and kindness in poetry. What is the work of a poet to craft a compassionate gaze with the poem?

Are the Children Make Believe? is also a long poem, but with 20 titled sections, all of which draw from incidents I experienced personally or which were relayed to me by others.  In Grown Ups, there is an irony to this title as well as sarcasm and dark humor in the conversation between the adults discussing the attempted suicide of a college freshman as a way for them to alleviate some of the pain they feel for what has perhaps become an epidemic in our country. There are several other sections in the poem with the viewpoint of a mother, and although this interpretation is loose, to my mind this is the same mother, one who has suffered the attempted suicide of her own child, and it is she who is in conversation with her therapist in the poem Grown Ups.  In this way, there is a kind of sigh, a release of emotional tension and anguish through the dark humor.  In Millennial (there are two sections with this title, and this speaker) it becomes clear in the second section the speaker’s pain and eating disorder is most likely a symptom of her PTSD in response to her father’s suicide.  Again, there is sarcasm and dark humor in the speaker’s choice of words, which are attempts at masking her pain, but which, as in Grown Ups, is apparent to the reader.  The compassionate act in writing Are the Children Make Believe? is the factual telling of unquantifiably painful, horrific, palpable and emotional incidents.  Readers can then form a compassionate gaze for themselves: Here are the facts, this is happening now in our country— are you moved by this?   Have these things happened to you?  What can we do to help?

How do you define chapbook? Chapbooks date from the 16th century when these small booklets could be printed easily and inexpensively for widespread circulation. I love that this long tradition continues.  For me, it’s new possibility in the palm of a hand.

What makes a good chapbook? Cohesive theme, intensity, a sensational cover!

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Kristy Bowan, the editor/publisher of dancing girl press produces very cool chapbooks with edgy, inventive covers. Brian Teare of Albion Books makes beautiful, letter press, hand stitched chapbooks, and the Quarternote series from Sarabande is inspiring.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Tony Hoagland often liked to get a chapbook together before publishing his full-length books, and he did this with Hollyridge Press. These are great books in their own right, and I admired how he also used a chapbook as a tool to see how the full-length might work best.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I very much enjoy writing long poems, spending years on them—  kind of like hanging out on and off with a dear friend, and for me, long poems make good chapbooks.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Just by doing what I do—every day—work on poems.

What’s next for you? I am currently working on several long poems and hopefully one of them will grow up to become a chapbook!

Current chapbook reading list: On my night table is Sarah Trudgeon’s The Plot Against The Baby from dancing girl press, Brenda Hillman’s Her Presence Will Live Beyond Progress from Albion Books, and two poetry pamphlets from New Directions, Natanial Tarn’s The Beautiful Contradictions and Forrest Gander’s Eiko and Koma.

Number of chapbooks you own: Too numerous to count!

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Too numerous to count!

Your chapbook credo: Keep a basket of your chapbooks in the back of your car and give them away as if it is late August and they are zucchinis— because you love zucchini!

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: What earnings!?

Chapbook Bio: Elizabeth Jacobson’s chapbooks include A Brown Stone and Are the Children Make Believe?, both from dancing girl press.  She has two full-length collections, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize, Parlor Press, 2019, and Her Knees Pulled In, Tres Chicas Books, 2012. Her poems have been published in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Plume, Orion Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Miami Rail, The American Journal of Poetry and elsewhere.

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