Featured Poet: Lucas Jacob

Interview By-Natalie Solmer

I first became aware of Lucas Jacob’s work when we published our Indianapolis Issue last fall. We published one of his poems in that issue, and I became aware of the fact that he was releasing his first full length collection that fall. As I read more of his work, I realized he would be a perfect choice for one of our featured poets. We try to find an Indiana poet for each issue to feature in our journal. I especially like to find poets who I think are not getting enough attention and spotlight them.

Lucas graciously answered my interview questions, and also gave us 3 poems to include. You can link to those at the bottom of this page. Two are published in his book, and one is completely new and unpublished. We spoke via email last month:

NS: I have to start by acknowledging the current crisis we are all going through. The COVID-19 global pandemic has been such a difficult time for all of us and has affected each of us in varying ways. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with The Indianapolis Review. You and I have already emailed back and forth about this a little bit, but how has the pandemic been affecting you and your family? How has it affected you as a writer and author? Your book, The Seed Vault, was just released in the fall of 2019 by Eyewear Publishing. Has this also changed your promotion of the book that you had planned? 

LJ: First, let me say that I hope that you and yours continue to be safe and well–and that goes for everyone reading out there. I don’t know where things will stand when folks are reading this, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t be anything like “back to normal,” whatever that turns out to mean. My wife and I are extremely fortunate, overall: we have jobs that can (and right now, must) be done remotely, teaching in high schools. Granted that such a model for the majority of American schools isn’t sustainable–but it is do-able in a crisis. And we have a roof over our heads, and health insurance, and access to reliable grocery delivery. So, I feel grateful.

There’s no doubt that the rollout of my debut collection has been radically changed: I had a reading tour set for this spring, with stops in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and all of that is on hold indefinitely, of course. But, as this interview shows, the community of readers and writers is one that can work electronically; indeed, it’s one that only rarely functions in-person, since most reading does not occur in the presence of the writer. I hope and plan to get out there to independent book stores and colleges and so on as soon as possible. For now, I did my first-ever “virtual reading” in April, hopefully with a few more to come. And I urge all interested readers to patronize local indie bookstores that can do online/phone-based/curbside-pickup orders, whether it’s my book or another one you wish to buy!

NS: Going back to your book, this is your first full length debut. Congratulations! You said in an interview with your alma mater, Carleton College, that this book contains poems that you have been working on for “not just years, but decades.” You also mentioned that though you were always a lover and writer of poetry, you did not take it “seriously” until a bit later in life, and that even your students helped to get you to this point. I can relate to many things that you said here, and I was wondering if you could give us more information about this journey that you have had, and also how you ended up placing your manuscript with your publisher. I am going through the difficulty of figuring out how to place my first collection now, and trying to understand if it’s worth it to keep trying contests and the like.

LJ: Thanks for your note of congratulations–and keep the faith, regarding your collection! My own journey towards this book was probably as long (in terms of time) as it was for a lot of reasons. Two might be worth mentioning. First, I have been a high-school teacher since I was 23, and for the first 15 or so years of my career, the energy I put into working with other people’s words left me comparatively little to use on my own work. So, when I finally put this project together, I literally had a couple of decades’ worth of peripatetic output through which to sift.

Second, I don’t know that I had much to say, for a number of years, and I always seemed to have an excuse not to write, if I’m being honest. So, I would draft a few new poems each year, and maybe keep one or two. I didn’t submit anything to journals until just before I turned 30. Then, in my late 30s, a confluence of events occurred: I had a job running a writing program whose students kept asking me why I wasn’t writing more, and the very nature of that job kept me in constant contact with people in all walks of the writing life. So, I was suddenly in the world of writers and poets in a way I hadn’t been before, and I had a 3-year period in which I wrote more new work than I had in the previous 15 years, combined. 

That led to a chapbook, which led eventually to a full-length manuscript. And, yes, I’ve spent much time (and money) in the bizarre, infuriating, arbitrary world of the manuscript contest. Both of my two chapbooks (I published a second one last year, four years after the first) were selected via small-press chapbook contests/series. My full-length collection garnered a bit of praise and a few finalist & semi-finalist nods once in a while, and eventually was picked up by a press for which it had been a contest finalist and did not win. Does that mean that it is “worth it” to keep submitting against such incredibly long odds? It’s hard to say, because I know full well that I could very easily still be working on placing The Seed Vault; I know some fabulous writers for whom the process took more than a decade. For me it took a few years, which is either really long or really short, depending on one’s perspective. I am most grateful to the folks at Eyewear/Black Spring Press Group, for giving The Seed Vault a home and for being so supportive of my work.

I do know that what matters most is to do the work because you believe in it. Second-most important is staying invested in and connected to communities of writers, like the ones surrounding Indianapolis Review.

NS: The title of your collection, Seed Vault, refers to the innovative seed collections that agricultural botanist Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov created while working for the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, he was accused of being a traitor by Stalin, and died of starvation at Saratov prison in 1943 at the age of 55. “The irony of a growing hunger could not / have been lost on the man who would feed the world,” as you write in the first poem of your sequence of poems about Vavilov. How did you become interested in his story, and what led you to write this sequence of poems about his life? This story was quite interesting to me because I was horticulture major and used to work at a botanical garden, as well as an organic garden that used all heirloom seeds.

LJ: We may have to tap into your expertise about a few aspects of our garden here in NW Indy! So, the Vavilov sequence was born in the way that a lot of my stuff is: I hear or see something that intrigues me, I jot a note to myself, I forget about the note to myself, and later I rediscover the note to myself and am even more intrigued than I was when I wrote it, because I no longer even remember what it means. That’s literally what happened here. 

I heard an NPR piece about Vavilov. When I parked the car, I found a post-it pad (I don’t keep my writing notebook with me everywhere in my daily, errand-running life, as I do when I travel for pleasure or work; I don’t know why). I jotted a quick note about the guy and his seed-vault idea. I kicked the idea around in my head for a while, in a conscious way. And then I forgot about it, or thought I did. I may have been working on it unconsciously, because when I stumbled on the post-it note months later, I was suddenly fully focused. 

I grabbed some books on Vavilov from the Indy Library system (which is fantastic), and somehow I found myself drafting 14 pages’ worth of a poem sequence in about 10 days. I’d never written so much poetry in so little time–and about 80-90% of it was unchanged by the revising process, which is of course exceedingly rare. I don’t know for sure if I’d been drafting unconsciously before I rediscovered the post-it. I do know that, once I was reading about Vavilov, I was drafting and re-drafting in my head for hours a day, which made the actual physical drafting feel surreal, like I was just transcribing.

NS: I was also curious about the form that you wrote the Vavilov sequence in–each poem but the last consists of two octaves–not quite sonnets (or some other form I an unaware of–I am admittedly not an expert on form). The sequence is almost like a crown of sonnets, but again, not quite. They are 14 rather than the usual 15 and not repeating the last line with the first, but some of the poems do connect from the last to the first line of the next. Can you talk about your process of choosing forms when you write? You use form throughout the book–I noticed other poems that were two octaves, and you always are very careful and controlled in your lines and line breaks. 

LJ: I’m delighted other that the lines and breaks come across as careful/intentional, and that the slightly-formalist leanings of the book come through. I had the privilege of attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2015, just after my first chapbook came out, and just as I was starting work on what would become The Seed Vault. My workshop leaders were Charles Martin and A.E. Stallings; Charles Martin was assigned as my one-on-one-conference mentor. That experience showed me just how obvious it was (to skilled outside readers, if not to me) that I was drafting poems that were sort of neither fish nor fowl: they’d be set up, structurally, in ways that seemed formalist–say, a sonnet-like overall structure, or blank-verse-esque line rhythms–and then they’d start to act like Imagist-era free verse, with line and stanza breaks of the sorts that dictate, as opposed to follow, structure. 

I took to heart the advice that I just go in one direction or the other in a given poem: do the structuralist thing, or don’t, and own whichever thing I was doing at a given time. “Vavilov at Saratov” is indeed inspired by sonnet crowns, but I was intimidated enough by some such works (say, Malachi Black’s inimitable “Quarantine,” from a few years before I drafted “Vavilov”) that I wanted not to be comparing my work to them as I wrote. 

So, I created a form that, as you say, uses two octaves in every poem but one, with that one exception pre-planned. The lines are loose blank verse; it was that rhythm, as opposed to content, to which I had to attend most in revision. In general, I think I use form in two ways. Sometimes, I just need the rules and the challenge of writing, say, a villanelle or whatever, to make me listen carefully, or even just to get me started. And sometimes I start writing something and I can’t quite feel what it is doing or where it is going, so I try out a few different structural approaches, including ones in received or nonce forms, until something develops momentum. 

NS: The range of subjects that you cover in this collection is vast–a couple particularly vivid poems touch on your time spent in Hungary, you have poems set in Texas, poems about history in the Canary Islands, a section that interrogates the rhetoric used in the Trump era, and your last section that explores the botanist Vavilov. As you stated, you have been working on these poems for many years. What was the process like for you in putting these poems together, and in structuring your book?

LJ: I looked back over a number of collections I’ve admired, by people ranging from Ross Gay to Brigit Pegeen Kelly to James Wright to Linda Gregerson, and on and on, trying to find a “magic formula” of some kind that would provide me with manuscript guidance. What ended up happening, of course, was that I got a feel for what kinds of things would *not* work with the pieces I wanted to put in this book, which included “Vavilov” and the Trump-ish poems, both of which required a certain number of consecutive pages. 

So, with some sense of what was not going to work, I decided 1. where I wanted “Vavilov” to be, 2. where I wanted to place the Trump-y poems in relation to that, and 3. what I wanted to use as the first 10-12 poems of the book as a whole. Those three basic building blocks led to more localized questions, like which poems could open and close each of the sections of the book, and things began to take on a shape that made sense.

NS: I always save the last question for our featured poet to ask about Indianapolis–what are your favorite places to hang out, to buy books, catch readings, etc? Do you have any thoughts about the writing ‘scene’ in our area or region? I think people often have the idea that there is nothing here, and I try to dispel that notion! However, it feels so strange asking this question right now, as none of us can venture out to our favorite spots . . . I will confess that I have been missing the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s (or Newfields, I still have trouble calling it that) gardens, especially this time of year. It is my favorite spot in the city, and I still live in an apartment, so I miss that garden and the 100 acres nature park terribly. What are some special places in Indianapolis for you?

LJ: You’ve hit on the most important one of all. My wife and I are such huge fans of Newfields–which, like you, we kept calling “The IMA” long after the official name change–that we got married there, deciding along the way that we would shape everything else about the event in whatever ways would allow us to be able to afford to be in that place for our ceremony and reception. (In our case, that meant things like doing a Sunday brunch indoors, with the reception and ceremony in the same room, as opposed to more pricey options like a Saturday-night reception, or a garden-and-tent ceremony, and so on.) 

We are regulars in the garden, in the collections, in the 100-acre park, and on the towpath. We were there twice in the days leading up to the lockdown, and we hope to see you there as soon as we can safely do so. 

Indy Reads Books is dear to me. I launched The Seed Vault there, with a lovely crowd of folks from all over the city and the world, thanks to a contingent of Fulbrighters from IUPUI and IU and Butler. And the work Indy Reads does for adult literacy in the city is a constant inspiration. Good people, good books, good work–what could be better? 

Somehow, we lived in Indy for years before we actually went inside the War Memorial downtown; the open, silent, vast memorial hall itself is sublime, and the crazy, winding, unbelievably-large museum in the basement is unlike any other museum I know. The walking/running trails at Eagle Creek Park are wonderful–though I’m even more partial to Holliday Park, not too far from our home. That’s where I had my author photos taken, when I realized I was going to have a book and a website and so on. I believe you are a Holliday Park fan, yourself!

And although this isn’t in the city per se, we in Indy are fortunate to be so close to Brown County State Park, with the nearby villages of Nashville (touristy, but still lovely, full of shops and restaurants and so on) and Story (tiny and eerie and beautiful and reputedly haunted). 
As for the “writing scene,” I’m still getting to know it, honestly, with my biggest literary community still being in Texas, where I lived from 2008 to 2016, and in which I help to run the annual Poetry at Round Top festival. Irvington Vinyl & Books has some solid reading-series and workshop-type events. Butler has a very high-powered reading series full of national and international big-wig writers (if there is such a thing). There are lots of important poets here in the city, like Karen Kovacik and Jared Carter. Honestly, most important of all is probably a journal like The Indianapolis Review. The name alone puts the city on the literary map for a lot of folks out there. The work within does credit to the city and its writers and readers. So, a big thank-you to you all, not just for this feature, but for everything you do!

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