Alumni Interview: Lucas Jacob ’94 on his Debut Poetry Collection

26 February 2020
By Gab Torres ’20
Luke Jacob '94

In this brief interview with Carleton alumn Lucas Jacob, class of 1994, I hoped to give Jacob an opportunity to detail for our readers the path he took to publishing his first full length collection of poetry, The Seed Vault. We hope you’ll join us in congratulating Jacob on this achievement and consider joining us at Content Bookstore on April 7th for a reading of his work. Also, if you haven’t already, follow us on Instagram, @second_laird_miscellany for updates regarding life at Carleton.

Is this your first poetry collection to be published? 

It is my first full-length collection, yes. I had previously published two chapbooks: one in 2015, and the other in June of 2019, about half a year before this full-length collection was released. 

Was it at Carleton that you found your love of poetry, or was it a passion that you brought with you to college? 

I grew up in a house with poetry on all of the walls—literally. There were framed broadsides and posters of poems on every wall in every room, including in the one little bathroom we all shared, and over the stove in the tiny kitchen. Four of us lived in fairly small quarters, and that meant sharing a given space or taking turns with a given space, and there was always something to read while waiting. You couldn’t walk up the stairs without passing five or six poems, all of which I had memorized by the time I was seven or eight.

My parents were very active in the small-press worlds of Chicago and the Midwest. Many of the poems I saw every day were written by, or letter-press-set by, family friends. We probably had a thousand volumes of poems in the house, which meant that we were truly surrounded by them.

Of course, Carleton was instrumental in the continuation and expansion of my love of poetry. I took poetry seminars with Bob Tisdale and Keith Harrison, got to hear readings in the chapel by Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou, and had the chance to hear from visiting poets including C.K. Williams, William Matthews, and Andrew Hudgins.

Even classes that were not specifically about poetry introduced me to poems that were important to me. I still remember studying the late Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants in Kofi Owusu’s class on “The African Diaspora and the Cross-Cultural Imagination.” 

Has poetry production been a constant in your life, something that you’ve turned to in moments of heightened emotion, or a more sporadic pursuit? 

Writing poems has been a constant in that I’ve done at least a little of it every year since I was a kid, no matter what else has been going on in my life. However, I’m probably a bit unusual in that I didn’t start publishing until I was 30, and didn’t really write in what I would call a “serious way” (meaning, making myself create the necessary time to write new work, whether I happened to have something in mind or not) until I was almost 40.

I’ve been teaching high school since I was 23, fresh out of grad school. For most of my adult life, the never-ending busyness of the high-school teacher’s life was both a legitimate reason for writing only occasionally (it’s not always easy to want to write one’s own work after spending 10+ straight hours on other people’s work), and a convenient excuse for not working more seriously on my own poems and stories and essays.

Two things happened that changed that. In 2009 or 2010, a venerable literary journal that had (very politely) rejected my poems off and on for several years shocked me by asking to publish a poem that the editor had read before I’d even considered submitting it. And from 2010 to 2015 I worked very closely with a cohort of high school students—two overlapping cohorts, really—who pushed me to write with them, and challenged me about why I hadn’t put together a collection of my work or done public readings, and so on. Not surprisingly, two of those former students are now finishing MFAs in poetry, and a third is in the middle of a post-grad poetry fellowship.

All of that said, there have definitely been what might be called “moments of heightened emotion” that have found me drafting far more new work than I usually do. In February of 2017, I drafted something like 20 new poems in a month. I rarely exceed two or three. And in the summer of 2018, I wrote about 15 pages’ worth of poetry–all parts of one long poem–in a week. That, too, was a completely novel experience for me.  

What did you find it most important to stay mindful of while in the process of creating your collection? AKA, do you have any advice for those of us in the throes of creative writing comps?

 Well, these are perhaps two totally separate questions, given that I was creating a collection out of poems drafted over not just years, but decades, and you all are (hopefully) spared that as you do your comps. Yes, 2/3 of the book is made up of poems written in the four or five years before I shaped the manuscript—but the other 1/3 stretches out from my late teens through my mid-30s.

There’s a poem in the book that I drafted when I was a junior at Carleton, and revised into something like its current form nearly 20 years later! So, for me, it was important to stay mindful of the facts that, for all I knew, this would be the only full-length collection I’d ever produce, and that it might well never be published at all. Those considerations helped me to make sure that I really made the thing what I wanted it to be, not what I thought someone else (a publisher, a contest judge, an imagined audience) might want it to be.

I had to believe in it, given the long odds against its being published and given the possibility that only I and a few of those closest to me would ever read it. I suppose that part does apply to you all and your comps. More specific to you, however, may be a small bit of the supposed wisdom that comes with age: you have to find a way to enjoy the process, if the process is going to be worthwhile.

This is not true of everything in life; there are many things that one must do, whether they are enjoyable or not. Writing poems or short stories or plays or narrative essays or whatever is not one of those things. It is especially not one of those things when you’re 20 or 21 or 22. Anyone writing a creative-writing comps exercise in college has chosen to do so over a myriad of other possible choices. So, if it isn’t fun, what’s the point?

When I’m on campus, perhaps someone will ask me about my comps experience. At the time, my approach to comps was a somewhat-controversial one—but it was based on an early, un-formulated version of this same principle. If I’m not going to enjoy doing something that is part and parcel of the extreme privilege of a liberal-arts education, then why am I going to put myself through it? 

To be purely pragmatic, I will say this: it is *vital* that you either read your work into your phone and listen back to it, or have a trusted peer or Write Place tutor or someone read it to you, aloud. I have never published a piece that I have not heard aloud, from start to finish, multiple times. It was one of my grad-school mentors, the brilliant poet and novelist Toby Olson, who made me do this for the first time, with an old-time piece of technology we had in the 90s, called a “tape recorder.” The process was at times painful, but it fundamentally changed my approach to revision and my “voice,” for lack of a better word. I was working in fiction at the time, not poetry, but I have applied the lesson equally to every genre in which I have written since. 

Whose poetry do you find most inspiring at the moment?

I’m glad this question is phrased as it is, because it provides a filter for the far larger question about what poetry one admires or enjoys. If I’m reading poetry to be “inspired,” then I’m probably going to start with Ross Gay, and then perhaps I’ll turn to Ellen Bass or Robert Hass.

Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, from 2015, is astonishing. Sure, it won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was a National Book Award finalist and all of that—but what’s amazing is that it really does inspire. It is a poetry of gratitude, not in spite of, but because. That is exceedingly rare. And the poems are extremely readable. Not all poetry is; in fact, a fair amount of poetry is not.

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