Poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs chose to move to Asheville from Little Rock, Ark., because “the writing community is absolutely fantastic. Malaprop’s [alone] had enough gravity to pull us there,” says Brown.
Jacobs adds, “We had these beautiful opportunities at the different [literary] series to try out [our] poems in earlier drafts and see how they live in the air, and to revise them based on that.”
Those poems are now being released in the form of Brown’s chapbook To Those Who Were Our First Gods, about her work with and observations of animals; and Jacobs’ collection Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, which juxtaposes her coming of age in Florida with her marriage to Brown. They will launch those works — along with fellow poet Melissa Crowe, who shares her new book, Dear Terror, Dear Splendor — at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus on Saturday, Feb. 9.
Crowe’s poetry collection also tells the story of her marriage. It “tracks my move from North to South with my Texas-born husband; when we were deciding on what neutral, congenial ground we could live and thrive together, we picked Asheville,” she explains. “I wrote so much of the book there — it provided a crucial remove from the landscape (both inner and outer) of my childhood and young adulthood.” Crowe is now a lecturer and MFA program coordinator at UNC Wilmington.
Following the Lenoir-Rhyne event, Brown and Jacobs will embark on an extensive book tour — their second in tandem. And while it’s kismet that their books were published at the same time, the pair often travel together to teach at various literary events. “Especially when we’re able to get in front of younger audiences, [often] it’s the only time they’ve seen an out couple together,” says Jacobs. When she was a young person coming to understand her own sexuality, “the couple of women I knew, who let me know the life I wanted was possible … along with books, is what saved me.”
Those in-person encounters with readers and listeners bring many opportunities to relate. “I love it when I’m able to deliver a poem and someone who perhaps doesn’t read poetry at all will come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know a poem could do that.’ … It’s really what feeds me through those long hours alone at my desk,” says Brown. “If I can write something that creates that kind of connection, it’s not just me navel-gazing.”
Dedicated researchers, Brown and Jacobs use their tours to delve more deeply into subjects of interest. Plus, “We try to pick something unique in each place we visit,” Jacobs says. Speaking to Xpress while in Florida for a literary festival, the two were planning to visit a bird sanctuary and wooden roller coaster with another poet friend.
On another trip to Florida, Jacobs visited her childhood home with its lakeside dock, a site often revisited in Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going. In the poem “13th birthday and something told me to wake early,” Jacobs captures the ache and longing of puberty from that dock: “If fear / is metal in the mouth; desire, burnt sugar on the tongue; what was the taste / of that day? Of that fish-jumped, sun-stunned morning?”
There’s an element of personal evolution to Crowe’s book, too: During the 20 years that her poems span, “I birthed and raised a daughter,” she says. “Those early poems are about pregnancy, childbirth and nursing an infant” while the final poem is dedicated to Crowe’s daughter, Annabelle, on her 18th birthday.
“I feel like these two facts combined — how long it took to write the poems and how they tell the whole story of mothering a child from the womb to the ‘empty nest,’ combine to make the collection a coming-of-age story in a kind of special way,” she says. “I also reach back into memory and tell some stories of my own upbringing in rural northern Maine. … Like anyone who writes, I think I’m trying to sift the gold — or spin the gold? To reckon and render in equal measure.”
Crowe adds, “So many of the poems are elegies, but every single poem is a love poem.”
A similar statement could be made of Jacobs’ work. While her identity is intricately linked to Florida, that state is also a place she longed to escape. Her writing about the cold, gray environs and isolation of New York City, where she escaped to, is equally as vibrant and image-drenched. Though she’s also an essayist, the poems of Jacobs’ new collection — at once narrative and lyrical — read like the most natural expression of the story she shares.
Brown studied fiction while working on her MFA. “I love story. It’s my point of origin — but I don’t necessarily believe in plot,” she says with a laugh.
Poetry seems a foregone conclusion for her, too, though after a friend posed the question, “What would you have been if not a writer?” Brown found herself responding, “A zoologist.” She then purchased 75 books about animals, and Jacobs gave her a season pass to the zoo in Little Rock, where Brown showed up so often the trainers invited her into the enclosures to feed the animals.
“When we moved [to Asheville] … I got in touch with all the animal organizations to see if they needed help. Most of them needed help scooping poop,” Brown says. “I just wanted to be near the animals.” After a shift at Animal Haven of Asheville, she spends an hour sitting in her car writing down all that she’s seen and heard and smelled. The results, in To Those Who Were Our First Gods, include the sensory-rich “The Scat of It,” elevating feces to something transcendent: “A stench maybe for us but for everything else,” she writes, “a bouquet of gratitude.”
“There’s something about getting to know the animals and the life that’s right there in my own home that has become the most important to me,” says Brown, who was raised in Kentucky. These days, she finds herself writing about the hellbender salamander and the Eastern woodrat, “which is literally almost extinct now.”
The animal world, she continues, “is not something I have to turn on a nature show to see.” And, through poetry, not something she has to be a zoologist to write about.
WHAT: Launch party for books by Nickole Brown, Jessica Jacobs and Melissa Crowe
WHERE: Lenoir-Rhyne University, Asheville Campus, 36 Montford Ave., second-floor boardroom
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m. Free. avl.mx/5ln