Poetry in the Blood: The Life of Elizabeth Jacobson

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Former Santa Fe Poet Laureate Elizabeth Jacobson is dedicated to the beliefs that poetry improves and enriches the life of the mind and that the unexamined life is not worth living. She has also been unselfishly dedicated to sharing her work and teaching the art of poetry to others for decades.

A native New Yorker, Jacobson arrived in Santa Fe 35 years ago to attend college and has since taught writing in colleges and public schools, and for community programs. She is the founding director of the WingSpan Poetry Project, a not-for-profit now on hiatus that conducted weekly poetry classes in battered family and homeless shelters statewide. Today she teaches a community poetry class in association with the Santa Fe Railyard Art Project. As an instructor, she emphasizes that there is no single way to write or teach poetry, that it is an individual craft and how you achieve it is personal.

“My suggestion is to read a lot of poetry and analyze and see what it is that you like,” Jacobson said. “And then ask yourself what is it that draws you and why do you follow a certain poem. It’s empowering to be in the moment.”

Jacobson said she is fascinated by the processes people follow to advance or change their poetry, and she suggests that aspiring or amateur poets observe all of their feelings and write down the details.

That guidance comes from her own experience, as Jacobson learned early in her life that poetry could be a tool that she could rely on, a friend helping her out in an emotional jam.

“As a child I had a lot of stuff in my family,” Jacobson said. “I was sad and poetry came from that – a deep emotion of sadness, confusion and non-communication. They were more like little songs. I made a little book in first grade, with a fabric store cover, and I still have it. I kept a journal. In high school, I liked art and novels and in college, poetry became more serious to me.”

On the rarest occasion, Jacobson will write to the end of a piece and without much effort, revise it and, almost magically, it’s ready. But most of the time, she will scribble some lines and then put them away for a few weeks. After further revision, she usually ends up with something completely different than what the initial draft had recorded. Jacobson likens the process of poetry to an investigation, with her husband serving as the first reader and her friends providing the feedback necessary to generate the poem’s momentum.

“Inspiration comes from seeing something outside of myself,” Jacobson said. “Inspiration comes from having a thought, or something sparking my inner life, the imagery that hooks me, and I write it down. But the practice for me is methodical, daily. I’m not waiting for something to happen, but trying to make something happen. I will go for a walk and find something to incorporate into what it is that I’m working on. And a poem gets made.”

Take this snippet from “Her Knees Pulled In,” describing the mercurial, piercing behavior of a ‘A lyre snake / its back of petroglyphs/ designed to cloak / his detective life / of eating things still alive.’

One thing, however, that has always made Jacobson squeamish about poetry is that it makes some people feel intimidated or that poets are often misconstrued as self-important or prideful.

“I’m a whole bunch of things besides a poet,” Jacobson said. “I’m a dishwasher, I’m a cook, I’m a laundress, and I’m a reader. I think that a well-rounded life is important.”

Continually observing, writing, and reading, it’s obvious that stagnation is not something that Jacobson ever contends with: everything feeds her and there never seems to be enough time to perceive, to interpret, or to create. Her life is one big exploration, stirring up sentiments with every step.

“I have so much written and filed away to last me for the rest of my life,” Jacobson said. “It is all stacked and piled. There are boxes of ideas and thoughts and potential poems that I haven’t looked at in several years. Now would be a good time to get to them.”

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