Who is willing to write long-form poetry anymore? Most of the books on the poetry shelves in your local bookstore are skinny — unless it’s a “collected works” edition of an established poet’s writing.
Poetry has always been a risky market — risky for publishers — and today the prospects for poets seem more daunting than ever before. But that hasn’t deterred poet R. Douglas Jacobs from constructing long, confessional poetic narratives drawing on his experiences of disillusionment and the search for truth. His most recent book on this theme is “deFragmentation” (RDJ Publishing).
Raymond generously responds below to some questions about his work and about the challenges facing poets today in the following Q & A for Call of the Siren.
If you’re a member, like Jacobs, of this vital community of voices, I hope you’ll find something here to help and inspire you on your journey.
Keep going, my friends!
A little bit of basic biography to start—you’re based in Long Beach, California, is that right?
Yes, I’m a Long Beach native – born and raised. Aside from a few years I spent either residing in Venice or Sunset Beach, I’ve spent most of my life in Long Beach. It’s not a budding town by any means with respect to writers. But a known poet who does reside here is Millicent Borges Accardi. So, I don’t feel completely alienated in being considered the resident poet of Long Beach.
As a poet, I’m sure you must have another day job that pays the bills—what profession or professions are a part of your background?
Looking back at my efforts to make ends meet, I feel like a modern-day Mark Twain in the sense that I’ve dabbled in almost every industry at one time or another. I’ve worked in entertainment, aerospace, security, oil, medicine, law, insurance, and engineering. In between, I’ve moonlighted as an author for more than 8 years now. It would be a dream to list “writer” as a full-time occupation. But I’m not delusional in that regard.
Poetry has always held a smaller, select niche in the publishing industry; today, that niche is even smaller and even many of the marquee names aren’t being carried by the big firms anymore. Tell us about your publishing experiences.
I wasn’t aware just how small that niche was until I approached a reputable literary agent who I had actually worked with back in 2001 for a former management firm called the Artists Management Group. He headed their literary division (Renaissance) and represented the likes of Elmore Leonard and Michael Crichton. What’s more, he had been friendly with me until I emailed him one afternoon asking if he’d be interested in reviewing the manuscript for my first book, The Rhymes of Love and Reason.
When I informed him that the book was a poetic anthology of sonnets, his exacts words were “Oy vey! I’d rather be selling ransom notes!” That is the absolute truth! I should have taken his terse putdown as a sign of what was to come, because the ensuing inquiries I made to Penguin, HarperCollins and countless other publishers were ignored.
I had no choice but to self-publish, which inevitably led me to form my own publishing company.
Ideally, I would prefer to release a book through a major publisher only because they have the infrastructure in place to market a book effectively. This is a major benefit to any writer, especially a writer like me, who hasn’t established a name for himself as an author. But for known authors, the evolution of networking through the Internet has made it possible for them to promote their books without compromising the editorial integrity of their work. So, not having a major publisher backing them is not always a bad thing so long as they have the name recognition to appeal to a fan-base.
What made you decide to tell your story as a poem and not as, say, a novel or a collection of letters?
I studied filmmaking in my youth and loved silent films on the basis that dialogue did not detract from the action behind the storytelling. If anything, you could utilize your imagination to decipher what it was that someone was saying and, consequently, you became more engaged in the story. The films of Chaplin and D.W. Griffith had this effect on me. Novels require a set-up, followed by continuous preludes to introduce characters and atmospheric situations for the sake of creating moods that dictate the outcome of a narrative.
deFragmentation presents a dichotomy for the sake of capturing the pathos that made silent films so raw and compelling to me. Except that I reverse the course of its method, in theory, to make sure that the action doesn’t detract from the dialogue. The dialogue, presented as a soliloquy, is what tells the story. Had I written deFragmentation as anything else, it would not have felt real to the degree it needed to be to garner the empathy it deserves.
At one point, early in the poem, you declare the following:
So, here, now, is my testament,
Fragmented as it may sound
But indelible to make up
for the letter I never composed…
It is a very powerful moment.
Yes, early passages like that serve as a thesis that I can expound on in arriving at a rationale.
How long did it take to write deFragmentation?
Honestly, I stalled for more than a year before deciding to write deFragmentation. I was still recovering from the throes of Gethsemane (my previous book) and didn’t have the desire to endure the emotional toll of writing another subjective book. Instead, I decided to write a nursery rhyme, The Slip-slide Misadventure of Mildew Goo. I was going through a break-up with my fiancée and wanted to pursue a different avenue in the hope of shifting my focus onto something positive. I even spent countless hours and energy in producing an audio book adaptation of Gethsemane, which was reminiscent of my days as an aspiring filmmaker. However, neither of these ventures enabled me to cope with the severe depression I was experiencing in the aftermath of our break-up. If anything, I needed to do something that was therapeutic and deFragmentation became that outlet only because I initially approached the book as a journal in examining my own faults.
What were your work habits for the poem?
I started a draft in the early part of 2014 and resumed working on the manuscript in October/November that year. Gethsemane took me more than two years to write, whereas deFragmentation took a little more than two months. This had to do with the contrast in structure–one written in rhyme and the latter as prose. The other contrast they have is that Gethsemane is an allegory and deFragmentation is a catharsis. The execution, however, was impeccable in both instances mainly because of my mindset at the time I wrote them. As a writer, I completely isolate myself from distraction and allow my conviction for the subject matter to take precedent in shaping the narrative.
As I read deFragmentation, I’m reminded of poets I’ve enjoyed in the past, especially Kahlil Gibran and Rumi. Your style, to me, has a very eastern flavor. What poets inspire you? Or did your inspiration come from different areas, like music or painting?
To be even mentioned in the same sentence as Gibran is a profound compliment. The Prophet is one of the most important literary works of the 20th century. Rumi’s writings have had a great impact on Persian culture with respect to prose and song. He’s certainly one of the “Immortals” in literary folklore. One common thread we share is the fact that our work is philosophical. There is a yearning for wisdom when you read Gibran or Rumi — a desire for enlightenment. Oddly enough, a poet who first influenced me was Edgar Allan Poe. I was in fifth grade and watched a PBS special featuring a reading of The Raven and became hooked. Another poet who inspired me from the romantic period was Percy Bysshe Shelley and, in particular, his work, Prometheus Unbound. I actually started experimenting with poetry at the age of 12 to emulate his style.
One of the issues that your poem wrestles with is the fact that human beings are flawed and limited. These flaws lead to misunderstandings that can mark another person for life. Would you say that your poem ends on a note of understanding, or does it end on a note of continuing to search for understanding?
Writing is about exploration — unlocking the answers to the questions our lives pose for the sake of tolerance. When there’s a misunderstanding, I think we need to assume a fair share of the blame and learn from our mistakes if we hope to be better people. Otherwise, the stigma of regret can never be truly healed.
In essence, deFragmentation conveys this exact message without any finality since the story of deFragmentation is really another stage in the evolution of a person’s flawed life. As a writer, I treat each stage as a new discovery because I believe that life is limitless so long as you recognize within yourself a positive change that can be gained with each experience. We can never be perfect. We can only hope to be wiser, as well as forgiving. That is my mantra.
MORE: To learn more about Raymond Jacobs’ work, visit RDJ Publishing at: http://www.rdjpublishing.com