Jessica Isaacs is a Professor of English and the Assistant Division Chair at Seminole State College. He poetry collection, Deep August, was published in December 2014 by Village Books Press and won the 2015 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry. Isaacs has worked for Seminole State College since 2001. She currently serves as the director of the annual SSC Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium and is the current chair of the coordinating committee for the Woody Guthrie Poets. She is also co-editor of Dragon Poet Review, an online literary journal. Isaacs makes her home in Prague, OK with her husband, kids, dogs and cats.
Isaacs recently sat down with our Executive Editor Hardy Jones to discuss her writing, literary and non-literary influences, and how Howlers and Yawpers came to be.
1. Since winning the 2015 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry, do you see yourself or your writing any differently?
I have a sense of validation for my work that I didn't have before. I used to constantly wonder whether my writing was any good, and I was afraid to share it with others. Now, while I still throw a lot of it away as any writer does, I have a sense of assurance that what I have to say matters to more people than just myself. I'm still often insecure, but receiving the book award has really helped to give me a sense of confidence and provides me with a clear validation that I'm doing something right, that my voice matters and is heard.
2. What is the role of place in your work?
I am a product of place and time as a person, so naturally, my poetry is very much a product of place and time as well. My personal and poetic roots run deep in Oklahoma. I have moved in circles in the same areas of Oklahoma all of my life … Born in Okemah, lived in Prague, Ada, Oklahoma City, and back to Prague … Worked in Seminole, married into Konawa, vacationed every summer and many a school-year weekend at Lake Tenkiller, had family ties to Tulsa, Sapulpa, Jenks, Eufaula, Castle, Paden, Shawnee, and many other Oklahoma towns. These lines from my poem “This” in my book sum up the influence of place in my life and writing pretty well: “Oklahoma red is in our blood, and we feel her seasons, like the weather, changing in our veins.”
3. Literary influences?
I find myself reading and rereading many of the standard contemporary American poets … particularly Robert Frost, ee cummings, Louise Gluck, Carl Sandburg, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, William Carlos Williams, Donald Justice, Alan Dugan, Marge Piercy, James Dickey, Lucien Stryk, Langston Hughes, and WS Merwin. There are so many! I also find myself intrigued with the magical realism of Toni Morrison and Tim Tingle’s novels.
4. Non-literary influences on your work?
I grew up listening to my Nanny (my maternal grandmother), my mother and her three sisters discussing (and usually solving) all the world’s problems either around my Nanny’s kitchen table or the campfire at the lake. The music of their language expressed in feminine tones of laughter, grief, celebration, separation and everything in between—
mingled with the music of coyotes, frogs, water, fire, and crickets –
scented with cigarette smoke, wood smoke, pipe smoke, and coffee—
sprinkled with salt, and lovingly wrapped in well-used quilts in a damp Oklahoma summer night on Nanny's front porch counting the cars that drive by on the highway—
and catching lightning bugs in mason jars and picking Indian paintbrushes to fill old coffee cans—
these “ghosts of my past” ease their way into most all of my poems. My family is also very musical and spiritual, and my hardworking pharmacist dad’s whistling, drumming, guitaring, hymn singing, prescription filling, and praying often work their way onto my pages as well.
5. Any authors whose works you admire but whose work is very different (style, subject, etc..)from yours?
This question is difficult. Most of the time I admire people precisely because they are so different from me! But to try to answer this question for a couple of voices that are quite different from mine that I admire, let's see… I dig Allen Ginsberg. I also dig William Blake. They're both different from me and each other. I like a lot of different voices.
6. How did Howlers and Yawpers come about?
The Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium was created in 2011 at Seminole State College as a showcase of professional and emerging Oklahoma artists, musicians, actors, writers, and dancers. I was division chair of the Language Arts and Humanities Division at that time, and we English faculty had been discussing for a good while that we wanted to provide our students with an opportunity to experience the rich artistic and literary culture that Oklahoma had to offer, especially since so many of our students came from very small, rural, fiscally-challenged Oklahoma schools that didn't even offer creative writing, music, art, drama or other creative courses. We wanted our students to see that their voices mattered, too, that just because they were in this rural Oklahoma town didn't mean that they didn't have access to culture and creativity. We wanted to show them people like themselves who flourished and achieved greatness right here in Oklahoma, many of those people who came from the same small, rural, fiscally-challenged towns as themselves. So, we just asked people we knew in the creative community to come share with us at our symposium, and now five years later, (and still without any kind of budget), people are still coming to share with us – for free—because they believe in what we are trying to do for our students and this area of Oklahoma. Over the years, we've had film producers, internationally award-winning dancers, Oklahoma Poet Laureates, many Oklahoma Book Award winners and finalists, and internationally renown novelists and artists.
7. How long have you been writing? Genre or genres?
My mother has a book I wrote when I was five; it has several pages, a clear plot, and is fully illustrated, by me. I'm pretty sure if I'd been able to hold a pencil correctly and knew how to spell before I was five, that I would have been writing stories. I publish poetry, but I write plays, flash fiction, short stories, and some memoir. I also have a completed novel that I'm too afraid to show anyone.
8. Writing routines ?
None. I blame this on the current state of my chaotic existence as a full-time mother of two active kids and a full-time professor. Basically, I carry ideas around in my head … maybe enter a quick line in my cell phone as a memo … maybe write catchy phrases on the backs of receipts in my purse, on my hand, on kleenexes, whatever I can grab in whatever free minutes or seconds I can steal. I know; I really need to clean up my “writing habit” act!
9. I love your poem “Black Dutch”: How did that poem come to be? And can you tell us any other information about that poem—how does it fit into your overall oeuvre?
Before my grandma (my dad’s mom) died, she had always said that we were Black Dutch, and maybe Cherokee “or something,” she said, but that we didn't have the records because the courthouse they were in (conveniently and oddly) burned down. My dad's sisters and I independently began digging around in our genealogy, but kept hitting dead ends with the Cherokee rolls and the fact that many of our great grandparents and other family members were orphans. No one knew how they were orphaned, and there was much discrepancy about who the orphans lived with, and also they moved around a lot. I've often wondered if they were orphaned during government relocation efforts, but could never prove it. When I discussed this idea during a conversation with the late Greg Rodgers, as well as the elusive “Black Dutch” classification, several years ago after the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, he explained to me that he had learned through his research that many American Indian people in the late 1800s and early 1900s claimed they were Black Dutch in order to avoid forced government assimilation and persecution. He also suggested I look into the Choctaw rolls to try to locate family members since the Cherokee rolls were not turning up anything. I did just that, and I discovered my family did indeed have Choctaw ties. Though we kept hitting unanswered question after unanswered question, it became clear that we weren't Black Dutch at all, and what that term actually meant—for my family history, anyway-- was basically some combination of American Indian ancestry, and what I truly believe were efforts to “pass for white” to escape prejudice and its horrific consequences of the times. I was wary of publishing this poem, because I did not want to appropriate any culture that I did not feel I had any right to, especially since my father and I were not brought up in the native traditions. However, over the course of our conversations, Greg Rodgers persuaded me that I did indeed have a right to get to the bottom of these unanswered questions in my family line, that in fact, we all have a duty to honor the memories and the painful sacrifices of our native ancestors-- even if our ancestors didn't “stay on the rolls”-- to speak the truth of who we are and of who they were.