|
|
|
|
|
 

 

It's amazing what Jacob's done for my poetry, and for my own sense of language. His sense of how and when to cut into a line where "less is more" improved the work again and again. I am so grateful for that and thank him for both his editing skills and his teaching as he got my book ready for publication. What I've learned will guide me further along the way.

Joseph Bottone
words to feed the soul


 

I have worked with Jacob Miller as my writing teacher, coach and editor for over twenty years. We have worked in fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He has been invaluable in helping me to bring forth my best work by coaxing me to go deeper into the primordial material that lurks beneath the surface. He knows how to encourage and support my writing by taking the work more seriously than my emotionality. With a fearless heart and a broad, keen mind, Jacob is dedicated to human truth irrespective of its ugliness or beauty. This is extraordinarily empowering and gratifying. It is a deep joy to work with him.

Robert W. Gunn, Ph.D.,
Journeys into Emptiness: the Quest for Transformation in Dogen, Merton and Jung. (Paulist Press, 2000)


Brilliant, kind, supportive, funny, fun. Jacob Miller is all these things and I thank the gods that be that I found him. His belief in my work has given me the confidence to feel anything is possible, to feel like a star.

Thanks to our work together, my stories are being published.

Shirley Sullivan


Follow the links to read what Jacob's students have to say about him:

On Writing "El Museo De Diego Rivera"
by Carl Auerbach

SENSUAL
On Writing with Jacob
By Bill Greer


On Writing "El Museo De Diego Rivera"
for Jacob

by Carl Auerbach

Jacob Miller taught me what it means to be a poet. When I began working with him I didn't have the language to talk about this, but now I do. Writing poetry involves transmuting the raw materials of one's day-to-day existence into reflections that move from their subjective origins to resonate in a universal way. This movement from the subjective to the universal can occur by finding a poem that the language wants you to write. As Jacob often insists "the poet must resist considering too much his or her own potential and focus instead on the potential of the language." Jacob offers a variety of tools to do this. One of the tools he offers, which he credits having learned from his teacher, Joseph Brodsky, is an approach of humility to the craft. This involves, as Jacob maintains, "a willingness to let go of what you initially think the poem should be and the sensitivity to discern what it is becoming when the language starts to take on a life of its own."

I want to tell here the story of what Jacob taught me, and in telling my story I think I will be telling the story of every poet who has worked with him. In the past five years, the number of poets and writers in New York who have sought out Jacob as a teacher has been steadily increasing, and yet much of his method remains available only to those of us who have worked with him first-hand, and seen our individual works transformed. With this said, let me describe how I came to write "El Museo de Diego Rivera."

Two summers ago I was in Guanajuato, Mexico, studying Spanish and vacationing. Guanajuato is the birthplace of Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist, and the city has converted the house where he was born into a museum that displays his work. While there, I of course visited the museum, and was overwhelmed. Perhaps because I was in a foreign country speaking a language I barely knew; perhaps because Guanajuato itself was shaped by the marriage of the Indian and Spanish cultures, neither of which are my own; but for whatever reason, I didn't feel as if I was in a museum. Instead, I was walking through a world unto itself. The people in the paintings were living people; the scenes in the paintings were real landscapes; the gods in the paintings were genuine deities. All of this somehow accumulated to evoke the sense of a powerful presence, watching over everything, including me. And when I left the museum it felt like an escape.

This experience was what Jacob calls the "trigger" of the poem, the life event that gets the poetic process in motion. "Imagine," he says in a characteristic story, "that you have a fight with your girlfriend or boyfriend, we need not specify which. Words are exchanged, and the situation accelerates to the throwing of china. A valuable Wedgwood is shattered. Perhaps you break up, perhaps you do not; perhaps you meet someone else, perhaps not. All these things, important as they are to you, are only the occasion, the trigger, for a poem." Poetry, he goes on to say, is not, in the case of this hypothetical, about the words exchanged, or the broken china, but about the deeper questions that might arise: What are the limitations on our scope or capacity for intimacy? What are the limitations on the permanence of relationships? Can we love without hating? What is the nature of loss? These are possible "generated subjects," areas of inquiry that might be explored, although not necessarily settled, in a poem arising from such a "trigger".

In classes and personal conferences, Jacob encourages us to write about our experience as it is or our characters' experiences as they might be. Either way, he insists, whatever is at play in a given poem, we must silence our internal censor that keeps track of what is normal, proper, and socially desirable. The freedom to do this is one of the most liberating aspects of his workshops. However, he insists that we not indulge ourselves in simply the venting of emotion, but subject our raw experience to the discipline of craft. "Poetry requires that, from time to time, you spill your guts on the page, but to refine a poem you must learn to view your own guts as if they were someone else's," he says, paraphrasing Robert Frost.

The question for the apprentice poet is what to do with one's raw experience after it has been recorded on the page. Jacob teaches a six-step procedure, the first step of which I have just described - to banish the internal censor and let the experience flow from the "trigger."

When I did this, in Mexico and later when I returned, narrative and form began to emerge. Step two of the six steps is to attend to and decide on the emerging narrative and form. I have learned to trust language in this respect. If a poem is there to be had, then the language will start to take its own direction. In my case, the narrative was prompted by the organization of the museum. Stanza one is my rendering of my experience of Guanajuato, outside the museum; the contents of stanzas two, three, and four are more or less the sequence of floors. But, as I wrote these stanzas I became aware of more universal themes having to do with poverty, anger, masculinity, and politics. In other words, a "generated subject" was emerging from the specific trigger.

Besides sensing an emerging generated subject, I also began to recognize the emerging form as a four-sonnet sequence, there being one sonnet for each part of the narrative. Our group had been doing a lot of work with sonnets, and I was primed to see each large chunk of narrative as a fourteen-line unit. In addition, our group aesthetic often explores putting the contents of modern experience into classical form, and the tension between Diego Rivera's harsh, brutal, vision and the beautiful symmetry of the Shakespearean sonnet appealed to me.

Poetry is a craft with a long history, and much of our training has focused on learning the elements of the craft. Jacob uses the metaphor of an artist's palette. "When a painter turns to his or her palette he or she should see not just the color available, but all the components of the craft, such as texture and composition. Similarly, on the poet's palette there is a terrific range of components of the craft available, and, quite simply, the more elements a poet has at his or her command and can mix on that palette, the more he or she will bring to the page." Jacob organizes the many elements of craft into three major groups, each of which merits a step in the writing process: content and narrative (already discussed), music (sound quality in all of its dimensions, such as meter, end-line relationships, alliteration and assonance, to name a few), and imagery (visual quality, description, sensory detail, etc.).

Step three is to focus on and refine the poem's music. An important aspect of this is to craft internal and end-line relations (sound relations within and between lines) that are consistent with the form of the poem. I particularly like the discipline of writing in a classical form because it pushes me to find better language than I otherwise might. For example, my favorite line in the fourth stanza, "that your thin hands painted with a spider's grace," developed from trying to find an end-line that would go with "your presence precludes any open space." I also like the connection between desire and power established by having them be the end words of the last couplet of the poem. This is the sort of experience that illuminates how language lives through the poet during the creative process. As my friend and colleague Gary Brocks puts it, "The struggle between original intent and the demands of structure invariably gives rise to something more... it is as if you have a collaborator: the form."

Step four is to refine the imagery of the poem. Part of Jacob's training is based on his observation that everybody is weak on at least one of the three basic dimensions of narrative, music, and imagery. In my case, I was weak in the area of imagery. Jacob pushed me, as he pushes everybody, to work on my weakness. I forced myself to add imagery. The rich visual environment of Guanajuato itself helped me in this. The beggar in stanza one was a real person who was there every day in Guanajuato's central square; there really was a dog who backed up when we crossed paths in a small road (although I put the dog and the beggar together). The children hawking Chiclets are, of course, a ubiquitous feature of every third world country.

Keeping on this way, I eventually wrote a poem that is not too different from the one in this anthology. I read it to the members of our poetry group who were their usual wonderful selves, clarifying lines, questioning word choice, etc. I made their suggested revisions and the poem got better.

Step five is to unify the three elements of the poem, the imagery, the music, and the content, and to clarify the generated subject. Part of how this happened was through Jacob's influence, part of it was the influence of language itself. Jacob insists, and we all have, at various times, loved and hated him for it, that a poem isn't finished until it's as perfect as one can make it. Even then, as he quotes W.H. Auden as saying, it's not finished, but only abandoned. In my case, the last couplet of the poem didn't quite work, and the poem didn't end satisfactorily. The way it read was, "Perhaps we should have fought our deep desire/ for closed worlds drawn with so much angry power." Jacob pointed out that the language, in particular, the sequence of personal pronouns, was doing something important. Although the entire poem is addressed to Diego Rivera, the personal pronoun by which he is addressed changes from stanza to stanza. In the first stanza the personal pronoun is "I," in the second it is "you," in the third it is "we," and at the beginning of the fourth "you" again. The last, unsatisfactory, couplet also used "we." What I realized was that the language and the form wanted to end where they had begun, with the pronoun "I." I made the change, and got an ending of the poem I was happy with. The poem ends: "Perhaps I should have fought my deep desire/ for closed worlds drawn with so much angry power."

It got even more than a good ending. The revisions to which the language had led me clarified the generated subject and also illuminated an important aspect of the human condition. I can explain this best in the language of my day job, which is as a psychology professor and psychotherapist. In my clinical work, I distinguish between two deep human needs. The first is that of fusion - to be one with the collective, to be a part of a "we"; the second is that of individuality - to be oneself, to be an "I." In ideal functioning a balance between the two is struck. On the other hand, misery and despair tempt us to lose ourselves, and to fuse with an all-powerful, angry "we," a position from which terrible things have been done. If we are lucky, we return to ourselves, living with and reflecting on what we have done. The psychological movement of the poem is from individuality to the loss of self in fusion with an angry, powerful, Diego Rivera, and then a return to self again. This movement is reflected in the personal pronouns. I should say that, although I recognized this later, it was not planned. The language led me to it. (For the record, step six is to fine tune the poem, a process that needs no further description.)

Every poet writes for at least two people - himself and some other person who serves as a standard. Jacob told us that he wrote for Brodsky. I write for Jacob, who was present for me throughout my work on this poem. He encouraged me to focus on content that was important to me, helped me find my poetic voice, and to work on my weaknesses. A great teacher, I think, communicates the process of craft, so that his or her students can make it their own. Jacob did this for me. Jacob- thank you.


SENSUAL
On Writing with Jacob

By Bill Greer

Sensual. I could write about the three legs of action, dialogue and reflection. Jacob teaches that in his Prose Workshop. Or about tension and conflict or description or the arc of the story. But sensual is the word that clicked, that incited the episode that stands out a decade later. “Make it sensual,” Jacob said. He wasn’t telling me to ramp up the sex, though I was writing about a sex scandal, or to escalate the violence, though the Dutchmen caught in the act would be burned at the stake. No, Jacob was addressing the setting. The time of my story was the seventeenth century, the place was Siam. How to make those come alive?

My story was already authentic. I had done my research, and at heart the tale was true. The plot moved. The protagonist was transformed, a doughty Dutch merchant seduced by the Orient. But could the reader feel the temptations the Dutchman could not resist, smell them, taste them, touch them? Was he seduced himself? Could he feel the dangers of a young man sailing halfway around the world? Could he feel his own mortality as the punishment approached? “Make it sensual,” Jacob said.

So now the Dutchman scratches the scabs where the bugs have broken his skin and worries how the red-hot irons in the guard’s hands will scorch his flesh. The wind welcoming him to Siam carries a mixture of salt, spices and strange scents, not entirely pleasing but certain to cleanse the putrid odors of lice-infested men and rotting salt pork. The hot liquid of a curry slides down his throat, the burning sensation of the spicy Siamese stew settles in his stomach.

He roams alleys teaming with bodies, their smell mingling with the stench of pickled fish sauce, ants roasting on the grill and the dung a Chinaman is tasting to test its potency. A bull elephant bursts into an arena with a sexual energy ready to ignite the air, he marks his territory as rising dust cakes his skin, he sniffs at a cow, his organ growing to the size of a man’s leg, then he bellows in frustration as she eludes his advances. And finally the executioner tightens the chord around the prisoner’s neck, his second sparks the torch into a fiery blaze and the ashes blow in the wind.

Exploring the entire range of sensory details wasn’t my only challenge from Jacob. He’s honed in on issues with character and voice and relationships, dissecting my work individually as I see him do with others in the Prose Workshop. His insights challenge us all to bring the best to the page, to never settle. The challenge is part of the reward, along with the most concrete evidence at the end of hard work – writing to be proud of.


 

 
about
|
writing
|
services
|
workshops
|
message board
|
contact