Working Writers Series: Jacob Cheeseman
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Jacob Cheeseman.
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
My name is Jacob Cheeseman. I’m twenty one years old and a student of English at Rutgers University. Poetry was given to me in my senior year of high school. I had just turned eighteen.My dad gave me a book by Tony Hoagland, called What Narcissism Means to Me, which quietly closed the gap between me and that subliminal voice in poetry. Every time I finished one of those poems, I felt a peculiar and hyperactive sort of anxiety- longing, like, “wow, you can do this with writing? Why doesn’t everyone?” Reading Tony led me to Matthew Dickman and a few other Dodge Poets from that year (2010). Dickman was the much more conspicuous kindling, was what taught me how to love reading, and to love my surroundings. He convinced me it was cool to read. Eventually, his poems were what bent me to write. I was changed.
So I left for college and took these books with me and immediately submerged myself in the writers’ community of New Brunswick. Things happened. This Fall, I will assume the director’s position of The Huntington Poetry Club, the university’s biggest off campus poetry gathering and the crux of all of my interests. I am trying to sew my passion into running it- there are already obstacles. And yet, I have ideas, and good people and organizations at hand to consult – a steady set of tools. They are always there to suggest the resources that I might use. The writer’s community is big, much bigger than I thought, but I am ecstatic to have such a deliberate hand in its future.
Congratulations on your directorship! Can you tell us a little bit about what the Huntington Poetry Club does and your duties as the director?
Thanks! It’s a bi weekly open gathering of student poets, songwriters, comics, and others, all whom have a desire to hear what’s being written by our peers. It happens during the Fall and Spring semesters in the basement of my new house (gifted to me by the directors before me). It is a beautiful place, practically a museum- a sanctuary. Its policy is open door, anyone can show up. The turnout has been growing during the last few months. I think this means that general interest in expression is growing too. People are intrigued.
That’s where I come in. I guess that, in addition to being a curator of sorts, my job is to provide refuge for my peers. I want everyone to have as much room, as much open space, as they need while they are saying and sharing. It’s not a classroom. It is simply space to grow.
How was the Huntington Poetry Club Started?
It was over five years ago, in a different house, which may not even exist anymore. I’ve seen pictures from that time; 7 student-poets in poor lighting, sipping wine from their wax cups, sitting on metal chairs in a crescent shape surrounding the speaker – those who went regularly back then report that it was glorious. One of them was my friend Martha, the most recent director to step down, the one who is giving it to me. She and her husband met during one of the club meetings over 3 years ago. In many ways, their love story is also Huntington’s success story.
What do you think is the appeal of a physical performance of hearing poetry read aloud, as opposed to reading it in a collection or anthology or journal?
Reading aloud is simply respectable. It’s a hard thing to prepare for and it’s hard to do well. There are a lot of unexpected feelings that come with this act of openness – It’s like open heart surgery, showing your heart’s Goodnesses and weaknesses, and everyone who is there has that unquestionable glimpse that can’t be unseen… so it’s a very hard thing to do. It’s a very gracious act, and I think that, at this age, there aren’t many opportunities to be so sincere.
Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by sincerity in poetry? Do you focus on that in your own work?
Actually, when I am writing, it’s always with the least amount of focus- I find that holding a particular topic in mind totally obliterates the possibility of writing anything about it. For me, at this point in time, my craft consists of a very simple sort of formula. I record the moments that appeal to me with as few words as possible. I’ll look at these images later and if something resonates, I’ll think more about it. It usually involves letting the image I’ve written down relate itself to important moments in the past, some important moments that keep resurfacing. If the old moments are made sensational by the new ones, that’s poetry and that’s sincere and it’s something worth grasping at.
So to clarify, I never sit down to focus on writing poetry. I sit down to let the days events make sense, if that makes sense.
Yes, a little like dreaming. Allowing things to be both significant and beyond my control. Like a horoscope.
Are you considering pursuing an MFA?
Hmm, I’ve been disenchanted by the price tag… but I’d love to spend two years reading and writing and talking about nothing except poetry. Absolutely. But like I said, it’s a prospect, and a bleak one.
It’s a great prospect for anyone who’s interested and can afford it. I’d love for that to be a more practical choice but I’m in debt.
Can you speak a little about the appeal of the Dodge Poets to you?
Their appeal comes strictly from what I know about them through my dad. I know that they work with grade school teachers, but am unclear about how granular their influence is. It’s good that the dodge poets exist! That’s what I believe. I was a volunteer at the festival this past year in Newark and I got to listen to Philip Levine talk about his work. Real work. Inglorious, difficult work, for years and years. That guy didn’t have to say much. I thought that was cool.
Apparently though, if you’re a teacher, then you can sign up to be a part of a Dodge Group, and meet every month and discuss poems that you’ve read. My dad is pleased with his group, so their work must not be bad.
Has your dad always had a love of poetry?
Ever since I can remember.
How has he passed this down to you? Besides gifting you with Tony Hoagland, of course.
A day doesn’t go by without this question. I find that he is everywhere, of course. For a while, my poems were only about my father. This isn’t a flattering thing to say – it’s not always pretty. To answer your question, I am completely unaware of how he gave me poetry, or if he even did, if it wasn’t, in fact, within me all along. This wonderment. Would I have stumbled into poetry eventually? It’s impossible to say. I don’t know if it would have been easier without it, but my dad and I both know that I should be writing now.
You mentioned earlier being changed outwardly by Dickman – is this too connected to your father in some way?
Yes, these things are definitely related. I responded to Dickman in a big way, and, I’m speculating, my dad responded to my response. I am the product of the language of their answers – My Dad’s and Matt’s – to these questions that I was churning around at the time. I wish it weren’t this way sometimes. And then there are times when I’m so grateful for my voice.