Interviewed by Lisa PanepintoAnnaliese Jakimides is a freelance writer, poet and visual artist who lives in Bangor, Maine. Cited in national competitions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her work has been broadcast on the radio and published in many journals, magazines, and anthologies, including This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men, Women and Beloit Poetry Journal. FROM THIS SEPTEMBER DAY All war, under law, will from this September day on a dirt road in northern Maine where Albertine Cyr flies her French mourning hands into the night, often into the day, be conducted by women. The sucklers will choose where to place the charge, whose child to take, and what reason is good enough to send Otto Schroeder’s daughter, Muzah Bozieh’s brother, Albertine’s youngest son into the fire. She enters the room where her Freddie slept, palms the feathered pillow’s sack, the one that rubbed his night cheeks. Experienced witness to vulnerability, spooner and changer, cradler of whole bodies, her big heart swells in the cramped air of this dark curled into its own cell. Cap on the dresser. Church shoes by the bed. Red fishing jacket on the doorknob. She bruises a war cry from her tongue to slash bayonet, napalm, missile from her vocabulary, and smoke shadow-writing up from the merciless shine of bones onto the moony walls: blood, Earth, broken hearts, supple hands, hunger, a milky mother, hope, and open-mouthed bass in the morning. -by Annaliese Jakimides, from The Café Review, The Other Side of Sorrow The following interview took place at Jakimides’ apartment in April 2012.
Interviewer: When did you discover writing and art?
Jakimides: I came to writing much sooner than I came to any visual work. I’m always in awe of people who have been able to have families and continue with their creative work. I married really early on, and we moved to the land, in Patten, a hundred miles north of here [Bangor], had three kids. At that point in time life was grow everything you eat, make everything you eat, build the house, knit the mittens, and I know that many creative people do all of that and their own work, too, but I could never figure out how. So most of that part of my life is scraps of paper, backs of napkins, envelopes, a paragraph, a phrase, maybe a whole page, maybe an idea for a short story, but very little brought to completion. Once my kids were in high school, I found a way to make somebody want my work, which allowed me to continue to make it in a more focused, public way. The editor at the weekly newspaper in Houlton hired me for $10 a pop to write a column about the weather. As it turned out, it was about the external and internal weather, and that laid the groundwork for much of what I have written since. I know this sounds really limited and sort of controlled womanhood, but it was almost like I had to feel that I had permission, from myself even, that this was a valid thing to do.
Although I know it means I won’t have written all I could have in this life, it was not a negative thing. I’m not saying it’s true for all writers, but I think that sometimes when you’re a writer, and you’re a writer who’s a parent, you see your life and what’s going on through the lens of a writer as opposed to being present for what’s going on. I see it very much like people who are walking around with their camera phones and they’re at all these events that they could be totally present for, I’m here, as opposed to I’m catching this image. I’ve known a fair number of writer women who have watched their lives unfold and seen what was unfolding almost as subject matter. And I don’t ever want to live my life as subject matter. Coming to my life later as a writer, I am very aware of not doing that.
I’ve been writing from the time my kids were in high school. The artwork has come to me in a much more convoluted way. I had no money for materials when I lived up north, no paper, no paints, there was no money for that. It was a very back-to-the-land life. There are many people who live back-to-the-land lives that have an inherent economic support structure, whether they acknowledge it or not. That’s an easier back-to-the-land life. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, but ours was not easy. There was struggle, and a vocabulary of experiential struggle that enables you to transcend judgment and boundaries in a small town; a small town is a beautifully magnified community, and you can sense those connections or disconnections. So since there was no money, I started gathering roof slate from buildings that were being torn down. I pressed flowers and ferns and grasses, skeletonized leaves I found buried in the spruce forest across the road, beside the old five-person graveyard in my woods, in the fields and gardens. I pressed them in newspaper, because there wasn’t anything but newspaper, between plywood, because there wasn’t anything else but plywood, with bricks on top, because there wasn’t anything else but bricks, and I would create collages out of pressed flowers. I did that for quite a while, until I began to trust my vision. Now I also work in fibers and fragments, feathers, wire, paint, bark, photographs.
Interviewer: When you say you got sort of permission, where did that come from?
Jakimides: Me. I’ve not had a restricted life in which the world has walked around telling me I needed permissions. Although on some level I believe we are working through our origins, consciously or not. I was a first generation American although I never even recognized that until recently. My brother was the one who was seen. Not me. Old-world values. I was the first in the family to go to college. Those kinds of things. Once I was in Mt. Chase, I had so many responsibilities and obligations that to actually close myself off to do the work of writing or anything like that would have meant taking that time from the life that I had chosen. I had chosen to grow my own food, I had chosen to pump the water, I had chosen to be a vegetarian, to care about chemicals in food, water, air; I had chosen to have three children, and as a result of that, I’d also chosen to be an active participant in their lives. Once they went to school, I started volunteering in the schools and writing grants and getting artists and musicians to come in. One could argue I could have used that time not to do that but to be home and write, but I didn’t. It seemed important that I be there.
Interviewer: You chose to pursue community service instead, getting art for the kids?
Jakimides: When you talk about speaking out or using what you do in an activist way, it comes in varied packages. Much of what is activist goes unlabeled, unnoticed. It is part of the fabric of a family, a community. Patten’s a really small town, and we actually lived in Mount Chase, which is population 160; Patten’s about 1,000. There are times that I haven’t always consciously known the thing that I was doing or the impact that I was making, it just felt like the right thing. I could have been home teaching my children various things, discussing issues of importance just with them, exposing them to jazz, blues. None of that was up there by the way, none of that was on the radio. We had no galleries. The library was in a small church with no Dewey Decimal System. What I chose was to write these grants to have musicians and writers and artists come into the school system, so that all the kids could have the same thing. Now that the kids are all grown and gone, other kids mine grew up with tell me that that’s the first place they read poetry, that’s the first place they listened to jazz, they’d never heard jazz before. To come to our house was the first place they had any sense of what organic food was or being a vegetarian. So oftentimes one is doing things because it’s the right thing inside, and you’re not aware of how impactful it is going forward. I think that all of those foundational elements of my life inform the work I do now.
That was the time period where we had the first antidiscrimination referendum. The bulletin board outside the IGA on Main Street became this place where people were putting their posters up, “don’t let this happen, this will be awful, gay people aren’t entitled to ‘special’ laws.” I began to put hand-lettered counter-statements up on the board. The dynamics of the community allowed you to be at the bulletin board with people whom you love in other ways but you can’t love over this issue, and they love you in other ways but they can’t love you over this issue, and you could meet there buying groceries and you could agree to disagree and it would still be okay. It was a very interesting exercise in voice and democracy. But what is more interesting to me is that I run into kids all the time down here who grew up during that era, and they have often taken me aside, one kid took me to dinner, to tell me that I was the only reason he survived that period of time in his life, because he was gay, and nobody could know it, and he was wrestling with himself as to what this all was. His parents were Pentecostal, and the fact that I would fight on the bulletin board made all the difference. So you do it for everybody, not just your small nuclear family. *
Interviewer: How has sense of place and living in the country inspired and informed your work?
Jakimides: Sense of place and the country informs everything that I do. Silence and stillness and coexistence. You’re totally aware of having to interact with lots of living things. Black flies and mosquitoes and eagles and osprey, deer ravaging your garden, people under that magnifying lens of a small town. I think it informs everything I think about how to coexist in a larger world, a global world. I believe I learned how to listen on that dirt road in the woods, in that town. So many people are hell bent on the importance of what they have to say, and it may be important but I think that what one has to say is more impactful if you’ve really been listening to what somebody else is saying. That listening piece is a very underrated part of who we are.
I was a city girl; I grew up in Dorchester, which is working-class inner city Boston. I did a lot of inner city work, working in community organizations, teaching in after school programs in storefronts. To this day, people scratch their heads that I moved away—from the movement, from the music, from the dancing, from the diversity. I don’t know if I knew what I was getting into when I moved to the land. I had never been to the country. I was not exactly pining for dirt under my fingernails, a sky over my head, healthy food. I really thought I already had a great life. Would I go back and not have done it? Absolutely not. Patten is still home to me, people up there are still family; it’s a community where you cannot fall through the cracks. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt no matter what my story was, if I didn’t have a pot to piss in, that I would eat, I would be housed, I knew that no matter what happened that would be true. But after a divorce, I no longer had my land or house. And so it was time.
Interviewer: People take care of each other.
Jakimides: In a small town they truly do. I look back on that time, and they were just so accepting of all the little quirks, and the big quirks. You have a little town, most of the families in that town go back generations, a lot of mill workers, a lot of woods workers, that’s just the way it is. Then you have the hippies who move onto the Owlsboro Road and they’re building a house and they don’t really know what they’re doing, and they have no water, they have no electricity and they don’t want it. They’re going to have an outhouse—damn, everyone else had been glad to be rid of those things—and the power doesn’t even go up that far on the road so they can’t hook into power because there isn’t any power to hook into. They’re planting these gardens; they don’t know what they’re doing there either. They’re going to grow all the food that they eat and they’re cutting their wood.
The first winter we had a cookstove that we got out of somebody’s barn: the generosity of souls, it’s an exercise in the generosity of souls. So I have this cookstove, it’s a beautiful cookstove, I barely even knew how to cook to begin with, never mind on a cookstove, and the whole winter we’re bringing wood in from the outside, stacking it along the wall of the house, it’s frozen, it’s green, we’re baking it in the oven so that we can even put it in the firebox to heat the house at all, and it’s just crazy. They put up with all of that. They loved you no matter what. If I’m honest, they give me hope for our future—and a model for unconditional love.
I have three kids, two are black, and to watch this community love my children and love my family all those years ago, that was something. I’m not saying these things couldn’t happen in the city, but you see it so clearly in the country, the way people rise up to a challenge, how they handle change and difference. Whatever is there in a small town in the country you see, whatever it is, the good, the bad, the painful and the sweet, you see it all. And I’m not saying that it’s all roses. Really, sometimes when people were coming to my house, I knew that over the weekend they had been driving around with a state trooper locked in the trunk of their car, just for the hell of it [laughter].
That all drives the way I look at life, the work I make. I’m not trying to convince people that they have to come to my side. I’m telling my story, in poems or essays, in short pieces of fiction, and if something talks to you, you will take it in. The more voices one has out there speaking their truth, and the truth of their experience, the more opportunities people have to hear it, and you never know when one of those pieces will be the thing that they really hear. I intend to use my work to tell the important stories about not just war and destruction, about losses, but about how we as humans can allow ourselves our differences—because we will always have them—and access joy. I tend to do it in a quiet way, I think.
Interviewer: And your work has a reclaiming of life too, life-giving images and peace-giving images too.
Jakimides: If we don’t have that, what do we have? This is a really short run on this planet for each one of us. I don’t want to live my life full of despair, and yet it’s a fine line. Yes, there’s shit in the world. But I don’t want that to be what dominates my cells or I become that too. Life is good. I have a roof over my head, I’m present for every day, I’m not scrambling for food. I also know that that line is very close. One of my greatest fears when I moved to Bangor and left my support network up in Patten was that I could easily see myself as being homeless and a bag lady. There were many times in those first years after I left Mt. Chase in which I wouldn’t have eaten except for the generosity of other people, and many days in which I ate a lot of noodles. I know where that edge is, so I want to live my life not mired in negativity. It’s important for my heart, and if it’s important for my heart, it’s important for other people too, to get my heart right. To make a better world.
Interviewer: Your poems are real musical, jazz, I think; can you talk about music’s influence on you and your art?
Jakimides: Music’s huge to me. I grew up in a house in which there was none. We had only a few records in our house, Mario Lanza, some Brahms concerto, Sarah Vaughn, there was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I think that’s essentially it. Only played at holidays. But from the time I could control it, music has ordered my world. Where my ear and my body would go was a lot of jazz, a lot of blues, Motown stuff, and Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Gil Scott-Heron, like that. I am open. Don’t I love Meredith Monk! So many voices, actually. Sometimes it’s the sound, sometimes the message, sometimes both.
The people in my early adult life were musical people; they were people who were either involved in music, loved music, or they were actually performers, composers. Before I even knew what tofu was I was listening to Stanton Davis’s “Funky Fried Tofu.” Then once I moved to Patten all you had was WHOU out of Houlton, which was country for the most part, and you periodically heard some pop mainstream. Around that time was the birth of NPR and Maine Public Radio, so my family lived on NPR. They used to have a program called Songs Jumping in My Mouth, and it was music and stories, and then the Spider’s Web, which was read-aloud stories. We had public radio and a record player. All of my records were scratched and beat to death, I was not the kind of person who kept pristine records.
To this day, I write to music. I could probably give you the soundtrack of what I was listening to at various points of writing certain things. There’s really a soundtrack. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without music. I dance around here all the time. There’s always music on when I’m making art. And I choose for the most part that it’s music that rhythmically invades my body and my work. Everything is energetically connected.
Interviewer: Your poems give voice to the oppressed, women, people torn by war, people from different cultures, what’s some of your inspiration for taking on the stories of these different people?
Jakimides: They aren’t different. We’re all the same. In a heartbeat I could be in any one of those positions, as could any one of us. So I feel as if I am telling these stories because they are mine too.
I don’t think our boundaries are all that hard and fast. I think that a lot of what we see as our edges, the end of us, the definitions that say separation, are not true at all. We are informed by others’ energies. We are all born, we all die, we all have the same basic desires in life. I really do believe that everything is motivated by love or fear, and that we all do want a life of love, but fear gets in the way. Then that drives certain people or drives a country or drives factions of a country to the negatives.
I’m never going to be accused of writing a “nature” poem. I write about people and their lives. Friends of Acadia Journal has a nature poetry competition and I remember a few years ago somebody was saying to me, Annaliese, you should submit to that. And I’m saying, have you ever heard me read a nature poem? Well, I completely forgot about it, then a few days before the contest deadline somebody emailed me again and said, oh did you do that? And I thought, oh fuck. So I went through my stuff and for some reason I followed through and I submitted this one poem that might be remotely considered a nature poem. It was a poem about my mother’s cremation and the fact that she lives in the water now because her ashes are in the water. I sent it off and completely forgot that I’d ever even done this, and then I got a letter in the mail, which I thought was a solicitation, and I almost threw it away without opening it. This particular prize comes with a check, and I took first place. It bought me tires when I needed tires. I’ve learned to not think in terms of the closed-offness of how we see things.
We’re all so interconnected that there’s something about the energy of my life that speaks to yours. I think that’s when writing is most impactful—that piece of writing is a conduit, an opening that allows you to enter someplace you might not have gone. Every one of us who does that kind of creative work is saying, here’s a way to go somewhere, welcome, come in, see where you go and trust the journey. You can have the best created, best engineered, put together, dynamically constructed, kick ass frickin poem with the intention of influencing the world and opening them to the destructive elements of every gun ever manufactured et cetera, whatever it might be, but if that piece does not have an opening, a place of life, a breath somewhere where the reader can get in, then it hasn’t been able to do its work. I figure if one of my anythings does its work on just one person, that’s enough.
Interviewer: I like the perspective of the unifying energy, and that it could all be part of you.
Jakimides: If we walked around with the awareness that we’re all interconnected, I don’t think we’d have this fractured world. How do you convince people that we’re all the same, and that there’s value in all of it? How do we not fight over property and boundaries and religious beliefs and the political? How does that happen? It’s scary times, as, I think frankly, it’s probably always been and may always be, which doesn’t mean we stop taking some action to affect change.
Interviewer: And getting people on board with thinking about interconnections, how everything affects everything?
Jakimides: Everything, everything. The truth is that everything makes us who we are, and I wouldn’t be rid of the heartbreak anymore than the joy because of that interconnectedness. If you get okay with who you are, then you have to get okay with everything that got you there.
Interviewer: In the midst of the suffering and destruction in the world what are some ways that you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?
Jakimides: Music and dancing.
I am a person, clichéd as this is, who sees the cup as half full, not half empty, and with that I always see that we are capable of being better. I am capable of being better, and I believe that everyone else is also. I’ve always believed that, I don’t have difficulty with that sense of keeping my resolve or believing that there is possibility. Do I necessarily believe that we’re going to have a peaceful world? I don’t know, people have been fighting since there were people, there have been issues since there were people, the issues shift and change, although I think it is always about difference: accepting difference in someone, someone accepting difference in you. A different way you look, a different color of your skin, a different belief pattern, a different religion, a different place you came from, a different way you were raised. It is hard for me to envision a world in which all of that is now gone and everybody loves everybody, however, I do believe that if everybody were walking around saying, okay, I can accept you for who you are, I think we would resonate at a higher level and we would be closer to all of that.
So what can I do about that? The most important thing I think I do is to continue to believe and to continue to do what I do, because I’m the only person I can really control. I’m sort of, not Pollyannaish, but I certainly do see the silver linings in things, I just see them. I don’t ever think or believe or feel that we are beyond making a better life, making a better world. I know we are capable of that.
I love people. I don’t move in one particular circle of people, so my friend-acquaintance-movement-circle base of humanity is very broad. In a real way, I see everybody on pretty much the same level. Just because so and so has a PhD doesn’t make that person any different in my mind, really, than a homeless guy I talk to every few days on the corner, or some woman I know from up north who’s Pentecostal and her belief system’s pretty rightwing, but we’ve always clicked. It’s a big world I live in and I operate in. I have been, and probably will be, chastised many times for this observation, but one of the things I’ve always felt has been most problematic in like, the women’s movement, is the fact that for the most part women primarily operate within circles of women of like structure, mind, achievement, socioeconomic range, that’s who they are friends with. It’s hard to create a women’s movement if you don’t really have any friends who aren’t as educated or that kind of thing. We box ourselves off, so just open the box. I think it starts that simply.
Interviewer: Who are some heroes and people who inspire you to seek justice?
Jakimides: It’s really the nameless, everyday people in their homes, on the streets, living their lives. None of those people are looking for any kind of acknowledgment of what they do, they’re just doing the best they can, in their neighborhoods, at their kitchen tables, raising their children. Raising one damn child aware of kindness. Kindness, that’s the root of justice, okay, so raising one child who is aware of that and will carry that forward, that’s a huge thing. Not so easy, either. Kindness, politeness, respect, love. Respect yourself and in respecting yourself you respect others, and when you respect others, you really do approach them with kindness and love, and you see that for all our differences we’re the same.
Interviewer: Can you share a vision for the future, your ideal vision?
Jakimides: I want a world in which we’re not destroying the planet, I want a world in which we’re not shooting people just because they don’t believe the same thing we believe, I want a world in which we’re not at war all the time. I don’t understand a country in which we don’t provide health coverage for everybody—we all know we can. My ideal world would not have famine. There’s enough food on the planet for everybody. I want a literate planet; the vast majority of people on the planet do not read and write at a functional level. I want clean water. My ideal world would have none of those boundaries. I want you to be able to walk outside your door, walk down your street, I want you to be able to dance, hear music. I want you to respect each other, I want kindness. I want us to develop the things that are possible to be developed that allow us not to rape the planet, all of which is possible. I drove a cheap Ford Festiva in 1991 that got sixty miles to the gallon; if we could do that in 1991 with a cheap Ford Festiva, I’m sorry, the technology exists to give us 120 miles to the gallon now. I want us to do the right thing, and doing the right thing means treating everybody fairly and justly, and if we do that we’ll be fine. I think we’re here to experience joy, I really believe we are. Live simply, love seriously, care deeply, speak kindly. I read that somewhere and it made so much sense I taped it up on the wall in the closet where I write. It seems a very clear path to being all we can be. ###
* (11/6/2012) Maine has just become the first state in the country, the first entity in the world, to legalize same-sex marriage by citizen initiative. We wanted it, we asked for it, and we voted on it. Thousands of conversations later by many people gay and straight, and it finally happened. Hundreds of volunteers all over the state, and I am honored to have been one. One of the things I told many people on the fence while I was making calls from the field office in Brewer was, I’m straight, my kids are straight, and I have two grandchildren, 3 and 1, and I have no idea who they will love when they grow up. I want them, too, to be able to commit no matter the gender of their love, I want them to be able to have that someone have their back in sickness and in health. I want that for everyone. -AJTENDING Let us tend each other, Sunni and Shi’a, South and North, Kikuyu, Luo, the Blue and the Red, the way a man tends himself when he’s lost his woman, and rattles through the hollow bones of lonely nights, ultimately surrounding himself with those who will feed him kindness, laughter, understanding, a feast of palatable heart at every meal until he comes again to woo mode, where he can fall in love, see the new woman of his dreams as extraordinary, brilliant, beautiful, sexy, all things sweet and deep. He lifts himself up onto the body of hope and forgives every perceived indecency, no matter the truth of the moment. -by Annaliese Jakimides, from Consequence PUTTING OUT She puts out a hummingbird feeder, plastic and red, scarlet-high, up outside her sixth floor window, floating, wired on a suction cup over streets filled with people and cars and half-filled trashcans. But what she gets are crows. Three scruffy crows of dull black wings on the granite ledge below. She calls them ravens, peeling pink-tinged transparent wrap from a lump of bread, three raisins, a cube of cheese she slivers. The tip of a wing shushes against the pane, delicate and wild. An abandonment to desire. No complaints. No whining. It beats into the air. Angles. Folds against its body. Settles. She leans her rouged cheek into the glass, her fragile capillaries anticipating the return of the heat that is family. -by Annaliese Jakimides, from Puckerbrush Review
Find out more about Annaliese here: http://annaliesejakimides.com