In Conversation – With Jacob Scheier, Part I

?Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of infinity.?
– William Wordsworth

Jacob Scheier writes essays, poetry, and journalism. His book More to Keep Us Warm won the 2008 Governor General’s Award for poetry. He was born in Toronto because his parents, on returning from an activist mission in Palestine, were not allowed to re-enter the United States. His poetic landscape is made up of memories of New York, Judaism, his family’s radical communism, and the tragedy of his mother’s early death. His most recent book of poems, Letter From Brooklyn, was just recommended here in “The Mindful Bard”.

Recently Jacob took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about his early leanings toward poetry and his most edifying learning experiences.

Writing as Real Work

?Since my mother was a published author herself (poetry, fiction and essays; she died in 2000), I was exposed early to literature,? says Jacob. ?That is, I was exposed to the idea that It’s perfectly natural to be an artist.”

?Strangely, I didn’t like reading until I was a teenager. Despite being raised in a literary environment, I preferred cartoons and sitcoms. My mother (who raised me by herself) didn’t push her interest in art on me. I came to it on my own, and yet I think I took in the artistic life through a kind of osmosis.

?When I started writing, I didn’t have the sense that I was being frivolous with my time. For better and worse, I always thought of writing as real work, however fun it sometimes is. So I feel fortunate that I didn’t have to go through the feelings of shame and secrecy that some artists have who grow up in what you might call more traditional families.?

Why Isn’t Everyone an Artist?

?I think of myself more as a writer who, among other things, writes poems. My mother being a published poet made it permissible to write and publish poems myself, though that doesn’t explain why I turned to poetry. It certainly wasn’t for approval, since she was against the idea of me doing it, at least as a ?profession.?

?I think writing and especially poetry began as a way to process experience. It amazes me that everyone isn’t an artist, at least as a hobby. I don’t know how you can go through life without recording it in some way and remain (moderately) sane. I think for me?and I am thinking now of how Auden said ?every good poem is very nearly a utopia? or something similar to that?poetry was a way to get things right, to say them and see them as I wanted things to be, as I more accurately felt they should be even though I knew they never would quite be that way.”

Books as Maps of What Matters

?I had an absolutely brilliant, inspiring English professor when I was a journalism student at Ryerson. I bailed on the program after my first year, realizing I was more interested in poetry and fiction than reporting (which is all you do in first year).

The prof, John Cook, taught a 20th century literature course. He really believed and could articulate how books are maps of what really matters in life. He helped me to appreciate Virginia Woolf and for that I will always be grateful to him.

More recently I took a poetry workshop at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Saskatchewan with Ken Babstock in 2011, which made me a better writer of poetry in a number of ways.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to participate in the literary journalism program at Banff, chaired by Ian Brown. My editor there was Charlotte Gill. Both Brown and Gill, and the other significantly-more-experienced-than-myself-journalists in the program?there is really no better way to say this?kicked my ass, making the story I was working somewhere between ten and 100 times better than when I got there. It was really steep learning curve, but amazingly valuable.?

(Scheier once taught a course called Writing Creatively About Grief through Ryerson University’s Continuing Education and trained to become a volunteer peer facilitator of support groups for bereaved young adults. To learn more about Jacob Scheier’s workshops on writing creatively about grief, visit

(To be continued)