Alumna Jessica M. Wilson (’07 MFA Writing) is a writer, poet, and founder of the Los Angeles Poet Society, an organization that bridges the arts with local communities. Her new book, Serious Longing, is the first English language book of poetry for Swan World, an imprint of Editions du Cygne in Paris, France.
Described by Juan Cardenas as poetry that will “transport you to the core of her emotion,” Jessica’s writing covers a range of emotions, deftly addressing subjects of origin, ancestry, and childhood. We wanted to find out more about Wilson’s love affair with poetry, her experiences in the MFA program at Otis College of Art and Design, and what inspires her work.
When did you discover your love of poetry and when did you write your first poem?
In junior high, they had a poetry-in-motion program, and it was really awesome. They introduced us to the Beat poets and we got to read some poetry, we got to write and I was just hooked from then on. I wrote what I consider my first real poem when I was twelve or thirteen – I was in my algebra class, zoning out, and I wrote this piece called 'Dracula: The Fetus, The Birth' ” I just wrote and wrote and when I was done I thought, ‘oh’. That’s when I discovered I had something I could do – an art form, a gift. And that was it.
Jessica M. Wilson
How would you describe your time at Otis and where in your journey did that fall?
I was very focused and goal-oriented, I knew early on that I wanted to go to college for creative writing, and I knew I wanted my MFA. I did my BA at UC Riverside in creative writing but when it came time for grad school, it was a tough road. I graduated in 2003 and immediately started applying, but it was a flop. For writing programs, there can sometimes be only six to ten spots available, so it is selective. But I kept trying and it paid off. I got into Otis College under Paul Vangelisti, who is amazing. I loved my time at Otis, I felt that I could really be free here. Under the faculty, my voice was nourished, I learned so much more about avant-garde poetry, experimental works and also reconnected with the Beat Poets that originally inspired me. I felt at home. Often you’re told you have to write in a box, but with Paul and the curriculum it wasn’t about a box at all, it was about making art.
What inspires you, what makes you pick up a pen and say - this should be a poem?
Sometimes an emotional reaction to something that’s going on, like right now, I’m very fired up politically. I feel that as poets, we are the eyes of what is going on in the world, we are the ones documenting it or telling it like it is, and trying to reach the people – we are truth-tellers. I am a part of an organization called 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and it’s essentially a world movement to bring communities together in a stand for social, environmental, and political change. But within my life I am always keeping a poetic eye open, whether it’s an emotion, or the sky, or a breeze.
Being published is a huge goal for many writers. How did it come about, and what was the process like for you?
It has been my dream ever since junior high - I wanted to be a published poet, I wanted to have a book! Having a book, it’s immortality – your words are marked in that stone now and generations long after you will have the opportunity to see it. It’s beautiful how it came together, I connected with a press in Paris named Editions du Cygne through the Los Angeles Poets Society. The editor, Patrice Kanozsai, was interested in the group and we connected through Facebook actually. Part of the Society’s mission is to connect writers with publishers, so I wanted to publicize his press. A little while later he came to Los Angeles and wanted to meet, so I invited him to an open mic. He read there and we exchanged books. That was it. A year went by, and I knew a friend was going to Paris so I connected him with Patrice. We started exchanging messages again and I said that I would love to publish the book in French, and that’s how it all came about. Patrice is incredible to work with, he’s really behind my work, and when I received the package from France with my book in it, it was so amazing.
A bookshop window in Paris that featured Serious Longing.
If you could go back in time to your first day at Otis, sitting in your very first class, what advice, or warnings, or words of encouragement would you give yourself?
I would say, “Don’t give up. Ever.” I would probably tell myself to move closer, because when I started going to Otis I still lived in Riverside, was driving to school, and had a full-time job. And I would say to take more of a lead and be out there as a poet and not wait to graduate - that’s so important. When I graduated I started diving into what a poet’s life is like after school - going to open mics, literary meetings, book parties. It’s how you grow, from being exposed to other people’s work, what they are talking about, and what they are writing about. I would tell myself to take charge and be more involved while I was still a student.
What are you currently reading?
I love to read L.A. writers. One of my favorites is Alexis Rhone Fancher, she is a poet and photographer. She published a book last year called How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen: and other heart stab poems, and it’s just as in your face and edgy as her title. I love what she does and how she tells her tale, everyone can relate to it. I’m also reading Michael Rothenberg, he’s a poet and editor of Big Bridge Press, he’s also one of the founders of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Also on my desk is Edgar & Lenore's Publishing House’s Edgar Allen Poet Journal # 3 – Los Angeles Edition.
For those individuals who have never read a book of poetry in their lives, and are not sure poetry is for them, where would you have them start?
I would ask them if they ever read Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein, because those guys are poets. And if that captures them, then I would say that all they used was word play and many writers do that. Or you could start writing yourself, have you ever thought about that? And that might intrigue them to play around with words. Obviously I love to send people to the Beat Generation, read Allen Ginsberg! Read Howl! Or Edgar Allen Poe – read The Raven! Just open the door and realize that if you enjoyed those, then you DO like poetry.
What is the best way for people to connect with you?
Social media and definitely through the Los Angeles Poet Society, I often handle the website, so if you “contact us” – it will most likely be me. We believe you can make poetry from anything – interpreting a painting, a sculpture, and outfit. So artists, musicians, other organizers, anyone who wants to join us – we welcome you!
Wilson with her publisher, Patrice Kanozsai.