STARLIGHT, PHILADELPHIA seeks to cast a glow of starlight around the Philadelphia Poetry Community & its people.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


                                               Jacob Russell stands with his Spirit Stick.

As music (is) ...
By Jacob Russell

the organization of sound in space      dance
            a single leaf
turning on a winter branch or motionless
the arrangement of           Things
                        on a kitchen shelf
white beans in a glass jar, rice
basket of onions -- three of them, brown
     skins peeling
whole wheat penne, rigatoni
yellow & green, oatmeal, raisins
       spices -- name them, name them
taste           touch          see

the cats tongue
the water in a white clay dish

Yes, there are those moments
waking, not quite awake the world unreal but for the cat at your feet
sexual dreams unfurl like flags on a windless midnight
he lets you know he needs to be fed

uncurl the dream from the dream
body & mind are not two
things you leave behind will find you
another day another night
feed the cat
feed the cat

In Philadelphia, we are lucky enough to be graced by the presence of the esteemed Jacob Russell, who enacts a kind of shamanism whenever he enters the room.  He carries with him a spirit stick – a walking stick he decorates with found materials – you can see it in the above image of him.  He blesses poetry readings with his spirit stick at request, & you can feel an ancient energy enter the room when he does this.  It sends a positive charge for the reading that can be felt in the surrounding air. 

Not every poetry community has a shaman with a spirit stick.  We are very fortunate.

Beyond this, Jacob writes amazing poems, & a long one that is a poem to the end of his days.  This is an inspiring gesture – to write poems until the air & the breath & the world around us…  This is a sacred act, a political act, an act of self-respect, a spiritual act. 

Jacob also invigorates the landscape of Our City by creating what he calls “Poem Trees.”  His Poem Trees can be found in South Philadelphia, literal street-trees decorated with poems & beautiful objects he finds along the way.  Thus, he breathes a human poetic spirit into these beautiful trees that line Passyunk Avenue, & as people pass the trees, they come into contact with the poetic – inviting people to participate in the realms of the poetic while they are taking a casual stroll is much needed, & Jacob has accomplished just this.

I hope you enjoy this interview with Jacob Russell, the Shaman of the Philadelphia Poetry Community, whose energy & vitality inspires all he meets.

Debrah:  Jacob, I am excited to discuss your poem "As music (is)..." & your ideas/thoughts about poetry in general.  This is a very intriguing piece of poetry, as your work tends to be.  

I am interested in your title. Does the title "As music (is)..." suggest that one should engage with the musicality/sonic quality of this piece?  Do you feel that poetry ought to engage a certain rhythm?  

Jacob:  “As music (is)” This isn’t really a title. It’s a convention I’ve adopted for what I envision as a work-in-progress without closure: think of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, which he worked on till his death… how it ends mid-contrapunctus, the voices trailing off one by one, like a last breath of life .  I don’t even think of it as a poem, but rather a single entry in a longer poem, “Chloe,” itself but one chapter or ‘rondo’  in the second book of Poem to the End of My Day. Because I find it easier to let the poems explain themselves, here’s the first & fourth entry of book one: Chronic, Chronos, Kairos.

Sunday, February 6, 2011
Every poet worthy of the title
…writes but one poem in a lifetime. Not little framed verbal icons to inscribe in the margins of soon to be forgotten books, but a single tottering edifice of found things held precariously together with spit and sperm and shit and blood--inviting readers to enter, at the risk of contagion--an unholy order of life without rule or law, but that which it creates for itself

February 7, 2011
As all time past is present…
... the date of origin of any of these pieces is of no matter in determining the sequential order which is to say immaterial & such significance as one may find by the assignment of any one occasion to a place on the calendar is paradoxically a-temporal as are all days of
commemorations of births & deaths
the numbers assigned to these being entirely
beside the point & without meaning outside the delusional waking dream we have come to accept as history   

Each entry is on a single page. The first line in bold & in a larger font, followed by the rest of the poem indented 5 spaces. The dates may indicate the time of initial composition, a remembered incident or both. Where there is no date, and the first line doesn’t begin upper case, it’s either a critical insertion (usually in prose block format) or, as above, to indicate a more intimate continuation from the preceding thought &/or point in time..

If you’ll indulge me here—there are some key ideas in the two pages proceeding ‘as music (is) that I’d like to follow up on.
January 2011
I’ve been thinking a lot about sparrows ...
so many sparrows in my poems there’s really a lot of them
I could do a book -- a book of sparrows
they’re not real, of course        word-sparrows
in the way words are

how words need sparrows ...
... sparrow-words, singular or plural
in a way sparrows don’t

a one-way street
strictly unrequited

is this what happens when we
fall in love

with the world ...

of the world

go on about their business
with               or without us

another winter searching for seeds

another spring
fledglings spreading begging

for everything we cannot give
for all Things lost

Word-Things… but let me get back to your question: “… Does the title "As music (is)..." suggest that one should engage with the musicality/sonic quality of this piece?  Do you feel that poetry ought to engage a certain rhythm?

First thing… ‘should’ & ‘ought’ are gatekeeper words—a language I’m allergic to! … but an interesting question. I think I have a pretty good sense of verbal rhythm & I used to indulge this—open metrical patterns, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration—and that still sneaks in, but it’s something I tend to resist. Rhythm is enchanting… & though I like enchantment, I want to avoid the sort that lulls the brain to sleep—that replaces or submerges the inclination to think. There are many kinds of verbal rhythm, of course. I love what Ryan Eckes does with natural speech—how his poems keep you awake, full of little surprises. That’s something I’ll remember when I feel the lines falling too easily into metrical ebb and flow—jerk myself back into something closer to conversational speech, or deliberately awkward lurches… like a Twyla Tharp dance piece! I’m more attuned to tempi—alternating allegro adagio largo, controlling the reading speed, easing & impeding the flow… so yes, I guess music is important to me, and structurally as well. I think of the sections or chapters in Poem to the  End of My Days as ‘rondos,’ a musical form of at least three iterations on a major theme, interspersed with subordinate themes and motifs—each of which is progressively developed as contrapuntal ideas or themes, each rondo introducing new ‘voices’ or taking up old ones. 

Debrah: I am also drawn to what this poem does to the senses.  Towards the middle of the poem, after describing some lavish kitchen items, you say “taste      touch    see / listen,” which almost feels like an invitation to the reader to pay attention to the senses.  Do you think poetry can improve the use of one’s senses?

Jacob:  Here’s where we get to Word-Things! I’ve thrown some chum on the water with the quoted entries above… so ask me about word-Things!  

Debrah: Okay!  Was your response saying asking me about word-things your response to the question about the senses?  I am confused...

Jacob:  I’m confused too, but I never let that get in my way. This question was more difficult to answer than I anticipated. You asked about the shift from a list of concrete nouns, stuff on the shelf over the counter where I work, to a line made up of words of sense “taste  touch  see/ listen, words that might be read either as nouns, or verbs in the imperative mood (exclamation marks implied… another reason I prefer to do without punctuation of closure: periods, question marks, exclamation marks, the better to compound ambiguiation)—so that’s a good place to start. What I think happens there, what I had in mind—was to jar the reader out of any sense they might have that this list was about image making, that it was a list of words, not a description, not meant to conjure a picture—and if it did, to shatter the picture-window—a call to pay attention, maybe—to whatever happens to be around them at the time (the imperative)—so in that way, this is a call, an invitation to sensual awareness—to attention, without INtention, as I like to put it. The extended list, then, is a kind of reminder of how full the least incidental glance can be—full of Things, as the poem is full of Word-Things.

Here I find myself on the cusp of something I find deeply fascinating, and have no better way to explore than through writing poetry. I recognize that the voice in the poem has been acting as a sort of tour-guide for me as I wrote the poem, and by extension, for the reader—a tour of the intersection of sense & mind… though they’re not really two things, so “intersection isn’t the best word. Mind has a way of fooling itself, into believing in its own independent existence—seducing Philosophers of a certain stripe--since Plato--into an idealist ontology irreconcilable with our place in the material world, bedeviled as a consequence with an epistemological conundrum—that if you can only know what you hold in mind, you can never affirm the reality of anything outside the mind… the ding an sich that Kant can’t touch (say that with a high-tone Brit accent!).

I feel myself, in my animal life, as a person, in my thinking, in my poetry, so deeply embedded in the material world (& happy to be there!) that I instinctually resist idealist metaphysical claims of any sort--or of the supernatural—which are really a variant form of idealist belief. And yet… by temperament, I’m on the side of the mystics.

I think any poetry worth reading—& certainly, any poetry worth thinking about, begins in contradiction. Not merely logical, but a contradiction at the core of one’s being-in-the- world. …and I still haven’t gotten to Word-Things!

Debrah:  Jacob, please tell me about Word-Things.  I would love to learn about these.  Also, I am curious about your origination & conceptualization of the Poet Trees.  What inspired you to begin making Poet Trees?  Are you still making Poet Trees?  Where can people find them if so?

Jacob:  I call them Poem Trees… but maybe I should think about them as Poet Trees… the tree isn’t merely a passive recipient of the poems that dangle from its branches, is it?  I saw the tree, felt the possibility with it—of its being a poem tree—& that power to become a Poem Tree wasn’t mine, but was of the tree itself, its own creative power. So why not, Poet Tree?

How did the Poem Tree happen? This is a good question. It leads to an idea for me, about the power of Things. It wasn’t like I had this idea, something in my head—“I’m going to tie poems to a tree & call it a Poem Tree”… like it was my invention. To become a Poem Tree, the tree has to participate.

I mean, I couldn’t say to the air conditioner in the window, “I’m going to make a poem tree of you!” Every object presents you with certain possibilities in how you engage with it—but those possibilities aren’t limitless. The object resists becoming just anything. This is something both obvious, and mysterious, & it goes both ways. As you bring about change in a Thing, you yourself are changed. A mutual transformation.

I can’t say this idea was entirely new to me, but it took on a profoundly new reality, material, embodied … on May Day, 2010.  That was the moment the branch of tulip poplar I was carrying on the streets of Baltimore was transformed into a Spirit Stick. I had picked up a blue sash and feather left from a street performance in support of low wage harbor workers. There was this branch in my one hand, and the feather & sash in the other, & there was an affinity between them—you see, I wasn’t the inventor, but the agent of that affinity, putting them together—and it was only after the feather & sash and branch were together that I saw how they had become a New Thing… Spirit Stick! & this New Thing had powers of becoming. I began more to feel more deeply the affinity of Things I found… can tabs, wires, ribbons… Other people when they saw the Spirit Stick, they felt this too & gave me Things to add to it.

That’s how the Poem Tree happened. A poor little dead tree on Passyunk, like the dead three branch I had carried—that wasn’t dead at all, like a poem, how Things have this affinity for other Things, have powers all their own to become New Things together… like words reveal their affinity when you write & they come together & become a Poem. It’s so obvious, isn’t it? Spirit Stick. Poem Tree… & it happened with me too—the way I see myself, a felt attraction to Things…& it seemed mutual. Feathers. Can tabs. A kind of marriage… that I was like them, part of them… Spirit Stick, Poem Tree… I was agent to their becoming, my gift to them, & theirs to me… to show me more truly to myself.

You do stuff. & if the stuff you do is a Poem… you are …  ?

Does that make sense? The idea of Word-Things? Thinking about 'naming' in poems--what almost all description is. You write, 'tree,' and readers will call to mind their own associations, their relationship to what that word names. Further elaborations guide those associations, but at the core, there’s something in common, not the thing named, not the word, but the fact of its having a name, a word shared...with the Thing it names.  Word-Tree. In a poem, the reader enters its field of power, or is caressed by it, or sliced, or struck dumb, or sent off with a terrible need to do something with what has happened… like the need to find other words… mates to engender yet more words.

There is the feel of magic about names, names of things, names of persons. I ask, what is around me? Now, at this moment, in this place. What is it that most impresses itself on my senses? And I write that down--without elaboration. Without decoration. A statement. And in naming the thing I become something more--something else: I become a reader. THE reader. Every reader, and what has been named calls out to me, wakens in me--as myself, and as a Reader, a need to find words for what the name... the Word-Thing has summoned.

Let the mind follow.

It's like meditation. Where you focus on one thing, and this becomes a guide, opens a path that wasn't there before--or wasn't seen or recognized as a path.

The name is the gate. The reader is on the other side, but it's the same gate to the same path... at least, to the first step. From there, the divergent branches are without number. Another word. Another step. And each step loses the reader, and finds him again, her again. Until you reach a point of realized failure.

Observe. Write what impresses
the senses
let the mind follow

It's in naming common things
we draw the reader in

A kind of touch
                                                               you see
                                                               I see

where every conversation
wants to go

The first poem tree—having survived a hard winter…  was uprooted by the City this spring, replaced by a living sapling. But soon after, a tree a few yards down the block—the leaves grew brown, the branches brittle, & it said, If you want me to, I will be the Poem Tree.

And it was so.

Debrah:  Jacob, this was such a lovely & living explanation of word-things & the poem-tree, and how closely the two are linked, & how interconnected we all are to each other & to the objects around us – this idea of “mutual transformation” really resonates for me & feels quite important.  I love, also, how the trees seem to speak to you & how things speak to all of us – “every object brings to you certain possibilities of how to engage with it….”    & thus to my final question.  As this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, I would like to know how the city of Philadelphia brings to you certain possibilities of how to engage with it poetically?  What strikes you most profoundly about our community here?  What sorts of poetry do you think engaging with this city & its lore & people & sounds & smells brings to you &/or to all of us?

Jacob: I came to Philly in 1964.  I’ve probably lived here longer now than most of those who were born here. 47 years. But that I wasn’t. And that I bring with me childhood memories from elsewhere, Chicago, Kansas City, means that even after almost half a century—still not a “native.”

I think that we discover place in childhood—a magical bond of wonder & fear, & there is no re-placing that, no matter how long we’ve been away, or how much we’ve come to love where we find ourselves—&  I have come to love--to truly love this city.

It’s like a marriage, isn’t it? We leave our fathers and mothers to cleave to the body and soul of a stranger… who gives us nourishment we could not find in the heart of our own family. This is probably true of most of us now in a time of great mobility. It’s rare when a poet remains, or returns to their first home… the lake country of Lorine Niedecker’s Wisconsin, Wendell Berry turning the soil of Kentucky. Even for them, it seems that this return was only possible because “home” had become as strange as it was familiar. Learning to love where we are not at home is a work of a lifetime—a work made for a poet—a work that is perhaps the making of a poet.

What is it about Philly?

I love that it doesn’t sound like the voice in my head—that for all my years here (& I’m pretty good at picking up dialects… ‘accents’), I can’t for the life of me imitate someone who grew up in Kensington, or South Philly… or Mayfair. 

I love the Mummers—a celebration of working class neighborhoods, not Corporate sponsored made-for-TV extravaganzas like the Rose Bowl parade. Philly’s a big city that never feels near as big as it is when you live in one of its neighborhoods. There are wealthy and powerful people here, movers and shakers on the national and international scene, big corporations—this is an international city—but its more than that, & other—and that’s what I love.

I would hate it if it weren’t so, if I didn’t feel when I’m riding the Broad Street subway, walking the streets of South Philly, under the el on Front Street on the way home from a reading on Frankford, the tower of Episcopal Hospital poking out over the row houses of Kensington (where I worked as an orderly in the ER 40 years ago) .. that this city and its people—here in the Belly of the Beast, the fucking American Empire—the greatest killing & looting machine in the history of the world… that we (yeah… WE) are more and different & better & worse & not just worker cells in that fucking beast.. but something else, living and good … good.  We’re good.

Look at me, world. Look at us… we’re GOOD! You hear that?

Zoe Strauss… she sees it.

Ryan Eckes… he hears it. Frank Sherlock hears it. A fucking perfect ear for this city, the LIVING city.

And I wanna be part of that. I see it too. I hear it. And I want it to be in my poems. I’ll always be a stranger anyplace I am in this world. But I love this place. And that’s what I want to write… not about      … but the thing itself… to drive the soldiers from the garden of the world.

& when they’re all gone, Philly will still be here. OUR Philly.  Not theirs. Not theirs anymore.

Just ours.

Debrah:  Jacob, thank you for this interview.  You have so lovingly described many of the important aspects of our dynamic city, Philadelphia, and your inspiring thoughts about poetry & Poem Trees.


I was born in Chicago a long time ago, came to Philadelphia in 1964 from Wichita on a Vespa motor scooter & never found the exit.  In the 50's & 60's I studied art, in the 70's I was a potter.  My last gainful employment, 12 years teaching English comp at Saint Joseph's University, ended in 2008.  Having retired from worldly occupations, I walk the streets with Spirit Stick in search of poems & Found Things.

I've written poetry since I learned to form letters on a page, & finally accepted this as my calling one morning in April, 1987, standing in a kitchen in Northeast Philadelphia.  It was another twenty years -- enriched by the wonderful community of poets I've met since moving to South Philly, that I feel like I've begun to write in the fullness of my own voice.

Found Things...  having been set loose from the mesh of relationships that define (& confine) their manifest Being, they are free to reveal powers previously withdrawn & hidden.  In a poem, names, ideas, linguistic structures -- along with cultural & verbal fields of reference, constitute the aesthetic 'regime of attraction' of the poem -- which in turn, becomes a new Thing, pried loose from the prison of its context in the world.  For me, writing a poem is a struggle to keep the emerging mesh of the new regime of attraction fluid & open for as long as possible -- like Tantric sex, withholding consummation till the strength to resist it is exhausted.

In the past year I've published work in Big Bridge II, decomP, Criiphoria 2, Conversational Magazine, Connotations, BlazeVox, Scythe, Battered Suitcase, Clockwise Cat, Apiary, Fox Chase Journal, & Pedestal.  Links to published poetry & fiction can be found on my blog:  Jacob Russell's Barking Dog.