The R. Douglas Jacobs Interview
I recently reviewed the epic poem Gethsemane: a Poem About Us, by R. Douglas Jacobs. We discussed the creativity, sacrifice, and the epic.
One doesn’t often see epic poems. Can you tell us about Gethsemane’s conception and execution? Did you find the size and/or scope intimidating?
Actually, Gethsemane started out as a sonnet consisting of only a few verses. But the more I wrote the more of a journey I began to explore in telling a story that was philosophical, as well as being metaphorical. By the time the first act was done, I sketched the storyline in creating an arch, which would consist of another two chapters. By the time I finished, revised, copy-edited, and made final editorial changes to the book, I had invested two and a half years of my life. It’s more intimidating, in retrospect, than it was when I worked on it. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it. But, then again, I wasn’t really myself when I wrote Gethsemane. My weight dropped from 210 to 173 pounds and I struggled emotionally with the construct of the narrative, which frayed me spiritually. By the time the journey had ended, my quest in writing Gethsemane cost me my relationship with my fiancée. With accomplishment comes regret and nothing best exemplifies that than what I put myself through in losing the love of my life.
What were the challenges in writing an epic poem based on the sonnet form?
I was determined to write Gethsemane without being redundant with the use of certain rhymes. Often times, poets, and, especially lyricists, get caught in this trap of using similar rhymes without searching for rhymes, which are synonymous. As I delved further into it, I challenged myself on whether it was possible to not repeat a single rhyme. So, although I would create stanzas based on a thought, I’d paraphrase the stanza to convey that same thought until I could couple rhymes that were distinctive. Sometimes, they came instantly. Sometimes, they didn’t. When the latter occurred, I’d then scratch everything and start over. It was almost like trying to figure out a crossword puzzle. In all, I came up with 1,036 rhymes.
Does the local scene have any influence on your writing? Long Beach, California seems like a hot-bed of bohemia and eccentricity.
Although I’m a native of Long Beach, I identify myself as an Angelino. Because Los Angeles is so diverse, it’s impacted my perception of life that would have likely been drastically different had I been born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. So, yes, living in a large metropolitan city has impacted my writing from the standpoint of understanding the meaning of tolerance. But, Long Beach, itself, is by no means bohemian to the extent that West Hollywood is. There, you’ll find your fair share of coffeehouses and clubs offering open mic on any given night.
You’ve worked in various media (TV, music, and literature), what has been your favorite media to work in? Would you revisit working in a medium?
Truth be told, Karl, I love cinema. I aspired to be a filmmaker more than anything growing up. Writing screenplays was my means of starting out in cinema and I wrote a couple of screenplays, and adapted a short story into a screenplay that I produced and directed into a 16 mm film back in 1994. But the process of learning the motion picture business from the inside-out was daunting and the years I spent shopping treatments to story editors took its toll. I even ventured into television in 2001 and that experience left a bad taste in my mouth. This doesn’t mean I won’t revisit cinema, because I do have concepts for stories that have resided in my mind for many, many years. It comes down to getting a break in one medium and translating that success in another. For now, my attention has shifted to classical music, and the formation of a youth orchestra to introduce the score of my audio book, and Baroque music, to a new generation of audiences.
The plot of Gethsemane is unique and idiosyncratic; it wasn’t a simple re-hashing of the Garden of Eden story. What made you want to write an epic poem from Lucifer’s point of view? What are your thoughts about mainstream religion? What role can the arts play for someone navigating the treacherous waters of religion, individualism, and the common good?
This is a great question! Whether you’re religious or not, there is no debating that there is good and evil in this world. Putting the caricatures aside, at the root of every virtue is a fault that co-exists for the sake of measuring the frailty of the human condition. Yes, we’re fallible. Yes, we sin. But why is that? I believe that the fall of Lucifer from the good graces of his father is a story we can identify with due to the ambition we all develop in life in wanting to be special-extraordinary in our own way. It’s ambition that not only leads us astray, but undermines our humility from appreciating the things that really matter in life. This was likely Lucifer’s story as it is ours, which I why I portrayed him as sympathetically as I did. I did something that thousands of years of canon never produced-a Devil with a face that resembles ours. Consequently, what you get is a secular morality play that renders our existence as Lucifer’s nightmare. This leaves him with only a sense of redemption to save him. Don’t we desire that same redemption in our lives whenever we succumb to an adversity we can’t conquer?
What future projects are on the docket?
I finished my fourth book back in November and had it copy-edited. I’m completing the artwork and making final editorial changes in the hope of having the book ready for release in late May/early June. The book is an epic prose piece entitled “deFragmentation.” The story is a catharsis that brings into account the regret I mentioned in my answer to your first question.
Any advice for aspiring artists and writers, especially those tackling epic-scale projects.
Personally, the biggest obstacle affecting anyone’s ability to be creative is procrastination. It’s probably because procrastinating is the easiest thing for anyone to do, especially if they get discouraged with their attempts to be creative. Writing is no different. Develop a case of writer’s block and suddenly you become addicted to the worse procrastination instrument society employed for the modern age-television. My secret in being active is to not watch much television. This way you can spend your time brainstorming ideas, which then taps into the mind痴 ability to expound on those ideas. A journal is a great tool for conveying those ideas into a story since stories are, in essence, an outlet depicting our experiences. However, you really have to be married to the art of writing to complete a project on any scale. This can be problematic since the experience of writing is a lonely one.