Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jacob Scheier

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Jacob Scheier

Most coverage of Jacob Scheier's new poetry collection Letter from Brooklyn (ECW Press) opens by mentioning that his debut collection (More To Keep Us Warm) won the Governor General's Literary Award.

But in Letter From Brooklyn we see this young poet is no one-trick pony — instead, readers are treated to a fresh, vibrant and moving meditation on those capital-letter themes, Love and Loss. Tackling the subject of his radical Jewish heritage in New York City, and of identity in the larger sense, Jacob asks readers to think about the public and the private, and how we understand home.

Today we speak with Jacob about Letter From Brooklyn, his family's route to Canada and politics as religion.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Letter From Brooklyn.

Jacob Scheier:

Letter from Brooklyn was written over a period of about six years… it began in New York City, where I had moved in 2008 (for two years), in order to better explore my American Jewish Radical heritage — two generations of Jewish communists living in New York City… but from there it developed into a broader collection, incorporating all sorts of experiences and ideas… I would also live in Brandon, Manitoba for a time — pretty sharp contrast to Brooklyn… and move away from reading the Marxists to the Romantics, for example… so it is certainly a collection as opposed to work held together by a singular narrative or concept, but it is also rooted in a certain rootlessness.

OB:

This collection is deeply rooted in a sense of place, in New York and beyond. Was this something intentional that you wanted to explore, or did it emerge as you wrote? What is your own connection to New York?

JS:

It is an accident of history that I was born in Canada. My mother’s parents were part of the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the New York in the early 20th century. My grandfather, a historical type, became a member of the Communist Party, USA. My parents met in New York — My mother was born in Brooklyn, my father came to the U.S. from Israel-Palestine to join a Trotskyite political organization called the Spartacist League — that’s where my parents met. After leaving the U.S. on a mission, you could say, to organize the Jewish and Palestinian working class (didn’t work out so well), they returned to the U.S. where my father was refused entry… and so they came here (another story onto itself). This is all to say my ties to New York, in terms of an American Jewish radical heritage run very deep. This was primarily what I wanted to explore when I began writing the book, but it unfolded, as I said, over time, into a broader range of engagements. But New York was certainly the starting place.

OB:

This is your second collection. Did you find your writing process different at all the second time around — if so, how?

JS:

The most significant change to my process was a grappling with ego, you could say. I hadn’t made much of a ‘name’ for myself previous to the first collection, and now, for better or worse, am pretty known to the Canadian poetry community — which make up so much of this book’s potential audience. So this idea of being “Jacob Scheier” I realized was there as I wrote — and that there were certain expectations on “Jacob Scheier” and things he had to prove to his critics, etc, and I quickly realized that all that was pretty poisonous to my writing. It became a regular practice to remove myself the noise of reputation (good and bad) and just, well, write.

OB:

Tell us about a theoretical, perfect writing day for you. Would you write all day or add other activities into the mix?

JS:

I don’t tend to be able or want to write for much over 2 hours. If I am fortunate enough to have the time, and the focus, I would do my 2-3 hours of writing in the morning, and then spend the afternoon reading in a café — in the perfect writing day I would then do some revisions on older material in the evening (I try to not go back to new writing for at least a week).

OB:

Does your writing process influence your reading habits at all? What were you reading while you wrote Letter From Brooklyn?

JS:

Certainly the research I did in the early days of writing the book involved reading a lot of articles from that time periods I was interested or historical text about them (that is, 1930s and 1960s American radicalism). Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism may be the most influential of all the books I read — my uncle refers to it as the family bible. Also, Robert Lowell’s History, particularly his poems about his 60s activism, had a profound impact on my writing.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JS:

I am actually working on some personal essays — some of these are about the loss of my mother, when I was a teenager. My mother in the years leading up to her death went through a kind of religious conversation from being a completely secular Jew to a practicing one — and so this is part of the story I want to tell, and it brings up questions for me about my own sense of the religious and spiritual and how this connects with what you could call ‘the family religion’ of communism. I am trying to approach all this with some humour in the writing. Other essays I am working on are less narrative, and in more of a discursive style inspired by Montaigne… for instance I am doing research now for an essay that I think will be called “In Defense of Complaining” (which be tongue and cheek, but not entirely). I have written articles and editorials but personal essays of this sort are pretty new to me. I am enjoying the process of exploring a relatively new genre — it is exciting, though also very humbling.


Jacob Scheier is a poet and journalist from Toronto. His debut collection, More to Keep Us Warm won the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award for English language poetry. Scheier's poems have been published in literary journals and magazine across North America, including Descant, Geist and Rattle, and have been heard on CBC Radio.

For more information about Letter From Brooklyn please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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