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An Interview with Jessica Simon, author of Built of All I Shape and Name

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Jessica Genia Simon began writing poetry at age seven. As a teenager based in Rockville, MD, she competed and won a spot on the Brave New Voices D.C. National Youth Poetry Slam Team. She earned a B.A. in English and Textual Studies and Policy Studies at Syracuse University and her M.S. in Education from University of Pennsylvania. She works at a gun violence prevention nonprofit in D.C. and lives with her wife and daughter in Silver Spring, Maryland. Built of All I Shape and Name (Kelsay Books, 2023) is her first poetry collection. The poem Even After in this collection was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

You can buy Built of All I Shape and Name here!

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

My parents inspired me to write by feeding me poetry from a young age. The first poetry book I remember was about the four seasons. Then, various English teachers encouraged me. My middle school English teacher got my first poem published in the local newspaper. I was influenced by other poets, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg and my contemporary slam poets and feminist performance poets.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’m a fundraiser for a gun violence prevention nonprofit by day. I started my career as a teacher, but I’ve worked at a preschool, a synagogue and many years ago, a Barnes and Noble.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I like titles and write titles that come to me before they have a place to go. This title came to me years ago and I think it was waiting for a poem or book to match with. I wrote the poem first and I loved the title so much, I knew it would be the title of my book, should the manuscript find a home, which it did, with Kelsay Books.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I collaborated on the book cover with an amazing artist in Philly who I connected with through a friend. They were amazing to work with and we went back and forth with the publisher to fulfill the vision we cocreated based on the poems, photographs I gave them, colors and images from the poems and the artists own collage work. It was incredible to behold. I had to show my mother and get her approval, since her picture is on the front, but she loved it too. She felt the collage was a testament to not just her, but her parents, to our ancestry and part of our family story. When I first held my book in my hands, I felt such utter validation and joy. It was a triumphant feeling. When I posted to Instagram, I played Lizzo “Like a Girl” when she says, “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for President/Even if there ain’t no precedent.” That captures it, pretty much.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

A phrase that sticks, one poem or more than one helps them make meaning of something they could not understand before—a feeling, an idea, an experience. I write about my miscarriages in the book, coming of age, fertility, family trauma and generational sorrow.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

So many rewarding and meaningful parts. Working on the cover, sending the poems to my mom that were about her to check of accuracy, but more than that, talking with my mom about things we never discussed UNTIL I wrote the poems and shared them with her. The poems revealed or helped to reveal some truths that needed to surface, that only by writing them, as Li Young-Lee said, poems “make the invisible visible,” could we articulate and shine a light on what needed to be resolved.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I have an infant daughter and I started writing many many poems about her and about parenting, becoming a mother since she was born. It’s been amazing and I am hoping my next poetry collection will feature a series of poems (or even a whole manuscript) about her. Titles, right? The Zoey Poems is what I hope to call it.

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