By Frances Molina
It is chilly, unusual for September in Austin, and I am almost shivering as I scurry through the familiar Hyde Park streets towards the gelato and espresso bar, Dolce Vita. I am not exactly late but Jill Essbaum has already arrived. She looks up as I come in and she smiles, closing the book she has open on her little table.
I hurry towards her and awkwardly hang my purse on the chair. I am breathing hard as I apologize for my tardiness.
“I sent you an email,” she chirps pleasantly, “I thought maybe I had missed you.”
I look at my watch. It’s only 8:20. Ten minutes before the time we agreed on. “Oh.” I sit down, flustered, and open my notebook. She is watching me, amused, as I scramble for some semblance of professionalism.
“There’s no rush, dear.” She nods at the bar. “Go get yourself a drink.”
I glance from her to the bar. I give up. I order tea and when it arrives, with something to distract my energy, I can start the interview.
She is simultaneously careful and careless with her answers, complementing chestnuts of wisdom and experience with fantastically foul language.
Jill is first and foremost unassuming. She makes quick work of the obscure idol I’ve built of her in my mind and puts me at ease. She’s beautiful in a way that the pictures on the back of her books can’t capture. I know immediately that I want her to like me so when she laughs at my jokes or agrees with some comment I make, I blush. She takes my questions in whatever direction she wants and the structure I had planned for this interview is happily ignored. She is simultaneously careful and careless with her answers, complementing chestnuts of wisdom and experience with fantastically foul language.
I met Jill Essbaum formally last September when I was informally invited to her wedding. It was only my second month at UT and I was lonely mostly and depressed so I jumped at any opportunity to get off campus. Jill and her fiancé Alvin were friends of my family here in Austin and had earnestly asked my uncle Pete if they could have the ceremony at his stately Victorian style home. Of course, he enthusiastically agreed. That night, the bride wore yellow and glowed brighter than the paper lanterns tucked up in the trees. After the ceremony, I watched her as she fluttered around, embracing her guests, talking loudly, animated and blissful.
I had, of course, heard of Jill. Stories of her success that came up during nightlong conversations with family members and friends, news my aunt and uncle shared of books and publications and radio interviews. At some point over the years, she became something of a hero for me, shrouded in mystery and possibility. She was a poet and a writer and a personality, most famous for her brand of “Christian erotic” poetry. But Jill Essbaum herself, the bride I watched cavorting on my uncle’s lawn last year and the woman I was lucky enough to sit down with on Friday night, revealed to be more than any of her titles would suggest.
When I ask what she prefers, she calls herself a writer. “Because it’s obnoxious to call yourself a poet,” she explains. She confesses, however, to recently assuming the “uppity” designation of novelist. She has every right to the title. Her first novel Hausfrau will debut next March. She proudly shows me her copy, flipping past the glossy front cover and through the pages. It looks like a big deal and she assures me it is. “When I look on Twitter and it says ‘Random House’ is following you…” She holds up her hands, shaking her head slowly. “It’s too much.”
Up until this point, she’s written mainly poetry. There was Heaven, her first published work in 2000,followed by Oh, Forbidden (2005), Harlot (2007), Necropolis (2008), and The Devastation in 2009 (some weeks earlier, I had found Harlot by accident in my aunt’s library; I was delighted with the cover: a watercolor of a naked woman embracing a scary big penis. I “borrowed” the book and told no one). Jill explains that she has always been enamored with word play and sound, which becomes obvious when you read her work aloud. I bring up the name of her genre, “Christian erotic,” and she replies as if she saw it coming.
“I feel like someone somewhere put those two words together and they stuck,” she says, “And I hate it. I don’t write religious erotica. I write about Christian themes and I write about erotic themes.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I mean, I ain’t writing Jesus porn.”
No she certainly ain’t. But her poems are undeniably sensual. The verses have a relentless rhythm, like pulsing blood, like sex. But for all their discussion of longing, lust, and ménage à trois, they possess a certain piety. They read like prayers. She even admitted to using one of her poems, “De Profundis,” as a prayer in times of distress. Essentially, Essbaum seems to understand the sacramental element of sexual expression; the fanaticism that comes with loving and wanting to be joined with something – or someone – that is separate from yourself.
Take for instance a scene from her book, Hausfrau which she generously shared with me. The main character is praying on a hill, distraught and frustrated with her life. “Fucking make it stop,” she pleads over and over again. She’s not exactly crying to God but she is praying, even as the petition takes up different cadence. “Fucking, making it stop. Fucking, making it stop.” Again and again, as though she were praying to Fucking as a god or an idol. The prayer scene, Jill explains, also precedes a masturbation scene.
“There’s room for both of those things to exist in the same bucket, I think,” she concludes, and I agree.
Essbaum’s religious familiarity started when she was a child and continued during her brief stay at the Seminary of the Southwest. She left Seminary after Heaven was accepted for publication and was admittedly relieved.
“Once you become a pastor, you really shouldn’t have the freedom to speak for yourself and I don’t have to do that as a writer,” she explains, “I do think you have the responsibility to speak true things. But I’m not responsible for a flock.”
I would argue, however, that Essbaum is in fact speaking to a “flock” through her writing. Her poems possess a notable complexity that reflects on the author and compels her audience. Contrasting themes – sex and religion, piety and lust, resilience and fierce desperation – elements that don’t appear to go together, meld effortlessly to create something unexpected, something more whole and more human. Furthermore, in my opinion, these poems champion the complexity of women, which has been alternatively disputed and denied, deemed dangerous, confusing, and inconvenient to acknowledge. Reading her work, so unafraid and unashamed to be sensual, distraught, jubilant, and downright vulgar all at the same time, I felt fulfilled by the strength of her voice. I felt more like a woman.
When I asked Jill if she identified as a feminist or if she recognized the feminist leanings in her poems, she did not have an answer.
“I’m still trying to figure out what that word means,” she admits. She looks down as she speaks. She’s being thoughtful. “I think women – everyone really – should be able to get what they need. And some of what they want. Because it’s not the same thing.”
The writing instructs us. If you don’t at some point embrace the idea of letting that shit go, you’re penned in…And everybody says to write what you know. But I say: don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.
Essbaum can more firmly attest for her writing. “The writing instructs us. If you don’t at some point embrace the idea of letting that shit go, you’re penned in,” she says, “And everybody says to write what you know. But I say: don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.”
So perhaps Jill, despite her refreshing and inspiring body of work, does not have all the simple answers for young women like myself, awe-struck and frustrated by our own experiences. But as I lay in bed that Friday night and read Harlot from cover to cover, laughing, weeping, nodding in solemn agreement, I felt a little more like the woman I want to become. I felt a little more whole.