Recently, a woman browsed in our local bookstore, Lopez Bookshop, and after a few minutes, she approached Karen, the co-owner who was staffing the counter that day. The woman introduced herself as Jessica Gigot, and she had kind words to say about the store and the island. She also had a book in her hand to buy. Then Jessica explained she had her own poetry book and wondered if the bookshop would carry it. Karen was impressed with Jessica’s sensitive approach and then was even more impressed with the poetry collection, Flood Patterns.
I was drawn in immediately by the title and the book cover and by the setting in the nearby Skagit River Valley. Many of the poems touched me with their sensual, honest, and clear descriptions of—among many themes—land, farm life, family life, and the fickleness of April. I was stopped in my tracks, though, with one of the poems near the end of the book.
Making Ceremony by the Sea
by Jessica Gigot
A fan of light straddles
Open water and rocky slopes.
A marriage of a Mexican
And a Greek on a
Moss covered island.
She is married by
Her brother who announces
“You may now kiss my sister.”
We chant sea air vows
Into September’s elusive swales
And clink to a blue moon toast.
Sitting on hay bales
We look out at the Sound,
The Olympics and
A Haida button blanket
Is draped over cedar logs
Laid between a vibraphone
And a stone-rimmed fire pit.
His wife, an old student
And a men’s club friend
Speak their respects
Before we all stand
To send his bear spirit
Beyond a new moon sunset.
I re-read the poem, then read again, and again, the section titled Pacific, certain that the poet was writing about the memorial service for my dear friend, Greg Ewert. I emailed Greg’s wife to ask if she knew Jessica and this poem; she didn’t. Soon I was combing Jessica’s website for confirmation that she had attended this ceremony on Lopez Island. I learned that Jessica is a poet, teacher and musician whose small farm—Harmony Fields—in Bow, WA grows herbs, lamb and specialty produce. But, still a mystery about the poem, until I sent Jessica an email and received this explanation:
The poem “Making Ceremony by the Sea” was inspired by a wedding and a funeral that I attended within the same week on two distant but similar islands–Monhegan and Lopez. I was so struck by the different ways these ceremonies were created, and I was so moved by both of them even though they were quite different. I did not know Greg, but I was accompanying a friend who had been his student. It was an honor to have witnessed that event.
With the puzzle solved, I was touched by its example of how lives can intertwine and connect through words. I wanted to know more about Jessica and how she came to be a poet on a farm. The following interview answers that and much more about this poet-to-watch.
Iris: You have a diverse combination of skills and interests—farming, science, poetry. Which came first for you?
Jessica: I wrote a lot of poems when I was younger. I was very inspired by Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop—I appreciated their strong voices and wit especially. I also loved Ogden Nash’s poems, and I used to write a lot of short and light rhyming poems about people I knew and the world around.
In college I started out in a freshman poetry seminar with the thought of getting an English degree. However, I was quickly drawn into the wonder of the natural world through an ecology class and decided to be a biology major. All of our labs were out in the field (streams, forests, meadows) and I felt very strongly that I wanted to work outside and develop a better understanding for myself of the natural world. Plant biology was my main focus and I worked with a evolutionary biologist on nectar-robbing studies in bumblebees, and I helped organize the college’s herbarium.
My interest in farming came later, after I graduated from college. I did not grow up on a farm. The more I understood the science behind our pressing environmental issues, like climate change, biodiversity and water quality, it all seemed to relate to food at a fundamental level and human dissociation from the land. I also felt drawn to rural and remote places. So, after I finished college in 2001 I worked on a large medicinal herb farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon and then I went to Lopez Island for a summer and worked at S&S Homestead. Both experiences had a profound effect on me, and I learned about commercial agriculture, animal husbandry and self-sufficiency.
At the time I wanted to start my own farm, but didn’t have the means. While on Lopez I serendipitously met a WSU professor and fell into the world of agricultural research which brought me to the Skagit Valley for graduate school in 2004. For many years I studied the microbes in soil and was fascinated by the intricacies of agroecosystems. This fascination, however, brought me back to poetry. I needed the language of poetry to express the beauty I saw everyday in this unique, working landscape.
Iris: How do these roles fit together?
Jessica: I officially decided to settle in the Skagit Valley about five years ago as I finished graduate school, and I have since started my own farm. At the time I also started a writing group and have been trying to write down all that I learn on the farm as I dig in to this place. Farming is a nice marriage of science and art for me. I find a lot of creative inspiration from farm work and, conversely, writing helps me to stay motivated when I get overwhelmed (which is often). You surely don’t need a PhD to be a farmer, but the background in science helps me with managing plant varieties and soil health on the farm.
In the winter, I also teach food sovereignty and soil related classes at the Northwest Indian College in their Native Environmental Studies program. Science has given me good tools for observation, and I rely on this daily. I don’t try to romanticize farming in my writing or science, but I do think that a healthy blend of appreciation for the landscape, as well as the work, is what we need to make a long-lasting and resilient food system.
Iris: What drew you to write poetry?
Jessica: I often equate poetry with healing, and I have written poetry on and off for my entire life. It is both a way that I process the world as well as weft that helps me weave the parts of my life together and find meaning in the things that happen to and around me.
Attending and participating in literary readings builds great community, and I enjoy meeting more and more Northwest writers and poets. As a young graduate student in La Conner, I discovered the Skagit River Poetry Festival. It brings in some wonderful national poets to our little corner of the world, which is motivating and educational. I first attended in 2006, and after hearing great poets like Billy Collins, Linda Hogan and Tess Gallagher, I felt motivated to write more deliberately.
Iris: Please describe your writing process.
Jessica: My writing process is a bit scattered and definitely seasonal. I journal every day (sometimes for hours, sometimes for ten minutes, depending on the day) and often times I find pieces of a poem in a paragraph I’ve written. However, when I’m working on the farm or taking a walk to the river, I will see a beautiful image in nature, or a random line drops into my head, and I build a poem around it when I have time later on….I have lots of lines scribbled all over the place.
Many of my poems stay as one or two lines for several years until I am really ready to build a poem around them. I also write songs, and the process for both songs and poetry is similar for me in that there is usually a rhythm or cadence to a line that keeps it looped in my head.
Sometime I go on poetry benders. Last April I participated in the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. I find that forcing myself to write a poem a day for a set period is useful.
Finally, a poetry teacher that I had once said that a poem is not done until it is read out loud in public. I find that very useful and try to sample new work when I have the opportunity.
Lopez Islanders will have the opportunity to hear Jessica read her poetry out loud at Lopez Island Library on Saturday, March 12th at 1:00 PM. Undoubtedly, Jessica will feel right at home here.