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Where Are They Now? Jacob Oet, BTL Russia '12

Jacob Oet, BTL Russia '12 at Shambaugh House, BTL headquarters and home of the International Writing Program.
Jacob Oet, BTL Russia '12 at Shambaugh House, BTL headquarters and home of the International Writing Program.

As part of our ongoing series Where Are They Now? in which we profile alumni of Between the Lines (BTL), the IWP’s creative writing and cultural exchange program for writers ages 16-19, we check in with Jacob Oet, of Cleveland, Ohio, who participated in BTL Russia 2012. Jacob, who recently completed his freshman year at Swarthmore College, stopped by the Shambaugh House to say hello. He is back in Iowa City taking part in a three-week intensive poetry workshop led by poet James Galvin of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

IWP: You have an impressive track record of publications for a writer so young. Have you always been interested in writing poetry? What attracted you to BTL?

Jacob: I’ve been interested in poetry for a long time, and in playwriting as well.  I was most excited by the cross-language aspect of BTL. I’m a heritage Russian speaker, so BTL offered the perfect blend of what I was looking for in a summer program. [BTL Instructor] Camille Dungy and I still keep in touch; she was a really wonderful teacher for me. And being around Russian students rekindled my interest in the Russian language. My parents spoke mainly Russian to me until I got to be school age. I vividly remember learning to speak English—confusing “kitchen” and “chicken”—but they switched to English as I got older.  I'd forgotten a lot. But then I’d hear one of the Russian BTL students ask a question in Russian and I’d answer in English—I didn’t tell them I could understand initially. The first week, I kept it a secret.

IWP: Did you learn anything about Russian culture that surprised you?

Jacob: At one point, two Russian students from different regions were giving the American students a lesson in the Russian alphabet and they ended up disagreeing not only about how the letters were pronounced, but also about the order of the letters. I didn’t realize how large and diverse Russia was until then. There was an etiquette difference at first as well—the Russian students tended to assume everything that was said was earnest and sincere, while the American students liked to joke around. I think how informal Americans can be surprised them—though we ended up close friends. The first week, people were a little bit shy, but the second week the groups really started to intermingle. I spent a lot of time with the Russian students.

IWP: Have you stayed in touch?

Jacob: Yes. They don’t use our Facebook in Russia, so it’s been a challenge. We talk on Skype sometimes, share books, ideas, and our work, send each other poems. Sometimes I ask them to help me with a poem I’m writing in Russian. One of my Russian BTL friends is a songwriter and he writes lyrics in English. He asked me to look over them. It was fun. I look forward to hearing the songs.

IWP: What’s it like to be back in Iowa City without your BTL friends? Are you revisiting any old haunts?

Jacob Oet in front of Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he is attending a 3-week intensive poetry workshop.
Jacob Oet in front of Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he is attending a 3-week intensive poetry workshop.

I didn’t realize how much my experience of Iowa City was tied to those people. It’s really cool to be back. BTL made me feel very comfortable and welcome here. My first stop was The Haunted Bookshop. Where else could I buy seven books for twelve dollars? Books I’ve been trying to find for a while. I also stopped by the antique shop—I was very drawn to collections of old letters I found there when I was in Iowa City for BTL.  I read an amazing essay in Poetry Magazine recently about photography, which is closer to poetry than any other visual art form because it is time-based, so this time I found myself drawn more to old photographs. I looked at hundreds, but one that I felt inspired by is of an old grey-haired couple, husband and wife, standing with a river disappearing into the distance behind them; they’re holding a line strung with pretty big fish—I saw it and I thought, “I can write a poem about this.”

IWP: Did you?

Jacob: Yes. It’s not very good. I’m not happy with it. But I think just the experience of being there, looking through all those photographs and thinking about them was worth it, good for my writing.

IWP: What were your favorite things to do in Iowa City with your BTL cohort?

Jacob: We used to go downtown to the public pianos and perform. Or walk across the bridge to the other side of the Iowa River and explore, or visit the rock garden. The Java House was frequented. The fieldtrips were great. I really enjoyed the mall and the visit to Davenport. Another thing that was really valuable about BTL was the seminars. Most of the summer programs I’ve been to in the past didn’t have a lecture component. I realize now that I learned as much if not more from the lectures as from the workshops. It was really a great experience.

Jacob writes poetry (in Russian and English) and was recently named a runner-up for the 2013 Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, judged by Edward Hirsch. Here he is at Shambaugh House, performing an impromptu, informal ode, “What I would have missed if I hadn’t come last summer":

Sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, the IWP, and the University of Iowa, BTL offers students the opportunity to interact with young writers from other cultures, receive writing instruction from distinguished professionals, and experience the literary life of Iowa City (the only UNESCO-designated City of Literature in the United States).

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