Slam at the Benton: “Food Stamps”

by Jacob Lowell

Food Stamps
by Jacob Lowell

When I was 5 years old
I would sit with my mother and cut out
the coupons in the newspaper,
all spread out on the dining room table.
They tell me I couldn’t remember being on food stamps;
I was only a kid.
But I remember shopping trips and
shaking white knuckles on the steering wheel.
cutting milk with water,
cutting juice with water,
eating only mac and cheese and
picking the marshmallows out of the off brand lucky charms.
It would always go bad in a few days.
We’d still eat it anyway
We would have breakfast for dinner because it was
cheap and
My mother hated cooking.
Correction,
my mother still hates cooking.
So I learned how to make grilled cheese
and french toast.
I learned how to steal food
from the cafeteria.
It wasn’t hard because
my friends always had leftovers,
which is to say I begged them for it
I knew we had enough at home but
we didn’t have pudding cups
and we didn’t have pretzels and
granola bars and
we never ever had fruit snacks.
I was caught in fifth grade with
someone else’s lunch box.
I had already eaten half of it so
they called my mother,
who had to call the other kids mother
and I got in trouble for lying
but not for stealing.
I had to learn to wear humiliation better after that
learn to say I didn’t need it.
I called myself guilty.
The last time I stole something
I was in sophomore year and trying to starve
Myself.
It was an apple off my art teacher’s desk
I wouldn’t let her offer it to me
So I took it after hours
These days
I hide my food in the back of the pantry
so I won’t eat it all
or won’t eat at all
I haven’t yet learned the difference
These days
I scavenge for half eaten lunches
with a beast’s eyes I haven’t unlearned
Hunger is a strange beast.
Makes strange beasts of us.
Teaches us how to howl and
hide and bury
how to crack open bone and
make nothing left
feel like a feast you should be lucky to attend
Hunger follows you even when full belly.
even quenched mouth.
Hunger will always be there
behind you
if you are given a reason to fear it.

~

Jacob Lowell reading his poem, “Food Stamps” for the Long River Review’s 2017 Reading Series: Slam at the Benton.

Ben Schultz – Videography (Filming and Editing)
Nicholas DiBenedetto – Interviews
Brandon Marquis – Interviews
Mairead Loschi – Podcast Audio

~

Meet the Poet: Jacob Lowell

Prior to the reading, Poetry Editor Nicholas DiBenedetto and Creative Nonfiction Panelist Brandon Marquis sat down with Jacob to talk about his work with Poetic Release and the story behind his piece.

Brandon Marquis: So just starting with your name, introduce yourself.

Jacob Lowell: My name is Jacob Lowell. I guess I’m a poet, an artist—I do a lot of everything… I try to do a lot of everything. I’m involved with Poetic Release; I guess that’s a talking point.

Benjamin Schultz: Poetic Release? Like a student organization here?

JL: Yeah, it was started by Devin Samuels in 2013, or 2011, or something like that. Devin actually coached the youth team—Connecticut has a state-based youth team that they send to Brave New Voices—that I’ve been involved with for the past two years, possibly three, but in an administrative stance this summer instead of competing. He was my coach my first year, and he was like, ‘oh man, when you go to college you should totally join Poetic Release because I absolutely—you’re always loved by the things you create.’ He absolutely adores art, and I really—I love poetry, intensely, and it kind of freaks people out sometimes because they’re like ‘oh man, have you seen this video on Button?’ And I’m like ‘actually, I’ve seen every video on Button, ever.’ And they’re like ‘what!? Dude there’s like a thousand poems.’ And I’m like ‘yeah I just don’t sleep anymore.’

So I’ve been working with (Poetic Release’s) admin board, I’m doing their social stuff so follow their Twitter @UCPoeticRelease, and, you know, it’s a great time. It’s a really good space for kids on campus, because art’s really important.

ND: You said you really like poetry in particular, what do you think draws you to that as opposed to other forms of writing?

JL: I actually started writing short stories, which then became fanfiction—I love fanfiction so much—but I think poetry is really interesting. I actually really liked classical poets when I was younger, so like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and all those dead white people they make you read in English, and I was like ‘oh my gosh,’ poetry is like really romantic, it’s also really historical, it’s really political, all the time.

Emily Dickinson has this poem that we talked about in like 6th grade, “I like to see it lap the Miles –” she was around for the industrial revolution and so she was like ‘yeah like, y’all invented the steam engine but it’s not a horse, so I don’t really care.’ We talked about that and a lot of people think that all Emily Dickinson wrote about was feeling lonely, and even that in itself is a movement, like is power, and is important. I think something that’s really cool about poetry is that it’s constantly challenging you; it’s not easy to write. It’s never easy to write poetry. It can be natural to some people, but it’s never like ‘oh man I’m gonna sit down and like write this poem in a day—bam, done.’ That used to be my writing style and then people were like ‘look Jake, you gotta edit,’ and I was like ‘what?’ So, you know, yikes.

BM: Could you talk more about that power in poetry you mentioned?

JL: Poetry is always giving power to the artist, I think. You always hear these like really sad, romantic stories about these writers who couldn’t find any purchase anywhere else. One of the books I was obsessed with when I was a kid was Little Women. There’s an artist, Jo; she used to write these really long stories, and she didn’t start getting published until she started writing poetry—publishing under a pseudonym—and then she got her plays published. That was her breaking into art; there’s Yeats, didn’t really get a lot of things published except his poetry. Shakespeare! Hated his sonnets. One of the things he’s remembered for the most. So it’s always the thing that’s going to outlive you I think.

There’s also more modern poets who’ve found power in poetry. Andrea Gibson didn’t know what to do with their burgeoning identity, their activism, their anger, their love and their joy, so then they just started putting it into poetry and someone was like ‘you’re actually like kinda good at this thing,’ and started paying them to do art, and travel, and tour nationally, and have like three chapbooks and like four albums, that’s amazing.

Rupi Kaur, and other Instagram poets like Warsan Shire, but definitely Rupi Kaur. They’re traumatized women of color, and they had nowhere to put their pain, and they were like ‘I guess the only thing I have left is my art.’ So they started putting it out. Art is valid without recognition, but the recognition they get is really important for them and for others. I recently just finished reading Milk and Honey, and everything about it really hurts, but it’s also really great. And… Man, I just really like art.

ND: Especially with the intersection of the illustrations with the poems, I love the hybrid work there. You mentioned earlier that Emily Dickinson’s ‘sad and lonely’ connotation she gets, that even that, in a way is a political statement, and from what I’ve read of your work, it has that personal element. What do you think about navigating the space between the personal and the political?

JL: I think personal experiences are almost always, and can almost always be a political statement. In my poem, I write about my weird relationship with food insecurity, and being on WIC for a while, and how that affected me more than people would think. “Food Stamps” kind of came as a surprise, it was written by accident.

We were meant to do a community outreach thing for our creative writing class, and there was a nonprofit organization called Feed the Children—which is an entirely tacky name, but they’re a good organization—they were holding a silent auction for art and exposition for poetry. So, we signed up to do it, and then everyone completely forgot about it until like two days before the event. My friend was like ‘oh my god just like read what you have’ and I was like ‘no, if it’s about food insecurity then I’m going to write about food insecurity, it’s something that affects me.’

So I sat down and wrote this poem in like a day, which completely goes against what I said earlier (laughs). I read it, and people started crying, it was very strange for me. It was something I never really thought a lot about, but when I was a kind I used to straight up steal food from people, and was constantly worried about where my next meal was even years after we got off WIC and food stamps.

I think I got off topic, but when I sit down to write from personal experience, I always am forced to think—especially as a performance poet—who is going to read this and what are they going to take away, what is the art there. There’s something they call the ‘So-What Factor’ in what makes your art important in performance poetry, and that ‘So-What Factor’ is what am I saying politically, and what am I putting out into the world. I can write “Food Stamps” and the ‘So-What Factor is that you think once a person is economically secure this ends, and it doesn’t. In the other poem I submitted, “The Year of Klekolos” you think that when you cut a toxic person out of your life they’re gone and they aren’t. Other stuff like that.

~

Jacob Lowell is a Human Rights and Political Science major, as well as a performance poet currently associated with UConn’s Poetic Release. He really likes coffee, sustainability, and other poets. He’s proudest of his bad taste in fanfiction, and great taste in music.

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