Jill Alexander Essbaum

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Jill Alexander Essbaum is a Christian erotic poet distinguished as the author of the 1999 Bakeless Prize winner in poetry, Heaven, the 2005 collection of sonnets, Oh Forbidden, and the full length collections Harlot (poetry) (No Tell Books, 2007) and Necropolis (neoNuma Arts, Spring 2008). She has described herself as "nettled and hectored by a good dozen obsessions--more, probably. There are but three that ultimately matter to me (maybe to anyone): God, sex, death. Anything worthwhile I've ever thought or said will be about those things."[1] Essbaum's poetry features puns, wordplay and dark humor mixed with searing religious and erotic imagery.[2] Bruce Covey singled out Essbaum as "contemporary poetry’s best punster.[3] She currently teaches at the University of California Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center in the Masters of Creative Writing Graduate Program.

Bakeless Prize[edit]

A graduate of the universities of Houston and Texas both (BA and MA, respectively), Essbaum was halfway through a Master of Arts in Religion at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest when Heaven, her first published work, won the Bakeless Prize for poetry and was published by University Press of New England.[4] Of Heaven, Bakeless judge Agha Shahid Ali wrote:

"Only the best writers put us right at the site of myth and thus assert, for us, our right to be part of the beginning and end of any world, any heaven. That Jill Alexander Essbaum does it so quietly, so delicately, and puts herself, and us, at the center of Heaven itself leads me only to envy. For how else can one convincingly transcend the domestic? There is simply no self-congratulation in these poems. Just a graceful, magical way of taking oneself - and one's bare uncertainties - for granted."[4]

Poetry and anthologies[edit]

Her poem "On Reading Poorly Transcribed Erotica" appears in No Tell Motel and was anthologized in The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel and The Best American Erotic Poems (Scribner 2008, edited by David Lehman).

Harlot was published by No Tell Books and is stuffed with sex and subversive—made clear by the cover, a watercolor of naked woman embracing a phallus twice her size. Yet of the three works, Harlot burns the brightest and the most holy; it reads as if John Donne and Sylvia Plath had a child and gave her only the Song of Solomon and the four Gospels to read.[original research?]

Necropolis is organized around an Easter weekend, half-Dante and half-Christ. Its cover is grey, with a stylized graveyard image. Though dedicated "chiefly to Nick Cave," the acknowledgements point to the importance of the death of Essbaum's parents and it is through death that Necropolis moves.

The Devastation is a prayer-poem published as a perfect-bound chapbook by Cooper Dillon Press.

Critical response[edit]

Essbaum has received praise for her rare voice and achievement as a Christian erotic poet.

Few poets' roots go deeper than the Romantics; Jill Alexander Essbaum's reach all the way to the Elizabethans. In her Harlot one hears Herbert and Wyatt and Donne, their parallax view of religion as sex and sex as religion, their delight in sin, their smirking penitence, their penchant for the conceit, their riddles and fables, their fondling and squeezing of language. But this "postulant in the Church of the Kiss" is a twenty-first century woman, a "strange woman" less bowed to confession than hell-bent on fairly bragging of threesomes and more complications than were wet-dreamt of in Mr. W. H.'s philosophy. - H. L. Hix

Essbaum's work was reviewed in the literary blog Strong Verse, where G.M. Palmer reviewed The Devastation, Harlot, and Necropolis.[2] After reviewing them all, Palmer concluded:

No poet today dares play with such spiritual fire like Jill Alexander Essbaum dares. Her poems skirt the edge of blasphemy and pray for re-readings and a spiritual embrace. Dancing on the edge of her words one finds despair and salvation, often in the same word. She echoes Donne and Plath and riffs on Eliot but has the precise benefit of being alive and full of our time. I can find few poets to recommend so highly. A reader would be hard-pressed to find finer contemporary verse.[2]

Necropolis, Essbaum's third collection of poems, was published in 2008 by neoNuma Arts. The most obviously religious work, it combines the three days of the crucifixion and the deaths of the poet's parents.

A single-poem chapbook, The Devastation, was published by Cooper Dillon Books in fall 2009.

Teaching and performances[edit]

Essbaum appeared in Divergence Vocal Theatre's The 10th Muse: Opera for the Equinox!, which was based on her poetry, Sappho fragments, and contemporary dance. (Sappho and Les Troyens selections sung in French with English supertitles. Poetry in English).

Essbaum has published in journals both religious and secular, both domestic and foreign, both well-known and obscure including The Christian Century, No Tell Motel, 32 poems, Rhino, and Image. Five of her poems were originally published in Poetry (4:13 AM, Non Redibimus, What Isn't Mine, Poem, and Parting Song).[5] 2003, she was awarded an NEA literature grant . She has taught at Concordia University in Austin, TX, and at the University of Texas at Austin. She has particular affection for the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poems of Simon Armitage, the mystical theology of Simone Weil, the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the office politics of Wernham Hogg.[citation needed]

Essbaum lived in Zürich, Switzerland, 2005–2008. She currently resides in Austin, Texas.


Title Date published ISBN
Heaven August 2000 978-1584650461
Oh Forbidden October 2005 978-1931247290
The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel January 2006 1-4116-6591-0
Necropolis June 2006 978-0974162348
Harlot October 2007 978-0-6151-6131-0
"The Devastation" December 2009 978-0-9841928-1-6