Issue 73: A Conversation with Major Jackson

issue73

Found in Willow Springs 73

April 13, 2013

Christian Gotch, Aileen Keown Vaux, Casey Patrik

A CONVERSATION WITH MAJOR JACKSON

major-jackson

Photo Credit: poets.org

Major Jackson's poetry is clear, fluent, and musical, sometimes relying on formal structure, sometimes referencing pop culture, and often investigating how seemingly disparate subjects can interact and inform each other. He asserts that a poem "becomes a kind of time capsule," and as such, can contain references to both Kanye West and ancient Greek mythology, as illustrated in his poem "Letter to Brooks," when Jackson writes: "O, Orpheus grant the skills to stir / the dead like Kanye mixing music with fire, I ... Rescue the underground so they can aim higher." Here, the poet's use of high­ brow and lowbrow references also connects the present to the past.

Jackson is the author of three collections, the first of which, Leaving Saturn, won the Cave Canem Prize, and was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. A former member of the Dark Room Collective, and current Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review, Jackson experiments with form in his work, without sacrificing the vernacular of the Philadelphia neighborhood he grew up in. As Andrew Dubois pointed out in a review of Jackson's second book, Hoops, his "greatest strength ... is his ability to marry without anxiety the traditional forms of the English poetic tradition with ... the human concerns of an urban, black population."

Jackson's poetry draws a road map from classic traditions to the heart of the inner city, always with an ear attuned to the blues and jazz rhythms he grew up with. Whether he's inhabiting the persona of Sun­ Ra or writing an extended epistolary homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, his poems combine striking imagery with muscular, fluid rhythms.

We met with Mr. Jackson at a deli in Spokane one afternoon last April, where we talked about Kim Kardashian, building community, and the seduction of sound.

CASEY PATRICK

How do pop culture references interact with more highbrow references in your poems?

MAJOR JACKSON

I've never made distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, although some would say I come from lowbrow. The education I received made everything open and available to me. No one said, "Although we're teaching you Shakespeare right now, that's not yours. That belongs to the Brits." To learn about Plato's Republic—to read Plato's Republic­—eventually it's all kind of absorbed into your DNA, and eventually it becomes part of how you order and shape the world around you. When you put those bricks of intellectual inheritance and knowledge into a form, it creates a certain dynamism, the melding of cultures, and it's also a nod to the past. Allusions—whether they're Greek or biblical or whatever—create a bridge to the reader. If something's in a poem that a reader's familiar with, they're on stable ground. And if they're not familiar, they might seek out whatever's being referred to, and it might enhance their reading.

AILEEN KEOWN VAUX

Is it optimistic to hope that readers will perform their own research?

JACKSON

I think there's always a bit of optimism on the poet's part. Some of my friends who read Anne Carson—a classicist, a scholar—feel intimidated by her, but I believe one of the brilliant strategies in her work is how she makes classical figures contemporary, creating an opportunity for us to look at them as human and fallible. She asks what basic kinds of emotions did Eurydice deal with, or Pygmalion, who wants to sculpt the perfect wife. We exercise this wonderful power as writers; we get to impose meaning and import on the world around us, including how it relates to popular culture. If I write a poem about Kim Kardashian, she might not be the familiar name in forty years that she is today, but my poem will help continue her life. That's what happened with Marilyn Monroe as a cultural icon. There were enough people who wrote songs about her, or poems, or who created image of her that her story didn't get lost. We get to shape the future in that regard. We push our present day passions forward in a poem, and the poem becomes a kind of time capsule.

KEOWN VAUX

Do you think incorporating a variety of references into your poems indicates an active searching for a variety of audiences?

JACKSON

If I am doing that, that audience would be geeks like me, people who get kind of high off of history, pop culture, hip-hop, Greek mythology, people who've traveled to the places I've traveled, who've listened to the music I've listened to. It's more like I'm creating a community around me, across boundaries of class, race, gender.

KRISTIN GOTCH

In an interview with Green Mountain Review, you talked about feeling debilitated after the success of Leaving Saturn and the subsequent fear of letting your readers down. Once you build that community around you, how does it change with each book you publish? Do you still experience that psychological connection?

JACKSON

I guess I do, to some extent. First books normally don't gain the kind of attention that Leaving Saturn gained, and I felt fortunate and blessed, but I also felt like I needed to keep writing similar poems. It was like having a pancake house that everybody comes to every morning, and every morning they want the same order. Do I change the menu? Do I change the recipe? My impulse was to go forward and be loyal to my own aesthetic and emotional and intellectual interests. And if readers don't follow, the hope is that other readers will appreciate the different types of poems I'm writing. I know that people might want what you gave them before. But I was only one book in, and I kind of felt a shift at that time. And then I had a really drastic shift from Hoops to Holding Company, and at that point I didn't care.

KEOWN VAUX

What happened between Hoops and Holding Company?

JACKSON

Divorce, heartbreak, falling in love, travel, reading poets I hadn't read before—Cavafy, for example. I thought the poems in Leaving Saturn were written out of a certain kind of urgency. These new poems were, too, maybe even more so. But some of what helped drive that newer work wasn't connected to what was going on in my life. Some of it was just being kind of restless with poetry. How could I teach myself something about language and art?

PATRICK

In Hoops, we see a continuation of poems that we first saw in Leaving Saturn. Would you talk about that evolution?

JACKSON

Well, the poems weren't finished for me. "Hoops" was meant to be a sequence poem, as was "Urban Renewal." In fact, I had imagined my first book not being Leaving Saturn, which was my graduate thesis, but being a book filled with "Urban Renewal" poems, modeled off of poets I was reading who did similar kinds of poems—Robert Lowell and Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott. All three men put out books that had these sixteen-to-twenty-line poems that felt like extended sonnets. So I starred in that sequence and wrote it for Leaving Saturn when I was a graduate student, and then I wrote some more of chose in Hoops. Now I've gone back to writing "Urban Renewal" poems. I want to fulfill chat dream of writing a book of only "Urban Renewal" poems. I'm not sure how they'll be received, but that's my mountain to climb.

GOTCH

All of your books seem to be in dialogue with one another, but you're also in dialogue with different poets, living and dead. Is that emblematic of your own work, or do you see that something poetry does in general?

JACKSON

I come from the African-American literary tradition, particularly the Black Arcs Movement of the 1960s, which influenced me when I was an undergrad at Temple University. I studied with one of those poets, Sonia Sanchez. As someone who's explicitly interested in social justice and peace, I admired the social function that particular poetry seemed to take on—and part of that project, writing poems that would raise awareness, was in the tradition of the praise poem. So you have poems to Malcolm X and John Coltrane and Frederick Douglass. These are historical figures. But are they likely to be taught in schools? When I was younger, probably not. The poem became a vehicle to raise awareness. And when Sonia Sanchez gave readings, before she read, she would just—in a kind of roll call, in this trance-like way—call out all these political leaders, artists, musicians, poets, and I loved that, because poetry emerges out of a long tradition of praise, but, historically, praise poems were for the fallen dead, a soldier or a great general, and what she celebrated were creative, imaginative individuals. And then I heard the wonderful Polish poet Adam Zagajewski talk about entering the conversation of what it means to be human, and that concept became important to me. One time, a man came up to me at a festival where I was attending a friend's reading , and he said, "You're Major Jackson ," and I said, "Yeah, and you must be a poet," and he said, "No, I'm a counselor. I run a group for men who batter their wives. But I open every session with your poem 'How to Listen."' And I was just floored by that. Because I imagined my readers as other poets, or at least as a kind of poetry reading public. The fact that poems can enter into other realms of our lives made me think a little more seriously about chat conversation of what it means to be human.

KEOWN VAUX

You've talked about how art influences community, specifically how it functions among communities of artists. There's a line in "Letter to Brooks" where you call Thomas Sayers Ellis your Ezra Pound, in reference to Ellis's role in the Dark Room Collective. Can you talk about how these writing collective form and if physical proximity plays a role?

JACKSON

What triggers poetic movements is often a reaction to some sort of dominant poetics. And on other occasions, as in the case with Pound, there's a dynamic figure who's politicizing his or her particular aesthetic agenda. I mean, Pound was the manifesto king. I guess with the Dark Room Collective, it was proximity, but what I love about that group is that it was founded by readers who were admirers of a tradition in American literature, or a wing of American literature, that wasn't being acknowledged, at least visibly in Cambridge when Thomas [Sayers Ellis] and Sharan [Strange] and Janice [Lowe] were students in the Boston/ Cambridge area. And then it kind of widened—I mean, I was down in Philadelphia, Natasha [Trethewey] was kind of close, in Amherst, Massachusetts. So, yes, geography can be important. The thing with the Black Mountain Poets is that it was [Charles] Olson who was there, for the most part, as that dynamic figure. [Robert] Creeley wasn't there­—Creeley would come later, Denise Levertov never set foot on campus, so it was orchestrated slightly differently than other groups.

PATRICK

Why do you think these groups form so consistently throughout history?

JACKSON

I think it's out of common interest. Two years in an MFA program isn't enough. I somehow landed with poets in New Jersey—and I adore all poets, let me just say. But there's the poets around Princeton and then there's the southern Jersey poets, and I think we just naturally become cliques. Like I was saying earlier, in terms of reacting to dominant aesthetics, that was very real in the '50s, when we had a reaction against Modernism and then swung way back in the other direction, with a certain kind of formalism, and then those people were in the academic institutions and became the granters of awards, deciding who got published , and so there had to be a reaction against that.

GOTCH

When these groups form, there seems to be the risk of building expectations. In an article you published in the Boston Review about Countee Cullen, you said he wanted to be read "as a poet, not a Negro poet." Do you see readers having those same sort of expectations from African-American writers today—or any groups of writers?

JACKSON

Less so today, let's put it that way. I think what we're realizing is that there are not homogenous kinds of experiences for ethnic and racial groups in America. There's many different ways of being a woman, or being an African American. In fact, I like to believe that we're widening our understanding of what a human being is with these particular markers. How do people both refract and individuate their lives as humans—people who are men, women, white, black, Asian, Latina, octogenarians, teens, transgendered? I had a student who was a female-to-male transgender, an honors thesis student, and I loved the poems he wrote. They were so rich in humanity. One poem was about being young and teaching the girls how to pee standing up. Someone else has probably had that experience, and if I think about the canon as a collection of selves, I want that poem in the Norton Anthology, so that, again, we have a wider understanding of what it means to be human, and don't so easily fear and hate what's unfamiliar. With the wide range of poets writing today—I'm hoping we'll see writing in ten, fifteen years that will be more representative of the rich community of selves that we are.

PATRICK

Understanding what it means to be human seems like it would necessarily involve the political. In an interview with Third Coast, you said, "I do not believe in safe subjects." Are there any subjects you find too dangerous or off-limits?

JACKSON

You've heard of Minnesota-nice. I think about how there are just some things that aren't discussed, and I see what that does to a family and to individuals. I want to believe that there's no topic that's off-limits, and I do believe that all things come to light anyway, at some point. It may be years down the line, but at some point, we see it. What's great about a poem is that you can go to it with a certain amount of freedom from those temporal and spatial kind of restraints. Sharon Olds told me about an exercise she received from Muriel Rukeyser when she was young. Muriel said, "Write the poem you would never show anyone."

KEOWN VAUX

And Sharon Olds went on to make a career of that.

JACKSON

Exactly. It takes a kind of courage, a kind of vision and courage. Some people dismiss poems grounded in personal experience that might seem a little too revealing, but you don't have to read that poet. Just don't read them. Some people appreciate the personal, though, because we too often live our lives in silence, even when there's suffering and anguish. And the poem, I've realized, really does become a vehicle, a life raft to some extent.

KEOWN VAUX

Sharon Olds has an interesting relationship with her readership, because a lot of people want to read her work as purely autobiographical. Is that something you've faced, as well?

JACKSON

I had a neighbor who was a mental health counselor, and one day he said to me, "Major, I read your poems. I see that you've had a traumatic life," and I thought, Dude, you know nothing about me if you're going to read my life through my poems. It's too easy to make a one-to-one correlation between a life and a poem. Someone who wants to do that­—a critic, a reader—does not realize the nuances of composition that may transform what was once fact into fiction. And poets, too, exercise their imagination and play with the facts so that they'll serve the poem, rather than serving up a transcript of their life. One of the things I found frustrating when I read Ian Hamilton's biography of Robert Lowell was his strategy to start with the poems and then connect them to what was going on in Lowell's life. It seems dangerous to try to do that, because if we're writing about our lives, there are things that are being translated­—the language itself is going to play a role in that transfiguration.

I think if l attend to the aesthetic decisions of a poem, if l look at my line breaks, if l think about metaphoric language versus overly descriptive language, I believe—and I'm aiming for a certain kind of cadence, a certain kind of sound—if l tend to those pleasures, because that's the first order of seduction for a reader, the aesthetic dimension—if I tend to that, then naturally the poem is going to evolve away from whatever "facts" I bring to the page. I tell my students that they can play with a reader's expectations of who's speaking. If they're thinking they're getting too much of the self, then do a little bit of cross-dressing, you know? Or, truly, write out of some other speaker's experience.

KEOWN VAUX

What do you get out of writing in someone else's voice? What changes in the writing process?

JACKSON

Stepping into someone's shoes creates moments of empathy—and the relief or freedom from having to come up with a subject, particularly if you're used to writing about your own life, or turning to your own experiences. Writing about someone else can also invite other kinds of intelligences to go to work in a poem. When you write about other people, you're the historian, you're the psychologist, trying to figure out motivations. Sometimes I don't know what motivates me to do the things I do, but I can assess someone else's behavior and sequence of actions, and theorize about why they did what they did.

KEOWN VAUX

In other interviews, you've mentioned place as a vehicle for getting readers to think critically about their own cities, their own towns.

JACKSON

And place is a convenient way of talking about the interior.

PATRICK

Philadelphia appears a lot in your work, though you've lived in other places. Has living elsewhere changed how you view Philly?

JACKSON

I think we create our paradises wherever we are. Some people have a difficult time seeing what's special about where they're at. When I moved to Eugene, Oregon, my affection for Philly grew. It was almost like I was asleep, and in the waking moments of writing I could reflect back on those times. I could almost smell the rain on the sidewalk, or I'd recall my mother driving along the Schuylkill River, on Lincoln Drive and Kelly Drive, the windows down. Those are foundational experiences, and I guess there's always a longing for Philly. But it's been the other way around, too, in that Philly has allowed me to discover my other sacred places. Cape Cod is one of them; the Northwest is important to me. New Orleans is important to me, too. Having lived there, I try to go back every two or three years. So, yeah, I've been in Vermont eleven years, but Philly still excites me.

KEOWN VAUX

How do you define a sacred space?

JACKSON

A sense of safety, a sense of my body feeling like—I'm about to get all mystical, but when I land in certain places, there's a kind of calm, a lack of anxiety. The people are decent. There's a certain regard for life in all of its manifestations, the natural world and other human beings. And of course, these places are all over the world. I'm just starting to be able to have the means to visit other places and have those same sorts of experiences. I feel like it should almost be mandatory that before you go to college, you drive cross-country with maybe two or three other people. And maybe you do volunteer work where you get to know people, not just driving through and stopping at diners and filling up your gas tank, but really getting to know people. Just imagine all the connections you could make.

Leave a Comment