Rolling deep with poet Major Jackson

Rhythm and roots mark Major Jackson's poetry as he reaches back to the foundations of the form.
By Julie Krug | Published: April 5, 2016


major-jackson-Erin-Patrice-O'Brien

Photo by Erin Patrice O’Brien

Major Jackson has a voice that is warm and low. At a reading, it resonates over the podium and gently bounces off the ceiling and walls. It is a rich voice that speaks clearly about the human experience. Using the unexpected beats and rhythms of jazz and the hip-hop and rap from his teen years, Jackson thrums melodic poems. With his right hand on the lectern and the left hovering in the air, he keeps time with an imaginary poetic baton, engaging his orchestra – a spellbound audience.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jackson says the years spent on the streets there had a profound influence on him and his art. Despite once referring to his hometown as “Death’s headquarters” in a poem in his first book Leaving Saturn, Jackson loves the city and says the reference is merely a quote from early 20th century jazz musician and performing artist Sun Ra.

Now teaching at the University of Vermont, he still calls Philly home, but also says the Northwest, where he earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Oregon, is very important to him. In his youth, he was a self-proclaimed brooder but his friends and music were very influential. He was also, at that time, drawn to poets who spoke to his existential angst.
When Jackson talks about poetry, he notes that language is compressed and distilled, elusive in its essence. Poetry needs to have a musical quality, and the poet “needs to make a unique sound-lyricism.” Language becomes an experience in itself.

“Each poem is an act of experimenting and discovering,” says Jackson. Some of his favorite poems are autobiographical, poems that taught him about writing, poems that enrich his life.

Much of the 47-year-old poet’s work is autobiographical, but “not as much as people think,” he says. Even so, Jackson has four books infused with poems about topics he calls personal: urban renewal, lost love, living in the era of Civil Rights, a painful divorce.

Poet Sharon Olds, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stags Leap, gave Jackson some timeless advice she once received from another poet. She told him, “Write the poem you would never show anyone.”

As a child, he lived with his grandparents, and it was in their library that he first discovered the work of Robert Frost. He grew to love poetry and would later be greatly influenced by the African American poets Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Derek Walcott.

Jackson was so inspired by Brooks, in fact, he wrote an epistolary, flexible rhyming poem “Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden,” about her in his second book, Hoops: Poems.

Jackson writes as if there is nothing that can’t be turned into a poem. For those suffering in silence, he says, a poem can become a “life raft,” and therefore makes a case for the retelling of highly personal experiences. And if you don’t like reading poets that are revealing, says Jackson, “just don’t read that poet.”

Jackson has been published in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review and Tin House, among others, and is currently the poetry editor for Harvard Review.

His philosophy these days about reading other poets is: “Let the poem teach me about poetry and what language can do, rather than being the captain of the ship.”

major-jackson-fileHis first book Leaving Saturn is both formal and free verse. The poems touch on adolescent sexuality, urban decay, violence, the power of music and stories of courage and resilience. Leaving Saturn won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, dedicated to exceptional work by black poets of African descent. Hoops, which came next, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and is a reflection on ordinary lives and urban landscapes not unlike the one where he grew up. In this book, he emphasized the lyrical quality of the narrative poem.

Holding Company: Poems, Jackson’s third book, has been called his darkest and most personal work, a collection of rigid and mostly 10-line poems highlighting pop culture and the painful end of a marriage, which he refers to as “a democracy lost to a monarchy.”

This year, Jackson turned out Roll Deep: Poems – and changes up his style from narrative to prose form. The poems speak of war, human intimacy and online dating.

Jackson reminds readers that poets, like novelists, are allowed to experiment, embellish and most important, write poems that are from the viewpoint of someone else, which, he says, encourages compassion and empathy. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

You’ve said that jazz, hip-hop and rap have strongly influenced your poetry. In what ways?

Isn’t it funny that we are not formally trained to listen, which might be one of the great journeys in life, to truly hear each other? Much of the music in my life has taught me to listen, not merely to notes but to the underlying swell of human emotion that informs the chords and words. I inherited an abiding love of jazz and blues from my grandfather. B.B. King died recently. When I learned of his passing, I recalled my grandfather taking me to the Robin Hood Dell in Fairmont Park to hear him. I must have been 10 years old. I can see still his strained, sweaty face and his closed eyes moving in concert with what glorious, pained feeling he was expressing on his guitar Lucille. That feeling is what I long for in my own work.

I aim to write poems in which language changes into feeling. With hip-hop and rap music, the expressive medium of my generation, I learned to stylize language and to make language an experience for the reader – whether through an idiosyncratic simile or through an insistent use of repetition or some heretofore encountered combination of rhymes. The best of hip-hop music honors the idioms of the age as well as the individual’s unique style and cumulative evolution as an artist. Each poem I write attempts to capture the concerns and sensibilities of our times and to express my unique relationship to language.

I’ve heard you read your poetry live. I can hear the unique beats and rhythms in your voice. Is this intentional or does it manifest organically out of the live performance?

It’s a combination of both. I read aloud while composing. So the poem in a way sweeps me up into its own rhythmic vortex as it is coming into being. I try to listen to its changes and where the poem is leading. At the same time, I also am deliberately attempting to make music, imposing tight structures then letting them contract and release. Such a relationship to syntax is about wrestling order and meaning into the world. The poem is my ring, my circle, so to speak. So that by the time I am before an audience reading, I am replicating and recreating the sensation of creating the poem all over again. Quite possibly that’s what you hear. Of course, each reading is its own performance, and once inside the poem, I will intuitively breathe differently, which will elicit a distinct recital.

Much of your poetry is autobiographical, although you’ve said not as much as people think. But you’ve emphasized the need for writers to step outside themselves and write from a different point of view. How does a writer maintain authenticity while striving for the compassion that can be found by writing from someone else’s perspective?

That’s a brilliant question. I suppose authenticity can be found in the writer’s relationship to their art and subject matter. Regrettably, autobiographical writing feels more like sentimental reportage, mere recording of the facts that never transcend to the realm of art, warm and fuzzy personal journalism I occasionally have called such poems. Look. This happened to me. I suffered. I survived. But the poets who can immerse themselves into their lives through the medium of language and artifice will likely stir a reader as much through the elegance of their truths as the conditions, tragic, beautiful or otherwise, that gave rise to that which compelled us into speech or hurt us into poetry.

Do you have a favorite type of poem?

Major-Jackson-howtoListenI have been writing a sequence poem for almost 20 years titled Urban Renewal. I keep returning to its structure, after a lifetime of reading Robert Lowell’s notebooks, the sonnet sequences of Joseph Brodsky and others – Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Melissa Green’s Squanicook Eclogues, George Meredith’s Modern Love, Gwendolyn Brooks’ In the Mecca and Derek Walcott’s later collections of poetry, and to some extent, the prose poetry of Mark Strand and Charles Simic. It is the extended, single-stanza poem, often featuring near- and off-rhymes, whose internal logic transitions several times, but what drives the writing is the poem’s commitment to music and an apparent simplicity. It seems that nothing is above address when I run my creative process through this kind of shape. It is limber and expansive enough for me to address questions of travel, memory and love.

Your book Holding Company is comprised of many lyric poems, most of them only 10 lines each. You made a big shift in style in Roll Deep, your newest book. Why the switch?

In a lot of ways, Roll Deep is actually a return to previous subject matter and methods of composition. Who can dictate a writer’s stylistic evolution or shifts in thematic concerns? We respond to the world around us with a freshness of eyes but also with an accumulation of talent and techniques. Then again, I know I personally am driven by a creative restlessness, an internal dissatisfaction and revolt with what I have written before, all of the conventions that become stock strategies and familiar utterances, which also triggers a need to strip oneself and redress and try on new ways of approaching language and the construction of poems.

And yet, this newest collection contains poems about urban poverty, a subject matter I was obsessive to write about in my first two volumes of poetry but then abandoned because I felt distant from the city of my youth – Philadelphia – and its inhabitants, having not lived there for some time. I also felt shame, not about growing up working class, but because after hearing critics, even friends, accuse the reading public of only consuming narratives of black lives that re-inscribe racist notions of black pathology.

I did not want to feed the desire for such stereotypes or be accused of profiting and adding to the industry of racial imagery that harms my people. Respectability politics kept me from telling the stories and singing the lives of people worthy of imaginative portrait. It’s a precarious predicament for those of us who write from the margins of one kind or another. But the truth is: I am still haunted by the images of ghetto America, and, after a trip to Kenya, I realized how universal the experience and trauma of poverty, even the indifference that accompanies such subject matter. Some stories want to be reworked into myth.

What is the relationship, if any, between poetry and novel writing?

Not having written a novel, I am chiefly speculating. But if I look to the poet-novelists whose work have inspired me and for whom I hold great admiration, I would largely say that writing poetry teaches an exceptional love for words, their special properties and ability to signify beyond the literal, which is why the best novelists do more than paint scenes or describe characters. They know how to create acts of metaphor and put allegory to use such that the experience of reading is not merely one-dimensional, but a full-fledged affair in which multiple of ourselves seem stimulated, our physical body as well as our intellect.

Have you ever considered a transition into the genre of fiction? Short story or novel? If so, what would you like to write about?

A novel? No. I am too frequently undisciplined to imaginatively sustain a long work; my attention span is perfectly calibrated for writings poems. For that reason, short fiction appeals to me, especially if I can approach them in short lyric bursts.

Who are your favorite post-modern poets? Who has influenced your work the most?

Major-Jackson-After-RiefensthalNot that they have influenced me directly, but their poems are conceptually rich and emerge outside the cult of experimentation as mere transgression. I am thrilled to be writing and breathing at the same time as Claudia Rankine, Erica Hunt, Cathy Park Hong, Terrance Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Fred Moten, Tonya Foster, Arthur Sze, Evie Shockley, John Keene, M. NourbeSe Philip and so many others, poets for whom post-modern does not comfortably fit their aesthetic evocations and provocations. Their work is born out of the pleasures and joys of the text, sine qua non, but also out of a tremendous spirit of re-gifting and stewarding a sophisticated conversation in literature about identity as more than human crisis but as a site of joy, lyric freedom and invention.

One of your poems in Holding Company is “After Riefenstahl.” Do you think most readers recognize Riefenstahl? Is part of your goal to educate? To urge readers towards greater investigation?

To some extent, yes, but not explicitly or even didactically. I’ll never need to include a compendium of notes as T. S. Eliot does with “The Waste Land,” partly because we have hand-held computers, and attaining information has never been quicker, much to the chagrin of librarians. However, I do believe that poems should allow readers to encounter the full range of a human intellect whose performance is most visible in how poems are shot through with allusions and references that help bridge the reader to the poem and our shared history and culture. For those who have access to the various vectors and energies, this can be an exhilarating dance with the poem.

How important is it to develop poetic imagery that is all your own? 

There are several other job descriptions of the poet that are more important; however, this ranks up there. The stamp of originality is felt no greater than how poets show us how they sensuously experience the world around them.

You said poets shape the future, that they take what’s contemporary and create a kind of time capsule. In this regard, do poets help create or magnify the legends of an era?

This is the other unofficial job description of the poet: to sanctify the era’s unique thoughts and experience. We both create and enlarge the myths of our age that seem built into the structure of our minds.

I write nonfiction and fiction, and some poetry for my own edification. Of all these, poetry has the greatest sense of immediacy. It comes in a big wave, and I drop whatever I’m doing and commit the entire thing to paper in one sitting and edit later. Is this sense of urgency unique to poetry?

I had not considered this question before, but impulsively, I have to agree. One’s instinct is nearly impeccable, and one’s sense of timing seems one’s own when there is that deep immersion into the poem’s construction. I cannot say I feel that same kind of rapture and containment when writing nonfiction.

To MFA or not? Can a writer become a credible poet today without an MFA in creative writing?

Major-Jackson-night-stepsOf course. Plenty of reading and a supportive yet critical community of other poets will suffice where there is no option of acquiring an MFA. This might even be preferred to some extent. One does not get stultified or miscued by the artificial environment of a two-year literary arts program.

What advice can you give to new poets?

The fundamental answer always to this question is to read vertically and widely to discover what is possible in a poem. One must read across all kinds of intersections of identity and styles; meaning, do not just read the poets who sound like you and share your particular demographic or political beliefs, but read dangerously and adventurously.
My most precious early moments as an aspiring writer was when I read voraciously to discover the poets who surprised me by their visions of what constitutes a poem and what needs to be said in the history of human consciousness. After “deep reading,” then obviously what emerges is the imitative mode. Try to write through your influences. Then and only then will the writing organically graft from the evolved craft of poetry and only then will the poet begin to envision a place for themselves.

Julie Krug is a regular contributor to The Writer. She lives in Washington state.