Major Jackson is the author of three poetry collections: Holding Company (Norton, 2010), Hoops, and Leaving Saturn. Leaving Saturn was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Book Review, and many other periodicals. Jackson has received awards including a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and a honors from Witter Bynner. Jackson is a core faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars and is the Richard A. Dennis Professor at University of Vermont.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Kira Assad. Of the process, she said, “I love how paintings, music, and even a letter to a friend all become inspirations in Major Jackson’s poetry. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to ask him more about his process in writing such beautifully descriptive poems.” In this interview, Major discusses his inspiration for the letter to Gwendolyn Brooks in Hoops and his idea to use “Urban Renewal” as an ongoing project throughout his poetry collections.
Superstition Review: Music plays an important role in influencing your work in Leaving Saturn. Many of your poems pay tribute to the jazz band Sun-Ra. What first drew you to the band and inspired you to create these poems? How did you prepare these poems to emulate Sun-Ra and his music?
Major Jackson: Early on, music defined my imaginative life along with the books and films I avidly consumed. When I truly started thinking lively about existence, becoming a contemplative person, I possessed scant experiences, so Sun Ra and films by Spike Lee, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, many others were like vitamin supplements. These were auteurs, in every sense, and the dramatic situations and questions they posed strengthened my grasp of the great human dialogue. The music I gravitated towards, jazz and progressive hip-hop, also incised certain moods that felt historical and political. Thanks to my grandfather who owned a heavy stack of 78s and who would come home from work, dusty from that days labor on a construction site, crooning some tune, I developed a love for black music. Later, I would realize he would stop at the local bar for a beer which accounted for his jovial spirit.
I knew of Sun Ra before I actually heard him. He lived a few blocks away from the home of my youth in Germantown, Philadelphia. Then later at the Painted Bride Art Center where I worked, I actually had the pleasure of watching his rehearsals that led to his annual concert, which was often at the end of the year. The costumes and parades were pure Black theater, and it was tautological and avant-garde. I love the myth-making, his notion of being sent from Saturn to save planet earth. Cosmological witnessing. Black vernacular truth-telling but with a slant.
SR: How did it feel when first poetry collection Leaving Saturn won the 2000 Cave Canem Poetry Prize?
MJ: I lived in used bookstores in Philadelphia; I purchased three or four books per week. My favorite was Bookhaven across from the Eastern State Penitentiary near the Art Museum on Spring Garden. I was living on Taft Street in Bayou St. John of New Orleans when the box of books arrived from University of Georgia Press. An interesting mix of exhilaration and disbelief overcame me. But, ultimately, I felt immense pride and gratitude for all those who helped me actualize into a published writer of poetry.
SR: Your longest poem in Hoops is a letter to Gwendolyn Brooks. In past interviews you mention your admiration for her and that you hope your poem “serves as an impetus for non-readers of her work to become aware and to seek her out.” What motivated this set of poems? Was this always something you envisioned doing for Brooks?
MJ: Gwendolyn Brooks was an enormous influence, along with the recently departed Amiri Baraka and that whole generation of black poets from the 1960s, who announced a certain pride that was healing. Because I had studied with Sonia Sanchez at Temple University, these were the first poets I sought to imitate. As a craftsperson, she was indomitable; her poems possess a rhetorical sophistication that we still haven’t comprehended to full appreciation. For example, her “Lovers of the Poor” makes a profound statement about class and human relationship that is found not on the surface of the poem but in the very texture of the language itself: “the late light slanting / In diluted gold bars across the boulevard brag / Of proud, seamed faces with mercy and murder hinting / Here, there, interrupting, all deep and debonair.”
Actually the project started off as an imitation of Auden’s long epistolary poem “Letter to Byron.” As I state in the poem, I was going to riff and write a poem to the late Tupac, but then Gwendolyn Brooks died in January, 2000. Then, of course, later that year, 9/11. I wanted to somewhat document my reaction to this historical moment. I initially conceived of a project of suite of letters to Thurgood Marshall and Paul Laurence Dunbar, but I am finding that I cannot sustain long projects too long before ennui sets in. I am too creatively restless.
SR: “Bum Rush” in your poetry collection Hoops begins with a reference to “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and then it transitions into the last time you saw your mother. Where did the association between “The Lottery” and your mother originate?
MJ: I cannot say for sure. Like so many readers, that story affected me entirely when I first read it in high school. I suffered to believe that anyone could help in stoning their own mother. I loved my mother deeply. Her death was one of the central losses in my life which came during a fruitful period of writing but I could not successfully or willfully write about her. I attempted all sorts of straightforward narration, but nothing would relent.
SR: Your poem “Poem Beginning with a Line by Dante Rossetti” was inspired by Dante Rossetti’s poem about the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and Antonio Allegri da Correggio. Works of art such as paintings, music, poetry, even a letter to a friend have all been inspirations in your own poetry. Do you start your composing process with the work of others in mind? What compels you into other people’s conversations?
MJ: To some extent, as artists, we are obligated to renew the conversations in new contexts. Poems should be as complex as existence and as layered. I’ve always been a believer that a poem reflects the richness of one’s interiority. Some would regrettably characterize such poems as pretentious or evasive, and at worst, escapist, which is too bad and ignorant, and faintly classist. I only partially know who I am because of others around me, other artists and thinkers, and how they have articulated their vision and existence. The mysteries become, for a moment, known and resolved. These are gifts. I guess I want to provide my own temporary stays against confusion. And it takes work, rigor and critical engagement with the structures of intellectual thought.
SR: On poets.org you explain that the poem “On Disappearing” came from the notion that, “We are surrounded on all sides by the persistence of death and its implications. One could argue, as many have done, that all that we do is a compensation for this fact, including writing a poem.” Could you expand on this idea that writing a poem is a form of compensating for the persistence of death?
MJ: I guess I mean that a life is given worth by the deeds, both ephemeral and lasting, that one leaves behind that reaffirms life and all living existence. I am talking creation in the purest sense. But, also this: for as long as I can remember, I’ve been anxious about that last hour and what lies beyond my last breath, if anything at all. I grew up in a Baptist church: heavenly trumpets and golden gates feel too simplistic. I write poems to overcome fretfulness, to mark my days.
SR: In your essay “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” I was surprised when you said “Contemporary fiction writers, it seems to me, are more willing than poets to take risks and explore reigning racial attitudes of today and yesterday.” In what ways do poets take similar risks? Are there poets writing now who do take these risks?
MJ: I am thrilled about the impact of that essay, which seems to have spawned even more dialogue and discussion about the illusion of race, but also the historical legacy of American poets and artists. More people are writing poems, personal and exploratory, about race. This was not my intention, but a glaring oversight.
SR: On an interview you had on Redivider you discuss how you “knew ‘Hoops’ would appear in the next book” because you were “unsatisfied with a few components.” What did you learn from this experience? Has that ever happened to you again with other projects?
MJ: I can always undress a poem and put on new clothes. I have a healthy regard for the poem as process rather than a finished object. It breathes and lives in my imagination and hopefully in others, who can make use of it as they will.
SR: In Leaving Saturn, your first poem “Urban Renewal” is split into twelve parts where some of the parts have titles and others only have numbers. What lead to this choice in titling only a few of the parts? How do you generally come up with the titles of your poems and poetry collections?
MJ: Titles emerge either prior to the writing of the poem which is rare; but most often I will think about deepening the poem’s meaning or giving some context so that a reader can enter comfortably into the poem. Because “Urban Renewal” is a sequence poem, in which all of the sections have numbers, I did not feel the need to title every section.
SR: In your poetry collection Hoops, you begin the collection with a prefatory poem, "Selling Out," and then split the poems up into three sections. How did you decide to organize your collection in this way? How do you generally approach organizing your poems into collections?
MJ: I avidly believe in style. I hope to be as deliberate and imaginative with how a collection of poetry unfolds as I am when writing individual poems. Structuring a volume of poetry is like arranging the various rooms of a house. Once a reader opens that cover, a door opens and alas, a visitor walks in, and what she encounters, depending on the placement of the furniture, color of the walls, lighting, will determine how much further she will explore. The configuration and organization of a book, right down to its font choice, announces a spectrum of possibilities. I aim for balance and light. That poem “Selling Out” was to create balance, but also to hint at the previous collection Leaving Saturn, a continuance of themes and an indication of what might lay ahead.
SR: In both Leaving Saturn and Hoops there is a section of the collection titled "Urban Renewal." Combined, the poems make up twenty parts within each section. Is the "Urban Renewal" in Hoops a continuation of the "Urban Renewal" in Leaving Saturn? Why split them into two different poetry collections?
MJ: “Urban Renewal” is an ongoing project. I’ll have another set of Urban Renewal poems in the next book Roll Deep, and hope to occasionally include this project in subsequent books, such that it becomes a mirror of my obsessions and intellectual growth. I was born in era of urban blight and the domestic policies that were aimed to improve the lives of those who grew up in ghettoes, but, of course, they were limited and failed because they lacked vision of how to deal with people and communities. But, as I want to do, I am appropriate to the idea to apply to art and the impact of living a life in language and song and poetry.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
MJ: To no one’s surprise, and like any writer, I have books, journals, and papers everywhere. Five large bookshelves to the left of my desk. Across the room is a Paul Cobb glass case with sliding doors meant for the top of a hutch that I have turned into a bookshelf, which houses my collection of OEDs and signed editions. An antique radio from the 70s. My desk is a touch of the modern with hints of yesterday. It’s from BDI furniture, but on top is a library lamp I recently found at a consignment store. I long for order when I’m writing and will go through this ritual of organizing everything before I leap headlong in the work of writing.