My first run-in with Major Jackson was actually not with the man, but with his employment application form. I was a freshman at the University of Vermont, working in the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. One of my less mundane tasks was filing information about faculty (reading through interesting CVs was a not-so-terrible way to while away an hour or two of work-study). I remember trying to conjure an image of Jackson based on his name. I dreamt up a bespectacled literature fiend decked out in a modern riff on a drum major’s uniform. It would be eight years until I realized how off-base I was--well, except for the glasses.
My second run-in with Jackson was still not with the man, but this time with his poetry in a seemingly unlikely place--an art museum. He teamed up with artist William Cordova for 2009’s More Than Bilingual, a dynamic and, for our time, novel resuscitation of the poet-painter art collaboration. That’s when I decided that I needed to meet Jackson--on purpose, in person.
We met for coffee in Burlington, Vermont’s Uncommon Grounds this past spring. Over the course of an hour, I got a window into the poet’s life, work, inspirations, and passions as he works toward completing his third book of poetry, Holding Company.
As you may have guessed, Jackson is an associate professor of English at the University of Vermont. He is also a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars. His books of poetry include Hoops and Leaving Saturn. The latter was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. His work has appeared in such publications as the American Poetry Review, Boulevard, and The New Yorker.
Alexandra Tursi: The Associates of the Boston Public Library recently honored you with the Literary Light Award. Congratulations! What was the night like?
Major Jackson: It was memorable night, one for the social diary. As an honoree, you get introduced by one of your peers, particularly someone who has previously been awarded the BPL’s Literary Light Award. My friend Tom Sleigh introduced me and had some wonderful things to say. With poetry, one does not earn enough money to buy a sailboat to play on Lake Champlain, right, but receiving the recognition of one’s peers is invaluable. It’s like that American Express ad. I was enormously thrilled.
Even more, there were writers in attendance that I’ve longed admired. The historian David McCullough, for example, gave a profound keynote speech about literacy and the value of what we do.
I’ve been fortunate in that choosing a career as a writer has put me in contact with people who believe in literacy, believe in the written word, and believe in human intelligence and how it manifests itself daily in our lives and in contemporary literature. That night, the Boston Public Library put me in contact with serious writers, but also readers, people who could buy my vacation for the next 25 years. In fact, when I ascended the podium to receive the award, I shook the box and said, “Hey, I know this is a Tiffany box, but I hope there’re some Red Sox tickets in here.” That got a good laugh.
AT: Yet, you started out as a reader and writer of financial information. You were an accountant…what precipitated the change to poet?
MJ: All the numbers! I just really wanted letters in my life.
I was a reader first of poetry long before I wrote it. I was fortunate enough to have attended a college prep public school in Philadelphia when public schools could still be relied upon to give a sound education. So, I got the classics--exposure to Romantics, modern poets. I had one particular teacher who opened every class with Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” recited from memory. I believe he was a failed actor, so there was a lot of flourish to his presentation. It was impactful.
I also remember that particular teacher because Frost was one of two poetry books in my grandparents' library; the other poetry book was Langston Hughes. I discovered early those two collections, maybe around eight years old. Those are two poets for whom sound is important in a poem. What I mean by sound is making music in poetry through what might be perceived today as conventional devices, or even outdated devices.
That immersion in their work at a young age aligned with my desire to become an emcee. There was a kind of synchronous discovery of poetry at the same time at which I was engaging language at the improvisatory level. And here were two sage aurals, or “auralists” if I can call them that. So poetry was dear to me before I started writing.
I started writing seriously after a few college classes: one with a poet named Leonard Kress, and the other with Sonia Sanchez. I did take a lot of English classes because the business courses were business courses, the marketing courses were marketing courses, and the mergers and acquisitions courses were mergers and acquisitions courses. They were so devoid of the human story. They told the story of commerce and business and how to represent that on financial statements, but what was the story behind financial statements?
AT: What did you do after that?
MJ: I started work at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, an institution that believed that an art institution should be run by artists. I felt like the square, you know, here’s the accountant. So I had to figure out, “What was my art?”
That’s when I started writing, in the morning, before work, waking up early. At the time I smoked, made coffee, sat down and wrote before I went to work. Come home, eat dinner, take a shower, write for a few hours, hang out with friends, go to a bar. I did that for about a year. Eventually, I was fired, which gave me even more free time.
AT: When do you think your big break came about?
MJ: The Painted Bride had an informational hallway which contained brochures for a number of different artists’ residencies; one of them was the MacDowell Artist Colony. I somehow applied and received this gift of writing in Peterborough, NH for two months in a cabin that had two fireplaces, two porches, lunch delivered at noon along with firewood, if I needed it. I lived for two months in a community of artists, which was an enriching and transformational moment in my life.
Following that, the really big break was winning the Pew Fellowship. I was living in Providence for about three months and curating poetry events at the Painted Bride. I went to a party by a bunch of actors, and after the party someone asked, “Major, are you applying for a Pew fellowship? This year it’s for poets. It’s $50,000.” I applied and miraculously received the award. Both of those generous endowments of time and money felt seismic and validating.
AT: But it wasn’t until 2002 that your first book of poetry, Leaving Saturn, was published. How were these fellowships more a breakthrough than that?
MJ: One might say that the big break is publication, but Leaving Saturn was simply a natural outcome of the hard work of imagining and the institutional and familial support I will forever be grateful for. I was the first person in my family that made a reality of living a life of contemplating the world, of following his curiosities, of reading and researching, and reduce all of that immersion into something in language that would, hopefully, be an experience that relives that immersion. That’s what a poem is.
When you’re a young person, you find yourself daydreaming, or following a line of thought or it could be an imaginative scene in your head, you know, creative mind-activity, and your parents worry about you. The people around you want to know why you’re wasting your time looking out a window or buried in a book. As a result, eventually I became one of those kids who listened to his parents: be practical with your life, so I sought briefly to become an accountant.
The big break you ask about occurred when the people around me began to value what they previously viewed as a kind of loitering, which is so tied up to class, particularly working-class people. But, eventually, thinking and writing came to be valued by my mother, my father, and my grandparents. Maybe that’s because they saw the rest of the world recognizing me as a writer and intellectual, but it felt important to receive their notice and affirmation.
So that was the breakthrough--a culmination of all of that support, dedicated time, and hard work. What that did was slap me with the realization that it’s not over. You have to start all over again imagining, sifting experiences, contemplating your emotional and others’ emotional landscapes, generating some art song that’s going to celebrate all of that.
AT: How much of your personal experience and research feeds into your poetry?
MJ: The creative process is a grinder into which you throw carrots, celery, lentils, shrimp, flowers, music, earrings, kisses--all of that. By the time a poem is done, I don’t know how much of my personal life is in. Granted, there may be some poems triggered by a memory, and trust me you, I’m one of those writers who is addicted to memory, but I am lying a lot of the time. I’m also addicted to the imagination. So what finds its way onto the page is an amalgam of everything sifted through my eyes, my nose, my fingers, and my brain. You know, cognition is a fascinating thing because I believe there are certain kinds of knowing, certain kinds of understanding, but what I find pretty amazing about the human mind is that cognition stops at some point and another kind of exploration, of knowing starts to take over.
There’s a poem that I have called “Blunts”: did I get high in my teen years? Yes, recreationally with friends. Did that actual scene happen? No. I never had a friend named Malik, never had a friend named Johnny Cash. I played basketball with a guy named Johnny Cash, but only knew him on the basketball court and loved his name. I love the metric and the meter of that name. That hard ‘k’ sound. So the aesthetic demands are like the carrot pushing the cart. Oftentimes, I’m really just paying attention to what kind of sound I need, rhythm or cadence I need. I need to find that combination of words and syntax that will lead me to that. Then, I step back and say, “This is why poetry exists, because I never would have uttered something so weighty.” I’m not a profound person. The creative process--sitting down and writing poems--leads me unto regions of knowing that I didn’t know I possessed.
So about how much of it is personal versus research? Even with research--the poems I wrote about Sun Ra. I did a lot of research. I read biographies. I hunted down liner notes from his albums. I listened to his songs, found interviews. You just get overwhelmed by all of that. There is a period of gestation that leads to a kind of quiet and silence and distance, space. What filters through is what becomes the material for the poem.
AT: How did you approach writing the poetry you did for the show at the Fleming?
MJ: Cordova sent me 25 pieces, and I lined them up on my bookshelf in my office for a month and a half. When I came in, I pondered them, looked for patterns. I was mainly looking to be either intellectually stimulated or emotionally captured. Many of them did both.
The canvas that moves me the most is Wholesellers, Retailers & Bullshitters. There is something about that canvas that dignifies the lives of the people not on that canvas--that truck, and the action of tagging represent them. To dignify is to give permanence, to say this is worth our keeping hold to our consciousness and to our human, kind of canonical, artistic interests.
Some of them, like Oradores… I had a poem that went with it. For Oradores, it was “Born Under Punches.” That sense of verticality reminded me of living in a neighborhood when I was younger that had these 18- and 20-story public high-rises--low-income public housing. Out of that housing, those projects, came hip-hop, came these urban orators.
AT: Would you ever do another collaboration?
MJ: I would love to do another. In fact, I felt like I wanted to do more poems to Cordova’s canvases.
AT: Could you tell me about the new book of poetry you’re working on?
MJ: Sure. It’s called Holding Company. It’s a sequence of poems that seek to explore human desire, betrayal, lust, and heartbreak. It also wants to engage intellectual histories, inheritances of culture, particularly as they relate to those former topics. I went through a divorce, but even before that I’d been contemplating the notion of what is it to love, what is it to have friends and love one’s friends? Where are the boundaries?
The poems are all bound by ten lines. I wanted to teach myself how to create an exalted utterance in a poem, how to create something that was emotionally heartrending, that did not need a lot of scaffolding. I wanted to go in a new direction and allow that compression to sing the poem’s themes louder, sing emotive declarations by shrinking it further. It’s been a wonderful exercise. It’s gotten me to appreciate Neruda and Pasolini and a number of the Latin American poets.
AT: Why the title Holding Company?
MJ: A holding company is a corporation whose primary purpose is to own other companies, but more I want to point to the sustained moments of sensuous engagement that art and music generate, especially between artists and consumers of art. Maybe even more so, the exchange or conversations among artists over the millennia, that grand conversation of what does it mean to be human. As an aside, I guess sex is also implied.
AT: Do you read a lot of poetry every day, or is it something you stay away from when working?
MJ: I read a lot of poems in a year. I estimate I must read about 10,000 poems a year, between my students’ work, teaching, editing, judging contests, reading friends’ manuscripts, reading new books. I don’t think it’s healthy. I am probably aging myself, or one could argue I might be prolonging life. Let’s go with the latter. I need to go out and sniff some flowers; no, I’m sniffing pages of poems! I read a lot, some of it joyfully, some of it I never get past the fourth or fifth line. The only fear I have with that is that I might be stealing a few lines here or there. I notate that--who I’m riffing off of.
AT: It seems that you wear a lot of different hats: you’re an editor and professor. What are the challenges in those roles?
MJ: I see editing more as journeying through a cave of manuscripts looking for diamonds. The challenge is being able to see it because there is so much paper around me. And if I were a full-time editor it would be one thing, because I have these other roles; sometimes I don’t have the privilege of swimming through or journeying leisurely through a manuscript. That’s why I feel that the lack of time forces the gems to announce themselves, even readily--they can really flash loud, do their “bling bling, come over here.”
The challenge of teaching is instilling in students what was instilled in me, which is the love of language, of composing language and getting them to see that although engaging with creative life will not render them a 36-foot yacht, that there is this other kind of value and work in the world. I love opening students to the pleasures of reading and writing poems. I feel like I’m endowing them with a kind of armor against the world, particularly my undergraduates. We know the world is going to penetrate their interiority. By writing poems, they’re fortifying themselves and nourishing themselves, their spirits and their souls, their humanity. I’m so gratified when I’ve turned students on and brought them into the family of poets. It’s a really beautiful kind of ritual.
AT: A few years ago, Harvard University caused waves by making an introductory religion class mandatory for all first-year students. Do you think poetry should be a required course in college?
MJ: Religion sensitizes us and renders us aware of how people deal cosmologically and spiritually with themselves and how they see themselves and how they align themselves in this journey. Poetry, although it doesn’t have the same kind of audience, is a history of the human spirit.
If you want to get to know a people, you look at the poems they’ve written, how they’ve articulated a vision of themselves, a vision of their life, and put that into language. The same could be said for nations and ethnic groups and communities. One of the first things I did when we went to war with Iraq was buy an anthology of Iraqi poetry. I wanted to know what kinds of songs they sung, humanize them in a way that the evening news was never going to do. Go to the art; see what patterns they’re weaving, the stories they’re telling.
AT: How do you think the increasing role of technology in our lives has implications for how we experience literature?
MJ: I was just reading about the Kindle. The aesthetic experience of reading a book of poems I hope we do not lose as a human species. Now, at the same time, I’m also grateful for the fact that we can record poets reading their works and it becomes a part of our permanent records, our holdings, you can archive a voice forever. The fact that we can do that-- there will be a voice that surges through the centuries to speak to us. Imagine if Shakespeare had that kind of technology, or Phyllis Wheatley, or Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote all those wonderful poems in dialects?
The implications? The verdict is still out. Aren’t we all in front of a computer and aren’t we all engaged in literacy building? This morning I listened to a panel discussion on NPR, I read the Times, I read an article in The New Yorker, played some music, and looked at modern design--all of that without leaving my desk.
I think the next area of commerce will be centers of knowledge, which is why Google is at a rapid pace to scan every text in the world so they can be able to sell it back to us. That is the frontier--intellectual property--and it’s going to be sold to us. Right now, the classes are created around wealth. This is going to create a different kind of class. Crazy.
Visit Major Jackson's website at MajorJackson.com.
Images Courtesy Erin Patrice O'Brien, Thomas Sayers Ellis and Marion Ettinger