What follows is the raw, unpolished transcript from a telephone interview with poet Major Jackson on March 26, 2013 in anticipation of his appearance at the Get Lit! literary festival in Spokane, WA. Jackson is the author of Leaving Saturn (2002), Hoops (2006), and Holding Company (2010).
The resulting article is scheduled to appear in the Inlander. For the whys and wherefores of the “salvaged” tag, click here.
On his activity since Holding Company
The past couple years I’ve been doing a lot of editing. I just finished editing the Collected Poems of Countee Cullen, I just did a guest-edited issue of Ploughshares, and occasionally I just allow myself moments where I’m not writing but more engaged in the writing life, if you know what I mean. Everything for me is part of an extended vision that every writer possibly possesses. I mean, if one is engaged in the life of writing and one is growing as a writer, sometimes what that means is advocating for other kinds of writer that one has kinship with, or that one finds oneself writing with in a tradition. So for me, it’s all part of the same work as writing.
But editing, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I’ve always had my hand involved in some way or another with editing, whether it was as a contributing editor of literary journals such as the Painted Bride Quarterly, or, when I was younger, guest editing a special edition of American Poetry Review called the Philly Edition, or as a reader for New England Review, and about — I guess in 2007 — I began serving as the poetry editor of the Harvard Review. So it’s always been work that I’ve done. But the works of Countee Cullen, that was born out of a love for his work and kinship, so I was very happy that the Library of America took up my suggestion to publish a volume of this work. He’s very important American poet, one that serves as a counter life to that other great Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes. And Ploughshares is a literary journal that I’ve been reading as long as I’ve been seriously writing poetry, so knowing the lineage and the tradition of poets and fiction writers and creative nonfiction writers, I was very honored to get the invitation to guest edit. I felt like [I was] growing up in a way in a way that I hadn’t grown up before.
On the influence of his own stylistic preferences when selecting work for inclusion
I like to believe I have a wide sense of aesthetics, and so while I may not write in the same vein or share the same subject matter as, say, someone like the poet Fred Moten, I very much appreciate his writing, his sense of tradition, both within the Afro-American poetic tradition but also the late-20th-century experimental postmodern poetics. So the kinship goes beyond merely stylistic, and for me, I would feel like a failure as an editor if I could not appreciate the board array of writing that is happening in America right now.
On the current literary trends he has noticed in his role as editor
I’m really inspired by the sense of hybridity, both [in terms of] the formal, traditional poetics, or at least a very strong conscious awareness of form, versus some of the facile dismissal that we’ve seen from previous generations. This particular generation is seeking a kind of adventurousness and authentic utterance, but [they] also are not shunning a desire to create work that has a certain kind of formality to it, so it feels very hybrid. Or at least they’re not dismissing the lyric, sincere speaker in a poem for the sake of irony. And that’s exciting to me.
I also find it intriguing that the long poem is making a comeback, or at least [poetic] projects, so those are a few of the trends. And I don’t think we fully acknowledge that, as a country made up of immigrants as well as migrant workers — African-Americans, Latinas, Asian-Americans — that a lot of the poetry is inflected with a sense of those kind of inheritances but not bound by them. There’s no longer the first-generation bearing witness to immigrant stories or war-torn stories, but complicating some of those particular inheritances through experimental poetics.
On the reasons behind the changes in his poetry with Holding Company
It was twofold, but who knows. If I interrogate it a bit more there might be other aspects that signal that transition. One of them was that my life demanded a change, both on an emotional level — I was going through my own personal challenges — and also the fact that I’d become a little restless with the kind of poems that I was writing, mainly because I just felt like I needed to do something new. For me, my approach to writing poetry has been less about a desire to express my feelings or give representation to the world around me, but one in which I approach poetry as an apprentice to the art itself. As a lifelong practice, I want to believe that the type of poems that can be written is endless. And it excites me. It animates my creative mind and my hand to pursue new ways of speaking, or of creating some sort of artful utterance.
We’ve created room within our understanding of poetry that will allow for authentic utterance, even if it does not strike a chord that, as my students would say, is ‘relatable.’ For me, there is great reward, in encountering poetry — such as, let’s say, when I was younger, Wallace Stevens. I was clueless when I was younger, and I think sometimes clueless about what he meant in his work. And in order to appreciate him, I had to learn to live with, as Keats put it, ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ It was about learning to live with the doubt and the uncertainty and ambiguity. That’s the first thing.
And then after that, I had to appreciate the poems based on what they were doing with language and sound and syntax alone. And that became a radical kind of understanding of poetry and what it can do. That freed me up to write poems that did not adhere some sort of linearity or adhere to the rules of narrative and storytelling with moments of lyric flight. I just decided that I wanted to try to create a poem that was more compressed, that had constraints, because those constraints helped trigger the muse for me, but that was a little bit more inventive and that created an experience with language rather than relying on some sort of narrative to hook a reader. For me, the two poles that my poems fall between are song and story. Whereas before, I would say that you could push me down toward the other end of story, I think I’m more approaching song. My poetry can fall somewhere along that line at any given point between those two poles, but when I first started out it was increasingly around story and it’s been gradually making its way to the left.
On his indebtedness to Whitman
Not only is he the great uncle of American poetry, but anyone who undertakes writing poetry in this country is delineating what it means to be an American. And that was the great conversation that he started. What does it mean to be part of the polis but also an individual within a nation? And so if there’s any indebtedness it’s one in which I feel like I’m contributing to that conversation, whether it’s writing about the street corner that I hung out on with my friends, or going even further toward the interior to talk about feelings of shame, or feelings of joy and love. I hope to some extent those harken back to some of what he was doing.
… so is all American poetry essentially identity poetry?
I don’t want it to be as reductive as that. There’s a great complexity when one undertakes writing that goes beyond mere poetry and representation. I do believe there is some other part of the process of writing that writes us, that creates us. So rather than reflecting on our past, and who we are, and our parents, and how we were parented, and how they fucked us up, or any of that, there is this mysterious aspect of creating. And I’ve heard painters over the years talk this — about how you’re guided towards some part of yourself that you are unaware of. You might call it tapping into, channeling… there’s all kinds of language to describe that.
On poetry as a meditative experience
The meditative practice of both reading and writing poetry began long before I started writing, maybe even long before I started reading. Any kid who grows up, let’s say, in a household full of siblings and who’s forced to find their own corner, their own space; or a kid who’s grown up the only child who’s created an imaginary community; or a kid like me who sat in his room on the third floor of a three-story row home and looked out the window and just contemplated what was before him, as well as realizing that there’s this thing called life that I’m participating in, and I know I go to school, and I know I have these teachers, and I have my friends, I have my routine, my regimen of the day, there’s my dog in the back — Wow! This is all strange, mysterious. And so for me, that’s where it begins, that contemplativeness, and that meditating on life rather than just living it, living it, and living it with no sense of reflection, which I see around me. And I think writing poetry helped further that practice along for me. Going back to that word, it channeled what I was doing, and the outcome is that you discover. There’s this wonderful moment of discovering. And I always say that there are things I say in my poetry that, if it wasn’t for the occasion of writing a poem, the occasion of sitting down, I would never have thought to utter some of the things that I utter.
On poetry as a meditative experience specifically amid the pace of modern life
It takes a willful resistance to maintain a certain kind of purity against this breakneck speed by which we are living, a willful resistance to what I consider to be a devolution of the intellect. I do think popular culture occasions theorizing, and maybe even irony-seeking — I don’t even know all the [reality] shows, but you can’t fully escape it. But I’m now trying to exercise almost a back-to-the-land mentality, where I protect myself from… I think I have somewhere in a poem, ‘the Top 40 will make you dumb,’ or something like that, and I feel like popular entertainment will make you dumb. That was very dramatic and rhetorical, but I’m seeking other kinds of intelligent life.
Does “back to the land” mean “pastoral”?
I’ve written a few Vermont poems, but if I say ‘back to the land,’ I mean less pastoral and more — and I know I’m idealizing — a certain kind of purity and unawareness of some of what is happening around me. Not in the sense of dropping out fully, because everyone will tell you that I walk around with my iPad, I have all my gadgets around me, but there’s something where I have to draw the line. And maybe that’s what it means: all of us at some point has to draw the line somewhere — to our relationship to technology, to the amazing amount of information that we are being fed, to popular culture. At some point, when you’re younger, it’s just all around you, it’s natural. The older you get, the more you have to work to stay on top of such things. What’s interesting is that I don’t think it means not being relevant anymore in one’s art. Some people feel that they need to know. They need to know: what’s the top rental, what’s the top TV series? I think there’s enough of what we have behind us, whether it’s the classics or even going to someone like Countee Cullen or even old-school hip hop, there’s enough back there and in my life to process and work into art, rather than trying to be a headline writer or a TMZ poet.
On lines in the poems of Holding Company referencing other lines of poetry in the same collection
That was an act of imitation. Around the time I was writing that book I rediscovered Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, and I very much liked the sense of repetition and play and whimsy in that book. And I wanted to see if I could appropriate that. But I realized that a lot of the work that I admire and consume uses repetition. I use anaphora quite a bit; but, let’s say, someone like Philip Glass who creates these gorgeous, interweaving patterns of sound — I won’t say that I was approaching that kind of use of it, but I realized that this is a value or an aesthetic practice that I’m drawn to, let me see what that would look like. And I think in some instances it was quite successful. It was also one of a few kinds of embedded codes that I was playing with in there, the kind of stuff that I’m hoping future readers will figure out. There’s acrostics in there of people’s names in the poems, sometimes in the front of the poem or at the end. That was one of the less obvious ones; but the repeating of lines was very deliberate. It was also a way of linking up the stanzas and creating some sort of coherence throughout. I like the sense of surprise that can happen when you hear an echo. That surprise, of course, in a song that has eight or sixteen bars, you know it’s going to come back and there’s a certain kind of pleasure when it comes back. But in a book where the echoes are not predictable, I wonder how that impacts a reader. For me, it was always one of both surprise and pleasure, and, depending on the context of the poem, a new way of experiencing those words and those utterances. It’s like, when I was younger, there were these concept albums that I found brilliantly engrossing, and it feels like a suite. And so I was trying to find other arts that used that.
My hope is that readers’ conception of poetry goes beyond expression and representation, and that the poems themselves can be a moment where a reader encounters language unlike [what] they have consumed before. I’m always trying to go for something that is said authentically that may require more contemplation later. My hope is that just the words themselves start an immediate source of pleasure.