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major jackson talks landscape, roll deep, and his upcoming book

julia lattimer

Major Jackson is a Guggenheim Fellow, Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and twice finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature. His collections include, Roll Deep (2015), Holding Company (2010), Hoops (2006), and Leaving Saturn (2002).


On October 16, Major Jackson sat down with Breakwater in an office in Boston. He wore a black suit jacket and a white collared shirt with no tie. He sat with his hands calmly clasped in front of him, his ankle resting on his knee. The harbor sunset moved through the room as we talked.


Breakwater Review: In an interview with Poets & Writers you spoke of your grandparents’ library from your childhood—mentioning, specifically, a copy of Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems. You also quote Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the epigraph to the first section of your book. Can you speak about your connection with Langston Hughes or any of your other notable influences?


Major Jackson: Langston Hughes struck one of the most important notes for, at least, black writers in America. Hughes sent us on our journey and got us thinking about who we write for and why we write. Is it for our community? What is the functional role of poetry in terms of selfhood? In terms of nationhood? “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,”which he wrote and published in The Nation in 1925,is a very important essay that should be taught to everyone.


But there’s also something that’s just wonderfully downhome about Langston Hughes. His poems celebrate everyday people, everyday folk people, whether they’re in Harlem in the 1920s or in rural parts of America. I am someone who admires that kind of optics.


Hughes turned to the blues and to folk music, which was considered the music of poor people, of black people. But he dignified those people by using their music: the blues structure, the blues poem, and the language of the blues, too. He was someone who didn’t see poetry with a capital ‘P’ as this kind of precious activity that we do—but as something that can be reaffirming of a community. Not all poetry needs to do that, but I was grateful to discover him at a young age.


In retrospect, I am very thankful that in my household and other black households, literacy was stressed. That cuts against the grain of what we’re told by sociologists and journalists in American newspapers. They say that to read is somehow acting white. That’s absurd! That’s absurd. That’s a horrible message—inaccurate—a horrible message to send out into the world. African Americans for a long, long time have prized literacy. There’s a certain kind of classist reading of what journalists and sociologists would deem as underperforming and underachieving in schools. They point the blame at the victim. The black community has always seen literacy as a kind of keeping our eyes on the prize,a kind of uplift, you know. Even after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, we had all these (now) historically black colleges and universities cropping up in the South. That’s because it meant something to be able to write—because to write and read meant a certain kind of freedom. If you read a lot of the slave narratives you start to understand the importance of writing and reading. I’m hugely grateful that, in my household, reading and writing was stressed early on.


Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. You asked about Langston Hughes. He was a great poet. Poetry is about making a sound, and you know Whitman understood this too. It’s about your own voice and your own spirit and your own being marking language. What Hughes did was turn to the sound of his age.


BR: Roll Deep travels—from Philadelphia to Vermont, to Italy, Greece, and Kenya. Can you speak to your process of taking on the first person in all of these locations? I know North Philadelphia and Burlington are two of your homes—what is your relationship to the other settings?


MJ: I didn’t summer in Italy, but I did travel to all of those places—except for Brazil. I believe words carry energy. So if I write about it, I’ll get to Brazil.


But as far as Italy, when I met the poet Derek Walcott for the first time—he doesn’t drive so I had to pick him up—and the first thing he said to me was: “Do you have any jokes?”


What he was saying, in an interesting way, was that to be a writer and artist is to have a sense of lightness and humor about the world. He followed it up with “Do you love jazz?” I was like “of course,” and then he said, “Have you travelled to Italy?” I said “No, I haven’t.” And then he said, “I resisted Europe for many years, particularly Western Europe. But if you’re a poet, you have to travel. You have to go see the ruins.” So I did, eventually. Not immediately of course, but eventually I did.


And I understood immediately what he was saying. It has to do with a certain kind of consciousness and inheritance. In the same way that I believe all poets have to read epics, they must also read landscapes to understand the history and sources of a country or tribe—to understand global narratives. To see Italy is to understand a great deal of Dante, for example. To go to Spain, you understand Don Quixote. What traveling does is allow you the ability to kind of write your own landscape, your own world.


But as for the other places, Philly is still home. I still find great inspiration, mainly in narratives that happened to me when I was younger. I still haven’t written all those stories, or about those people who populated my life as a child, a teenager, and a young adult. I left Philly twenty years ago to go to graduate school. I haven’t lived there full-time since, but of course I go back because of family.


And Vermont I’ve made my home for the past sixteen years, but I’ve only started writing about Vermont in the last three or four years. At least, I’m writing about the natural landscape.


BR: Why did it take so long to write about Vermont?


MJ: I think I resisted the fact that I was in this place. You know I teach at UVM, but I have also taught at NYU’s graduate MFA program for the past two years. Because of my schedule as a writer, I’m always traveling. And I just did not think I would be in Vermont as long as I am, but I’ve come to realize that Vermont is worthy of its own poetry. There’s a great deal of history there, of complexity there—from the Abenaki indigenous people to the fact that Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery, even though they never really had slavery. I drove cross country from Philly to Oregon for graduate school and Vermont feels like a smaller Oregon. But when I drove across the country, I became a nature boy. I prefer the mountains and the trees and my outdoor life, but I also love getting a haircut in Brooklyn. I love going to the museums and the jazz clubs and having dinner with friends outdoors on some street on the Upper West Side and, you know, just sitting in Washington Square Park. I love the energy and activity of it all. So just like I was saying about the necessity of having a width of associations and allusions—whether they’re literary or popular culture—I think similarly about spaces. It’s good to have other spaces to write about.


BR: In “I’ve Said Too Much”you write, “What I have to say must be said, so I say it, as inheritor of the hieroglyphs and cave drawings.” What concerns relating to urban decay and regenerations are you responding to in present day and how does our literary inheritance illuminate those concerns?


MJ: Well, some people find inspiration in Nascar, and some people find meaning in faith. Some people start a yoga practice. I grew up in a church. I’m talking all day Sunday and Wednesday evenings and sometimes Saturday nights. And growing up in a church, I was introduced to the idea of something greater and larger than myself. That was all well and fine, because it gave me a sense of music and the idea of eternity, and a moral/ethical cage. And yet, I’ve struggled with all of that. Poetry and literature seem to fill in that other conversation.


At a young age, I was questioning. I wasn’t questioning if there was a god, or  even the legitimacy of Christianity. At one point my father was a Muslim, which is to say he had a different set of inheritances. But I knew for me reading was allowing me—and not in a forced way—to access the writings of other men and women who were navigating these questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we treat each other? Why war? Why not the possibility of peace? What is it about love that crosses boundaries? What does it mean to be spiritual? What does it mean to value life? To value the natural world? All of that I found in literature, poetry, music. There’s something noble and grand about all of the artists over the years who have pushed the boundaries of form. So I felt really blessed to find these writers.


I could have gone and worked for a bank. I could have worked my way up, but it wouldn’t have been gratifying or satisfying. I have several friends who are captains of industry, who will have money for the rest of their lives. Even they have turned to poetry, because they’ve found that meaning is not in the material. So, when I talk about that inheritance, it’s something that I wish my graduate students would get. Some of them get it, get that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship—a lifelong understanding toward a certain wisdom, a grasp of meaning. It’s a gorgeous calling. Other people around you might not get it. They might feel sorry for you. People in your tribe of writers know because they hear you and they see you and they know what it means. They will admire you. But others may not, and that’s okay.


It’s interesting you know, that I first met Yusef Komunyakaa when he came to Philly. We had him in residence at The Painted Bride Arts Center, which culminated in him reading. We had drinks afterward. You know Yusef is from the South—from Bogalusa, Louisiana—and he said, “Major, this is nothing but a Southern city,” talking about Philly.


He said there’s something dehumanizing about all these man made structures, these high rises, these skyscrapers, these lights, all the honking. You look around and all you see is man’s imprint on the space around him. You know he’s tamed it, right? What humanizes it is the people—the songs, the stories, the laughter, the drums, the food, the rituals. Fridays, in my neighborhood, there were ceremonies going on,with chickens, if you get what I’m saying. So, when we talk about gentrification, we’re talking about the possibility of those ceremonies being disrupted. If it’s all cookie-cutter—starbucks here, hip restaurant there—it starts to lack that kind of humanity. When I was growing up people spilled into the streets on summer nights, and there was music and laughter and children. There was food, and, you know, maybe some fighting and some yelling. But it was rich! It happened wherever people congregated to feel a sense of oneness. That’s where I’m likely to find inspiration. If it’s just beautiful buildings, you know, eh. I want the music.


BR: Can you tell me about your manuscript—where it’s at, and when we can expect it?


MJ: I probably need to write four more poems in order to feel like it’s boom! Right now it’s blehhhh. It needs four more poems. There’s a bit of courageousness I think in this manuscript, because I’m more vulnerable than before.


BR: Why’s that?


MJ: We’re complex human beings, right? We make decisions in our lives that at times can be selfish, and I’m trying to reconcile who I am as a human being and what I’ve inherited from family, the scars that I’ve inherited. So I’m trying to write through it. Some of it is trauma, some of it is resistance against a way of treating people based on—anything, you know sexuality, what they look like—based on whatever. I want to reaffirm life. I’ve got stuff back there in my past that I think I’ve worked through, but it’s still there.


BR: Earlier today, you said that you got rid of the section titles in your manuscript on the train ride up here. I’m so excited about that. Not only do you have sections in Roll Deep, but you have epigraphs in every section. So, if you’re reconciling scars and traumas in your newer poems, why might that drive you to lose the formal organization in your book?


MJ: Well, that’s interesting, and I know I’m hitting this sideways, but I truly believe it’s possible to love, to truly love. I don’t think we’ve truly contemplated that, and so I think it’s possible to love in a way that is borderless. There’s a great responsibility that we have to the world around us to be a little bit more fluid, a little bit more porous. And so I’m trying to reconcile that impulse in my life,to love deeply and widely and be responsible. The book is somewhat about that. Isn’t love mysterious? The structure falls away because I wanted it to be borderless—a little bit more like swimming through the manuscript rather than going through a section that’s about one thing. I wanted the themes of each of the poems to echo throughout the book. If I had put up sections, then it wouldn’t  be as fluid.


BR: At your reading today, you said, “I’m angry, y’all should know that, so poems have been coming in that regard.” What are you angry at?


MJ: You know, we live in the age of the orange headed monster, he’s a devil to me. But also, I’m angry because we’re stuck in our language. We’re debilitated by the language. We’re limited because of our language. Our language leads us to left and right, liberal and conservative, and we cannot envision each other beyond those particular terms. But that is marketing, that is mainstream media, news media. We’re all implicated. Even our literature, unfortunately, doesn’t allow us to go beyond those particular categories.


BR: Can you speak about the Dark Room Collective and Cave Canem and how those influences resurface in your life? Do you bring them to the classroom? Do those voices still live inside you as annotations on your own poems?


MJ: You know, I just saw my brother Kevin Young yesterday, and I am so, so proud of all the members of the Dark Room Collective. John Keene just won the MacArthur’s Genius Award. John is a dear—I’ve long admired his work—he’s a dear brother. Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Tretheway, Tisa Bryant, Thomas Sayers Ellis—there’s so many of us! So I feel lucky to inherit and to be a benefactor of the vision of Cave Canem. And yet, there’s complexity. I teach Twentieth-Century poetry movements: Black Mountain, the Beat Poets, Frank O’Hara and the New York School, the Language Poets, the New Formalists, the Wild Boys. In our reporting of them historically, we gloss over the fact that, while everyone was a genius, there was also great struggle! There were egos, there were hook-ups, there was jealousy! There was interpersonal drama.


I love talking the Dark Room Collective. I love talking people’s books and poems. You know, Kevin Young’s Most Way Home was hugely influential on me. Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, Natasha Tretheway’s Domestic Work, John Keene’s Annotations—hugely influential. My mother’s daughter was in the Dark Room Collective, Artress Bethany White.


So you know, eventually someone’s going to write an article that’s going to expose everything. I told people it’s worthy of its own documentary—dra-ma. But frankly, in the end, they’re family. We all loved each other and we still all love each other. We’re happy to see each other, no doubt. We had a reunion tour about five years ago, in 2012-2013, and there was extended family—Elizabeth Alexander, Colson Whitehead. These are important people. It’d make a good documentary. Eventually, we all kind of grew up and became our own individuals with our own obsessions, our own projects. I’m still inspired by them, for sure. It would be interesting to count up the number of books by all of us. Cornelius Eady and Kwaku Alston wrote an article about us for the New Yorker in 1996 called “Reading Ahead,” that even had a fold-out picture. And as prescient as it was, I don’t think even they foresaw the impact of the individual and collective members.


I went home and did a quick search of just the Dark Room Collective members he listed here and found countless awards, over 50 books, and two U.S. Poet Laureates. The legacy of the Dark Room Collective lives in the continued work of each of its members and the powerful mission of Cave Canem. Major Jackson teaches English and creative writing at the University of Vermont, and serves as the Poetry Editor for The Harvard Review.

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