David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now US readers can shop All Lit Up close to home, and save on shipping when they purchase books from its new bookshop.org affiliate shop. Browse selected titles at bookshop.org/shop/alllitup. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Ghassan Zeineddine’s debut short story collection Dearborn, a sharp, tender, and uproariously funny portrait of the lives of Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan called, “Hilarious and heartbreaking, astute and absurd” by Omar El Akkad and “One of the funniest, truest, and most heartfelt books I’ve ever read” by Morgan Talty. Zeineddine’s generation-spanning collection introduces readers to an arresting new voice in contemporary fiction and invites us all to consider what it means to be part of a place, and community and how it is that we help one another survive. Dearborn is out September 5th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Being a podcaster has some weird elements to it. Most of the time, having the conversations feels intimate, insofar as the notion of an audience, while these conversations are happening, remain somewhat abstract, yet one of my favorite things about this whole process is releasing a new episode, to finally be in conversation with people listening to the conversation, to see how people interacted with it, where it travels, how it’s shared from one person to the next. Then on the other extreme, a lot of the work before a conversation and getting it ready to go often feels like a mainly solitary endeavor. I say all of this because this movement between solo activity and an intimate dialogue with one other writer, then sharing these conversations with the community of Between the Covers listeners, all three of these things feel like they exist in, if not a hermetic situation, a quiet corner of the larger world, a hopefully calmer and slower literary pocket within the larger whirlwind of life. Yes, I sometimes fantasize that a writer one day will be interviewed for The New York Times by The Book Column at the beginning of the Sunday Book Review and will mention the show or that someday, literary podcasters might be viewed more seriously as an important part of the literary world in a way that there might be ways to recognize them as such. But mainly, I’m happy with this sense of intimacy and even if not privacy, a sense of shelter that a community can be and that I feel. It’s usually with a big surprise to me when something happens in the larger world, like when Zadie Smith mentioned the Ursula K. Le Guin conversations on writing book in the newspaper or when Pádraig Ó Tuama, the host of Poetry Unbound, reached out to be on the show. Usually, I’m reaching out to people of that stature. It was a particular delight and surprise when Pádraig’s high-profile poetry peer, Major Jackson, the host of The Slowdown podcast reached out to be on the show himself nearly a year and a half ago now, and not only that but that he was an avid listener of the show. But at the time when Major reached out about his upcoming selected prose, because I’m often booked up as far as 18 months or more in advance, I said, “Let’s do whatever book comes next,” and I didn’t know at the time that his next book would not be any book but a New and Selected poetry. But in the end, I’m really happy that it was because it gave us the unique opportunity to put his career-spanning selected prose from last year alongside his New and Selected poetry, which spans two decades of his life as a poet, to explore his poetry through his own writing on poetry. In addition, Major Jackson generously contributes to the bonus audio archive, a reading of and a talking about a poem by John Ashbery More Pleasant Adventures. This joins supplemental readings from so many iconic contemporary poets from Jorie Graham, Nikky Finney, Ross Gay, Arthur Sze, Forrest Gander, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, Rosmarie Waldrop, Alice Oswald, Dionne Brand, Rae Armantrout, and more. The bonus audio is only one of many potential reasons to join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter, from the Tin House Early Readership Program to rare collectibles from past guests, and every listener-supporter gets the resource email corresponding to each episode with all the references and material that was used to prepare and all the various things referenced during it. You can find out about all this and a lot more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with none other than Major Jackson.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest poet, essayist, and podcast host Major Jackson earned his first degree at Temple University, not in poetry or in English but in accounting. But it’s there that he studied under Sonia Sanchez as his first and deeply formative creative writing teacher. He then went on to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of Oregon under the directorship and mentorship of poet Garrett Hongo, whose poetry Major had first encountered at Temple, yet another formative encounter for him. Major Jackson came up in the Black Arts Movement as a member of the Dark Room Collective, which included such iconic writers as Natasha Trethewey, Carl Phillips, John Keene, and Tracy K. Smith, a collective that went on to inspire the formation of Cave Canem, which itself has been an instrumental part of so many Black poets of the last quarter century. Jackson’s debut collection Leaving Saturn received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African-American poet and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was followed by Hoops, a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature, the collections Holding Company and Roll Deep, the latter of which Mark Doty declares, “Major Jackson wants art to ‘Blow / back the ordinary / jive of planet Earth,’ and his new poems roil and buckle, skitter and swerve, clot and spill out into the world. Roll Deep is his fourth and best book; his voice seems to have broken loose, allowing for all manner of praise and lament, for observation and meditation, the grim and the goofball, and for outbreaks of pure sorcery, where ‘punctuation is my jury and the moon is my judge.” Jackson’s most recent poetry collection, which arrived at nearly the same time as the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the United States is perhaps fittingly called The Absurd Man, and Gregory Pardlo says of this collection, “Poems in Major Jackson’s The Absurd Man are fashioned from masks and personae, impersonations and thrown voices. How ironic then that this fifth and most daring book yet sings deeply, solemn and vulnerable, a blues for our times. One of the root meanings of the word absurd is ‘out of tune.’ To be out of tune with these years of American absurdity, Jackson’s adroit lyrics resonate through a kind of fission, the collision of selves and personal histories yielding a most genuine ore. These poems face the music of their own making.” Major Jackson was also editor of The Best American Poetry 2019, of Library of America’s Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, and of Renga for Obama, an occasional and collaborative poem featuring 267 American poets. Jackson has taught at NYU and Bennington, and for 18 years until 2020, he was Richard A. Dennis Professor of English at the University of Vermont. Since 2021, he’s been the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His work has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review to Ploughshares. It has garnered him a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, and more. At the end of last year, Jackson released his debut book of prose A Beat Beyond: Selected Prose of Major Jackson, which collects a quarter century of Jackson’s essays, talks, book reviews, and liner notes, and at the beginning of this year, he became the third host of one of the premier poetry podcasts in the anglophone world The Slowdown. This daily meditative space for poetry was started by US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and later inherited by Ada Limón who has since herself become US Poet Laureate, our current one, so who knows what this bodes for its current host and our current guest Major Jackson who is here today on Between the Covers to talk about a landmark moment in his life as a poet, the release of his New and Selected Poems 2002-2022 entitled Razzle Dazzle, the celebration of a writer of whom John Freeman says, “No American poet wears his genius as lightly as Jackson.” Carl Phillips adds, “Major Jackson has coined an idiom and music all his own.” Finally, Naomi Shihab Nye says, “[Jackson’s] lush language invites us into the exquisite realms here at our feet…. Take it in, be fed, feel close to something elemental again.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Major Jackson.
Major Jackson: Thank you, David. Thank you for that fine summary of my writing life thus far.
DN: Yeah. Well, first, congratulations on the New and Selected. I wanted to ask you about looking back across your own career as there’s been a lot of looking back for you recently. You were at Cave Canem again 27 years after the first time you were there and thinking back to yourself about the passage of time, your selected prose came out last year where you had to go back through your writing that extends back into your youth and curate it. You’ve recently, after nearly two decades in Vermont, moved to Nashville, an ancestral home for your family and also a place you would frequently visit as a child, a place surely full of memories and stories, and you’ve created Razzle Dazzle, your 2002-2022 retrospective with new poems now living alongside selections from your entire published life as a poet. First, I wanted to start with this gesture for you of looking back, both to hear about the experience for you emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise, how the return in so many ways in your life has felt. But also I’m curious what you discovered in doing so, what taking a step back to take it all in, then also taking a step forward to really look closely again at old material with new eyes, what has that taught you about your own work.
MJ: Well, first, thank you for that very capacious and insightful question because so much of it has been psychological, I mean there’s been almost unnecessary weight. Normally, sometimes when people take a look back, it’s triggered by maybe some medical condition or maybe they have realized, like me, that the way to proceed in the world is to look where we are currently, where our feet are planted, where the excitement is. I’ve always been driven by projects. It’s always been this forward motion. I believe this life changed this move from 18 years in the state of Vermont, which was enormously nourishing for me as a writer, if not challenging at times of course. I believe moving back to the South where I had this both complicated nuance understanding in relationship to the larger narrative about country, the history of civil rights, and my own understanding as a young boy of race relations in the US, which weren’t too far different from what I experienced in Philadelphia, just only Philadelphia was something slightly better, so this move also required me to go through pictures, go through old poems. Even my old desk contains vestiges of my past. [laughs] It was involuntary on one hand, then it became deliberate, i.e., I realized going through old files that I did have an essay collection quite possibly on my hands and that’s how A Beat Beyond came into existence. I think it tells the story of the education of the poet or the evolution of someone who was already intellectually inclined and realizing that I had encountered some of them that you mentioned, everything from Sonia Sanchez to Garrett Hongo to the Dark Room Collective and writers on the page who modeled an existence whereby thinking through the world was natural. When I looked at those particular music reviews, book reviews, there was something brash about the younger Major to some extent but always curious. I feel like the essays and the poems, if nothing else, I say intellectual and that might be glossing over something that is really innate, which is I’ve been naturally curious about the world and language was the way in which I processed and came to understand the texture and the contours of my own mind and my reaction to the world. I’m so happy you mentioned that word “emotional” because I’m at a place now where I am deeply moved and deeply grateful for not only those models but that a life can be crafted, or as Auden says of Yeats, “This way of living, a mouth.” [laughs] That sense of gratitude, now I understand why my grandfather, his LD years, would be prone to fits of just tears because you do look back and you wonder, you do look back and realize the extent to which there were others walking alongside you, instigating, provoking, encouraging those individuals. But my life could have been something totally different based on where I grew up and what opportunities I was fortunate to take advantage of.
DN: Well, this is a selected, not a collected, so you by definition have returned to your work to select and foreground certain poems and not reproduce others. In listening to a conversation with your editor of your selected prose A Beat Beyond, it was interesting to learn both that you would organize the essays around the development of thought and thematically rather than chronologically. But also that you’d felt reluctant to include some of your very early prose writings that your editor encouraged you to include nonetheless to give a sense of you over time. Razzle Dazzle on the other hand is structured more traditionally like most new and selecteds. We get the new poetry under the title Lovesick, then poems from your first collection, moving forward chronologically toward your last published collection, The Absurd Man. But thinking of you revisiting your younger self in prose and maybe wrestling with those pieces, I’d love to hear about the things you discovered about your younger poet self on the page that were part of the process of what to keep and what to let go of and/or maybe what you discovered about your tendencies, your gestures, your habits, or your modes of being and how they have either deepened over time or been abandoned across those 20 years.
MJ: First of all, I’m very grateful for my co-editor Amor Kohli who comes at poetry truly in the whole style of a cultural critic as well as a literary critic. You’re right, he did encourage me to keep, for example, liner notes and music reviews to draw that connection to the fact that my listening habits so much shaped my ear and my relationship to language, and maybe the cadence and syntax of a sentence, so shout out to Amor on that level. You’re right, it was very difficult to decide what to include and to structure the larger manuscript. I think it was Auden or Philip Larkin who organized a table of contents of their collected alphabetically and that would have made things quite easy. But with Razzle Dazzle, what I wanted to maybe spotlight is the growth and willingness to be an apprentice. I still consider myself an apprentice of the art. I think you can follow that more from book to book. What remains true however is I’ve always been thinking about the music of the line or metaphor has always been consistent in fact. I would go so far as to say that that’s where the true juice and spark is how we translate the world through figures. That evolution was really necessary for me to be committed to. What I chose to let go possibly had to do with I’m fine with poems showing works, I like manuscripts, and I like the modernist intention of the poem being a record of it becoming rather than this finished product that’s finished exalted literary work of art. For me, the poems that I let go probably had to do with the sensitivities that we bring to reading today. If I felt as though a poem might degrade any human being walking the Earth or the Earth itself, I probably made a deliberate intention of excising those poems. I guess my evolution is not unlike a number of poets of a certain generation who were very, very committed to learning the width and depth of an art, and that meant writing formally. The early poems in there show a very, and I’m surprised by this, like among my students, even at NYU, I was the person you took a class with to learn form because it was evidenced in my work. But it was chiefly more phase and that phase gave me so much, just to tune my ear and pedagogically speaking, I think it’s important to give students that ability to see how form is coexistent with subject matter and topics. Razzle Dazzle, I want to also say that I really appreciate your word abandon, it’s also a record of my political growth as well and my political concerns. Not that they’ve all been abandoned, it’s more the approach. Coming up out of and being attracted to the Black Arts poets and before them, some of the labor poets or the poets who are concerned about workers in this country, there was definitely a huge weight towards protesting in my work. I was actually quite critical of poets who lacked that sense of consciousness or who were apolitical intentionally. When you’re reading reviews of your heroes, like Gwendolyn Brooks for whom it was charged that she had abandoned her craft consciousness in lieu of a pursuit of representation, identity, and protest, it makes you want to dig your heels and even more. [laughs] Then I encountered the work of Philip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Garrett Hongo, a bunch of other poets, Rita Dove, who were writing about culture from both a personal as well as a communal. Michael Harper I would name among them. I can go on a number of poets who helped deepen my relationship to subject matter and showed me that there was more than one way of approaching these particular topics, and I want to say topics that were informed by personal experience if not still maintaining a sense of culture but also writing more personally.
DN: Well, before we explore further together, I was hoping we could hear a great early poem and a great new poem side by side. I was thinking Blunts from your first collection, which is a poet’s origin story in one sense, then the poem that you chose to open Razzle Dazzle Let Me Begin Again. I’m thinking of that poem not only because you chose it to open the collection but also because when you were in conversation with Touré on his podcast the Toure Show, which was also a looking back at your shared long history but also at your mutual love of hip-hop and a discussion of rap versus poetry or rap as poetry, and also a discussion of what makes a poem good and he asks you to choose one poem of your own to discuss the elements of and to discuss what elements for you are essential for a poem to be good and you chose this poem Let Me Begin Again, the one that opens the collection. After we hear Blunts and before we hear Let Me Begin Again, maybe you could say a few words about the newer poem and what it means for you that you choose it as the doorway or the gateway for us to revisit your work as a body of work.
MJ: Yeah. Let Me Begin Again, obviously, being the first poem, maybe not so obvious, I think it is a poem of renewal and re-commitment. At the heart of this poem, I think it is a question of noticing. In some instances, one has that 30,000 feet in the air understanding of the world. But I’m a strong believer that we see more when we get closer to the ground and pay attention to the Earth and what’s happening around us. Sometimes I guess there’s always been that tension in my work to foreground the political in advance of the aesthetic or in advance of language and the possibility of language to inform me, shape me. I guess I wanted this poem too because it also does not abandon what I understand to be one of the imperatives of literary works of art, which is to contain their time and give a portrait of what’s happening in the moment. But I’ll start with Blunts because Blunts was and still is a fun poem for me. There is a line here that occasionally will just arrive and it arrives right when I need it for it to arrive, page 60.
[Major Jackson reads a poem called Blunts]
[Major Jackson reads a poem called Let Me Begin Again]
DN: We’ve been listening to Major Jackson read from Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems. I want to spend some time with what you call the lyric self and your poetics in relationship to selfhood and identity. But before we do, I thought we’d first start with lineage and inheritance as it’s clear that for you, a self can’t come to be without others. One of the things I love most about your work is the way it makes your indebtedness and your enmeshment with others visible, what Cristina Rivera Garza calls, “The disappropriation of materials.” She says something that makes me think of you when she says, “Writing is a community-making practice. If we write, we write with others. Inescapably. If we write, we write about others, even when we write about ourselves in small diaries that remain hidden in locked drawers. Constantly borrowing from the language we share with entire and varied communities at once, when we write we acquire a debt—a real, material debt—with the practitioners of such languages. This debt transverses all writing; it shapes it. It gives it life. Legitimacy.” In your case, whether reading your prose or watching or listening to you in public and sometimes explicitly in the poems themselves, you speak to who you are indebted to. With Touré, you spoke about Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks among others. With Ross Gay, you both spoke about the importance of Gerald Stern. You’ve traced your lineage to the first books of poetry in your childhood home, of Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. In A Beat Beyond, we get to hear about your encounters with Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton as poets in the world when they were still alive and what that meant to you. When you open Razzle Dazzle, you encounter first the dedication to Sonia Sanchez before we then find poems whose inspirations come from everyone from Sun Ra to Albert Camus. I don’t want to presume that you agree with Cristina Rivera Garza or that you would use necessarily the same language of debt and disappropriation. But I would like to hear how you formulate it for yourself in your own words, your own personal ethos of relation when it comes to questions of influence and lineage.
MJ: That’s a fine, fine question, one that underscores a really inherent belief that part of the tension of being a writer is writing within a tradition, writing in relation to a tradition, and writing against that tradition. I understand this to be a pedagogical linchpin of how we teach writing. But for me, it truly is a spiritual matter, one in which I know that I have seen myself, heard myself in the poems of others. Apparently, we gift that to readers. It’s as if we are transferring something that is unseen but a certain kind of energy. Fortunately, for me, that’s not just been with poems. It’s also been with thinkers, political theorists, philosophers, musicians, and the rappers. I’m almost yoked to the art that has given me my voice, that has had me consider perspectives, and lives that I had not experienced or heretofore thought of. I like to quote Michael Harper on this core who says, the late Michael Harper who was also important to me, “All writers have to almost intentionally,” he doesn’t say intentionally, “place themselves within a continuum,” and that continuum stretches for me not to start sermonizing here about the humanities but is really part of a larger project, of as complicated as this term is for a number of people, enlightenment, of just going for the roots of that, being in that light, not so much the movement that created a hierarchy of beings but to be in that light, to ever be aware of rich genes of learning and putting oneself in the immediate line of that. It saved me. I don’t want to go into deep personal narratives. I think I’ll save that for a memoir but you can read them between the lines of the poems. I felt nurtured through an estate of intellectual inquiry and art-making that gave my life purpose.
DN: Well, we have a question for you from someone who was a formative influence for you, and perhaps fittingly, his question for you is about another influence on you. But before we hear a question from Garrett Hongo, I just wanted to read some of the things you’ve said about him. You’ve spoken about him in multiple places including this wonderful essay in Poetry Northwest called Stomping with Garrett and there are many recollections about him in that essay that I love where you repeatedly go as a form or mantra, “Maybe I should start my talk with this or maybe I should start my talk with this,” and one of the many things you share is, “Or maybe that time he saved my butt after I kicked over a tray full of water and tea at Bread Loaf, frustrated at the overwhelming whiteness and micro-aggressions I experienced at the famed writers conference, or reading one of his illuminating essays on John Coltrane, Whitman, and American poetry and individualism and looking up and saying to myself this is one bad dude.” [laughter] But for the purposes of our discussion, I want to highlight one example in particular where you say, “Simply stated, Garrett’s early poems made me want to be a poet. This was at a time when as a dedicated student activist, who closely studied the poetry of the Black Arts Movement, I believed poems were bombs meant to be deployed in the service of political aims and beliefs. And then, I encountered Garrett’s work, a poetry of immense interiority, intelligence, and witness such that I truly understood that adage, to speak from one’s experience was the ultimate political act, a primal subjectivity that through the sheer force of evocative language could give substance, embodiment.” Here’s a question for you from Garrett Hongo.
Garrett Hongo: A question for Major Jackson from Garrett Hongo. Your new collection includes the magnificent In Memory of Derek Alton Walcott, one of the most moving and noble tributes to him I’ve ever read, and also one of your finest poems as well. It is deft, full of an honoring emotion and appreciation for Walcott’s native landscape and shorescape, and possessed of great formal skill and seriousness. I feel deeply that your own poetry has grown into a great depth and its own originality, and sophistication perhaps under this influence and inspiration. Can you tell us how you met Walcott and what he meant to you as an elder, as a poet of cultural hybridity, as fellow poets of the African diaspora?
MJ: Ah, dear Garrett. Thank you for bringing him into the room. The question about Derek is definitely appropriate to your previous question, maybe because my debt to Garrett and Derek is so immense that I try to let the poems speak for themselves or create that sense of communion with their work. Derek, I first met at a performance of a play that he directed, written by Patricia Smith in Boston and it was a very quick meeting. I had previously read Omeros that came as a recommendation from some colleagues of mine at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, who are almost like, “You can’t call yourself a poet unless you read Derek Walcott.” I think we do have that attitude regarding the canon and the cultivation of writers. There are certain books you have to read. Derek’s Omeros was important to me for the following reason: something that he said to me some years later when we had the opportunity, this would have been my second time actually meeting him, bringing him to Philadelphia to give a reading at the Painted Arts Center with Yusef Komunyakaa and Thomas Sayers Ellis. After the reading, waiting for dinner to start, we were sitting in this hotel lobby, sunlight coming through, Derek making his typical jokes and he said about Yusef, and I write this somewhere, I used to not name the names but I think it’s okay now, “That man is at the center of language, at the center of the song.” I had not and did not need to take a course with Derek because that was the lesson right there. In a very real sense, you do understand that you are merging with your art, that you are entering into the materials of your art. You can hear this with musicians, you can see it in visual art, in the paintings. That journey is probably the ultimate journey because it’s the amplification of the self and it’s also the amplification of the technology of the self, going back to your question about the lyrics of how are we born adrift, fine, voice, understanding, how do we connect, Derek making that assertion about Yusef for me I understood to be the highest praise that one poet could give to another, to be at the center of language. My models, the poets that I’ve turned to, I don’t want to go into, once again, the importance of embracing the art to the point where you are constantly learning and reading, which I’m understanding some writers today do not feel that they need that as an anchor, I get that. But for me, Derek and the poets that I have been drawn to have somehow taken an aspect of writing art making, and literally put their mark on that art, and to some extent, entering into also means changing the river, so to speak, or sculpting language in such a way that one can be heard, and maybe a whole culture can be heard. In the case with Derek, of course, we get the Caribbean and we get a certain usage of language that is as [ignoble] as any language spoken anywhere else in the world or the English language I want to say. There’s a way in which the poets dignify and Derek did that for me. In the tribute to him, I clearly took my models of Yeats in elegy, which we find through Auden and that’s passed down to Derek. I wanted to have those echoes and that’s been a key word for me as well. Going back to your question about lineage, I want the culture, I want the writers, I want the artists to echo through my work such that I’m not just standing in this stripped-down ego, which is often what we encounter in poems but a whole community, a whole people are represented. I think that was the gift of both Derek and Garrett actually.
DN: Well, you’ve answered my next question already before asking it but I’m going to ask it anyways to see if we can answer it again from a different vantage point too. Now that we’ve talked about or created a sea of influences and a sense of lineage, I wanted to put forth your sense of the lyric self and also this notion of what you, Major Jackson, are doing that nobody else is doing, because as you mentioned what Derek Walcott says, “That man is at the center of language, at the center of the song,” you put that in the lines of the poem in memory to Walcott but you also see those lines in your selected prose, which opens with an essay called My Lyrical Self. In that essay, you place an opposition, Baraka’s sentiment that, “You have to start and finish there … your own voice … how you sound,” and T. S. Eliot who said, “The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” and in this essay, standing yourself with Baraka, you say that what you most want to encounter in a poem is a human voice, an authentic self and that you ask your students, “Where in the poem are you most represented?” In echoing the lines in the Walcott poem, you talk about the highest praise one poet could grant another is to say this, “My God, that poet is at the center of language, is it the center of song.” That for you, to dramatize your life into song is what you call the lyric self. I guess I was hoping you could talk more about selfhood in this regard. I imagine what you call one song is like one’s fingerprint in some way, obviously created by one’s ancestry and one’s genetics but at the same time, like no other fingerprint. But how and why for you is the lyric self the way you want to orient yourself to poetry? Maybe if you could speak about what it means to have this specific relationship between identity and poetry.
MJ: Yeah. [laughs] Poetry, maybe this is our debt to Whitman and maybe I was riffing off of that. In the classroom, I like to make the distinction that when we talk about the lyric in the poem, we’re talking about all those devices that create that sound, and that can be everything from let’s just go to the basics of rhyme, then a certain kind of cadence, a meter. Derek talks about where you find the person most in a poem is when they break out of that metrical pattern, that’s where the selfhood lies. But going to Whitman, Whitman’s notion of the Song of Myself really gave us the blueprint of thinking about ourselves in relation to this larger project of a democracy. By the way, I spoke about these notions in other countries that are not so embraced, I mean it’s considered gauche ostentatious to think about creating a selfhood in the poem when there’s so much, and this is the tension I think, when there’s so much that needs to be addressed communally in one’s work, not any socialist programmatic way. But I am thinking about how Whitman was able to create this concept or project for American poetry in which we map ourselves but also seeing a selfhood. I love the tension between that, between those notions and the imperative to do that, and somehow that the language can be the canvas by which that happens. The authentic for me is we inherit a set of figures, we inherit a set of similes, metaphors, ways of thinking about each other that feel cliche and the challenge of writing in the wake of how language has been deployed and used is to come up with something that is of the moment and that feels not like it’s just rehashing. The closer we get to language, this is the entering part of language, the more I feel like we can do all that is possible with language. The rappers know this, at least the old-school rappers know this. They can get inside of a word and stretch it, and also anyone who has a relationship to voice, like literal relationship to voicing, they know they can stretch it, they know that they can quite wittedly create those echoes with the other words and profit off of the closed sonic association. I think about Eminem being told that there’s no word that rhymes with orange, then he just squashes that idea. [laughter] That is what it means to be inside language. Unfortunately, because we are advancing agendas ahead of aesthetics, we took our eye off of the great possibilities of what art can do. On one hand, I hate the debates, the poetry wars that began in the early 1960s and continued through the 80s and 90s. It might have been in my generation that decided to abandon the hard-line arguments around what poetry should and shouldn’t do. Yes, it should represent a culture, yes, it should sing the body electric but the art is there for play, is there for fun, is there for shaping, is there for us to figure out who we are, is as much a mode of inquiry as it is a megaphone, an amplification device, or an emotion machine.
DN: Well, since you brought up rappers and since we’re also talking about being at the center of a song, let’s talk about the actual influence of song. You talk with Touré about the importance of hip-hop and rap for you. Your selected prose includes your early writings about music. You refer to Jay-Z and Dylan as poets, and even included a Leonard Cohen poem when you were a guest editor of Best American Poetry. In my opinion, the debate about Dylan and the Nobel Prize got sidetracked by the commentary that the committee gave afterwards, calling his work poetic insofar as the debate became whether his songs themselves hold up as poems when the award was actually not a poetry award but a literature award, which changes the question, at least somewhat, maybe not entirely. But perhaps agreeing with Tyehimba Jess in this debate, I don’t think if you look at Dylan’s or any songwriter’s lyrics without the musical accompaniment and without the way the singer delivers it vocally that they hold up as poems in the terms of poetry but as something else. By saying that, I’m not necessarily saying that something else isn’t part of a broader notion of literature. I’m not saying that. For me, if there were going to be an exception to the rule of honoring only writers of written words for the Nobel Prize for literature, the best argument for Dylan would be that his writing was actually unusually engaged with literature, whether French symbolist poets, William Blake, or Irish ballads, whether Whitman, Hughes, or Ginsberg and that he would then bring these influences together with the American songbook, whether blues, country, or rock but also think about how his lyrics often use syntax and vocabulary that you’d more commonly encounter when reading rather than speaking or singing, and that he would then make the song accommodate these unusual words and clauses instead of the other way around. Because if you were to solely look at singer-songwriters on their own terms rather than on the terms of the written word, it’s hard to argue for Dylan more than say Chuck Berry, who Dylan himself called the Shakespeare of rock and roll but who wasn’t really engaging with books and reading. This is my long preface to think about poetry, [laughter] something that began as something oral, an oral art that was sung, the lyric coming from the lyre and thinking of song that is primarily now appreciated as something heard and performed rather than read. Talk to us about how they relate or don’t relate for you because I know they relate and probably very differently than I just put forth. But I want to hear more about poetry and song from you. [laughter]
MJ: Yeah. It’s interesting you mentioned Touré, the interview with Touré because I’ve been thinking about that moment, as you said, we grew up together, and if there’s a debate to be had, it is where is that overlapping space if it exists at all. I do believe that it exists and you laid out some of it. When I talk about Dylan, I often go through the [ballots], which is one of the earliest roots. I also think about Langston Hughes and how Langston Hughes created and profited off literizing, if we can say that, the blues creating a space in literature for that sound to exist. It seems that sometimes, the sentimentality of song lyrics also prevent them from entering into the realm of literature. But I tell you, I’ve encountered some lyrics that have utterly moved me and that could easily have been written in a book of poems. Tyehimba is right to say, “If you take away the instrumentation, what’s there?” To some extent, we also know that poets have to create their own instrumentation with the language itself. In fact, I would even argue the success of a poem is contingent upon how much orchestration and a sense of composition that one brings to the poem itself. We too can benefit from that level of consciousness and awareness. It’s feeble to call Dylan’s work poetic. [laughter] In fact, it does a disservice to the art itself in poetry as literature because it waters down the great heft and power of his work. I like the provocation that the Nobel Prize and they should have had you on the committee because you made such an eloquent argument. [laughter] Professor Christopher Ricks has written a wonderful book talking about the space that Dylan occupies within literary culture and it’s not a forced space although a Nobel might suggest. Now, what we really are angry about is we could have all come up with 25 names and that’s just a matter of taste, and it also may be, to some extent, the Nobel Prize suddenly or not so suddenly sending a message to American poets about where we are with the art even though I would argue that is some of the most vibrant literature that is being made today in the English-speaking world.
DN: Another thing we should add, which I think goes back to your conversation with Touré about the influence of hip-hop and rap, there’s a long-standing bias against orality in the modern world. Even with Dylan, some of the critiques around the Nobel were that he was merely a songwriter, not a writer writer but it’s something much more intensified with poets of color where coming from a performance or a slam poetry tradition, no matter how good you are on stage, there’s a subtext of suspicion of whether or not the work would hold up on the page and a racially coded dismissal of work that centers performance rather than text, oral rather than written, which makes me think of your meditation on the poet Countee Cullen, both in your introduction to his collected works and your essay Countee Cullen and the Racial Mountain where Cullen says, “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET,” and where you say that his poetry has simultaneously been excessively praised and prejudicially discounted but not usually based on the merits of the writing either way but for the ways in which they address broader notions about race. That Du Bois celebrated him on one side as an example of African-American character and Langston Hughes criticized him as aspiring toward Whiteness. But underneath this is the question of vernacular speech I think, that the attraction of Cullen and Du Bois for an elevated language was because of the vernacular having been largely co-opted by minstrelsy for White audiences. Yet as you describe, as the Harlem Renaissance writers began to explore the possibilities and opportunities of vernacular speech in their work, Cullen increasingly finds himself in a historical cul-de-sac of sorts. To me this debate endures, even after all the inroads of modernism a half a century later. I think of the uproar when Kamau Brathwaite foregrounded what he called “nation language” or writing in dialect where he was using imported meters from Europe and publishing an issue of his magazine in dialect, which caused a lot of critics and writers, including fellow Black Caribbean writers who criticized him, or even my recent conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who very much is trying to fight for a central position for African languages on the African continent, which operate governmentally and literally almost entirely in European languages where there are African prizes of literature where you can’t qualify if you wrote it in an African language. In your essay you say, “Black poets have to bear inescapable burden. Their work has to do a double duty. To merely wrestle with words and the mysteries of existence is never enough unless they also address race itself.” Then you spend some time with a couplet of Cullen’s that shows his own contradictory feelings about this burden, “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Given your enduring interest in Cullen, I wonder if you could speak to what the couplet evokes for you but also thinking about this larger debate, if you could talk about where you position yourself in your poems within it with regards to this split that happened 100 years ago but still reverberates today, both in regard to the oral and the written but also the vernacular and the so-called elevated.
MJ: This is, you’re quite right, a very enduring issue. I think at the heart of it, particularly if you are either a diaspora writer or a writer for whom there’s a very strong tradition of speech and language, what we really want to know is, “Have you been hollowed out and your heart have been colonized?” That’s really at the heart of that critique. “Are you mimicking or are you giving voice to your own unique experience?” Now, there were and have been critics for whom these questions of intercultural exchange, albeit sometimes quite problematic but has been quite fruitful, for example, for Eliot to appropriate interestingly enough the tradition of vaudeville and The Waste Land in the vaudeville is connected to, of course, minstrelsy. Or we can go to John Berriman. It’s fraught. No doubt it’s fraught and that’s what we are typically addressing, and thinking about when these issues come up. But Cullen found great inspiration in Keats. He was called The Black Keats and also in Shakespeare, and that’s part of his literary inheritance. One of the things we’re seeing happening as well is everyone’s possibilities, everyone’s freedom inside their art today is being circumscribed by over-policing. I do believe it’s possible to speak outside one’s subjectivity if one is bringing sensitivity and an ethical responsibility. I truly think that that’s possible. You’re right, we are dealing with these issues up to today. The colonized mind, the colonized heart is, Fanon calls it a very tragic figure. However, in my mind, there are far more fruitful dialogues that are happening. It’s almost like, to be honest, I’m bored when these critiques come up regarding poets because we survive on what we encounter. If there’s deliberate mimicry, then that’s obvious, that’s just thinking bad poem-making. But if it helps push someone into an area of art-making, then I can subscribe to that. I just find it problematic that we find ourselves policing ourselves away from a freedom of art-making that does not feel generative, graceful. It’s almost like we put these stakes into the ground and say, “You have to stay under this camp. You stay over there,” when we know our inner lives, our interiorities is shaped by so much more on a daily basis than what we emerge from it and where we are today. We’re constantly evolving and I think art should reflect that. I hope that answered your question because I get very intolerant sometimes of the policing that happens, realizing that it is far more complex than what we grant these issues.
DN: Well, you actually speak to your aesthetics sometimes within the poems themselves. I like it when this happens. In the last two stanzas of your poem from Hoops called Logan, you distance yourself from language poetry saying, “Whatever relevance it had in a given moment hasn’t endured,” [laughter] the poem ending with the lines, “What age granted these lines material good? Can the epistolary form contain our hoods?” But I was hoping you’d read an excerpt from a different poem, the last three stanzas from the poem Hunting Park, also from Hoops, which seems to also be speaking to this question of orality and song in relationship to poetry, and maybe even speaking to perceived critics of your poetry.
MJ: Over the years, I have decided to engage in the poem some of my pushbacks and provocations. I once heard a Black poet speak about another. Some of it is obviously owed by I want to say career envy but he said that man was so far removed from his culture as evidenced in his art that he did not even know his mother. That was a very painful, violent thing to hear one poet say about another poet. I don’t even have to throw in identity there because there’s a presumption, and this was very popular for poets of his generation, to not afford individuals a complexity of existence that allowed for even whatever he considered to be a migration from his origins. Even that’s part of the tradition. It’s the story of America to some extent.
[Major Jackson reads from Hoops]
That’s funny I wrote that. [laughter] It’s funny because obviously, I read it when putting it together but again, you forget what you wrote 20-something years ago.
[Major Jackson reads from Hoops]
DN: Well, I just love [eco-femmes enlarged, they’re massive Peters] that you rhyme it with space heaters. It’s so great. [laughter]
MJ: It’s so wrong. Missed that one with the quality control.
DN: No, I love it. I think that’s so great. [laughter] I wanted to stay, Major, with your poetics and aesthetics for another moment with another question from another, this time from the poet Brenda Hillman.
Brenda Hillman: Hi, Major. I’m really happy to be asked to ask you a question. This is Brenda. My copy of your New and Selected hasn’t arrived but I actually had been thinking about the scope of your work because I saw a poem the other day in Poetry Daily that was so gorgeous. It began, “Pine shadows on snow like a Jasper canvas, if only my pen equaled the downy’s stabbing beak this January morning,” and I think it was in Sewanee Review. But anyway, thinking about how just dating back from Hoops, the complexity of your relationship to beauty and description has always been intricate. I wondered if you’d talk a little bit about the relationship that you have between formal beauty and a kind of ragged descriptive quality that is really just so fascinating in your poetry from the very first, from Hoops on. That’s my question: form, beauty, how you create a sort of edginess within your descriptions that isn’t purely loveliness? Okay, thank you for your amazing work.
MJ: Thank you, Brenda. Thank you. Thank you for bringing Brenda in the room.
DN: Of course.
MJ: Dear soul and fine poet and inspiration. Form, beauty, edginess. I have a friend who alerted me early on, and I’m really grateful for this, about the overly polished poem, the overly polished stanza. She was right to point out, now I accused her of being anti-lyric altogether and any presence of the self in the poem since are raging away running up into the hills. But we’ve had these debates over the years and it was great for her to point out to me, not that there’s a falseness to formal or the smoothed-out language metrical line, not that there’s a falseness, but my life is not that. The form can in a way be misrepresenting a subjectivity and she made a very important case for the gorgeous tension that can happen when you have the symmetrically-driven, sonically-driven poem and yet one that has its bumps throughout it or either in terms of his cadence or in terms of his language. When Brenda asked that question, it goes back to me how I was very intentionally almost programming those moments into my poems. How to do that sometimes means leaving out a word so that it doesn’t meet the expectation, the formal expectation. Sometimes it means thinking about a more guttural sound or word that could enter into a stanza or a line. One area of apprenticeship that I feel as though has been important to me is the long cadence complex sentence written within a formal poem. For me, it was writing over and over again, rhyming quatrains. Former students of mine will say that this has been something that I’ve gifted them over the years with just having them write, not a pentametrical line but a trimeter line where the sentence just cascades down. When that happens in a poem next to a language that feels a little bit more textured, maybe streaked, there’s this great gorgeousness that happens that I feel is closer to reality and my lived experience.
DN: There are ways that you evoke in your prose a poetics with regards to nation, citizen, and self that feel traditional in a certain way I would say, perhaps connecting to your early influences of Frost and Hughes where you say things like, “The poem represents the purest evidence of the human soul. And in a Whitmanian sense, a poem is the expression of a singular self.” But while you don’t declare this outright in your prose or identify it as such when you write about your poetry, I feel like there’s another force in your poetry that is a countervailing one that pushes against or troubles the boundaries of self and selfhood and the individual, and perhaps it’s related to this raggedness that Brenda mentions in relationship to formal beauty. For instance, in the poem she pointed to, it ends with the lines, “Sealed in its form, the austere world I’ve come to love beckons, earth runnels soon resurrected into a delirium of streams and wild fields. Till then, branches like black lines crisscrossing the sub-Arctic.” This juxtaposition of a world sealed in form but resurrected by a delirium of streams and wild fields feels kindred to something you say in the opening poem to the book that you read earlier, “Let me circle the island of my fears only once then live like a raging waterfall and grow a magnificent mustache.” Again, an island, something like a sealed form, and then a raging waterfall, and like the wild fields, this untamed facial hair. I want to explore several ways I feel like you seem to assert a self while also expanding it beyond itself or making it porous to itself. I think again to your conversation with your editor of your selected prose where answering a question about fear, you talked about the fear people have of others across divides and that you are inspired, in particular, by those who aim to write a poetry that tries to cross cultural divides. I’m thinking of that sentiment, I am reminded of Tracy K. Smith deciding to translate the poetry of the Chinese poet Yi Lei and how she felt that reaching across difference in this way was what was needed in the world right now. She has this wonderful meditation on translating Yi Lei’s poem Black Hair where she says, “Working on the poem, I saw clearly how the recurring image of black hair signifies within the specific context of Asian femininity, and yet in my hands—in my mouth—the phrase ‘black hair’ began to make space for a second set of values and vulnerabilities as informed by my racially specific experience.” Then she goes on to talk about how she lets her own voice harmonize with Yi Lei’s within the translation rather than trying to erase it and then says, “This is the miracle of translation, to me. I am elated that a Black woman in the US, alive in the midst of a national racial reckoning, might find her reality bolstered and clarified by a Chinese woman’s poem written on the eve of political uprising. What might it mean for a reader to be assured that her self as marked by race or any other signifier of identity need not submit to being an effaced presence in another poet’s lines, need not be a silent witness or mute interloper? What might it mean for a reader to be urged into vocal participation? What might it mean to be told all are welcome here?” I’d love to hear more about who you are thinking of when you say you’re inspired by poets writing across the divide and if you think they do, how your poems do this, and whether what I just read from Tracy, of course, speaks to you. It reminds me of you in a way, which also feels like it complicates your view of the singular self.
MJ: [Laughs] Yeah, gosh. Great close reading. Thank you for that. I’m just rocking back and forth enjoying the connections you’re making, how you’re framing that question. Those poems that Tracy translated, which some of them, we’ve published in Harvard Review as some of the finest work out there and the work that she’s doing and other translators are doing really is taking us back to a golden age. I think of American poetry being informed by these conversations that we’re having with poets throughout the world. As you’re talking, I was thinking of Miłosz, I was thinking of Seamus Heaney, Szymborska, a number of number of poets who have [inaudible] me and I don’t name them as much as I should. There was a moment in which I read a poem by Seamus called Wheels Within Wheels. Maybe if you remember being a kid but turning your bike upside down, turning that wheel, and maybe even, of course, putting a straw in it and making that flickering sound, to be taken back to that space, here is this poet, I don’t remember the era that Seamus was born but to see myself in that work in those poems or to hear Miłosz say, “No other end of the world will there be,” these were poets that called me and invited me to, go back to your use of the word field and how you’re reading field, in my work, who had me realize that these fields were connected, they were alive, they stretched beyond my immediate purview and it’s great when a poet turns your head in that way. I also thought about the necessary work that poetry does, which is I have been speaking of wildness, I have been early on that kid that shows up in the presence of a White person who has feared them. Of course, you can’t just say, “Hey, here are some poems. This is my humanity. This is the real me. I know you’re informed by all the imagery that you’ve been fed.” It doesn’t work that way. This is one of the cases for the humanities, I said I wasn’t going to sermonize or get on my soapbox, but this is one of the most important aspect because another feeble idea is the notion of nationalism. It just is not a great container of the world that we live in. Nationalism invites a certain, and this is not to discount the work of culture, this is not to discount family’s hard-earned rituals that create a sense of connectedness, but when fear is operating to prevent us and that you have the drum of nationalism to wedge and crowbar us away from each other and not to embrace each other’s wellness, not to embrace each other’s most lyric amplified self, then of course, language falters, our art falters. We were talking about the bridge, or not the bridge but I’m thinking about the role of literature and its ability to both honor the self. I really appreciate your problematizing that but also creating space for others or for ourselves to be seen or others to be seen in our work, particularly across international literature and poetry. Yes, I was talking about being the object of fear and how it’s, to some extent, one of the great purposes of art, and indeed literature, is to have us see each other beyond those constructions that render us invisible or disappeared. I know we cannot eradicate it but the conversations around nationhood that really turns people into cardboard figures is countered by the literature that we ingest. I know movies and televisions have supplanted theater stage, the short story, the poem but so much, as the poet says, is found there that could take us back to a level of decency as regards to each other and allow us to walk together rather than walk against. I feel like the political landscape of America is aided and abetted by these tensions. People profit off of these particular tensions. Tensions and literature always makes me feel good about being human and feel good about others.
DN: Well, part of the reason I ask this question is because one of my favorite aspects of your selected prose is about this, the question of writing across the divide. It’s something you engage with in multiple ways. In many essays, you look at straight-ahead racism such as Wallace Stevens calling Gwendolyn Brooks a coon, or how you look through Robert Frost’s letters and find there’s not only no mention of Gwendolyn Brooks but no correspondence with any Black people, not even one letter that made as its subject a Black poet or a Black person. You looked at other poets from the same period and found similar results. In response, you then look for examples of cross-racial poetry friendships, whether Hayden and Auden, Baraka and O’Hara, Lowell and Walcott, or Rich and Lorde, and then in a different essay, you talk about how it seems like White poets today don’t have Black friends, that their poems, if they engage with race at all capture “encounters” with people of color, not Black people in their homes or their lives but rather by chance in the world, often on public transport. In this same essay, you talk about how you think fiction writers are much more willing than poets to explore reigning racial attitudes, that poets seem less willing to be repulsive or repugnant in poems. You call this absence of engaging with race within poetry written by White people appalling, that the imagination should know no moral bounds, that this is an important aspect of social life in America, and that the majority of White poets in America continue in unsettling and conspicuous unresponsiveness towards something that’s truly fundamental to life in the country. Then you look at some White writers who attempt in various ways imperfectly to engage with race. Most notably Tony Hoagland where you say that you’d rather have his failures than nothing at all, which is notable given that his engagements with race are most often not reaching across the divide so much as a provocative evocation of White racism. In multiple episodes of this show, we’ve discussed the famous exchange between him and Claudia Rankine. In part of that exchange he says, “I am not trying to sidestep—of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate, a drop-out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a teacher, a terrible driver, and a single mother. Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I’m an American; this tarnished software will not be rectified by good intentions, or even good behavior.” I guess I’m really interested and compelled to hear more about your position, which I suspect is a minority one in today’s climate, that it’s better to have poems by White poets that might ultimately be considered racist or harmful. Let’s say another example is Kenneth Goldsmith’s what I would call disastrous autopsy remix of Michael Brown. It’s better to have them enter into the discourse to engage with race from their subject position or from their imaginary that the continued harm of the silence and avoidance seems to be a greater harm in your mind than the harm that might be caused intentionally or unintentionally when a White poet engages with race in the poetry discourse.
MJ: Wow. I’m so happy you went there. [laughter]
MJ: Let me say that essay, Big and Black, A Mystifying Silence probably should be read more as a historical artifact during a moment when our friend Claudia Rankine and some other poets, thinkers were having dinner, we had just read at University of Pennsylvania and that post reading dinner, Claudia brought up the encounter with Tony in her class, which led to, of course, this big conversation. But before the AWP moment where she told the story of it, I had written this particular essay, it was my meditation on that evening. I’m equally repulsed by calling Billie Holiday the cosmic washerwoman and is there harm in that? Yes, but I’m being harmed every day by language that postures itself as what advertising work speak. The consciousness that we bring to how we engage our inner lives, our inner thoughts, back then, I felt as though we needed to break that silence. I wanted an interiority that mapped how are modern-day races shaped today. How does that happen? Now granted I got a lot of poems written by White folk after that essay submit it for the Harvard Review and I was like, “Okay, yes, you have an audience, someone who’s curious, but let’s just put it out there in the world,” [laughter] I think maybe, we’re now back at a moment where people don’t want to get in those waters and it’s because we live in a culture, of course, of canceling people. It is deadly to the imagination. Again, I believe we can be ethically and morally responsible without art. The intentional harm we believe someone to bring emerges simply out of a lack of consciousness or awareness. But if you notice, there is a huge reaction in the world right now, not because people want to be PC, it’s because we are posturing ourselves in a way that doesn’t allow for a genuine engagement with people. I don’t know where that lack of grace comes from. I spoke to a seventh-grade teacher two days ago who talked about the fact that children today, in her experience, she was in the classroom for eight years, they don’t respect the teacher or authority or each other anymore. I’m not saying that we’re not arriving to the table with a lack of regard or respect but we seem more to be driven by retribution. I feel like the climate that we’re in moves towards the climate that if you play itself out, it’s going to shut down any authentic art. A friend of mine who has clients who are writing memoirs and essays, and she’s a person of color, a Black woman, she’s like, excuse my French, “This is BS. You’re asking me to serve as a person who’s going to erase your work of any controversy that really is the subject of the work.” I understand editors want their books to sell, they don’t want controversy, although controversy always raises the number of units that go out the door. But when she found that out, when she found that she was being used that way, she didn’t want to put a rubber stamp on the book. Sometimes blurbs work in that way too. If so and so blurbed it, then how can it be problematic? I do think we need to have sincere conversations and not just put it on the previous generations. We today come from communities, we harbor these notions towards each other and it’s imperative that if the art is going to grow, we can’t give over to a committee of readers who are prepared to say, “Well, that’s not allowable, this is not allowable.” I’m saying that realizing that someone can be harmed but we can be prepared to handle some of the evil in the world and that’s part of living and surviving. If it is evil. I don’t want to say poems are evil but you know what I mean. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. Well, perhaps a place where you yourself had to confront your own privilege and your desire to be silent in the face of it was when you were asked to go to the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya as a poet. You say, “Although I had been sent there to proselytize about the integral and synthesizing powers of poetry to impart a provisional understanding of our lives, especially those disrupted by travesty, I privately decided it was not my responsibility.” Then you go on to teach your favorite poets there but half-heartedly, shaken by what poetry could do at all in the face of tens of thousands of deaths and one thousand people a day seeking asylum from war and from natural disaster. You say that you truly believed that your own comfort did not authorize you to speak and you confess that you felt that many people who claimed a poetry of witness were often exploitative or self-serving. Nevertheless, ultimately and eventually, you do write in your collection Roll Deep a sequence of poems called The Dadaab Suite named after the camp. I’d love for you to read one part of what you chose to include in Razzle Dazzle. But before you do, I was hoping you could orient us to how you checked yourself as you wrote these pieces to not be exploitative, to not be self-serving, and how you were able to ultimately break a silence that this unfathomable suffering put before you.
MJ: This is a struggle for all writers I guess, assessing the place of poetry in our world is an act of maturity, a personal growth for poets. Whereas prior, one can speak quite cavalierly about the role of poetry. During wartime or being on the edges of seeing it up close, you come to think about the imprisoned poets who really did use poems to survive, wrote their lines on prison walls, but it felt, in the face of it, futile so I’ve had many come-to-Jesus moments but that was one of them. I professed maybe out of cowardice that I wouldn’t speak to it and then after I wrote that, that didn’t feel right at all. It felt like I had been given the privilege of bearing witness. To speak about the limitations of poetry during those moments felt like a fruitful direction to go. Speaking about acknowledging, let’s put it that way, that here I was for a week or more dealing with men and women who were recruited as child soldiers, who had crossed a desert to arrive at these camps, their work would have been more interesting. I even had to say that to myself. This is the work that needs to be heard. But once I acknowledged that, then I was able to break through to something that felt like, and again, I’m using the word policing but these questions of appropriating other people’s narratives weren’t part of the dialogue back then on a discourse. We were talking about appropriation but somehow, the poets were exempt. I love this moment in Camus, in his essay Create Dangerously where he says that while the Gladiators were facing off against each other or some animal, the artist would be up in these stone seats looking up at the sky and maybe thinking of some words if they’re a poet. But then the artist suddenly found themselves down there alongside the Gladiators and circumstances changed. For me, it wasn’t as dramatic but my life had reached a point where, metaphorically speaking, I had to make decisions about why I was doing what I was doing. Going back, if you don’t mind me saying this, about the orality, oral culture, it just occurs to me to say the bias against different kinds of poetry, I’m sorry that leaps so far back but I want to say this because I do think there’s a connection here, the bias against oral cultures or poetry that is borne out of performance, we don’t know how people have arrived to this art other than through what is sanctioned, which is the classroom. We presume that someone encountered a poem in a classroom. But people encounter poems in many different areas of their lives. These particular young people in this refugee camp had already had a relationship to poetry. They had already embraced it. They were publishing poems in their newspaper that they had found just a couple of years prior. How I was able to break through that silence was contemplating whether or not that silence would utterly truly be fruitful or could I add my voice as part of a larger fabric of voices, a larger composition of voices. This is how I experience. I also made sure that I wrote it, I published it, and I moved on. In fact, it was a commission from the Virginia Quarterly Review who subsequently, after I was there, sent a photographer out there. But I wasn’t going to turn it into a one-person performance. I wasn’t going to make some sort of economic gain from it. I just went to write it, tell my experience, the debrief from the officers there telling me about the stories of some of the women, some of the children, and the men. It was deeply moving and I was desponded to speak it. I would do it again even in this climate.
[Major Jackson reads from his New and Selected, Razzle Dazzle]
DN: We’ve been listening to Major Jackson read from his New and Selected, Razzle Dazzle. I want to leave the world of humans and reach across the divide between the human and non-human as you do. But before we do, in the spirit of how you said recently to Sonia Sanchez in a conversation that what you particularly admired about her was that she never drew the line between her life and her art, between being a mother, activist, or poet. In a similar spirit, we have a question for you from a human you know well about the many roles you play within the human community. Here’s a question for you from Evie Shockley.
Evie Shockley: Hi, Major. It’s Evie. Congrats on Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems. This is a serious milestone, selected poems, and I’m thrilled for you and I’m thrilled for us that we get to read it, look back, and think about the arc of your career thus far. I myself have been particularly leaning into and enjoying the poems in Lovesick, the news section, and thinking about these trademark Major Jackson poetics, the kinds of lush and unexpected images that your work tends to produce, the way you reach for inherited forms but also make them your own, make them bend to the work that you need them to do. I think particularly, I’ve been taking note of the range of subjects that your poems embrace and always have embraced as long as I’ve been reading your writing, but just looking in this new section of Razzle Dazzle, you’ve got allusions to everything from [monk] to Michael Brown, Orpheus to Aretha, Greek gods and Europe priestesses. Blake and Baraka, Lucille Clifton and Marvin Gaye, Dostoevsky and Zagajewski, and all the places: the Roman Empire, Brazil, France. You’re just bouncing around, not only from city to city or cultural capital to cultural landmark but also around in among the things that we call the natural world of the mountains, the different flowers, the different trees that you call up. There’s just so much and your poetry manages to just scoop it all up, mix it together, and make that movement across time and space seem so inevitable. That’s just one of the things I’ve always appreciated about your work. In terms of a question, you know I was going to come around to it sooner or later, in terms of my question, I think it’s less about your poetry per se and more about how you’ve been able to write with such vitality and consistency over such a long period of time, 2002-2022 according to your book cover, while at the same time being such a good citizen of the poetry world. When I think about all the things that you do and have done, the poems, of course, but you’ve also got a book of essays now that collects the criticism you’ve written over these same period of years, you’ve got the years of editing poetry for a Harvard Review, you’ve got the Renga for Obama book that you organized and published, you’ve got reading series that you have hosted over the years, all the teaching and mentoring both at Vermont and Vanderbilt but also at Cave Canem and the work that you’ve done with Furious Flower, and all the other kinds of mentoring, blurbing, and just shepherding of other poets’ work and efforts over these years. That’s my question: how have you been able to be so productive and to maintain such a consistent and really strong practice of writing and publishing while also doing so much to support the work of others and what we think of as the poetry community broadly at the same time? I’d love to hear you reflect back on that. Thanks, Major.
MJ: I appreciate someone who I deeply admire and love. Their work both as critic and poet have fed me and served as a model who also has mentored, taught, and ushered in next generations of writers. Thank you, thank you, Evie. Thank you so much for that question. I guess it goes back to something I said earlier about having the privilege to, right now, pause and take stock. This really does feel like a pivot moment both as a writer but also just as a human being in the world. There was a spiritual dimension always to all of this. That’s not a hierarchical statement that I’m making but more I’ve been nurtured and I want to continue to make opportunities for others to experience a growth and movement towards and openness. You watch the interview with Sonia Sanchez who I’ve only known to model that kind of generosity. I think some way I write about being one of those individuals that Gwendolyn Brooks said, “Come to my reading, read a poem,” and then later wrote a $500 check on the eve in which my rent was due. Being part of that continuum I mentioned is realizing that there’s a level of service, caretaking that is about the art. I was mentioning the interview with Sonia Sanchez where at one point, I asked her a question about what does she want her students to walk away with. Nobody in the room was prepared, the people who organized it at the Pew Foundation, the photographer, people standing with their clipboards, she said, “I want my students to know that I love them,” and the room stopped, paused. We were in their offices at the Pew Foundation. Everyone got chills. I even heard a young woman, young sister over in the corner, tear up a little bit. That takes poetry out of the realm of the intellectual, it takes out of the realm of social, political, and it puts it squarely into our humanity. I normally don’t like to flip that card too much because I don’t want it to invalidate also the heavy inheritance of art-making pushing the poem towards song and as an art that evolves, that gets a hold of us because of that craft. I would say to that, to Evie’s question first and foremost, I had people that modeled that for me. I would also say that, and this is my opportunity to talk about The Slowdown, as an editor and as someone who’s taught, I’ve always seen myself as part of the estate of poetry. I guess what I mean by that is yeah, I want people to feel empowered, seen, and heard in their poem but I’m also equally dedicated to the art itself. The poem that emerges, and I’ve had many students over the years for whom I’m just utterly proud and it’ll be ridiculous for me to even single out one or two of them, but they have made a mark on the language and on the art. I was listening to, I found a CD of mine in my collection that I’ve digitized and I came across June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. I heard a young Solmaz Sharif as an undergrad reading a poem. To see where she was then to now is phenomenal. That’s the other reason. I take great pleasure in watching people evolve and grow. The teaching part is also where the bread and butter comes from. Institutions serve as the great patrons of poetry these days. Not everyone can have a Rosenwald Fellowship, Mr. Hughes and all those Black poets in the middle of the last century who were supported by those great efforts to identify writers of color. But I’ll also say a curiosity about what is possible with language drives me as well, and that’s my own practice. That’s what keeps me going. I think it didn’t hurt for me to have a business education and think about not so much the business side but to have a set of effective daily rituals that keep me coming back to my regime of writing, it’s almost like working out. I don’t have any special rituals that I do. I don’t take morning runs or fix a coffee in a certain way every morning before I sit down. But I do sit down. I remember Phil Levine calling it butt time. You got to put in your butt time even if nothing comes. But I’m also inspired by my peers. Not in any competitive way like, “Oh, snap,” and Evie being one of them. I don’t think there would have been A Beat Beyond without her collections of criticism and her poems. The Dark Room Collective got the engine going on that, allowed me to see myself in relationship to a community of writers. We were all young. None of us could have predicted the impact on the culture. I want to make a small, maybe slight correction about the Dark Room Collective and Cave Canem. Cave Canem merged out of its own soil. We shared many members of the Dark Room Collective, particularly me was a huge fan of Cornelius Eady and still is. Cornelius is the big link there and Cornelius also wrote that important piece in The New Yorker on the Dark Room Collective that launched many of us, at least gave us a face, I mean I shouldn’t say that, Charles Rowell and Callaloo was one of the first, but The New Yorker built off of this growing reputation of the Dark Room Collective. I’m inspired by my peers. I cherish the mentorships that I receive, the friendships current today. Over the pandemic, some of us created writing groups and I happen to be in one that still meets on Monday afternoons for two hours that helps as well.
DN: Well, you’ve long written about the natural world in different ways. You’re on the board of Orion, and in the conversation you had with Orion’s poetry editor Camille Dungy, at one point, you both talk about the myopia of what is considered nature poetry. She says about your work, “I was fascinated by those early poems out of Philadelphia. I thought, See, this is what we don’t get to see. We don’t see this idea of the greater than human world in an urban setting in a way that you worked so well into your first two books. Now you’ve got your space in Vermont, and in many ways your recent poems feel more conventional to my expectations for an environmental poem. But there’s still so much human in your work, so much about what it means to be a man in nature. And in that way, some kinds of thinking about what environmental poetry should be might say your work doesn’t count.” Thinking of this as a first step into talking about your long-standing ecological concerns in your poetry, I was hoping maybe we could hear one of these early poems that Dungy is attracted to, the greater than human world in an urban setting poem. I was thinking of the poem Pest.
MJ: Good choice. [laughs] I grew up maybe about a good somewhere between 15 and 25-minute walk from Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Me and my friends at ages 10, 11, 12 would say we’re going hiking. Here’s this long urban park and it did require of us to do some navigating but I slowed everyone down because I wanted to stop and look. I was interested early on in the bugs. Maybe this poem came out of a memory of learning about cicadas.
[Major Jackson reads a poem called Pest]
DN: We’ve been listening to Major Jackson read from Razzle Dazzle.
MJ: I don’t have a great sense of humor in my poems. My poems are often quite serious but I’ve gotten better and this was one of the earliest poems where I said, “Well, this could be a protest about being pushed up against the wall by the police.” But you think of these ideas, “Oh, that’ll be fun. What if they both stopped to listen to the insects?” [laughter]
DN: Well, I would say your poems have a great sense of humor. But I do think what Camille Dungy says about your man in nature poems that come later than Pest are different than most of, let’s say, the self-described eco poets that come on the show who more often are attempting to leave the human vantage point when engaging with nature or evoking different vantage points. I think of Alice Oswald in one of her recent Oxford lectures, which centers largely on the Book of Job, and after she characterizes the Book of Job as a kind of ancient poetry slam with six poets, and one of those poets being God, and they’re all competing to describe the nature of reality where the whirlwind that is God speaks in verse and in judgment, and she says, “The shift here is from a lyric to an epic universe, from a personal howl to an open many centered, unmeasurable, unfolding form as if to say, ‘Listen, the best poem has already been written. It is here and it is existence itself whose script is the Earth and whose rhythm is the seasons.’” She calls the phrase in the Book of Job “from the scent of water it flowers a brilliant micro sensitive sketch of the outward inwardness of trees saying you hardly notice as you read that you’ve had to climb right into the heartwood and inhale from there the stony smell of water before it rains and you will have to have leaves, you will have to be possessed of some kind of vegetal porousness to register the rustling of a tree has hope.” Even if this isn’t your poetics speaking from outside the human, I sense the pull of this open, many-centered, unmeasurable, unfolding form on the humans in your poetry. You definitely also, I think, appreciate this poetics. I think of your flash review of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s book Hello, the Roses in your selected prose, which made me smile, where after describing her work admiringly, you say, “Such deep-forest loftiness has its skeptics. Whereas Wordsworth heard the ‘still, sad music of humanity,’ Mei-mei would be hard pressed to notice other people walking along the mesa. However, few living poets are as able to enter headlong into the spiritual state of our environment and its endangerment. Ethereal and metaphysical, ‘Hello, the Roses’ presents one of the best minds in modern poetry. Who cares if she doesn’t greet you on the hiking trail?” I love that and another sense of humor here. But you’re both praising her and I think suggesting maybe a difference in orientation but I wondered if you could speak into some of the ways in which you want to approach the ecological.
MJ: Thank you for bringing Alice also into this admirer. I guess the melding, that’s part of it. When we start creating the boundaries between ourselves, and this is my admiration of Mei-mei’s work is that when you create these boundaries, and sometimes the boundaries are inevitable because they are contingent upon time, there’s a narrative poem and it’s speaking from a particular subject itself, but with nature poetry, and by the way, when you mentioned that quote from, and I’ve been meaning to talk to Camille about it but like a man in nature, that took me to Robert Bly and I was like, “No! I’m running away from them.” [laughter] But I appreciate the terms because it does have me contemplate how, quite possibly, the gender view is potentially one of conquests, getting it right where what I’m interested in and why I admire Mei-mei is that I won’t say that dreaminess but there is a melding that happens and it’s that I want to hold up and quite possibly, even later in my work, achieve what we mentioned earlier as entering into its Hopkins inscape. It’s like getting into the flow, getting into that life energy. When I encounter it, even in Brenda’s work or in Mei-mei’s work, I say Brenda’s work because Brenda is intentionally trying to also call attention to the abuses in the same way that I am and others are to raise consciousness, and there is no hierarchy here but coterminous approaches and that’s what I’m really excited about. But for my own aspiration, I would like the lyric to encapsulate and enter into maybe a seasonal consciousness in a way that the Earth cycles through various states. I want the work to be experienced in that kind of way. This may be one of the measures by which we learn to engage the greatness of a poem. If you read, for example, Auden’s September 1, 1939, it’s very specific to the rise of Hitler and the exploitation of that very fragile moment. You read it in 2001, it becomes another kind of poem. I think that porousness that you talk about is something that is a state of entering into the language and thinking about how poems could possibly occupy ourselves, be reflective of ourselves, of our communities, and then next level, how is entering into the possibilities of existing in the future. If we can think about how nature models that for us, then this might be one of the advances in language and poetic form. Right now, and I’m on record as saying, somewhere someone called me out on I can’t remember where but it’s like experimental poetry, all the experiments have been done. That’s not true. It’s meant to be provocative, of course. But if we’re going to advance the art beyond the confines that we currently practice, we’re going to have to turn to nature.
DN: I love that. Well, as we come to a close and thinking about the ways your ecological work has taken different forms over the course of your career, I wanted to return, again, to lineage and inheritance. The first several poems in the book, new poems from your new collection Lovesick, they speak to inheriting the Earth and the state of the Earth we are inheriting and passing on. The word inheritance is used in these opening poems like the line in the poem Lovesick, you’ve inherited acres of a night sky and she is your aurora borealis, a poem that also mentions the inheritance of a polluted river. Also, in the opening poem, you address the non-human world like a lover or a friend, “Dear Glacier, Dear Sea of Stars, Dear Leopards disintegrating at the outer limits of our greed.” I like how in some of your prose, you weave together your concerns about ecological inheritance and the poetry you’ve inherited. You mentioned that the lines from Robert Frost’s poem Birches “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better” are some of your favorite lines, and that one of your desert island poems is Komunyakaa’s Venus’-fly traps. In speaking about Robert Hayden at an event, you talk about his poem Night-Blooming Cereus as a great example of finding the divine within nature. Then you go on to read one of your new poems after talking about him, a poem called Of Wolves and Imagination that I feel like much like the opening poem, that circles the island of your fears but only once before living like a raging waterfall. It also puts forth a singular voice, song, or howl but holds it in tension with also boundlessness and wildness beyond self. That feels like these new poems might be a new gesture for you. I’d love to go out with this poem Of Wolves and Imagination, but before we do, do you have any sense of what all this looking back, this revisiting, and this selecting and collecting has done to you and to your future, the desire in you for the next gesture of poetry to where you want to reach toward or gesture with?
MJ: Yeah. Well, thank you for teaching me to be a reader of my own work. [laughter]
DN: Well, it’s an honor.
MJ: That was awesome. There is a sense that I’m interrogating myself even more as a result of the journey of looking back and where these most recent poems, most of them written just after the pandemic, and so I am looking like consciously thinking about where can I go next. There is the ever-lingering urban renewal poems that are always asking for my attention and is becoming its own village that I’m visiting occasionally. It is holding a lot of questions and experiences for me so I’m definitely committed to that. But this interrogating myself and looking at the work and the journey thus far, I am self-consciously thinking about, to use a Helen Vendler term, where is the breakage happening aesthetically in my work and how can I point towards the future and maybe infinity? Because I am driven by a restlessness with myself. That’s not a performance for anyone else other than me feeling that I have not given in language a full picture of this life as experienced by Major. So I’m looking for those forms, those projects that are going to carry the questions that I’m living with, also some of the pain, and also some of the blessings that I have. I want to share that and I feel like yes, Razzle Dazzle gives one angle of that. It is a very privileged space to be able to do that because, as I said earlier, I can point to individuals for whom I’m grateful they’ve gotten me this far. They don’t even know it. Some of them, their works, their poems. I do feel like being the host of The Slowdown is opening me up to the possibility of a poetry that is populist but doesn’t give up on the rigor of the art. That’s with great help from my producer Myka Kielbon and [Maria and Lou Baron and Beth Perlman], they are not trained in these questions in the way that we are and so that when I bring forth a poem, there is a demand to make it less of a sunburn and more of a pleasant light coming into the room. I think that was the work of Mary Oliver and I think that was a work of a number of poets who have reached into the inner life of readers. I think Franz Wright was going in that direction in his later work. If you can think of Franz without his rough outer self, you can see his growth and that’s what’s beautiful about this moment in one’s life. I can think of a number of visual artists for whom how they evolved was one towards minimalism, that’s a model, a potential model for me. I do think we need to give space for younger poets, emergent poets. Quieting down a little bit but first, there has to be the epic and then you can do it. [laughter] I’m reading Of Wolves and Imagination, yes. I was just thinking about Barry Lopez for whom this poem is dedicated. I think he and a number of essayists, I praise the fiction writers in terms of going headlong into the stormy waters of race, but in terms of the questions that we asked ourselves that keep us up late at night, I feel like the essayists have done that. I was just thinking about Barry Lopez, that wildness, you said that this is a direction that I feel I’m going to agree with you on this, these poems feel like that they are wanting to assert a little bit more the rawness of beingness and sometimes you got to go through those forms that we were talking about earlier in order to arrive at a voice that feels forceful in your own and not tamed.
[Major Jackson reads a poem called Of Wolves and Imagination]
DN: Thank you, Major Jackson. It’s been an honor. I’ve been looking forward to today.
MJ: Thank you, David. Thank you for the really fantastic conversation and the readings that have opened up my skies to my own work. Grateful for that.
DN: And congratulations again.
MJ: I appreciate it truly.
DN: Yeah. We’ve been talking today to Major Jackson about his latest book Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2022. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Major Jackson and his work at majorjackson.com. For the bonus audio archive, Major contributes a reading of John Ashbery’s More Pleasant Adventures, joining supplemental readings by so many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks, and more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing for it, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards from the Tin House Early Readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.