Didi Jackson's debut collection of poems, Killing Jar, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2020. Her poems have appeared most recently in The New Yorker, New England Review, and Ploughshares, among other publications. She teaches Creative Writing, Poetry and the Visual Arts, and 20th Century Poetry of War and Witness at the University of Vermont and serves as the associate poetry editor for Green Mountains Review.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My book is due out from Red Hen Press in late 2019, so I haven’t had that kind of life changing experience with a book yet. However, my poem “Signs for the Living” (published in The New Yorker in October 2017) opened my eyes to the power and reach of poetry. The poem is about my second husband’s suicide and my life beyond that pain. This is what my book addresses too. Complete strangers reached out to me to let me know how important the message of perseverance was to them. It felt good to know that my words and my experience could maybe ease someone’s pain. That’s not necessarily the reason I write, but it a powerful and compelling aspect of my art.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have mild - moderate dyslexia. When I was young, poetry made sense. I was already searching for multiple words with similar meanings to help replace the one word I could not say or spell. In that way, I think I was also already seeing the world in metaphor. The natural world was (and still is) very important to me. I wanted to know the name of every bird, tree, and flower in my backyard. After moving from Florida to Vermont, I now live in a completely different environment from where I grew up. Luckily, I get the joy of learning these things all over again.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Different poems come into the world in different ways. Some are almost completely formed. Others only need a little rearranging. Still others are chopped back to the bare bones or are blended with another poem. My work usually starts with an image and/or a metaphor of some kind. I’ve learned, over time, to work quickly towards a first draft. Then, how long it takes to feel good about that particular poem really depends.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I knew that I wanted to write this book about my husband’s suicide from the beginning. Understandably, his death found its way into almost everything I wrote. But I also wanted the book to be about something else, something even bigger: my survival, a new love, a second chance.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings! I like meeting people and talking about the craft and art of poetry.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Right now, I am focusing on the question of how to find a personal identity beyond the pain of trauma. How does one continue on, carry the pain, yet create a new and satisfying life? Grief and trauma are themes I am interested in, but I am also immersed in themes of recovery, survival, and transfiguration. Unfortunately, there are so many forms of trauma. Mine is only one. Because of the multiple ways in which we can be hurt and heal, readers can take away their own bits and pieces of renewal.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The most important work my poems can do is reach readers and help them to share a human experience. We are not alone in any of our pain. I believe the visual arts do that same kind of work. They help to create (and therefore verify) our shared humanity beyond time, place, and culture.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For me, this is essential!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I wish I had a more regular writing routine, but because of the nature of responsibilities at work (and in the past, family), I write poems wherever and whenever I can. The ideas of waiting for inspiration is impossible for me. In my world, sitting down and getting to work is really the best way. Sometimes in those moments, the words come easily. Other times, they don’t come at all. However, all of it is part of the process.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to poets who inspire me: W.S. Merwin, Li-Young Lee, Marie Howe, Sharon Olds, Yannis Ritsos, Vievee Francis, Yusef Komunyakaa, Adam Zagajewski. Joseph Brodsky, Eavan Boland, Patricia Smith, and Carolyn Forche.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Orange blossoms and gardenias. I miss those sweet smells of the South.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The visual arts very much inform my work. I taught Art History for many years, and so references to visual art show up in many of my poems. I enjoy bringing art to life in the present-day world of my words.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Outside of the many poets I read, I also read a lot of nonfiction. I am in love with the work by Bernd Heinrich. Having retired from teaching biology at the University of Vermont, Heinrich still studies and writes about the winter world splitting his time between Vermont and Maine. His books have become bibles to me for the northern landscape. Mind of the Raven, One Wild Bird at a Time, and Winter World are all books I love.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to learn to cross country ski!
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would be very happy teaching Art History again. I try to teach some art history in my class Poetry and the Visual Arts, a class about ekphrastic poetry.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was a modern dancer in college and considered pursuing a career in that art form. But I loved language too. I decided to take the path that was a bit easier on my body, although, sitting for hours and hours writing does take a physical toll. Snowshoeing has become my new favorite activity here in Vermont. It gets me out into the snow and close to the natural world of which I like to write.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Here are a few of my most recent favorites: poetry: Magdalene by Marie Howe, fiction: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, nonfiction: Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, film: Darkest Hour.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on my next book of poems. This collection, still grounded in nature and the visual arts, will try to answer questions of mental illness, adoption (I am adopted), cultural identity, and race.