Friday, March 16, 2018
12 or 20 (second series) questions with Major Jackson
Major Jackson is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Roll Deep (Norton, 2015). Recipient of a John S. Guggenheim Fellowship, he is Richard A. Dennis Professor of English at the University of Vermont. He serves as poetry editor of The Harvard Review.
[Major Jackson performs in Ottawa as part of the 8th annual VERSeFest on Sunday, March 25]
1 – How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Cave Canem, Inc. sponsored a book prize that led to my first book Leaving Saturn being published; the book was selected by the brilliant poet and writer Al Young and laid the groundwork for some themes that I would explore in my latest volume Roll Deep, namely community (albeit global), culture, history, and memory. That book prize not only changed my life but the organization itself changed American poetry.
2 – How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a young, aspiring writer in his 20s, poetry was simply the most ideal genre for my composing imagination which tends to be textured and associative rather than plotting and omniscient. Somehow I hear more noise in the silence of intense concentration that poetry demands.
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?
Like life itself, most of what I am aiming to wrestle in poetry is diffuse and cryptic. I write into the unknown, so first drafts (as well as subsequent drafts) seem like a narrowing of purpose and intention, a dance towards the center of something that is wild within me. With each revision or draft, I try not to lose the freshness of improvisation which is the trick and seduction of art.
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 have several projects that co-exist side by side in my head, and normally I write (to borrow Ellison’s phrasing here) towards whichever jagged grain is worrying my aching consciousness on any given day. The starts and delays is about survival, of course, but also where I hear loudest the music emerging from within.
5 – Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings prepare me to return to the page; I cherish the isolation as much as I cherish casting spells and rhythms of language.
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?
Theoretical concerns? Questions? Probably not, but I do know I am intrigued and possessed by this ongoing concern: can we evolve so that we are more humane to each other? Can we get inside language so that we can rewire and reconfigure our fears and proclivities away from tribalism and towards a new reality in human relations, a new way of engaging each other and the planet that is not about exploitation or hate or destruction?
7 – When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Normally, binge watching the movies of Ingmar Bergman or listening to the complete recordings of Louis Armstrong or a day hike in the mountains near my home does the trick.
8 – What fragrance reminds you of home?
Normally some brand of en’s cologne which growing up lined my grandfather’s bedroom dresser.
9 – 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?
I will not disagree as most of my books play out this interrelationship with other modes of knowing and seeing. I actively work to reference or allude to a world beyond my own interiority, that which most often shapes my imagination either.
10 – What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There’s a whole Transatlantic tradition of black intellectuals who have stamped their critical insights on my work. Also, too, early 20th century Russian poetry, not to mention the creative and critical writings of Toni Morrison whose web-like influence on art and critical scholarship, we will retrospectively discover, will rival that of Eliot’s during modernism.
11 – What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Someday I’d like to teach myself to play the upright bass.
12 – 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?
That’s easy, an etymologist, a hunter of origins.
13 – What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A complete fascination with the notion that I could write a phrase or sentence that has never been uttered before in the history of the English language and that utterance might further us into a new consciousness or thinking.
14 – What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is pretty phenomenal. I will be reading it for some time.
#WakandaForever. While I had some issues with the portrayal of the Black nationalist, Black Panther felt truly ground-breaking. Also, four years later, I am still thinking about Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;