Friday, March 16, 2018
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;
Thursday, March 15, 2018
My tag-line for the party we held over the weekend: “party until I break a hip” (which didn’t happen, fortunately). Responding to an email on same, my birth mother wrote, only: “You’re funny.”
Of course, I produced a chapbook as a handout for the event, the poem “snow day,” which makes up the entirety of my writing production from January to the opening of March (I did post work-in-progress excerpts on the blog if you missed). You can order a copy here, if you wish. I’ve already been sending out copies to various of my Patreon supporters.
At the party itself: we were there early, which meant Rose and Aoife ran laps around the tavern, slamming themselves into the wall and laughing, laughing. Before they arrived, I spent the afternoon downstairs in my usual spot, working on short fiction and reviews, thanks to Christine and her mother (which is all I ever want for my birthday, anyway).
What does forty-eight mean? I’m not quite sure. Closer to fifty, I suppose. Aoife turns two in about a month, and Rose is almost four and a half (my daughter Kate, of course, is twenty-seven). It means I’ve been home full-time with children for quite some time now (since Rose was born, basically). During those maternity leave months (Christine had a year with each), we juggled time, but otherwise, I’ve been home full-time, employing an occasional teenager throughout the summer to play with the girls for the sake of writing mornings (which happened earlier this week as well). I work during the two mornings a week Aoife is in preschool, as well as during her naps; Rose is already in full-time junior kindergarten, where she seems to be thriving (she could write her name before school, and, unprompted, has been writing out Aoife’s name also). And I do quite like being the home-person, Aoife and I walking Rose to school in the morning, and collecting her again in the afternoon.
Last year, I managed to start and finish a poetry manuscript, “the book of smaller,” over the course of the calendar year, aiming for very short poems during my shortened attention span (see lots of links to a variety of these online). Once Rose began school, the plan was to return eventually to short stories, which has come far slower. I’m very close to completing and sending out three short stories, but I thought the same of these same short stories, what, six months ago? Everything moves slow, but at least it moves.
I work on a mass of above/ground press items, celebrating this year’s twenty-fifth anniversary. I keep posting essays to my (small press) writing day, many gendered mothers, and the “On Writing” series. I keep posting poems to the weekly “Tuesday poem” series. I keep posting my Spotlight series monthly at Medium. The latest issue of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics appeared recently, and the next issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club is imminent, as is the next issue of Touch the Donkey. I’m also curating/hosting a series of literary walks around Ottawa this year, as prompted by Arc Poetry Magazine, with the first one next week. There is so much to do.
[Rose and Aoife, upon being asked to smile for the camera] And then the rebuilding of our basement continues, after our Hallowe’en flood. Some two or three dozen boxes of fiction and trade comics returned to our shelves. There is so much more to bring in, but it moves. We return.
Thanks to this week’s childcare, I’m re-entering short stories, albeit slower than I’d like. I’m hoping to get at least one of these stories finished and sent out before the end of the week. Slowly.
Will I make it back to that memoir-in-progress? That novel? One hopes. Slowly. Slow.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Is it a burden to be so perfect
And to have such perfect children
And to have such a perfect marriage
And to look so perfect all the time
And to make every decision perfectly
Cocktails on Thursday with Sammy—perfect
You know your sweater really does look perfect
That mango salad you made—it turned out perfectly
And that car with your shoes
Goddammit that’s perfect
Well it works perfectly
My supervisor—he’s perfect
The desk, it looks perfect
All and all the day was perfect
And lovely and still
What did we do
We walked the earth
So perfect! (“IS IT A BURDEN”)
Following her poetry collections AWE (Wave, 2007), Black Life (Wave Books, 2010), Thunderbird (Wave Books, 2012) and Rome (Liverright/W.W. Norton, 2014) [see my review of such here], New York City poet Dorothea Lasky’s latest is Milk (Wave Books, 2018), a collection of smart, deviously funny, dark and savage lyrics, as she writes as part of the poem “Milk No. 2”:
But when you look at me, I can’t lie
Baby, it’s with love
I never knew what it was to be this way
But then again I never let myself be
Cascade of ocean
The beach was lost and dark
The house was dark dark
I went in, I wasn’t scared
It wasn’t the going in the door that struck me
It was the getting out, or even wandering
What’s behind the hidden doors
Can I find a bed there
Can I set up my electronic things
Can I put this machine on
It’s my armor to protect you
I have nothing
You are in a glass house
The fall of it
Orange hearts one after the other
My true love is sleeping
I tell him, don’t rest
I find another
Another with the moon
Lasky’s poems are incredibly visceral, long known for being straightforward and fearless, pushing unflinchingly through some rather dark territory. Her poems are constructed as accumulations, with phrases stacked upon another, moving further and further, heading off into directions unknown that managed somehow to exist simultaneously linked and trailing off into some unknown distance; lost, somehow, and yet connected. Part of the rollercoaster thrill of reading her poems is in seeing just where the poem might end up, often a far distance from where it might open. The poems in this collection are centred on domestic concerns, writing of babies and breastfeeding, of loss, loneliness and miscarriages; she writes of solitude and lovers; she writes from some dark places, and being “fucked up,” from poems ranging from the oddly hilarious “WHY I HATE THE INTERNET” and “KILL MARRY FUCK,” to “MILKING THE REST OF IT” and “POEM FOR THE MOON MAN,” that opens:
Have some mercy Dottie
No sex, just milk
Is the only thing I have to show for all my hormones
A little vulnerable, not a jerk
Is what he said about you
I am starting to think I am profoundly fucked up
And the only one who can save me is the one I let go in the
river so long ago
Death, death, it’s all death
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Nothing makes nothing happen. That was true
along McGregor Street in Montreal and in
a certain woman’s weary heart this side of
the Selkirk mountain range. You must have seen
nothing or perhaps the tree full of it in our
back yard. When I first saw a single cherry tree
in a back yard I did not understand it;
cherry trees grew very high in my childhood, in
groves, cool shadows between them, eyelids
of beautiful women should be so cool. If you
have a single cherry tree in your back yard, change it
to a pear tree in your stories. (George Bowering)
I find this new double collection by Vancouver poets George Bowering and George Stanley fascinating, a dos-à -dos flip book made up of Bowering’s “Some End” and Stanley’s “West Broadway”(Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2018). With each section running roughly forty pages in length, both Bowering and Stanley write in and around their Vancouver geographies and concerns, from aging—Stanley’s “Blood is toxic to the retina” from the poem “5,” or Bowering’s “Does it bring any solace or calm to you / to know the sun is mortal, too?” from “Bright”—to the ins and outs of reading, friends and their immediate locales. Around 2005 or so, I heard the two illustrious senior Canadian poets read together at a festival in Vancouver alongside George Elliott Clarke, and the three Georges were fascinating to watch in sequence, given their individual penchants for deep rhythms, and their reading habits of each conducting their readings with one hand.
The two sections do hold to each other in conversation, continuing their individual trajectories from decades of work that also discover the places in which they meet, and overlap, from Stanley’s “Letter to George Bowering” that responds to Bowering’s “Letter to George Stanley,” or Bowering’s “The Country North of Summer,” a poem that plays off a combination of George Stanley’s North of California St. (New Star Books, 2014) [see my review of such here] and Gentle Northern Summer (New Star, 1995). Curiously, the poem itself doesn’t engage with Stanley directly, but is instead a meditation to and for the late Al Purdy: “The grave wherein my pen pal is laid lies / at the bottom of a country road saying his name. / It’s a dandy place to lean against the stone book / and read a bunch of poems, except in winter.” Bowering, through dozens upon dozens of works of poetry, fiction and criticism, has been a frequent responder to and commentator upon the works of others, from contemporaries to mentors to heroes and anyone else whose work might cross his path and connect, and his section includes numerous threads and structures familiar to anyone who has spent time with any of his prior work. Much can be said also of George Stanley’s “West Broadway,” a section that opens with an extended sequence, “West Broadway,” stretched across a specific thread of Vancouver geography:
This river runs both ways.
West it flows (up its tributary Tenth Avenue)
to the ‘uni’ (as I’ve heard one Ontarienne call it).
East it goes to the ‘Anti-city’ (Scott’s word)
& a former city planner says
& a former city planner says
downtown business interests placed obstacles in the way
of development along central Broadway, seeing it
as a potential rival. From the late ‘50s, it becomes
Fairmont Medical Building 91959). Look at the windows.
Fourteen storeys of narrow, dark offices.
Panoramic vista – 19th floor of the ‘electric razor building’:
North Score mountains & the city glittery like a magic island
from the hygienist’s chair, until she tips me back.
Thoughts arrive by bus, car, cab,
on ped X-ings cross Broadway,
afoot, w/cane, walker, in wheelchair;
when traffic flows again, cross Willow,
to clinic, pharmacy, lab.
As far as Stanley’s responses to other poets, his suggest influences that go far deeper through his own history as a writer, composing a poem after a specific piece by Baudelaire, and multiple poems after Anna Akhmatova, such as his “Our Age (an imitation),” that begins:
Why is this age worse than all those preceding?
Because deranged by greed and desirous of pleasure,
we borrowed against the cancer that was eating us,
the wound we could not close.
Some End/West Broadway is an intriguing conversation between these two senior Vancouver poets who have been friends for decades, and poets for far longer, writing towards each other in such a way as to highlight their shared sensibilities, as well as their differences.