An Interview with Gary Jackson

by Dexter Booth

Dexter L. Booth: It’s been six years now since your first collection, Missing You, Metropolis, and each time I read it the poems feel more and more resonant and reflective of our current sociopolitical atmosphere. Poems like “How to Get Lynched on the Job” and “Storm on Display” seem subversive in their honesty. Considering Hollywood’s intensifying focus on superhero films, and the current racial tension in America, it seems as though you tapped into the zeitgeist of our generation.

Gary Jackson: That is some high praise, Dexter. I got no response that would do that justice.

DLB: The praise is well-deserved. It’s a great collection. Has the proliferation of superhero films and racial politics in the media affected your view of the book? Do you find yourself discovering new things in the poems when you reread them, or wishing you had included, extended, or left out anything in the collection?

GJ: After the last reading I gave, a friend said, I noticed that after you asked the crowd if they knew of a comic character, you would reply, ‘Well, you’ll probably hear more about them next year when this show or that movie comes out.’ I bet you say that all the time now. And it’s so true. Superheroes are so ubiquitous today. We can’t get away from them. Even though we may desperately want to. I desperately want to, though they keep calling me back.

And now after Ferguson, Baltimore, Mother Emanuel, and too many others to list here – many elegies tend to swell and accumulate loss – the public aspect of grief and reckoning keeps growing. The Magneto from “Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit” might get more shout-outs now than he did when that poem first came out, a poem that’s based on a story from 1982. So he’s been dealing with the same shit for at least thirty-four years, and he’s a fictional character. What’s that say about the rest of us?

But back to elegies: they seem to gain a new facet with every year, every month, every day that goes by. I’m thinking of Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, especially, since that’s one of the books I’m teaching again this semester. But also your book, Scratching the Ghost. When I revisit poems like “Only Skin,” “Under the Weather,” or “Queen Elizabeth,” they cut me even deeper now than they did when they were first published. It feels like a mixed-blessing – that time sharpens some poems. That students read Audre Lorde’s “Power” and believe it was published just yesterday.

DLB: How has your writing changed since Missing You, Metropolis? What is the process for a poem like “Alexandria,” “Twigi,” or “Ode to working twice as hard for fathers and Jonnie Walker?”

GJ: My hope is the poems I’m writing today are more autonomous, less reliant on me, even though I still figure into their fabric – but more as a character and less as a guide. I want to complicate my own authority as a speaker. I want the me in those poems to be as flawed as possible. And now I have a few more voices in my head I’m trying to juggle – particularly in those poems that you mentioned.

DLB: What do you find most exciting or challenging about the recent direction of your work?

GJ: It’s challenging not to say me me me me me me me me me me me all the goddamn time for poets. I’m not saying it as much as I used to, but still way more than I would like to. I tell my students to get the fuck outta the way of their own poems, and I’ve always been bad about following my own advice. I’m still learning too.

I’ve got these other poems I’m working on, not these about family stories and histories, but these collaborative hybrid comic poems that revolve around a group of superheroes called The Golden League and full of silly-named characters like Miss Fortune and Volcano Man because when I first created these characters I didn’t think anyone would ever, ever see or hear about them, and then the names stuck, and some poems got picked up, and – you know, continuity – so… fuck it. They’re beautifully illustrated by this artist named David James Willet. It’s basically me trying to become a comic writer in a way that is not at all subtle. At all.

The other poems I’m working on (and hopefully finishing up), like the ones you accepted for Waxwing, are more about trying to navigate these personal familial histories that become contradictory when juxtaposed next to each other and held underneath the same lens – that lens is me (see, I still can’t get away from me) but even that becomes skewed, because I can only measure them against memory, and my memory is especially fallible and fractured for reasons I’m still not sure the origins of. It’s like a storytelling double-blind. And the greatest irony is that since my first book came out, my family has encouraged me to write poems about them. You would think the opposite would happen. True story: my father once said, He’s gonna write about me, right? expectedly to my mother. Her response: You sure you want that?

DLB: I love that story! I also write about family a lot, and it’s so interesting to me when family becomes both topic and audience. Speaking of, is it just me, or is the audience for poetry growing larger every year? Why do you think so many people are turning to poetry right now?

GJ: I have a friend who thinks the country is worse off today than it was say ten-to-twenty years ago. I don’t agree. I think he thinks the world is worse because people speak up more now than they did yesterday, he thinks the world is worse because now he sees video footage of a police officer beating a black woman off the side of the highway, shooting a black boy in a park, shooting a black man dead in his back while he tries to run, beating a black girl in a Texas neighborhood, flipping and throwing a black girl across a classroom while still sitting in her desk, and he thinks, somehow, all of this is new. But people are (re)learning to speak – whether it’s with a cell phone video, an open letter, a poem, a protest, a tweet, story, stand-up routine, strike, Facebook post, whatever it is, people are using their voices. And this particular thing – writing a poem, also isn’t new, we just forget we can do it, until we see someone else do it, talking about something we’ve been wanting to talk about, and then we remember we can do it too. So we open our mouths. Get people to listen, while making sure we listen too.

I want to rewind though! Can you talk a little about your own process when writing about/towards family, and that idea of dealing with family as topic and audience? I’m thinking particularly about Scratching the Ghost, but also in general: how you go about incorporating your own family and people you know in your writing. I know Major Jackson once asked you “when writing autobiographically, how do you negotiate what to conceal… and what to divulge?” So forgive if I’m simply asking the same question here.

DLB: I’m pretty sure I give a slightly different answer every time I get this question, mostly because the process is malleable and I think each interview is a chance to revise your answer to previous interview questions in hopes that people won’t notice. I guess I just blew my cover on that one, huh?

With both family and friends, I try to make a point of letting them read whatever I’ve written before it goes out into the world. I’m very sensitive to exposing information about those people who are close to me and I respect their privacy, so if they don’t like a poem or think a section is too revealing then I’ll usually cut it. Sometimes I’m stubborn and fight for particular poems, but in the end I change what’s most troublesome and either drop the dedication or make up a fake name. Oddly enough, most of my family and friends are just happy to be a part of my art. I think they understand that my purpose is never to highlight an individual or draw attention to their life so much as to give voice to the struggles of being human. I don’t know how to build a car or bake my own bread. Someone does that for me. Similarly, as a poet I look at my job as having the opportunity to be a voice for those who can’t speak (in metaphor).

I’m not sure I do any of that well, but this topic reminds me of “A Poem for Jesse Custer.” I’m always asking myself why I write and what I want my writing to do. Ultimately, I do it in hopes that my words make some small change in the world. The speaker of your poem seems to understand the power own words when they assert that “A Jesse Custer poem would be a bad motherfucker. / It’d right all wrongs by beating any evildoer / to pulp with its mitts. Make ’em think twice before burning crosses, beating children / or shooting another man’s dog.” Is now the time for a Jesse Custer poem?

GJ: Ha! People out there have already written the Jesse Custer 2.0 poem. And we all know that bad motherfucker when we read it, and they’re all different poems, doing that work that Baraka rallied for in “Black Art” when he said, “Put it on him, poem.” (I so want to add an exclamation to it, though I know it doesn’t have one originally); one of my favorite lines of any poem. Y’all know those poems. If not, go find one.

Dexter, you got any poems you wanna include? Any poems that get you shouting from the bleachers, “Put it on him, poem!”

DLB: Without a doubt, Lucille Clifton’s “my dream about being white” and “cutting greens.” Also, Tracey K. Smith’s “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, and Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” There are probably some that came out this month that I’ve yet to discover — there are so many journals and publications now, and with the internet I find it impossible to keep up. Who have you been reading lately? Do you have any favorite collections from 2015?

GJ: I’m bad at these questions because I’m like you – it’s impossible to keep up for me too! And I never read anything as soon as it comes out; I’m constantly going back and rereading books because, as I’ve said before, my memory is utter shit. I forget things about two hours after they happen. So here’s a list of the last few poetry collections I read in no particular order, chronological or otherwise, cause poetry ain’t got no expiration date:

Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, Gregory Pardlo’s Digest, Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Mahogany L. Browne’s Redbone, Carolyn Rodgers’s How I got Ovah: New and Selected.

Now let’s trade. You tell me what’s hot on the internet, because I’m way behind. I don’t have a Twitter account, and I’m barely on Facebook. And I find myself on the internet less and less, but I know there’s good shit out there. Help me out!

DLB: Honestly, we’re in the same boat. I do a lot of rereading myself. My PhD program keeps me pretty busy and the internet overwhelms me, but in terms of what collections I’ve been reading lately:

drea brown’s chapbook, dear girl: a reckoning; F. Douglas Brown’s Zero to Three; Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes; Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus; Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn; and Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Bastards of the Reagan Era.

I’ve got a backlog of collections I want to read, and when I occasionally do check Facebook or Twitter I’ll come across things and add them on the list. Man, we’re really not doing the internet justice here. Ha! Let’s broaden the field a bit with some personal questions. What releases are you looking forward to in the coming year? Give me anything — novels, albums, TV shows, video games — anything that you’re excited about.

GJ: It’s true – there are too many books to list. And most of the books you mentioned are sitting on my desk, waiting for me to crack open. Lists are tricky for me though, I’m always leaving out more than I can ever include. Speaking of lists, here’s a smattering of video games, films, television shows, albums, comics that I think are due to come out in 2016, or came out in 2015 that I have yet to check out.

No Man’s Sky, Cuphead, The Last Guardian, Marvel’s Luke Cage, Rick and Morty, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Drunk History (can we do something like that with writers? It would absolutely work), the new Ghostbusters, Black Panther, East of West, Ms. Marvel, Saga, Algiers, Leon Bridges, Sleater-Kinney Death Grips.

I know we’ve talked about television and films before. I think it was Firefly, Buffy, and Daredevil that we ended up talking about. You have any favorite shows? They don’t have to be new, but now I’m curious, what do you flip on when you need a little escape?

DLB: I’m really enjoying what Marvel’s doing with expanding their universe. I’ve watched the first season of Jessica Jones four times already. Daredevil is also good, and I’m just now starting Agents of Shield. Rick and Morty is worth binge watching, binge watching again, then again. Black Mirror is the show that has me in a death grip right now (how can you say no to what’s essentially a 21st-century, British version of The Twilight Zone?). It’s such a brilliant show, but the seasons are only three episodes long. Waiting for new episodes is driving me crazy. Good thing I’ve got plenty of work to keep me busy.

GJ: Jessica Jones is probably the best television show I watched in 2015. But it’s clear I have a particular bias for that world. And I’ll have to check out Black Mirror!

DLB: Let’s live in that world for a bit. In an interview with the NEA you once said that you’re too lazy and selfish to be a superhero. Let’s say you weren’t super and didn’t have any powers (*cough* Batman!). Let’s say you were like Jessica Jones (minus being able to stop someone’s heart by punching them in the chest). I don’t care about the powers, maybe you don’t have any, but let’s pretend a superhero identity is like a Facebook account—everyone has one. What would your name be, and what would your spandex costume look like? And yes, it has to be spandex. Otherwise why bother, right?

GJ: Ha! Man, I got nothing for this! For the name it would be something really basic and boring and with as little thought as possible. Like how Guido Carosella just made up his superhero name “Strong Guy” on the spot when someone asked him, since he’s, you know, strong. My name would be something like “Fire Fingers” or “Fast Person” or “Black Dude.”

If we’re doing spandex costumes, then to hell with it — why not go all out? Full-body, skin-tight like Spider-Man’s. But with the full mask so I can better deal with the inevitable body shaming that would follow me. And like Spidey, I want those huge, white, comical, impossibly expressive eyes on the mask that only worked because it was a comic and not reality. Black is slimming, right? Maybe something like the black-costume Spidey. Yeah…

Alright, Dexter, so what about you? Costume, powers, the whole ball of wax? What you got?

DLB: In Ovid’s Metamorphoses a lot of the humans are either turned into animals or flowers instead of being killed, which has always fascinated to me. I’d love to have the power to take away the pain of someone who’s dying and turn them into a flower. Is that power available? I’d have a name like “Virgil,” which is obviously unoriginal, but appropriate, I think. My costume would be an adult-sized Superman onesie (which I know I’ve seen online somewhere), but I’d replace the S with a V. I don’t want to be too flashy while I’m helping people transition into the next life.

Is there a market for literary superheroes? If not, this interview is printed now, so I have proof I invented it. I also can’t take it back.

GJ: Love it! I bet there is an underground network of literary superheroes.

DLB: If there isn’t, then we should certainly start one! But let’s put down our pens for a second. Writers always get asked about writing, but that’s only a portion of who we are. What have you been involved in aside from writing and teaching? When you get home after a long day of saving the world with words and you hang up your cape, how do you spend your free time? (I couldn’t resist) What passions or obsessions do you have that readers might be surprised to discover?

GJ: I don’t know if I do it enough to call it a hobby, but I dig tinkering with electronics – things like building a computer, or flashing/rooting a tablet, or just replacing the hard drive in a Playstation, shit like that. It’s not the same as carpentry, nor is it that difficult, but it requires me to use my hands and a lot of patience (especially when I’m waiting on parts), which I enjoy when I have the time to sit down and really dig into something and research the best way to go about it. The only setback is that if you mess something up (and I have), it’s not exactly cheap to replace. So it’s not a hobby I practice often. If I’m not playing with hardware, I’m fiddling with software – trying to turn my cell phone into a media remote, or stream games from a PC to a Mac. And if it wasn’t obvious before this interview, I do enjoy playing video games. I know a few other poets who enjoy a good round or two of Destiny as well. And I could go on and on about my love for video games, but then this wouldn’t be the last sentence.

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