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“Silences cultivate a kind of cognitive dance between reader and poem”: A Conversation with Major Jackson

Major Jackson is the author of four books of poetry, including Roll Deep (2015), Holding Company (2010), Hoops (2006), and Leaving Saturn (2002), which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems. He is the editor of Library of America’s Countee Cullen: Collected Poems. A recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Jackson has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. He has published poems and essays in American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, and included in multiple volumes of Best American Poetry. Jackson lives in South Burlington, Vermont, where he is the Richard Dennis Green and Gold University Distinguished Professor at the University of Vermont. He serves as the Poetry Editor of The Harvard Review.

Kristina Marie Darling: Your latest book, Roll Deep, evokes Marianne Moore’s notion of the poet as curator, as you gather language from vastly different cultures, lexicons, and rhetorical contexts. The end result is tension on the level of the language itself, in addition to the narrative tension that’s present in the poems. Why is it so important for writers, whether in prose or poetry, to cultivate many different kinds of tension in their work?

Major Jackson:  Very simply, readers, even if they arrive to a poem or book of poems with the greatest skepticism or ambivalence, ultimately want all aspects of their selves engaged when encountering works of art, most especially dimensions that they did not know they possessed. I have a suspicion readers want to be seduced and made believers of an order greater than the current reality we live, and only by replicating the psychical and complexity of existence (its mysteries, triumphs, sufferings, its conflicts and resolutions) can such catharsis happen. I find producing as many levels of tension (dramatic, linguistic, formal, rhetorical, or acoustic) on the par of our greatest exemplars, say Gerard Manley Hopkins or Amy Clampitt or Yusef Komunyakaa, allows readers to feel the depth and layered-ness of our present moment.

KMD: You also make expert use of white space in Roll Deep, and the book’s silences amplify the many singing lines in this collection. What suggestions do you have for poets who struggle to carve a space for silence in their work, or writers who hesitate to leave some things unsaid in a poem or story? In a culture that privileges speaking over listening, why is it so crucial to allow silence to inhabit one’s writing?

MJ:  Silences cultivate a kind of cognitive dance between reader and poem, or rather, a spirit of insinuation and discovery, which is to say, readers come to understand, I believe, that silences are never about recollected moments of tranquility as much as invitations to participate in the construction of the poem’s meaning. Stillness in a poem is important, no doubt, yet even more so, as writers we must learn to orchestrate those biddings and behests to the reader such that stage a call and response rather than passive consumption. This becomes quite clear with shorter poems such as haiku or brief lyrics whereby a reader has to, as part of the experience of the poem, fill in what’s being left out or at the margins of what is said. My suggestion is to compress whenever possible, look for redundancies of speech, eradicate one-directional bridges, and elementary, obvious statements that add little to the poem. Also, develop a system of lineation and uses of caesura to turn down the volume of what’s said to a whisper, a hushed utterance.

KMD: You also organized and curated Renga for Obama, a collaborative poem to celebrate and honor Barack Obama’s presidency. The 200+ poets featured in this project included Dorothea Lasky, Robert Pinsky, Kimiko Hahn, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Kaveh Akbar, and many other literary luminaries. What did you learn from seeing so many other writers collaborate, and from having a glimpse into their creative process? What surprised you most about seeing these many poets collaborate?

MJ:  What surprised me was the generosity and civic spirit of all the contributors, who understood the project to its core, a critical celebration (and possibly mourning, as one journalist noted of the project) for a moment of decency and an overall sense that we had progressed as a nation. What I learned was not so much each poet’s creative process but how each writer approached the task of adding their voice to the chorus, which became emblematic of our democracy. Each poet’s contribution arrived like a swift musical solo and yet the total sound was unified by the form and made a harmonious statement of gratitude.

KMD: What non-literary texts have informed your work as a poet and an editor? Tell us about some texts that have influenced you, texts that would never appear on the syllabus of a poetry workshop.

MJ:  Excellent question. My problem is that I am rarely not in the domain of the literary, but recently, I have taken in the work of Bill McKibben, particularly his The End of Nature. His clarion call to address our profligate attitude towards the earth’s resources is hard to ignore. My latest guilty pleasure is Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color whose anecdotal vignettes about the histories of various shades of color is entertaining and immensely informative. Of course, these are not necessarily influential but occupy my current mind-space.

KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?

MJ:  I have just completed a new collection of poems The Absurd Man which will publish next year. These are lyrics that wrestle with foibles and errors, how we grow towards enlightenment, the role again of art and the imagination in the quest towards human redemption. I take my cue partially from Albert Camus’s philosophic ideas of absurdism and existential man. I’m trying to imagine the speaker in my poems as “Absurd Hero” who is never at rest, and thus, like Sisyphus, tormented and partially fulfilled by his or her search for authentic language, a desire for their works to possess worth and significance in an indifferent world. These poems, like previous volumes, are also about the complexity of desire and the body.