Each month I attend a poetry reading at Zed’s Cafe in Silver Spring, MD. Reuben Jackson, poet, jazz scholar, educator, and archivist, was the featured speaker on October 4th and, before he had completed the introduction to his third poem, I knew that I was in the presence of a person and a poet worth taking very seriously.
His brief poems revealed an infectious, gregarious personality and an open spirit, a man who has traveled widely, returning, eventually, to Washington, D.C. or to Vermont where he graduated from Goddard College in 1978. One of Jackson’s poems describes a rare, silent encounter with another Black man in Montpelier, capital of VT, where each of them purchased Triscuit Original Crackers® and peanut butter—an image both poignant and heart-wrenching. An animated story shared with his audience recounted a time—seated alone in a Stockholm coffee shop—when a Swedish man said to him, “You must be American!”—the first time Reuben could recall being addressed in that way—as a citizen of the United States. As important as race and politics are as themes and motivations for many of his compositions, however, the poet’s oeuvre is not limited to these topics, a subject that, among others, we will explore in the following (mostly unedited) interview conducted via e-mail from 10/5 to 10/16/2019. Clarifications in brackets were inserted by the interviewer.
To many, Reuben Jackson needs no introduction. He served as curator of the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington Collection in Washington, D.C. for over twenty years and was host of Friday Night Jazz on Vermont Public Radio from 2013 until 2018. His music reviews have been published in The Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Jazz Times, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Jackson is also an educator and mentor with The Young Writers Project, taught poetry for eleven years at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and taught high school for two years in Burlington, Vermont. Jackson, a founding member of the New Music-Theatre Workshop, currently works there as a librettist and is an archivist with the University of the District of Columbia’s Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. His poems have been published in over forty anthologies, and his first volume, fingering the keys (1990, Gut Punch Press), was selected by Joseph Brodsky for the Columbia Book Award.
Speaking of Jackson’s new book, poet Terrance Hayes recently said, “Reuben Jackson’s marvelous poems map the poles between ode and lamentation, politics and intimacy, sagacity and audacity. He writes for everyday neighbors, folkloric brothers, and imaginary sisters. He writes for Trayvon Martin as well as Frank Sinatra. He nimbly charts the broad spectrum of our lives and loves. I have admired Reuben Jackson’s work for over twenty years. Scattered Clouds [2019, Alan Squire Publishing] will alert old and new poetry fans to his fine, abiding talent.”
Clara B. Jones: I’d like to begin on a personal note, Reuben—before we begin to talk about matters related to writing. Can you describe your most memorable meal to us?
Reuben Jackson: I am not a foodie by any means, but I retain a fond memory of a rainy, drenched football September afternoon with one of my dearest friends in life—albeit one who loves the New England Patriots! My team is the Seattle Seahawks! Picture two middle aged college buds, alternately devouring home-made chili (which we prepared ourselves that morning) combined with Oyster Crackers—if there are no Oyster Crackers in the Afterlife, I will be wistful for eternity! We were nodding off the way folks in our age bracket sometimes do. (naps, dear friends, will not be denied, even short ones), yelling at the flat-screen TV. The rainfall was LOUD. I mean, Led Zeppelin loud! Autumn was “in the house,” as [old folks] used to say. My shirt looked like Jackson Pollock’s clothes after a session with the Muse. The sound—and the day—were as beautiful as my friend’s smile.
CBJ: How did you become a poet, when did you write your first poem, and what have been your major influences?
RJ: I am still not sure how I became a poet. I do know that I have always loved language. I began trying to write (just for the fun of it, I suppose) what might loosely be called poetry in the 10th grade. Everybody seemed to be doing those declamatory “waiting for the revolution” kinds of polemics back then, so I joined the club. My first poem was entitled “Ode To The Sister With The Perfect Afro.”
CBJ: I notice from your bios published online that you do not have a MFA. Did you make a conscious decision not to obtain this degree, and, though you have been called a “jazz scholar,” do you distance yourself from the, often free-form, lyrical poetry coming out of many academic creative writing programs? Do you, intentionally, remain outside academia?
RJ: Great question. I’ve thought about pursuing an MFA from time to time, but my life (curator, critic, etc) just took off. I’d secretly longed to do the aforementioned—so I got in the car. I don’t think it’s conscious. It’s just me.
CBJ: “For Trayvon Martin” is, perhaps, your most famous poem, capturing, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “banality” of the event as well as its gravity. Can you tell us something about how this poem came about and what you hoped to accomplish by writing it?
For Trayvon Martin
Instead of sleeping—
I walk with him from the store.
No Skittles, thank you.
We do not talk much—
Sneakers crossing the courtyard.
Humid Southern night.
We shake hands and hug—
Ancient, stoic tenderness.
I nod to the moon.
I’m so old school—
I hang till the latch clicks like.
An unloaded gun.
RJ: “Trayvon” grew out of a wish and/or fantasy. When I was growing up, my male friends and I would walk each other home from parties, the corner store, what have you. I wanted that same love and protection for [Trayvon]. Perhaps he would have made it home.
Based upon my online research, it seems clear that music, jazz, in particular, has been an important influence for your work. In what sense is this accurate, and do you consider yourself a “jazz poet” as the recently-deceased poet, Steve Dalachinsky, was called? Perhaps Reuben Woolley, Ted Joans, Harmony Holiday, and Arthur Sze also deserve this moniker.
RJ: I consider myself a poet strongly influenced by what is called jazz which I learned about by studying and listening constantly. Some of my earlier works could be considered Odes to icons such as Billie Holiday, but I think the strongest connection is my interest/desire in mining the meaning and musicality of speech.
CBJ: Harmony Holiday—poet, dancer, educator, activist, and daughter of the late musician, Jimmy Holiday, is a young avant garde writer whose career I follow closely [in addition to other young female poets of color—Morgan Parker, C.M. Burroughs, and Francine J. Harris]. Holiday has said that she attempts to project a sense of movement [dance], as well as, music [jazz] in her hybrid compositions [found material, collage, text]. Her writing is overtly political, didactic, and, in my view, utopian. The Formalist poetry critic, Helen Vendler, speaking about Adrienne Rich’s work, called “political poetry,” “Sociology.” What is your reaction to Vendler’s characterization of work explicitly addressing gender, race, and class? Do you consider yourself a “political poet?”
RJ: I would say that all poetry is a kind of Sociology in that it (consciously or subconsciously) reflects the writer’s position in Society. Overtly political poetry doesn’t guarantee that it is good writing, no more than writing a sonnet makes one a shoe-in for literary immortality. My writing has become more overtly political. Thank God.
CBJ: During my online research before this interview, I noticed that you referred several times to Ezra Pound’s comment—“Make it new.” How has this phrase informed your writing? As an aside, the poetry critic, Marjorie Perloff, has written that a characteristic of Pound’s writing is “contraction,” and your mostly short poems seem contracted or condensed to their fundamental, though not elementary or naïve, forms—without compromising substance or content. Does this resonate with how you think about your work?
RJ: I think that damn near everything has been written about [Pound’s comment]! How, then, to make one’s poems about love rise above the posse? Maybe another way of expressing Pound’s dictum would be to quote saxophonist Lester Young: “You’ve got to be original, man!” This from a writer ultra smitten with William Carlos Williams (hahaha). What Perloff said about Pound, I would also say about Williams. Me? I try.
CBJ: In one of my essays, I suggested that many young African-American poets seem free to write about topics other than race. I had in mind, in particular, Ishion Hutchinson, Ross Gay, Gregory Pardlo, Geffrey Davis, and Phillip B. Williams. Do you think there is any value to this observation? If so, does the opinion apply to you?
RJ: I do believe this is the case—just as I believe that there has always been a great range in African American letters. In my case, I continue to experience what I semi-jokingly refer to as “Late Blooming Blackness.” In many cases, I am digging into a long-suppressed closet of anger, sorrow, etc. I’ve been odd all my life.
CBJ: What younger poets are currently on your “radar screen,” and why?
RJ: I love [co-founder of Dark Noise Collective] Danez Smith [Don’t Call Us Dead, 2017, Graywolf Press]. They are the whole nine yards. Cutting, humorous, romantic, political. More musical than a jukebox. They move me like Sam Cooke’s voice. The same can be said for a D.C.-based poet named Sami Miranda. You cannot go wrong with either of these bards.
CBJ: Your new book, Scattered Clouds, is a “selected and new” collection. Are you working on new writing projects? Is your poetry practice winding down?
RJ: Lord, I hope not! But my first book came out 28 years ago. I am thankful that it has been re-awakened [in Scattered Clouds]. I am currently working on a series of persona poems, and I am also beginning a memoir.
CBJ: Is there anything else you want to say to readers?
RJ: I can be contacted by email at [email protected] Thank you. This has been an honor.
CBJ: It has been a pleasure to interview you, and I look forward to reading your future work.