Poet Major Jackson discusses new collection and how poetry lit up his soul

Poet Major Jackson will read from his latest collection, "Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2022," on Sunday, Feb. 18, at Emory University's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Credit: Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Credit: Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Poet Major Jackson will read from his latest collection, "Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2022," on Sunday, Feb. 18, at Emory University's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Poetry might seem the exclusive purview of ivory tower types — those whose heads are up in the clouds when not buried between the pages of dusty books. Indeed, poet Major Jackson is an intellectual among intellectuals.

He’s a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, the poetry editor of the Harvard Review, the author of six books of poetry and editor of several more, the host of a podcast called “The Slowdown: Poetry and Reflection Daily” and the recipient of a profusion of awards and fellowships.

But to dismiss Jackson’s work as irrelevant to the common person because it is esteemed by the lofty would be a mistake. Poetry, he reminds us, is for everyone.

Jackson will be sharing his poetry in a public reading at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 3 p.m. His latest book, “Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2022,” will be available for purchase at the event.

Major Jackson's latest collection.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Q: I read your poem, “At Fourteen,” to my partner, who hasn’t read a poem since high school. I watched the images you created slowly sink in as it dawned on him that what you said and how you said it captured the way he felt at that age. It seemed to help him gain understanding of his own experience, and, in a way, healing.

A: Thanks for sharing that. It’s always meaningful for me to hear when a poem, whether written by me or someone else, really impacts someone, because I think that’s the ultimate work. Sometimes I go to performances, and I’m wowed by the technical ability or the virtuosity of a musician or even a visual artist. But when the virtuosity lands inside someone as something truly felt, that connects them to a part of themselves or to other human beings that throws open the veil of the mystery. [Maybe it] has left them feeling a little bit more affirmed or maybe even engaged to question.

Q: Poetry can be such a powerful thing. Why are so few people interested in it?

A: Teachers have such an outsized role in how we either gravitate toward or repel against any work of art, and yet we know that poetry is all around us. Poetry is more than language; it’s feeling and it is stepping outside and being attuned, being aware, having our senses open.

If we just started to turn the dialogue to questions of perception and experience and being open to experience, then people would realize that poetry is not merely the assigned poems that they were forced to write a paper on.

People get turned off in high school because what they’re being taught is how to read the craft, but they’re not taught how to apply poetry in their lives. We’re going to need as many tools as we can to understand this journey that we’re on.

Q: How did you get turned on to poetry?

A: To state it bluntly, poetry lit up my soul and saved me in a lot of ways. I read and discovered poetry early on with two books from my grandparents’ library — Frost and Langston Hughes . . . I like to think of my teachers as anyone who has explored, through some artistic craft, what it means to be human. It’s a dynamic conversation that we get to invest in as an artist. Language becomes the research lab by which we can refine our sensibilities and our sense of self and humanity and the world.

Q: In “Climate,” one of my favorites of your poems, you write: “The way you feel when she pulls/Her favorite lichen green dress over her head, Rivering her body/A fabric waterfall across the heart.” What makes that image so much more evocative than just saying, “She put her green dress on, and I thought she looked beautiful?”

A: What I’m about to say has implications for the language we use in politics. The public social problems we face are deepened by the fact that language gets rubbed down. It loses its effect. It becomes cliched.

If you think of language as a landscape and that a thousand people have trampled on it, it becomes no longer identifiable. I feel like that’s where we are with the state of our communication. So in a way, poets — anyone who commits themselves to being a writer — also commits themselves to reviving the language. Take a word like “beautiful.” It could mean many different things. Maybe polishing it a bit helps us to reinvest ourselves into what is beautiful. . . . So, yeah. I like “rivering.” I like the action of the dress falling down over a body, and the rippling reminds me of a river.

"Poets point the way to how to experience and live and appreciate and see and feel," poet Major Jackson says, "and not have an existence that is cold and unfeeling."

Credit: Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

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Credit: Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Q: How does the disparate placement of words, phrases and allegories that might not immediately make sense help us to refresh the meaning of language and to what effect?

A: It’s the equivalent of a scientist taking two elements and bringing them together to see what the fusion or reaction is. There’s something joyous about that. When we say refresh the meaning of language, we’re also saying — and I’m just really starting to understand this — how do we refresh ourselves? How are we made or remade by the poems that we read, and, in the most privileged sense, write? So yes, let’s play with language. Let’s revive forms, but let’s capture the richness of our lives. Let’s write poems that have people reconnect with themselves, reconnect with others, revive, refresh, even revise the self.

Q: Poets seem to balance language play and freedom with careful attention to form. It makes sense that, on a broader scale, this could describe an approach to life.

A: Yes. I absolutely see it as an amplification of one’s freedom. We exist in form. We wake up in the morning, and, on the other end, we’re going to go to bed. We are born, and we are going to die. That’s the form. How do you improvise your day so that it becomes an expression of your selfhood? I think about the days as they string along, and the act of writing a poem, the act of singing, the act of listening. It is an accretion and a shaping of our selfhood.

Q: We’re all artists in some way, working through this form that we’ve been given of being born and dying and everything in between, and we can be artistic and creative and beautiful within that.

A: I think that artwork becomes an expression of selfhood. Then it becomes a reflection of community. Then a reflection of culture. What trips us up is when we overly rely on previous tropes, images and idioms that no longer do the work of creating layers and textures and complexities. The effect of poetry and language and art on the world is that they make us aware of language.

Q: Poetry helps us to become the change we wish to see in the world.

A: Some people will say that the natural order of the world is that we are defined by destructive forces. I think our consciousness is raised when we realize that we are better when we focus our attention on acts of beauty, creating opportunities to coexist, to enjoy, to celebrate those things that maybe escaped our attention. Poets point the way to how to experience and live and appreciate and see and feel and not have an existence that is cold and unfeeling.

I want to believe that for every poem birthed in the world, we are shoring up ourselves against total extinction and annihilation.


Major Jackson

3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18. Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, 1700 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta. Free, but registration is recommended. 404-727-5050, schwartz.emory.edu


Shannon Marie Tovey is an educator and freelance journalist who covers music, books and more.

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