“There’s so much to explore” A Conversation with Poet Angela Jackson
A Chicago native, Angela Jackson came to Pittsburgh in June with the African American poetry organization Cave Canem. Through a partnership with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh the organization held its third annual reading and workshop in the Northside.
After Jackson finished workshopping her student-poets, and before she read classic poems like “The Smoke Queen” and “The Man with the White Liver” to a crowd on Monterey Street, she sat down for a conversation with Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre.
Jackson’s first book of poetry, Voo Doo/Love Magic (1974) was published when she was 25. Since then she has released four books of verse. Among numerous other recognitions, Jackson has won the American Book Award twice: In 1985, for her collection of poetry Solo in the Boxcar Third Floor E, and in 2009 for the novel Where I Must Go. Additionally, Jackson has written several plays, including Witness! (1978), and When the Wind Blows (1984).
In this interview Jackson and Solomon discuss the importance of being a curious cultural historian, the writing of Where I Must Go, and the way that Jackson reaches the universal through the hyper-specific.
You write in so many mediums, do you feel like you’re “Angela Jackson, the poet” or “Angela Jackson, the novelist” or “Angela Jackson the playwright”?
I’m a poet. I write other things and I hide poems in them. One of my friends’ students said that Angela Jackson hides her poems in her fiction. And she was right; I hide poetry in plays as well. A poet has a different way of being in the world. Not all poets are sensitive, but a poet tends to have a sensitive ability that is more open to the truth and to other people. Of course a poet is also devoted to language, the sounds of things, how things look. A poet is more perceptive; it’s the poet’s business to see things in a new way and to be original. I try to bring all those gifts of the poet to my fiction and to my plays.
Why are you revising a play that you started in 1980, as a producer?
Well it’s a historical play and it follows a family from the mid 1950s to contemporary time. Initially, I felt I had to revise it because it was too long. It had veered off in the middle and I had to take out some stuff. And then I went to ETA, where my work is produced, to see another play called Stoops and they were too much alike. So I had to change mine, but it was fine because the ending also had to be changed to be more truthful. So once I get to it, it should be smooth sailing, but I have to do other projects first.
Who are some of your favorite playwrights?
I couldn’t tell you a fourth of my list, but there’s Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and Alice Childress. I love J.E. Franklin’s Black Girl, and Ron Milner’s work before he passed away, and Rob Penny.
When I was reading about you I was surprised to find out that one of your degrees is in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. That’s what I wanted to major in as an undergrad but they didn’t have that program when I went to the University of Pittsburgh. It was Latin American Studies with a tiny sliver of Caribbean and I wanted more of the Caribbean, so I didn’t do that.
I studied African religion in Brazil.
Has that experience influenced your writing?
Because I was studying it in the early 80s it changed my perception of the world, and opened me up to other people’s struggles and freedom drives. It informed how I felt I should be as a person and as a writer in the world.
Where did that interest come from?
You know, someone asked me that the other day and I had to remember. I did a paper on religion in undergrad and I think I first developed that interest when I was in Jeff Donaldson’s History of African American Art class. He talked about Yoruba mythology and showed us a painting based upon it. And then the name of the writer’s workshop I joined, the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), is derived from the Yoruba word for chief, leader, oba. I also loved to sit in the Africana section at Northwestern University’s library. The reason I went to the University of Chicago, for their Latin American and Caribbean Studies program, was because I believe that writers—particularly African American writers and African diaspora writers—should be cultural historians. Or at least try to be, because you never can be, there’s so much to explore.
When you won one of your awards, someone said, “While Jackson’s work is informed by her racial identity, it is easily accessible to all.” I wondered if that’s kind of a disclaimer. We hear it in performing arts a lot, “Someone has made a culturally specific work, but it’s still interesting.”
Yeah, well I wouldn’t judge that too much. The critic George Kent said about the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ work, “We have arrived at the universal by going down deep into the specific.” So by being faithful to who we are, by exploring who we are by going deep into ourselves, we arrive at truths that people can access without giving up who we are. So I’m not offended by that comment. I don’t go out of my way to make myself accessible to other people, but if they are open to it and they get something from it, fine.While you were writing your novel Where I Must Go you lost the discs that the manuscript was saved on. You had to reconstruct it from pieces of drafts that you had. Tell us about that. How did you stitch that together?
I have a big table that someone gave me and I spread all the pages out, in different typesets from different versions. I organized it chapter by chapter until it was all there.
In actuality, the novel was about 1000 pages long, and when I took it to the publisher, they didn’t want to publish it as one book. So Where I Must Go is book one of that big novel. Now I’m revising book two and in the future I’ll work on a third book.
How has your writing changed over time?
I’ve been writing Where I Must Go over the course of 40 years. But I could tell from books one and two of the novel—Maggie, the protagonist, grows older and as the writing changes, she changes with the writing. I was really impressed that it worked and benefited the piece.
How has it all changed? My friend Carol Parks, who used to be the managing editor of Black World, is a reader and pre-editor for my new book of poetry. Both she and Reginald Gibbons, who was my editor at Northwestern University press, are reading it. But Carol read it first, and she said that the poems were dark and mature.
Does that describe how you feel about things right now, generally?
Yeah and I’m going to be reading some of them tonight, because I think people anticipate a younger voice from me, because my last book of poetry was published in 1998. I’m not going to say how old I am, but I’m no spring chicken. I’m well into middle age.
So dark and mature is appropriate?
Dark and mature is appropriate.
Do you have a regimented schedule when you write?
No, I’ve never had to put myself on a schedule. My whole path has been reading and writing. When I lived alone for many years, I would just read and write. It was the center of my life. But now, since ’98 I’ve lived with my mother, and at this point I’m her primary care-giver, so I can’t read and write the way I used to. Of course, I know women writers have had to deal with being responsible for others for years, but I have to say that even when I was living by myself, I was a very active auntie. Sometimes when I was younger, I’d go to a poetry reading and a poem would come rushing out, but I think I have been so devoted to writing my newest book of poetry that I haven’t wanted to start anything new.
Poetry always felt really hard to me. I’m from the grade school age where people had to memorize poems. I liked knowing the poem, but to get up in class and read it wasn’t that much fun. In any case, when we had to write poetry, I couldn’t do it. That’s why I’ve always admired poets: There is something really beautiful about clearing away words and not necessarily having to connect every dot in the way you’d expect.
Cornelius Eady’s wife Sarah described it as being able to make leaps in ideas, and poets are able to do that. I admire actors because you can inhabit a character and memorize. I have a fear of memorizing. I have a fear of forgetting and I need to be able look down at the page. I mean, I don’t even memorize my own poems.
Well my father’s a musician. He always made us memorize our music, even though we’d read it, and when I said, “Why do we have to memorize it?” He would say, “You’ll never be able to feel what you are playing if you’re busy looking at the sheets.” That was my father’s advice, but what is your advice to young writers, even before they decide that they want to be a poet or an author?
I understand what your father said. I would say to young poets, don’t try to become a writer unless you have to. The most important things are to write and read and write and read and live and love and just try to tell the truth.
That seems like a really hard thing. When you tell the truth, there’s a lot of vulnerability.
Sometimes you even get in trouble for telling the truth. But you have to try to live it.
Is poetry more or less popular than when you first started your career?
When I first started my career as a poet, it was more popular, but I have to say that these younger poets are bringing it back. The young poets at Cave Canem bridge the gap, they come in so many different kinds of ways. Some of them are almost like performance poets and some of them are just strictly for the page, but it is. And then, at the city college where I teach, I see my students liking poetry more so I think it’s coming back. It’s not as popular as it was in the 60s, but I think its popularity is increasing, so I’m happy about that.
I am too.