Unreasonable Dreams: Theresa Lola talks to Major Jackson about the pursuit of joy

TL: Hi Major! I’d like to start off by asking, if poetry is a lamp that is present as we search for truth, what is one truth you keep rediscovering when writing your poems?

MJ: One of the great problems of being alive today is that we are desperately starved of love and recognition. Executives at social media corporations acutely understand this, enough to parlay business models that render us into mere categories of desires and fears. Over the years I have used autobiographical material, which is to say that real- world people populate my poems. Whenever I occasion the poem as a space to reflect deeply on something that I or someone else said or did that was not kind, maybe even purposely mean, I always land on the absence of love, how it manifests, how we pass on that lack and pain to others. It is not necessarily a comforting truth to write about in a poem but one that allows me to first act out of compassion and empathy.

TL: You mention absence of love and the presence of pain, and it got me thinking about the poet’s role in offering joy amidst that pain. In ‘My Son and Me’ from your collection The Absurd Man, you write, ‘I want to tell my son about the great poems / I’ve taught today yet careful to avoid / the sad lives of the poets, but he has long been / exhausted of lines I recited to him since a child’. Those lines suggest to me that projecting joy requires not only a careful reconstruction of one’s story, but a continuous effort to maintain that sense of joy. Another poem of yours, aptly titled ‘Think of Me, Laughing’, ends with the lines ‘forgive me for being bound up in the / ecstatic right now.’ Could you talk a bit about writing poems that are conscious and almost apologetic about their projection of joy in the face of pain?

MJ: You and I know that so much of survival, in terms of our wellbeing, is owed to an abundance of laughter that is required in the face of struggle. Recently, while reading Nate Marshall’s book Finna, I thought about the important role of communities and families in gifting us a sense of joy. The flipside of community is that it can render one insular, unaware of others’ suffering, those for whom joy is hard-won. It becomes a kind of privilege in a way, so I attempt to assert as much of the ecstatic in my poetry as possible – and recently praise, too. I was a serious kid growing up. My family took it as a special project to make me laugh. There was a lot of teasing one another. I am grateful to them for injecting levity into my life, which is necessary. When I wrote ‘Think of Me, Laughing’, I had recently read Imani Perry’s essay ‘Racism is Terrible. Blackness is Not.’, which was published after George Floyd’s death. She writes: ‘[j]oy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering. It exists through it’, which is to say our lives are not purely defined by headlines of injustice or what you understand to be Black history.

TL: The meditative tone is clear in The Absurd Man, a book where the poems are deeply reflective and play on the speakers’ conscious and subconscious identities. In the poem ‘Major and I’ you write about a kind of doubled self: ‘Major and I // hand in hand remove our dark suits, but / the other Major prefers to undress in glass / revolving doors’. How do you use duality in your poems to strengthen the moment of reflection?

MJ: Readers are, in many ways, egocentric and have to be able to identify or connect with a speaker in a poem; my students call it ‘relatability’. Well, having a poem that speaks across the vast well that is humanity is a tall order; we write out of the earth we occupy at that given moment, with unreasonable dreams that the poem will make contact, and hence be meaningful, to even one person. However, we can and do invoke strategies of engagement in poems, such as – following the example of Jorge Luis Borges – dramatising or abstracting the artist from the speaker to create duality. In The Absurd Man, I consciously engage in a linguistic and rhetorical performance of duality and invite a reader to enjoy that play and whimsy but also to reflect on how much of the facts of the poem are a construction and not to be taken necessarily as truth. It is the equivalent in fiction of ‘the unreliable narrator’.

TL: I love the idea of duality being a strategy to invite the reader to interact and question the speaker in a poem. In ‘The Absurd Man on Objet Petit A’ you write about the things that require us to pay attention, and encourage readers and viewers to look at things from an oblique angle, to see more clearly what is currently distorted. You also reference Holbein’s painting ‘The Ambassadors’, in which a skull is only fully visible as a skull from a particular angle. As a writer, how do you manage that balance between oblique and direct imagery?

MJ: Poems are almost, in a way, a kind of thumbprint that introduces us to the individuality of the poet. On some occasions, as a reader, you’re going to be right alongside me and we’ll journey together through the poem, right. And then other times, you’re gonna be like, Whoa! I don’t know where he is right now, and I think that’s OK. We must learn to live in uncertainties. We also know that poems can be a kind of ego trip, so one cannot go too far into the idiosyncrasies of the mind so that there’s no connection to, or entrée for, a reader.

TL: In an essay for the Paris Review you wrote that when editing Best American Poetry 2019 you ‘sought poems that braved human connection; poems that battled the inertia of our daily routines’. Turning to your own work, is there a poem of yours that you feel most connected to?

MJ: Lately, poems seem to begin as a percussive sound in language, often a phrase, something that has hitched onto my ear. Then I find myself whispering those words, listening intently to what comes next, which is like listening to the deepest reservoirs of one’s spirit, and calling up language to simultaneously satisfy the semantic curiosities and rhythmic strands. I felt this way with the poem ‘On Disappearing’. I felt a heavy and satisfying sense of completion when I arrived at the end, which came in one sitting. I felt a physical and psychic exertion of selfhood and imagination. In this regard, my poetry is exploratory. When I first sit down to write, I genuinely have little to no idea where the poem will lead and prefer it as such. In that poem, I express gratitude to ancestors and offer up a litany that reminds me that a poem is a kind of prayer.

TL: I would like to pick up on that sublime last line, ‘a poem is a kind of prayer’, which reflects a similar idea in your poem ‘In Memory of Derek Alton Walcott’, that ‘even his lesser rhymes amount / to more than wrought praise but amplify / his poems as high prayer’. I noticed the poem itself uses rhymes and half rhymes. What do you think are the possibilities of half rhymes? I wonder whether they might embody a prayer, or communication with a greater being beyond ourselves.

MJ: In an interview, Derek Walcott talks about rhymes coming together like hands in a prayer. Our bodies react when we hear like sounds, with a physical sensation; the ear registers the poem’s echoes. The possibility of such echoes is the recognition of our lives coming together under some sacred order, a gentle kind of whisper of a world that we only partially understand. And because our lives are so busy, it is easy for us to miss divine patterns in the course of our day, especially if we are not attuned to hear or to consciously look for them. This is why I go for walks in the forest or parks because in nature the sublime is evident. If, while writing a poem, I am seeking out patterns of sound, then at least I am assuring myself it will contain the music of the spheres, the lyricism of that larger order. Politics alerts us to the fact that language can be weaponised and used to divide us, and so sound and rhythm for me, as elements in a poem, also have the potential to stress harmony, to mend us back to each other.

TL: You mention going out for walks, and in your current and previous collections there are references to many different locations, from Xichang to Paris, to North Philadelphia. In this time of the COVID pandemic, when our movement is so restricted, has this affected the way you write about place?

MJ: I am very conscious of a readership outside of my home in Vermont and even beyond the United States, because I am attempting to ultimately articulate something that is essential and core to our humanity: love, community, connection. When I travelled to East Africa, to a refugee camp in Kenya, those folks looked like family. I wanted my writing to connect to their lives. No doubt, it is important to write about the sights and sounds and happenings of the four-square block around one’s self, which is your foundation, but then one’s vision must expand to the awareness that our communities are emblematic of the larger world. It is a necessary evolution in the consciousness of all writers, one that I feel puts us in line to be changed even more. Our idioms and imagery take on the lustre of symbolism and allegory.

TL: As the speaker of The Absurd Man moves through places and landscapes, it becomes a backdrop for exploring who and what he is, so what’s interesting is how you shift the lens between place and self. In ‘November in Xichang’, for instance, the speaker takes us through beautiful temples and landscapes, and ends with the realisation: ‘In the Yi Slavery Museum a Bimo’s / screeching dispossession of cries and words / reminds me: we have only each other in the end.’ Tell me more about your interest in shifting the lens between observing a place and reflecting on the self.

MJ: I was just thinking about the question around prayer because I think there’s a connection there. I realised the nature of my imagination is one in which I am trying to write towards the mysteries and, for me, the mysteries are embodied in our relationship to the earth. We find it in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’. Shifting from the exterior to the interior is a strategy I adopted from several traditions and influences, most evidently Romantic and Confessional poets. My grandma would say God works in mysterious ways. I have heard that phrase so many times; secularly speaking, poems are a way of delineating those mysteries. When I go inward, I am really trying to go even beyond the ego, to figure out what is pre-memory, what is lodged in my consciousness. The craft of poetry allows me to burrow and excavate.

TL: Speaking of evolution in craft, as a reader I love when writers absorb new questions and interest in each of their projects; that’s something you’ve done throughout your career, from your collection Holding Company, which contains a lot of short and compressed lyric poems written through the lens of music and art, to its follow-up, Roll Deep, which is immersed in travel and connections to place. Meanwhile The Absurd Man explores various conscious and subconscious identities. Reflecting on your books and past works, what does evolution as a writer mean to you?

MJ: I am grateful for this moment and your question because it allows me to say – and I’m not the first to admit this – that poetry was first a way to be social, and it was also protest. I inherited a consciousness and a mode of writing that was owed to my mentors and influences, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, but then that gaze turned inward when I realised I was a walking manifestation of the hurts that I was writing about. The poems served as a mirror by which I could understand my personal traumas and my journey. When the outside gaze turned inward, it marked a remarkable evolution in my writing. Then I started to understand myself within the larger context of the world around me and wanted to be in conversation, which meant I read tons. I also did not want to limit myself to just reading American poets; I read African poets, British poets, South American poets. We are all answering this question of how to live justly and how to envision the world. The generous aspect of being a writer is, if you dedicate yourself to it, you will grow inside the art in ways that you cannot imagine.

TL: I realise you are mapping out a cycle: the poem influences your life, and that eventually influences the poem, and it goes on and on. I’m curious to know what brings you joy when you are writing?

MJ: I return to writing in the evenings. So maybe after a walk, after dinner and wine, I often play music to raise my energy levels. I often read and retrace my lineage. I realise I am creating a library in my head of other voices, of other poets for whom I need to touch their stones before I go to my own. That part right there is the joy.


Major Jackson’s latest collection is The Absurd Man (WW Norton, 2020).  He is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University and Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review. 

Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian Poet. She was joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.