Poetry Saves Lives: A Q&A with Major Jackson
We are so lucky to have award-winning poet Major Jackson kick off Hollihock as our first keynot speaker on Friday, August 23, 2019. Get a taste of his brilliance with this little Q&A he was kind enough to take part in:
HOLLIHOCK: Hollihock celebrates writers with a connection to New England-- those who have lived, worked or studied here. Elaborate on your connection with New England. Has this region inspired your writing?
MAJOR: Largely to my good fortune, New England has figured prominently as a source of inspiration and home, off-and-on, for nearly twenty-five years: I’ve lived in Burlington, Vermont; Providence, Rhode Island; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. In my late twenties, I lived on the tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, Massachusetts as a winter fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, an immensely impactful year.
During spring break of my senior year in college, my then girlfriend and I drove to Hyannis. A student of history, she admired John Kennedy and his brother Robert. We visited Cape Cod and Boston by her urging; I remember I wanted to go somewhere normal for springs break, like other college students, say to Cancun or the Caribbean. Neither of us had ever visited any part of the country north of New York City. I remember the thrill of excitement crossing over the George Washington Bridge and seeing signs along I-95 announcing directions to New England. Probably an ill-advised decision, but somewhere around Stonington, Connecticut, I made the decision to veer off and drive along the coast. At night, the road signs read like town names from a maritime novel: Narragansett, Newport, New Bedford, Mattapoisett. Four hours into driving, I remember opening the windows and smelling the brine and history of the place in the night air. Two years later, I would do that drive again, however, this time I turned north to attend the MacDowell Artist Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and then again, a couple years later after that to join the wait-staff of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Ripton, Vermont.
As much as I associate New England with its history, its early belief in the sanctity of the natural world and human beings, its long fight in the abolitionist movement, etc., I also associate this region with a tremendous natural beauty. I want to live fully inside the geography of both the land with hopes that my imaginative life is a replica of its richness and diversity.
HOLLIHOCK: What have you learned during your work as an editor at the Harvard Review that you’ve applied to your own writing, if anything?
MAJOR: Mostly, I’ve learned to listen closely to the poem as it emerges to ensure that a distinctive sound materializes. One of the important growth areas for any practitioner of the art is to realize in the end, language is the material by which we make song and the melodies we play of language is how we mark our existence.
HOLLIHOCK: Of all your published works and awards, what writing achievement of yours are you most proud of?
MAJOR: Although not a writing achievement, but more aligned with a strong belief in literary service and community, this year I edited The Best American Poetry 2019.
HOLLIHOCK: As a professor: if your students could walk away from your classes with you, what is the one thing you’d want them to learn or walk away with?
MAJOR: A startled realization that poetry could save their lives, if they dedicate and continue the practice of finding measured language to give voice to their most profound or ordinary feelings and thoughts.
HOLLIHOCK: You started your career and education as an accountant. What would you say to others who are working in a career unrelated to writing but are drawn to creative writing?
MAJOR: Make their day-job their avocation and writing their vocation. Make a steadfast commitment to your art, even in the face of other responsibilities; cultivate a life around the practice of writing.
HOLLIHOCK: Talk to me about your writing process. Do you write better in the morning? At night? In long spurts? Do you have to be in a particular, controlled environment? Do different environments inspire you? Do you journal?
MAJOR: To some extent, the conditions vary widely, but on the whole I need my environment to announce its purpose, so yes, in that sense, you’ll not find me writing in the bedroom, kitchen, or dining room. I have a home office and a reading room full of books and comfortable furniture, and pets who occasionally nudge me out of my reverie. I write first drafts in the evening, and lately find myself revising the next morning.
HOLLIHOCK: I read in an interview you once said you are a writer “addicted to memory.” What does that mean for you and your writing?
MAJOR: Most know that the nature of fiction writers is to imagine characters and sequences of events. Conversely, my realm of imaginative activity involves recalling with as much force as I can muster events and people that largely occupy my past. We are always trying to play language for sheer song, however, I have habituated my writing practice towards re-memory and the quest for language to evoke sensations with hopes of illumining what I did not understand at that moment when events occurred.
HOLLIHOCK: Why poetry?
MAJOR: Because poetry is the sacred conversation that allows us to meditate and record our mystery and wonder of existence. Both as a reader and writer of poetry, I find it also an opportunity to dial down the speed of my comings and goings, to be still and recalibrate.
Meet Major Jackson at Hollihock on August 23, 2019. Tickets available here.