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Major Jackson Reads His Work, Talks Inspiration

Founded in 1957, the Lowell Institute for Humanities has hosted speakers like Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Maya Angelou. On Oct. 5 in Devlin Hall 101, Major Jackson joined those ranks.

Sponsored by the Lowell Institute and the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College, Jackson spoke to a full house and read a variety of poems from his most recent compilation Roll Deep and selections from three other books.

After the poetry reading, Jackson hosted a question-and-answer session. He spoke about the influence of the current sociopolitical culture on his writing, how to differentiate between the author and the speaker persona, and the musicality to his poetry.

“He tellingly observes the social order while thinking metaphysically,” wrote Suzanne Matson, an English professor and organizer of the event, in her introduction for Jackson.

With poems covering current issues confronting the world today, like rogue policing, racism, classicism, and the current national election, Jackson weaves words and rhythm to invite the reader to think more deeply about the sociopolitical environment.

“I am wholly for us, as humans, speaking and writing the unsayable,” Jackson said.

With a steady rhythm and a heavy cadence, he adds a musicality to his poems that inspired an audience member to ask about how the words would translate to music notes.

“I want to entertain your ear more than anything else,” Jackson said.

He also manages to bring a feel of music into his poetry, heavily influenced by rap and hip-hop, with honorable mentions to rappers Kanye, Tupac, Salt n’ Pepa, and others, in his poems.

“Music was really important to me growing up, and occasionally I like to go back to my roots,” Jackson said as he introduced one of his poems.

“It’s a struggle on an emotional level, and it’s a struggle to find the words.”

He also nods to his ancestors in his poem “On Disappearing.” It unites his past, his present, and his future. Though he acknowledges his literary influences in most of his poems, this poem was dedicated to his identity.

“What art does, particularly poetry, is make us more conscious of the time we’re living in,” Jackson explained.

With poems like “Ferguson,” “Mighty Pawns,” and “Pest,” he explores some of the major conflicts occurring in the nation today.

Major continuously challenges himself by employing styles and techniques that he teaches his students at the University of Vermont.

With “Mighty Pawns” he wrote his first monastic poem—a poem that’s also one sentence. And with “Stand Your Ground,” he employed the golden shovel method—a method in which the poet borrows lines from another poem.

He draws inspiration from his everyday life in Vermont, from his travels to cities like New York , and from his childhood in both Philadelphia and Nashville.

“I’m attempting to give a portrait of how my inner life is shaped by the spaces I inhabit,” Jackson said.

As a result, his poems range from urban scenes to the fast-paced city life from the changing of the seasons to the relationship between humans and nature.

When asked about his writing process, Jackson explained that it has changed throughout the years. He used to do a lot of traveling and would write when inspiration struck on the road.

Now, he writes at home and draws inspiration from his environment. He appreciates that he can get up, walk around, go to his bookshelf, read a little, consult past authors, and write some more.

Even though he is a professional poet, he still experiences writer’s block.

“It’s a struggle on an emotional level, and it’s a struggle to find the words,” Jackson said.

He also spoke about his recently written poems on fatherhood, though he did not read them because they were still too raw and emotional for him.

“It’s terrifying for me to write a poem because writing is about discovering, and I don’t know where it’s going when I start writing,” he said.

Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor

October 6, 2016