Major Jackson | Urban Renewal: A Poetry Reading and Discussion || Radcliffe Institute

[MUSIC PLAYING] – Hello, good afternoon. So welcome to this event, to a
poetry reading and discussion with Major Jackson under
the title of Urban Renewal. So apart from its own
worth as a wonderful event, it’s also related to
Radcliffe’s urbanism theme for this entire academic year. Which we’ve explored
in all kinds of ways– one was a big public lecture
by Garth Risk Hallberg, who wrote City on
Fire, a debut novel about New York in the 1970s. And we have a very
large public conference that’s been a long
time in the planning, coming up on April 28th. It’s called Intersections–
Understanding Urbanism in the Global Age. And it’s three panels
and a keynote speaker, and it should be very
lively and interesting. But on to the matter at hand. I am especially
pleased to welcome Major Jackson, because we were
Radcliffe Fellows together almost 10 years ago. So it’s nice to meet
again at Radcliffe. Major Jackson is the author
of four collections of poetry. The most recent one is
Roll Deep from 2015. He’s the winner of the
Cave Canem Poetry Prize and a finalist for the
National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He’s published his
poems and essays in many different venues,
including The American Poetry Review, The Boston Review,
The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, and other
literary publications. He’s also won a
very large number of important fellowships– a Guggenheim Fellowship, a
Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award,
and also he’s been honored by a Pew
Fellowship in the Arts, and the Witter Bynner
Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. He lives in Vermont in
South Burlington, where he is the Richard A. Dennis
University Distinguished Professor at the
University of Vermont. He serves as the Poetry
Editor at the Harvard Review. And he has also done
writer-in-residence stints at University of
Massachusetts in Lowell and at Baruch College. So I’m really delighted
to welcome Major Jackson. And I hope you’ll join me
right now in welcoming him. [INAUDIBLE] [APPLAUSE] – Good afternoon,
late afternoon. This is somewhat of a
homecoming of sorts. It’s such a pleasure
to be back on the yard, the Radcliffe yard. And it’s also daunting,
because I’m reading poems. And I know some of you
have heard these before. So I’m going to read
some new poems as well. And I want to thank Julie and
Radcliffe and Sean and Becky for getting me here. As you can hear, I’m also
lacking some vocal cords from late night coughing. But I’ll speak up
loud and hopefully gravitate towards this
theme of urban renewal. When Sean asked for
a title, I should have just said poetry reading. Now I have to frame my
reading around this theme. And I’m not sure– I’m not sure how close
I’ll get to that. Well, I’m going to start
off with a new poem that’s not in any collection. It appeared in The
Virginia Quarterly Review. It’s called “The Flaneur Tends
a Well-Liked Summer Cocktail.” “curbside on an Arp-like table. He’s alone of course, in the
arts district as it were, legs folded, swaying a
foot so that his body seems to summon some deep immensity
from all that surrounds– dusk shadows inching near a
late-thirtyish couple debating the post-galactic abyss
of sex with strangers, tourists ambling by
only to disappear into the street’s gloomy mouth, a young Italian woman
bending to retrieve a dropped MetroCard, its black
magnetic strip facing up, a lone speckled
brown pigeon breaking from a flock of rock
doves, then landing near a crushed
fast-food wrapper newly tossed by a bike messenger,
the man chortling after a sip of
flaxen-colored beer, remembering that, in
the Gospel of John the body and glory converge
linked to incarnation and so, perhaps, we manifest
each other, a tiny shower of sparks erupting from
the knife sharpener’s truck who daily leans a
blade into stone, a cloudscape reflected in the
rear windshield of a halted taxi where inside a trans
woman applies auburn lipstick, the warlike insignia
on the lapel jacket of a white-gloved doorman
who opening a glass door gets a whiff of a
dowager’s thick perfume and recalls baling timothy
hay as a boy in Albania, the woman distractedly
watching a mother debate Robert Colescott’s
lurid appropriations of modernist art
over nicoise salad, suddenly frees her left
breast from its cup where awaits the blossoming
mouth of an infant wildly reaching for a galaxy of
milk behind her dark areola, the sharp coughs of a student
carrying a yoga mat, the day’s last light edging
high-rises on the west side so that they seem rimmed by
fire just when the man says, And yet, immense the wages
we pay boarding the great carousel of flesh.” [APPLAUSE] – [INAUDIBLE] – It happens. Thank you. So what I was saying
was, to some extent, I think the work of the poet
has been to kind of tease out among the great morass
of details of our lives, very simply to
notice and observe. And I think that when I
first started writing poetry, it was very much centered
around my experiences growing up in Philadelphia. And so on maybe
much to my chagrin, but it definitely
set up this challenge of me writing about the city. And I instantly was
tagged this urban poet, which felt confining
in a lot of ways. And maybe even more confining
when one critic compared me to Langston Hughes. He died 40 years ago, like– anyway. Right [LAUGHTER] Here is the very
first “Urban Renewal.” I guess I gave Sean that title. Because “Urban Renewal”
is a series of poems that appeared in my first
book and second book, not in my third, but
in my fourth book. And I very much
have been somewhat– I find myself growing
inside this poem that is actually growing. My concerns are not the
concerns of when I first started in graduate
school 20 years ago. But there seems to be
the consistency of form that allows this to be a kind
of stone that I chip away at. In my first book there
are 12 “Urban Renewals,” and over the past 20
years, I’m up to almost 50. My aim when I first
started writing it was to write a whole book. This was going to be my first
book, the ambitions of youth. It was going to be 120
“Urban Renewals,” 200, it was going to be a tome. It was going to this kind of
bildungsroman coming of age about my life. Yeah. [LAUGHTER] It requires great discipline. Here’s the very first one. “Night museum.” “By lamplight my steady
hand brushes a canvas– faint arcs of swallows
flapping over rooftops swiftly fly into view,
and a radiant backdrop of veined lilac dwindling
to a dazzling cerise evokes that lost
summer dusk I watched a mother straddle
a stoop of brushes, combs, a jar of ROYAL CROWN. She was fingering rows dark as
alleys on a young girl’s head cocked to one side
like a Modigliani I pledged my life right then
to braiding her lines to mine, to anointing streets I love
with all my mind’s wit. The boy in me perched on the
curb of this page calls back between blue-sky Popsicle licks
that festive night the whole block set out on
rooftops, in doorways, on the hoods of cars– a speaker blared Stevie above
Bullock’s CORNER STORE awash in fluorescence as the
buoyant shouts of children sugared a wall of hide-and-seek. Because some patron,
fearing she’s stumbled into the
wrong part of town, will likely clutch her
purse and quicken pace, I funnel all the
light spreading across that young girl’s lustrous
head with hopes we lift out downturned eyes,
stroll more leisurely, pour over these sights. You are almost invisible
in all this plain decay. Children’s laughter echoing
an arcs of hydrant water-spray knots the heart– those black bathers
like Cezannes could soon petrify to silence. A chorus of power lines
hums a melancholic hymn, tenements’ aching pyrrhics,
doorways and row-homes crumbling to gutted relics– this one exposing
a nude staircase, that one a second-floor
ceiling where swings a lightbulb
like your chipped soul suspended from a
thread of nerves. You have never
imagined a paradise, nor made a country
of your ghetto, only suffered the casket a
vessel for the human shadow, feared, longing for
other stones to worship. The sun dreams the crowns
of trees behind skyscrapers. Here the heart is its own
light; a pigeon’s gurgle sings the earth. The eyes of the dead
to float around us– muraled Polaroids, street-corner
billboards whose slogans read, ‘Aching humans. Prosperous gardens.'” With both Hoops and
Roll Deep, I open up with a long, somewhat long
poem, not really long poem, but a medium-sized poem
that has a narrative. In this particular
narrative, and I should say that a
lot of the poems that are kind of story-based poems,
there’s a lot of embellishment and then there’s
always something in it that’s at the core
of the experience that I’m trying to get at. But this is definitely
based on true story. Not all of it is true, though. It’s about that two weeks
I worked at McDonald’s. “Selling Out.” “Off from a double at
McDonald’s, no autumnal pinata, no dying leaves
crumbling to bits of colored paper on the
sidewalks only yesterday, just each breath
bursting to explosive fog in a dead-end alley near
Fifth, where on my knees my fingers laced on my head
and the square barrel prodding a temple, I thought of
me in the afterlife. Moments ago, Chris
Wilder and I jogged down Girard lost in the
promise of two girls who winked past pitch
lanes of burgers and squared chips of fish, at us
reigning over grills and vats. Moments ago, a barrage
of beepers and timers smeared the lengths
of our chests, a swarm of hard-hatted day
workers coded in white dust, mothers on relief, the minimum
wage poor from the fast-food joints lining Broad
Street inched us closer in the check cashing
line towards the window of our dreams, all of anxious to
enact the power of our riches. Me in the afterlife,
what did it matter? Chris and I still in
our polyester uniforms caked with day-old
batter, setting out for evening of passion marks? We wore Gazelles, matching
sheepskins, the ushanka miles from Leningrad. Chris said, let’s cop some blow. Despite my schoolboy jitters,
a loose spread of dealers preserved corners. Then a kid large
for the chrome Huffy he pedaled, said he
had the white stuff, and led us to an alley
fronted by an iron gate on a gentrified street
edging Northern Liberties. I turned to tell Chris how the
night air dissolved like soil, how jangling keys made my neck
itch, how maybe this wasn’t so good an idea, when the
cold opening of gun barrel still poked my head
and Chris’s eyes widened like two water
spills before he bound away to a future of headphones
and release parties. Me? The afterlife? Had I ever welcomed back
the old neighborhood? Might a longing, persistent
as the seedcorn maggot, tunnel through me? All I know, a single dog
barked his own vapor, and emptiness echoed through
blasted shells of row homes rising above. And I heard deliverance in
the bare branches fingering a series of power lines and
silhouette to the moon’s hushed excursion across the
batter fields of our lives that endless night of
ricocheting fear and shame. No one survives, no one
unclasps his few strands of gold chains or
hums Amazing Grace or pours all his
measly bills and coins into the trembling free hand
of his brother and survives. No one is forced face down
and weights 40 minutes to rise and begin again his march
pass the ice-crusted dirt, without friendship, who barely
knew why the cry of the earth set him running even from
the season’s string of lights flashing its pathetic
shot at cheer– to arrive here where the
page is blank, an afterlife.” So many of those poems in
the first book really do– I really can’t see you, so– there you are– they very much
had to do with what I felt as though was a kind of– I say billboard. But I guess what
I want to say is that, I felt like my poems
which dealt with my youth, was writing against
some of what I felt was some of the kind
of cliched narratives around black men
and black bodies. And what I wanted my poems to
do is give texture to that, to create some sort,
at least in my poems, a kind of an
interiority that we can think about when we
come across nightly news or when we come across
movies that tout and glorify a certain image and
a certain lifestyle. So that’s what occupied me. And then, of course, you
grow up, you read books. You get all literary,
and then that passion starts to kind of turn
in other directions. But what I will say
is that I’m still haunted by some of the
real life stories of people that I grew up
with, and inspired. So Roll Deep was
kind of a way for me to return to some of the poems
that I had written and put aside, or to write new poems. And there was also
part of the reason why I also put those poems aside
is because many of my friends who write and are very
conscious about race work as it relates to
art work, often will get into conversations
around representing, how poems represented. Which felt at that time,
now that I think about it, felt like the pressure that
the early poets of the Harlem Renaissance had
to face when they went to write
about folk culture, or write, as Langston
Hughes did, write poems based on a blues aesthetic. And a lot of what we’re
talking about, to some extent, is the politics of
both art and race, but also thinking
about not wanting to focus too much for
fear that people turn some of the narratives into
emblematic narratives of all black people. So there’s a certain
kind of politics that I did want to engage
in by writing these. So that was one of the
challenges I want to say, what we call
respectability politics. I’ll use that phrase. That was popular
there for a minute. Yeah, so my friends would
talk about other poets performing Blackness or how
the dominant culture sees Blackness. And so I put those poems aside. Even though they’re
there, even though they’re based on real people. I decided I did not
want to engage in that. But here is a poem. I’m happy I’ve pushed that,
leapt over that hurdle. Here is a poem called
“Mighty Pawns,” which is based on a group of,
at least the portrait, is based on some young men that
I grew up with in Philadelphia who played chess. But to encounter them on the
street, you wouldn’t think– most of you would not
think they had the capacity to engage in such
a difficult art. And yet they were
grandmaster chess players who lived in this very poor
neighborhood in Philadelphia and they traveled, they
traveled the world. And I don’t know where
any of them are today. But they had a great math
teacher who taught them. He’s named in here. And Hollywood made
a movie about them, if you’re interested
in looking it up. They were called
The Bad Bishops, that was the name of the team. But the movie is
called “Mighty Pawns” if you want to look at it. It’s a bad ’80s film, B rated. But has some historical valence. “Mighty Pawns.” “If I told you
Earl, the toughest kid on my block in
North Philadelphia, could beat any man or woman
in ten moves playing white, or that he traveled to
Yugoslavia to frustrate the bearded masters at the
Belgrade Chess Association, you’d think I was
given to hyperbole, and if, at
dinnertime, I took you into the faint light
of his Section 8 home, wreaking of onions, liver, and
gravy, his six little brothers fighting on a broken
love-seat for room in front of a cracked flat
screen, one whose diaper sags, it’s a wonder it hasn’t fallen
to his ankles, the walls behind doors exposing sheet
rock the perfect O of a handle, and the slats of stairs
missing where Baby-boy gets stuck trying to ascend
to a dominion foreign to you and me with its loud
timbales and drums blasting down, blasting down from the
closed room of his cousin whose mother stands on a corner
on the other side of town all times of day and night,
except when her relief check arrives at the
beginning of the month, you’d get a better
picture of Earl’s ferocity after class on the board
in Mr. Sherman’s class, but not necessarily
when he stands near you at a downtown bus-stop
in a jacket a size too small, hunching his shoulders
around his ears, as you imagine the checkered
squares of his poverty and anger, and pray he does
not return his precise gaze too long in your
direction for fear he blames you and proceeds
to take your Queen.” So that poem is
what I realized when I wrote it was in the
process of attempting to dignified lives that
in the public imagination did not have a certain
kind of richness, I felt like I realized
some of what I was doing was creating portraits of
people that I grew up with. And all the attendant
kind of challenges that arise from that. Some of the– remember I said
not everything that I write is true? Just remember that. “Blunts.” “The first time I
got high, I stood in a circle of boys
at 23rd and Ridge tucked inside a doorway
that smelled of urine. It was March. The cold rains all
but blurred our sight as we feigned
sophistication, passing a bullet-shaped bottle
of malt. Johnny Cash had a love for
transcendental numbers and explained between puffs
resembling little gasps of air, the link to all creation
was the mathematician. Malik, the smartest of the
crew, counterargued and cited the holy life or prayer as a
gateway to the Islamic faith that was, for all
intents, the true path for the righteous black man. No one disputed. Malik cocked his head, pinched
the joint and pulled so hard, we imagined his lips crazy
glued into stiff O’s. It was long agreed that
Lefty would inherit his father’s used car
business, thus destined for a life of wrecks. Then, amid a fit of coughing,
I broke the silence. I want to be a poet. It was nearing dinnertime. Jesus lived here. His sister was yelling
at their siblings over the evening
news and game shows. The stench of hot
dogs and sauerkraut drifted down the dank hallway. A pre-spring wind flapped
the plastic covering of a junkman’s shopping cart,
as Eddie Hardwick licked left to right the thin strip of glue
at the edge of a rolling paper, then uttered, ‘so, you
want the tongue of God?’ I bent double in the blade of
smoke and looked up for help. It was too late. We were tragically hip.” So you grow up, you
have adult experiences. And you write about
that hopefully. Or you move to Vermont,
and you go, oh, I didn’t think I was a nature poet. But this landscape is
doing something to me. This is a poem that– it’s more associative. I realize so much of my style
was changing over the years when I unburdened myself trying
to write a certain kind of way and experiment. And I guess for me, there’s
so much of writing poetry that I enjoy. I enjoy collaging images. I enjoy making sounds. I enjoy attempting,
at least, to create some sort of authentic utterance
that strikes your ear, even though it may not on
the surface offer up in the way of literal
cognitive meaning, my hope is that the words
are felt in the body. So that was a kind of very
deliberate choice of mine. Some of my friends thought I
was going for the anarchist’s effect, the toss meaning
out the window altogether, but that’s not true. “Enchanters of
Addison County,” which is just South of where I live
in Burlington in Chittenden County. They say all of Vermont,
there’s more cows than people, but definitely in Addison
County, that is true. “Enchanters of Addison County.” “We were more than
gestural, close-listening, the scent of manure writing
its waft on the leaves off Route 22A. By nightfall, our
gaze flecked like loon cries, but no one was up
for turnips nor other roots, not least of which the clergy. Romanticism has its
detractors, which is why we lined the road
with tea-lit luminaries and fresh-cut lemons. We called it making magic, then
stormed the corners and porches of General Stores,
kissing whenever cars idled at four
way stop signs or sought Grade A maple
syrup in tin containers with painted scenes of
horse-drawn farmers plowing through snow. The silhouetted, rusted farm
equipment gave us the laidback heaven we so often wished,
and fireflies bequeathed earth stars, such blink and
blank and bunk-a-bunk-bunk. And of course we
wondered if we existed, and also too, the
cows in the ancient pastures, and the white milk
inside our heads like church spires and ice cream cones,
even after all that cha-cha-cha, we still came out of swimming
holes shivering our hearts out. Here’s an “Ode to Mt. Philo.” I won’t read that. These two graduate students
today talked to me about a poem that I’d written that’s
published online as part of the “Urban Renewal” series. It’s called “Urban
Renewal Number 28,” subtitled “Vermont.” I want to read this and
dedicate it to them. Because I often
don’t read this poem, but they had some great insight. I have a rhododendron bush
just outside my office window where I write. And a very heavy
winter just turned. I’m not sure if you’ve
seen it, but the leaves will wilt into these
tight brown curls. And for many years that
bush was doing fine. And then I kept waiting for
either those leaves to drop and new blooms come up,
and nothing happened. So I’m sitting
there, and I think I start associating very quickly
that image of those wilted leaves. And as we talked
about in class, I think so much of the
artist’s imagination is about almost
doing a very swift, some would say time
travel, but really is what Bly calls leaps,
these leaps of images came to me in this poem, was an
attempt to capture that moment. “Number 28, Vermont.” “Outside my window,
a brutal winter burn has curled rhododendron
leaves to clusters of tight brown wilts. Tobacco-colored, they hang
where white lilacs and pink azaleas blush to spring’s
myth of resurrection. A maple sapling sprouts erect
amidst a snarling tangle of bare branches as I wait
for the droops to uncoil. Why this hopefulness? Soft tinted postcards
of sagging corpses lynched by mobs in Elk’s Arch,
Pritchard, Springfield, Waco, Texas, mix and crossfade
my sight in broad daylight like scenes from America’s
PowerPoint show of perversity. At Duke, an undergrad tweets
an obscene noose to friends, seen by millions to ‘come
and hang out with us.’ Spooked while driving
in Virginia, a friend once swore the roadside
litter in oaks and pines flapping white plastic
bags were coded messages marking a new race war. Whiteness is never having to
question the history of trees. When I search this morning
“How to Revive a Dying Rhododendron,” YouTube
recommends the speeches of Reverend Louis Farrakhan,
Holiday’s “Black Bodies Swinging.” So more of a Vermont poem. My son plays soccer and
lacrosse, and he’s OK. He’s pretty good. But it means you
got to go to games. [LAUGHTER] And on this one
particular autumn day, I was really enjoying
the change of seasons. I thought by– and this is
also from the “Urban Renewal” series, but it’s not
in any of the books. “I thought by now my
reverence would have waned. Matured to the temperate
silence of the bookish or revealed how blase
I’ve grown with age. But the unrestrained joy I fill
when the black skein of geese voyage like a
dropstring from God, slowly shifting and soaring. When the decayed
apples of an orchard amass beneath its trees,
like Eve’s first party. When driving in the road,
Vanna Whites its crops of corn whose stalks will soon give
way to a harvester’s blade and turn the land to
a man’s unruly face. Makes me believe I’ll never
sooth the pagan in me, nor exhibit the
propriety of the polite. After a few whiskeys,
I’m loud this time of year, unseemly as
a Chevron of hulking. I’m fire in the leaves,
obstreporous as a drunk New England farmer. I see fear in the
eyes of his children. They walk home from
school and evening falls like an advancing
trickle of bats, the sky pungent as
bounty and chimney smoke. I read the scowl beneath
the smiles of parents at my son’s soccer game. Their agitation, which is
the figure the yellow leaves make of a quaking Aspen.” [PAPERS RUSTLING] OK. Just a few more, and
thank you for being here. Did I do that already? Every poet does that. Thank you for coming. [LAUGHTER] This is “My Children’s
Inheritance.” “A fancy for high
green hills by a sea. Baggy spaces in the day. A knack for gunpowder
thinking, a library humming like a swarm of
gnats, the intrigue of a woman with a
pitch perfect mind, blinking eyes whose silence
is ancient and naked, a grave that is not a grave but
a ruin to visit in middle age.” I laughed at that
when I wrote that. I was like my
children, they’re not going to visit my
grave like when I die. It’s like later when they’re
going through their own crises. They’re going to come
through the grave, but it will be ruined. “A grave that is not a grave but
a ruin to visit in middle age. A chifforobe of half
empty cologne bottles in various colors
and dried flowers more dignified in
death, both evidence that I once cherished
bouquets and timelessness. Bullet casings, a bowl
of sea shells, fine pens. One, the Aurora Diamante with
its two-toned rhodium plating that glitters when my right
hand rages towards heaven. A love of big plates of
pasta, Argentinian folk music, African rainforest and the
speeches of Lincoln that missed the pages of my
books more than my doorways, a habit for dancing
when beats drop like existential stones, a
disregard for the enemies of linnets and macaws, fears
that match the hawk haunted buttes out west, a hard
desire for justice, the habit of lip-biting
when trouble nears, the way my mouth opens like
a flower, my quiver of arrows that outweighs the world,
leaving the animals to bear witness. Memories of laughter that was
bread and water, stylus hats, wasted time travel, the
consequences of mistakes and second thoughts gone to the
future, collection of radios, stacks of vinyl, the
limitations of secrets, long nights that
cascaded like waterfalls, my madness, granular
and complex, sealed like a foot fall. My son and me at the bar in
Otto’s near Fifth Avenue, both off from work,
the heavy foot traffic of silhouetted
commuters hastening home outside and us here, two drinks in. The conversation has just
ramped up, and he wants to know why I did it, how could I
have betrayed our family? The bartender is in night
school, we learn for law, but meanwhile, he can name all
the great vineyards in Sonoma and how many laborers
work the field and how many at the crush pad
last planting season, which incidentally he said, gave us
some of the best varietals, he’s told, in years. But it’s all really
just a racket though, like anything
else in life, he says. 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, my eyes carrying the exuberance of art. And so would only
agitate and call up his condemnation of my
friends as phonies parading their pseudointelligence. Instead, I reach for is hand
across the varnished oak top. I was dying I say, living
a country of lives. To which he shakes his head. I swirl my glass, looking down
avidly, churning the air so as to deliver oxygen and open up
the wine, wishing to release its veiled bouquet.” I’m going to end with two poems. This is called “You Reader.” And it was fun writing this
poem because, again, I often go for a particular sound. “You Reader.” “So often I dream of the
secrets of satellites and so often I want the moose
to step from the shadows and reveal his transgressions,
and so often I come to her body as though she were
Lookout Mountain. But give me a farmer’s market
to park my [? martyred ?] mass and I will name
all the dirt roads that dead end at the cubist
sculpture called my infinity. For I no longer light bonfires
in the city of adulterers and no longer smudge
the cheeks of debutantes currently floating across
the high fruit of night. And yes, I know
there is only one notable death in any small town,
and that is the pig farmer. But listen, at all times
the proud rivers mourn my absence, especially when
like a full moon, you reader, hidden behind a spray of
night blooming serious, drift in and out of scattered clouds,
above lighthouses producing there artificial calm just
to sweep a chalk of light over distant waters.” And my last poem is
called “On Disappearing.” “On Disappearing.” “I have not disappeared. The boulevard is
full of my steps. The sky is full of my thinking. And archbishop
prays for my soul, even then he was busy
waving at a congregation. The ticking clocks in
Vermont sway back and forth, as those sweeping up my eyes
and my tattoos and my metaphors and what comes up are the great
paragraphs of dust, which also carry motes of my existence. I have not disappeared. My wife quivers inside a kiss. My pulse was given to her
many times in many countries. The chunks of bread
we dip in olive oil is communion with our ancestors,
who also have not disappeared. Their delicate songs
I wear on my eyelids. Their smiles have
given me freedom, which is a crater I keep falling in. When I bite into the two
halves of an orange, whose cross section resembles my
lungs, a delta of juices burst down my chin and
like magic, makes me appear to those who
think I’ve disappeared. It’s too bad war
makes people disappear like chess pieces, that prisons
term prisoners into movie endings. When I fade into the
mountains on a forest trail, I still have not disappeared. Even though it’s green
facade turns my arms and legs into branches of oak. It is then I belong to
a southerly wind, which by now you have mistaken
as me nodding back and forth like a Hasid in prayer
or a mother who’s just lost her son to gunfire in Detroit. I have not disappeared. In my children, I see my
bulging face pressing further into the mysteries. In a library in Tucson, on
the plane above Buenos Aires, on a field where nearby
burns a controlled fire, I’m held by a professor, a
General, and a photographer. One burns a finely
wrapped cigar, then sniffs the scented
pages of my books, scouring for the bitter
smell of control. I hold him in my
mind like a chalice. I have not disappeared. I swish the amber hue
of lager on my tongue and ponder the drilling rigs
in the Gulf of Alaska and all the oil-painted plovers. When we talk about
limits, we disappear. In Jasper, Texas you can
disappear on a strip of gravel. I’m a life in secret language. Termites toil over
a grave and my mind is a routine of yesterdays. At a glance from
across the room, I wear September on my
face, which is eternal, and does not disappear even
if you close your eyes once and for all simultaneously
like two coffins.” [APPLAUSE] You’re going to
have to make a tea. – OK, so I’ll get us started
with a few questions, and then we’ll let
you ask questions. So I won’t take
up too much time. So thank you very
much for that reading. It was wonderful. I wanted to ask, so urban
renewal is a series of poems, but it extends across three
of your four books of poetry. And then you also referred to
one that was published online, and you also read us some
poems that were clearly– that were set in
Vermont that were part of the “Urban Renewal” series. So several questions
come to mind. One is, when did you realize
you were writing a series? And how do you
feel about the fact that your series is
dispersed and not kind of collected and presented as such? – Well, that youthful dream
of that tome of a book is still deep inside me. I still want them
to come together. And my hope is that I’ll
write enough of them that even the ones
that are dispersed will find a home all together. What I wanted to read
were the poems of travel that also are written in
this particular form, poems that take place in Italy, in
Kenya, Greece, Spain, Jamaica. And what I’m realizing
is that it’s not so much a poem of place
as it is me trying to inhabit different
landscapes and grow inside this particular form. If you look at them
on the page, they’re all kinds of single
blocks of text. And there’s a formalism
that either you hear or you don’t hear. And there’s alternating
rhymes and internal rhyme and these kind of
long, lush sentences that accrete, hopefully
empowerment through images. So I have been consistent
in that regard. It’s just that the lens has
widened to include my life not just in Philadelphia. So this poem is
growing along with me. – And the term renewal,
“Urban Renewal.” – Even back then I read just
a little bit about Richard Nixon’s Urban Policy to
rebuild cities post the riots, post-1960s, 1970s. And knew even then when I
first started that I wanted to appropriate that term. Because so much of
what I wanted to get at is that my young life was
enriched by the presence of art in my life and people. And so the renewal– it’s supposed to signify
on that social policy, but it’s more if you like
look at the poems and some of the themes that come
through, many of them kind of narrate my encounters
with people in my neighborhood or works of art, music. The musician Sun Ra lived two
or three blocks away from me in Germantown. I visited– I’ve said
this in other views, but I grew up in the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. So “Urban Renewal” was, again,
to get at certain narratives that you wouldn’t
know if you relied on popular culture
or the evening news. – Yeah, that makes sense. I also wanted to ask
you about the flaneur. – Ah, yes. – Because you mentioned it. This famous concept
introduced in the 19th century by Charles Baudelaire, the poet. And the flaneur is a
stroller, an urban stroller, probably a bourgeois
subject with a lot of time on his hands,
and probably a he. And it’s kind of a way
of taking in the scene, but also kind of being a
master of it, I suppose. So yours was alone
in an Arts District, sitting at a table
and drinking beer. And so I just, I
mean I just would like to ask how you think
the persona of the flaneur, that’s so kind of
charged for us. – Yes, it is. – How it works in your poetry. – Well, you’re absolutely
right to talk about or allude to class and
privilege, but again, I think what I take away from
that figure is the imperative to enter into what
is being seen. And what I was trying to say
earlier, I think writers, I won’t say poets, although
we’re the superior [? form– ?] everyone knows we’re superior
at this than anyone else. But poets, particularly
I think the best of us, going back to Russian
formalism, they defamiliarize what
is seen around us. And I think part of what
I’ve long been trying to do is kind of tease
out what strikes me as not terribly
remarkable on the surface, but to kind of delve
a little bit further. And I really do think
it’s what we often say is contextualization. And so the guy who’s delivering
a package in New York City, where that poem
took place actually, who’s eating at the same
time he’s navigating traffic, and tosses his wrapper. You know, that’s a
detail that could quickly go by, but if you think about
that bird, the series of images that came to me. Sometimes, and I
wonder if there’s writers in the room
that feel this way, it can be overwhelming,
the kind of flood. And so there’s some
part of the flaneur that is almost compulsory, I think. The strolling part, however, I
wish I could do more of that. – You can sit and have
a beer, right, and still consider yourself a flaneur. – It’s more of an
emblematic figure than an actual
theoretical figure for me. – Yeah, that makes sense. So I’ll ask one more
question, and then we’ll open it up to the floor. The question I wanted
to ask was what for you personally is the
connection between the urban and poetry, specifically? – I knew you were
going to ask that. I almost wrote an
answer down because– – How could I not? – I recently have been
acquainting my youngest son with the Harlem Renaissance. And I was thinking about the
migration of African Americans who brought with
them to the North a whole set of values,
but also a culture. And how wonderful that
particular moment was captured in the literature specifically. I think during that
particular period, I’m thinking about
how a life gets recorded and almost archived. And so I see the poet as kind
of archiving rich experiences in our lives, just to kind of
go back to that a little bit. Also, if I think about
poetry, I was saying this to some students
today, I can hear– believe it or not, I can hear
1920s in the poetry of Elliott. I can hear the rhythm
of that particular age. And I think finding the rhythmic
equivalents and language to a particular age, such
that it enters our body, particularly in urban spaces
when so much of it is– my house in Vermont
is totally very chill. And I get here, and
it’s like hop in a taxi. Go get to where you’re going. Jump out. Someone’s rushing in. Get your coffee. Someone’s in line behind you. Someone’s in front of you. So I think that art helps
to slow us down in a way, while it’s recording, I think
while the poet is recording. There’s something
about the pacing of a poem that forces you
to acclimate to its rhythms. And that holds true, too,
for rural areas as well. I think part of, if you listen
to country music and blues, bluegrass, you can hear the
kind of languidness of time that exists in rural spaces. So I think poems record
on many different levels. – Thank you. All right, so I’m sure that
some of you have questions that you’d like to
ask Major Jackson. And maybe I’ll just
let you recognize people who have their hands up. Be sure to maybe stand
up and ask your question with some volume. Yeah. – [INAUDIBLE] And I am
fascinated by two things that happened tonight. I had a conversation
with someone from India, and my thing is,
I have the sense that my spiritual
home is in India, even though I’m not from there. I’ve never been to India
or anything like that. But you have mentioned
twice Argentina. Flying over Buenos Aires,
my friend is from Argentina, and we were thinking
about [INAUDIBLE]. And flying over Buenos
Aires and [INAUDIBLE] of recorded music from Argentina
as part of [INAUDIBLE] legacy. What’s up with that? [LAUGHTER] – What’s up with
me and Argentina? I have this belief that if
you put the energy in poems, it will happen. So I’m trying to get there. Let’s talk. Well, South American
culture, I mean, where there’s
Peruvian culture, I’m really fascinated, interested
in the presence of, and the lasting cultural
legacy of Africa there. And so if I do go
there, it would probably be more research. But I love the culture. And I love the food. And a friend of mine, I was
very jealous of a friend of mine who got to spend three
or four years there. And there’s a very
vibrant art scene as well. So I think– and the music,
I mentioned the folk music, particularly, has been
really important to me. I don’t listen to too much music
when I write, but when I do, that’s among the music
that’s in rotation. Yeah. Hello, sir. Yes? – I’m interested in your
relationship to the political. Specifically, how do political
pressures from your communities and also internal pressures
that you place upon yourself affect your relationship
with a blank page? Meaning how– it
seems like you have this very distilled, defined
relationship with your lens. Could you expound on that? – What I was speaking earlier
about respectability politics. I think that at some point
became a kind of a lock on my imagination. And it became very important. That was the only pressure,
let me just say, that I felt. Because my mentors were very
literally both black and white people who came from
progressive communities. In my life there
was a Jesuit priest who worked with Dan
Berrigan and his brother. There were activists from
the ’60s and ’70s, teachers, writers, who were mentors. And so I inherited this
continuum I would say, of consciousness around
art that was functional, art that made a difference,
art that protested. And then at some point,
and I don’t know, I can’t figure out when
necessarily, there’s a certain demand that
you have for you art to be art, to elevate to the
realm of art and not sloganary. However, that’s not
me at all announcing myself as apolitical. And in fact, I
firmly believe it’s the mark of an artist’s or
writer’s maturation when they realize that their
writing should be beholden and responsible
to us as a larger community of human beings who
are trying to navigate shifts in regimes, political
regimes, and decency. And I want to add to
that particular decency. The thing is I want it
to be on my own terms. I don’t want it to
be programmatic. And I want it to be artful. So I think there’s been some
tremendous, wonderful poems that have been written that
protest conditions here in America and my
great regret is that we do not
celebrate and teach that tradition in this country. And it’s not just protest
poems or Vietnam War poems. There are forms that are
far more quiet than that but have great political
valence and resonance. That should be an
award that we give, much like the Poetry
Foundation gives an award to, I think it’s the Mark Twain
Award for humorous poetry. I think we need to come
up with an award that announces the political
dimensions of our work. Anyway, how does it
impact my relationship to the page and my art? I think it’s a
wonderful challenge. I think it forces me to– I said it was a chain or
a lock on my imagination. But I’d like the challenge
of writing something that will hopefully
have an impact and that furthers the cause
of social, political justice. Sometimes there’s been
several poems of mine that someone has
brought up to me and said, hey, this one guy
was like, oh, your poem, “How to Listen.” I go, you’re a poet? He goes, no, no, but
I really like it. I open this group
meeting that I have for men that batter their wives
with your poem “How to Listen.” And I’m like, if you
told me to write a poem about a group of guys who– I probably would have frozen up. But who knows how poems
exist and find their readers in the world, and
how people are going to take it in and hold it close
and use it and pass it on? That’s a mystery to me. But I think it’s just enough
to pay close attention to language, the
demands of form, the desire to make a new sound. Those are all noble. Hello. – Thank you. How long had you
lived in Vermont before you found
Vermont-based imagery creeping into your poetry? And maybe you could talk
a little bit about– – Yeah, I resisted
it for awhile. I resisted writing
about ice fishing. There’s moose signs everywhere. I haven’t seen one yet. I’ve read about them. It took me about
close to 12 years to finally decide
that OK, I’m going to write about this place. It’s startling, beautiful. I drove cross country to Oregon
to go to graduate school. And I camped along the
way with a girlfriend who wasn’t so keen on camping. So we had to go into these
motels and hotels occasionally. But what happened for me was
this very deep appreciation for landscapes and
varieties of landscapes and really how stunningly
beautiful this country is. But when I got to
the Cascade Mountains and northwest and hit the
coast, the Pacific coast, something inside me just broke. And so I realized that I was
gravitating towards landscapes of this particular sort. Everyone will tell you,
African-Americans make up less than 0.1% of Vermont. And we joke that we
all know each other. And if someone leaves,
even temporarily, half the population decreases. Fortunately for me, though,
I travel quite a bit. And I still have family up
and down the east coast. So I never really felt
firmly in Vermont, because I was traveling so much. But a couple years ago
I decided that this will be home for awhile, I
might as well contribute. There was a great
number of writers who have come through there,
Ashberry and Ron Padgett is a great poet who
has come through there. And Vermont has no shortage
of writers and poets, a great tradition of writing. So I’m reading a lot
of Grace Paley now, who wrote about
Thetford, Vermont. Everyone knows she
wrote about New York, but she lives in Thetford. Galway Kinnell,
wonderful tradition. – Microphone? – Hi. – Hi. – I was getting in a dreamy
state listening to your color that you’re bringing into
your poetry, particularly just descriptive aspects
which becomes almost painterly in some aspects. But I wonder– maybe in
connection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art– how you escaped
the really decimating aspect of urban renewal in Philadelphia
during the ’60s and ’70s, which largely attributed to the
destruction of the inner city. Basically, the whites moved
out into suburban areas. And that was not uncommon
in American cities. And it left a
certain income, which was the middle class white
income, which somewhat sustained the city from
completely breaking down into pockets of really,
really extreme poverty. Which didn’t have any money,
unless it was supported by, say, antipoverty
program, which was actually a way of
keeping you in poverty. So can you contrast that
to moving to Vermont, which is sort of an antithesis
to that kind of environment. And maybe draw it
from your poetry from the standpoint of your
museum experiences as a kid. Well, I would never
use the word escape. People have used that
word in the past. And I understand, from the
outside, what it looks like. I was going to use some visuals
tonight to get at that contrast that you’re talking about. But I’ll say this. It was such a rich experience
growing up where I grew up. The people around me
had great dimensions. Evenings were full of
fun and music and play. And then crack cocaine came. And that was the bomb
that had people compromise long held values
that sustained them for a long time and
their communities. I had like a lot of people who– if you read Richard
Rodriguez and others, there’s someone who mentored
you or took a special interest in you, someone who
said, apply here. I was assistant Nancy pushed
a summer math camp at– not Exeter, what’s
the other one? Andover. My mom was like, no, I
don’t know no Andover. Right? It was people like that. And I wouldn’t say escape
as much as I was fortunate. My therapist asked
the same question. How did you escape? No, I was quite fortunate. And I had interests
that kind of made me stand out a little bit– books. I shouldn’t say that. That’s wrong. I had friends who read. And there was a group
of us, group of kids. To some extent, you’re
right to ask that question. I very much appreciate it. One of things that I’m
taking up now as a project is the amount of rural
poverty in New England. And I want to do a photo
exhibit and write poems. I want to take the
photos and write poems. I think the label that– and this is part of reason
why I started writing– I wanted to dignify
the lives of people that we kind of write
off in urban areas because they’re poor. And one of the things
that this election showed us is that we have to challenge
those particular terms because the level of poverty
in rural environments outstrips some of what we
are accustomed to seeing on the screen. It’s profound to find yourself
in certain places, whoa. And then you really realize
that the narrative here isn’t about race or who’s a racist. It really boils
down to who has it and who doesn’t have
it, very simply that. I’ve traveled quite
a bit over the years, and I’ve seen that
dynamic in Kenya. I’ve seen it in
parts of Paris, who has it, who doesn’t have it. There’s certain
parts of Paris that look like where I grew up
right around the corner. The crazy thing is a young
lady that I recently met, she teaches art at
Temple University. So you go oh, where do you live? 26 and Thompson. I was like, you would
have been robbed, like what are you doing? The area’s so gentrified now. I haven’t been to my old
neighborhood in many years. But what you’re talking
about, white flight and social policies
definitely had an impact. But I think Tally’s
Corner or any other study you want to point to, they
don’t give the rich narrative that I feel like poems
and stories can give us. Hey, y’all. Thank you for coming– – Wait, wait, wait, – No? There’s one more? – I was just going to ask since
you brought up Tally’s Corner. There’s this like great
Ralph Ellison quote about him not seeing Harlem
in the sociology that he was reading about it. And as a sort of
urban sociologist, I’m curious if you can sort
of impart any advice on how to sort of describe in ways that
feel authentic, urban places, beyond the form of poetry. – Yeah, so repeat
that last part again. So what’s the core
of the question? – How to describe– what you
want to call authentic or rich urban places beyond
the form of poetry. – That’s where I feel like I
often push my students away from cliched thinking
and to kind of cultivate a restlessness with words. And that’s where I
feel like figuration starts to create great
nuance and maybe gets to a greater precision. I wrote an essay about the fact
that white people don’t write about race in this country. Now we do because some
things have happened. But at that time the poems
that I looked at, for example, the popular term for white
poets writing about race was always big and black. It’s amazing, I
couldn’t believe it. Every time I opened
a poem it was like why do we have to put
those two words together? Are there no black dwarves? No one that you’re not like
afraid of, that’s not scary? Right? But that’s the
inherited language. Or the young men
who wear clothes that’s not tight-fitting also. How do you describe that in a
way that isn’t about your fear? You know what I’m saying? So I think finding
the language really has to come from some genuine
space that is generous and that is humane. I think I hate to
say it, but I think journalists are very lazy. And they help to
contribute, unfortunately. – Well if I’m not
mistaken, I think there’s a small reception
just outside the room. So if you want to speak
directly with Major Jackson, then that’s where you can
do it for a little while, if he holds up. – Yeah, I’m doing good. – Thank you very, very much. – Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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