Art Talk with Poet Gary Jackson
Photo of Gary Jackson by Cereba Bell
At first glance, poetry and superheroes might seem like unlikely mates. One brings to mind spandex and adolescent fan clubs, and the other…doesn’t. But Gary Jackson teases out the poetry in comic book characters in his first book Missing Me, Metropolis, which won the prestigious Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2009. Throughout the collection, Jackson writes from the perspective of various superheroes, offering fresh, moving insight into love, loss, power, and identity. Based in Albuquerque, Jackson has also had work published in various literary journals, and was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. We caught up with the poet in between readings, and heard his take on poetic obsessions, form, and why he'd never cut it as a superhero.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
GARY JACKSON: My version isn’t glamorous, but it’s been a hell of a ride. I teach at a community college and I travel and do readings at universities, conferences, non-profit programs and reading series; and between the traveling and teaching I generate just enough income to live on. Traveling, while exhausting, also presents these immensely gratifying and rewarding experience of meeting new people and going to places I would have never went otherwise. Somehow I still find time to write and not be a complete hermit.
NEA: How would you describe your creative process?
JACKSON: My process is pretty simple. It helps if I have something I’m currently working on, whether it’s a series of poems that deal with a certain theme or some longer piece that I can take my time on. I tend to revise yesterday’s poems first, and then move on to generating. I fear I’m a terrible model for writers, since some weeks I may spend ten hours writing, other times, twenty, and others, zero. Patience is my best tool. I can revise a single word, then write a few lines for a new poem and can stop working for the day and feel good. Maybe patience isn’t the right word, let’s go with “lazy.” Either way, I know the work will come. I haven’t run out of ideas yet.
NEA: Why do we need poetry? Why do you need poetry?
JACKSON: I’ve always been a fan of stories, and for me poetry is just as capable of telling stories as any other genre. A poem---like all literature---at its core is trying to communicate something from author to reader: the author wants to tell (not preach or demand) the reader about some experience or moment or story. Or maybe instead of tell, I should say “show?” I love reading a poem for that moment, that story, and seeing how much the author can say in a brief (relative to prose) yet meticulously constructed space.
Of course, poetry is also a form that has few governing rules and expectations on what it can and can’t do (though I think a lot of people project very specific expectations on poetry and frown when it doesn’t fulfill them). And because of that freedom it’s always a thrill to jump headfirst into a collection---to see what a writer does with the world s/he’s created. The brevity of poetry is a plus as well: for a few moments I can escape, and I think there’s value in escapism and entertainment, though I can also sit down with that same poem and inhabit it for so much longer than the time it takes to read it once. It’s a wonderfully flexible genre.
NEA: Your collection Missing You, Metropolis largely focuses on superheroes. When or how did you first find poetry in comics?
JACKSON: I don’t know if I’ve ever found poetry having a strong presence in comics, aside from the occasional reference (which usually reflects the author exhibiting his writing chops more than anything else). But I think the first time I encountered superheroes in poetry was in Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light. She’s got about four poems that deal with Superman. In many ways, I’m not breaking new ground, but meshing comics with poetry was a very organic process for me, since I was writing about experiences informed by a mutual point of origin. So I’d like to think I’m doing something a little different with balancing comics and poetry.
NEA: You have mentioned that another unifying theme throughout the collection is loss. How does that tie in with superheroes?
JACKSON: I use superheroes to serve as a vehicle to explore other themes. Though it’s true that I sprinkle a lot of comic-specific references, I also think the superhero poems work on varying levels, whether it be an acknowledgment of prejudice or artifice, a want to transform into something more desirable, or further escape from our self-imposed confines. I try to use my obsessions to dig at other themes that I’m preoccupied with.
Loss, as much---if not more so---than comics, is a lens through which the central speaker in Missing You, Metropolis views the world. Despite the speaker’s wishes, that loss permeates every nook and cranny in the real and imagined world and the title of the collection hints at a broader loss akin to nostalgia but more palpable. How even the memory or a return to those worlds, whether it’s a comic book or Kansas or any of the other old haunts, is no longer informed by the same innocence. The poems build toward this inevitable realization that is simultaneously experienced and recounted in this conflated space. Of course, that’s only my interpretation of how loss unites the various poems, and I think you could make arguments for a multitude of other ways to read the collection as a whole---that’s part of the fun of reading poetry.
NEA: Besides comics, what are some of your sources of inspiration?
JACKSON: Inspiration comes to me from anywhere; the trouble is finding a thread that holds my attention for longer than a single poem. For that reason, I prefer to develop obsessions rather than look for inspirations. I like to chisel away at the same idea repeatedly from different angles and write the hell out of it. My recent year in South Korea has given me a plethora of obsessions to tease out, including the idea of a “motherland,” family, blood, and strangers.
NEA: Do you have a favorite place where you prefer to write?
JACKSON: I only prefer NOT to write at home if I can help it. Too many distractions. I currently don’t have a home office, but when I did in the past, I seldom used it for writing poetry and instead used it to do other work. Writing in bed is surprisingly productive, but I tend to avoid it since I don’t want to associate my bed with work.
NEA: In 2009, you won the prestigious Cave Canem Poetry prize. What was that experience like?
JACKSON: It was a mind-blowing and surreal experience, enhanced by the fact that when I first received the news I had just spent my first day (of a one-year working contract) in South Korea. I spent that year in South Korea revising the manuscript and corresponding with the folks at Cave Canem and the Graywolf Press crew; it just added to the excitement of the whole process. When I got back to the States in the fall of 2010, I immediately launched into a book tour that I’m just now winding down. I have one more reading: at CITYART in Salt Lake City on May 11th and then I get to rest for the summer.
NEA: What are you working on now?
JACKSON: I currently have two different series that I’m working on. One stems from recently living in South Korea, which triggered me to think more about my own family, especially my mother who was born in Seoul. The relationship she has with her mother is immensely interesting to me and their dynamic has become the basis for the current series of poems that I’m working on. I’m also exploring the clash of cultures as it took (takes?) place in my own family and also as the outsider living in a foreign country, and seeing if I can make those poems play off each other.
The other project follows a completely different trajectory in that it deals with superheroes even more explicitly. I wanted to create my own superheroes and let them loose in the world and observe what happens. It’s been fun and [has] produced some surprising poems.
NEA: If you were a superhero, who would your alter ego be and what superpower would he have?
JACKSON: I’m too lazy and selfish to be a superhero. But if I could “borrow” someone’s superpowers it would be Multiple Man’s (he’s part of the extended X-Men family). Having the ability to generate an army of multiples of myself and setting them off to do tasks---like research, teaching, or cleaning the house---and then absorbing their knowledge would be a dream come true. And I suppose if the occasional multiple had delusions of saving the world while wearing a spandex costume, I wouldn’t interfere. Better him than me.