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Exalted Utterance: An Interview With Major Jackson

In 1996 poet Cornelius Eady wrote a short piece for the New Yorker showcasing the Dark Room Collective—a group, Eady claimed, “that could well turn out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”

In the photograph accompanying that essay, seven of the members—all young African American poets—pose with eyes closed, faces lifted sunward, except for one. Major Jackson stares directly at the lens, arms crossed: his posture determined, his expression serious and calm.

In person Jackson gives off the same composed aura, although his gravity is broken often by a deep, hearty laugh. We met early one warm morning in the apartment where he was staying in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Although Jackson lives in South Burlington, Vermont, where he is a professor of English at the University of Vermont, he treks to New York City often to see friends, occasionally taking on visiting teaching stints at colleges such as New York University and Columbia. He also serves as a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency program.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Jackson initially pursued an accounting degree at Temple University, changing course along the way after becoming part of Philadelphia’s artistic community, where, as he puts it, “the visual artists know the dancers and the dancers know the deejays and the deejays know the performance artists and poets.”

In 1995, at just twenty-six years old, Jackson was awarded a fifty-thousand-dollar Pew Fellowship in the Arts, which gave him two years to write. During that time, he joined the Dark Room Collective, which by then included Thomas Sayers Ellis, John Keene, Janice Lowe, Carl Phillips, Tracy K. Smith, Sharan Strange, Natasha Trethewey, Artress Bethany White, and Kevin Young, among others, and was performing “drive-by readings” at colleges and literary arts centers across the country.

Jackson was one of the first Cave Canem fellows, a group chosen to participate in a weeklong retreat for African American poets; in fact, his debut poetry collection, Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia Press, 2002), was chosen by Al Young for the second annual Cave Canem Poetry Prize and went on to receive a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2006 Norton published his follow-up, Hoops, which was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award.

That year Jackson joined another interdisciplinary community. Instead of dancers and deejays, he worked with physicists, sociologists, historians, and fellows from other varied backgrounds at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. While there, he began writing what would become his new collection, Holding Company, published in August by Norton. The long lines and poems, many of them sequences about urban life, which characterize his earlier books, have been supplanted in his new collection by concise, ten-line lyrical poems in which Jackson explores new territory—the realm of the ecstatic.

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