Exalted Utterance: An Interview With Major Jackson

Mary Gannon

What was the idea behind the Dark Room Collective?
It was a reading series that started off in the late eighties in the house where some of the members lived on Edmond Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I didn’t join up with the Dark Room until the nineties, when I came and gave a reading.

Early on it was Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange—and then there was this rotating door of aspiring writers that came through. The series became so popular that they couldn’t squeeze everyone into the house, and it moved, eventually ending up at Derek Walcott’s Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University, which was its last home.

It was important while it was there. And now people acknowledge it was the Dark Room that cleared a path for Cave Canem to happen. Maybe “cleared a path” is too heavy, but there’ve always been writing groups of black folks who have gotten together to support themselves, support one another, and Cave Canem is a manifestation of that in a time when resources are now available. It’s really wonderful.

You won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
Right, the second award. Natasha Trethewey won the first one. I was there at the very first Cave Canem retreat. It was emotionally intense. It was spiritual. I made lifelong friendships—A. Van Jordan was there; Terrance Hayes, a very dear friend. It was up on the Hudson River, so there was something particularly beautiful about that first gathering. It seemed very important for me at that time. And the support has been immeasurable. The publication of Leaving Saturn, under the auspices of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, by the University of Georgia Press, led to a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination.

Was this when you met [Norton poetry editor] Jill Bialosky?
I’d met her before then. She had published a book of poems, and she came to read at my favorite bookstore—Robin’s Bookstore—in Philly. [Poet] Eleanor Wilner was there, and she introduced me to Jill. She said, “This is Major. He’s one of our young, up-and-coming poets, but he’s about to leave us to go to Oregon for graduate school.” Jill said, “Send me your manuscript when you’re done, when you graduate.” And I was like, “My thesis?” [Laughter.]

I thought she was just being kind, being generous. But when the New Yorker published one of my poems, three years later, she sent a wonderful handwritten note saying, “I’m not sure you remember me. We met in Philadelphia.” I called her after I got that letter. She said, “Do you have a book?” And I told her it just won the Cave Canem prize. She said, “Don’t worry, send me your second book when it’s ready.” And then Leaving Saturn was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It lost to a book by one of Jill’s authors, B. H. Fairchild—Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, a wonderful book that year. And after the awards ceremony she said, “Are you ready to send me your next book?” I said, “It’s not quite done.” She said, “How far along?” And I said, “Oh, 50 percent.” I really only had about three poems. She said, “Well, we can sign a contract.” Sure enough, about two weeks later…

That’s amazing.
That’s been my life—as a writer. People ask me about publication and awards and I just have to say, I am not the norm. Winning the Pew Fellowship in the Arts gave me fifty thousand dollars for two years to write unencumbered—that was before graduate school, two years after I graduated from college. And then I had two years at graduate school. That first book was four years of intensive writing and honing and stripping away at poems and reconstituting them and looking at the manuscript in various versions. By the time it won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize I felt pretty confident that it was going to be a good book because of all the time I had devoted to it. At that time, I didn’t have a family, I wasn’t teaching as much as I do now, so that leisurely approach to writing had to give way to a more concentrated intense time that I have to take away from my life. I go into it now with a greater intensity.

How do you do that?
In Vermont, the house I bought had a pool that the previous owner filled in because the realtor told her she’d have a greater chance of selling it if there wasn’t a pool—but she left an outdoor sauna that was next to it. I recently renovated that sauna into an office and put in windows. Half the office is cedar inside—it’s very nice. Now I write late at night. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time.

Is that every night or just during summers?
I normally have these writing spurts that can last four months, where it’s just intensive writing. I don’t necessarily have to write five days a week. Holding Company was started at another leisurely moment at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, and I had to get into this really creative routine for myself.

For the first four or five months of the Pew Fellowship, I lay in bed stricken with self-doubt, thinking, “Are my poems worth this kind of endowment, this kind of generosity?” What saved me was going to bookstores. That was part of the process. My library grew exponentially during those two years. It went from, like, three books to maybe three hundred books. And I just read and read and read. And I took inspiration from whomever I was reading at that time. And I did a lot of imitating.