Q&A: Major Jackson of The Slowdown

by
Julia Mallory
From the May/June 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In January, Major Jackson became host of The Slowdown, a popular podcast that each weekday presents a poem and reflection in a five- to ten-minute segment. Jackson succeeds U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, who followed U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith as host of the podcast, which is produced by American Public Media in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. Jackson’s new role makes him something of a poetry evangelist, expounding on the possibilities that exist when we understand ourselves as united in verse. The author of six poetry collections, including Razzle Dazzle: New & Selected Poems, forthcoming from W. W. Norton later this year, Jackson recently spoke about leading The Slowdown, the spiritual qualities of verse, and how poetry helps us to understand ourselves and the world around us.

Major Jackson of The Slowdown. (Credit: Erin Patrice O’Brien)

Podcasts seem to be an ideal vessel for poetic expression. What is it about this medium that you find attractive?
Something about the aesthetics of The Slowdown melds quite beautifully with poetry. Succinct and intimate, poetry as an art form leans more toward the ears than the eyes, less something to be read and more to be heard—maybe as whisper or chant, a small enchantment. I think the medium of a podcast reminds us that language, as material substance in the world, enters our bodies and, much like music, activates sensory pleasures and memories. A daily podcast such as The Slowdown turns the intimate act of listening into a meaningful ritual of engagement, one that asks us to reflect and reach for an awareness of each other and our quintessential natures.

Why did you want to host The Slowdown?
It’s a terrific show, I mean format-wise, with great lineage and production staff and a loyal audience who all value contemplativeness and poetry—my lifelong obsessions. In listening to an episode, one never feels as if they have been hit with a brain-dump, but more a thoughtful and crisp curated meditation, so that the mind breathes. As an editor and literary figure who has given many readings and talks—from homeless shelters in Philadelphia to classrooms in China, Ethiopia, and Hong Kong—I’ve served as an ambassador of sorts, espousing poetry’s power to engender dignity and promote presence and attention. Serving as host of The Slowdown is a continuation of my lifelong journey and belief that poetry is a kind of sanctuary, one that divines and gives shape to our collective humanity, maybe unlike any other art form. Others have served in similar roles in the past, as poets, teachers, mentors, loving and caring members of our community. I feel that I am merely carrying a flame, a continuum of consciousness.

What was the hiring process like? Did you know you were being considered?
I did not know I was being considered until I was asked to record a few sample episodes. In fact, it turned out to be an audition, unbeknownst to me, for two lovely producers. Funny enough, I did not imagine others were doing the same thing. Of course, there were others also writing and recording episodes.

Prior to being hired, how long had you been a listener of the show? Do you have any distinct memories as a listener?
Tracy [K. Smith] and Ada [Limón] are old friends; they are in their own ways forces of profundity and insight. I’ve purchased and long taught their poems. So I was listening from the beginning. Like many, I made donations and subscribed. Both Tracy and Ada brought enormous sensitivities, humor, and intelligence to their reading of poetry that highlight the quality of their minds and also how poetry functions as a lens to understanding daily existence—I guess never more than when we faced seismic political and global health challenges and needed language to match our frustrations and fears. I’m talking, of course, about the pandemic and America’s racial reckoning after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Like many I was grateful for the clarity poetry gave me, especially through Tracy’s and Ada’s eyes. I’m not sure what is up ahead for us, but I know we will need the revelations that poetry imparts during moments of crises.

The past three years have been so trying. Do listeners reach out to share the impact the podcast has had on them?
They do, and they do it on multiple platforms. They will respond on the website. I get e-mails. One poem was about an adoptive mother who is explaining to her son that there’s love in her heart, both in her physical heart and in her metaphorical heart for him, and I’ve heard from several people via e-mail about a shared similar circumstance. Friends that I have not been in touch with, the podcast has reached them. Speaking of relationships, folks right now really need to be reconnected with each other and not feel that sense of feeling alienated, coming out of a global pandemic. The podcast reminds us of our collective vulnerability, our connection, our shared joys, passions, and loves.

The Slowdown was started by Tracy K. Smith, who was at the time poet laureate. Then Ada Limón became host—and she departed the podcast to become poet laureate. Might The Slowdown be a poet’s good luck charm?
If it is, then I choose not to think about that. I have no expectations for such a privileged turn of events. I am faithful to the task at hand, which is to daily celebrate poets, poetry, and the news they bring. I love this particular duty, which also feels civic and spiritual.

I certainly understand that any accolades would be in addition to the reward of the work you have already been called to do.
I can’t help but draw the connection between these roles, between the poet laureate or anyone who is serving as an ambassador of the art. There is a caretaking aspect of it, and that has to do with the West African figure of the griot. What we’re doing is reflecting back—either through the opening reflection of the podcast or through the poem itself—narratives and stories that we may not have been aware of were it not for the occasion of the poem.

Are there elements that your predecessors brought to The Slowdown that you’d like to continue? Is there an area that you envision making uniquely your own?
Quite elegantly and with care, both Ada and Tracy enumerated all the areas and aspects of our lives that poetry addresses: our loves, our joys, our dreams, and our disappointments. They spoke as poets, as artists, as partners, and as members of their family. I occupy all those roles, too, and cannot help but read and comment on poems through how I am both centered and decentered. They also were not shy about addressing political controversies that animate public discourse. I heard in their episodes an implicit agenda for us all to do better, to treat each other with a greater regard, to forward compassion and empathy. Decency does not have to be inaccessible to us.

Poetry encourages praise at the extraordinary fact of our existence. I’ll continue that message. But I will also attempt to mark how poetry teaches us to listen for possibilities. With The Slowdown, I seek to uphold poems whose value is language’s ability to push us toward the authentic. We need new concepts and ideas to deliver us into a greater incarnation of ourselves. I’ll be keeping my eyes—and ears—open for those poems and speaking to their worth, which sometimes a first reading or listening might obscure. Let me say, too, I do not wish to institute a hierarchy of taste but to gently tinder the gift of poetry and the manifold ways meaning is harbored in the very fabric of a phrase, sentence, and metaphor.

How do you prepare for the podcast?
If I come across a poem and it hits me, I put it in the “maybe” folder. I’ll revisit it after some time, because I want to see if the impact is still there. Then I return to that folder and reread. Then I’ll decide whether it goes into the “yes” folder. Then one of the podcast assistants has to get recording rights. Once we get the recording rights, I can go through and start writing the episode. Then we will set up a date for recording. My producer, Myka Kielbon, who is fantastic with her vision for the podcast, will decide the order poems will appear on the podcast. Normally we will do ten recordings in a day, and that will take us about six hours, seven hours.

Are there any poets you’re excited to introduce listeners to?
Currently I am reading poems by Chiyuma Elliott, Desirée Alvarez, Theresa Lola, Sara Elkamel, Susan Nguyen, Kayo Chingonyi, Mira Rosenthal, Inua Ellams, Malika Booker, and a whole bunch of other folks.

What impact do you anticipate the show having on your creative process as a poet?
As always, reading sensitizes me in ways that are not immediately discernable, but I know I am embracing and welcoming so much. I find it inconceivable at the moment but feel a swelter in my spirit, less blind, more attuned.

Is there anything that you’d like to end with that you didn’t get a chance to say?
Another aspect of The Slowdown that I’ve been finding quite interesting is that every day there is someone whose curiosity about poetry has either been sparked or satisfied. When we become curious about the art, we also become curious about ourselves. Poetry is one of those areas in which we can peek into each other’s existence—see ourselves but also learn something about our neighbor, learn something about the woman who does our hair or the people we encounter on the subway platform. That is what I find enormously compelling about poetry: that it’s giving us a fuller, richer portrait of who we are.

 

Julia Mallory is a storyteller whose first creative love language is poetry. The author of six books, including two children’s books, they work with a range of media, from text to textiles. Their writing can be found in Barrelhouse, Emergent Literary, the Offing, Stellium Literary Magazine, Torch Literary Arts, and elsewhere.

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