The Poet's Story: Interview with Reuben Jackson
Updated: Mar 27
I interviewed Reuben Jackson by phone on the first day of Spring. He spoke to me from his front porch, in the company of birds, I typed rapidly in my Nook. I wished this were a podcast interview, because I couldn’t type fast enough to capture well all of his colorful and endearing metaphors and sadly cannot share the caliber of his delightful voice and laugh in writing. Fortunately, Reuben is a generous poet who participates in readings online and surely will also do so in person when the world again opens. If you have a chance to hear him, I recommend you do so. Recorded readings can also be found on the Alan Squires Publishing site websitehttps://alansquirepublishing.com/poems-by-reuben-jackson/
Throughout this interview, which lasted an hour, but felt like ten minutes, we both laughed a lot and it was difficult not to respond and engage him in some conversation. This is partially due to my being new to live interviewing, but also because his insights stir thoughts and feelings that make one want to share and connect.
Almost a year ago, I wrote a short review of Reuben’s poetry collection Scattered Clouds (Alan Squire Publishing, 2019) in which I described my effort to think “what words to put as I spin from enchantment to wonder to sadness, then find myself laughing out loud.” I quoted some poems, but ultimately concluded that although the excerpts were beautiful, they didn’t do justice to his work, “because Reuben’s poems are so tight that they’re best read whole, every word in interplay with the ones before and after.” And still, whenever I return to this collection, I glean new insight, as I did in conducting this interview. I hope you enjoy.
When did you start writing poetry and why? Describe Reuben Jackson, the early years.
It’s interesting trying to think about a day or an hour when these things started but I’ll try to explain when this romance with poetry or whatever you want to call it began. My Tenth Grade teacher, Ms. Milbury, was editor of our school newspaper. I was in love with language much earlier than that, listening to shows on AM radio and the way ministers could turn words. But in Tenth Grade Ms. Milbury came up to me on a Friday and said, “We need a new poem for Monday’s paper.” I asked her who some of her favorite poets were, planning to find a poem for her to include, but she said, “No, I want you to write it.” That weekend I deliberately tried to write the worst poem I could, so she’d say thank you for playing and here’s a consolation prize so I wouldn’t be asked again. So I wrote this piece, Ode to the Woman with the Most Perfect Afro about this girl who sat in front of me in class thinking you’re free. But Ms. Milbury said, “This is pretty good. Now you’re our staff poet.” I reluctantly did the next week’s poem, and the next one and I started to like it, which was unexpected.
I’d go to the Georgetown branch of the public library. In the old Dewey Decimal system, 811 was the number for the poetry books, so I’d gather all the 811s, Dylan Thomas, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lawrence Ferlinghetti… And I’d read them and try to emulate them. It’s like being a musician, before you find your voice, you take what you can from other people. That’s how it started.
I was and I am a nerd for life, overly self-effacing, but always curious. So the thing with poetry isn’t surprising. I also fell in love with ballet and opera. I also played football for two years, until I broke my leg. I could recite a sonnet and also kick ass. I kinda sort of tried to fit in but wasn’t into what other kids in the neighborhood were into.
I also played instruments starting in Fourth grade. My older brother played clarinet and I got his instrument as a hand-me-down, playing his beautiful B flat Selmer clarinet that I still have. In Sixth Grade the band teacher needed a tenor saxophonist and asked me if I could play. They looked cool, so I did that. In Seventh Grade I was in the school band and the teacher asked, “Can you double?” meaning could I play flute and saxophone, so I did that too. In Tenth Grade was when I started guitar. I taught myself and I had this arsenal of instruments. I think I was the combo platter.
Can you discuss how your profound connection to music informs your poetry or that interaction/communication between music and poetry that you might experience when composing?
I was talking to someone this morning in fact and he asked if I was writing through this “unprecedented time” and I said yeah because I started hearing melodies again. I think of poetry as melodic rhythm and poems have a lot of the same characteristics as music. I have music in mind when I’m composing poetry. Like I like to tell my students, “Pretend you’re a wine taster and just kind of swish what you’re saying around in your mouth. We should revel in that, the sound of what we’re saying.”
One of the nicest things someone said to me is, “You write poetry like a musician,” and I take that as being precise. I think with music and poetry you are serving or holding hands with that which you want to say. I think I’m conscious of the melodicism that goes back to hearing the ministers I heard as a kid, because when I was a kid my family lived in Church, and I’d play back the cadences and the way things were said, the idiosyncrasies of sound that the speaker had. Music and poetry are both about being concise and reveling in the sound. The sound and the originality. I think it’s important to be cognizant of the vehicles. Like someone might be described as a jazz musician. I write Villanelles at home.
I used to get kicked out of poetry readings sometimes. I’d hear something I hadn’t thought about before then I’d be moaning like a Deacon in Church. If you equate emotional response in reverence to silence then I’m the antithesis of that [hearty laugh]. The sound and originality and the courage to be yourself, like Ezra Pound said is important, like William Carlos Williams, or William Butler Yeats.
Can you share a bit about your process in writing, in terms of do you write on a schedule or write when inspiration strikes?
I’m not as disciplined as most of my peers. Many of them will say at 7:30 in the morning they sit to write for however long. But as Miles Davis once said, “If it ain’t there, it ain’t there.” I never force it. Sometimes at three in the morning I get up to get a glass of water and something just comes to me and I write it down. When I try to be more disciplined, it doesn’t work well. This was also true when at one point I carried a little composition notebook around with me in my knapsack thinking when something strikes me I’ll write it down and the Muse was maybe laughing saying what are you going to do with that? Write a grocery list on that or something.
I never get discouraged when there’s a period when nothing is happening. I’ve learned to trust that it will come. I had a teacher when I was in undergraduate school and I told her I hadn’t been writing and wasn’t sure if I’d ever write and she asked, “What did you do last night?” I answered her about the movie I’d seen and she responded, “Well, that’s writing.” And that’s the thing, living your life is first and what comes out of that, what we do as part of our daily existence, that’s something.
I’m working on a series now about my brother. He died in 2013 and I have a conscious desire to write about our relationship. I have four in the series so far, pieces set in New York City. They have elements of both past and present, like how time interacts in dreams. I try not to overthink where they’re going.
You’re generous with your work, often posting poems on Facebook. Many poets are reluctant to post original work on social media because they’ll then stand less of a chance of having them published in journals or anthologies. Could you speak a bit of your approach to publishing and thoughts on getting work “out there”?
Recently I thought about something my mother used to say, my mother died in 2006, but I remember her saying, “People don’t need to know everything about you. People don’t need to know all your business.” I’ve been posting a lot more music now. That’s a conscious effort. I worry about the extent to which people tell me stuff I respect, but I don’t get, like food porn. The funny side of social media is people think what I post is about me and critique everything in a piece. I take something from here, something from there but people assume that I am the speaker. But it’s so much fun to play with the particulars in the narrative. As I always tell students, “move the furniture around.” Revision to me is possibility. You write something one way on one day and think I don’t think so, then you do something else.
If I try and try and — it’s like being in New England in mud season, gunning the road, spinning and spinning. The tow truck driver says “just stop, just stop.” Time can be your tow truck driver.
So now I put more music on social media, just send an aria from an opera or Charles Mingus or something. The Kelly things are different. It’s kind of my way of just working things out, whatever he’s going through. Kelly is a more forthright person than I am in real life and he has kind of collected a following. People ask me, “How’s Kelly doing these days?’ But I just feel quieter now anyway.
About live readings: There seem to be a lot of different approaches, but generally some poets prefer to contextualize their poems, explaining the story before reading, while some just launch right into reading and explain very little. Could you share your thoughts on presenting poetry live?
I generally say a little bit about a piece depending on the piece itself. Unless really strapped for time, I tend to not launch right in, saying “Ode to Tater Tots” or whatever it is. As June Jordan says, “You don’t want to explain away the poem.” I like to have some brief introduction, letting people know we’re going to talk about this. Guess it’s just my way, maybe the teacher in me.
One of my first influences in structuring a performance was Frank Sinatra. I saw him near the end at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland. He made this 20,000 seat place feel like it was ten people. He didn’t say a lot, but he said enough. He’d say, “Here’s one by Roy Hargrove” or “Here’s so and so on bass hailing from Hoboken New Jersey,” then Boom.
So I might contextualize a bit, saying here’s a poem about my mother, then hope the poem does the work. I’m an introvert that loves people and I think my little intros are the result of wanting to commune with others. I miss that now — that kind of energy. I think the intros are for both of us, the audience and myself.
How has the pandemic influenced your writing?
Right now to me everything is heightened, even silence is heightened, so if I read a phrase or hear a phrase from someone it seems more intense now. I’m thankful for the simple things as it relates to writing and being alive and able to write. I find myself going back to books that I haven't seen for awhile and reading them with a new sense of enthusiasm. Thinking isn’t it great that this is in the world.
It’s not just writing. I go out to the Brookland Farmers’ Market and I’m waving at the kids and the kids are waving at me. It’s a moment of humanity. We’re like accordions, in the world and out. Now more out.
I’m more verbally emotional to people now. I tell them, “I really like this!” I would do that before but it’s more important now. It’s given me more gratitude and courage. Made me more courageous on the screen, or on the page. But I would put gratitude first.
Today’s the first day of Spring and it has me thinking about flora and temperature and wondering What is Reuben Jackson’s favorite season?
Fall is first because I’m kind of a wistful guy, but I also love Spring. But the irony is that the tree pollen is back in town, which is rough. But especially coming out of 2020 the rebirth thing is helping a lot. That too might be part of the amplified gratitude thing.
I always loved Fall but when I was in Vermont I dived headlong into it. I learned to really revel in all seasons because none of them last long. But brevity is part of the beauty to me. Fall is bittersweet and beautiful. Like a lot of people, I look at the leaves and feel grateful. To paraphrase Dave Chappelle paraphrasing Rick James, “Fall is one hell of a drug.”
What are a few of your favorite books?
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara.
Anything by William Carlos Williams including “Journey to Love” with the beautiful poem about the sparrow in it.
Anne Sexton’s “All My Pretty Ones.” She’s like Billy Holiday in that the tragedy is part of who she was. There’s a poem I remember, “By the first of August / the invisible beetles began / to snore and the grass was / as tough as hemp…”
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I read her in an anthology of African American writers and it was an entryway to feel better about something that I felt, to know that this tradition is wider than I realized.
“The collected poems of Dylan Thomas.” I call him The Right Reverend Dylan Thomas. When I take long drives, I find myself reciting his pieces. I was introduced to him when I was 18 and it stuck with me. “Especially when the October wind / With frosty fingers punishes my hair, / Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire / And cast a shadow crab upon the land...”
I have a broader love for the tradition than people might think if they look at stuff I’ve published. It’s probably a great blessing that after that first writing assignment I looked up Keats and Shelley and all of those other writers too. It’s all part of what feeds you.