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Poetic Ponderings Interview with Angela Jackson, Part 1 of 2

Updated: May 18


Angela Jackson

James Lowell Hall (JH): April is National Poetry Month. In celebration, I am honored to share a conversation with the Illinois Poet Laureate. Professor Angela Jackson is the fifth Illinois Poet Laureate, following Howard B. Austin (1936), Carl Sandburg (1962–67), Gwendolyn Brooks (1968–2000), and Kevin Stein (2003–2017).


JH: Hello, it's an honor to talk with you, Professor Jackson. First, could you describe growing up on the South Side of Chicago?


Angela Jackson (AJ): Well, what can I say? Most of the people were from Mississippi or Alabama. The block itself was self-contained like a small town. The quality was wonderful because everybody knew each other. On the corner was a drug store where my oldest brother worked as the soda fountain jerk. Next to the drug store a record shop. Music flowed out onto the street. Sam Cooke singing "A Change Is Gonna Come." On the corner across the street was a dairy, Wanzer's, its milk like sterling on silver. Then three bakeries, Tip-Top, Wonder, and Wholesome. The smell of fresh baked bread, diffused throughout the whole neighborhood. It had the most wonderful smell, it smelled like home.


JH: It sounds idyllic.


AJ: Yeah. Yeah.


JH: Maya Angelou reportedly would go to a hotel at 5:30 in the morning, with yellow pads, ballpoint pens, a Bible, a dictionary, and a bottle of Sherry to write. In what settings do you write?


AJ: I write almost anywhere. However, when I was teaching four classes (Monday through Thursday), I reserved Fridays to work on my novel.


JH: What inspires your writing?


AJ: Everything, but I gravitate towards family and love—not just romantic love but the things that we love, and the people that we love.


JH: Can you describe the process of creating a poem?


AJ: A poem is a living thing. It’s truth—is its own way of becoming. Some poems, from the first line, some begin in the middle. I feel it, when it feels complete.


JH: What is your earliest memory that you associate with writing poetry?


AJ: I remember the first poem I ever heard or read or saw on a page. I was in first grade.


Once there was an elephant,Who tried to use the telephant—No! No! I mean an elephone Who tried to use the telephone—


And I was in love from that moment forward. The first poem that I wrote was about my mother when I was eight. And I remember saying it for her,


My mother jumps for joy! 


And her eyes got big. I remember thinking now I know that the poem was accurate because when my mother was happy, she gave a little jump (for joy). I got that right as a young poet.


JH: Your poem, "The Memory Borrower," reads: 


I am the memory borrower, brothers and sisters. I will keep you safe and sacred. I am a keeper. I can take up where you left off. 


What role does mortality have in your poetry, in keeping memories alive?

 

AJ: I am very aware of mortality. More aware as I’ve gotten older. As long as a person’s name is spoken, they are alive. My father, my mother, my cousin. Willie Mae, my sister Debra, my sister Delores, my sister-in-law Leslie, all of them will be alive.


JH: Is that why you write, to keep family alive?


AJ: I think that much is true, writing about people to keep their names alive, to keep us alive, to keep Black people alive. And if you keep Black people alive, you keep America alive, and humanity.


JH: The poem featured My Father's Garden keeps your father and mother alive. It reminded me of some of your other poems, "My Father's Prayers," and "My Father's House Has Many Stories."


AJ: I was trying to capture that day, the wonderful feel of that day and the immortality of that day, how that day seemed to last forever. The strength of the people and the strength of the man and the strength of the woman, and how that was passed on. And it was passed on because people supported each other. They supported him. Even though he didn't acknowledge it, they did.


JH: In "My Father's Prayers," you expand on this, on your father and his faith, but what he had to endure.


AJ: Yeah. My father prayed every morning. He would pray at the side of his bed on his knees, put his face into his hands and pray. And he prayed so perfectly. And the thing that made it striking was my father was a very proud man, and to see him on his knees before his God saying his prayers was memorable, and I wondered what he said.


(To be continued.)


Angela Jackson is an award-winning poet, novelist, and playwright. Jackson’s collections of poetry include Voo Doo/Love MagicDark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the SpinnersAnd All These Roads Be Luminous: Poems Selected and New, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Open Book Award and a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Milt Kessler Poetry Prize. Jackson received a Pushcart Prize and an American Book Award for her chapbook Solo in the Boxcar Third Floor E.  She is the Poetry Foundation 2022 Ruth Lilly Lifetime Achievement awards for poetry.

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