Major Jackson // The Cagibi Express Interview + Poem

Photo by Erin Patrice O’Brien

Major Jackson is the author of four books of poetry, including Roll Deep (2015), Holding Company (2010), Hoops (2006) and Leaving Saturn (2002), which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems. He is the editor of Library of America’s Countee Cullen: Collected Poems. Major Jackson lives in South Burlington, Vermont, where he is the Richard Dennis Green and Gold University Distinguished Professor at the University of Vermont. He serves as the Poetry Editor of The Harvard Review.

Major Jackson is the poetry judge in the inaugural Macaron Prize.

Sections in this feature:

  • The Cagibi Express Interview
  • Enchanters of Addison County, a poem by Major Jackson, excerpted from Roll Deep
  • More About Major Jackson’s Roll Deep

Major Jackson // The Cagibi Express Interview

Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Major Jackson: What a wonderful quote, but isn’t both true? I find mental wandering fulfilling and traveling is the best kind of distraction, if by that term, we mean recreational diversion. I’ve had the great fortune to visit more than a handful of countries, which is always a voluptuous and sybaritic undertaking for me: I’ve an endless appetite for new culinary experiences, and architectures and landscapes are fascinating as a venturing into the past of a place. Furthermore, I’ve found myself incorporating much of what I’ve viscerally experienced into my work, not quite travelogue writing, but reflections triggered by substantive encounters. Recently, I traveled to Lushan Mountain in Xichang, China, and felt such a familiarity with the Yi people that despite boundaries of language, the general spirit and beauty brought out a new kind of joy.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Jackson: This morning, I was just considering how important reading, since a child, has been central to my growth and development as a human being who is both intellectually and politically engaged in the world, not only in making myself heard as a writer who wants to elbow himself into certain conversations, but as a critical undertaking; whether consuming a novel, a letter, a face, a city, or a room, reading has been a question of survival. My poems, essays, and other kinds of writings are simply the byproduct of that will to exist beyond the limitations of time, body, and language. Roland Barthes asks in an essay “What is there of Desire in reading?” For me, as a preadolescent, so perplexed and shaken by the strange feeling and sudden awareness of death, mortality, and subsequent questions of what does life add up to, I carried this ludicrous and fantastical belief that an answer awaited me just around the corner, a single explanation to the mystery which enthralled me. I’ve been in search of the answers since then.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Jackson: Well . . . . the room starts off super organized and as I deepen into a poem or essay it gradually begins to fill with multiple mugs of coffee, finger-stained wineglasses with the dried red dot in the bottom, multiple books winged open to pages I’d been reading or piled nearby, not to mention the plate of cheese crumbs and crackers or empty bowl of soup. I have not had a cigarette in two decades, but when I was younger, I’d have an ashtray full of butts spilling onto my desk. I know, how gross.
Stephen Spender has a fine essay on smoking and writing.

Cagibi: Can you write wherever you find yourself? Or do you have rituals that prepare you for a writing project or session?

Jackson: While I do not have any rituals like jogging five miles before writing or swimming a dozen laps, I frankly find I best write at home within reach of my collection of books, radios, vinyl, pictures of family members, and talismanic objects. I’ve created several environments that channel the energy I need to get the work of thinking and writing done. If I need to pace while speaking to myself, the layout of my house is conducive to walking through an idea, as is my backyard. Talking to oneself while circling the tables in a library or café can get one expelled and banned.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing? Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Jackson: I collect rare books and broadsides; so one can often find me in the antiquarian shop. Last year in London, I purchased an early Adrienne Rich broadside which I’ve yet to frame. On the Greek Island of Serifos, my wife (then my girlfriend) and I made it a pastime to find the dive-iest and hippest beachside tavernas in search of delicious ouzo and seafood.

Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Jackson: I am working on the edits to my next book of poems The Absurd Man, which will publish next year. I’m hugely excited, and of course, hope it strikes a chord in readers.

Enchanters of Addison County

We were more than gestural, close-listening,
the scent of manure writing its waft on the leaves
off Route 22A. By nightfall, our gaze flecked
like loon cries, but no one was up for turnips
nor other roots, not least of which the clergy.
Romanticism has its detractors, which is why
we lined the road with tea-lit luminaries
and fresh-cut lemons. We called it making magic,
then stormed the corners and porches
of general stores, kissing whenever cars idled
at four-way stop signs or sought Grade A maple syrup
in tin containers with painted scenes of horse-drawn
farmers plowing through snow. The silhouetted, rusted
farm equipment gave us the laid-back heaven
we so often wished, and fireflies bequeathed earth stars,
such blink and blank and bunk-a-bunk-bunk.
And of course we wondered if we existed,
and also too, the cows of the ancient pastures,
and the white milk inside our heads
like church spires and ice cream cones.
Even after all of that cha-cha-cha, we still came
out of swimming holes shivering our hearts out.

Excerpted from Roll Deep. Appears with permission. Copyright 2015 Major Jackson.

More About Major Jackson’s Roll Deep

Major Jackson’s latest book of poetry, Roll Deep, was published in 2015 by W. W. Norton. From the publisher:

9780393353624_300A whimsical and “devastatingly effective” (Washington Post) collection that captures the spirit of travel and pays homage to heritage.

In his fourth collection, a breakthrough volume, Major Jackson appropriates the vernacular notion of “rolling deep” to capture the spirit of aesthetic travel that defines these forceful new poems and brazenly announces his steady accretion of literary and artistic influences, both formal and experimental—his “crew.” The confident and radiant poems in Roll Deep address a range of topics, most prominently human intimacy and war. And like his best work to date, these poems create new experiences with language owed to Jackson’s willingness to once again seek a rhythmic sound that expresses the unique realities of the twenty-first century with humor and understanding. Whether set in Nairobi, Madrid, or Greece, the poems are sensuously evocative and unapologetically with-it, in their effort to build community across borders of language and style.

Appears In


Issue 5

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