By Joselyn Busato & Clara McCormick
Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, Gary Jackson is the author of the poetry collections origin story (University of New Mexico Press, 2021) and Missing You, Metropolis (Graywolf Press, 2010), which received the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He’s also the co-editor of The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry (Blair Publishing, 2021). He’s an associate professor at the College of Charleston where he’s currently the director of undergraduate creative writing and teaches in the MFA program. He is the poetry editor of swamp pink. [Photo credit: Sebastian Stuertz]
West Branch: What made you decide to write through the lens of superheroes and how have you used that platform to explore nuances of race?
Gary Jackson: I’ve read comic books since I was nine years old, and even as a child I understood that characters like The Uncanny X-men were intended to function as an allegory for race, even if I didn’t see myself directly represented by those characters (Ororo Munroe aka Storm is a notable exception since she was the single Black person on the team for the longest time, and maybe one day I’ll write about my first experience reading her in the pages of The Uncanny X-men). As a minority group and underrepresented community, mutants were a way that writers could address race-related issues despite not having many Black characters in their pages (we could blame this on editorial mandates and marketing that dictates what comic writers can/cannot do with these characters or what new characters they can create. Fun fact #130: The mutant Dazzler was originally designed to be a Black woman, until one of the higher-ups at Marvel demanded she be white instead).
But the comics that impacted me the most were those that attempted to abandon the metaphor in favor of the literal. One example is in the opening of X-men: God Loves, Man Kills. In the opening pages, two young Black children are being hunted by a group of white adults. The children are, of course, mutants, and the adults are, of course, human, and they murder the two children in cold blood and hang them on the playground for, presumably, all the other children and teachers to see the next morning. Despite the motive for the hate crime (humans killing mutants), do we have to spell out the optics of the racial violence portrayed in this scene? Magneto (the X-Men villain) finds the two children first and vows revenge and the story moves on from there. In one panel, after the humans have killed her brother, the young Black girl looks at them and asks “Why?” And the white woman responds by shooting her and saying “Because you have no right to live.” That was published in 1982 in a popular mainstream comic. I was probably 10 when I first read it years later. I still cannot articulate how transformational that comic was for me. Still is.
So many of the poems I write that feature superheroes and comic books characters are part love-letters to those old-school comics, part critique (my own superheroes are more than just Black-coded mutants that could pass as white, they are Black, Korean, and seldom white). And a way for me to honor a genre that is traditionally as “low-brow” art (comics) by presenting it in traditionally “high-brow” art (poetry). And though I love the big superhero conflicts and world-sized stakes as much as the next person, I’m also a fan of the quiet moments between, and have always been interesting in humanizes these characters—whether I’m writing in the voice of an original superhero I created like The Invincible Woman, or playing with an established superhero like Beast Boy or Black Panther.
WB: How does the form in each poem correlate with your interpretation of the subject matter? For example in your poems in West Branch, “The Never-Ending Man” is written in lineated couplets and “The Invincible Woman Goes to a Party” is written as a prose poem.
GJ: That’s a great question. For these new(ish) poems that deal almost exclusively with superhumans, I landed on three primary personas, with The Invincible Woman being one of them, and when her first poems spoke to me, they arrived as prose poems in second person POV.
The prose poem as a form invites both the reader and myself to relax a little within its borders because we believe we’re entering prose, we believe we’re entering story, so we let our guard down a little, not realizing that we’re still (in my world) setting foot into a poem that’s still hopefully doing all the poem-y things that poems do, just without the use of line doing the heavy lifting. The ideal version/reception to these poems are that they function as poems and can stand on their own (published in a journal like West Branch, for example!) but also—when read together—they tell a complete narrative arc, like a novel in verse. I don’t know if they’ll ever truly arrive at that ideal stage, but that’s what I’m writing towards. In theory, if you read all The Invincible Woman poems, you’ll follow her life through several years. The other poem that West Branch published—“small lives”—is also in her voice and takes place years after “The Invincible Woman Goes to a Party.” But not knowing that doesn’t impede your understanding of the individual poems. At least, that’s the hope.
Those two poems also demonstrate another benefit: the form and POV become an easy mark to identify The Invincible Woman poems without needing to directly name her every time she shows up. And when (if!) the collection gets picked up, I’ll probably retitle several poems so the table of contents doesn’t just list 40 poems all starting with “The Invincible Woman…”
But because I’m a glutton for world-building and voice and persona, I can’t just write in the voice of the same character for an entire collection, and I, too, need diversions and distractions, so I end up writing these more traditionally lineated poems that also feature superhumans and other characters that populate the same speculative world, so “The Never-Ending Man” is one of those poems. His voice and his beliefs demanded sparser lines. Maybe to help convey a sense of diminishment, dark humor, trauma, and joy; and lines have always been a wonderful way to approximate simultaneous meanings, and I like the pressure of the line, and I don’t think I could write an entire book without utilizing lines, caesuras, white space.
But this isn’t to say The Never-Ending Man couldn’t show up in another poem. Who knows? Maybe he could make an appearance in a prose poem, though I think he’d find it uncomfortable.
If anything, writing a book that’s mostly prose (poems) is a departure for me, which is something I’m always encouraging myself to do—make the next book different from the last, even when we all know I’m essentially writing the same 5-6 poems over and over while doing my best to make it new again.
WB: Origin Story seems like it is a more personal, more vulnerable book than Missing You, Metropolis. Were any poems particularly elusive or challenging due to the nature of the subject matter?
GJ: I don’t know if any poems were particularly difficult to write, but the “Interview” poems did come near the very end, even though I had those poems in their raw form earlier than any other poems in the collection. Initially those poems were literal interviews—a series of recordings I made with my mother’s permission, and the idea was that I could revisit those interviews and develop some of our family stories and myths into poems. Years later, another poet and friend of mine suggested I turn the interviews themselves into poems, and that was when the collection finally clicked into place. But that process—of transcribing those hours of recordings and steadily distilling them down to the erasure poems you read in the book—took a good year or two. And it was so exhausting, except for one or two final poems, I had to call it finished.
I’m not entirely sure that origin story is more personal or vulnerable than Missing You, Metropolis. Though the latest book does deal more explicitly with my family history and relationships, it also has some considerable distance from myself—not only am I an older person writing and interpreting memories that occurred before I was born, but the various personas and voices in the book don’t revolve around myself (a relief). Missing You, Metropolis is a rawer book in that sense—the poems confront a more immediate grief and feature me as a more central speaker/guide through the collection, though both books overlap somewhat in the ghosts that both collections elegize.
WB: Did you draw inspiration or borrow specific techniques from any external poets or works?
GJ: Oh, that’s a big question! I’d like to think all of the writers I read, all of the art I encounter, influence my work. More general influences come from writers like Clifton and Komunyakaa—how they approach writing about/to/from family and grief. Especially Clifton and how her poems have such a steady, rhythmic voice that sounds like her, you know what I mean?
Ai’s poetry taught me almost everything I know about persona and how to inhabit people both real and fictional, private and public. I also admire any poet that incorporates speculative elements without having to dedicate too much real estate to world-building—I’m thinking of Yona Harvey’s You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, A. Van Jordan’s Quantum Lyrics. And I appreciated Robin Coste Lewis’ introduction to the central lyric poem in Voyage of the Sable Venus and how it lays out her process in constructing that particular poem—I wanted to do something similar in my latest book, origin story to help guide a reader towards my erasure poems.
WB: What advice do you have for emerging poets?
GJ: You’ve got to find your people: fellow writers, artists, friends you jive with, and do your best to nurture those communities—whether it’s via workshops or reading groups or exchanging work, or keeping in touch via text and monthly phone calls, or kicking it once a year when you see them at a conference. We need each other—to enrich each other’s lives and support and encourage one another’s work. In fact, the best advice comes from those in your immediate circle.
Write the poems that only you can write. Don’t try to write like someone else or write towards some ideal market or what you think is hot. We’ve all got stories and music inside of us that only we can express.
And there was another piece of advice I once said off-handedly on a panel that seemed to resonate with the audience, so I’ll say it again here: don’t be an ass. That’s it!
Gary Jackson’s poems ” The Never-Ending Man,” “The Invincible Woman goes to a party,” and “small lives” appeared in West Branch 100, Fall 2022 (Print Issue).