Interviews & Profiles
Introduction of Major Jackson At Willamette University Hallie Ford Chair Reading Series
October 26, 2004
By Dr. Thabiti Lewis
Assistant Professor of English
Because Major’s work engages introspection and reflections, I will do the same in speaking about him. This past September Major Jackson and I hooked up at a major AA poetry gathering in Virginia. We had not seen each other in 13 years. Wow, it is scary to talk of not seeing someone for so long. Makes me think that I am getting old. But as I sat amidst the company of scholars like Jerry Ward, Jr. and Eleanor Traylor, Black Arts legends Askia Toure and Amiri Baraka, and the young stars Tony Medina and Major Jackson it hit me that this was heaven. As this collective of young and old poets and literary scholars gathered over appetizers and cocktails into the very early morning hour, the most stately of them all, Baraka leaned past Toure to whom I had been speaking and said, “Where do I know you from?”
Now Baraka is noticeably older, mellow, much more sage. If this had been 15 or 20 years earlier he might have asked me, “Little ni__er what you doing here?” or “Why you teaching AA literature in Oregon?” Time has chilled him, but not dulled his wit. After I explained that we had met during my tenure in Chicago as an editor at Third World Press, he said, “Okay, cool, I just asked because you look familiar, but I know him.” He pointed to Major who was casually carrying on a conversation at the other end of the table, “knew him when he was only a lieutenant.”
“That was nice,” thought to myself. Major, I believe had heard that one before; either from Baraka or elsewhere for he gave a slight knowing smile. It was a compliment from one of the very best in the business at crafting poetry, acknowledgment that he has indeed become a Major writer.
Like Baraka, I too knew him before he was Major, I knew him when we were both privates, first class. Introduced by my eldest sister who attended Temple with him, she gave me one of her many directives: “You have to meet my boy Major. He is a writer just like you—he writes poetry—you have a lot in common. (Major then had co-written and self published his first collection, “Back to Africa with a White Woman,”) Never one to doubt nor ignore an older sisters wisdom we visited a party Major was hosting at his house and she was right we clicked from literature to basketball. We hit if off and Major and his boys were popping and locking, creating as he states in the poem “Rock the Body” creating arms of fluid motion like butterflies, illusions with their bodies. As I watched I thought to myself, this kid is cool, if he can play ball like he says we can be boys.
Reading Major’s poem from this collection entitled “Hoops” transported me back to when he and I were playing a game of B-ball in North Philly, though neither of us soared above an “undulant pack…like a Sunday Skywalk” as his boy Radar manages to do in the poem. Both short, we relied more on guile and our pre-Allen Iverson cross-overs to garner easy lay-ups and sure 15 footers, which frustrated our opposition into internal arguments about weak defense that led to a slap in the face and the promise of another returning with an older brother and a gun for revenge. As I attempted to make the peace between these young brothers Major pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, reminding me that it was too late to settle the matter without risking involvement. We linger a little longer, then Major says,“Thabiti let’s go. That kid is coming back.” The absurdity, the surreal nature of such episodes, makes his poems “Born under Punches” and “Some Kind of Crazy” serious gems.
I recount this episode because I have a penchant for narrating stories and because his work made me ponder the depth of our unconventional paths, out of “dungeon[s]. Although we grew up in different cities, two wayward hoopers, fleeing to “Bethlehem” ; one writing literature, the other writing about it. A decade and a half later, our cross-over dribble drags, while our stamina is no longer an effective weapon. Our “pens panopticon” now play on the asphalt of paper and podiums—the irony.
I also revel in this episode because I realize how cool Major was back then--just as he is now. He is cooler than the brother in poet Haki Madubuti’s poem, “But He Was Cool.” In a more positive way, Major is so cool that he cools other brothers’ cool, now that, as Madhubuti said, is cool. And it is this gift of cool that guides Major’s balance of rhyme and the narrative space between similar sounds, allowing him to seamlessly make sonic and metaphysical associations that keep it real, or what some critics have described as “organic”. Major makes frigid use of rime royal in his poetry, riding jazz, hip hop and the rhythms of free and formal verse without missing a beat. This sort of balance or two-ness is to be expected of a brother versatile enough to study accounting then forge a career as a successful poet!
Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you the winner of the Cave Canem award, whose first book Leaving Saturn was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle. He is the winner of a Pew Fellowship, recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers Award (given to emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise), a most engaging poet who now after leaving Saturn, his future work promises to land anywhere in the universe. Major is a writer who ranks nowhere near private of any class, nor lieutenant for that matter. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Major Jackson.
More Interviews & Profiles
Interview: University of Oregon MFA Newsletter