Professor Profile: Major Jackson

University of Vermont assistant English professor, Major Jackson may not want to spend too much time thinking about his awards and recognitions, but when looking at his impressive list of accolades it is almost hard not to.

Jackson was most recently one of ten U.S. writers to receive the 2003 Whitting Writer’s Award which is given annually to “emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise.” Other recipients of this award in past years include Tony Cushner, Jonathon Franzen, and Michael Cunningham.

Jackson is more than humble when speaking about his Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellowship or the article The New Yorker ran on him as one of the young up and coming talents in the U.S.

“All this really means is that someone has recognized my work,” says Jackson when asked how he felt about being acknowledged by such a prestigious award. “It has value and it has meaning in all of our lives, but I can’t predict what my poetry would be used for or who is going to read it, because that would get in the way of my work.”

As a native of North Philadelphia, Jackson got his start as a fan of reading poetry and writing. He remembers back to his younger days when he would write in a journal that he still keeps to this day which served as an inspiration to becoming who he is today. His early years provided a firm platform for himself not as a poet, but instead someone who writes poetry. Jackson feels the need to write poetry for himself and not become overly concerned with gaining the title of being a Poet.

As a youth Jackson pulled from experiences with how his family, friends, and neighbors confronted reality. He even turned to the Algerian playwright and novelist, Albert Camus for the, “…existentialist moment that brought me back to existence and what is what it was to be human.”

Now Jackson writes based on his experiences with titles he doesn’t mind using: Father, Teacher, and Husband. He is currently working on a manuscript about his heroes who were artists and people who’ve had a vision and have expressed that vision through art.

Jackson’s current poetry reads loud and clear with vivid imagery and a personal voice that is strong and convincing. His poem “Euphoria” reads eerily like a troubling childhood experience where his mother leaves him in the car while she goes to smoke crack and Jackson is eventually offered the services of a prostitute while waiting.

Late winter, sky darkening after school,/ & groceries bought from Shop-Mart/ My mother/ leaves me parked on Diamond/ To guard her Benz, her keys half turned/ So I can listen to/ the Quiet Storm/ While she smokes a few white pebbles / At the house crumbling across the street.

Upon reading a startling image inducing stanza like this, one might cringe at the thought of such a thing happening to any person, yet Jackson admits to his poetry being 2% autobiographical. The sympathy that one builds for Jackson as the guardian of his junkie mother’s car while she goes in to get high is what makes him so good at what he does.

Jackson assures us that “Euphoria” is not altogether true but is about a story he heard of a father taking his two children to a bar and making them wait in the car for an hour or two while he got drunk, and what that potential situation might be like.

“Many people today look too far into poetry when there is an ‘I’ anywhere. They automatically assume that the author is speaking of themselves, when all it really is is just art.”

Jackson spent his time in the early 90’s writing a hip-hop column for the Philadelphia City Paper which was where he came across a small group called the Square Roots. Through numerous other interactions and experiences with the band who would later be known as the Roots, Jackson got the opportunity to write the liner notes for their debut album called, “Do You Want More” and formed a bond with the group. “One of my fondest memories,” Jackson recalls “was on my 25th birthday where Amir drummed a beat on a pot while Tarik and Kamal rhymed for me.”

Jackson, a Temple University graduate taught at Xavier University and now resides in Vermont. The students’ with their talent for poetry and art of self expression proves to be one of the largest motivators for him as a teacher.

“My hope is that students will walk away with a respect for the art, and when they don’t, then I need to teach harder.”