-Sun Ra & His Year 2000 Myth Science Arkestra
at Grendel's Lair Cabaret, 1986
My eyes dilate old
Effortlessly, I play
Manifesto of the One
Stringed Harp. Only
This time I'm washed
My black porcelain
Fingers, my sole
Possession. So I
A New Thing.
Ovid & Homer
Behind me, I toss
Apple peelings in
The air & half-hear
Brush strokes, the up
Kick of autumn
Leaves, the Arkestra
Laying down for
I could be at Berkeley
Teaching a course—
Fixin's: How to Dress
Myth or Generations:
Spaceships in Harlem.
Instead, vibes from Chi-
Town, must be Fletcher's
Big Band Music—oh,
My brother, the wind—
& know this life is
Only a circus. I'm
Brushed aside: a naif,
A charlatan, too avant
Garde. Satellite music for
A futuristic tent, says
One critic. Heartbreak
In outer space, says
Dust on the brain.
I head to NewYork.
A spectacle: wet pain
Of cement, sweet
Scent of gulls swirling
So tall, looks like war.
If what I'm told is true
Mars is dying, it's after
The end of the world.
So, here I am,
Here to save the cosmos,
Here to dance in a bed
Of living gravestones.
Off from a double at McDonald’s,
no autumnal pinata, no dying leaves
crumbling to bits of colored paper
on the sidewalks only yesterday,
just each breath bursting to explosive fog
in a dead-end alley near Fifth,
where on my knees with my fingers
laced behind my head and a square
barrel 9MM prodding my left temple,
I thought of me in the afterlife.
Only moments before Chris Wilder and I
jogged down Girard to warmth
and the promise of two girls who winked
past an army of food reps, across the ice-bin
and pitched lanes of burgers and square
chips of fish, at us reigning over grills and vats,
lost in a barrage of beepers and timers.
Moments before, we stood in a check
cashing line for our first pay, evidence
of hours spent flipping baskets under
a heat-lamp, during break, with
a motley bunch of mothers on relief,
college students on bad credit, hard-hatted,
day-workers coated in white dust,
the minimum-waged poor from the many
fast-food joints lining Broad,
all of us anxious to enact the power
of our riches – me in the afterlife.
What did it matter that Chris and I
were still in our polyester uniforms
caked with day-old batter, setting out
for an evening of passion marks?
Or that an archipelago of grease-stains
smeared the length of our chests?
Or that we wore GAZELLES, matching
sheepskins and the ushanka although
miles from Leningrad. Truth is I lacked
direction, so that when Chris said,
Let’s first cop some blow, I trailed.
A loose spread of dealers guarded
corners. Runners returned from boarded,
three-floor walk-ups, told us to come back
later, troubled by my schoolboy jitters
and lack of hip. Then a kid, large for the chrome
HUFFY he pedaled, said he had the white stuff,
and came to an alley fronted by an iron
gate on a gentrified street edging
Northern Liberties. So dark, I could
barely make out his shape up front
digging pocket deep. I turned to tell Chris
how the night air glowed dark as soil,
how jangling keys made my neck itch,
how maybe this wasn’t so good an idea,
just when the cold opening of gun-barrel
steel poked my head and Chris’s eyes
widened like two water spills before
he bound away into a future of headphones
and release parties. Me? the afterlife?
Had I ever welcomed back the old neighborhood?
You wonder if a yearning persistent
as the seedcorn maggot tunnels through me?
All I know is that a single dog barked his own
vapor and an emptiness echoed through blasted
shells of rowhomes rising above,
and I could not forget the bare,
fingered-branches lacing a series
of powerlines in silhouette to the moon’s
hushed excursion across the battered
fields of our lives that endless night
of ricocheting fear and shame. No one
survives, no one unclasps his few strands
of gold chains or hums AMAZING GRACE
or pours all his measly bills and coins
into the trembling, free hand of his brother
and survives. No one is forced face down
and waits forty minutes to rise and begin
again his march past the ice-crusted dirt,
without friendship or love, who barely knows
why the cry of the earth sets him in motion,
running even from the season’s string of lights
flashing its pathetic shot at cheer -- to arrive
here where the page is blank, an afterlife.
-from Leaving Saturn
BIO: Major Jackson is the author of two collections of poetry: Hoops (Norton: 2006) and Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia: 2002), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Hoops was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literature - Poetry. His third volume of poetry Holding Company is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. He is a recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and has been honored by the Pew Fellowship in the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation in conjunction with the Library of Congress. He served as a creative arts fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and as the Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence at University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Major Jackson is the Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor at University of Vermont and a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He serves as the Poetry Editor of the Harvard Review.
An Interview with Major Jackson by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Leaving Saturn” is a pretty wild poem. I will immediately confess my ignorance to jazz; I had to look up Sun Ra & His Year 2000 Myth Science Arkestra to gain any notion of the poem’s subject matter. But what continues to draw me to this poem is its leaping, completely unbridled imagination, beginning with a single word, Skyrocketed, quickly followed by the strange and illuminate “eyes dilate to copper pennies,” quickly followed by images of New York, Chicago, Birmingham, Philadelphia, and, somehow, the death of Mars.
“Leaving Saturn” is one of a sequence of poems from your first book of the same title. In this context, it’s quite clear that this poem is in the voice of a jazz musician— not necessarily personae, but not necessarily you, Major Jackson, either. With this subject matter in mind, why did you choose this more lyrical, leaping approach to writing this poem?
Major Jackson: Sun Ra was not a straight ahead, suburban kind of spirit. If one listens to his compositions, you understand how much he valued the precepts of the Free Jazz movement of the 1960s and thereafter; one could argue his experimentations into sound precede the critics’ label. As a means of homage to him and his sound, at times atonal and dissonant, I felt a poem about him demands a greater lyrical approach, one that is more associative, yet attempts to mark his journey into this planisphere.
AMK: How important was it to you that a poem like this “stand on its own,” even in the face of a reader’s possible ignorance?
MJ: Well, we are living in the so-called Information Age, and in a contemporary poem, one is likely to encounter a bit of erudition or fact, that I hope does not turn one immediately away from the poem’s challenges. But, I understand the question. The hope is that the poem is not too outlandish that one does not experience the poem’s pleasures, which I believe can be found in the language and in the poem’s associative leaps. A kind of non-linear logic is at play, which I also hope a sensitive reader will find as sensuous and evocative as the poem’s sonic dimensions. Consider it a linguistic-montage, one of those great inheritance from Modernism.
AMK: Tell us a little bit about how this poem came to be. Where did it start, how long did it take to write, when did it become part of a series of poems, etc, etc…
MJ: When I was younger, I became obsessed with Sun Ra. I collected his albums which were rare productions in themselves. From the album cover to the final product, all was independently produced. But more I was enthralled with Sun Ra’s understanding of the role of his music which was to save earth. This notion of saving mankind, as well as his pun on Noah’s Ark and Orchestra, (he was full of witticisms, that added up to serious equations for our discovery) is utterly familiar to those of us who grew up in the church, but more it resonated with a spiritual and communal purpose I had begun to understand and attribute to artists of all genres and disciplines, least of all, my own writings at that time.
So, after much research, into his life; after reading many of his own writings including his poems, as well as John Swzed’s wonderful biography, I sat down one evening to write a series of dramatic monologues in Sun Ra’s voice. I had the pleasure of seeing Sun Ra perform at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, which I now reflect on as a blessing. Even by then, he and his Arkestra were legendary. I started off with that noun-verb Skyrocketed and his eyes, which reminded me of my grandfather’s eyes. From there the poem just, so to speak, took off. The first poem came rather quickly, because it was a matter of following his trajectory of residences. He was born (or arrived depending on who you speak to) in Birmingham, Alabama and his last residence was in Philadelphia, a neighborhood called Germantown, where I spent my adolescent years, not too far from his home. But, subsequent poems were more difficult to complete and took longer. I had a difficult time sustaining and trying to exist in Sun Ra’s consciousness, which is no surprise. He was such a unique individual.
AMK: Is “Leaving Saturn” a purely personae poem? I ask this because if you were a jazz musician yourself, then this could be a sort of conglomeration of personae and self. Of course, what personae poem doesn’t operate this way…
MJ: Yes, it is a personae poem. Actually, now upon reflection, I remember some of the utterances were direct quote from Sun Ra. So, the poem is really a collaboration, but more of his voice.
AMK: How did you come up with all of these imaginative leaps, i.e.
I could be at Berkeley
Teaching a course—
Fixin's: How to Dress
Myth or Generations:
Spaceships in Harlem.
New York loves
A spectacle: wet pain
Of cement, sweet
Scent of gulls swirling
So tall, looks like war.
MJ: Sun Ra famously taught a course in California in which he sat at his piano and spoke from his throne. His life, music, concerts, and costumes all worked in tandem to create this mythic figure. Those last two stanzas above were written pre-Sept. 11th. I often think about them.
AMK: What’s with the asterisks every quatrain? Why these short, enjambed lines?
MJ: I love the energy of the short lines, which enact a vigorous vertical movement.
AMK: “Leaving Saturn” reads like it would be one hell of a performance piece. Do you enjoy reading this poem aloud or do you leave that side of the poem up to everyone else?
MJ: Yes, I must have read this poem nearly a hundred times, and is one of the poems, I can recite without referencing the book. Moreover, the poem invites, like the other monologues, various interpretations. I’ve read it with great emphasis on the line breaks but most often with a greater fluid rendering.
AMK: “Selling Out” is a much more narrative poem than “Leaving Saturn,” telling the story of a boy mugged for his hard-earned paycheck. Of course, what makes this poem particularly good is that it doesn’t just tell a good story but does so with wonderfully lyric (and painstakingly clear) language. Do you draw a distinction between lyric and narrative poems?
MJ: Yes. However, I am comfortable writing either. Lately, I’ve dwelled in the realm of the lyric, for I find it more encompassing and aggressively consuming of a reader’s emotional space. The lyric poems want to exist inside the reader; whereas, narrative poems seem to stand outside and are more for our entertainment.
AMK: How does this affect how you put this poem together? Was there a moment when you thought about writing it in a style more closely related to “Leaving Saturn?”
MJ: Never. Most of my narrative poems are born out of desire to enact a particular rhythm, to write long, lush modulated lines of description that build to a lyric moment of reflection. It almost becomes a formula in some of my poems. You definitely feel it in poems like “Selling Out” and “Blunts.”
AMK: I love how smoothly “Selling Out” expands and contracts, opening with the simple narrative statement, “Off from a double at McDonalds,” then expanding with almost breathtaking velocity to the “9mm prodding my left temple,” then contracting back to the “barrage of beepers and timers,” and, with little more than a dash, expanding outwardly again to the alley-way where the speaker and his friend are being mugged, “all of us anxious to enact the power / of our riches— me in the afterlife.”
This seems to me to be a matter of structure or, at least, of transitions that allows us to hear the speaker’s desperation, his “how could this be happening to me?” without the poem actually saying so directly. This is what has always drawn me to poetry: its ability to create multiple meanings/emotions/etc with language and language alone. I guess we call this showing versus telling. Is this something you thought about as you wrote “Selling Out?”
MJ: Yes, I am very conscious of the poems emotional hinges, as well as those concrete details that do not allow the poem to fully lift off into an excess of rumination. Again, it’s a device, one eventually learns, that enhances the poems structural delights. I practiced this in my poems only after observing it in some of the touchstone poems I loved by contemporary writers. I feel like I do not want to name them, right now. But, again, it is a technique quite observable in contemporary poetry.
AMK: What draws you to the poetic medium?
MJ: Sheer joy in making language sing beyond everyday use and the pleasure of composing a sentence as though it were a musical phrase. Sometimes, occasionally, I was sacrifice literal meaning if the utterance sounds right to me, because there, too, lies a kind of meaning, I strongly believe a reader feels and hears. That ambiguity to the sensitive reader is nothing to fear because something more palpable is felt, that approximates truth and beauty.
AMK: Is this poem an ars poetica of sorts, I’m thinking of that last line: “to arrive / here where the page is blank, an afterlife?”?
MJ: In the context of the book Hoops, indeed, which is why I put it upfront, as the opening poem, to indicate that all of these poems are a construction, a fiction, that stylizes the self, which is me, that dramatizes memory so that it elevates to the realm of art.
AMK: One aspect of this poem I really enjoy is how it allows artifacts of street life to so vividly enter into the narrative, items such as “GAZELLES,” “the chrome / HUFFY” the patrons of the McDonalds itself, and that one line of dialogue: “Let’s first cop some blow.”
I guess you don’t see a lot of this in Contemporary American poetry because few well-known poets share your background (or maybe I’m simply ignorant to it— please let me know who I should be reading if this is the case). Instead, Contemporary Poetry is inundated with ekphrasis and poems about traveling through Europe, all things I love but must admit I grow a little tired of.
I grew up in a rough, working class neighborhood in the South. I can’t claim to have ever been mugged or anything like that, but I most certainly recognize the cheap Kmart ten speed, the drug runners standing on street corners, and the implications of the Friday paycheck.
While I typically don’t ask people about their backgrounds in these interviews because I’m more interested in how a poem works than in a poet his/herself, I think it would be useful to know a little bit about where you come from and how this informs the poems you write. While this poem could be mostly fictional, it certainly doesn’t read that way.
MJ: Well, regrettably, this poem is not fictional; I can claim a great degree of made-up-ness in other poems, but not in “Selling Out.” I really did have a friend name Christian Wilder and we really did work at McDonalds, albeit for a short time. I think my mother made me quit soon after this event, and decided to give me an allowance. Because my parents were divorced, I grew up with my grandparents for the earlier part of my years, quite privileged in a neighborhood that was known for its blight and social challenges. My double-consciousness was more around class than race. In high school, I moved permanently with my parents to a neighborhood I had visited on weekends that was tree-lined, clean, and full of kids of the professional class. I feel very lucky to have received a glimpse into such a range of human existence.
AMK: Were you ever concerned about the social/political implication or reactions poems like these might engender/receive? I, personally, don’t see much that’s political about them…they’re true poems about life, love, death, poverty, poetry, art, etc…but I’m sure others would have the same reaction…
MJ: No, not really. I did not think twice about their social and political dimensions; especially after a conversation with my friend Jose Chaves while we were graduate students at University of Oregon. Jose and I are about the same age; he grew up in Bellingham, Washington, but our youth was informed by popular culture. After I complained about my poems, he said, “But Major, no one is writing this in contemporary poetry, at least not from this generational advantage.” Hearing such a perspective on my work freed me up from any anxieties or sense of social responsibility; instead, I allowed myself to write poems that I felt emerged naturally out of my imaginative life.
AMK: When’s your next book coming out?
MJ: The next book Holding Company will publish in August, 2010.
AMK: Thank you so much, Mr. Jackson.
Astral Project: A Review of Leaving Saturn by Susan Larson
It takes time to read poetry -- time spent savoring every word, perhaps reading each poem out loud, time spent listening to the voice that struggles to whisper in our ears, to get inside our heads and hearts. Sometimes the voice speaks in a gentle melody, other times it arrives with trumpets blaring. Xavier University professor Major Jackson's voice arrives with a dissonant, unforgettable blast of perspectives and forms. This is poetry to listen to, to reckon with.
In "Leaving Saturn," his first collection of poems and winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Prize, named for the workshop/retreat founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996, Jackson ranges through forms and settings, showing off poetic chops honed early and well.
In the first section of the book, a long poem called "Urban Renewal," Jackson roams the streets of his native Philadelphia, seeing both tragedy and beauty. Sections of the poem are dedicated to those artists who have inspired and influenced Jackson -- among them the Roots, Sonia Sanchez, Chinua Achebe, Afaa M. Weaver. This is a world of contrasts acutely observed:
Stare back down cobbled alleys that coil with clopping horses,
wrought-iron railings, to grand boulevards that make a fiction
of suffering; then stroll these crumbling blocks, housing projects,
man-high weeds snagging the barren pages of our vacant lights.
This is a place with "aching humans" and "prosperous gardens," and Jackson makes us feel the distance between.
The poems I enjoyed the most are those in the third section dealing with musical inspirations, particularly the title poem, inspired by the life and art of jazz artist Sun Ra, who claimed to be a messenger from Saturn, delivering the news through the medium of his Myth Science Arkestra, or his Astro-Infinity Arkestra, or the American Spirit Arkestra or the Solar Arkestra, specific performances of which inspire Jackson's poems. In "Shipwrecked in Birmingham," he says, Sun Ra played out his beliefs and his art on the world stage. In "Crossing Over,"' Jackson writes,
Not the point!
What but a family
Of Dynasties endowed
With the divine
Cadence to administer
The infinite swells
& ripples of Funk?
Channeling this unique vision, Jackson imagines a man always in motion, both of his time and ahead of it, full speed ahead and damn the
consequences. These poems hum with passion and energy.
What is impressive about this debut collection is its variety in both form and subject. But what is amazing is its compassion and tenderness. In "Rock the Body Body," Jackson writes,
. . . Half of what I knew
Of living I discovered in a disco;
The deft execution of bones,
Eyes, muscles, or something so basic
As keeping in step with your fellow man.
Jackson is in step, but he's also out there on the sidelines watching, with a keen eye for the tender moment, a rage at unfairness, a clever perception of vision where others might see only craziness. With such an auspicious beginning, what a future lies ahead of him.