Interview with Marcus Jackson on Pardon My Heart — August 20, 2018

Marcus Jackson was born in Toledo, Ohio. He earned a B.A. from the University of Toledo and continued his poetry studies at NYU as a Cave Canem fellow. His poems have appeared in such publications as The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and Tin House. He lives with his wife and son in Columbus, where he teaches in the M.F.A. program at the Ohio State University.

Christopher Nelson: One of the things I enjoy about Pardon My Heart is its range of subjects. As the title suggests, though, it is a book about love. Can you talk about the progression of that subject, how it moves from immaturity to mature love—the porno to genuine affection? 

Marcus Jackson: I guess I set out to write the collection with the idea that love possesses so many different volumes, textures, histories, habits, and mythologies. During the early stages of the composition process, I figured I should probably center the poems around subjects/speakers/scenarios that represent varying sectors within (and on the fringes of) emotional investment and sensory impulse.

Nelson: And your formal treatment of that subject—many of these poems are sonnets and all are brief lyrics, compressed and imagistically charged.

Jackson: Since I hadn’t written much in form during earlier projects, I made it a point to explore a few traditional European forms/meters, simply to add new structural/architecture/metric approaches. I so revere the free verse poetic line and sequence as a reader and as a writer, and that reverence, since as far back as my undergrad days, likely kept me from fully enjoying and practicing in the European forms, and my minimal participation in those forms was aided by my inherent distrust of (and my paranoia about) artistic colonization and its hindering of certain natural/native voices. I began this book trying to only write the first few drafts as Shakespearean sonnets or in blank verse. That exercise was productive because, even though during revision I ended up breaking meter in lieu of freeing up my natural voice in many lines, the sonnet and blank verse require an obsessive commitment to sound, to potency of description, and to really filling the frame of the line and of the whole poem, all of which are sometimes difficult to do while writing first drafts in free verse, and when writing about large subjects/emotions.

Nelson: You’ve reminded me of the formalist poet’s maxim, that by working within constraints we are liberated to say things we might not have been able to say otherwise. And I think also of the sonnet’s long association with the subject love; Shakespeare holed-up during the plague, his theatre closed, writing love sonnets, for example.

Jackson: Indeed. The more poems I write, the more I’m conscious of building in some type of formal or syntactic parameters during the first draft because inviting some system of restraint to the subject, occasion, or original mood of a draft can really generate interesting energies and can force your poetic voice into fresh movements/reactions/states of being. Additionally, as George Luis Borges pointed out beautifully in a lecture, free verse can sometimes baffle the poet during the early drafting process—the choices while writing a free verse poem are endless. Many times, for me, the most frightening stage of writing is staring at that blank page or screen before the first words have been chosen. Hence, committing to some type of formal, rhetorical, or linguistic structure/constraint provides at least an agreed upon starting point for a poem, even if that poem is destined to ultimately break out of those constraints during editing/rewriting.   

Nelson: You preface this collection with an epigraph by Gwendolyn Brooks: "Your pulse must not say / What must not be said." Then as if asking our forgiveness, our pardon, you go on to say it. How do you see Brooks' idea in relation to these poems? 

Jackson: Brooks is one of my very favorite poets—her work is so important on countless levels to countless poets. The preface quote is from her poem “To Be in Love.” When I had just begun writing the book, I was quite unsure how to approach love as a theme for a collection, and in many of my most unsure moments on this earth I turn to the poets and to the poems for which I most deeply care. The quoted Brooks poem in particular possesses a wonderful blend of vivid imagery/detail, ancient/mythic transformation, and tonal fluency, all qualities any poet would be thrilled to achieve. Further, although I was using that Brooks poem and quote as touchstones, I ended up writing some poems for the book and arranging the book so that an instant sense of contrast or counter voice could open up a cross-generational/multi-era conversation with Brooks and beyond.

Nelson: Another figure you bring into the conversation is Lucille Clifton; her famous “Homage to My Hips” is revisited in your “Homage to My Wife’s Hips,” which has her characteristic brevity and directness.

Jackson: Lucille Clifton’s poems are so stunning, and her presence in 20th Century and 21st Century poetry is immeasurable. In my favorite of Clifton’s poems, she has, in some ways, upped the ante of some of my favorite sonnet virtues—the volta/sharp turn, the urgency, and the sense of sculpture. I wrote my poem in conversation with hers attempting to add an additional witness’ account of how the miraculousness, the breadth of scale, and the mysticism of a loved black body can sing in the world.

Nelson: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Alternate Take on Autumn Beginning,” which is in response to the famous James Wright poem “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry Ohio.” His “starved pullets” are present in your “childless / teachers, looking in the mirror before pulling / themselves from their cars” and in the “mothers’ drab jackets, pierced at the breast / by badges with our pictures.” Can you unpack some of the images, commentary, and parallels here?

Jackson: You caught most of the echoes; cheers! I think I memorized the James Wright poem as an undergrad, around the year 2000, when I first started reading contemporary poetry. With Wright’s poem, I’ve got the additional connection of being from the state where the poem is set, so I’ve always carried a regional empathy/relationship with the images and the music of it. I believe I wrote my poem in dialogue with Wright’s because my Ohio upbringing was in certain ways pretty different than that of the mid-20th Century Ohio folks in much of Wright’s poem—I grew up as a person of color and among people of color in a larger Ohio city than Wright’s characters, the bulk of my childhood happening during the Crack Epidemic—and I wanted to infuse some of my personal/local experiences with the image systems of Wright. I was always struck and conflicted by Wright’s description, “gray faces of negroes,” so I used that as a starting point for my poem, in essence trying to write from the first-person perspective of a black person on a high school football team in the midst of the societal forces that were intersecting with urban life in the late 20th Century. The goal, in a way, was to do a cover song or an alternate take, mostly maintaining the structure/architecture of the song, but to let the voice and textures of the notes be different. While writing in the traditions of Clifton and Wright, I was thinking of how Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan interacted with their separate recordings of “All Along the Watchtower,” and I was thinking of how Fugees recorded their version of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” 

Nelson: As you suggested above, some of the poems grow from a context of violence, drug use, and the resulting suffering; we read about a crack cook, grieving a lost brother, and the men who must secure their place in the world through violence. There’s a powerful moment in “Harshman Painting” where the men return home after a day’s work and reach out to touch their loved ones who first flinch before being embraced. Do you see these poems as critiques of a certain kind of masculinity?

Jackson: I was trying to craft portraits of masculinities, some of them destructive/violent, but I don’t think the act of “critiquing” was ever a part of the drafting process for me, as I usually want the reader to be able to receive the elements of the portraits in their own ways—in ways that, ideally, don’t have too much of my own interpretations governing them. The great thing about portraiture, whether in poetry, painting, photography, cinema, is that simply documenting the textures and forces of your subjects and characters in a sensory-driven fashion can provide audience members/readers with plenty of space to critique or reflect however their instincts dictate. 

Nelson: Occasionally the poems contrast white and black experiences, an image now and then, a couple of lines. I think of the deep bass from the car speakers that shakes everything it comes near, including “the comely blades / of yards whose owners might / write our plate numbers,” and I think of the potent paired images of the ice skaters and the roller skaters: “In the suburbs, our counterparts bladed / on ice, their cheeks opening into rosiness,” while “we shimmied on small, oiled wheels, / until sweat glazed our faces.” There are exceptions to the understatement, like “Edenless Us,” in which the speaker in romance reflects on how “150 years prior, the two of us / would’ve been born slaves,” and they end up arrested for gyrating in a park. Can you talk about writing about race—how sometimes you approach it directly, sometimes obliquely?

Jackson: Identity is such a complex, multi-voiced collection of forces. Sometimes the collection of those forces coalesce into choruses sung softly, and sometimes they bear a more urgent volume. There are virtues and weaknesses to singing softly and to singly loudly, so I chose to make the book a space in which poems with different volumes of addressing/referencing racial identity could call and respond continually to one another. 

Nelson: For me, one of the most powerful poems in the book is “Dark-Eyed Heir,” in which a black couple watches a matinée movie of Macbeth, with its “foggy heaths / and bleak castle expanses that look like // no black folks have ever or will ever / pass through.” They “watch cautiously … somehow feeling / all the cinematic and cultural whiteness might / advance from the screen across the dark // ceiling and walls and swallow us.” They watch the matinée while their “significantly negro son” is at day care. I love how this poem uses intimate moments—the son asleep on a cot, the couple in an empty theatre—as a window onto cultural realities.

Jackson: With this piece, my original nudge into the first draft was to somehow make a poem that featured a Shakespearean character and a 20th Century Black musical icon. I ultimately chose Macbeth and Donny Hathaway because they are linked, in addition to my multi-decade interest in both, by a quote in the 3rd act of the play/movie: “O, full of scorpions is my mind.” This always struck me, in addition to being an engulfing line/image, as being quite a description for schizophrenia, with which Donny Hathaway was diagnosed at the peak of his career. I became enamored with the fact that, although they may have had similar mental symptoms and/or chronic conditions, Macbeth the character and Donny Hathaway the man produced very different things and very different actions while alive. The quote became, for me and for the poem, a link between two figures who were separated by centuries and seemingly contrasting identities, and those figures, when contemplated together, seem to represent a recurrent Western dilemma—when caught in private or public strife, will you make violence or will you make songs?