By Brandon Blue, TWC Front Desk Associate
Brandon Blue: First of all congratulations on this collection. It is a mixture of your first collection, fingering the keys, two poems that have gotten some well-deserved attention: “For Trayvon Martin” and “Amir & Khadijah: A Suite,” and new poems. What inspired you to continue the sentiments and ideas from your first book in this new collection?
Reuben Jackson: I guess I am a prime example of the writer who continues to explore a theme (or themes) until he gets closer to that which keeps tapping me on the shoulder and whispering—“Go at it again.” My hope is that in doing so, I am not becoming a “repeater pencil,” as the saxophonist Lester Young used to say.
In this collection, there is a lot of attention given to conversations unsaid, imagined, or in private, and yet they are in direct relation with the loud and exciting genre of jazz. How do these two ideas connect for you?
I think there is a lot of inference in that which is called jazz (all music, really). Like all art forms, poetry can be loud and bombastic—but much of my work is influenced by jazz-based artists who were (also) great balladeers ( Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Frank Sinatra).
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you read your poetry and talking to you, and there’s a lot of humor and charisma woven into this collection, even in poems focusing on sadder topics. Is it conscious choice to flip these more dour narratives in this way?
The late comedian Bernie Mac once said that “Humor comes from pain.” I agree. I would also say that I am—for the most part—a bittersweet kind of guy. I suppose it is conscious. What I would say is that it’s just me.
There are many poems in this collection written after famous musicians and your obvious love for jazz. Where do you find the two overlap in your heart?
What I try and do with language is acquaint (or reacquaint) the reader with the musicality—as well as the multiple thematic possibilities—in the word. Yes, I have written what I might consider Odes to musicians like Duke Ellington, but these days, the driving influence is, to quote the title of an old movie, “The Sound of Music.”
It is hard to come away from this collection without mentioning the succinct observations of being the only black person in mostly white locales as you moved away from the Washington, DC area. As a native and a poet that loves to include the district once known as “Chocolate City,” what is your relationship with place and its effect on writing?
Sometimes the writer is the last to know how environment shapes the work. I lived in Vermont for 7 years. I’d say that time gave me the space to further reflect upon, and write more about—ta da!—Washington, DC. I also think being in Vermont helped me shed an annoying tendency to be too damn cryptic on the page. Frankly, I miss the physical space present in Vermont. But the cultural loneliness was doing me in.
Many of the poems in this collection are marked by years and, at times, specific dates and describe specific moments where you are made acutely aware of your blackness by a white gaze or your lack of blackness from a black gaze. The whole collection is concluded on the poem, “This African American Life,” and so I have to ask what is your experience of blackness in 2019?
It is the combo platter! I am more overtly nerdy, sentimental, and pissed off. I am also quieter and more outspoken. I am, thank God, becoming myself. I hid my passions for so long. I recently told a friend I am going through “Late Blooming Blackness.” I’ve always been from Mozart and M———-r.
Finally, as someone who has worn so many hats professionally, from NPR Commentator, jazz scholar, former Smithsonian curator, and radio host, do you have any tips for writers out there that are working three or four jobs?
I look back upon what a high school principal once dubbed “an odd skill set”—and I thank God for youth. Multi-tasking takes a lot of internal and external strength. Back in the day, I could leave work, go to a jazz club, listen to a couple of sets, write the review in the cab on the way home, call it in, stay up to say 2 in the morning, then return to my 9 to 5 the next day. I think it takes balance…. And an honest conversation with yourself. Like the TV commercial says, “Know when to say when.”