A Certain Type of Magic
A Q&A with Gary JacksonDerek Askey • February 18, 2020
Poet Gary Jackson teaches in the MFA program at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, and is the associate poetry editor at Crazyhorse. Originally from Topeka, Kansas, he is the author of the collection Missing You, Metropolis, which received the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
His poem in our February 2020 issue, “After the Reading,” details a fraught exchange after a poetry reading. Over e-mail he discussed listening to (and writing, and editing, and loving) poetry, and his affection for superhero comics — especially the bad guys.
— Derek Askey, Assistant Editor
What’s the most memorable reading you’ve ever attended?
I heard Nikky Finney read from her poetry collection Head Off & Split in Chicago in 2012. She was part of a lineup at the very end of the AWP Conference: an 8 PM time slot on a Saturday. Everyone was, of course, exhausted and trying to find one last get-together before flying out Sunday morning. There was loud music playing — during the reading — from a dance party in a nearby hall. In short, everything was working against this reading.
But when Finney took the stage, the music and everything else dissolved behind her. She didn’t say hello or offer any of the banter that we’ve come to expect between poems. She just took the mic, read her poems, and walked away. Everyone in that ballroom was leaning forward, hanging on every word. My God, it was incredible.
You’re an editor as well as a writer of poetry. What kinds of things do you find yourself appreciating most in a poem?
I dig poems that sing from the page; poems that don’t call too much attention to what’s going on behind the curtain; poems that leap from the first line and take me to a place that’s unexpected but fitting with the poem’s movement. (Now I’m thinking about that Robert Frost essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” which offers good advice for poets.) I’m also looking for a certain type of magic that’s difficult to articulate, but here goes: Poems that cut through the daily distractions and keep me in their world long after I’ve moved on to other writing. Poems that snap me out of myself.
If only I could write poems as good as the ones I seek out! Man, I’d be something.
You describe yourself as a lifelong lover of superhero comics. Why do you think these characters have captured your attention?
I’ve always been fascinated by comics that reckon with the moral ambiguities of people having extraordinary abilities while living in an imperfect world. I’m also a fan of the medium — how economical your language has to be, since you can fit only so many words into a single panel.
And I like the balance between realism and the absurd. Just the other day, for instance, I read an X-Men comic that featured Professor X, along with the villains Magneto and Apocalypse, all in three-piece suits, meeting with United Nations delegates to discuss a newly formed mutant nation. What a trip!
What superhero do you see yourself reflected in?
I can easily see myself in any of them on any given day. Sometimes — maybe more than I care to admit — I see myself in the villains. Magneto would be a good example, especially these days.
Are you at work on any new projects now — writing or otherwise?
I’ve been writing more poems similar to “After the Reading,” which reflect my time living in the South. (My wife and I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013.) But what’s taken up the bulk of my time are some newish superhero poems, which are all my own creations — and a few characters that are borrowed and remixed into different personas. I have no idea what will become of them, but I’m having fun with the writing.
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