Poet Reuben Jackson visiting Northshire Bookstore
Updated, March 10: Reuben Jackson’s appearance at the Northshire has been canceled, the bookstore announced Tuesday. A reason for the cancellation was not provided, and there’s no word on whether Jackson’s appearance will be rescheduled.
MANCHESTER — Poet Reuben Jackson's worlds overlap in interesting ways.
Jackson was scheduled to present his most recent volume of poetry, "Scattered Clouds," at 6 p.m. Friday at the Northshire Bookstore on Main Street, is a native of Washington, D.C., where he works as a jazz archivist at the city's public university. The event has since been canceled.
The two worlds intersect in places apart from the subjects and lines in Jackson's work. There's an apt comparison between the choices made by the poet in language, meter and voice, and the expression of the music from musician to musician, especially when the music is improvised.
For example, Jackson recalled a recent visit to Vermont when, driving to Rutland through a snow squall, he started reciting "Author's Prologue" by Dylan Thomas as he navigated Route 7. "It's like playing the saxophone, but with words," he said.
In Jackson's poetry, he's explored the narrative point of view a great deal. His love poems from the perspectives of a late-life romantic couple from Detroit, Amir Yasin, an elderly barber, and his beloved girlfriend, Khadijah Rollins, caused a sensation as readers tried to figure out if they were real people or alter egos created by Jackson. (They were real, indeed.)
Another Jackson character, a man named Kelly, is unburdened by filters on his expression; he is as likely to rhapsodize about a waltz or a past crush as he is to express his anger at a society where African-Americans are not safe from random racist violence. Kelly's take on the death of Trayvon Martin, for example, is a harder take than the acclaimed "For Trayvon Martin," which comes from Jackson's own perspective and is included in "Scattered Clouds."
"For Trayvon Martin," in memory of the South Florida teenager shot to death in 2012, captured the emotional responses to the young man's death — love, grief, anger, fear — and has been already been anthologized multiple times since it was written in 2015.
As Jackson explains, the poem comes from a wish that he could have been walking home with Martin, as he used to do with friends growing up, as an expression of friendship and concern. "One of the lines in the poem is 'ancient stoic tenderness,'" Jackson said. "It's a struggle men of all ages have been trying to articulate love and try to remain cool at the same time."
The poem, Jackson said, was his attempt to put that emotion into words, as well as the lurking sense of danger that is a reality for young African-American men.
"There's a bond you don't articulate — that concern and that care is there," he said. "What I wished for Trayvon Martin was that someone could have walked him home."
"The irony is, as a writer you want to be read, but this is a poem you wish you hadn't written. How many times in my life did I go to a convenience store and just make it home?" Jackson asked. "And it's in 16 anthologies, Which I'm thankful for, but it hurts. It's wrenching and gratifying at the same time."
In poems such as "on the road," Jackson turns to his own childhood experience, growing up in a segregated nation where a young boy's efforts to talk his dad into stopping at a frontier-themed hotel in 1950s South Carolina come to what seems a strange conclusion: "It worked, / So why did he return without / room keys?"
"Like a musician, if you're lucky to hear someone read a piece of yours, that's their interpretation, and it's
enlightening to hear how someone else phrases a line or a stanza," Jackson said, talking about the effort and energy that goes into live readings of his poetry. "That's where my love for jazz comes into presentation. We often take the beauty of language for granted. It doesn't mean you have to read poetry to embrace it, but it is something I emphasize."
Small-town Vermont, where Jackson went to college, taught and worked as a radio host at Vermont Public Radio, remains dear to Jackson. He attended Goddard College here in the 1970s, taught for two years at Burlington High School, and for five years was the host of a Friday night jazz show on VPR that became appointment listening for fans. (It also fulfilled a childhood dream for a man who, as a boy, pretended he was running a radio station with his family's record player and jazz albums.)
"People in Vermont say 'you're still one of us, you're a Vermont writer, you're a Vermont author," Jackson said. "There may have been a time when I kind of paused and said, 'well what does it mean, is it the stereotypical image where everything is pastoral?' Now I consider it a deep compliment."
The experience of being African-American in an overwhelmingly white state can be a difficult one. But Jackson said he has also experienced Vermont's statewide sense of community firsthand on book tour visits such as Friday's session in Manchester. Explaining what that's like can be difficult, especially to friends in a metropolis such as Washington, but it's real, he said.
"As someone who's been back [to Vermont] a few times since the book came out and getting to talk to people in various parts of the state, you realize it is a small town," Jackson said. "I'm flattered beyond belief that people have an interest [in my work]. Also because I'm older and the state is older demographically, you do a reading and everybody's hair is white like mine."
Greg Sukiennik is editor of Southern Vermont Landscapes.
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