Getting Deep With Poet Reuben Jackson

by Carla Occaso

MONTPELIER — The Bridge has been publishing the poetry of Reuben Jackson for about two years, now. Why? Let’s just say I “met” Jackson on the airwaves — he, the host of “Friday Night Jazz” on Vermont Public Radio and I, a humble listener. I became curious about who he is as a person. I always found his show so soothing and relaxing, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s his friendly tone of voice, or his deep love of music and its rich history.

One day during his show I sent Jackson a friend request on Facebook; to my surprise he accepted. Then, in the course of following his (sometimes educational, sometimes humorous and often nostalgic) Facebook posts, his occasional poem caught my attention.

Slow-witted as I am, it took me a few poems before I said to myself, “Hey, I could publish these and share them with others.” First I asked The Bridge’s publisher, Nat Frothingham, if he would allow it. He said yes. Then, I asked Jackson if I could scoop poems out of his Facebook feeds and publish them. He gave me permission. From then on, The Bridge ran a Reuben Jackson poem in most issues.

So, during this month in Montpelier when we embrace poetry with the great PoemCity celebration coordinated by Kellogg-Hubbard Library, we decided to do an interview to learn more about this shy, yet very public poet — Reuben Jackson.

I began by asking how he first got interested in poetry. Jackson traced it back to long car rides with his parents. They would have long discussions on these trips and young Jackson would pay close attention.

“I would take their words and say them over and over,” Jackson said. “I like the sound of words.”

Being a poet was never an overt aspiration, however, until one of his schoolteachers nudged him in that direction. Bridge readers can thank Miss Milbury of Western High School in Washington D.C. for saying one Friday long ago, “We need a poem for the next edition. I want you to write it.” Milbury was the teacher in charge of the school newspaper. Jackson says he had never expressed interest in poetry, so he spent the weekend trying to write the worst poem he could muster to get his desired result of rejection.

It was about a “young woman whose afro was flawless.” Jackson said he wrote about her hair and how beautiful it was. “It was like a halo.” Then, when he got to school, he turned it in thinking if he made it mawkish enough she would never ask him for another poem — but the opposite happened. “(Miss Milbury) said, ‘Oh this is great. You are our staff poet. We need one every month.”

Then Jackson began to like poetry, then immersed himself in it by reading the greats: Ginsberg; Yeats; Dylan Thomas; St. Vincent Millay.

“How she knew I’ll never know,” Jackson said. “That is really how it started.”

Then came time for college. “In our family it was not an ‘if,’ it was a ‘where,” he recalled. Another accidental moment of fate happened at a D.C. party — a moment that landed Jackson in Central Vermont.

“I went to use the facilities and there was a magazine with a blurb about Goddard College. It talked about their writing program,” Jackson said. Now that he had a desire to write, Jackson, then 16, thought Goddard might be the place for him. He laid it on his parents soon after.

“My father said, ‘There is no way in HELL you are doing this,” Jackson recalled. His mother, though — a teacher and language arts specialist — promised to work on her husband, who worried Jackson would be unable to support himself as a writer. Jackson’s mother eventually won out. One wintry day in February 1975, Jackson found himself riding the old Montrealer train from D.C. to Montpelier, then taking a cab to the campus of Goddard College.

Race was an underlying issue affecting his experience in Vermont. People were generally nice, but he felt out of place. D.C. was 70 percent black people; Central Vermont was (and remains) mostly white.

He felt anxious at times, like when he would enter the Coffee Corner at State and Main and people would stare. “Back then it was more pronounced in some respects,” Jackson said. He described the Goddard campus as a kind of sanctuary, even though there were not many black students. Another thing about Goddard? The writing program was not some laid-back hippie basket weaving class. It was tough.

Jackson described how his poetry teacher, Paul Nelson, brought better work out of him.

“We met on Tuesday morning. It didn’t go that well,” Jackson recalls of one early class. Then later after lunch, Jackson was leaving the cafeteria as Nelson was coming toward him. Jackson said he hung his head. Nelson said, “Reuben, if I was writing the shit you’re writing, I would put my head down, too.” This made Jackson want to do better to prove himself. He also took advantage of his time at Goddard to fall further in love with literature.

“It was the right place for me at that time.”

Jackson also studied education and did his student teaching internship at U-32 Junior-Senior High School in 1977–78 (when I was in eighth grade there). He then went back to D.C. and got a degree in Library Science. Meanwhile, he kept writing poetry. Jackson kept writing and soon fell in with a group of other poets in D.C. He got some poems published in journals and magazines, and started reading in public. Then, one day after a reading in Potomac, Maryland, a book publisher stopped Jackson and asked if he could publish a collection of Jackson’s poetry.

“Fingering the Keys” was released in the fall of 1991; it won the Columbia Book Award in May 1992. Joseph Brodsky, then The United States’ Poet Laureate, chose the winner and presented the award at a packed gala at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

“I wore a suit and tie,” Jackson recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my God this guy is internationally famous, and he picked this geeky kid.”

One of the most memorable parts of the experience from Jackson — aside from meeting a Nobel Prize winner and poet laureate — was seeing his parents, who were seated in the front row. They were both so happy. Jackson was especially glad that his father was able to see his son in a world he could not have imagined for him: up onstage, winning one of the nation’s highest poetry honors.

“My father was an electrical engineer,” Jackson said. He was a real “Mr. Fix-It Guy, with this kid who was thinking of iambic pentameter … not really what he envisioned, I am sure.”

After that, Jackson put poetry on the back burner in favor of focusing on work and other interests. Still, he never stopped writing altogether, which is why Central Vermont readers now get to read his work regularly in The Bridge.

Riffing on the W.H. Auden poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” I asked Jackson if it is true that poetry “makes nothing happen” in his opinion, to which he replied:

“I go back and forth about whether it has any ultimate effect. But I would say it can and does make things happen. For me it helps rethink the world and the way in which you or I do some things … those things in and of themselves are not things you take lightly. It is another thing I like about working with writers: they can see a new way of thinking about something. Even an apple on the table is part and parcel of being human and being alive. In that sense, it may not be something happening in the kind of TV tabloid world we are in now, but I would rather disagree that nothing happens.”

Join Poetry Workshop With Reuben Jackson At The Bridge

You, the reader, can participate in a poetry workshop Reuben Jackson will be leading at The Bridge on April 26 at 6 p.m. It is sponsored by PoemCity based in the Kellogg Hubbard Library. Please register ahead of time by emailing carla@montpelierbridge.com. All ages and abilities welcome.

(Roger’s Blues)

My wings cannot breathe.

When your passions are problems —

sail your boat elsewhere.

Reuben Jackson