Award-winning poet Major Jackson is the author of four collections, most recently “Roll Deep.” Jackson is a professor at the University of Vermont and poetry editor of the Harvard Review. He will be one of the writers at the Newburyport Literary Festival on April 26 and 27 at locations around town. Most events are free. Jackson reads at 2 p.m. Saturday with fellow Vermont poet Sydney Lea at Central Congregational Church.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
JACKSON: I try to keep up on contemporary poetry as much as possible, and the best way to do that is to read new volumes. One that I picked up a few days ago is Willie Perdomo’s “The Crazy Bunch.” His poems are saturated with the phrasing and diction of the ’80s and ’90s but that does not date the poems.
BOOKS: What other new volumes have you liked?
JACKSON: Deborah Landau’s “Soft Targets.” She has developed a style of writing poetry that reminds me of Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson, these long poems that feel dreamy because they are so lyrical. This is also her most political book.
BOOKS: Are there poets you return to often?
JACKSON: This will sound like a litany, but it’s true. I turn to Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Lowell, Derek Wolcott, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Levine as well as [more contemporary poets] Marie Howe and Sharon Olds.
BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?
JACKSON: A long time ago. My grand
parents, who were Southerners, believed in literacy as a form of social ascension. So our house was full of all kinds of books. They had Faulkner. They had “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer. That’s how I learned about the Holocaust at a young age. I also stumbled on the works of Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
BOOKS: Do you have a lot of books?
JACKSON: If you come to my house you’ll see I have a whole room devoted to books. When I got a Pew Fellowship a good deal of that money went to buying books. I even began collecting. I purchased about 120, including Gwendolyn Brook’s “The Bean Eaters,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poems: North and South,” and a first edition of John Ashbery’s “The Tennis Court Oath.” That was stolen out of my car along with other books [that the authors had autographed to him] when I was in graduate school in Eugene, Ore. in 1999. About four years ago I was signing books after a reading in Seattle, and the last guy in line was a collector. He put down these books on the table and asked me if they looked familiar: Jack Gilbert’s “Monolithos,” Martín Espada’s “Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands,” and the Ashbery. Sure enough those were my books that had been stolen, but I didn’t tell that him. I didn’t ask him how he got them. I decided to just let it be a good story.
BOOKS: Do you read fiction or other types of books?
JACKSON: When I can. Often it comes as a result of judging for a prize or reading a friend’s manuscript, as was the case with my buddy Gregory Pardlo’s memoir about his dad called “Air Traffic.” My friend and colleague Emily Bernard’s book “Black is the Body” is important. All her stories center around race.
BOOKS: How do you treat your books?
JACKSON: My wife and I normally buy two copies of books because she marks them up. I barely even dog-ear them probably because of the impact books had on me when I was younger, of cracking them open for the first time, the smell of them and the feel of them in my hands.
BOOKS: What is on your upcoming pile?
JACKSON: “Nightingale,” a new book by Paisley Rekdal. She’s a terrific poet. Also Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” which just came out. I have this theory that those who read poetry live longer. Poetry is the fountain of youth.
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