Gary Jackson's Origin Story

Gary Jackson

A Special Feature for Inscape's 50th Anniversary

Gary Jackson’s appearance in these pages is a homecoming of sorts. A 2004 Washburn graduate, Jackson published his first poems in Inscape and served as the magazine’s editor. He then went on to bigger things, earning an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of New Mexico in 2008. The following year, his debut poetry collection, Missing You, Metropolis, was chosen by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and published by Gray wolf Press. Jackson now lives in South Carolina with his wife, the poet Lisa Hase-Jackson, a fellow Washburn graduate. He is associate professor of English and director of undergraduate creative writing at the College of Charleston. In 2021, he co-edited The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry (Blair Books) and published his second book of poems, origin story (University of New Mexico Press). Inscape is honored to reprint four poems from that collection in this issue, along with four new poems and an interview conducted by Editor-In-Chief Jossie Hicks.

Gary Jackson in Conversation with Jossie Hicks

Jossie Hicks: How old were you when you knew that poetry was what you wanted to write? How did your family react when you told them you wanted to be a poet?

Gary Jackson: My first (maybe second?) semester at Washburn in the Intro to Creative Writing class hooked me. It was team-taught by Tom Averill and Amy Fleury and I originally gravitated towards prose but my stories became shorter and shorter and shorter—due to the fact that I did most of my creative writing assignments during my 2 a.m. lunch break when I worked the graveyard shift at Jostens—and I became a poetry convert by the end of the semester. Though I do still love (and occasionally write) fiction.

I’m not entirely sure how my family felt. Back then, it was just me and my mom and she was all too happy to support anything I was good at academically. She believed it would at least keep me out of trouble and earn me a way out of Kansas (she had already left the state by the time I graduated). It’s strange to most people, but most of my family was excited for me since they hoped (!) that I would one day write about them.

JH: In Missing You, Metropolis, you looked unflinchingly at some profound personal traumas—the deaths of a sister and of a best friend. In origin story, you not only return to these subjects but acknowledge that you’re doing so: “Yet here we are—you still dead, and I’m a fool to think the last poem was the last one I’d write about you.” Is poetry part of your grieving process? And if so, did this second book feel like a different stage of grief, or like the same one again?

GJ: Oh, it’s certainly part of how I mourn. But I also write for other reasons—to entertain, approximate beauty, reconcile seemingly unreconcilable things, make sense of the world, create art—that’s all there too. And since poetry is such a public and performative act, it used to feel strange grieving so openly in public (let’s pretend the audience for poetry is far and wide)—and maybe that’s the difference between the first and second book. In Missing You, Metropolis those wounds are still a little raw, urgent. A decade later, origin story allowed me to take a step back and reexamine those losses from a different angle (my mother’s lens, for example) and I was free to no longer be the center.

JH: An “origin story” is, among other things, an explanation of how a superhero or villain got their special powers, their motives, their identities. Do you think of the stories you tell and retell in your poems as your own origin stories?

GJ: Yes, motive and identity are definitely key. And while there are certainly a few bits of my origin story sprinkled throughout—my mother recounting my literal birth as one example—I’d like to think the origin stories in the book are larger and more numerous than just my own.

JH: In your poem “Shazam,” which is the word Captain Marvel uses to summon his powers, the speaker says, “I can be weapon, be sand, / can be camera...” Is poetry your “Shazam”—a way of using magic words to transform yourself, or your experiences, into something different?

GJ: So the italicized words are a line I borrowed from Nikky Finney’s poem “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica” to which my poem owes a tremendous debt, and responds (in a way). It’s a wonderful poem from a staggeringly monumental book, Head Off & Split. And transformation is certainly a large part of that poem—how a place can change/shape you like any meaningful relationship.

JH: Do you think superhero themes and Star Trek will continue to appear in your poetry? (Also, why Star Trek VI?)

GJ: I’ll never be able to quit superheroes. I’ve tried. But Star Trek isn’t really my geek kingdom; it’s my mother’s. So I was happy to be able to live in that world for a while for her, but I really don’t know Star Trek all that well. And the subtitle to Star Trek VI is buried in that particular poem, which I didn’t realize until after I wrote it, so then I titled the poem after that film on a whim and it seemed to work and echoed the earlier poem in the collection referencing Edith Keeler.

JH: origin story includes a number of fascinating erasure poems that you adapted from recorded interviews with your mother. In an explanatory note, you write that the grammar and syntax of your and your mother’s speech “could not be corrected” in the creation of the poems. Could you elaborate on that, and on the stylistic choice of presenting the poems this way?

GJ: I’m very aware that despite my attempts at persona, the end result is always filtered through my voice, my lens. So those erasure poems were a great way to circumvent that filter and allow my mother to speak more directly to you, reader.
Even though I control what’s erased versus what’s on the page, I didn’t want to “correct” her language. I want people to hear her speak as I hear her. I wanted to show the musicality of her voice the best way I could. And I wanted her to see herself on that page in a way she maybe can’t/won’t see in other poems that feature her in more traditionally lineated forms.

JH: Do you have advice for artists struggling with how to deal with difficult subjects like family conflict?

GJ: I wish I did. My own process is so anecdotal, I’m not sure how helpful it is to hear. But I’ll say that my mother and nearly all the people in my family have always encouraged me to write about them as truthfully as I could. I’m fortunate in that way. I recognize how rare that probably is. There’s also a level of risk there that I’m willing to make: if they didn’t like what they read (and they have read), it wouldn’t stop me. With that said, there is a line I’m constantly negotiating with myself: how much can I say, reveal, before it begins to seem too exploitative or too sentimental. I’m not here to bleed for an audience simply for their entertainment. If I begin to feel that’s what’s happening, it’s a sign I need to reconsider what I’m doing with a particular piece.

JH: What is your favorite piece from origin story, or the one you’re most satisfied with? Why?

GJ: Oh, I could never say. It’s too unfair on the poems. I can say that sometimes a crowd will request a poem that I haven’t read in a long time and when I read it, I think well damn, why don’t I read that poem more often? I can say that I really enjoyed putting together the Interview poems, since it allowed me to feel closer to my mother in a way I hadn’t felt close to her before. And I can tell you some of the poems that people seem to enjoy a lot or want to talk to me about after a reading are: “Holoprosencephaly,” “Kansas,” “Elegy that was already been done before,” and “Run.”

JH: In 2015, you told a writer for Lithub that you “really hate” Topeka and that you “felt like the Highlander” as one of the few African-American students in Washburn’s English department. And yet you return to Kansas frequently in your poems and, I gather, in person. Do poems like “Halfway Home for Brown Boys” give you a way of making peace with your hometown, of reconciling conflicted feelings about it? Do you have any advice for current or future Washburn students who have to be the Highlander?

GJ: Ha! You know, I’m a little disappointed that the line I “really hate” Topeka was one of the few quotes that was used in that interview. Disappointment in myself because we talked for about an hour and I clearly didn’t give the interviewer enough good material to use besides that quote (and a few others). The full context in our conversation was also about how Topeka is home, and though I hate it at times, that has much more to do with memories I have of living there than the actual landscape. It’s also home. I love it. And I hate it. How could I not?

My best advice for Washburn students who feel isolated, othered, would probably be what they already know: find your people wherever you can. My people were a wonderful mix of all kinds of characters, attitudes, and identities (something I’m just now beginning to write more about, as hinted in “The Halfway Home for Brown Boys”). The other advice would be to learn to ignore people who say either one of two things: you’re too [insert identity label] or you’re not [insert identity label] enough, or some variant. Neither is ever helpful. Identity is not monolithic.

And you know, I actually don’t visit Kansas often. I tend to keep my distance physically. But when it comes to poetry—similar to superheroes—I can’t quit Kansas.

JH: In your poem “Homecoming,” about returning to Kansas, you write that “everything feels like the season // has never changed.” Is that a reflection on how things stay the same but you change? Or how everything seems almost like a facsimile of your memories? When you come to Kansas, where do you go? Are you a Porubsky’s patron?

GJ: It’s all of the above! I change, and so does the landscape, and that push and pull between memory and nostalgia can be a bittersweet trap.

Most of the places I visit the few times I return home aren’t places well known, but more intimate. The cemetery (usually with family), a few relatives, my childhood home, the comic book shop that gave me my first job—Gatekeeper Hobbies (shout out to Jim)! It’s been ages since I’ve had a Porubsky pickle, you just gave me something to add to my list.

JH: I’m intrigued by your new poem “Mr. Astonishing finds his son has killed the neighbor’s cat” because I can’t locate Mr. Astonishing any where in the DC or Marvel universes. Is he a character of your own creation? What’s his origin story? Also: are you a DC or a Marvel guy?
GJ: Yup! He’s brand new. Many of the poems I’m working on now revolve around original superhumans I created (though I still play around with established figures too). The poem “overdue” is also playing with persona—but in a much more subtle way than Mr. Astonishing. It’s something new for me and it’s been fun working in these speculative worlds. I like getting to see snippets of these speakers’ lives that are decidedly un-superheroic.

I grew up 100% a Marvel kid. But I’ve done a good share of reading from both universes, so I won’t throw shade on DC. I just didn’t grow up reading their characters, so I don’t have the same level of history there. To put it another way, I’ve probably read nearly every X-Men comic since 1964. I can’t say that about any DC character.

JH: Do you have any memories from your time editing Inscape that you’d like to share?

GJ: I have a terrible memory. I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything I remember from the classes I taught last year! I do recall the Inscape class was most exciting when we got to debate which pieces would make it in the issue. When someone really went up to bat for a particular piece, you really got a sense of one another’s poetic aesthetics in a way you don’t quite get when you’re in a traditional workshop. That was wonderful and, of course, always civil.

JH: Why do you think Topeka produces so many poets, and poets who write in such diverse styles?

GJ: I really have no idea. I think the interview we referenced earlier was trying to crack that same nut, and I can’t remember what conclusions they came to. But my only guess is that if you live in any smallish town, you learn to cultivate a healthy imagination and a desire to escape. Those are good ingredients for any writer, any poet