Writer shares his poems, inspiration with students

Advice: A Virginia poet talks about his growth as an artist in visits to high schools as the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's 10th writer-in-residence.

January 08, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Poet Reuben Jackson acknowledges that his response to where he finds inspiration - the world - is a "corny, general answer."

He's curious - or more accurately, nosy - about how people live and "the way the planet goes, the world operates."

But his answer was beyond sufficient for a group of more than 250 Long Reach High School students yesterday as they got a rare opportunity to ask a poet about his work, barely allowing Jackson time to read a few poems.

As the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's (HoCoPoLitSo) 10th writer-in-residence, Jackson, of Arlington, Va., is visiting area high schools to share his poetry as part of HoCoPoLitSo's effort since at least the early 1980s to make writers accessible to schoolchildren.

"Most of the poets the students study in school are dead because it takes a long time to get yourself into an anthology," said Virginia Pausch, a HoCoPoLitSo board member who coordinates the high school programs. "It's a chance to say after having read these persons' poems, `What'd you have in mind when you wrote this?' And sometimes they're surprised by the answer they get."

Jackson, 45, has been an archivist of the Smithsonian's Duke Ellington collection since 1989 and has written a music review for The Washington Post on occasion.

His first volume of poems, Fingering the Keys, sold about 2,000 copies and received the Columbia Book Award in the 1990s. His latest book, Scattered Clouds, is expected to be released in late spring.

Jackson began formally writing poetry in 1971, when he was a sophomore in high school. Some of his work is autobiographical, while other poems cover themes of ethnicity and romance.

One of Jackson's first poems was "a really bad love poem" about a girl he referred to as "the girl with the perfect afro."

"I've been a sap all my life," he said.

Despite this passion for romance, Jackson said, he was very shy while growing up, and his mother was concerned that he did not have a social life.

Jackson said his adolescence was a somewhat painful experience, but he has learned to turn those feelings into humorous fodder for his poems.

"I'm just gaining the courage to address certain things that have been in my head for a long time," he said.

In his poem "1973," he wrote:

my mother peers

over my shoulder

in search of answers

please say

you're dedicating

that poem to a woman

you don't seem to know any

Jackson likens poetry to sitting at a bar and telling your life story. In the poem "self portrait, 1988," he wrote:

I am

stubborn,

broke,

but mean well,

and am trying

hard to fuse

my passions

with the world's

conventions.

Listening to Jackson's poems and how he frames his work was invaluable information for Courtney Bydume, a junior. She asked his advice on finding a creative voice.

"Just trust yourself," Jackson responded.

After the reading, Bydume, 16, said she appreciated Jackson's point of view because her source of inspiration is so different from Jackson's.

"I only write when I'm angry," she said.

But Jackson acknowledged having writer's block and struggling to overcome the fear that the feeling would be permanent, when Lauren Benning, also a junior, asked him, "Do you ever get frustrated when you're writing?"

"Some days you just don't have it," Jackson said of his inspiration. "It comes when it feels like coming to me."

After Jackson's readings, Benning, 16, explained her continued aggravation of waiting for the right words when she is trying to write.

"I get frustrated all the time," she said. "I sit in my room and look at the walls."

Compared with his generation, Jackson said, a primary difference in today's youths is their exposure to hip-hop music - making them aware of the spoken word on a daily basis and serving as inspiration for them to write.

"It's not like something that's from some time they know nothing of - it really serves as a bridge," Jackson said. "I think a lot more students write because of it. They may write in the style of Ice Cube or whoever, but there's a foundation there that wasn't there when I was a kid."

Jackson said he hopes his "take on things" as a middle-aged African-American male is as interesting to students as their views are to him, and that his work can motivate young writers.

"I think that by sharing your version of things, it will allow someone to say, `It's OK to do this because someone has done this,'" he said. "Hopefully, it'll open the door a little further for them."

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