Ari Schill interviewed poet Alexis V. Jackson this past fall on Zoom to talk about poetic practice and the back story to her first collection, My Sisters’ Country, selected by Erica Hunt for second place in the KPI Poetry Prize (2019). My Sisters’ Country comes out on Jan 31, 2022, from Kore Press.
Ari Schill: I read your author profile with Kore Press Institute, and you talk about the “crooked room” Black women are born into. You describe writing as “a tool you had to set right yourself when you couldn’t set the room.” I firstly want to say thank you for commenting on the crooked room. The ‘crooked room’ as a concept is one that helps Black women understand that it is not us who are crooked but the room we have been placed within. We can see this concept played out daily. Outside of writing, are there other rituals, creative projects, or activities you do to help set yourself upright?
Alexis V. Jackson: I haven’t spoken about this publicly yet, but I read The Artists Way, summer of 2020 with a friend. Reading that shifted a lot for me and introduced me to The Morning Pages. I would write every morning and incorporate my spiritual practice during that time. Getting alone and listening to whatever my internals or connection to spirit, the creator, has to say to me. If I am feeling stuck or congested, I write, letting whatever happen and whatever comes come. I also work out.
AS: Your poems take the reader from playing Double Dutch in Philly to exploring Brooklyn artists to the beat of Lil’ Kim. Now you are down in sunny San Diego. Where do you call home?
AJ: Home to me is always going to be Philly! My husband makes fun of me; he says I compare everything to Philly.
I’ve been in a lot of liminal spaces from graduating in 2013 to working and living at home, to getting my MFA, to my wedding and moving to San Diego shortly after. I am learning to be grateful to be where life has stationed me.
AS: What was a surprise you encountered while working on this book?
AJ: There were several. One of them being my mother’s openness. As the oldest, I got the worst of my strict, Baptist parents. My mom loved Nikki Giovanni and introduced a lot of poetic influences to me. My mom went to Bucknell and was involved in helping them start their first African American Literature class.
As a teen, I had a lot of internal conflict between the restrictive and violent lessons I learned in the church about people and their identities and the freedom that existed in Black literature. My mom came to my final reading at Columbia, and she was here for all of it! The poetry made space to talk about the ways she had changed and things she had believed but I had never heard her say. It has been surprising and nice to watch her growth.
The other surprise was imposter syndrome. My MFA at Columbia, in all the ways it failed and supported me, it helped me move through my imposter syndrome. I really had to learn to lean into people in the workshop not understanding what I was writing about because I know who I am writing for. I am grateful for classes and workshops with Cheryl Boyce Taylor and Monica Yun because they encouraged me to lean into my craft.
AS: How does the theme of shame shape and influence your work?
AJ: I didn’t know I was writing about shame until a friend pointed it out after reading My Sister’s Country. I thought I was writing about my experiences as a Black woman that hadn’t been talked about in the way that they were coming to me. For example the musicality of the book.
I thought I was writing about myself and wanted people like me to have it. I write with Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, The Bible, June Jordan, and my mama in the back of my head, always. Writing this book was a healing experience and continues to be. People’s responses to the work have been surprising and are an additional piece of the healing. Now that I am not writing it anymore, I am able to see that this was and continues to be about shame. Once you put the work out, having folks respond to it makes me feel less ashamed about my decision to pursue poetry as my life’s work.
“I write with Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, The Bible, June Jordan, and my mama in the back of my head, always. Writing this book was a healing experience and continues to be.”
AS: Has writing about shame aided in your process with acknowledging and moving through your own shame?
AJ: Yes. Though I didn’t realize I was writing about shame, I thought I was writing about experiences as a Black woman in the way they were coming to me. Writing My Sister’s Country felt important because it would allow people to feel less lonely.
Dual consciousness, being Black in U.S., the shame I feel I can bring on my entire gender, my entire race, my entire class. That has been heightened as an adjunct professor. I’ve had to learn the balance between being grateful for the opportunity but also asserting myself as a professional. Being flattered by a compliment but also being aware that underneath may be racism and colorism. Watching people’s own surprise at finding me beautiful and their need and desire to express that. The surprise when you are able to do the work expected of you and their desire to communicate to you that up until now they did not believe you were able to.
I often think of the amazing and confident Sha’Carri Richardson because I was taught that that kind of confidence was not what god wanted from me. I was taught to be humble and grateful. As Black women, we are always reorienting ourselves, but it will always be a little skewed because of the crooked room we were born into. The shame connected to my identity, my view of self, and the imposter syndrome are all interwoven and cannot be separated.
AS: Your poems touch on themes of objectification, safety, and autonomy, which are all a part of the various experiences as a Black woman. In “The Man And The Me On The Bus,” you have the line, “And I remember the woman at the museum / Who was staring at me instead / Who told me I was beautiful / And I think I have anxiety / Except I don’t / Because the doctor said I failed the test.” You’ve eloquently and simply created an image of being hypervisible and invisible simultaneously. Can you talk about how duality shows up in your writing and your everyday life?
AJ: A lot of the pieces in My Sister’s Country are confessional. With that particular line, there is the exploration of being hypersexualized and seen by this man, but he is not seeing my fear nor how concerned and uncomfortable I am. A white woman giving me a compliment at the museum, not thinking about how that may or may not make someone feel, while I am feeling hyperaware of the way people see me. I never have the opportunity to forget.
There is a lot of duality present in the way society shapes and sees Black people, specifically Black women. I am a Sagittarius, and I am often looking for absolutes. As someone who loves the gym, in the back of my mind I still worry about my gains and “looking feminine enough” and “not too masculine.” When you think of the Venn diagram of varying identities of class, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, these always exist but, depending on the spaces we are in, some are more visible.
AS: What’s your current favorite song/musician/album?
AJ: 1. Solange’s When I Get Home. That album did not get enough credit.
2. Aaron Allen
3. Cleo Sol
4. Jill Scott. I know, very 215 of me.
AS: My Sisters’ Country plays with varying forms and many of the poems read like songs or hymns. I know you spent some time singing in the church choir and that music has had a large impact on your life and creative inspiration. In addition to writing poetry, do you write music?
AJ: I haven’t put anything out, but I love music! I’m currently helping a friend write a couple tracks.
AS: Artists often have challenging moments of trusting in their creative process. Many of your pieces break form norms and rules. What helped you get back on track and return to your vision for the project when doubts crept in?
AJ: Connecting to writers that have come before me, connection to spirit and poet ancestors help pull me back to the work, always. Reading their essays and watching their videos, affirms that I know what I am doing because I am well read. When doubt creeps in, I turn to the interview with Lucille Clifton and Sonya Sanchez. It can get lonely doing work that no one gets or understands right away. I ask myself, “how do I know this is the work I should put out? How do I know it is important?” The answer is I don’t, but I trust that this is what I was called to do and I stay connected to my poet ancestors in these ways.
“When doubt creeps in, I turn to the interview with Lucille Clifton and Sonya Sanchez. It can get lonely doing work that no one gets or understands right away.”
In the end, it helped that people didn’t know what the fuck I was writing about. It allowed me to learn how to stop writing for other people. It helped me to become a better editor of my own work. Only I knew what I was doing and that is what matters because I know who I am writing for.
AS: One of my favorite poems is “Fresh Princess Sonnets.” Each stanza takes the reader through small chapters of your personal story, with pop culture references ranging from The Spice Girls to The Fresh Prince to Madam CJ Walker and The Proud Family. These references not only anchor us throughout but also give the reader culture context and timestamps. Your ability to use pop culture and media to say ‘you can be Black but not like that’ repeatedly is a heartbreaking message but one that is done in an obvious and interesting pattern throughout “Fresh Princess Sonnets.”
I imagine you had many other references to choose from, how did you decide which references to keep in the poem?
AJ: Lucille Clifton says we come to poetry first out of what we wonder. I was trying to do a sonnet crown while I was reading Terrence Hayes. Having the fourteen lines of form to explore and build into the structure was helpful. The crown didn’t happen, but sonnets allow me to enter a narrative and quickly leave it. The form forced my hand with the choice and the choices were rooted in childhood, pop culture and making a type of meaning as a dark-skinned Black woman.
AS: While writing this poem, what part(s) of yourself felt most seen and affirmed?
AJ: While writing them I don’t know that I was thinking of affirming myself or seeing myself. In the act of creation, especially when I’m following a form, I’m focused on line breaks and cadence, following the images all the way through. Before the book, my experiences didn’t feel real because they weren’t talked about or acknowledged. Now that this book is behind me, I feel ‘real.’ Because writing makes things real for me, the reality of my experiences are affirmed in these poems.
AS: Do you have a favorite poem in My Sisters’ Country? Which one(s) and why?
AJ: One that I get asked to read a lot is “Rules for Defining Be.” It wasn’t initially my favorite but it is now because a) it is dope and b) what I do on the page; I have the notation at the bottom. It is written in such a colloquial way that it reads like an oral interview. I love how layered and accessible it is and how accessible it makes poetry feel for people.
“Fresh Princess Sonnets.” My plan is to write versions of it in every book I put out. That is my lifelong project, I really love them.
“He Is a Black Man and the Wilderness,” which is the last poem in the book. I like how weird it is, like it’s real and confusing, but I don’t care. After I read Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funny House of a Negro, I really thought about what it means to have all the voices in the room.
“Currant Vigilante” because this piece is a true story, based on an experience that my nieces in North Carolina had. I was very aware of how heartbreaking this experience was. Their first experience of the layered gendered racism of being called a ‘nigger bitch’ and how that feels when you’re 6 or 7 years old. It makes the world feel a little smaller after that. It is one of my favorites because I wrote it for them. Of course, it is language you hope to keep from your child, but people don’t document when these things happen and how the racialized gender violence impacts children.
The last is “My Sisters’ Country” because it talks about the ways that I make home. The way that I make home, which is what the whole collection is about, is about finding country. Being a citizen of the U.S. and a Global citizen in terms of how the world works. Like Assata Shakur is not a citizen of the U.S. but she is someone I consider myself to be a citizen of. I find country or home in the works of other Black women. I read their work, I know who they are, I love them and I belong to them.
There is a complicated and painful relationship with the United States which includes Black people being considered as property at one point. In My Sisters’ Country, other Black women, particularly who I would call sister, understand this and it feels better to belong to this country, this sisterhood of Black women. It feels right and we, as Black women, get to decide who stays and who doesn’t.
AS: What are you currently reading?
- Parable of the Talents Octavia E. Butler
- Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction and Literary Tradition by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers
- Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman
Alexis V. Jackson is a Philadelphia-born, San Diego-based writer and teacher whose work has appeared in Jubilat, The Amistad, La Libreta, Solstice Literary Magazine, and 805 Litamong others. Jackson earned her MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and her BA in English from Messiah University. Erica Hunt selected My Sisters’ Country as second-place winner of Kore Press Institute’s 2019 Poetry Prize. Jackson lectures in the University of San Diego’s English Department, and has taught poetry at Messiah University. See more about Alexis at www. alexisvjackson.com.
This interview was conducted in August, 2021 via Zoom by Ari Schill, Publishing Fellow and Newsletter Editor with Kore Press Institute. Ari is a Black, queer and gender expansive, multi-genre writer and facilitator who lives in Portland. They use poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction to write about race, family and adoption, and the intersectionality of gender and Blackness because they are inextricably connected. Ari believes in the importance of advocacy, education and community support; strives to amplify the voices and stories of Black queer and transgender people; and are committed to cultivating meaningful connections with like-minded creatives. Inspired by writers and activists like Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Barbara & Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, they value bringing a Black queer feminist lens to their writing and daily life.