The Zell Visiting Writer Series welcomed esteemed poet Major Jackson to the University of Michigan Museum of Art for a poetry reading on Thursday evening. The series invited distinguished writers each semester to present their work.
Zell Fellow Callie Collins, program assistant for the Visiting Writer Series, discussed the program’s goal of giving the University community a unique opportunity to hear from respected writers.
“These are incredible, nationally acclaimed poets and fiction writers,” Collins said. “We hope that we can bring writers who are at the top of their fields and put them in front of both current students and a bigger audience from the community who could come out and hear writers they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to hear.
She went on to discuss poetry’s unique potential to make social commentary, especially in a society rife with political partisanship.
“I think, especially right now, so much writing is attempting to grapple with our political situation and the way that the world is changing, and so dramatically,” Collins said. “Poetry is especially effective because it can change so quickly, and it can adapt so easily… It’s a particularly good time to listen to people who think about how to be a human.”
Jackson, an award-winning poet, began his reading with a reflection on poetry’s function as a means of self-discovery. He then read a series of deeply personal poems which focused on broader themes of Black representation and the tropes of Black masculinity.
After the reading, Jackson took part in a question-and-answer session, during which he reflected on his own experience as a poet. He began by explaining the moment he discovered he wanted to pursue writing poetry professionally.
“I was writing a lot of poems about North Philadelphia,” Jackson said. “I showed it to my grandfather… He was so proud of that poem. I saw this poem exist outside of my little apartment, I saw how it existed among my community at that time. That was a feeling that was quite addictive, so much so, that I took myself serious, and found other student writers.”
Many of Jackson’s poems are location-based, focused specifically on his hometown, Philadelphia. Jackson explained that he finds inspiration in writing about something so deeply personal. He reflected on how his writing aims to reveal a more humanistic side to his home city.
“For me, in a lot of ways, it was about trying to dignify lives in that space, trying to remember the people I grew up with,” Jackson said. “There’s something that you probably shouldn’t bear witness to at such a young age, but, oddly enough, I’m grateful for that childhood in Philadelphia… It wasn’t a war-torn environment, but that’s what I am writing against — the perception that there was a lot of pain because there was a lot of humanity, history and culture that was passed down.”
After the event, LSA sophomore Joshua Jordan told The Daily how his passion for poetry stemmed from its being different from every other art form.
“I enjoy poetry because it isn’t so necessary,” Jordan said. “Every other art form that we have seems to be justified by some other medium — it’s either profitable or it’s popular. Poetry has always been weird and niche, and it has stayed that way, to some degree.”
Jackson concluded with a reflection on how the process of writing poetry is inherently personal and based on instincts.
“Every line that you write is a note you play, and it’s a note you play that has to feel right,” Jackson said. “The words are there, but the shape is not there. That’s a kind of restlessness that I think we all should cultivate inside of us. That restlessness is really dependent on how much you are going to lean in on yourself not to do easy things.”