In September, Young Chicago Authors (YCA) named Kara Jackson Chicago’s newest Youth Poet Laureate. An Oak Park resident, Jackson is the third Youth Poet Laureate after E’mon Lauren and Pat Frazier. In December 2018 and March 2019, the Weekly sat down with Jackson to discuss the process of crafting poems for her chapbook, coming out this fall from Haymarket Books.
In an episode of VS, a podcast from the Poetry Foundation, you mentioned that being a young poet now means saying what a lot of people are afraid to say. What are the things that you think a lot of people are afraid to say?
Youth is tied to so many things. It’s tied to purity. It’s tied to being naive and not really understanding yourself. But I think, for me, being audacious and being young also means talking about sex and talking about drugs and talking about things that the youth are actually going through. I’m a big fan of Amy Winehouse, and she made her debut album when she was twenty years old. A lot of people were reviewing it and they were saying, “Oh, she’s so mature, her content is so mature.” But she was just talking about sex, and most twenty-year-olds do have sex.
I think I didn’t really understand when I was very young how young people actually have really important things to say. Now that I am nineteen, I watch people try to belittle me, like, oh you don’t really know what you’re talking about yet. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to get inspiration from—being very loud and wrong, but also loud and correct. Embodying that has been a really big inspiration for my book because I think there are a lot of things I’m going to talk about that I’m afraid to talk about, but also owning that fear.
Is the “fear of saying things” similar to the youth saying things that people don’t expect them to say?
There are so many things for young people—now, especially—to be afraid of, but also there’s so many things that if we don’t say them, nobody is gonna say them. I think about the conversations I have with my parents and there’s language that I have for things that they just don’t have. If I don’t share that language with the world, it would be doing people a disservice who don’t have access to that language. If I can articulate something that a nineteen-year-old in a different place is feeling, then I’ve accomplished something, then I feel like my fear isn’t that pressing of an issue. It goes beyond my fear in a way.
Fear is something that I thrive in almost. I’m constantly afraid of this earth and I’m constantly afraid of what my identity can put me through on this earth. Sandra Cisneros, in The House on Mango Street, talks about doing things because she is afraid, and I’ve always taken that with me.
In our first conversation, you talked about wanting to weaponize your poems so that they do something in addition to being on the page. Since that conversation, do you have any examples of where you feel like you’ve started to do that or how you want to do that now that the book has come together?
I’ve been thinking about that lately in terms of the poems I have that are less rooted in narrative. Sometimes when I’m writing a story that’s already happened, I find that I’m more helpless in that narrative. But I’m also trying to rewrite narratives and weaponize those poems. I have this power to rewrite what happened. I think that’s a really good tool.
Eve Ewing is really good at talking about Afrofuturism, how it’s important for us to envision a future with Black people in it. So I think of rewriting things as also working toward that understanding, that Black people will always be able to shift narratives and make them their own or retell things to make themselves stronger almost in a way. I think I’m trying to make poems that do that more, or at least write poems that are more rooted in myself being very clear of who I am.
I’m definitely thinking more about my body in this chapbook, and not in an abstract way. When I was younger, I would write about myself in these ways that were not myself, and I would talk about myself in terms of my Blackness but not give myself any type of specificity. I don’t think that I can be general and also be a weapon. I think that specificity is where I become a weapon and where my poems can become weapons. Because then nobody else can write them, and so it kind of becomes my own personal battalion in that way.
In the VS episode, you mentioned that Chicago was always this welcoming city. I’m curious about how long you have been coming to Chicago and how you’ve learned about the city.
I think everybody in Oak Park grew up going to Chicago for certain things, staycations and stuff like that. I didn’t really start choosing to go to Chicago myself with my own interests and intentions until I went to YCA. When I got to high school and I started going to YCA is when I realized that Chicago is a living, breathing place with living and breathing conflicts and also really great things at the same time.
Chicago is a place that accepts me but also doesn’t need me. Recently, I was talking to Eve Ewing because we did this performance for Jamila Woods—“Heavn Here”—and they gave us these shirts that had Chicago on them and I was like, well, I don’t really know if I can be walking around with this Chicago shirt y’all, I don’t know. And Eve was like, “Oh, we claim you.” And I think it’s so funny to think of a city as something that has the jurisdiction and the ability to claim certain people. Just thinking of Oak Park as a place, they claim certain people. We are definitely known for Frank Lloyd Wright and Hemingway. But also Ludacris was from here. I think that’s so funny because Ludacris does not claim Oak Park. But Oak Park claims Ludacris.
There’s a lot to unpack for me because I think I never want people to think that I’m not from the suburbs, because it’s just very evident that I’m from the suburbs. But also, Chicago claims me and I guess I recognize that too. I recognize how I understand the city in a different way than my friends who go there to go thrifting and go home or who go there to go to certain events but don’t actually care about what’s happening in the city.
The work that is being done in Chicago is way more important than anything that I’m doing. Understanding that has been helpful for me in terms of my writing: is it trivial for me to write about this, or am I staying in my lane? Because I think a lot of Oak Parkers will try to take on Chicago as a writing topic, and I definitely have before. But I respect Chicago so much as a visitor.
I want you to talk a bit about your Southern lineage and how you see it factoring into your work.
I have a very interesting family. I grew up going to Georgia every single year. We would get in the car and put all of our stuff in it and drive fifteen hours to Georgia. My dad is from there—it wasn’t just like, oh, my grandma was from there, no, my dad is from the South and still returns to the South. My mom is from California, and so my mom always makes fun of my dad for some of the stuff that he does because it is just different. The country is such a very specific place. I grew up eating grits for breakfast every single day. And I thought that’s just what everybody did. My dad makes us Brunswick stew; that’s literally an entire hog’s head. I’d be like, what is that smell? And he’d be like, look in the pot. And there’s a literal pig’s head, a whole face. You could see it.
My Southern history has informed me in a lot of ways, but the women specifically. I think of the ways that the women in my family have worked. My grandma worked in a factory for decades and my great-grandma, her mother, was a sharecropper. I think about my family’s relationship with soil. A lot of the work that I’m writing now is kind of investigating how my senses are still a testament to my family’s work, the women in my family, and how [in] the same way trauma is passed down. How is work and how is occupation generational? If my great-grandma is a sharecropper, then what about my hands are still like her hands?
I think about that a lot. And also, being so far away from them, what did I lose coming here? What would I know how to do with the ground if I lived in Georgia, if I grew up with my grandma? Not regret, just I’m sometimes salty about it. But then there are customs—I couldn’t live like my grandma. She’ll tell me, now that I’m nineteen, “I got married when I was your age.” I think about how subservient she is, and how her routine relies on the hunger of men and relies on their needs. She gets up at four in the morning and cooks breakfast for everybody, and while she likes cooking, what is that passion rooted in? She definitely likes to cook, but that necessity and that need for cooking comes from the patriarchy. I think about how I idolized the women in my family, but also how I’m not like them, and finding out ways to be proud of that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Erisa Apantaku (@erisa_apantaku) is the executive producer of South Side Weekly Radio. Last year, her team completed a multimedia project about the history of Robeson High School.