Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

'You will lose yourself': the rituals of grief in the poetry of Ashaki M. Jackson

The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open! In honor of the 2016 Book Prize season, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview authors about the process of constructing a manuscript and bringing it to publication. This week, Katie interviews brilliant poet and Prairie Schooner contributor Ashaki M. Jackson about grief rituals, submission rituals, and her two forthcoming chapbooks.

I Write Sad Things

Colleagues tell me that I am too well adjusted to be fixated on death and mortuary rites. They also say that they feel the work, suggesting that I have a good handle on opening grief for participation. Grappling with endocannibalism, Shiva, and the reasoning of it all requires stability on my part to write into and not be consumed by the sadness. If I had to articulate my work’s goals, they would be to expand readers’ acceptance of grief in all varieties as a process by which we 1) ease the pain of remembering, 2) allow our bodies absolute surrender to our feelings, and maybe 3) seek and receive security in others, familiar or not. Not all poetry will meet these goals by virtue of authors’ manias – we each like what we like. But, I want to relay grief so that the reader receives and mourns with that speaker (who is usually me). This is communing. When I read the work aloud to a captive audience, they hear this grief and mourn. This is also communing. And I don’t find this communication to be artificial, but very basic, like when you see a person scrape his/her/their knee and you instinctively say “ouch.” Do I think that poetry is unique in carrying feeling from one person to another or bringing people together in their vulnerabilities? To an extent—in a way that is concise and visual and quickly transported. Prose does this. Oral storytelling does this. A remarkable image does this, too. I use what I have, and that is poetry.

Grief as a Choreographer

Grief marionettes the body, which is compelling to me. You will lose yourself. It might not be immediate, and it might not look traditional. I see no difference in the Sufi spinning, the mother folding into herself or, in my case, crying myself weak at the scent of coffee, which reminds me of my late grandmother. (Coffee shops are difficult spaces for me.) I find the body to be the most honest character in grief as there is no suitable language for this process. Mark Doty remarks on this in his introduction of Alex Lemon’s Mosquito (Tin House New Voice) – a treasured book. Doty posits that language exists for emotions that are social and that pain is experienced singularly, so there are few to no words. He says, “Our poverty of terms for pain may indicate that we’ve given up on creating a lexicon, understanding that the solitary, suffering subject remains solitary. When we are wordless, we tend to be world-less as well.” Doty and I part ways a bit as I think that grief can be quietly communal; we may choose to be near others in our sadness or we might make space for someone to join us in our rituals because loneliness can be hard. In this we are building that world. Too, I feel that body has a demonstrative vernacular—all the triggers and switches you haven’t yet logged in yourself are activated in loss. I’m learning this more and more about myself. The eye twitches. The mind brings you gifts. The stomach seizes. The hands hold ghosts. The body calls out and, sometimes, receives a response from others. Even the ways that we simply do not seem ourselves because the body is mourning draws others’ attentions, company or rescue. But the response is not my focus at this moment; neither is the communality of it. I want to start here: What does the body experience during loss? This is a language that I try to capture.

Take the Breaks (or That Damn Debut)

This year, two small presses will publish my first chapbook collections. It has been a long journey, largely because the content in each is thick. The first collection, Surveillance (Writ Large Press) is a reflection on police killing civilians and how the public receives these images. The second, Language Lesson (MIEL), is an examination of grief following my grandmother’s death. I am unable to sit in those feelings for too long without the sadness becoming harmful. Thus, I stopped after the first 25 pages to recuperate. I’ll get back into the work later this year to complete the collections.

Submission #SquadGoals

I’ve developed some savvy in submissions, particularly as a writer who is very comfortable in the sad spaces. It took about a year to get into the submission rhythm, and I do encourage writers to create a habit. I am no longer at the point of needing thick skin because I know which journals will accommodate my type of work. I’ve done my research, and I’ve followed writers who explore similar topics. Their publications gave me my first blueprint of where to send my work.

I have a regular submission schedule thanks to a community of women writers called Women Who Submit. The organization is a response to the VIDA count that revealed comparatively scant representation of women in top tier literary publications than men. The local (Los Angeles) Women Who Submit chapter hosts submission parties every second Saturday of the month. These parties are several-hours worth of information sharing, organizing manuscripts, articulating individual submission goals (publications, contests, grants, etc.) and submitting work live in a room of supportive peers. We have elevated our submission strategies and outcomes as a community. PEN Center USA also has a craft series on submissions that is not limited to women-identified persons. If you don’t have access to formal groups, then create one – a submission brigade that will hold you accountable.

Each quarter, I gather and submit pieces that deserve some air—those that don’t require any background for the reader to experience—and I place them where they seem most at home or where they respond to a well-articulated, themed issue. The last two years have been good; I increased my presence in Tier 2 journals and graduated to Tier 1. This means that my exposure to a much larger readership has increased exponentially. Poets rarely have agents, so tiers help disseminate the work and build your brand. I recommend keeping TheReviewReview.net and Clifford Garstang’s site bookmarked. My next challenge: submitting the full manuscript. I have my eyes on a few presses that make really lovely books that feel like portable art. My favorite bookstores carry these books. I’m not the only one who has noticed these presses, so the competition will be stiff. Light a candle for me.

Publishing for Clarity

Having publications accept over 50% of my viable work makes me panic. This is what I need—to feel as if I’m out of words and need to replenish my well with fresh sadness. I must say that seeing my work in the world, in print, allows me to approach those words as a stranger might. I get to judge the speaker. The poem is successful if, when reading it in the publication, I begin to mourn. This is my gauge and, very likely, a form of narcissism. I read the poem as an outsider, not as the author. My best (most effective) poems upset me. This feels selfish and true because my body responds to the work’s agony; I am reaching the body’s demonstrative vernacular. Sometimes – very rarely – my printed work surprises me in this way. In addition to this type of body check, presenting poems to an audience of strangers clears my vision for new angles with which to approach my work. Will the grieving ease or transform? Then what? Let’s write that.


 

Ashaki M. Jackson is a social psychologist and poet who works with youth through research, evaluation and creative writing mentoring. She is a Cave Canem alumna, co-founder of Women Who Submit and a regional curator for #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. Her work appears in Pluck!CURA and Prairie Schooner among other publications. She earned her MFA (creative writing) from Antioch University Los Angeles and her doctorate (social psychology) from Claremont Graduate University. She lives in Los Angeles, California.