A Conversation with Kara Jackson
By Laura Liu
Kara Jackson is the daughter of country folks. She is the Youth Poet Laureate of Chicago Jackson is an alum of the Spoken Word Club at Oak Park River Forest High school. She represented the school in the Louder Than a Bomb festival from 2016-2018, and in her final year performed on final stage at the Auditorium Theatre, where she was granted the Literary Award by Patricia Smith. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, Frontier Poetry, Rookie Mag, Nimrod Literary Journal, and Saint Heron. She has two articles published in Blavity. She has two poems featured in the latest anthology edited by Kevin Coval, The End of Chiraq. Jackson is a TEDx speaker. She will attend Smith College in the fall of 2019.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Kara some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: To kick things off, I’d love to take about poetry and place. How do you feel your upbringing in Chicago has influenced the development of your work?
Kara Jackson, Poet: I grew up in a suburb just outside of Chicago, so I’ve always been on the border of this island of language that I really tapped into when I started going to Chicago for poetry workshops, open mics, and different events at Young Chicago Authors. Being involved in that community has allowed me to think of my work in a context larger than me, as it fits in a conversation with my peers and the dialogues of those that came before me. I don’t think I could understand poetry without Chicago. It really is the best place for poets. It has a breathing lineage, resting on the shoulders of poets like Miss Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, Li Young Lee, and this lineage has definitely fueled such a remarkable present. There is not a better place to be telling stories right now.
LL: In your piece “Teenagers Are Not Exempt From Poetry”, you name several poets and poems that were especially impactful in your development as a writer. How did you come across these writers, and do you have any advice for student writers who want to find poets that inspire them but haven’t yet?
KJ: I was very lucky to have mentors who were constantly introducing me to the work of a lot of the poets I mentioned in that piece. It was extremely valuable to me to have workshops to go to where I was forced to grapple with the work of others in order to create my own. I would encourage student writers to use their screens! Poetry Magazine’s website has always been valuable to me in terms of discovering new poets, as well as poets.org (particularly the Poem-a-Day feature), and just getting on Twitter and sifting through screenshots of wonderful poems. I’m also a big advocate for local libraries and independent bookstores.
LL: In that piece, you also talk about the availability and reach of poetry, and how it is not only restricted to white men or adults. Do you find that there remains an exclusivity to poetry today? What role do you feel social media has played in making poetry (and literary opportunities) more accessible to emerging writers?
KJ: The exclusivity in poetry today is quite sustainable. If white supremacy is the bed, then elitism is the sheet thrown over it. Poetry is still presented as a white mode of expression. White men are still the most published and the most listened to. Even beyond whiteness (which we can hardly go beyond), most artistic spaces I’ve been in are hardly void of elitism. Hierarchies sit in the corner of most poetry slams, readings, and events. I am still trying to navigate these spaces without the many aspects of my identity being immediately recognized and tossed into some disposable bin.
I think social media has done a lot for poetry in terms of making it more available and allowing young people to engage with poetry in a way that is sort of removed from these jarring, academic, alienating spaces. I think it’s great I can see a poem while scrolling through Twitter. I think poetry belongs in our glowing hands; in 250 words or less or caught under good Instagram lighting. The internet also has redefined what it means to be published. Online journals and zines have given homes to many of my poems. By making poetry something that belongs on the internet, we are moving conversations that might only be held in elitist spaces, and letting them belong anywhere.
LL: You also discuss the issue of inaccurate representation in media in your piece “‘I Hate That I’m Black. I Hate That I’m Ugly. I Hate My Nose.’” How do you think we as a society can combat inaccurate representation? It seems that spreading awareness may not be enough.
NS: Combating inaccurate representation requires funding accurate stories and giving them a platform to be as loud as the inaccurate ones. I don’t think the problem is a lack of accurate stories, I think the problem is whiteness, how it permeates, persists, and rules these industries that could use a little accuracy. I think about my friends and all of the writing they’re doing. The truth saturates their pages, sticks like oil to our fingers. I am so excited for the stories they are telling, but am often discouraged by the disparities in visibility. There are so many exciting things being written, but getting them to be seen and heard is a real battle.
LL: Aside from writing, you are also a musician. How do you find that those two spheres overlap and influence each other in your written work? Is your process of creating music different from your process of writing?
NS: I’ve been making music far longer than I have been writing poems. I started singing when I could open my mouth. I think music, particularly lyricism, was my first commitment to language. I was devoted to the refrain, to the bridge, to the way songs required listening. Music definitely taught me how to process language as a currency, an exchange. Music also taught me that sound communicates, how space communicates. A rest in a song and a line break in a poem both require a physical stop, for example. There are a lot of physical elements of singing that are parallel with that of poems and speaking them out loud. Somehow my process for writing songs and poems is vastly different. I put more of a leash on my poems. I like to take them on deliberate walks, and approach them with a clear intention. I sit down to write poems. Songs I usually let approach me. I am often startled by them. I do not do too much sitting down to write songs, but rather run into them.
LL: As a young writer yourself, do you have any words of wisdom for students who want to break into the literary world?
NS: Read everything. Try to understand, love, and embrace your age. Write whenever you can about whatever you want. Your story is not reduced to the way you are perceived when you walk into a room.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation and a 2019 Gold Medalist from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and has won top prizes in other competitions such as the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: Kara Jackson