Poetry is a variety women’s armor’. On stage is the American poet, singer-songwriter and musician Kara Jackson. With dark blue box braids and a ring piercing her nose gives her a compelling TedTalk about what poetry means to young black women. She confidently reminds the audience of the long tradition of feminist African-American poets and thinkers who inspire her.
A few months later, Jackson is elected National Youth Poet Laureate in the United States. She succeeds, among others, Amanda Gorman, who achieved world fame when she wrote her poem The hill we climb at President Joe Biden’s inaugural address. Striking: The title has only been around for six years, but until now it’s always been awarded to young women of color. Jackson didn’t exaggerate for a second during his TedTalk. Poets like Gorman and Jackson are rescuing poetry from its dusty image among young people. ‘Poets and musicians write about the times they live in. They try to capture something and respond to it. Women of color represent today’s cultural and political momentum,” Jackson tells me with a laugh when I speak to her via Zoom.
The artist’s career got off to a flying start after her nomination as National Youth Poet Laureate in 2019. In the same year, her poetry collection was published Bloodstone Cowboy on the left-wing radical publisher Haymarket Books and she released her own EP A song for every chamber in my heart from. ‘I write. And sometimes what I write becomes a poem, and sometimes a song. I don’t focus on the form or the genre. Basically, the art and process of writing for both poetry and music is the same for me.’
Jackson was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, near Chicago. As daughter of rural peopleA Georgia enthusiast, she grew up with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. It is through their lyrical music that she fell in love with poetry. “In our family we had the special rule that my brother and I were required to take piano lessons until our eighteenth birthday.” She started her first lessons at age five, but she didn’t really click with music until she got a guitar at age eleven. ‘I knew immediately: this is my instrument.’
Jackson’s music has been described as a “warm hug from a friend.” Her deep contralto jazz voice sounds like a mix of Amy Winehouse and Tracy Chapman. The quiet rhythm of the acoustic guitar recalls the dreamy style of Norah Jones. It forces you to slow down. It’s the kind of music you want to hear on a Sunday morning when you’re making your first cup of coffee, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping outside. And preferably on a record player. It’s so dreamy, and yet not quite the kind of corny you’d expect from a teenager. Even if it goes A song for every chamber in my heart about – yes – a broken heart.
In each of the four relatively short songs, Jackson describes a phase: she falls in love, is abandoned, cheated on, and ends up single again in bed while trying to convince herself that she doesn’t need anyone. The emotional push and pull of a complex love affair seems like a metaphor for life as a black woman in America. A relationship that she has never made explicit in her music, but in her poetry.
How do you write about such a great injustice as the oppression of black Americans?
“The best thing I’ve done for myself is to get rid of the idea that poetry is a white dialect,” Jackson wrote in a statement Poetry magazine in 2018. In the short essay ‘Teenagers are not exempt from poetry’ she sketched the first lines of her poetics at a young age. The legacy of Audre Lorde is clear in this: poetry is not just the artistic arena of white men, but the art form par excellence in which women enjoy absolute freedom to make sense of their lived reality. Or in Lorde’s own words: Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity for our existence.’
“Of all the writers I’ve read, Lorde has had the biggest impact on me. Her work not only gave me the tools to be a poet, but also taught me how to be a person to exist.’ Unlike Lorde’s poetry, which takes on a transcendental and mythological function, Jackson’s poems are like an ode to everyday life. The poet is not a goddess, warrior or priestess, but simply a teenager on the threshold of adulthood who wants to understand the world.
Because poetry is everything, and everything is poetry, we should write about everyday objects, says Jackson. It is a vision she takes from the feminist poet Gwendolyn Brooks. “Write about what’s right in front of you,” was Brooks’ motto. But that doesn’t mean Jackson’s poems are only about the mundane things in life. On the contrary. Jackson’s lyrics describe the lived reality of black women and men in the United States. Just like in the poem White privilege like a cold beeror Black woman is called ‘chocolate mocha’ on the street by a white man despite the fact that she is not a drinker, nor does she look like one. Racism, sexism, inequality, stereotypes, police brutality—it’s all covered, but Jackson brings it to life in the Starbucks metaphors of his generation.
At first glance, she plays with a playful ease that only a teenager can get away with. It is a complex balancing act. How do you write about such a great historical injustice as the centuries-long oppression of black Americans without making it intolerable for both the writer and the reader? Yet Jackson seemingly manages to navigate the societal minefield effortlessly. By combining Lorde’s seriousness with Brook’s playfulness, she creates stories that are digestible and relatable to a wide audience.
An example is the poem anthem for my stomach after I’ve eaten too much. Impossible to read it without chuckling at so much embarrassing recognition. The poem is a nod to the popular poem Tribute to my hips by Lucille Clifton. But Jackson expands on the theme of self-acceptance for black women, criticizing the unattainable ideals of beauty for women in a culture of abundance— ‘my stomach – a land I try to love./ my mouth is a lover dedicated to you’. It is intelligent, critical and funny at the same time. It is a unique interplay of emotions that makes Jackson’s work exciting. You will want to read more and more of her because – just like that punch lines in hip hop – always manages to surprise you.
Jackson is hyper-aware of how she is perceived as a black woman – especially in spaces where the audience is predominantly white and where certain expectations about black performers and entertainment come into play. In her teenage years she experimented several times with slam poetry. In his hometown of Chicago – where the genre originated – Jackson learned from the best, such as Patricia Smith and Jamila Woods. Yet she made a conscious choice not to be like slam poet to perform. ‘I am grateful to beat poetry because it allowed me to take my first steps as an artist on stage. But it’s a very competitive world.’ Heaving a deep sigh, Jackson then explains: ‘I could easily predict which poems would do well in a competition, because everyone knows what stories sell. Trauma, pain, sadness. I knew exactly what kind of material I needed to write to rank high, but for that I had to bare my soul. Having to be vulnerable to win undoes the meaning of vulnerability.’
She is the type of artist who writes and rewrites and ends up not publishing much of her work
When injustice and the accompanying pain are at the core of your artistic work, it can be something healing – both for the person who ‘makes’ art and for the person who ‘consumes’ the art. Art as therapy is not a new concept. But in the case of artists of color—and especially black women—that delicate and intimate process can have a bitter aftertaste if it’s a performance becomes, to make an audience entertain. It’s remarkable that Jackson is trying to deal with this at such a young age and seems to be succeeding. Her work feels honest and sincere.
She is the type of artist who writes, rewrites, edits and ends up not publishing much of her work. Everything she publishes is a thoughtful choice. ‘On the one hand, it is liberating to be able to put into words what you experience, but that experience also gradually becomes a product that you have to sell and promote. I also believe in writing for myself. Sometimes I choose not to share my work because I don’t want to market everything myself.’
Shortly after Jackon’s promising start hit by the corona pandemic. Since her poetry collection and EP, she has released a few separate poems and three songs on the online artist platform Bandcamp, but otherwise things have been quiet about the artist. Jackson retired to his family home in Oakland Park. To keep track of what was happening in the world, she turned to writing again. Between her first online classes as first year student at Smith College in Massachusetts, she began quietly working on her debut album, which is expected this fall.
The image of Jackson in her teenage bedroom with guitar, microphone and notebook raises the expectation that her new music will be an extension of her dreamy EP. ‘My EP was one snapshot of my teenage years,” she says. ‘With my debut album I want to reintroduce myself, but as an adult artist. The songs are longer, more meditative and more complex. Before it was my guitar and me. Now I’m surrounded by instruments, played by friends. The music scene in Chicago is relatively small. Everyone knows and helps each other. It feels like I get to share my success with loved ones. Just like the musicians and poets have before me.’ Descent and the transmission of cultural heritage – as Jackson described in her TedTalk – remains a recurring theme in her work.
In the poem Fleeing she writes: ‘everything I do comes down to I’ve been here before. in some arrangement of my atoms I was allowed to be free/ so don’t ask me when freedom will come
when a certain eye of mine eye has seen it’. Music and poetry give Jackson access to a language that allows her to imagine herself differently from how she is perceived. A language that makes it possible to imagine alternative worlds. Therein lies the absolute freedom that Lorde promised.
Singer-songwriter Kara Jackson will perform in Korzo on Friday, November 4 during Crossing Border