Ashaki Jackson, Poet
Ashaki Jackson began her career as a social psychologist and program evaluator before focusing on the craft of poetry. Ms. Jackson was a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry activist. She also cofounded Women Who Submit, an organization that helps women with the submission of their literary work to bring about more gender balance in the publishing world. She’s been featured in CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action, Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals and anthologies. In her work as an artist, activist, and social psychologist, Ms. Jackson’s commitment to communities and social justice has been lifelong and continuing.
Her career accomplishments include her first chapbook, Surveillance (2016). Through a philanthropic partnership with Writ Large Press, one hundred percent of the proceeds of Surveillance benefits the activist organizations Black Youth Project 100, Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, and Native Lives Matter. Jackson’s second chapbook, Language Lesson (2016), was published by Miel. It is described in the marketing copy for its first release: “In the absence of a full grief lexicon, Language Lesson is a short study of loss, mortuary rites, and survivors’ interpretations of these processes. The chapbook was inspired by the loss of Jackson’s paternal grandmother.”
Ashaki Jackson and I conducted our interview via email in early August 2017.
Shaneka Jones Cook: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Ashaki Jackson: As a child, I burned through reams of paper to make these half-page booklets. I would fill them with incomplete, plotless, illustrated stories, which are the best kinds of stories. My parents are both educators and had stocks of office supplies. My father reminds me that I was easy to please with gifts of pens and paper reams. That still holds true. Have you seen me around a new Parker Jotter?
I’m unsure there was a moment in which I purposefully decided that I would be a writer. Even now, I haven’t truly accepted that title because it carries a good amount of responsibility, like creating and maintaining a writing practice; publishing full collections; teaching craft—all of these grownup tasks. I’m proud of myself when I produce one meaningful, promising line a day.
I socialize with many writers. And, through my writing I’ve been able to contribute to larger conversations on loss, injustice, and keeping oneself in check in morally questionable times. So, I am a writer in these ways, I think—by association and by social contribution. Yet, reaching Writer Status has been a journey to which I feel I haven’t fully arrived.
SJC: Who is your favorite author? How did this person influence you?
AJ: I live in a writing empire, so I’m enamored with a new writer each month. But, my literary heart belongs to Salvador Plascencia (fiction), Kimiko Hahn (poetry), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (everything), and Jhumpa Lahiri (fiction). In five minutes, I’ll probably rattle off another name because I am so uncomfortable with absolutes. These writers stepped into language and gave it new shape; made words move on cyclical timelines; crossed academic fields to make a point about love. There is nothing simple about their work, and yet the feeling their work evokes in me is as basic as wonder or pain. I enjoy when work gives me an opportunity to feel. Life is often so full of mechanics that to have time for emotion is rare wealth.
… through my writing I’ve been able to contribute to larger conversations on loss, injustice, and keeping oneself in check in morally questionable times.
Has it been five minutes yet? I want to mention a couple more authors. There are days when I need Douglas Kearney’s energy to break language into a big Black lyric on a square white page—to begin anywhere with a shout and see the echo bounce off the margins. There are days when I need Rachel McKibbens’s certainty of words. I’ll always remember her lines on how her bones thickened like ax handles when she gave birth to her first child. Her words made me cognizant of how my bones arrange beneath me when I sit, how high and wide they have spread over time, and the way my knees strain a little when I walk. Words bring you into your senses. That is also what my favorite writers do for me.
SJC: What advice would you give to young Black girls?
AJ: There is so much to say! I want to assure them that they are loved deeply. I want to warn them that self-care is a necessary resistance to this society and to avoid, if at all possible, becoming commoditized. Also, despite marketing, they are ten percent magic, fifty percent good home-training, and forty percent hard work and self-actualization.
As for writing: Let it be a respite—a safe place for you to experiment without editing or being edited. There is time for editing later. For now, spend some time with your voice. Write as it comes to your mind. Practice being present on paper because too often we create beautiful, complex stories in our minds then edit the life out of them; or worse, we forget them. Those stories are soil. What will grow without it?
SJC: Do you see yourself as a political activist? And if so, growing up did you think you would be a voice for so many who don’t have the strength to speak for themselves?
AJ: To be Black, a woman, well-employed, well-paid, joyful, and alive is political. This sentiment is not singular or new, which is unfortunate. My parents are activists; they battled for fair, quality education long before I was born. So, I’m no stranger to pushing for change. It is long work, meaning that it is endless. You cannot say that you have achieved justice if your sister or brother is also struggling. Justice work is life work. Think of it as a chorus: there will always be more than one voice looking for the perfect, rich harmony. Once you hear it, you shouldn’t want to stop singing. And once we see justice, we must maintain it, nurture it, make it the standard. I’m one of many voices because that’s what this society needs to avoid ruining itself. It wasn’t so much a choice or a goal of adulthood; rather, it is a necessity.
SJC: In your chapbook, Surveillance, you write about police brutality on Black men. How do you see the role of the Black male in the continuous struggle for equality?
AJ: Surveillance reflects on the death of men, women, and children. I’m particularly interested in how social media users have promulgated the spread of these videos and how there is little hesitation to share. Whether you’ve shared that video because you’re sleuthing or just curious to see what everyone is talking about, these videos are traumatizing and intolerable; it is terrifying to see what might happen to a Black person in a myriad of circumstances, including calling the police for help during a mental health break, calling police for help following a car accident, being at an address that, by chance, is next door to a suspect’s home, selling single cigarettes, standing with friends outside of a club, leaving a bachelor party, holding a wallet, looking dangerous. As long as these killings are permitted—as long as the law allows Blacks to be treated as targets—the justice system is flawed and no one is safe. Certainly, our national system of laws was developed to suppress Black slaves in perpetuity. If you are unlucky enough to not graduate into whiteness or pass into whiteness, then you, too, are subject to surveillance and subjective protections under the law.
SJC: What prompted or inspired you to donate 100% of the proceeds of Surveillance to the Black Youth Project 100, Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, and Native Lives Matter organizations?
AJ: I submitted the manuscript to five presses. Within about one week, Chiwan Choi of Writ Large Press reached out with a plan—to release one poem daily in Cultural Weekly up to the chapbook’s release, [and] then to make it widely available at a flat rate of ten dollars. I shared my vision that the chapbook fund justice efforts in perpetuity; we might not make millions off the book, but we could support nonprofits that had good traction and strategic plans to pay their staff, keep the websites running, put gas in their vans, publish their research, and the like. Chiwan said yes. Surveillance has generated over $4,000 to date, and we continue making deposits to organizations. To be clear, we’ve kept nothing. I pay my bills with a job I work fifty to sixty hours per week, which is a privilege that makes this possible. Surveillance will never be a money-making endeavor.
SJC: As a Black woman, I was recently pulled over by a Black female police officer with my children in the car. Without thinking I immediately raised my hands and began reciting to the officer my every movement while trying to obtain my driver’s license out of my purse and saying, “I am not trying to become Sandra Bland.” You’ve written a lot about the impact of police brutality on the Black community. Could you say something about how you experience this on a personal level? Do you also feel fearful of being pulled over?”
AJ: That is a horrible and horrifying thing to know your life is at risk. Your automaticity is impressive. I haven’t thought of my safety plan in any great detail.
To be Black, a woman, well-employed, well-paid, joyful, and alive is political.
When I was twelve or thirteen, my family moved into an upper-middle-class neighborhood in California’s Central Valley. The house was directly across the street from one classmate, catty-corner from another classmate’s home, and within four houses in either direction of two other classmates’ homes. It was rumored that a second Black family was somewhere nearby, so I felt safe.
My father was tidying the front yard when an officer pulled up in his cruiser. He exited the car and asked my father what he was doing, as if pulling weeds while bent over at the waist wasn’t evident. My father told me this part of the story, but I can’t remember if he responded to the officer verbally or not. I do know that my father told the officer to follow him. My father walked this person through our long living room and the kitchen, then called my name. I came from the back wing of the house. When I rounded the corner, my father looked at me impatiently, and a tall, thin, white officer stood behind him with his hand on the gun in his holster. I responded, “Yes, Daddy?” In hindsight, this was a performance. My father’s answer to the officer’s question was, I live here. My daughter lives here. My wife lives here. You are on our property, in our home. You are out of place. Remembering that the officer was prepared to remove his gun while with my father—while in our home—is infuriating. I don’t recall a patrol before or after that incident. Who called that officer?
Los Angeles is a different beast. The rate of police presence in my neighborhood has declined after complaints that there was proportionally more targeting of immigrant residents in our corner of the city than, say, two blocks north in South Pasadena or two blocks east in Alhambra. That doesn’t mean that my guard is down, but I do wonder what narrative the public will create if something happens to me at the hands of law enforcement. Who will come to my aid?
SJC: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
AJ: I recently co-led a writing workshop on where healing takes place during the writing process. With regard to Surveillance, the healing happened during my reading the work aloud to audiences. It brought me peace to know that people—strangers—would sit through the tough meat of this work and not abandon its content or its immeasurable sadness. When writing my first chapbook, Language Lesson, the healing happened as I generated the work. The manuscript was a way to honor my late paternal grandmother. I had gone silent after her death for an extended period, maybe two years. Writing was restorative; two different experiences, two opportunities in which I experienced wholeness after ache.
SJC: In Language Lesson, you brilliantly and painfully described how death affects the body after your grandmother’s passing. I, too, lost my grandmother to breast cancer, and she also had a mastectomy. I went through a period of not wanting to feel any type of emotion. Do you believe your pain was a rebirth process?
It brought me peace to know that people—strangers—would sit through the tough meat of this work and not abandon its content or its immeasurable sadness.
AJ: Thank you for sharing that experience with me. I think it’s wholly unfair that we lose our grandparents. What a crushing, unforgettable moment for me. My period of silence was all I could do not to cry uncontrollably. All sound was a trigger, so I avoided conversations and didn’t answer my phone much. I would send and respond to text messages, maybe emails. But voices, radio, television, any audio beyond the wind was a cue for tears. I might have been punishing myself for not being present to say goodbye or simply unable to handle reality. I’m still unsure. The grief was a driver of the work, however. I was able to cry when I wrote, and the pattern of my collection reflects my type of choke-crying. The grief drove the writing and its shape, which drove the healing.
SJC: You are the cofounder of Women Who Submit. Tell me how that idea came about and how it eventually became a reality?
AJ: Alyss Dixson and I met at a writers’ co-working space in Santa Monica called The Writers Junction. We wrote weeknights from the afternoons into the evenings. This was the space in which I wrote Language Lesson, actually. One evening, Alyss called me into the partner writing rooms in which she usually camped out, and explained her role in an organization called Women in Literary Arts (WILA, which later became VIDA). She showed me a summary of how often women (feminine names) appeared in a set of top-tier literary publications. She was irate because the percentages were so low. The conversation was quick; she said that the answer could be to create submission sessions for women. These would not be for generating work or workshopping. The sessions would focus solely on getting the work out, bombarding editors’ slush piles, and creating a submission practice that would elevate women’s likelihoods of earning publication, and, subsequently, a more substantial readership who could potentially purchase women’s collections. Alyss asked me to help her think through the design.
Part of the process was getting the word to a network of women writers throughout Los Angeles County. Alyss wanted to enlist someone with fairly far-reaching and positive ties with local women writers, and I proposed Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo who graduated from the AULA MFA program about three or four years after me.
The three of us piloted a submission party, four dedicated hours each month to sit with peers, discuss submission opportunities and personal goals for the day, polish cover letters, stuff envelopes and/or hit the submit button. The party has grown to include an orientation on submitting and guest speakers on topics including literary citizenship, budgeting for first book prize submissions, residencies, and other topics of interest requested by Women Who Submit members. Women and nonbinary writers come to submission parties with their best writing or even to submit residency, fellowship, and grant applications. There are over twenty chapters across the nation. Xochitl-Julisa is currently at the helm of all local operations and has been integral to expanding supports provided by Women Who Submit. Thus far, Women Who Submit has been well-received and a noted asset to resources available to women writers venturing into publishing. I now serve as a VIDA board member, and it has been helpful and promising to see a proactive response like Women Who Submit’s submission parties to the VIDA Count [an annual survey of women writers].