It was great to hear, late last month, that Chicagoan Angela Jackson has been chosen as the new Illinois poet laureate.
Great because Jackson has never wavered from the mission she took on back in the late 1960s, when she was a nascent seed of a poet, nourished by the likes of Hoyt W. Fuller, Haki Madhubuti, Carolyn Rodgers, and Sterling Plumpp at the south-side arts hot house that was OBAC—the Organization of Black American Culture.
“I became a writer, capital W, because of OBAC,” Jackson told me last week. “It was a sacred space,” where work was presented and rigorously critiqued. “We didn’t have to follow the rules of Western literature, but it had to be true to the Black experience and true as a piece—the way jazz does not follow classical rules but it still has to be true in and of itself, creatively true, on its own terms.”
Also great because Jackson’s still with us. In June, Governor J.B. Pritzker made singer/songwriter John Prine the state’s first honorary poet laureate. It was recognition richly deserved, for lyrics we can’t forget: “You know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder every day / Old people just grow lonesome . . .”
But it was a posthumous honor: Prine died of COVID-19 in April.
Here’s Jackson, starting from the same subject (from “Miz Sheba Williams: As told to This Reporter from the Community News Front”):
There was murder outside my door.
And no use for age.
Too many twisted in a twisting rage
Or praying they way into designer
so they can wear somebody else’s
name on they behind.
A brand name.
My mama told me enough
about the days of wearing
somebody else’s name.
There have been just four previous poet laureates. The first was Howard B. Austin, whose satirical ditty urging 57-year-old confirmed bachelor governor Henry Horner to wed inspired the creation of the laureate post in 1936. (“If he aspires to greater heights / He needs must take a wife,” is how that one went.)
Carl Sandburg had the title from 1962 to ’67, and Jackson’s mentor Gwendolyn Brooks held it for more than three decades (she was “my role model and guardian angel,” Jackson says). The most recent laureate was Kevin Stein (2003-2017).
Jackson’s a prolific writer in multiple genres—her body of work includes four poetry books, three novels, four plays, and a Gwendolyn Brooks biography—and she’s collected an armload of literary honors. Since we last spoke, after her first novel was published, she’s added an MFA in creative writing and literature from Bennington College to the master’s she already had from the University of Chicago.
She told me she thought the second master’s degree would help her get a better job, “but it didn’t.” Which brings up a question that I (not she) would like to raise. Poets are legendarily impoverished. Unless, like Prine, they’re able to put their words to music, they’re not likely to make even a pittance from them. When I asked Jackson, now 69, what’s been the hardest part of her writer’s life, she said, “Not having much money. I’ve not been one of those lucky writers who had a very secure job,” though, “if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to write as much as I’ve written.”
“It’s been a trade-off,” she said, though not one she’d change: “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
Still, here’s my question: The poet laureate job, if it’s done right, is time- and energy-consuming (with lots of appearances, projects, and interviews like this one), but it pays nothing. Couldn’t we create a stipend for it? Nothing that would seriously impact Illinois’s multibillion-dollar debt load, but enough to, say, provide reasonable compensation for time put in?
And, while we’re at it, how about changing the selection process, which had the state’s first lady perusing recommendations from a search committee and making the final choice. No reflection on M.K. Pritzker, who was ostensibly responsible for this admirable pick, but I can’t think of any reason why the gubernatorial spouse should be the decider. Holiday decorations in the governor’s mansion? OK. Poet laureate? There must be a better way. v