‘I Dreamt of Writing about Heartbreak and Love’: Skye Jackson in Conversation with Scarlett Sabet
Skye Jackson is a poet from New Orleans, whose 2019 debut chapbook A Faster Grave won the Antenna Prize, and who recently won the AWP Intro Journals Award for Poetry, an award to celebrate new poetic work, administered by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
Skye is interviewed by UK-based poet and performer Scarlett Sabet, author of four poetry collections: Rocking Underground (2014), The Lock And The Key (2016), Zoreh (2018), and Camille (2019), as well as the 2019 spoken word album Catalyst.
The following piece looks at the poetry of New Orleans, at influences in life and in poetry, and also features a brand new, previously unpublished poem from Jackson.
What was your earliest memory growing up in New Orleans?
My earliest memory of New Orleans has to be driving around the city with my parents. My mom and dad used to take my little brother and I on these night rides, especially on nights when we couldn’t sleep. We’d go Uptown and ride down St. Charles Avenue looking at all the huge houses (that I always dreamt of living in!), Magazine Street to see all of the closed shops, quiet and dark, and of course the French Quarter! I especially remember cruising along the Lakefront in New Orleans East. In my mind’s eye I can still see the way that the moonlight sparkled atop the restless waves. It was always so peaceful being close to the water; although at some level, even as a young child, I also understood the wildness and unpredictability of it as a force of nature.
When you grow up in New Orleans, you quickly learn to make peace with things that you can’t control. You learn to coexist with those things. The most memorable thing about these drives, though, was the music that my parents would play. My dad was more into R&B, while my mom liked more folksy and rock music. Because of that, I’ve come to associate certain musical artists with New Orleans – artists like Sade, Dusty Springfield, or even Selena. My mom was always listening to music by these women so whenever I hear their songs, they instantly transport me back to those night drives.
Wow, that sounds so evocative, and something about the motion of the car, the sights you must have come across, and the rhythm of the music, it all seems very conducive to creating poems. Did you write as a child? What was the first poem you were conscious of writing?
I actually didn’t start writing poems until I was about fourteen years old. Before that I really considered myself a visual artist. You could always find me in a corner drawing cartoon characters or gowns that I saw princesses wearing in Disney films. I always wrote little short stories because I read voraciously but poetry was not something I came to until I was in high school. My mom signed me up for a prestigious Creative Writing program for high school students at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts… and I was so mad! I wanted to paint and draw! But my mom sat me down and she said, ‘Skye, you’re a writer.’ I just didn’t understand, and to this day I’m still not so sure why she was so convinced! But I went to my writing audition, passed with flying colours and they accepted me into the program. So I’ve been writing poetry ever since.
The first poem that I remember writing at around that time was about going to the beach. I figured that I should tackle something tangible, so I wrote this little beach poem. I always had aspirations, even then, to write about love, romantic love. Although it was something I hadn’t experienced at that point, and wouldn’t for some time until my late teens. I dreamt of writing about heartbreak and love but I didn’t really have any experience or authenticity to bring to that. So I looked to my crushes to start scratching at the surface. I recorded everything in journals back then, so I would write poems about my crushes and the hopes of one day getting to experience the thrill of falling in love.
I love your collection A Faster Grave (published by Antenna Press). Your writing is intimate and accessible and laced with sensuality and humour. Case in point the title poem A Faster Grave made me chuckle. These poems document the domestic and the sublime. Please tell me about how the collection came to be.
Thank you so much, Scarlett. That means the world coming from you! I started writing what would become A Faster Grave when I lived in Los Angeles. I was coming off of this rather dark period in my life where I hadn’t been writing poetry at all.
It sounds strange to say but I started writing again because I fell in love. It was like I got hit with a ton of bricks! For a long time, I’d felt extremely numb and I just couldn’t write. But when I fell in love I began to thaw. I started feeling again. I started noticing and observing the world around me again. Suddenly, I had to pay attention to everything. I was happy and I wanted to capture it somehow. I’d be in bed while he was making breakfast or journaling while he was hanging up drapes and I just felt so inspired. It felt so thrilling and pure to be in love and have the capacity to convey it. I wrote so many poems to him and about him. These are most of the love and heartbreak poems that you see in A Faster Grave.
It really started out as me trying to put my finger on how it feels and what it means to fall in love. I am so intrigued by the dualities of love: when you are drawn to someone’s light but also get close enough to them to see their darkness as well as your own. The family poems in A Faster Grave touch on that as well. There are poems like ‘a faster grave’ about family, or the domestic life, that feel warm and lighthearted. Then there are ones like ‘blackbirds singing in the dead’ that feel almost as though there’s a ghost floating through the room. There’s a deep sadness, haunting, and emptiness there.
The collection ultimately came together once I moved back home to New Orleans to attend graduate school at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. I heard about a chapbook contest that a local press was putting on. But there was a catch: you had to collaborate with an artist so that the manuscript would also have a visual component. I had tons of poems but no art! With only a week to spare before the deadline for the contest, I contacted my ex-boyfriend, Angel Perdomo, a well-known artist in the New Orleans area and asked if he would help me. Luckily, he agreed to draw the images I needed for the book even though it was on insanely short notice. Without his images A Faster Grave might not have ever happened!
Looking back, it all feels like it happened rather serendipitously: a recent ex inspired the poems and an older ex drew the images that would accompany them!
What a sequence of events. The love, sensuality, and tension are weaved into the collection.
We recently chatted about the sometimes tyrannical nature of social media (you mentioned someone had demanded to know why you hadn’t posted something for Martin Luther King Day). Social media has had it’s benefits and downfalls over the past few years, socially and politically. I really enjoyed your poem ‘A Coffee With B’ and the illustration that accompanies it. In it you say:
B, why is so much expected
of the artist?
you shouldn’t have to talk
about black people if you
dont want to.
maybe you wanna sing
about squidfish or climate change
or the fact that nobody actually
talks face-to-face anymore.
I loved this poem so much, and you capture the weight and whimsicalness of being an artist, a poet in particular, during these times. Was there a particular moment or event that was the catalyst for you writing this particular poem?
I love to imagine myself in conversation with famous artists or figures. There’s something almost therapeutic about it. It allows me to let my imagination or my psyche say things that I probably wouldn’t. Sometimes I tend to think that so much of what we do as artists relies upon expectation – what we think other people will like and respond to. The role of the artist deeply intrigues me. I often wonder what I’m supposed to say. I remember Jericho Brown, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for The Tradition, once told me that it is my responsibility as a poet to tell the truth. I really try to hold close to that and execute that in my own work and pursuit of art. It is not always easy and I find myself feeling vulnerable having to expose myself in that way. I think that ‘channelling’ conversations with famous figures through my work helps to take a little bit of pressure off of myself. So, to answer your question, it wasn’t inspired by a particular moment but rather my own exploration of what the role of the artist is supposed to be.
I actually discovered Jericho Brown through you! I was very moved by his poem ‘Bullet Points’. What other poets/writers are you enjoying at the moment, or find yourself returning to?
Ah! That makes me so happy that I could be the one to introduce you to Jericho Brown’s work. He is truly an inspiration to me in so many ways as a poet. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and interview him on several occasions. One of the last times I spoke with him I asked him what my purpose is as a poet. His response will stay with me forever. ‘Your responsibility as a poet is to tell the truth,’ he said. Truly words to live (and write!) by.
Right now, I’m a little all over the place! I’ve been working on my thesis, a collection of the poems that I’ve written during my tenure in graduate school. As a result, I’m revisiting poets who have had a huge influence on my work up until this point. A poet whose work I’ve always clung to and have really been relying on through this thesis project is Toi Derricotte. Whenever I read Toi’s work I feel so seen. In my mind I think, ‘Now that is what I’m trying to do!’ Our concerns are very similar. She writes about race, trauma, and perception in this really heartbreaking and vivid way. I strive to do the same.
Another poet who is never far from me is Frank O’Hara. I don’t think I’d be a poet if not for his influence when I first began writing years ago. I love O’Hara’s ability to paint a scene – he wrote with such a delicious intimacy and an eye for the small moments that make up a life. I’m very drawn to his voice. When I read his poetry, I feel like I’m having a warm conversation with a very close friend. He gives you the room to breathe and listen. So Lunch Poems is pretty much always somewhere within arm’s reach. His work brings me tremendous comfort.
Congratulations on winning the 2021 AWP Intro Journals Award! I also just read and loved your essay ‘Unexpected Places: In The Pool’, the accompanying poem to which gave me shivers. What is next on the horizon for you?
Thank you so much! I actually just graduated from the University New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop with my MFA, so I’ve been in rest mode. I am really excited to start new work and begin writing new poems; that will likely be my next endeavour. Meanwhile, I’ve just been busy being a good literary citizen, interviewing other poets and writing reviews of their work. My goal is to publish my first full-length debut collection of poetry, so hopefully I can find a good home for my work.
[the boys with dead mothers get better with time]
the boys with dead mothers get better with time. the white boy in law school eluded me – like a flash of light in murky water. hid me away in study rooms, or his parents’ mississippi mansion like a letter that wasn’t supposed to be read. or when i asked him about the book in his car, the goldfinch, after we spent the night together. he told me it was about a boy and a painting. not a boy and his dead mother. how years later, it would all make sense. in l.a. the boy with the dead mother begged me not to leave him the first night we met. over louis armstrong and wine he kissed me and just said: stay. in new orleans, the boy with the dead mother tells me that he missed his mother’s gravy at my parent’s house this past thanksgiving. he asks me if we can roast a chicken to replicate the thickness of the sauce: the way she smeared seasoning all over the chicken. the way he and his father fought over the bacon she laid tender over the breasts like blankets. why do i love boys whose mothers are dead? what am i hoping that they see in me? what am i hoping that they don’t?
Skye Jackson was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has served as a poetry editor for Bayou Magazine, French Quarter Journal & Tilted House. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, Green Mountains Review, RATTLE and elsewhere. Her debut chapbook, A Faster Grave, won the 2019 Antenna Prize. She was a finalist for the 2020 RATTLE Poetry Prize. In 2021 she won the AWP Intro Journals Award and was twice nominated for Best New Poets. Poets & Writers has recognised her as a New Orleans ‘Poet to Watch’. To buy Jackson’s award-winning chapbook A Faster Grave, visit: www.antenna.works/product/a-faster-grave/
Scarlett Sabet is a London-based writer and poet, author of four poetry, collections as well as the spoken word album Catalyst, released in the winter of 2019. Described in The Telegraph as ‘a rising star in the world of poetry’ Scarlett is currently working with the Keats Shelley Memorial Association on a two-year creative project to celebrate the 200-year anniversary since the death of the romantic poets John Keats and Percy-Byssche Shelley, and recently read at the Bologna Book Fair in an event honouring the legacy of the poet Dante Alighieri. For more on Scarlett Sabet, visit: www.scarlettsabet.com/
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