Didi Jackson is the author of Moon Jar (Red Hen Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, New England Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. After having lived most of her life in Florida, she currently lives in South Burlington, Vermont, teaching creative writing at the University of Vermont.
Benjamin Aleshire: Didi, our plans to meet in Vermont for this interview seem to have been foiled by a sudden outbreak of plague. I’m writing to you now from LaGuardia airport, where knots of anxious passengers are rubbing Purell into their hands as if trying to warm themselves over invisible fires, mouths clapped shut by surgical masks. This is how I opened your debut collection of poems, Moon Jar—with No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” blaring, walkie-talkies popping and crackling around me, and disembodied voices making their annunciations over unseen loudspeakers. At first, I worried this was not the proper way to come to poetry—especially since I’d encountered poems from Moon Jar in workshop with the Vermont School, so I was already aware of the book’s vibrating, so to speak, with profound grief and loss. And yet, as I moved through the poems, the racket and dread of my surroundings melted away, and I found myself quite alone with the work—other than my own flocks of griefs, wheeling overhead.
The opening poem, “Signs for the Living,” accomplishes what seems to me to be a magic trick in its final stanza. After a series of subtly disquieting omens, the speaker declares, “The first few years after my husband’s suicide / I wanted to be the penitent / I thought I deserved all the pain I could feel”—and then pivots, astonishingly, into assurance: “Now the yellow center lines are flung like braids behind me.” I think of this as a magic trick in the sense that this single, disparate image manages to hold all the others that came before and recast them into something more hopeful, if hard-won. As the road worker’s sign in the second stanza attests, “Joy and sorrow run in parallel lines.” The first time I read this poem, the sensation of the ending was akin to watching a sky-diving pilot at an air-show pull up, impossibly, at the very last instant. I’m curious—did this poem come about through many drafts or flow out all at once?
Didi Jackson: Ooooh. I like the idea of the pilot pulling up at the last moment. That was the emotional decision I made after my husband’s suicide. I had a 13-year-old son to care for and needed to keep our lives together, the lives my husband almost shattered by the choice he made. I don’t mean to vilify the mentally ill, but I was not going to let him destroy my son’s life or mine. The yellow braids are that moment when I decided to move forward (or pull up, as you say in your metaphor of the pilot), to be open to what the future would bring me. The poem “Signs for the Living” came to me in two different attempts. After leaving Florida in 2016, my new husband, poet Major Jackson, and I bought a home deep in the Green Mountains of Vermont, a home previously owned by the minimalist composer Steve Reich and his wife the video artist Beryl Korot. This poem was the first one I wrote in that physical space. It was summer and the moths were blanketing the windows seeking the inside light. My friend Michele Randall was up visiting from Florida, and we decided to sit and work and write together. We have a long history of doing what we call “social poetry,” which is writing poems while sitting at the same table, bouncing ideas off each other. I wrote half the poem one night with her and then the second half a few weeks later. Of course, after it was finished, stanzas and lines needed a little moving around. I think the line with the yellow braids came earlier in the original draft, and when the editor of the New Yorker, Paul Muldoon, took the poem, he suggested I move that line to the end. I was thrilled for that particular poem to be in the New Yorker, and I would have done anything he said! I am happy that it had a large audience, even beyond the book itself. My hope is that others who have suffered as survivors of suicide loss will read the book and see my story as a way through their pain and into new life.
A friend of mine recently said that my handling of grief in my book is like “a stunned silence, a bomb ringing in your ears,” which seems to sum up your experience with Moon Jar in the middle of LaGuardia airport. What strange days these are. I can only hope our art helps to hold them and us together. It is the soul of our country I most fear for these days.
BA: Your publisher, Red Hen Press, sent me an advance copy of Moon Jar, but I happened to be in Vermont this March and bumped into you at Kerrin McCadden’s house, where you presented me with an official copy (during a raucous round of the boardgame Secret Hitler—the liberals, I’m sorry to report, did not carry the day). Not only is the cover art even more gorgeous full size (a monoprint by Jane Kent), but the text changes here and there as well. I noticed the book’s dedication shifts from ARC to final copy, for example, as if revision itself can be an act of letting go, of moving on. Tell me about your process in readying the final manuscript—and what was the moment like when everything fell into place?
DJ: It was really good to see you that evening! One of the last gatherings I experienced before everything shut down and the world so drastically changed. What a fun night celebrating and enjoying each other’s presence. Who could have known that afterwards, we’d all have to visit each other through tiny boxes on our computers?
About the manuscript, there were several last-minute changes. One of the most notable was my choice to change the dedication. Though I owe so much to my son, in the end I decided not to dedicate my book to him because I did not want him to be straddled once again with the narrative of his step-father’s suicide. Instead, I dedicated it to Major who I (re)met and fell in love with not long after my late husband’s death. It was with Major that I traveled to Greece and eventually found my way to a new life in Vermont. So, I felt that it was appropriate to dedicate it to him. He figures largely throughout the book. I don’t have many poems about my son. In this instance and as always, I feel very protective of him. Even before I lost my husband to suicide, I questioned the morality of poets writing about their children without their consent. Although there were only two poems about my son in my manuscript, I asked him if he was alright with them both being out in the world. He said he was.
The feeling of full completion came as I added a few last poems that I felt absolutely needed to go with the collection and got the thumbs-up on using Jane Kent’s beautiful monotype “Endless XVIII.” In both tone and shape, I felt that her work fit so completely with the title Moon Jar. But something very unexpected happened on the day Moon Jar was released. Rather than feel relieved or excited, I was full of dread. I thought, “What have I done? Does the world really need to know my pain? The pain of my late husband? Does the world really need more pain?” On April 21, we were deep in the middle of the pandemic, self-isolating, and afraid. I feared that I was only bringing more pain to a world already full of suffering. I still wonder about that sometimes, but thankfully many readers have reached out and thanked me for being brave enough to tell my story. Suicide, unfortunately, touches everyone in one way or another. And to address your question directly, I don’t think “letting go” will ever be possible. I know you meant with the completion of the book, but just as the scar from my husband’s suicide will always stay with me, so too will my first book about that topic.
BA: The book’s title refers to a form of Korean porcelain: moon-shaped jars made by the firing and joining of two imperfect halves, leaving a seam visible along its circumference. Or scar, I can’t help thinking. For me, this central metaphor of the moon jar also came to feel like a container itself, something to hold the weight of the poems. Other jar images do weave in and out of the book, though: “I wanted to burn the holding room, jar and sell the ashes”—or the “killing jar” used to dispatch butterflies. Could you describe how the title came to you?
DJ: The idea of the moon jar came late to me. I had to work my way to it. The title poem is the last poem in the collection and represents my choice to endure, given my grief and the hundreds of unanswered questions I have concerning my husband’s suicide. I taught art history for many years, and I still teach writing about visual art at the University of Vermont. I have long admired the idea of the moon jar and how its symbolism can encompass so much. Artists have been creating moon jars since the 14th century in Korea. The final product is beloved for its imperfections. The warping on the wheel and any pocks or spots it receives while being fired are actually desirable traits. Random or potentially inevitable imperfection is preferred! Wow. That is truly what I want for everyone. It is what I want for myself. And it is what I would have wanted for my deceased husband: to be loved for who we are. We try so hard to be perfect, so much so that we fabricate elements of our lives on screens and present them to the world as flawless. But to be loved and even admired for the parts of us that aren’t perfect, that is beautiful. As ceramic artist Young Sook Park, who has taken up the art of creating contemporary moon jars as a way to contribute to Korea’s cultural and historical identity, so perfectly states, “A perfect union happens when the top and the bottom surrender their individual selves and reach a compromise to exist forever as one.”
BA: In case you’re curious to know, “The Almond Bush” is where I lost it. Began weeping, I mean—as the speaker hears her departed husband calling from the garden. But the poem also offers a very pointed question: “What is the difference between surviving and living?” It’s a question the poem refuses to answer, though I believe the rest of the book answers it. As a poet, do you find that you compartmentalize the narrative or descriptive elements first, and then weave in philosophical textures afterwards, in revision? Or does inquiry, and the “broadening” of the poem, find its way in the first draft? In your work, this forging of the two seems seamless, somehow, and yet the seam is smiling right there in front of us, like a moon jar.
DJ: In those early days just after my husband’s death, I thought anything was possible. I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking earlier that spring, well before I was a widow. I was reading it after consoling a friend of mine whose husband had recently died by suicide. Never did I think that in only a few months, I too would be sharing her sorrow and grief and confusion. Didion truly captures the strange way our mind helps us to cope with unimaginable despair. In her instance, she couldn’t give away her dead husband’s shoes for fear he would need them when he returned home. For me, it was circling the stone path in the backyard that my husband and I laid together the year before. I would walk and listen late into the night, certain he was speaking to me from the afterlife through the wind chimes. It might sound crazy, but I was desperate for any connection to him again.
I like how you phrase “philosophical textures.” Believe it or not, they come to me as I am writing the poems. I recently listened to Sharon Olds speak about her writing process, and, like her, I am never sure where a poem is headed once I start. It reveals itself to me as I write. I guess those larger philosophical textures are with me always: while driving my car, cooking dinner, cleaning up the house, going for long walks. And they emerge or bubble up to my consciousness when I start to write. (By the way, I should say that walking is a huge part of my writing process; anyone who knows me knows I go for long walks almost every day and cannot sit still when writing. I leave my desk and move around and walk the house after almost every line I write! I’m doing it now as I write this!) Currently, I am especially interested in death and how we live our lives parallel to death yet culturally try really hard to ignore it! Our food looks nothing like the animal that was killed in order to feed us. We perform all kinds of cosmetic acrobatics in order to look young. I think about the dead almost every day. I think about my own death too. Maybe that’s why I have to keep moving?
BA: Paintings populate the book’s landscape—the speaker imagines herself vandalizing the Guernica of her grief, ruminates on which “Boschian beasts” her husband might encounter in the afterlife, and Rothko’s loaded Untitled 1969 appears later on, another coming together of halves. And “Forgetting the Masters” is a title any poet can be unabashed in their envy of. Was ekphrasis a form that came to those poems naturally, or was it a sort of visual order you imposed here and there as a way to try to contain their anguish? Or neither?
DJ: By teaching art history, I found that visual art naturally started to become a metaphor for my own emotions. So, ekphrasis emerged easily and organically for me in relationship to my grief and the circumstances revealed in the book. In a way, it is how my brain orders the world. I don’t need to impose such a system; it happens on its own. Even the first poem in the collection, “Almost Animal,” perceivably emerged from a lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz of a mother holding the body of her dead son. The boy’s face is that of Kollwitz’s own son who, tragically, will die years later in World War I. Here, in this example, death is an immediate and newly acknowledged reality. Its power can transform anyone faced with such horrific comprehension into an animal. In that moment, we lose our mind. We lose our composure. All that is left is our instinct.
BA: Despite the warning in the Toi Derricotte quotation that begins the book—”I cannot help but feel responsible for your discomfort. So as you read, you will feel me tugging it from your hands”—the text of Moon Jar as a whole mirrors the feat performed in the first poem, of pivoting from grief to joy in a way that doesn’t feel contrived at all, but wholly earned: “The rest of that year / crawled to me as if out of hiding.” To me, the book is very much a book of love poems, one that ranges from feverish, elegiac love poems to sensuous ones. There are many grief books out there, and it’s the breadth of Moon Jar that makes it so rewarding for me as a reader. Maybe this is a too-broad question, but could you tell me a bit about how you feel about love poetry, today? And what sort of poems you’re working on now? I know there must be an element of fatigue in discussing all the pain in the book, and I wouldn’t want its happiness (its testament to the possibility of happiness) to go uncelebrated here.
DJ: Ben, I want to really thank you for understanding and acknowledging what it is like to go back to this place of heartbreak. It does wear on me. But the book ends in a completely different place than it begins. Like Gregory Orr says in Poetry as Survival, writing the lyric poem gave me the power to make sense of and put an order to my life when it was completely out of my control. He says poetry will sustain us and explain us and make us brave. In this way, we become active participants in events that otherwise would just happen to us. And I’m so happy that you recognize that often the ugly, painful side of a story can outweigh any beauty. All of my suffering lead to my life now. And here I am. I can’t be anywhere or anyone else. I am happy to hear you celebrating my joy too. That’s it! I teach my students that love poetry is some of the hardest poetry to write. Poems about love just aren’t easily received. Why is it that we so often are very happy to join in on misery but not joy? Love poems get labeled as overly sentimental. What about Pablo Neruda, Li-Young Lee, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Linda Gregg, Frank O’Hara, and Maggie Nelson, all of whom have written some of the most celebrational love poems I know! I get very excited to read fervent, even ecstatic words about love.
The poems I’m working on now find me in the natural world. I was born on the first Earth Day. I have been teased all of my life for my interest in the natural world. I could imitate bird calls at a young age, collected all kinds of wildlife from the lake in my backyard in Florida, and rarely was indoors. This return to the natural world will come with criticism, I know. Many don’t want animals and natural spaces to serve as metaphors for humans. We have already done so much damage to the earth. I understand. Maybe by doing so, we are adding to the damage? But I am most interested in life and death and how it plays out in nature (us included, of course). Some call nature violent. But rather, I think it is unceremonial. That seems violent to us, to die without ceremony. The instincts that dictate behavior in say, swallowtails puddling on dirt roads or multiple garter snakes writhing in a small mound on a rocky cliff, fascinate me. Is it often instinct that leads animals (and us) to our own demise?
BA: Since Adroit was founded by a high school student and enjoys a strong multigenerational readership, do you have any final advice for younger/emerging poets? I realize that’s somewhat of a pesky, perennial question posed to authors, so I’ll reframe it: if you could telephone yourself across the years, as you first sat down to begin the poems which became Moon Jar—what would you say?
DJ: Oh God! (I might actually say just that!) I guess I would like to prepare myself for the commodification of one’s own tragedy. I began writing the poems simply as a way to live, to push back against chaos. Then what do you do with poems? You submit them. If you are lucky, they find homes in various literary journals. And you keep writing as a way to live. Then what do you do with a collection of poems? You try to publish a book. And, again, if you are lucky, the book is bought. You hope the book is well received and is bought by many! But then you step outside the process and realize that that means “many” will be reading and knowing your very difficult story. “Many” will know your husband chose death over you. I guess I would want to encourage my younger self to grow thicker skin. To remember why I started writing any of this. To remember that these poems might help someone somewhere.