You never know where time will take you.
When the news broke that Angela Jackson, an acclaimed Chicago poet who found her voice during the ’60s Black Arts Movement, had been selected as the state’s fifth poet laureate, it felt surreal.
I met Jackson in 1990, when she was teaching poetry at Columbia College Chicago. Although we were close in age, she was the professor and I was the student trying to find my own voice.
It was Jackson who awakened in me a lifelong love for poetry.
To this day, the rich lines of Lucille Clifton’s poems are my comfort food, and Jackson’s introduction to the works of Dylan Thomas was a precious gift.
I had no idea that her name was in the mix for Illinois poet laureate, which really speaks to how underrated she is despite winning top awards and prizes for her wide-ranging body of work.
Even though Jackson has won numerous awards as a poet, author, playwright and biographer, compared to a lot of other poets, she has worked in near obscurity outside the Black Arts community.
But as noted in the state’s press release, Jackson has received the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, a Pushcart Prize, the Illinois Center for the Book Heritage Award, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Fuller Award and two American Book Awards.
As poet laureate, Jackson follows in the footsteps of Howard B. Austin (1936), Carl Sandburg (1962-1967), Gwendolyn Brooks (1968-2000) and Kevin Stein (2003-2017). Gov. J.B. Pritzker posthumously named John Prine an honorary poet laureate in June.
Haki Madhubuti, a renowned author, poet, publisher and educator who was competing for the same honor, has nothing but praise for Jackson.
“She is one of the finest poets in the country and has been involved in the struggle since the ’60s. She is one of the leaders of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBA-C) in Chicago,” Madhubuti told me on Friday.
The late Hoyt W. Fuller, an editor, educator, critic and author established OBA-C in the ’60s during the height of the Black Arts Movement.
Jackson’s appointment is not only a personal achievement; it is a celebration of Black Arts.
Madhubuti’s Third World Press published Jackson’s first book of poetry, “Voo Doo/Love Magic,” in 1974, and her latest novel, “Miracle and The Fellas,” in 2018.
“She has stayed strong and stayed focused on representing the best of Black culture,” Madhubuti said.
Jackson’s first poem as Illinois poet laureate was published on Thursday in the New York Times as part of that publication’s “Giving Thanks” feature. Here is an excerpt:
“We give thanks —
For red cardinals that appear
For violets, pristine and tender,
And tall white oaks
The weight of midwestern winds
Moving across the prairie
“It was published on my mother’s birthday,” Jackson told me in a phone interview.
As poet laureate, Jackson has big plans.
“My goal is to bring excitement around poetry to young people and older people, too.
“I hope to be able to establish ambassadorships to send young poets in their 20s and 30s to elementary and high schools throughout the state to do residencies and to share poetry with students and to help students write poems that will foster a love of poetry. Hopefully, they will be lifelong readers of poetry and potential poets themselves,” she said.
Jackson also wants to establish a “college prize of $1,000” for undergraduate or graduate students that would be underwritten by her sister.
Talking with Jackson took me back to the days when I sat in her classroom and listened to poets she would invite to read, like the late Carolyn M. Rodgers.
If there were no guest reader, Jackson would often treat us to a spontaneous reading.
“VooDoo/Love Magic” was a favorite:
I’m gon put a hex on you
work some voo-doo magic
I’mma mess wid you…”
Have you hearing my voice/
In the wind
Into yo head—”
And she did.