Ashaki M. Jackson

“My work reverses the lens —it watches the witnesses, the YouTube viewers, and God while critiquing the practice of trialing civilians by gunfire.”

Jackson

Surveillance (Writ Large Press, 2016)

What’s your chapbook about?

Surveillance speaks to the execution videos that have become a part of our collective (national) memory. Specifically, the poems respond to the virtual record of police killing unarmed Blacks with impunity. My work reverses the lens —it watches the witnesses, the YouTube viewers, and God while critiquing the practice of trialing civilians by gunfire.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I started the collection with a prose poem – a form with which I am least comfortable. My goal at the time was to briefly capture three simultaneous stories in the news. The inquiry into Freddie Gray’s rough ride in Baltimore was ongoing as the investigation into Sandra Bland’s death began. The discussion about Daniel Pantaleo’s use of a chokehold that resulted in Eric Garner’s death the year prior was slowing but still in the ticker tape. At best, I wanted to create a written montage that asked the reader to look, look and look. Instead, the poem became a warning: the capacity for forgiveness had been exceeded; there would be no more safety for police in these killings from here on. That poem is “Fulcrum: the support about which a lever turns; the part of an animal that serves as a hinge or support.” It was my core around which I wrote the remaining pieces of witness and critique.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I completed this manuscript while participating in Ross White’s The Grind Daily Writing Series. It was the demand of submitting one new or revised poem every day for one month to a faceless team of comrades that kept me accountable to this collection (and to my cohort). Previously, my regular morning writing practice was hijacked by emails, reports, and other adulthood booby-traps. The Grind told me that people were waiting for the work in whatever state it existed – dirty, with misspellings, enjambment-less, unfocused, mix-vernaculared but full of promise. After the month was over, I had pieces. I sorted the poems into three stacks – viable, no, and have hope. Surveillance is a combination of two of the three stacks.

My indispensible revision practices are to 1) read the work aloud for clarity and natural breaks, then 2) break the lines such that they tell distinct stories within the poem. The first sentence of my poem “The Public Examines Black Resilience and is Dissatisfied,” began as:

If you watch enough footage, you grow comfortable with a narrative: the Black body will die.

There are breaks at the punctuation when read aloud. It was fulfilling to also break lines such that the witness (“you”) had the potential to be an ally (to grow) – as all witnesses do – but became recumbent in the certainty of Black death with the body and the violence so physically distant from the witness.

If you watch enough footage   you grow

comfortable with a narrative:

 

the Black body will die

Reading the work aloud and looking for the minor stories in lines sometimes compete, which requires another level of revision: the compromise.

What are you working on now?

This chapbook is part of a growing manuscript. I am writing a section on people abandoning the movement toward eliminating police brutality because the stakes seem too high or they disagree with organizations’ strategies. (Think: the pushback and alienation that Black Lives Matter activists receive during their traffic-stopping tactic.) I think of this departure in terms of a romantic relationship, where deep investment and care are immediately forgone during a pivotal period in the partnership. This section of the book, tentatively called The Breaks, maintains the witness component of Surveillance and examines the public’s relationship to related movements.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

The chapbook can be a complete art object. If your thoughts are robust and complete in 20-30 pages, then put a period there and don’t suffer a longer collection that loses its richness. Put in the work to arrange your poems as you might for a longer collection because the reader will still need that guidance.

The chapbook can also be part of a longer project that you are announcing through its publication. That is, the short collection can alert a readership that a fuller story is forthcoming. Both strategies are beneficial and do not count against authors interested in submitting for first book prizes.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

My favorite part of the chapbook’s presentation is its shape. Writ Large Press designed the chapbooks to be no bigger than a CD case. They are palmable and feel clandestine to share. I am very comfortable giving these poems to the public. But, what if I were prevented from freedom of speech? The book’s size makes it easy to hand-off stealthily.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

In the Surveillance world, there would always be a witness to see our deeds and a universal community to whom we are accountable. It is like a world where everyone believes in the omnipresent God, has the capacity for shame and cares for others at the most rudimentary level. But, what we have is what we have. In this world, cameras and ego make up for our lack.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

Several journalists covering Ferguson, MO after Michael Brown’s death inspired this writing. Wesley Lowery was one of the journalists aggressively accosted by officers at a local McDonald’s for charging his phone and using the restaurant as a staging area along with another journalists. He continues to cover police brutality despite the topic’s gravity and his Blackness. I often question the self-care needed for Black men who are journalists to cover these stories.

Parts of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (inspired by actions taken against her son) and much of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen pushed my thinking about watching the witness, being the witness, and inhabiting other people’s stories. Facebook threads also informed my writing, particularly engagements between white men where one understood the racial underpinnings of policing in communities of color and the other did not. There is a book in those conversations. I’ve outlined that book, but I question if it is my responsibility to write it at all.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

I think of this collection as a short protest. I invite everyone to read it and would be moved if the families of those lost to police brutality had a moment with the collection. I’d like them to know that I am a witness—that I see and remember them, and that I will try to be vigilant in my activism through sharing these accounts, propping up those unanswered questions, and directing all proceeds from this chapbook’s sales to eliminate police brutality.

*

Ashaki M. Jackson is a social psychologist and poet. She is a Cave Canem alumna, co-founder of the Women Who Submit literary organization, and a regional curator for #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. Her work appears in CURA and Prairie Schooner, among other publications. A chapbook – Language Lesson is forthcoming from Miel. She lives in Los Angeles, California. Chapbook photo by Chiwan Choi. Author photo by Jason Gutierrez.

www.culturalweekly.com/author/ashaki

*

The Public Examines Black Resilience and is Dissatisfied

If you watch enough footage    you grow
comfortable with a narrative:

the Black body will die

You begin to see it coming
certain as morning    You become footage
critic and note where zoom and panning would be helpful
to the story

You ask the screen why the Black
body doesn’t get up
These deaths are viewed repeatedly
You still question was it murder    The footage confuses
the Law with the Soldier in Active Combat or the Hit Man
The officer confuses his role

You watch again    All
shots are loud     Who else heard?

You think of God

in the seconds before the Black body falls
[forward or backward]    You sit in a moment
of atheism    You ask the screen where is the Black body’s god
as if it is missing    God is there demanding
that the Black body get up    Like you
it is disappointed
that the black body    too    is human

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