Emotions ran high at the poetry showcase at the Downtown Barnes & Noble earlier this month. It was somehow intimate, despite the corporate bookstore setting. A young writer recited a poem about self-love, captivating a few shoppers who stopped to listen.
“Many Voices, One Tribe,” a non-profit founded by local author Reagan Jackson, will bring this group of young writers of color to Mexico this summer, for two weeks of workshops, cultural experiences and language immersion. The reading was a fundraiser to help get them there.
After the performance I sat down with Jackson to talk about a life of art, activism, travel and words.
What inspired you to start “Many Voices One Tribe”?
“It has been my dream for a long time. The first time I went abroad, I traveled to Senegal at 16 years old. Going from Madison, Wisconsin to Senegal was a big change. It was completely different and blew my mind.”
“From that trip I realized that any limitation I felt was non-existent. There was a big paradigm shift, sparking my desire to travel and see the world.”
But Jackson also learned there weren’t a lot of opportunities for young people of color to travel abroad.
“I also traveled to the South of Spain for one year. It was here where I experienced a lot. The group that I traveled with consisted of roughly thirty white women and a few men.”
“I had a completely different experience than them during my time there. My identity was questioned and there was not an understanding of my experiences among the group. There was no fear for them in the way that there was fear for me.”
What sparked your interest in writing?
“My mother is a professor and my childhood home was very academic minded. She would read books that put an emphasis on reading to your children.”
The idea was to encourage your children to read, but Jackson says she responded differently.
“For me it was kind of the opposite. She would read to me, and when it was time for me to learn, I thought: “You read everything to me, I do not really need to know!”
“My mother went on to tell me that if I wanted to be a writer, it would be vital to learn how to read. Then I learned.”
When is writing hard?
“About six years ago, I read a book by Walter Mosley titled, ‘This is the Year you write your Novel.’ After reading it, I wrote my first novel within seven months. I had been trying to write a novel since childhood before picking up with book.”
“After four revisions, I queried people to read my book and distribute it, only to receive many rejection letters. This discouraged me from publishing, but not from writing.”
“Writing for me is constantly there. It’s how I process, how I think. It’s what I do when I wake up in the morning, and it is what I do before I go to bed. It is not external anymore.”
How do you stay motivated?
“Improvement keeps me motivated. From time to time, I will go back and read writings from a couple years ago. Maybe a journal with poems or others writings, and I will just be astounded at the fact that I wrote something that great.”
“Every once in a while I am able to capture a moment or an experience, or write the right words for what I want to say, which keeps me motivated.”
She says a live audience also inspires her and she performs at the occasional poetry slam around town.
“There is some kind of special alchemy that happens when you are in front of a crowd”.
You’ve published three collections of poetry. How has poetry shaped you as a writer?
“Poetry has allowed me to be free to experiment without the worry of using correct grammar.”
“Being the daughter of a professor and the granddaughter of an English teacher, I grew up in a household where grammar was really important. I love that poetry does not follow the rules. It allows me to feel free.”
Is there any advice you would give to young writers of color?
“Write every chance you get; very often and all the time. Others may not understand your writing, but it is vital to continue writing your own stories and to ‘write ourselves into the stories we wish we had read.’”
“Self-love is everything. It is something that is fundamental, not heavily valued in our society. It is vital to self-preservation and to considering equality in a space.”
As a young writer of color I know how it feels to be discouraged. It is hard finding people who look like you to look up to. But Jackson is just that — an embodiment of a great mentor and role model not just for writers of color, but for all writers.