OKCUPID, GENTLE CREATURES AND THE TONGUE OF GOD: major jackson at uc berkeley
When I first met Major Jackson, it was at an event that I like to call, with the dishonesty of hindsight, the sycophantic shitshow sonnet. We were in the East Village, at the KGB bar, crammed between small round tables and young poets in skinny jeans, waiting to hear Erin Bilieu and Brenda Shaughnessy read. Not a soul in the bar was paying attention to me. When I tried to introduce myself, young folks pretended to stare through me and older folks looked at me pityingly or lecherously, as if I were a young wannabe poet who hadn’t yet learned the art of jade. The people I had come with were too high on poetry to pay any attention to the fact that no one in the room cared about anyone who wasn’t famous, and when I caught their eyes over the heads of the studiously aloof patrons of the bar they looked wild, their irises rimmed in white. Later that evening I was appalled when, at the after-party at the bar across the street, a girl from the New School who had not yet introduced herself to me reached over, in the middle of a self-imposed and exclusive poetry workshop, to eat the food directly from my plate.
Then, from the parting waves of bored bodies came the warm, smiling face of Major Jackson. He took my hand, introduced himself, and leaned in when I told him I was a poet. To him, I was clearly a poet, and a person worth talking to, despite my lack of a book, tenure-track position, or appropriate jeans. The small gesture of humanity in a bar full of sycophants superseded the required level of gratitude and instead translated into pure, unadulterated admiration. Thirty seconds into knowing Major Jackson, I was ready to provide a character witness for him in a court of law.
Could I dare to hope that seeing my face again in the vast opulence of Wheeler Hall, room 315, might trigger Major’s memory of that abysmal night? I sat in the back, watched his face as he scanned the room, and was silent as he began to read.
It is not hard to fall in love with Major’s poetry: from the assuredness of home (“the houses on my block sleep like turtles”) to the vulnerability of the speakers (“Freedom is a crater I keep falling in”) to the beauty of conversation between urban people of color in doorways smoking their first joints (“I said I wanted to be a poet. My friend said to me so you want the tongue of God.”), his work leisurely works the landscape of urbanity and rhythm like the quiet mouths of goats grazing over vast acreage.
The evening came to a halt for me when Major began to read a poem he called “OkCupid”, which he describes as being written in the manner of ‘procedural poetics’; this meaning, as I could gather, that something begets something that begets something, and the somethings are almost always abstractions. Major began “OkCupid” by saying “If you find yourself entering this poem, or identifying with the categories in this poem, know that categories are not you.” The poem explored the different categories one must identify with to be a part of the online dating site OkCupid, about how answering questions about categories then places you in a category that calculates your match percentages with other categories. Major Jackson clearly finds this notion ridiculous; how could any person be an abstract idea? One of my favorite moments in the poem is this: “Dating pancakes is like dating a blow job. Dating a blow job is like dating an orgasm. Dating an orgasm is like dating Utopia. Dating Utopia is like dating an Amish woman.” And so on. It was marvelous to observe the effect Major’s words had on people as they slowly became implicated in the poem—they were being held accountable to the identities they claimed, to the ways they defined themselves, to their very lifestyles as subjects to an overarching generality.
I have very recently joined the ranks of online dating, with my own OkCupid profile. I answer the tests that match me with others who also care about queer politics, find cigarette smoke repulsive, would sleep with someone on the first date. I sleep at night knowing that there are other queers in the world who believe that nuclear war is unexciting, that the phrase ‘making love’ is grotesque, and that it is hard to date people who are really messy. But these, all my future girlfriends, are going to be defined not by a series of categorical data cloistering but by the daily actions of a body in motion. Dating my future girlfriend will be like dating expired orange juice, which is like dating socks on the floor, which is like dating Battlestar Gallactica, which is like dating Thursday date nights, which is like dating all of the exes we both have ever had, which is like dating a long road trip.
Major Jackson makes being alive in this world a beautiful and quiet thing.
After the reading, he approached me, remembered my name, complimented my dashing pink trench coat with black piping, and gave me his phone number so that I could interview him for Hello, Typewriter. “And keep in touch!” he said, warmly, as I left the hall.
July Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com