The first time I met Donny Jackson was at the Definitive Soapbox Anniversary show in Long Beach, California a few years back. Donny sat in the corner of the small coffee shop – a shadow, unassuming, but genuinely attentive to every word spilt on stage. My friend Sherwin nudged me, “Yo, that’s Donny Jackson, he’s a freakin’ beast. Just wait man, just wait.” Donny was last to hit the mic. I can almost guarantee it was planned – the grand finale. I still remember that feeling, being sucked into his voice and those words, that calm storm. It felt like the first time you get floored by a poem, like being born into something, like nothing else in the world existed for that brief moment. Getting to know Donny over the past two years has been a blessing. He is one of the kindest and most sincere people I’ve ever met, such an amazing poet and an ambassador for the art form, a truly humble beast. We are so glad to have been able to sit down with him for a few questions.
Spit Journal: Can you remember when stories first became important to you?
Donny Jackson: Stories first became important to me as a reader. My parents always had books around that they were reading. I honestly don’t remember being told how important reading was, but I remember feeling how important reading was. They surrounded me with books. I still read everyday. But as a writer, I was about eight years old when I remember actively writing poetry. One of my teachers liked my work and submitted one of my poems to a city wide poetry contest in Pittsburgh and I ended up winning a prize. It wasn’t 1st prize, but I actually won $2 (laughs) as an eight year old. It was kind of a big thing you know (laughs), they invited the family and there was a ceremony. It was kinda cool. That was my earliest recollection of writing purposefully, and it really continued from that point onward.
SJ: You’ve worn many hats Donny. Just going off your biography you have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, you’ve been a professor, a psychologist, a play write, a ghost rider, an actor, a critic, executive producer, and director, among probably other things I haven’t mentioned. How has poetry and writing played a role in your life as you’ve navigated through these professions and passions.
Donny Jackson: Writing is what I am more than any other thing and there is no part of my life where it is not important. It is essential for me to be able to see the world in a way that I want to translate back. Poetry is that spirit of seeing things that everyone sees, but perhaps seeing something new in them, and then being able to say it back to the world and see if they can see the same thing or inspire them to see the same thing that they hadn’t seen before.
SJ: Can you tell us about your experience with performance poetry?
Donny Jackson: I’ve had an interesting history with performance poetry because I started performing poems publicly before there was a genre named “spoken word.” So back in the day, there were just poetry readings and people read off paper publicly in front of other readers and listeners. So I was doing that in college, well before there was slam poetry or competitive poetry. It was different then. People weren’t memorizing poems or giving it a lot of theatricality.
During my graduate school years in Philadelphia, I auditioned for a play. I hadn’t been in a play before and my intention was to write about what an audition was like, because I was curious. I went for research and as fate would have it, I got the lead role, which was shocking to me. The next shock was that the play did very well critically in terms of its popularity in Philadelphia, so I ended up performing for a few months. I got comfortable on stage telling a story in front of an audience. That was the beginning of a really good experience with theatre, because I did several plays after that and I got comfortable reading other people’s words publically.
I didn’t get into performance poetry as we know it now, until I moved to Los Angeles. Once I moved to LA, I became a waiter at a venue that included performance poetry. At that point, I had a chance to try to marry two of the things that I had done; writing, which I had been doing forever, and performing, which I had some experience in Philly. So seeing other people do it, I said okay, maybe I can do that. I gave it a try. It felt good and people seemed to respond to it, so I continued and wanted to get better at it.
SJ: Tell us about LA?
Donny Jackson: Los Angeles has a spirit of inclusion of dreamers. It’s different from a lot of cities in that way, where dreaming is kind of an adolescent thing that people are discouraged from doing past their adolescent prime of fantasizing. Los Angeles is eternally adolescent and optimistic in that way. In terms of dreaming about how creative you can be or how you can put your stamp on the world, LA is a really fertile place of that kind of encouragement. Nobody says, “Oh wow that’s stupid.” Most people say, “Oh yeah, I have a dream too and my dream is crazier than yours.” It’s a colony of dreamers and it feels more supportive to be in a space like that, than in the middle of a working class “you pull your self up by your bootstraps” town, where you’re encouraged to work and provide and be stable. And don’t get me wrong, there’s value in that, but for dreamers and creative people, it can be a frustrating thing when nobody values creative work at the same level they value other kinds of work.
SJ: Can you speak to us about Da Poetry Lounge (DPL) and how it has influenced you and your work?
Donny Jackson: Da Poetry Lounge is my home venue and I have been going there for nine years going on ten. It has not necessarily influenced how I write, it’s influenced that I write, in a sense that it is a place where I know there will be welcoming listeners. It’s an opportunity to see if the things I think I’m saying well are being said well. Da Poetry Lounge is a family of poets and listeners. It has been a place where I’ve been able to workshop my ideas publicly, the ones that I want to perform publicly. The truth is, most of the things I write I never perform publicly and I never intend to perform publicly. DPL is a smaller and more concentrated colony of dreamers. It is a great laboratory for certain kinds of work and it’s a very supportive place. It’s the one place I go every week. It’s the one place where I know I’m going to see people that I love and who love me back and I like to have a family like that outside of Pittsburgh.
SJ: Your One Man Shown was such an amazing performance to witness. I still have yet to see anything like it. I wish I could watch it again. For those that don’t know about it, can you please enlighten them?
Donny Jackson: Well thank you for that, I appreciate it. My intention is to do it again soon. My desire to tell stories through poetry in a different way reached a fever pitch, where I thought there were stories that could be told not just autobiographically, where the poems are all about me, but through the actual characters I’m writing about. In One Man Shown, I do a lot of persona poems where I’m writing from the point of view of someone else, who may not have a voice or who’s voice you may not normally hear because we don’t know them or we don’t have access to them. So I’m speculating on what they might say and what they might feel. I thought that audiences might respond to the poems better by removing me from the process. What I mean by that is removing me as an autobiographical storyteller, because if I’m saying it on stage, then in some way it looks like it’s about me. But if I do the poem in character, like as my grandmother, than the story has to be felt in a different way because now here’s a grandmother telling a story about her husband. You get into the story from a different angle through characters. I can tell a story about a teenage girl who is assaulted in Darfur, but if I tell that story from her point of view, than I remove myself and I’ve made it more vivid by placing her right in front of you, rather than reporting it as news. Now I’m giving you a first person’s experience on her or on a police officer’s wife or a preacher who is talking about a missing woman or a drag performer who has been a victim of a hate crime. Rather than me reporting it in a poem, I’m now letting you, the audience, meet them directly and I think there’s a value in giving people an opportunity to meet some of these characters who’s lives may be very different from theirs, but connected to a similar humanity.
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