Interview with Reuben Jackson

Nathan Leslie

Reuben Jackson served as curator of the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington Collection in Washington, D.C. for over twenty years. His music reviews have been published in the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Jazz Times, and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Jackson is also an educator and mentor with The Young Writers Project. He taught poetry for 11 years at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland and taught high school for two years in Burlington, Vermont. He is also a founding member of the New Music-Theatre workshop and currently works for the organization as a librettist. His poems have been published in over 40 anthologies; his first volume is fingering the keys, which Joseph Brodsky picked for the Columbia Book Award. Reuben Jackson is currently an archivist with the University of the District of Columbia’s Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. From 2013 until 2018, he was host of Friday Night Jazz on Vermont Public Radio.


Congratulations on Scattered Clouds, Reuben. This book is such a treat. Not only does it include Fingering the Keys from 1991, but also fifty pages of newer poems. Talk a little bit, if you would, about how this book came to fruition.

Reuben Jackson: I don’t want to say I’d forgotten about a second book, but between doing my radio show in Vermont, and some teaching, I guess I had. One day, I received a call from the poet Rose Solari, asking if I might be interested in reissuing Fingering the Keys with some more recent poems. I said “yes!” over coffee.

Scattered Clouds covers a span of some years. In your own assessment, how do you think your work has grown and changed over this period?

Reuben Jackson: I think (and sincerely hope) that it is less cryptic, more open. More, dare I say- vulnerable. I also see more anger. Or maybe I am just getting out of the metaphorical hammock.

I notice that in you work many poems are about as much as what is not written as they are about what is. I wonder what you might make of this observation.

Reuben Jackson: Thank you. That comes from listening to Miles Davis. Sometimes his use of space, coupled with his spare lyricism would infer an emotional or technical (as in the song’s harmonic sequence) facet of the recording. At any rate, I try not to mash down on the accelerator too much.  And it is important to let the reader have a seat onstage.

I’m intrigued by the older poem “52 West 8th Street” from the Fingering the Keys section of this book. What can you tell us about the genesis of this poem?

Reuben Jackson: I was in New York for a weekend with two old friends. I have a funny habit of passing over the typical historical sites in favor of music-related places. I dragged said friends down to the Village so I could show them where Jimi Hendrix’s recording studio was. The poem attempts –by way of a hallucination-to make note of people and events in the latter period of Hendrix’s life. I consider it a love poem of sorts.

There is a directness and honesty to your work which I admire greatly. How did you develop these qualities?

Reuben Jackson: Practice.  Therapy has helped –and continues to help with my work… I also think about something the saxophonist Charlie Parker told an interviewer. “Music is about editing.” I’m not a very metaphorical poet. The teapot is just a teapot in most cases.

Another standout poem for me is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pit Bull”—a brilliant evocation. What inspired this particular poem?

Reuben Jackson: I did have a neighbor who was raising pit bulls. And I am pretty sure he was in the pharmaceutical business, shall we say. When I taught at the Writer’s Center, I would often assign Stevens’s poem as a vehicle for students. One day I decided to try it myself.

You have been deeply immersed in the world of music and jazz in particular for many years. Talk a little bit about how your career as a critic and scholar has evolved.

Reuben Jackson: I’ve been a music chaser all my life. When I was in grade school, I secretly longed to, say, write liner notes for albums. I’d also conduct fantasy interviews with my favorite artists. I never imagined that I would work with Duke Ellington’s papers for 20 years, for example. Many of my friends had more faith in my abilities than I. They would often recommend me for music reviewer jobs, etc.  Some of my reviews make me wince like old high school photos. But like anything, you do your best. And hopefully grow.

How do you think music helps inform your poetry?

Reuben Jackson: Music reminds me that language is also musical….I think it is important to revel in–dare I make an old movie-related pun— “The Sound Of Music.”

Are there particular musicians and/or poets who excite you these days?

Reuben Jackson: Poets….Brian Gilmore, Saida Agostini, Willie Perdomo, Alan King, Naomi Ayala. Musicians…Vocalist Cecile Mc Lorin Salvant, Saxophonist Kamasi Washington

This is the place where I must ask the obligatory what-is-your-writing-routine question. Or are you opposed to the notion of a routine (as I sometimes am)?

Reuben Jackson: I write when something taps me on the shoulder. Otherwise, I am probably taking a walk or something.

I love the poem “Elegy for the One Step Down”—a newer poem. How much do you miss the (many) now-defunct jazz spots of Washington? 

Reuben Jackson: Yes! The One Step was a breathing poem. And it was intimate in the best way  I am getting to that point in life when far too many sentences begin…“Didn’t that used to be?….”

Are you looking forward to reading from this new book?

Reuben Jackson: Yes…I have done some pre-publication readings. It is exciting, and a little frightening. Mainly because the poems, especially the newer poems, don’t give me much hiding space…I just hope people like the book.

What is next for Reuben Jackson?

Reuben Jackson: I hope to do a book in which a fair number of the poems feature the guy some people consider my alter ego:  Kelly Donaldson, Jr. Maybe that will be a chapbook. I know I can’t wait another 29 years before publishing another volume….