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June 2024 Feature: Linda Susan Jackson

Linda Susan Jackson is the acclaimed author of Truth Be Told and What Yellow Sounds Like, a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Paterson Prize.

Linda Susan Jackson is the author of Truth Be Told (Four Way Books) and What Yellow Sounds Like (Tia Chucha Press), a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Paterson Prize. She has received fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Calabash International Literary Festival, Soul Mountain Writers Retreat, and The Frost Place. Her work has appeared in Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature, the Broadside Series of the Center for Book Arts, Crab Orchard Review, Harvard Review, the Los Angeles Review, Obsidian: Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora and Ploughshares, among others, and has been featured in Brooklyn Poets, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day and Poets on Poetry series as well as in the audio archive of From the Fishouse.  She is a retired associate professor of English from Medgar Evers College/CUNY. 


Some start off 

with —

no ritual no rules

no soil no myths

no triangle

no seasonal clothing

no boundary

no quality paper

no vaseline no slide show no

composition notebook no

interior   no bergamot no

song no kernels no

dictionary no birthstone

no I’m so glad to see you

no periphery no symphony

no mirror no quill no quilt


no bible of ancestors

no ring of rhythmic speech

no point at all,

so they make it up.

Hoop Dreams Decades Before

Cheryl Miller & Epiphanny Prince 

Each Score Over 100 Points in PSAL Games

- for Msaidia

In my pleated skirt & camp-style 

blouse both institution-green &

bobby socks stuffed into Keds,

I’m summoned to the foul line.

Shoot underhanded for fifteen 

the gym teacher instructs 

No post up, no bank shot

No gravity-defying dunk

No chest thump, no show boat

No behind-the-back pass

No sky hook, no all net

No step-back threes.

Just once, I want to lace up

my brother’s high top Chuck

Taylors, dribble 94 feet

to the basket & finger roll

that round leather carcass, all

22 ounces of its 8 pebbly panels

into the rim with sweet

assurance, pull back

with a high arc or drive

finesse through the lane


the game doesn’t speak

about girls who dribble

low to the ground, who 

look left & pass right

who work the edge, who

get off the ground quickly

to play pick-up 

games with boys


a girl like me, gathered with

other girls on the half court

of our school gym, our backs

to the rim, being warned

against banking shots off the

back board, against the shake

& bake, against the pick & roll

against the give & go urge

to penetrate the defense &

cut to the basket for the finish.

Joy in Three 

- for e.a.

Before I read,

she hugs me.  Her

auburn-tinted hair

sweeps the corners

of her black boat-

necked wool sweater.  

Her perfume hints 

at relief then reverie, 

myth then memory of love 

& its inevitable aftermath.  

I ask her its name, 

Joy by Jean Patou she 

says, one of those elegant 

smells my mother wore.


A child born with a caul over its head

is said to have second sight, an ability

to see things before they exist, but

what of the child who smells the unseen,

whose prescience is olfactory, who

smells rain in a sun-drenched sky?

I once dreamt my DNA traced

to Modjadji V, South Africa’s Rain

Queen.  She makes rain, but I know

(as does she), her power is in her nose.

She inhales, tilts her head skyward, 

predicts, sometimes months ahead, 

when the first drops of precious

liquid will strike the ground.


Great musicians hear chord

changes before one note hits

the air.  I smell low notes made

by a powered base of vanilla,

the blues of gardenias, the middle 

notes of jasmine, ylang-ylang, a spray

of violets, of irises, the high subtle

notes from the fruit of bergamot.

Before I read, I shore

myself up against

the scent dragging me 

back to the first one I knew,

my mother’s, a joy I wouldn’t

love until much, much later.

My Mother is Dorothy Dandridge,

at least that’s what I say to people 

when they stare.  Whenever she 

& I go out together, men gape & gaze, 

walk into fire hydrants, fall off curbs; 

women pull their men closer 

though she claims not to notice.  


Like Dorothy, she’s light-skinned & 

dark-haired, dark-eyed & slim-waisted.  

When my parents were dating, my 

father said people gawked & whispered.  

Maybe they thought she was Dorothy, 

so they looked for Otto Preminger.  


Restaurants would seat her, 

not my father.  He was told 

to wait outside or go around back 

to the service entrance for take out.  


When my mother talks about their wedding, 

she claims Gordon Parks took the pictures,  

but my father tells us it was Moneta 

Sleet, Jr. who took their photos in 1949.  


Their marriage collapsed under the weight  

of it, a residue of almost, nearly, once was…

(I see you, perfectly 

--for Matcha

behind the stemmed glass, and you ask are you writing about me?  Yes, about the scared little girl you hide under blonde-streaked hair, the little girl who yearned for a full-time Dad, not the part-timer you called by his last name – Warren: a labyrinth preserved for the breeding of game.  Are you, are we,

yet we talk like strangers on a train.  You, about your first husband and your impatience with the new Weight Watchers program.  Me, about how I started and stopped The Salt Eaters three times and the familiar language rhythms in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

even though sixty-seven years have your amber-colored eyes sinking dully in your shrinking face.  Just as well, you don’t know me either.  Only the mention of Etta James restores some light.  Still, labored breathing clouds the room with an impression, not the true you

while memory rises to scale questions of age, aging, of the ages, wrapping up the present in our past: well-lived and well past  

within the earth it took to bring us here, and the dusty cocoon we will spin is our promise).


This interview was conducted between Linda Susan Jackson and Jae Nichelle on June 6, 2024.

The end of the poem “Families” reminds me of the infamous line “I made it up,” in Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.”  What rules or rituals do you feel you’ve made up or seen made up in your family?

It’s interesting that you are reminded of Lucille Clifton’s poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” which is one of my favorites, because I don’t remember being conscious of her poem while I was writing, but ancestors are always guiding us.  However, I do remember thinking about two things:  the character Shadrack from Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula, and what he lacks when he returns from the horrors of WWI, and I was thinking about the traumatic rupture Africans experience, first when they hit the shores of the Americas and again when they are freed (but not free as Tracy K. Smith reminds us in her recent book To Free the Captives).  They have to create themselves each time since “{they} had no model.”

In thinking more specifically about your question, my rituals are inherited family rituals, and they mostly seem to revolve around or involve food.  When my family was geographically close, we would gather every weekend, on holidays and elder birthdays at either my great-grandmother’s or my grandmother’s.  There were the bus rides and picnics my great-grandmother would organize every summer.  Over time, elders passed on, family members moved and gatherings became more difficult.  Also, there were what I call day-of-the-week rituals.  Tuesday was for ironing; Wednesday was Italian dinner day; Friday was always fish; Saturday was for cleaning, washing clothes, food shopping, changing bed and bath linen, and we always had beans and franks for dinner; and Sunday was church and “Sunday” dinner that included a roast of some sort, maybe a leg of lamb, macaroni and cheese, assorted vegetables and always, always yeast-raised rolls.  The only rituals I still maintain are Tuesday ironing and the Saturday cleaning rituals: but no beans and franks.  Of course, when I began writing, I established one ritual – I must have music.

These poems are full of rich allusions to basketball players, Modjadji V, Dorothy Dandridge, and literary works.  Are you ever surprised by what and who makes their way into your work?

Almost everything about writing surprises me since I don’t typically start out saying I’m going to write about this or that.  My writing usually begins with a question or a curiosity I have about one of my obsessions, maybe something I’ve observed or experienced that demands a closer look, needs translation or deserves to be remembered, recalled, recovered, resurrected and documented.  

When people or events appear in my poems, they come to me in various ways, maybe from something I’ve seen, read or heard, a lyric from a song, in a dream or even while I’m in the shower.  They show up unannounced, in their own time and introduce themselves to me as a way, I think, to help me translate life’s complexities in as straight forward a way as I can.  Many years ago, I’d read about Modjadji V, and I was captivated by her, but I had no idea she’d ever appear in a poem.  From that I learned everything is potentially useful.

“(I see you perfectly” is a poem fully contained in parenthesis.  Can you tell me what drew you to this form?

There are two things about this: one is I was a math major when I first started college, and even after all this time, some of the rules of that discipline are still with me. (I don’t always know what I know).  I remembered that when you have a complex algebraic or trigonometric expression, you simplify the values in the innermost brackets first, which are typically parentheses, then you deal with the values in the curly and/or square brackets; and two, when I use parentheses in my writing, I’m suggesting what is within those round shapes is self-contained and significant on its own.


Congratulations on the recent release of your second collection Truth Be Told.  How was your experience writing this collection different from your first one, What Yellow Sounds Like?  Both books feature a character with whom readers explore experiences of Black girlhood and womanhood.  Are there differences in your relationships with the narrators of your books?

Thank you.  There’s no substantial difference in my relationship with the narrators. All of my writing life, I’ve been obsessed by the historic and current practice with the adultification of young Black girls and the nanny or mammy-fication of Black women; both have been and, in some instances, continue to be represented or depicted, stereotypically, as saviors or scapegoats.  So I try to offer some insight into their private selves, their thoughts, wishes, and desires – their interior lives – through my writing, filling in some of the gaps.  I guess it’s my poetic use of “critical fabulation” which is a concept I first learned about reading the work of Saidiya Hartman.

Are there any movies or TV shows that you return to time and time again?

I’m not a big fan of television, except during the basketball and football seasons, and I watch documentaries, mostly those about the lives of creative people.  But there are a few movies I’ve watched many times and continue to learn from:  Daughters of the Dust; Nothing But a Man; Seven Samurai; Sugar Cane Alley; Raise the Red Lantern; To Sleep With Anger; Rashomon; Eve’s Bayou; Learning Tree; Seven Beauties; and Claudine.  There are others, but these came to me straight away.

In a Brooklyn Poets interview, you mention that you will never find what you left in Brooklyn in Delaware, where you now live.  What have you found in Delaware?  Any spots you recommend?

At this point in my life, I want a slower pace, one floor living, hassle-free parking, 

lower taxes, no rush hour traffic (pedestrians and vehicular), less noise…did I say lower taxes?  But there’s always a trade off; I haven’t found a local artistic community yet.  I know there’s one here, I just haven’t found it.

If you could swap lives with any fictional character for a day, who would it be and why?

Sula Peace, the protagonist in Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula, because she is

self-made, unapologetic and irreverent.


How can people support you right now?

The best way to support me is to support, either with your financial contributions or by volunteering your time, organizations like Cave Canem Foundation, Canto Mundo, Kundiman, Furious Flower, Asian American Writers Workshop, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Institute of American Indian Arts, Torch Literary Arts, Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, to name a few, and independent publishers who nurture, support and promote writers from diverse and underrepresented communities.

Name another Black woman writer people should follow.

These are some of the women I’m reading and rereading and recommend:

Gwendolyn Brooks

Lucille Clifton

Rita Dove

Elizabeth Alexander

Tracy K. Smith

Nicole Sealey

Nikky Finney

Wanda Coleman

Vievee Francis

Harmony Holiday

Remica Bingham-Risher

Claudia Rankine

Evie Shockley

Mahogany L. Browne


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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