On this episode of the podcast, we interview poet Drew Jackson about his recently published collection of poems (God Speaks Through Wombs and Touch the Earth) in conversation with the gospel of Luke. Among the topics we discuss:
- – The role of imagination as a pastor and as a poet
- – How the Christian faith requires all of us to develop poetic imagination
- – The process of writing poetry based on the biblical text
- – Honoring the poetic voices that formed us in writing new poetry
- – The process of writing poetry for sound and playing with structure
- – The relationship of poetry and prayer
A highlight of this episode is when Drew reads two of his poems so that we can hear them in his voice.
Get the new collection: https://www.ivpress.com/touch-the-earth
Get the previous collection: https://www.ivpress.com/god-speaks-through-wombs
Howard Schaap and Rose Postma, co-hosts, reviewed Jackson’s book. You can find them here:
Poetry To Break the Power of Empire – Howard Schaap
The Road – Rose Postma
Other poets and authors mentioned in the podcast:
Rainer Maria Rilke
Paul Louis Dunbar
Transcript (click to expand)
Note: This transcript is autogenerated and may contain grammatical errors.
(00:08) Justin Ariel Bailey: Welcome to the newest episode of the In All Things podcast, where we host conversations with diverse voices about living creatively in God’s created world. I’m your host, Justin Ariel Bailey, and I teach at Dordt University, which is home to the Andreas Center, the sponsor of this podcast. On this episode of the podcast, you’re speaking with a poet, Drew Jackson, about his recently published collection of poems, in conversation with the Gospel of Luke. We talk about the process of writing poetry and the relationship of poetry, pastoral ministry and prayer. A highlight of this episode is when Drew reads two of his poems so that we can hear them in his voice. It’s a conversation that stretched my imagination, and I hope it will stretch yours as well.
(01:01) Justin Ariel Bailey: I haven’t always loved poetry. Like many schoolchildren, I had to memorize short poems as soon as I could read. But although I enjoyed the sound and rhythm of poetry, I never really thought about reading poetry in my free time. When I did encounter it, say reading Lord of the Rings, I would be riveted by the prose, but skip over the poetic songs that Tolkien would put in his character’s mouths. Throughout my twenties, I was mostly ambivalent to poetry. I knew it had some value, but I did not see it as clear, compelling, or memorable as other forms of creative writing. It’s only been in the last few years that my appreciation for poetry has begun to grow. I came to realize that the writing I most loved, I loved for poetic reasons because of the weight of words arranged just this way, the best words in the best order. As Coleridge put it, there are some things that can only be adequately expressed in poetic language. And now, in my forties, I gravitate towards poetry because I need it to slow me down, to teach me to pay attention—the sort of attention that I need to write, to pray, and to love. Last year, I discovered the poetry of Drew Jackson after he published God Speaks Through Wombs, a collection of poems in conversation with the first nine chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Jackson moved through the Gospel passage by passage through the poet’s sensibilities. He’s also a pastor, the founding pastor of Hope East Village in New York City, and he’s now completed the second collection of poetry, which covers the rest of Luke’s gospel, Touch the Earth. It was our privilege to interview him on the podcast. On this episode, I was joined by two colleagues, Howard Schaap and Rose Postma, who were specialists in poetry and creative writing, and the result was a scintillating conversation on the process of writing poetry and the way that all of us are called to exercise our poetic imagination. So, without further ado, here’s our conversation with Drew Jackson.
(03:13) Justin Ariel Bailey: I’m joined now by three guests. First, my guest, cohosts Rose Postma and Howard Schaap, resident literary aficionados. Rose, Howard, thanks for hosting with me.
(03:23) Howard Schaap: This is great.
(03:24) Rose Postma: Thanks for having me.
(03:25) Justin Ariel Bailey: And our featured guest is Drew Jackson, whose poetry we are discussing today. He’s recently published the second of two poetry collections inspired by and in conversation with Luke’s Gospel. And that volume is entitled Touch the Earth: Poems on The Way. Drew, thanks for joining us on the In All Things podcast.
(03:42) Drew Jackson: Thanks, Justin. It’s so good to be with you. Rose, Howard, I’m looking forward to this conversation. Yeah.
(03:48) Justin Ariel Bailey: So, as I mentioned, you’ve written these two collections of poetry in conversation with the biblical text. And in addition to being a poet, you’re also a pastor and a preacher. And so, I wonder how you see those vocations, the priestly, the prophetic, and the poetic coming together in the way you approach your work with words.
(04:06) Drew Jackson: Yeah, such a good question. I mean, to me, it’s been a journey for me to discover how tied those things are together, the pastoral and the poetic. As a pastor and as a preacher, I’m working with words all the time. And it really wasn’t until someone actually pointed it out to me that my sermons are very poetic, right? And this was before I even sort of was writing poetry seriously. It was coming through in my sermons. And so, someone actually named that for me and was part of calling that out of me to say, you need to attend to this part of who you are. Right. But I think it’s crucial to sort of understand that even when we’re reading scripture, we’re reading the prophets, we’re reading those who are doing pastoral work in the text. Right. There’s so much poetry that’s embedded all throughout the biblical text that we’re engaging with it all the time when we’re doing theology, right? Poetry is such a part of that. And so, I think it’s just part of what I am always trying to do in my pastoral work is to have people engage with the poetic aspects of Scripture to say, this changes how we read the text and how the text reads us as well. When you come to a poem, right, you’re not just coming to it to say, okay, what is the plain meaning of this? But there’s so many layers to a poem. There’s the emotional layer to it, there’s the sort of metaphorical layers to it. There’s the communal, there’s the social, there’s all these sorts of things that are happening and it’s not always just saying one thing. And so, I think when we come to the biblical text, we are in many ways invited to sort of experience it in a similar way, to hear the multiple voices that are present within a particular text and to pay attention to the emotional parts of who we are and to name that. That’s part of how God made us, right? That’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God. So how can I pay attention to that part of me even as I’m engaging the text and the imaginative part of me? So, yeah, that’s even part of the pastoral work, as I do, is let’s pay attention to our full selves even as we’re coming to the text.
(06:38) Justin Ariel Bailey: That’s wonderful. I love that sense of you are almost helping people form their own poetic imagination, which everyone has as you preach and as you work as a poet. I wonder if you think of yourself and your work as exercising different sorts of muscles, though, when you write a poem versus when you preach. I think of my own work as a theology professor who occasionally preaches, sort of sometimes, I like being in classes where we can explore all the different possibilities. But then I feel like when I preach, I get up and I need to make some claims, right? I need to say, this is what the Lord says to us at this moment in history. I wonder if you could speak a bit about exercising those different muscles within poetic imagination.
(07:21) Drew Jackson: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, that’s huge. There is a difference. There definitely is a difference. I think I’ve often said that one of the reasons that poetry, the writing of poetry, became really essential for me as a practice. And I see both the reading and the writing of poetry as a spiritual practice for me. But part of it was because I really started writing in the form that I’m writing at the beginning of the pandemic. Right. I needed I needed something that was going to be spacious enough to hold the mystery and the questions that I had that were rising up in me with, obviously, everything that’s going on in our world with the pandemic, but also with racial violence and all of these sorts of things that I’m wrestling with. And with preaching. You named it, right? There’s this sense of you come to it, and you have to make a claim, that’s the expectation, right? Or you’re sort of providing some sort of answer or some sort of something for somebody to hold on to. But to be honest, there was just a sense of me where it was like, you know what? I don’t know that I have an answer right now. And I think that part of what we need right now within the space of the church is not just like sort of pat answers that were often given sometimes, but space enough to wrestle with the questions and to learn to be okay with mystery, with not knowing that that is actually part of our formation, right. That even when Jesus was doing his work of discipleship, so much of what Jesus does is not necessarily give people straight answers but invite them more deeply into a question. Right. It reminds me a lot of the poet Rilke—his comments in his letters to a young poet when he says, “Live the questions,” right. Learn to love the questions. And there’s something about that that’s such an instrumental part of our formation to be okay with living inside of the mystery and the questions. And Rilke says, one day, eventually, you may live your way into the answers, but what matters is to live everything, right? And so, I think we as pastors and as preachers can learn something from that. That not everything has to be a hard claim that this is what it is. Maybe the invitation is: embrace the mystery of this present moment because there’s something of God, something of the divine, that we discover in mystery that we don’t discover anywhere else.
(10:01) Rose Postma: So, I am really interested in process how you structure, put things together. And what really in part drew me to this collection was it’s almost a beat for beat right response conversation with the gospel. And I’m used to seeing collections centered around a central idea, maybe the incarnation or something that structured around, like, the church calendar. But this feels to me a little bit more like sitting in a church service week after week hearing someone preach through a book of the Bible. And so, from the poetry side, that’s really interesting to me because it brings up a lot of questions. And you can take this wherever you want, so I’ll just throw a bunch of them at you. I’m really interested in how do you determine where to break some of your poems respond to just a word or a short, short, tiny passage. And other ones, you take long swaths of the original text. So, I’m interested in that, how you determine that. And then also, how do you work so that each poem still stands on its own because you’re putting this sort of self-imposed structure on it. So how do they stand on their own and then how do they work together to be cohesive outside of the source material, I guess. So, I just want to know how you do this. That’s my big question.
(11:30) Drew Jackson: Yeah, so I write poetry outside of this sort of structure. So, it’s very different. But when I was working on this, I would come to the text and just start reading through. And what was most important for me was just pay attention to what stops you, right. And free yourself of the impulse to want to write a commentary on this thing, but just respond to it as a human being in conversation with human beings in the text. Right. Just do that. I think that in and of itself was just a different way for me to read. And like you said, sometimes it was a whole swath of text, but other times it was just a word. And to me, it was like, okay, that’s okay, because that’s what’s happening in this moment. That’s what’s rising up in me internally. Let’s see where this poem wants to go. So how I write is I usually will get like an opening line and not necessarily know where it’s going. And so sometimes I’ll be reading the text and there’s that line that will come, and I’ll write it down, and I might not come back to it until much later. Let sort of that line do what it wants to do and then return and see, okay, what’s happening? And also, what is this poem revealing about the questions that I’m asking internally? The wrestles that the things that I’m wrestling with. So especially in this new collection, there’s a lot of grief that surfaces for me, even in that first poem in the book, the title poem “Touch the Earth.” The text there is about Jesus sending out his disciples for the first time to put into practice what he has been teaching them to go out and teach. He sends them out in twos. And as I’m reading that, though, what that triggers for me is, one, thinking about my dad, who I dedicated this book to him, and I said, he’s the person who taught me that faith is more than talk, right? And so much of what I learned from him was observing him. But I started to think about the ways that he demonstrated for me, what it looked like to love and to grieve the way he loved my mom and grieved her when she passed away almost ten years ago. And so, it’s like on just a sort of surface reading of that text that doesn’t pop out at somebody. But for me, it was like, okay, I have to pay attention to what’s going on emotionally for me in this moment and be okay with bringing that to the text and saying, “How am I in conversation with this right now?” And what poem was to come out of this? And I think to your second question too, just about how the poems stand on their own but also fit together into some sort of cohesive. It’s interesting because I guess part of it was just trusting that there would be a sense of cohesion, because it wasn’t something that I was very much consciously thinking about. I got to make all of these fit together. I know that there are different themes that are coming out, but the thread that’s tying them through is I guess it’s me wrestling with what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like. When all of the stuff that I’ve been learning over the years of faith and love and life and grief and joy, what does it look like and feel like when that stuff gets into the dirt of real life? And so however that wants to come out on the page, that will be the thread that runs through. I hope people can see it and feel that. So that’s part of the discovery for a reader of saying what is running through these poems.
(15:39) Rose Postma: Yeah, I think that works really well, and I really appreciate that because I am a fan of for myself when I am struggling with writing and revising to impose some sort of structure on it. And so, I think that the connection between the source material and that explicit structure probably works to actually free up other things and let them shine. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book, is seeing how what could be something making it very rote actually allows the poems to breathe in some way.
(16:16) Drew Jackson: Yeah, I love that.
(16:18) Howard Schaap: I think this ties in, I want to tie it in, through mentioning Langston Hughes and the kind of multivocal poetry that he uses voices oftentimes from Harlem. And so, the various aspects of your experience that go into the poems. But I hit the line. “I have known mountains,” and I’m like, oh, Langston Hughes is here. And also, in some of the rhymes, the way that you use sound in the poems. And obviously, there’s a lot of other poets and writers referenced. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Lamon, Mary Oliver, Margaret Atwood, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, on and on. Right. And the multiple voices and influences that go into the poems. But I’m wondering. That’s what I saw. I’m wondering about who are your influences and how do you interact with those voices when you write?
(17:13) Drew Jackson: Yeah, it’s really important for me to bring many voices to the page. I think all of us who are writers, I mean, whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re writing in community. Right. There’s so many voices that we bring with us when we sit down and write something down. And it’s interesting because when you say you came to the line, “I have known mountains,” and immediately you’re like, Langston Hughes is there. Right. When I wrote that poem, I wasn’t thinking, let me put a Langston Hughes reference in here. But what I’ll say is that poem the Negro speaks of rivers. Right. I have known rivers. That is probably my favorite poem. Right. And so, it’s just in me. It’s like something that I wasn’t consciously thinking of. Let me make this reference here. But, yeah, it’s one of those things where I guess you discover sort of how much you’re in conversations with different writers and poets when you start to write something down and how much they’re influencing the things that you’re putting down on the page. I love being able to introduce people to other writers and poets, whether it’s through a reference here or an epigraph there. Say, hey, go read this poem. Go check out this person. I think especially as someone who is writing inside of, as part of, the church, the faith community, I am just a huge proponent of, like, we need to be reading poets, we need to be reading more and more poets. And so, any way that I can get you to pick up some more poetry, I want to do that. Some of the best conversations that I have off of this book are, “Hey, who would you recommend that I go read?” And I’m just like, “Here they are.” There are so many people that find themselves in these poems, in these pages, different references that I’m making part of that I will also say comes from just being formed within the lineage of hip hop. Right. And so hip hop as a genre of art, I think a lot of art does this, but hip hop is very explicit about it, is that hip hop is always pointing back to those who’ve come before who have influenced this particular thing. Right. And that’s just sort of part of what makes hip hop great, is it’s like we’re part of this lineage. So, I can borrow this line from this person and reference this thing. Even though I’m not necessarily recreating what they’re doing, I’m building on what they’ve done, and I’m acknowledging that they’re part of my formation as an artist. Right. So, yeah, I think that that’s just a part of it. And I find that within the scriptures, too, when you see so many of the references to the prophets into this, and like prophets borrowing from other prophets and this, and it’s like, no, we’re part of a lineage, we’re part of a community, we’re not writing in isolation. And so, I think that’s part of what I’m trying to say too, with that, is that this is a communal offering of all of the people who have helped to form me as a writer. Yes.
(20:38) Howard Schaap: I mean, speaking of voice, would you read a couple of poems for us? Yeah, we’re dying to hear you read, to have that second piece of the poetry come off the page in your voice.
(20:53) Drew Jackson: Yeah, I would love to. So, the first poem I’ll read, this was one that for me is, I read it often as, a poem that I’m paying attention to just the rhythm and the movement of it. I love to read this one out loud. This one’s called “Under the Ground,” and this one was written in reflection on Luke 24:1-12, which is the resurrection account. This poem has an epigraph quote from Dr. Barbara Holmes’s book Race and the Cosmos, and she says, “In the beginning there is darkness. It is the womb out of which we are born. In this state of trusting refuge, the light of divine revelation which pierces but does not castigate the darkness may finally be seen. This is a mothering darkness that nurses its offspring.”
Under the ground. Life is always happening underground. The place light has forsaken. Finite minds cannot take in that the belly of Mother Earth is, indeed, a womb. Entombed in the soil is the pip of a new Eden. Only the seed that has fallen into the pit can burst through into the morning dew to announce to weeping eyes that a new day has risen—a day in which the voices and stories of women are believed, their word received as good news, and the men have no problem following them and learning how to believe again. What I mean is this. The world has been flipped on its head, heaven has invaded hell, the spell of death is broken, and the doorway open to a new way of being. It all begins with seeing that the darkness of our world is luminous and in. The humus of life is where we become fully human.
(23:07) Howard Schaap: Thank you. I’m struck by this poem as the kind of you referenced the very first poem, and obviously we have Touch the Earth as the title, but the earthiness of these two poems seem like a really lovely—I know it’s not the last poem—but kind of a book end. Did you feel that? Do you feel like that this was a completion? Where did that one come in the process? How do you think about it thematically, tying in there?
(23:42) Drew Jackson: Yeah, it’s definitely one of those that feels like a bookend. It feels like it’s tying together some themes from the entire collection. The whole idea of becoming fully human, what does it mean to be fully human? Is definitely a resounding theme throughout. It ties directly to the quote that I have that sort of flies over the entire collection from St. Irenaeus. The glory of God as a human being, fully alive. Right. And this one, to go back to the point about the other voices that we’re in conversation with, I mean, this one is obviously Dr. Barbara Holmes, but even beyond that, because she’s in conversation with Howard Thurman in this and his writing around the luminous darkness. Right. Yeah, it definitely felt like a bookend. Like, okay, this is the direction that things are moving. But it’s the question of this collection Touch the Earth of what does it mean for us to be fully alive? Human beings in all of our diversity, within our own selves and all of the parts of us. What does it mean for us to be fully human? Fully alive?
(25:06) Rose Postma: Yeah. I like to go back to something that Howard sort of touched on, and that is sound. I have some categorizations that are not unique to me. I think it’s from Tony Hoagland about the different kinds of poets that there are, and there’s the gut poets, your Sharon Olds, your head poets, your Joey Graham’s. And then I would say I find your work to be the poetry of the mouth. It’s about sound, it’s about rhythm, about cadence, about word choice. And so, I would love for you just to talk about how do you get there? How do you revise for that? What does that look like for you?
(25:42) Drew Jackson: Yeah. Well, I think, first of all, it does go back to my love for and formation and hip hop culture. So, I’m the youngest of four boys and my older brothers, I grew up with sitting in the back seat of their cars as they’re playing all sorts of stuff. And I always said there are two types of hip hop listeners. There are, first, those who are drawn to the beat, and there are those who are drawn to the lyrics, the words. And I was always a lyrics person. I was always interested in how words fit together to tell a story. The musicality of the words themselves. Different rhyme schemes just sort of drew me in. And so, I think when I write poetry, that’s sort of my natural bent is to just first pay attention to the musicality of the poem, right? There’s music in this. I want people to be able to feel the music in them when they’re reading them. And I think there is something to poems being read out loud. So even when I am just reading on my own, I will tend to read poems out loud because I think there’s something sonically that happens where you experience the poem differently when you’re saying the words out loud versus when you’re just saying it in your head. And I think that there’s something that poetry, like poets intend for that to be the case, right? There’s a different experience on the page versus when you’re hearing it. But there’s also this fine line between how does a poem, is there a way for a poem to both work on the page and read aloud? Is that something? And I think that poets are always trying to strike that line, that balance of saying we want it to work in both places. So, when I’m writing a poem, I’m also reading it a million times out loud. Does it work here? But does it sound? How does it sound? How does it feel? Those aren’t things that you can necessarily pick up on by just writing it and saying, “Okay, it’s done.” Or you have to sit with it and sit with the sound of it and the movement of it. And so sometimes that does require saying as I’m reading it, a word might work if I’m writing it, but then when I read it, it’s like it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t feel right. So let me find something different that still makes sense and still fits what I’m trying to say. But the feel is there too. I think part of revision is just reading it aloud over and over again.
(28:23) Howard Schaap: Yeah, I’m teaching poetry and we’re coming up to close form. So, “The Salty Ghazal”that you write, I was like, oh, but there’s a lot of questions about form, the box, a lot of spaces, the more prose poems. So, yeah, that is a good connection point. You’re conscious of how it sounds, but you’re not there to read it. Right? The words do the work themselves. I’m struck by the wide-ranging number of forms you’ve got here. So how do you think about pouring it into that form, or finding a form, or the range of forms that you find? How do you think about those ranges?
(29:12) Drew Jackson: Yeah, I think it varies. Sometimes it’s really the content of the poem that drives the form for me. Like the thing that I feel like the poem is wanting to say. And so, I’m always asking the question, can form somehow enhance what I’m trying to say? Can something about form communicate this more clearly? Right? And then sometimes it’s just because I’m interested in trying out a form. And so, I’m like, let’s just explore where this wants to go. I’m interested in trying this thing. So, to give you an example of those things, right, like “The Salty Ghazal.” So that poem is written in reflection on when Jesus talks about being salt of the earth, being salt of the earth, right? And so, there was something about that that when I read it, the word flavor just popped up. This idea of flavoring, something matters. And it was just kind of that word kept coming back, the ghazal, that Persian form where you keep coming back to that repeated sound and that repeated word, I was like, okay, there’s a way for me to work this in that the form will enhance it, to keep coming back to this repeated flavor, flavor, flavor, and to bring that out. And then there was just like, that allowed me to have a sort of playfulness with it. That poem, for me, I had a lot of fun writing it. And yeah, there’s a joy that sort of is woven into it. Not all of them are the same, but I felt like the form allowed me to sort of explore that in a different way. And then there’s some other ones. There’s one in my first collection that I wrote called “As Children Do” that it’s not necessarily so. I was inspired by the poet Jericho Brown and his duplex form that he came up with, that he created where you are using the line of the previous couplet to start off the next one in some form of variation. And that sort of continues through the poem. And I just was taken by that. And so, it’s not maybe exactly a duplex, but it’s a play on a duplex to just explore. There’s something about this that I feel like can communicate the thing that I’m trying to communicate. So, I think there’s just paying attention to how form can help communicate something.
(31:44) Justin Ariel Bailey: So, you have a lovely short poem on which you write something like the line between imagination and prayer is as thin as air. Not sure if that’s the exact poem. I don’t have it in front of me, but that line is lodged itself in my memory both when I write and also when I pray. And I wonder if you could say more about this. And I have a friend who teaches songwriting, and I’ve often heard him say something like, “Songs should be less like sermons and more like prayers.” And I’m always offended as a preacher. Preaching can be poetic too, right? But I get what he’s saying. And so, I’ve sort of asked you about poems and preaching, but I wonder about poems and prayer. How do you understand your creative work in relationship to prayer? Do you consider your poems to be prayer? Are you in that same space, maybe unpack that a bit for us?
(32:32) Drew Jackson: Yeah. Well, so I’ll say that poem really came out of reading, as I was reading the text. And the disciples ask Jesus, “Teach us how to pray.” Like, there’s something about prayer that they’re interested in there. And Jesus’s reply to them is, “Imagine this,” right? And he tells them the story to teach them about prayer, right? There’s something there that they’re or suppose this, right? And I was just kind of captured by that. To explain prayer was to invite into imagination, invite into story. And I was like, there’s something there that’s capturing me about prayer itself, that there is this sort of imaginative element about prayer. And when I say that, I really think that the whole idea of being a part of proclaiming the kingdom of God is this invitation to this deeper imagination, of something more beautiful, more just, more whole, more loving than we are, than sometimes we see right now. And the invitation to become like children is to say, “Can you have the imagination to see beyond this, to see past this, to see that there’s a whole other world that’s possible? Can you see it? Can you imagine it? Can you touch it?” And I think every time we pray, it’s to say, “Can we imagine it? Can we touch it? Can we taste it?” It’s just that sort of invitation into that imagination. And I think every time we pray, we’re invited into that sort of holy imagination. But, yeah, I do think that there is a like when I write poems, I think a lot about what Mary Oliver said about poetry and prayer. And she says about prayer, “I don’t know what a prayer is, I know how to pay attention,” right? And that there’s that paying attention. And prayer and poetry are sort of all one of the same thing that I’ve discovered, that poems emerge out of attention, whether it’s paying attention to my own interior landscape or paying attention to what’s going on in the space between me and another person. There’s a line in the poet Elizabeth Alexander, she’s got ours poetica where she says, I’m going to get it wrong, but she says, “poetry is the dust in the corner,” right? It’s like paying attention to the small detail of the corner of the room that was very easy to pass by, but it draws you in and it has something to say. It’s saying something to you in this moment. Poem emerges out of that. And I think, too, prayer often emerges out of those places when we’re paying attention to those small things that emerge in us or the small interactions between us and another person. Prayer can emerge out of that, just like a poem wants to emerge. And are they the same thing? I mean, maybe sure. I often see my poems as prayers when I’m writing them. Maybe it’s a lament or maybe it’s just an expression of joy, or maybe it’s a question that I’m wrestling with. That’s what prayer is, is it not? Right?
(35:58) Howard Schaap: Speaking of that power of imagination and imagining the kingdom of God beyond what we have, I’m struck in teaching, there are times where we live out here in the prairie, former prairie, we have mile by mile squares. And not will say to students, imagine something different. And they’re like, what do you mean? What else would you do? And so, whether it’s mile by mile squares out here or city blocks or projects or policing the systems that become so ingrained that we can’t imagine something different. But then also, you mentioned in a couple of poems that even theology kind of can become these systems that shouldn’t confine. And so, the whole tradition of artists in the church and artists being the imaginative visionaries, seeing things, artists have not always found a place in the church. And especially it’s still in me when you come to Scripture and you imagine it differently sometimes having the voice that’s saying, “You can’t do that with Scripture,” in the back of my own head. So, I’m wondering what traditions or ideas about Scripture helped you or deterred you, what voices are back there for you as well as you thought about bringing imagination to Scripture as you write these poems?
(37:25) Drew Jackson: Absolutely. When I started writing the first collection, God Speaks Through Wombs, I very intentionally was interested in one. I wrote this in the introduction to that collection that I wanted to bring my full self as a black man navigating the landscape of American empire. I wanted to bring that in conversation with the text of Luke, because so much of what has been communicated to me throughout the years is that when you come to reading the text, you have to check that part of you at the door, that there’s some sort of way to interpret the text that is disconnected from who you are. And I have just come to discover that that’s a lie. There is no interpretation outside of like, we all have lenses through which we’re reading and interpreting. We all have social locations that we’re reading from. And that’s not necessarily, that’s not a bad thing, but it’s the thing that needs to be acknowledged, right? We need to acknowledge the lenses that we have. We need to acknowledge and be conscious of them, bring them together to the table of interpretation and say, okay, what are we hearing? What are we hearing? Right? Because, yes, we all are coming with different things. And so, I wanted to bring that. I wanted to bring the voices of my mother and my father and my culture and all of those things to just say, okay, like, Jesus, what are you saying? And what does it sound like for poetry today to rise out of reading of the Gospel text? Just like the tradition of the Psalms, the songs and the poems of the Psalms, the Psalter, so much of those rising out of interactions with Torah, right? They’re not commentary on Torah, but if you look at the five books of the Psalter, there is a rabbinic tradition that says those are in conversations with the five books of Torah, right? And so that was where the idea originally came, was just, okay, I’m sitting in book two of the Psalms, right, which this book starts off, and my soul is thirsting for God, dry and weary land and all of these sorts of things. And it’s like, okay, I can read that as just an individual talking about their experience of God or longing for God, but what happens when I put that in conversation with Exodus? How does that change how I’m hearing this and interacting with this song? Oh, well, now I’m hearing the cries of generations of those who are enslaved longing for God, asking, why are you downcast, God? Where are you? And all these sorts of things. And then it becomes a resident in a whole different way, even with my own sort of communal and ancestral story, right? And so, I’m bringing that to the text. And just like my ancestors, who as they were being told what they could and could not interact within the text and how they were supposed to hear it, them having the imagination to say, but that’s not the guy that we’ve come to discover. So there has to be something more here. There’s got to be something different here. It was just kind of bringing all of those things in and saying, “I want to sort of take off the voices that have told me, ‘You’re not allowed to do that,’ and just say, ‘But why not?’” And let that be a part of the conversation that we’re all having collectively with this text that has been forming us and shaping us over the years. So that’s why I say this is not meant to be a commentary, but it’s sort of in the tradition of midrash, if it’s anything, let’s talk with the text. Let’s say that there can be more than one meaning in a particular text, because there can be, right? It doesn’t have to just say this one thing.
(41:40) Howard Schaap: Yeah, I was going to say that sounds like it’s time for read us another one.
(41:45) Drew Jackson: Yeah. So, this one, this one’s called “Situation Ethics.” And this is written in reflection on Luke 16:1-9, which is the parable of the unjust steward, unjust manager, depending on what translation you read. But there is an epigraph for this poem, too, from Cheryl Sanders. I don’t know if she still is. She’s a scholar at Harvard, but her book, Empowerment Ethics for Liberated People. And she says, “Albert J. Rabbito notes that lying and deceit, normally considered moral vices, were virtues to slaves and their dealings with whites. This radical reversal and moral reasoning was fueled by the basic conviction that the only morally appropriate response to the deception and depravity of slaveholders was to make every effort not to fulfill the ultimate objective of their efforts, that is, to produce hardworking, honest, and submissive slaves.” Situation Ethics when I sit long enough with my bones, I discover stories. Like a paleontologist, I use the fine haired brush of my intuition to uncover things I never knew existed in my lineage. Our ancestors, who lived by a different set of ethics, with ankles and wrists pressed against the chains of enslavement, they made decisions that some today might call questionable. Question who sets the standard of morality? God. Whose God? The one who sovereignly ordained these chains? Well, then, back to these bones. Booker T. Told a story about his mother waking him at midnight to eat a chicken secured from an unknown source. Of course, he meant the master mother could not fathom her children’s mouths remaining empty while they feasted up at the big house on the food she had raised. We call God immutable, which usually means we refuse to change our view of God. Let every deception be in service of heaven.
(44:20) Justin Ariel Bailey: Drew, it’s been such a pleasure having you on the podcast talking about your poetry. The volume is entitled Touch the Earth: Poems on The Way. It’s the second of a two-volume series. The first is God Speaks Through Wombs. Both are published by InterVarsity Press. Drew, thank you again for joining us on the In All Things podcast.
(44:39) Drew Jackson: Yeah, thanks for having me.
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