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Background Image Gary Jackson

Big Idea: On Kansas, sentiment, memory, and obsession, which are all really variants of the same thing

Gary Jackson is a poet, professor, and the author of origin story.

After I started my first year at Washburn University, my mother moved in with me and my then-girlfriend in a 2-bedroom apartment off 21st and Candletree Drive. This was after my grandfather kicked my mother out of our home after my great-grandmother died in our living-room-turned-hospice, after my mother tried her best to create a new family after we lost most of the old one, after the people that raised us, and the people we raised, all passed away. After we survived a string of losses, my mother took a job in Dallas, Texas, and imparted one piece of advice before she moved out: you get out of here however you can.

So when someone asks me if I miss Kansas or if I miss home, I’m tempted to recount this story and reveal all those old familial wounds and ghosts. Instead, I simply say no.

But no fails to capture my complicated relationship with my home state. It’s not hate that makes me ache when I look back at living in Topeka, Kansas. It is, of course, love. And how can I best convey those feelings of love and loss without becoming a cliché? How can I make sense of seemingly senseless events in a senseless world? By now, you can probably guess the answer: I learned that through poetry I could write my own existence into being—an approximation of my life that might hopefully resonate with a larger audience beyond myself.

I first learned in my poetry courses at Washburn that, at its core, poetry was a perfect vehicle for communicating experience through language. Sometimes experience gets conflated with feeling, or maybe worse, sentimentality! Mary Ruefle, in her book Madness, Rack, and Honey, writes that “when you think about it, poets always want us to be moved by something, until in the end, you begin to suspect that a poet is someone who is moved by everything.” I’m not moved by everything—puppy dogs and airport reunions do very little for me—but Ruefle is right, all people are sentimental, poets are just more comfortable wearing our feelings on our sleeve (pardon the cliché). 

The younger me would probably balk at that notion: me as a conduit of “causeless emotion” (another Ruefle definition of sentimentality and poetry by way of John Gardner), and yet I do find myself writing more and more about Kansas—not just nostalgia or melancholy or trauma or tenderness, but how sometimes my mother used to bring home a magical greasy bag of Harold’s Prize Package burgers and fries; how my great-grandmother would still occasionally sleep with a knife under her pillow; how LaToya, Stuart, Cysco, Steven, and Angela once came to my house when I was miserable with the flu and drug me out, blanket and all, and took me to Denny’s in the middle of the night for no other reason than to get me out and spend time with me—and that gesture, fueled by equal parts tenderness and irresponsibility, is quite possibly my favorite memory. And isn’t memory the sincerest form of nostalgia, sentiment, grief?

In “As from a Quiver of Arrows” Carl Phillips writes:

What will happen to the memory of his

body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now

and write it down fast? 

Those lines are charged with the responsibilities of the poet. Kansas is in the memory. And I struggle with remembering. So poetry becomes an act of reclamation, a reckoning against forgetting. And maybe this is why I fell so neatly into poetry when I finally decided to take my mother’s advice and left Topeka, Kansas, for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to earn an MFA in poetry, and immediately began writing about the people I loved and lost back home and the other loves I cultivated (namely, comic books and superheroes, but that’s another story). I wanted to honor the Black boy who grew up in the middle of the Midwest and attempt to explain why he eventually left, and in that process, maybe move a few readers to feel, as Mary Ruefle would say, something. Poetry brings me closer to Kansas and to histories both personal and public. And like any good obsession, I just can’t let go. 

About Gary Jackson

Gary Jackson was born and raised in Topeka, Kansas. He is the author of origin story (University of New Mexico, 2021) and Missing You, Metropolis (Graywolf, 2010), which received the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He is also co-editor of The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry (Blair, 2021). He is associate professor of creative writing at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Spark a Conversation

READ Gary Jackson’s most recent collection, origin story, and travel family history from Kansas to Korea.

CELEBRATE Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 27. The American Academy of Poets has ideas and toolkits to get you started.

INVITE Dennis Etzel to your community for his Speakers Bureau presentation, “Poets of Kansas.”


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