With the Holiday season in full-swing, what a great time to reflect on all we’re grateful for. Check out this week’s post and don’t forget to count your blessings.
By Gary Jackson
A nice suit, some good advice, and a comic book can go a long way.
I was teaching full-time at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I decided to go back on the job market in pursuit of those rare and highly sought-after assistant professor of poetry positions at a liberal arts college. Looking for work is never a pleasant experience and it had been a few years since I was last on the job market, so I felt a little rusty. My mother-in-law was no stranger to my ambitions. Though she wasn’t an academic and didn’t understand exactly what MLA (Modern Language Association) was or why I had to fly to the MLA conference on my own dime just to interview for jobs, she did understand I would need to look the part. So for Christmas that year, while my wife and I were visiting family in Kansas City, Missouri, my mother-in-law took me suit shopping. “You need a good suit.” She said.
I wore that suit when I first interviewed for the position here at the College of Charleston. If you’re reading this, you can probably guess the rest. In short, it was one of the more thoughtful gifts I ever received.
But I could take it back further to other gifts I’ve received along the way that helped me get where I am today.
Before I was a professor, or a full-time adjunct instructor, or even a relatively successful poet, I was a graduate student fresh out of an MFA program with a poetry manuscript, a successfully defended thesis, and a good chunk of student loan debt. During my time as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, my undergraduate poetry professor had kept in touch with me; in fact, she was the professor who first encouraged me as an undergraduate to pursue my MFA. “You’re not terrible at this.” She once told me in her office, this meaning poetry. And because I admired her and respected her work, I listened to her and we kept in touch ever since. She was the outside reader on my thesis defense years later, and because she was there at the end of my graduate career, she knew I was still at a loss for what to do with myself besides throw my work towards the mercy of publishers and editors to achieve literary success.
“Have you ever heard of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize?” She asked me, then proceeded to tell me about the nationally (globally!) renowned fellowship of Black poets and poetry and encouraged me to submit my manuscript for consideration for their annual poetry prize. I nearly didn’t make the deadline and had to fed ex my manuscript to make sure it arrived in time. A year later, it was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa. Missing You, Metropolis was published by Graywolf Press the following year. It fundamentally changed my life.
It wasn’t a gift in the traditional sense, but my mentor’s encouragement and advice were certainly a gift to me. And there’s no shortage of letters of recommendation, invaluable nuggets of advice, books, and general goodwill that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive from my mentors, loved ones, and peers. Now I’m in position to pay those gifts forward and been doing it ever since.
But I could go further back. There’s another gift that’s changed me in ways that still affect me to this day.
As a kid, I was no stranger to the library and had written my fair share of silly imaginary stories staring robots and cyborgs and mutant creatures, but I would have never claimed to be a big reader or writer, so I was a little surprised when I opened two presents from my mother one year for Christmas that each contained 25 comic books. My mother had ordered two “comic value packs” from the Sears Christmas Catalog on the off-chance I would enjoy reading them. Even though I had heard of Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman, I had never read a comic before. I opened them up, I fell completely in.
One of the first comics I read featured a young black girl on the cover who was surrounded by menacing mutants: The Uncanny X-men #265. The young girl was Storm, the leader of The Uncanny X-men (for reasons too convoluted to get into here, she had been de-aged). I didn’t know her backstory, but she was a character who looked like me, fighting evil, and getting away by the skin of her teeth. It was incredible.
I fell in love with comics that day. I read and collected them throughout the rest of my childhood, and throughout college. They helped me cope with the deaths of my sister and other familial losses throughout my teenage years. They helped me escape the racial isolation of living in Topeka, Kansas.
I stopped reading comics on a regular basis once I entered graduate school (as a broke grad student, I could no longer justify the cost), but I could never leave them for long. In poetry workshops I began writing poems about superheroes, the escapism they provided, the absence they helped fill, and their ability to provide reflection on the world we lived in. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I had begun writing the first poems that would form the backbone of my manuscript which eventually would become my first book and started me on the path I’m still on today.
Years later, I asked my mother why she decided to buy me those comics for Christmas. She said “I figured it would give you something to do, something to read. And it would keep you out of trouble and off the streets.” It worked. And I can’t thank her enough for that gift that’s still part of me to this day.
Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, Gary Jackson is the author of the poetry collection Missing You, Metropolis, which received the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. He is an associate professor who teaches in the MFA program and undergraduate creative writing at the College of Charleston.