On Motion: An Afternoon with Poet Imani Elizabeth Jackson

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

In “Hydrography #4,” poet Imani Elizabeth Jackson writes about the word “flux”: The amount of sunlight landing here the rate of water rushing per second the flow of energy through a surface—these are flux. Dysentery—the flux. Lost fluids. An act of passing in and out such as two crowds of people passing each other in a terminal. It can be painful. 

I first discovered Jackson while doing research for a piece about Artspace, a nonprofit organization supporting visual artists in New Haven. Browsing their website for potential sources, I landed on Jackson’s profile. 

Jackson is the author of several chapbooks. Her work has been published in Apogee, BOMB, Poetry, and Triple Canopy. She has been acknowledged by renowned writers like Hanif Abdurraqib, who selected “Hydrography #4” for The Arkansas International’s annual C.D. Wright Prize. 

Intrigued by this poem in particular, I reached out to request an interview.

As we sat in the bright, cold light of a coffee shop window, Jackson recalled her persistent obsession with words: “I’ve been writing—I don’t even know how long. I remember a couple of years ago, my mom sent me a story that I had written when I was around six. I had made up my own Elvish language for it. I wrote it in my fake Elvish and translated it. I’ve always been interested in playing language games, as long as I can remember. I started writing poetry more intensively in high school. One of my aunts is a poet. She’s actually the Poet Laureate of Illinois right now. It was really influential for me.”

Jackson’s face softened at the mention of her aunt. 

“I think I started reading her work towards the end of high school. But we would talk about poetry and we would talk about literature. I have all these memories of being on the train with her in Chicago, talking about the poems I was reading for class. I remember I wrote a poem in high school and she read it and she said, ‘Oh my God, you’re a poet.’ It was an ordination moment.”

As an undergraduate at Reed College, Jackson strayed away from writing. She studied religion. She didn’t sign up for any literature courses. But upon graduation, she found herself missing her craft: “I just decided it was time to write again.” 

She applied to Brown’s Literary Arts MFA program, a degree which, for the first time in her life, granted her time to meet fellow poets and mentors and shape her poetic voice. After her time at Brown, Jackson completed a series of residencies, some purely focused on poetry and others that combined visual and written work. As an artist-in-residence at F4F, Jackson authored her first chapbook, saltsitting, in 2017. The collection was written in conversation with Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, a book Jackson stumbled upon as her parents were moving out of her childhood home. 

“That residency was a funny period,” Jackson recalled. “It was hard to go there every day and try to figure out what I wanted to say. I think it was the first time I’d ever really done that with the intention of making something at the end, and having it be substantial.” 

saltsitting’s twenty poems are tethered by both topic and tone. Jackson’s mediation on salt—its simultaneously bitter and soothing nature, its precise mineral arrangement, its ubiquity of use—ties the anthology together. As she closed out her residency, Jackson invited her audience to “saltsit” with her, an interactive performance during which Jackson read her work aloud. 

Salt is a characteristic subject for Jackson. She tells me, “I’m thinking about how materials of Black culture and Black history show up in the environment. In the past few years, I’ve been thinking about water a lot. I think my interest started with the ocean,” she said. Indeed, Jackson chose Brown for her degree in part because it was close to the Atlantic. “It obviously occupies a really big role in thinking about Black history and Black aesthetics.” 

Much of Jackson’s writing mediates on water, on fluidity, on motion. In the sequence “test—flux,” she writes: When wounds open up….hold pressure at the sides of and beneath a surface. / Pressure speaks of inward touch. What means dead if I / Run the portion under a stream—disrupt its flow. 

Jackson’s second major work, Consider the Tongue, is also the product of a residency, this time with Paper Machine in 2019. The poetry-cookbook was a collaboration between Jackson and her friend S*an D. Henry-Smith, a multimedia writer and artist. An exercise in Black experimentalism, Consider the Tongue combines recipes, poems, and cyanotypes. 

The idea for the book came from a series of dinners and performances Jackson and Henry-Smith hosted together in New York. At the time, Jackson had been researching the history of Black shoreline workers in the United States and South America. “We came up with this menu around oysters and salt, thinking about the sea and slave labor. Then we decided we should make a cookbook for it,” Jackson said. It was a practice in combining forms: poetry, cooking, and oral performance. “We’re both people really interested in full experiences, in thinking about the ways we can braid different textures.” 

Both saltsitting and Consider the Tongue examined oceanic imagery. After moving to the East Coast, Jackson found herself thinking more about rivers—specifically, tidal rivers. 

“It’s a particular kind of space where the water is neither fully salty nor fully fresh,” Jackson explained. “It’s a space both hostile to a lot of life and specific to a lot of life.” Her next book, Flag—forthcoming from Futurepoem Books—contemplates this paradox. Composed of three long poems, Flag’s focus ranges from hyper-historical to largely abstract. 

In person, Jackson is precise and soft-spoken. I get the sense that she weighs her words before saying them aloud. It’s no surprise that her writing is exacting. There is both rigor and momentum in Jackson’s language. Her poems are a systematic unraveling. 

In “Hydrography #4,” still considering the word “flux,” Jackson writes: perhaps I thought it meant continuous change. Later on: Opacity rains osmotic rocks. It can be painful. 

Jackson’s words are visceral; they are sometimes vicious. But after speaking with her, I think perhaps they are hopeful, too. Jackson is obsessed with movement. She meditates on movement, on erosion, on all the ways things change. She wonders about illness and wellness in turn: if salt can cure, what water can wash away, which creatures the river can sustain. It can be life on its way out, she writes. It can be—there are many forceful discharges that rely on downward motion.

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