Olympia-native Jackson Burgess studies Creative Writing and Narrative Studies at the University of Southern California, where he is a Greenberg Fellow for Poetry and a Trustee Scholar. In the fall, he’ll pursue dual MFAs in Fiction and Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a Truman Capote Fellow. Jackson is Editor in Chief and Co-Founder of Fractal Literary Magazine, and has led workshops at a homeless shelter on Skid Row and at Los Angeles Southwest College.
Jackson is the author of Pocket Full of Glass, winner of the 2014 Clockwise Chapbook Competition (forthcoming from Tebot Bach). His fiction and poetry are published or forthcoming in Rattle, The Los Angeles Review, Bartleby Snopes, The Monarch Review, Atticus Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, and elsewhere. Jackson is currently at work on a novel, an immersive play, and two collections of poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you first recognize yourself as a writer?
Jackson Burgess: I started writing seriously in high school as a sort of coping mechanism for depression. I had a lot going on then, mentally and emotionally, so I guess I turned to writing as a means of making sense of it all. That sounds cliché to me even as I write it, but it is what it is.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you know as a child that you would become a writer?
Jackson Burgess: No. Definitely not. My mother is a writer, and she instilled in me a love of literature, but as a kid I wanted to be an entomologist. That seems funny now because it’s so very different from what I ended up doing. Studying bugs versus studying words.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us the difference between Creative Writing and Narrative Studies?
Jackson Burgess: At USC, Narrative Studies is just analyzing narratives in different media—they had us studying literature, film, and theatre—and the ways in which we narrativize our own lives to make sense of them. Creative Writing is more workshops and learning the craft itself.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to go to the University of Southern California to study writing?
Jackson Burgess: The short answer is money. In all honesty, I got lucky with scholarships there, and USC was the only school I could afford. But I think I ended up right where I needed to be because I stumbled into a lot of success in terms of finding mentors and friends. I don’t know where I’d be without the Creative Writing program—or more specifically without professors like David St. John.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re the Editor in Chief and Co-Founder of “Fractal Literary Magazine.” Has the aim for which this magazine was set up been realized?
Jackson Burgess: When I got to USC, there were no active literary magazines, and my friends and I thought that was a bummer, so we decided to make our own. Since then, a handful have sprung up, and I think that’s great, but the goal of Fractal was to find and publish great, startling writing, and I’d say we’ve achieved that.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you access good writing for your magazine?
Jackson Burgess: Submissions are blind, so we don’t know whose work we’re reading, but with each issue we’ve had more submissions than the last, and while that means more work for us, it also means we have a lot more to work with. We’ve been very fortunate with the submissions we’ve received. It’s really an honor to publish something you’re proud of as an editor.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main interest areas as a writer?
Jackson Burgess: Form-wise, I love free verse poetry and sprawling, black humoristic prose. More than anything, though, I’m interested in work that explores loneliness and alienation, and that (hopefully) makes the reader feel a little less alone, whatever that means.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you write at all?
Jackson Burgess: To make sense of my life and the world. I think everyone has their own strategy to combat loneliness, and writing just happens to be mine.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
Jackson Burgess: It took me a lot of time and a lot of reading to find my own voice, and that’s something I’m still struggling with. It’s easy to emulate someone else. It’s hard to write anything that’s original in any way.
Geosi Gyasi: You have led workshops at a homeless shelter on Skid Row and at Los Angeles Southwest College. What does it take to lead workshops of such nature?
Jackson Burgess: It takes a lot of humility. No, more than that, it takes a thick skin because, if the workshop functions the way it’s supposed to, that humility gets thrown at you. I was teaching people far older and wiser than I was, and I feel like I learned more from them than they possibly could have from me.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Pocket Full of Glass”?
Jackson Burgess: I attended a poetry workshop in Paris with Cecilia Woloch, a great mentor and friend of mine, and afterwards I had a big stack of poems I didn’t know what to do with. I put the collection together and sent it out everywhere I could. For some reason it seemed crucial to have a published chapbook under my belt.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you won the 2014 Clockwise Chapbook Competition?
Jackson Burgess: Nope. I’m still asking myself that question.
Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what is the difference between fiction and poetry?
Jackson Burgess: It’s funny you ask that because I’ve had this conversation like five times with friends in the past week. I think with the proliferation of forms like prose poetry and flash fiction, that whole binary has become pretty meaningless. I like what Nick Flynn said about how the only difference between prose and poetry for him is that the former is better suited for the day, and the latter is better for the night. I feel like my opinion shouldn’t carry much weight because there are so many more talented, accomplished writers out there, but I personally think fiction and poetry can accomplish all the same things. In my work, I write poems about my own life and experience, and I write stories that are more fabricated, even if they’re informed by things I’ve seen or done.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you regard as your favorite writer?
Jackson Burgess: Damn that’s tough. Can I list a few? I love Dostoevsky, he might be number one. David Foster Wallace, Bukowski, Nick Flynn. Matthew Dickman’s definitely up there. Kerouac, too.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
Jackson Burgess: Yes, definitely. Almost all the time, honestly. I never sit down and write if I don’t feel like it, but when I do, I typically produce a ton of work.
Geosi Gyasi: When do you write best?
Jackson Burgess: When I really get into a groove. Usually late evening-ish, alternating between sips of coffee and wine.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “Bird” as published in Word Riot?
Jackson Burgess: For months, I sat out on my balcony and watched that mourning dove, and she watched me, and I felt a real connection with her. It was both amusing and sad how scared she was of me, and I wished I could somehow reassure her that everything would be okay. But then I realized I couldn’t even tell myself that, so that poem was me wrestling with that feeling.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that poetry is no longer relevant in the 21st century?
Jackson Burgess: No. Fuck that. Poetry is as relevant as it’s ever been, even though for some reason the narrative that the media’s feeding us now is that it’s falling out of fashion. I’ve been to three packed poetry readings in the past two weeks, all of which had people bawling in the audience because something the poets said really spoke to them. Indie publishers are consistently putting out brilliant work, and though I think it’s unfortunate that poetry’s been somewhat relegated to academia, there are all kinds of poets out there writing their hearts out—and readers responding to what they have to say.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your future literary ambitions?
Jackson Burgess: I’m heading to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a few years to study poetry and fiction, and I’d love to get a full-length book of poems published in that time. Also, I’ve got to finish this damn novel I’ve been working on for two years. I just want to keep writing stuff that means something to someone.
Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the idea to write, “Curbside Dirge”?
Jackson Burgess: Oh man, I had to go re-read that one because it’s been a while. Prior to writing it, I had just pulled an all-nighter in the library, and every time I took a smoke break, I’d look at the few students meandering around the quad and think about how lonely it was—all these people I would never meet, and how I’d never know where they were going or where they’d been. I feel like I’ve written that same poem several dozen times. That was just the one that happened to get published.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently reading?
Jackson Burgess: I’m working through Danielewsky’s “House of Leaves” while re-reading Saunders’ “Tenth of December” and Didion’s “Play It As It Lays.” Also a lot of Larry Levis’ poems. There are just too many good books to read. Never enough time.