Major Jackson’s FAWC Homecoming

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by G.W. Mercure

Major Jackson, the acclaimed poet and editor of the Harvard Review still remembers vividly his first trip to Provincetown. He had traveled to Cape Cod during spring break of his senior year of college. A girlfriend longed to be in the land of the Kennedys, but Hyannis couldn’t contain Jackson’s curiosity. “Let’s just drive,” he told her. “All the way out.”

“It was quite memorable hitting those little cabins in Truro [Days’ Cottages],” he recalls. “And we just kept going further and further and then sure enough I absolutely remember turning onto Commercial Street and just being awed, absolutely awed. At that time [1992] it was still, it felt to me, ‘Old Provincetown’: fishing seaport kind of spot. Yeah. That was the first time.” As with many of us, one time was all it took to get Major Jackson hooked on Provincetown.

Jackson will be among the honorees at this weekend’s Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) Summer Awards Celebration, (dubbed Homecoming, in reference to the two-year hiatus forced by the pandemic), along with artist Firelei Báez and artist/arts patron Ted Chapin. But he didn’t become aware of FAWC, until after that first trip. He found a brochure in Philadelphia touting the institution. The brochure featured quite a trio of literary luminaries: “In the picture were Louise Glück and Stanley Kunitz standing on a stair. And there was one Black woman also in this brochure and her name was Kate Rushin. And that’s when it hit my consciousness.”

He returned a second time, driving a friend from Brown University to a fellowship at FAWC. That friend’s success helped inspire Jackson to compete for the fellowship himself. His third trip to Provincetown was for that fellowship, from 2000 to 2001. During his time at FAWC, he edited the work that would become his first published poetry collection, Leaving Saturn (2002).

“I won’t say I overedited my book, but I spent a lot of time that year printing out poems, going through them, and of course hanging out with friends,” he says. “I was mortified that I was about to put something out into the world for public critique—consumption and critique—so there was some anxiety there.”

In the intervening years, Jackson has been a recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Pew fellowship. He has published four more collections of his own poetry, and for 2019 edited the popular Best American Poetry anthology. He has been published in The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among many others. Awards that Jackson has received include the Pushcart Prize and the Whiting Award. His work has been included in prestigious anthologies and lauded by esteemed publications from The New York Times to The Boston Globe. He is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. And for a poet at age 53, he really is just getting warmed up.

Jackson was a FAWC fellow at a formative time both personally and creatively, and he is predictably reflective as he prepares for another return to Provincetown. Especially with the great changes of the last few years still settling on him.

“Sheltering in place allowed me to kind of assess where I was at that time in terms of my career,” he says. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to teach at Vanderbilt during the pandemic: daunting to many of us, but Jackson sees it differently. “It was a rescue,” he says.

“I thrive on a certain kind of restlessness, mainly creative. So the routine of my life needed a bit of shaking up. Interestingly enough, all of our lives were suddenly under scrutiny at the time—the time that was thrust upon us. Many of us were assessing our marriages, assessing our careers, our relationships to our inner lives, our spiritual lives. I felt that it was the catalyst for a life change right now,” he explains

“It’s always great to return,” he says of next week’s events in Provincetown. “I returned there this past spring for an event with a young poet, Tiana Clark. And each trip it becomes more and more poignant, mainly because I have a sense of its evolution, and I’m suffering from a bit of nostalgia.”

He acknowledges that it’s a time for reflection. A lot of reflection. Especially in regards to the Fine Arts Work Center.

“Think about that,” he says of FAWC’s burgeoning legacy. “There’s 54 years now of artists that have come through there. That’s about a thousand artists. Think about how those thousand artists have enriched the lives of even more artists. It’s one of those grand ripples that’s really a tsunami of creativity that has enriched the lives of so many.” But it’s not only about the work and the artists and writers, not only about FAWC. “It has to do with the phenomenon of Provincetown itself,” he continues. “A place where there is an openness to the richness of the possibilities of being human, and humane.”

 The Fine Arts Work Center Summer Homecoming Celebration at the Pilgrim Monument, 1 High Pole Hill Rd., Provincetown, on Saturday, July 16, 6 p.m. Patron Level ticket holders are invited to the Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St.,
on Friday, July 15, 6 – 8 p.m. for a Cape Cod-style al fresco dinner and conversation with our honorees, as well as other activities. For information and tickets ($400 and up) to these events call
508.487.9960 or visit fawc.org/homecoming.