How It’s Made: Didi Jackson’s MOON JAR
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Didi Jackson’s debut MOON JAR (from Red Hen Press). The work “explores the life-altering and heart-rending loss of a husband to suicide. In an effort to understand this unforeseen and inexplicable act, she maps with immense candor the emotional difficulty of continuing her responsibility as a mother while attempting to regain a sense of normalcy.” With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection like this one comes to being.
What were the most joyful moments of MOON JAR’s journey to publication?
MOON JAR was a very difficult book to write, but one that I did so out of necessity. I felt I needed to tell my story. And although the book itself has a tragic theme, the process did have a few highlights. My best memories come from sitting with poets who helped me to edit and workshop my poems and who happen to be dear friends. Michele Randal and I sat week after week at my dining room table, and she helped me to write through my grief. Other dear friends, Tanya Grae, Kerrin McCadden, and Liz Powell, all helped at various stages whether it was meeting at 7 am on Sunday mornings to workshop our latest poems or planning weekend sleepovers to help organize manuscripts. Those days and nights were crucial. Another fond memory I have is sitting with my husband (also poet) in the south of France with my manuscript sprawled across the kitchen table considering various arrangements for the book. I sent that particular manuscript out for three years to every first book contest offered. It came close and was a finalist several times which I was thankful for but at the same time disappointed about. But those memories of laughing and companionship with friends and love ones are full of joy!
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
I think the toughest moment in getting my book into the world was keeping my head up when the results came in from various contests. To know that I came close but would not be published definitely had its challenges. And, that I’d have to wait another whole year before I could submit to a prize again with each press was really quite a roller coaster ride. Because my book is about my second husband’s suicide, I also had to move beyond my fear of putting details out in to the world that I worried should remain private. And emotionally, those details were hard to be positioned in such a way as to allow them to be judged in a contest. I wondered if that was unfair to my late husband and to his/my story. But, as so many poets know, it is a very common way to get published. I felt I had no choice. Then, a dear friend of mine and fellow Red Hen poet gave my manuscript to Kate Gale. And she took it! And the cycle of contests ended.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would MOON JAR not have made it across the finish line?
Everyone at Red Hen Press really does feel like family. Kate Gale and I met for coffee at AWP the year she took my collection. Later that evening Tobi Harper congratulated me by welcoming me to the family! I love my cover so much! It is a monotype by my colleague and dear friend here at University of Vermont, Jane Kent. I hoped they would like it at Red Hen, and they did! Mark, Natasha, Monica, and Tansica have all be so very helpful in editing and promotions. A true team! They also have been so very proactive about helping books released during the pandemic. It feels really good to know that my hard work is loved and respected by those who are helping to issue it out into the world. I feel that Kate and Mark and Tobi all have their authors best interest in mind! I suffer from some debilitating migraines (one of a million reasons I love Green Migraine by Michael Dickman so much!), and one phone call with Kate in the winter before my book was to be released ended with her giving me some much needed and very helpful migraine headache advise! I also owe Lisa Kruger for taking my manuscript to Kate to begin with. Also, I am grateful for the never-ending support of my son for understanding even at a young age how important writing is for me. We are both only children, so alone time isn’t scary to either of us! And of course, I am so very fortunate to be married to a poet who also is very sympathetic to the time and privacy we need in order to create.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
One of the best pieces of advice I was given while writing this book came from one of my hero poets, Kathy Graber. She was reading one of my poems that dealt with suicide but, as was my habit early on, dealt with it slant. She asked, in this particular poem, if she could “buy a detail.” In that moment, I realized that I could say some of the things that I thought were unsayable. And that I needed to. I was writing around my subject and not to it or through it as I finally was able to do. This opened up a large group of new poems that offered the reader more insight into my situation of finding myself a widow and then rather quickly discovering new love.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
I taught Art History for almost ten years before I moved to Vermont, and so many of my poems were individually influenced by various pieces of visual art. “kill lies all “came to me after visiting Guernica at the Reina Sofia in Madrid and thinking about the desperate attempt of someone to change history though vandalism. The title of my book comes from a lecture I gave on moon jars from Korea and my own fascination with the desire or more accurately the reconciliation of imperfection in all things including ourselves and others. I have poems paying a sort of tribute to Bosch, Suprematism, Rothko, Campin, Dutch art, and Duccio among other artists and movements. Also, my son plays the piano, so Chopin’s compositions are very important to me as he played them over and over in our house for rehearsal. I’m not even mentioning all of the poets whose work influences me but most importantly are those artists who have suffered depression or have also been survivors of suicide loss.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Allow yourself to cultivate a base of knowledge for your poems that comes from all that you love and want to learn about rather than being afraid of what you don’t know giving in to influences such as visual art, music, natural spaces.
What I love best about writing is that I am forever a student of the world.
Didi Jackson’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, New England Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. After having lived most of her life in Florida, she currently lives in South Burlington, Vermont and teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont.
You can find her collection here.