Angela Jackson, state’s new poet laureate, hopes to empower children: ‘I want to awaken the poets’

Angela Jackson, state’s new poet laureate, hopes to empower children: ‘I want to awaken the poets’

Poet Angela Jackson reads “Home” by Gwendolyn Brooks at the Kenwood United Church of Christ, June 7, 2018. | Erin Brown/For the Sun-Times

She follows four previous Illinois poet laureates: Howard B. Austin, Carl Sandburg, Kevin Stein and Jackson’s role model Gwendolyn Brooks. “I’m just thrilled to be following in her footsteps,” Jackson said.

As a young poet, Angela Jackson traveled Illinois teaching the power of poetry to students.

Poetry, she says, “psychically empowers people” and puts “them in touch with their selves so that they know their own worth and power, and gain some measure of their lives, and know who they can be and what they can do in the world.”

Now in her late 60s, the acclaimed Chicago poet plans to travel the state again, but with a new title: Poet Laureate of Illinois.

“I want people to be excited about poetry,” she said by phone Wednesday from her South Side home. “I want to awaken the poets, in young people especially, so they will be lifelong readers of poets, and potentially poets themselves.”

Illinois first lady M.K. Pritzker announced the selection on Wednesday. Pritkzer is the honorary chair and “final judge” of the search committee she and Gov. J.B. Pritzker formed in June.

Jackson is an award-winning poet, novelist and playwright, and has published four volumes of poetry. As the state’s poet laureate, she will travel the state and country to promote poetry — although events in the foreseeable future will be held virtually, she said.

She follows four previous Illinois poet laureates: Howard B. Austin, Carl Sandburg, Kevin Stein and Jackson’s role model Gwendolyn Brooks.

“I knew her, I studied her work and modeled my words after her words — the way she handled language so intensely,” Jackson said of Brooks.

Gwendolyn Brooks in 1979.Sun-Times archives
Gwendolyn Brooks in 1979.

“And the way she searched for the perfect word, I wanted to do that with my poems. I also tried to follow her devotion to people. Her love of, especially African American, people and African American life that she depicted in her poems and her novel, ‘Maud Martha.’ I tried to do that in my work as well. So she was a great role model for me. And I’m just thrilled to be following in her footsteps.”

Illinois has been without a Poet Laureate since 2017, when Stein stepped down that December. Just last summer, the state announced it was accepting applications for a new top poet. In June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker posthumously named John Prine an honorary Poet Laureate.

As a baby, Jackson moved from Mississippi with her family to the South Side, where she remains today.

“My whole family was part of the Great Migration and I was the youngest one — the young baby. And we moved to a house in Englewood on 55th and Wentworth. And my family lived their for 60-some years, shortly before it was torn down.”

Angela Jackson in 1975.Chicago Sun Times files
Angela Jackson in 1975.

As she turns her attention once again to promoting poetry, she said she wants to ensure her message doesn’t miss students students of color and “students who come from backgrounds where they don’t have a lot of money — the students who are not always thought of as potential poets … I want to be sure that they’re not forgotten.”

Jackson also hopes to revive a program similar to the one she served in her youth, traveling the state and promoting poetry to students.

“I hope that the office of this poet laureate will be able to send out young ambassadors of poetry to schools — younger poets, like the one I was in my 20s — who can set up residences in school and bring poetry to schools.”

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