UH undergrad Jackson Neal has been busy all year. After winning the Space City Grand Slam Competition twice, the 19-year-old Sugar Land native snagged the title of Houston Youth Poet Laureate back in November 2018. The honor encompasses a one-year position created by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Houston Public Library, and Writers in the Schools. Perks include a scholarship, publication in the Houston Chronicle, and mentorship from Houston’s Poet Laureate, Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton. He’s also in the running to become National Youth Poet Laureate, who will be crowned in the fall.
This week, Neal will lead the UH Coog Slam Poetry Team as it competes in this year’s College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, where teams from across the world will compete for top honors. We caught up with the young poet in advance to talk craft and poetry in the Bayou City.
How do you describe the kind of poems you write?
I primarily operate by applying a lyrical lens to actual tragedy. I take inspiration from events that occurs to my body, people around me, and the community, and figure out how make poems out of them. I also like to move through the current political climate or just what it means to be a queer femme body in the U.S right now—what it means to be in Houston, Texas, and how that’s different from the rest of the world.
Your poem “In My Body” seems to address a lot of those themes.
I think a lot about the body just in terms of, like, are you your body, or are you a brain that’s operating the body? Being a queer femme person who presents in a lot of different ways depending on what room I’m in and what people are in that room, your body really becomes a really strange thing in terms of how you decorate it and how much of that is earnest and how much of that is performance. This poem asks a lot of questions in terms of, how much of this do I own? Where do I come from, and what is my connection like? If I exist in a femme body, what does that mean coming from actually being born out of a woman’s body, and what does that relationship add to me? How much of that femininity do I carry? How much of that did I have to learn?
Who are some of your poetic inspirations?
There are so many! I started in performance, so the poets who I studied in the start were primarily poets who also operated through performance. That was, like, Danez Smith, Frannie Choi, among others. Then I started reading more to diversify the kind of media I was taking in. Arundhati Roy, a fiction writer and political theorist is also a great inspiration, particularly her ability to make a lyric of the environment. Her book The God of Small Things was influential to the way I write. Other writers, poets, and artists include Ocean Vuong, Chen Chen, James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, among others.
I also operate through visuals, both in terms of writing, but also sometimes my work has mixed media in it or is visual in some parts of performance. I watch a lot of music videos by people like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar. [Houston-based] visual artist Antonius Bui does phenomenal work. I’ve also been grateful to be mentored by Emanuelee "Outspoken" Bean, Deborah Mouton, who is the current Houston poet laureate, and Loyce Gayo, who is a fantastic actor and writer.
You mentioned Deborah Mouton, who has become a mentor. Has that relationship changed the way you approach your craft?
She is one of the most disciplined people I have ever met. I talked to her about how she is able to manage all the projects she’s involved in, and she said just work really hard. Learn to put yourself out there, and if you fail, you learn from it and keep going. She has also taught me stamina in a way that’s very caring. She always checks in with people and makes sure you’re taking care of yourself as you also push yourself very hard.
April is National Poetry Month. Are you doing anything special to celebrate?
We have a project in the works called Rain Poems. I am working with two other young writers affiliated with the Bayouth Collective. All around Bayou Buffalo Park, there will be poems painted on the concrete with a special solvent which makes the poems only show up in the rain. There will be signs that read “splash the concrete,” and when they do, a poem appears. They’re just hiding poems on the sidewalk.
You’ve also talked about starting a local podcast. When are you looking to start it?
It’s looking like recording is going to be happening around June and will be released sometime after that. It’s taking on a little bit of a new direction, but I think we’re still doing really great work in terms of elevating the methods that is separate from western canon and really diversifying kinds the narratives Houstonians get to experience. I won’t name drop the guests, but I’m looking to feature writers and storytellers from across the city of Houston. A lot of familiar faces, poets, artists and fiction writers; people that are well adapted to telling stories and simply asking them to tell the stories one more time and then the stories are gathered.
Overall, how do you think poetry influences the culture in Houston?
I think Houston has a legacy of storytelling ingrained in its pop culture like the legacy of DJ Screw, Solange, and Beyoncé. These incredible artists have changed the game in terms of how they’re telling their stories, who gets to tell the stories, and through what media. I love to talk about Screw because he brought a new way to experience the genre of hip-hop by flipping the framework given to them.
The people coming out of Houston are really challenging the narratives that are handed to them and doing a lot of work with it and because it's such a vibrant community with so many resources, there’s all kind of mixing and mingling and engaging in incredible different ways that is showing up. There are so many things happening for poetry all over Houston.