Photographs by Lola Lafia
Interviewed by Courtney DeVita
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Jazmin Maco, I’m a sophomore at Barnard College studying Africana Studies and minoring in French. I consider myself a creative. I am focused on poetry right now, but I also write prose, I draw, and I’m getting into photography and video work as well. I was born on Long Island, but my parents are Jamaican and Haitian - and [so] I think that that influences a lot of my work.
When did you first start writing?
Well, I feel like I’ve always been writing. My favorite subject was English, and I think that that was because my English teachers really pushed me to write. So I’ve always been writing since a really young age. I think that I’ve gotten really serious about it since probably my senior year of high school when I became Editor-in-Chief of my school’s literary magazine.
Why did you make the switch from prose to poetry?
I don’t think there’s necessarily been a switch, and I don’t think that I don’t write prose anymore; I really enjoy both forms. But I think that prose has been a thing that I’ve been geared to in classroom settings while poetry has been something I turn to when I write for myself.
What is your writing process? And what is your revision process?
Well, I don’t really have a writing process, which I think was the problem for me. It was really hard for me to be like, not self-motivated, but to get into the groove of writing. So, this past summer I was living in the city, and I was doing an internship at the Museum of Natural History and babysitting on the side, and I had a lot of time to myself. I would intentionally go out and walk through Central Park and keep a little notebook with me and just write down whatever thoughts I had in my head, whatever came to me, even just things that I saw. I continued this for my trip back to Jamaica, which is where a lot of my CTA Hindsight photos came from. And then this past break, when decided that I wanted to apply to Ratrock and curate this collection of poems for my portfolio, I went back to that book and used those things as inspiration to write these new poems. As far as my revision process, that’s an ongoing thing. I wrote these poems over break and then when I submitted [them when applying] to be an April Featured Artist, I went through that collection all over again. For some of them I tweaked a couple lines, or even just punctuation, and for some of them I just scraped the whole thing and wrote whole new poems. So I’d say it’s pretty varied but coming back to my poems is very integral for me.
Do you have a favorite writer?
I don’t know that I have a favorite writer, I think I’m very in the moment when it comes to favorites. Still, I always say that my favorite book is “the Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, and I just read, this past summer, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, which blew my mind and really spoke to me as a young black woman.
For “the Bluest Eye,” I think I read it at a time when I really needed it. I was dealing with a lot of self-hate surrounding my blackness and my body-image, and I felt so alienated from myself. And for “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I think it spoke to me for much of the same reasons because I am on a continuous journey of self-love and self-reflection. They’re also both so wonderfully and powerfully written, so there’s that. Interestingly, I don’t have a favorite writer as far as poetry is concerned, I wonder if that’s due to my focus on poetry at the moment - who knows?
How does your writing relate to your identity as a black queer woman? How has your life influenced your work?
I think that my poetry is a lot of me looking back on the things that I’ve lived through and putting pen to paper about those things. Even in my present self, I see things, I’m inspired by things and whatever comes out of that filters into my poems. I think that my identity as a black queer woman is very integral to the things that I write because I don’t think that it could come from any other place. My life has influenced my work a lot - it’s all about me, which probably has a lot to do with me being a Leo.
Has being at Columbia changed anything in the way you create and feature your work?
Not really no. I’d say that I’m just getting involved in the art scene on Columbia’s campus and so I wouldn’t say that it’s changed anything for me yet. I was on the board of Echoes [literary magazine] for like a semester and half but that wasn’t in a creative capacity. I think that I would just say that Ratrock has given me an outlet and a platform to display my work in a way that I don’t really see for myself elsewhere. This is the first time I’ve shared my work since being here. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.
Is there a reason that you haven’t shared your work?
When I first came here I applied to a creative writing class, and I didn’t get in and that shook my confidence a lot, and so I just threw myself into my academics. It was a real awakening for me my last semester when I left the board of Echoes. I realized I didn’t want to be singularly focused on my academics and at this point, I don’t have to be. I do feel really fulfilled by my creative endeavours, by writing poetry, and I just made a commitment to myself at that point that I was going to push myself to produce more work and put myself out there. I also think that my work can be really heavy and it’s a lot of me dealing with past trauma, and [so] it took me a long time just in general to get to a place where I could write those things down, and then to turn around and actually put them out there was and is also very hard. I am scared but excited to do it.
In a sentence, or in three words, describe your work?
A word that keeps popping up to me is home. I’m really interested in that concept right now and I think a lot of my poems deal with that in some form or another. But really I would say my work is a negotiation of self - my past self, my present self, my future self.
Your work, at times, is extremely rooted in the senses as a way to access past memories - is that conscious?
I feel like this is a thing that’s been brought to my attention outside of myself. As I’m writing my poems, I don’t think that I’m consciously thinking about that. But I think that it makes sense to me. In my looking at my past it’s kind of me recreating those experiences on paper. A lot of what I try to do with my words, with my poems, is to create a visceral experience - as you read it you can feel it yourself. You can feel what I feel, what I’m going through and you can be apart of that experience. I’m really happy that that comes out in the physicality of my words.
Your work is also very corporeal, through your use of cracking spines and body parts. What is the motive behind this? What do you think of how black bodies are used/situated in the literary canon?
The way that I talk about bodies is kind of an act of reclamation. Usually, in the canon of literature it’s a lot of the outside perspective and people seeing black bodies, talking about them, projecting these ideas, stereotypes, desires onto them. In my poetry, I take that and I flip it. The power is within me so there’s a shift where it’s me talking to and about myself and my experiences. I feel like this is really important. In my poems, I work through traumatic things in my life. There’s a huge market of people looking at black pain and fetishizing that. By disrupting that power dynamic, it allows me to talk about my experiences without feeling like I’m on display for everyone. It’s not about or for anyone else, it’s about me and it’s from me and I’m the one that has the onus to allow you to be apart of it.
Do you believe that accessibility in writing is important?
Yes, of course, I believe that accessibility in writing is important. This goes hand in hand with academia in my mind. If it can’t be read and understood and internalized by everyone then what is the point of it? As much as I think my poetry is very much for me, like I don’t write it for anyone else and it’s not about anyone else, I do think about the fact that my poetry, my experiences, can be read and understood by others and help them.
What are you working on now, short-term and long-term?
Short-term, I am excited to be creating some new work for the featured artist show, in collaboration with the other artists. Long-term, I am apart of the Barbara Horowitz Scholars program through Barnard in which we get a stipend to do research and things like that and I’ve decided to focus my project on oral histories in my family. So this summer I am going to be doing interviews with my mom and my grandmother, going back to Jamaica with my grandmother to look at her home, and just exploring themes of migration and what is home, especially for immigrants, and then connecting that with my own experience of home.
How does being Caribbean, and specifically a first generation immigrant, impact your current work?
I would say it impacts it a lot because there’s a specific tension that comes with that identity, in that, even though I was born in America I’ve never considered myself to be African-American because I was very much raised in Jamaican culture, and so it’s a negotiation for me of what is home, what is mine to claim and what isn’t? America is very firmly home for me because I live here but Jamaica is also home for me. I’ve gone back like every year, two years since I was a child. So there’s a lot of me thinking through these concepts in my work.
An interesting thing about your poetry is that all the way through there is a big theme of wanting to be seen and wanting to have a witness. One of your poems is titled “Witness.” Do you feel like you’re unseen here or more seen back home?
Well, I think home is difficult to define. That’s a very interesting question. I think that I’m seen in very different ways between here at Barnard, at home on Long Island, and in Jamaica. I think that when I go back to Jamaica it does very much feel like home for me, but also it doesn’t because I don’t live there, and I’m taken out of my actual home where I live that knows all of me and going to this place that has a very distinct position in my memory in my heart.
But also, as far as me being queer, I don’t fully express that part of myself when I go back to Jamaica because of the dynamics and conceptions surrounding homosexuality there. But at the same time, while I’m at Barnard I think I’m seen and I act in very different ways than I do either when I’m at home or when I’m in Jamaica. These places all create very different contexts within which I exist and I think that even though all versions of me are different, all of them are equally true.
I don’t think that I think through being seen in that aspect because the wanting to be seen, and wanting to have a witness in my poems, isn’t about other people seeing me or allowing me to be seen; I think it’s about me seeing myself, giving myself the space to feel the things that I’ve been through, saying that ‘I’ve been through this, I’ve lived through this, and I can still move forward.’ I think a lot of the time I can shut down emotionally as a reaction to things that happen in my life, and I just don’t address things within myself. I’m really proud of myself with this collection of poems that I’ve given myself the space to do that.
Yeah, I definitely don’t think my poetry is about being seen by other people because I don’t write it for other people; but still, as I said, I do think that it is useful in that other people seeing and reading and feeling my poems can understand them and feel seen themselves through that.
What would you say to people who are also poets, specifically black female poets, who are writing about their trauma and haven’t taken that step to share their work?
I think that it’s very hard. I think that it’s something that you need to be ok with saying on your own, you need to be able to talk about those things on your own. And for me, that took a really long time. As much as I write for myself and my poems are for me and about me, my poems also stand alone. You can see them and read them and not everyone always has the context of who I am. I think that you need to be able to make peace with that, make peace with letting go a part of your story. It’s really hard and really scary, but it can also be cathartic in many ways. I would also say that it’s really good for you to have a strong support system, a person to turn to, because you relive things through your work, through writing it, through revising it, through putting it out there. It was, is, and continues to be really important for me to be supported by the people closest to me through this process. You feel things alone, but it’s good to have people to shore you up in the aftermath.