SPEAKout Poetry presents our poet of the month for April, Jamaal Jackson Rogers (JustJamaal). Hailing from the nation’s capital, Jamaal is actively involved in his community not just as an artist but also as an activist. He runs an after school program and works with people with disabilities. Also, Jamaal is part of different university and grassroots organizations in Ottawa. Last but definitely not least, he is a father raising his four children. In recognition of Jamaal as our poet for the National Poetry Month of April, SPEAKout asked him the following questions:
So let’s go back to the beginning, how did this journey that you are on today begin for you? Did your parents ever mention certain habits or anything from your childhood which would have made them think you would grow up to be ‘JustJamaal’?
Poetic thought and expression began when I was engaged in three activities as an adolescent: singing soul and rhythm and blues with my father; lamenting in the washroom when I felt lonely and wanted to be with my mother; and reading different Holy Scriptures as well as the dictionary which my father had me and my siblings do every weekend. I remember my father always told me that I was a child who loved a challenge and I think this has somehow evolved into how I look at my path to poetry thus far.
What was the first thing you got involved in and why?
The Choir at age 9. After a long hiatus from expressing my love for song, I finally returned when I was 16 and began rapping. I did this for about four years, on and off. Then I went through another hibernation with lyrical expression until I heard about an open mic series in the city called Oneness Poetry Showcase hosted by a local poet FreeWill. I performed a few times there and met many people who were part of poetry slam scene. They would always invite me out but I was not interested. It was only in early January 2011 that I performed at my first slam.
How was the experience?
My nervous system was on red alert. I was untrained but I knew I had lyrics and flow. However, I wasn’t confident so I decided to do poems that were more spiritually based. I felt more comfortable expressing this side of me. The first poem I performed was called, “The Wave”.
What inspired you to continue and which were some of the defining opportunities that confirmed to you this is what you want to do and give you the assurance to continue on?
When I entered the Gladiator Circle, which is considered a performance space for poets by Urban Legends Poetry Slam I felt empowered, yet extremely vulnerable. This is how I have lived much of my life, like I have the ability to conquer anything I want as long as I out bring my best, yet at the same time not wanting to expose myself, my flaws and my inadequacies. It was this 'Circle' and it gave me the feeling to let my power free that inspired me to continue. A defining moment was when I remembered the recurring dreams I used to have as a child, that one day I would perform on grand stages for people. Also, every time I write a new poem it acts as a force of encouragement to me. I never write my poems for shows that I will feature in or books that I am preparing. Poems come so often and naturally to me now it is hard to self-deny any longer that I am a poet.
What has been your most fulfilling role so far?
Being a father, a husband, a son and a brother. Also working with Urban Legends Poetry Slam and working with local youth poets. It is not easy, but someone has got to love it enough to do it.
Do you remember what /when your first exposure to poetry was? (How did it come about?)
The earliest I remember was Langston Hughes, A Dream Deferred. I was asked in grade 4 to write a poem and research an author, and my father recommended him to me. I looked up his poems and this one spoke to me deeply. I remember it making me cry, because it reminded me of my father’s struggles in raising us. I still relate to this poem.
Where do you take your literary inspiration from?
Mostly through Holy Scriptures. There is a way that these books have with storytelling, metaphors and parables that are unmatched in my opinion. Plus, they are good learning tools and have spiritual value.
Do you have a favourite piece of poetry?
My wife. If I wasn't so human I would think she is perfect.
Any poetic/literary figures you look up to?
Shakespeare and Rumi.
Respectively speaking, how do you personally view art and poetry?
My view on art is this. Art is not inseparable from anything that this universe offers. All forms of movement, speech, thought and expression can be understood as an artistic element of some form. So therefore, art is purpose, manifested through existence.
Name one poem written by you that really speaks to who you are.
The Heartist. It touches on the insanity of being truthful to my purpose as an artist. When I finally embraced my existence and the gifts I am blessed with, I felt I decided to walk an extremely lonely path. It is a poem meant to teach those who struggle with abandoning their art for a simpler more defined and categorized life, which is something I used to struggle with. We should not deny our hearts calling and anyone who creates and answers the call of the heart is actually considered a HeArtist; an evolved form of artistic expression where there entire being manifests the energy of artistry. I recently realized that my passion for helping others either by hand, voice or mind has been with me since youth. It was then that I finally believed that not only am I a spiritual being having a human experience but also a Heartist having an artistic experience.
What motivates you to continue your work and to keep on trekking through the ‘journey of life’?
My family. They have sacrificed so much for me so that I could sacrifice so much for art that my happiest day will come where my art is benefiting them as much as it benefits me.
From your experience as a poet, do you feel women are underrepresented in the poetry scene? If yes then what can you do to provide forums for equal but diverse voices?
I have heard about this complaint in the last year from the community, but because I rarely attended poetry shows when I first started out, it was something I didn't notice. When I finally became active around January 2012, I began paying attention. I was regularly performing, competing for points and attending events that had women as features and other high calibre slammers plus workshop facilitators. I can say if this were once a problem in the community, I feel it is now on its way out. Especially since going to the Nationals in October of 2011 and seeing so many women on slam teams as captains and running slams, it is hard for me to say that at least in Ottawa that women are still underrepresented. Spoken word poetry was never meant to be a male dominated arena and all voices have a place, and should be heard. The poetry is and always will be the point. So, as long as we keep that in the forefront, poets organizing events and doing any coaching or mentoring should always consider if female artists are comfortable with performing and being heard as equally as the opposite sex.
For those scenes struggling with this problem, I suggest they reach out to the women in their communities and foster an open dialogue where women can openly express how they are being underrepresented. Poets should be aware of the entities and types of philosophies that lend to any sort of discrimination and move to make proactive advances to respond to their concerns by providing spaces that are either more accommodating to all genders or that are dedicated to empowering women just as much as men within so that everyone feels comfortable with their identity and style of self expression.
What's in store for you this year?
Still working on Make Spoken Word Go Viral and bringing it to a website. My first poetry CD/DVD release, another Missing LinX album, more poetry videos, Eastern Ontario tour, another slam series in the city that is on the hush for now…
Finish the following…
Best part of being a poet: is a constant reminder to aspire to live the good that I write.
Biggest professional challenge: turning poetry into my main form of income.
Alternative career: Early Childhood Educator and Developmental Service Worker.
Ultimate goal: To have one of my poems stop a war, be part of a score or win an Oscar.
Proudest moment: Seeing my son perform at Words of a Poet Volume 2 & 3. Also, being in the audience when my cine-poem HUSNIYAH (directed by Craig Allen Conoley) was screened at an event called SAW Resolution 2013.
Hidden talent(s): Beading.
Role model: Father and Mother.
Favorite Superhero: Thor and Hulk.
Words I live by: The breaking of a habit is something of a miracle.
You obviously wear many hats. What is your favourite hat to wear and why?
My role in my family. I have an affinity for family living.
If given a chance to relive your life, would do anything differently?
No, I just strive to do better every day that passes.
Twenty years from now, how do you want to be remembered by?
By my children, because they are my greatest asset. If they can say Daddy was good to me and good to Mommy, I think then I would be satisfied with all I have done in life.
On a lighter note, I know you have been happily married for several years, but if you were to write a poem describing yourself in style of a matrimony ad – what would it say?
I am an artist and a Gemini, and a revolutionary. If you are still interested, then you must be the one.
If you could spare some piece of advice for other aspiring poets what would that be? What advice would you give to aspiring and up-and-coming poets beginning their career in spoken word?
On difficulties: Don’t dream of an easy life, dream of a life accomplished.
On laziness and procrastination: Don’t expect anyone to go hard for your art if you don’t yourself.
On people who hold you back: You will always be underrated for your work if you lend your talents to people whose views don't align with yours. Stop living in someone else's reality
On embracing your art: Like the sky that watches over us, pay attention to life. There was a time when your spirit said no to the abyss and yes to exist. So do not stand while your fears shoot your dreams to sleep. Find your purpose, embrace your gifts, catch a hold of life, even if it’s the debris and rise to become the very same star that you descended from, because you are going to die anyways, so you may as well die for your motherloving HeART.
To stay connected with Jamaal, you may reach him via his website, Facebook or Twitter.