Jamaal Jackson Rogers: Poetry from the ground up

Jamaal Jackson Rogers. Photo: Rosa Saba

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore — And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

— Harlem by Langston Hughes

Ottawa’s English language poet laureate, Jamaal Jackson Rogers, moved to Ottawa with his family when he was about nine years old.

They had come to town from Guyana. As a young boy, Jamaal had a strong Guyanese accent and was having trouble making himself understood in Grade 4 at the old Queensway Public School. So he was put into English as a Second Language training.

“They thought I spoke a different language so I was put into ESL. I understood that ESL was mainly for those who didn’t speak English, but my problem was that I spoke and read English but no one could understand me because of my accent.”

Out of frustration, the young boy began to “write.” He would compose in his mind and say those compositions to himself. It was a solitary world.

And then he discovered poetry.

“I remember I was introduced to poetry through a unit we were going to study with my Grade 4 teacher. I didn’t know what it was and she encouraged me to go to the library and find a book and read it.”

So he did.

“I found a book by Langston Hughes, who is now one of my favourite poets. I read it and it just spoke to me. I understood the language of poetry from that moment. I felt like my mind was open to it.” He says he was particularly struck by the poem Harlem.

“From there it, became a natural way for me to express myself.”

The inability to communicate an idea is something a lot of young people face, he says. Poetry can be very evocative.

“Poetry is both ambiguous and direct,” he says. “It’s direct to the emotions, which is part of language, but it’s ambiguous in the thought or the theory behind it.”

That nine year old boy started creating verse and he hasn’t really ever stopped.

“I started to use language through poetry to deal with all my lamentations, all of the things that bothered me.

“One of the things that really touched me was not growing up with my real mother. There wasn’t a way to communicate how I felt about that with my dad.

“So I would do soliloquies to myself, little monologues. I would lock myself in my room. In public I wanted to be the cool kid, but in private that was how I was speaking to myself. I kind of honed my craft through this personal oration about things like missing my mother and loneliness.”

Jackson Rogers’ mother lived with mental illness all her short life, he says. He was raised by a single father. 

“The poetry I was reading at the time was linked to struggle. I also took a lot from scripture. My father made me read different religious scripture. I have found that the poetic tone is very strong in scripture. That also helped shape my writing.”

Jackson Rogers says he isn’t a religious person, but he is spiritual.

“I believe I am a person trying to live a spiritual life. I believe in the unseen and things I don’t understand. I have carried all through high school and university.”

As a young person, he wanted to be an English teacher.

“Everybody else was saying fireman or policeman, but when I was asked I said I wanted to be an English teacher. I loved language. 

“My father raised us reading the dictionary. We’d memorize words and use them in sentences. If we wanted to watch TV, we had to memorize five words first.

“I think he was born a teacher.” Jackson Rogers’ father did eventually become a teacher later in life, but, in those early years, he was a single father trying to make ends meet.

“He had to figure out ways to keep us engaged. It was a way of keeping us occupied but not idle.”

The allure of teaching did fade for Jackson Rogers however.

“I was studying and I started to realize I had a passion for working with youth and children and social work. My experience with teachers wasn’t that great. That eventually turned me off. It’s also difficult for a teacher to be creative.”

So he started to work in after-school programs which offered a way to create his own curriculum.

His poetry remained private until a cousin started to push him to share his words more widely at Open Mic events and at poetry slams.

“I was hesitant because I didn’t know there could be an outlet. I knew could write and be a poet but I didn’t want to do that.

“Even today, I’m reticent about being a ‘page’ poet. I didn’t like to imitate something that is there and so many are doing. But spoken word slams were so ‘fringe,’ I felt I could be my own person there.”

At first, it was an enjoyable hobby “to be seen and heard saying things I had been writing about.

“I can freestyle and improv,” he says, “but now I write things down.” In the beginning it was important to memorize the words and say them without paper.” Now that he’s established, he goes back and forth.

Along the way Jackson Rogers says he found fulfillment in places that allowed individual freedom and encouraged a sense of belonging.

And the poetry ‘hobby’ has evolved into a career.

He says he was aware there was a desire to recreate the poet laureate position at the City of Ottawa, but he didn’t apply, even though many of his friends said he should.

“I had never been published in a book. I perform a lot but I didn’t think I’d be the right fit.”

So, he says, he forgot there was even a competition for the job. And then, out of the blue he got an email saying he had the job. Someone had entered his name and the jury picked him to be the English language poet laureate of Ottawa out of about 200 local poets.

He was told he was the selection because of his work with youth using poetry and arts education.

He is now most of the way through his first of two years as poet laureate. He is still working with youth. He was a recent participant in the Ottawa Writers Festival Republic of Childhood initiative to encourage literacy this past fall and he is actively building a grassroots arts hub in Hintonburg called Origin along with the theatre artist Jacqui du Toit.

All this work has opened his eyes to what being an advocate for the arts and community is all about. That ‘hobby’ has become a life lesson too.

Jackson Rogers is 35 year old now and a fulltime artist. It’s all he wants to do now.

In five years, he says he wants to be operating a space which is a place for artist residencies and showcases. He wants to explore script writing and acting and music.

“We all play a role and some of us step into the role. But it can’t rely just on folks like me. We need people to champion the art form. It won’t slow down as long as there are champions pushing boundaries so that it advances.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.