Lay It Down Right: A Conversation with Mitchell S. Jackson


Mitchell S. Jackson’s newest book, Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family, charts the history of the Jacksons, and of the black community living in Portland, Oregon, across time, and all the way back to the beginning. Throughout the book, Jackson attempts to crack into the complicated histories and mythologies that make up his family, and Oregon, and America. Survival Math looks at what it is, or what it means to be, a black man in the whitest city in these still-and-always segregated United States.

A fast-paced collection of poems, letters, personal accounts, footnotes, and historical documents, Survival Math slides between its subjects and styles with a kaleidoscopic beauty and richness. There are chapters of high prose, Bible high. Chapters of the named, and the nicknamed, the born and the died—the sacred cannon of One American Family. Others chapters scour the family’s personal histories and outcomes, looking for clues like a detective might, or an academic; Jackson is both.

Mitchell and I attended Gordon Lish’s workshop at The Center for Fiction in 2010, and over the last several years, we’ve shared our work in the Open City Workshop, a group he co-founded. Recently we sat down to talk about Survival Math, writing, style, and home.


The Rumpus: It’s been exciting to watch Survival Math make its way out in the world. It’s been everywhere from CSPAN to a billboard in Times Square. You’ve had excerpts in the Paris Review and the New Yorker, and you’ve been reviewed twice in the Times (here and here). You’ve worked harder than anyone I know for the writing, first and foremost, but also for this moment, I think. And this is it. So, what does it feel like?

Mitchell S. Jackson: It feels like, what can I do? Is it catching me? I’m one of those people that never looks at the present. I’m always one step ahead, right? So, when it was all hitting on the first day, I was like okay, this is good, but what’s next week? I found myself in the last couple of weeks trying to appreciate the things that have happened, but still wanting to be ambitious. There are a lot of things, to my mind, that have not happened, but then I also can’t be coming from a place of ingratitude. So, yes, thank you.

Rumpus: Telling a complicated story in a complicated syntax can seem like an invitation for people to question why you’ve decided to do it that way. One way that you do pull it off is by using an inverted syntax, which tends to resist the easy, palatable read. How did you find your way to that style?

Jackson: I remember early drafts of The Residue Years, and there was very little repetition. I was writing in third person; it was just so stylistically different. I think Tom Spanbauer is the one that called it “burnt tongue,” which is where you intentionally twist the syntax of a sentence so the reader has to go back and read it carefully. Revisiting some of the language of the people who were around in my childhood and youth, they were also using that kind of burnt syntax. So it seemed almost natural to me.

Rumpus: Just in conversation?

Jackson: I had a friend who would say, “Whatchu know good?” Something like that, just in casual conversation, which is really burnt syntax. And then when I got to Gordon [Lish], and he started talking about syntax on a more granular level, that’s when it started to make more sense to me, in the context of doing other things syntactically.

Rumpus: What do you see as the difference between fashion and style?

Jackson: I think that fashion is having the right clothes, having the rights frames, and style is presenting your identity to the world in a way that’s only yours. Style is sentence-making. Everybody could grab from the same pallet or tool kit, but then how are you going to use those tools to make something only you can make? I also think when you’re sentence-making, you can go too far. You can put on all these different brands, fashionable brands, but you have to have a sense of your identity to make the thing right, to figure out: why the hell am I wearing this hat?

Rumpus: Maybe it was Bob Fosse who said don’t put a hat on a hat. Like, one hat is fine, no need to jazz it up with another hat. 

Jackson: I remember when everyone was wearing fedoras, right? And I was like that’s cool, I kind of like it, but I don’t wear fedoras though. Even though I like that, I know that that’s not reflective of my identity. I think you can do that stylistically, on the page. It’s like, I really like the way that such-and-such writes; I could emulate that. But is that really a reflection of who I am? Another thing I think about is: usually you have to take one thing away, right? So, you’ll put on your best hat, your best shirt, your best shoes, your best belt, and you just look like a person who has put on everything great that they own. You’ll have to take one or two of those things away to make it make sense. The same thing with sentence-making. I think you can have too much alliteration, and you’re like I need to pull back on that. Or too much repetition, I need to pull back on that. I think they work similarly in that way, too.

Rumpus: How did you find your way to your personal style?

Jackson: I remember we were going out to a party, I had some friends who were in the music industry out here, and I came out, and I had a powder-colored jacket on. I had gone to SoHo and bought some pink, gator, pointy-toe shoes. I got in the car and they just went to town, like what are you doing? So, I was doing stuff like that when I first got here. I remember I went home and I had on cowboy boots, a cowboy belt, and some kind of frilly shirt, and I went to the barber shop of all places. And the barber was like bro, what are you doing? And I told him, I was like, bro, if you understood it, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Rumpus: Which might be a fair assessment, to some extent. But maybe he had you that time.

Jackson: Those things let me know that I was really trying to figure out stylistically where I was going to go. At a certain point I was like, I’m going to wear black and gray. This makes it a lot easier for me, and I’ll figure out a way to express individuality some other way. Probably the same time that I started saying I’m going to go black and gray was when I was in that first [Lish] workshop. That’s when the writing started to do different things, linguistically. And I look at “Head Down, Palm Up”, which I wrote in that first workshop, and how much I’m pushing on language, like stretching the language as far as I can stretch it. I look back at it now, and I would take one thing away from it.

Rumpus: It’s about becoming more careful, right? The clothing choices, the word choices, it’s thinking about every piece very carefully.

Jackson: Yeah, it’s more meticulous, everything counts. I had a reading [the other night], and someone said something to me and I was like, I can tell you why I made every single decision in this book, why one sentence is this long, versus this long, why it starts with this word versus this word, why it began here and ended here. Even down to the syllables of every last word of the sentence. I think that’s something that I got from him. You got to be paying attention.

Rumpus: What do you pay attention to on the page? What are some style pointers?

Jackson: Because I write in the first person, I’m really big on figuring out ways to bury the “I,” which I got from Tom Spanbauer, via Chuck Palahniuk. I am always paying attention to the rule of three. Have I created a pattern? Do I want to extend that pattern, or do I want to stop it? How am I creating a new pattern? And also I think about repetition and difference. I’m always listening for the repetition which is connected to the rule of three, and then, how can I break that? I’m always pushing my students to look at their adverbs. Not that I’m one hundred percent against them, but I think often times they’re in place of a verb that you just didn’t do enough searching for. I guess I don’t like lazy sentences and people that say, “Well, I’ll just go back.” It’s like when you’re making a film, the person who says, “Oh, we can fix that in post.” Nah.

Rumpus: Get it right the first time.

Jackson: Yeah, lay it down right, and be meticulous in how you lay it down, because this is going to inform this next thing that you put down. Let me see, what else?

Rumpus: Gerunds, gerunds.

Jackson: Gerunds. That’s right, yes. That progressive tense. I don’t know, it bothers me.

Rumpus: I think of you whenever I’m writing, because I use them all the time. How do you not use them? And I’m paying attention!

Jackson: I mean, but that’s the other thing, too. Jesmyn Ward, she uses a lot of simile and metaphor, to the point where I was reading, I started underlining them. But she has figured out that this is an expression of me on the page, and if I take this away, I could be anyone else. Not anyone else, but I would be someone else doing it. So, I think that might be something that you just invite, and just manage, because it’s you.

Rumpus: All right, then I’m going to keep using them, then. So, your next project is a novel about a cult leader in Oregon. Can you talk a little about that?

Jackson: So, there was a cult leader, a young man who was a basketball player, and played for a team in Oregon. He was from Watts, I should say, and once his NBA dreams failed, he started a youth athletic-training program. Then they moved the program to, I think it’s a city, probably a town, right outside of Portland. That deteriorated, and transformed into in the end what they called a cult. His daughter was murdered, and when they found out about her being beat to death, they came in and then they found evidence of what was happening there… I feel like I know the topic of the next book, but I don’t know what the story is. I don’t yet have my PoV, and I don’t have the struggle of that person. So, I’m working through that in my head before I sit down and write but I’m very, very, excited about creating the voice of a cult leader who knows his Bible, and his Quran, but he’s also from the hood and Watts. To me that’s the best opportunity for the type of voice that I like. I know some people that were in that program-slash-cult, and I have committed to writing only about Oregon. So, all of my books will be somehow connected to Oregon.

Rumpus: Because of home?

Jackson: Because of home. Because I feel like the stories about people of color from Oregon are underrepresented, I mean, I really love Edward P. Jones, and what Jesmyn is doing. I think it’s something to commit to a place. Cause, I think that it’s a microcosm for everything else you want to talk about. So, when people are like, I’m going to go here and go there, it’s like you can, but everything you need is right in front of you.

Rumpus: Portland has recently also become a haven for ex-pat hipsters and anti-vaxxers, but it has always and historically been a haven for white supremacists groups and ideologies. There have been a spike in hate crimes in the last few years. Have you seen any changes in Portland? Or, is what’s there now what’s always been there, it just looks a little different?

Jackson: I don’t see very many changes. I mean I just saw a guy on Facebook… there was a young guy who got murdered a week and a half ago and his last name is the same as my brother’s, so one of my mom’s best friends called me and she was like, “Hey, this little guy just got murdered.” And this was also a woman whose son was murdered, that I write about. Little Smirk’s mom called me. And I was like, “Nah, Auntie, I’m sure if it was my cousin or something I would’ve got a phone call by now.” And she was like, “I’m just checking. If you find out something let me know.” I was like, damn, it’s still happening in this way where something happens to someone, and everyone is connected to him.

It’s so crazy because now I go back and I’m like, you know, having lunch with the mayor and shit. In my head I’m like, what are you doing? And then I’m also questioning why are they doing this? Why is the mayor, or the city commissioner, whoever it is, why do politicians want me to come to Salem and talk to them? So, in that way it feels like progress, though when I look at the actual circumstances of the people who I grew up with, and their now-children, it’s like it’s the same shit that was happening in 1988.

Rumpus: I suppose it’s a banner to say, “Look at how inclusive we are!” A big mayoral accomplishment. But that doesn’t mean it’s turning into action.

Jackson: It’s a photo op, and that’s great. You called it a new hipster haven, but it’s like, who goes somewhere, what kind of person goes somewhere where there is no diversity? Right? Because in Oregon, there is no diversity. So, it’s one thing to grow up in it, and like okay, this is just the circumstances, this is home; it’s another thing to come from a place of diversity, to go to a place where there is a monolith.

Rumpus: Did anything become clear to you in writing about your family, or families in general, writing Survival Math?

Jackson: What became clear to me while I was writing this book? The resiliency of my individual family members, and in the family as a whole. I knew about the kind of popular traumas in the family, but I was getting a fuller picture of these generational traumas. So, I knew that my mother was disallowed from living with, or didn’t get to live with, her father once they got out of foster care, but I didn’t know the circumstances, and how that came to be. I was like rounding out familial history. But I was also trying to historicize everything else, and finding out so much about this place that I thought I knew about. I didn’t even necessarily know the history of Oregon. And if I didn’t know about Oregon, that means I got to know about the rest of America. So to me it was pushing past my limits in ways that I didn’t think were possible at that stage in my career.

Rumpus: And it just got bigger, and bigger.

Jackson: It got bigger, and bigger. I think that’s what I learned: you keep pushing yourself and then you have to figure out the structure. Even if the structure is seeing how different members of the family connect to another person’s story. So, how does my grandfather’s struggle with his wife connect to my mother’s struggle? How does my mother’s struggle connect to my struggle? How does my struggle connect to my youngest brother’s struggle? I think it’s being able to see those ligatures and being able to lay them out. And then, ultimately, at the end, we have a text of our family history. If we don’t have nothing else, if no one else in the world reads this book but the hundred people that are related to me, that’s pretty good.


Photograph of Mitchell S. Jackson by John Ricard.

Nicole Treska is a writer and teacher in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in Egress: New Openings in Literary Art, Epiphany Magazine, and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature and Art. Her reviews and interviews are up at The Brooklyn Rail and The Common. She can be found at and @ntreska on Twitter. More from this author →