Story by Imama Khawaja
Photos by Priyanka Podjale
Raych Jackson is a poet, playwright, and (former) elementary school teacher, and these professions shine through almost immediately upon meeting her. Raych has participated in and won numerous poetry slams, written and performed multiple plays (one most notably at the Victory Gardens Theatre), as well as founded Big Kid Slam, a monthly poetry slam at YCA. She was as lively and enthusiastic as her outfit, a rainbow jacket thrown over overalls; it could be easy to assume that her work is more on the playful side. But not only does she tackle much more serious topics such as religion and sexuality through her work, she seems to redefine what "playful" means, and why it’s so important in the solemnity of adulthood. Get the details below.
Your Twitter bio calls you a writer of lesson plans, poems and plays. Which came first?
Poetry came first. My mom is a poet for my church, so I was always a singer, performer and poet because I grew up there. In the sixth grade my teacher gave time during her lesson for me to perform my poetry which also made me realize, oh man, I also wanna be a teacher. For plays, I do these one - minute snippets for this awesome thing called the One - Minute Play Festival. People think, that’s not shit, anyone can do that, but it’s so hard to get your point across in one minute. And that challenged me to go bigger. I wrote a full - length play with other people in 2012 at Victory Gardens Theatre. But in the fall I’m actually not going back as a teacher, and that’s really frickin’ scary.
You just decided to not teach anymore?
Yes, I just decided. I’m taking new steps as an artist, but I also have no safety net left. And my brand Awkward Connoisseur, LLC just went live. That’s actually new as of yesterday!
"I surprise myself with how my art has been taking off the past two years... I’m never gonna pretend that this has always been happening."
Congrats! Where did the name Awkward Connoisseur come from?
I made that my Twitter handle when I was like, nineteen and it just stuck. I’ve always been a very awkward person. I’m like, what terribly awkward situations are we gonna talk or tweet about today? It makes fun of myself. Calling myself awkward and being a black girl is like... not being a quirky white girl. People are like, what’s an awkward connoisseur? You specialize in being awkward?
Do you feel that awkward themes come up in your work?
A lot of my new work has been about knowing I don’t belong in certain situations, and whether I cower away from them or not. I grew up in a Christian non - denominational church and it was very girls do this, boys do that. And we learned these stories in the Bible that are like, actually terrible. In my latest poem, I’m talking about how Korah is like, Hey Moses, why are we traveling around this desert for decades? I don’t agree with this, I should lead us, and then God literally opens up the earth and takes him and his family and closes it back up. Like, isn’t that a little extreme? We’re taught this story to believe that we should always worship God. And it’s like, OR, we could worship a being that won’t kill you for disagreeing. So a lot of my work challenges that. It’s difficult with me and my faith, because I definitely believe in God. I went through two years of being an agnostic, but I know in my heart there is a God. So it’s interesting me playing with these stories.
What’s it feel like to embark on focusing on poetry?
It’s exciting because I feel like I haven’t been myself. I went through a long phase where I only wrote persona poetry pieces. And those are cool, but it was me trying to hide. I’m ready to be genuinely myself now that I’m quitting teaching. I’m ready to curse on the Internet! I couldn’t even do that and I’m hilarious. I love a good dick joke. I surprise myself with how my art has been taking off the past two years. It’s so cool, I’m never gonna pretend that this has always been happening.
"Fuck those five dollar covers, we realized that people just wanna slam."
Why did you choose to quit teaching?
It was the censorship of myself but also the availability. For example, I went to Switzerland for a gig. I’d say about 40% of the time I was so worried about my class. My mentor teacher told me my first year, “we’re in the business of human beings.” It’s not like a factory. Every kid is different. I always have to worry about whether or not they had breakfast, or did they eat dinner? Or if they’re not at school, where are they? I’ve had kids killed. CPS teachers have to deal with their students getting killed. It was the hardest part.
What do you think is the difference between Chicago Public Schools and other school systems?
Resources. They’re trying now that we have a new CEO, but so many CEOs have gotten arrested for embezzlement schemes. You can never get anything done with this rotating of people. They always blame the person before. Why are our art programs getting cut? I have to buy my own pencils. No disrespect to my administration, they do what they can, but I remember the year when they said, you get limited paper. Anything else, you have to buy it yourself because we can’t afford it. How am I supposed to teach without paper and pencil? We did the novel BFG last quarter and I paid out of my pocket. I found deals on used books on Amazon.
I myself was a CPS student and I remember going somewhere else, maybe Niles for a volleyball game. I was shocked that it was a clean school. It blew my mind. The way CPS is zoned is if you’re in a low-income neighborhood, you go to a low-income school, and vice versa for high-income neighborhoods. Teachers spend so much of their own money that nobody talks about.
Back to your art - what kind of themes do you see coming up in your work?
Lately my work has been sexual. I recently wrote a piece about being new to sex and getting terrible head. You’re taught to pretend to enjoy it. I literally laid there and turned on the TV, and he was still attempting to do some weird shit. It’s not a deep piece, but it’s just like - yo, I don’t have to accept this, this is my body. That’s my biggest theme lately, whether sexually or religiously or anything: I don’t have to accept this.
On the topic of playwriting, what were you up to in Switzerland?
I got contacted because they were fans of mine and a colleagues’ work. They brought us out there to write a show about what slam is like as a woman. The culminating show we wrote as God, about God being a woman but also about God feeling like us. That was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. What Switzerland does with poems is completely different and I’m trying to bring it back to Chicago. Their slam poem limit is six minutes instead of the three we have in the States. And you can read off the page, no one memorizes. And they give you a bottle of bourbon before you go to slam.
Big Kid Slam. Tell us more about that.
Well, slam was born in Chicago. Me and my best friend Toaster - Tim Henderson - we noticed that slams are held at a lot of bars, or have a cover. People can’t just walk into a free slam anymore. Fuck those five dollar covers, we realized that people just wanna slam. After growing too old for Louder than a Bomb, where do all these kids go? Big Kid Slam is a place for everyone to go. YCA offered up a space to us, so it’s free, it’s on the first floor which means it’s wheelchair accessible. We’re just really thinking about the community of people we’re missing. We’re trying to be more inclusive. It’s a place for weirdos like us. We call it the anti - slam sometimes.
What made you decide to cut off your hair?
Last year was a lot of super negatives and positives. My homie got murdered and I got flown out for a teaching conference two days later. John Walt got murdered. I think about him every day. To have an outside force actually eliminate someone we grew up with was a shock. At the same time, I was supposed to speak at this conference. The room was celebrating me, and after I finished I was like, there’s no reason for me to keep my hair. My whole world was flip - flopping, friends were dying, what was I holding on to? So I was in San Francisco and decided to do it. Everybody always asks, are you sure? But it felt perfect. It was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. There are so many rules for women, what we can’t do in order to be beautiful. I know in my heart I’m beautiful.