Jamaica Baldwin's extraordinary journey into poetry

One day, Jamaica Baldwin’s name just started popping up everywhere in Seattle literary circles. Two years ago, I had never seen her name before. Then from out of the blue in January of 2016 came this tweet from Kwame Dawes:

And then Baldwin was everywhere at once. She was part of the exclusive Margin Shift poetry collective’s reading series and the 2016 Lit Crawl and seemingly everywhere else in the Seattle literary scene. Adding to the drama of her out-of-nowhere debut was the mystery surrounding her name; as a poet, Baldwin was un-Google-able. You couldn’t find her poetry anywhere online.

That’s finally changed. Last month, Rattle published Baldwin’s stunning poem “Call Me By My Name” in both print and audio. And now she’s our March Poet in Residence, with a new poem published on the site every Tuesday. We’ve published two of her poems thus far, “Father/Less” and “Vigilant.” Together, the two poems reflect much of Baldwin’s interest: she writes passionately about race and politics, with an engaged voice and a tendency toward formalist structure.

Those lucky few who’ve seen her read might be surprised to learn that Baldwin, 40, describes herself as “a relatively new writer.” She started writing in 2009, and began taking writing seriously after she moved to moved New York City in 2011 and took a workshop at the Center for Fiction. She mostly wrote plays and fiction. But then “I got diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says, “and then, you know, something turned. I found myself reading a lot of poetry, and then I started writing poetry, and that was just kind of it.”

Baldwin has lived in Seattle off and on since she was “about 19.” At the time of her diagnosis, she was living in New York City, but she moved back west to be close to her family as she finished treatment. Sitting in a Fremont coffee shop on a gray March day, she seems healthy and strong, prone to infectious gales of laughter.

Though Baldwin has only been writing poetry for a few years, she’s been exposed to poetry her whole life. She wasn't a big reader of poetry as a child, but "my mom was a writer and so there was always a lot of poetry around the house,” she explains. “I would pick up a book here and there — some Nikki Giovanni laying around the house, or Mary Oliver. That kind of thing.”

“After cancer, I just thought about things in a different way,” Baldwin says. “And I think poetry helped me. The writing of poetry, the form of poetry attracted me and spoke to me.” Her reading became more varied and purposeful, focusing on poets of the African diaspora. Baldwin went to school with Laurie Ann Guerrero, last year’s poet laureate of Texas, and so she had a personal introduction to contemporary poetry. She found new meaning in the work of Ross Gay and Terrance Hayes. Locally, she praises the work of Maged Zaher and Quenton Baker, and she’s eager to learn from Elizabeth Austen’s “pitch perfect” presentation style as a 2017 Jack Straw Writer.

“I knew I was behind,” Baldwin says of her poetry education. “There was just so much out there to learn.” The thing about poetry, though, is that if you want to learn more, poets will show you the way. “I would read interviews by the poets that I was discovering, and then they would mention books or poets that they love. And then I would go and find those poets, so it was sort of this domino effect of just trying to read as much as I could.”

Having recently graduated from Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program with a focus on poetry, Baldwin worried that “without the deadlines, I would hit a dry spell and not be able to write. But it was almost the opposite.” She finds “there are plenty of things to write about every day. I mean, I get triggered by things that I read, or things that are going on in the world. And then I also get triggered by just reading other peoples’ poetry.” She describes stopping in the middle of reading a poem and writing a response to it right then and there. Poetry, for Baldwin, is a conversation — and that conversation is just getting started.