Chicago poet Raych Jackson at The TRiiBE Guide 2019 photo shoot on the West Side | Photo by Morgan Elise Johnson [The TRiiBE]

When Raych Jackson first heard the story of Job as a kid in Sunday school, she had questions. As the Bible story goes, Job is a wealthy man with livestock and a loving family. He thanks God day in and day out for his many blessings. Satan approaches God, and bets Him that Job only worships Him because he’s living the good life. God accepts the challenge and allows Satan to test Job. Soon, Job loses his servants, ten children and livestock to an invasion and natural disasters.

“As a child, I’m taught all these different stories in Sunday school and it’s actually terrifying, right?” says Jackson, a 28-year-old Chicago poet and co-founder of the youth poetry showcase, Big Kids Slam. “You’re, like, ‘Whoa! Isn’t God supposed to protect this person who’s worshipping Him? How could He do that?’”

Job perseveres. Though he questions God’s intention at times, his faith never wavers. Jackson uses Job and other cautionary Bible stories to explore the connection between shame and the Black church in her debut poetry book, Even the Saints Audition.

The book travels through her own questions in Sunday school as they relate to the anxiety, substance abuse and depression she’s experienced in her adulthood. 

“It also tackles whether the depression I’m feeling is a sin, or if the depression I’m feeling is a part of life or if the depression I’m feeling is a test because the devil wanted to see if I would still praise God during it all,” Jackson explains.

Even the Saints Audition dropped on Tuesday through Button Poetry. This Friday, Jackson is hosting an official book release party from 6 PM to 8 PM at Taste 222 (222 N. Canal St).

I caught up with Jackson on Tuesday after the release of Even the Saints Audition. Read our Q&A below. (The following has been edited and condensed for clarity).

When you woke up this morning, how did you feel?

Raych Jackson: I didn’t sleep! I woke up at, like, 7 AM. I was in and out of sleep. I just got up and felt normal. I had answered some questions about the book on my Instagram and then I got in the shower. And when the sun officially rose, I was, like, ‘Oh. Today is the day.’ I’m full of energy right now and I feel very excited but honestly, I think after the book release, then all the emotions will come.

How do you feel when you see people holding the book? How important is it for folks to be taking pictures of them having the book?

RJ: It feels rewarding. I love my cover. And I’m very grateful to have Hector Padilla, the person who did my cover. Every time I get a notification of someone reading my book, I’m getting a notification of someone seeing the cover, if that makes sense? So that is something that I’m very proud of. The book cover is the first thing people see. I wanted something that is so engaging and gets people’s attention with the color. It was just very important also to have Black people on my cover, right? So to constantly see an image that I really stand by just makes me feel proud over and over again. It’s something that I’m not even able to put into words yet. 

What was the inspiration behind the cover? How involved were you in bringing that cover to fruition?

RJ: Hector and I went to DePaul together. We were actually RAs together. I was “Raych, the Resident Advisor.” I ran into Hector at, maybe, the 2014 Pitchfork [Music Festival]. It was, like, a year and a half after I graduated college. And then, I think I had two or three projects, one-offs with Hector. In regards to different areas of art, we look out for each other. So when I hit him up, I was, like, ‘I’ve got a couple of poems. This is what I’m feeling,’ and he had the idea. He was, like, ‘What do you feel about little Black girl cherubs.’ And I was, like, ‘Absolutely! Let me see it.’ It was important to both of us to make sure we had Black girl hair styles. I want a fro. I want b-balls. I want twisties. You know? And then, I didn’t want them light skin. I’m brown and I’ve been brown my whole life.

I’m glad you touched on hair. There are barrettes on the cherubs. There are bobos on the cherubs. You call them b-balls.

RJ: My cousin calls the bobos, too. My mom and I call them b-balls. That was very important to me. I think there are some things about Black girls that are overlooked. Looking at [old] pictures of myself when I have twists and balls in my head, it just brings a type of nostalgia and it’s the type of celebration that you can really connect with. That’s what I really wanted. There are definitely poems that a lot of people can identify with but I specifically wrote this for someone like me. So on my cover, I have Black girls with puffs and brown skin. 

“How / can I claim God doesn’t listen to sinners? / How else could I get such a blessing?”

“Is it even my body if I’m made in his image?”

“I sin & misery wanders / into my home. I get saved / and it nevers leaves.”

“I close my fingers & try to / keep joy in my fist.”

“I’m still me. I still me. I’m / my happiest alone, only have to fight myself.”

“When he holds me in his sleep / I am a spider trapped under a glass jar. / Frantic because I can’t move / but so grateful he hasn’t crushed me / yet.”

“Church Girl Learns to Pray Again” from Jackson’s debut, Even the Saints Audition.

What’s the inspiration behind this collection of poetry? Does the book touch on a particular experience from your childhood?

RJ: It’s from my childhood up until two years ago. I think that this book touches on a lot. It follows a Bible character named Job throughout it. I have a repeating poem called “On Job.” Long story short, Job is this character in the Bible. Job followed God to a T. He praised God in everything and he loved God. He has tons of children, a faithful wife, tons of land [and is] very wealthy. The story in the Bible goes: the devil visits God and he’s, like, ‘You think Job is so holy. He only praises you because he has blessings. You should take away Job’s blessings. See if he still praises you.’ So God is, like, ‘Yeah. You know. Let’s see.’ That’s the most polite way I introduce that story but what really happens in the Bible is: in taking Job’s blessings, Job’s sons and daughters were murdered. His land was destroyed. His friends betrayed him. 

As a child, I’m taught all these different stories in Sunday school and it’s actually terrifying, right? You’re, like, ‘Whoa! Isn’t God supposed to protect this person who’s worshipping Him? How could He do that?’ And so, the story and the church taught that during hard times, you gotta worship God. I was really concerned as a child because I really was, like, Job did everything right through the trials and tribulations [and] through all of these hardships. I also just didn’t think it was right. So the book starts off with that retelling and then it does travel through my own questions in Sunday school and my own anxiety, substance abuse and depression. It also tackles whether the depression I’m feeling is a sin or if the depression I’m feeling is a part of life or if the depression I’m feeling is a test because the devil wanted to see if I would still praise God during it all.

I’m not a church baby. As a child, I only went every once in a blue moon. But all of those stories sound traumatic to hear as a child. As an adult, have you processed that and wondered why they taught such harsh stories to kids in church?

RJ: Because it was taught to them. I think that the church I grew up in was a strong believer of, ‘This is how it’s always been. So why change it?’ And I think that they don’t see the stories as harsh. In the book, the times I touch on Bible stories, I’m trying to say that you don’t even see that this is a scary detail. Job’s whole family murdered. God almost killed those people on that ship if they didn’t throw Jonah overboard. As an adult, I’m writing about the urgency in these stories and how we should critique what’s going on. A lot of people have been reaching out to me. We’ve been talking about how these stories aren’t taught like they’re terrible. The story of Job is supposed to encourage saints. They’re supposed to read that chapter and feel encouraged through the trials and tribulations instead of asking why. I don’t think that the church I grew up in will ever see those stories as harsh.

What did it take for you to sit down and write such a personal collection of poetry? How long did it take?

RJ: It was exhausting, beyond exhausting. A homie of mine tweeted something while he was editing his manuscript a while back. I will never forget this because I was in the process of working on mine and he was in the process of completing his. And he said, ‘How do you all write more than one book? Oh my God.’ I had that frustration as well because this is tiring. It definitely brought up old emotions. I looked through a lot of pictures and obviously researched a lot of the Bible stories but I also think that, I’ll say, the hardest part about writing a book of poems is the order. I want to make sure that the experience is good from start to finish. So I’ll lay out all my poems, and look at it and find holes. Then you find less holes when shuffling and shuffling and then writing more poems and shuffling. It’s a long process. It took years ‘cause the earliest poem in there is something I wrote in college in 2011 or 2012. 

What do you want people to take away from the book?

RJ: Question everything. My brother told my mom that he was leaving the religion. He wanted to believe in something because he believed in it, not because he was born in it. And that’s the overall take of my whole book. Believe in something because you believe in it, not because you’re born in it. But also one of the biggest things that I think this book does is it asks so many questions, whether I’m asking God, asking my mom, asking my Sunday school teacher, or asking myself. It really is going from a child who sits idly four times a week in the same spot at church to an adult that is seeing the world around her and critiquing different things.