**The Denman Island Readers & Writers Festival wishes to express sincere condolences concerning the tragic news of the death of Zaccheus Jackson. Many people in our community were moved and inspired by his appearance here last month. Since he had such an impact with young people, it has been decided that the bursary system to enable high school students to attend our annual festival will be renamed as the Zaccheus Jackson Student Bursaries.
By Stephanie Slater
Those of us who had the opportunity to hear Zaccheus Jackson perform at this year’s Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival will be devastated at the news of the sudden death of the Vancouver-based slam poet.
Jackson was in Toronto for the Toronto International Poetry Slam when he was killed after being hit by a freight train August 27. He had just Tweeted a “selfie” photo on Instagram with the words: “Traintracksixpackriffraff @CN Rail Toronto”.
Details about Jackson’s death are scant but there is no shortage of evidence of his talent, his energy and his commitment to working with young people.
At the Readers and Writers Festival, the 36-year-old Jackson spoke frankly about being addicted to crack cocaine when he was in his twenties and living on the streets for five years and being jailed as a result of bad choices made while he was an addict.
“The hardest part about being an active crack head is that you stop remembering your dreams, ” he said.
His animated, rapid-fire presentation included poems that described that gritty experience and helped audience members connect and sympathize with people who’ve fallen into a desperate way of life. Describing his work as “real life, with a little bit of rhythm,” Jackson said: “Stories are a great way to educate, connect and entertain each other.”
His poetry could be hard-hitting and poignant. It was also funny and hopeful.
“Every once in a while it’s OK to get angry,” he said, “a righteous anger but not a self-righteous anger. We’ve got enough Stephen Harper already.”
On his Facebook page, Jackson credits East Vancouver’s Spoken Word scene for giving him “something worthwhile to dream about”. At the Denman Island Festival he described how his adoptive grandfather, Tom Nyce Senior, inspired his love and respect for the power of storytelling. Jackson, a member of the Piikani Blackfoot Nation, was adopted by the Nyce family and raised on the Haisla Reserve in Kitima’at, B.C.
“My grandfather would tell stories as he carved canoes in the yard; keeping the oral tradition of our people alive,” said Jackson in a 2009 interview for the Victoria Slam Poetry event. “I can’t claim to remember many of the stories he told us in any great detail, but I know as a fact that sitting there listening to my grandfather tell stories to my father and I – and my father collecting each and every one like some endangered species – taught me the importance and social benefit of story-telling.”
Jackson’s venture into storytelling through the forum of spoken word poetry was a big success. He was a member of the Van Slam poetry team six times, a two-time Vancouver Indie Champion, and two-time Vancouver Grand Slam Champion. For the past nine years he worked with WordPlay, a Vancouver organization dedicated to putting spoken word artists in high school classrooms.
His Facebook posts reflect his enthusiasm for this work and other opportunities to put poetry in front of people who might not otherwise encounter it. On May 6, he wrote: “Off to the Burnaby Youth Corrections Centre to run some spoken work w/ them cats!!” He ended the post with his characteristic closer: “BOOM!!!”
Jackson taught summer school English at Simon Fraser University this year, saying: “It’s been a strange road that has led me to this point in my life – from the streets, to the mic, to the institution!!”
Other posts express his delight at participating in events such as the IGNITE! Youth mentorship performance, the Surrey Teachers Association conference, and various spoken word festivals across the country “either as a registered performer or Guerilla Poet on a soap-box.”
The Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival was one f the events in Jackson’s schedule. At one point, he told the audience, “All I know is that the more I write, the more I stay clean and sober.”
Perhaps the writing wasn’t enough to protect him as he took a six-pack of beer to the CN Rail yard on the last day of his too-short life. I don’t know. All I know is that I wasn’t the only person in the audience last month who was rooting for him; who felt proud of him; who felt grateful that he’d found a way to channel his remarkable talent and appreciative that he was sharing it with young people – perhaps some of them at risk the way Zaccheus Jackson was at risk in those dark days of his crack addiction.
I know I’m not the only one who feels a deep sadness that a bright light has gone out in this world.