Acclaimed performer Zaccheus Jackson was born in the Blackfoot community of Brockett, Alberta in 1977. He liked to say he was raised by wolves.
August 24th, 2015
Thursday, August 27 marks the first anniversary of his tragic death.
From infancy, Zaccheus Jackson of the Piikani First Nation was mostly raised in a Mormon household by his adopted parents, the Nyce family, in a home full of books. One of his earliest memories was hearing his father read The Hobbit to him. The Nyce family resided in both southern Alberta and Terrace, B.C.
After leaving Terrace, there was a five-year period when Jackson was a chronic drug user, mainly on the mean streets of Calgary, but also in Vancouver. He described his journey through addictions in many poems such as ‘Blood Versus Water’ and ‘Domino’s (Dominix Mix).’ He also refers to dealing drugs in ‘Chief’.
For the last nine years of his life Zaccheus Jackson lived in an apartment overlooking Commercial Drive, hosting gatherings for Canada Day and Christmas. During this period when he was mostly straight, an argument with his girlfriend sent him out for a walk when he spotted two words on a chalkboard outside the Café Deux Soleils vegetarian restaurant at 2096 Commercial Drive—Poetry and Slam.
“I had no clue what those words meant together,” he said, “but I was angry. I felt like slamming something. And my head was full of poetry.”
He went inside and discovered a poetry competition open to the general public. All you needed was an original poem of up to three minutes in length in order to gain points, ranging from zero to ten, from five judges chosen from the audience. It seemed simple enough. He competed and finished second, earning him a spot in a semi-final contest. That year he finished in the top four of the competition, earning him a spot on Vancouver’s slam poetry team.
He would subsequently perform for Vancouver City Council, for Governor General Michaelle Jean, and for literary festivals across Canada, often receiving standing ovations. Jackson competed as a team member for Vancouver’s official poetry slam delegation six times, including 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2014—also winning individual poetry slam titles during his career including the Vancouver Individual World Poetry Slam Championships in 2007 and 2008.
“People deal with their issues in different ways,” he later said. “Some people find God. Some people find health. Some people find tofu. For me, I found spoken word. Poetry saved my life.”
Chris Gilpin, who managed the Verses Festival of Words, competed with Jackson on the same poetry slam team in 2007. “His artistic mission,” says Gilpin, “was to speak about people whose stories would not otherwise be told. This is evident in poems like ‘Domino’s’, ‘Of Wings’ and ‘Chief’.
During his ascendancy as a poetry performer, Jackson travelled to Mount Baldy in California where he met Leonard Cohen. Thereafter he referred to his signed copy of Cohen’s Various Positions as his “pseudo-Bible.” [The name Zacchaeus–spelled with an ‘a’–means pure or innocent in Greek, but the New Testament character of Zaccheus, who appears only the Gospel of Luke, was the chief tax collector in Jericho.]
Around 2008, Jackson released his spoken word album, Humanifesto, and became associated with the Talking Stick Festival, an annual event that supports and showcases First Nations culture. His renditions of ‘Uncle Mac’ invariably received standing ovations.
According to Chris Gilpin, “Jackson was free of using hard drugs for 31 years. He only used for five.” In Vancouver, once he became a fixture on the spoken word poetry scene, Jackson supported himself entirely from income gained from performances and poetry workshops. Self-described as an “an East-Van ghetto poet,” he was reputedly encouraged to apply for a grant from the BC Arts Council but chose not to do so. Once of his last performances occurred at the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast where he received yet another standing ovation.
Duncan Sheilds has compiled an internet archive of Jackson’s poetry at this playlist of videos, available on the internet, and Gilpin’s article in the Canadian Review of Literature can been accessed as an analysis of one of his shorter poems, ‘Invicta,’ “It’s far more complex than a political rant,” says Gilpin, who has also written an article about Jackson’s poem ‘City of Fingers’ for Arc Poetry magazine.
Zaccheus Jackson died at age 36 when he was struck by a three-locomotive freight train, west of Toronto, near Runnymede Rd. and Dundas St., around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, August 27, 2014. Police treated his death as accidental, not as a suicide. It was later determined that a friend of his had shown him how to ride the slow moving rail cars and he had gone back to the tracks the next day to try it by himself, at which time he was struck by a fast moving train.
Before he died, he posted a selfie on his Instagram showing him on the train tracks with a six-pack of beer. He called this photo “Trantrackssixpackriffraff.” If shown by media, such details are considered disrespectful sensationalism by some members of the spoken word community.
On August 28, 2014, approximately 100 community members walked from Vancouver’s Aboriginal Friendship Centre to Café Deux Soleils in his honour. Hundreds filled the upstairs and downstairs of the WISE Hall & Lounge at 1882 Adanac Street in Vancouver for a memorial gathering soon thereafter on September 2.
[Cover photo by Chris Randle, Talking Stick Festival 2014]