A Prelude to Jones: A Conversation with poet Saeed Jones

On Aug. 5, 2014, I began a poetry series for this site that aims to focus on poets whose work centers on the struggles of often-marginalized peoples within the United States. I started the conversation with Rigoberto Gonzalez on his collection Unpeopled Eden, concentrating on the elements of loss, grief and immigration found in the work.

On Jan. 23, 2015, I continued this series by talking with Saeed Jones.

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As the conversation surrounding LGBT rights continues in the United States and within the Catholic Church, Prelude to Bruise, Jones’ 2014 poetry collection, offers a candid, refreshing view of the issues often faced within the LGBT community, including struggles with identity and masculinity.

Saeed Jones is the editor at Buzzfeed LGBT and a 2013 Pushcart Prize winner. Prelude, along with being named one of the top poetry books of 2014, was recently shortlisted for the National Book Critics Choice award.

Born in Memphis and raised in Texas, Jones studied poetry at Western Kentucky University. He then received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey. For the past two years he has been the LGBT editor at Buzzfeed where he supervises a team of “five tremendous writers and reporters who focus on reporting news pertinent to the LGBT community.”

During our conversation, I spoke with Saeed about the evolution of his writing, where he describes his initial works as “a way to write [himself] out of the closet”; we also focused on the inspiration behind his work, his move from the South to N.Y.C. and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you say that the transition from the Texas area up to New York City has affected your work or your life in any way?

Absolutely. In the book, Prelude to Bruise, the narrative certainly is a journey itself and there’s a sense of movement as “boy,” the character we see over the course of the poems, himself goes on a journey as he leaves home and ventures out into the world as he is stepping into a sense of who he is as a person. That definitely comes from my own life. I’ve always wanted to live in N.Y.C. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I do feel like I’m living a version of that dream now. N.Y.C. is still in many ways a cultural capital and the community of writers and artists that I am able to have be a part of my life in a very ongoing, everyday way is just such a gift; it’s one of the reasons I’m so happy to be here.

You wrote a piece for The New York times recently where you describe the early stages of your writing career, mentioning a need to “shatter silence through language.” You also described your early poetry as “sad, rough little poems written in the voices of lonely, mythic people.” Has your writing process changed from when you first wrote those poems to what we read in Prelude?

When I started writing, in some ways it was a version of keeping a diary, but a bit more loose; the strayed phrases and little sing-song rhythms that I think we all latch onto over the course of our days. Those would make their way into my notebook. And of course, as teenagers do, you have a lot of feelings. So much is going on, you’re kind of an emotional powder keg. For me, that was where poetry started. And something that developed over time was I realized that poetry and the work that I was doing in my notebook, though I wasn’t so aware of it at the time, I was really trying to write my way, I think, out of the closet, and write my way into a more comfortable sense of myself, to talk about my feelings more openly, to talk about my insecurities. And I think that’s often, as someone who has taught high school and college, I have certainly seen that young people often use poetry in that way…But as time went on, I would go back and forth from writing poetry and doing other things, it was just something I was doing personally until I was in college and started going to poetry slams and started writing poems again, really seriously for the first time in my life. Until then it had been something very private. I started taking workshops because I wanted to get better with the poems…In the workshops I fell in love with the work that I was doing there…I was so excited that this was something legitimate I could focus on and really delve into. I had never considered it a possibility, to be honest. I had always assumed that I would become a teacher or professor and focus on literature.

What writers have inspired you and why?

I was already very passionately in love with Toni Morrison’s wisdom in her work…Then I was discovering Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, and kind of rediscovering some writers I had heard about in high school and revisiting writers like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. A lot of women, a lot of strong women writers who had demonstrated throughout the course of American literature this project of writing your way into the world, which you know, for anyone who is not a straight, white man, requires a kind of fire. And I think that’s what I was looking for, examples of people who have tapped into that fire and done something with it. Audre Lorde was another huge influence. Then I started going back and reading works from the Harlem Renaissance and finding poets who, perhaps when I was growing up, I didn’t realize that there was a queer aspect to their own histories; Langston Hughes is a good example.

I find reading to be an essential part of writing…You have to be very aware of the existing community of work and the kind of ancestry of writing that you are engaging. And I think that’s very beautiful and inspiring because the writer’s life in some ways is always going to be a lonely one, just you and your desk, and the blank page, or computer. By drawing from the collective body of work, you develop a kind of humility and also, a braveness because you’re reading all these works by people who did it.

What inspired Prelude to Bruise? How long did it take to complete?

The poems I wrote earliest…that appear in the book I started in graduate school; some of those are “Kudzu,” “In Nashville,” “Mississippi Drowning,” those are poems I specifically remember working on in workshop and are better for having been workshopped. I worked on the book basically five or six years and I needed every one of those years…It takes so much time and I think even when you think you are ready, even when you think you have a book, there are still many doors to pass through before that is actually the case…It took a long time and…a lot happened in my life too. My mother passed away unexpectedly about halfway through the process of me working on this book. For a while, I actually stopped writing as I was dealing with grief and that experience. I think that also really impacted, in retrospect, the poems, because when I read them and when I look at the book, I can kind of see a before and after that’s reflected in the voice. There’s a different sense of the world later on in the narrative that definitely comes from me having a different sense of the world.

Prelude to Bruisecomes out of my life, comes out of my identity as a gay black man who is from the American south…When I was 12, that’s the year James Byrd Jr. a black man was killed in a hate crime in Jasper, which was just four hours away from where I was living at the time…Matthew Shephard was killed in Laramie, Wyo., that October…Those two events very much…rattled me. They shook me into this alertness of identity…The book emerged and continued to develop as I realized that the word “boy” has all of these different facets, all of these different meanings. It’s about childhood, it’s about being a man, it’s about the relationship between fathers and sons, it’s about time…It’s about sex and desire…Prelude to Bruise is my way of kind of journeying through all of those different meanings.

Why did you choose to keep your protagonist, “boy,” nameless?

It has several functions. One reason is, as I was growing up and reading, I loved mythology, I loved the epic. I loved those big stories that are passed on through the centuries…When you see in fables, often the characters are unnamed so that they represent, perhaps, all of civilization. But when I was reading those stories, it was never a black boy that would be given that position of importance. We would never be keeper of civilization…I wanted a black boy on the scale of the epics. Why not? It was time.

And then the other part is, by keeping “boy” nameless it pushes the reader to develop and have to craft your own relationship with this character…As I was writing [Prelude] “boy” became a real person to me and often, the poems were inspired by me being worried about him…I wanted the reader to also have to develop that relationship…It’s also about shattering this distance and one way we can do that is by building empathy for people who are both like and unlike us.

You’ve mentioned Prelude has to do with your own experience as a black, gay man living in the United States; and you document this in bold and very frank ways throughout the collection. Do you want readers to be shocked by your words? Do you think it’s necessary to continue being groundbreaking in this way?

If poetry is to become a more present part of our ongoing, everyday lives, of our conversations, if it is to be a part of how we live, as opposed to the kind of art that we treasure but ultimately keep on our bookshelves, I think it’s important that [poetry] is in step with the immediacy of our lives. That heat has to be there, that’s how I feel, as a reader; I need work that feels like it’s engaging the world at a pace and temperature that matches how I’m living. I say that because to me, the narrative of the book is no more bold or groundbreaking than the reality of my life. I am who I am in this world, negotiating my realities, negotiating questions of identity, of violence, of masculinity. These are very present and real concerns. They’re not just abstract ideas. I feel that that’s reflected in the book because I felt it was essential. It’s immediate for me, so it needs to be immediate in the poems.

Another important aspect in Prelude is the notion of the body as this sort of wide-open space for things to roam in. Why does this focus on the body resonate so deeply with you?

What I realized over the course of the book, is the bodies, they are the…metaphors for the bigger ideas. When you have two men grappling, for example, in the title poem, it’s an incredibly heated, violent, disturbing moment. Yes, it is a poem about two men and their bodies engaging in grappling and that dialectic but it’s also about everyone they represent. It’s about the full trajectory of their histories. The way that desire and sexuality appear in the book, yes, it’s always about sex, but I found, usually when we’re discussing sex and desire, we’re discussing everything else as well; we’re discussing power, we’re discussing masculinity. For me, that was how I was able to interrogate these ideas without writing an entire essay or book of philosophy.

There is something so beautiful, powerful and terrifying about “Jasper.” It’s simple storytelling, where you detail the beginning of what happened and allude to the horrendous fear Byrd must have felt, rather than telling us outright how terrible and cruel the act was. There is a sort of terrifying power in what is left out and what we, the readers, fill in. Could you speak to this a bit?

That poem is very important to me. It is a very difficult poem. There have been readings where I’ve decided that I’m not going to read it or that I can’t because I’m not ready. And there are evenings where I decide I have to read it, no matter what.

There are several things that are happening in the poem. One is the terror of the calmness of the second section, when they’re all sitting in the truck together and [Byrd] is just sitting in the back seat and he slowly but surely realizes that this is about to be a defining moment in his life. And of course, it’s much worse than a defining moment it’s going to be one of the last moments. That is so terrifying…I think that moment is very familiar to people. I think we, over the course of our lives, will have those moments when everything slows down and you’re kind of looking around, and you’re just realizing that things are locking into place and it may already be too late. I think that’s an important experience, an emotional snapshot that needed to exist. We need to be able to recognize that far too many people—James Byrd Jr, Matthew Shephard, the many people who have died at the hands of violence and hate—have had to know that moment...It’s put on us the living to make sure that we are living the kinds of lives and making decisions to ensure that fewer and fewer people have to experience something like that…We were not with him that evening…but I think if we can make a gesture toward meditating on the true horror that hopefully we can think about how we are living…We have to see ourselves on the continuum of responsibility...

Another aspect of it is because [“Jasper”] is one of the longer poems in the book…we’re going to have to live through the poem, it’s not going to be fast or easy. It’s also a way to add weight to the reality of violence. We treat violence as a kind of banality…because, sadly, violence is so frequent and present…Part of what I was trying to do is ground us in the reality of the loss of a single life.

As writers, we always leave a part of ourselves in everything we write. Which of these poems left you feeling the most exposed, the most vulnerable?

The poems about grief…In 2011, my mother had a heart attack and it was the night before Mother’s Day…and I was absolutely devastated. I’ve always been so close to my mother. We only grew closer as I became a young adult and so I was grieving a parent, I was grieving a thought partner, and a mentor, and a source of wisdom. There are poems later in the book, “Mercy” is one of them, “Dirge” is another that I don’t read publicly very often because they are both drawing from specific memories in the time that my mother was in the hospital and then immediately after the funeral. It’s just very painful. And I felt that they were important poems to have in the book because in some ways, a book is a capsule of a writer’s life, of an era. I wanted that grief honored because grieving my mother was one of the most human things I’ve ever done.

What are your goals after Prelude? What’s in the future for Saeed Jones?

What’s in the future is Saeed being in the present. I think the worst thing to happen would be for me to be so obsessed with what comes next, and what’s the next book—though I do have some ideas—that I miss out on this shimmering opportunity I’ve been given. I am so fortunate and so deeply grateful to have gotten the opportunity to publish this book and to share it with people. And even more so, shocked that I’ve gotten also the opportunity to talk about it, and to have these kinds of conversations that are so important to me, so important toward the relationship we have between our lives and art.

 

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