Voice and Imagination: An Interview with Saeed Jones

Sibling Rivalry, publisher of Saeed Jones’s chapbook, When the Only Light is Fire, invites you to “Hear the Fire” by clicking a link on their website. Rather by click or by public appearance, the salt and honey of Saeed’s voice arrests our deepest consciousness. In the quickness of a moment, his poetry subdues our ego, or boredom or indifference into sincerely hearing nuisances powered by breath and spit and pain.  This take-over happens, for instance, when I listen to Saeed read “Cruel Body.” Vibrations of Jones’s clear diction and bombastic tone arouse the hair on my forearm and I am a gay black male in Texas. But because you can hear Mr. Jones via countless(!) places, this interview focuses on his poetry and the power of meter, line breaks, stanzas, spacing, mechanics and other non-prosody concerns that inevitably take a poet’s poems beyond the poet’s voice.

Zahra Marie Darby:  When Toni Morrison visited the Rutgers-Newark MFA program (our alma mater) she said two things: language is personal and that because it is personal, teaching language to creative writers is not an objective for her. How is your language and your use of language personal? How did you “learn” language?

Saeed Jones: First of all, thank you for taking the time to read my poems and start this conversation. And second, thank you for beginning with Toni Morrison because, in many ways, hers was one of the first voices that taught me how to speak. I mean “speak” in the sense of using language to stake a claim to my life. Most of the poems in this collection were written because, in one way or another, I needed them. In the same way that a kid creates an imaginary friend to get through the terror that is childhood, I wrote these poems. I wrote “Mississippi Drowning,” for example, because I was drowning in news story after news story of queer men and women of color being attacked, brutalized and killed. It seemed to me then, and now, that the only way a gay or trans person of color makes the news is by dying horribly. I wrote “Mississippi Drowning” because I needed a way, any way, of answering that outrage. Whether or not, the poem holds up to a critical reading is beside the point because the need – and the language that answered that need – is deeply personal. I think that is one thing that helped me write some of the more difficult poems. “Prelude to Bruise” and “Jasper, 1998” come to mind here. I needed them so much, I didn’t really care how they’d be received.

Now, how did I learn language? I’m not sure how one learns to use language. Perhaps that is why Toni Morrison feels it is not her objective to teach language. All I know is that I have always felt that words were on my side, that I knew what to do with them, that I could work them into a weapon, or a lover, or a reason. I didn’t grow up around an especially literary family, though there was a book shelf with paperbacks of Morrison, Baldwin, Walker, and others in the living room. But I did a lot of theater growing up and fell in love with language that way. I remember being jealous of actors and actresses who got all of the “good” lines. I’d think to myself “Oh, I wish I had a chance to say that to somebody.” Like, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I wanted to be her so that I could have her language. Now, with poetry, I feel like I’ve gotten to create some characters of my own.

ZMD: In the poem “Kudzu” there is movement on the page done by indenting the first line of every stanza. This movement happens in a few other poems including the Jasper poems, “Coyote Cry,” and “Prelude to Bruise.” In terms of form and content, how do you decide to follow the inclination to move a poem around the page?

SJ: The structure of my poems is determined by the mind state or “nature” of the speakers. I wanted “Kudzu” to look a bit like a vine on the page without it being cheesy. My hope is that the reader feels themselves having to kind of wind their way through the poem. “Coyote Cry” is structured in that way for a similar reason. It’s a voice reaching to you out of the darkness. It’s a windy night out in the hills. Sentences aren’t going to come through so clearly. I wanted the poem to look a little scattered in that way.

With “Jasper, 1998,” I thought about the fact that James Byrd Jr.’s body was literally scattered as it was dragged along that road. Investigators had to measure and detail the entire drive. It’s just – you don’t read about something like that and not change your relationship to language. The poem had to break apart.

And to be frank, the speaker in “Prelude to Bruise” is enjoying himself, so he wants to draw it out. The look of the poem – hopefully – reflects how he is trying to take his time.

ZMD: “Speaking of Prelude to Bruise,” when the speaker recounts the burly man’s words, “(or I’ll bend you over my lap – rap, rap),” I freeze in terror because I understand the implication of racism and of sexual assault. But then I marvel at the rhythmical wonder that you create; the poem rides on repetition—both assonance, as in the aforementioned line, and alliteration as in “Boy, be / a bootblack.” What went into writing this poem (or how the hell did you do that)?

SJ: This sounds strange to say, but that poem grew out of my obsession with the phrase “blue black.” Just saying it out loud makes me want to repeat it, then find another way to say it (black blue) and then to start playing around with it (boot black.) I’ve always wanted to work with that in a poem, but it didn’t come together until I did a reading with Mark Doty and the Wilde Boys, and Doty actually read a poem about the Boot Black as a fetish. I sat in the Cornelia Street Café, listening to him read the poem, and something clicked into place like a revolver that’s just been loaded. From then on, I just gave into the words because the story is all there. The phrase “blue black” instantly points to violence and every act of violence has a story, right? Bruises don’t just happen. And then, I felt that race was also packed into the language as well. All of this was kind of swirling around in my mind, but not in a conscious way. Not long after Doty’s reading, I sat down and fumbled a bit with an opening line. I remember struggling to decide what city the poem should be in. Boston. Baltimore. Birmingham. And that’s when the revolver in my head went off. I had a place, I had a sound, and I just tried to get out of the way of the words and let them tell the story. I wrote the poem very quickly and avoided trying to revise it for fear that I would ruin the whole thing.

ZMD: In many of your poems, the speakers appear to experience either physical pleasure or pain, but not both. “Body & Kentucky Bourbon” breaks this dichotomy. Can you talk about the body—function, pleasure and dysfunction—and its thematic and symbolic presence in this collection?

SJ: It seems to me that the speakers in the poems are always using their bodies to do something, which I guess is true in real life as well. In the same way that language, for me, is about what I use it to do, the body is being interrogated here for its different uses. Also, I think pleasure is hard-won in the poems because the speakers are often looking back, or in the middle of what appears to be a protracted experience. None of them are naïve and clueless about what they are doing with their bodies. I don’t really have an answer for why this is the case for my poems and I’d imagine it would take quite a few therapy sessions for me to figure it out.

ZMD: (laughing…you and me and the world over). As part of a panel at AWP in Atlanta (2007), poet and professor, Dr. Sharan Strange, discussed the importance of acknowledging diversity within black communities. I am interested in your thoughts on community. How does, for instance, being a black, Southern queer poet impact you as a writer? I think we can read how it impacts your writing.

SJ: I go back and forth with questions like this pretty often. Speaking generally, identity isn’t everything but it is something, right? When I sit down to write a poem, I feel pretty isolated from my life and from the world beyond my head. That’s the only way these poems can happen. Of course, my life and the world have put all of the ideas somewhere in my head so that I can access them in my supposed isolation as a writer. The impact then of my many identities is definite but impossible to accurately trace. I can say for sure that my identity (identities) has given me a refracted mirror to work with, and countless poems are within those facets.

ZMD: Wow, your answer is remarkably insightful and I agree more than ever that the mirror talks back. About your chapbook Jericho Brown wrote, “Saeed Jones is a name that we will know for the rest of our lives.”Hmmph…can I say that I adore Jericho Brown who is coming to Newark next week! Presently, what is the knowing, so to speak, that you work for in your poems? I consider this a question about intention and about revision. So what do you imagine in order to commit to doing the work that has such promising long life?

SJ: What a beautiful and difficult question! Jericho’s praise is so generous and a bit intimidating because it makes me wonder, “Well, damn, how am I going to make that happen exactly?” All I know for sure is that I’m trying, always, to write my way into this world. In some ways, the poems are an attempt to give voice to the experiences of people who, as Toni Morrison, once mentioned live “at the edge towns that cannot bear [their] company.” On the other hand, these poems, for better or worse, are my attempt to say that “I am here, too.” That intention, admittedly, is pretty selfish and common. (Why on earth is it so important for people to know that we’re here? We know. Isn’t that enough?) But, of course, it isn’t enough. I want something to show for my presence and these poems, for now, are the statues I’ve chosen to erect.

A 2011 Pushcart Prize Nominee Saeed Jones received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University – Newark. His poetry has appeared in publications like Hayden’s Ferry Review, StorySouth, Jubilat, West Branch & The Collagist.  His chapbook When the Only Light is Fire is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. His blog For Southern Boys Who Consider Poetry is dedicated to emerging queer poets of color.