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Writer and editor Saeed Jones’ new collection of poems Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press) is a darkly visceral examination of the often riotous nature of identity, desire, family, and sex, and the ways in which these things shape and warp us. Beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking—Jones’s poems are an emotional punch to the gut. A lyrical shock to the system.
Jones took some time to talk to Lambda Literary about his latest poetry collection, art vs. rhetoric, and the various writers that have inspired him.
Biography can often be seen as density. That being said can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing and how it has influenced your trajectory as a writer?
I was raised by an intelligent and fiercely loving mother who didn’t live to see me turn 26 years old. She practiced Nichiren Buddhism and raised me, mostly, in the suburbs just north of Dallas, Texas. My mother was stylish, funny and, often unexpectedly, sorrowful. She could change like weather.
My family–relatives I knew well and relatives I only met now and then — always let me know that I was well-loved and that they had high hopes for me. We weren’t wealthy; I remember finding an eviction notice on the door once and hiding it from my mother for a week. My family didn’t shield me from the reality of race and racism in America, though sometimes I wish they had offered more context. Also, crucially, for as long as I’ve been a sexual being, I’ve been attracted to men. My mother caught me kissing a boy when I was in, maybe, the first grade. She dropped the plate of oranges she was bringing us as a snack. I guess I’d add, that everyone assumed I would go to college and probably graduate school. I did too. And I’m glad I did.
In terms of the trajectory, I’ve always been intrigued by protagonists who have access to a lot of information but perhaps not as much wisdom, who feel deeply but struggle to understand the logic of those feelings. That’s absolutely a reflection of how I grew up and how I experienced coming-of-age in the context of my upbringing.
Your poems offer searing and painful snapshots of race relations in this country—these are not apolitical poems. There is real political engagement, rage, and sorrow in this work.
I’m listening to Nina Simone’s 1959 performance of “Summertime” at Town Hall right now—and the truth is that all poems are political; all art is political. In my experience, when someone says, “Oh, my work is apolitical,” run from that person as fast as you can! They’re either ignorant, deceitful, or both. The decision to write a lifetime of poems about flowers and deer and sunsets is a decision rooted in that particular writer’s relationship to the world. And, of course, my decision to write poems that engage the violence and deadly silences black men encounter in the midst of coming-of-age in the American South is a political decision. “Tell the truth!” Nina Simone shouted in the middle of one of her performances while, of course, playing the piano like a virtuoso. I love who and what I am in America, which means that my heart breaks and puts itself back together every single day. How could I not write the kind of poems I write?
It can be tricky moving politically engaged work beyond simple propaganda. Do you have a dividing line between something that is art versus something that is simply rhetoric?
Because all poems are political, as I see it, setting out to write “Political Poems” strikes me as a terrible idea. If I sat down at my desk and thought, “Okay, I’m going to write a poem about racism in America,” I’m not sure the poem would work out very well. It may be and probably is different for other writers. But because I know anything I do is colored by the realities of who I am and where I live, I just focus on getting the poem itself right. That’s hard enough.
Usually, my poems begin with an image or arrangement of words that latch onto me. I wrote the phrase “post-apocalyptic heartbeat” in my notebook over and over again for months until the phrase set fire and turned into a poem. The book’s titular poem came from me obsessively thinking about the sounds the words “blue-black” make when put together. That’s where I am when I’m writing poems. I’m not thinking about making a political statement; I trust that will happen on its own whether I intend to or not.
All of this is to say, I think “simple propaganda” usually begins and ends with the intention to make a political statement. Art, on the other hand, trusts that the final product will be political or politicized and, instead, focuses on the beauty of the construction. This is also why so much art is both beautiful and incredibly destructive (in the sense of being somehow oppressive). Our work is rooted in who and how we are: for better or worse.
Your work uses “otherness” (blackness, queerness) to offer incisive cultural insight. When did you learn that being an outsider could give you a special vantage into the workings of the culture at large?
You have a better view when standing at the margin of your community. The problem is that no one else may be around to hear what you have learned. (I’m listening to “The Ladies Who Lunch” now.) Seriously, though, when you are other-ed, you are often alone, physically if not emotionally—so you do a lot of thinking on your own. Isolation can be a gift in a way. The poems in the books are very lonely. Even when the speakers are physically with other people, they are distant in some way.
I’m not sure I’m answering your question so I’ll try again. As soon as I was old enough, I would go to gay bars and nightclubs in downtown Dallas on my own. In the book, you see Boy do this in “History, According To Boy.” Because I didn’t know anyone, I’d often end up just standing against the wall watching the crowd and analyzing them: the old men buying younger men drinks, the go-go boys dancing but not really looking at anyone in the room, the men who had just been rejected heading to the bar, the black men who only spoke to other black men, the black men who only spoke to white men, the drag queens always finding the spotlight, the men who couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. And what I saw in that crowd was five-hundred versions of myself, all at once, so different and yet somehow the same. In a way, each poem in Prelude to Bruise is one of those selves.
I would also say the poems in this collection often take a look at the ruinous nature of desire. I am hesitant to confuse authors with the characters that lie within their work, but do you find that you are cynical when it comes to matters of romantic love/desire?
Well, I’m terrible at writing poems about things going well in terms of love and desire, so my published work doesn’t very accurately reflect my heart’s scorecard. I tend to think of poetry in terms of characters and scenes. The characters I find most compelling in poems are sirens or — even more interestingly — sirens who get what or who they wanted then lost what they had in some way. This sense of loss makes them even more dangerous, if not eloquent. Of course, I’d never want to date any of these characters!
Personally, I’m a pretty hopeful lover but I’m also very quick to move on if I think the relationship isn’t going to work out. I’ve broken up with guys before they even realized there was a problem. It’s not the best way to handle conflict but it does help ensure my story is very different from Boy’s story.
Who are some artists and writers (living or dead) who have influenced your work? How did they provide a roadmap for your writing?
My father gave me a book about screenwriting when I was in middle school. It dissected popular movies to explain how to write plot. I loved that book and can’t believe I managed to lose it. Anyway, it was the first book I read about the writing process and it definitely got the cogs turning. I have always admired how Reginald Shepherd worked with mythos and natural landscapes in his poetry and the intellectual teeth of his essays. Poets like Cynthia Cruz and Lucie Brock-Broido showed me how to infuse the baroque gesture into unexpected contexts. Rigoberto Gonzalez and Patricia Smith are both unflinching in their approach to difficult subject matter and the grotesque; this is true for Anna Journey’s poetry as well. The work of writers like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Adrienne Rich is deeply important to me as a reader and writer. Their work taught me how to live in this country as an artist and citizen. In college, I studied Alexander McQueen’s designs pretty closely. Several poems in Prelude to Bruise were inspired by his work. And I’d be nowhere without the company of poems by writers like Jericho Brown, Rickey Laurentiis, Angel Nafis and Danez Smith. Oh, and Gabriel García Márquez’s short story collection Strange Pilgrims tuned me into the simplicity of horror in isolation.
You have cultivated a popular and beloved Twitter account. It is filled with smart and often campy commentary using what I see as a very particular black gay camp vernacular. I really love that you embrace “black faggotry” on Twitter as a vehicle to provide intelligent commentary.
I joined Twitter in 2008 but I used it mostly in the way people use Facebook for the first year or so. It was boring and dull and struck me as very one-sided. Then, in 2010, I found myself working at a desk job for the first time with a very repetitive schedule. I woke up at the same time, ate lunch at the same place, etc. The camp of @TheFerocity was birthed in the midst of that boredom really. I was like “The truth of what I’m doing everyday right now is so fucking boring, but why do I have to tell the truth? Why can’t I tweet that I’m on a fainting couch right now and wearing a kimono?” Those flourishes cracked me up and, I guess, other people too. People started engaging me more actively and I got more and more over-the-top. I realized that I was about 140 characters away from turning into a queer minstrel, which is definitely not what I wanted to do, so I kept the camp and faggotry while also tweeting more pointedly about cultural criticism. I wanted it all: fierce, funny, and smarter than you. That’s where @TheFerocity came from. I’m much more myself now; I don’t think I feel like I have something to prove and I’m too busy to be thinking so intensely about everything I’m doing, but it’s fun.
When reading your new book I did notice that this “camp” voice does not really find its way into your poems. Is that a conscious decision? Is that simply a voice that does not naturally work for you when you are composing your poems?
How I talk in person is probably right in between my voice on Twitter and the language I use in my poems. They’re both elevated in different ways and for different reasons.
Lastly, what is up next for you. Any upcoming projects
I’m working on a memoir, tentatively titled How Men Fight for Their Lives.