by Danielle A. Jackson
WEDNESDAYS 7-830P, 11/18, 25, 12/2, & 9, 2020
The Casita Maria Book Club reads How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir
by Saeed Jones
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In Birmingham, said the burly man—
Your back, blue-black.
Your body, burning.
I like my black boys broke, or broken.
I like to break my black boys in.
-From titular poem “Prelude to Bruise”
The poems are not delicate and demand to be read aloud. They are vivid, urgent, and without filter. “Boy in a Whalebone Corset,” about a brutal argument on the night Boy’s father finds him trying on his mother dress, leaps off the page, a fully realized nightmare of Old Testament fire and brimstone, Nina Simone records, and pain.
I had a wide-ranging conversation with Jones, who is also the LGBT editor at Buzzfeed, about origins, influences, artistic tastes and sensibilities, and his plans for forthcoming work and institution building.
Danielle A. Jackson: Where were you born?
Saeed Jones: I was born in Memphis, and most of my family is from the Whitehaven area, and lived there for several generations back. But I grew up in North Texas. My mom and I moved to Dallas, kind of the suburbs, when I was in elementary school. So North Texas, the suburbs, is really where I did all of my growing up.
DAJ: How did you know that you wanted to pursue writing as a professional, or in your academic career?
SJ: I’ve always loved English. I’ve always been very right brained. I’m horrible at math. I like science but I’m not good at it. But I’ve always loved literature and reading. It was always something that felt very natural to me. A natural interest. So English class always felt like a delight. But it really took, you know, teachers.
DAJ: Yes, that’s what I’m wondering, who told you that writing as a profession was viable? So many times people grow up, especially people of color, feeling like it isn’t.
SJ: Well I did speech and debate in high school and college. In high school, my debate coach, Sally Squibb, who I’m still very close to, was a huge influence, and we spent so much time together. With speech you’re taking literature and bringing it to life and really begin to internalize, and certainly with poetry, with rhythm and sound and all of that, it ceases to just be something on the shelf. And that was an experience where I had someone saying “You’re good at this, you’re talented. This isn’t just average, and you need to keep working harder.” So along the way I felt like I kept having those kinds of mentors who would go, “You’re onto something, keep working harder.”
Because I do think there is a moment where if you are not a straight white man, if you’re not incredibly wealthy or privileged, not always but I do think often, we are kind of looking for permission, looking for a sign. You know we have our instincts but you’re not sure because often you don’t have a blueprint. I didn’t know of contemporary black queer writers until almost my senior year of high school. Actually my debate coach introduced me to E. Lynn Harris’s work. And as it turned out his work was on the bookshelf that I grew up with, right next to James Baldwin’s work. I don’t even think at the time initially when I was reading James Baldwin’s work—my mom had a copy of Another Country. So I was like whoa! This is amazing, seeing interracial relationships, bisexuality, jazz music, everything in New York. And I was like wow! I still didn’t realize that Baldwin himself could be queer because in class that’s not how we would talk about that. So it still took me a while to get to that point, and even longer before it was like contemporary writers. You know, Jericho Brown, Rickie Laurentis, people now I’m able to email. So really, I think for the first 18-21 years of my life, as is true for any young writer, you know, teachers are a series of bridges. It’s like Audre Lorde in Generations warning you need not drink the water; we pay for these bridges with our blood. I think that’s what it is, you have people who are further along, who have been fighting, and been breaking through, who have made it through some doorways and are gracious enough to hold the door open for you. And that’s what kept me.
DAJ: In your New York Times’s essay “A Poet’s Boyhood at the Burning Crosswords” you write about becoming obsessed with one word at a time and getting lost in that process. Is it the idea of poetry being therapeutic that drew you to it? Or how rigorous every single word must be. Why poetry? Because it seems like you could write anything.
SJ: I’m not sure. And I do like writing all kinds of work. I’m working on a memoir now. I don’t know. I think I love language, I’ve always loved etymology; I love the history of words. I love the origin of names. I always want to know, what’s your name? What does it mean? And so I think that attention and the idea that these words that we use so casually have all this history packed into them, like the word “boy.” I was ultimately able to write an entire book because I felt that there was so much packed into it. It’s a word we take for granted and just throw it around but it’s also a powder keg of identity, of expectations, of assumptions, of slurs, of desires, it’s all there and it’s such a simple word. And because [with] poetry you are able to zero in on language. Because my poems have always been really tight, you know, and almost like corsets, I think that allowed me to obses over language. Before I was writing poems—I can imagine, my father was a musician, the way musicians and singers get melodies and rhythms and da da da da da—my father was always the kind of guy that would walk around singing random lyrics that would make no sense to himself. And it was just a part of him. He’d offer no explanation, it was just a part of his life, in the way that I don’t know, whether we put our hands in our pockets when we’re walking down the street. It’s just a part of our anatomy and that’s always been my relationship. And I think as I got older and started doing performance and theatre and speech and debate and beginning to see the way poetry can take the unnamable, the ineffable, and turn it into a sonic experience. I just think that’s so beautiful.
DAJ: It’s really important to hear you read, and even on the page, your work demands that kind of “out loud” dealing.
SJ: I hope so. I think about Frank Bidart, in particular, in the way that he arranges his poetry on the page where it’s almost like sheet music for orchestral music. It’s very beautiful. DA Powell, I was just re-reading his books from Graywolf, and I loved that, because it was something I wanted to make sure I do with my work. That if you’re able to see me read, if I’m able to read to you, you get something special that can only happen when we’re in the room together. But also if I’m not there, which is far more frequent, you should have some sense of the rhythm. To me it does feel like something is a bit amiss. I mean it’s ok, everyone brings their own interpretation to how they read poems, but I do want to guide the reader in a certain sense. And I do feel like with Prelude to Bruise, because it has this narrative trajectory, and it’s this journey. For me I’m like how am I going to move this reader through this really kind of brutalizing terrain? It’s not a pleasant journey for the voices or for the reader. And so I felt creating that sense of propulsion that is sonic and also narrative. The poems open with a bang and end with a bang, often pointing to peril or a startling moment that I think draws to, coming from a theatre background, it’s like a scene ending with a dramatic blackout.
DAJ: I was struck by the use of some seriously dramatic elements and I felt in particular some super traumatic stuff was handled in a really vivid way. I would think, ‘This feels like an argument.’ This feels like a tumultuous tornado in a household. I guess this is deliberate?
SJ: Yeah, for me it has to be.
DAJ: It felt visceral.
SJ: Very visceral. And part of that is just who I am, I’m an expressive person, I think in terms of color.
DAJ: Your work is very colorful.
SJ: Yeah. And the writers—I think of Patricia Smith’s work who, you know she’s someone I started reading in high school. I remember reading Close to Death in the public library in Lewisville. And she’s writing poems that are disturbingly prescient now, poems about young men being killed too soon, and this sense that finally after years in class thinking that poetry was only Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, ee cummings, Walt Whitman, though I love all of their work you know, and respect it. Finally feeling that singular experience that we all have. It’s different for every reader and every person because it’s about their life, but that the poem grabbed you, you felt the grab to your shoulders. That was and is such an important part of how I experienced literature as a reader.
DAJ: Did that happen to you first with Patricia Smith’s poetry?
SJ: She was definitely one of those writers. I remember reading a Margaret Atwood poem in school, her poem “Siren Song,” and I was like —oh my gosh this is a brilliant persona poem. And the poem, the character in the poem lies, at the end of the poem she lies, so you realize at the end that she’s been seducing you and has tricked you, too. Even though she’s been telling you about tricking other people. I remember just being like. “You can lie? You can manipulate? Oh that’s so exciting!”
You can be difficult. I love that and I love those kinds of characters. That was a whew moment. Audre Lorde’s work. I mean, seeing for the first time queerness in a black woman. And a black woman who was both a mother and a lover, a warrior. That’s very important in terms of the themes of the work. And Prelude to Bruise is also about the brutality of American culture. And the way, often in particular, men negotiate manhood and expressions of manhood.
DAJ: I kept thinking about notions of suffocation. There was something coming through about how suffocating normative conventions of black masculinity can be, especially in the father character, more so even than Boy.
SJ: Yes. Because it’s not a novel, and you only get shades of their voices and figures but not quite characters. But yeah, I’ve always thought off the page father was very interesting, because what would be happening in his life.
DAJ: Yeah. I know he isn’t fully a character so much but the father definitely struck me.
SJ: I’ve thought about it a lot. In my mind, the narrative that is kind of there is that the boy and the father are alone and live in a cabin at the end of town. And Mother, the mother figure, either ran away or has died. And so for me this creates a dynamic—a father and a son—the father is forced to be a single parent. The stress is apparent, right. And if you add grief, which for many of us activates all of our other emotions, everything else comes up. If Boy is missing his mother and trying on his mother’s gowns and becoming his own person as all children do, how would the Father react? It would trigger both his grief and his fear for his son—is my son gonna be safe in this world? Which I think in terms of heterosexuality often means, “I’ve gotta bully him into being a man now to make him strong.” And that to me, because I already knew what the project of the book was about, Boy and all the facets, I needed to create a kind of triangle that would propel us forward. It couldn’t have just been Boy on his own. It had to be tension. And there is a great deal of tension in masculinity.
DAJ: Do you mean black masculinity in particular? Were you trying to touch on that?
SJ: All of it. You know, yes, on one hand, the thing about black masculinity is that there are both these dominating ideas of being a man in a more general sense that aren’t necessarily about race. “Be a man.”
DAJ: And there’s this hyper-realistic layer for black men.
SJ: Right, it’s kind of like threefold. So you have “be a man” just in general. And then you have be a black man because you are in a dangerous world, you are already in peril, everything born black also burns. You gotta be twice as good to get twice as far. So that version of masculinity, black masculinity, which is –I am preparing you for a brutal world. Strangely, it’s a violence that is also an act of love. People think this is how I love my son. Toughening you up.
DAJ: I think that happens with black women, too.
SJ: Everyone. Often, on the other hand, women become the authoritarian, often the grandmother, right? And then the other part of that, the third part of black masculinity is where queerness and vulnerability come in. And where that is seen as a disappointment, as a betrayal. To me, where W.E.B. DuBois talks about double consciousness, that’s always been something I have felt really resonate in my life and within my work. Whether it’s a double consciousness between being a black man and an American or a black man and a gay man or witnessing racism in the LGBT community. Or homophobia everywhere. All of these things are mixed up, we’re no one thing. So to me, a thing that creates this grenade that is all too often and too tragically is too much for people. And so in these poems Boy leaves. Which is in some ways is an act of violence, too, to literally rip yourself from the context of your family, from your homeland, from your history. To go, “I’m getting out of here.”
DAJ: I wanted to talk a little about where you see yourself in negotiation or conversation with other so-called canonical black poets. I was preparing for this conversation on Langston Hughes’ birthday.
SJ: When was that, February 1?
DAJ: Yes. And I was wondering what would American poetry be without Hughes? What would black theatre be without him? So do you think about that at all? Do you think of yourself as some bearer of a tradition? How does it feel? I see you that way and I think others do.
SJ: Well I think saying bearer implies a singularity that no one writer can or should, but it is a heritage that I am a part of. As much as I am a part of my blood family. I am part of an extensive legacy of people and the histories they contain and share.
DAJ: Many writers feel like everything they write is in conversation with whoever came before, for example with Ellison and Baldwin.
SJ: Absolutely, yeah. I think Bruce Nugent, the only out poet during the Harlem Renaissance, is really interesting. And the queerness of the Harlem Renaissance itself, and the subversion of Langston’s work and the deftness of it. Langston’s embrace of class as a narrative when really even at the time that was regarded as we can’t do this. You can’t talk about lower class black people. Tennessee Williams, in terms of the canon of his work, and you get to see the trajectory over generations. That is something that is interesting: what is identity over the course of time? I’m obsessed with that. Toni Morrison, absolutely. In the sense of creating a pantheon of characters and of people who are mythic. Beautifully mythic. Pilate, Sula, and Hannah. I mean these are epic characters. And that they are all so complicated and I think every African -American reader has a moment where they are like we deserve complex, rich stories, too. That are not so cut and dry. Where it’s not so easy to delineate heroes from villains. Good from bad. We need humans. That’s the work I respond to.
But also it’s in the tradition of writers like Rita Dove, pooling Greek mythology and putting it on a slave plantation. Seeing the way writers have used form and persona. Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination. Huge. Taking an idea, taking a current events subject, taking the news and turning it in on itself. Creating a voice. Hugely important. And so you read as much as possible.
When I was in college and graduate school I would lock myself in the library basically and then just sit in there for hours at a time just with books everywhere. I would be like, “Today’s the Lucille Clifton day” and I would read every Lucille Clifton book that was on the shelf. And her poem about Jasper, Texas is fire and is singular to her voice and focus. And so obviously my poem “Jasper” is in conversation, humbly, respectfully, with hers. So yeah, ultimately books don’t just happen, writers don’t just happen. Poems don’t come out of the ether rather everything, all of the art, not just the books, you’re engaging with, comes through the filter of your life.
DAJ: In another interview we spoke about this idea of writing yourself / oneself into existence and that’s another recurring theme in African-American literature and art in general.
SJ: Absolutely. And this is my offering. My offering is creating a version of boyhood. A kind of black boy. Not all the black boys. The kind of black boy who’s isolated. Notice Boy is always alone. He doesn’t have friends. He isn’t that kind of person.
DAJ: Why doesn’t he have friends?
SJ: I don’t know!? That’s a good question. He’s very singular. And this is in retrospect but I notice that even in the poems where there’s a crowd, like the poem in Nashville, it’s still clear that he’s very lonely. Even making love with someone, there’s still a sense of deep isolation. But that was one facet of humanity that I was like, “I could do this.” And I myself obviously am someone who has traveled, who has gone on a journey, so that is something I deeply identify with. But there are still so many characters I cannot wait to encounter. Either I’m lucky enough to write them or read them in work by other people.
I was thinking today, in terms of television, one character you still haven’t seen is the awkward black kid (laughs). The awkward black boy. You have the awkward black futuristic kind of black girl, Issa Rae and Janelle Monae.
DAJ: They’re still pretty niche though, right?
SJ: Very, totally. There’s a bit of that with the gay character in the movie Dear White People. I think he’s [Tyler James Williams] a very good actor. There’s something about him that communicates this vulnerability. And I guess that’s one thing I’m interested in—it happens is my book where a character is actually quite a bit vulnerable, but for whatever reason, because he’s not broadcasting it using the typical signifiers of vulnerability, nobody’s noticing it. So Boy’s walking around with his heart on his sleeve for whatever reason. And I think one of those reasons is racism—ok he’s a black guy.
DAJ: We tend to wear these masks.
SJ: Yes, for the sake of protection, for survival.
DAJ: You’re working on a memoir right now?
SJ: I am. Essentially the essay I wrote for the New York Times would be the early part of the narrative. And then it basically covers about ten years. Because that was 1998, the focus of that essay, and that was the year James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard were killed. About ten years later, my last semester of college, I was gay bashed. And so I wrote another essay a few years ago about that. And suddenly I started realizing all of these threads are connected. And for me, that is how every book or project starts. I’m not trying to write a book. Rather you write one poem, or one essay, or a story, and time goes by and you do other things as you just keep writing, keep going. And then you write something else, and you have a moment that goes wait a minute, huh! And for me it gets interesting when there are questions that I can only maybe not even answer, but write my way toward, and then that becomes the engine.
DAJ: Your description of this new work reminds me of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. And then some of your poems reminded me of her second novel Salvage the Bones, with all of the classical imagery / references that you weave in.
SJ: Yes, wonderful. I love that. Part of it is the main character of Salvage the Bones, Esch, the way she’s obsessed with Medea, so was I.
DAJ: I was going to ask you that—were you into Greek / Roman mythology as a kid?
SJ: Yes, I loved Greek mythology and Euripides tragedies—Medea in particular. With Medea, I was so fascinated with a character that has an impossible decision. Truly impossible. Where there’s no winning. I think that’s fascinating. In American culture, the push is for easy answers. This is wrong, that is bad. The push for easy, simplistic outrage that is ultimately saccharine, cursory, not really deeply thought out. Beginning, middle, and end, we’re done. You’re wrong, I’m smart. Boom. As opposed to recognizing the depth. And so yeah, Medea was one of the first characters I really encountered where I saw that dynamic.
DAJ: Where it’s an impossible situation?
SJ: Yes, it’s an impossible situation, and part of the situation is sexism, for her, right. It’s patriarchy. You ain’t gonna win. Antigone, again, and I was always drawn to the women in mythology, because they’re the ones always with impossible situations, particularly in Greek mythology. And because of the way patriarchy guides and informs Greek and Roman mythology, with the female characters, there’s always a lot more vagueness, because they weren’t the heroes, so they aren’t totally outlined. Because it’s about Hercules, it’s about Jason, it’s about Odysseus. So I think that leaves a really great opportunity then to come in and create, and kind of draw them more fully. In the way that I feel the mother figure in Prelude to Bruise is a figure I think about often because her absence really clasps the book. She’s the river, she’s the water.
DAJ: I feel like there has been some sort of shift in the demand for contemporary black literature. People are again starting to expect more complicated stories. I worked for a time with a commercial publisher / retailer of black books and I’m not sure if it is because of the tenor of our times in general, but it feels like people again are grappling and searching for answers and are looking to artists to guide them.
SJ: Yeah, the stakes are very high. If you want to look just at police brutality. At #BlackLivesMatter. And for me, as an LGBT editor, I’m looking at violence against, sadly far too frequently, transgender women of color, but also violence against the broader LGBT community. And so the stakes are high. I think certainly from last fall to this winter, and can go farther. You can say this goes to Trayvon Martin, you can say this goes to Oscar Grant. You can say this goes to Rodney King.
DAJ: Right, there’s been a build.
SJ: Right and this has been building. Particularly these last six months, it’s felt like we were already at 10 and we just shot through to 11 or 12. And I do think, in terms of poetry, if one of the concerns of poetry is the ineffable. The experience that defies casual language, where the easy judgments and the easy rhetoric no longer cut it. Where we need a new alchemy of language to express. I think that’s why jazz exists, that’s why blues exists, because you have these moments in American history where the known language, the known art isn’t quite there. And I do feel, and I think Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is an excellent example and it’s so powerful because it feels so in sync with our daily experience not just like this feels pertinent to what we’re talking about. But it’s like yeah when I was walking to this reading tonight, I experienced a micro-aggression. Someone touched my hair, someone did this. And I’m now stepping into this work and so it feels not just on time but it feels in the nick of time.
DAJ: Some of this is fueled by sort of the digitization of everything. Social media for one, so pervasive. Everybody’s hyper-aware because we’re hyper-connected.
SJ: That’s true. And something I’m always grappling with is the question, are more people being shot and gunned down by police now than ever before or is it that we’ve gotten to a point because of technology and also cultural breakthroughs that we know it when it happens? Or is it both? It’s probably both. But what’s absolutely clear is that it is intense. It feels like the news is 3D now, it’s not this distant 2D experience. It’s not a newspaper.
DAJ: One of the last things I wanted to ask you about is your youth and ideas of mentoring. How does that inform who you are as a writer, what you want to do? How do you want to change things—whether its language or institutions?
SJ: Well, you know the New Yorker just published an excerpt of Toni Morrison’s next novel. And she’s, what, in her 80s? So for me in terms of youth, which feels increasingly fleeting, I feel like I have a lot of work to do. And I hopefully have a lot of books ahead of me. And a lot of reading to do, and learning and that’s exciting. And I think it’s humbling, too. I read wonderful, game-changing books and so many poetry collections every week that, sadly, don’t get the opportunity to get into more hands. And I won’t lie. I’ve been given an opportunity and I know this is really special. And my awareness of that, all it means to me is gratitude of being aware that this is not just me. This is a community. This is a broader family of writers, of booksellers, of editors, of readers, of interviewers, who have created the circumstances in which when I was able to do my best, which is all you can do, there was an opportunity for me to have something to offer. Like I was saying earlier, writing a book is like saying I have something to offer to the conversation, someone else had to create the circumstances for the conversation to exist. Langston Hughes talks about a place at the dinner table. Someone else had to make a seat at the table possible. So out of gratitude for that, I have to keep working, keep reading, and keep learning. And any opportunity I have for my peers and younger writers to do everything I can to help them as well.
I turned 30 last year, in November, and I had a moment a few years ago when I thought of mentorship as something that I was too young to do. And then I was like well, don’t you need to kind of practice? If you do want to become a mentor one day, how do you think you start? You start by doing it. My dream, ultimately, one day is to own a property that can be a year round kind of art / retreat space. But also there would be a place for say a mother, a single mother has an idea for a book, but who can afford to just stop working or to not pay rent. You have a place to stay. A young queer kid where home is not safe. You have a place to stay. Where people who don’t get to make it into MFA programs, we can have a workshop space. Like a ground, and obviously this is part of Cave Canem or Mosaic, you know, there are many ways to create spaces. Sometimes a space can just be opening up your home for a night. But something that is actually a ground, I feel like it is so important. So that’s my dream, and so to get there, I have a lot of work to do.
Danielle Jackson is a writer and multicultural marketing specialist living in Brooklyn, NY.
photo credit: Marcia E. Wilson/WideVision Photography