Jan/Feb 2012  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Saeed Jones

Review by Jonterri Gadson

The poems of Saeed Jones possess a searing emotional intensity that is so finely cadenced and controlled, readers can't help but be seduced by this ferocious siren song of a book.

Saeed Jones has a MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Bloom, Hayden's Ferry Review, storySouth, jubilat, West Branch, Weave, The Collagist, and Linebreak.


JG     When the Only Light is Fire opens with an epigraph by Reginald Shepherd. What drew you to this epigraph?

SJ     When I started writing these poems, the South was a distant object to me. It was a past-tense terrain, but, of course, once I got down into the muck of writing—the real work of it all—that distance vanished. Memories that I thought were ash, in fact, were still hot to the touch. So, instead of being a distant object, my past becomes an "offering" of sorts to the reader. Sometimes, though fortunately not always, the past feels like it is all we have to offer one another: here's where I've been, what I saw, what I learned, etc.

JG     What other poets influenced/inspired you during the writing of this chapbook?

SJ     Shepherd's work with the natural elements drew my attention to unexpected opportunities for poems. Ovid's Metamorphoses as a specific text shaped my curiosity about transformation which is a constant throughout the chapbook. I remember reading Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler around the time that I was trying to figure out how not to look away from the grotesque. When I think about "Jasper, 1998," I know it wouldn't have happened without her influence. And in workshop with Cynthia Cruz (another great influence), I was introduced to Lucie Brock-Broido's poetry. The way she works with baroque language and mythos is just fascinating to me. She freed me to play with decadent words that I'd been scribbling in my notebook but too embarrassed to actually work with. These are just some of the explicit influences that come to mind, but since I was in graduate school while working on many of these poems, the list of writers I consider "teachers on the page" is pretty lengthy.

JG     Many of the poems reference southern US cities and states: Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Mississippi, Kentucky. What are your ties to the American south?

SJ     Both sides of my family are from Memphis, Tennessee, originally. I was born a few miles from Graceland and grew up in North Texas, went to college in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and made a few stops in Atlanta (where my mother lived) before making my way to New York, where I live now. What I love about all of this is that there are so many different versions of the South. I hope that is reflected in the poems whether it's the drought in "Meridian," which had North Texas in mind, or the green lushness of "Kudzu," which I wrote while in Atlanta.

JG     I loved what/who was allowed to speak through your use of various personas. The book opens with a darkly seductive poem in the voice of kudzu. Other voices include: the biblical figure Abraham, Daedalus. What drew you to these characters and how were you able to access their voices?

SJ     Well, the persona is a mask for what we're often afraid or hesitant to actually say. I tend to think of my obsession before I actually find the right speaker for it. James Allen Hall said a while back to "write to your obsessions," and that's how so many poems happened. I walked around, mulling over uncomfortable but unavoidable ideas, and if I was lucky, I'd find a character in literature or nature that would be a great way for me to work that obsession out on the page. One of those preoccupations was fathers and sons (which is the focus of my full-length manuscript) and so Daedalus and Abraham just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Their fascinating stories resonated with the idea I was carrying, and they gave me an opportunity. I couldn't access the "voice" until I gave into the idea.

JG     I had to give the "Jasper, 1998" poems their own question. These poems enter the voice of James Byrd, Jr., a black man who was murdered when his body was dragged behind a truck by white supremacists. This horrific incident was hard to digest as a reader, so I can only imagine how you, as the poet, must have felt when you had, in "Jasper, 1998: I," to essentially become James Byrd, Jr.:

Go back: my throat still
crowded with dirt
and loose teeth
but I speak
(tongue slick with iron)
but I speak
in the language of soft turns.

I actually cringed while reading "Jasper, 1998: III" at these lines:

Pavement becomes skin tight
they take my teeth
for piano keys

What compelled you to get so close to this incident in particular?

SJ     I was in middle school when James Byrd Jr. was killed, and Jasper was only a short drive away. It was so horrible and so close. And, more importantly, it felt like a news story from a different era entirely. (Again, the past coming back hot to the touch.) I wanted to get as close as possible to the blade of this horror to remind myself and the reader that this is real. It happened and could happen again. (Wasn't it just a few months ago that a black man was run down by a group of teens in Mississippi?) It all makes me think of the poet Sunni Patterson, who says, "It ain't just hot in Mississippi. / Hell, it's hot wherever you be." The poem is my attempt to take that truth in and face it. Not because I want to face it (I really would prefer not to), but because I don't want to face it. And it's still really difficult to read that poem, to be honest.

JG     The book's arc seems to move from boyhood to various representations of manhood. The first half of the chapbook contains several "boy" poems: "Terrible Boy," "Boy in Stolen Evening Gown," "Boy at Edge of Woods," and "Boy at Threshold." The fire of the book's title seems to start in the trauma detailed in these poems, in the fields of these poems. How does trauma influence your writing?

SJ     I think of fire as a difficult knowledge. It illuminates, but something must be destroyed in order for that to happen. That paradox, to me, is the task of becoming a person. What am I going to burn down in order to clear a space for my foundation? That is what the archetypal "boy" of the poems is asking himself over and over.

With that being said, perhaps the hardest part of this process isn't the trauma itself but the fact that boys, in particular, are conditioned to repress their feelings about trauma. I tried to reflect that in the first section of the chapbook by keeping the menace at the edges of the page. In "Terrible Boy," for example, there are coded references and the final image, but the boy never actually says what is happening exactly.

JG     Much of the trauma in the earlier poems occurs in nature, with nature also acting as an offender itself at times, as written in "Kudzu":

And if I ever strangled sparrows
it was only because I dreamed
of better songs.

Your use of natural imagery, such as "a negligee of gnats," stuns with its originality and authenticity. Where did you develop your connection with the natural world and how does it inspire you?

SJ     I was raised in and continue to practice Nicherin Buddhism. One idea that stems from this life philosophy is "esho funi" or oneness of self and environment. The idea is that our environment (natural or otherwise) directly mirrors who we are as individuals and as a collective entity. I learned about this concept when I was a little kid, and it has had a major impact on my perception of the natural world and how we engage it. Perhaps this is part of the problem with human ego, but I look at nature and end up seeing human nature.

JG     Tell us more about your Nicherin Buddhist upbringing.

SJ     I chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo and practice with the Soka Gakkai. My mother was introduced to Buddhism when she was in her 20s and used it as a life philosophy for raising me. When I was growing up as closeted black kid in Lewisville, Texas, I was really frustrated by our Buddhist practice because it felt like one more thing that made me weird. I remember thinking to myself, "It's like being in the closet twice over." In college though, as I began to think about what parts of my life were necessary and sustaining, I realized that Nicherin Buddhism had taught me so much. It's hard for me to see the specific ways in which my spirituality has impacted by life as a writer, but I can tell you that while finishing the poems in my chapbook and full-length poetry manuscript, I consistently chanted for about 45 minutes before sitting down to write in the morning.

JG     Your mother recently passed away, and there are a few poems in this chapbook, such as "Nocturne," which share moments of grief with the reader:

Mother, I cannot sing
fallen leaves back
onto their branches.

Thank you for your willingness to share the beauty inside of your pain. How has poetry affected your grieving process? How has your grieving process affected your poetry?

SJ     This is actually a bit eerie and something that I've been mulling over for the last few months. All of the poems in this chapbook were written well before my mother's death. In fact, she was perfectly healthy when I wrote them, so I wasn't consciously thinking about her in terms of grief or loss. In retrospect though, I wonder if perhaps I was worried about her more so than I realized at the time. I think poems can come from different parts of our selves. Sometimes I start with an explicit idea and work to render it as best as possible on the page. Other times I do think the subconscious has a hand in the work. There are even more poems not included in this chapbook that examine grief well before I even knew grief would be my next reality, so to speak. I think the heart sometimes is quite a few paces ahead of the mind.

JG     When the Only Light is Fire has been the number one best seller in Gay Poetry on Amazon.com for weeks now (as of November 21). Congratulations on getting your book into the hands of so many eager readers! How do you define Gay Poetry?

SJ     Thanks. I used to be really interested in the notion of gay poetics mainly because I was still sorting out my own identity as a gay man who writes. Now, though, I don't know. I don't think there's such a thing as Gay Poetry anymore than there is such a thing as Black Poetry. We are vast and, hopefully, so is our work. Categorization has its uses and benefits to be sure, but when sitting down to write, they are pretty useless aren't they?

JG     Several poems mesh the themes of love/lust with race. I scribbled a note after "Prelude to a Bruise" that read "rough sex with racial implications." What are your thoughts about writing about race in poetry?

SJ     I want to write poems that round out my life (and the life of these voices) on the page. Sex and sexuality are as much a part of this roundness as race. And often they collide in jarring ways. I don't know exactly what to say about race in poetry except that if I read through the chapbook and skip over poems like "Jasper, 1998," "Prelude to Bruise," and "Body & Kentucky Bourbon," the narrative is incomplete.

JG     What's next for Saeed Jones, the poet?

SJ     I've started submitting Prelude to Bruise, my full-length poetry manuscript, out to contests, and I'm working on a memoir.


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