On May 13 Buzzfeed’s Literary Editor and award-winning poet, Saeed Jones, was named the 2015 Pen Literary Award recipient for his collection, Prelude to Bruise. To sum up the excitement, Jones posted to his Facebook page, “I was listening to Beyonce’s “7/11” this morning when I found out.”
This is Jones, a supremely talented writer with quick wit, beautiful insight into the world, hard-earned accomplishments to his name, and a knack for one-liners. I would dare say Jones is in-deed “fresher than youuu.” Saeed Jones was born in Memphis, TN and raised in Lewisville, Texas. He received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University – Newark. He then earned his bachelor’s degree at Western Kentucky University where he won the Jim Wayne Miller Award for Poetry. A 2013 Pushcart Prize winner and finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Choice Award, Saeed Jones has been traveling the country performing poetry from his recent collection, Prelude to Bruise.
The collection, which I have been honored to read, is a series of raw and intuitive tales following Boy, a young, black, queer child growing up in the south. But the collection is so much more than this. As Jones puts it, “It’s set in the south and the character is a black gay character, but this isn’t an autobiographical book. Boy exists for all of us and he is our avatar to help us. He helped me to work through these questions of hegemony that should be all of our concerns.”
But this help isn’t always easy to swallow as the collection lives up to its name. Patricia Smith emphatically wrote, “Prelude to Bruise works its tempestuous mojo just under the skin, wreaking a sweet havoc and rearranging the pulse. These poems don’t dole out mercy. Mr. Jones undoubtedly dipped his pen in fierce before crafting these stanzas that rock like backslap.”
Poems like “Post Apocalyptic Heartbreak,” “History According to Boy,” “Prelude to Bruise,” and others will break your heart and force you to investigate and confront the unconscionable brutality of this nation. Prelude to Bruise has garnered national attention: NPR called it ” visceral and affecting”; Publishers Weekly declared it “a bold new voice has announced itself”; and Lambda Literary called it “beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking.” The book also made several “Best of 2014” lists, including NPR’s and Time Out New York’s.
You are from the south, educated in the south, and now you live in the north. I mention this because we often see this binary being reinforced between the south and north as one being more accepting and progressive. How have you experienced these simplified binaries play out throughout the process of writing, performing, and engaging critics of this work?
It’s interesting when you are “othered” in any way. When you can be categorized as not straight, white, and wealthy as a writer then no matter what you do in someway people are going to objectify what you’re writing about. So that happens to writings about the south when you’re a southern writer. If you’re writing about sexuality and you happen to be a queer person than you’re a gay writer. If you’re writing about race issues than you’re a black writer. You’re not a writer. I’ve noticed that in terms of the ways people talk about the book and why sometimes people will say this book is about the brutality of the south, which I don’t really see it that way, because that comes from this binary that so many Americans have where the entire south is monolithic and the most latent aspects of racism and homophobia and the North is more evolved and cultured. We all know this isn’t true. The book is simply set in the south if that makes sense, but it’s not necessarily the south. It’s about America and Boy is on quite a journey and I don’t mention it so explicitly over the course of the book but I don’t have a lot of location references. But there are poems I wrote in Harlem. I was in Amsterdam when I wrote “History According to Boy.” I was in Paris when I wrote “Second-hand Smoke” because for me the book is about the broader journey and what we take with us. I absolutely do see a binary and if we get back to this idea of escapism. When you hear those phrases, “racism and homophobia is a southern problem,” all people are trying to do is eschew themselves of responsibility. They try to say this is a book about how horrible the south is or how hard it is for gay black people but for me this is a book about us. It’s set in the south and the character is a black gay character, but this isn’t an autobiographical book. Boy exists for all of us and he is our avatar to help us. He helped me to work through these questions that should be all of our concerns.
Speaking of “where were you?” When I read the lines below from “Post Apocalyptic Hear-beat,” that was a poem I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during that writing process. Where were you when you wrote that poem?”
“Half this life I’ve spent falling out of fourth-story windows.
Pigeons for hair, wind for feet. Sometimes I sing.
“Stormy Weather” on the way down. Today, “Strange Fruit.”
Each time, strangers find me
drawing my own chalk outline on the sidewalk, cursing
with a mouth full of iron,
furious at my pulse.”
I was living in Newark, New Jersey. I was living in a house with two other writers, both fiction writers. They were incredibly talented and what was great was that we were all in different graduate programs. It’s actually the only time I’ve lived with other writers. We all felt comfort-able enough to be our sane selves. When I’m writing I’m very private which is why I usually dis-appear. I’m actually going to the southern France to get back into my memoir. I get very neurotic and can’t focus on conversations. “Post Apocalyptic” really existed in my head. I had been writing the words “post apocalyptic poem” in my notebook over and over for months. I had been walking around the house in every room, and everywhere I went I was trying to write it. That poem exists over several lifetimes, so I needed to have this broadness of a longer-lived life. So I wrote it in a lot of different places over a nice span of time.
What are some of the favorite books you’re reading at the moment?
Honestly, I have just been buying books at an alarming rate. Three books at a time and then the next day I buy three more. I’m surrounded by books. I’m reading this excellent biography by Emily Bernard on the life of Carl Van Vechten, who was a white gay man and writer in New York in the 1920s who befriended and championed in a really complicated way the writers who came to define the Harlem Renaissance. It’s been really interesting reading about the notion of race and patronage where it’s literally, Carl Van Vechten being able to say I have black friends, and those friends are “Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ethel Waters.” It’s pretty amazing. Writers like Mark Doty, I’ve been reading him a lot and his new poetry collection, “Deep Lanes.” It’s absolutely beautiful and what I am so grateful to Mark for is he is really with me prolifically over the course of his life and seeing the range of his work. You really get to see this human work of living over a course of decades. You see relationships. You see what it means to survive the loss of a lover to AIDS and what a new lover looks like. What it means to begin a new era of your life and begin to reflect. That is incredibly beautiful and helpful to me as an emerging writer. Of course Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. I love writers who I can return to. I’m always a different person when I return to a work, and I like work that changes be-fore my eyes because I change.
How excited are you to come into this new position as Literary Editor and start Buzzfeed’s Emerging Writers Fellowship?
I’m over the moon. This is absolutely amazing. I was the first person in my family to go to college and the first person on my mom’s side with a graduate degree and publish a book. So there is this humility but also not realizing just what can happen in a life and really being dazzled when you step into moments when people give you this opportunity. And that’s how it feels right now. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity with Buzzfeed to really act on what I have been learning for the last two years working at this organization and what I have been learning about diversity and how it impacts the hiring and mentoring relationships and the way free-lancers behave. I have just been able to see again and again just how much we all have to do to make media as an industry in particular and publishing broadly work for people because right now the odds are really backed in the favor of wealthy people. People who already have a base of resources, because how else can you expect people to thrive in media if there is such an over-dependence on underpaid internships when the industry is based in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The only way you can have a constant stream of new writers, journalists, and editors coming into the industry is because there are people who have needs. As readers we are better for having diverse media and perspectives. And it’s not just about race, it’s about age, cultural influences, political leaning. That diversity, that richness leads to a richness in the work which is good for all of us. So I’m so happy to be creating a fellowship program and we are going to start with four writers and hopefully give them the tools to step into a new phase of their careers. I know so many talented emerging writers who have their hands on the doorknob but the door is locked and they desperately need some one to open the door. I love New York but my goodness it is a hard city both to get to in terms of names and its very expensive and challenging. In some small way that’s great because the creative people who are here really want to be here and it’s filled with incredibly talented people. But we will be lying to ourselves if we act like the economics of our industry don’t need to change.
As a former forensicator myself I am always very grateful for what the activity gave me. What can you say about forensics, sometimes known as Speech Team, as it relates to your success.
I absolutely love forensics. It paid for my college education and that was huge. It was the best reading experience ever. You’re always searching for material and evidence and you’re reading constantly and widely. Forensics was so wonderful because in contrast to classmates in high school or college who weren’t doing speech and debate, I was reading contemporary literature far more frequently than my peers. I was reading the best material on bookshelves and online. And that really helped me step into an understanding of writing as a way of life, that this wasn’t literature simply as a historical artifact, which is what can happen if you only read work from canons. So speech made reading and writing real for me. I still am surprised by the lack of communication skills I see in different areas of my life. I started doing speech and debate in the 9th grade and theatre in middle school. It’s always been so clear to me that the ability to develop a thesis, express yourself, communicate clearly, and to analyze an audience are essential skills that make everything I do better. That comes from forensics.
To purchase Prelude to Bruise, click HERE.
To follow Saeed on Twitter, click HERE.