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Saeed Jones on the Past, Poetry, and Leaving Home
When you read the poems of Saeed Jones, you can’t help but try to imagine the type of speaking voice he might have. His poems have a distinct audibility. The concision of his line breaks and the jazz of his occasional rhyme. When you meet him in person, you find that the voice you’ve made up in your head matches his actual voice with startling accuracy: the low swings of a soul singer and the staccato conviction of someone who’s rehearsed a speech a hundred times.
Before he became the LGBT editor of Buzzfeed, Saeed was busy learning to be every kind of writer. He spent the bulk of his earlier years in New York going to readings and gaining traction in the intimate smallness of the NYC queer poetry scene. A performative and practiced poet, a seasoned essay writer, and a prolific tweeter, it was in coffeehouse readings and gay poetry salons where such a speaking voice is an asset you don’t take for granted. He had finished his graduate work at Rutgers and built a strong foundation for what came to be his forthcoming first book of poetry, Prelude to Bruise, but it wasn’t quite done. His first year after that was spent in Jersey, teaching at a charter high school. Then his mother passed away.
“It felt a bit apocalyptic,” he says. “I was very close to my mom and not very close to the rest of my family members. It felt like my family had kind of disappeared, very suddenly.”
Memories in the South he had once thought distant were now hot and ready, waiting for him in an apartment in Harlem where he retreated to write some of the last poems in his book. Saeed was in elementary school when he and his mom moved from Memphis to Lewisville, a suburb of Dallas. Becoming something of a recluse, he was picking through the moments of his past with a fine-tooth comb. Saeed posted on his Tumblr once, “Writing about your memories means that you've agreed to lock yourself in a room with them.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Closet Of Red
In place of no, my leaking mouth spills foxgloves. Trumpets of tongued blossoms litter the locked closet. Up to my ankles in petals, the hanged gowns close in, mother multiplied, more — there’re always more corseted ghosts, red-silk bodies crowd my mouth. I would say no, please; I would say sorry, Papa; I would never ask for mother again, but dresses dressed in dresses are dresses that own this garnet dark, this mouth. These hands can’t find the walls, only more mothers emptied out.
“Writing about your memories means that you've agreed to lock yourself in a room with them.”
“I was functioning as a writer, but that was all I could do. I had friends at one point who would call me and remind me to eat. Sometimes even going to the grocery store was difficult.”
Trauma is a theme explored widely in Prelude to Bruise, and many of the poems take place in different versions of the American South, some of which come from real memories, some which are fabricated, some of which are histories he felt weren’t being reflected, histories everyone—including himself—might try to run away from. Going to college in Kentucky, everything he worked on—his extracurriculars, his grades—was done with the dream of being anywhere but there. Leaving home meant the freedom to be his whole self. It meant finding his community and forgetting whatever bad histories he had here because NYC was on the horizon, glimmering like Oz.
“New York was like the lighthouse,” he says. It’s a story we’re all familiar with. Now based in NYC, he found himself returning home in his writing.
“You learn when you leave home and try to create a new identity,” he says. “You bring the fire, you bring the hurt, you bring the wounds.” Saeed explains the paradox of escaping a past. It’s not your ghosts that you’re running from, but your own tendencies that have nothing to do with your home or your upbringing. These ghosts are not always products of your environment. Sometimes they’re just you.
“I’m always interested in what our environment has to say about us. How we are reflecting our environment, how we are speaking back to our environment, but also the lamentations of it.” Here, Saeed’s voice reminds us of the teacher side of him. “It’s much easier to point to your environment, physical as well as social, and say, ‘This is why I’m miserable.’”
“Lamentation” is a key word when looking at the experiences written about in this book, many of which belong to a figure called Boy. Boy is far too complex to be called an archetype but too universal to be called a character. It is Boy who both laments and thrives with the folds of a hostile environment, whether that be Nashville, New Orleans, or some unspecified backdrop along the Bible Belt. Regardless of how a queer black poet might interact with a white Southern suburb, to say Boy is a victim of oppression is an oversimplification. Boy is as much a victim of his own demons as he is his environment.