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Saeed Jones on the Past, Po­etry, and Leav­ing Home

Hello Mr. Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Text by Francisco Ti­rado Pho­tog­ra­phy by Michael George

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.

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