Welcome to Guildtalk. For this exclusive series, the Rumpus has partnered with the Authors Guild to bring attention to exciting new voices in American literature. In each installment, an established Authors Guild member will choose an emerging talent or a largely unknown master to interview about writing, publishing, marketing, craft, and teaching. The result should broaden our understanding of what it means to live a literary life. It will also bring us together for a conversation about what it means to be a writer in the twenty-first century. In this fourth installment, distinguished author and Authors Guild Board Member Alexander Chee speaks to poet Saeed Jones on behalf of The Rumpus.
Saeed Jones’s debut poetry collection Prelude To Bruise (Coffee House Press) was the winner of the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award For Poetry and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award and a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. The book was also a finalist for 2015 awards from the Lambda Literary and the Publishing Triangle. His poetry and essays have appeared in publications like the New York Times, NPR, Guernica, Ebony, and The Rumpus, among others. Saeed won a Pushcart Prize for poetry in 2013 and is BuzzFeed’s Executive Editor of Culture.
The Rumpus: I was just sitting here reviewing again the year you’ve had. Just a year. How different your life must be. The publication of Prelude to Bruise would extend it back a little bit further, about a year and a month. A lot has happened!
Saeed Jones: So much has happened.
Rumpus: For the sake of the people who are just catching up to you at this point, the publication of Prelude to Bruise; your NBCC (National Book Critics Circle) nomination in poetry; being named Executive Editor, Culture at BuzzFeed; selling your memoir to Simon & Schuster; creating a new fellowship program for new writers at BuzzFeed; spending the summer in France working on the memoir, while on book leave; and now you’re back, choosing the writers for your fellowship. Is there a single lesson that emerges out of all of that? Or maybe, what’s the first one?
Jones: It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about. So much of the last year, I was almost starstruck by my own life, almost panicked. One of the things I’ve learned is that I actually don’t take good news very well. It scares me. My first impulse is to say, Well what do I do now? What does this mean? I immediately look for the trap door. I’m waiting for a sky full of shoes to drop. So kind of the first lesson, and I’m certainly still working on it, is allowing myself to just experience news. And I guess if the news, whether that’s a book being nominated for a tremendous award, or a promotion at work, or the fellowship, all of these things, is reacting to change. I’ve realized that is what was panicking me so much. So that’s something I’ve been working on. I think the best thing, what I’ve been most proud of, really, has been the fellowship program being launched. Selling a book, of course, is absolutely amazing, and having critical reception for your work is even better, but the fellowship means creating an opportunity that will speak to other writers at a really crucial moment in their career. There was something about good news for me being something that I could translate into good news for other people, in a very clear way. That’s been the most satisfying and grounding, that with all of this abstract success, I was actually able to do something with it. And it wasn’t delayed, it wasn’t something that took years and years. It was like, no, we can do this now, let’s take advantage of this momentum. That has been the best, and I want to keep doing that.
Rumpus: That sounds beautiful. Is there anything you can tell us about the Executive Editor position, beyond the fellowship program?
Jones: I’ve been back at work for a week and a half, so I am still having so many conversations to pick up where I left off here at BuzzFeed, basically four months ago. But, in the next few weeks we are going to be announcing some interesting changes in terms of really revealing our interest in pursuing culture. Part of that is going to be investing in literary work, both in terms of the Fellowship Program, but also finding a home on BuzzFeed’s platform for original poetry and short fiction. I keep talking about this mythic lyric essay, and I realize how difficult it is to explain a lyric essay to journalists, but we’re going to do it.
Rumpus: That’s exciting.
Jones: It’s pretty exciting and the hope is that we’ll be a part of the site for readers to read online, on desktops as well as on their phones, but I am also really excited about collaborating with teams across BuzzFeed to find opportunities to share creative writing on distributed platforms. What does poetry look like on Snapchat? What could it look like? What could micro fiction look like on Instagram? On Vine? I think there are a lot of opportunities, and it just feels very organic here in the space that has been cultivated at BuzzFeed to think that way. All I have ever wanted to do is find a way to take great work that is often kind of siloed for all kinds of reasons, and get them to readers who may not know that’s what they’re looking for.
Rumpus: Was there a way in which your book leave also helped you to take a breath? I mean I noticed—we all noticed, those of us who follow you and love you—that you dropped off of Twitter and Facebook; you only stayed on Instagram. You were travelling through France, and also taking this trip inside of your own memories. What were some of the key insights that emerged for you in that process?
Jones: I had to get away. Travel is something I do, as my close friends have noticed, about every two or three years. I find a way to leave the United States for a period of months. It’s just become how I, not hit the reset button, but step away so that I can focus, and think a little more slowly, perhaps, in a way that feels protected. Because when you are in New York, and you are in this amazing, vibrant community, both in real life as well as on the Internet, you’re performing your life constantly. And a lot about that is great, but it can also be exhausting, and I think it interrupts the learning process and the thinking process. A lot of getting away this summer and going to France was about breathing, and stepping away from all of that. And preventing myself from the impulse to tweet through my thought process or just constantly update people on what I was doing, by forcing myself just to live with myself. So that was important. And I think it was helpful in terms of this book. I’m writing a memoir, and I’ve been working on it on and off since 2011, or actually 2012, which was the last time I left the country and travelled and wrote. Writing this memoir has been so emotionally intense, in a way that writing poetry has never been. Writing poetry for me is pretty cold, actually. Just really focused on the image, and the word, and the line, and it’s interesting and it’s compelling. It’s a kind of an escape for me, a person who is very control-oriented. What is more controlled than a poem? Writing memoir, you’re really grappling with yourself. At one point in the summer I started to feel this sense that I was becoming my own ghost and haunting myself. Because of the way you have to go back. You have to go back to all of these different iterations of who you were, or who you thought you were, who you still think are, and compare and contrast and it becomes this echo chamber of all of these different versions of yourself. And, of course, all of the different people in your life. I can see, perhaps because I was yanked out of my everyday context and put in a pretty tranquil, quiet, I mean often I was in small villages in Provence, France. I just noticed things.
Rumpus: It looked stunning on Instagram.
Jones: It was beautiful, but I think a lot of it was the much needed counterpoint to the emotional flux that working on the book threw me into. For example, depending on where I am in the book, I start dreaming about my mother pretty frequently, whenever I’m in that writing process. And even now, I just happen to be working on a chapter for the last few weeks that involves a conversation with my mother that’s very important, and my mother passed away in 2011, and for the last few days, I have been dreaming pretty consistently about my mother’s funeral, over and over. I noticed that absolutely half my dreams respond to the writing process. Or another example: earlier in the summer, right when I was writing about the experience of learning about Matthew Shepard when I was a teenager, and then a few years later, seeing The Laramie Project performed at my high school, which was a really intense moment. The morning this summer that I woke up intending to re-read the script of The Laramie Project was the morning I found out about the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. You just see all of these connections and parallels, and it’s pretty intense. So it was great to step away and to allow myself to live with all of that, because I think when I am back here in New York, I tend to compartmentalize and I’m much more brisk and task-oriented and I would try to run away from myself.
Rumpus: In your Tin House interview with Maud Newton, you talk about the importance of isolation to your writing. Is travelling a kind of isolation, would you say?
Jones: Absolutely. My mother worked for the airlines for basically my entire life with her. I always have travelled a lot, and often by myself. I don’t know when exactly this happened, but at some point, travel became kind of a meditation. I very rarely go on trips with friends or family; I just always want to be by myself. And I love it. I don’t know, there is something about the body in motion, there is something about the idea of being away and having a place you are moving toward, or moving away from. It just really helps me clarify.
Rumpus: So it’s travelling, it’s isolation, but it’s also kind of an act of self-creation. Would that be fair to say?
Jones: I think so. Over the course of the last five or six years, both by coincidence and intention, whenever I have taken these kind of large trips, like in 2012 I circled the globe in eight months by myself, and that was about a year after my mother passed away, my body and my mind now just respond to that kind of travel as “Oh okay, this is a bookend. What are we looking back on? What just happened?” I immediately begin to become more reflective, and it just helps me.
Rumpus: Are you writing about that trip you took after your mother’s death as well in the memoir?
Jones: Not in this book. The memoir I’m working on How Men Fight For Their Lives, which is the title, or it is right now, I keep wondering if that’s quite in line with the book, basically spans maybe roughly a decade. It kind of goes from early teens into my last semester of college. I wanted to look at both the queerness of coming of age in the south and also the first few years after coming out of the closet and embarking onto the journey into all of these questions of manhood and masculinity that I think young gay men, especially young gay men in their twenties, really grapple with. Where you think the closet is the giant obstacle, and in fact there are all of these other obstacles that you have to grapple with in terms of internalized homophobia and misogyny and racism. I wanted to create a book that was a container to examine those two narratives. I do plan on writing about travel and grief eventually. It’s still another story that to me feels like it’s unfolding. Part of the reason I know that is because when I write directly about grief and my mother and the year or so after her passing, it’s still so overwhelmingly emotional. It’s wildly emotional. And very volatile. I’ve written some personal essays, some shorter pieces, but I just know, and certainly now that I’m working on another book, you really have to be ready for that commitment. It’s like mountain climbing. Just because you want to, that’s not the same question as whether or not you’re ready to climb that mountain.
Rumpus: How much would you say people seem aware of the difference between you and the character of Boy in Prelude to Bruise? Is it sort of the case that this memoir is kind of the story behind the stories in that book? What sort of relationship will these have to each other, would you say? Is it clear to you yet?
Jones: It is to me. One of the revelations I had with Prelude to Bruise about three years before I finished it was that I felt like I had these two tiers of poems. Some of the poems were kind of dreamlike and disturbing, but incredibly colorful. Like a very colorful kind of peril. And other poems felt much more grounded and realistic with a kind of emotional peril. At times I had trouble figuring out what was the relationship between these two. What I decided is that Prelude to Bruise is not actually a straightforward story at all, though it is presented that way. To me, these poems are Boy’s dreams over the course of this expanse of years over the course of his life. There are realistic moments, but he also flies away, there’s a moment where his father hunts him with a rifle, there’s a lot of drowning imagery. For me, Prelude to Bruise is an epic dream narrative that’s rooted in identity. If you are queer, black and southern and male in America at this moment, what is your dream life like? How do the events of your life then filter through the subconscious? That’s how I’ve always thought of Prelude to Bruise. And of course, Boy also is his own person. The facts of his life are pretty different from my own. That was always very clear to me when I was writing the book. Then the book was out, and yes, people would ask me about surviving child abuse or my relationship with my father, and I would realize, oh my gosh, they think Boy and I are the same person. And that kind of surprised me. It’s very startling when someone is asking a very genuine, felt question about What is like to face your past? What is like to write about trauma? And I’m like, oh… this isn’t my past. And so I think the process of having those conversations with readers pushed me even more, though I was already working on this memoir, to want to really look at myself in a different way. I think the process of writing about Boy and developing a sense of distinction and compassion for this character who is on his own journey that is familiar in some ways, but is singular, helped me develop compassion for myself that turned these crazy stories that I have about myself into something worth really interrogating and valuing.
Rumpus: That’s an interesting observation. Earlier when you spoke about being able to turn your success into something that you could give back to these young writers, it’s worth saying, it would be enough if all you did with your success was write the book. It’s a profoundly generous act. What is interesting to me, looking at your career, is this way in which you’re kind of an interdimensional cultural force. You’re a poet, writing at this very high level, you’re also an editor, and it is especially important, your being black and queer at this particular moment in time in that job. And then there’s your social media presence, which also has its own cultural force. All of these things are interrelated in certain ways, but they are also these distinct channels in which people experience you. I don’t think we’ve had someone like you with this kind of opportunity to make an impact on the culture, in all of these different ways. I’m sure there are people who have read your poems who don’t even have a Twitter account, for example.
Jones: I hope so; I hope they’re out there.
Rumpus: In looking over the BuzzFeed Fellowship details, I noticed that one of the criteria was, you were asking them to think about how they would have an impact on the cultural conversation. I find that’s another thing worth praising here. I can’t think of anything I’ve applied to that has asked me to think about myself that way. There’s a way in which I think so often in the arts we are asked to think of ourselves as coming, hat in hand, begging for a chance just to appear somewhere, or to have some money for this or that. The idea that our work would be taken seriously, that it would have an impact, as an assumption, as an inherent assumption, that’s different.
Jones: I was talking to someone the other day about the word intersectionality, and how, though I absolutely understand the idea, it’s a learned word. It’s an imposed word. I don’t even really like to use it that often. Because, for me, I just think in terms of crossroads. Intersectionality is who I am. Feeling a bit pulled across these different directions has just always been one of the more essential facts of my human experience. And somewhere along the way that became so true that it also became a natural strength of mine, that I was always looking for ways I could take one part of my life into the other part. I think an example of that, is in translating my experiences into creating and designing this fellowship program, and I should say also that I am really grateful that BuzzFeed, my manager and the editors here gave me the room to let me design this fellowship. It’s amazing. I really tried to build the transformation even into the application process. At least that’s the goal. We announced the fellowship probably way earlier than we needed to. People had almost something like six or seven months to apply. And part of the reason I did that was because it resonated with the experience of being an emerging writer and being queer, or a person of color, being working class, being from the south, and being so intimidated by opportunities. Even when I would see an opportunity that was geared toward a writer like me, or was supposed to be geared toward a writer like me, I would talk myself out of applying because I was so scared and I felt so alone. So I was like, okay, we are going to extend this application period so hopefully people can work through that fear. I decided to create a committee that will help me make the final decisions on the four fellows we select because I want it to be able to advocate for people applying. I want the committee to be able to go out there and talk to mentors, and talk to writers, talk to people like Kim Chen at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, or people at Cave Canem or the National Book Foundation and tell them please apply. If you know people, please tell them. If they have questions, here’s my email. Because I wanted this to be different. If you want different results, then you have to have a different process. And again, like you were noticing in the questions, getting emerging writers to think about their value, and what they can contribute if they get support, I do think is kind of radical because we don’t position emerging writers that way. They’re supposed to come to us crawling, and we deign to shed our light upon them, and I think that just recreates the system. And another question I asked in the application process is I asked the applicants to be candid about what they feel they need. What do you need? Why do you think you’re an emerging writer? And it’s been really interesting to read the responses. I’ve gotten about 520 applications or so, and as of this afternoon I’ve at least looked at about 300 of them. It’s been really interesting. You see people really confronting all of these cultural barriers that are built into the process, so I think, if anything, I’ve been just trying to mine my own experiences, and build the lesson into the process. I think I’m learning at every step. I’m taking all of these notes on things I would have done differently or made more clear. But we have to change the way we even create opportunities. It’s not just about having the money. Four months, here’s a desk, here’s $12,000. It’s also thinking about who are the people we are pursuing to give this opportunity to. I don’t know. That’s my obsession.
Rumpus: It’s a beautiful obsession. Is there anything you can say as a pattern you see emerging out of the applications that you would be comfortable saying that you see? Or is it too soon to say? I find that when I am jurying something, there’s a kind of picture of the culture that emerges that’s always interesting to me.
Jones: Patterns emerge pretty quickly, and it’s interesting to see. One thing I think I’ve noticed that I have long suspected, and it’s kind of nice to actually have quantifiable data to point to this, is that emerging writers aren’t reading enough. People aren’t reading enough. This fellowship is kind of geared towards people who want to write about culture, personal essays, memoir. I’m thinking of people in the vein of Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jenna Wortham, Hilton Als, people who really help us see ourselves and country and our culture. So, for me, it’s a dead giveaway when someone isn’t reading, because if you say, “I want to write about gentrification in Brooklyn,” and that’s kind of it? That really says a lot. Like, wait a minute, do you really think you are the first person to admit your concern about gentrification in Brooklyn? It shows up very quickly when someone is aware of the nuances and the ongoing conversation and the work that other writers have been doing that really helps you clarify your angle in how you’re coming in. I’m seeing a lot of that. I’m seeing a lot of bright, well meaning people, but the first thing that I would tell them is, you need to read more. And you don’t need a fellowship for that. That’s not the best use of your four months here.
Rumpus: Fellowship or not, what would you advise writers looking to get a start to do most, besides read? Is it, don’t take yourself out of the game? Is it something else? I often find that students, and friends actually, my peers, when I have conversations, I was talking to someone who had won a Whiting Award, and she was talking herself down in relationship to applying for something, and I just thought, how many prizes do you have to win before you feel you are worth your next opportunity? But anyway, what is the number one piece of advice you would give to a writer now?
Jones: Thinking about your friend, I think there will always be a phantom in the room, when you are attempting to, not just write, but create art. I think, like any emerging writer, I think I really believed there were these boxes I could check. And if I checked enough of these boxes, you know, I’m gonna publish a book, I’m going to publish a book at a good press, I’m going to get good reviews, you think the phantom, whatever it is that loves to get in between you and doing the real work, will eventually just dissipate. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think there will always be a phantom. It will change. It was amazing to have this amazing year, this year of dreams that I didn’t even know to dream coming true in terms of my life as a writer and editor, and then, to go and have this amazing summer and writing was still damn hard, and I still would have to pump myself up, take the long walks, and call my editor and call friends. Even after I sold the book. It goes from, being like, will I be able to sell this book? And then you sell the book, and then I go, oh my God, what if I send in the draft and my editor says, oh this is awful? You’re still creating all of these fears and often a fear of failure. I don’t think it goes away. I think the lesson is that, the fact that there’s a phantom in the room is not an indictment. It doesn’t mean you’re not a writer, it doesn’t mean you’re not good. It means that you care so much. I just really thought because I had these insecurities, I must be some kind of fraud, and no one else would feel this way. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we all feel that way in different ways. So just recognize that you’re going to have the ghost in the room with you, and just keep doing it anyway.
Rumpus: Yeah, you just have to look that ghost in the eye and keep moving.
Jones: Totally. And then eventually you write enough books, and then you can write a book about writing with the ghost in the room. But you know, that comes later. That’s like four or five books down.
Rumpus: Well, I look forward to the one that you’ll write.
This interview was transcribed by Mary Allen.