Building and Building: Talking with Patricia Spears Jones
In spring of 2018 I came across an amazing poem, “What Beauty Does,” by Patricia Spears Jones. I was so struck by this poem that I reached out to the poet with many questions, in retrospect many of them attempting to coax from this poem an ideology that the poet empathized with but did not espouse. Our dialogue over two years, including a 2019 dinner conversation after a reading of mine that Jones was kind enough to attend, has led me to a deeper understanding of what it means to make a life as a poet, and as a writer.
Patricia Spears Jones is the author of four collections books of poetry: A Lucent Fire: New & Selected Poems, Painkiller, The Weather That Kills, and Femme du Monde, and the co-editor for Ordinary Women: Poems of New York City Women. Her poem, “Beuys and the Blonde” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Jones was the winner of the Jackson Poetry Prize for 2017, and she most recently served as the 2020 Louis D. Rubin Jr. Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University. Earlier this year, her poem “Nia“ was published in the New Yorker.
We recently discussed the role and the future of poets, what location means in light of the pandemic, the power of friendship, spaces of awe, and more.
The Rumpus: How I adored your poem, “What Beauty Does.” What do you think has made a certain kind of dream of whiteness survive for so long? It could be called the “California dream,” a dream of the West, a dream of a state and place and way of life that considers itself golden and virtuous, away from and above some of the ugliness and pettiness of, say, urban political divisions?
Patricia Spears Jones: While I certainly write out of the positionality of being a Black American woman who grew up in the last days of segregation, I do not consciously subscribe to critical race theory. So the “dream of whiteness” language does not necessarily work for me. If you mean the idea of the “pioneer” that seems clearer, but there were plenty of Black and Brown people who desired and still do desire the “California dream.” But the dream of the West is in this nation’s history one that is both racially diverse and racially framed. For every whites-only version, like Oregon, there were the wide-open places from Oklahoma to Washington State to Alaska—I met a friend whose grandmother went there—where Black people settled. The dream is invention or stability or mobility.
Also, until the middle of the last century, urban centers were fairly small. New York did not get to that eight million until the 1960s. Spaces in which to escape either the narrowness of small towns or the anonymity of large cities seemed to have equal measure. But, my poem is really about the very, very personal; it’s about friendship and healing. My friends knew how much I was hurting, thus the “ordinary language” because a broken heart is pretty ordinary. But they lived in Idaho, which is not ordinary. The landscape is powerful, entrancing, and terrifying—the stuff of beauty. Boise is the “urban center.” And it looks very different from the Northeast, even a town like Woodstock which is also in the mountains. It’s like a snapshot of a certain kind of American middle-classness that late-stage capitalism is working overtime to destroy. Their neighborhood had economic diversity. Most places, including NYC now, is all about the very wealthy and those in proximity, and then way on the outskirts, the middle class and the poor.
Why shouldn’t we have a dream of something better? The pioneer stories are both truthful and mythic, but as a poet I also think about the ways in which that myth is often satirized as well as celebrated. My favorite comic movie of all times is Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’s sendup to Destry Rides Again, but also to the “white bread” version of settling the West.
Rumpus: Quiet spaces and retreats are often what help emerging writers shape careers. Yet much of the “retreat” experience, I think, can play into the “walling off” experience that is so cleverly and subtly worked into your poem, starting with the line, “Their bicycles are carefully racked inside their front door.” How do you counsel resolving this struggle?
Jones: As someone who did not go on a writers retreat of any sort until the mid-1990s, I can only say that I am grateful for the time away and for being served. I do not think of working on one’s work as a “walling off” experience. I think of it as a different and necessary experience. We live with and in contradiction. If you have a great home office or space to do your work, that is great. But every writer and artist benefits from that scenery change.
I’ve also known people since the ‘70s who have conducted workshops in hospital wards, prisons, shelters, etc., often without much notice and very little funding. They identified a need, did the research, found sympathetic or desperate contacts, and got going. Poets may be the legislators of the world (maybe) but I do know that we are the volunteers of the world. Much of our work is not paid for. It is just done and often with the “least among us,” as we say in church.
That my friends took me up and away from their urban center and into the mountains was a risk—I’ve suffered altitude sickness in the past. But they did, and my heart and soul and mind are glad they did.
Rumpus: Reading the poem, I also thought of Proudhon’s line “Property is theft.” Somehow, it took me into a territory of elemental theft, including the way theft was of human beings, ancestral land, cultures, and entire histories. When you wrote this poem, did you have specific feelings about reparations, and does that, as an idea, resonate with you?
Jones: I did not have any feelings about reparations; this really is your language and question. If my very personal poem, with its shifts to a critique of the West’s culture and myth (my favorite moment in the poem is the description of that huge general store) sparked all of these questions for you to consider in your own work, then I most definitely am doing my job as a poet. We all have questions and ideas. Some of them are very coherent. Other times, we only find the coherence once we move through language that looks at location, time, temper (moral, etc.), and our own ethos.
I did have an understanding of how lands are stolen; the biggest myth of the West is the fight between settlers and the Indians. I was also thinking of the economics of the West: the boom and bust of mining—gold, silver, uranium. How as humans we often find ourselves, as I found myself in that alpine meadow, in spaces of awe: God-made spaces. We forget that we are part of that, but we do not often see ourselves as beautiful, as natural, as God’s creation, unless we stand in other parts of that creation and are made to see it. I am mindful of the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and how native Hawaiians see this as Pele’s rage against the theft of her fire.
So the historic land-grabbing and with it, the greed and corruption of the West’s political and business structure, on the one hand, and a willingness to keep available places of extraordinary beauty on the other, are both in the poem. Those contradictions exist. But the centrality of this poem is friendship. My friend Nancy and her husband Mike and their now-deceased dog all helped me to heal by going to Sun Valley and walking up that mountain. Love, friendship, and harmony are fragile, but if you are truly lucky and work at it, your friends make it possible to feel love and to gain harmony.
I am a poet who is concerned with relationships: to family, to friends, to architecture, to other art forms, to my nation’s history. I often say that I do not write political poems, but there’s politics in them. There’s politics in “What Beauty Does” but it is nuanced and I think it is also funny. Myths, like stereotypes, can be benign or malicious. Clearly I was doing my best to puncture the benign and remind you of the malicious, even as I saluted my friends’ love of the great outdoors and the necessity to keep those lands in all our hands.
Rumpus: Now that we’re many months into the pandemic, I’m curious how it has affected your relationship with location and your work.
Jones: I’ve realized that where I am physically on the ground has a lot to do with what I think about and write about. Not necessarily where I am right now, but all the places I have been, whether my home state of Arkansas, or here in Brooklyn, or looking at the Mediterranean sea. I reposted my picture of the lighthouse at Casi recently; I need a lighthouse right now. I have a great need to have a kind of home place, a homing place, as a poet. You can’t separate place and mortality and the way in which people live their lives or look at life.
The poems that are probably going to be very prominent in my next collection are all about looking at life over time. I lost my mother seven years ago and so I’m not surprised that ghosts show up in my poems now, or that I have very little problem with polyvocality. There’s often more than one voice, and it seems to be even more prominent now. I don’t know why that is, but I feel really comfortable with it.
I’m excited about the poems that just came out in the Brooklyn Rail. Some of them were written about this particular time—the pandemic, the protests—but some were about things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, violence against women and the position of women artists, women writers. A friend of mine told me that his sister disappeared when she was in her early twenties and his family literally has not seen her since. That story haunted me. The idea of a loss that is a loss that is not a loss is something that I think is a lot more prevalent in this world than is often discussed.
Rumpus: How does it feel to come back to New York now?
Jones: It’s very strange—like the loss without a loss. You can feel how grief subsumes the city. It’s in the kind of over-the-top ways in which people refuse to wear a mask, especially all the young men. Like a bravado thing, like, we’re outside and it’s not going to get me. You can also sense the level of fear. But then people have to go to work, put food on the table, and so you get on the subway, and you go to the supermarket. You more or less do the things that they ask you to do.
I’m very scared. There’s a certain streak of fatalism, especially in the Black community. There are all these people who believe the whole thing is a hoax, that white people made this up, that they’re trying to kill us. They’re almost like, if it gets me I don’t care. So there’s also that. And then you go into Manhattan and it’s astoundingly empty. I wrote a line—I was in Midtown to go to the dentist—and I said: “The city is all dressed up and it has no place to go.” That’s what it feels like.
With Mr. Floyd… this was in broad daylight, and this white man was just—it was like he was doing pushups on a man’s neck, like it was not a big deal. But if you do that for even half a minute, it’s a big deal. He did it for eight minutes. And the smirk did not leave his face. I think a lot of white people looked at that face and asked, is that us? Black people have been seeing that face one way or another all our lives.
These young Black people are leading now, and they’re doing a great job. I think they decided: if we want a future, we’re going to have to get out on the street and fucking demand it.
Rumpus: Would you share more about your new poems, and the work you were doing at Hollins when you were the writer-in-residence there?
Jones: I didn’t get to do very much writing at Hollins. I don’t write like that. I feel a lot of things, and then a year or two later, I can write about it. So, that I was able to write anything that I think is worthy of being published was pretty amazing to me. I wrote just one fairly serious poem—the poem “Lonely,” which came out in April 2020.
The majority of my students were grad students; they were terrific. I like to use Whitman’s crazy-ass essay on the democratic republic, just as a way of getting people prepared to do a lot of different stuff. You don’t have to like Whitman. People say, “He said all these terrible things.” He was a nineteenth-century white man; of course he did!
I taught this class called “The Future Is Now,” and I had a lot of fun. It was poets responding to Whitman’s democratic vistas. I had them reading Ashbery, Cathy Park Hong, Ilya Kaminsky, Gertrude Stein, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, June Jordan essays, Muriel Rukeyser. We had some pretty lively discussions. But the little things—to go out, hang out with colleagues, for instance—all of that was gone. All gone.
Rumpus: What forms do you see the poetry community taking for its survival, for our survival?
Jones: There’s either going to be an incredible democratization of the field, or it’s going to get even more hierarchical. This could be a Darwinian kind of moment or it could be something else. People in theater, musicians, they’re all completely freaking out. I don’t know where I am in this. Maybe someone will read this and say, “I’ll become a patron,” and send me ten thousand dollars every year for the next ten years.
Rumpus: What are your goals as a poet?
Jones: I’m trying to be the best writer and the best poet I can be. Recently Amma Birch, the daughter of Willie Birch, who sculpted the image on my book, said, “You have a voice like none other.” I wasn’t sure that was a compliment. But I know that I have a fairly singular voice. And I’ve earned that one. I’m going to be in that new collection, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. The poem they chose was not in any of my books. I wanted to know why Kevin Young, the editor, picked that poem, which I wrote when I was twenty-five years old. I knew there were things in my mind that were coming through the voices in the poem. But, I think every book of mine has been better and better.
I really am fascinated by the human condition. I’m deeply interested in how we talk about justice. Why are we doing these things to each other? If we don’t feel power, if we don’t find any ways to engage people in a common and fair way, people die.
I do appreciate the greater respect given now to women and women of color who write poems. I remember running around on the jazz scene when all of a sudden this very powerful feminine energy came onto the scene—Ntozake [Shange], who was a few years older than me, and all these other fabulous young women—and made people take notice. Also, the growth of the queer sensibility throughout the culture, which has expanded the way people perform.
All births are painful, and this is a time of great pain.
Rumpus: What is your advice to poets, of any age, just starting out?
Jones: The greatest thing people need to do is read. And not just poetry. History. Art books. There are all these people who had not, had not done their homework. People need to get serious. We need to know history. We need to know all of it. Not just the part that they like, or you like. We have been here since 1619. And then, the folks who were already here before any of us showed up.
Find your poet kin. They could be people in a workshop that you’re with. They could be two to three poets whose work you read again and again to learn something from. I love independent poet communities. Really start think about what is it that you care about. If all you want to do is make word puzzles, as a poet, you should make word puzzles. Ask: how do I make the music of that language in my head? How do I connect that to a sense of human experience, culture, and history? What is it that I have to say? I know that there are poets who don’t care about history, psychology, but I’m not one of them. I care about those things. So do the poets I like most.
What do the poets you like most care about? Do you care about those things, too? I have friends I’ve known since 1975. I have a mini-posse I send my poems out to. I know they’ll tell me, “So and so might work if you shift this and that.” I look at my poem “Seraphim.” Ninety percent was on point but there were a couple of things that I was unsure about. They steered me. That’s a terrific poem. That’s my first poem that got into the New Yorker.
So, if you are a poet starting out, find your people, find your community. And also: don’t chase after celebrity. If that’s what you want, you’ll get there. I think there is truly a flowering in American poetics. A whole range of wonderful writers from all walks of life are writing. Just building and building.
Photograph of Patricia Spears Jones by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.