Saeed Jones is an award-winning poet whose new memoir How We Fight for Our Lives is one of the hottest releases this fall. The “astonishing, unparalleled memoir” (Roxane Gay) tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Jones will visit the AWM on Wednesday, October 16 to read and discuss this stunning coming-of-age memoir. We spoke with him ahead of the event about the writing process, discovering his identity through books, and the poetic sensibilities he brings all aspects of his life. He even told us what he’d want to do if he met James Baldwin…
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: You’ve written extensively in various genres and on a range of platforms, so why tell this story now in this way?
SAEED JONES: With my poetry collection Prelude to Bruise — which is focused on a character named ‘Boy’ who happens to be a young, black, queer kid from the South and you see him grow up and literally and figuratively work through identity — I noticed that in the experience of publishing that book and reading those poems and talking to readers that we don’t quite know what to do with the ‘I’ in poetry. It’s very confusing. I often found that I was having a lot of really interesting conversations when readers would try to figure out where my life was in the poems. And I’d be like, “Well this is kinda true and that’s not really true. This happened and that didn’t really happen.”
And along the way, and of course while I was writing, I did have deep compassion for this fictional kid. And in the experience of that writing process I realized I needed to apply some of that compassion to my actual boyhood and to actually get to the particulars and not be able to hide behind metaphor or persona. I needed to write in first person in a nonfiction way in a very clear, “this is me and this is what happened” approach. And I need to own that. I am grateful for all of the different modes of writing but I think in some ways I’ve been protecting myself by trying to create this distance, even when writing about my own experiences. So that’s kind of the crux: I wanted to spend time with myself.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was write my way into this world.”
AWM: Many writers say writing helps them get to know themselves better, so it’s interesting that you mention some forms of writing might not necessarily allow you to do that.
JONES: Yeah I mean, everyone does what they need to do, right? I find that my poetry doesn’t teach me very much about myself because that is not the intention that gets me to sit down and work on a poem. I start writing a poem because I have an image or there is a series of words creating some kind of sound rhythm moment and I want to burrow in to that and develop it, and let it develop. Then it becomes something bigger than just a couple of words or an image. For me poetry is about image sound. It’s not necessarily like, “Oh I didn’t understand this thing about myself before.” But nonfiction writing like the personal essay and memoir form, that is all about myself. And I don’t do it unless I’m ready to do so.
AWM: How does your approach to writing nonfiction differ from your approach to writing poetry? How are they similar?
JONES: Well the earliest iteration of this book was an essay I started writing when I was a senior in college, this would’ve been January 2008, just days after one of the major life events in the book happened: me going to a New Year’s Eve party and meeting a straight guy and going home with him and him having a crisis of masculinity and trying to kill me. Immediately my response to that trauma was not to confide in friends, I didn’t really tell anyone immediately what had happened. I didn’t seek counseling or therapy, many things that I would probably do now. Instead I started writing. I started writing over and over. I was a writing tutor on campus and I had an appointment with a student who didn’t show up and so I opened a Word document and the next thing I know hours and hours have passed. The student never showed up so I just kept writing.
Something I used to say to people and I still say sometimes is that all I’ve ever wanted to do was write my way into this world. And clearly my response to someone almost killing me — my response to reaffirm my right to exist — was to write about it. I say all of that to say I am pretty intentional in terms of what gets me writing personal narrative. But the thing about writing a book as opposed to a personal essay is that it’s just so much bigger and you spend so much more time with it and there are just so many more dots to connect and that is the incredible challenge of the form but it also meant that there was just such incredible discoveries along the way. For example, the way I write about my mom and my relationship to her and her life and death was not going to be as much of a focus when I set out. That was just something that revealed itself and then kind of started insisting upon itself as I was writing.
AWM: Your book blends poetry and prose…was that intentional or did that also kind of reveal itself to you as you were writing?
JONES: I think what actually is more accurate is that I wanted to write this book as a poet would write it. You know, I love prose as a form. I think [blending genres] is something that is becoming more apparent, with certainly Claudia Rankine and the dynamic work she has done, and is doing, for some time. I think of my peers on the page too, be it Danez Smith or Morgan Parker or Ocean Vuong. We’re just poets all the time doing whatever we need to do, like Ocean writing a novel or Morgan writing YA. We just bring the poetry to the form.
“We’re just poets all the time doing whatever we need to do. We bring the poetry to the form.”
I didn’t think too much about it [while writing], it was more that I would have moments — there’s a section of the book, for example, I’m a senior in high school and I’m pretty miserable and it’s that teen angst in the suburbs of north Texas, which is just a very simple and relatable idea. I don’t think we need paragraph of paragraph of me explaining what it feels like to want to leave your hometown, you know? And so in that case, I wrote about loving to drive my mom’s car in Texas by myself and I basically just tucked a prose poem in there. It’s very lyrical and it’s just about the experience of speed and the way we kind of move through spaces and the aggression and all the stuff that comes out when you’re driving down backroads. So I think that’s what I mean when I’m trying to say that poetry and prose are just there in the book, like I would have these moments when I was writing. I would try to be very clear in my intention with my editor too, to make sure all of those lyrical moments weren’t cut out. I didn’t just like, get stoned and shift forms.
AWM: I like what you said about how you’re always a poet…you always bring a poet’s sensibility to whatever it is you’re working on.
JONES: Absolutely. You know, I used to be really insecure and anxious if I showed up to do an event and I’d be introduced as a poet, it just felt a little limiting. And it felt like someone was intentionally closing the aperture on my potential. And now, when someone says “Saeed Jones is a poet,” that’s an aspect of identity and it is informing a certain approach to the world. I think that’s what people are trying to signal when they say Rita Dove or Nikki Giovanni is a poet. We know that means they have a certain relationship to the world and that is something we really appreciate. And it doesn’t matter if it is Nikki Giovanni talking about a children’s book or a screenplay or something, we understand that her worldview is going to inform the art. And so that’s something that, as I’ve grown up as a writer and reader, I’ve come to appreciate more.
AWM: You’ve mentioned identity a couple of times…what role has writing played in you finding your identity?
JONES: Really it started with reading. The book opens during the summer of 1998, which was a pretty pivotal summer for me in terms of, you know, puberty and preteens and all that. It’s the summer of my first self-aware crush on a boy. It is the summer that James Byrd, Jr. was killed in an anti-black hate crime a few hours away from where I was living. Matthew Shepard will be killed in Laramie, Wyoming later that year. But it is also the summer that I start reading James Baldwin’s Another Country. And I start developing this relationship — Toni Morrison and Alice Walker too — a relationship to these writers and their work that is still ongoing, a present tense relationship. So all of this was happening at once and the books I was gravitating toward were books black people wrote about their lives, like Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. And just being able to spend time with black people’s lives was really affirming to me as I was beginning to have those moments when you look up and notice, “Hey wait a minute. I’m the only black kid in my advanced English class. What does that mean?” Or realizing, “Oh I have a crush on this kid and now he doesn’t want to sit with me at lunch anymore…what’s that about?” And as I’m going through these moments I’m also reading about Maya Angelou trying to developing a relationship with her father or reading Another Country, which was a radical book in that for the first time I was reading about interracial relationships, about sexual assault, about bisexual relationships. It was powerful.
“I want to party with James Baldwin.”
So I think before writing it was about reading. And I say that because I think I was pretty paranoid. I happen to still have my notebook from my last two years of high school and I would go to it while working on the memoir but I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be useful in the way I might’ve hoped because I was so self-deceptive in my own writing. Literally, while I am hooking up with guys, I am writing in my notebook about having crushes on girls. And I’m using a lot of Greek mythology to write persona poems, from the voice of Penelope or Persephone to write about their male lovers because I don’t feel comfortable writing in first person. So my writing at the time was really self-deceptive. I think for me on the page, it was a journey that took well over a decade. It wasn’t hard for me to come out of the closet, that wasn’t something I really agonized over. I knew I was gay. I knew that I was attracted to men and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of that. But I think opening up and accepting the “I”, the first-person on the page and everything that entails, that took a lot more time. And I think the only thing that kept me going was just continuing to read other people who had done it for themselves.
AWM: Speaking of reading, what are you reading now?
JONES: [Laughs]. I’m reading so much! I’m reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, it’s incredible. A couple weeks ago I read She Said, about the Harvey Weinstein investigation and that was really really brilliant. What else am I reading? I often am kind of like shuffling through books. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction. James Baldwin, one of his later memoirs, No Name in the Street, which starts with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and then goes through Malcolm X’s assassination and then on into the 70s with the Black Panthers. It is incredible. And also incredibly disturbing because so much of what he says reads like he wrote it a month ago. And that’s not a great feeling.
AWM: What sort of things help you get in a writing mindset? Any sort of drinks or snacks that you like to consume while you’re writing?
JONES: I definitely have to have coffee. I wake up in the morning and I make coffee at home around 7 and I listen to podcasts. Podcasts have become such an essential part of me waking up because listening to podcasts about history and culture and pop culture and identity and that intersection thereof, it just kind of wakes me up. It gets my mind, my thoughtful mind, going in a way that waking up and reading the news would not. That would just traumatize me. So I do that and drink way, way too much coffee. And then I don’t really eat while I’m writing. I usually work until I’m hungry and then just stop writing because I gotta go get lunch or something so I don’t die.
“Writing is an elevated form of reading. I think we should be reading arguably three times as much as we are writing.”
AWM: If you could meet one American writer of the past who would it be and why?
JONES: Oh god. I mean, would I really want to meet anybody? Ok. I wouldn’t want to have a serious meeting over coffee, but I would like to be at a party — and I want him drunk and I want to be drunk before I walk into the room — I want to party with James Baldwin. I do not want to have a serious conversation about the writing life and art. I remember seeing images of him hanging out with Maya Angelou and Lorraine Hansberry and they’re dancing. I want to meet that James Baldwin.
AWM: Any advice for aspiring writers?
JONES: Writing is an elevated form of reading. I think we should be reading arguably three times as much as we are writing. So if you’re a poet you should be reading three poems for every draft of a poem you write. I just think that is such a healthy habit. You’re exercising both your education but also your literary civic duty and being aware of what other people are doing. Because obviously it’ll make you better on the page, but also I think it makes you humble. It opens you up. The people who I know who do that are better writers but also they’re happier writers, they’re more generous writers. So that’s the main advice I always have for people, is just to read way way more than you think you can. And that’s true forever, not just when you’re a college student or an MFA student. It’s just the moment we stop reading passionately is when we start writing really thin poems about dogs or something.