“Thank you Max, for that maaaarvelous introduction,” seethes Bette Midler circa 1993, from inside Saeed Jones’s Twitter account. In fact, tonight, it seems he’s been live-tweeting Hocus Pocus. I’m oscillating between this amusing distraction and lines from his new book, Prelude to Bruise, like, “If I ever strangled sparrows/it was only because I dreamed/of better songs.” If this is how poetry works these days, then I’m all for it — Yeats might have been interested in the occult, but I don’t believe he ever wrote about Kathy Najimy’s witchcraft.
Surprisingly, Jones’ presence in the media – as the 28-year-old LGBT editor of Buzzfeed with 16k-and-counting followers on Twitter – has little influence over the content of his poetry, which for the most part avoids such real-world signifiers of contemporaneity as Twitter. Rather than mining the ontological hells of our social-media-dominated existences, he goes back to America’s historical hells, and attempts to trace the way they continue to make subtler hells of our present – all of which may be hard to see through our miasma of contemporary diversions. Diversions, interestingly, like Buzzfeed and Twitter, through which many are discovering Jones’ poetry (for, on his Twitter feed, cached between a DILF joke and a picture of Zac Efron laying naked across a toilet, you’ll find photos of his book, info about readings). Indeed, his often-jocular Twitter diverts us from its own diversions, to the important confrontations of his poems.
The protagonist of Prelude is Boy, with a capital “B,” a black gay boy in a temporally blurred version of the rural American South. Sometimes he’s a boy – a child – sometimes he’s a “Boy” – a slave – and just once, in a gay chatroom, he’s a “boi.” In the book’s title poem, the name “Boy” embodies many of its bounteous connotations. “You’ve been broken in./ Begin again, bend,” Boy’s sex partner says, turning Boy’s sexuality to slavery. Through his fractured journey to adulthood, Boy tries to escape the paralyzing tug-of-war of desire and disdain his sexuality, color, and youth arouses in people – his lovers, the people who will never become his lovers, his father. He learns what it means to be “wanted” – though this want is never really about him, but what people want him to be for them.
In the book’s opening poem, Boy transcends time and lands on a plantation. He’s told to “hush. When they hear/ you, they will want you. Beware/ of how they want you.” Is this a warning to self on Jones’ part, as a young, black gay poet? If so, Jones rebuts the warning by refusing to hush, accepting the burdens of being “wanted.” Good thing. Because he’s not just “wanted.” If we’re at all concerned with understanding the hells people create for other people, Jones is the kind of writer who’s more than wanted: he’s desperately needed.
He also knows how to do happy hour right.
Despite, or maybe because of, web presence, there seems to be an almost deliberate avoidance of net-speak in the book. There’s a notable lack of technology in the writing here.
There’s only one reference to the Internet in the book, when Boy is in the chat rooms. The atmosphere of the book is very lonely. The social web deconstructs the idea of being alone, and kind of inverts it. You’re surrounded by people and their opinions, even if you are alone. But I wanted to gesture towards mythology. In order to successfully handle magical realism, I found that when I was writing poems, if I made a location too familiar, too contemporary, it was very difficult for me to write about poetically.
When I was reading this book, I was so emotionally engaged, but it was so much about pain. The language is so selectively attractive. As a reader, you’re grateful to the book for these transcendent moments, but when you couple that gratefulness with the notion that you’re reading pain, it becomes sort of an ugly thing.
It’s cognitive dissonance. Like the title poem, “Prelude to Bruise,” sounds pleasant. It reads pleasantly because of the use of assonance and alliteration and rhythm and repetition obviously, so it has this almost hypnotic, jazzy quality when it’s describing something incredibly horrifying and awful. And I tried to use that to my advantage in terms of examining the way sex and violence and memory and history are all so tangled in each other. I hope that the discomfort is a way for the reader to empathize with the narrative that Boy is in throughout the book.
Sexuality is often portrayed in the book as something of an act of violence, or the receiving of violence. Do you think there’s an inherent violence in sex?
As I was working on the book and I was reflecting on how I grew up and how I experienced sexuality and sex it occurred to me that we’re all kind of experimenting. Like college freshmen girls kissing, and the concept of, “Well, I was just experimenting, I’m not really —” that’s a very banal idea. And it occurred to me that it’s kind of interesting that when you’re experimenting, you’re using someone else!
We take risks and we put other people in risky situations, whether it’s physical or emotional. There’s this very natural practice of the first kiss, of sneaking out of the house and going into the woods, of skinny dipping. And then, [for some men], when you’re not a child anymore, and when you have a performance of masculinity to uphold — that’s where the risk becomes violent, often. It’s a reaction against fear.
So that was a driving engine throughout the book, and in terms of ideas, in 2008, my last semester of college — and this predates any of the poems in the book — I met a guy at a New Years party and went home with him. And he was one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever slept with. And he tried to kill me… He was a straight man that I went home with. We were both very, very drunk and we started having sex and he started giving me a blowjob and then he started punching me. He started saying, “You’re already dead.” And he was crying while he was punching me, and it was awful, and that’s what my next book is about; it’ll be a memoir. He would cry, and then he would laugh, he would cry, he would laugh, he would calm down, then he would rise back up, and it was so obvious to me that he had been suffering for a very long time. That by getting in touch with a raw nerve in his sexuality — he was giving me a blow job — it set everything off. I felt so sorry for him the entire time. I was laying under him, pitying him, as he was trying to kill me. It struck me as such an essential vein of American masculinity.
When something like that happens, in some ways it’s reduced to sound and words and images, you look at the color—the varnish of the floor, the pattern of his underwear, the way he smells, the quality of light. Everything is shattered. These poems are seen through that kaleidoscope of images, but now I’m able to write in paragraphs and locate this in a broader narrative. But while I was writing these poems I was still in the process of excavating; as writers, what do we go to when we are excavating? We go to symbols, we go to myths.
Do you think about the reader while you’re writing?
I don’t. It’s too much work. I think I’m a really good waking dreamer. Writing poems kind of occurs in that Salvador Dali stage. For me in a scene I’m really trying to get in to — if [as in Prelude] you ran away from home and your father was chasing you with a rifle, and you had an opportunity and you were far enough away to say what you wanted to say safely, what would you say?
But I‘d actually written about half the poems in the book before Boy appeared. I’ve mentioned this so many times, but [there’s a quote from] Toni Morrison’s Nobel Address where she said, “what it is to live at the edge of towns, that cannot bear your company.” [I heard that] and I was like, “oh that’s a scene.” So I had this image of a boy and his father and a cabin, at the edge of a rural community, and the mother is gone. I wasn’t sure if she’d passed away or run away, but to me that created such a triangulation where the father misses his wife, she’s left her gowns behind, and the boy misses his mother and is gay and is trying on his mom’s dresses all the time, which then angers his father. All of a sudden I had all of these poems, you know? But with poetry what’s so difficult is you have to start over, over and over—you write a poem you love and then you set it aside and you’re like “shit!” You’re facing a blank page. It’s not like a novel.
Each poem is kind of a miniature novel in itself, especially in your poetry, where there often seems to be a foundational narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. I’ve underlined a ton of endings of poems in your book. Generally, do you place a lot of emphasis on endings?
I do. I love theater, I love the punctuating strength of a blackout at the end of a scene. We’re trying to see Boy get somewhere. He starts as one person, he’s clearly a different person by the end of the book. He acts differently—though imperfectly. I want that in every poem! There are so many things you could be reading at any given moment, and there are so many [issues] that shout for urgency. So it seems to me that if poetry is going to survive, in terms of being a contemporary text that people engage with as passionately as any other form of writing—it has to be aware of that. So maybe in that way I am thinking about readers?!
The book brings up so many loaded comparisons — as in the poem “Anthracite” — that American society has wanted to make with skin tone. America — American politics, American literature — has made it into so many different things. As a poet, you’re constantly using figurative language. Where do you find yourself as someone who’s continuing to spin language but also trying to elucidate the nature of these metaphors?
Anthracite is coal, it’s fuel, it’s meant to burn — it’s why it was created. The book is obviously me in conversation certainly with other queer black men, and other people of color; the experience of the book for me personally is speaking in that echo chamber.
When I talk to other young black men who’ve read the book, a lot of what we talk about is, “I’ve felt that too, I’ve experienced an aspect of that too.” So much of it is these interior moments. Often driven by language, where someone either carelessly or incredibly intentionally… And we’ve all done this, we’ve all been on both sides of this dynamic. But the experience of something so painful and raw for you but inconsequential to someone else — the attempt to bridge that impasse is really difficult.
In “Prelude to Bruise,” [the man Boy is having sex with] says “I like my black boys.” But he doesn’t say the n-word in that poem. Thanks to twitter, and certainly in light of Ferguson, people have called me “Nigger,” but mostly online. But in the most racially fraught moments I’ve experienced, no one has ever used a racial epithet. Honestly, the most racist moments black people in America will experience don’t even actually happen. It’s behind closed doors, in conversation. You’re applying for some job and they’re looking at your resume and you’ll never know what they said.
Are your friends and family surprised by the difference between your everyday personality and your poetic voice?
Some interviewers have asked questions, being like, “your Twitter is so different from the book,” and I’m like, “that’s a persona too.” Someone asked me recently if I’m as cynical about romance as I am in the world of the book – and I’m like, “Nooo.” That’s not my story, thank God. I’ve had dark moments. But Boy’s story is not my story, thankfully.
I’m always worried about Boy, and I hope the readers are too. For me that was part of the experience. Especially in terms of how African American men are written about and culturally constructed as hooded thugs with a gun where a dick should be. I thought it was really important to examine vulnerability. Part of that is to give this mythologized young black male figure an opportunity to lay out his history. And that’s why you get “History, According to Boy,” [the prose-poem] toward the end of the book. Roxane Gay was editing Guernica Magazine‘s sex issue. She emailed me, and was like “do you write fiction?” And I was like, “I can.” It occurred to me that until that poem/story, you don’t hear from Boy himself, where he lays out, “this is what happened.”
When that title of “LGBT Editor” was on the horizon [in early 2013], did its hugeness seem at all burdensome? How did you approach possibly being perceived as a spokesperson?
My editorial vision for Buzzfeed LGBT is very rooted in my sense of otherness. And I would like to think that my history of feeling othered has allowed me to think about how other people feel othered. But I came to Buzzfeed, and all of the conversations I had were about trans people and queer women and people of color. And the ethos of Buzzfeed LGBT is rooted in the awareness that LGBT outlets are usually about upper middle class white gay men.
A Buzzfeed article you wrote said, “Our families hurt us in trying to love us.” That really spoke to this book a lot – there’s so much hurt, and so many gestures towards love, but it’s harder to tell where and when and whether there is love.
I think it’s absolutely possible to love without hurting people. But there are no blueprints for relationships. Every relationship we ever have is the first of its kind, whether that’s familial, platonic, romantic, or a one-night-stand. It’s always new in some way. We make mistakes, and we’re trying to do the best we can. Regarding Boy and his father, we don’t know anything about the father’s background. But it would seem to me that he’s an imperfect man. The world of the book is on the same continuum as our more realistic experiences –it’s just more dramatic in the way that opera is more dramatic and musicals are more dramatic than what you’d hear on the subway, but it’s still related. So instead of having an awkward dad scratching his head, he’s got a bunch of guns and he’s setting shit on fire in the field. That was the project of the book, and that’s why it’s mythos.
A very American mythos.
I hope the experience of the book is as American as Jim Crowe or rock n’ roll or apple pie or slavery. That it’s innate, and that it uses our cultural vocabulary.