Ep. 233 A Grieving Apocalyptic Historian with Saeed Jones – Transcript

Today we speak with Saeed Jones – award-winning author of the new poetry collection Alive at the End of the World. Our conversation covers the art of embracing chaos and finding humor, and how Saeed considers his poems in relation to the reading and the performance of poetry. Saeed also explains why he thinks of all his poems as traps.

The Stacks Book Club selection for September is The Trees by Percival Everett. We will discuss the book on September 28th with Lisa Lucas.


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Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas. And for this episode we are joined by author and poet Saeed Jones to discuss his new poetry collection Alive at the End of the World. Can I just say this collection is insanely good. I cannot stress that enough. You all know poetry isn’t really my thing. But this book, oh my gosh, it’s the real deal. It’s about grief, anger, chaos, memory and all the things we’re dealing with right now in America. Jones is also the author of the 2015 collection Prelude to Blues and one of my favorite memoirs from 2019 How We Fight for Our Lives, which won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. Listen, if you take nothing else away from this episode, Saeed Jones can write. Remember next week, Wednesday, September 28th, we will be discussing the Stacks book club pick the Trees by Percival Everett with Lisa Lucas. If you’re looking for any of the things we talked about on today’s episode, be sure to click the link in the show notes to find everything we discuss. If you love the show and want more of it, head to patreon.com/thestacks and join the stacks pack. You’ll get bonus episodes of our show like our most recent one with good friend of the pod Cree Myles, plus our virtual book club meetups, our bookish discord and more. If those perks sound exciting to you, or you just really want to show your love for this little black woman run indie book podcast, head to patreon.com/theStacks, thank you to our newest members, Lola McHale, Banyas and Jane Hunter. Thank you all so much. And thank you to everyone in the stacks pack there truly would be no podcast without you all. Now it’s time for my conversation with Saeed Jones.

All right, everybody. To say that I am excited today would be like the understatement of the year, many of you know I wrote a list of guests that I wanted to have before I ever recorded an episode of the podcast. And today I have one of those bucket list guests. It is author and poet Saeed Jones. Saeed, welcome to The Stacks. We did it, we did it, we’re here. So when your memoir came out in 2019, I had sort of just started the show, but I got an arc. And I was like, I’m gonna get him on the show. And your team was like, sorry, you’re not fancy enough. So now I’m finally fancy enough for you.

Saeed Jones 2:32
I’m here, I’m here, you know, I was just, I was just a comet making my way across the stars to you; just took a little bit longer.

Traci Thomas 2:40
we just needed a little more time to marinate. Now we have even more things to talk about. So. Before we get into like some random stuff, we have to talk about your new poetry collection Alive at the End of the World. So in about 30 seconds or so can you tell folks what it’s about?

Saeed Jones 2:53
Sure, in some ways, I think of this new book as a kind of a sequel to my memoir, how we fight for our lives. You know, at this point in my life, I’m 10 years into the experience of grieving my mother who died in May of 2011. And so then, you know, 10 years finds us at this moment in the present in the midst of a devastating pandemic. And I think it’s fair to say, you know, that kind of phrasing of I feel like it’s the end of the world, I feel like what’s going on is everything, you know, I just wanted to drill into that sentiment, and to see what I could uncover. And I think, for me, I live at the end of the world is kind of me connecting personal grief, with a sense of collective and maybe even historical grief, you know, and the sense that, honestly, it’s a state of being, you know, this sense of the Apocalypse, it’s a vibe. Yes, it is. It is the only vibe these days, we so we both share that we lost parents, my father died in 2012. And one of the things that we’ve been talking about on the show recently is grief, we had an author on who wrote a book about grief. And we’ve been talking a lot about like the acute grief that you feel like personal private grief. And then there’s like the communal grief and the societal grief. And we talked about, like grieving America, and what it means to be black in America and like how that affects how we grieve and all of that, and then I read your collection. And I was like, wow, this is like the exact book that I needed in this moment. I’m wondering how, you know, 10 years after the death of your Mother, how you’re thinking about grief differently than maybe you were five years ago or three years ago when your other book came out? Or like how these things have shifted for you. Sure. I mean, the the first two words that come to mind are humility and gratitude. One because you know, the last few years what people are having to endure and I get your present tense, in terms of the loss and the circumstances feeling a bit abandoned you know, by our government by each other at times, you know, people who are dealing with, you know, being immunocompromised, long COVID You know, all of these things like a lot of people feel like, Oh, I’m just on my own, you know, like, are we even, you know, and so I really feel a sense of deep humility, because as devastating as it was to lose my mother, I never felt alone, I never felt abandoned in the circumstance, I never was made to feel ashamed of what I was going through, you know, and I just remember, as I was working on this book, you know, thinking about people who had to say goodbye to their loved ones, their parents, you know, on iPads over the phone, because many, many people couldn’t even, you know, be be bedside and I was like, wow, I was able to have an organic bereavement process. And then the second part is like, the gratitude is, you know, there were times when I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep living I was, I was really up ended. And I struggled with depression and anxiety. But as you know, grief is different. They’re siblings, but grief does kind of come at you in a different way. And I feel such gratitude to have been able to keep living to find my footing, you know, even as here we are in the future. And it’s like, Well, great. Your Your reward is like dealing with all this bedlam and chaos. But I do have gratitude. And I think, as I’m sure you understand, you know, our relationship with the people we lost, it doesn’t end it simply changes. And I can feel, you know, at times when I’m really lucky, like, I can feel my mom being like, Yep, I knew you could do it. I knew you would get there.

Traci Thomas 6:40
Yeah, totally. I could so relate to that. So you wrote a memoir, and you’ve written two books of poetry. I am not very good at poetry, like reading it, I really struggle. And I did not struggle with this book at all. And when I finished it, I text an author, friend of mine, who I knew had read it also. And I was like, it’s, it’s really good. And they were like, Yeah, Sage just knows how to get out of his own way. So I’m wondering, wondering if you, how do you get out of your way? Like, how do you write these poems and just say, Okay, I did it. And like-

Saeed Jones 7:18
I would love it. I love to go talk to this person and be like, how did I do it? What is it? What is it about the writing that? I mean? No, really, because that’s the best, you know, I get in my way a lot. I do. I think for me, once I have, and it can take years, it can take years well before the writing has started for a book project. But I think if I think about the work I’ve published, once I’ve been able to hone in on the intention, and locate the it’s usually me, right, because usually the writing is kind of based on me I’m often drawing from, from personal narrative, once I’m able to hone in on the version of myself, that is best equipped to help us understand whatever idea um, it almost feels like acting I think with these with particularly with poetry, you know, I’m using in this book is pretty, you know, I wanted to embody chaos. So there’s a lot of formal, I’m throwing a lot at you

Traci Thomas 8:18
We are getting, we’re gonna get there, don’t worry.

Saeed Jones 8:20
Good, so there’s a lot going on. But when you set that dynamic aside, I think I almost it’s like, they’re almost like monologues. And I think I just really try as best I can, to, like, lock myself in to the perspective of whatever that voice is. And you know, like, early on, in the book, there’s a poem titled, A memory where, you know, now in retrospect, I realized I was like, Oh, it’s a zombie. It’s, it’s, you know, it’s someone who’s dead. And it’s like, angry at how we kind of move on from the dead who’s like, ah, y’all aren’t going to forget me. And I think once I was able to just hone in on that deep need, what would it feel like? What would it feel like to be so angry about being forgotten that you could almost literally reanimate yourself? Then the music, the rhythm, everything is just serving that need? And I think that’s how I get out of my way. I think.

Traci Thomas 9:11
I like that. I like that. I mean, it’s kind of a hard question to answer because, like, how you, you don’t only know when you’re in your way, when you sort of, like, look back, right? Like, it’s hard to know when you’re fucking yourself up in the moment. Right. Absolutely.

Saeed Jones 9:24
And then it gets the other question. And the other part of that is, you know, it takes time and you know, you’re getting to see the polished, edited my editor Erica Stevens is an incredible collaborator, you know, so, so a lot happens, but I think yeah, often when I’m in my way, it’s because I’m thinking too much about everything outside of that dynamic.

Traci Thomas 9:43
Right. You know, it’s like you’ve gotten like, the specificity-

Saeed Jones 9:46
Yeah, I’m worrying about like the reader. I’m worrying about, oh, what are other people, you know, it’s like you, you kind of have to isolate. You have to take yourself to the deepest, quietest part of the woods, almost, I think to really kind of from me to write the kind of poem I want to write?

Traci Thomas 10:02
Yeah. Okay, so then you’ve written let’s say, you’ve written a bunch of poems, and you know, you’re working on this project. Is there a lot of like, this one’s in this one’s out? Oh, no, I want that one back, like, Are you writing with the idea of a book? Or are these things that are you’re writing over time? And you’re like, Oh, that one I wrote five years ago, maybe I can make it like, how does the actual collection come to be?

Saeed Jones 10:26
That’s a great question. That’s pretty chaotic. Fair, fair to say. Some of the oldest poems in the book are the numbered grief poem, you know, grief number 913. Grief number. So I knew I had this idea of the different kinds of losses, the different things we can grieve, you know, I think, you know, there’s a poem about, you know, hookups at bars, and you get this clear you kind of like grieving decisions. Yeah, you’re grieving decisions. Um, so I had that thread, you know, and this idea of what are the things we’re grieving in real time, which really feels like alive at the end of the world endings and beginnings, loss and continuation. And then I wrote the first poem that opens the book, which is centered in a mass shooting. The first is the title poem of life. In other words, I wrote a series of those poems where I wanted to explore the different ways, in my mind and Apocalypse functions and what it means to us how it creates meeting for us. And then yeah, I don’t know, you kind of it’s like, for me, it’s like I ended up with, like, a, not a handful, I would say, 20, let’s say 20 to 25 poems. Let’s start there, where I see enough themes, and then out of that I begin to the decision is, what do I want to write more of? And what do I feel like? Okay, we’ve got it, you got enough of XYZ theme. And so what do I need to focus on more, you know, like, I remember, getting a note from my editor about desire, she was like, desire is the twin of grief. So how can we, you know, bring more desire into the book. And so you begin to see that develop, you know, where I’m kind of like, the world can kill itself, but I’m gonna have an orgasm tonight. You know, when you’re on a body, I still have a body, you know, so yeah, so that’s kind of, it’s like, you kind of have like, maybe what ultimately will become half of a manuscript. And to me, I began to think of like, okay, what are the new questions emerging? And what are questions? I feel like I’m satisfied with the answer, and thus can go in a different way. And then what was really exciting for me is that, well, not well, it was exciting. Then last summer, Paul Mooney died. And it was interesting being, you know, already pretty deep in this project about grief and loss and history and everything. And then a comedian who I liked Paul Mooney, I liked his work. I mean, I was a big fan. But I was really bowled over when he, like, so much came at me. And because I was in the middle of that, I was like, let’s examine, like, why are you having this and so out of that last than I wrote, it was like quite an undertaking for me, like an entire sequence of poems that I decided to write in the order that they appear in the first poem that was inspired. So I kind of gave myself a new project. And I and that was an interesting like, last act in the process, because it challenged me one suddenly, I was doing research and, and reading all of these books, and watching documentaries, and everything to learn about all of these people, but also it was like, making myself go way out to find unexpected connections to the central theme, and it was wild. Like, I didn’t know that Aretha Franklin’s mother died when she was a little girl and have a heart attack similar to my own mother, you know, so it’s like you think you’re just writing about this figure and oh, how interesting learning about Little Richard or or Luther Vandross, and then it’s like, it always comes back to the center is inquiry.

Traci Thomas 13:56
Right? You should I don’t know if you have or not, but you should read Shine Bright by Danyel Smith. Okay. It’s about black women and pop music. Oh, Daniel Smith, the music. It’s so great. But there’s a huge section on Aretha Franklin. And I didn’t know that information either. Until I had read that book. And then when I got to your book, for whatever reason, kind of what you’re saying your book has is sort of like the thesis of this year of this podcast like a reef pop black pop culture. We did white negros that book white and it goes by and like I feel like that’s in here. We had Jason Reynolds on talking a lot about like breathing and I’ve that really popped out when I read the that’s not snow. It’s Ash like not, you know, like, there’s just been this book for whatever reason is like, was the exact book that I felt like I needed and like that feels like this year of the podcast. So I just think it’s interesting similar to what you’re saying.

Saeed Jones 14:49
That’s such an honor, that’s such an awesome one. I love books that take me to other books. I love culture that helps me connect the dots to other parts of culture, but also I’m just so honored because that was one Have the intentions and that’s why I say it’s a bit of a sequel to the other memoir because though it’s a poetry collection and it’s not all you know first person it’s not always Saeed as on the page as a character. I want you to get the sense that you are getting almost a time capsule in in like sight as like a grieving apocalyptic historian just what’s going on and it’s in your right I mean, Daniel Smith, her podcast black, black girl salsa, it’s so important to be listening to those episodes and just Bob crying the Natalie Cole episode.

Traci Thomas 15:33
I couldn’t stop listening to this will be I got to stop I was my Spotify was like you listen to one song in the last seven years.

Saeed Jones 15:40
Yeah, Spotify was like, are you okay? So I love that you’re picking up on that. Because that was really true for the experience of creating the book I wanted to as a poet, kind of capture what it feels like to one be having these ideas. But also Yeah, I’m a consumer of culture too. And yeah, I love Jason Reynolds and breathe. Yes. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 16:00
So it makes me really happy. So people who are listening, if you haven’t read the book yet you I think you need this poetry collection. And I never say that. Usually I’m like, you might be okay. Without it. I don’t know. But this one I’m really like, this is one of the ones and and so the other thing that I love about this book, and you and just like from the moment that we got on today is you’re so energetic and and funny and you find the jokes and things and that’s so present in this collection. Like there’s like the dead dozens, which I think I had to pick. It’s probably my favorite poem.

Saeed Jones 16:32
Okay then you are a wicked person.

Traci Thomas 16:36
I was like reading that one being like, this is doing a lot for me. And then I was like, this is not the kind of home you want to admit that you like, but it was the first one and then and then this and this dead dozens one. And there’s like this humor in this sort of like, you know, that’s life of it all. And so how is it hard to bring that part of yourself into something like this? Or is that just who you are and it comes with you no matter what

Saeed Jones 17:01
I’m, I’m I love that you love the dead dozens. I mean, it’s one of my it’s one of my favorite little demons too. It’s I have found it’s been difficult for me to write my humor, my laughter into my books. I laugh a lot. I’m a pretty, I was listening to this week’s episode of vibe, check the podcast I’m doing with Sam Sanders and Zach Stafford and I was texting my boy, I was giggling this morning. Just hear me like just kind of laughing in the background a lot, even as we’re talking about really serious stuff. And that’s just how I am. And I think it’s showing up in my writing more perhaps because I’m more confident. And I would like to think because I’m a better writer, you know, like, because I don’t I every I want everything to have impact and intention. I don’t want someone to think I’m just being silly to be silly, right, so to speak. And so the dead dozens is a good example of there’s a lot going on, but it’s but it’s also rooted into the tradition of the dozens. It’s also, you know, there’s been a lot of thematic work with grief at that point in the book. So I hope you can understand where that speaker is why he is being kind of jaded or cynical with what he’s going through. And then, you know, all of the history and the examinations of anti black racism throughout the book, so that when you get to that last stanza, it lands you know, and so I think it was like, you know, figuring out how humor could function, you know, like rhythm or repetition, you know, and I don’t know, I think humor is one of the highest forms of art, it’s really hard, hard,

Traci Thomas 18:38
So hard. Oh, my God.

Saeed Jones 18:41
Really difficult, it’s so much easier, I think to be, you know, kind of dramatic and serious and which and I love that I love that that key that register. It’s much easier for me to access that than for me to an it’s weird. It’s one thing for me to be silly, just while I’m talking to you or in conversation, it’s very different for me to be in kind of writer mode, focusing on line breaks, and still be able to access humor, and I’m just, I’m proud I feel like I’m just getting into it. I’m just starting but this is definitely I think the most humor, most humor humor fool. Oh, my gosh, humor, humorous, humorous book of mine.

Traci Thomas 19:19
I feel like what’s hard about? Well, so I was I was an actress, I was in theater. And I feel like what’s easy, at least in that way about like doing dramatic performance versus comedic is that to do dramatic, you just have to get vulnerable and open up. But to do comedy, you have to get vulnerable and open up and you have to calculate, like you, you have to figure out what the joke is and how it works. Whereas like, if it’s just like a scene where you’re crying, it’s like I just have to I just have to access the crying, right? Yeah. And so I feel like it’s like, like you’re saying like, it takes a little more skill because there’s that added layer of like, I have to be honest, it has to be truthful, but I also has to have a punch and it has to work with wherever I am and all of that stuff. Yeah. Okay, forum. So we’ve done poetry on the show a few times for book club, like, once a year, we do a poetry collection. And I always have a poet on to help talk about it. And we have landed on the debate of the show, which has to do with punctuation, line endings, and form when it comes to performance versus reading. Okay, I, as I just mentioned, I come from a theatre background. So I feel very strongly that line endings are to be honored when they when you read a poem, but every time I ever hear a fucking poet read a fucking bow, they just go straight to the punctuation. And so my question to you is, how do you feel and think about line endings versus punctuation? Like, should they what what do you honor? And is it different for you when you’re thinking of someone reading it off the page versus saying it out loud? I know that you think about that, because in the notes about the Luther Vandross poem, you talked about how it should be difficult to say the words like performance in particular. Yes, yeah. So like, I know, that’s something you’re thinking about? How much are you thinking about the readers experience of reading the poll? You know, like, all of those questions, it’s the central poetry question on this podcast.

Saeed Jones 21:19
Yeah, um, this is a rich, rich line of questioning

Traci Thomas 21:23
It’s a lot.

Saeed Jones 21:24
Um, I think I would say, Okay, for the reader, for the reader holding the book in their hands, or looking at it on their screen, you know, I think form punctuation line endings, is important to visually, and if you’re reading and I hope you feel, you know, encouraged to read my poems out loud to yourself, or to your friends, or whoever, you know, to kind of guide you to kind of recreate a site Jones reading, I’m not there with you. I’m not there is a audio, there will be an audio book, and it’s you rather than me reading it. Yeah. So that will be an option. But, you know, that’s a lot of what I am thinking about on the page, how can I recreate or help the reader recreate that organic experience for themselves, because I’m not there, you know, if it was just like a block of text, you’re, you just have very little information. And sometimes I will use a block of text. But I want you to understand the intentions there. In terms of me reading from this book, I think of I think of my books, particularly my poetry collections as living texts. And so it’s, I’m never going to read the same poem The same way twice. It’s exciting actually, to find new opportunities for rhythm. I don’t want to go, like off book. I don’t want to go somewhere where you’re like, if someone were holding the book, you know, during your reading, they’re like, Well, you know, but yeah, I do think it’s important to respond to the space to respond to the color. You know, there are poems in the book that like actually the dead dozens, I mean, it’s, I’m still learning how to read it out loud. And because it’s, it’s very different if I’m just like reading it in the audio booth, right, the audio book and then reading it in front of an audience, and, and what’s the tone and color that I need to access? So yeah, I think the punctuation and the line breaks in Gemini are really important for the reader on the page to guide them. I think a lot of people are intimidated by poetry, which has everything to do with the Canon, our education system, the way we are made to feel. I think most of us, like poetry is the sacred domain of dead white people. And it’s not it’s almost like, you know, like, like scripture or something just inaccessible, you know, and, and so I’m trying to invite you in, that’s what I’m always trying to do. I’m always trying to lure you in, and then and then work on Yeah. It’s almost, you know, all the poems in a way are traps. Where, you know, I’m finding a different way to kind of seduce a reader. And then, you know, hopefully we can, like get to some, hopefully unexpected but meaningful idea together. And so, as a reader when I’m in front of people, I’m trying to now I’m, I’m using and I’m using performance and all of those other tools, right? Yeah. So I don’t know, I don’t I just want it to be good. You know, but I don’t, it’s not. I’m not a strict constitutionalist, okay.

Traci Thomas 24:29
You’re not like me, I just love a rule. And I feel I think, for me, what it is, is that I feel very insecure about reading poetry. And so I’m like, what is the author trying to tell me so that it will help me understand this better? So I’m like, Okay, what are my clues? And then I get so stressed out that I’m like, Ah, this doesn’t fit. Like what I think this unit maybe like.

Saeed Jones 24:50
That’s the thing for me. It’s like if you were getting ready to read some of my work to me, it’s almost like I want I hope that I’ve written and structured the poem in a way that’s actually liberating. for you, as a reader where you feel, you know, to build, because it’s kind of like, you know, there are really intelligent people who when they talk about their expertise, it’s like dispiriting like you, just like you leave the lecture being, well, I will never even attempt, you know what I mean. And then there’s a type of really intelligent, talented person where it’s empowering. And you leave, and you want to learn more. And that’s when you’re like, let me go pick up those other books. Let me you know, let me pick up a copy of white Negro because the way site like embodied appropriation was really interesting. That’s what I want. And so I hope, I hope that the way I use you know, form is, you know, thrilling I hope it colors you and you’re willing to kind of take risks in the spirit of the law, I think it’d be making like jokes about constitutional law,

Traci Thomas 25:53
like why are you the new Supreme Court Justice. Okay, so speaking of form, and all of this, you have a poem in the book that is a sideways poem. Yes. Can you please tell me what you’re trying to tell me with that? Because those poems are the ones where I’m like, okay, like, I’m, I’m feeling dead doesn’t it’s like, these little stanzas. Like these little boom. Shakalaka is I know what’s going on? And then I, you know, you get to the one that it’s like, I have to turn the whole book. I’m like, What the fuck am I supposed to be doing here? Like, I feel scared. Good.

Saeed Jones 26:29
That was my intention. That was the end. Yeah. I mean, because so much of what I was thinking about, particularly, obviously, when I was writing the book, but also when it became time to think about structure and, and arranging the poems, which is always very exciting. I was interested in how can I, how can I productively destabilize the reader? So like, that’s what, like I said, like, luring you in, and you get a few poems. You’re like, oh, okay, I know. And then it’s like, ah, you know, and now there’s a poem on its side. And everything about that poem, to me is, is truly chaotic. It’s, it’s upsetting. I mean, the speaker is really going through it. What I say about grief, in that poem is, you know, pretty wild. And, and, and the ideas that I’m working through like this kind of, you can’t tell, I feel it as you’re reading it. If what if the speaker is in a good place or not? Right? Like you don’t? You don’t know. Like, is this a reliable or unreliable? You know, I wanted you to be on your toes. And I think that’s an important kind of reading sensibility for that poem. And so you know, and then part of it was also the length, I really wanted to preserve the length because it does actually reward if you kind of follow it and reading it out loud, it pays off. And then I was like, Oh, we turned it on that side. I never thought I would publish a poem a sideways. Oh, um, you know it, will I ever do it again, we will see. But I hope that like, exactly your response was what I wanted, where you’re like, oh, wait a minute, I got the I want to trace it. It’d be like, What the hell was going on? And then you turn the page, and you see me immediately, kind of nervously second guessing the title.

Traci Thomas 28:14
Right, right. Right. Right.

Saeed Jones 28:15
You know, so I just wanted to, I don’t know, it’s, I do know, it was both thinking about again, like, what is the apocalypse? It’s that sense of structure, and systemic failure, like before your very eyes, but it’s also kind of like your own intuition and wisdom, like, suddenly you’re questioning it, you know, and I wanted the reader to feel that way as they’re reading a poem by a speaker who’s clearly equally destabilized.

Traci Thomas 28:42
Right? Right. Right. Okay. So I got the answer. Right. You got it.

Saeed Jones 28:46
You’re, you’re very Hermione about this. Are you a Virgo?

Traci Thomas 28:50
Or not? I’m a Leo. Okay. All right, Leo. Aquarius. Aquarius. I love wickedly. Yeah. But I I feel like a Virgo in my heart. A lot of the times I really I really do.

Saeed Jones 29:00
Like, did I pass the test? Is there extra credit? You forgot to assign homework?

Traci Thomas 29:04
Yeah, that’s exactly right. Like I love a rural attack. I love a home. I love homework. I’m like, great. This is what I have to do it like my checklists have like actual little boxes. Next, everything’s like, check them off to the joy. Okay, but so here’s the other thing about what you’ve done. That sort of in this line is you have this section of notes, where you sort of you don’t explain the poems, but you add context for the reader. And as a person who loves to be right. And no, this was maybe a thing that I didn’t know that I loved more than anything in the world. Because I, it was helpful to me. I went back I saw I read the book without knowing the notes. Then I went back after I read the notes and reread some of those poems with what you had said and was like, wow, I got some of that. I didn’t get some of that. And, you know, whatever. There’s not really a question. I guess the question is, why did you why did you give us this sort of notes sheet in the So I think I’ve seen notes where it’s like this was published in Guernica, or whatever, but not notes that were like, hey, this poem about Whitney Houston has to do with this book that I read or this movie that I watched. And and like, there’s one that’s like, This is a nonfiction poem, or like, this is me dealing with the death of my mother at the time. And this is me dealing with the death of my mother 10 years later. And so I’m just wondering, like, why why you gave that to us? And do you think that other poets would look down on something like that? Because I feel like so many poets are like, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it? You know, like, you’re sort of like, if you don’t get it like, here’s that here’s a hint, right?

Saeed Jones 30:34
I mean, I think it for me, it was in part specific to this book. I mean, even the epigraphs page, you know, where I’m drawing from Frank V. Wilkerson and Alexandra chi, I, you know, which

Traci Thomas 30:47
is this month book, or, which was last topic for the SAKs another, another tie into this season?

Saeed Jones 30:53
Like a spider web, I love it. Yeah. But yeah, you know, and already, you know, there’s some kookiness going on on that page. And so part of me again, was like thinking in terms of structure, our assumptions about books, like you said, usually a note section is very staid, and you know, prac, like, almost like, not boring, but like brutally pragmatic, you know, often notes sections are literally just maybe like, an obscure term, and then like to, like, let you know, where the work previously appeared, you know, and to go, let’s destabilize that. I mean, like, the little the note for the Little Richard poem is essentially an essay on to its own, you know, and, and just kind of working with that. And so, that was one thrill. And then the other is, I liked the idea of, you know, I enjoyed structuring this book, I was very intentional about what appears when because I wanted it to hit the reader in a certain way. But also, I wanted to create an opportunity for a reader who really enjoyed the book to have another rich experience, you can never, like, read a book for the first time. Like, that’s a very special experience. Right. But I love that, like you mentioned with the notes, maybe you can go back to a poem with a new color. You know, and like, it’s not snow, it’s ash, you know, like, you got me like, oh, okay, site has a certain like, this poem means something to him in a very specific way. So yeah, I just love the idea of chaos. Like you never you like you. When is it done? Like, are we free yet? Like, what’s going on? Can I go to the restroom? You know, like, you know, I liked that keeping you on your toes. But also, yeah, I just, I don’t know. And maybe the other thing is, if I’m trying to write into in about the experience of this systemic failure, being betrayed by so many of our rights, histories and rituals, part of what we’re grieving is context. Part of what we’re so freaked out about is that we’re, it’s like, the, you know, we tell people like read the room, how can you read the room and 2022 It’s just like, right? It’s total confusion, disarray, disorder. And so I think also, it’s almost like nice at the end of this being like, Okay, here’s a little bit baby, but that’s how I felt.

Traci Thomas 33:08
I was like, Thank you. Thank you so little. And the thing that’s so funny about that, too, is like, for me, I actually felt like I understood the majority of this collection as I read it through the first time, which is a very rare experience. For me. It’s happened like with Nate Marshalls, finna like I just Oh, really connected with that poetry collection. I felt like I got a lot of it off the bat. But having this little like, Okay, here’s, here’s a hint. I was like, thank you. I’m really in love with

Saeed Jones 33:35
I love what he does with I guess it’s not quite doppelgangers, but the other Nate Marshall, that that line of inquiry is so brilliant. Yeah. And again, with the notes, you know, because I worked on it, you know, like I would any other poem, it had several drafts. And if I felt that I was explaining a poem from a space of insecurity, I cut it out, you know, it’s because there aren’t notes for like, every poem, The intention is not to, it’s not like a key guide, you know, at the end of like a study guide or anything like that. It’s more like adding a new color, or often creating an opportunity to take you somewhere else, you know, like, I hope you, you know, after reading the Luther Vandross poem, you have an experience and then you read the note, and I hope you’re inspired to read Craig’s and Moore’s incredible biography of him, you know, so, yeah, kind of extending the life of the experience.

Traci Thomas 34:28
Yeah. Did you ever read? Laci M. Johnson’s book The reckonings? Are you from her own book? So her notes section in that book is similar to what you’ve done? Where it’s like, it’s not notes like this is the source or whatever. It’s like a bibliography essentially, but it’s similar where she like talks about different essays and different moments and and I’d never seen anything like it before. And then reading this, I was like, Oh, I just like these notes, because I know how much work goes into writing these books. And I know how much research everyone’s doing and And I it’s like, it’s interesting to think about how you were thinking about what you were writing.

Saeed Jones 35:05
Right? Yeah. And I, and I think, again, like, as I was saying about, like, our kind of national cultural understanding of poetry for a lot of people, again, it’s intimidating. It’s kind of, it’s on this pedestal. And I think, you know, I want to break that down. And then there are different ways to do that in terms of subject matter. But also, again, like, even with the notes, I hope, it’s like, I’m inviting you in, I always want to feel like you were being brought in to the experience, because I trust myself, and I know, a lot of what I’m doing is complicated. And I’m okay with, I don’t know, embracing the reader I to your earlier question. I do indeed have some mentors who, who aren’t fond of notes aren’t. And I get that, you know, I think it’s, it depends on what you’re working with, like, you know, when I work with emerging writers who are writing across languages, I am not some, I don’t think we need to be like translating language to people, but I think it’s like, let them let them do the work just as you know, we, as English, you know, inflict our biases on people of other languages. But I don’t know, I just think in a book about the, there’s just like a lot going on. And these cultural figures, and, and again, because somebody I’m trying to think of an example, with a poem about Whitney Houston and her longtime love Robin Crawford, you know, what that poem again, I just wanted to get to the moment, I just wanted to get to this, this very, very specific, intimate, soft moment of confession. Really, that’s really what that poem is, you know, and to me, that’s rich and worthy. But after I finished the poem, and you know, and I’m moving on with the book, I was still haunted by the fact that Robyn never actually got to listen to the last voicemail, voice message she got from Whitney, he’s like, that’s just, that’s just messed me up. And you know, anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you, you know, I remember when I, I lost my phone at one point, you know, years and years ago, and I was not able to recapture all of the voice messages and stuff with my mom. And eventually, I lost the sound of her voice. And so that stayed with me. And so that’s kind of what’s undergirding that note is that I just really felt wanted. Yes, it is interesting from a historical perspective, but also the people who get that, get it and I wanted to honor it in its way.

Traci Thomas 37:31
And love that so much. Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back. I want to talk about the cover. Yay. It’s so good. I mean, I feel like you’ve kind of given me the answer to crack the cover, which is like chaos. Humor, a little destabilizing. But how much were you involved in the cover? Like, were there different options? Or was I know sometimes it’s like, they sent you a cover, you’re like, this is perfect. I love it. So talk about your experience with this one,

Saeed Jones 38:05
I guess I have been actually pretty involved in all of my covers this cover. So it’s a photograph by Lola Flash. Lola Flash is a friend, someone I think of as an artistic mentor. Lola is a queer black person, and one of the original members of act up the, you know, the AIDS activism group. And, and so I just, I was really honored in this book about the future in the peril that the cover is by a queer elder that the full word is by da Powell, again, someone else I think of as, as a queer mentor, and elder, you know, connecting the past the present and the future is really important to me. And then yeah, so Lola has a series of photographs. This is Lola in the photo that Lola in this suit, Lola was arrested for weed possession at one point and went and it was like, you know, I mean, fuck, fuck the system, legalize marijuana, you know, pay reparations to black people who had their entire lives up into it by the war on drugs. So she had this prison jumpsuit. And she was just like, thinking about it. And then she came across this helmet. And so it’s just like, really interesting, like this idea of, to me this Afro futuristic image that’s also directly connected to the war on drugs to America’s incarceration system. And, yeah, and then the image because that’s the series, but the specific image itself, there’s something about this shiny looks car I mean, it is so beautiful is reflecting every I mean, it’s just so cool. But this person had to get out and push it.

Traci Thomas 39:41
Through the grass. Yeah. Like not even on a road.

Saeed Jones 39:45
What’s going on? And so, you know, one, it’s an arresting image, because I think it’s, you know, an unexpected combination of things, but also, just to me, the poem of the cover is, you know, the shiny, expensive future Are we were promised, in the end is a burden that now a black queer person has to get out and push forward. It ain’t that what it is. We’re dealing with

Traci Thomas 40:12
Holy cow. Wow, I see it. I see that you’re a poet with language there. Is there anything that’s not in this collection that you wish was?

Saeed Jones 40:23
Oh, gosh, anything not? I mean, probably probably let me think I was a pretty brutal editor with this book, like, like prelude to bruise you’ll notice is much longer. It’s a much more. It’s a lush book and this book, I was like, I don’t have time for lushness. This is like MTV Unplugged because, you know, the speaker’s running for his his life. Throughout the book, I don’t know, let me know. I’m okay with it. I’m good for now to ask me in a year. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 40:55
I know, we’re doing this before the books even come out.

Saeed Jones 40:59
So the thing I what I what I will tell you what I’ve learned is you never have to be done writing with an experience. And as I say, in one of the poems date night, you know, it’s not up to me when I get to stop crying. You know, I think at the time that I finished how we fight for our lives, and this is like, laughable now in retrospect, but I was like, okay, and now I’ll never have to write about my mom again. Like I’ve done it, I’ll never have to write about I’ve done it, I’ve put it down. And now we can close that cover. And of course, it’s not done. And it changes. And here we are 10 years later, and it’s different. And there it is to discover and examine still. So I think I out of that experience. I think I’m okay, because I’ve learned that like, even if, you know, in the middle of the book tour, I realized, Oh, I would have loved to have more of Whitney Houston in the book. Well dammit, I could write more Whitney Houston poems, you know, down the line.

Traci Thomas 42:00
Yeah, totally. Okay, so we always talk with authors about how they write like, where you are, how many hours a day, how often do you have music on? Or no? Do you have snacks or beverages, that part’s very important. Are there rituals like set the scene of sort of how you write and maybe tell us if it’s different when you’re writing poetry versus prose, if there’s any difference in how you approach it,

Saeed Jones 42:23
it is different. I will say for this book, part of it was the pandemic. Most of my books are written around the world. Most of my books are usually written like half in the United States, half wherever the hell I go as a Sagittarius. And you know, I get a lot of work done and cafes in Mexico City, or Berlin, or wherever. This was all written at my desk. In my living room here in Columbus, Ohio, I find now I tend to do I prefer to do my writing early in the morning. So with this book, I would wake up early in the morning. Ideally, I was waking up around six to write but what I would try to do is if I woke up, I woke up. So if I woke up at 430 in the morning, and often and when I say woke up, it’s like, I realize like my eyes are closed, but I’m starting to revise a poem in my head. Instead of going, Oh, I’ll get to it later. It was like just get up, just get up and go to your desk and take a nap after you know. I think that’s helpful for me one, there’s something about the dreaminess, the quiet, but also for me earlier in the morning, it’s like tour like the dog isn’t ready to go for a walk yet. My phone isn’t vibrating. Nothing is happening on Twitter that feels demanding or especially interesting, right? And so I’m able to kind of protect that space. And because again, this book was really about capturing a specific kind of time. I mean, I was I was writing in pretty rapid succession. I mean, the I remember like the Whitney Houston poem, I was cooking lunch, I was grilling some salmon and I at the time, I would use like my refrigerator as a dry erase board. And I had written a version of the title on the fridge, and I wrote it and then I went back to working on lunch. And then I wrote like the first line, so I didn’t forget it. And then I wrote this. And then next week, I was like, okay, and I just had to pull the plug on my little George Foreman grill and run across to my kids to work on it. So yeah, this was actually a pretty it was almost like, I am not trying to romanticize the pandemic because it was brutal. And honestly, there were moments where I was literally pulling out my hair, which you see in one of the poems, but last summer was a very fruitful time. For me. It was really spring into early fall. I was working on these poems and so I don’t know it was almost like I tried to make it into like a residency space and waking up early in the morning like Unlike my mornings are always the same The evenings are, right always up to, you know, up to question and so yeah, that was it. no music, no music. I like having tea coffee.

Traci Thomas 45:11
What kind of tea?

Saeed Jones 45:12
Um, I love a good throat coat tea. Oh, yeah, I like I don’t know, what is it? I think there’s like starvin nice. Isn’t that like licorice tea? flavor? Yeah, that’s it, no snacks. I’ve never been a good snacker

Traci Thomas 45:25
I’m sorry for you. It’s like one of my many joys in life.

Saeed Jones 45:29
I should learn to snack. I’m the person, it’s like, I’ll eat the whole bag of

Traci Thomas 45:34
that’s also me, you know, I keep all my snacks in the kitchen, but I work in a different room. So I’ll like get up and like, go get a handful of goldfish and then come back and like do work. And I’m gonna it’s gonna get up again, let me get my stepson.

Saeed Jones 45:48
I’m trying to think what else was helpful. Something I find that generally true for me is it helps to have some sense of like, as I’m wrapping up a writing, and I particularly with poetry, an hour two hour two with with the memoir with prose. Yeah, I might go three or four hours. And that’s about and even that felt like a marathon. But I tried to have some sense of where I’m starting the next day. Okay, whether it’s, I know I like I like where this draft is. But I think there’s more revision to be done. Or having the beginning of an idea for the next thing. It’s very rare, and usually very unproductive for me to like, wake up and just go to my desk and I have like, No, I’m not just like sitting down looking at a page like let’s see where it goes. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 46:37
Okay, what’s the word you can never spell correctly on the first try?

Saeed Jones 46:43
Restaurant? Oh, fighting for my life every time.

Traci Thomas 46:48
This Okay, there we’ve had a lot of words. I’m a terrible speller. Everyone has a word I cannot spell. The only word I can spell that people can’t spell is restaurant, but it’s you. Angelina Jolie, Quinton, Tarantino, Jason Reynolds. All of you are restaurant people. It’s like the upper echelon of can’t spell restaurant is like the cream of the crop. It’s just I don’t know what is going on with brilliant people. You guys can’t smell restaurant and I feel sorry for you.

Saeed Jones 47:14
Just yeah, all the vowels just are constantly rearranging themselves in front of it. Yeah,

Traci Thomas 47:23
no, love it.

Saeed Jones 47:24
I don’t think I literally I don’t think I’ve spelt restaurant the first time with, you know, correctly in my life. In my life,

Traci Thomas 47:34
I love it. Well, you’re in very good, elite company. It’s really an incredible list. Okay, just really quickly, you have a new podcast with Sam Sanders and Zack Stafford it’s called vibe check. It’s great. There’s only been like, well, so we’re recording a little right after it started. So by the time folks listen to this, there’ll be more episodes, but there’s only been like two episodes? How is that for you? Doing something that’s like conversational. There isn’t that same ability to edit in the way that you would a poem and like you don’t get to go back. Right? I know you have experience because you did that Twitter BuzzFeed show. I am DM so you like know how to do it. But I’m just wondering how like this long form sort of conversation thing differs for you a person who loves a revision and an edit? Right?

Saeed Jones 48:17
I mean, one, what helps tremendously is that the other two hosts, Zack and Sam are my friends. And I trust them. They’re also brilliant. Yeah. And so to me, I’m okay. Being quiet. Like I’m okay listening or framing a conversation as like, and I’ll tell them I’m like, I’m not an I actually don’t know what’s going on. And so then kind of switching posture. I think long form conversation gets tricky. When you are forced or forcing yourself, like out of your depths for like, way beyond like, we can all we can banter for a little bit. But when you’re like, Honey, I am five MIT. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. You know what I mean? And so my goal is to never just be talking about something I have no idea about, you know, if because I think it’s I think, curiosity and even, you know, self aware, like ignorance, but you want to do better. I think that’s a rich line of inquiry, you know, and so, yeah, I think it helps that I trust them. And they’re incredibly interesting. So I’m always getting to hear what they have to say. But also, I know that like, I can just be myself in the conversation. I guess maybe that’s my secret, right? Like, whether it’s the poem or whether it’s the conversation, I think I do a pretty good job of like, compartmentalizing and just like drilling in and just in that very narrow bubble that I create. Just being fully myself there.

Traci Thomas 49:44
Yeah. Well, the show is so good. I really love it. I feel like there’s a bazillion podcasts but it definitely fills a space that I haven’t heard before. You know, and so I really and plus you’re all really smart, interesting and funny people and I Like always very curious what you have to let you all have to say about things just yet. Like, sometimes something will happen. And I’m like, say tweets about, like, I just want to know, you know, it

Saeed Jones 50:09
That makes me so happy. It makes me so happy. No, I mean, I just I think our friendship is special. And, you know, we still when it comes to media, we don’t have enough black people and queer people being given the opportunity to speak in an authoritative way about things beyond queerness and pop culture. So I love that we can talk about renaissance and we can talk about bodies, bodies, bodies, like we do this week. But we’re also like, you know, talking seriously about Biden administration, public policy, or the monkey pox vaccine rollout, which is a mess. You know, and, and so yeah, it’s just we deserve this. We all deserve this. And I love that you love it.

Traci Thomas 50:51
I, I really do. I’m like, kind of a super fan of yours, which is like, a little awkward to say because you’re here, but like, it’s true. Anyways, we don’t talk about this, but I appreciate it. Okay, so we have to wrap up, unfortunately, but I could do this forever. We literally could just talk I know. I feel like we’re gonna have to be friends next time. You’re in LA. Let’s get together with Sam and I’ll go to dinner.

Saeed Jones 51:11
I would love that.

Traci Thomas 51:13
Okay, anyways, what this is, this is a fucked up question to ask you because your book hasn’t come out yet, officially, but I’m gonna do it because I’m that kind of chaos. Okay, what comes next for you? Do you know?

Saeed Jones 51:24
I don’t know. Okay. Don’t know. I’m trying to be curious and open and really asking myself, I don’t know. I, I can tell you it’s not gonna be another poetry collection. I you know, I But beyond that, I don’t know. Great. We’ll see.

Traci Thomas 51:41
That’s great. That’s a perfect answer. For people who love this collection alive at the end of the world. What other books would you recommend to them?

Saeed Jones 51:50
Oh, gosh. Magical Negro by Morgan Parker. How to write an autobiography by Alexander Chee. Afro pessimism by Frank V. Walters. Third, informs this book. It is a that is a very challenging book. It is a very thorny, and I think I think he would say that too. It’s a thorny, challenging, but I mean, it’s called Afro pessimism. So yeah. But I think it’s beautiful. And to me, it felt liberating. It felt liberating to read someone willing to tear into these ideas, because I think, black people, we just ended up having to hold a lot back. Oh, I do love finna by Nate Marshall. Absolutely enjoyed that book. I enjoy him. Yeah, I’ll leave it there. For now. That’s great. That’s a good list.

Traci Thomas 52:41
That’s a great list. That’s a great list. The many I gotten many overlaps with the show, so people will know me, you’ll know the Alexander chi and Nate was a guest earlier.

Saeed Jones 52:51
Look, let’s be real in this, this ain’t no secret to the girls, the girls who get it get it? Alexander chi is the mother. I am fortunate to have a lot of great, you know, mentors and colleagues. And Alexandra Chee is someone who has really raised a generation of writers. Yeah, you know, in so many ways. So yeah,

Traci Thomas 53:14
so you don’t you don’t know this. And as a recording, my listeners will know this. This was our book club pick for August. So the episode will come out. And I talked about the book with Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who’s also sort of been, you know, raised in the School of Alexandria. And it’s interesting because I’m not a writer. And so while I could appreciate Alexandra chi as a writer, like, I think his writing is incredible. A lot of that book didn’t mean as much for me, because I don’t write. And so I couldn’t understand some of the things he was navigating. And we talked a lot about it. Like, I’m a person who loves books, because I love reading. And so things that are instructive for writing don’t always translate to me, because I’ve sort of been like, Don’t show me your work. I just want to remember this.

Saeed Jones 54:00
And it’s very him showing his work. It’s kind of cute, right? It’s a it’s a love letter to form the personal essay form.

Traci Thomas 54:07
writing and to writers. And so there’s parts of it that I just absolutely loved. But it didn’t hit me in the way but the thing that I love about Alexander Chee is what you’re saying how many people he has been so how many people whose work I love, he has been influential for how he’s always supporting other authors and authors of color specifically, like he really is the person that so many people turn to and sight and like, what an incredible person to be. Like,

Saeed Jones 54:36
like, spider I mean, I remember finding one of his short stories. It’s It’s the it’s the story of like this Blackbird it’s, I can’t remember the title. It’s very sexy and ironic and, and morally slippery. I remember finding it as a junior in college. I’m at Western Kentucky University, going through everything UCB going through it. But I, but you need to know that in the background of those chapters, I had printed off one of Alexander chi short stories, and I would just carry it around with me. And it was just, you know, like, like a Bible, a Bible on the go for me. Just incredible.

Traci Thomas 55:14
I feel like the other person who’s like that, for a lot of people who have come on this show is KSA. layman. Yes, he’s the other person that is always cited. It’s like this person believed in me, they mentored me, they helped me. And I just, I think it’s like, really incredible to be alive at the time where people you know, it’s just

Saeed Jones 55:31
Oh, and I would I would add how to slowly kill yourself and others in America. That feels very much again.

Traci Thomas 55:39
Yeah, I love him. Okay, last question. Last question. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book, who would you want it to be?

Saeed Jones 55:46
Oh, my gosh, I think my mother and oh, I don’t know what she would think. She would always get on me for cursing and stuff like that, you know, but, but God, the conversations we could have. I mean, because at the end of the day, I mean, I love writing I love publishing books. But the conversations they make possible are one of the great joys of my career. And so and you know, in for her, she’s everything. She still is everything to me. And so yeah, I would love to get to talk with her about Yeah, homes.

Traci Thomas 56:18
I love that so much. All right, everyone. This has been our with side job alive at the end of the world, which you all must read. And if you haven’t read the memoir yet how we fight for our lives. I don’t know why you’re listening to this podcast, because you’re not welcome here until you read that book.

Saeed Jones 56:35
Okay, sure. God, oh, my book, my memoir is hunting you down. It’ll get you.

Traci Thomas 56:39
It’s coming for you. Saeed, Thank you so much for being here. Tracy. Thank you. This was a delight. And everyone else we will see you in the stacks. All right, everyone. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you to Saeed Jones for being our guest. I’d also like to say thank you to dolly far, and Jasmine Alexander Brookings for helping to make this interview possible. Remember, Lisa Lucas will be joining us next week on September 28. To discuss our book club pick the trees by Percival Ebright, a thriller and a real page turner, you do not want to miss it. If you love the show and want inside access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening to Apple podcasts, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on Instagram at the stocks pod and on Twitter at the stocks pod underscore and check out our website. The stocks podcast.com This episode of the Stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistants from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designers Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas

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