Saeed Jones on the Profundity to Be Found in the Grieving Process
If there were a bard for our bewildering times, Saeed Jones would be a fitting choice. In his newly released collection of poems, Alive at the End of the World, Jones dances through grief, rage, and trauma—collective and personal—with acerbic clarity and sharp-edged wit. It is a book that gets to the heart of this confounding, erratic era, by turns reflecting on the tremendous amount of loss that has come with Covid-19; more broadly, the staggering, startling nature of living through a pandemic; the unignorable realities of climate disaster; the ongoing dangers of being Black and queer in the face of systemic racism, homophobia, and white supremacy; and, individually, the 2011 death of his mother and the past decade he has spent wallowing, mourning, mending, processing, and growing in the aftermath. Following his two previous books—the 2019 coming-of-age memoir How We Fight for Our Lives and the 2014 poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, both of which similarly bring together collective and personal pain to potent effect—Alive at the End of the World is only sort of a hyperbolic, if coy, title. “This human era we’re in is wild,” Jones says on this episode of Time Sensitive. “I am not here to tell people, ‘Oh, it has always been this calamitous.’ No! We are in an era of instability, destability. It’s bad, and I think we need to be real about that.”
Heavy as Jones’s subject matter is, though, it’s not all doom and gloom for the author. As is clear on this episode, he enjoys a good laugh. And laugh often he does. There’s a blunt, let’s-not-beat-around-the-bush quality to Jones’s work—he intentionally and directly addresses harsh, gut-punching realities that many of us would rather ignore. But he does so in ways that are alluring, and that draw readers in. Speaking with him is a similar affair. Jones is at once emotionally intelligent, hilarious, and ebullient. (Not surprisingly, and for good reason, he is an admirer of such cultural icons as Richard Pryor, Diahann Carroll, and Toni Morrison.) Wading through the tough stuff, slowly, thoughtfully, and with good humor, Jones gets to higher truths and finds meaningful connection points. In conversation, or at least this one, he often asks casually, sometimes around a burst of laughter, “You know what I mean?” It’s his way, perhaps, of powering through and confronting head-on issues of race, sexuality, and power—the nation’s “unacknowledged tensions, histories, confusions,” as he puts it—in depth and with nuance.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Jones talks with Spencer about growing up Black and queer in the suburban city of Lewisville, Texas; how the murders of James Byrd, Jr., and Matthew Shepard haunted him throughout his teenage years and still do; and why, “in our culture right now, everything’s a proxy war, everything’s one-upmanship.”
Jones reads his poem “Saeed, How Dare You Make Your Mother Into a Prelude” and discusses grieving his mother and her death over the past 10 years.
Jones speaks to his mother’s Nichiren Buddhism practice, and also to some Black cultural figures he references in Alive at the End of the World (and who have helped shape him), including Paul Mooney, Richard Pryor, Whitney Houston, Little Richard, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, and Billie Holiday.
Jones discusses being raised by a single mother in Lewisville, Texas; navigating “being gay” at a suburban high school in the ’90s; and some of the influential books his mother kept around the house, including James Baldwin’s Another Country.
Jones recalls how, growing up in Lewisville, he thought he was the only gay person in the entire city, and how, in his teenage years, a fateful run-in with an older man at the local public library led to his first sexual encounter… in the library’s peach-tiled men’s bathroom. He also reads his poem “Jasper, 1998.”
Jones shares his path to poetry, beginning at Western Kentucky University; then in graduate school at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey; and eventually, getting published in the pages of The New Yorker.
Jones talks about his time alongside his mom in the I.C.U. and how grateful he is to have been able to be with her during her final days. He also briefly discusses his past decade of incredible productivity.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Saeed, welcome to Time Sensitive.
SAEED JONES: Hi! [Laughs] Thanks for having me.
SB: So you begin your new book of poetry, Alive at the End of the World, with the sentence, “The end of the world was mistaken / for just another midday massacre / in America.” I wanted to start there. These poems were born in the pandemic. It’s a heavy but hopeful collection. Tell me about the time in which you wrote it, and now that it’s out, how you’re thinking about this particular period of time that you spent writing it.
SJ: Sure. Oh gosh, there’s so much to that. I will say, as was the case for many of us, in our different personal iterations, I live alone with my dog. So for me, early in the pandemic in particular, when we were really responsibly isolating, of course, I had a lot of time. I had a lot of time to think and I was lonely. And then, all of a sudden, it began to feel like my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, where I live, was suddenly crowded with ghosts, with histories, with griefs. [Laughs] It was, in that isolation, in the way things kind of slowed down, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I have dinner plans tonight.” No dinner plans, no outings, no going to the museum, no going to the club. So what fills that time? Memory, grief, all the things you wish you could be doing. All the things that suddenly you have the bandwidth to pay attention to and notice.
I think I was bewildered by that experience. I was like, if there’s a police shooting anywhere in the United States, I seemed to know about it. I was just tuned in. At first I was like, I think of myself as an observer of culture, so at first it was, “Oh, this is interesting.” And then, that was week one of the pandemic. [Laughs] And I was like, “Oh no, this isn’t fun anymore.” So I think, in a way, you see this book, me kind of clawing my way out of that panic. The only way I know how to do that is to address and to acknowledge what’s going on, not to run away from it.
SB: It almost feels—and we’ll touch on this, because I think there’s a lot of memoir quality to this, but… It almost feels like each poem’s a form of marking time. You have “Deleted Voice Message: Hey, Robyn—It’s Me, Whitney,” which has the line, “I keep waking up a new color of lonely.” Or “A Spell to Banish Grief,” which was inspired from this depressive episode you had in January 2021. Could you talk about that sort of time-marking element to these poems?
SJ: Yeah, I mean, you’re right. And there’s a line at one point where I make a joke in the book, “Did I Just Trick Myself into Writing Another Memoir,” which I’ve always said, I’m never going to write another one.
The book functions a bit as a follow-up to my memoir [How We Fight for Our Lives], like the afterlife of publishing a book of personal experiences. What does that feel like? What is that like after the events and the audiences go away? But also, I think it’s a bit of a time capsule. And I’ve always been interested in… I’ve had this ambition to honor the fact that I believe Black queer people can be our historians. They can be at the center of culture. They can be the people who write the great American novel, or whatever. So yeah, it’s both a personal time capsule, but also it’s me personally acknowledging the fact that I think my lens on the last few years is pretty insightful, to be honest.
SB: Well, and this period for you personally marked the tenth anniversary of your mother’s death. And there’s a poem in the collection called “Saeed, How Dare You Make Your Mother Into a Prelude” that gets to your grieving in this just potent, I would say, profound way. And I was hoping you might read that here.
SJ: Of course, of course.
SB: Drop the mic.
SJ: Drop the mic. Yeah, let’s go there. I mean, there’s so much with this to talk about, even just the title. “Saeed, How Dare You Make Your Mother Into a Prelude”: [reads poem]
SB: Thank you.
SJ: Thank you.
SB: So grief is, in many ways, at the heart of this book, and it’s sort of a deep dive into, as I read it, both personal grief and collective grief.
SB: What we were all kind of going through.
SJ: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
SB: Could you share in terms of this past decade what you’ve learned about the grieving process, and about time? And particularly in the context of this poem, which was written in this very visceral [laughter] moment.
SJ: Oh, gosh. Grief is one of the most humane—humanizing—experiences I’ve ever had. I’m more human now than I was before I had this relationship with grief because it’s so complicated and colorful. I mean, its twin is love, right? So you’re in deep pain, you’re in both acute—when the loss happens, the week of the funeral, those initial months, that first year—acute distress, and it’s just bewildering. I mean, I remember I would wake up with dried tear streaks on my face, and I was like, “What’s going on?” And then I would remember, you know what I mean? Or, all of a sudden, I would have moments when I would realize things I would never get to do with my mother again. You know what I mean?
So it’s the acute, it’s just really overwhelming, and it’s like you feel your brain, your emotional capacity for your understanding of relationships and connections. It’s just like, Oh my gosh, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s just so bad. And then, ten years later, it’s not acute. It’s changed, but you have this different relationship. And so, with time, you come to realize that pain is twinned with love. The distress exists in direct proportion to how much you loved and laughed and enjoyed. And raged, whatever, with whoever you’ve lost.
Ten years in, I think I found myself entering this phase of still missing her, my mother, being confused, I think, by how intense the relationship still was. And part of that’s maybe masculinity. It is masculinity. I also think it’s our culture. Capitalism insists that we move on, keep going, keep going. You don’t have time to reflect. You don’t have time to—
SJ: Rebuild! I mean, you even hear President Biden being like, “The pandemic’s over,” and it’s like 400 people are dying a day from Covid. It’s not over. It might be different, and I’m okay with acknowledging that, but you just see people kind of, like a hand on your back pushing you forward. That’s what the invisible hand is doing.
I remember, again, everything’s, for me, personally stops. I’m just home. I’m not getting to be out and having conversations and being in the art spaces that help me process and live through experiences. I’m just sitting home, in the home I made out of how much I miss you, and woof, that was rough. But for it to happen then during the pandemic, I think it positioned me to have, I don’t know, maybe a different resonance. It was almost like there was a frequency that I could hear. Grief had allowed me to access, like, some other sound waves that I was picking up on.
I would think about the fact that my mother was a Black woman with a lifelong heart disease, that she had run-ins on and off, and it eventually caught up with her far too soon, in her fifties. And thinking about how heart disease acutely impacts Black women in this country. It is a different kind of epidemic that isn’t acknowledged. And that she was a Black woman who worked at an airport, in the state of Georgia, with heart disease. And I was like, Oh wow, I miss her so much. And of course, that means you’re like, I wish she was still here. And I was like, Do you? Would you want your mother to be alive to experience this pandemic? You don’t. Because you know exactly what would probably happen statistically.
So out of that crucible of my honest desires kind of colliding with, “Well, let’s be logical, let’s game this out.” Whoa. And so suddenly that’s why you see in the book, and particularly in this poem, the personal and the collective all coming together. And so you have me both nodding toward billionaires [laughs] and capitalism and everything else that’s going on, but also this very personal grief that I’m still reckoning with.
SB: There’s this other really cutting, two-line poem. “Okay, One More Story.” It just says: “You died and a decade passed, then: one morning / everyone started dying.”
SJ: Yeah. Yeah. Ahh! Isn’t that it? [Laughs] You’ll notice I laugh a lot because I am a pretty joyful, humorous person, but also I realize, again, the afterlife of grief. I was like, Oh, you do kind of have to begin to laugh at how grief and loss, like this loss that we’re all in, it humbles you. And you’re kind of like, you got to have to shrug your shoulders and go, Oh, okay, all right. I have far less control than I thought. [Laughs] And it seems like the more I learn, the less control I actually have. You kind of have to just acknowledge that.
SB: This “afterlife” idea reminds me a lot of Saidiya Hartman’s work.
SJ: Yes! Yes.
SB: I talked to Claudia Rankine about that on this podcast, the idea of the “afterlife of slavery.”
SJ: Yes, absolutely. Saidiya Hartman, and what was her most recent book? Wayward Lives, [Beautiful Experiments] I believe? Yes, very important.
I think you also see that kind of functioning in [Alive at the End of the World], too. I’m writing also about historical grief, generational trauma. I’ve done some research into some of my ancestors and seen their names on a plantation’s inventory between cows and jars of molasses. Then there are the names of some of my ancestors. That is a grief. That is a loss. And I think Saidiya Hartman and Claudia Rankine, in different ways, have really illuminated how it’s not just microaggressions, it’s these histories and these generational experiences, and what we aren’t able to process stays in us, and thus is passed on. It’s passed on to our interactions. It’s passed on through our progeny, our legacy. It’s passed on by the dysfunction we create in our families and communities, and the ripple effect of that. So I think you also see in this book, me acknowledging this sense of, gosh, it’s all catching up with us at the same time.
SB: And you mentioned humor. Humor does come into this process.
SB: I’m thinking here of your poem “The Dead Dozens.” There’s a stanza in it where you write, “You love your mama so much, / Freud came back from the dead / just to study your sorry ass.” [Laughter] It’s funny.
SJ: It’s a good joke if it still makes me laugh.
SB: It’s funny. And by the way, that poem’s not a funny poem. That stanza is actually funny.
SJ: It’s pretty funny. Yeah. So humor is an important artistic tradition that I draw from, like the blues. I mean, you see blues, and that’s why repetition is very much a part of this book because that’s kind of what blues is. It’s this, I think, acknowledgement of not only are things bad, it’s things are piling up. It’s the repetition of the grievances that’s really getting us to that last beat. I think “The [Dead] Dozens” is another excellent example of a Black artistic tradition. I remember on the playground, as a kid, it was just “yo momma” jokes.
And then, I’m working on this book and trying to color all of the different shades of grief because I think one, Americans, our culture, we’re not good at grief. We don’t talk about it very much. And I think when we tend to talk about it, it tends to be in the acute phase, and that’s kind of where it stays. The really sad: “Oh, what happened? What happened to her?” Those stories are important, but I’m interested in what comes later when everybody goes away and everyone’s not calling on you constantly to check on you. What happens when it just becomes an invisible but persistent part of your human experience? I think those moments where you feel like a sorry ass, when you feel like you’re whining, when you’re irritated. I mean, there would be times, as I mentioned, embarrassed by my grief. Sometimes you’re angry. You’re angry.
Again, this takes us back to the collective. But part of how so many people deal with our horrible healthcare system in this country is that they don’t acknowledge their pain. They don’t acknowledge their own health because they know they can’t afford the help they get. They don’t want their loved ones to worry about it. That was certainly the case with my mother. There would be moments where I would just be so angry, and then you realize, Oh, it’s a different kind of haunting. [Laughs] It’s a different kind of… So I think in the poem you see me trying to talk back, in a way. It’s both in direct address to my mother and to that rage, but I also think you’re seeing me maybe speaking out: “This is what grief does. This is what loss does.”
SB: Your mother was a Buddhist, and raised you to practice Nichiren Buddhism.
SJ: Nichiren Buddhism, mm-hmm.
SB: Did certain Buddhist teachings help or guide you through the grieving process?
SJ: Hmm… [pauses] yes. Yes. Understanding that everything is connected. That every cause has an effect. Nothing ever just goes away. Nothing truly disappears. Energy is converted. Sure, that translates into my understanding that I have a present-tense relationship with my mother. It’s changed. I told someone the other day, I was like, “It’s the longest long distance relationship maybe I’ve ever been in.” But it’s still there. I get good news, like something really cool I’m going to get to do later today, and I’m so excited. And you have that moment you’re like, Oh, let me go text her. Damn. You know what I mean? She’s still a part of my life. There’s still a back and forth. I think Nichiren Buddhism’s understanding of how we exist in connection, both with seen and unseen, made sense.
And then also another idea that was really important in our household, I think in terms of resilience—a working-class, single mother raising her son—you have to be pretty tough as a household, and so the idea of turning poison into medicine. That we can take the things that are besieging us and not just neutralize them, but maybe we can turn them into gems of wisdom or works of art or opportunities for connection. And that the thing that was hurting you or wearing you out, could—there’s the potential [laughs]—for it to become maybe one of the best things that’s ever happened to you. The thing is, though [laughs], Buddhism’s pretty tough. Which is, I think I have a different relationship. I was already beginning to become kind of chaotically ambivalent about Buddhism and organized religion well before my mother passed away. But, I don’t know, I think at times when I think about poison into medicine, I was talking to my therapist once and he was like, “Yeah, that’s good. I mean, that could be an inspiring framework if that’s helpful.” But he was like, “But why did you have to swallow the poison in the first place?”
I think sometimes that framework of resiliency and, “Don’t worry, there’s going to be something that comes out of this.” “To live is to suffer.” All of that’s great in terms of giving you hope, helping you get to the next day. We need that. However, again, because it’s existing within our culture, our Western capitalistic culture, I think that also can turn into a “move on.” “Just move on, be tougher.” “We don’t have time for you to wallow [laughs] in the feelings.” And that’s a problem if you’re a poet. [Laughs]
SJ: I live to wallow. But also, I do think that a lot of the chaos that we’re dealing with as a culture, as a nation, is that we have a lot of not just pain, but, I would say, a lot of unacknowledged tensions, histories, confusions. Again, if you can’t acknowledge it and process it, it’s going to impact how you’re interacting with other people. So that’s the tension I live in with those philosophies, at least now.
SB: In your new book there’s also all these references to Black artists, a kaleidoscope of people.
SJ: Oh, I love that. Yes.
SB: Who it quickly becomes clear have had this massive impact on you: Paul Mooney, Richard Pryor, Whitney Houston, Diahann Carroll, Luther Vandross, Little Richard, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, Billie Holiday, Toni Morrison. I was hoping you might speak to why you homed in on these particular artists. And also, what about their work was reverberating in your head?
SB: I mean, I realize it’s a broad question, though, because it’s ten people, so you might have ten different answers.
SJ: A lot of people. I mean, one, it was kind of like what I was saying at the beginning of this conversation. I was like, “Yeah, I’m alone in my apartment in this pandemic, but it sure is crowded in here.” [Laughter] So a lot going on and that is how it felt. And so again, if the book is a time capsule, how can I represent that as art?
But also, I was turning to their music and their film and their jokes and their ideas to give myself hope and laughter and levity and insight. Just personally, just Saeed minding his own business in his living room. I was listening to Aretha [Franklin] a lot. You know what I mean? I was listening to Little Richard a lot. So that’s where it started, just a sincere, this is what I was going through, and if it’s a time capsule, it makes sense to acknowledge that in the book.
But also, balance in all things, I think, is so important. And so while I do want to very much acknowledge that, this human era we’re in is wild. I am not here to tell people, “Oh, it has always been this calamitous.” No! We are in an era of instability, destability. It’s bad, and I think we need to be real about that. Even climate disaster, people talk about it like there’s an event horizon. I’m like, “No, no, no, no.”
SB: It’s here.
SJ: It’s here.
SB: Right here.
SJ: Ask the people of Oregon with these very deadly, unprecedented heat waves that are melting electric infrastructure.
SB: Go to mangroves in Northern Brazil. I mean—
SJ: Yes, talk to the people still dealing with the flooding in Pakistan. You know what I mean? It’s here. It’s here.
And then also, to think about police violence and state violence. I mean, I was sitting in a café before coming here, and next thing I know I’m watching a video of a kid being brutalized by a school officer, totally unnecessarily. And it’s just like damn, I was just trying to eat my lunch.
So I want to acknowledge what we’re going through, and that much of it does feel unprecedented. However, I think I was able to access some needed humility by learning more about the lives of these artists who I very much admire. And seeing, identifying—I think you realize these are their everyday apocalypses. Either the microaggressions that Paul Mooney is dealing with while working on Saturday Night Live with Richard Pryor in 1975, or someone like Diahann Carroll who I think is really interesting. The elegance! The pearls! The glamor! And then she later said that while she was filming Julia, which is when that poem’s [“Diahann Carroll Takes a Bath at the Beverly Hills Hotel”] set, she was staying in the Beverly Hills Hotel, it made her sick. The role was very respect… It wasn’t her, it was… White people were writing this character, and then she was going out, and then everyone’s applauding her, being the first Black woman on primetime television. And she was like, it made her feel ill to perform something, perform a role that was not authentic for her. And I was like, “Oh, that feels apocalyptic.”
SB: A white writer’s idea of what a Black woman should be.
SJ: Exactly, exactly. And people are applauding you and you’re just like, that’s mad. And I was like, “I bet she was taking a lot of long baths.” So there was something about kind of going into their lives. And though I obviously know and appreciate all of these artists, I tried to zero in on moments that I did not know about. And so that even if you don’t know who Diahann Carroll is, I think you know that dynamic. You feel it. You feel that exhaustion. You get home from work and you’re just fed up and you turn on the water in your bath and you’re like, maybe I’ll let it overflow. You just don’t care anymore because you’ve worked so hard to keep yourself together, and to be the elegant, respectable person you know you’re supposed to be. You just have moments where you don’t want to do it. So even if you don’t know who they are in terms of their legacies and incredible careers, I hope you can just encounter them as people dealing with their own kind of moments of breakdown, their own griefs.
SB: Let’s get into your upbringing. You were born in Memphis and raised by your single mother in Lewisville, Texas. Paint a picture of Lewisville. What are your strongest memories of that place now looking back?
SJ: Well, I will say years before we moved to Lewisville, my mom and I were driving because when we moved from Memphis to Texas, we first lived in Dallas for a couple of years. But we passed Lewisville. And Lewisville is right on I-35, the major highway. Lewisville has a big water tower. I’m sure it’s still there. And it says, “Lewisville High School, Home of the Fighting Farmers.” [Laughs] I remember we laughed. I swear we probably laughed for fifteen, twenty… We probably laughed all the way until we actually made it to… It was just the funniest. It’s like farmer John, like this white farmer in his overalls, pitch fork, on a donkey, who’s like breath and smoke like it’s a dragon. And we just laughed and laughed and laughed. And then years later we moved to Lewisville, Texas [laughs], Home of the Lewisville High School Fighting Farmers.
It’s a middle class, working class, middle class suburb just north of Dallas, Texas. It was interesting in that it’s surrounded by much whiter, much wealthier suburbs, so I was learning a lot about class at the time. It was weird to move from Dallas, the city. You move to the suburbs for better schools. That’s why my mom moved me out there. And it’s true. I was like A honor roll, A honor roll, A honor roll. And then the moment I arrived in the fifth grade in Lewisville, I was needing to get tutored by teachers after school. You realize the difference in education. There was this weird class collision, but then also, it was also pretty diverse, at least my high school was. It was a lot of Latino kids, a lot of Black kids. It was huge. It was a big school. We had ten-minute passing periods because it could take you that long to get from one classroom to another. There was just a lot going on and, I don’t know, kid of the nineties, I had a lot of time to myself. We had a lot of independence. I think about total swaths of hours that you were fine not having to account for as long as you were home in time for dinner. I mean, you see in my memoir all the trouble I get into. [Laughs]
So I don’t know. It was a good place, I think, for me to grow up in terms of having needs met. But also, yeah, it is Texas, it is the Bible Belt. I was aware of my feelings for boys. It took me a while to get to the language. But I mean as soon as I was aware of the concept of attraction and what you just feel in your body, and you can’t lie, it was always boys. There was never a doubt. I was never in conflict about it. I was just like, “Well, this is terribly inconvenient.” [Laughter] I was like, “How am I going to be National Honor Society? I’m just going to have to wait to come out until college.” That’s really how it was.
So, I don’t know, it’s a long way of saying in some ways I think it was great and I’m grateful for the life my mom was able to make for me in Lewisville.
However, and it’s interesting now, so much is going on in the news that resonates—critical race theory, anti-Blackness. All of that is like a more intense version of what I grew up with, but the seeds were there. The seeds were there. I remember some schoolmates tried to start a gay-straight student alliance. They put up posters before school started, before first period, posters around just advertising that it was coming and that there would be an initial meeting in a few weeks. These sweet little posters made by kids. They were down by the end of the day because the principal was like, “Absolutely not.” So, in a way, Lewisville was like a quiet crucible. It was very like, “Everything’s fine.” “We’re all good here.” “Everything’s cool, right?” “We all get along.”
SB: “Let’s move on.” [Laughs]
SJ: “Let’s move on, let’s move on.” But then I would say, as a gay Black kid, raised by a mom who was practicing Nichiren Buddhism, in a community where kids would come up to you and ask you what church your parents went to before they asked you what your name was, it was like, “Everything’s fine, everything’s good.” But personally, privately, I am freaking out. [Laughs] I am freaking out. And I think that is where I think art and poetry and the creative writing begins to become important.
SB: Tell me a little bit about your home life with your mom. You’ve written that she was “always on the edge of exhaustion.” She also had a heart condition, which created a paradox for you—having to be raised by, as you’ve put it, “a mother who was sick but did not appear to be.” How were you processing all of this related to your mom at a young age, but also what was the home life like?
SJ: In some ways, it was very vibrant. We laughed a lot. A lot. We loved to talk. Both my mom and I, on her side of the family, were known as the two talkers. No one else in our family were talkers. Everyone was exhausted, but it was just like, da, da, da, da, da, da.
SJ: And this is back when families could meet you at the airport, like meet you at the gate. I remember my grandmother came to meet us at the airport and she was like, “I heard you two talking the moment the jetway door opened.” And she was like, “I thought you were at the door.” It was like five minutes of just listening to you two talking and laughing. And she was just like, “I was just amazed at how loud, and how much you were—what do you have to talk about that much?” So that was part of it.
We loved to talk about what was going on. We watched TV together. We talked about the news. My mom read three newspapers a day, and then we would talk about it. We were always looking out and trying to make sense of the world together. I think that’s where that observer in me comes from. But then also, and I say it in the book at one point, in the memoir, “It was like sometimes the mood would change like weather.” And then part of it is, I’m a teenager, so I’m moody, too, so that’s happening. But I think now, in retrospect, she was dealing with stressors. You know that thing, you come home from work and you’re in a good mood, and then you see the bill that’s overpaid waiting for you on the kitchen counter. It’s just—
SB: Trying to keep a home together.
SJ: Exactly. So I think you see that in the book, these silences that begin to emerge, both because I’m processing my sexuality—it’s like the one thing…. Health and gender, sexuality—those were the two things that we are not good to talk about. We could talk about everything else.
SB: Right. She wasn’t homophobic, but she wouldn’t say the word gay.
SJ: Right, right. It’s so strange. I think our culture does a number on us. Queer kids, we tie ourselves into knots to say our parents weren’t homophobic. Or, “She never beat me. She never kicked me.” And I was like, “Well that’s still, okay, that’s a low bar. That’s a low bar.” But instead, I would say homophobia manifested in our household as a silence, which is violent. I think silence can be cruel. I mean, especially when you’re a young person and you have questions and emotions. “Don’t you have a body? Don’t you have a body, baby?” You know what I mean? And so you’re left on your own, and I think that’s dangerous. We know all the trouble that young people get into and will always get into no matter what, but they certainly get into more when they’re left to their own devices.
I think something to talk about grief a bit, something I grieve now and that I do get angry about, is those silences denied us some really important, great conversations. You see me, in the book, try. There’s a moment where I want to ask her a question about boys and boyfriends because I was having a boyfriend problem when I was in college. She just couldn’t. She would go silent, deer in the headlights, and literally freeze in total silence until I changed the subject. And it was so immature and silly of her to respond in that way, but I didn’t know what to do, and so I write a letter. And I was like, “Look, I don’t have anyone else to talk to! And you are attracted to men, I’m attracted to men.” So I think there are times even now where I’m just like, Damn, we should’ve been able to talk about this kind of stuff. It’s really not that big of a deal. But yeah, that was kind of the tension that emerges in the house. And as I was working on the memoir, I began to realize that silence was almost like a second parent raising me.
SB: Your mother also had books around the house, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby and [Alice Walker’s] The Color Purple, James Baldwin’s Another Country. You read these around age 12, and that opened your eyes to this sort of unbelievable, mind altering reality of what books can do. Could you speak about these early reading encounters, the books you found around the house?
SJ: Sure, sure. She had a magnificent bookcase that was in our living room, and she was a reader. By the time I was a teenager, she was really into like, who did she love? Sue Grafton, like the Alphabet Murder Mystery series. Dean Koontz. She was always reading something, but a lot of those books she had acquired in her twenties. She briefly took a few college courses, wasn’t able to finish college herself because of money issues. But I think it introduced her to some really important writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor. And she kept those books, and I’m very much a Sagittarius in that I hate being recommended things. [Laughs] I would tell people, if you want me to read a book, just leave it somewhere and let me stumble upon it and feel that I’ve discovered it.
SJ: You know what I mean? And I don’t know if she was intentional in that, but it’s funny, she never talked about those damn books. She never talked about them. She just kept them in the middle of the living room. And so then of course, I did stumble upon them, and I never wanted to talk to her about it. [Laughs] Absolutely not. Gross! But I read every single one of those damn books, and I loved them. Even when I was, as you see in the book, you see my first encounter with Toni Morrison and I’m just like, I am baffled. I am confused. I was like, We haven’t gotten to the concept of circular plots yet in sophomore English. I don’t know what’s happening. I was bewildered. Or The Color Purple, I was just like, Ugh, girls. Whoa, too much. Too much girl. Too much girl.
But then I found her copy of Another Country, and it’s a really intense, troubling, troublesome book. It’s got a lot going on, but there are bisexual characters. I can tell you at that point in the book, I did not know the word bisexual. So to be reading a book and you’re like, I’m just like du, du, du, and I’m like, Whoa! Is this man hooking up with a man? This is incredible. I didn’t even know this could happen in books. I thought this was just something you find in magazines, if you’re really lucky. You know what I mean? And then that man starts kissing a woman. I was like, Now wait a minute! [Laughs] What is going on? It truly blew my mind. It was so liberating. And I think there’s something about the books, that it was my own private experience. It felt like my own discovery that I was keeping to myself. It’s weird, right? That everything’s twinned. So on the one hand, I am very frustrated at the ways in which silence forced me to have to figure things out on my own. But then also, of course, there is a thrill, there is a joy, there’s even a pride, to finding something on your own. So I wanted to bring that into the world of the book.
SB: Well, I found it really interesting that in this sort of sense, you’d never really felt held by your mother. But holding this book, and you actually have a sentence in your memoir, where you basically describe that you felt held by the book.
SJ: The book was holding me, yeah. Yeah. It was intimate. I mean, it’s woof! I mean, I literally, I hide…. Like the next chapter involves like a wild episode with porn magazines, right? But I literally treated a James Baldwin novel just as if it was just as scandalous.
SB: Your mom’s copy of it.
SJ: Yeah, yeah, like hid it under the pillows because I was like, I’m going to get in trouble for reading books.
SB: [Laughs] Well, this is a nice segue. You also went looking around this time for books about being gay at the Lewisville Public Library. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about what you found?
SJ: Yeah, so… because I loved libraries, I loved books. I always understood and maybe again, that’s part of, what’s it, latchkey kids? It’s a very kind of nineties thing. The only generation about this that’s worse is Gen Xers. They’re like, “We had to go in the woods to find our foods. Our parents never…” I was like, “Okay, we get it. We get it. You were independent.” But it’s true. There was a sense of, you kind of had to learn how to figure things out on your own.
So, I’m having these feelings, I’m reading, just like, What’s going on? I go to the public library. I was there basically every day, which then becomes much funnier later in the book, right? It was just one of my spaces, one of my public spaces. It was like, you go to the mall or you go to the library or the park or whatever. I go hoping to get some answers. I’m too scared to ask a librarian, which now I’m like, Oh my God. Those librarians would’ve been like, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day. Come on, kid. I’ll show you exactly where to go.” But I was scared, and so I just made my way to the sociology section eventually. And all of the books I was able to find about “being gay,” however you want to frame that, were pretty outdated. It was a pretty dusty collection at that point. It was books like how to deal with your gay child. I think it was, to me, it was like a cancer diagnosis. There were outdated books that didn’t have information about where we were in the HIV/AIDS crisis at the time. So this is what, the late nineties, we have medications. HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Wouldn’t know it from the books in that library, though. I’m reading, I’m just freaking out, and I feel like I’ve unwittingly introduced myself to a death sentence. It’s awful.
And again, you have all these feelings, and now you’re like, This is the answer? And, you can’t go to anyone to ask follow-up questions. This is what I mean when I say silence abandons you and can be violent. Because obviously, if we’d been able to talk about things like sexuality and our bodies and everything, I would’ve gone home and my mom would’ve said, “Oh wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Yes, HIV/AIDS is real. But just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.” You can use protection, and also there are medications. It’s no longer a death sentence. What are these books? Let’s go get you some….” It can become an opportunity for connection and hope, but that didn’t happen. And so instead, I just kind of wander back home feeling, I guess, doomed is kind of the sense of the end of that chapter.
SB: But later you find yourself back at the library and actually end up having your first sexual encounter with a man there, which is like the most… [Laughter] I mean, it’s crazy. There’s something oddly poetic about you being in this library. And maybe you could share a little bit about it. You don’t have to rehash the full story, but….
SJ: Go to the library enough, you’re going to have some firsts. You know what I mean? You’re going to have some rites of passage. [Laughs] So yeah, I mean it was like, this is at the time when having a computer in the home, having internet connection was not something that everyone had. And there were times we would have dial-up and then we wouldn’t, or whatever and stuff like that, because it was too expensive. And my mom would be like, “We don’t need this internet thing,” or whatever.
So then I’d go into the library to use the computers all the time. And of course, I’m just a fullfire horny teenager at this point in high school. As we all are. Because that’s the thing, we can ban books, we can do critical race theory, we can pull books from shelves. You are never going to stop young people from having desire, from having questions, from just having want. That’s going to go somewhere, and they’re going to have these questions whether you want to be the person to answer them or not.
I’m just at the library, just constantly trying to, and it was like they have parental blockers. I probably was one of the first best hackers in America. I might be a secret computer genius because I would just sit there all afternoon some days just trying to find my ways around the parent blockers [laughs] to get to either gay porn or just gay stuff, period. I was just like, I will figure this out. So yeah, I’m sitting there one afternoon at one of the computer carrels just in deep, [click, click, click] like I’m in the Matrix or something. The gay teenage matrix, trying to figure this out, like I’m Neo. And I don’t notice him at first, but someone leans over and I panic. I think it’s a librarian and I’m in trouble.
I look up, and it’s like someone’s dad, a grown man in his forties with a wedding ring on, and I think I’m in trouble. And he just says really gruffly like, “You like stuff like that?” And I’m like, Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. I’m ready to jump out of my body and let my skeleton run out of the library because I don’t know what’s about to happen. You know what I mean? I mean he looked like a proud alum of Lewisville High School Home of the Fighting Farmers, I’ll say that. And then he was just like, “I like stuff like that, too.” And I was like, Ohhh [whispers] my God. I’m like, “What?!” Because literally I was like, you go from being like, maybe I’m about to get beat up or something, or maybe he’s going to tell on me. You’re just going through all the bad things that can happen. And then you’re like, Oh, I didn’t realize that could possibly be an option, too. He could also have these feelings.
He invited me to go and meet him in the restroom, in the public restroom [laughs], in the public library. (I am so sorry, Lewisville Public Library!) And we go in there and have just a very awkward, fumbling hookup that in retrospect, to me, I think it’s very comedic and also deeply human, to be honest, because what was that guy going through? In some ways, it’s a funny, fumbling scene, but also it makes me think of how sad it is too. A bit. A bit. In that it’s like this lost, confused teenager, 14, 15 years old, who’s just desperate for someone, any version of connection. Anything that looks like an opportunity to have this desire, these feelings, acknowledged by anyone—it could be a TV show, it could be a drag show, it could be a person. And then here’s this person, but on the other end, he was clearly closeted or subversive in some way himself. I don’t know his life story, but I’m struck by, What was he feeling? What was he trying to acknowledge? And then just the two of us in a bathroom stall. Ugh, I will never, on my deathbed, I will be able to recall the particular color of the peach tiles in that restroom. I’ll think about it [laughs] forever because it was the sound of his belt hitting the tile. Just like, Oh, my God.
SB: That’ll be the color as the lights fade out.
SJ: Yeah, it’s such a vivid memory. Oh, gosh!
SB: So you mentioned the “bad things,” and obviously, the imagination could go in a lot of places. And the backdrop of this, and I wanted to bring this up, this was around the time of the murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. You wrote about both of them in your 2019 memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, noting that by 2002 your feelings about both murders had started to swirl and converge. I was hoping you might share a little bit about your reactions, as a young boy, to these murders. I know the James Byrd, Jr. news you watched on the TV with your mom.
SJ: Right. Yeah. And Matthew Shepard, seeing that kind of play out as a… because Matthew Shepard was treated as more of a national scandal, in my memory.
SB: The Laramie Project.
SJ: The Laramie Project, the play, and just like the unfolding of the trial, and all of that. So that’s why I talk about my first reaction when I’m at that computer carrel. Though, it’s in some ways… And I believe in being complicated and having complicated nuances, so it is funny in some ways—in like a silly, kind of coming-of-age story. But then also, I was genuinely scared at first. The moment you feel someone lean over, and you don’t know. You don’t know what people are going to do. Because I am in a household, we’re watching the news, we’re talking about it, I know what people are capable of at this point out there, right? So I had that fear, I had that terror.
I think it’s hard for people to fathom because technology and our access to community and the conversations we have, things have changed a lot. But there was a point when I was early teens, where I sincerely believed I was the only gay person [laughs] in all of Lewisville, Texas. Because if there were other gay people, wouldn’t they be talking about it? Right? That just seems obvious, wouldn’t it? There’s no sign of that. And so to learn about Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., two very different people, but both were violently killed, at least in part because of their identity, just who they are. That’s the message I remember receiving as a teenager: Oh, just being who you are is dangerous.
SB: It’s a death wish.
SJ: It’s a death wish or a death sentence, and that is terrifying. That is too much of a burden. If any child, any teenager, came to me and said, “I’m really worried that to be trans or nonbinary, Saeed, is a death wish” [I’d say], “Come sit by me. We’re going to talk. We’re going to talk, and we’re going to laugh, and we’re going to process this together until you don’t feel that way anymore.” But unfortunately, I didn’t get to have those experiences as a teenager. So in the book, you see me just kind of observing all of this, taking it in, noting the silences. I remember being grateful that, for example, a news story about Matthew Shepard comes on. It’s not that my mom would say something homophobic—“He got what he deserved” or whatever. I would hear other adults around us saying it. So my mom wouldn’t do that. But she would be silent. There would be a sudden blankness. I think she would very intentionally find an excuse to get up and go into the kitchen, so I couldn’t read the expressions on her face. There was an abandonment.
That wasn’t the same with James Byrd, Jr. That was like we were able to share that grief. And so yeah, you’re reading all of that, and that’s what adults, and I know I keep going back to banning books and these conversations, but it is really important because of course, young people are paying attention. Of course, I mean, I think young people are some of the most observant amongst us, right? And so they’re taking all of this on. And I just think, for me as a teenager, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., there was a haunting there. I wish I hadn’t taken so much of it on, but I did. Those stories lived with me. There’s a reason why I continued to write about them and the fallout of those stories in different ways.
SB: In your 2014 collection of poems Prelude to Bruise, there’s this staggering—I think that’s a very fair word to say—poem, “Jasper, 1998,” that you wrote in memory of James Byrd, Jr. I was hoping we could take a moment for you to read it here.
SJ: Sure, sure. And just for historical context, James Byrd, Jr. was a Black middle-aged man living in Jasper, Texas, which was about a four-hour drive from where we lived in Texas at the time. It was a hot day, and he accepted a ride home from three white men who had a truck because it just was overwhelming, and just the walk was so long. They turned out to be white supremacists, and they beat him to near death in a parking lot. I mean, it was just awful. And then they chained him to the back of their truck and dragged his body until his body came apart. I mean, it’s horrific on a whole other scale of violence. It’s like, What are we even capable of as human beings to do that to people?
But I also want to acknowledge, as well, that he was buried in a cemetery in Jasper and desegregated the cemeteries, the first Black person to be buried in that part of the cemetery. And his gravestone is consistently defiled. Very often I look up and it’s like, it’s been spray-painted, marked over. And so, there’s something for me all these years laterI’m what, in my mid-thirties now—to think about this horror that I learned about in 1998 when I was a kid. To see it in that way and the way I was haunted, but also just to know as an adult, all these years later, people always want to talk about America as this nation of progress and, of course, things always get better. And I’m like, Do they?
SB: The churn, the afterlife.
SJ: Yeah, the loop that we’re living in. Yeah, the afterlife of these events. So, this is “Jasper, 1998,” in memory of James Byrd, Jr: [reads poem]
SJ: Yes. You have to acknowledge the heaviness. You have to.
SB: I wanted to transition here to your time in Kentucky at Western Kentucky University. And this is after you’d gotten into N.Y.U. You were not able to go due to financial reasons. But you did get into Western Kentucky University on a debate team scholarship?
SJ: Speech and debate, mm-hmm.
SB: Was this when you knew you wanted to become a poet in earnest, when you were in Kentucky? When was that moment? And connected to the debate team, I was wondering how you think about that, too, in this context of poetry, of becoming, because I imagine learning how to use language, learning how to create sort of biting lines, being able to one-up your opponent.
SJ: The competitiveness, all of that, which is—it was very funny. Because I hate debating. [Laughter] I hate people who are contrarians. I’m just like, go away. Oh my gosh. I hate people who want to debate just for the sake of whatever. Oh, who has that kind of time? Yeah, so I’ve been at this point, throughout high school, quietly writing, I was writing poems in my notebook when I would pointedly not pay attention in class. I wasn’t passing notes to girls, I was passing poems to my girlfriends to be like, “Girl, read this, girl. It’s good. What do you think?” They’d be like, “Oh, this is good!” [Laughs] I’m still in touch with some of those friends. We laugh about it, we laugh about it.
So I would say at the beginning of college, I went in just as an English major. I think with the intention of, and the initial degree was designed to basically prepare me to be an English teacher, if I wanted to. I like teaching, and obviously I ended up becoming an English teacher, right, at one point. I love all of that. I love education. But it was also because I couldn’t imagine becoming—like, how do you become a poet? [Laughs] This is a question of access and culture. How were books made? Editors? Books just to me appeared on bookshelves, either in stores or libraries. I knew nothing else about it. So the idea of becoming a writer, what? You know what I mean? But I was like, English teacher, that’s a job, that’s whatever. But the desire’s there. The love is there.
And then speech and debate, I did all kinds of events, impromptu speaking, which is why I can speak uninterrupted for four minutes without taking a breath and all that kind of stuff. I think what happened, then, is that on the one hand, I’m going along, minding my business with English, being an English major, okay, whatever. But I’m doing speech and debate, so I’m hyper-aware of language’s potential, the potential of performance, of timing, audience analysis, read the room. I’m very good at that. I’m very good at that. I did it in high school, and that’s why I got the scholarship.
So by the time I’m in college—I mean, I grew up in Texas, as you know, right. I was doing American Legion Oratorical Contest, and I’d be alone in an American Legion Hall in Bryan, Texas, Lubbock, Texas, all these random towns. I would have to learn how to win over a room full of old white veterans [laughs] talking about government and politics. I would have to learn how to make that work. And that is an incredible skill. But as I mentioned, I don’t like debating for the sake of debate. I think as we see in our culture right now, everything’s a proxy war, everything’s one-upmanship. People aren’t having a lot of good-faith conversations. They’re trying to outdo each other. They don’t even believe in what they’re talking about. And I know that because I used to do that. That’s how I paid for college. [Laughs] So I think I was just aware of all of that.
And then privately, having this artistic desire, and some graduates of the speech team, some alums, formed a slam poetry team. We would go, and I would see them. Of course, I was very competitive like anyone else in this world, so I wrote some poems to perform. I would get to the finals, but I would never win. [Laughs] I was never good at like picking… because slam poetry, it’s a folk art. It’s a very specific space. And I realized I was learning a lot from it. I think I like to perform my poems. I like to believe I’m an engaging speaker, reader, performer, but that’s different. And so I took, as an elective, a poetry workshop. Initially, to get better, I thought, for these poetry slams.
But then, in these workshops, I discovered that yes, I wanted my poems to vibrate. I wanted there to be heat. I wanted people to go “whoop!” when they read my work. But I also wanted them to be able to exist on the page. And I love the form. I love the rigor of that kind of writing. It really delighted me, and I’m really grateful that the professor teaching that workshop, Tom Hunley, saw that I wasn’t just like a normal gen-ed kid just trying to get off, check off another credit for general education, that I was really into this. And he encouraged me to take another class, and another, and then I changed my major, and he was like, “You know you could publish these?” I was always like, “I can? What?” And then one day he came along and said, “You can apply to graduate programs.” And I was like, “Are you shitting me? Like, what?” [Laughs] I was amazed, and oh my gosh, I’m so grateful because if he had not said that, I’m not sure. Maybe there’s another road. Maybe this is my destiny and I would’ve found my way to this probably, right? I would like to think I’d have found my way to poetry. Maybe not.
SB: One hopes.
SJ: One hopes. But yeah, it was really because someone said, “Can you stay after class for a second? Can we talk for a moment? Here’s some more books.” That made all the difference. I think I’m a pretty confident person, but to take that leap. I mean, to be a poet, to decide to say, “This. This will be my expertise. This will be the organizing principle that everything else is built around,” it’s a pretty bold choice. And it’s worked out. It’s worked out. But yeah, a lot of appreciation to him for that vote of confidence.
SB: Well, you then go to Rutgers University in Newark for your M.F.A. You’ve described this as a period in which “so much inside me kept roiling, half contained, like a dam waiting to burst.” The pen became a weapon for you; the page, a shield—that’s your metaphor.
SJ: [makes sparring sounds]
SB: [Laughs] What did this writing time and M.F.A. time mean to you? Was that a period of deep craft? How do you think about it?
SJ: Oh yeah. I mean, as I tell students and artists I mentor, when it goes well—and I had a very positive graduate experience in my M.F.A. program—when it goes well, it’s wonderful, because never for the rest of your life [laughs] will you be put in a situation where all you really need to do is write and read. That’ll never happen again. You know what I mean? I’m doing twenty things on any given day, and this is my life as a full-time writer. It’s a real gift. It’s a real gift. I was obsessive [laughs] and probably really annoying. The roiling feelings, part of it is passion. Part of it is being a first generation, and now I’m like, what, a first-generation graduate student at that? I feel like I’m living on another planet from my family, from my mother, at this point in my life. I can’t even begin to… At times, I almost felt embarrassed to talk about school stuff because it felt so far away from what my family knew and what we were doing. And frankly, that was my arrogance. My mom was really smart. We could have talked about this stuff. She would’ve been okay. You know what I mean?
I remember coming back home from break once, and she was reading an essay, [The] Best American Essays, and I was like, “Huh, where did she…” And she was like, “I got it at the bookstore.”
SB: “I walked into Barnes & Noble.” [Laughter]
SJ: Yeah, she’s like, “It’s not like these books were kept at Fort Knox. Other people also read Best American…” I needed that humbling. But oh, it was wonderful. I just dived in, and you learn a lot of what you don’t like. You learn a lot of what… But you need to do that. I think it’s really important as an emerging artist to just go all in and expose yourself to as much as possible. I loved it. Newark was a wonderful community that I knew nothing about when I arrived, and so I was learning so much about the city of Newark, its history, the uprisings in the sixties. It was incredible.
And then I would get on the PATH, and then I’m in New York now. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, I am sitting in 92nd Street Y, and Toni Morrison is right there. I got tickets like I was going to see Beyoncé. I was like, I remember, I’ll never forget, I bought four tickets immediately for the first time I could see Toni Morrison. I didn’t even ask who would go with me. I was like, we’ll figure it out later. You know what I mean? I was like, I got to get these. I was just so excited to have access, to have time. People who grow up with privilege and access to institutions, to mentors, to the networking and stuff, you have no idea how mysterious and bewildering the inner workings of art and writing and publishing are to those of us who don’t have that access.
This is a great example: One of my workshop… I won’t name names, but one of my workshop professors, who’s a very nice person—you know I’m about to say something bitchy if I say they’re a “very nice person”—had just had a poem while we were in workshop published that week in The New Yorker. Which I’m proud to say I’ve now been published in The New Yorker several times.
SB: This year.
SJ: Right. Yeah. Feeling good. Love that. Shout-out to Kevin Young, wonderful person, wonderful editor.
And so one of my workshop classmates asked this professor, like, “Can you just talk to us about getting published? How did you get published in The New Yorker?” And this professor who was a little older was like, “Oh, well, the former editor of The New Yorker was kind of like my godfather.” [Laughs] “He was my father’s best friend. And he would come around ever since I was a little girl.” And so we were just… I was just like, “What?!” One, what useless information, but also two, actually very useful in terms of understanding how other people operate and that there’s these echelons of power that you’re like, He’s just over at your house for dinner regularly? Like, what?!
So it was really great. It was an incredible education. But also, I think my intensity was from this sense of outsider consciousness, self-consciousness. And the sense of, Okay, if I’m going to be a poet, I’ve got to do it. There’s no option but to win. Anything less than success that would allow me to break through, I felt, and was probably accurate, would be total failure. Because at that point, I was like, Great, two degrees in poetry. I’m a Black, gay man in America from a working-class family. At that point, my mom’s health is touch and go. She’s needing help for like… It was like, This has to work. This has to work. And so I wrote like my life depended on it.
SB: And about a year after graduating from Rutgers, you got the call that your mom was in the I.C.U. And How We Fight for Our Lives ends with you writing about your time together with her there. As a reader, time practically slows down on these pages.
SJ: Yeah, it unspools.
SB: And you write so beautifully and heartbreakingly about time. You write about how “time held her brain hostage for each of those minutes,” and how “the hospital visits—usually twice a day—seemed to bend time.” “Would it always be this way?” you write. “Time cascading and crashing in on itself, each memory pushing me back toward the beginning of my grief. I didn’t know if I could take it.” How do you think about this time with her in the ICU now? How do you think about this time with her in the ICU now, these final days?
SJ: Yeah. Oh, gosh. I mean, I want to hug everyone in that room. I tried to be very deliberate when I was writing that part of the book about my family members who were there, too. I tried to be very intentional of when to turn the gaze on them because they didn’t ask me to write this book, and so I wanted to respect their privacy. But of course, there were many of us that were in that room.
SB: Your uncle was this sort of beacon.
SJ: Uncles, aunts, yeah. And… God, it’s just so hard. You’re in this liminal space and you’re hoping, you’re hoping, you’re hoping, you’re hoping, but it’s just… And it’s scary. And I write about moments when she had basically two minor seizures, I guess. Because it’s like, on TV and movies, coma, it just seems like a totally kind of peaceful, kind of serene, and it’s not necessarily like that.
SB: You’re running out of the room. Your legs are falling out from under you.
SJ: Yeah. Doctors are running. And I run out, and I almost, like, collapsed at one point. I mean, it was just a surreal experience. And nothing had prepared me for that kind of experience. So I have deep compassion for that Saeed, and for my family members, because my mother was the light of our family. She was the one that brought us together. She was the one who could get us laughing and get us over ourselves. She would warm us up. Until she came in, we were all just kind of icy. And then she would warm the room up, and me, too, myself included.
I felt immediately, even just before I knew she was going to die, but I’m just thinking, Okay, even best case scenario at this point, based on the brain trauma, my mom will never be the same. I remember immediately grieving the loss, grieving the understanding that that warmth was never going to be the same. Or I would have to try to step into it, and I didn’t know how to. Now, when I look back, particularly where we are in 2022, again, I have humility. I’m humbled that we were able to spend time with her. That last day, when it’s finally time to say those last goodbyes, everyone was able to travel to the hospital from wherever we needed to come from. Everyone was able to be there. Which is very scary. You’re kind of like, “You need to get here now. You need to get whatever flight,” all of that, the logistics. You’re just, it’s so stressful and scary, but everyone was able to make it. We were all able to spend time with her, say goodbye in our own ways. Or, I remember a grandmother’s cousin, my aunt Claudette, took us all out to get our nails done one day, and we had champagne. There were these moments of laughter, and we were able to kind of do everything that I think, I would hope, every family going through a loss like that, I would wish for every family to get to have that week together. It was awful. But we were able to be together and to have those moments, and in that sense, not have regrets.
To be in the middle of this pandemic and to think about people having to say goodbye to their loved ones via phone or looking at iPads. Or loved ones just needing to go to the hospital and you have to go by yourself. That, oh my gosh, I can’t even fathom because it’s so difficult no matter what. But these rituals, these moments, being able to kind of initiate slowly, gently, the bereavement process because, Hey, Saeed, you don’t know it, but you’re about to go on a ten-year journey. This is the beginning of a very long, arduous journey. So to be able to have people and resources to graciously ease into that new reality, oh, I have such gratitude that I was able to. Because you see, it’s not easy. You see me really struggling in the months after my mom’s passing. And a shocker, if you read Alive at the End of the World, still struggling.
SB: Yeah, isolated at home.
SB: Yeah. Well, I mean, what a decade, though.
SJ: What a decade.
SB: In 2013, you win a Pushcart Prize for poetry. In 2014, your first book of poems comes out. You have this incredible career and journey beyond poetry in the newsroom at Buzzfeed, where you eventually become the executive editor of the Culture desk. You write powerful, necessary essays there. One of my favorites is a “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer.”
SJ: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
SB: In 2019, How We Fight For Our Lives comes out, wins the Kirkus Prize. I mean, during this time, you’re in New York City and incredibly productive. What do you make of this productivity? Was all this creative output, a way of dealing with or healing from your grief? Did you find catharsis in it? How do you think about it?
SJ: Um, I always tell people, “Writing is writing, therapy is therapy.” [Laughs] It’s definitely, the first poem I read during this conversation, “Saeed, How Dare You Make Your Mother into a Prelude,” it’s not like I finished that and I was like, “Well, I feel great.” It’s like I finished it and I was like, “Okay, time to revise it.”
Yeah. I mean, I am incredibly proud of this last… And I haven’t thought of it in that framework. So even just to hear you lay it out in that way, it’s like, Oh, wow, okay. I think it’s a bit kind of like what I was saying as a graduate student where I was like, “This has to work. This has to work.” And then I also feel it has to have been worth it. These experiences, these people, these histories that have made me possible, that have made my life who I am to you, to readers, possible, it has to mean something. You know what I mean?
Frank B. Wilderson, who I mentioned a bit throughout Alive at the End of the World, his book Afropessimism, he says at one point basically that “What really scares me, what I fear more than anything as a Black person in America, is a meaningless death.” I’m walking down the street and a cop in a bad mood or whatever happens, and then I’m dead because of whatever. And it’s meaningless. It doesn’t even make… People just move on because everything’s going on around you. That’s a really scary thought. And so I think it’s all of these experiences, what happened to my mother, and not just what happened to my mother, but who my mother was. She was such an incredible person. It was really important to me with the memoir, to create a testament to her. You can’t meet her. You can’t engage with her. But I hope in some sense of reading the book, you’re like, Carol Sweet Jones was an extraordinary person who once lived here with us and I’m so grateful that her son at least gave me the opportunity to learn about her.
Also, it’s a joy. I love writing. I enjoy writing. I enjoy the rigor of language and image and sound. It delights me. So it’s not all just a heavy responsibility. But I just think, if you find yourself in a situation where you have the opportunity to turn something you’ve experienced, survived, learned into something meaningful for someone else, do it. Why wouldn’t you? Life is so hard. [Laughs] This life thing is quite difficult, if you may not know. And so one of the best things we can do for each other is to offer forth our experiences in the best way we can. You know what I mean? If I could record the Renaissance album, obviously I would. But I’m not Beyoncé. I can’t do that. [Laughs] But I can do this. I can do this, and for as long as I can, I’m going to keep trying, because I think out of my joy and the intensity of that passion, I think, I hope, that I’m able to inspire people to work towards theirs.
SB: Saeed, thank you so much for coming in today.
SJ: Oh, thank you!
SB: I really, really loved this conversation.
SJ: Thank you for this conversation. And then the careful, thoughtful reading. You went deep. You went into the archives, so thank you.
SB: I tried.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on September 23, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.