Saeed Jones quips that he “grew up in the South, or survived growing up in the South,” as a gay man of color. Many of the poems in his chapbook “When The Only Light is Fire” take place in a dark southern landscape, as a result of his escape from that past to an empowered present. Jones says in an interview with Jonterri Gadson on Eclectica Magazine, “When I started writing these poems, the South was a distant object to me. It was a past-tense terrain, but, of course, once I got down into the muck of writing—the real work of it all—that distance vanished. Memories that I thought were ash, in fact, were still hot to the touch.”
As you can see in Jones’ ars poetica “Kudzu” in the video above, these Southern roots did not shape him by their limitations – he outgrew and overtook that past with deep defiance. Throughout his collection of poems, Jones is owning his identity and challenging what may have been expected of him when he was part of that past life, that landscape. “I won’t be forgiven / for what I’ve made / of myself.” But, while these proclamations are intense and serious, don’t let that fool you. A favorite moment of mine happens at the end of this video, when you see Jones playfully interacting with his audience. This shows you a warmth and sense of humor that will draw you in even closer.
In his poem “After the First Shot,” we see the poet being targeted by an unknown hunter, to which he challenges “but I pass / what I thought was the end // of myself.” Not only is this the voice of someone challenging another, but coming into his own, learning about himself, astounded by his own abilities. He continues, “To answer / your rifle’s last question: // if you ever find me, / I won’t be there.” The speaker is enigmatic, always changing, and up for your challenges.
It is riveting and heartening to read these coming-of-age poems, which are partly about moving on from what is left behind, and mostly about discovering and creating a self. Jones has a new collection coming out September 1 of this year, called Prelude to Bruise, which we are eagerly awaiting. We are so excited to welcome this young poet to the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival and we hope that you will explore his new work with us this October.