Community, Pleasure, and the Future: An Interview with Patricia Spears Jones
By Eva Molina, PO ’23
Patricia Spears Jones is a distinguished poet, with four poetry collections and five chapbooks to her name. She has received many accolades for her poetry, including the 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize and a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and she is also a playwright, essayist, and anthologist. Elsewhere, Jones is involved with several organizations—such as The Black Earth Institute, where she is a Senior Fellow—that work toward goals of feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism.
Could you talk about your quarantine writing practices or other rituals? I know a lot of writers have had different experiences with quarantine writing.
I don’t have any quarantine writing. I don't even think like that. I mean, I write. I think that the pandemic was extremely difficult for a lot of reasons. I wasn't even here in New York when it was going on. I was thousands of miles away. I felt very isolated there. But also very grateful that I wasn't here in Brooklyn. When I talk to my friends, it sounds horrible. So I did a lot of tending to my own personal health and trying to be mindful of what family and friends around the world were experiencing. When I did write, it was often on deadline. The people at Blackbird Institute were asking fellows to put some kind of text in a blog, which is why I finally wrote the poem Lonely. I just try to tend to spiritual sustenance, to receive this sense of who I was in the world and how I could be.
I was wondering if you could tell me about your community of poets now. How do they inspire your work or how have they inspired your work?
My darling, I’m 70 years old. I have many communities and I’ve had them over the years. So I have a group of my favorite ladies—I will not say who they are. There are several books that we’ve published together. I send them the poems I’m working on and they sometimes send them to me. So we’re kind of a mutual cheering squad for each other. The poems that are in the New Yorker, for instance, they saw them first and made suggestions (not very many, thank goodness). And I have friends who I met in workshop in 1975 who are still friends of mine. Over time, there are people who you meet and they stay in your spheres or your stay in theirs. And then you meet other people throughout the way. Prageeta [Sharma] is part of those groups of people I met a little over 20 years ago. And there are people I met five years ago! Through my organizing, teaching on occasion, and just being in the world, I try to keep in touch with as many different kinds of people as I can. I use social media to do that, especially Facebook. To see who’s doing what, whether I can weigh in or not. It always helps to be part of different communities. I know Kathy Barham, for instance, because we knew each other a little bit. When we taught together at the Community of Writers in Northern California, five years ago (five years ago!) we got to be better friends and we’ve kept that up.
From the poems I’ve read of yours, I didn’t see that you were necessarily following any strict forms, like experimenting with sonnets or ghazals.
Every once in a while. Sometimes things wind up being a sonnet and I don’t even know it. Someone points it out. In Prageeta’s class I was saying that in a poem, the self portrait I published for the Poet’s Society, somebody told me, “Oh, I really liked your sonnet!” I mean, yeah, it was fourteen lines. There’s always a volta in every poem; there’s always a turn. So I said, “Oh yeah! It is!”
But I really am a truly New York School Poet. In that I never really got into those conventional aspects of poetry. Except every once in a while I will write something in a form, like a New Orleans’ bop. Or a villanelle. I’ve obviously written some sonnets. And lots of odes! I love to write odes.
Odes are so fun.
I don’t even call them that. I realize that once they’re done that that’s what they are. Unless you’re doing something really, really strict like a sestina or a villanelle—something that you have to adhere to... Most poets, we’ve read enough over time; we’ve read other people over time. If the poem’s vessel needs to be a sonnet… I often write in couplets and tercets. I love stanzas. They just don’t have to all be the same.
I wanted to take a little transition to look at your poem “SELF PORTRAIT as retratos de cosas locas y de locos (stolen).”
The title was stolen from Papo Colo. He has an art piece called that, which is his portrait.
I think everyone steals. You know the classic, “Good writers imitate; Great writers steal.” I’m interested in engagement. Obviously with other writers, other artists, and the world. It’s fun to write self portraits. I don’t write very many of them; maybe this is the fourth or fifth.
I was wondering about your capitalized phrases/nouns. Like “Edge of Catastrophe” or “Paradise Now.” Is that in reference to the movie? Or to Paradise Lost?
“Paradise Now” is in reference to a play! It’s one of the amazing plays by The Living Theatre. One of the things they did in that particular play was recreate the assassination of JFK. “Paradise Now” has been used. You can’t copyright a title. Because it could be used for anything. The use of capitals allows you to really focus on what you want to say. If you’re talking about being on the edge of catastrophe and the catastrophe was lower case, it wouldn’t mean shit. It would lack impact. If there’s a movie called Edge of Catastrophe, I didn’t know about it.
Oh, I don’t think there’s a movie for that one (laughs).
I mean there probably is a band. What’s your name? Band name: Edge of Catastrophe. A death metal band (laughs).
I thought there was something universal about using these capitalizations.
I mean we are at the edge of catastrophe! I mean literally between just plain human disintegration from these people running around with their guns killing people because they have a “bad day.” That’s going to be on people’s minds for a long time. But we have also mistreated this planet and it is coming back to haunt us.
I was really struck by the first two lines of your poem: “Shall we have cocktails while slipping about the / Edge of Catastrophe.” I felt that there was an energy there that does not deny the state of the world but exists freely despite of it. Maybe there is a sense of lounging next to the “Edge of Catastrophe.” Do you think this sort of attitude aids us in these times—the attitude of having cocktails while the world is crumbling around us?
Part of this is tonal. How do we enter into a discussion about how to have joyful, interesting, friendly relationships with people when things are really bad? “Shall we have cocktails while slipping about the / Edge of Catastrophe—gin and tonic for summer / Whisky sour for fall. All is not well.” And we know that, but we also have to live our lives. It’s the bread and roses moment. You have to have more than just simple nurture. Life is not just that. And there’s always been catastrophes. We’re in this age’s version of it, but our grandparents and great grandparents lived through all kinds of horrible shit. And they did some beautiful things. I am fascinated by what human beings make. I really am, whether brocaded shoes or beautiful bracelets or fabulous sculpture or quilts. Whatever! People have to make something, have to create something. If we don’t have pleasure in this life, what’s the point?
Back to the man with the bad day, it was his inability to enjoy pleasure. He couldn’t do that. He looked at those people who tried to help him enjoy it and because he could not have that, they had to die. This is not new. The added horror is that he targeted Asian women, but Asian women have been the recipient of that rage for, like, ever. And part of it is that there are all these ways in which our experiences in our body, how we portray ourselves, crazy or not, has a lot to do with either going towards the pleasures of this life and hoping to make this world better (because I think people who love life, that’s what they do) or we run away from it or we try to destroy it. You know, we just spent four years with a president who was working very, very hard to destroy us. And there was no pleasure except for his desire to destroy. So it’s about tone, about setting a tone. It’s also a way of welcoming people into the experience. There’s a lot of poems that don’t quite do that. I’m not quite sure why they don’t, but the whole issue is to bring you as the reader into the experience along with the poet, and if that doesn’t happen then the whole poem will just fall apart. None of the rest of it will make any sense.
I never thought about it as setting the tone exactly, but as the first few lines opening up the poem, perhaps.
To me, that’s the same thing. I mean, how do you enter into something? Are you dragged in? Are you welcomed in? Do they shove you in there? Is it intriguing? There are all kinds of ways. It’s all about tone. That’s something that some poets are really good at and some poets are really not that good at. So that you don’t quite know what they’re trying to do. It’s not that they don’t have intention. It’s just not clear enough, or it’s not clever enough. I want people to read me. I want people to enjoy the work or be intrigued by it or challenged in some way but I don’t want people to be sort of like, “Huh?” That is not what I want.
Do you find that setting the tone needs to happen in the beginning of the poem? Or in the middle, or at the end, even?
It depends on the poem. It’s all about getting you to be engaged enough to finish the poem. When I read when Anne Boyer makes a new word the first line was: Bell-hoe, beautiful hoe, sophisticated slut. She created a new word. Bell-hoe. I thought that was totally cool. You can then start to play with what that brings out. It brings out really bad male behavior towards the sophisticated sluts of this world (which are all women). Women’s bodies, spirits, minds have great power. There is so much investment in denying that power, and judging that power, or diminishing or destroying that power. Which is what that guy did when he killed eight women yesterday. How do you talk about that? There are different ways of thinking about that. I play with the comic in that sense. Because there is so much serious, earnest stuff. Sometimes the tone needs to be light.
When you say “earnest,” what exactly do you mean by that?
I’ve been judging a lot of contests for the last few years. And I’ve read a lot of work. By the time you’ve read the word “decolonized” for the fifth time, it seems like you’re in the land of the earnest. It’s like, okay, can we try to say this without using a word from theory? Or if you’re going to talk about decolonization, then show that. Because if you can’t, then you’re just being earnest. In terms of language, people are trying to make work that they think is not going to fall into what they think is already wrong with language. But they haven’t figured out what the new words are. Adrienne Rich said there’s a lot of interstices. I think there’s a lot of inbetween-ness right now. Maybe in five years, these words will have come up, but they’re just not there yet. It’s an interesting problem. I’m kind of curious. I’m teaching a workshop and we’re thinking about how we write poems for the future that is not about dysfunction. People who write about the future (other than maybe the Afrofuturism people) are really writing about now. They’re still talking about the old hierarchies and critiquing that, which is okay. I’m not asking for utopias; I’m asking, how will a future poem look like?