When you read the poems of Saeed Jones, you can’t help but try to imagine the type of speaking voice he might have. His poems have a distinct audibility. The concision of his line breaks and the jazz of his occasional rhyme. When you meet him in person, you find that the voice you’ve made up in your head matches his actual voice with startling accuracy: the low swings of a soul singer and the staccato conviction of someone who’s rehearsed a speech a hundred times.
Before he became the LGBT editor of Buzzfeed, Saeed was busy learning to be every kind of writer. He spent the bulk of his earlier years in New York going to readings and gaining traction in the intimate smallness of the NYC queer poetry scene. A performative and practiced poet, a seasoned essay writer, and a prolific tweeter, it was in coffeehouse readings and gay poetry salons where such a speaking voice is an asset you don’t take for granted. He had finished his graduate work at Rutgers and built a strong foundation for what came to be his forthcoming first book of poetry, Prelude to Bruise, but it wasn’t quite done. His first year after that was spent in Jersey, teaching at a charter high school. Then his mother passed away.
“It felt a bit apocalyptic,” he says. “I was very close to my mom and not very close to the rest of my family members. It felt like my family had kind of disappeared, very suddenly.”
Memories in the South he had once thought distant were now hot and ready, waiting for him in an apartment in Harlem where he retreated to write some of the last poems in his book. Saeed was in elementary school when he and his mom moved from Memphis to Lewisville, a suburb of Dallas. Becoming something of a recluse, he was picking through the moments of his past with a fine-tooth comb. Saeed posted on his Tumblr once, “Writing about your memories means that you've agreed to lock yourself in a room with them.” And that’s exactly what he did.
“I was functioning as a writer, but that was all I could do. I had friends at one point who would call me and remind me to eat. Sometimes even going to the grocery store was difficult.”
Trauma is a theme explored widely in Prelude to Bruise, and many of the poems take place in different versions of the American South, some of which come from real memories, some which are fabricated, some of which are histories he felt weren’t being reflected, histories everyone — including himself — might try to run away from. Going to college in Kentucky, everything he worked on — his extracurriculars, his grades — was done with the dream of being anywhere but there. Leaving home meant the freedom to be his whole self. It meant finding his community and forgetting whatever bad histories he had here because NYC was on the horizon, glimmering like Oz.
“New York was like the lighthouse,” he says. It’s a story we’re all familiar with. Now based in NYC, he found himself returning home in his writing.
“You learn when you leave home and try to create a new identity,” he says. “You bring the fire, you bring the hurt, you bring the wounds.” Saeed explains the paradox of escaping a past. It’s not your ghosts that you’re running from, but your own tendencies that have nothing to do with your home or your upbringing. These ghosts are not always products of your environment. Sometimes they’re just you.
“I’m always interested in what our environment has to say about us. How we are reflecting our environment, how we are speaking back to our environment, but also the lamentations of it.” Here, Saeed’s voice reminds us of the teacher side of him. “It’s much easier to point to your environment, physical as well as social, and say, ‘This is why I’m miserable.’”
“Lamentation” is a key word when looking at the experiences written about in this book, many of which belong to a figure called Boy. Boy is far too complex to be called an archetype but too universal to be called a character. It is Boy who both laments and thrives with the folds of a hostile environment, whether that be Nashville, New Orleans, or some unspecified backdrop along the Bible Belt. Regardless of how a queer black poet might interact with a white Southern suburb, to say Boy is a victim of oppression is an oversimplification. Boy is as much a victim of his own demons as he is his environment.
It’s too easy to assume that something like “Boy at Edge of Woods” is reparative, or deeply personal. It’s easy to assume that Boy is Saeed, and we’re reading something of a journal entry. But Saeed’s poems breach the personal.
“It’s not cathartic. Writing is almost never cathartic for me,” says Saeed. “Poetry is a machine. They’re machines made out of images and sounds. And so for me, poems are machines that allow me to work through ideas. I wanted to examine all of the facets of the word ‘boy’ in America. It has racial undertones. It’s pointing to childhood. It’s pointing to the relationship between fathers and sons. It’s about masculinity. It has sexual connotations. It’s just so much.”
“I think the poems that I always gravitated to are the poems that are not interested in being my friend. And I’m not excited about writing poems that are your friend. I like mean poems. I like mean characters. I like difficult characters and difficult voices. I like narrators you can’t totally trust.”
Saeed writes characters that are vulnerable, but in that, they become extremely dangerous, like wounded animals. Or, as he describes it, like the way a drowning victim can accidentally drown the person trying to save them.
No place is going to be safe until you, yourself, are safe. When you’re a queer kid in the suburbs or wherever you are, you may feel like you’re the only one. You may feel like the refuge for a gay boy is in a place where there’s a subway and a gay bar and a great number more of you. To Saeed, this is 100 percent untrue. It is something that Boy slowly realizes. It’s something boys might never realize.
So then what is the solution? Boys everywhere are lost, alone, abused, confused much like how Boy is in this book. To Saeed, Boy is the worst-case scenario, yet exists in a reality that he himself grew up in. The key to freeing Boy is not moving to New York. It’s not necessarily even in finding a community. It’s in the mere acknowledgment of one’s existence. A recognition from another that says to a boy, with words or art, that he is not alone in this life, much like the reflection we find in Prelude to Bruise.
“There is something so unspeakably important about the moment you see your life reflected on the page, as a reader. It changes the temperature. It changes the color in the sky. I think everyone deserves that. It’s why I wanted this book to exist.”
Wherever you are — Sydney or Chattanooga — there are duties you have as a gay man and as a member of a community. According to Saeed, even if there is no refuge, having a mentor — even just a conversant — is what creates that wholeness people think only exists in the world’s gay paradises.
“There are some fierce queens in Ohio. There are some fierce queens in Kansas, you know?”
We lose empathy for people who aren’t as far along as us. You can easily forget how hard it is and how much work all of this is, says Saeed. People who are further along in the game have to stop rolling our eyes at those who are not as “Evolved.”
“Taking care of people when you really don’t have to. That’s an act that I take very seriously in my own life now. Trying to look out for younger guys.” He pauses for a second. “And giving a damn about younger people beyond wanting to sleep with them.” Acknowledge them. Not everyone is going to make it to New York or LA, and they shouldn’t have to make it there in order to be happy or to be fully realized people.
“There’s no refuge. Maybe the only refuge is yourself,” says Saeed.