The acclaimed poet reflects on life in the city amid the pandemic and racial unrest.
Saeed Jones made his literary debut in 2014 with the poetry collection “Prelude to Bruise,” an account, which Jones describes as fictional, of a young man who very much resembles Jones himself. Last year he released “How We Fight For Our Lives,” a memoir about growing up gay and Black in the South, the death of his mother and personal identity. It won the Kirkus Prize, the Stonewall Book Award and accolades from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, The New Yorker and numerous other publications.
Jones moved to the Short North last fall after visiting the city both for work and pleasure. In a November 2019 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he called Columbus “the gayest place I’ve ever lived.” A month prior, on WNYC Studios’ “Death Sex and Money” podcast, he described the city as vibrant and up-and-coming, adding that a major factor in his decision to move here was seeing that “Black people are happy here. … I saw Negro sunshine,” a reference to Glenn Ligon’s “Warm Broad Glow II” neon sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art. We sat down with Jones via Zoom to discuss what he’s been up to since wrapping his latest book tour and the elements that drew him to the city.
Editor’s note: The responses below are excerpted from a much longer interview. Look for an in-depth exploration with Jones on topics including sexuality, police brutality, race, grief, identity and more in the October issue of Columbus Monthly. Here, responses have been edited for length and flow.
Tell us, how are you spending these “quarantimes”?
I’m a writer, obviously, so I work from home. In a normal state of things, very much I’m either a total homebody or I’m out traveling the world. So in some ways, I feel like—of course the first few months were hard, just kind of adjusting to all of the change, all of the information and frankly, the grief. I mean, this is awful, right? We’re like 150,000 people [dead from COVID-19] now.
So I felt like even though personally I was doing OK, the first few months of the pandemic, it was just really hard. Depressing isn’t even the word; I felt bereft. But I think I’ve started to kind of get my legs, I feel like my personal life here in Columbus is, you know, something I’m very grateful for. I love my home. I love [Caesar,] my little Chihuahua.
How long have you had Caesar?
A few months now; he’s my pandemic pup. I adopted him at the beginning of April, and he’s just wonderful. I’ve always loved dogs, but it was like, am I ready for one? I realized, well, I’m going to be here, and if there’s time where I can count on [being home]—because typically I would be traveling several times a month and with a really unpredictable schedule, and now that’s changed.
I think having a pet grounds you; it humbles you. You know that you have to take them outside; you have to get out there and get some fresh air yourself, because they need to be outside. They need to eat, and then invariably, you’re like, “Oh, have I eaten today?” Just the simple facts of his needs have kind of helped give a rhythm to my daily life that, I think, has gotten me to this better place with all the change.
Also, he’s just really cute.
So you just wrapped up a lot of travel—a cross-country tour to promote “How We Fight For Our Lives,” which earned a lot of awards and accolades. By those accounts, it’s a very successful work. Do you think you’ve succeeded with it?
I mean, you have all kinds of goals for any book, but especially for a memoir. Aside from wanting to write a good book that was well-written, I wanted to write a book that when people finished it, they understood why I wrote it, beyond, “Oh, Saeed had some stuff he needed to work out.” I want all of my work to feel of use to the reader, in part, maybe, because I come to writing as a poet. As I see it, there are so many things in any given moment of your day you could be doing other than reading a poem.
The question is always, how do I, as a writer, justify asking you to spend money and time with what I’m writing. I believe in the value of my work, I believe in my story and in its own value, but it means so much to me when I get DMs from people who were like, “Thank you. This resonates with something I’m going through right now.”
The memoir was just released in paperback as well. That came out early, right?
Basically, the paperback was going to come out in the fall. And then they were like, we’ll just TBD it because with the pandemic, who knows? And then I think we realized, one, everything’s going to be virtual so we might as well have it. But also, I think there was a spike in interest. I hate to be so cynical, but it does seem like in June, perhaps because of the protests, more people were buying the book again. So they were like, “Let’s go ahead and do a paperback tour virtually.”
And now you get to do that from your home in Columbus. Which is interesting, because just last week, you tweeted about how one year ago you were looking at apartments in Columbus, and that it felt right then and has felt more right every day since. Can you tell us more about that assuredness you felt and still feel?
I came here last August for two weeks, and half the time I stayed in an Airbnb in the Short North, which obviously sunk in, and then the other half I was in German Village. It was very important to me to be in a walkable neighborhood. When I, as a writer, sneak out of my hovel to get food or whatever, I like being able to scurry and then come back.
It’s interesting, actually, with the protests—it helped me understand that one of the reasons I love the Short North so much is that in some ways, it feels like the heart of the city. Everyone’s coming through. The protesters were moving from the Statehouse to campus a lot, but also, everyone has a reason at some point to come through here. I like that energy a lot.
It feels like the beginning of a friendship or a romantic relationship, you know, when you’ve only seen the person a couple of times. That thing where when you’re with them, you feel at ease, you feel yourself, you like who you are in relation to them. And that’s when we go, “Can we hang out again?” That is what I have felt every time I came to visit Columbus.
You’ve said in other interviews that one of the things that drew you to Columbus was sense that Black people are happy here, which you got when you saw a group of older Black men having breakfast at McDonald’s. What was that experience like?
Those Black men were—I know “black is king” just happened, but there was a kingliness to them. I remember walking in and you know when you feel people’s energy sometimes and you have an immediate response? I immediately took my AirPods out, I fixed my posture. I said, “Hello, good morning.” And they were like, “Good morning, young man!” It was just so rich and beautiful. It was an incredible scene because we don’t think of McDonald’s as being a community space. But they were all just so comfortable; it was clear that they do this, I’m confident if not every day, it’s once a week like clockwork.
As a Black gay person, I’m always trying to feel at home. I’m always trying to see, can I be myself here? Those moments when you see people who feel at home, they feel like, “Yeah, I deserve to be welcome.” I’m drawn to that as a person.
Recently you published a piece in GQ called “Whose Grief? Our Grief,” about lying in bed and hearing protesters against racial injustice march down High Street. How does that contrast with your feeling of being welcome at that McDonald’s?
In the year since then, with the protests and the uprising, it’s made me love the city more that Black people are being rightfully vocal here about that dynamic. This is our city too. We deserve to feel safe here as well, and you’re going to honor us as part of the way we think about Columbus. I feel like that is an essential part of the uprisings, and I really appreciate that. I appreciate getting to be a part of it.
I actually revisited [that piece] recently, reread it to see how I feel, and the word that keeps coming up for me is “deepening.” Because I think, yeah, there’s a scenario in which somebody might go, “You loved Columbus, and then all of this stuff started happening, and do you not now?” No, my feelings are deeper. My relationship is richer and more complex because—to go back to the relationship [analogy]—that’s what it’s like to get to know a person. When we say we love someone, when we say we want to be in someone’s life, we’re not just taking the laughter. I think we have to take the salt. We have to take the wounds.