Saeed Jones has worn many hats: teacher, poet, and culture editor at BuzzFeed, among many other things. (Also, he joins a growing group of writers willing to admit that they were high school debaters.) His latest book, How We Fight for Our Lives, is his first foray into memoir. It follows his life across the country, from his days as a young boy in Texas to college in Kentucky, grad school in Newark, and a New Year’s Eve party in Phoenix that ends in shock and horror. He tracks the development of his queer masculinity as he keeps an eye on the men around him—often violent, sometimes caring, and almost always uncertain about what acting like a man is supposed to be. We spoke about his mother, online poetry, and the point of being an artist.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nawal Arjini: The book, like a lot of your poems, has a lot to do with American masculinity. In this case, it’s about yours but also about the men around you—your neighbors, friends, lovers, uncles. Originally, it was called How Men Fight for Their Lives. Can you talk about that shift in title? Was it also a shift in focus?
Saeed Jones: Yes, it was definitely a shift in focus. It was based on an essay that I’d published in The Rumpus and that appears in the book. My intention was to focus on one personally apocalyptic New Year’s Eve in Phoenix—about self-destructive, internalized homophobia, why we’re drawn to men who don’t love themselves. I could have died that night. I will never know what was going through that man’s mind—his life story, how he got to that room—but I could figure out how I got there. And as I encountered different kinds of people, different kinds of masculinity, I could develop some insight about the bigger landscape.
Also, the original title made me uncomfortable. It just felt very arrogant and very self-absorbed, in a very masculine way, which is so ironic. And I wasn’t only thinking about how men fight for their lives. My mom was already very much a part of the book, and even just as a writer, I was drawn to her on the page. That’s why the title was really bothering me. My mom was fighting for her life right alongside me.
NA: The feminine lineages in your family are also very important—your grandma, your mother’s relationship to her, yours to her, yours to your mom’s.
SJ: Women were the dominant figures in my family. But also, as a young queer kid, I felt more comfortable around women, so I gravitated toward them. You know that meme about the cafeteria table, like, “Where are you sitting?” I keep laughing, because in high school, I would be in my debate teacher’s classroom during lunch. I made excuses to spend almost every lunch in there with her. The cafeteria wasn’t a place I wanted to be.
As much as I’ve thought deeply about masculinity and internalized homophobia, we have to look outside and understand our relationships to the women in our lives. My mom was such a compelling and mysterious figure. I wanted to communicate that from the beginning, that sense of danger that I was fascinated by. And she got that from her mom. It was important to think about the stereotypes that await black women in American literature. A black single mom raising a gay kid in the South—an image like that comes off like a smoke bomb. A conservative black Christian grandmother [as well]. I wanted to honor how I would have perceived them at the time but also make sure it was clear that they had a life and stories and fights beyond me, that they exist without me.
NA: You’re so specific about tracing how your mom and grandma influenced you. How do you think you influenced them?
SJ: Writing a memoir is such a bizarre experience. If you don’t know that, you’re delusional or just about to lie a whole lot. We think we have so much insight until we realize how little we know about ourselves and other people. I would like to think I impacted the people I grew up around and vice versa, but it’s very difficult to pinpoint where you end and your loved ones begin.
It’s not in the book, but I remember when Nate Berkus was on Oprah. [My mom and I] always watched Oprah together. She was such a huge part of our household. I remember him crying, talking about losing his partner in the Indonesian tsunami. When the episode finished, my mom was like, “Huh, that was sad,” in a very matter-of-fact way. I was really thrown, and I said, “Mom, he lost his husband.” And she said, “No, he didn’t. He lost his business partner.” Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal. The language was so different. We surprised each other, and I don’t think we settled it. I was like, “They were talking about their dog!” It was such a willful disconnect.
NA: There’s a very sweet scene in which a bunch of queer women take young Saeed out on the town. How did that fit into your thoughts about gay masculinity?
SJ: It was four queer women who my mom loved—they were Buddhists [like my mother]—so it wasn’t unusual for me to hang out with them. We went to a drag show while it was still light outside. It wasn’t like a nightclub situation. They made me feel so warm and safe. They took me to see The Vagina Monologues in Texas. This was 2003 or 2004. Now we’re like, “Ugh, The Vagina Monologues.” But it made me feel so moved and sophisticated, getting the pink vagina cookies at the concession stand. It was one of the first truly platonic queer experiences I had, and I didn’t have that again for years. I thought the only way to access queer culture was through sex, through hooking up.
NA: The cover of the book reads, How We Fight for Our Lives—“we,” first person plural, and then “a memoir by Saeed Jones.” I wanted to ask you about the ethics of writing a memoir and how you approached writing about the people around you.
SJ: I accepted that I am an unreliable narrator. I admit there are moments where I don’t know what happened in very significant moments. As much as the book is about me, I wanted the book to be about us. There’s a danger with memoirs, particularly ones that are about identity, where it can become identity tourism or trauma tourism. I didn’t want that. I believe in the power of art and writing well, and it was important to me that the book didn’t feel like an emotional vacation for the reader. I wanted the reader to understand that I’m using the mode of memoir writing and my own life story to write about America, as best as I can. Why isn’t our work received as the great American story? Why can’t we be the everyman? I was trying to locate my story in the American story. Writing about my relationship to my mom and thinking about the health care system, economic structures, the financial aid stuff. This isn’t just Saeed, not just his family. You can’t isolate this story.
NA: There are so many characters in the memoir—it’s so much more populated than poems are. Writing poetry seems lonely to me.
SJ: I think it’s so much the opposite! I think about the poets who I consider members of my tribe—Danez Smith and Morgan Parker and Claudia Rankine and Ilya Kaminsky—when we’re writing poems, we’re reading them with people, going out, listening, going home, writing more. It’s a super-communal experience, writing poems. Writing a memoir is an incredibly lonely experience. You’re not sharing what you’re reading for months, years. You wait for feedback from your editors for a week, and then you’re back in the woods again. You’re spending a lot of time on your own.
NA: You’re transitioning into writing full-time. Poetry or prose?
SJ: Fiction right now. I understand why people say “poet Saeed Jones,” but poetry was just something that came first, those crucial initial doors of opportunity. Poetry is more slippery than we think. It’s energetic, driven by sound and image. Poetry doesn’t have to tell the truth. It can be whatever it wants. I’m interested in bringing back that sense of poetry, that jazzlike sense of language, to whatever I write. I just think of myself as a queer writer, not necessarily even in terms of sexual identity but in terms of fluidity and that relationship for language and art. I’m more interested in what I’m trying to accomplish than attached to specific genres.
NA: Can I ask you about your use of Twitter and what you think poetry’s relation to the digital is?
SJ: I’ve been on Twitter for over a decade now. Finding how many ways I could to communicate within the compression of Twitter seemed really interesting to me. There are a lot of problems with that platform, but how could there not be? Twitter is like the public square, and look at the public, look at who’s in power. Why wouldn’t the square also be a message on fire? That’s not to excuse it. It needs significant changes. But it’s my way of trying to rationalize it. How can I enjoy something and fear it and perhaps be endangered by it, even as I’ve been propelled by it so much? How can all of those things be true?
As a writer early on, I remember feeling confused that we were supposed to aspire to publish our best work in these lauded storied literary magazines that no one read except for other poets other people in MFA programs. That just seems weird to me. A really important part of what you need to do as an emerging writer is to develop a readership, get eyes in front of what you’re doing. There were more and more sites like The Rumpus, online literary magazines. I liked how the work was presented online. I liked how people could search your name and they could find your poetry a month from now or 10 years from now, if you’re lucky. I very much believe in literary merit and cultural value but also in the importance of reaching people where they are. Being able to connect with people is always going to be more important to me than lauded legacy formats. That was further informed by my time at BuzzFeed, where you’re experimenting with different formats and different ways of connecting with readers and learning from them in real time.
Poets are still out there doing some of the greatest work in the game on social media. Like Ilya Kaminsky, a poet from the Soviet Union, bringing poetry to Twitter—that international perspective, that relationship to literal fascism, to the way we talk about what’s going on now. Twitter is the best place for that to happen. Poems, by their nature, force you to slow down. It’s meditative.
NA: Are there any trends in poetry you’re interested in?
SJ: I think Claudia Rankine’s Citizen will be a defining text. We’re going to see more and more writers exploding their forms. It’s generational. There was a point in American work culture where you worked at the same job for years and years and then retired. That’s not true anymore. It’s not freedom or instability. It’s just changing. Your mission, however you want to define it, is far more important than your job.
NA: Okay, how do you think of your mission?
SJ: I want to be of use to people who, because of the way our country is, feel lonely. My mission would be to help people know they’re not alone, whether they’re a poet or a queer kid in the South, whether it’s through a poem or a podcast or whatever.
NA: But what comes after that for the person you’re helping? After knowing they’re not alone?
SJ: I’ve noticed across my body of work that there is a movement from desperation to survival to thriving. I’m really interested in what thriving actually is. It would be reasonable to assume in this memoir that young Saeed is going to die, just based on logic and his tendency to propel himself across the American landscape. When you understand that you’re not alone, what do you do with that information? I think once you can trust that you’re not alone, you begin to connect with other people, help each other cultivate and become something whole. What do you do with the opportunity you’ve been given to continue?