Poet Of The Week

I.S. Jones

     November 26–December 2, 2018

I.S. Jones is an American-Nigerian poet and music journalist from Southern California by way of New York. A recipient of fellowships from the Watering Hole, Callaloo and BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, Jones recently won the Second Annual Brittle Paper Award for Poetry and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. She is the assistant editor at Voicemail Poems as well as the managing editor of Dead End Hip Hop. Her work has appeared in the Offing, great weather for MEDIA, Anomalous Press, the Shade Journal, the Black Voices Series with Puerto Del Sol and Nat. Brut, and is forthcoming in the Rumpus and elsewhere. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Marwa Helal’s Imagining a Vernacular Future workshop.

Author photo: Nicholas Nichols

Abel, on the Hilltop

I confess: Dawn is my favorite animal
because it is the only one I cannot kill.
How its cobalt fur gallops off Baba’s shoulders,
charges across the thin-black horizon
in hooves of gold and grapefruit
to cleave the day open. Every morning,
I feed the chickens, give hay to the goats,
milk the cows, and on and on.
Baba told me to bring home veal for supper.
I would be lying if I said I wanted to do this.
There is no pleasure in it for me.
If it means anything, I won’t be eating it.
I’ve never liked the taste of flesh anyways.
It’s hard to desire anything you’ve made submit
on all fours.
The trick to slaughter is leading the dumb beast
to a false deliverance.
The beast must be kept calm, fear spoils good meat.
Once, mommy swung a chicken over my head
and the sound of the neck pulled taut to breaking
made me flinch at any throat’s repeated failure to reach the sky.
Then, she made me kill a scared lamb
and the meat made everyone sick.
Yet every season they eat and eat and eat
convinced, I think, it somehow makes them the better animal
than the one they consume.
But why protest when it’s just so easy to live this way:
my forehead knelt to Baba’s feet.
I’m disgusting anyways.
All I do is destroy so what is existing may keep on existing.
As Baba commands, I command the animal to follow
and it obeys.
I lead it behind the barn and it obeys.
I stroke its fur, lay its neck down the same stump.
I produce a machete.
Its eyes meet my eyes.
I pull the neck towards the sun.
It knows what I know but does not beg.

—Originally published in Nat. Brut, Spring 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

When I moved into my first apartment in Brooklyn, I began a ritual where I would wake as the sky unfolded into the new day. For me, there is a great pleasure in watching the natural world order itself for the living and I sought to capture that in the poem. I wanted to craft Abel’s personality because, as far as research has yielded, historically she has none. It seems she was born solely to be Cain’s foil and my work seeks to write into that empty space. Was Abel a vegetarian? A depressive? Disillusioned by her duties against her faith? The more I interrogated the work, the more I could see Abel as a full person.

What are you working on right now?

The immediate project I am working on is a manuscript called Bloodmercy, which reimagines Cain and Abel as sisters. Then with my music journalism work, I’m always working with my staff writers on articles and long-form projects. It’s also really early, but I’m working on the prompts for my workshop I do every April called the Singing Bullet, which is being sponsored for a second year in a row by the Speakeasy Project. This year, I’m very fortunate to expand to international writers and offer two free spaces for promising writers with financial need.

What’s a good day for you?

I think any day where my anxiety doesn’t win is a good day, especially if I am able to create and write.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

It was long overdue for me to leave Queens and Brooklyn was the most sensible choice. It also gave me the chance to live closer to my best friend Nicholas Nichols and many of my dear friends. The territory in Brooklyn is different than other boroughs, but I came to find out later it is exactly what I needed.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in the People’s Republic of Bed-Stuy since early fall of this year. I’ll tell a brief story about my block: this past summer, it was as though the tension built up all winter spilled out into the street in boisterous smoke. Late into the night, my neighbors had BBQs going, dancing poured out into the streets, at one point bikers blocked off the streets and started popping wheelies, then someone calls the police. While it is true that I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, what I know is that police only appear to police joy. So three or four cars pull up and the party disperses. But what moved me is that after people returned to their homes and police cars flashed red and blue lights for the rest of the night, four black girls came out with jump rope to double dutch right in front of the police cars. I watched them, the girls, with their long braids and gorgeous laughter. I watched them weaponize their joy and celebrate the brief miracle of summer.

I can’t comment on how my neighborhood has changed, and even to call it mine is, to me, slightly overstepping my boundaries, but I will say Brooklyn is the first place I’ve lived in where it literally has everything I need—grocery store, bodega, floral shops, clothing stores, beauty shops, there are even niche places that I didn’t know existed (such as places to buy inexpensive perfumes) and it’s very rare that I ever have to leave.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I think I’ll share one of each. The catcalling in Brooklyn is particularly bad—sometimes I feel safer taking an Uber when my destination is only twenty minutes away—but when I find myself encountering a block where I know it will happen, headphones are my savior. For every bad experience I’ve had in Brooklyn, I’ve had many, many precious, tender moments which makes Brooklyn, in my humble opinion, the best borough: the first time I went to Spike Lee’s Block Party (in fact any block party in Brooklyn); going to Heavenly Blossoms II when it first opened; discovering boutique thrift stores and black-owned coffee shops. Also, discovering my dream café, Zaca Café, where the food is so delicious and they let me stay for hours.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

In my practice, I have found that a poetry community is any group of people who celebrate my work, are frank with me at all times, but also can critically assess my work, push me to go further, and, most importantly, create a space that allows me to be uncertain. I’ve outgrown this juvenile desire to sound “smarter than I am” when it comes to workshop critique. I really enjoy saying, “I have no idea what’s going on in this poem, but I want to know.” I am indebted to the following organizations, without which I couldn’t be the poet and person I am now: the No Name Collective, the Watering Hole, BOAAT Writer’s Retreat (pronounced “boat”), Cave Canem and of course Brooklyn Poets.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

So many hero-loves who are also some of my neighbors: Ricardo Maldonado, Nicholas Nichols, Camonghne Felix, Marwa Helal, Malcolm Tariq, S. Erin Batiste, Karisma Price, Tina Zafreen Alam, Lauren Paris, Heather Simon, & & …

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My mentor and hero-love Anastacia Reneé, who was also my teacher during my ten weeks in Cave Canem workshops. She is my first real mentor, in that I can call and text her no matter what and she makes time for me. She counsels me and sees right through me. My heart was very closed before I met her and I am so, so grateful to have her in my life. I have many teachers and facilitators who “mentored” me in the short time we spent together and their kindness has made a lasting impression on me: Chicago’s finest, Tara Betts, Candace Wiley and Monifa Lemons with the Watering Hole, Randall Horton, Terrance Hayes, Rigoberto González, Gregory Pardlo, Patricia Smith, my friend Phillip B. Williams, Michael Stover, & & …

I’ve been remarkably fortunate to be surrounded by teachers who pushed me, challenged me, demanded that I keep going, and that they looked at my work and told me there is no ceiling to what I am capable of accomplishing.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I just finished The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ve found myself revisiting books as of late for tone, cadence, rhythm, economy of language: the chapbooks Tunsiya / Amrikiya by Leila Chatti, The Origin of Butterflies by Romeo Oriogun, Inside the Flower Room by Saddiq Dzukogi, Bound by Claire Schwartz; the full-lengths Girl with Death Mask by Jennifer Givhan, Sanctificum by Chris Abani, Virgin by Analicia Sotelo, Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (to grow into the middle ground of love and violence and also how to write long-form poems), Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, and I’m always coming back to The Wild Iris by Louise Glück. On fiction, I just finished reading Ponti by Singaporean novelist Sharlene Teo and I can’t stop talking about how exceptional she is. I already want her next novel. I’m slowly making my way through The Empathy Exams by the remarkable Leslie Jamison. Also, this is more of a craft book but A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch has been my playground lately. I’m really having the time of my life discovering new forms to practice.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

So many! Half of my room is just a wall of books. I’ve wanted to dig into Louise Glück’s earlier work for some time, and so I recently picked up a collection (now out of print) of her first four books. Someday I will finish The Prophet By Kahlil Gibran; it’s so good and I keep putting it down.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I think the answer to this is contingent on what I am hungry for and what my poetry needs in the moment. Usually when I sit down to write, I’ll grab a stack of books and vacillate between three to five books at a time. I’ll then slow down, and stay with one book, then switch gears and vacillate again. I’m an avid note-taker, sometimes in the margins (always with a pencil) but most of the time in my Notes on my phone. I keep a list of “loose lines” I recycle through and either pull a line or two to start a poem, write a zuihitsu with some of the lines or throw the rest away and start again. It’s important to me that I don’t overly rely on tropes that make me too comfortable. For me, poetry requires that I am always mining new territory. Unlike fiction, I read poetry slowly and always aloud, so I can hear how the language is meant to sound. Right now, I’m slowing down to finish one book.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’m working on a long sequence poem which marries different forms (such as epithalamion, aubade, etc), but I would love to create a crown of sonnets. Like many writers my age, I was introduced to a crown of sonnets through Marilyn Nelson’s masterpiece, A Wreath for Emmett Till.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I’m still learning what are the good places in Brooklyn to go to, but my tried-and-true places are Zaca Café, Brown Butter, Annex Café and Fort Greene Park.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Brooklyn Museum all year long, but especially during First Saturday because all the gorgeous, fashionable people of color show out adorned in rich shades of red, gold, lush greens and vibrant blues; different textures of fur, leather, velvet; different kinds of berets, fedoras and other decorative headpieces; Chelsea boots, knee-high boots, decorative sneakers and heels. It’s about the programming but fashion is also the affair.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the Moon
And what I know its gentle magic
that carries me from this to that
you are the land that gives up & yields to water,
For every careful breath in me as good as a spell in you

Why Brooklyn?

Without meaning to, I’ve been searching for the answer to “home” ever since I lost mine as a child. We moved around a lot, and my father being sick in those few years only pushed me farther away from “home.” And I can’t help but to quote letter four from Letters to a Young Poet: “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” For me, Brooklyn is the answer.