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Gemini Ink is excited to host award-winning New York City poet Patricia Spears Jones as one of the five featured authors at our second annual Gemini Ink Writers Conference. The conference will take place from July 21-23 at El Tropicano River Walk Hotel in downtown San Antonio.
The theme for this summer’s conference is “Writing for Change” and Jones will be adding her rich poetic background to the three days of programming, all with the aim of creating a dynamic conversation on the many ways the literary arts can be a catalyst for transformation in our contemporary American society.
Jones is a cosmopolitan poet whose roving eye is willing to take anything into its poetic frame as long as it serves up a portion of truth. She can write as easily about her home state of Arkansas, as she can about Paris or Matthew Sheppard’s tragic death.
In a 2014 interview, she said: “I always think of myself as evoking the blues in my poetry, and the blues are never ‘happy’ even when they’re ecstatic. There’s a sense of temporality of life. We’re only here for a brief time … And sometimes there’s great music and great sex to lighten the load.”
Her poems are unflinching witnesses to that load, peopled with a vast array of characters, from Billie Holiday to Jorge Luis Borges, and tallying the epiphanies and losses that inevitably accompany a fully lived life.
Jones is the author of four collections of poetry: A Lucent Fire: New & Selected Poems (2015), Painkiller (2010), Femme du Monde (2006), and The Weather That Kills (1995). A resident of New York City since the 1970s, her poems have been praised for their“the grit and blood, wit, flesh, bone, and spirit of which [they] are made” (Jane Hamill on Femme Du Monde). She has also been the recipient of an abundance of awards, most recently The 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize, which “honors an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition.”
As a part of the Gemini Ink Writers Conference, Jones will be teaching a poetry workshop titled “Democratic Vistas: Poetry-Making Now.” She also will speak on two panels, one of which is open to the public and titled “Writing as Witness: What kind of Writers Are We?” To find out more about the three days of programming at the Gemini Ink Writers Conference, including a free Saturday evening reading with all of the featured authors, call Gemini Ink at 210-734-9673 or click here to access the conference schedule.
To offer a glimpse into Jones’ compelling, wide-ranging world, I asked her a few questions about the writing process and her sources of inspiration.
Gemini Ink: In the introduction to your new and selected poems, A Lucent Fire, Mary Baine Campbell describes your poetry as having an especially rich geography, with its backdrops ranging from New York to Arkansas to Paris, to name just a few examples. How do you feel place plays a role in the roaming lens of your poems?
Patricia Spears Jones: Clearly place is very important. Again, to be present in the space is important. You will not see earbuds in my ear. And I only take selfies once I’ve been in some place for a while. We have only one life on this planet – although many may be playing out in some other plane of existence – so why give our experiences over to technology? The light is different in Paris. The air is drier in Los Angeles. Humidity in Memphis is heavy, but in Manhattan it is oppressive (all those buildings). We relate to spaces, to weather, the lush of green, or the lack of it when we enter a different place. Lack of awareness about one’s surroundings strikes me as dangerous – physically, emotionally dangerous. If you do not know where you are, how will you get to where you want to be and how will you make work along the way?
Also, as one born and raised in Arkansas, I am deeply aware of history of place. What is revered, what is hidden, where there are attempts to erase lynchings, other kinds of murders, deep, horrific poverty, genteel alcoholism … road names, tree names, the vastness of the sky – all part of that sense of place. It is hard for me to care about the work of poets who have little or no sense of place.
GI: You once claimed in an interview in BOMB Magazine that the poetry-making process was “about how human beings are transformed and transported from one way of looking at things to another, one sense of themselves to another, through things like desire and anger and humor and joy.” Can you offer one or two examples of how writing a poem has shifted your perspective or provided a sense of journey for you?
PSJ: I would say all of the poems that are in Living in the Love Economy because they [express] my personal journey from full-time employed writer to unemployed, cast out of the middle class that I’d finally made it into, and how my journey was the journey of the street I lived on. So poems like “Life Lessons” and “February Thaw” do that. Both poems are reprinted in A Lucent Fire.
GI: Several of your poems reference films and provide alternative perspectives, such as a re-envisioning of Rita Hayworth or a retelling of the 1944 film noir classic, Laura. You’ve been quoted as saying: “The visual arts fascinate me, that’s why I live in the city.” What draws you to the world of visual arts as a source for your poetry?
PSJ: It’s not just the visual arts. All of the arts spark my curiosity and sometimes awe. For me, cinema has a different language and one that seems easily translated, but then, not really. I just saw Midnight Cowboy for the first time and it was utterly not what I expected. What struck me was the range of diction from the various characters; the visual analogues for emotional, physical, and financial decay even as many of the bodies are beautiful and sex scenes either lively or scary – depending. I may never write a poem about this, but those scenes inform how I look at things. In my poem “Belle de jour” I talk about marriage because that seems to be the real theme of that film, not the protagonist’s decision to be a temporary prostitute.
Painters and sculptors refine and redefine space and volume but they also point out what the artist deems significant. So whether it is the Kongo sculptures I saw at the Met that were created to ward off the European colonists wreaking havoc on an ancient civilization or Elizabeth Murray’s huge abstract cups and saucers – the work made by humans for humans fascinate, provoke, and educate me.
Performance work seems to me to be about time and being present at the time of the creation. I don’t write much about dance – it seems ephemeral – but I do write about drama because of how words are used in the time on stage. As for music, I think we simply hold songs and rhythms and timbres in our bones.
GI: In this time of alternative facts and niche news sources in which the divisiveness of this country seems to be growing, what role do you see the poet as playing?
PSJ: I’ve written about this extensively and I would suggest anyone interested check out my essay for the Harriet blog at Poetry Foundation
GI: What projects are you currently working on?
PSJ: Memoirs about my early years as a poet and budding flaneuse (didn’t know that word until about six years ago) in New York City. It is a way to fight against the erasure of African Americans who very much lived and worked in the East Village and downtown in the 1970s. You read most of the “histories” – none of us (unless a drug pusher) are there.
I’m also working with poets and activists to develop a large-scale gathering of poets, hopefully by early 2018, to explore new ways to make language that counters the utterly destructive myths promulgated by the hyper-wealthy about what America is and who Americans should be.
GI: Does good writing result from best practices, magic, or both?
PSJ: Good writing results from discipline and talent, as does any human endeavor. Magic has nothing to do with it.
GI: What is your favorite piece of writing advice?