I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Patricia Spears Jones’s poetry is a study in conflict; the scales of tradition and experience never quite strike a safe balance. Her voice is gritty—she’s seen a lot—but Jones still exudes that fresh-off-the-bus fascination. Grounded in her rural southern roots, yet built on 20 years in New York, The Weather That Kills is a table top of snapshots: Chinatown funerals; Smokey on the radio; street talk; sermons; subway platform singers. Jones recalls memory in bits and pieces, capturing a mood through music, through the atmosphere—through the “weather that kills.” And though the weather might destroy, it also, very slowly, heals: “Rain falls cold, but not as cold as the day before.” Ultimately, Jones is hopeful. And, the word which most comes to mind is committed. She is a passionate, devoted writer, who’s long awaited first collection reveals a voice that is longing, but never saccharine, ironic but not cynical. Jones evokes a beckoning past, while still relishing the immediate.
Jenifer Berman Your collection The Weather That Kills opens with Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” As a poet, how are you answering that question?
Patricia Spears Jones I don’t think I have. I see that quote more as a metaphor for the position of people of African descent in this country. The most amazing phrase in that psalm is: “And they that wasted us required of us mirth.” That is an incredible statement about the position of the oppressed in any situation, that the one who is oppressed should not display anger or rage or any sort of rebellion to their oppressor, but should be pleasant and pleasing—mirthful. In responding to that requirement, we are still able to continue to sing our own songs, reminding us that we indeed came from far away.
JB Much of your poetry deals with departure, and return.
JB On a personal or on a communal level?
PSJ It’s both. No work of art is just one thing, it’s always multi-layered. It fulfills my own personal journey, but it’s also 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.
JB Can you recall any specific moments of epiphany?
PSJ They’ve come through in ordinary ways: in and out of the family, in and out of love affairs, in and out of jobs. I tend to be very reserved. But I listen and respond to something that resonates, that moves me, whether it’s hearing Robert Johnson singing the same blues, or dancing to James Brown, or cleaning the house to an old Philip Glass record.
JB It was the sense of atmosphere in your work that first attracted me. On some days the quality of the air is so tangible that it evokes the most vivid memories, more vivid, I think, than any other sense. It’s the end of March, I walk outside, and suddenly I’m seven years old, smelling salt, and waking up in Florida at my grandparents’. Why did you choose the title, The Weather That Kills?
PSJ You’ve said it, I guess. The weather, the instant changeability, the idea that things do not stay the same from one instant to the next, and that you can capture that. Every time the seasons change I’m one of those people for whom going from winter to spring, summer to fall, fall to winter, hits like crazy.
JB So it’s the transformation, the cycle.
PSJ Yeah. For me it’s often a kind of music, those rainy days are here again kind of songs. But it’s also Martha and the Vandellas, you know, and suddenly I’m the chubby teenager in my bedroom dancing by myself.
JB Music and the weather—rhythm and cycle. Is it the sense of repetition, the predictability in knowing come March the snow will melt, or in a familiar song, especially jazz, you hear a recurring theme?
PSJ Yes, but I think that by the time I’m writing a poem I’m beyond that. Anything may spark a poem, but I don’t consciously seek it. Music moves me, and the mutability of the weather affects me, my moods. Sometimes it’s a visual thing, a painting, a movie. It could be the spectacle of opera. The visual arts fascinate me, that’s why I live in the city. I could not function in a small town. I never thought that writing was going to be a career for me. Where I grew up being a writer wasn’t a major thing to do. If I had been a singer everyone would have been happy.
JB You’ve got this Billie Holiday thing going on.
PSJ I wanted to think about her as this incredible goddess figure, in the way that people talk about Marilyn Monroe.
JB Was she an icon to you?
PSJ No, but I like treating her like that. She’s somebody who hit all the depths and highs a human can. The years prior to and after World War II codified a lot of really interesting, progressive ideas: the rise of Communism and Socialism, the New Deal. But, there was also the rise of Fascism. It all comes to this apex, and for some reason, when I hear Billie Holiday I hear all of those things happening. She was an incredible jazz singer, the fluidity of her voice is amazing, but there’s also an extraordinary sense of structure, when you think of her as a musician, and not as the iconographic female victim. I think of her as having all these things that people never ascribe to her, and that’s why I wanted her to be a goddess figure. She gets to be the goddess over my book.
JB In “In Like Paradise/Out Like the Blues” you say, “Artists make whole somehow the ways in which dreams persist.” You’re confronting the immortality of art. An old friend told me this story about combing the Northeast in search of his family history. When I asked, why was he doing this? He said, “I can’t make art, so there is nothing to immortalize me.”
PSJ What a statement. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Blumen,” which came out of going to Berlin. I’m one of those people who is fascinated by the Weimar Republic. I was trying to think about what survives complete devastation. The only thing that survives is art. Those are the traces, the real traces. Music, I guess, is the biggest trace of all. As far as I can figure out, art’s the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animals.
JB Was there a strong oral tradition in your family? Because Christianity shows up in your work like a Sunday sermon.
PSJ My grandfather was a minister, and for me the most important thing about church and sermons was the ritualized nature of speaking. At Easter and Christmas there were always pageants, and you had to learn poems and speak your piece. They were hard to do. You wore your best clothes, you had to stand in front of everybody and make sure you did it right so you wouldn’t embarrass your family. So, learning words that have a theme was very important. And ritual was very important. It still is. A lot of art seems so borderless and so unconnected to me, or it seems only connected to very tiny communities. There is this desperate search for a kind of ritual that holds people together. That’s what I see in youth culture, in rap or grunge. It saddens me that people have to take it that far out to get to something real.
JB What do you mean, “far out?”
PSJ I watch kids in my neighborhood walk around repeating raps, not making up their own, not going beyond what they already know. It’s another form of didacticism. And it’s the oldest form. You teach people by rote. What’s being taught is a whole bunch of values, and if rap is the base for that, over and over again, that’s what you think is the way of the world. There’s this desperate need for people to belong, to have something that they can master. But what happens next? What if there is nothing more but the same? This makes connections very, very fragile. Things in American culture have fragmented completely.
JB Have you felt pressure to align yourself with a particular community?
PSJ I don’t think I have ever done that very much. I am a feminist, and I am a woman of color. So whether I’m called that or not is unimportant, because I’m treated a certain way, no matter what. I think there is extraordinary stuff going on in American poetry at this time. People who were born and raised here, working with the American language, Joy Harjo who is Native American, or Thulani Davis, or Cornelius Eady, or me. All of us, we’re working this stuff.
JB What is your opinion of the performance poetry scene that has seemingly exploded in the past five years?
PSJ Well, most performance poetry bores the hell out of me. I think it’s a lot about word play. It’s watching people who are learning how to write. Some people are really great at it, and they should be heard or seen or read. It’s great that lots of people are writing poetry and are going to hear it. I’d rather hear mediocre poetry than go see a whole bunch of bad movies.
JB Spoken word is what a lot of younger poets are doing.
PSJ There is a real desire for community, and that doesn’t have anything to do with poetry. It has to do with wanting to connect. I was the featured poet at the Nuyorican two years ago and they had a slam afterwards and I stayed for awhile. It was hilarious. I realized halfway through, all the guys were talking about their sexual prowess, or none, and all the women were talking about their sexual prowess, or none. I kept thinking, this is like a new Dating Game. And they were humorous about it. Not, “I’m lonely, I’d like to connect with somebody, here’s my number.” They don’t do that. It’s more like, “I need somebody in my life, here I am.” And I don’t discount that. It’s just that it doesn’t surprise me.
JB Being lonely in New York—or anywhere—is a real stigma. I wrote a poem about this very strange moment a friend and I shared, this one awkward moment that brought two lonely people together. I showed it to him, and he was mortified.
PSJ That’s the other side of being a writer, we are rightfully despised. We use everything in our life for our work. It is very difficult to have strong friendships, or family relationships that can withstand a writer’s curiosity. My legal father is dead, but my biological father and my mother are both still alive, and I thought for a long time that I couldn’t write about either one of them while they were still alive. It’s taboo, at least in my family, to talk about any of these things. Everybody acknowledges that family dysfunctions go on, that’s one thing; but it’s another to show it in a book.
JB What was taboo?
PSJ There is very little privacy in the lives of black people. We are the most investigated people in this nation. So the only areas where black folks have some control is over their own particular stories. And so the issues of the family, relationships, you know, who’s related to whom and who’s not, the outside child, all of those things may be known, but are not spoken of. So it’s very difficult for me. I think in order to reconnect with what my mother and father were like, I had to go outside, be willing to observe and be non-judgmental. These people gave me a great deal of love and caused me a hell of a lot of pain. So how do you deal with that? Some writers wreak havoc, and others try to find some level of forgiveness. I was going for the forgiveness side.
JB How have your parents received the work?
PSJ They haven’t seen it. I don’t think my father ever will. My mother will probably say, “That’s nice.” I think she’ll just be happy that I accomplished something. But my brother and sister have heard and read my poetry and they enjoy it.
JB Your work speaks of conflicting forces: the liturgical vs. the secular, the Bible vs. the blues, roots vs. departure. In what ways are you a divided person?
PSJ I like contention. To try to resolve one’s contradictions is what makes one a human being, especially a sophisticated, wise human being. People who are about one idea scare the hell out of me. They’re like Moonies. I’m someone who is very skeptical. But I’m also very idealistic. It’s an interesting balancing act.
JB How has your poetry evolved? Have you gone through stages in your work?
PSJ No, but the tone of the poems written in my twenties and early thirties is different from the poems I’ve written since ’89.
JB In what way?
PSJ The earlier poems are much more romantic. There is level of heroism in them. I don’t have that many heros … Jimi Hendrix is one. But, the more recent work is closer to a realized life. I like being a grownup. That’s one of the few things about black women writers I know, you want to be grown up. Toni Morrisson has a great essay where she talks about that. Really being happy as an adult. As a mature writer, I have a greater enjoyment of the way in which I can allow language to motivate the work, I think sheer emotion does that when you’re a younger writer. That’s the difference.
JB Would you describe yourself as a voyeur, or a chameleon?
PSJ All good writers are good listeners. We’re all wall flowers in a way, even the most flamboyant among us. I don’t know if I’m as much a chameleon, but I think I’ve always been on the edges of things. When I came to New York in the ’70s people in theater were mostly white. They were doing experimental work, it was weird, the whole Mabou Mines connection. I’ve always had this odd sense of being the only black person, but I’ve always been interested in people who take things to the edge. Maybe it’s because I’m from the country. For me, my life and work are sort of seamless. The work is part of an overall whole. I could probably analyze poems line by line for you, but to be analytical about my own working method is very foreign to me. Too often, we want to know why or how someone produces work to deal with the product. One could ask, “Do you write as a woman or do you write as a black woman?” I have breasts and I have brown skin, and I write. It’s not like I take a breast off, or the skin comes off, and I sit down and write. It doesn’t work that way. And why would anybody think like that?
JB You say you want to talk about race in a different way. Can you be more specific?
PSJ I don’t think I talk about race in the way a lot of people have in the past. I’m just trying to do it differently. I don’t know too many black women writers who lay claim to Rita Hayworth. Or look at a black drag queen as emblematic of American culture. Issues of representation are very contested, I understand that, and I think they should be, but if we don’t start to talk about issues of empathy, really having some regard for each other—I’m not talking about sympathy, I mean empathy—really saying, I don’t know who that person is over there, but I need to understand his or her life, hurt, joy. I’m so tired of how people talk about race in this country. It’s not interesting or useful to me anymore. I was born in the South, I’m in my forties, I have seen a lot. I know what it’s like to live in segregation, I know that. It was horrible for everybody, except for the five people in town who owned everything. It was horrible for all the poor white people, it was definitely horrible for all the black people, you know what I mean? I want us to start to see things differently.
JB Mother, the play you wrote last year for Mabou Mines, was a reinterpretation of Gorky’s revolutionary novel. How was it being involved in this type of collaboration?
PSJ I loved it. It was so demanding. I can’t imagine a better way to do that. I was working with Ruth Maleczech, who I think is one of the great actresses of all time, and John Edward McGrath, who was the director, who is really terrific. Carter Burwell had never written music for the theater; I had never written a full-length play. We could have been deathly sunk, fortunately we swam. I like that I didn’t have to do all the work. That’s the one part about being a poet, you have to do all the work. You really do have to sit there all the time and say, is that line okay; should I write about that, or who cares?
JB So you didn’t have any issues with giving up control of your product?
PSJ No. We all brought something different to the process, and that was what was great about it; it was a real collaboration. It was about having these intense conversations for six months, and the next six months we were rehearsing, and then we made this new work.
JB You’ve said it was the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
PSJ It was in coming up with the appropriate language for each character and making it up as a seamless whole and remaining my own voice. All my friends said, “It’s you, it’s always you,” and I said, “Of course it’s me.” Every one of the characters was me.
JB Did one character feel most familiar, or was one more difficult to write?
PSJ I liked all of them in different ways. The spy was a favorite. He was evil, and I had never written an evil character before. I didn’t think I could. But the hardest scene to write was the scene between the mother and the woman activist. I had seen other plays where women are talking about political activism, but not quite in that way. And I really wanted to honor that level of commitment, but also to critique it at the same time. It was very hard to do. The play is a real look at revolutionary work, in the sense of what it was like at the end of the 19th century, and what it is like now. It is very different. We have pretty much turned our back on progress, on liberation, on all those things that we desperately need in this culture. This country is turning its back on its most creative and sophisticated people. How are we supposed to compete in the 21st century when all of the people who are supposed to come up with the ideas to make this happen are undermined economically, and philosophically.
JB You work as the Director of Development at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and you are a poet. So what is your opinion on the “elitism” argument?
PSJ I think that the “elitism” argument is a way in which those who truly support the non-distribution of wealth argue against cultural and intellectual “capital.” Elite means the best, and artists, myself included, give their very best. It is our generosity that is attacked, and the wealth of our thinking and production that the radical right wants to suppress. How dare the “best” not be accessible to as many people as we can reach? Accessibility does not mean watered down, less interesting, unsophisticated. The blues came from poor black people, but it is neither simple nor primitive. It is very sophisticated, and from its roots came a new world music, jazz. When people attack the NEA and other forms of government support for the arts, what they are attacking is accessibility of the arts to a broad spectrum of people including the very poor, outside the “free market.” The argument is not about elitism, it is about economic control. And it is an argument that artists and intellectuals are losing at this point in time.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee