By Samia Ahmed
Jon Sands is a poet and fiction writer. In 2018, he was a winner of the National Poetry Series, selected for his second book, It’s Not Magic (Beacon Press, 2019). He is the author of The New Clean (Write Bloody Publishing, 2011), and the co-host of The Poetry Gods Podcast. His work has been published widely, as well as anthologized in The Best American Poetry. He teaches creative writing for adults at Bailey House in East Harlem (an HIV/AIDS service center), and is a recent MFA graduate in fiction from Brooklyn College, where his work won the Himan Brown Award for short stories. He’s represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, and he lives in Brooklyn.
SA: There is a myth that most good spoken word artists are stronger performers than they are writers. What are your thoughts on that?
JS: This is a hard question to answer. I don’t think I’ve ever identified as a spoken word artist. If anything, to me, spoken word is more a community than a genre, though I support people who self-claim that title. The problem is that I see it ascribed as often as I see it claimed. Do Stephen Dunn and John Ashbery require separate genres because their poems are different from each other?
I often think of it as genre gerrymandering. The question is where does the power exist, and who gets to draw the boundaries? As long as I can praise what you do as separate from the lane I’m in, then I don’t have to worry about us sharing a rubric, or you coming for my prize money and my tenure track jobs. How could this “myth” not be about power and fear and protection? It bears saying that, not always, but often, this is racialized. I know a lot of poets of color who’ve written many of my favorite books, and still have to be diligent to not get billed at literary festivals as spoken word activists.
What is 100 percent true, is that I value orality; it’s such a good tool for getting to the root of what you have to say. I never learn more about my work than when it’s first read out loud to a listening room, and both the open mic and the poetry slam were vital to my development as a writer. Orality, in that way, is no different from metaphor, repetition, sonnets, or any other tool that we use to crack the shell of our content. The idea that somehow it precludes craft is actually insane, and I’m instantly suspicious of anyone who says that out loud.
But maybe the question is about over-performing? Which is, again, one more way of worshipping the tool over the product.
SA: You have mentioned that you “fall in love at least six times a day.” What kind of effect does falling in love have on your poems?
JS: I love this question! There have been times in my life when the poems I was writing were braver than the life I was living. This was especially true around love, and specifically feeling worthy of it. I think the book that’s coming out next year has a lot of poems that, as I was writing them, were trying to push me down the path of opening. The poems continually were bringing me face-to-face with desire, and asking me if whatever emotion I was feeling was going to die in a notebook, or could I be brave enough to tell someone my feelings and wait for a response. So, in that way, I think the question is really, how did my falling in love in poems affect my falling in love in real life.
SA: Do you have any words of advice for poets who have not yet found their footing in the world?
JS: Regina King said recently in an interview, “Comfort zones are where dreams go to die,” and it really stuck with me. I think when I first saw poets whom I was really moved by, my urge was to sound like them, because they were the ones who were actually doing this thing I was clearly only pretending to do. I’m grateful that that happened in New York City in 2007 where you couldn’t really get away with writing disingenuously. I feel like I was constantly pushed—simply by being around others who were bravely writing into their own stories—to ask myself what it was that I actually had to say.
The other thing is that some of the poems I’m most proud of where I feel that I’m risking the most, they come from drafts where I’ve had to call one of my closest friends and say, “Is everyone going to judge me if I put this into the world?” And almost always, the answer is, that’s the poem that’s doing the work. Shame is like a stovetop, and we can’t keep our finger there long enough to see what it actually is. A good poem, for me, turns the temperature down long enough to get an accurate read. Those are the poems that grow you, that slowly develop your courage muscle. And it’s allowed to happen in small bites.
Other than that, it really is all about reading.
SA: In your poem “Not About Me” you have written, “I do not read unbelievable pieces of literature, each line 3 or 4 times, terrified everyone gets it but me.” Can you tell me more about this feeling?
JS: So, that’s a poem I wrote in 2008, when I was 25 years old. Do you know that feeling where the more you write, the further you get from saying whatever it is you’re trying to say? I was having that experience, and so I was like, okay, if I’m going to be in denial, let me at least be deliberate about it. So, I started cataloging what I was afraid to say out loud, but denying all of it.
I feel like the week I wrote that poem I had talked with a poet who I really admired about a poet they really admired. But when I read that poet’s work, I was like, ???????. But instead of saying so, I kind of did this affected, Oh yeah, they’re a genius type back and forth. And then I got home and was like, so that’s what we’re doing now? And it’s not like my only other option was to talk shit. I could’ve said, as I have many times since then, that I just hadn’t found my entry point into that poet’s work, and then had, you know, a genuine conversation. I just felt superficial and a little grimy, and those are the kind of details that make their way into my poems, I think, so that I’ll then have to reckon with them. Posturing is one of my least favorite things to do, and a kind of pure tell around insecurity, so I had to face that.
SA: When you go through your old writings or one of your first pieces, which feelings flood you? Do you have the urge to edit them? How has your writing changed over the years and what do you think facilitated that?
JS: My first pieces, I’m afraid, are beyond editing. But I’m also incredibly grateful for them, for there would be no poems that I’m proud of without them. I have an inordinate amount of affection for the 21-year-old in Athens, OH, whose paper was shaking on stage as he read his first poem aloud in a coffee shop. Honestly, when I’m reading a new poem that risks something aloud for the first time, I have a lot more in common with him than I do with the person answering these questions. The changes in my writing always feel as though they’re about 6-12 months in front of the changes in my life.
And so, other than reading and participating in community with people who inspire me to be brave—which is a huge part of how my writing has grown and developed—I think change is something you allow more than something you pursue. I’ve tried to allow myself to follow whatever form my writing takes, to be patient, to contextualize frustration and self-loathing, and to wait for the writing to show me what it came to say. And then to be ruthless in the pursuit of discovery.