Poets Talk: 5 Questions with I. S. Jones

I. S. Jones. Photo Credit: Nicholas Nichols, @maruneboy

Konya Shamsrumi: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Is it a lot of hard work or easy?

I. S. Jones: I am curious about the choice of ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ in the framework of the question. It’s a labor to write no matter the circumstance or genre. I’m less interested in an overly simplified dichotomies of “hard” or “easy” and more invested in what the work itself is demanding of me. I have no fixed process and sometimes I wish I had one. I’m envious of people who can churn out work. I think I’m better this way when I’m writing essays. Because I have to keep surprising myself to invigorate the work, I always looking for new exercises, keeping word banks or lists of lines to smuggle into a poem. Sometimes I write a poem when I know I should be doing something else (mopping the floor, doing laundry, cooking, homework, answering emails, etc.), some nights I do set out with an idea ahead of me. I always oscillate between 3-4 books to cleanse my palette before wandering out into the widening field of labor. Here is where I am trying to negotiate what’s possible. How language exits the mind and finds space in the physical world. I do have to visualize any poem before I can translate it onto the page, because there’s no way, truly, to remove my eyes and give them to a reader, so I try, and I fail often at this. Language is slippery. Memory is fallible. And yet, I am persistent. Writing at night is a part of my process, because I’m still wedded to the child-like dream of working when the world is asleep. There I can do anything, be anything, and no one cares what I’m doing. No one is watching.

Konya Shamsrumi: Please describe your sense of identity in this or any possible world in imagery or metaphor?

I. S. Jones. Photo Credit: Nicholas Nichols

I. S. Jones: American / Nigerian. Diasporan. Second-Generation American. Traveler. Especially in the last few years, I’ve been challenged on the permission to call myself a Nigerian, having never lived on the continent. I am Nigerian by blood, by lineage. I am American by choice, by circumstance.

Konya Shamsrumi: If any of your poems could literarily save a person’s life, which poem would it be and can you describe the person whose life you think it would have saved?

I. S. Jones: No one in my family reads anything I write, but if I could, I would write something that would save my brother. That poem doesn’t exist yet.

Konya Shamsrumi: What does Africa mean to you, as potential or reality?

I. S. Jones: I do not and cannot feel a connection to the entire continent ‘Africa’, it’s just far too vast. What an “Africa” is means too many things to give a specific name. When I think of Africa, I think of Nigeria. I think of Benin City, Edo, and Ondo. I think of Lagos. Abuja. Benue. When I arrived in Nigeria for the first time as an adult, it changed so much to wander through a world where everyone looks like me, where someone would say, “You look like a girl from Edo”. It’s another entry to ‘home’ I didn’t know I wanted gifted to me. If America is a portion of my lineage, Nigeria is the rest of it. Africa, now, is a roadmap to a series of circumstances that made me possible. I am, however, uninterested in romanticizing the continent. Nigeria, not without its beauty, from what I’ve witnessed is a brutal place to live. The government has failed its people and if not for the unwavering tenacity of the people, Nigeria would collapse tomorrow. I would like to believe now I understand why my parents left and will never go back. I would like to believe now I understand why nothing can silence the pain of missing home.

Konya Shamsrumi: Could you share with us one poem you’ve been most impressed or fascinated by? Tell us why and share favorite lines from it.

I. S. Jones: My god, this brutally tender poem FROM THIS END OF SADNESS by Peter Gizzi just ruins me every time I read it or think about it. I might go to bed, maybe once a week, remembering:

 It feels like winter,
the light overcast
and the day lit up
from within.

To find a line in it.

I found a world
torched into renewal,
blackened stalks
pointing skyward.

I took fortification
from goneness.
At this end
the notation is green.

Gizzi creates language: futurelessness, goneness. The line negotiates what is tangible, what we are capable of touching. I have been for so long attempting to make depression into tangible language without flowery language, without glorification. The language in Gizzi’s poem is at once mechanical but tactile. The language is distant but whispers to me from the darkest reaches of my interior:

  I did not understand
the code that held
me to the world.

Before this, had I read a poem that so adequately translated my sorrow back to me. . ?

 I’m heavy with light
when the old sun
is speaking,
when I’m not sure
the day is real.

I love this poem for the same reason I came to love poetry at all. There is a longing, a strange mysticism in which I understand and do not understand what is going on. All the poems I love, that I return to, transform me again and again.


I. S. Jones is a queer American / Nigerian poet and music journalist. She is a Graduate Fellow with The Watering Hole and holds fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, and Brooklyn Poets. She is the 2018 winner of the Brittle Paper Award in Poetry. I.S. hosts a month-long workshop every April, called The Singing Bullet. She is a Book Editor with Indolent Books, Editor at Voicemail Poems, freelances for Complex, Earmilk, NBC News Think and elsewhere. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, The Rumpus, The Offing, The Shade Journal and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at UW-Madison.

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