Poetry Wears an Evening Gown

Poetry never needed the delicacies of gentle, metaphorical language often associated with its genre. One poem requires only the amount of words necessary to get the point across—a point often open-ended and left up to the reader’s interpretation. Likewise, Southern queerness never needed a stereotype or strict set of rules of what’s acceptable and comfortable. Concepts of  gender, race, and sexuality don’t require a list of terms and conditions to abide in order for living souls to identify with them. And writer Saeed Jones doesn’t compose poetry simply for the reader’s pleasure or preference. He writes it for himself and those who can identify with, love, and be shaped by it.

Born in Memphis, but raised in North Texas, Jones grew up with a myriad of talents and actively participated in extracurricular activities for school. In an interview with Danielle A. Jackson for Myriad Magazine, he discusses his active pursuit of speech and debate during his years at a high school nestled in a Dallas suburb. On the surface, the teenage Jones appeared to be the all-American student. As a young man in the making, he nurtured his natural talents with words and literature. He recalls taking pleasure in the works of Shakespeare and Atwood. However, simmering beneath the surface of the all-American veneer lay a raw human being searching for the perfect written connection between reader and writer. Although he appreciated the average compilation of required reading served, his identity didn’t parallel with Romeo and Juliet.

Because I do think there is a moment where if you are not a straight white man… we are kind of looking for permission, looking for a sign…” he states in the interview. His love of words and the art of expression needed something something more. “You know we have our instincts but you’re not sure because often you don’t have a blueprint.” The permissionor blueprintis the body of work from a published writer whose identity closely aligns with that of the reader. The curriculum taught in Southern public schools is generally tailored to fit the experiences of the heteronormative and the white, with a sprinkling of voices like Langston Hughes haphazardly thrown in for good measure.

While this is “comfortable” and normalized by the powerful majority, it isn’t true or relatable for minorities whose experiences are often squirreled away in niche bookshelves and rarely spoken of out loud. “I didn’t know of contemporary black queer writers until almost my senior year of high school… So I was like whoa! This is amazing, seeing interracial relationships, bisexuality, jazz music…” Poetry from E. Lynne Harris, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde stepped in to draw much-needed connections for Jones. Thus, a door opened to a journey for Jones to create his own body of work detailing his experiences as a queer, black man in the South.

The everlasting life of one’s voice beyond the grave not only ebbs and flows as a common theme in Jones’ poetry, but cuts into the reader’s soul. It’s an obsession for himto continue living and being heard long after death. “A Memory” uses the deceased spirit of a person as the narrator who continues to speak from beyond the gravewhether anyone else hears them or not.

“When I’m back, I want a body like a slash of lightning

If they heard me, I couldn’t hear their answers.”

The narrator describes how mourners eventually leave and forget an existence that begs for remembrance. Despite the living not hearing the spirit, it doesn’t lose hope.

They’ve cooked for one another, sung hymns
as if they didn’t prefer jazz. I’m just a memory now.
But history has never stopped me from praying.”

The poem ends on an open-ended note of hope. The spirit continues believing, praying, and speaking despite the lack of response and all-encompassing silence and darkness it endures within the grave.

Boy in a Stolen Evening Gown” likens the art of writing and words to wearing a cocktail dress.

“How I wear the word: sequined weight

snagging my saunter into overgrown grass, blonde

split-end blades.”

This verse, heavy with symbolism, describes more than just a boy haphazardly trying on a discarded dress. It implies that the narrator, wearing his own sparkling experiences, is journeying through a white-washed landscape of overdone literary tropes. The overgrown field is the overused works of white heteronormativity. The heaviness of the dress is the cross that all minority writers bear for future generationsimplied with boy or “Sir who is no one / sir who is yet to come…” The boy is the future who wears the dress of words among outdated notions of gender, race, and identity.

Jones exemplifies the importance of diverse voices that shape the identity of future generations. He examines how a writer’s message forever reaches out to validate those who need it the most. More than anything, he’s a living example of what inclusive curriculums and educational outreach can do for people of color and those in the queer community. Southerners are often obsessed with the dead and memorial. Not attending a community member’s viewing and funeral is blasphemy in small towns. And it’s a rural tradition to make a casserole for the grieving family members. In this obsession, we often forget the living and their needs for finding a path in life. Like Audre Lorde before him, Saeed Jones doesn’t forget. His poetry offers another ladder rung for those we too readily cast out of common literary conversation by challenging our white-washed, heteronormativity.

   

Image Credit: Tuesday Agency (click to book Saeed Jones for your event)