Though he may not recall, Jon’s introduction to my work/me came a few years ago when he came through Columbus to feature at Writer’s Block. Scott Woods, always with the interest of entertainment in mind, had Jon stay on stage after he featured, in order to have him read the poems of two audience members, without having any knowledge of the poems beforehand. Of course, I was one of the audience members selected, and since i was BARELY writing anything resembling poetry at the time, all I had was this ridiculously long, sprawling, awful numbered piece about something I legitimately don’t recall, but I recall that being the first moment where I felt like I knew I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to keep writing poems. The first moment I understood that maybe I wasn’t doing this thing with all I had. Since then, I’ve been more than glad to call Jon a major influence, but more than that, a friend. His work has helped to shape and sharpen my work, the life he brings to any space he’s in really serves me well. Here is what I know. There aren’t a whole lot of people like Jon Sands. He gives valuable lessons on how to care for a room you’re performing in front of, how to build community, how to take your history and share it. I hope everyone gets as much from those lessons as I have.
We share a handful of things. Great taste in music. A Collection of cool hats. Strong feelings about the Cincinnati Bengals. And perhaps most importantly, a home state. Even with that, I feel like your poems live in multiple spaces. All at once, sometimes even from one line to the next. How has geography been a service to your writing, in every form? Beyond just the cities, but also the couches, bars, open mics…the whole journey.
I feel like story and geography are so intertwined that they’re hard for me to separate. I remember this moment early in my writing identity: I had recently arrived in New York and was in a perpetual state of inspiration/feeling like at any moment I would be found out for being this “boring” person who had a job as a paralegal, and came from Cincinnati, and liked football, all these things that just made up who I was that I had “crossed off the list” of what belongs in a “good” poem. I believed that if I just addressed politics, religion, love, and society, then I would be doing it “right”.
One late night, I found myself in a deep conversation with Lynne Procope, the co-founder of the LouderARTS Project, and righteously talented Trinidadian-American poet. I let slip my insecurity in the form of a compliment. I said, “Lynne, your poems are so incredible that they make me feel like I don’t have anything to write about because I’m not from Trinidad.” Lynne immediately said, “That is crazy. I often feel like I don’t have anything to write about because I am from Trinidad.”
Such an unbelievable epiphany about any author’s journey towards honoring their own stories. From that point, it wasn’t a choice to go in pursuit of all the places I’ve been. The places I’ve been, and what I’ve seen and imagined while there, they were trying to enter my writing the whole time. I was the one keeping them out. It was way more about permission than about pursuit. I needed to give myself permission to learn about my own life in the telling.
I firmly believe that when looking at the history of music, in the early days (the “record men” days), there were two types of record producers. The first is the one who serves themselves completely. The music fan who tries to make the shit they would listen to in their own car. Someone like Berry Gordy, even. The second is the documentarian. Someone like Leonard Chess who walks into a dive bar in Chicago, sees Muddy Waters playing, and decides to bring him into the studio the next day to play exactly what he played the night before. The person who sees a story, makes it beautiful, and gives it to the world. I consider you a documentarian in the same way Leonard Chess was a documentarian. Things like “Moons Over My Hammy” strike me as most incredible because even reading some of your work alone in a room, I feel like I’m gathered around a table listening to an old friend reminisce about our childhood. Even if we’re talking about lived experiences, not everyone can capture what you capture. What leads you to the clarity in the stories you share through your work?
I have fully subscribed to Toni Morrison’s quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I was with my old friend Ed Menchavez last night in this musty dark bar in the West Village where we used to be staples in our mid-twenties. He was saying that the poems he’s written that he’s most proud of share a simple through line. 1) Something happened. 2) He told that true story, but in a way that communicated how he felt about it.
He didn’t try to be anyone else in the telling. Which I think stands up even if you’re writing persona work, or non-personal narrative. An untrained writing mind (and often a trained one) can conspire to tell you that no one cares about the small details. But then you realize that the small details are EVERYTHING. That’s like saying that you want the ocean to be made out of something other than drops of water.
As Ellen Bass said, (paraphrasing), as a writer you risk not only the display of your story, but you risk showing people how your brain works. My brain often jumps from detail to detail, story to story, so with a poem like “Moons Over My Hammy” I already had all these detailed stories from high school, they were just looking for a format to enter. That poem is both my story AND how my brain works.
I hit a point early in my decision to grow as a writer where I committed to a search for poets who were writing work that allowed me to gain a belief in the fact that my voice, or my “style” was possible. I was just coming out of journalism, so a lot of the work I was writing was really heavy on this observation/examination-based narrative, and I wasn’t hearing or seeing a lot of that around. This was right after The New Clean dropped, and someone on the Columbus scene blessed me with a copy of it. First off, that book was one of a few that came to me at a crucial/urgent time in my development as a poet and opened a lot of doors for me. So, I really can’t thank you enough for that. I’m always fascinated by the fearless self-examination that comes through in your poems. That is a lived thing, I’ve learned. How do you continually motivate yourself to go into those places?
First off, thank you, my dude.
Second, all through high school, in creative writing, I feel like I was always told to “consider my audience”. I often wonder if that question was one of the main reasons that I didn’t actively pursue writing until my early twenties. Like, inherently I had to be doing it for someone else.
I love to read a book of poems and think “Wow! I can’t believe you just said that IN A BOOK!”. But none of our work gets written directly into a book. All of these poems have such humble beginnings. Me on a 4 train trying exorcise my learning of love and death and how all of it relates to my grandmother. I’m trying to use story to name something for my own self to be able to continue on this arduous, confusing, and profoundly beautiful journey.
Patricia Smith said that a poem happens when a narrative is stunned and can’t move forward without further commentary. I never assume that just because I’m writing something, everyone has to know it, or that I have an obligation to share it. There is often a lot of understanding to be gained in the sharing, but you always have a choice. There’s a growing cadre of poems that I may never share out or publish, but it doesn’t change that they were asking me to write them. There’s also often a gestation period before the sharing. I write a lot about my family, and we often get to experience and discuss those poems long before they’re released for consumption.
It was also very freeing to learn that I didn’t have to make sense of everything. It can be enough to tell the story. Once that burden was lifted, it was like a whole other door to my house opened with a strong breeze behind it.
It would be criminal to avoid mentioning your work with Pop Up Poets. I’m curious not only about how this idea came to be, but how it has changed any ideas you had about performance, or the placement of poetry in society.
There is a lot of info about Pop Up Poets (or Poets in Unexpected Places) here: www.popuppoets.com. But, it originated through conversations between myself, Samantha Thornhill, and Adam Falkner. We were quickly joined by Syreeta McFadden and Elana Bell. Originally the idea was, what would it take to put on a killer reading in a public space that the greater New York City population would enjoy? I remember being incredibly terrified by that first excursion, but we had already kind of set the wheels in motion and were accountable to each other to follow through.
I’m amazed at how many of the best things in my life have been preceded by terror. My friend Jeanne Kabenji once told me that “stage fright is only your body informing you of a trip into the unknown”. What it really meant is that I couldn’t imagine what would happen when we introduced our work, unsolicited, into people’s everyday lives. All we had was curiosity, and a hunch that something special had been happening for some time in our vast, but often insular, community, and that, if introduced, people from the spaces we inhabit on a daily basis could potentially feel like they had a stake in it. What we landed on was a complete re-imagining of the role that space and location play in the transfer of one’s story. I knew already that poems had many lives, but I have so much work that originated in New York’s public space, that to have the opportunity to bring some of those poems home has been one of the true joys of my life.
I’m realizing the part fear plays into my creative process, as I get older or prepare to tackle marriage or watch the people I love age or a million other things that life shows up and rides shotgun with. What is the one thing that your poems bloom out of? The one thing bigger than yourself that demands they be written?
The paradox that we are unbelievably connected to each other on a biological, energetic, and cosmic level. We truly are one being. And yet, we also experience the world as one individual entity alone in the universe. Shout out to my friend Vivien Shapra who I recently discussed this with in a way that elucidated my feelings.
Something crazy is that when I was doing a run of shows out East this winter, and I’d be out in these spots with all these poets who have work I really vibe with, I’d be like “Yo! Y’all gonna read on the open mic tonight or nah?” and more often than not, there would be this general discomfort with that idea. And then I got back to Columbus and realized that my relationship with the open mic had also changed a bit over the past year. What are your thoughts on the importance of the open mic, and how have you seen your relationship with it shift as you’ve taken your poems to more and more places?
I remember when I first moved to New York from Athens, Ohio in 2006, fresh faced, with this idea that I was “graduating” in some way from the supportive open mic scene that I began writing at. I wanted to seek out the poetry slam and “see where I stood”. The first time I slammed at the Bowery Poetry Club, I remember seeing Jeanann Verlee and Darian Dauchan, and thinking, “I cannot believe how much better these people are than me!” I got dead last (and didn’t get robbed), and I thought, “I’ve made a terrible mistake! I was never supposed to be a poet.”
I stopped writing for months, and only then could I feel the absence of all that creativity had given to me. I remember thinking, “I had it all wrong ABOUT having it all wrong. What I’ve needed the whole time is a good open mic to challenge me and hold me responsible to create new work. That realization gave me so much permission to explore all the cliffs that I could possibly throw my work off of. It was an incredible editing tool, as I would find that there were these dead spots in poems, where I instantly didn’t want to be reading a line, so I could sit right down afterward and cut what needed to go. Or say, “No one knew what I was talking about there, so let me find a way to say it clearer.” It’s still the first place I go with a new poem. I don’t get to attend as many as I used to, but there’s always something in me that craves the discovery of the open mic. As far as the poets I’m inspired by, nothing beats the first read of a new banger on the open mic—getting to watch the poet realize the power contained in what they just wrote.
You’re now based in New York, but you travel pretty consistently. How do you find time to create in between all of the movement? How do you find the space to stay energized/on your toes/still able to give the kind of performances that people need, even if they don’t know they need them yet?
Downtime produces a significant amount of anxiety for me. I can’t say if creative writing will always play the alchemist role that turns anxiety into product, but it seems to have worked that way for the past few years. I try not to wait for my body to know what poem it needs to write. I just feel the swell that I should be doing something right now, and that something is often writing. It produces a lot of flawed poems, but you can’t get the real juice of the poems that you’re most proud of without writing all the others that got you there. I try to remember that. Especially in generative writing, I try to go easy on myself.
Who are you a fan of? The one thing I’ve liked about asking these questions of people so far is this part. So many of the people I’m asking questions are big fans of the craft. I remember one time when you were in Columbus, you couldn’t stop talking about Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, which I’ve written whole praise songs to since you got me hip to it. Another time when you were here, we briefly discussed which of Patricia Smith’s masterpieces would be the equivalent of Illmatic. Right now, who is behind the work you’re most excited about?
Really, my holy trinity seems to be Patricia Smith, Aracelis Girmay, and Willie Perdomo. I’m lucky enough to be the Interviews Editor at Union Station Magazine, so I’ve gotten to go super in depth with all three of them. Talk about honor of honors. But if you’re reading this and want me to send you a vast booklist of some of the titles that changed the game for me, feel free to hit me at email@example.com and I’ll shoot it right back to you. Especially a good thing for educators!
You have written a handful of poems for weddings. You may be the Mike Jordan of wedding poems. It seems to me that there’s a pressure associated with pulling that off freshly and in a way that honors the moment. How do you rise to that occasion?
I think it’s simpler than people might think. As poets, our job is to tell a story. No matter how many times it happens, two people committing their lives to one another is its own incredible story. I’ve written four wedding poems, and each time I ask the couple a few simple questions: “When did you know you loved them? How did you/they propose? What do you love about them? What are some romantic things you do together?” Each time, the couple always manages to think that it’s not that romantic, just something silly that they do. My brother almost brushed off the fact that five months into his relationship, THE MAN HE WOULD MARRY JUMPED OUT OF BED IN HIS UNDERWEAR TO DO A FULL INTERPRETIVE SPY DANCE TO THE CREDITS OF A JAMES BOND MOVIE FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF MAKING HIM LAUGH. Jesus, this world can be SO beautiful sometimes. It can be hurtful and dangerous too, but you can’t let that invalidate the beauty. There’s too much at stake. The love poem isn’t about whitewashing the pain (which always has its place in a great love poem), it’s just about not letting it stop you from walking toward the beauty.
Alright, on to the real shit. Top five MCs, who you got?
I really can’t answer THE top 5 MCs. But MY top 5 (as of today at 2:00 PM):
1) Andre 3000
2) Lauryn Hill
3) Kendrick Lamar (I know it’s early…..that’s just how I feel)
4) Kanye West
5) Consequence (specifically, and maybe solely, any time he’s featured on a Kanye West track…specifically “Spaceship”. Realest verse ever.)
Jon, Thank you for doing this. I look forward to catching up properly soon.
JON SANDS is the author of The New Clean (2011, Write Bloody Publishing). His work has been featured in The New York Times, and published in Rattle, The Millions, LUMINA, Hanging Loose, Muzzle, and others, as well as anthologized in 2014 Best American Poetry. He is the co-founder of Poets in Unexpected Places, and the Interviews Editor for Union Station Magazine. He is a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC, and teaches creative writing at both Bailey House (an HIV/AIDS service center) and the Positive Health Project (a syringe exchange in Manhattan). He tours regularly, but lives in Brooklyn. <www.jonsands.com>
Additionally, a video of Jon discussing topics like this, and more can be watched HERE