Interview with Saeed Jones from BuzzFeed! (Part 1)

One of the most challenging and rewarding responsibilities on our journey as writers is the process of applying for fellowships, residencies, and grants. And a lot of the time, we give up way before we give in. The BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship is in its second year, with applications Due on October 1st. Our Blog Editor, Erica Cardwell and Poetry Co-Editor, Elizabeth Sochko, recently caught up with Saeed Jones--poet, founder of the fellowship, and Executive Culture Editor at BuzzFeed. Saeed shared encouraging information for those applying for the fellowship, writing process secrets, and insights into the emotional politics of memoir. Part One of our interview is posted now; Part Two will be available in another week. Take a look!

Conversation with Saeed Jones - Part One

EC: We’re excited to hear about the BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

SJ:  Sure, well this will be the second cycle of the fellowship.  Basically for four months beginning in January ‘17, we have four emerging writers who, this time for the first time, will have the option of being based either in our New York newsroom here with me or in LA., with the deputy culture editor, Karolina Waclawiak, and they have desks, they get a computer, and essentially you’re treated like a staff culture writer.  We already have five culture writers here on staff full time. They’re treated as a special group, so they’re assigned work from me and Karolina, they’re edited by me and Karolina directly, but they also receive a lot more feedback because the fellowship in essence is designed to do a few things. One, to give them as many opportunities as possible to write great work on this platform so that people can see their work, and that is really important to any emerging writer-- to just get their work out there and in front of people. But it’s also designed to give them opportunities and feedback and mentorship that is focused on long-term, well beyond Buzzfeed’s offices so to speak. Obviously this is great for us and I’m so proud to have work from the fellowship published on Buzzfeed’s literary vertical, [Buzzfeed] Reader, but the real victory is beyond Buzzfeed.  It is about the industry supporting writers, creating more sustainable conditions for talent to develop because when you talk about culture, we’re asking editors and writers to help us understand our lives and our country, you know our art, and so if the most insightful talent literally cannot afford to publish that insight and to have the time necessary to observe and think through and make connections, then we all suffer in the long term. So I hope in the short term, the four writers I get to work with this cycle enjoy getting to publish their work on Buzzfeed and I want to give them as many opportunities to publish essays and cultural criticisms and do reported cultural work, but also I hope we’re able to endow them with connections and advice and resources and all the serendipitous tidbits that any writer or any artist needs to have a real long career.

EC: Wow, that’s ideal. There’s not a lot similar intention in other fellowships so that’s really fantastic. Can you tell us how the first year went?

SJ: It was pretty great.  One thing that was interesting was that before the fellows even got here, we announce the fellows in mid-November or December because if they’re going to move they need time, so I announced the four fellows and what I thought was so funny was that immediately agents and editors and MFA programs and talent scouts were reaching out.  I was like, we haven’t even all sat in the room together yet.  So that was really amazing.  Literally before any of the fellows had their first day essentially in the office, all four of them had been courted by agents. So translated into- okay now we had to have a series of conversations about agents. *laughs* Which was good and important. One really wonderful agent came in just to talk to them and to give them advice on things to look for and red flags, and Karolina and I had a separate conversation with them about our own experience with agents. So that’s kind of the thing we try to do.  We try to really respond to the questions that the writers have, not just what I think they need, but what they think they need.  So that was one thing that happened.  One of the fellows, as soon as we announced, the Pratt Institute program reached out and said, “well if any of the fellows are interested in getting an MFA and want funding, we have scholarships available, just let us know.” So I let the fellows know and sure enough one of the last year’s fellows, Chaya Babu, is starting the MFA program there I guess this fall as a result of it.

EC: That’s great.

SJ: Those are the things that happened before we really even got to work, so that was pretty funny.  One of the fellows, Tomi Obaro, just really emerged as a changed editor in the making.   She really enjoys it and she pointed out that when we talk about diversity in media the emphasis is almost solely on writers, and obviously that’s important, but she was like, “who is going to edit these people?” and truly the senior editors or executive editors,*** (A little unclear of this phrasing. Recorded around 7:50) so we ended up hiring her and she’s now on my team as an associate editor, so she gets to edit work as well as support me and Karolina and she’s actually a really important part of this year’s fellowship application process.  I try to be clear with the fellows that the point is not necessarily to get a job here at Buzzfeed, and I cannot guarantee a full-time position here, but if an opportunity just really aligns, then of course we’ll pursue it. I’m so happy to have Tomi here. And Chaya is going into an MFA, Esther is doing freelance writing, and she’s been writing for a few places, and that’s been exciting to see.  She’s actually done some freelance work for us since the fellowship, which is cool, and she’s doing consulting work. And Niela Orr is doing freelance writing as well. I get to see her in Elle print talking about ‘Roots’ earlier this summer. So it’s been neat. It’s still early on and I do hope that each class of fellows we stay in touch and have coffee and they know that they can reach out to each other and they can always reach out to people here for advice. Because you know, It takes more than one good four months to have a career.

EC: Definitely.  It sounds like you have a nice community of writers with the fellowship. Four was a really good number and I also noticed that they were all POCs.  How did that work? Was that something that was a main goal of yours?

SJ: Well you know, like legally, I’m frankly not allowed to specifically hire for identity.  So what I can do, and what I do do, is make sure that when opportunities are available here at Buzzfeed-- not just for the fellowship, but for any job-- I really try to advocate, very aggressively, to make sure that people know about it.  And people in all different kinds of communities.  I’m going to do that again this year.  I don’t take it for granted. That I can't just post a job posting on my personal facebook, and Buzzfeed’s social accounts, and share it with other editors I know personally, then just assume that I’m going to end up with a really rich, diverse pool of candidates.  That’s just not going to happen. So you know, I go out and I try to meet with different communities and people who are organizing.  Last year whether I was speaking to people VIDA or Cave Canem or the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, I was fortunate that by the time the application deadline came around last October, we had a really rich and diverse pool and then from there honestly, I step away.  I usually look at all the applications at the beginning of the process, I think it was 588- is the number I have in my head, fortunately I won’t have to look all of that by myself this year. It will be me and two other people.

EC: Oh good.

SJ: I make the initial decision in terms of looking at the pool, and I think that’s important because I’m trying to look at the big picture and I’m looking at trends, and obviously this year I will be thinking about things we learned from the last group of fellows. You know, you want to do things differently and we may want to pivot toward a different kind of writer, who knows, i keep an open mind. Then we whittle it down from that large number to another large number, and then I ask a group of editors and writers here at Buzzfeed on staff to help make the decision, so I kind of like hand it off. They make a decision, and the pool gets a little bit smaller. Usually when I have about thirty applicants, I have a pool of editors, writers, gatekeepers, outside of Buzzfeed.  So last year it was writers at The Nation, freelance writers like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jenna Wortham at the New York Times and we had some editors, and then they make the decision. Someone at the National Book Foundation. So really a nice diverse, in some ways unexpected, group of people who get it. They get it. The mission. So they usually take it to then ten writers, and then that’s when I step back in.  So in that way it is kind of cool.  I’m out there navigating and telling people to apply, but for example me saying you should apply does not mean you are guaranteed to get this fellowship by any means. A lot of people have to believe in this person’s work, so I usually make the first decision and then I come back when it’s time when I have the last ten people, that’s when I do the phone calls or the in-person interviews or the google hangouts, and then I make recommendations.  And of course I’ve been watching the process throughout, but I try to step  away because I don’t want to be sentimental and I want to feel free to encourage people to apply, so I don’t want to be there the entire judging process.  What happened last year was just very organic.

EC: Yeah.

SJ:  I remember a couple of the finalist were in their forties and fifties.  You know, we had some white people.  *laughs* It was cool. It was great.  I remember one of the finalists was a black guy who lives in New Mexico and is in his fifties and he’s just been doing great freelance writing for a long time, but just feels left out, and felt baffled about how this worked, you know. He was very strong and I would have loved to have had more fellows but four is just a really important number in terms of being able to give people the support they need.  So in that way, I won’t say that it was a coincidence that the four fellows we had last year were women of color, but it just happened that they were the most talented people who came.  

EC: Exactly.  I love that you bring in a lot of contemporary voices. I love Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, she’s so amazing.

SJ: Amazing.

EC: Could you tell me about your definition of ‘emerging’?

SJ: Oh yes. This is so important.  I guess I realized, and I’m glad I realized it early enough to comment on it, that it was really important. Emerging is actually a very loaded word.  It has a lot of baggage. As an executive editor of Culture, it’s funny the words you kind of take for granted because I’m so deep in the weeds that I forget.  Perhaps the only word more loaded, for me, than emerging, is the word culture itself. It’s like a whole other thing. But anyway, often people think [emerging] means oh okay someone is twenty years old and they’re brand spankin’ new and they’re pretty and they just graduated from school and you know of course there is just this wealth of opportunities for them and i know many, many people who feel that’s unfair.  You know, people who are parents who have decided to become writers. I think a lot of people often feel, not turned off by the word emerging, but they assume they aren’t emerging.  

EC: Right.

SJ: What I tell people is, when I think of emerging writers, I mean writers who have published a couple of pieces out there, and that can be different spaces, the work speaks for itself when I see it, but it’s brilliant work that when I read it as an editor I go wait. Why haven’t I heard this person before? Writers who I say are “best kept secrets”. And the reason they are secrets is because they haven’t gotten the backing, the mentorship, the platform for everyone to know about that work.  That can be someone with a phD or someone who has been teaching and just decided to step out of academia, you know and realizing that more popular media is a different game.  That can be someone who has quietly been doing work but they only write every couple of years or something.  That could be a parent. And yes, it could be someone right out of college or graduate school or their MFA. To me, it’s a very open term. I try to keep a very open mind and that’s why on our application, the portfolio that people still have to turn in does ask a lot of questions.  It is somewhat challenging because part of what I’m trying to do is to set aside assumptions about what it means to be an emerging writer, what it is to need support, and instead to kind of get a sense of just where the writer is honestly in a way that can only become clear if you get the whole picture.  It’s the work, it’s the writer talking about work that inspires them by other people, it’s the writer talking about things they understand about the work and things that they are totally baffled by.  I would encourage people that if you, in good faith, feel that you are an emerging writer, you should apply. A bit of advice I got from a mentor when I was in graduate school when I was thinking about applying for an opportunity-- actually I was thinking about not applying for an opportunity.  I was doing one of those things where I was like “oh yeah, but I looked at the application and I’m not that. There’s just no way.” You know, where you’re already pre-eliminating yourself. And I think there are a lot of reasons why that happens, and I think it is often very much connected to identity and feeling othered.  My mentor, Rigoberto Gonzalez, said, “Saeed, you have to apply.  It’s not your job to say no.  It’s their job to see your application and say no.” He pointed out in some ways, it’s weird, it’s insecurity but it’s also a kind of arrogance to assume you understand the whole intention of the decision maker.

EC: Absolutely.

SJ: So I tell people to apply! And obviously, without fail, someone will apply and i’m like, “Dude. Stop. You are fine. You know, I wish you well, you’re welcome to pitch me anytime, but you do not need this fellowship to survive.” *laughs* But let us make that decision for you if feel you are on the fence. 

EC: Definitely. I had a mentor say something similar.  He said, “Let them tell you no.” 

SJ: Yeah. Let them tell you no!