Interview with Saeed Jones from BuzzFeed! (Part 2)

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. 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 1 was posted a little while ago; here's Part 2!

Conversation with Saeed Jones - Part Two

EC: I’m gonna switch gears just a little bit, and I know that your memoir is coming out in 2017, do you want to talk about it at all?

SJ: Sure. What do you want to know? *laughs*

EC: How’s the writing process going? Where are you at in [the process]? Anything that you want to share?

SJ: Sure. How is the writing going? Um. It is hard. It’s hard. In terms of work that I’ve published publicly, until now, it’s been personal essays, cultural criticism, and then obviously I published a poetry collection and all the poems that were a part of that.  There is a nice, safe distance that you have with those forms, whether it’s a poem or a poetry collection or an essay.  Where you have the luxury of containing the experience. Right? Whether you’re able to say well it’s a poem, you know it's not totally non-fiction, and there are metaphors. You can either do that or you can say oh well it’s just one essay. It is a set, a kind of finite, actually relatively very small kind of sampling of my work, of my experience, of my thinking. Psychologically I think that is very important for writers at a certain point. Now working on this memoir, I started on it back in 2011, so I’ve been working on it quietly for a long time, and I would leave it and come back to it, leave it and come back to it, and now obviously since I sold it to Simon & Schuster last Spring, it’s been a more more sustained experience.  I don’t have that escape hatch anymore.  I certainly don’t get to say well it’s all a metaphor. I don’t get to say well it’s a persona poem. I don’t get to focus very intensely on a relatively brief memory or moment or idea.  Instead, I have to live with my past self and selves for years.  The books spans a couple of decades, basically going from literal boyhood, like  twelve/ thirteen, to my mid-twenties.  I’m going through puberty and coming out and first relationships. And really, the arc of the book, which is titled, How Men Fight For Their Lives, is really about finding my way into what it means to be a man, what it is to be myself, and of course that is a project that is lifelong, but for the intensive purposes of this book, it’s a quarter-lifelong.  I enjoy it.  I’ve long been someone, and I think this frustrates people, I talk a lot about how I didn’t get into this aspect of writing to be happy. It isn’t therapy for me.  Writing poems has never made me feel better in the moment, it’s a craft, like any other craft.

EC: That’s right. Yeah.

SJ: And the same is true for writing this memoir.  It is hard, it’s very challenging.  It is certainly the most challenging artistic experience I’ve had thus far, but I savor the difficulty.  It’s proof that I’m able to do it now. I know that I would not have been able to do it had I not had the kind of  goals I’ve had just as a person and a writer and a thinker. But it’s intense. It’s like, whew. God. When people speak admirably or enviously about selling a memoir to a major publisher, I’m like Why? Why would you? *laughs* And I haven’t even finished the book yet, you know.  Further down the line it will be a conversation about what it actually means to have your life story in other people’s hands.  And to own that. So i’m not there yet, but whew!

EC: My thesis is my memoir, my memoir is my thesis. So I know what you’re saying, how you’re living with these previous selves.  I feel similarly.  It’s a certain kind of labor to relive all of the past.

SJ: It is. And it impacts you- there are the obvious ways that you expect it to impact your daily life in that, you know, spending sustained amounts of time with difficult memories, or even just the past, or even just yourself.  There’s a risk of a kind of narcissism, of the kind of just emotional exhaust, my dreams get all crazy depending on what I’m working on in the book. But also a kind of doubt has kind of just settled in, and I’d go so far to say it’s a healthy doubt. But you know, if you’re writing a memoir, part of what you are admitting is that you don’t know your past as well as you pretend, or have pretended, to know your past.  If you did, you know, you wouldn’t need to write a book.  That willingness to question memories and what happened and why I did this and why that person did that obviously that kind of begins to bleeds over into being in life. So for better or worse, I’m a more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if I like being more thoughtful, but I am, as a result of working on the book.  *laughs*

EC: Do you have a question you want to ask Saeed, Elizabeth?

ES (Elizabeth Sochko, Poetry Co-editor): Since you are managing so much in so many different roles as an editor and writer and now with your memoir, I was wondering how you personally compartmentalize everything? How is the process realistically as someone who is busy in many roles? How do you navigate that space?

SJ: That’s a good question.  You’re actually the second person to ask me that in the past twenty-four hours. If you can believe it.  How do I compartmentalize? Because that is important.  I’ll tell you this is what it is: I’ve had to compartmentalize my entire life.  I grew up in the suburbs of north Texas, my mom raised me as a single parent, we practiced Nichiren Buddhism in the middle of the bible belt. The majority of my mom’s extended family is devoutly christian, so different faiths and iterations, and obviously, I’m queer. So i didn’t know it at the time, I was also like thinking about being an artist, which in some way you might as well be queer all over again. *laughs* As long as I can remember, I’ve had to figure out how to leave certain parts of myself outside the room.  And we all do this, we all do this, but I think just by the nature of my identity, it’s been very, very rare that I’ve had experiences where I’ve been like all of myself at once.  And in some ways, in the last few years, that’s why I do feel deeply fortunate now because my work here at Buzzfeed over the last four years and how my career as an artist has taken off.  I don’t have to segment myself in that really negative way, but I think over time you don’t lose those skills.  You know what I mean?

SJ: For me, it is very easy for me to compartmentalize.  It’s like second nature.  In fact, I’ve noticed, at work it will happen very quickly.  I will be talking to someone, we’ll have a conversation, and I don't realize I’m doing it, but the moment my brain thinks we’ve resolved the problem and I move on to something else, and this happened just yesterday, we had one of those moments we resolved, I moved on to something else, I was answering emails, and then someone messaged me again and started talking about what we had just been talking about literally like just two minutes, and I was like What? What are we talking about?  *Laughs*

EC: You had moved on.

SJ: I had totally moved on. I had to reread my notes. I think that was just a really subtle example of how it works.  So you think that, and just pair it with the intensity of working on the memoir.  When I’m at home writing, it’s all I can think about.  It’s all I space in my brain to think about.  I can’t really daydream because it’s like I’m running on all cylinders just by the nature of the project.  And when I’m at work I feel the same way. I’m running on all cylinders. I run a department of around twenty people and they have all kinds of projects that i’m checking in on and meetings that I’m participating in and I have projects on my own that I have to handle, right,  and that I’m accountable for. So when I’m doing that, it’s kind of all in. Really the mystery is how I have time to be on Twitter as much as I do.  I think how I must look publicly and how I am during the day is like a total mystery.  But that’s basically it.  Being able to compartmentalize and being able to say okay this is where I am right now, how or who do I need to be in this moment, to get to the next moment, is really just an essential part of my being.  

ES: Okay, I have one more question. Do you feel a responsibility or do you feel empathy or what is it in you that made you decide you wanted to be this resource and provide these writers with tools? What is it that made you say, I’m going to be the person to provide these writers with these resources?

SJ: Oh goodness. That is a good question.  I think there are a few things.  One thing I really believe in is if not you, then who? I’m well aware of who I am and the industry in which I’m located and the kind of media, artistic landscape which I’m living on.  And I know that there aren’t that many gay, black, southern boys who make it to this point, unfortunately, so I have an opportunity to enact certain decisions. So you know, if I don’t do it, who will? I think that is part of it.  And then in terms of diversity in particular and opportunities, when you’re an editor and you just see so much, and there’s so many things that I can’t change. There’s so many things that are just problems I can’t solve or because the amount of time and resources necessary to change them just really would outlive and overwhelm me, this felt like something tangible.  It felt like something we could do, you know.

EC: That’s right.

SJ: And twelve thousand dollars for each of these writers, that’s no small thing, but I wish we could give people more money.

EC: That’s amazing.

SJ: Thank you. But where Buzzfeed is right now, where I am right now, four months, twelve thousand dollars, and the commitment-- really, in terms of something me and the editors on my team who have worked with the fellows learned-- the real commitment is the time, actually.  In terms of giving these writers the support they need so they’re not just like four writers sitting at a table fending for themselves for four months.  That it’s actually really dynamic.  That’s the real investment.  But I felt it had to be done and if I have learned anything about media and publishing and whatever we call this literary landscape that we live in, there is a lot of mimicry. There’s a lot of repetition.  We follow each other’s lead. When someone is successful or someone cracks the code, it is not unusual to see it replicated.  So my hope is that the things we do here well will be recreated at other institutions.  If anything, 588 people applying for the fellowship is great, but it’s also an indication to me that there is a dearth of similar opportunities. I guess that’s part of why I do it.  I think we are in a moment where if I can pull this off, other people will go oh I can do that too. I hope it becomes like competitive in the way that perhaps applying for college and for graduate programs there is a better sense of competition for really talented students, right, and so once you’re out of academia, and you want to be a cultural critic or writer, the air gets really thin.  I’m grateful that I have a kind of financial career security, but I know that is not true for everyone by any means.  So if I can do that now, it’s worthwhile.  It’s inspiring, too.  It’s really great to see the fellows when i come into the office.  It’s invigorating to work with them.  

EC: Yes definitely. In regards to process and memoir writing, who are some of the writers that you go to when it gets hard? When you’re hitting a wall or when you’re writing about a dark part of your past- who are some of the prominent essayist, etc. ?

SJ: I’ve been in the book for so long at this point it’s not necessarily  hard in terms of subject matter.  It’s usually technical, and it’s often very, very specific.  You would be amazed where it will send you to. For example, this is a pretty intense part of the book, I’ve been working on the book’s narrative climax for the last month or so. The climax of this chapter is new year’s eve, it’s 2008, and I’m a senior in college and I meet a guy at a party and one thing leads to another, I go back to his place and we start having sex, and he has a crisis of masculinity that is where the title comes in. The book’s title works two ways.  Men fight for their lives by essentially fighting themselves and fighting everyone else. And so he essentially tries to kill me. He gives death threats and he says, “you’re already dead. You’re already dead.” So it’s like a real fight and we’re wrestling for hours until he eventually passes out. Obviously I’m still here. We’re okay.

EC: Wow.

SJ: That incident actually opens the book, so readers from the beginning have okay this is where we’re going. How do we get there? And then we move beyond it. But then we’re back in the climax and I decided part of the project of the book, so to speak, is to walk back into that room with the knowledge that we’ve gained over the course of the book.  So it was a very interesting challenge to write about the same night twice.  So that was very hard and I was stumped for a long time, so I had to figure out how to write in a different way.  One thing that helped actually is that I’ve been rereading Norman Mailer’s reporting on Muhammad Ali.

EC: Oh! That’s great.

SJ: Because of the physical detail is so different, it’s so different from a lot of the work I often go to firsthand.  But the physicality- you kind of just have to get out of the way.   I think over the course of working on different books, as an artist you can’t pull the same tricks, so to speak, and you also, unfortunately, can’t go back to the same books.  For example, for Prelude to Bruise Lucie Brock-Broido and Louise Glück and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, it was a very feminine book. And obviously as a queer man that was something that was a part of it.  But this book in some ways is a very masculine kind of book because I’m really trying to bite into masculinity in a way that I think American culture usually doesn’t. I think we usually deflect and distract and take short cuts.  So it kind of helped to read broodish work.  And you know it’s crazy because Norman Mailer is both very insightful but whenever he had to describe race, like in terms of physical description, it just like falls apart. You just find the details you need to seize upon. That’s a good example.

EC: Thank you. And my next question ties in. In addition to everything you do, do you compartmentalize time to leisurely read? And set that aside as inspiration? What are you reading now?

SJ: Um. *laughs* Right now, if I’m honest, at the moment, nothing. In terms of “is there a book I’m carrying with me this week,” usually I am. I usually have 2 or 3 or 4, 5 books I’m usually reading at once.  Like I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s new novel, I’m lucky I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s forthcoming novel Swing Time, it’s very good. It’s very great. But I haven’t been reading as much lately as I normally would I suppose. I read Colson Whitehead’s new novel. I read that earlier this summer, it’s wonderful.  Brit Bennett’s forthcoming, her debut novel, actually, The Mothers, is one of my favorite books that will be out this year.  Otherwise I try to avoid reading, reading an entire book I guess I should say, because I don’t want to mimic it. I don’t want to inadvertently or accidentally start reading and realize I’m ripping off this other writer’s style.  I’m definitely not reading any memoir, so it’s more like me reading in snatches.  And of course, for work I’m just reading a tremendous amount of work that is published online.  It’s kind of a weird thing, like we don’t even have a vocabulary or a kind of lexicon to describe our lives as readers online because for so long it wasn’t taken seriously.  I can’t even imagine how much I read online. *laughs*


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!