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. I.S. hosts a month-long workshop every April, called The Singing Bullet.
She is a Book Editor with Indolent Books, Editor at 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, freelances for Complex, Earmilk, NBC News Think, and elsewhere. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Washington Square Review, The Rumpus, Hesperios, The Offing, The Shade Journal, Nat.Brut, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of the Young African Poets Anthology and is currently guest-editing for Lolwe.
Her work was chosen by the 2020 Madison, WI Poet Laureate as the winner of the Bus Lines Poetry Contest. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at UW-Madison as well as the inaugural 2019-2020 Kemper K. Knapp University Fellowship recipient. She splits her time between Southern California and New York.
As an award-winning poet and editor whose works have appeared on literary journals of repute, being a guest-editor for Lolwe, what does fulfillment in the field of literature looks like to you?
I’ve read this question back to myself and I am bashful and proud of “award-winning poet”. I used recoil from such a phrase, but I am proud of the work I have done and of the work that I will do. I am grateful for the many blessings poetry has brought into my life, as there are few things I love more, I am more devoted to than poetry. And I love this question. I released myself from a frustration, resentment, and bitterness when I stopped putting a deadline or timeframe on major life milestones, such as being a judge for a book contest or putting out a collection of poems. I’ve learned to honor patience and growth by enjoying the long, sleepless nights dedicated to my labor. There is a lot I desire still, but fulfillment looks like serving the art of writing by being a guest-editor, by facilitating my workshop, The Singing Bullet, every year, by teaching in correctional facilities, by bringing poetry to those who need it most. And also besting myself on the page. May the work always startle and humble me.
The concepts of home and belonging are prominent themes explored in postcolonial and migrant literature. In your poem, “Home”, and others like “Oyinbo”, “On Transatlantic Shame”, etc. you also explored these concepts. Looking at these very striking lines from Home: “when asked where home is, / I point to a no-nothing night, / A night so black, I could close my eyes / & become that night itself - / empty expanding, expanding,” what does home mean to you as a queer American and Nigerian poet, and what are the factors that shape your definition?
Before I answer this question, it feels necessary to explain where this urgency to find “home” comes from. A few years back, Nimrod had an open call for “poems about home” and it occurred to me that I didn’t understand what that means. I moved around a lot as a child. Most people don’t know this about me that while California is my home state, it is not where I was born. I was born in Cranston, Rhode Island, a few years after my parents became American citizens. We never lived anywhere long enough for me to grow roots, to settle down. My parents lost a lot of heirlooms in our moves, like a yellow gold baguette ring I waited years to grow into only to lose it to time and human carelessness. I want to feel wanted. I want what any human wants: a safe place that no one can take from them. That was the impulse behind “Home”, a poem I suspect will have another life in another round of edits [laughs]. I was trying to blend what fragments of my parents’ life they have told or I have pulled out of them with this longing that seems to stretch on for miles in every direction, especially at night.
What literary experience has shaped you the most and helped develop you as a writer?
My time as an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge was integral to my decision to find a way to make a life for myself as a writer. My fellowships with The Watering Hole, Callaloo, and BOAAT Writer’s Retreat. There’s a distinct moment, I remember, during the graduation ceremony at The Watering Hole. At this retreat, the fellows are put together in groups and we rotate teachers every day. On the last day, my group had Terrance Hayes. It was during his workshops that I wrote “Prayer of Acquiescence”. I remember reading this poem during work and graduation surprised by how much I had grown. It was, for me, a firm and defining moment of my growth. I believed then, the audience looking back at me, that I was capable of going the distance. Callaloo showed me I must confront myself on the page, that a good poem is where the speaker implicates themselves, that by interrogating the writer, the work follows suit. My time working with the other fellows and Eduardo C. Corral at BOAAT enforced the belief that the book I was writing would find its way towards its readership.
Looking at the contemporary Nigerian literary scene and as a writer who has been exposed to learning outside Nigeria and serving on different literary platforms, what would you say are the most common challenges faced by young writers?
The Nigerian government needs to do more for the arts, and I would say that is the most common challenge and roadblock plaguing Nigerian writers of my generation—there are not enough prizes or institutions in place to invest in writers. In America, we have the National Endowment For the Arts, The Whiting Award, poetry book prize ranging from $1,000-$10,000 USD, and even smaller prize where you can submit poems for $1,000-$3,000. Imagine this with me, if you: fully funded MFA program in Nigeria’s top universities. I don’t have an answer about what it would take to replicate this in Nigeria, but what I know is my generation is producing ambitious work that cannot be ignored. Nigerians are pushing through making a name for themselves outside the continent, but they’re also not waiting anymore to be recognized by the West, they’re making their own platforms for their own people. It wonderful to be living through what feels like a literary renaissance of African literature. There is Lolwe, as mentioned before, and there is also 20.35 Africa, Agbowó, and recently Isele Magazine.
Why did you accept to be a judge on this year’s SprinNG Women Authors Prize, and what are your expectations for the submissions by applicants?
Right before I was asked to be a judge, I had turned down the opportunity to be an editor on a project that was directed towards Nigerian women. I asked, very bluntly, “Are trans women included in this open call?” to which the answer was “No, we intend for this to be a safe space for women.” Now, I want to clear that people are entitled to their own opinions, but it stops being a “difference of opinion” when you create space that does not invite in the very people it is intended for. Who among us need safe spaces more than Black trans women…? If you say “all women”, that includes trans women. I was very dispirited after that interaction. While my generation has made strides towards safer spaces for queer Africans, this fabricated rhetoric that trans women are dangerous is still pervasive and hideous. Many Africans still believe “being gay” is a by-product of the West. I’ll be honest that I was apprehensive when the email came in from SprinNG to be one of the judges. I asked the question again and I was grateful that SprinNG does intend to be a space that is inclusive, that they do mean to give equal footing to trans and cis women. I was also very impressed by the professionalism, how they presented and packaged the mission of the contest. While I recognize that often the contest route for publishing is deeply flawed, it is still a start. I hope for there to be more opportunities like this one for Nigerian women.
What does it mean to be a queer American and Nigerian poet in current times? And how do you think organizations like SprinNG can support the representation, inclusion, and increase of safe spaces for queer artists to thrive in the Nigerian literary community?
If I had been born in Nigeria and announced my sexuality as anything other than “straight” then conditions would not as safe for me as they could be, but because I am an American it is more acceptable to be queer because, as I stated before, it is still perceived to be a “Western issue”. My American privilege shields me from a lot of homophobia I would otherwise be subjected to. My Nigerian heritage makes it so I can point on a map and follow the scars that made me an American. Here, was war, there my parents made the choice to brave the ocean and never look back. Being American and Nigerian and queer is to constantly live in the spaces between. To be a nation of your own governance.
What are your top 5 books by Nigerian authors?
My list is ever evolving, but authors I find Nigerian authors I find myself returning to: Chris Abani, Chinelo Okparanta, Ayobami Adebayo, Akwaeke Emezi, and Chigozie Obioma.
What has been a repeating inspiration to your creative thoughts and writing process?
I find that it’s easier to write either mid-day, at night, or at dusk. Thinking back on it now, I suspect this is why many people believe I live in Nigeria. I wish I was a morning writer; my sleep schedule would be better [laughs]. I try to distance myself away from “inspiration” and move towards “rigor” and “intentional practice”. It feels like a cliché at this point, but I constantly find myself reaching for Richard Siken’s Crush and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours as a palette cleanser. I’ve loved Rilke for as long as I’ve called myself a poet. If I’ve been away from poetry for too long, I read a handful of poems from a rotating cast of three to five books. I have a stack of books that have dominated the corner of my bed for the last few days which I find myself reaching for in the middle of the night. And I let my imagination guide me. How my writing process works is that I have to see the poem play out in the mind’s eye before I can translate into language. It feels language is insufficient sometimes, but maybe that’s insistence to reach perfection that I already know doesn’t exist. Or maybe it’s because I wish to touch someone. It could be that too.
Why poetry, and not any other genre of literature?
I do write in other genres—creative non-fiction, articles, reviews, etc. In the midst of the pandemic, I think many people will agree that it is hard to conceive of poetry in this frightening environment. Poetry is sacred to me in a way no other medium of writing is. I will gush over a good essay or a short story, but poetry is the foundation for any other type of writing I am doing. I am now in the process of writing essays and more longform pieces, some have excited and a little nervous to send them out for publication.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
With a dog or two, at long last! I dream of a beautiful little cottage home on a countryside with a lover. I have written and published several books. I get to spend my days baking and working my hands in the soil. I’m surrounded by my loved ones, I get to travel a lot and I spend my in the sun.
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