Transport and Transformation: Patricia Spears Jones in Conversation
From a conversation between Jenifer Berman and Patricia Spears Jones in the Summer 1995 issue of BOMB Magazine.
Patricia Spears Jones's poetry is a study in conflict; the scales of tradition and experience never quite strike a safe balance. Her voice is gritty—she's seen a lot— but Jones still exudes that fresh-off-the-bus fascination. Grounded in her rural southern roots, yet built on 20 years in New York, The Weather That Kills is a table top of snapshots: Chinatown funerals; Smokey on the radio; street talk; sermons; subway platform singers. Jones recalls memory in bits and pieces, capturing a mood through music, through the atmosphere—through the "weather that kills." And though the weather might destroy, it also, very slowly, heals: "Rain falls cold, but not as cold as the day before." Ultimately, Jones is hopeful. And, the word which most comes to mind is committed. She is a passionate, devoted writer, who's long awaited first collection reveals a voice that is longing, but never saccharine, ironic but not cynical. Jones evokes a beckoning past, while still relishing the immediate.
Jenifer Berman: Your collection The Weather That Kills opens with Psalm 137: "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" As a poet, how are you answering that question?
Patricia Spears Jones: I don't think I have. I see that quote more as a metaphor for the position of people of African descent in this country. The most amazing phrase in that psalm is: "And they that wasted us required of us mirth." That is an incredible statement about the position of the oppressed in any situation, that the one who is oppressed should not display anger or rage or any sort of rebellion to their oppressor, but should be pleasant and pleasing—mirthful. In responding to that requirement, we are still able to continue to sing our own songs, reminding us that we indeed came from far away.
JB: Much of your poetry deals with departure, and return.
JB: On a personal or on a communal level?
PSJ: It's both. No work of art is just one thing, it's always multi-layered. It fulfills my own personal journey, but it's also about how human beings are transformed and transported from one way of looking at things to another, one sense of themselves to another, through things like desire and anger and humor and joy.
JB: Can you recall any specific moments of epiphany?
PSJ: They've come through in ordinary ways: in and out of the family, in and out of love affairs, in and out of jobs. I tend to be very reserved. But I listen and respond to something that resonates, that moves me, whether it's hearing Robert Johnson singing the same blues, or dancing to James Brown, or cleaning the house to an old Philip Glass record.
JB: It was the sense of atmosphere in your work that first attracted me. On some days the quality of the air is so tangible that it evokes the most vivid memories, more vivid, I think, than any other sense. It's the end of March, I walk outside, and suddenly I'm seven years old, smelling salt, and waking up in Florida at my grandparents'. Why did you choose the title, The Weather that Kills?
PSJ: You've said it, I guess. The weather, the instant changeability, the idea that things do not stay the same from one instant to the next, and that you can capture that. Every time the seasons change I'm one of those people for whom going from winter to spring, summer to fall, fall to winter, hits like crazy.
JB: So it's the transformation, the cycle.
PSJ: Yeah. For me it's often a kind of music, those rainy days are here again kind of songs. But it's also Martha and the Vandellas, you know, and suddenly I'm the chubby teenager in my bedroom dancing by myself.
JB: Music and the weather—rhythm and cycle. Is it the sense of repetition, the predictability in knowing come March the snow will melt, or in a familiar song, especially jazz, you hear a recurring theme?
PSJ: Yes, but I think that by the time I'm writing a poem I'm beyond that. Anything may spark a poem, but I don't consciously seek it. Music moves me, and the mutability of the weather affects me, my moods. Sometimes it's a visual thing, a painting, a movie. It could be the spectacle of opera. The visual arts fascinate me, that's why I live in the city. I could not function in a small town. I never thought that writing was going to be a career for me. Where I grew up being a writer wasn't a major thing to do. If I had been a singer everyone would have been happy.
JB: You've got this Billie Holiday thing going on.
PSJ: I wanted to think about her as this incredible goddess figure, in the way that people talk about Marilyn Monroe.
JB: Was she an icon to you?
PSJ: No, but I like treating her like that. She's somebody who hit all the depths and highs a human can. The years prior to and after World War II codified a lot of really interesting, progressive ideas: the rise of Communism and Socialism, the New Deal. But, there was also the rise of Fascism. It all comes to this apex, and for some reason, when I hear Billie Holiday I hear all of those things happening. She was an incredible jazz singer, the fluidity of her voice is amazing, but there's also an extraordinary sense of structure, when you think of her as a musician, and not as the iconographic female victim. I think of her as having all these things that people never ascribe to her, and that's why I wanted her to be a goddess figure. She gets to be the goddess over my book.
JB: In "In Like Paradise/Out Like the Blues" you say, "Artists make whole somehow the ways in which dreams persist." You're confronting the immortality of art. An old friend told me this story about combing the Northeast in search of his family history. When I asked, why was he doing this? He said, "I can't make art, so there is nothing to immortalize me."
PSJ: What a statement. One of my favorite poems in the book is "Blumen," which came out of going to Berlin. I'm one of those people who is fascinated by the Weimar Republic. I was trying to think about what survives complete devastation. The only thing that survives is art. Those are the traces, the real traces. Music, I guess, is the biggest trace of all. As far as I can figure out, art's the only thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animals.
Read the rest of this BOMB Magazine interview in The BOMB Digital Archive.
This interview, Patricia Spears Jones by Jenifer Berman, was originally commissioned by, edited, and published in BOMB Magazine Issue 52, Summer 1995 © BOMB Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors. All rights reserved.