A Conversation with Parneshia Jones

When I was asked to interview poet Parneshia Jones, I was intrigued. I had come across her book, Vessel, in the library of my graduate school when I was studying for my master’s degree in creative nonfiction. Before I start writing, I always warm up by reading poetry—and Vessel was the first book I pulled from the shelf one afternoon before settling down to work. I also learned one of her greatest influences in her work is Gwendolyn Brooks, a writer whose work I greatly admire and collect.

Raised in Evanston, Illinois, Parneshia earned an undergraduate degree from Chicago State University and an MFA from Spalding University. She is a recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Margaret Walker Short Story Award, and the Aquarius Press Legacy Award. Parneshia is a Ragdale Fellow and has been featured additionally in several anthologies.

Ryder Ziebarth: I’d like to start at the beginning and ask you about one your influences, the writer and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. In addition to being an American Pulitzer prize winner and Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, Brooks was the first African American Woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. You were fortunate to have an hour and a half sit-down with Ms. Brooks early on in your academic life when she critiqued three of your poems on the behest of your college English professor. Can you tell me about that experience and the influence it’s had over your life as a writer?

Parneshia Jones: My first encounter with Ms. Brooks was like most, through her work. I read “kitchenette building” and was transformed by this writer who was able to intertwine the dreams and struggles of people so real in my own life. “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, / Grayed in, and gray…” That broke me wide open—made me see poetry for the first time as part of the human condition.

My first and only encounter with Ms. Brooks the person happened exactly when I needed her most. I was twenty and a student at Chicago State University. Ms. Brooks was Distinguished Professor at CSU. I was twenty and not sure about anything or what I wanted to do in my life. I had just started writing poetry; had three lonely poems to my name and was encouraged by a professor to submit them to Ms. Brooks. She reviewed the poems and asked to meet with me. It was in that hour and thirty minutes, while we both sat in the literary center named in her honor, that she was poet, grandmother, activist, and teacher rolled all into one. I knew she was important. I did not realize how important and how much she would change my life at that time, but I left that meeting lifted off the ground. I was different. I remember she wrote in the margin of one of my poems, “Thank You God for Making Me Black”: This is a very brave poem for you to write as you may receive enemies on both sides. It took me a long time to understand what she meant…and I am still learning what so much of what she wrote, with that opulent red pen in those hungry margins of my first poems, means for my life right now and the upheaval of the world we live in.

RZ: Brooks’s 100th birthday was in 2017. What do you think her work continues to give to readers now and why should we continue to read her? How did she contribute to the Chicago community at large and is her influence as a writer still strong?

PJ: She is one of the most important writers in American literature. Last year, around this time, Northwestern hosted an event in celebration of Brooks’s Centennial. We invited Toi Derricotte, Patricia Smith, Vievee Francis, Nikky Finney, and Angela Jackson (who was witness to much of Ms. Brooks’s work in the community and wrote her biography, A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks). We called the event “Black Women as Giants” and these black women, all influenced by the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, captured beautifully why Ms. Brooks and her work continues to resonate with writers and how her community building was just as important as her work as a writer.

RZ: Tell us a bit about your childhood—your home and family, your favorite spaces and places. Were those childhood settings for reading and storytelling, imaginative play, or also for writing?

PJ: My watering holes as a child included my mother’s kitchen because my mother is the most incredible cook on the planet and all the gossip of the house came through that kitchen. I wanted to be near the food and stories and the kitchen was grand central for all of that.

RZ: I love these lines, they are just so delicious. You really love to eat and cook, yes?

PJ: Have you seen my Facebook/Twitter/Instagram? Food has always been important to me. It sustains on many levels in my life. Many of my relationships and most memorable experiences growing up involve food. I love how food breaks down our differences. I love talking about the world, arts and culture over a good meal. I love getting together with girlfriends and dishing over dishes. I love taking my mother to lunch on Sundays and watching her enjoy a good meal. I love watching her cook. I love being in love and cooking for my love. In an age where food is debatable, like what’s real and what’s processed, I am of the mind that we all deserve to eat good and beautiful food. That’s why I take pictures of food when I travel and share them with people because if I eat somewhere good, I want folks to know and support those places and eat good food too. You know the places I’m talking about where you swear someone’s grandmother is in the kitchen cooking…those are the beast places. Food is a universal language for me—one of the ways I connect with people and communities. It’s a way that I carry my ancestors with me. This is an overarching theme in my work.

RZ: Which of your other childhood haunts show up in your work today?

PJ: Another other favorite place was my grandfather’s juke joint, which was nestled on the North Side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Rogers Park (still, to this day, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city). In the 80s, this neighborhood was an ambrosia of sights, sounds, and scents. I can still remember it all: thick scents of curry goat from the Jamaican restaurant next door, elote gleaming in the sun—sold on every corner—the watermelon trucks from Mississippi parked outside the fruit markets, the Romanian traveling performers parked in back of my grandfather’s bar (they gave me my first dog, a Chihuahua named Tuffy), and of course all the bar flies, or as my grandfather would lovingly say, Jay Jays playing dominoes, whiskey and beer flowing, and the juke box hurling every low down blues tune you could think of. I was supposed to stay behind the bar, so I had a front row to all the sinning. It was quite funny for me to see those same people the next day, Sunday morning, in my other watering hole, the Baptist church where my grandmother was an usher. Patent leather Mary Janes and curls bumped with tips smelling like Blue Magic.

RZ: Here in the poem “O.W. Starling” from Vessel, the words seem delivered in a staccato where—the reader is tapping their feet to the beat on the page: “Long gone are days of hurry,/ big band “Long gone are days of hurry, / big band, / double shots, / back alley, / breakfast at midnight, / round the clock, / round the bar, / indigo, / shotgun, / shimmy, / shake down.” How did growing up surrounded by music influence your work, and how has it continued to influence your life?

PJ: My grandparents were part of the Great Migration of black folks who moved from the South to the North. Chicago was a hotspot for the Great Migration. My grandfather owned Blues clubs in Chicago and his friends like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were regulars. By the time I came along, he just had the one juke joint I mentioned above. I have vivid memories of KoKo Taylor paying many visits to my grandfather’s joint. I feel like every day of my youth had some type of music playing in the background. The house had all kinds of music playing since my brothers and I were of different generations and my mother and stepfather were almost a generation a part. My stepfather listened to Bach and Bob Marley and the Wailers, my mother loved the Chi-Lites, Anita Baker, and country music (she loves cowboy movies too!), my older brother was of the house and hip-hop music generation. He blasted Digable Planets, Leaders of a New School, and Big Daddy Kane. I would spin around the living room listen to Jackson Five, Culture Club and the first record I owned was a purple 45 of Prince’s Purple Rain. We had it all playing in the house at various times.

My very first concert, even though in hindsight I was too young, was when my grandmother took my brother and I to see Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 Victory Tour. I was four and the lights and special effects were just too much for me. I loved Michael Jackson. I had the “Thriller” jacket (in red and black) and the glove. We were only a few rows from the stage, but I tell you when those zombies came out on the stage to perform “Thriller” with Michael, I lost it. My grandmother spent the rest of the concert in the ladies’ bathroom trying to calm me down. Oh, the money she spent for those tickets! My brother enjoyed it, though. Music has been an important role in all aspects of my life and work. I would actually say that I love music more than poetry and because of that I need to hear music within the things I write. It makes the words, lines, and stanzas feel seamless.

RZ: Were there any other special watering holes you cherished as a child that allowed your mind run free and develop your creativity and strong love for words?

PJ: The Evanston Public Library was my literary watering hole. I still have my first library card, which I received when I was five and I now keep on my bookshelf. The library was renovated in the early nineties and as wonderful and lovely as it is, I miss the old look of the library. The columns and dusty stacks and those sky-high ladders on wheels, and the card catalogs…ah, the old card catalogs. My mother would take me to the library twice a month. Our limit was fifteen books, so I would come out with piles of Judy Blume, history books about civil rights and black inventors, and my secret love, the Berenstain Bears. All of these places very much shaped who I am today; my love of layers, old things, stories, and being able to get lost in the motions around me. I developed my language and imagination from these places and people.

RZ: Libraries back then were strictly quiet places. Today, it’s quite a different scene: libraries have become more public meeting places with specially designated quite areas. What’s the difference between the idea of silence you were afforded your library as a child, and the liveliness and sociability of the life you lead as an editor and sales manager, so out in the world every day?

PJ: As I age, I appreciate the silence more. Being able to sit with my thoughts is something I covet because I am an introvert who lives an extrovert’s life. Being a writer and because of what I do for a living (publishing), I have moments when I crave the sociability and sharing in the many communities I encounter on my travels, but it’s also absolutely necessary for me to have a sort of recovery period from all that. I need time of no stimulation, just rumination. The only way I can be out in the world is if I have the option to exit and be quiet. It’s a balance for me and I can’t fully be part of one if I don’t have the other.

RZ: Tell me how most of your poetry begins. Does it start as prose built from creative nonfiction or memoir?

PJ: Yes, most of my poems start as prose/narratives. It works for me because I feel fewer restrictions. As I continue to revise, I start to whittle away and shape a poem. Because I write from experience and memory, storytelling has always been present in my work. I come from storytellers, and many of those storytellers tell the same stories repeatedly, sometimes the ending changes, sometimes the middle is different, but always the story is fascinating. I want my poems to be stories, snapshots, and the memory and real-life experiences are key.

RZ: What other poets’ work do you get sustenance from? Who would you recommend we read?

PJ: I dread this question. My answer always changes. Many writers and books inspire me and because I’m an editor and work in publishing, I’m always reading good stuff all the time. I would say Gwendolyn Brooks and Muriel Rukeyser will always be included in my answer to this question. There are so many brilliant writers writing right now like Paul Tran, Patricia Smith, Marcus Jackson, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Ishion Hutchinson, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and more. I keep copies of Wisława Szymborska’s Map: Collected and Final Poems, Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks, and How I Got Ovah by Carolyn Rodgers. I am always re-reading poetry by Audre Lorde, Galway Kinnell, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, and Hayden Carruth.

RZ: As a creative people, many writers have a day jobs—ones which feeds their creativity as well as their stomachs! Your position at the Northwestern University Press has afforded you the opportunity to work with both Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, in addition to numerous poetry organizations across the globe. This sounds like the perfect job for a writer and poet. What do you like best about your job?

PJ: My job in publishing is multi-faceted. I don’t know of anyone who has the exact position I have now. I am grateful that, by design, I’ve been able to contribute to my publishing house as the poetry editor, sales manager, and community and engagement manger. This is where the title Sales and Community Outreach Manager/Poetry Editor comes from. It’s a multi-layered position and I love many things about it. If I had to pick, the community engagement part feeds my creativity the most. I love talking to people about our books, sharing what we do with communities. It gives me ideas and helps me understand more about what people are interested in reading. I love talking with literary organizations, other publishers, and people in all levels of the arts about how to incorporate art into our everyday structures. After that, of course it’s the poetry part of my job. Seeing all the wonderful poetry manuscripts that come across my desk, overflowing in my email inbox, gives me hope and a lot of stamina to keep going and that despite the world’s upheaval, the artists constantly give us something to look forward to.

PARNESHIA JONES is the author of Vessel: Poems (Milkweed Editions), winner of the Midwest Book Award. After studying creative writing at Chicago State University, earning an MFA from Spalding University, and studying publishing at Yale University, Jones has been honored with the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Margaret Walker Short Story Award, and the Aquarius Press Legacy Award. Named one of the “25 Writers to Watch” by the Guild Complex and one of “Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago” by Newcity Magazine, her work has been anthologized in She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems, edited by Caroline Kennedy and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, edited by Nikky Finney; and featured on PBS Newshour, the Academy of American Poets, and espnW. A member of the Affrilachian Poets, she serves on the board of Cave Canem and Global Writes. She currently holds positions as Sales and Community Outreach Manager and Poetry Editor at Northwestern University Press. Parneshia lives in Chicago.

RYDER ZIEBARTH received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016. She is the founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series of writing workshops. Her work has appeared in N MagazineThe New York TimesBrevityTiferet, and Assay, among other publications. Ryder works for the Nantucket Book Festival and is a former associate editor for Tiferet. She lives on Cedar Ridge Farm in rural New Jersey.

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