Saeed Jones discovers joy at the end of the world

The Columbus poet and writer has started to emerge from an ‘apocalyptic’ year with a new daily newsletter and a collection of poetry due in 2022

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Saeed Jones, likely photographed in 'portrait' mode to the dismay of professional photographer and occasional Alive contributor Maddie McGarvey

Saeed Jones is up front about the fact that there were long stretches during the ongoing pandemic where he barely held it together.

For the first three days following the March 2020 announcement of stay-at-home orders, the Columbus poet, author and essayist assumed he would be in for an intense six weeks. Then, on day four, as he learned more about the novel coronavirus, he extended this initial prediction to six months, believing things would resolve in time to host an epic Halloween party.

“And then after a couple of weeks, the worst depression — and it feels inaccurate to even call it depression; it was an existential crisis — hit, and it lasted probably until January,” Jones said during a recent interview at an Italian Village coffee shop.

In the earliest months of COVID-19, Jones couldn’t write, and he made a decision early on that “the work,” as he termed it, would center on himself: preparing meals, going for walks, attending therapy, talking on the phone with friends and otherwise trying to hold together some semblance of routine existence.

“The first thing, like everyone else, I needed to survive,” Jones said. “In the times I wasn’t writing, or when months would go by and I couldn’t read even a page of a book, which was frustrating, there was a refrain I would return to, and it was, ‘I am the work.’”

The lessons gleaned in these challenging months form the backbone of “Werk-In-Progress,” a Substack newsletter Jones launched in early November, and which will serve as an evolving look into his life and creative process, offering subscribers access to poems, essays, insights and observations. One thing it won’t contain, however, are answers, since Jones intends the venture more as a space of communal give-and-take than a grand Sermon on the Mount. “I don’t want to come across ready-made, or like I have all of the answers,” he said. “With the newsletter, it was important for me to embrace that we’re all a mess, because the worst thing we can do to one another at this point in modern American pandemic life is to pretend that we have it all together.”

“What I love about ‘Werk-In-Progress’ is that we're all getting to witness Saeed figure out his world through his writing in real time,” friend and author Isaac Fitzgerald said via email. “His recent essay, ‘The Friends You Make Online,’ is so incredibly touching, and heartfelt, while also being funny and cutting and everything you expect from Saeed's writing. Or even this emotional audio note about doing in-person events again, there's a vulnerability to it that you can tell Saeed is experimenting with. Which is always exciting, isn't it? Seeing a writer you love expand their horizons.” 

Since its launch, “Werk-In-Progress” has featured conversation prompts, poems (“Date Night,” which touches on grief, Venus flytraps and the act of talking in one’s sleep), breezy admissions (Jones recently came around on the pluses of voice memos) and thoughtful essays on subjects the writer has considered for years but was previously unable to properly wrestle in other forms.

With the aforementioned “The Friends You Make Online,” for instance, Jones breaks down the various internet relationships that can develop and fall apart over time, writing in a poetic language that enables him to conjure fully formed characters in just a handful of words. “The friend you thought had disappeared from the internet altogether but they’re on Facebook and ‘oh hell no, nope, nope, nope, absolutely not,’” Jones writes in one passage, managing to breathe a problematic life into existence in a single hilarious sentence.

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Jones said his return to writing amid the pandemic began almost accidentally. “Early on I would text screenshots of poems to friends and mentors and just be like, ‘Another poem happened. Oh, my God!’” he said.

“Saeed texted me a poem or two as he finished them, and they took the top of my head clean off,” friend and fellow poet Maggie Smith said via email. “That was Emily Dickinson's measure of when she knew she'd encountered a poem: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ I have a visceral reaction to Saeed's work, and I always have the sense that there is a real, living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being behind the poems. Blood and bones and nerves, joy and anger and grief.”

Gradually, the poems started to arrive with increasing regularity, Jones sometimes completing two a day, moving forward with a renewed sense of purpose as the developing collection started to take on a more-defined shape and tone. “Only when I started to see a body of work, and especially how the poems were speaking to one another, their echoes, did I begin to see that I was almost world-building,” Jones said of the poems collected in the forthcoming Alive at the End of the World, due for release in fall 2022. 

At times, Jones would have to wrestle these poems into existence, laboring while seated at the desk in his Short North apartment. Other times, poems would arrive unexpectedly and almost wholly formed. One, about the late singer Whitney Houston, arrived as Jones prepared lunch in his kitchen, and he wrote the title and first few lines with a dry erase marker on his refrigerator. A second poem landed in similar fashion, Jones describing its arrival “like a cold front coming in.” “It was almost like I could see it crossing my living room very aggressively,” Jones said. “And writing is not always this dramatic, but it felt like one of those moments where I had to sit down and write right now, and so I did.”

In the past, Jones has done a majority of his writing on the road. Some of the most important work he did on his debut memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, for instance, took place as he trekked through France, writing in various small villages over a three-month stretch. With the hope of similar travel obliterated by the pandemic, Jones embraced the forced stillness, making adaptations to his process that ended up having a deep impact on the work.

“[Alive at the End of the World] has more research, like I would read an entire book for one poem, which is something I’ve never done before,” said Jones, who absorbed works by authors such as Saidiya Hartman, Frank B. Wilderson and Columbus' own Hanif Abdurraqib, whose latest essay collection, A Little Devil in America, led Jones down deep wormholes. “I wanted to listen to every album I could find, and I’m looking at videos of all the performances he’s mentioning. … And I think it was because inspiration was going to have to come in a different way. … Being at home by myself for 20 months, there was some stuff I could mine, but you start to feel a little shallow. I didn’t want to keep writing about myself. I wanted to make sense of the world.”

As with the poems, these larger revelations arrived incrementally, and are in fact still arriving. Initially, this meant grappling with the apocalyptic nature of 2020, which was shaped not just by the pandemic but also by the renewed social justice movement that sprung up in the wake of Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd.

“I think what I’ve learned is the apocalypse is a state of being, and it’s not a linear, one-time event,” Jones said. “Every time there’s a mass shooting, every time a cop shoots a kid and gets away with it, every time we learn about a sexual assault and it’s just paved over and someone becomes a Supreme Court justice. Those are all apocalyptic, world-ending events, or at least they should be, because that’s how meaningful they are to the people implicated. But life goes on. We still meet for coffee. I still have to walk my dog.”

Jones, who described himself as someone who thrives on connection, also had to deal with the reality that, in a pandemic, true humanity meant accepting the need to wall one’s self off from others, which could have easily been accompanied by a natural hardening. Instead, Jones said he has increasingly leaned into his softness, noting that time and again through the pandemic he’s returned to the word “porous” in describing his ability to retain a deep emotional connection to his surroundings. (Fitzgerald noted it was impossible to bring up the idea of softness without mentioning Jones’ Twitter-famous dog, Caesar, and the “brightness and joy caring for this small dog brings into Saeed's life.”)

“I think I’m more willing to embrace my feelings in real time and without shame. … As a man — and I’m gay but I’m still a man —there’s that thought of ‘don’t be too sentimental,’ and, uh-uh, I don’t care. It’s been too bad. It’s too wild out here to not say how we’re feeling,” Jones said. “To live and to help other people live [during the pandemic] we had to put up walls. We had to retreat and isolate ourselves, and that’s antithetical to who I am as a person and who I am as a writer. I’m a traveler, an observer. I want to be in the mix. But that’s not what it means to live now with love. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to live now as the kind of person I am, who has all of these feelings and curiosities at a time when everything feels tremulous. It’s an odd thing to be the curious cat crossing the minefield. But that’s where I am right now, and it is a joy, because that’s the only way to manage all of this.”