Saeed Jones on Structuring Alive at the End of the World in the Shape of Grief
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, poet Saeed Jones (Alive at the End of the World) joins Jordan to talk about the long-term experience of grief, the intensity of writing from the point of view of another person, and the unexpected trilogy of his first three books.
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From the conversation:
Saeed Jones: Thematically, the book is very interested in chaos, both in the acute moment—the mass shootings and the calamity and the violence and the violent deceptive rhetoric—but also because we are a grieving nation of grieving people, one of the things I’ve learned is that grief distorts your relationship to time, and the past and the present and the future get muddled. Even if you aren’t grieving, I think that eventually you will have those kinds of experiences. But for me, that’s when I had my understanding of this existential crisis.
And so, I wanted to formally embody the disorder and the chaos on the page, in the structure of the book. One of the poems kind of appears even before the book starts. There are poems that end mid-sentence. You get to the notes section where you think, okay, we’re free, Saeed has now released us, we can all go home now, and then you turn to the notes section and it’s like, “I’m not done yet.” Because isn’t that what grief and all of our true essential crises end up saying to us at some point? “I’m not done with you yet. We still have work to do.”
It’s not up to me when I get to stop crying. That idea, obviously I like how it manifests in the poem, but I also felt like that’s part of the chaos. We’re in this era, especially last summer when I was starting to finish up the poems and it was like, we’re back at the clubs, people are having parties again. And then you might burst into tears in the restroom for no reason. It’s like you’re trying to get out there and live, you’re dating again and everything, but we have all of these acknowledged and unacknowledged or suppressed griefs. In everything I was trying to do in the presentation of the book, whether it was the line, the themes, the ideas, the order, the arrangement of the book itself, I wanted the book to look how we’re living.
In Prelude to Bruise, my first book, the main character, Boy, who’s kind of my avatar throughout the book, I really envisioned him as a bullet. It’s very linear and he’s just like a bullet flying across this perilous American landscape, very one-sided, just going, going, going, not really self-aware. That character, those poems, there’s not a lot of self-reflection. There’s not a lot of acknowledging what’s going on. He’s always just trying to run and run faster.
This book is very different because I’m a different person, and the landscape has changed. It’s not like a field you can run across. It’s an earthquake—the ground is unsettled. I just feel like such an essential part of this moment is you have your hands out in front of you and you’re trying to feel and touch and get your bearings, but everything just keeps changing around you. And what you thought you knew and thought you could count on has really been destabilized. So even if, like in Prelude to Bruise, you want to be that bullet just running across the landscape, I don’t feel like I can. It feels a bit like wandering through a haunted house in the middle of a storm and an earthquake at the same time. I wanted the book to feel that way, I hope in a productive way.
Saeed Jones is the author of the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives, winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction and the poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, winner for the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry. His poetry and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, Oxford American and GQ among other publications. His new poetry collection Alive at the End of the World is out now.