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Try Poetry: Abolitionist Intimacies + El Jones
We’re in good hands on this first day of Try Poetry (Why Not?) – former Poet Laureate of Halifax and academic/activist El Jones shares her electrifying poem “How to Write a Settler Poem” from her latest collection Abolitionist Intimacies (Fernwood Publishing). Read the poem, the spoken word and activist poets that inspire Jones, and more in our interview feature below.
An Interview with Poet El Jones
All Lit Up: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry?
El Jones: The first poem I wrote was when I was maybe four, and it was “sun, mum, fun, bum.” I drew pictures to accompany them and gave it to the minister at church. My mother was mortified because it had a picture of a bum.
In high school I played guitar and wrote a lot of songs, so that was really when I started writing. Later I was also writing “page poetry.” With spoken word, I woke up one day with a poem in my head, and I wrote it down and then looked at it kind of asking, “what is this? It’s like a rap but I can’t rap.” Word Iz Bond had a monthly show in Halifax at the time, and right after I wrote that poem I saw a friend of mine in the street and she asked why I never came out to spoken word night. I went and did that poem, people reacted to it and I just kept going! I suppose I had something to say, and spoken word was the place to say it.
Poetry really formed my political outlook – I often talk about reading Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde when I was 13 and how I immediately understood how unjust prisons are. So I say that poem made me into an abolitionist.
ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so?
EJ: I think spoken word is its own pitch – it’s not really meant to be read on the page, but heard in performance. So I would definitely perform any poem I wanted someone to engage with.
I don’t really have a writing process, I mostly write on my phone. In general with spoken word I want it to be direct, to be understandable to a broad audience and to take on political or social issues. To be honest, this isn’t a poem in my stage set so I don’t actually perform it – it’s part of kind of a series of poems about Canada (the original title for my book was Canada Is So Polite after the poem in my book.) So, a lot of the final version of a poem usually develops through performance – what gestures or movements do you do? How do you sell the funny lines? What tone of voice, etc. I haven’t really been through that process with this poem!
ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?
EJ: I really love the work – both poetry and prose – of Audre Lorde. “Who understands me but me” by Jimmy Santiago Baca is one of my favourite poems. I enjoy the poetry of James Tate a lot because it seems so conversational which is incredibly difficult to write. Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan are other favourites. There’s a lot of great spoken word on YouTube by so many artists as well! Just find a poem you enjoy and go from there!
“How to Write a Settler Poem”
From El Jones’s collection Abolitionist Intimacies
“How to Write a Settler Poem” is excerpted from Abolitionist Intimacies by El Jones, copyright © 2022 by El Jones. Reprinted with the permission of Fernwood Publishing.
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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor and activist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University, where she was named the 15th Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies in 2017. She was Halifax’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. She is the author of Live from the Afrikan Resistance!, a collection of poems about resisting white colonialism. Her work focuses on social justice issues, such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism and decolonization. Since 2016, she has co-hosted a radio show called Black Power Hour, on CKDU-FM where listeners from prisons call in to rap and read their poetry, providing a voice to people who rarely get a wide audience.
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Thanks to El Jones for answering our questionnaire and sharing “How to Write a Settler Poem” with us for Try Poetry (Why Not?).
Remember, if you purchase a copy of Abolitionist Intimacies or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to firstname.lastname@example.org if you purchase from your local!)