#SparkHouseSpotlight is a monthly series profiling poets, educators, and organizers doing transformative work in the fields of arts and education. This month, the spotlight shines on Jayson P Smith who speaks with us about showing up both in the world and in the work.
When did you first realize you were this thing called a writer? What was your ah-ha moment? When did the light bulb go off?
I didn’t go to school for creative writing. I took one class, in college, for creative writing, and I didn’t do well… It was very much like, I hopped into it because of my community and the peers around me. I was taking poetry workshops through Cave Canem, and that really changed things for me. It was really the peer support. I knew the minute that somebody told me that I was writing something that was worth listening to. I knew the moment somebody first decided to listen. That what I said was worthy of being in conversation.
The wise Dawn Richard once said “If you’re smart, you don’t take advice… you pay attention.” What details have you paid attention to that have made the biggest impact on your life? your craft? etc.?
Recognizing good teachers and readers. Someone taking the time to look at your work and look at your person and try to figure out what you’re doing and what you’re trying to say to the world and trying to add to it and help it expand – that’s really rare. A lot of what we do is wonderful, and also a lot of it relies on ego. Even for myself. Especially for myself. So, good teachers, for me, have always put their egos to the side to lift me up, to put me on their shoulders, just so I can be the parts of myself that they see, so I can expand my work.
In the spirit of recognizing your teachers, who or where do you turn, when feeling uninspired?
I turn to Vievee [Francis]. I have one of her poems hanging up on my wall right now. I look at it every morning. I turn to my friends. I turn to Nabila [Lovelace]. I turn to Ross Gay, who is incredible. I turn to Dawn Lundy Martin, who just blows the top of my head off every time I read a poem. I turn to Thylias Moss. I turn to Gregory Pardlo. I turn to Simone White. I turn to Morgan Parker. There are a lot of folks I can turn to, it’s a beautiful life (laughter). I turn to Rickey Laurentiis—I was just reading his book this morning. I turn to Justin Phillip Reed. Oh my god! I could literally go on forever! I have all the models that I need, and that’s really beautiful.
For a young person that is going to pursue a career in this field… what’s one of the most exciting things about being a writer? What is most haunting?
The most exciting thing about being a writer is all the ways that you can return back to the page. Every time I’m able to go to a reading, or hear someone say something when I’m walking down the street even—like reading a poem on the train and I might screw my face up and someone across the car is looking at me crazy—every time I’m able to experience something like that…learn something new…find a new part of my myself…in the small ways that I’m able to witness this, it’s liberating. And it makes me excited. Because it’s hard. The work that we do is emotionally hard, mentally demanding.
Which, I think, brings me to the most haunting part of what we do, which is the looming question of: what if I never get it right? What If I’m never able to pull… whatever out of my self… to say the “thing.” Which is what we’re all trying to do when we write all of these books and all of these poems and hackle over all of these drafts. To figure out how we say the thing that we most need to say, in the way that we most need to say it.
As writers, we make a conscious decision to approach the poem, just as everyday we decide to approach the world. How do you choose to approach both? Is there any difference?
At first, I was going to say that there is a separation—and I was thinking of differences—but now, I actually think that there’s a lot of overlap. A big word that I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of months is synthesis. And trying to find the ways that I synthesize both my life and my life’s work—if that makes sense. As you know, I’ve been listening to SZA, non-stop, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of her album which is an extension of the control that she’s been looking for in her life. And really, I’m just trying my best to put my full self in a lot of my poems. In both the world and in the poem, in order for me to do my best work, I need to be in control of a lot of the conditions. I’m pretty hands-on with the ways in which I curate space both in my life and in the work. So, like, I have playlists that I go to—both for my job and my freelance stuff and poems. I have very specific rituals as well and a lot of that overlaps with what I’m doing to get to the poem.
You’ve always believed in using poetry & art to engage communities—from Pop Up Poets to NOMAD… what inspires your involvement? How crucial is community to and for you?
It’s pretty crucial because without it, how would I understand what my work was doing? How I’m adding to anything? One of my teachers, Greg, said: you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to put your poems into the world. When it comes to community, it’s the way that I make sense of what my work is doing in the world.
Community is important because people front on the good that art does when it’s in public space. When you have a group of people that are in celebration of a particular medium or of a person’s point-of-view, that has the potential to attract other people who may not have been in touch with that. People walk around standing on so much history and so much rich legacies that they don’t even know what to do with it. And community is the way in which we introduce them into making sense of it. Every time we do a reading, every time we do a production, we are the arbiters of that—and we run the risk of changing someone’s life.
Talk to us a little bit about NOMAD… What inspired its creation? What exciting things are on the horizon?
NOMAD came out of a series of questions about my place and life in NY. I’ve moved around a lot—both within New York and around the country—and it’s been very Cranes in the Sky, you know, tried to run it away… NOMAD came out of me trying to understand the ways that I could impact the places that I was in. Or the ways that I could better understand my relationship to place. And also to be in conversation with other people who are trying to better understand their relationship to place.
I’m not saying I’m out here on the frontlines of any movement, but what I’m trying to do with NOMAD is get artists who are invested in these spaces and who are going to come with good energy and good work to be in conversation with other folks. I’m not sure how it’s going to expand moving forward. We’re still figuring out what that looks like. My first mission is to put good artists in conversation with this place that’s given me so much. But I’m still trying to understand. Because sometimes I feel like I love NY and NY don’t love the shit out of me. We just started our new season, and we have our next reading coming up on Saturday, July 22nd at Branch Ofc. in Brooklyn.
200 years from now you can only leave one poem behind for people to remember you by. Which poem do you leave? Why?
Because it just very recently took my whole life and breath and spirit and edges…
I’m reading Boy with Thorn, again, and I just came across “Lord and Chariot,” again, which is a sestina and it is—first of all it’s sufficient of craft and second, it’s just like, “I’m a boy in love. Let the dead, their dead.” COME ON. It’s fire. Flames. Like, I can’t. Rickey is ridiculous.
Since that is the most recent thing to gut-check me. Yea. I’m gonna say that!
If you could give adolescent Jayson a single piece of advice, what advice would you give?
“Your gifts are your gifts, and they’re worthy of attention.”
Jayson P Smith is a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Their poems & interviews appear / are forthcoming in journals such as Gulf Coast, Nepantla, Vinyl, fields magazine, & The Offing. Jayson has received previous support from The Poetry Project, The Conversation Literary Festival, Callaloo, & Millay Colony for the Arts. Originally from the Bronx, Jayson lives & works in Brooklyn as founder of NOMAD, a Crown-Heights based performance series.
Photo Credit: Erik Carter