A Conversation with Jamal Jones, compiler of Imagoes: A Queer Anthology

After realizing that Jamal and I both went to San Francisco State University, we made some small talk about what the campus and our programs looked like during our times there, but quickly got to business:

ALEESHA LANGE: I know you published a couple people in [Imagoes] who also went to state right?

JAMAL JONES: Yeah. Yes, yes, yes. Dena and Stewart, who went [to State] a while back. And then maybe some other people who I can’t think of right now.

AL: How did you reign them into getting their work into to this anthology?

JJ: Stewart Shaw I knew from just poetry stuff elsewhere. He more or less was like my poetry mentor, even though he doesn’t like that title. He doesn’t want any titles of authority, I guess. And Dena Rod, we’ve known each other since State, but I remember three or four years ago they messaged me online asking me to look at some of their work, which I thought was incredibly flattering. They’ve kind of taken off from there. I remember reading some of their work and giving feedback and a few years later they were working for Argot Magazine and we developed in addition to our friendship kind of this working relationship. And so when I asked them, “Hey, you got some work?” They said, “Of course.” without question.

AL: Take me to the moment that you describe in the foreword [of Imagoes] when you knew that this work needed to be shared. Can you tell me what that realization was like?

JJ: The publisher Charles and I met in a writing circle that we both attended here in D.C., and I ended up going as a suggestion from my therapist because we were trying to move me towards action. I met Charles there, and we developed a little bit of a friendship. Something that was really important [while] looking at the other bodies of work that are called ‘queer anthologies’ I saw the same names repeated a lot of the time. The same poets kind of—almost like an anthology circuit. And one of the things that was important for me when me and Charles sat down—he proposed it to me—that we create a platform for people who were not in that circuit, who might have been a little bit lower on the totem pole of ‘emerging poets’ because that’s usually the title of these things. So I wanted to find people who maybe had less exposure, folks who had a little less clout, and I thought that was really important to incorporate into art spaces, that you reach into the community around you, which is why some of the people in the anthology are people that I have met traveling on my journeys like Dena and Stewart. Or even Corey, who I met through the internet.

AL: I feel like that is a very common experience—publishing maybe not your friends but acquaintances, just people who you just admire their work. That definitely happens, and has happened among all of the magazines that I’ve worked on. I really like it, it brings a nice little community together.

JJ: Yeah, and I remember when we put out the call for submissions we got a decent amount of feedback and responses from people who were submitting stuff and I didn’t know how big the book would be, you know, if it would be big, if it wouldn’t be big. My focus was to create a really good book. So say if this was the last thing that had my name on it or the last opportunity that I had to do this, that it would be a solid piece. And so that’s where some of the community stuff came in because I knew that this would be my opportunity to feature their work beause I know their work is really good and needs to be read. That was a lot of the inspiration for that.

AL: So we know that you knew a couple of the people who are published in Imagoes, but how did you find other people [to submit]?

JJ: So like I said, the first thing we did, Charles and I, we sat down and made a list of people that we knew we wanted to reach out to. And then we also made a list of places to put up a call for submissions. So we put [our advertisement] in various groups on Facebook. We really started getting traction when we put an ad up on the Lambda Literary site because they allow you to post calls for submissions on their site too. And so we got a lot more traction once we did that because they’re a bigger platform. So we thought, “this is cool.” because that’s where some of the folks like Jessica Goodman come in, who is someone who didn’t see our calls before. That’s where those people kind of came from.

AL: And they have quite a bit of work in there too, at least five poems each.

JJ: Yeah, ideally when we sat down, Charles and I wanted to have a decent amount of work from each contributor, which didn’t end up happening for some people—but that was cool—but that was part of our call for submissions: “Can we at least get five to seven poems from you?” because for the reader we wanted it to be a solid look at the range of what [they] do. Sometimes when I read some anthologies I get kind of sad because I really wanted to see more from one person.

AL: Definitely, I completely relate. I love the anthology form I love what it does, but I do find that sometimes I just want a whole book of somebody’s writing. But then that’s good [too] because then at least I get a little sample, and I can go out and buy that person’s book and support them directly. I like the sense of community that Imagoes has just because—I’m a little biased—but you were talking about Jessica Goodman and she has a poem “On my way to the Middle Klamath River in Siskiyou County” and it’s really funny, that’s where I grew up. I grew up on the river in Siskiyou county, this poem is exactly that. It’s really refreshing; it’s nice.

JJ: That’s cool! That’s something that I’ve learned too—that people will know each other from referencing things that are directly related to somebody else’s experience, like we both went to the same school, right? I’m glad that that’s there and that you had that moment.

AL: I feel like poetry for me is all about that moment of resignation and those emotions. I love that. […] So, what does it feel like to share this work with the world?

JJ: It feels good. I have been doing work as an editor for about three or four years for a magazine called African Voices where I was the editor of the fiction column (I really wanted to be the editor of the poetry column, but that position was taken) and so this was a good opportunity to kind of test of my own editing skills. [I could] then see what a wide range of people were doing and also to kind of have a thesis or an idea of what I want to do to see that through. On another level it’s been really good because we’ve had a lot of sincere feedback. I think the thing that I appreciate about the book being published to a small press that we found grassroots in is that we’ve had a lot more time to interact with people and the book that maybe a larger press wouldn’t have had. We’ve had a lot more opportunities, like at the New York City Poetry Festival, we had a lot of opportunity to see who was buying the book and talking to people who had already purchased the book one-on-one. We had three or four poets who were in the book there, so it’s been a good community experience as opposed to [a] more corporate experience where you publish it and maybe you’re not a writer—maybe you never get the opportunity to talk to people who have had experiences with your book. And then I think that something that I’ve also enjoyed after putting it out is going back to it because it’s a different experience editing it as a single text—“this goes here, this is where I want it to be, this is the format, this is how the book should flow,”—because, and I can’t really explain it, but it’s been a different experience like consuming the work after we’ve already finished it and I’ve let the book kind of sit down. And I’ve gone back to it and kind of re-engaged with all of the things that these people are saying. And I’ve appreciated that a lot.

AL: There was something that I was really inspired by in the formatting of [Imagoes]. I do a lot of design work on Fourteen Hills—I’m sure you remember them—and I get to design the cover and help with the inside stuff too as well as the Michael Rubin Book Award but also the next issue that’s coming out, issue 26, and I was looking at the beginning of Imagoes on page 15, the QR code on the Princess Bubblegum poem and I saw that and I loved it. I immediately just started doing as much research as I could about how to get a QR code on my pages and stuff and it’s very easy, very free. And I was really excited when I saw [it in your book for] a larger font, but I now plan on using that in our magazine, Ramblr, for more accessibility—audio files to help visually impaired people have access to the magazine. So that was a revolutionary change in my plans for the magazine. I loved that you had that in there.

JJ: Yeah that was dope, that was Charles’s idea, and I think that he got it by looking through a poetry book that was in Target and it was by a person who does spoken word primarily and they really wanted people to interact with the poems and the performance aspect, so that entire book had QR codes and I think that he’d really taken to that idea. And it has that other function, accessibility right? Because we knew that the print on that page was a little small. There was a lot going on there, but I think that should happen more. I’m really glad that Charles did that. Hopefully when we reprint it we can do that for everything.

AL: I loved that. And my girlfriend is deaf, so when she goes to readings, she has to sit in the front row; she has to be able to lip read and she just recently—a couple days ago—got an app on her phone that does live captioning, and I thought that was amazing. And now there’s something that—because we always joke about technology listening to us, now hers actually is and spitting out words that she can actually read instead of having to rely on lip reading because that takes a lot of emotional energy to actually have to do and so as soon as I saw that I was like, “Oh, accessibility? I love it, let’s do it.” […] So, what do you think is the riskiest poem that you published in Imagoes?

JJ: Well I think—that’s a good question—I think that that comes down to the definition of risk because I think that there are people taking risks all over the place. One example: Randall Ivey’s entire section, I think, could be considered risky because it is very erotic and even pornographic, so for folks who may not be used to that sexual, queer poetry which is definitely part of a tradition of queer poetry, that could be a little jarring, you know what I mean? It was funny because I told Charles the poems that I thought, “Okay these are it.” And he read them and he was like, “Whoa!” [laughs]. So I think that that’s one risk. Another way risk could be defined is with Stewart’s section which I don’t think initially reads queer in the most basic definition. I don’t think that you’ll read his section and immediately get that, so that’s another kind of risk because he’s examining his queerness and ancestry from a very particular language rooted in familiar history and anthropology and spirituality. So I think that folks who are going into the book and they’re looking for a very basic definition of queerness or a basic way to look at queerness, then they may be thrown off by that at first. And then you have Ciara Swan [whose work] is very hard to read if you are not accustomed or acquainted with poetry that is maybe more abstract—especially when you are fitting that poem into a book where it’s kind of the only one of its type. So I think that there are different kinds of risks being taken in this book which I like because there is a range of folks and they’re coming at maybe the same questions from various angles depending on age, ability, experience, gender, yeah.

AL: All of those things are just way too important to overlook in my opinion, I’m so glad that [Imagoes] exists, I actually only heard about this book because Dena shared it on Facebook and said that you were looking for people to basically do this, to give exposure to it, that’s when I messaged you!

JJ: Thank you so much!

AL: No, thank you for compiling this, for creating this, this is amazing.

JJ: And thanks to Dena! Dena has been being dope for over a decade. Definitely a shout out to Dena, Dena does amazing work.

AL: I see that they’re doing quite a bit right now. They’re having tons of readings.

JJ: Yeah, I’m like in awe of it.

AL: That’s like the dream I guess for a poet, it’s gotta be.

JJ: It’s spectacular too, the work, its’s kind of like—this is going to be a tangent—it’s like a duck on the water, where the duck is going through the water like really calm and they’re sailing through and under the water you see them like madly pedaling. And that’s the way that I see Dena because Dena has done a lot of work and it seems like it’s just like this explosion of stuff. They’ve been busy and I’m always in awe of their work.

AL: Can we expect a queer fiction anthology in the works anytime soon?

JJ: I think that would be a good idea! I know that Charles is into the idea of Love, Pain, and Poetry [Publishing] to publish the anthology, but I think that would be a good idea to pitch to him. I know that I’m working on a chapbook right now, and the direction that it’s gone in has been less poetry and more fiction. So in 2020, which is when we’re looking to put it out, I’ll definitely have a work of fiction. And I know that a lot of the other writers in this anthology also do fiction. But yeah an anthology of fiction may be a good idea. I am! Because he’s racking his brain right now; he’s always thinking about “What should we do next?”

AL: There’s a very large population of queer writers on Tumblr—I don’t know if you’re too familiar with that, but I can’t scroll through my feed without seeing a queer writer on there.

JJ: And there are so many people who are doing amazing things, like Aleks Hemingway who’s in the book, who I knew prior but didn’t really know, and I took a risk to reach out to him and just ask him to read his work because I had read some of his work on his Tumblr and he writes this really abstract fiction which I think is really cool. And it’s funny reading his fiction and then reading his poetry too. So people are doing so much good work, it’s always inspiring, the internet is like this big resource that you can get lost in going through stuff.

AL: Oh yeah, I find that because most of the people who write online are writing new things I am way more inspired by my classmates’ work than the cannon filled with these dead white poets, you know? I’m a lot more inspired by new, I think, than old.

JJ: Yeah, these other ways that we can imagine the world.

AL: It also just wracks my brain that these are ideas that are happening right now.
JJ: And what a blessing it is right, to live in a time where it’s possible to reach out and talk to this person.

AL: Yeah—they’re just a DM or an email away. It’s awesome. Just like you. [laughs]

JJ: Yeah! [laughs]

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