A 2013 Pushcart Prize Winner, Saeed Jones is the editor of BuzzFeed LGBT and author of the poetry collection Prelude to Bruise. Jones wrote about New Orleans in the BuzzFeed feature Inside the Oldest Gay-Owned Bookstore in the South, which is about Faubourg Marigny Art and Books on Frenchmen Street. He will be back in the city reading passages from his book at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (TWNOLF) as well as participating in the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival (the LGBT fest within the Tennessee Williams Festival).
TWNOLF takes place March 25 – 29, when the most illustrious and freshest names in the literary, theatrical, and cultural spheres descend on the French Quarter for five days of festivities. Saints and Sinners takes place March 27-29, and it brings together a who’s who of the LGBT literary world. The fest features panels and master classes by authors, editors, publishers for emerging writers and LGBT literature fans. We talked to Jones about the festival, working for BuzzFeed, and what he loves about New Orleans.
How did you get involved with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and Saints and Sinners?
It’s been a pretty exciting few months with the book, and I was invited to do two of my favorite things — talk about books and poetry and visit New Orleans, which is one of my favorite cities in the country. I said “Yes, absolutely!” with no question. I just love [the city], and I think it’s really beautiful, and I feel more awake every time I get to steep myself in New Orleanian culture. So, this was a no-brainer for me.
What will you be doing with the festival?
I’m doing a reading from my book, Prelude to Bruise, and I will be doing a talk with [Pulitzer Prize-winning poet] Vijay Seshadri about our work and the idea of language in flux. I also hope to be meeting with high school students while in New Orleans for the festival. During the day, I’m the LGBT editor at BuzzFeed, and a lot of our work is in conversation with more general LGBT issues, but also in terms of how young people are living and the questions that they are experiencing, and so I really love these opportunities to get to talk to them and hear from them.
What has been the most interesting part of your work as LGBT Editor at Buzzfeed?
I just had my two-year anniversary here last week and it’s been an amazing time to be an LGBT editor. In terms of American history, so much is happening. This is a defining moment, really, in the LGBT movement and more broadly in the history of the United States. So, it’s been an absolute pleasure and honor to focus on these narratives and try to do what I can as I’m editing articles and stories and posts to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way — whether that’s a question of journalism or entertainment. And it’s also challenging because there’s still a lot of work to do, violence against transgender people, for example or things like youth homelessness. And obviously marriage equality isn’t a reality for everyone around the country. [The job] is absolutely amazing and joyful and sometimes hilarious, but can also be a bit heartbreaking and challenging, but I feel really grateful to have the chance to do it.
New Orleans has a long history of writers, and even specifically LGBT writers. Is that initially what drew you here?
It’s part of it. New Orleans has an incredibly rich literary history and Tennessee Williams is a writer who has very much inspired me in the way he examined desire. It is lovely to be able to walk around the city while thinking about him and thinking about his relationship to the city. But also, with New Orleans everything is flowing. No aspect of [its] culture is siloed. It’s about writing and literature as much as it’s about music, food and dance. All of these things just kind of flow together, and that’s often how I think about my own work. So I think that’s part of why I love New Orleans in particular, as kind of a literary city — because it’s where writing is very much a part of everything else. No everyday person is quite as colorful a writer or speaker as a native New Orleanian, right? [laughs] So that’s part of why I love visiting so much.
On your #QueerSouth road-trip, what did you find that was the most different between New Orleans and some of the other places that you hit on that tour?
Part of what was interesting was that in many cities around the south you still have a version of the “gayborhood” where it’s a focal point for the community. In New Orleans I had a sense that it’s more decentralized. It’s more queer, in the sense of the word. You have these lovely bars that maybe aren’t exactly like gay bars, but rather they are places where everyone feels comfortable and welcome. I think that’s really beautiful and maybe like that’s the future. So that’s one thing that I thought was really interesting — that the life of LGBT people in New Orleans felt a little more seamless in some ways.
I guess the other thing I thought that was interesting — while I was there in June 2013, the lead-up to the two supreme court decisions at the time (the case with Edie Windsor and the Defense of Marriage Act) about marriage were coming up, and so it was very moving to meet couples who lived in New Orleans. I met one couple that was married in California, then when Prop 8 happened their marriage was essentially done, and they were waiting to see how the decision would impact them. I met many couples who were in that situation, who love New Orleans and were so proud of their city and were so happy to be there, but still were fighting for their rights. I think that’s an important story that unfortunately is still too common.
Any new authors you think we should be looking at?
There’s a poetry collection that just came out called [Insert] Boy by a poet from Minnesota named, Danez Smith, and he’s black and queer. He has such fire in his work — I just absolutely love it.
There’s another poet, named Angel Nafis. She’s a young queer poet, based in Brooklyn. She wrote a small book called Black Girl Mansion that is just stunning and so sharp.
Also, I think Janet Mock is redefining realness and she’s an advocate I know many people are increasingly appreciating. She’s just doing ground-breaking work.
If you were bringing someone to New Orleans for the first time, where would you take them?
OMG. So, I’ve decided that the next time I visit, I would like to stay (because I usually stay in the French Quarter) in the Marigny or Garden District. They have a quiet to them, a little more calm. We’d enjoy just how incredibly beautiful those neighborhoods are in their different ways. I love that Marigny has a little bit more jazz, and there’s some bookstores there I really enjoy visiting. And the Garden District is just absolutely beautiful. You feel like you’re walking through an Anne Rice novel. And then we’ve got to throw our things down and go to the French Quarter and we’ve got to get one of those huge daiquiris — that just seems so important to me. We’ve got to go to Cafe Du Monde and get the beignets — just all of it. I think part of the secret to really experiencing New Orleans is to see all of the different parts of the city as much as you can. I think sometimes when people go, they just go to the French Quarter or just do the tours, but I think the secret is to make sure you’re all over the city, because it’s like a cut diamond — it has so many facets.
New Orleans in one word:
Everyone. I think that’s the word for New Orleans. It’s “everyone”. Everyone should be in New Orleans. There’s something for everyone there. Everyone will find a part of their life kind of lit up by being in New Orleans for a visit.
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