Interview with Poet Henry Jones
By Judith Clerjeune
The following is an interview with local poet, activist and artist, Henry Jones. He blends life experiences and history to write about the Black experience using vivid images. A concerned activist, Jones’ essay and poem were published in Houses of God, a gospel music CD release and book by the House of Blues Music Company & Platinum Entertainment. Various artists included: The Winans, Stevie Wonder, LA Mass Choir, The Temptations, Andrae Crouch Michael Brooks & The Nation, Cissy Houston, and others. This project raised nearly half million dollars to rebuild Southern churches attacked by racially motivated fires and bombs in the 1990’s. Jones will recite his poetry at Poet’s Corner on February 26, 2015 at 7:00 PM to 8:00PM.
Interview with Poet Henry Jones
Writers and poets write for a myriad of reasons. Some write primarily to speak a message to their audience, others write because to stay silent is not an option. Why do you write?
I write because there’s a need for me to write. I guess I fit in the part of “to stay silent is not an option.” Each day I write something. Unfortunately, I don’t type as often. When the desire erupts I reach for pen and paper. When I write I hear a voice in my head. It’s like wearing some headphones listening to music or someone is near your ears whispering a secret. At one time I worried about that voice. Really. I wondered did I have a condition or disease. I concluded it’s my own inner dialogue. When it speaks, I write to get the words out. What stimulates the voice and the words varies. Perhaps a memory, a photograph, an article read, touching something or even a smell. When these stimuli come it’s as though I’m reliving them again in detail. Once I’m done I read it aloud to hear and proof the piece. That’s when I discover why I’ve written a poem. Sometimes I don’t know why. Instead of arguing with myself about the origin or the audience, I write. And keep writing. Arguing is a distraction.
How has your idea of what poetry is and what poetry can do changed since you began writing poetry?
No. My idea of poetry hasn’t changed. I saw poetry as a force for social change, which was years ago. Back then we’d say, “To make people aware” (i.e., to enable listeners to understand a serious problem that exists). I believe poetry can touch people in their core and find a place in them. Poetry, like other forms of literature, brings images to life and takes a reader to the moment, a particular experience. This enables the story within a poem to become a part of them. The poem is like a spoonful of food that someone eats. Slowly chews, swallows and digests. Once the food passes along the inner road of the colon, it begins to feed and nourish the flesh. It makes you stronger. Then it’s too late! It’s in them. It’s in their blood and then to all parts of flesh. Poetry is food of inspiration that has a way of giving life to an audience.
What is your understanding of the role of art, specifically poetry, in activism and liberation movements?
Poetry should promote change. It starts with the poet who recites or reads a poem that touches people. They take it in and become moved. If the reader welcomes this newness of seeing a part of the world, they can take that knowledge and make better the world. I’m not talking about running out to start a nonprofit, which is actually wonderful, but do something different. Let’s say a poet writes a poem about laced milk that poisoned a village. The manufacturer of it using connections and politics pushed it under the rug. Said it wasn’t tainted but it was. A poet helps to spread that info in a creative way. Now, once that knowledge is revealed, the reader should become an activist. A doer. A changer. And has the responsibility to tell people about the evil which was discovered. Then, the enlightened person should do something to help stop it and prevent future deaths. That’s one poem and one incident! There are many evils and injustices which people can help to solve. So, poetry becomes a catalyst for change. It’s a voice, which says, “Hey, look over here what’s going on.” Words are so powerful to spark thoughts and action. Marvin Gaye’s lyrics remain in my head as I look at our world, “What’s going on? Tell me what’s going on.” That’s my journey to answer that question.
Are there any poems that you want to write but you’re afraid of writing?
Yes. Very, very much. Those are the poems rooted inside me to a painful experience in which I’m the primary source. As I write them, I’m very reluctant and afraid. I want to tell my inner voice to shut up. But these poems which pulled so deeply inside of me must come out. Some brought me to tears as I relived and wrote. After writing them I feel relieved. I’ve grown. Then there’s a hole formed. To dig deeply into the ground to your roots you have to create a hole. You can’t get to the roots of a tree without digging. It’s impossible. Also, at times there were even tears. I’m not afraid to share that. If you relive something painful it’s difficult not to bring out the same emotions. I write and write and cry. I’m not sure which inspires the other. So, I just kept writing, digging and unloading. I’m still writing those poems. But it’s necessary. I can’t fill up the hole I’ve made with the fear. So, at some point my healing replaces all the dirt. We all have some dirt in our lives and need a way to clean up with a little healing of tears. Painful, but necessary. To share them is just as frightening but like the words they must be born.
What do you want your poetry to do? Where do you want it go?
I want my poetry to transform lives. Poetry can only do this by capturing minds and hearts. This is what I want to do — get into their heads and spirits. Regarding where I wish to go, I see myself sharing poetry more in different ways. This will be possible due to technology and accessibility. Our world is changing in quantum leaps. Artists of all genres and expressions are using new technology to create new approaches and types of work. Poetry will be part of that revolution. I called it a revolution because technology moves so quickly. Also, I want to integrate, no bridge, my poetry within my visual art. Put it on sculpture and paintings. I’m working on a piece of movable sculpture which has words. The piece’s segments can be arranged and the words on the segments, so with each transformation you get something new in two forms of art. I like kinetic things. Some day I’d love to become a professor or lecturer at a university or college. I feel in love with my good professors in school who pushed you to think. Not absorb but think. I’d like to continue such a legacy for future minds. Last, I want to publish as many books as possible. Books will always be ambassadors for authors to reach people abroad.
If you could say anything to any aspiring poets, what would you say?
Please, please, please be yourself. Don’t write a poem that you think you should write to make people happy or comfortable. Be yourself and tell your story. Pull out and tell the truth as you see or experienced it. That’s the untold story that must be told. Then, I’d say to tell your story you have to know yourself. This takes time. Allow that time and growth. That doesn’t mean sitting around waiting but becoming fearless about the world. Oppressed people are oppressed with tactics of fear – terrorism. You can’t write of freedom if you’re full of fear. An aspiring poet should write and write and keep writing while not being afraid to listen to that voice inside. That inner source. They must connect to what they write about after they’ve learned something about an experience and how it transformed them. Again, it’s about getting to the true source. So, in the short, aspiring poets become fearless and do you because you’re the best source to do you.
Judith Clerjeune is a daughter, sister, lover and friend. She graduated from Williams College with a B.A in History and Africana Studies. She is currently a Belle H. Bennett Fellow at the Scarritt-Bennett center and works as an advocacy intern at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee rights Coalition (TIRRC).