Jon Sands is a writer known for electric readings, and the author of The New Clean (2011, Write Bloody Publishing). His work has been featured in The New York Times, published widely in various journals, and anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2014. He starred in the award winning web-series Verse: A Murder Mystery from Rattapallax Films, is the co-founder of Poets in Unexpected Places, and a facilitator with the Dialogue Arts Project. He is a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC, and teaches creative writing for adults and youth at Bailey House in Harlem (an HIV/AIDS service center). He tours extensively, but lives in Brooklyn. www.jonsands.com.
Geosi Gyasi: You have represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam. What sort of preparations do you do before you mount the stage to perform?
Jon Sands: I try to be as present as possible, and to allow myself to be surprised by what happens.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Jon Sands: I didn’t consciously begin to focus on writing until I was 22, but I can see myself at younger ages attempting to understand events and truths that poetry would later help me to elucidate. However, I still had countless moments of vulnerability, connection, sorrow, celebration, and I would even say, craft. Often times for me, these moments occurred out loud. In that sense I think I was a poet before I wrote poetry, almost in retrospect. The choice then, I believe, is whether to suppress or allow that articulation, which arrives in many forms, not just words. And if you choose to allow it, then it follows that you can choose to refine it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regret ever becoming a writer?
Jon Sands: No.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a voracious reader? What sort of books do you read?
Jon Sands: I love the word voracious. I know people who read both more and less than I do. I will say that my decision, years ago, to take writing more seriously would not have been possible without the decision to take reading more seriously. I read all kinds of books. Definitely poetry. But I love short stories and essays.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your work?
Jon Sands: Of course. I think it’s healthiest, and most accurate, to view the submission process as a declaration that one is alive. In that sense, your aliveness is affirmed by both rejection or acceptance. You want your work to be released into the world by people who wish to stand by it, and they often can’t find it if you don’t send it to them. If you don’t risk to send it where you would like it to exist, then you reject yourself before anyone else can.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific audience you write for?
Jon Sands: There are definitely a few close friends whose opinions I value greatly. They’re an honest, kind, and challenging bunch. If they love a piece, that’s generally a good indication that it’s saying what it needs to say. When I write though, it’s me trying to figure out something for my own growth, which means I’m, by far, my most important audience.
Geosi Gyasi: You teach creative writing for adults at both Bailey House in Harlem and the Positive Health Project. How do you combine teaching and writing?
Jon Sands: They engage similar muscles. Oftentimes the generation of curriculum can feel as exciting as new work. It also forces me, again and again, to be a student, which only ever benefits my writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “The Fishermen”?
Jon Sands: “The Fishermen” was inspired by a night I shared with five friends at an old fishermen’s bar in Brooklyn. One of those nights where all the hardships we face, just being alive in this difficult and beautiful world, seem to dissolve for a moment. It was special to me, and I guess I wrote the poem in order to confirm that it actually happened, and to try to make it last longer.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it normally take you to write a single poem?
Jon Sands: Anywhere from 30 minutes to four years. I will say, my chances of finishing a poem drastically diminish if I don’t complete a draft within a day or two.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do when a poem you’re writing is just not working?
Jon Sands: It depends on if I think the poem wants to say something important. That makes it far more difficult to give up on. It’s often not working because either I don’t have the information I need, or I’m forcing it in a direction it doesn’t wish to go. The poem has its own agenda and it will break if you’re hellbent on telling it what to say. It knows what to say, and it’s begging you not to obstruct it, or defend yourself from it. Which really means defending yourself from a truth. I try to be patient, and to stay curious.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about subject matter when you write?
Jon Sands: Very much so. But I also subscribe to the credo that you can learn all you need about humanity from one street corner, if you look close enough (I think Willie Perdomo said this once, and it stuck with me). I write about what matters to me, as I hope most writers do. The writers I love do it so vividly and specifically that it can’t help but shine a light on parts of me that were previously hidden.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most boring aspect of writing?
Jon Sands: Definitely the procrastination. The writing is never boring.
Geosi Gyasi: Can you define your voice as a writer?
Jon Sands: I don’t think I can. Not definitively. I’d imagine it’s derivative of countless influences, but never before, hopefully, with the same proportions. I try to write in the tone I speak, and to be brave enough to evolve. I don’t always succeed, but I’d hope that if you were looking on a line graph, the general trend would be one of growth.