"... How I Walk and Breathe in this Good Earth."
An Interview With Parneshia Jones
 
Recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award and the Margaret Walker Short Story Award, Parneshia Jones is published in several anthologies including She Walks in Beauty, edited by Caroline Kennedy, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, as well as Poetry Speaks Who I Am, a book/CD compilation which was featured on NPR.

Jones is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of Black voices from Appalachia. She has performed her work all over the United States including the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, the Art Institute in Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. Her poetry has been commissioned by Art for Humanity in South Africa, Shorefront Legacy and featured on Chicago Public Radio.

Parneshia received an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and serves on the board of Cave Canem. She is currently the Sales and Subsidiary Rights Manager and Poetry Editor for Northwestern University Press.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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How has the current global economic situation impacted the publishing industry? How has it impacted you, as a writer?


The literary landscape has gone through a drastic change because of the economic and technological changes. We have electronic, self-published, traditional and print-on-demand ways of getting our reading materials. Publishers, all of them, are up against the constant changing tide to stay current and relevant with dwindling resources. Things like books reviews, literary journals, publishing advances and marketing budgets have suffered a great deal. E-books are wonderful in the sense that they have made reading more global and changed the way we read but I don’t agree with the idea that they can and should replace the physical book.

Writers, not just publishers, are trying to keep up with the times which, to be honest, can be stressful because we live in a world that is more use to the immediate. Press a button, click this, touch screen that and you have the answer. I just can’t pull myself into that state of mind completely. The economic situation has impacted every tier of the literary world from writer, to agent, to publisher, to reader.

On the writing side, personally, I’m a slow writer and I do find myself struggling to understand what the rush is all about. I can watch and somewhat envy writers who can churn out poetry collections and novels every year or two. But I also have to catch myself of not getting caught up in all that. If there are writers who can do that with an ease and comfort and that’s just the way they work that’s a wonderful thing but that’s not the way I work. I have to be careful not to lose myself in the pace of the masses. Some days the writing comes at a turtle’s pace and I have learned to be ok with that. Some days it’s like a fever and there is a tidal wave of ideas, poems and stories. I have learned even more how important it is not to get distracted in everyone else’s motion and just be comfortable with my own pace. That’s where the best work comes from. 

Do you think current global events have impacted publishers and writers in a similar way in other parts of the world as they have in America? Why or why not?

Yes and no. Part of my job in publishing is working with foreign publishers to translate our books into different languages. Not every part of the world is on the same publishing page. Every country is not fully adapted to the e-book culture. But everyone is thinking about it on one level or another. Another point is that countries around the world conduct publishing according to the standards of their respective governments because the government subsidies the publishing industry in that country. Everything from copyright to what can be published can differ from how we handle things in the U.S. Economic constraints have caused some governments to cut funding so international publishers are feeling the squeeze as well. We are dealing with a global economic situation that is not tied to one or a few countries and in turn writers and publishers, no matter what part of the world they are in, feel it.

What are some of the common mistakes writers make when looking to get their work published?


1. Not researching the publishers they submit to before submitting.
2. Not following submission instructions.
3. Thinking that getting an MFA automatically means they will get published.
 
How have things changed for African American writers during your lifetime? What do you attribute those changes to, and what changes are you still waiting to see?

Kitchen Table Press: Women of Color press was founded by Barbara Smith, at the nudging of Audre Lorde, in 1980—the year I was born. I was two when Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple. African Americans writers have always found a way to make the point that our stories, poems, novels are important. We’ve always had to fight for the few slots that were available to writers of color. We’ve always had to deal with other people telling us that our story isn’t important or profitable.

Things are changing, and slowly but surely we are becoming less of the “minority” in the literary landscape. Today you have more presses, literary journals and literary scholarship focused on Black writers and bringing our work into the mainstream. Beautiful work is pouring from every end and what’s even more wonderful is there are Black folks at the helm of getting this work published. I look at organizations and publishers like Cave Canem and Willow Books—how they are instrumental in expanding the Black literary archives and supporting Black artists by exposing our works to a wider readership. There is still so much work to do and so much of it needs to be published.

As far as what I am waiting to see? The whole idea of categories comes to mind. Truthfully, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of African-American writers growing up in the 80s and 90s. I really didn’t know how wide and rich this world was until I was in college. Not to say that I didn’t read Black writers before then; it was just more of a speckled experience rather than an every day one. I always noticed that there was the “Black Shelf” or the “African American section” in a bookstore. I never fully understood that. Part of me understood the method and importance of special placement and giving African American writers their own section because of the historical neglect and exposure, but we have to be careful because that very categorization can be a double edged sword. You’ll notice those sections are usually the smallest in the stores or hidden away somewhere hard to find. I think we deserve to be placed throughout the bookstore shelves and the only categories we should fall in are subjects like poetry, fiction, autobiography—not race. I believe that Phillis Wheatley’s collected works should be in the same section as Emily Dickinson. These are the kinds of things that I hope continue to change in how our work is presented as the wider world reaches for us.

Describe the mission and work of UniVerse: A United Nations of Poetry, and the importance of it to you.


We recently lost the founder of UniVerse, Richard Fammerée. He was a great soul and loved words and music more than I can explain. Richard started UniVerse to expand and showcase writers starting from their cultural roots. He, and the other UniVerse members, wanted to showcase poetry in the universal terms and how poetry impacts different cultures through activism, music and more. I met Richard through his wife, Rachel Jamison Webster, a brilliant writer, artist and mother. I ended up giving them permission to reprint the works of the poet, Meena Alexander and later they asked me to be on their advisory board. I think we can all learn from UniVerse. That very creation, Richard and Rachel made me a better artist and human being.

Describe how you became involved with editing the anthology Women.Period and what you hoped this collection would accomplish.

The idea of Women.Period came from a café conversation with my classmates and fellow editors during my MFA study at Spalding University. We were four women, sitting in a coffee shop, talking about “women issues” and the idea was born. We were quite overwhelmed when we put out the call for submissions because received over five hundred from women (and some men, lol) all over the world. We knew then it was a needed and necessary anthology.  It was amazing. We received thank you letters. Women, ages 12 -80 were sending in work. It was an amazing experience and made menstruation more accessible, if you can believe that.  

What has been your proudest moment as a writer? Who was a part of that moment?

When my mother accepted that I was a writer. I come from a more traditional background that didn’t involve a lot of artists. So naturally my mother was concerned when I said I wanted to be a poet. Now she knows that is part of my makeup. It’s embedded in how I walk and breathe in this good earth. She loves and respects me for being an artist. That means everything to me.  

Who are some of the writers who have inspired and/or influenced you, and how?


Oh, that’s like choosing your favorite child. So many writers influence me in so many ways. I’m really blessed that I have constant contact with writers who are brilliant at their craft but also walk the world in brilliant ways. Gwendolyn Brooks, Bruce Weigl, Lucille Clifton, Mitchell L.H. Douglas, so, so many. I appreciate the writers when they are a reflection of their words—the practice what they preach type of writers. I guess that I can appreciate a pretty poem just as much as the next person but I am more drawn to a person’s inner workings and how that feeds their work.

In a hundred years, a classroom full of students will study the work of Parneshia Jones. What is one thing you hope they learn about her?

My goodness! Hopefully, that’s she really wasn’t crazy, lol. It’s such a tall order to know what to leave behind. I think as we get older we all grow into wanting the same thing—to be known. I hope a hundred years from now students know that my writing stands for what I believe in and how I live. I want them to know how grateful I feel to be an artist and that it isn’t a casual affair. It’s my way of contributing to the better of the world.   

Say this classroom in a hundred years is a classroom full of writers. What do you hope they learn about themselves?

Write what you know. You owe that to yourself. Write what’s close and important to you. There is so much beauty in that. 

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To find more of Parneshia's work and that of other great artists, visit the websites below:




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