El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, and activist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University, where she was named the 15th Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies in 2017. Jones was Halifax’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. She is the author of Live from the Afrikan Resistance!, a collection of poems about resisting white colonialism. Her work focuses on social justice issues, such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization. Since 2016, Jones has co-hosted a radio show called Black Power Hour on CKDU-FM, where listeners from prisons call in to rap and read their poetry, providing a voice to people who rarely get a wide audience. Her newest book Abolitionist Intimacies was published by Fernwood Publishing in November.
In this interview, Jones discusses the oral work of prison abolition: an intimacy of voice; forgiveness as a conversation; and commitment as a daily question and answer. Jones describes poetry as “an encounter with your own voice” and “coming into people’s hearts and minds.” The echoing of a story—in an article, essay, or poem—is part of the nature of the work as she knows it: the documenting, collecting, and cataloguing—and how in doing this work, life (the funny, the sad, the mundane) is “all stuck together.” We arrive at the long journey of justice, made up of our daily battles, whose destination is far beyond us. It’s love that holds us in the absence of justice. Love that we rely on to survive.
SANNA WANI: Abolitionist Intimacies is unlike many other books on abolition. One of my questions for you is about how peopled this book is—how it is grounded in the world of people and your relationships. I found that to be so beautiful and so compelling. Could you talk to me a bit about how your relationships figure into your definition of abolition?
EL JONES: It’s funny, because when I was in Banff, which is when the first draft of this was written, we did readings. I suddenly realized, hearing everybody read their prose, that I never described anything or anyone visually. Ever. I don’t do visual description. I will never tell you what Randy looks like, what Jerry looks like, what Fatouma looks like. And then I realized it is because everything’s happening through phones. Everything is oral.
So many of these essays or interludes start with some- one saying something to me. I realized it was because I spend so much of my life on the other end of a phone. It was a kind of revelation for me in terms of my writing because I’ve known people for ten years and I’ve never seen them because they’re in prison. I’ve never looked at them. And they haven’t looked at me—maybe on the news or something—but they haven’t actually ever looked at me either. So, it’s very much through how we talk that this relationship is built. Through this kind of sharing, right? An intimacy of voice.
The work has always been about being in relationship, since very early on. When I was very young, when I was first going to prison, I used to think, if someone asks you, “How is your week?,” I’d think, “Oh, I don’t want to complain about work, because they’re in prison.” I very quickly realized that was actually a form of holding your- self apart and above. People would come and tell you something, and then you wouldn’t say, “I’m really unhappy. I had a fight with my friend.” I initially thought it would be very tacky and then I realized, “No, we’re friends.” This is a friendship. And in a friendship, people want to be equal, they want to care for you.
SANNA WANI: This is reminding me of one part of the book that I thought about for so long after I finished reading. You’re on a drive back with Mount Allison University sociologist and fellow abolitionist Ardath Whynacht from a poetry workshop you just hosted in a women’s prison. You’re comparing it to a poetry class in a university. You had asked your students, “Who would you send to hell?” because you’re all reading Dante’s Inferno. Some of the students in your class said the name of the woman who you’d just worked with in the prison workshop, whose poem you really liked. And then Ardath says…
EL JONES: “I wish I could find the forgiveness in my life that I have for those in here.”
That was a quite notorious case of a woman that, obviously, upset a lot of people and involved a child. I hadn’t known who she was. I only realized because Ardath asked, “Oh, did you feel comfortable?” She explained it was that woman, who did this. I thought about it, and I said, “Well, I don’t think it mattered in this.” You’re doing poetry together. It can’t matter.
That doesn’t mean being dismissive of harm. I have been harmed. Many women who do this work, who have invented transformative justice, have often been deeply, deeply traumatized. This isn’t about ignoring harm or dismissing it but it’s about living with it in a different way.
This was very, very early on. Probably one of the first times I went into a prison. That forgiveness is a conversation that is ongoing as you encounter more and more. You think, like, “Can I do it for this person? Can I, with this person? With this person?” And sometimes you can’t, you know, sometimes you’re like, “That one’s too much. I can’t with that.”
It’s not about being a saint. It’s not telling people to forgive their rapist. That’s disgusting. It’s about believing—like I said in the poem “There Will Never Be Justice”—I still believe we can do better and we have to find a way.
SANNA WANI: I’m so interested in the way you’re describing poetry there and the intimacy—like love and relationships. What kind of intimacy do you think poetry is? How do intimacy and poetry talk to each other in your work?
EL JONES: I always quote George Steiner when he’s talking about looking at art, and he says, “Your heart has touched their heart with no space in between.”
He’s talking about annunciation paintings, and how they’re a metaphor for art—being struck in the light of God. He sees this as a metaphor for entering the Other through art. I think that there’s something different that happens with art or poetry. When you’re speaking, you’re really giving into something, and people respond in a different way. There’s an intimacy there, you sense the audience, you feel the room getting quieter and you know people are listening. You can feel their emotions and they can feel yours. It’s an encounter, right? And it’s an encounter with a great deal of responsibility. When you have people, you’re taking them in an emotional direction, and you can be irresponsible with that, or you can try and be ethical with it.
For me, that kind of pathway into others was my pathway into prison work as well. It’s a kind of passport. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, you’re this tiny woman. How do you get along with these guys?” And, a lot of times, it’s because I got bars. They’ll be like, “Yo, that girl! She can really drop a verse.” So it’s a way of communicating and coming into people’s hearts and minds.
What’s interesting, too, is seeing the whole book together. I didn’t realize how often I’m retelling a story in a poem that I told in prose somewhere else. Like I tell the story about touching grass in a poem as well as in one of the “Notes on Prison.” Obviously, the things that strike me as resonant come back in repeated images or stories. You do these poems hundreds and hundreds of times, and there’s a point where you enter in over and over again, that you have to step into it fully. And sometimes it’s 10 years later, right? And your life has changed. But when you do it, you’re stepping back into your earlier self, you’re stepping back into that moment, and there’s an encounter with yourself, too. An encounter with your own voice.
SANNA WANI: I love this idea of poetry, especially with spoken word—which is such a performance—as a form of surrender. You really have to surrender both to yourself and to the other. It’s an intimacy you have with yourself, too. You mentioned “Notes on Prison,” which is so powerful. Can you tell me more about that section? Why that form? How did the notes begin?
EL JONES: I was inspired by this book on the anthropology of the everyday, Ordinary Affects by Kathleen Stewart. It was significant for my writing.
“Notes on Prison” was a kind of documenting. You see it in bits and in fragments, like a diary. And the interesting thing is the grouping. On toilets—and I would think of everything about toilets. On mothers— think of everything people told me about mothers. It’s supposed to be that juxtaposition. Everything from funny to sad to mundane: all stuck together.
SANNA WANI: I made a note about this quality of life in the book—how you really amplify the relational, the human, and the vulnerable in all the encounters you write. I appreciate that choice, especially right now, for how it fits into your vision of witnessing with care. Dionne Brand has a lecture I love, where she says, “I do not write towards anything called justice, but against tyranny and towards liberation.” How do you feel about that sentiment? Do you believe in justice?
EL JONES: A surprising amount of people ask this. They’re like, “Why do you do this? You know you can’t win, right?” That includes people in prison. We have had wins and some of them are in this book, about when we’ve been successful. And then in 90 percent of cases, you’re not. It’s true. You’re pretty useless. What can you do?
This is actually the question that my collaborator Randy Riley asked Angela Davis. When we know we can’t get justice from the state, how do we keep going? How do we heal, knowing that there will never be accountability? There will never be an exoneration. We imagine that moment—we always think there’ll be that moment where we’re proven right. But it will never happen and we have to learn to live in that.
There’s this beautiful quote at the end of Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. She writes, “What else is your home, but the place where you have had your struggles and learned to bear them?” You just hold on. That’s all you can do. Life is long and there won’t be justice in your lifetime. It will be far beyond you and you have to find a way to live in that truth. I think that’s where love comes in, to be honest, in the absence of justice. You have to find what you rely on in your heart, in other people’s hearts. It’s a daily battle. There are days where I’m crying or I’m despairing. I’m so angry. Times where I’m like, “Fuck this community.” But then you have to keep coming back and say, “But what matters to me? What is my test?” And the answer is different for everybody. But you have to ask.
I don’t know if there’s justice, certainly not for everybody. But we get moments. We get to take those moments and, beyond that, it’s work. And good work yields more work. If you’re doing the work, then you get to do more work and that’s your reward. All we can do is just be there for each other. Keep walking, keep making choices, keep fighting, and keep failing because we do that constantly.
I’m not interested in perfection. I’m interested in us being human with each other and I think that is very freeing. You have to do your battles here on earth and wish for the thing after, and work towards it. Envision it, even when you know you’re not getting it. But every day, you have to do your best, right where you are. I don’t think we’d survive any other way. There’s justice in the moment—when we just leave behind what we can, knowing that somebody else will do better than us in the future.