“Jamey has literally put Pensacola on the poetry map,” said New York poet Lewis Warsh about Pensacola’s Jamey Jones.
“He is not just a ‘local’ poet—[Jamey Jones] has connected Pensacola to the rest of the poetry world.”
Whether it’s Carl Sandburg’s Chicago or Frank Sinatra’s New York, a community is often defined by its artists. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley famously remarked that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” helping to shape a community, as well as define the local culture.
In Pensacola, however, the local culture is different, and the role of artists in defining this community is rarely recognized.
In Philadelphia, a statue of Walt Whitman stands beside a busy onramp greeting travelers. In Pensacola, images of local sports legends greet visitors at the airport. While notorious murders or environmental catastrophe quickly bring national attention to Pensacola, the area’s local artists are rarely appreciated, locally or nationally.
For a man who has been dubbed “Pensacola’s unofficial poet laureate,” this may soon change.
On May 13 at Artel Gallery, Jamey Jones will be releasing his first major book of poetry entitled “Blue Rain Morning.” Originally released in part as a chapbook by Fell Swoop Press out of New Orleans, the New York poetry publishing house of Farfalla, McMillian, and Parrish has just released a longer updated version.
Pensacola has long had an interesting and vibrant poetry scene that has produced a number of talented poets, but few have gained prominence outside of the local area. With the publication of his book “Blue Rain Morning,” the most significant collection of Jones’ work to date, Jamey Jones has arrived—and with his arrival, the world poetry scene comes to his hometown.
Already being hailed by academics and poets alike as a serious contribution to modern American poetry, for Jones this recognition is long overdue.
Keeping Pensacola and the World Safe for Poetry
On the occasion of Jack Kerouac’s death, the Beat Generation’s most famous bard, Allen Ginsberg said that the role of the poet is “to ease the pain of the living. Everything else is a drunken dumbshow.”
Jamey Jones inhabits this role as literary comforter with ease, seeing his public role as a conduit for “clarity, sanity and civility.”
Describing Jones and his latest work, legendary poet Anne Waldman said that Jones’ “poetry deepens the sense of being a witness in the world, and to the pleasures of the mind making new language in poetry.”
Interviewed on her way to Morocco as news of the killing of Osama bin Laden was just reaching the American public, Waldman said that Jones’ book “comes at a time when we need to get back to our humanity in the world. There’s so much tragedy, destruction, suffering. Jamey takes us in a different direction.”
The role of a poet, especially one in the public eye, is a role that Jones takes very seriously.
“Poetry can say what can’t be said in prose,” he said.
In the “The Aeneid,” Virgil described that the duty of a poet was to make life more civil with their art. Referring to the media in the age of information, Jones added that poetry “has the ability to pierce through the barrage of language that assaults us on a daily basis, enabling the poet, as well as the reader of poetry, to connect to a deeper, more meaningful sense of themselves, others and the world around them.”
Jones sees poetry and his role as a poet as a type of service to the community at large. Poets interpret events and express emotion that can allow for a deeper connection to the world and the poet’s community.
“Historically, poetry is central to the communal experience,” said David Baulch, a professor of English at the University of West Florida.
Referencing the great works of Homer, William Blake and William Carlos Williams, Professor Baulch said that “poets are the people that make this [experience] happen.”
As a poet and an educator, Jones’ desire to share the communal aspects of poetry have taken many forms over the years. Currently employed by the Escambia County School District as a language arts/reading teacher, Jones has been instrumental in introducing this art form to hundreds of people throughout the city.
Whether hosting open readings, poetry workshops, or bringing some of the greatest names in modern American poetry to Pensacola, Jamey Jones has long been a community organizer for the arts.
“I’ve always seen poetry as something that could, or should, be public,” said Jones of his craft. The same drive that is now paying off in national recognition for his poetry helped create and foster the vibrant poetry scene of Pensacola. Jones
described much of his work as a poet as similar to that of an unacknowledged legislator, the public servant.
The Poet as Public Servant
Considering Jamey Jones’ family tree, his reference to public service is fitting.
Going back at least three generations, the Jones family played a great role in shaping Pensacola. The poet’s grandfather, John R. Jones, worked as an accountant for the San Carlos Hotel until he was elected Tax Collector for Escambia County in the 1940s. His son, John R. Jones Jr., fought in World War II and came back to serve as a County Commissioner and later Property Appraiser, a position he held for years until his son was appointed to the position and later was elected to serve in that role.
Jamey Jones described his father as a kind and generous person who encouraged the young poet to follow his dreams, even if he didn’t understand his poetry.
His brother Chris Jones agreed.
“My dad was a Kipling person,” said the poet’s older brother Chris Jones. “He really liked Kipling. Jamey’s work, of course, is not really like Kipling.”
Jamey Jones’ poetry has been described as experimental, avant-garde and edgy. These are terms not often associated with Rudyard Kipling.
“Blue Rain Morning” is dedicated to his parents, John and Mary.
“They probably didn’t understand what he was doing,” said Chris Jones. “But they always encouraged him.”
Chris Jones continues in the family tradition of public service as the Property Appraiser for Escambia County.
While billboards with a photo of Chris Jones are all over town, few people make the connection between the Jones brothers.
“There are some people that know we’re brothers,” said the older Jones. “But there’s also a lot more people that are shocked that we’re brothers.”
Chris Jones admits that the two brothers chose different paths in life, yet they both share the same “moral compass” that was set by their parents.
“I think you see that a lot in Jamey’s work and in his life,” said the older brother. “I am completely in awe of my brother.”
The poet’s older sister Llisa Jones shares her older brother’s memory of their parents.
“Our parents were always lovingly enthusiastic and encouraging about anything we three kids wanted to pursue,” said the older sister, “even when they didn’t quite see our ideas and dreams as we did.”
Jamey Jones cited his sister, who currently works with autistic children in Pensacola, as an early influence in his artistic calling.
Jamey Jones first discovered poetry while perusing his sister’s bookshelf. Within a short time he would be writing his own poetry, making his own books, and teaching workshops on the craft his sister introduced to him.
“Jamey’s passion shines in his words,” said Llisa Jones. “He has always had the natural ability to bring those words to life, especially when he reads aloud.”
Reflecting on his younger brother’s early days, Chris Jones says that he “never would have dreamed” that Jamey Jones would make a career out of poetry. Nonetheless, he did say that in retrospect, one early passion stands out.
“All he wanted to do was skate,” said Chris Jones of his brother. “He always had an expressive side, and that came through in his skateboarding,” he said. “He was passionate about that.”
As for Jamey Jones’ earlier scholastic life, the older Jones says that although his brother “probably wasn’t the best student in school,” his grades improved when “he discovered his passion, which was language.”
Whether their son was on a skateboard or writing poems in his notebook, Llisa Jones said that her parents always remained supportive.
“[Our parents] didn’t always understand [Jamey’s] poetry, but I know that somewhere in this universe they are extremely proud of him and happy that he has found and embraced his calling to write.”
Referring to his brother’s newfound prominence as a nationally recognized poet, Chris Jones said that he is in awe of his younger brother.
“This is the fruit of his labor,” said the older brother. “He sacrificed a lot to make this happen, but it’s paying off.”
Throughout his brother’s poetry, Chris Jones says that he can see his parents throughout his work.
“I see our parents’ compassion and love for their fellow man [in Jamey Jones’ poetry],” he said. “I also see someone taking time to enjoy what’s around you. Being able to look out the window and seeing what’s around you and being thankful for the day that God gave you. That’s where I see our parents’ influence.”
Lineage of the Poet
While Chris Jones sees the influence of his parents in his brother’s close attention to small details, poet and novelist Barbara Henning sees this same focus, but from a different angle.
Henning, an accomplished poet and novelist who serves as the Professor Emerita at Long Island University, said that Jones’ work is “in the tradition of the New York School of writers who have an intimate lyrical voice in response to the ordinary events of daily life, helping us see the extraordinary in the ordinary. In that sense his book is unique.”
Anne Waldman agreed. Jamey Jones is “a gifted writer, completely dedicated to the craft and to the experimental poetics of the New American Poetry and beyond,” said Waldman.
Waldman currently serves as the Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. Waldman learned of Jamey Jones’ work while she was serving as a visiting professor at Long Island University in New York. Waldman is often linked with both the Beat Generation and the group of avant-garde artists that made up the New York School of poetry.
To Waldman, what stands out about Jones’ poetry is his special attention to detail. With Jones’ “roots in the South, [he has a] sense of microcosm and macrocosm in America. His attention to the ‘local’ is what makes Jones stand out from his peers, as well as his willingness to expose his vulnerability and sensitivity.”
Having published dozens of books, edited numerous anthologies, earned several awards, and seen her work translated into several languages, Anne Waldman is arguably one of the most influential poets alive.
Describing her impressions of “Blue Rain Morning,” Waldman said that Jamey Jones’ poetry is “extremely engaging and captures the sense of a remarkably engaged person.” Waldman said that Jones’ poetry “finds miracles in ordinary things…the language and moves in the work are always interesting.”
In 1974, Anne Waldman co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with her “spiritual husband” Allen Ginsberg on the campus of Naropa University.
One of Jones’ greatest influences was poet Allen Ginsberg. In an important part of his artistic journey, Jones traveled to Naropa University for the opportunity to study under Ginsberg.
In 1992, Jones borrowed money for tuition and traveled to Colorado to participate in Naropa’s Summer Writers Program, which is part of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics where Ginsberg taught.
“He was larger than life to me, a lion,” Jones said of the famed poet of the Beat Generation.
“As a teacher, [Ginsberg] was quite critical and thorough. He pulled no punches, but was at the same time very supportive…incredibly kind and generous,” said Jones.
After returning from Naropa, Jones wrote an article about his experience at the Summer Writers Program and sent a copy to Ginsberg. Not long afterwards, Ginsberg sent him a letter in reply.
In his letter to Jones, Ginsberg wrote, “I’m happy you found local use for Naropa, maybe exactly the right use. And so it encourages me and others to go on doing work there with little pay but great rewards in realizing the real is applicable and really appreciated.”
Reflecting on his experience at Naropa, Jones said “since that time I’ve had the good fortune to have met most of my favorite writers, and have befriended a few,” said Jones. “But I’ve never again felt the way I felt upon meeting Ginsberg.”
Jones’ attention to “local use,” to use Ginsberg’s term, is a substantial part of his work as a poet in the public sphere. Since this experience, Jones has originated and led numerous poetry workshops in now-defunct coffee shops and bookstores. He brought prominent poets such as Bernadette Mayer, David Brinks, Eleni Sikelianos, Joel Dailey and others to Pensacola to lead these creative workshops and expose local poets to the broader world of poetry.
Through a job at the West Florida Public Library, Jones was also instrumental in the creation of his own summer poetry workshop for teenagers, again making local use for what he learned from Ginsberg at Naropa.
As a language arts teacher at Ferry Pass Middle School, Jones continued with his public service by beginning The Dream Flag Project, a national project inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes that uses Buddhist-style prayer flags to give children an outlet to express their dreams for a positive future.
Although Jones no longer leads this artistic venture, The Dream Flag Project continues at Ferry Pass Middle School to this day.
After teaching for three years at Ferry Pass, Jones saw an ad in a poetry newsletter for a graduate program in New York City. The program would provide a Master in Fine Arts degree in poetry and was headed by renowned New York School poet Lewis Warsh, a personal hero of Jones.
“I applied to Long Island University for the opportunity to study with Lewis Warsh, a writer whose work I’d long treasured,” said Jones about his decision to return to school.
The decision to return to college is difficult for many people, especially considering tuition and the cost of living for a student living in New York City. This choice is especially difficult for those who want to study in the humanities.
Even under the best economic circumstances, the choice to devote one’s life to poetry is tantamount to taking a vow of poverty. Despite this knowledge, or in spite of this reality, Jones put his livelihood on the line, applied and was accepted into Long Island University (LIU).
To go to LIU, Jones had to leave a secure teaching job, mortgage his house and go into debt for a chance to work with his heroes. While certainly a risky move, and despite the advice of many of his colleagues, for Jones there was little choice. Jones began his studies in the fall of 2008.
“Jamey came to the MFA program fully formed as a poet and I like to think he kept getting better,” said Lewis Warsh. While working with Jones as a student, Warsh had the opportunity to see several of the poems that would make up “Blue Rain Morning” in their early stages.
Warsh, who was the editor of the influential New York poetry journal “Angel Hair,” as well as the author of numerous books, sees Jones’ writing in the experimental tradition of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and French poets such as Andre Breton and Apollinaire.
In New York, Jones had the opportunity to meet, socialize and work with many of the major living influences on his life. He studied with great poets that he used to read while in Pensacola. He interned for publishing houses that he had respected for years. This last spring, Jones completed the requirements for his degree and graduated with an MFA in Poetry.
With the publication of his most recent book, Jones’ gamble paid off. “Blue Rain Morning” is the product of those years of study, and a lifetime of dedication to poetry.
After working closely with Jones over the past three years, Warsh describes the poetry in “Blue Rain Morning” as mature and sophisticated. “This book deserves much attention.”
Blue Rain Morning
For Jones, especially in this book, location is a key factor that drives the poetry. According to Warsh, Jones “managed to catch the experience of being in two places at once—Pensacola and New York.
Warsh, who worked with Jones and his publishers to set up the New York release event for “Blue Rain Morning,” now clearly associates Jones’ poetry with the New York School of poetry.
According to Warsh, Jones’ book “expands on the poetics of this particular strand of American poetry and points forward into the future.”
Barbara Henning described Jones as “a dedicated poet, to his writing and the community of poets.”
David Baulch of UWF points to one poem (“Elsewhere in the Universe”) as a specific moment in which Jones uses his skills to clarify the world around him by paying attention to the minutest detail. In this instance a leaf falling from a tree opens up new possibilities to understand New York, nature, and the desperate desire to slow down and notice the natural world, even among the busy traffic and the immense skyscrapers.
“New York isn’t a city here, it is a kind of consciousness the speaker feels almost paralyzed by,” Baulch remarked. In one of the busiest and most crowded cities on Earth, it is the poet—and possibly the Pensacolian—that would find time to notice the smallest thing, to search out nature in even the most urban of all settings.
“I find that idea a relief from the pace I associate with New York City,” says Baulch.
And maybe that is the only way a Pensacola poet can interpret the cultural mecca of the world, with an eye that focuses on the minutia and a pen to record that beauty in detail.
While Jones says that “Blue Rain Morning” is a book about New York—specifically Brooklyn— the book is simultaneously about his hometown of Pensacola.
“Pensacola’s so much a part of who I am, that it naturally, as far as I’m concerned, is everywhere in the book,” said Jones. “It’s a Pensacolian’s New York book. ‘Blue Rain Morning’ is a local book to [both] Pensacola and New York.”
“In poetry, such wonders are possible. Are we vast? Of course we are! And so is Pensacola, and New York,” says Jones.
“It’s the calm resolve that enabled me to take in New York. But specifically, the book reflects my process of acclimating to the city—me, a Pensacolian through and through.”
Fresh from a highly anticipated Brooklyn release party for “Blue Rain Morning,” Jamey Jones’ May 13 reading at Artel Gallery promises to be as much a coming-out party as it is a coming home party.
For Jones, this moment has been in the works for a long time. As Jones gains his well-deserved academic and national attention, Pensacola finds itself immortalized in the innovative schools of avant-garde poetry. As a result, Pensacola’s unofficial poet laureate finally gets his recognition for a life devoted to public service—all in the name of poetry.
Scott Satterwhite is a freelance writer based in Pensacola, where he teaches English at the University of West Florida and College Prep Writing at Pensacola State College. He is the father of two children and is often late on his deadlines.