Patricia Spears Jones, adjunct associate professor of English and the newly named New York State Poet, is teaching poetry to a student body that Jones believes can deeply — now more than ever — benefit from the power of the lyrical verse.
“I’m trying to give people a way to have a respite from a lot of the contention in the air,” said Jones, who is teaching advanced poetry writing this fall.
Jones has been writing poetry since she was a 12-year-old girl growing up in Forrest City, Arkansas. Even then, she was an avid reader who checked out every book she could at her junior high school's library. When her mother brought home a copy of a magazine one day in 1962, Jones didn’t just read it, she was moved to interpret a photo of then-president John F. Kennedy walking on the beach, translating it into verse. “He was very handsome, and I wrote a poem about it,” she said. “I realized years later that I’d never seen a beach, let alone walked one. So how the heck did I know? But I now realize [writing that poem] was one of those moments where I got to use [my] imagination.”
Though the poem is long lost, it catapulted Jones into believing in the power of creativity — a belief that followed her when she attended Rhodes College, outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Although she enrolled intending to become an attorney, her college crowd was an eclectic mix of artists. The C-plus student said what she learned while in school about the arts was as important as what she learned about academics in the classroom — it became the basis of her life.
In 1974, a year after graduating, Jones moved to New York City’s Lower East Side. “I was downtown, and ‘downtown’ meant theatre. Jazz musicians also played downtown, so I would go to performances. I hung out at Poetry Project of St. Mark’s Church and learned a lot about Latin culture there,” said Jones of her first years after the move. “Some places welcome you with open arms. Some places kick your ass. New York welcomed me, and I was ready for it.”
This immersion into different cultures and artistic expressions was more than enriching for Jones’ life; it also became the fuel behind her work. A prominent figure in New York City’s poetry community, she was the first African American program coordinator of the Poetry Project, from 1984 to 1986. Much of Jones’ writing centers around New York City, its people, and its quirks. She is the author of six books of poetry, including her 1995 debut, The Weather That Kills, A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems (2015), and this year’s The Beloved Community. She also co-edited the 1978 anthology Ordinary Women: Poems of New York City Women.
“The New York of the 1970s is not the New York of today,” she said while reflecting on writing about a city that has undergone such extreme shifts during her years in it. “But because we all live in some place, how we regard it, what happens in it, what we bring to it or take away from it will change as we change.”
In all of those years as a prolific poet, like many New York artists, Jones had to support herself financially through what she calls “regular jobs.” These included working for arts organizations and at the Samuel French bookstore. “[I did] whatever I could do to pay the rent and have a little bit of money for fun and games.”
After receiving her MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 1992, Jones decided to become a writing professor. She has taught at Parsons, LaGuardia Community College, and now Barnard, which she considers “an amazing space for thinking and for young women and older people who really care about women’s expression.”
“I try to get students as many ways to enter into poetry as they possibly can. I came up with a group of readings so they can see how a poet creates work — not just one or two poems but a full collection — and to get a sense of somebody’s process as they explore language,” said Jones of her teaching methodology. “I talk about the importance of craft but, more importantly, that [students] really explore their own ideas and voice.”
Beyond her work this year at Barnard, Jones — who is the 1994 recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts — is about to embark on a teaching experience unlike any she’s had: educating an entire state about the power of poetry. Last summer, she received an email informing her that she would receive the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poetry and become the New York State Poet for 2023-25. Jones immediately believed it was spam, but a friend, who was also a juror, confirmed it was real. In the position, Jones received a $10,000 honorarium and will spend two years traveling the state and doing readings.
"It’s such a great honor. I feel like I’m the perfect person, as I’m one the last of the migration people, having come to New York in 1974, a time when you actually could [be whatever you wanted] because there were all these spaces that were open to all kinds of people,” said Jones. “I think I have something important, interesting to say, in this world as a poet, and I have kept at it. I’ve done all these things in service to the necessity of Black women’s voices in American culture. I’m not Toni Morrison or June Jordan, but I got my place.”