In retrospect, Parneshia Jones noted, it seems almost inevitable that she would spend her adult life surrounded by books. “Publishing was the only choice,” she said while taking a break from staffing Northwestern University Press’s booth at the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s Book Fair in January. “I caught the book-making juju pretty early.”
Describing herself as a lifelong “voracious reader” who still displays the original library card she obtained at age five on a bookcase, Jones recalled weekly trips to the Evanston, Ill., public library with her mother, a senior business analyst at Kraft Foods, and her brothers. (Her father was a disaster recovery specialist.) “I loved getting lost among the stacks,” she explained, “We’d take home loads of books. I always say I grew up in my mother’s kitchen and in the library.”
Jones didn’t just catch the book-making juju early: she also caught the poetry bug as a child. In sixth grade, she composed her first poem, about her younger brother. Mrs. Hecker, a teacher whom Jones remembers reciting poems by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and “all the great poets,” liked Jones’s work so much that she asked her to read it to the class “repeatedly.” It may have been Jones’s first stab at writing poetry, but it would not be her last: Milkweed Editions published her debut collection of poems, Vessel, in 2015, and she is currently working on a compilation of poems about her deceased older brother.
While a student at Chicago State University, majoring in English and “in the early stages of claiming to be a poet,” Jones said, she studied under several writers who’d been active in Chicago’s black arts movement that flourished between 1965 and 1975. Among those teachers was Gwendolyn Brooks, who went over three of Jones’s poems with her—an interaction that she still marvels about in the retelling almost two decades later. And, Jones emphasized, Donda West’s seminar on African-American literature changed her life. “Here are people who look like me, who are in these anthologies and books and I am reading their works,” Jones said. “I really credit [the seminar] for introducing me to a wider scope of literature.”
Another teacher, poet Haki R. Madhubuti, introduced Jones to the industry by hiring her in 2000 to intern for almost two years at the offices of his independent African-American house Third World Press. When Jones “blindly sent” her résumé to Northwestern University in Evanston her senior year, not realizing at the time that the university had a press, she received a phone call asking her to interview for the position of marketing assistant at NUP.
Hired in February 2003, four months before her college graduation, Jones worked her way up the ranks to sales manager. Jones also became NUP’s de facto poetry editor before being formally named to the post in 2012.
“At some point,” NUP’s marketing and sales director, J.D. Wilson recalled, “she began also to wear an acquisitions hat here.” Very soon afterward, African-American poetry, a subject of particular interest to Jones, became “a mainstay of NUP’s list,” Wilson said.
With Jones at the helm, NUP’s African-American poetry list has brought prestige to the press, Wilson noted, pointing to a 2011 National Book Award for Jones’s first acquisition, Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split. This spring, NUP is publishing three collections acquired by Jones: Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith, City of Bones by Kwame Dawes, and a collection of several dozen African-American poets’ responses to modernist artist Romare Bearden’s paintings and collages celebrating the African-American experience, entitled Bearden’s Odyssey.
Though Jones has acquired books by both male and female poets, and some who are not African-American—such as Karl Kirchwey, whose collection Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems will be published this fall—she acknowledged that her goal is to build “a space for the black woman poet’s voice” at NUP. But what is just as important to her is to persuade those “who think they can’t read poetry” or “have been turned off to poetry” to “give it a shot” and read a poem or an entire collection.
“There’s poetry for every kind of person,” Jones said. “For instance, I love poetry that tells a story. I tell people, if you love stories, you can love poetry.” After all, she said, when the world is going through “the greatest heartbreak,” it’s the poets “who commemorate the world’s feeling about that particular moment.”
Getting to Know Parneshia Jones
Current title: Northwestern University Press sales and community outreach manager and poetry editor for NUP’s TriQuarterly Books imprint.
Higher education: Chicago State University, B.A. in English Literature; Spalding University, M.F.A.; and Yale University’s Publishing Program
Favorite books: Roads, Where There Are No Roads by Angela Jackson; Black Movie by Danez Smith; The No Hellos Diet by Sam Pink; Map: Collected and LastPoems by Wislawa Szymborska; Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo (bless his soul); Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith.