The following interview appears in the 2014-2015 Edition of R2 and was conducted by Patrick Huang.
Jericho Brown is a poet whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Best American Poetry, and Nikki Giovanni’s 100 Best African American Poems. A native of Shreeport, Louisiana, Brown worked as a speechwriter for New Orleans Mayor Marc Murial before receiving his Ph. D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. His first poetry collection, Please, won the 2009 American Book Award. His second and most recently published collection, The New Testament, was named a “Best Book of 2014” by Library Journal. Brown currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches creative writing at Emory University.
Before earning your Ph. D. in literature and creative writing, you worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans. How has your work in speechwriting influenced your poetry?
If anything, poetry was always an escape from speechwriting in those days. Writing a speech, I sat down knowing the point. My job was to stay on message. The joy for me of writing a poem is discovery. When I’m working well, I’m learning things and asking questions that speeches could never accommodate. The joy of writing poetry is not knowing the point but following the music of language until I arrive at something that engenders in me not just knowledge but also a feeling of wonder.
What does poetry, as a platform for personal expression, offer to you that other literary forms do not?
The poem mirrors the life of the believer, mirrors the process of prayer. For instance, line breaks have everything to do with doubt. Poetry is so different from prose because it’s infused with doubt. At the moment of a line break, even for a millisecond, you’re thrust into doubt. Only faith that the next line will land us on solid ground keeps us breathing. This recognition of our breathing is sheer acknowledgement of the limitless value of our lives. Yes, poems do carry meaning, but what attracts us to them is how well they remind us of our own breath.
In your most recent collection, The New Testament, you wrote in one of your poems, “Hustle”: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Overall, your work seems to revolve around issues of sexuality, love, violence, masculinity, family, spirituality, mortality, and race (among other things, of course). When someone attempts to categorize you exclusively as a “homosexual” or a “gym rat” or a “Southern black man” or a “religious’ poet,” etc. (while misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the other parts of your identity), how do you resist such curtailment or oversimplification of your identity?
Well, I don’t exactly “resist” any identifiers because I don’t automatically think of it as “curtailment” or “oversimplification.” So yes, the parenthetical phrase in your question is of utmost importance.
I know others think that Southern is only Southern and that black is only black and that gay is only gay, but I know those terms to be expansive and expanding.
Yes, I’m bothered when people use those terms to limit and when people see them as limiting. All that is to say that it’s a matter of knowing who is making use of the term and to what end they are using it. (I actually wish I were a “gym rat,” because I imagine that if I were I’d be a lot finer and a lot less self-conscious about how I look physically. Still, I don’t assume that the gym rats I meet aren’t poets because I know poets who love to workout like Kyle Dargan and John Murillo.) I don’t see anything wrong with people calling me black so long as I know they do that with the knowledge of there existing in this world George Washington Carver and Dominique Dawes and the poet and birdwatcher Sean Hill. And any attention to the history of art would show that being called gay might very well be the best compliment of all time.
Also...I knew Jorie Graham and Mark Strand were white the first time I read books by them. I knew Strand was (supposed to be whatever we call) straight. I knew Graham was born in New York and raised in Italy. I don’t know these poets’ relationship to exercise. And as far as I can tell, I never held any of this against any of them. People are under this weird impression that when we read poets I love like Plath and Lowell and Ashbery that we don’t know we’re reading white people. Well, I’m not under that impression. They are white. And as far as I can tell, they don’t want to be anything other than white and have no reason to be o ended by the fact that I know they are white. I want that same thing for black gay Southern gym rat poets. Know it and love me! Not “know it and love me anyway.” Not “know it and love me in spite of.” Not “know it and think it’s a shame when he makes use of it in his poems.” I want people to pick up my books and read and say, “Damn, he did a great thing here!” And I want them to accept the fact that me doing that great thing is informed by a tradition that is not only straight, white, fat, and New Englander.
Like every other poet on the planet, I pull from the elements of my life in order to make my poems. My black life matters.
But your question, though, was how do I resist the relentless pigeonholing that goes on. My answer is that I try to answer questions like this one as honestly as I know how with the hope that people see the answer and at least begin to think about the compulsory heteronormative whiteness that reigns over so much of our lives. Other than that, I just try to write my ass o and let a bunch of jealous bitches su er. I’m not foolish enough to think I’m everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a damn shame if I’m offering the flavor you need and you’re looking for socially constructed excuses not to quench your own thirst all because of my author photo.
A lot of us (Rice folks) are/were intrigued by your slow, wave-like, almost incantatory-sounding reading style. Have you always read this way—or is this style one that you developed over the years? Do you think the rhythm of your delivery will continue to evolve?
I don’t think of myself as a performer, so I haven’t monitored the evolution of the way I deliver a poem. I imagine it has changed and will continue to do so without me knowing. I mostly try to put myself in the mindset that I was in when writing the poem. If I can get to that mindset, I can slow down and enjoy the music of language while reading in front of people just as I did when I was writing alone.
The only other thing I can add is that I know what I want from a poetry reading, so I probably try to give just that.
You possess a strong connection to music, as evidenced in your first collection, Please, which features tributes to late 60s and 70s soul icons such as Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton, and Janis Joplin. Can you tell us a bit about the emotional connection you feel with when listening to these particular artists and how they inspire your poems? Are there artists in later decades—perhaps even in the 2000s and onwards—that inspire you in any similar ways?
Hmm...I think it’s a good idea to enjoy as much as you can of whatever it is you enjoy. I like to hear people sing. I’m particularly attracted to singers who at first seem to have limited talent but figure ways through their performances to make that talent go a long way toward emotional impact. So I like Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough—which is as about as recent as I go lately—because it seems to me an album about a voice in recovery. And I like Gladys Knight because she’s simply never thought of lack of range as a limitation in spite of having people like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle as her contemporaries.
You once wrote that you “strive to be clear—not obvious.” What advice would you give to students of poetry (or writing in general) to help them improve the clarity of their work?
Being circuitous doesn’t equal sounding wise. What you know sounds like knowledge, so be as exact about it as possible in as many ways as you can.
Professor Amber Dermont frequently admonishes her students to “serve the story” (or poem) rather than one’s ego when writing. While this task might seem simple and obvious, it can sometimes be a di cult problem that many writers don’t even realize they are failing to address/tackle. How do you teach, train, and/or force your ego to stay away from your serving the poem?
All of this is a matter of training oneself to become more and more vulnerable to his or her work. My trouble in life has been that I’m not willing to become vulnerable to other people, so maybe that makes it easier for me to be vulnerable to my poems. I don’t know. I do know that real writing takes real risk—the willingness to lose time and reputation. Once your body has been compromised or once you lose your parents or once you understand that, yes, you are going to die, maybe then it’s easier to see time and reputation through a lens more conducive to that of a writer. As it is, we’re all trained to see the world through the lens of gain after gain without any acceptance for the fact that, in reality, no gain is made without some series of losses.
If you had to convince a young reader who claims that she or he doesn’t appreciate poetry as a literary form, how would you go about cultivating a new perspective in her/his mind?
I think that’s as simple as reminding people that poetry is art. When we drive with the car radio playing, we hear song after song without paying any particular attention. After a few songs play, a song we love comes on, and we turn up the volume and turn our car seats into miniature dance floors. Nothing about this experience leads us to believe that we don’t like music. We pass by visual art—sculptures, paintings—all day without noticing. Every once in a while, though, we come upon a piece of art that, for whatever reason, makes us stare in wonder. That experience doesn’t leave us thinking that we want the walls of our homes to remain as bare as they are the day we move in. I think we understand and come to love more poetry the more we put ourselves in a position that poetry can do its work on us. We make ourselves available to music and visual art. We can make ourselves available to poetry and cast aside what of it doesn’t feed us while expecting to encounter what does.
Go to readings. Or just watch them on YouTube for heaven’s sake. Go to bookstores. Pick up books, and put them down if you don’t like them. I believe that what we think we love today might lead us back to some of those books we put down so quickly yesterday. But we have to be where the poetry is. If any one art enhances your life, then making yourself available to any other art is worth it.