An Interview with Poet Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown's first collection of poetry, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the 2009 American Book Award. Terrance Hayes notes, "Please is saturated with an artful passion that gives fire to Jericho Brown's elegies and pathos to his odes. This is the poetry of bloodship: the meaning of family, of love, of sexuality; the resonances of pain and the possibilities of redemption. No wonder there are so many people naming and being named here. No wonder Jericho Brown and his divas and misfits, his tricksters and innocents call out and answer to 'a please that sounds like music.' Intimate, honest, immediate— I could never say all I love about this book...." Brown is currently working on his second collection of poetry, The New Testament. He is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, and a Whiting Writer's Award. He was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Hurston Wright Poetry Prize. Jericho Brown grew up in Louisiana and worked as a speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before earning a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He also holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. He is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.
How does prayer function in relation to your poems?
JB: I’ll say this—poetry is incantatory. Part of the way that we know what’s in a poem is that, in spite of the fact that it's on the page, we still hear it. There’s something about that that I think is a lot like any conversation with God. If there is a God, and we go to that God in prayer, we go with an understanding that in spite of that presence not being one we can physically feel, we still believe it’s there, and I think that poetry is meant to do the same thing. Prayer is how we make our presence known to God, and it’s also how we know God's presence. I think poetry somehow is a lot like that, there is a presence created through the poem, right?
This is part of what I was trying to get at today when I was talking about experience and how imagination is still a part of experience. The wonderful thing about reading is that when you’re reading something that's really really good you feel like something happened to you, and you feel like you did something. And the truth is, all you did is this (pretends to flip through a book). If there was a camera to show what you did, there would only be you holding a book, right? But the truth is that that’s not how you feel when it's over, you feel like you went somewhere and you experienced something and you did something and you were in a place other than the world you regularly live in. And I think that’s the power of prayer, it transports us, and it is transformative. So, I think of poetry in that same way.
Would you say that poetry exists within God, or God within poetry, or neither?
I guess both. I guess I hadn't thought about it in that way. These days, when I think about God, I think about the fact that we all have souls and yet there’s only one soul. We sort of share a soul. And that shared soul, that is God. That is the thing that good writing and good art and all the arts tap into. It’s that thing that we share. I don’t like thinking about that in the same way that some people talk about the universal... or the universality... because I don’t think that it’s a kind of universality. It’s something very different than that. There’s something about universality that bothers me because I don’t understand the meaning of that word. Or, sometimes, I find myself getting offended by the meanings of that word. But I do understand that it is possible for us to have something greater within us than in the world. That there’s a thing in us that we sort of share and we recognize in one another.
Can you talk about the title of your forthcoming book, The New Testament?
As with Please, I’m interested in sort of exploiting words for all that I can. Thinking about it in terms of a second book and so therefore ‘New’, ‘Testament’ being part of what poems are. [Poems] are a testament, or what poets do to testify in a way. But also thinking in terms of the subject matter of the book, or the thing that I hope begins to bind the book, and that being these allusions that are made to certain Bible scriptures. I think there are also some other meanings that exist for me when I think of "The New Testament." The title can be seen in several ways. When I was writing those poems I thought a lot about the fact that when I die—if anyone ever reads my poems after I’m dead—what I will have been is a poet of the early 21st century. And so I was sort of like, if you’re in a new century, what do those poems sound like? So what is "The New Testament for 21," and how is it different than the "Testament of 20"?
It also, I think, has a lot to do with questions I have about race. The fiction writer Matt Johnson talked about this in a way that I think helped me with something I've been grappling with. He just gave a reading at Emory a couple of days ago. I understand that, yes, race is a construction and it is not real, and yet, ethnicity is real. Culture is real. So when people start saying, ‘I can’t see race, I can’t see color’ or when people start talking about a post-racial society, something about that scares me. Because what that translates to, so many times, is an erasure of....your culture and the contribution that your culture has made to this nation of so many cultures. So that’s another thing that I was thinking about. So many people are thinking about race in these very different ways and race in terms of there not being any race, and what does that mean, and trying to answer those questions for myself. Part of what I do in the book is I try to discuss the word ‘brother’ and how the word ‘brother’ has a certain weight among black people. I mean, there really was a time when black people would call each other brother and sister, even if they didn’t know each other. So, trying to figure out where that time went and whether or not it can somehow be recovered.
Have you noticed any subconscious changes you have made in your writing, and craft, that you are now becoming aware of since publishing Please?
Yeah, well, I’ll say this: I became very interested in poems that do not return to their beginnings, in an individual way. So that a poem can sort of open up, and become more and more open as you read the poem, and somehow you feel that you are inside the poem. You feel like you are inside a single poem, and yet it has a different kind of leap or different kinds of transformations within the poem where you see you are talking about different things. An example of that would be a poem I wrote, a longer poem, called "The Interrogation." The section called "Fairy Tale" begins with two lovers in a bedroom, but then ends with a scene of a unicorn. So how do I get to the unicorn? There are like all these little things and so I never return to the two lovers in the bed. There are sort of these things that lead into these other things, and how do I make that a part of one? And I think that was something I saw myself attempting to do over and over again and sort of noticed that I was doing it. I am very attracted to it in other peoples’ writing, but I didn’t set out to do that thing.
I also was trying to write in a longer line. But I don’t think that was conscious either, I think that was either unconscious or subconscious. Many of the poems in Please are somewhere in between a three and a four beat line, there’s exceptions, but I think that in this book there is still that line but it is probably much more half-and-half. I think I have some five and six, maybe even seven.
I never know how conscious or unconscious form is. This book feels, to me, much more formal. All of the sonnet-like poems in the first book—I think I was totally aware of as something I could play with when I was writing the first book but not to the point of...when I look at that book now and I see how many fourteen line poems there are and how many fifteen to thirteen line poems there are. Now I look at this book, and that wasn’t something I set out to do directly. They seem to me much more formal, and in many ways, much more subtle. But that was probably more conscious. I really wanted to write a book where I became better at ending poems, which I’m still learning how to do.
How did you come to deliver your poems in the manner that you do?
That's a hard question to answer. Ultimately, what I try to do is read the poem as I heard the poem when I was writing it. I try to give off whatever I was excited about when I was at the computer typing it. In terms of what I do, part of whatever happens, happens because I do it all the time. I am fortunate enough for people to ask me to give readings. I like giving readings, I like meeting young people and I like knowing what’s going on and hanging out with poets. Because I like doing that, I get to read my poems over and over again.
I think a lot of it has to do with growing up in the Black church and having one of the best pastors ever, the reverend Harry Blake, and watching him every Sunday and being in awe of his delivery. But I think part of it also has to do with... you know, for a while I did slam and spoken word stuff. I’m really taken by that. But I never want an audience to wonder whether or not they enjoyed the poem because of the way I delivered the poem. I want them to feel the poem as written, as it is on the page, as deadpan as I can. But the problem with that is that I don’t feel deadpan when I’m writing the poem. It's hard to do, it's like half of each.
How does it feel to be a younger poet?
I do wish there wasn’t an expectation that I produce poems for professional reasons. Like, tenure, or associate professor, or full professor. I would love to be a poet in a world where I could just see what happened if I didn’t have those pressures. I also wish readers were a little bit kinder to poets. Maybe it's just me, it could just be my reading of it, but I have been asked when my next book is coming out in a way that’s sort of like ‘why haven't you written another book yet?’ I feel like, ‘How many sonnets did Shakespeare write? Go read those, since you’re looking for something to read.’ There’s something about that I don’t like. You should be able to get better, but I feel like a lot of the poets of my generation are wearing themselves out early and that's why they’re so bad by the time they’re like forty-five.
The other thing is that we are fighting to be writers in a world where the mortality rates are so different. We may have the right medications where we aren’t killing ourselves like Sylvia Plath, and medical sciences are in place so we are living longer... so I don't know what the expiration date is on making the magic happen. But I also don’t like for the magic to be rushed, in any way. I think if there’s any opportunity for the artist not to rush it... you know who I really admire? My really good friend Ilya (Kaminsky). He could have had a book a long time ago but he wants it to be right. It’s the kind of thing where we wish we had that kind of freedom. I read an article, I think it was in the Huffington Post, it said something like ‘If a writer doesn't have three books in ten years they’re irrelevant.” What kind of bull is that? It’s very disconcerting, very strange, very weird. But a lot of that comes from a lot of different things. People want to be part of the conversation, and I think that’s part of everyone's desire. But I also think it's important to be part of the conversation with your best self and with your best work.
So I’m weary about people who come out with books every year. But some people write all the time. But that’s not like me. I write a poem and I just pore over it for weeks and I don’t write another poem and I’m busy working on one poem. Some people write all the time, and I think that’s fine. I don’t think that just because you have a book every year means that you put out a bad book. But I think there is something about it that is scary, like: Beware...(laughs).
How do you feel about workshops and MFA programs?
I believe in them because I am a product of them. So many people are going to get MFA’s and are never writing again, and that’s a lot of money, and I just don’t understand. There are so many people I got my MFA with who just graduated and never wrote again. And my PhD, for that matter. And so, if that’s how you want to live your life that's fine, but that’s just so weird to me that you wouldn't at least still be making the attempt. But what do I know? People go to MFA’s for different reasons. Some people go on like a three-year trip after college...some people go and get an MFA because they have a huge appreciation for literature and don’t want to go get a degree as a critic or as a scholar. But it’s very odd.
I would say that there are too many programs, and yet I didn't get my MFA from one of these big schools. But I had great teaching there—from John Gery and Kay Murphy—so I can’t say that because I’m sitting here. Maybe the programs should be more selective about their students, but I know that I wasn’t a great writer when I got into a MFA program. So I don’t know. There’s something going on. This whole AWP selling out (tickets) every year, that’s crazy! What is AWP selling out for? That’s so weird to me. There’s something so recyclable about it all, just like making literature for other people who make literature. I don’t understand that. I guess it’s easy for me to say because I did become a person who ended up making literature. It is sincerely hard to be critical of a system that you are so entrenched in, and a part of, and I am a part of that. I teach at an undergraduate program in Creative Writing. And that is something I’m not sure I believe in. I’m not sure if people should be majoring in Creative Writing as undergrads. Because so many of those students are not going on to MFA programs, they’re not going on to be better writers... they’re lacking in the ability to read literature but they want to write literature. So there are questions, and maybe it’s just late (at night).
Maybe these MFA programs come up for the wrong reasons, you know? They’re a huge money maker for institutions and universities. People spend all kinds of money to get an MFA, they take out loans to get an MFA. But I don’t understand it, I just don’t get it, I don’t think people do the same thing with other arts...in the same way they do with Creative Writing. I’m sure it does happen in other arts. I’m sure people get an MFA in painting and never paint again. But something makes me believe that it happens less so, a lot less so. I also think, and I don’t know, in the performing arts, for instance. I don’t think people are getting their degrees only for that community. They get their degrees and they try to make creations that are a gift to the rest of the world and to their community. Whereas so many of my peers get their degrees and then they create stuff for other writers only. I would just be interested in people who want to write for people who want to read.
Do you think MFA programs are more accepting towards people who do not treat writing as a lifelong pursuit?
Well, I think, there are a lot of MFA programs in this country who are accepting everyone who applies. It’s weird, if we didn’t have MFA programs in the country would my book be in a fifth or sixth printing? If there weren’t teachers at all of these MFA programs assigning my book for people to read? So what do I look like, complaining about MFA programs? And yet, I know that there are programs where there’s no rigor involved, no real belief that any of those students are going to actually change the face of literature.
Your poems in The New Testament seem more comfortable in themselves and move more confidently.
I feel like I’m a better poet. But I feel like the attempt in the second book is to open up and be much more about the world. I probably know more about how to make a poem, and I probably have more ideas than I did before about a single poem as its own object, so sure.
For me, whenever I’m writing the poem, I have that moment where I feel like I’m doing everything that I could be possibly doing, and I feel like I’m on top of that power I have as a poet. But then, right after that, I feel like I should have done better or that I could do better. So I’m always trying to out-do myself, out-pace myself.