Jericho Brown is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection is The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019). His poems have appeared in Buzzfeed, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, Tin House, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.
A note from Darshita Rjanikant Jain: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition is a deeply personal book, intimately conversational. Brown seems to be in conversation with himself, with the people in his life, with the people reading the book. Like a whisper in the night that leaves you with goosebumps; these are thoughts you do not confront unless you have to. These are poems of fatherhood, legacies, blackness, queerness, and trauma. These are thoughts that keep you up at night.
Darshita Rajanikant Jain: Hi, Jericho. I have to begin by saying how big a fan I am of your work. And The Tradition. Thank you for this book.
Jericho Brown: Aw, thank you for saying that! This book was special.
DRJ: There is a lot of tension in The New Testament. It exists in The Tradition, but I can also feel this sense of letting go. Feeling without editing. Letting yourself just be. Was that intentional?
JB: It was. One of the first things I really worked hard on in the last book was to achieve a certain kind of subtlety. I am deeply attracted to subtlety—you know when there is a sense of something sneaking up on you from behind? I absolutely love that! I love when that happens in poetry, and to be honest, I have realised I can manage to do that with my poetry. I am good at that. When that last line just takes your breath away.
But while working on this book, I kept thinking, if I could do the opposite of that, I really want to do that. You know that well crafted rant? How do you craft a grand, decorative, poetic rant? How do you wield the poetics of a direct statement? I am in a habit of writing subtle endings. But for this book I wanted to subvert that obvious ending. Whatever that may be. I wanted to rant, not hold myself in. But I also wanted to craft that rant.
DRJ: Crafting a rant, I love that. Did you find a trick to doing that?
JB: To be honest, I was working a lot on the penultimate lines. How to say something in the penultimate line and say its exact opposite in the last line. That is what I was working on in The Tradition. I don’t know if you noticed that or not.
DRJ: I did. I noticed that in “Hero”:
Gratitude is black –
followed by Black as a hero returning from war to a country that banked on his death.
Thank god. It can’t get darker than that.
JB: Exactly. You’ll never see it coming, but also organic.
DRJ: What struck me was also how almost every poem is a love poem. It is a gentle reminder. A knock on the door. They don’t barge in, barrels up. Is that a deliberate thing? I believe you need gentleness to survive. Does this gentleness come through writing for you? Or through surviving?
JB: The answer to that question actually lies in my personal life. You see, as a person I am quite capable of malice. I know that about myself. I am capable of malice and violence. I am generally, on a day-to-day basis, dealing with managing rage. I know I am capable to physical violence if I let loose. But this is not how you live your life, you know? I can’t let these things take over me. I am aware that they can. But if I let them, I know they might end up consuming my entire life.
What I am doing, as a process of living and writing, is to I remind myself to find tenderness. Everyday. I write tenderness, I diligently look for it. I don’t want to be consumed by rage, I don’t want to write an angry book! I can, but do I want to?
Where does this rage come from? The Tradition, like New Testament, is very much about what black lives look like even in 2019.
You’re right. I feel a lot of rage. I know my feelings of rage are based in fear. But instead of letting that fear take over, I think of myself as someone who lives in fear. Just a guy who is afraid. And when I think of myself like this, I can also find that there is more to life than pain and anger. There is joy and there are people who love him. I do this, unconsciously—it’s somewhere in the back of my head. I think I have done this for so long now it is just how I live.
I want my poems to talk about this whole mess of a life, known through language. Its complexities, the great big ups and downs. That is my job, that is what I do. I am very much a poet of witness. You know what I mean? But I know what I am witnessing is not only darkness, is not only pain. There is so much more! Even if it is just boredom.
In the moment of writing, everything is real. As real as day. As writers, we cannot make anything without surviving this conflict. We have to survive our own writing, work on the instinct to look for conflict all the time and look for beauty, based in forgiveness and redemption. I want to look for tenderness, and I find it. Deliberately.
DRJ: James Baldwin, in one of his interviews, talks about the psychological hazards of being African American: “You are never truly only black or only white.” Your poem, “Dark,” ends with “Everyone you know is just as cracked. Everyone you love is as dark, or at least as black.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that idea? I absolutely love it, and I’d love to know how you got there.
JB: Do you talk to yourself? I talk to myself a lot. I have internal monologues all the time, you know what I mean? When you just keep telling yourself, “Get up, Darshita,” “It’s okay, Darshita,” “You gotto do it, Darshita?” I do that a lot. And one thing I tell myself a lot is, “I’m sick of your sadness, Jericho.” That’s where that poem comes from. I caught myself in the act of saying that to myself. And I realised I like the music and the rhythm of that statement. I kept thinking about that line and part of the poem just wrote itself. My melancholy—which is about so many things—moved. You know what I mean?
The poem just flows..
I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
Your books, sick of you
Laying me down
So I forget how sick
I am. I am sick of your good looks…
That’s how the poem goes. And it just feels so organic.
When I was a child, I was so shy, so introverted. My father didn’t want me to be so shy. He wanted me to speak up, to be strong, to lead. He expressed that so violently! But what you have to understand is, his violence came from what he thought was the right thing to do. He thought it was ethical. He was violent out of fear. He wanted his son to be a more aggressive, a leader. And he thought being violent would help do that.
What you have to know about that poem is this: I am a very melancholy person. I brood—a lot. I am an extroverted introvert. I have become that way because that is who I need to be in this world, which is funny because most people don’t think that about me. When you see me now, I am a pretty joyful person. People in my life, people I date, think, He is a very happy person. Always laughing and smiling, and what they don’t know is that I get home and I am brooding again. What is it that I am brooding about? So much. But that is the person I am.
Amidst my daily brooding, I realised how much I like the rhythm of that phrase—I am sick of your sadness, Jericho Brown—the more I kept going, the better it became. I mean, that poem is playful, you know? Regardless of the pain behind it. I love rhyme that is not forced but is so obvious it feels playful. So out and joyous. There is something very comforting and beautiful about an obvious rhyme. I wanted to make that poem delightfully silly. There is such obvious delight in Langston Hughes’s poems. I was thinking about that a lot when I was working on how to make this rant delightful.
DRJ: Does it get exhausting for you, to be happy and joyful outside and brooding in solitude?
JB: No. No. It doesn’t bother me. I think it is necessary. I go to a lot of parties. A lot of gay parties. And part of any gay party is this attitude you come with. People come with this attitude. I don’t like that. That attitude feels fake. I mean, there is nothing wrong or fake with properly presenting yourself. You know what I mean? I love being that person who can present joy. I love presenting joy. Seeing how it transforms other people, bringing out your best self. There is nothing wrong with that.
There is a public face and a private face. And I believe you have to take care of both. When they say you have to take care of yourselves, there is more than just one you. These ‘selves’ are the many versions of the personhood you contain. You have to take care of all of them. Gotto be good to yourself, child.
DRJ: Do you think letting yourself be loved, and looking for things to love and writing poems about tenderness is an act of resistance?
JB: Oh, of course. It is the biggest act of resistance you can be a part of. I mean, it is as I said before, you know, sure, there is a lot of rage but there is so much more! I think I NEED to look for them in order to stay sane. You know what I mean?
DRJ: Some poems in the book are a conversation with someone you love: things you want to tell them, confessions you want to make. Do you eventually get around to those conversations? Do these thoughts lose their immediacy once they are in a book?
JB: They don’t lose their immediacy. But they change their weight. Let me explain that better. You know how there are always these things that keep bothering you? Memories and ideas and thoughts that you just can’t get rid of? You can’t just stop thinking of these things. Even if it is something that happened to me 10 years ago, these thoughts, they keep coming back. I don’t have to find them or go looking for them, they are already a part of me. I try not to run away from them. I try not to shut them out. I don’t have to beat them down, but I do mess around with them with language.
I use this metaphor a lot. I hope it makes sense. You know when you go to the gym for the first time and pick up a 20-pound weight? You pick it up 5 times. But then you the next day you can pick it up 7 times. The more you go, the better you get at it. Dealing with art works the same way. When you write it down, it doesn’t stop bothering you, but you learn to transform its weight better. What happens when you write them is down is, you get better at writing these thoughts down.
DRJ: What are some of your favourite literary magazines?
JB: If I had to name some journals I really enjoy, I really like Waxwing and Lana Turner. Bennington Review with poems and short stories—I really like the Bennington. They do good interviews, which are leaning towards writing. I really really love the Believer magazine. They are more about writing.,I curate the poetry section, but I can honestly say, that one has some of the best poetry I have read last year. Hands down. I like Adroit. I like how it maintains itself to being on the cutting edge. You guys put out who’s writing, right now. That is very important.
DRJ: How do you think literary magazines and journals can better contribute to the conversations happening in our lives?
JB: I wish magazines and journals had more money. More resources. I’ll tell you why. I love journals and interviews, but I can’t see what someone is thinking in a written interview. You know what I really enjoy? When you can see an interview and you can figure out what someone is thinking, you know? There is that possibility. I love that.
I want journals to be more interactive. Use everything that is available to us. This isn’t to say they are not doing good work, they are. Adroit does that too. My relationship with content and poetry, even the poet would be much better if I could hear them, or see them. We live in a world where that needs to happen. I want journals to have more photographs, more audio, more video. Beyond the headshot of the poem, you know what I mean? Journals could create an experience.
That is not to say literature should compete with pop culture. Literature doesn’t need to. Literature has won. But these things make content easily digestible. Platforms like Instagram. People use them every day, they help make poetry a part of our lives easier than a journal does. The way we go about championing literature needs to change—in its writing and the way we present it.
That isn’t to say media must compete with literature. Literature has already won. Coleridge beat Michael Jackson. This is about reaching more people. What I am saying is this, different people have different things. I want everyone to have this book. When someone cannot read, because l know literacy is an issue, they can see it, or hear it. If you like the book, you should do whatever you can talk about it. If you have the book, put it on your coffee table, it will become the point of conversation. If you use Instagram, take a picture with the book, post some poems. If you make videos, make a video of yourself reading a poem, or get a celebrity to read the poem. You live in Chicago, yeah? Get Oprah to read my poem, if you like it. Use what comes naturally to you. Poetry should be easy to include in people’s lives. And it should be celebrated. I think more poets need to do that too.
DRJ: How do you mean?
JB: Have you ever seen a touchdown? A a really great football touchdown? You know what the player does after the touchdown?
DRJ: I have never seen football (I say awkwardly).
JB: YouTube it. When a player makes a touchdown, the entire team cheers and screams and the player himself is ecstatic. It is like this is the best thing that has ever happened to him. Poets, on the other hand, are humble to the point of pretending. We behave like we do not love what we do. I would like to see a world where we physically react to everything we accomplish. Dance and jump up and down when a poet finishes writing a poem. Celebrate. Reward hard work. You know what I do when I finish a poem? I celebrate. “Hey, this is what I have been working for all my life, and look, I wrote a poem. I did it.” We have to celebrate that joy! Share it, believe in it!
We can also be much more encouraging with each other about our joys. I mean, sure, we live in the world of capitalism. Capitalism names the success. But capitalism cannot do that to art. It cannot create value. It cannot define importance. We have to do that for ourselves. We get to say what is important. What is this resentment about excitement? I mean, really? Why? If there’s anything we have to do, it is to support each other. And that leads me to another thing we can do.
I am so busy promoting books I love that I have no time to think about what I don’t love or don’t like. The dislike and the hate, I don’t get it. People, journals, publications spend so much time nit-picking books and poems and work, this one woman, and this is not fiction. Real story. This one woman hated Ocean Vuoung’s new book so much she burnt it in her backyard and posted a video of that. Why do you need to do that? Isn’t there something else you’d rather do? We can’t we spend more time talking about things we do love than the ones we dislike?
DRJ: I absolutely agree. It’s funny—that brings us to a full circle, finding joy and tenderness in a world as an act of resistance. Thank you for saying that, Jericho. How do you plan on celebrating this book?
JB: I love this book. Did you see that beautiful cover? Isn’t it one of the best covers? I am so grateful to my team at Copper Canyon. Those guys are the real heroes. Poetry is much bigger than a book. I wrote the book, I did all my hard work, but those guys, they have helped shaped it so beautifully. Copper Canyon works really hard. I love some of the books coming out this year. I celebrated when we all finished every part of the book. But now I have to get back to writing. I wrote this book, I absolutely love this book—but my job is to write, not to service the book that is already in the past. I am trying to do all sorts of things, I am writing more poems, I am trying to write a play, I am also writing some fiction. I have to keep on writing, that is my job.