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, and he is the winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award. 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 The Bennington Review, Buzzfeed, Fence, jubilat, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.
As an admiring reader, and an aspiring writer, I reached out to Jericho Brown last spring and asked if I could interview him at the 2018 AWP Conference. To my delight, he agreed, and soon after I had the pleasure of meeting him and discussing his childhood and his poetry collections: Please, The Last Testament, and The Tradition.
Despy Boutris: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you discovered poetry at a young age: your mother took you to the library because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. What was it about your experience reading poetry that inspired you to write?
Jericho Brown: I didn’t really have a choice but to read poetry because everything else was kind of long. There’s something about poetry that’s short. Because it didn’t go all the way across the page or down the page, I became interested in the fact that I could take so much in of these very brief pieces of text. That was attractive to me: the fact that you can just get in and out and there’s a sense of accomplishment. You feel like, “Oh, I did all that. I read today.” Which is always a big deal. To be able to say that you read in my family meant you were smart.
I wanted to participate in it because I fell in love with it. And I think what you really love you want to imitate. I really wanted to move people the way I had been moved by these poems I was reading at a young age. I think that was the inspiration. I remember being enchanted by line breaks and having the idea that line breaks in and of themselves had meaning—that, line-to-line, there was meaning. I sort of intuited that on my own. And I wanted to make that happen for somebody else. I wanted to stimulate other people’s intuitions about meaning.
DB: Who were some of the poets you loved when you were younger?
JB: I really liked Sharon Olds. I liked [T.S.] Eliot a lot, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich. I liked a little bit of Gertrude Stein, a little bit of [Ezra] Pound. William Carlos Williams. Lucille Clifton. Michael Palmer was always a very important poet to me when I was young. He’s always been an important poet to me.
DB: You’ve talked about how you were depressed in high school. I also had a tough high school experience, and I found literature and writing helpful. What effect has poetry had on your emotional state?
JB: I think poetry provides us with the opportunity to be both present and absent at the same time. There’s a way you can organize thoughts that are chaotic and can see your thoughts for what they are while you write the poem. The poem requires a certain kind of organization and a certain kind of characterization, and you can get an idea of what is and what isn’t an illusion.
Sometimes, we steep ourselves in illusions about ourselves. We tell ourselves lies about ourselves and, if we give ourselves enough falsehoods, we can always find evidence in the world to support those falsehoods. Then, we can also decide, possibly, that those falsehoods are indeed false and look for evidence in the world that tells us the truth about ourselves. I think that poetry can do that. What I love about poetry is that the truth is the truth regardless. And, if you’re dealing with truth, then you sort of have to get around these illusions. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t like through reading or writing poems, but then you’re called on to deal with that. And one way you may work to deal with it is to change your actions.
DB: Readers often think of you as a Black poet, a gay poet, a Southern poet, a poet of faith, and a love poet, and obviously you’re full of complexities, and they’re expansive and expanding. As a writer, how do you think about identity and persona?
JB: I think I get to be whatever I want. I really don’t have a choice in these things, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. I just wish other people wouldn’t get hung up on them or think that just because you have one thing, you can’t have another. Just because I’m a Southern poet doesn’t mean I can’t write a love poem. It doesn’t mean that I will only write about race or there will only be certain kinds of flora or fauna in my poems. I think people like to label because then there’s less work for them to do.
DB: You have said that poetry is meant to “move us and help us see the world anew.” In what ways do you hope people will see the world anew after reading one of your poems?
JB: It depends on the person and the poem they read of mine. Lately, I’ve been writing some persona poems in the voices of some pretty evil people—people who have committed certain kinds of heinous crimes. And, if they’ve committed these heinous crimes, why am I writing them a poem? One of the reasons I’m writing the poems is because those are people we have to understand. They’re human beings and, if they’re human beings, then an aspect that is in those people must somehow exist in everyone else. It’s an opportunity to face this thing that you possibly have in you and deal with it before you go to a school and shoot everybody or something. That’s the way I think about that, but I don’t have an intention poem-to-poem. My poems aren’t moral; they aren’t didactic. But I think that when people are moved, they see the world anew.
DB: As a poet with so many complexities—some of which people may not like—how have you become comfortable being so vulnerable in your writing and in knowing that anyone can read it?
JB: I don’t know how comfortable I am, but I know I have to do what the poems ask of me. And I don’t know why I prioritize the poetry over my comfortability, but I do. You know, I have to die, and I want to die knowing I’ve done everything I could possibly do in this world. And, although I have to die, the poem doesn’t.
I know that, if I can sit around here and save a life, I should, so I’m going to save the lives of my poems. And the only way to do that is to sacrifice my life to my poems. I just put them first. They come first. And they require me to say things that other people have a hard time saying.
DB: Following that question, what is the place of joy in your life, despite judgment and injustice?
JB: I’m not always so comfortable. I know that I seem that way in my being and in my poems. Like, “He’s the freest person I’ve ever seen.” But I don’t feel that way. I feel like I have work to do. I feel just as insecure as anyone else feels.
That said, I think that we get to choose joy. You can decide “I don’t want this. I want joy.” Or you can decide “This doesn’t feel good, so let’s do something else.”
DB: In an interview with Natasha Tretheway, you mentioned that you hadn’t told your parents that you’d published a book. Do you ever fear sharing your more so-called “political” poems, such as “Pause” or “Family Portrait”? Do you ever avoid reading them?
JB: All the time. It depends on what I’m doing and where I’m doing it, but I try to make choices about poems based on who brought me, why they brought me, and what they brought me to do. And it’s usually clear. I mean, if it’s just me and I’m choosing for myself, I try to think, “Well, this is where I am, and this is what these people want or what their needs might be.” I try to design a reading around that.
DB: In Please, there is often a mention of the capital F Father as well as your own father—someone may even conflate the two. For example, in “Prayer of the Backhanded,” you write, “Father, I bear the bridge / Of what might have been / A broken nose.” I find that really intriguing but don’t know how to make sense of it. I want to hear you talk about it. Did God remind you of your father?
JB: That’s part of what I’m trying to do in that poem. This violent father can also be like our violent conception of God. I was raised in a very religious home where the idea of God was a punishing God. I was worried about going to Hell all the time. I thought I was bound for that. Especially when I realized I liked guys. I was like, “Well, this is not looking so good.” And I use that concept of God in my poems because I know it’s an idea that not only I but other people might be familiar with, but I don’t really believe in that now. I don’t think of God as sitting around trying to get vengeance on me. I don’t think God’s petty.
DB: This country teaches a lot of shame to people who are supposedly “different,” but you embrace who you are in all your complexity. How have you unlearned this shame?
JB: I read a lot of books. And if you read a lot of books, then they’ll tell you that you’ve gotten a lot of propaganda over the course of your life. You find out, “Oh, a lot of what I’ve been given is plain old propaganda to indoctrinate me into a certain kind of whiteness, into a certain kind of capitalism, into a certain kind of gender bias.” That indoctrination is not where I want to be. I don’t want to be there. I want to be where I can see. I don’t see everything, but I’d rather be on my way to trying than not. I’d just rather live. You know? I just want to live all the way. And I don’t think I bother anybody, either.