An Interview with Jericho Brown

An Interview with Jericho Brown

An Interview with Jericho Brown 764 680 Charlotte Hamrick

I began reading Jericho Brown’s poetry just last year after “discovering” him on Twitter. (I was living under a rock at the time.) The ease and humor with which he interacted with others made me want to know more about him, so I began looking for his poems online and, subsequently, bought his book The New Testament. I was blown away and he quickly became one of my favorite poets. His poetry explores trauma, race, class, sexuality, spirituality, and all the beauty and devastation of life on the planet. Although we are very different people, I identify with much of his poetry, as do others, and this is the genius of his writing. There’s no doubt about his love for poetry, and his support for the poetry community as can be witnessed every day on Twitter. We are lucky to have him.

Jericho’s new book, The Tradition, will be released April 2 by Copper Canyon Press.

Do you think writing poetry is a talent or a skill? Can it be learned?

If you have some talent, it helps, but the goal is to learn skill to the point where you can’t tell the difference between what you knew innately and what you got through study and practice. Talent is involved, but being very talented could be a hindrance if it leads to the belief that you don’t have to study and practice.

Recently I’ve seen several headlines that declare we’re in a poetry renaissance. Do you agree? Why or why not?

I don’t know. I think readers feel and fill their needs in different ways given the cultural moment. Readers who had no idea the world had been on fire for some time are finding that they need the utterance of shock and awe that only poetry can supply. Many of these kinds of poems were being written when we had a President that more of us liked. I’m glad people are reading poetry no matter what. But I’m convinced of the poets. We are always in a renaissance.

You’re pretty active on Twitter. I see you interacting with other poets and writers regularly. Do you think SM has changed the poetry scene?

I think social media allows more access to more poems. And I think it allows me the chance to think about the work of poets I love in a more intimate way since I can see them struggling with teaching and writing and raising kids and living in the moments when it happens. Poetry is better when it comes from and happens to real people we can imagine. No oracles!

I also think social media has a lot to do with my possibility. When my first book appeared, people who may not have gone through the trouble or who would not have been empowered to do so otherwise used social media to ask me for poems they’d like to publish and to invite me to give readings. Many folks who would never know I wrote books at all are finding out that The Tradition exists because of connections made through social media. These platforms have had a lot to do with people’s access to books by people of color.

If anyone thinks that’s a bad thing…

I read an interview where you were asked how a poem comes to you. You said “I usually get (or overhear) some series of sounds I find musically attractive. I try to transliterate those sounds into lines and follow them with lines that riff off of the sounds of those lines. I don’t concern myself with sense, at first.” That has to be the most unusual and intriguing answer I’ve ever read to that question. When you say “some series of sounds” do you mean from music itself or could it be something as ordinary as street noise?

Neither. I mean I hear voices, and I can’t make out what they’re saying so I have to imagine what they are saying given their tones or given what their mumbling sounds like.

You’ve written quite a bit about your childhood and family. I think this is an area where writers struggle, especially when a parent was abusive or borderline abusive but now, in old age, has mellowed, is a different person. Have you found this to be true in your writing life and, if so, how do you reconcile mixed feelings about writing of the difficult years?

Oh, that’s where the energy is for me. If I don’t have mixed feelings, I don’t have a poem. Literature is about opposing characters being right. So poetry is about opposing feelings being right, about ambivalence being the proper state of being. I’m glad my parents are old and that I’m older. There’s really a wealth of new language born from reflecting on this.

How do you create your collections as you’re working on them? Do you decide on a theme and work towards it or do existing poems inspire the theme?

I just write poems. I try not to think thematically until I have about 50 pages of poetry, and even then it’s really just that I look and see what the 50 pages might have in common so that it can be somewhere in the back of my mind as I write the next 25 pages. Then I start revising based on how these 75 pages talk to each other.

Now I’d like you to think back to when you were an emerging poet. We all have to deal with rejection from lit mags, how did you deal with it? What would you say to emerging poets today about rejection?

I didn’t really deal with it. I didn’t have high hopes or huge expectations of literary journals. I really believe this stuff is subjective. If someone gave feedback—and editors hardly ever do—I’d think about it seriously. And if a poem kept getting rejected, I’d show it to as many poet friends as possible until some journal finally took it. I really trust my network of poet friends to keep me from making a fool of myself.

How has your writing changed from the early years?

Well I wouldn’t want to give this away. I think I’d really rather hear what other people have to say about this. I should learn this and not teach it, you know? I have lots of ideas, but some things are a little unfair for me to say. I’d love to hear more about this before I jump in.

When you read a lit mag what about it makes you go back for more? What do you expect from its pages?

I like to know what an editor is trying to tell me he or she believes poetry is. If I can get a sense of that, I can get interested. And it’s fun to watch that idea of poetry change. If the editor never changes her ideas about what poetry is over the years, then I stop reading.

Which genres and writers do you like to read other than poetry/poets?

I read a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ernest Holmes, and Michael Bernard Beckwith. I’ve read all of Toni Morrison. I’m very interested in the work of James Baldwin, Eula Biss, Frankie Beverly, Frederick Douglass, Al Green, Barry Jenkins, Terrell Alvin McCraney, Valerie Simpson, Johnnie Taylor, and Stevie Wonder.

Whose poetry or prose do you reach for when you’re feeling blue? Is there someone’s words that can help get you out of a funk?

I was a student in workshops where some of my classmates were Vievee Francis, Tyehimba Jess, Douglas Kearney, and Dawn Lundy Martin. The fact of their continued presence in American poetry is pretty inspiring. I admire the consistent integrity of their work. And I’m genuinely happy for them when they are treated well and given a lot of money for the good work they do. I feel a “we-ness” about all of this even though we are very different poets with very different poetics. Something about that keeps me feeling like I have to do my part for the team, like I have to contribute my part of the whole contribution.

Which poets (besides yourself) would you recommend reading to someone who thinks they don’t understand poetry?

I’m not sure I’d recommend myself for this, and I’m honestly not sure someone who thinks they don’t understand poetry should have to understand it. I love poetry, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that other people get excited about other things. Poetry is a balm, but it won’t be a balm for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be since it’s a balm for me. If someone actually told me they don’t understand poetry, I’d just say okay and believe them. I’m not here to proselytize.

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.

(Pre)order his his book, The Tradition, below.

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