“In the midst of writing your poems, you have to allow them to do and be what they want to do and be. And if you’re writing the poems that you’re really supposed to be writing, they should be scaring you. They should be having you ask questions about what you really value.”
In the spring of 2009, Jericho Brown came to Kalamazoo, Michigan to read from his debut collection, Please (New Issues). The dynamism of the poems’ emotions and music as embodied by Brown lit up the room and breathed a kind of tenderness, a stunned alertness, into the audience. I remember it so vividly because I was in the room, an undergrad just beginning to dedicate my life to poetry. Fast-forward 9 years later and Brown sits across from me, generously thoughtful, charismatic, and ever-curious on the eve of his third book, The Tradition (Copper Canyon). At Washington University in Saint Louis as the Visiting Hurst Professor, his dedication to poetry–the craft of writing as much as the cultivation of a community of readers and writers–feels unwavering and, to me, galvanizing.
In addition to an anecdote about once, as a teenager, meeting Gwendolyn Brooks (!), Brown reflects on the beginnings of his career, his evolving writing process, and what it means to “stay vulnerable to the work” in a culture that primes us to run away from intimacy.
Aaron Coleman: What does it feel like to be releasing your third poetry collection?
Jericho Brown: I’ve never felt so free about a book coming out. The first time I wrote a book it was my defense for my PhD and it was also the book that allowed me to get the job that I got, so everything about my first book was attached to something that made it necessary in the world for me to be able to pay bills and eat and pay rent. There’s that desperation or need for a job. There’s a way that, yes, you commit your life to poetry. But then after that you still gotta eat.
JB: And with the second book, it was the same thing. I had changed jobs and in order to get tenure at this new job I needed another book. I think my second book was written by sheer force and will. I really pushed. A lot of those poems came from exercises. I believe in those as poems but what I mean is that they didn’t come to me line by line like a lot these poems in this book. This book was like something speaking at, to, and through me. It felt like something in me and something in the world had to answer to one another. And that answer came through these poems. There was no reason for me to make these poems other than the fact that these poems needed to be made.
AC: Sort of like the stakes have changed.
JB: It also feels like this book was, somehow, both rigorous and effortless. I miss writing this book. I miss the engagement I felt. It’s actually hard for me to talk about it without getting emotional, because it was all I cared about. It’s funny, because it’s not a person, but I was at a point when this book was the thing in my life. It was all I wanted to spend time with . . . [laughs]
AC: You were living with the book.
JB: And, at first, when you have a few poems, you don’t know that. And then, after the numbers change, after you’ve got more than a few poems, you go: oh, I might be working on a book. Then you write some more poems and you realize: oh, this is my book I’m working on! And this is what it does, and this is what it’s gonna do or I don’t know what it does and I don’t know what it’s gonna do! But when I say ‘rigorous’ I mean that many of the poems, for whatever reason . . . I became really attracted to a certain kind of rigor and certain kind of difficulty. I wanted to make certain figures work. I knew that I was dealing with certain kinds of architecture within the poems. I invented a form. I was doing all kinds of things that you don’t have to do to write a good poem. But I wanted to do that. And I say ‘effortless’ because it was hard work that didn’t feel like hard work, it just felt like joy.
JB: And at the end of it . . . you can ask close friends about this, Ayana Mathis, you can ask Michael Shewmaker, Malachi Black, at the end of it . . . I thought I was going to die. Because between Thanksgiving and I would say, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wrote so many poems that I really . . . I was writing a poem a day. And it wasn’t a poem a day that I sat down at my writing time to write. It was a poem a day that would be chasing me.
JB: You know this feeling. It’s sort of like you get a line and it’s like, “Actually right now I’m driving this car . . . but . . .”
AC: . . . but I need to get this thing down . . . it’s coming . . .
JB: Yeah! [laughs] There was a two-month period. It was the end of the semester and then New Year’s Eve I caught the flu—I don’t know why nobody tells anybody this, but it feels like you’re going to die, and you really could. Especially with the flu this past year. And I’m telling you, I had the flu, and I was still out here writing poems. I could barely move, and I was trying to get to my keyboard. I was writing on pieces of paper in my bed.
AC: Ugh. I caught the flu last winter, too. The bone aches. When it’s hard to even open your eyes . . .
JB: And still I felt so overcome by this book. And so, why am I happy to see it come out? Because it’s a book that I had a relationship that I didn’t have [with the others].
AC: What do you think brought on that surge of writing?
JB: I think reading outside of my own genre, for one thing. Because so many people applied to [our job search at Emory], I was reading a lot of fiction that I hadn’t read before. And I think a lot of the work that had come between the second and third books influenced how I was thinking, [there was] a lot of the poetry that I had been reading in the meantime. There were [Collected Poems] from Frank Bidart and Rita Dove that were really important to me. A book by Monica Youn called Blackacre. A book by Robyn Schiff called A Woman of Property. I sort of felt the influence. Obviously, Claudia [Rankine’s] book had come out—my second book came out the same year as Citizen. There were a lot of books that were starting to change my thinking about poetry. When you read a good poem you really feel like you’ve come upon something. That you have something. Like you own something you did not own before.
AC: That you have a new tool for your life now.
JB: And that’s what I’m after. And the Black Lives Matter movement [was an influence]. Then Moonlight came out. I saw Moonlight, I think, nine times.
JB: I could probably recite it for you now. [laughs] And I know it had a lot to do with me being able to write so much.
AC: That’s a lot. You’ve got me thinking about the value of new ingredients, that there are all sorts of new possibilities, new ways of seeing the world and new ways of moving through the world, because of them.
JB: I also feel like I have to say that, I feel like once this book comes out I will suddenly be a mid-career poet.
AC: Whoooo. What is that?
JB: Exactly! What is that!? I don’t know what that is, but I know that’s the truth. I know that when this book comes out my responsibility to the community shifts a little bit. And it’s important that I recognize that shift. And I think that’s hilarious because I wasn’t thinking about any of that while I was writing the book. I do think there’s a difference in our world between having two and having three books if you take time between books. I mean, if you have three books in a year then maybe it’s not such a difference. For me it’ll be three books in eleven years and it’ll also mean that I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. And so, I think that in our world at least, that comes with responsibilities, but I’m not sure what those responsibilities are.
AC: Well, as you were saying, maybe the word’s not “security” but there’s something different now at your third book.
JB: Yeah, security’s a good word. Maybe that’s one difference in the responsibility. The community has provided me with security and maybe I need to be providing people with more security.
AC: Well, I don’t know. I mean for poets like myself you’ve been gracious to us in many different ways for a very long time. I remember in your Divedapper interview you spoke about being an “ambassador” for poetry.
JB: Yeah, you have to do it. I have to say I am suspicious of poets who don’t. But then again, I don’t really know poets who don’t. Sometimes I’ll meet a poet and it’s like, “So what are you doing?” But then it eventually it comes out that . . .
AC: . . . they’re being an ambassador in one way or another. Whether it’s education or teaching.
JB: Right. I don’t think anybody else does it the way we do it. Writing reviews, posting a blog, running presses, running reading series, taking a picture with the book and posting it on social media, sitting with people to talk about their poems. I think about some of the people when I was first writing poems that were like, “Oh, show me some of your poems.” And I would show them some poems! And they would sit with me and they would tell me all the reasons why my poems were bad. And, I mean, they could have been out getting laid! They could have been doing anything else. But that was the else that they wanted to do.
AC: I remember the first time I heard your work. You were reading from Please, at The Little Theatre in Kalamazoo, and those poems, “Track 4: Reflections—as performed by Diana Ross,” “Track 5: Summertime—as performed by Janis Joplin.” I was just floored.
JB: You were so young and you had so much hair!
AC: Yup, the long locks.
JB: And you were so wide-eyed.
AC: I was wide-eyed because I’d just come out of your reading.
JB: But you were also just looking at me like, you were basically like, “So, tell me what to do!” [pounds fist on thigh]
[Both laugh hard]
JB: And I was like, “Right now? While I’m signing these books?!” You just had this look of, “Just tell me how to do this.” And I was just like, “Um, welp—I can’t.”
AC: Right, there’s no one thing to be told. “Just walk the path!” You know you’ve always identified those things in me before I’ve been able to clearly say it or notice it in myself because, yeah, I was just looking for answers in a very . . . blunt, earnest way.
JB: But you also knew something.
AC: Well, I saw what you were doing, I think.
JB: Yeah you saw what I was doing but something in you knew what to look for—and figured out where to go to get it. And something in you also knew what you wanted. I mean you might not have had words for it. But still that’s very specific, that’s very particular. You know? There’s no reason why anybody would [want to] be a poet.
AC: Right. [laughs]
JB: You know? There’s a reason why you were wide-eyed and the reason why you were like “I need this and I need it now.” There are plenty of people who go to readings and enjoy the reading . . .
AC: . . . and they don’t have that “I need this and I need it now” feeling.
JB: What I remember about that reading was that, from the vantage point of the podium, there was a pocket of black people sitting on the right toward the back and every time I had a little bit of a joke in a poem they would laugh. And the other people didn’t know that it was okay to laugh because, you know, tones change in poems. My poems have funny moments, but that doesn’t mean they’re funny poems. But the black people didn’t mind that, they would laugh. So, it seemed to me like they really enjoyed the reading, too, but they weren’t out there trying to figure out how I made it happen. We watch movies all the time but that doesn’t mean we try to go be actors or directors.
AC: Right, even if we love the movie.
JB: Right, so what I mean is, part of the reason why I would be interested in answering whatever questions you had, it had something to do with something that I feel is outside of me. You know? If you’ve been called, then I need to recognize it doesn’t have that much to do with you or me. I’m just the person given to you in that moment and I’ve got a job to do. I can at least tell you something to read even if I can’t look at your poems.
AC: Wow, yeah.
JB: And why not [look at it like that]? We don’t know . . . it all seems like—nobody likes it when I talk like this, but I don’t care—it all seems very calling-oriented. And you were called to it.
AC: I have no problem thinking of it like that. And I can’t say enough about you sensing the way that I was wide open in that moment. The kindness and generosity even in that first small interaction.
JB: Well, I appreciate that. The nicest poet to ever live is a woman named Gwendolyn Brooks. Anybody who ever met her would agree with me. The kindness of poets is a great, amazing, kindness. And Gwendolyn Brooks was the queen of that kindness. I have seen her sit and sign books and talk to individuals in a book line that went around the chapel of my undergraduate school. And I remember, after she had signed all those books and talked to all those people, when she was getting ready to go and packing her bag (we were taking her to this restaurant that was about to close because we’d missed our reservation). I was very young, I must’ve been 19 years old. I remember her standing in the doorway looking around saying, “Hold on, let me make sure. Does anybody else have anything for me to sign?” And I remember when we sat down to dinner at this restaurant—I think we went to Dooky Chase—she asked me if I had read the recent anthology of African American Literature that had come out at that time. It was edited by Henry Louis Gates and she attempted to have a conversation about Black writing.
JB: And I remember, I didn’t have the words then, but I know it now; I remember feeling like, I can’t have this conversation this woman is trying to have with me, but I should be able to. And at some point, I realize she knows it! Gwendolyn Brooks asked me, “what is your conception of the line?” And I’m like, now this woman know good and well I don’t have no doggone conception of no line! Why is she coming at me with that?? [Both laugh]
AC: She was giving it to you for the rest of your career!! To be thinking about the conception of the line!
JB: Yeah! She was literally planting things. And she must’ve known. I mean I was interested but I wasn’t really able to hold a conversation of that kind, and she must’ve known that. So I don’t know how, but that next week, in my mailbox, was that anthology that she tried to talk to me about, the one I didn’t know existed. Signed by her. As a gift.
Both: [long sighs]
JB: That. Can you imagine? Gwendolyn Brooks.
AC: Gwendolyn Brooks.
JB: By that time Gwendolyn Brooks had been Gwendolyn Brooks for a long time. And so if that can happen to me for no reason, because I wasn’t bright and shiny, I wasn’t reciting sonnets. There’s nothing I knew. That didn’t happen to me for no reason. That happened to me because that’s base, regular, supposed to happen, in that woman’s mind. And that’s what I have to make my base standard, too.
AC: That’s incredible. Well, I was going to ask about those persona poems from Please that really hit me when I first met you and your work, like “Track 4” and “Track 5.” Or “Langston’s Blues” in The New Testament. I wanted to ask about what persona allows for in your writing?
JB: I think there are many things that I have to say and at the time that I’m writing the poem I have no idea that I could possibly be the person who’s saying those things. Because the lines feel so foreign to me in the sense that you’re writing and you’re dealing with lines [coming to you] and you’re hurrying up, you’ve just got to get them down.
JB: And after I write them down, I ask the poems questions. One thing I ask that blob of lines—at the beginning it’s always a blob—I always ask, who is your speaker? And often there are hints that the speaker is not me. When I wrote, for instance, that poem “Track 5: Summertime,” which I wrote at the Callaloo Writers’ Workshop, by way of assignment—it was an assignment that Natasha [Tretheway] gave us about writing persona poetry—I remember Remica Bingham was there, Roger Reeves was there. Also Douglas Kearney, CM Burroughs.
AC: Whoa. Jeez.
JB: We were all there together. I remember writing, “I am such an ugly girl. I am such an ugly girl.” Twice in row, and knowing it was right. I didn’t know where it would go in the poem, but I knew it was right. Now, did I feel like I was ugly? No. Did I feel like I was a girl? No. And at the same time, I did feel those lines.
JB: Somehow or another I did feel like, I’ve felt this before. Real, deep exasperation. Like, look at my situation. Here. And when I asked all those lines, who is your speaker, I had to figure out who would be able to say that. And that’s how the poem started moving toward Janis Joplin. So, it’s not like, “oh, I’m going to write persona poems for this purpose.” It’s more like poems tell me that they are made more whole, more full, as persona poems. And then I do whatever the poem needs. I know people are really smart, and they say I’m going to write a poem about apples then they sit down and write a great poem about apples. I don’t do that. I try to let language tell me what it wants. I try to let whatever subconscious things that come out of me show me the direction that the poem wants to go. If I make a metaphor early on in a poem I assume that that will be the guiding metaphor throughout the poem or that there’s a family of metaphors or maybe a conceit. There’s something about that early metaphor that will guide me and tell me what else I can possibly say. Same thing for sounds. If I make a certain sound I imagine that sound will come back again and that it’s going to morph and shift. I’m looking for those opportunities when I write a poem. Which means that if I’m looking for those opportunities in sound then I can’t be concerned about what things mean.
AC: Yeah, I feel that.
JB: I don’t write poems about the time I “BLANK.” I mean I couldn’t. I don’t write poems given a particular subject matter. I couldn’t. So me finding out that a poem is a persona poem is literal [laughs]. For me, when people talk about the discovery in poetry or the revelation in poetry, for me, that’s literal. And it’s the reason I write. That’s fun. That’s a good time for me. These words have come out of me and now I’m going to assume that they belong on the page for a reason and I’m gonna look at them and I’m gonna say, who is your speaker? Where are you? When are you? Why are you so angry in line four? I’m gonna ask you questions as if you are a being separate from myself and then the answers to those questions lead me to say other things that I might not have said. So, if I have “I am such an ugly girl. I am such an ugly girl.” That tells me Janis Joplin, then when I have Janis Joplin that leads me to Port Arthur. Having Port Arthur in the poem, that comes after figuring out, she might be the speaker of my poem. Let’s see if this is Janis talking. I mean, that’s how I write poems. And it’s how I write—I want to be clear with this—that’s the case whether the poem is in free verse or if the poem is in a [traditional] form. There’s a poem, I would call it a sort of Petrarchan sonnet, but the first eight lines are in couplets and then the rhyme varies in a different way in the last six lines. It’s called “The Water Lilies.” It’s a poem I wrote not really knowing I was. I figured out its patterns. I have to know everything I can possibly know about form. I have to know what the hell a sestina is to know that the poem is moving in that direction or could move in that direction.
AC: That the poem might be calling for that.
JB: Yeah, so I see, oh, there’s some end rhyme and this poem wants more end rhyme. That’s how I write; I don’t write my poems in the other direction. I do try to be a thinking person in the world so that I can know what might make for resonance, but I can’t use that until it’s time to revise. When I’m first drafting things it’s really like, let me get all these words out and not worry about if they’re even grammatically correct or making any kind of English sentence.
AC: It seems valuable and very sort of clear cut, at least for me, to think about the writing of the poem as a process that’s “I need to get this down, I need to follow this thing, I need to go with it” and then the revising being a process of asking, “What just happened?” in order to discover what is happening there, what are the raw ingredients, what are the potentials, because I could revise this in a million different ways but the only way that I know how to do it is by asking it—
JB: And by taking myself out of the way. Because if it were up to me I would just write poems about “BLANK.” Because of course I’d rather have a book about “BLANK.” You know?
AC: Yeah, but it can’t be that . . .
JB: . . . because I believe in calling, you know? And I’m okay with that.
JB: So, I say that to say when I’m writing about blackness or when I’m writing about queerness or about race or that which is southern or when I’m writing that which is masculine or questions masculinity, it’s not that I sit down to do that. It’s just that that’s where I end up because that’s what I’ve been thinking about. And there’s nothing wrong with me thinking about that.
AC: Absolutely. And in that vein, I read a few interviews where you said the phrase, “stay vulnerable to the work.” I love that. It seems useful because it acknowledges something about the value of vulnerability and, at the same time, how so many things can try to pull us away from staying vulnerable to the work. Would you mind saying more about what it means to stay vulnerable to the work?
JB: I sort of mean be ready to move if it asks you to move. Or be ready to stay if it asks you to stay. Or be ready to do without that amount of money if it asks you to do without that amount of money. You know?
AC: It’s a commitment.
JB: It’s like when you’re in love. You don’t get to fall in love and not be vulnerable.
JB: It’s the same thing. If you’re gonna have a relationship with capital P Poetry then you’ve got to make space in your life where you’ve just decided, “Okay, you can have it, [Poetry,] just do whatever ever you want to do.”
AC: Like, “Okay baby, I’m with you. Whatever you wanna do . . .”
JB: “ . . . I’m with you. Long as we together.” [laughs] So, I mean that. But I also mean, in the midst of writing your poems, you have to allow them to do and be what they want to do and be. And if you’re writing the poems that you’re really supposed to be writing, they should be scaring you. They should be having you ask questions about what you really value.
AC: Agreed. Yes.
JB: You’re not writing if your poems don’t lead you to moments where you are questioning all that you have supposedly believed in. You have to want that. And that’s a crazy thing to want.
AC: Right. People don’t want that.
JB: Everything in our culture trains us to not be vulnerable, to avoid intimacy. And poetry asks us to be these ways that we’re usually not trained to be. Poetry can train us to do that. We’re not trained to do it. It’s hard for people, I think, to admit that. I think for men especially it’s hard to openly in the world say to everybody, “I’m seeking intimacy. I’m seeking vulnerability.”
AC: It’s true.
JB: I mean have you ever told anybody you were poet? Did you see how they looked at you? That’s why. That’s why they looked at you like that. Because you [essentially] told them, “I want to be intimate. I want to be vulnerable.”
AC: At all costs.
AC: And I’m interested in centering that in my life.
JB: And so that’s why they looked at you like that.
AC: It’s confusing to people. Or threatening.
JB: Because people don’t know that there’s that much to a self.
AC: Or prefer not to look that much at the self.
JB: And it’s true. When you start looking at yourself, you find a bunch of ugly shit. You know what I mean? So, when I say be vulnerable, I mean the ability to look at ugly shit. Put ugly shit into language that is going to make for what we hope is beautiful but, in the moment you’re writing it, you don’t feel that way. You feel like it has to happen, you feel urgent about it, but that doesn’t mean you think it’s gorgeous. You see how ugly it is. You know what I’m saying?
AC: I do.
JB: I think that’s what it means. Write past the line that is the easy line. People get to the easy line and they think that’s the end. But that’s actually the beginning. That’s where you know, “Oh shit, now I gotta tell the truth because I just lied.”
AC: Right, and here we go.
JB: Yeah. For me, that’s what I mean when I say stay vulnerable to the work. I literally mean sit there and do it and take what it gives you. And if it’s not giving it to you then push it around until it does.
Jericho Brown is the recipient of numerous awards including the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation, and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. His first book Please (New Issues), won the American Book Award and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Thom Gunn Award. Brown’s third collection, The Tradition (Copper Canyon), is set to be released in April 2019.
Aaron Coleman is the author of Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018) and his chapbook, St. Trigger, was selected by Adrian Matejka for the 2015 Button Poetry Prize. A Fulbright Scholar and Cave Canem Fellow from Metro-Detroit, Aaron has lived and worked with youth in locations including Spain, South Africa, Chicago, St. Louis and Kalamazoo. Winner of the American Literary Translators Association’s Jansen Fellowship, the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, and The Cincinnati Review Schiff Award, his poems have appeared in journals including Boston Review, Callaloo, and New York Times Magazine. Currently, Aaron is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University St. Louis studying 20th-century poetry of the African Diaspora in the Americas.