What You Can’t Refuse: An Interview with Jericho Brown
by Kendra DeColo
Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute, among others. Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His first book, Please (New Issues), won the American Book Award.
Interviewer: For you, what is the pleasure of writing?
Brown: That question probably has too many answers. One is that when you write, you create your own world. I’ve always been taken by making my own set of mythologies, that this set of mythologies could be something that other people could be engrossed in, in the way that I was engrossed in the Greek myths when I was a kid—that I become the manipulator. There’s a certain kind of joy in having that amount of power, which is a really weird thing, because writing has so much to do with vulnerability and powerlessness.
Interviewer: How do you negotiate that paradox, the experience of feeling powerful while writing a poem, yet feeling the need to be vulnerable?
Brown: I think to really do the thing well, you have to have access to all that is who you are, including the imagination. You have to have access to parts of your imagination that, in your life outside of being a writer, would be locked away. And for good reason—you would be committed if every inch of yourself was manifested in your daily walk. People would assume that you’re crazy. Being able to hone every inch of yourself, every part of who you are, and put it into words, means that you are actually making use of it. So that’s where the power comes in. But there is also a certain kind of powerlessness, because you are dealing with things that you often would rather not deal with on the conscious level.
Interviewer: What role does compartmentalizing play in your identity as a poet?
Brown: Compartmentalizing is a necessary thing if you’re going to be an artist. Something about it sounds pejorative, but I think that it’s absolutely necessary if you’re going to be influenced. The truth about every one of us is that we have some amount of evil. Some people just manifest it in their lives a lot more fully than others. I love talking about Eliot, partially because I know every time I say his name he turns over in his grave. He didn’t mean for me to be influenced by his work. Stevens is another guy that I think of. He went as far as calling Gwendolyn Brooks a “darky” at some point in his career. Yet, as manipulators of words, they’ve done amazing work with the English language, in their essays and in their poems. In order for me to fully enjoy that, I have to understand that these are people and that people do evil things. Okay, now that I know that, let’s go read this poem and see if I like it.
Brown: The answer to that is different given different persona poems. For instance, there is a series of poems in the first book based on The Wizard of Oz. After I wrote the first poem, “Scarecrow,”1 I thought I was done. Then one of my teachers told me, “You wrote this Scarecrow poem—now you have to write a Tin Man poem and a Lion poem.” They came from a place where I said, what would the Tin Man say? Where as “Summertime,”2 a poem about Janis Joplin, or “Reflections,”3 in the voice of Diana Ross, were more like masks—poems that allow me to say something that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to say with the lyric “I.”
I should add here that the feeling you have in the midst of writing a poem is the most whole you’ll ever have, and yet it’s the most permeable. It’s a real charge, one that I have been afraid of in the past. Once I realized that I’m experiencing this charge over and over again, I was like, this can’t be a good thing. This is kind of like heroin or something.
Interviewer: Is it the fear of not being able to access that place again?
Brown: That’s part of it. But once I realized how much I enjoy writing poems and began observing myself as I was writing—how things could go by, that the phone could ring and I could be mad if somebody knocked on the door–when I realized that that’s who I was as a person, I was really afraid of this other identity. I think of “poet” as an identity, because it’s not like you choose it. If you’re any kind of a writer, you do it because you can’t help but do it.
Interviewer: Is there a Jericho Brown persona in your work? When you are writing, is there a voice that feels like, this is my voice, naked and unmasked?
Brown: It’s all the more intense if I’m speaking through someone else’s voice, as opposed to the lyric “I.” In a persona poem there’s all the drama of trying to be Janis Joplin—this is a lot to hold in a body in the midst of the writing process. I feel much more Jericho Brown when I’m writing those poems than I do when I’m writing “I walked across the street yesterday” kinds of poems. One of my favorite poets when I began writing was AI. I was interested in how, no matter who the speaker of the poem was, she was going to use the same stripped down, primal human voice. I don’t think I do what she does, but I do try to create a line of consciousness throughout the poems, so that whether or not you know that this is a true story, you know that you have come to some truth because of the story. The major way that this happens in poetry is through rhythm and music. We know this when we hear a beautiful love song. We feel whatever the singer is singing about that they really mean or really experienced, but it’s really just a good song. They didn’t have to mean it or experience it. They just had to be able to sing it.
Interviewer: I heard that Solomon Burke4 never knew the songs or lyrics ahead of time, that he would just come into the studio and perform. At first this really upset me, until I realized that it doesn’t matter. He’s a vessel.
Brown: Being a vessel—that’s the interesting thing about singers. I think there is a moment in the performance though, and this is clearly the case of Solomon Burke, when the singer realizes what the song is about, if the song is going to be of any success. That could be on take three, but it does happen. This is what’s always been interesting to me, why some of the African American singers who have never been considered soul singers have still been popular, because they’re really good actresses. People like Diana Ross or Vanessa Williams. They’re really good at being like, “What’s going on in this song, cause I ain’t no Aretha Franklin. I got to at least know what’s happening.” Where as Aretha Franklin doesn’t need to know what’s going on in a song, because she has the voice to carry things.
Interviewer: You’ve mentioned that Kate Daniels said early on in your career: “If you already know the answer to the question in a poem, don’t write it.” What are the questions you asked in Please that you feel no longer need answering? And what questions are you asking in your new manuscript?
Brown: In Please, one thing I asked is how the generation before mine handles the fact of me being both black and gay. What might be different in this book is the question of how people of my own generation feel about me being both black and gay. And when I say “me,” I don’t mean me, obviously. I’m really interested in this other thing you said earlier—what’s the real Jericho Brown? When I was sixteen years old, I was assigned a research paper, and my topic was, by happenstance, the confessional poets. Part of what I found out doing my research was that the person they created in their poems wasn’t always who they really were. Louise Glück isn’t as austere as any of her poems seem to be. It’s like a hyper version of who they are. That’s what’s so interesting about that Lyn Hejinian book, My Life. I feel like part of the project of that book—and this might be part of the criticism or the best part of that book—is that it doesn’t try to create a dramatic self. The book simply makes use of the real, everyday, plain and flattened experience.
Brown: There is a book I love called Among the Monarchs by Christine Garren.5 I thought I just wanted to write that book all over again—I didn’t care that she already wrote it. It’s a book that’s cumulative. It has a lot of amazing poems, but there’s a way in which the poems don’t seem to have the same strength that the book has. There’s a one-note-ishness, but I don’t say that pejoratively at all. There’s a certain amount of silence and quiet that she manipulates.
Interviewer: In Please it seems that silence is as present as music. What was the role of silence in putting together your first book?
Brown: I wanted each ending of every section to be a really strong poem, but also a poem that created pause, caesura. In the first and the third sections there was a kind of cacophony. I really needed to bring that all the way down before moving into the next section of the book, so that you understand that there is a change, an intermission.
Interviewer: I’ve noticed a different approach to line breaks in your newer poems.
Brown: Line breaks are the reason I fell in love with poems. When I was a kid and I was first reading poetry, the poem seemed different from prose because it had line breaks—that’s how I knew. The line break was amazing, because so many meanings could be made in that moment. A line break, I really believe, is a moment of doubt—that in the process of writing, you don’t break your line until you know that you have heightened doubt to its utmost. This is part of why what we’re doing is an amazing craft.
Interviewer: There is an element of surprise and discovery that I love in Please. How is surprise a part of your writing process?
Brown: On the craft level, transformation is really important to me. For this reason I’ve always been interested in the poems of Robert Bly, Yusef Komunyakaa. I like Jean Valentine, the openings and ruptures, sudden movements that are associative. I’ve heard that Jorie Graham would tell her students that whenever you finish writing a poem, write one hundred more lines. That’s really interesting to me. If the ending is indeed a surprise, then it has to be a surprise to me. And yet it has to feel like it’s part of the poem. That’s the hard part. Being surprising is not hard at all. The hard part is, how do you stay in the tone, stay in the voice, in the diction. That’s the work of the poem, the work we have to do.
Interviewer: Going back to the importance of vulnerability, it seems that for poets who are already vulnerable because of their identities, there is an added layer of risk in representing that experience, in placing our bodies and sexuality under the gaze of the reader—such as writing a poem about a strap-on, or anything else that might be perceived as subversive. How do you protect yourself while being vulnerable?
Brown: This is a really hard question, only because the answer I have must not be the real answer. I got it in my mind a long time ago that the poem lasts a lot longer than I do and so who gives a fuck about me. That the poem very well could do things that I couldn’t do. That the feeling I feel when I read poems is way better than any experience that I had had with a human being. Somewhere along the way I was really under the impression that love wasn’t real, that it was kind of a thing we had made up. I felt that same way for a long time and probably didn’t change until I met Derrick, which is pretty recent. I felt for a long time that love was another one of those kinds of myths. I wasn’t under this impression that my parents loved me. And because of that, I wasn’t under the impression that I owed them love, and because of that, I wasn’t under the impression that I owed anybody I was in relationships with love. That was never a reality to me, and if that’s not a reality, you don’t feel like you have anything to lose.
Interviewer: That’s what we’re trained to want: our desire for love as children keeps us in good behavior.
Brown: And the truth is that if you don’t believe you have your parents’ love, then you probably don’t believe you have anybody’s, and you probably don’t think of love as being a possible thing. If you don’t think love is a possible thing, then so what if you write a poem about a strap-on or condom or whatever.
In spite of that, something that I really did believe in was legacy. I always believed Langston Hughes was with us and that he loved black folk. That’s how the poem became supreme for me. This is a problem for me now because for the first time in my life I have love and it puts me in a complete writing quandary. I have nowhere to go to and nowhere to come from because I feel like there’s something on earth I could lose.
Interviewer: That seems to contradict the question I often hear in workshop—what’s at stake in a poem?—which seems to be another way of saying that one has something to lose.
Brown: While I was in a workshop in New Orleans run by Kalamu ya Salaam, I remember him saying to me, “The real problem with the poem is that it’s unashamed. And what it needs to be is shameless.” I really had to think about the difference between being unashamed and shameless. I think maybe you just said it. The question “What’s at stake in this poem?” is different from “Nothing is at stake.” And if nothing is truly at stake, then why not make the decision to say or do the so-called risky thing. Let me fix this though. So many poems I read now are about absolutely nothing and that really bothers me. There is an imitative force amongst poets of my generation and younger that really needs to be checked. It’s to the point where people think, “Nothing matters and I’m going to write this poem and it’s going to be about nothing.” That’s not fair. I’m a believer in legacy and I love poetry and I think that poems must be necessary. They must mean something. That’s not to say that they need to have a-b-c meaning, but they have to have urgency.
Interviewer: What do you hope to leave as a legacy for future generations?
Brown: The poets I love are people who, other than writing really good poems, made cultural change. If I had any goal for myself, I guess that would be it. When I think of people like Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, even Frost—because they existed, whether or not we know it, we go about things differently on this planet. But what my legacy will be, it’s probably not fair of me to say. I have a million ideas of what I’d like it to be, but I don’t know, and when I say not fair, I mean it probably wouldn’t be fair to myself as an artist. I want to be surprised, and I want to be made new every time I write a book, and discover new things every time I write a poem.
Interviewer: Is there any subject for you that is still taboo?
Brown: I hope so. Part of feeling like you have a great task in front of you has to do with that, what people call taboo. If I weren’t writing about these things, then I wouldn’t feel like I had great work to do. Part of the anxiety of writing has to do with the feeling, “Oh my god I have to write this poem.” Every time I write a poem, every time I write a book, I want to get closer to the bone, and after I get to the bone I want to get closer to the marrow. I want to get closer and closer and always be in a position of vulnerability and always be in a position of fear. You’re not writing if you’re not scared. I taught a workshop last week and a bit of argument came up about what to write and how to write and they were really concerned. I told them, the important thing is to write what you can’t refuse. If you can refuse to write it, don’t. But if you can’t, if something is egging you on… There’s a certain amount of responsibility that comes with what we do. Which is why there is very little thanks in the world for it, right? I believe poetry is important, and that it makes a difference.
Read Jericho Brown’s Langston Blue
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