Dog Ear Feature – Interview with Jericho Brown

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Jericho Brown is an American poet and writer. Born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. Jericho has worked as an educator in institutions such as the University of Houston, San Diego State University and Emory University. His poems have been published in New England Review the New Republic, Oxford, American and The New Yorker, among others. He released his first book of prose and poetry, Please in 2008, and his second book, The New Testament, was released in 2014. His 2019 collection of poems The Tradition has garnered widespread critical acclaim. Jericho has won many accolades, perhaps the most impressive being the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

TBS:

How did you feel when you found out that you’d won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry?

Jericho Brown:

I was very happy. I felt like a dream was coming true. And I’ve had that feeling before. But it was the only dream that’s ever come true, that also meant that my emails would triple. So, I was sort of instantly busy, you know, you win the Pulitzer Prize, but then the phone starts ringing. And I think since that day, I’ve had more to do than I would have regularly had to do. Life has become a different kind of a balancing act. But one that I would rather have. I mean, I like having a Pulitzer Prize. So, I was very happy about it.

TBS:

You’ve joined a long and illustrious list of names, dating back decades and decades. How does it feel to know that your life’s work will be forever acclaimed amongst those names?

Jericho Brown

I hadn’t thought about it. I mean, I have thought about it. But I push it aside as soon as I do… I cannot think about that too much because then I’ll rest on it. Do you know what I mean? And I still have a lot of work to do. I’d never get any work done. Do you know what I mean? And it’s also true that the that book, whether it would have won the Pulitzer Prize, or not… the process of writing The Tradition was just a lot of pressure that I hadn’t felt before when writing a book, it’s my third book, but it was the first book that got done the way it got done. And under the kind of spell that it got written. And I think whether I had written a book or not, it would be hard, honestly, to turn to anything else after having that experience. And so, I’m trying not to think about how great that experience is, because then I’ll just spend all my time trying to make that experience happen again. And every book has to be new, you know, and I need to make my poems new to me. So, I hadn’t, I hadn’t thought about it. I sort of, um, to be honest with you, you know, this poem in my first book called Tin Man, and it’s a contrapuntal poem. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a contrapuntal sonnet, though maybe no critic ever noticed. And I really felt like after I had written that poem, I’ll never forget this. I wrote the poem when I was still in school. I was in graduate school, and I wrote the poem. And I remember when I wrote the poem, I was like, Oh, good, I’m taken care of. There’s always something in the world that people will be able to say that I made that is not like anything else. Do you know what I mean? So, I think maybe I already had that feeling about my work, and maybe I shouldn’t, maybe no poet should have that feeling. But I did. Forgive me that I have not had that feeling, you know, and I sort of had that feeling even while I was making the duplexes the form that I invented, that’s featured in the latest book, I did indeed feel like oh, this is a gift that I can give, I can contribute this, I can send this out. And people will do what they will with it. So, the Pulitzer, I think codifies that all the more. Right? But, um, but the work I think, is what does it the most, you know? I mean, no shade, but there are plenty of Pulitzer Prize winners that will not be read again, you know, or that I don’t want to read. There are a lot of Pulitzer Prize winners that I that I admire a great deal and whose work over the years, you know, many of them long dead, whose work continues to inspire me. So um, so yeah, it’s nice to finally have something in common with Robert Frost other than other than being curmudgeonly. So yeah, it’s cool. You know, Robert Frost, I think had three or four Pulitzers. So maybe I’ll get three or four, we can have more in common.

TBS:

Well, let’s hope so. Congratulations on that. 2020 will be one of those years that will forever have an asterisk mark next to it. And I wanted to ask, why do you think it is that at times of unrest, and at times of turmoil, that people find themselves turning to poetry? Do you think that poetry possesses genuine power?

Jericho Brown:

Yeah, I do. The way I think about poetry, is sometimes I get concerned, because I find that other poets don’t feel this way. But the way I think about poetry is the way I think about my car, or my microwave, or bread. And I feel like poetry has use in my physical body. And in my spirit, in my mental being, I feel like poetry does work. The trouble is, and this is part of the reason why poetry is invaluable. You can’t put you can’t put a price tag on it the same way you can put a price tag on a microwave, or a TV, or the car, or the bread, you know? You don’t know what poetry is doing when it’s doing the work it does. Like you know why you’re eating bread and you actually know the result of having eaten bread, you know exactly why your microwave is in the house, you know what it’s supposed to do. You know, if you read enough poems, over time that those poems are doing work on your soul, but you don’t get to know. You don’t get to know how to name that. You don’t even get to know that it has happened when you read a poem. Do you know what I mean? You can read a poem. I know I’ve read poems, that really didn’t matter. I didn’t understand how much they mattered until years and years later. And then they started doing work. And they had really been doing that work all the time. But you could read a poem now that prepares you for an experience that you’re not going to have for twenty years. To answer your question of the why, I think when things get bad, we become all the more aware of our souls, you know? You know, at the height of sex, we say, Oh, God, because we’re most vulnerable, you know what I mean? And at our lowest of lows, even those of us who are atheists, we say, Oh, God, a saying that has to do with seeking, or calling out or asking for a God. The reason why when things get bad people turn to poems, is because they suddenly remember, in the same way, they say, Oh, God, they certainly remember, oh, there is a sound for this. There is an ointment, a cure, something that will help me bide my time or get through this moment. And that is the power of the word. And so, I think it happens instinctively or intuitively, and I don’t think anybody directs it. I think people turn to poetry in the same way that they turn to God, or to church, or to religion, because they understand just as all religions do, the power of words, that words do make a difference, I think we know that… I think we know that you can speak over a life, and therefore change that life… When you read poems, they are speaking over you. And so, when you read them aloud to yourself, you’re speaking over yourself, and so you’re changing things, you’re making yourself somehow better. I think that’s why. And I have to say, and I hope I can, I mean, I can say this, on behalf of, of the poets, but I know I feel this way in a way that feels communal with other poets. I am grateful, I think 2020 was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. But I am grateful that I had the opportunity, that what I do, that my gift was of use. Never before did I feel that way. I mean, I’ve always felt my gift was of use. But never before did I feel that way, as much as I have this last year. This year, I really felt like, oh, people need this and I need to be there, I need to make it accessible to them. I mean, the poems are always out there. But the presence of the poet communicating what poems can do, I think, was necessary in that moment, not just for me, but from so many poets. We found ourselves needed, consciously, not subconsciously or unconsciously, but consciously needed by people. I think we fulfil that need. And I’m proud of that, that we continue to, and I’m proud of that. You know, what’s wonderful about poets and what’s wonderful about this great artist community that we’re part of is that even when people think that the need isn’t there, the need will still be there and the poets will still be feeling. Even when we’re asleep, even when we’re not. which we will be, you know, it’s a matter of time before we go back to thinking everything’s all right. When there are still people getting shot in the street for absolutely no reason by police. We’ll be there soon enough. The poet’s will still, even in those times be telling the truth, you know?

TBS:

Absolutely. I think I’d said to a previous poet that we interviewed Andrew McMillan, I think it was Billy Collins that said that poetry provides a history of the human heart. And we trace our own histories through poetry. And I don’t know what music you’re into Jericho, but I’m going to make it I’m going to draw an analogy now. When I’ve read your work, I compared your work in a deep, deep, deep sense to the likes of Dylan and Leonard Cohen, where you can spend twenty years looking at those words on the page, and never really quite get to the very, very bottom of where that’s come from. What I’m trying to say is, you’re such an incredibly powerful writer, it seems to me like you maybe toil over every single word, is that the case? Or do you just think that when you’re writing, it’s a very spiritual act for you? And it therefore it’s natural? Or is your editing process really, really stringent?

Jericho Brown:

It’s really, really stringent, but I also think that that is spiritual. I mean, when I’m doing my work, I believe that there are purposes for lines and for line break even. And I do believe that poems have to have particular words in the absolute best order, in order for poems to do what they’re supposed to do. And so, yeah, I cry over every word, I belabour every word in the poem, and I ask my friends who are reading my poems when they’re in drafts, is this the right word? Is there another word? I asked myself that same question. So yes, to that, but I don’t think because the poems take work or discipline that that means that they’re any less a spiritual act. I mean, prayer takes work. If you are a person who prays, then you pray on a clock. People who pray, pray before they eat meals, for instance, or pray just before they go to bed. Do you understand what I mean? No one would say that that is not spiritual because it includes discipline. You know what I mean? So, I feel when I am writing, yeah, I feel closer to, I feel connected to a source that’s always there that I don’t always feel as connected to or as close to. I lose time, as artists do. Losing time is always a wonderful experience to have, right? Particularly if you can lose, you know, if you can lose an hour over a semicolon, then you must be having a good time. Do you know what I mean? I think in order for me to write my poems, I have to be open to that. And I have to be open to myself, I have to be open to the truth; to be open to all the facts  that are not necessarily directly related to me. Everything that I know that people would consider trivia, I have to be open to all that – I’m sort of laid bare in the midst of a spiritual process. But yes, of course, spiritual processes are still processes. You’ve got to work; you know? I’ll stop. That’s the answer.

There’s no example that I know of, of something that we think of as a spiritual manifestation. Do you know what I mean? There’s actually no example of that, that didn’t first come with some kind of work toward that manifestation. You know what I’m saying? Let’s say you’re a person who believes in Jesus. Jesus, from what I understand was out here healing the blind and, you know, he was healing sick people; making people who could never walk, walk. But you know, Jesus used to pray all the time. And Jesus just hung out with 12 other guys talking about God all the time. All the time! That’s all he did! Like he went to one wedding. You kno what I’m saying? He went to just the one party is all his life and even when he got there, he had to fight with his mom, do you know what I’m saying? From what I understand, you know, there were these 40 days and 40 nights that Jesus was in the wilderness getting tempted by Satan according to the Bible, you know? All of these things that we think of Jesus being able to do it’s not just that he was the Son of God, he was able to do them because he was also a man and went through stuff, this is my understanding of how Christianity works. That’s discipline – that’s a process!

TBS:

Absolutely. Very interesting perspective Jericho. If we’re talking about all those things that writers go through that, whole process all I’m hours that we spend writing I think that we were all active poets. We’re all pretty happy to accept that not every one of those examples is a diamond. I have piles and piles of books. And most of it will never ever be turned into anything material. I suppose the question I would like to ask you is how would you go about spotting what is valuable in your own work? What is it that about an idea that takes hold in your imagination for you to jump on it and further it?

Jericho Brown:

I think I think there are =,three things. Firstly, I don’t care – I do not care if when I get up from my writing time that I don’t have a poem. I don’t care! Like who cares? I don’t care. If I don’t care. I’m certain no one else cares. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t have this expectation that every time I put something down, it’s gonna work out or it’s gonna be great. And because I don’t have that expectation, everything I get is great. So, you know, it’s not like, I have a sense of, oh, this will really work. It’s more like, Oh, I’m glad I got something. Okay, I’m glad I got anything at all. Sometimes you just get one line and it sits there like, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Sometimes you get three lines. You’re like, wait a minute, I might have a fourth line. Oh, my God, you know? So, I’m just happy to have that happen. And then even when I’m working on these things, and things feel good, I look up. Hours and hours have passed. For me, really, just two hours have passed, and I’m still on line six, and I don’t have a poem. I don’t care! Why do I care? My job is to not die. All I have to do is think Jericho. If I believe it – I’m a poet, then that’s my identity. And I think I learned that from Lucille Clifton. I remember seeing Lucille Clifton give a talk one year, and she said this thing about how she was talking about Alice Walker writing about how having a child means you miss the opportunity to write as much, which is true, and how for Clifton, which was less of a concern, because she just felt like, there’ll be another poem. These kids have put me in a position where I miss these poems, but that’s okay. Because there will be another poem. And she seemed to just believe that because she was a poet, I believe I’m a poet by process of elimination, I can’t do anything else. It takes me twenty minutes to turn the TV on. So I must be a poet. So, I think the first thing is just that. I try not to have a sense of that I try to let things be. And I imagine that all the parts of a poem take time to coalesce. And I’m okay with that. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that I have the community, I have my friends. Poets have each other, you know and I think that’s real. I know other artists have each other, but not in the same way poets do. I mean, your poet friend will call you at two o’clock in the morning and say, ‘I think I got something.’ And you will turn over in your sleep and say, ‘Okay, let me hear what you got.’ And I don’t think violinists are doing that. I mean, I could be wrong. But I don’t think that’s happening for sculptors, you understand what I mean? So, I think we have something special. And I think it’s a part of the poems like I think the poetry community is a part of what gets made. It’s not just that poems come from people, the community has to do with what’s allowed out into the world because our friends, our friends, if they’re friends will tell us ‘No! Don’t send that one to the New Yorker.’ You know what I mean? Sometimes they’ll tell us the opposite, right? They’ll say, ‘Jericho, you’re really onto something here.’ And I’ll think, ‘Oh, okay, I’m really onto something here.’

The third thing is just that sometimes I’m confused about just how much of it I have. But I have enough confidence, ego, narcissism, or whatever that word is, whatever that thing is where I think I’m a poet. I mean, I don’t know why. I don’t question that. I don’t think I’ve questioned that in a very long, I just know I’m a poet. And that can’t disappear… I don’t imagine that’s an identity that can disappear, none of that identity seem to be capable of disappearing. So, I don’t think that that identity is going to disappear just because I’m having a bad month or year even, do you know what I mean? No matter what happens, I’m trying to be where the poets are, I’m trying to be where the poems are, I’m trying to see the poems, I’m trying to pick up the books. I’m interested in the gossip. You know I’m saying? Like, any way you look at it, I feel my investment in that community, and in that identity so deeply, that when I don’t have poems, I don’t let that get in the way. Just like I don’t care if I have a line that’s not great. Because that means the second line will be better. And then I’ll just cut the first line. Like, who cares? Like, y’all know this. even as editors, you don’t know how anything gets done. I feel like everything that’s ever gotten done, everything you’ve ever made, you look back at it, and you’re like, ‘Whoa! How’d that happen?’

TBS:

There’s just no handbook you can give to a poet to go away and write a poem. But it’s really interesting what you’ve spoken about because are you then saying that one of the responsibilities of a poet is to play the waiting game? So, when it does come, you’ve got to act on it?

Jericho Brown:

Well, the waiting game, yes. But I think and you know, you just said and I do agree that there’s no one way. But I do think there are some things the waiting game includes a certain kind of waiting, there are some things you have to be doing. If you’re waiting game means that you’re not going to read a poem until a poem comes to you, then you’re never going to get that poem. The way it works, is that you’ve got to put into that thing to get something out of, do you know what I mean? You’ve got to read poems – you have to read poems you don’t like in order to make ones you do like. You have to figure out what’s missing. You can’t write poems if you do not know what’s missing. You can’t write poems, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, when you pick up a book. If you don’t pick up books, you’re not looking for anything. I think other people might be able to, but I can’t write poems if I’m not in some sort of supportive communication with other poets. I can’t write poems, if I’m not rooting for other poets in some way. I can’t write poems if I’m not teaching. And I don’t think it would have to be teaching, because you know, one day I’ll be retired and I won’t be teaching, right? I don’t think it’ll have to be teaching. But I think I’ll always, you know, I’ll be an old man. I mean, hopefully, I’ll be an old man, right? And I’ll get to figure out what how am I going to have the communication with people necessary to make my own damn poems? Which is always funny, right? Because your friends will understand why you have disappeared. They will never quite understand why you haven’t left your house or changed your underwear in three weeks. Do you know what I mean? Because you’re suddenly ten pages away from a book. This last book I was writing, I just looked up and I was writing a book. I told my editors – the wonderful great people at Copper Canyon Press – in October of 2017 and in late October they asked me ‘Do you think you’ll have something for a slot in 2019?’ I looked at the number of poems I had and I was like ‘No, as a matter of fact.’ I told him ‘You have to stop pressuring me.’ I mean the distance I’m having between poems, between things that I think of as finished is crazy!

TBS:

Thanks for that. Changing direction, I think it’s important for us talk about issues of race and ask how important is it, do you think, for emerging artists of colour or anybody from a marginalised community to see faces like your own appearing in publications like ours or in interviews such as this?

Jericho Brown:

I actually have a hard time answering this question, like emotional difficulty. I don’t think I could have existed ten years before now. I mean I was alive but I could not have existed five years before now even. I could not have been so… Because I exist there will be more like me, so many more that it will seem like I never existed. But it’s only because I exist… I know that because that’s how desperately I needed those models. I mean we’re not just talking about race, but also in terms of sexuality. My expectations in terms of readership or critical attention were very low because the queer writers, particularly black queer writers, weren’t writers who had any kind of acclaim – so I didn’t think of it as an option for myself. They just weren’t the kind of writers who got that kind of acclaim and the writers I looked up to were those writers – but finding them was a chore and a journey. You know what I mean? I think it’s horrendously important! But I think it’s more important though I have to say, that writers who are not of colour see it. I think it’s important that we see one another, but I actually think the race question is a question that I would love to see more white people talking about in the midst of other questions during Q and A’s and interviews – just like right now. We could be talking about a line, a metaphor. Race can come up, then something else can come up. We can start talking about endings, do you understand what I mean? All of that same conversation will happen with a white poet and race doesn’t come up and I don’t understand why. I don’t understand how. It’s kind of strange at this point that it doesn’t happen since I don’t think there’s a white poet who isn’t thinking about these things. They might not want to think about these things but at this point everybody’s in a position where they are.

TBS:

It has to be it has to be a topic that’s discussed because for so long it’s been brushed under the carpet, for so long the certain things have happened in the world and they must be acknowledged. We have gotten into this really interesting, poignant, and important discussion about race and how your poetry has impacted and inspired an awful lot of people from various generations to understand that they have a voice within this wonderful art form. I’m interested to hear, does all of this weigh heavy on you? The discussions about race, and queerness – when you’re out in the world, or when you’re writing, when you’re creating, are you aware of your position?

Jericho Brown:

You’re probably a little too aware, I’m participating right now because it gets it gets the word out, not about me, or even about the book, but about poetry in general. You know? I know what it’s like to watch programmes such as this and hear people talking and vehemently disagree with them. I want to be able to contribute my thought to this larger conversation about poems and about poetry that we’re all having with one another. What do I think about that? Or do I know that? Yeah, I think I know it a little too much and I think it’s probably hampered some things recently. But I see now as the spring gets more springlike, I see that’s on the way out, I’m about to not think about it too much. It is, I think, important that I know, for younger poets, or for younger people, that when they see me, they will see somebody, they will see something that I don’t necessarily recognise in myself. Something that I might need to act like in order to be appropriate with them, and in order to be encouraging to them. So, I am aware of that. But other than that, I’m not thinking about it while I’m trying to write. But who knows, maybe I’m sort of subconsciously thinking about it while I’m trying to write and maybe if I weren’t, I would get more writing done. It’s also hard, I think, because when you write you don’t want naysayers in your head. People who wouldn’t want me to be able to make a poem. I just have to stop thinking about them and think about getting work done. Think about progressing. You know?

TBS:

The craft is always first. You’re a poet first and these positions that you find yourself in, almost like an activist, that’s always secondary to you? It’s always about the poetry?

Jericho Brown:

Yeah. Yeah. You know, I love the Divas, I love I love Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick, and what I really love about them as they have gotten older, watching them in their later years, you know, they’re in their 70s and I think a couple of them might be in their 80s now, and obviously Aretha Franklin has passed. What I really love is seeing them sing their songs live. I don’t know why, but every time I see it, no matter what the performance, my response – and I’ll say this out loud, sort of looking at the TV, I’ll say – ‘That girl got out there and sung her song! I bet she sure sung her songs!’ Because, you know, you’ve still got to do it. You got to get out there on that stage, singing a song. You’ve got to sing! And there’s no way around that. You know? There’s no way around the fact that when Gladys Knight is in front of us singing, she’s still singing. She’s still opening her mouth. She’s still hitting those notes. She’s still in key, you know? And that’s what I have got to do. Whatever happens, I need poems to back it up. You gotta have poems! So, what’s first for me is making poems. Because when all else fails, or whatever anybody might have to say about me or me as a figure? What I will always have is the poems. The poems won’t change.

TBS:

Thank you very much. That’s quite a poignant statement. Now, your work is at times tempestuous and devastating. You have moments where of clarity when as a reader, something just strikes a chord, and this line from your poem, Coliseum is one that I have shared with the community and discussed, ‘I cannot locate the origin of slaughter, but I know how my own feels that I live with it and sometimes use it to get the living done’. That for me, is so incredibly powerful from your book The New Testament. Is poetry therapy, in a sense?

Jericho Brown:

Oh, yeah. Well, no, because if you say that everybody gets mad. But I mean, obviously, I said this earlier in the interview. poems do mind work. Although sometimes they don’t do enough mind work, obviously, because plenty of awful people are writing deft poems, I guess. At the same time, I think as a reader, I don’t think I’m so special in terms of what poems have done for my life, so I imagine that’s what they’re doing for other people’s lives. That’s not about explicating, or interpreting, or analysing the poem. That’s about experiencing a poem The same way you experience a tree – you know, like every once in a while, you see a tree and it knocks you out? I saw a tree like this in Piedmont Park here in Atlanta. It was a memorial service, a socially distanced memorial service for somebody who had recently been murdered and as we were walking to where the event was going to be, I remember looking at this tree and I kept telling everybody, ‘Oh my God, look at this tree!’ And everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, it looks nice.’ I was like, Why? Why am I the only one who still wants to talk about this tree? Because the tree had done something for me, and different poems are going to do different things for different people. I think our relationship to poems need to be like our relationships to, to nature, to trees, to beauty, you know? Poems are beautiful to me, like flowers. Do you know what I mean? The real question is, are flowers therapy? And the answer to that question is no. But if you get rid of all of the flowers on the planet, suddenly, you’re going to need therapy. If you get rid of the trees, you’re going to need therapy? They must have been therapy then, right? They must have been useful. What is the use of a flower? What’s a flower doing for me? Do you know what I mean? I think that’s what poems do for me.

TBS:

I love this metaphor. Thanks so much for your time!

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