The Poem Has to Discover Things: An Interview with Jericho Brown

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Jericho Brown’s The Tradition confounds. In his third collection, the poet and director of creative writing at Emory College insists on the uneasy truths and messy contradictions of human lives. When we are tempted to seek shelter in the stories we already know, Brown’s lines ask us to wait a moment. Wait here a moment. Let’s take a closer look together. 

After Brown spoke on Mar. 4 as part of The Yale Review’s “Writing in an Age of Crisis” series, I asked him about writing out of a capacious love, looking without judgement, and the anti-racist reading list. 

Kanyinsola Anifowoshe: I’m in awe of the centrality of love in your poems and their contrast with our culture’s apparent dismissal of love as ineffectual. What do you see as love’s work, particularly in response to injustice?

Jericho Brown: I think love is always there, and I think it’s always there bigly, as somebody used to say. But it’s hard to report on. It’s easier to report on an obvious conflict than it is to speak in a forthright way about love—because love is an abstraction that probably doesn’t make for what we think of as tension. But in actuality, there is obvious tension wherever there is love, right? Because love is always colored, it’s always shaded; it’s never as simple as the word makes it sound. 

I don’t write out of security and safety—I write out of love, which is a much larger risk since it’s the thing we don’t understand. We understand security and safety—we know why people go to war. But we don’t really know why if you live in Massachusetts, you could meet somebody today and four months from now be moving to California where they live—because you just got to be where they are. There is no explaining that. I’m much more interested in it because it is mysterious and because it is a power which we have not tapped into fully. 

KA: In the poem “The Microscopes,” you write, “Narrow as the pencil tucked behind my ear, lost / When I reached for it / To stab someone I secretly loved.” Reading this, my heart instantly drew back at that tension in portraying love as both tender and terrifying. Could you speak about why your poems are drawn to this two-sided nature of love and terror? 

JB: Because it’s true. It’s been very important to me to be honest in my poems and to have poems that tell the truth. I want to build a poem that is as complex as a life or a person. If I am writing a poem about or for my mother, it has to really encapsulate the actual feelings I have for my mother. And yes, those include some Hallmark kind of feelings about love, but they also include other things that will not be in Hallmark cards. And that’s why it’s a poem. 

If I’m writing a poem and my mother is in the poem, then you have to rest assured that there’s going to be some elements of the poem that you don’t automatically connect to a mother. Because the poem has to discover things. It has to investigate and discover what you may not have expected it to discover. It has to go places you don’t expect it to go, which, by the way, is also an act of love. So I make use of my love for my mother in order to reach out about other things. For instance, a poem like “Foreday in the Morning” ends up being a poem about the love for the natural world; also, a poem about family in general; also, a poem about Black people. I’m interested in a love capacious enough to reach beyond its supposed subject matter.

KA: Could you discuss the relationship your poems develop between speaker and reader, and the potential for this capacious love to exist there?

JB: Readers are interested in identifying themselves in poems. I think that’s fine—but reading has to do with more than just connecting to that which we know about ourselves or that which we can identify with ourselves. I do think that’s necessary, particularly if you haven’t seen examples of yourself in literature. But there’s this other thing that poems ask us to do and that a speaker in a poem asks us to do—and that is to not relate, to love in spite of, to love anyway

That’s sort of my problem with universality—this idea that I can only be interested in you because of what we have in common. Mike Brown is dead because Darren Wilson didn’t imagine that Mike Brown could make a sandwich, or that Mike Brown had a mother! Us having something in common with one another or in common with the speaker is actually of no use to us, because it doesn’t save any lives. It only makes us more comfortable with ourselves in the short run—in the time it takes for the bullet to leave the gun and kill me.

It’s actually more important that a poet think about creating figures that are true and real, and that the reader be open enough for the vulnerability of having to deal with somebody while reading that they otherwise would not interact with. And that’s not just the speaker, that’s language itself. The language of poetry should be surprising enough and original enough that the speaker is re-learning both subject and language itself. We don’t want to encounter what we’ve already encountered in the poem. The speaker must be there for you to identify with as a human being and remind you of your humanness—but the speaker must also be different from you, and particular to me! Even if I’m speaking through the voice of someone else, that speaker needs to be particular to me—because the more particular it is to me, the more different it will be to you, the reader. 

KA: You’ve said that every love poem is a political poem, but you’ve also expressed that you believe poetry can change persons, but not necessarily change people. Could you reflect more on reading poetry as a political act, especially over the past year, which has felt like the era of the “anti-racist reading list”?

JB: One of the things good art does is make you feel an emotion. If that emotion is sustained for long enough, then it makes you think because you want to know why you were crying. And if that thought is sustained for long enough, it’ll change your action or it will make you finally act. Poems wake us up to things that we didn’t know or that we were ignoring. If they wake us up, then of course they’re political, because they change our relationship to one another and to the natural world. A poem about the environment might be a poem in which the environment is only mentioned obliquely and for a second, but for whatever reason, for you individually as a reader, it might change your mind about how you handle the Earth.

I understand that poems are political, but I don’t really like getting into that conversation because it’s like, poems are political—and what? What now? People say the word “anti-racist” to me and I sort of want to run. Everybody’s trying to find a way around racism and homophobia and misogyny and they’re trying to do this without real confrontation with real people. They’re trying to find ways to do this while putting up with—which, by the way, is our way of life. And until we make some sort of mass effort to not put up with, it will remain our way of life. 

It’s either going to have to be “yes” or “no”—and “no” is not possible. And the antiracist this and the antiracist that does not make the “no” possible. 

When I write my poems, I’m writing them for me first. My poems are making me more empathetic; my poems are making me more free; my poems are making me more loving. Whatever my poems do to me in the act of writing them, they can do that to the reader. I feel an emotion when I’m writing a poem; I’m crying while I’m writing the poem—I imagine then that this poem might make somebody else feel an emotion and cry. 

But because I’m a Black man, I actually can’t write poems that solve racism because I don’t have it. So this idea that my poems are going to solve some white person’s racism— I don’t know, I don’t see how that works! 

It goes back to that “in common” thing. If my poems are solving your racism based on what you have in common with me, then they haven’t solved your racism—because you better believe we gon’ get to some shit you ain’t got in common with me. And when you don’t have something in common with me, that’s when it’s okay for you to murder me. Fuck that!

KA: In your interview with Krista Tippet, you compare poetry to meditation and discuss allowing yourself to be surprised by how language leads you to a poem. I’m curious if you meditate—and whether or how you feel it informs your poetry.

JB: With meditation, you see things, and part of your job is to not lose the fact of looking. You want to be able to just look without judgment. The reason why seemingly contradictory things can come up in a poem is because when I’m writing a poem, I’m not judging. I don’t think there’s a difference between the image of a shoestring and the memory of a rape. I’m using all of that in elements for the poem. 

It’s similar to prayer and meditation because it’s about allowing, as opposed to sitting there trying to make a point—which is the worst thing you could ever do in a poem. Or sitting there trying to say something—who cares what you’ve got to say when you’ve already made the decisions? Let the poem say what it has to say! Let it speak by way of your subconscious. You have to do things when you’re writing that will tap into your subconscious so that you’re saying what you didn’t expect, so you can move beyond your point. 

The only reason I know this is true is because I arrive at my own ideas through my poems. Even after having been hassled by the police my entire life, I would never have understood my feelings about the police as, “Why are they here? I don’t need them. Make them go away.” I would not have understood that if I were not writing my own poetry.  Watching the news doesn’t do that for me; reading a pamphlet about defunding the police doesn’t do that for me. I think it does for other people. I’m just saying I’m not that smart—I need my poems to organize my thoughts and to create clarity in my mind.

KA: I’ve read two of your poems that have come out in the last year, which, like so many of the poems in The Tradition, are full of touch. In “Inaugural,” you write, “If I touch any of you, if I / Shake one hand, I am nearer another / Beginning. Can’t you feel it?” And in “Say Thank You, Say I’m Sorry:” “a grief so thick / You could touch it. Go on. Touch it.” How has your thinking and writing about touch has changed over the past year?

JB: Touch is my love language—which might be why I’m not doing so well with the pandemic. It’s just my natural way of being: I’m a hugger; I’m a cuddler; I love to make love. I just miss touch, and maybe the recent poems are trying to manifest it on the page since I can’t have it in real life.

Cover illustration by Robert Samec

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