Jericho Brown Writes What’s On His Mind
“I think we’ve been telling our students so long, ‘Write what you know. Write your lived experience,’ and I think our students have this idea that that means write about the time A, B, and C happened to me, but that’s not really it. It’s more, write what you can’t stop thinking about. Write what’s on your mind.”
Jericho Brown promises no revelations. His poems are tight, trimmed of excess, lyrical and lonely.
I want to answer their questions
Tell them the dead man’s name
But I cannot identify the broken body.
Even I don’t know who he is.
His poems are home to the hardest questions: Can a boy love the father who whips him? What’s the best way to injure, after departure, the person one loves?
How best to hurt you.
Fling a pitcher of sweet tea.
All the lights on.
Phone your mother
And threaten cremation.
Set fire to your cassettes
Brown says, “Write what you can’t stop thinking about. Write what’s on your mind.” For him, this is love and the complication of loving. It is the fact of violence, and the conflict in forgiveness. It is, especially, the strange tension between nostalgia and suffering — the way the poet transforms that tension into art.
We learn to listen to music
Over hollers, through
Smoke. Her soprano comes across
A photograph in giggles,
But ends up crying,
Save me. We think we’d like that
Kind of love, sad and steeped
In trumpets, though a block up
The entire decade shoots
For words to put in the dictionary:
Crackhead, drive-by. Loss
Jericho Brown converts life’s tragedies to rhythmic stories about family, about love and home, about Southern culture’s ragged edge. These poems wake the reader from reverie. They place him at the moment of rupture. If poetry is a literature of the heartbeat, then Brown’s poems are the blood that infuses its song. They fuel the poet, in the middle of the stage, holding the final note, proving by raw emotion the universality of human kinship.
— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor
Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.
Carlin M. Wragg: What I love about hearing you read that poem is that the punctuation on the page stands for the places that you pause as the writer reading. It makes me wonder what punctuation means to you in poems.
JB: Well, I think I’m a poet because I took way too much too seriously. I was always excited about sentences. Even when I was really young I was really excited about sentences. I remember being a kid in elementary school and knowing the difference between a comma and a semicolon and my teacher being proud of me because of that. I guess I liked that feeling of having my teacher be proud of me because I was the one in class who knew what a semicolon was really supposed to do and where it was supposed to be and how you make use of a semicolon. Because of that I was just like — I think I’m still the same way — I’m like, “This semicolon is real life.”
So commas and dashes and colons and exclamation points and question marks are really very important to me when it comes to how the poem is going to be read aloud, and what’s going to happen for the reader when they’re reading the poem.
I have to add though that maybe that’s just part of being a poet. I’ve always said that you know you’re a poet when you type an emdash and you hit the delete button, and you type a colon and you hit the delete button, and you type an emdash and you hit the delete button, and you type a colon and you hit the delete button [laughter]. If you can do that for about three hours straight trying to figure out which one is the best one, if you can do that for three hours and call that a good time then you’re probably a poet.
CMW: I want to ask you about physical abuse. The book opens — at least to me as a reader — with this as a dominant theme but it changes and dissipates as we move through the poems. I was curious about why you wanted to start on those terms.
JB: It’s interesting, the first poem in a book ends up being what the book is about whether you like it or not. It’s so funny, I read so many books and I think, “Oh wow, I sure wish I could have reordered this book for this particular poet.” [laughter] I guess that’s completely egotistical or something, right? But I feel like people don’t have this idea, like people don’t know how to put books in order or how to bring themes forward in a book. That’s the way I understood the first poem. What’s interesting about that poem is that it’s one of the few poems in the book that I gave myself an assignment to write. I really wanted to write a poem that encompassed everything that was happening in the manuscript, and I wanted that poem to be first, and I wanted that poem to be worth being first because there’s a way in which often if the first poem isn’t good we want to just give up already and I didn’t want anyone to give up on the book.
I think that’s why the physical violence and abuse that appears in that poem is there. I knew it was a part of the whole of the book and I wanted that to be one of the things that came through in that poem, just as I wanted an element of sex and sexuality to come through, and an element of music and the love of music.
Just looking back at the poems in Please I really do feel like there’s a way in which this speaker in this poem, or this “me,” is really a slave to music, and to love, and he doesn’t know the difference between the two. It’s like love songs equal love for him. I think that’s why it’s at the beginning of the book. That poem, by the way, is “Track 1: Lush Life.”
The other thing I can say about “Track 1: Lush Life” is that it used to be this really perfect sonnet that I was very proud of and I worked really hard at making it not a sonnet anymore. There are a few poems in the book that are like that, poems that used to be ghazals or used to be villanelles. I felt like that was my opportunity to stamp my individual self on the tradition that was put forward by the form. I thought that that would be what made the difference in terms of the book being it’s own thing, as opposed to this book where this poet is showing off the fact that he can write in these forms. The other reason “…what I mean is that you have to become aware of what your talents are and you have to milk them for everything they’re worth, and you have to become aware of where you’re weak and you have to try and strengthen that as best you can.”that poem is first is because I wanted a poem to be first in the book that people would either love or hate. There’s a way in which I felt that I could write a poem that either turned people completely off because of its use of form or because of its subject matter, or turned people completely on because of its use of form and its subject matter. I’ve always been taken with that, with this idea that anything you do you have to do completely and all the way and that’s how you stake a place for yourself as a writer. When I say “for yourself as a writer” I don’t mean in this competitive way, what I mean is that you have to become aware of what your talents are and you have to milk them for everything they’re worth, and you have to become aware of where you’re weak and you have to try and strengthen that as best you can.
CMW: I want to ask you what you learned from singers and from music. Did they teach you anything that helped you think about writing in a new way?
JB: That’s a good question. When I was thinking about ordering the book I listened to Prince’s “Purple Rain” over and over again thinking that it was going to have all the answers for me. I guess it did because that’s what I listened to when putting the book together. The other thing I believe is that every artist needs some sort of a metaphor for his or her art. We know this from reading reviews, right? You can’t talk about art without using a metaphor of some sort to discuss it. This is how you know it’s an otherworldly, supernatural thing.
When people start talking about poems they start talking about stuff like pacing. Well, are you talking about poems or are you talking about running? So for me, because I was a fan of this music, music became the metaphor and it helped me think about things like climaxes and beginnings and openings and endings. It was very useful for me to think about the poems in that way while composing the poems.
CMW: One of the things that I’m trying to think more actively about is about how to articulate the relationship between poetry and music in a way that doesn’t cheapen either, that develops their relationship with each other without saying “lyrics are poetry and poetry is music.” Since you’ve thought so much about that I wonder if you have thoughts to share?
JB: Maybe I have a few thoughts. The main one I always have is that the difference between poetry and music is that poetry uses music. Songs, right, they have lyrics, but we know from many of the songs we listen to and enjoy and love that those lyrics don’t have to make very much in the way of meaning in order for us to love the song. A great deal is done by what the singer puts into the phrasing, the way in which they deliver the song. This is why people love Billie Holiday, right? She could sing the simplest of lyrics and deliver it in a way that said twenty-seven other things about that simple lyric.
But a poem seems to me to make music out of a combination of words. It asks the words to manipulate themselves into music. The poet’s job is to create music from words, which is very different from singing. Poetry is different because we don’t just make music, we make meaning as well. I think that’s the important thing about poetry; that in it there is music being used but there’s a different kind of an end that has something to do with the meaning of sentences. I literally teach my students — when I teach them to read poems, because many of them haven’t read poems before, I tell them, “Hey, don’t get discouraged by the line breaks. Just read until you get to some punctuation. Stop. Process. Read until you get to some punctuation. Stop. Process. Do it in the same way you read a piece of prose. We’ll handle the line breaks later.”
CMW: What do you say to them? What are the line breaks?
JB: I think line breaks have something to do with doubt. “[Poetry] asks the words to manipulate themselves into music. The poet’s job is to create music from words, which is very different from singing. Poetry is different because we don’t just make music, we make meaning as well.”That’s why I think poetry is so completely different from prose, because it’s infused with doubt. I mean, at the moment of a line break, even if it’s for a millisecond, you’re thrust into doubt, you’re thrust into a place where you’re not certain what just happened or what’s going to happen.
The first experience I had of reading a poem and being completely worn out was reading Sylvia Plath’s “Edge” because it was the first poem I read where the modifier and the noun are broken at the line break. I think it’s something like “Her bare” — line break — “Feet.” I’ll never forget that feeling. I was in a library in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I remember getting to that moment, to “Her bare / Feet,” and not being able to get myself together. It was at this moment that I had this sudden understanding of what line breaks could do, that they could thrust you into this moment of rupture and this change of meaning that prose doesn’t necessarily allow for.
CMW: There are a couple of things you’ve said which I think are really interesting to bring together. One of them is the poem as a confrontation with the reader, that the poem says, “I’m going to wake you up. I’m going to confront you with this reality and you’re going to look at it and we’re going to converse about it through the page.” But the line breaks tell the reader that the poem is also saying, “I don’t really know the answer.” You allow the poem to be strong as it lives in the space of not promising anything, not promising a revelation, which I find interesting. I think that one of the things people may be challenged by with poetry is thinking that they have to “get it.” They think they have to understand what the poem is telling them, and because the poem communicates through such a small amount of space when it doesn’t come clearly through it seems so strange because there’s so little on the page. I love the way you’ve talked about those things — the mechanics, the punctuation, the line breaks — that these are things that work together to create this other form, that it’s not just fiction broken up but that it’s a really different thing.
JB: You know, I’ll go a step further and say that poems ask us not to understand. One of the first poets I loved is this poet named Essex Hemphill. There’s a young man I know who’s a jazz pianist who goes to the Berklee College of Music named Calvin Brown and I was showing him these poems by Essex Hemphill. He read one poem and he said, “I don’t get it,” and I said, “You don’t get it because you’re trying to get it. Stop doing that.” Suddenly I said this thing that I actually felt some art saying. I said, “The first time you heard Monk you didn’t get it, but you liked it, it felt good, and you were okay with that and you moved on. Then the next time you heard it you were like, ‘Oh, and there’s this.’ Then the next time you heard it you were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s this too!’” I said, “Just read the poem. Just enjoy the poem.” So he read it, he sat there and he read the same poem and he said, “Oh wow, that is a lot better!” [laughter]
CMW: I love that. I love that because you don’t expect that from music, right? You go, “I love this. I don’t know why but I love this.” But with a poem sometimes our expectations prevent us from having that first emotional reaction.
JB: It’s the problem with words and the problem with the thing that I said earlier, right? Poems do carry meaning but that doesn’t mean their meaning has to be the first thing that attracts us to them. If that was the case we wouldn’t know who the hell Wallace Stevens was. I’ve never believed that. I’ve never believed that what attracts us to poems is knowing what’s going on in poems. As a matter of fact, I think just the opposite. Maybe that’s the problem that people have with poetry, because that’s not the way we’re taught what words are. I do want poems to have meaning but I also think that having meaning isn’t the end of the conversation.
CMW: How about reading “Track 5: Summertime?”
CMW: Can you talk about the relationship between the poem and the song?
JB: The song “Summertime” is such a joyful song: “The living is easy, fish are jumpin’, the cotton is high, your daddy’s rich.” It’s really like, we’re going to have a good time. It sounds very drunk too. I was really taken with that, and with this idea that some people could have that idea of the South, that some people’s idea of the South could come from “Summertime.”
Then I was thinking about Janis Joplin and the way she sings this song and how, for her, through listening to her sing that song she says the living is easy and you know it’s not. I love to hear that woman holler. I like the fact that she goes off note and off key sometimes and they’ll keep it in the recording. That’s a real big turn-on for me. I love that about her. I love that about Mary J. Blige too. I remember I saw this interview with Mary J. Blige and somebody asked her how one of the later albums was like her other albums or how it was different and she said, “Well, you know if Mary don’t miss a note then it’s not a Mary J. Blige album.” I thought that was so interesting, like this purposeful mistake-making and how that pushes a song into a different kind of meaning. So I was thinking about those things and I was trying to focus on what a single summer may have been like for Janis Joplin growing up. But more than that, in all honesty, because when I think of persona poems I really think about them as masks — I think Natasha Trethewey’s book Bellocq’s Ophelia is a really good example of this – I didn’t need to know very much about Janis Joplin in order to write this poem. I had done all this. I had lived this life. Jericho Brown had done all this. The only thing that’s different is that my dad never worked at a refinery and I’m not from Port Arthur. Other than that, it just seemed like, right down to “I’m such an ugly girl,” it really did seem like something I would be capable of saying. I think that’s really how the poem came to be.
You said something about confrontation earlier and I wanted to speak to that as well because it is true, I probably do see poems that way, and that’s the reason why so many poems speak directly to the reader. So there’s this “you” who very clearly seems to be the reader in the poems in Please. Once I saw that that was happening I realized this whole idea that you mentioned earlier about confrontation.
You know, I’m thinking now that that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m writing in the African-American tradition. I think about poems from the Harlem Renaissance, or when I think about poems from the Black Arts Movement, or even if I go way before that, if I think about poems by Phillis Wheatley, there’s a way in which there’s “Dealing with masculinity and femininity, identity and gender and sexuality and race seems to me the calling — confronting these things and the fact of their complexity seems to me part of my job.”this expectation of a hostile reader for so many of those poets. There’s a way in which the poems are working so hard to prove something, or working so hard to show or teach a thing. I think that has something to do with that. For me, I think that it also had to do with the fact that I knew that a lot of people would be turned off by the homoerotic in the poems. I figured this out in graduate school, this is the reason that so many poets aren’t interested in these labels in spite of the fact that they have these identities in their lives, is because they understand what assholes readers can be. You tell somebody that this is a “black poem” or a “gay poem” and they assume, “I guess that means I don’t want to read it.” The really sad thing isn’t just that, but this idea that everybody wants to read a white poem, or a straight poem.
CMW: I think that’s interesting that you say that because when I was reading I was interested in how, going back to what you were talking about with ideas of race and identity and sexual identity, you articulate those things through a poem in which you assume the persona of a white singer, who’s a woman. What I was getting from it was that the experiences you describe in the poem transcend racial identity or gender identity, all of that. It had more location for me in the South, and in the experience of a child. I was really surprised by that because when I was set up by the title and the note “Janis Joplin” I was expecting the poem to be something different. And the question is, did you feel like you really wanted it to deal with some of those issues?
JB: Well, my greatest attribute and maybe my biggest problem is that I don’t know what the other issues are. I’m of the impression that that’s what my poems do and that’s what they’ll always do. So there’s a way in which it’s purposeful and yet not purposeful. Dealing with masculinity and femininity, identity and gender and sexuality and race seems to me the calling — confronting these things and the fact of their complexity seems to me part of my job. So when I’m drafting a poem or revising a poem I don’t really have a second thought about that, I just think that’s what I’m supposed to do.
I think we’ve been telling our students so long, “Write what you know. Write your lived experience,” and I think our students have this idea that that means write about the time A, B, and C happened to me, but that’s not really it. It’s more, write what you can’t stop thinking about. Write what’s on your mind. Use events in history and people and metaphor, use that stuff to discuss what’s on your mind.
CMW: Well it’s about nine o’clock, so it’s time to finish up. Would you read “Why I Cannot Leave You” as a closing poem?
JB: Okay, good.