Poet Jericho Brown Interview Just Before Guggenheim

May 11, 2016

Jericho Brown during Mid-Day West Michigan interview at WGVU studios.
Credit Mariano Avila / WGVU

Wednesday, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced its 2016 fellows. Among them is poet Jericho Brown, the author of the book Please, and more recently, The New Testament. He is a professor of Poetry at Emory University and his name has featured on a host of publications, awards, and fellowships. Just a few days ago, he sat in our studio for an interview with WGVU’s Mariano Avila as part of Mutually Inclusive. Their conversation spans from body image, to 60s rock, to the Ku Klux Clan. In it Brown also reads two of his poems. Take a listen.

Mariano Avila: The morning that we did our interview, I met Jericho Brown at the lobby of the Amway Grand in Grand Rapids. He walked in wearing jeans and a sweater influenced by Bauhause, rectangles in solid primary colors arranged in orchestrated asymmetry. Brown is a man about six feet tall with braids in his hair and an imposing physique—which, combined with his jovial and soft-spoken nature make it difficult to guess his age. But what he doesn’t leave to guesswork or interpretation, are the contours of his identity. Three adjectives he uses are: Black, Gay, and Southern. As I led him across the Grand River to the studio, he remarked on how much he enjoyed his first-ever visit to the city. Which is where I decided to start out our conversation.

MA: How do you find Grand Rapids, now that you’ve spent some time here? How was it, your stay here?

JB: Oh, I had a good time. There’s a lot of art all over the city. A lot of installations it seems, and these wonderful little statues and paintings that are just everywhere. It seems to be a great place to write, actually because of that, because of all of these really odd images that are just about.  

MA: So, have you gotten any writing done while you were here?

JB: Oh, I wish that I had gotten writing done. I write a little bit of something everyday, but it’s hard to really call that writing. You know, when you’re on the road toward a poem it’s a different kind of a feeling. But most of what I’ve been writing are notes towards what hopefully will some day put me on the road toward a poem.

MA: Do you call them notes or sketches, or what, what do you call them?

JB: I just keep a log of lines and ideas. When I think of something I try to put it down, when I overhear something I try to put it down. This makes for huge trouble when it’s traffic time because I’m always trying to pull over and write things down. I’ve been one to honor the fact that a line can come to you at any given moment—in the middle of the night in the middle of the day, in the middle of anything that you’re doing. When the idea comes to me I sort of need to zone out for a second and get the idea down, because you never know where it might lead. I have to be really, what’s the word, religious about it, to be quite honest with you. And I have to observe it on a daily basis.

MA: About how much reading do you do compared to how much writing you do?

JB: I would say that I probably read 50 pages of poetry per day. I used to be able to say that I read a book per day. But then I got to a point where people ask me to read their manuscripts, or ask me, I have students, I’m reading their poems. I’m often judging contests or fellowship contests; those kinds of things make for a lot of the reading that I do. So I don’t always get to the finished thing, I’m often looking at things that are not necessarily done and trying to find ways to make them better or trying to find which of those things are most complete, which of those things is ready.

For instance, I just judged a book contest for Boa [Editions], a press in upstate New York. A press that I actually admired a great deal when I was younger. They published the books of Li-Young Lee, and Naomi Shihab Nye, and Lucille Clifton, poets that I was just crazy about when I was a kid. And I don’t know how that works in terms of the ratio, but I know that reading is an intense part of my life and I have a lot of books that I’m always returning to.  

MA: What is one of the books that you go back to the most, that you keep finding yourself saying “I want to read this again?”

JB: Sula, by Toni Morrison. I love that book so much. I love the sensuality of the book. I love that the book is about friendship. I love that there’s danger in the book. I love that it’s a story that’s about kids and then it turns out to be a story that it’s about adults. I love the fact that she manages to get these whole lives in a book that is in actuality quite short for a novel. I’m always fascinated by how short that novel is and yet how much it encapsulates. You know, I’m really taken by this in literature. Obviously in poetry we manage to get a great deal in a short space. And that’s always been my goal, that’s always been the thing about it that keeps attracting me to it.

I remember reading the poems of Bill Nye who would have these two or three line poems, and thinking how is it that I just read those two lines and I read them six hours ago but I’m still thinking about those two lines. And that’s always been my goal, that’s what I want for my poems. I want to write poems that encapsulate an entire world in a very small space. That even though the space is small, the words, the lines themselves linger and they lead someone to continue thinking about them. You know, the more you think about a thing, the more your mind is liable to change, and the more your mind changes, the more your actions change. And that’s what, I think, writing is ultimately about.  

MA: There are two themes I’d like to ask you about today : one of them is, you write a lot about the body, and the word itself appears often. And you obviously spend a lot of time on your body, you work out—you’re built. What is your relationship to that word: body.

JB: I’ve had a very tumultuous relationship with my body. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t eat. I was about this height—6 ft. 6.1’, and maybe 110 lbs. And I think that lasted, I mean, I don’t think I really started putting on weight until I was 25 years old. Yeah, I was skinny a long time, I was something worse than skinny, I was in the danger zone.

There came a point in my life when I became really afraid of losing my life. I realized that all of this playing around with thoughts of suicide and playing around with thoughts of a certain kind of anorexia, and playing around with these things wasn’t really ultimately what I wanted. What I wanted was to write, and in order to write, I would have to live. The drive in me to get work done in that way was much stronger than the drive in me to get rid of myself. And because of that, I felt that if I have some sort of attention to that in my poems then that will lead me to some sort of transcendence in my poems or revelation or epiphany or whatever you might call it. That a certain kind of focus on the body can lead to something that is greater than the body.

[Musical intro to Gershwin’s Summertime as sung by Janis Joplin]

JB: This poem is a poem that’s in the voice of Janis Joplin who is a singer that I loved when I was a kid. I just love to hear. I still to this day, I love to hear, I love to hear people holler.

[Janis Joplin singing Gershwin’s Summertime]

I mean I just, I really do. There’s something about the moments of a song when somebody gets really excited. They throw caution to the wind and they give up on, you know, staying on key or in tune. And if they miss a note in the middle of it, it’s ok because there’s something about the spirit of it that comes through. That has always been attractive to me. And Janis Joplin is one of those singers that I heard when I was very young who I was just like: “Who is that and what is she doing?” So, I’

Track 5: Summertime

as performed by Janis Joplin

God’s got his eye on me, but I ain’t a sparrow. 


I’m more like a lawn mower . . .no, a chainsaw,  


Anything that might mangle each manicured lawn 


In Port Arthur, a place I wouldn’t return to 


If the mayor offered me every ounce of oil 


My daddy cans at the refinery. My voice, I mean, 


Ain’t sweet. Nothing nice about it. It won’t fly 


Even with Jesus watching. I don’t believe in Jesus. 


The Baxter boys climbed a tree just to throw 


Persimmons at me. The good and perfect gifts 


From above hit like lightning, leave bruises. 


So I lied—I believe, but I don’t think God 


Likes me. The girls in the locker room slapped 


Dirty pads across my face. They called me 


Bloodhound, but I never bit back. I ain’t a dog. 


Chainsaw, I say. My voice hacks at you. I bet 


I tear my throat. I try so hard to sound jagged. 


I get high and say one thing so many times 


Like Willie Baker who worked across the street— 


I saw some kids whip him with a belt while he 


Repeated, Please. School out, summertime 


And the living lashed, Mama said I should be 


Thankful, that the town’s worse to coloreds 


Than they are to me, that I’d grow out of my acne.  


God must love Willie Baker—all that leather and still 


A please that sounds like music. See.  


I wouldn’t know a sparrow from a mockingbird.  


The band plays. I just belt out, Please. This tune 


Ain’t half the blues. I should be thankful.  


I get high and moan like a lawn mower 


So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl.


I’m such an ugly girl. I try to sing like a man 


Boys call, boy. I turn my face to God. I pray. I wish 


I could pour oil on everything green in Port Arthur.

[Janis Joplin singing Gershwin’s Summertime]

MA: In this persona poem you also address racial complexities in the south.

JB: This really does happen; I don’t know why people think we’re making it up. There’s a point in your life when your parents sit you down and inform you that you are black. This happened for me, this happened for my sister. This was something I’ll never forget. When I was in high school, I had a friend named Marcus, he would come by and we’d go to the bowling alley or, you know, we would go hang out. And my mother would always, every time we would leave was like “y’all be careful, y’all know, y’all young black men now, y’all be careful out there.” She had this look on her face, and I was like “Why’s she trip? Why’s this woman telling me I’m black all the time, I got a mirror?” And they wanted us to live, they wanted us to be safe, and they understood, just as parents do, that there’s an element out there that clearly does not want to keep them safe, that does not honor our lives in the same way that other lives are honored. And that’s very scary.

When I think about Jesus Huerta’s life, it’s like “what’s going on?” Really, what is going on that we have this long list of people of color that supposedly kill themselves in police custody. It’s impossible. Tyorne White supposedly shot himself in the back while handcuffed in the back of a police car. How is this possible? And it’s these kinds of thing that they burn me up, they make me angry. But, I think, I grew up knowing these things. The day before my first day of high school the Ku Klux Klan had a meeting in the front of the high school where I went to school. Right there at the flagpole that stands right there, in front of the high school. It’s those kinds of things that you’re very aware of. There’s a lot that’s been said lately about micro-aggressions, but I’m telling you, these little fault lines that appear in the life and in the soul, they’re real. Ultimately they make for huge fissures for huge breaks.

MA: The other theme that I also picked up, and this is particularly bookending some of your earlier stuff and now in the newer stuff that you’re reading, is identity. So tell me about your journey with identity.  

JB: Well, I realized when I was first writing that I was trying to do something that wasn’t helpful to me at all, I was trying to write poems that weren’t my poems. I kept trying to write these poems that were void of any kind of identity and because they were void of any kind of identity, they were really bad poems. They were poems that could do these crafty and clever things, they were poems that could make these interesting turns. But in actuality they didn’t have any bite to them. They didn’t have anything about them that was expanding my mind or changing who I was, and therefore I couldn’t have expected them to expand the mind of any reader or change the life of any reader. If we don’t do this for ourselves, in our work, then it won’t be done for those who read our work.

There’s something that poetry can do while entertaining and delighting that, I think, is greater than that. And that thing, I think, is to have a complete involvement of the self. For me, that complete involvement of the self had to come with a whole lot of getting rid of a former self. And by that what I mean is that, I grew up in a really religious household. In a household that because of a lot of misinterpretations of the Bible, many of us believed that a certain kind of hatred of ourselves was necessary, a certain kind of getting rid of ourselves.

This idea that we’re born wrong, born in sin, we already did something wrong even as soon as we got here. These things I don’t think are of great use to us to be honest with you. I think it is better for us to believe that we’re born whole, that we’re born perfect, that when we get here we get here from something great, from something wonderful, and that we sort of mess that up along the way. And that that’s what we’re trying to get back to, we’re trying to get back to that thing we already know. We’re trying to uncover or reveal or remember this thing that is within us.

So I changed what I was writing and I started making use of what I knew about myself, making use of identity. The fact that I am black coming into my poems actually gave me something to deal with in the poems. It gave me context, it gave me history, it gave me culture, it gave me pop culture.

There can never be enough said about what black people have meant to this country and to this world. How it would not exist were it not for black people and I love thinking about that in spite of the fact that the world would have us believe that black people are some kind of an inconvenience to the world, in spite of the fact that we have to remind ourselves and remind others that black lives do indeed matter. 

MA: Actually that’s a perfect segue to the next poem.

Bullet Points

I will not shoot myself

In the head, and I will not shoot myself

In the back, and I will not hang myself

With a trashbag, and if I do,

I promiose you, I will not do it

In a police car while handcuffed

Or in the jail cell of a town

I only know the name of

Because I have to drive through it

To get home. Yes, I may be at risk,

But I promise you, I trust the maggots

And the ants and the roaches

Who live beneath the floorboards

Of my house to do what they must

To any carcass more than I trust

An officer of the law of the land

To shut my eyes like a man

Of God might, or to cover me with a sheet

So clean my mother could have used it

To tuck me in. When I kill me, I will kill me

The same way most Americans do,

I promise you: cigarette smoke

Or a piece of meat on which I choke

Or so broke I freeze

In one of these winters we keep

Calling worst. I promise that if you hear

Of me dead anywhere near

A cop, then that cop killed me. He took

Me from us and left my body, which is,

No matter what we’ve been taught,

Greater than the settlement  a city can

Pay a mother to stop crying, and more

Beautiful than the brand new shiny bullet

Fished from the folds of my brain.

MA: One last Question:

JB: One last question.

MA: If you had to put a descriptor on the period that American poetry is going through right now, how would you describe it?

JB: I think this is a very good question. People really need to narrow the “now” down. The reason why we want to do this is because we want to be able to tell the future. We like to be able to say “this is going to last,” and then we like to have been right about it. Do you know what I mean?

American poetry in particular is and should be vast and varied. We have people who are performance poets, spoken word, slam, so-called experimental poets, which I have questions about only because I don’t know who’s not experimenting. We have people who are still writing very formal poems—people who are in love with sonnets and villanelles and pantoums, and they think that’s the way to go and they think if you’re doing anything else you’re not really writing. And it’s really hard to be able to tell who’s going to stay and what’s going to stay.

I think it all actually stays. I think we all end up with descendants, and that it has always s been vast and varied and that it can only become more vast and varied. What I will say that I love about American poets today is that they seem, to me, to be much more loving and accepting of one another’s poetry than they have ever been, that we cross these aesthetic lines in ways that we did not before. You know, there was a time in our country when if you liked one poet, then that meant that you must not have liked this other poet. That’s not the case anymore. I think younger poets, poets my age and younger are making use of everything they can to get their work done

Support for Mutually Inclusive comes from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation