NEA Literature Fellowships

Jericho Brown

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(2011 - Poetry)

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
Bitch, 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. 

Jericho Brown's first collection of poetry, Please (New Issues Press, 2008), won the 2009 American Book Award. Brown is the recipient of a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and a Whiting Writer's Award. He has also received two travel fellowships to the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland. His poems appear in magazines including Oxford American, Ploughshares, and A Public Space, and in anthologies such as The 100 Best African American Poems. Jericho Brown grew up in Louisiana and worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before earning his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He also holds an MFA. in creative writing from the University of New Orleans and a BA from Dillard University. He teaches Creative Writing as an assistant professor of English at the University of San Diego and is currently working on his second collection of poetry, The New Testament.

Photo by John Lucas

Author's Statement

While my newest poems detail my own experiences as an African-American male in the United States, I am eager for opportunities that will allow the time and resources necessary to research the lives and perspectives of those who first reported on the AIDS pandemic to our nation. To that end, I am interested in creating verse narratives surrounding two network anchors from the late 1970s and early 1980s. At this point in my career, the NEA means time and resources.