Revisiting Jericho Brown
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works I’m Josephine Reed. Today, we’re celebrating Pride month by revisiting my 2021 conversation with poet, 2011 NEA Literature Fellow, and 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winner Jericho Brown. This is a poetry-filled podcast that dives into Brown's notable collections, examines the intersection of art and identity, and explores the themes and influences that shape his work. Enjoy it….
Jericho Brown: When I start to write a poem, I’ll see a certain kind of color or tint or grit and if I see that, if I see a certain mood in a poem, then I’m immediately thinking “Okay, how do I subvert that particular mood and add to this poem its complete opposite?” and so, in all of my poems, there’s always a mood, a mode, a color, a tint that changes because, line to line, I’m trying to do the opposite thing of what I just did in the line before.
Jo Reed: That is poet, 2011 NEA Literature Fellow and 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.
Drawing on biography, history, mythology, the pastoral, Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer-Prize winning collection The Tradition bears witness to tenderness, violence, love, anger, and vulnerability. It challenges and forces a reckoning with tradition, even it seeks to enlarge its possibilities. And it does with language that is both dazzling and haunting.
Brown’s work has been long acclaimed for its interrogation of race, masculinity and queer love. And equally for its inventive celebration of language. His first collection Please “takes the form of a tour through the canon of R&B,” while his second book The New Testament “is in conversation with books of the bible.” (Kyle Martindale—Poetry International)
Violence and tenderness are never far apart in Brown’s work. There’s an urgency in his poetry as he questions how and why we’ve become accustomed to brutality in all aspects of our lives from our homes to the streets to the culture. In language that sings with lyrical intensity, Brown demands attention to the beauty of and damage done to the bodies of Black and queer people. The poem that opens and opens up The Tradition like a key --is called “Ganymede” and that’s where Jericho Brown and I began.
A man trades his son for horses.
That's the version I prefer. I like
The safety of it, no one at fault,
Everyone rewarded. God gets
The boy. The boy becomes
Immortal. His father rides until
Grief sounds as good as the gallop
Of an animal born to carry those
Who patrol and protect our inherited
Kingdom. When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don't you want God
To want you? Don't you dream
Of someone with wings taking you
Up? And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
In Heaven, that far terrain
Between Promise and Apology.
No one has to convince us.
The people of my country believe
We can't be hurt if we can be bought.
Jo Reed: Again, “Ganymede,” the first poem in your book, The Tradition. As I said, I think it just leads into this book so wonderfully and it-- do you want to walk us through what you were setting up with that poem for the rest of the book?
Jericho Brown: Well, I did want to start in myth and mythology. I think doing that gives an idea of one of the many ways that the title is going to work in the book. How far back can we go? When do traditions begin? What traditions are ours? What traditions have been handed to us? What traditions do we have faith in that maybe have not been of use to us? There’s a lot of rape in Greek myth and so, part of what I’m questioning in this book is rape culture and how rape culture is normal culture in this world and in this nature and so, I wanted to start the book with a speaker-- well, with a subject, I should say, who is known for having been raped. I’m always fascinated by the fact that one mark of a good education is that you get the Greek myths early, which means when you’re eight years old, you’re opening page after page that are titled “The Rape of ‘Blank’” and you’re given these things as if they are regular, as if they’re normal and nobody ever takes you to the side to tell you that rape is not a good idea when you’re reading these myths and you also have the idea that it’s okay for gods to rape men, to rape mortals, men and women.
Jo Reed: I love that line, “Don’t you want God to want you?”
Jericho Brown: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Then you mix classic myth and American history and your own experiences. It’s all coming together in this book and “Ganymede” ends with a statement pretty far removed from Olympus, “The people of my country believe we can’t be hurt if we can be bought.”
Jericho Brown: Yeah. Ultimately, that seems to be the people of Ganymede’s country too, right? Ganymede’s father is under that impression and maybe Ganymede is too in this poem, at least. That’s another thing I think that this book is family and what are the boundaries and the limits of family. How far can family go? Where is it possible for family to betray you or betray and not even know that they’re betraying you or for you to betray family? So, I think that’s a part of it. I also think this poem has interest in the natural world in the same way the book does. This is very much a pastoral book. So, you know, there’s the pastoral moments of this poem. There’s the appearance of the father. There’s obviously a conversation in this poem about policing, ultimately, and about the economy, about capitalism, and so, I think all of the things that I end up getting at in the book through various poems, I manage to get at all of them in this one particular poem. So, that’s why I chose it.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I agree. That’s why I asked you to open with it. You’ve said your poems make use of your life experience as a black queer man from the South who has all kinds of other identities. You were raised in the church. You’re a son. You’re a son to your mother. You’re a son to your father. You’re a poet. You’re a teacher. You’re a homeowner. I mean, there’s a host of complexities that make up who you are and you complicated that still further by history and having-- seeing how history seeps in through the generations.
Jericho Brown: Yeah. I think that’s true. One of the things that I mean when I say “The Tradition” is not just what we’re looking at, but who was looking at it before us? How did it become what it was? How did it get passed down? The land is in my blood. Taking care of the land is in my blood. My grandparents on both sides of my family were sharecroppers, which is to say they were farmers. My father made a living through cutting people’s yards and doing landscaping and cleaning flower beds and so, those are the kinds of things that have always been a part of my life and I grew up with a mom and dad who really cared about what their neighborhood looked like and what their front and backyard looked like, not just for themselves, but as a contribution to the community and it’s always interesting to me that that might not be something people think of when they think of black people and yet, that’s who we are. That’s what we do. So, that’s part of why this book got written.
Jo Reed: Well, there’s a poem, “Foreday in the Morning,” which speaks to this and, I think, is one of my favorite poems in the book. Do you mind reading that one?
Jericho Brown: Yeah, I’ll read it for you.
“Foreday in the Morning”
My mother grew morning glories that spilled onto the walkway toward her porch
Because she was a woman with land who showed as much by giving it color.
She told me I could have whatever I worked for. That means she was an American.
But she’d say it was because she believed
In God. I am ashamed of America
And confounded by God. I thank God for my citizenship in spite
Of the timer set on my life to write
These words: I love my mother. I love black women
Who plant flowers as sheepish as their sons. By the time the blooms
Unfurl themselves for a few hours of light, the women who tend them
Are already at work. Blue. I’ll never know who started the lie that we are lazy,
But I’d love to wake that bastard up
At foreday in the morning, toss him in a truck, and drive him under God
Past every bus stop in America to see all those black folk
Waiting to go work for whatever they want. A house? A boy
To keep the lawn cut? Some color in the yard? My God, we leave things green.
Jo Reed: That was “Foreday in the Morning.” Foreday is a word I was not familiar with.
Jericho Brown: Yeah. It’s a very southern word, very South Louisiana, actually, and I’m from North Louisiana. But when I-- I did hear a few people in North Louisiana when I was growing up, I would hear them use-- older people use that term, but I heard it more commonly when I moved to New Orleans and it’s, as the poem makes clear, it’s that time before morning. It is morning, but it’s before the sun comes up and there are so many of us who are getting up and getting ready or getting to work at that time and doing the work that other people don’t see done. Many of us arrive at an office or arrive at a kitchen or arrive at a restaurant or something. Where we’re going to, somebody’s already been working there a few hours before we get there setting it up for our entrance so we can get our work done and that’s part of “Foreday in the Morning” is about.
Jo Reed: And it obviously is also exploding one of the myths of America too or more than one, actually, when you go through the poem, quite a few.
Jericho Brown: Yeah. Well, one of those myths has to do with being able to have whatever you work for. Another myth has to do with the stereotype of black people being lazy, which is fascinating how that managed to get invented where black people are the people who the built this country as slaves, quite literally built the White House with their bare hands. So, I mean, it doesn’t really-- it’s not a stereotype that really adds up, right? Then maybe there are a few other traditions or myths that I’m questioning in this particular poem. I think when I wrote this poem, the thing that I was most proud of, to be honest with you, is that I got to say I love my mother in a poem and I think it’s very difficult to say something that might at first seem sentimental. There’s a way that I’m proud to have managed to get it in here without it being as sentimental as one might expect.
Jo Reed: I had read that this poem first appeared in Time Magazine and that’s how your mom got to see it?
Jericho Brown: Yeah. I sent it to my mom. You know, I don’t really send a lot of poems to her, but when a poem comes up in Time Magazine, it’s like “Oh, and it’s about my mom. So, it will be good for her to see.” So, it’s on a-- you know, I don’t really send my work to my parents. When a book comes out, I don’t even tell them about it. They did know that I won the Pulitzer. I did tell them about that. I was on the cover of the Shreveport Sun, which is the newspaper where I’m from. So, they sort of had to find out anyway. But you know, when it comes to work stuff, I understand that I need to keep a lot of it to myself in order to get it made, to get it done and then sometimes when certain moments of recognition come up, I’ll tell my parents because I think the hardest thing for any artist and particularly for poets is translation. It’s always hard to let people know, your friends, your family, your parents, in particular, they’re very confused about what you’re doing. So, when good moments of recognition come up, like having a poem in Time Magazine, when moments like that come up, it’s really wonderful because you feel like you can translate. You feel like “Oh, here’s something to show that I actually have a job and a passion and something with value.” So, every once in a while, I will show them some of that stuff so they’re not worried about me.
Jo Reed: Well, this actually piggybacks on what you just said because you’ve written about having HIV in your previous work, The New Testament, most particularly, “To Be Seen” is one of the poems that explicitly looks at that and in this book, you allude to it several times, including a poem told from the virus’ point of view. But in “The Tradition,” you write a poem, “Layover,” about your rape and it’s a rape that gave you HIV. Can you tell me how you got to the place where you would and could write about the rape?
Jericho Brown: Yeah. I had been actually, as you say, in the other books, I do maybe a bit more obliquely hint at HIV and there are poems that are directly about HIV. If you have HIV, you know it, or if you’re aware of the fact that people have HIV, you know it and then there are also poems that hint at rape or that talk about it a little more obliquely in my first book and in my second book, but definitely in my first book, there’s a poem called “Because My Name is Jericho,” which is about that rape. But this book seemed to me-- I think it was the first time I ever wrote poems because I felt convicted to do so and when I say convicted, I mean it in the same way that we see it in the Bible, conviction, as in I felt it was my responsibility. I generally don’t think feeling that something is your responsibility is a good place to begin to write poems. I think you should really just start with language and figure out what your responsibilities are as you go. But there was so much going on as it related to the Me Too movement while I was writing this book and I felt that I was hearing a lot of women talk about sexual violence, sexual assault, rape, sexual coercion, sexual harassment. I was hearing that from women in a way that I was not hearing it from men and I felt like that picture of things was actually quite dishonest. Many of the men I know, many of my close friends, they had their first sexual experiences when they were little boys, some of them high school boys, but often, very often, they had those first sexual experiences with grown men and women and they would not call that rape. They call that their early sexual experiences and yet, if those same things were to happen to their kids, they would call it rape. Do you know what I mean?
Jo Reed: I know exactly what you mean.
Jericho Brown: So, it seemed like I had this obligation somehow to speak more directly to my own rape and to HIV because of what I was seeing around me and because it didn’t seem right or fair that women were the only people carrying the brunt of all of that truth that we hadn’t faced about the way men can be in these situations, the way all of us can be, I imagine, in these situations where sexual violence occurs and so, that’s what allowed me or led to me facing it more directly. It seemed like if other people could than I should and so, when language would arrive for it, I would go in that direction. I had no idea that I was avoiding it, honestly, and I think writing the poems, I realized that I had been avoiding being more direct about that. It’s not so easy no matter how much therapy you have or how many meetings you go to. It’s really actually not so easy to talk about rape when you’re a man, to talk about having been raped. Even now, it sort of makes me nervous, but I also know it’s got to be done. It’s also wonderful to have something in the book because then you can’t run from it or hide from it anymore and then HIV is also really difficult to discuss. I think people think that I’m 100% comfortable and in many ways, I’m obviously way more comfortable than I was when I first was diagnosed. At the same time, I know there’s a lot of prejudice against people with HIV, even in the queer community. Many people think of folk with HIV as undesirable and not just in the bedroom, undesirable in the world, period. So, I think those poems in particular got written because part of what I imagine will happen as I’m writing poems over this life of mine is I will face everything and the books, the poems, allowed me to face them. If I can face them, I can love them and I can accept myself more fully for who I am and I can accept those things as a part of me and if I can accept those things as a part of me, then I have something to be proud of. I have this thing I live with or this thing I survived or this thing I’ve overcome or this thing that really didn’t have to be overcome that is just as gorgeous as I am somehow. So, that’s part of what I’m doing when I’m writing these poems. I’m creating full integration of all my life experiences, but also not just my life experiences, all of my imagination, all of the trivia that I know, all of the science that I know. All of everything I have has to be at the axis of my poems.
Jo Reed: So many of the poems occupy a space where love and brutality or tenderness and violence are just banging up against each other throughout the book and you don’t see that very often. I think it’s completely true in life, but you don’t see that very often in poetry.
Jericho Brown: Yeah. I mean, I don't know how often you see it in poetry, but I do think it’s true that it is completely true in life and that’s all I care about, right? Like, I cannot-- I want my poems, poems I think should be like trees. I want them to be useful in ways to us that we can’t imagine unless they’re gone. Our relationship to trees is such that we don’t know what the trees are doing for us, but if they were gone, we would definitely miss them and I want my poems to be like living things. I want them to be like life and I want them to exude the beauty of life and I think life is not-- it’s not easy. It’s complex. There’s a lot going on and you are over and over again in any real life, you live a life where the violences live right next to the tendernesses. So, that’s part of what I’m trying to do in all of my poems and I think maybe there are other poets that do that too, but I think I’m doing it over and over again and I’m very conscious of trying to do it because when I start to write a poem, I’ll see a certain kind of color or tint or grit and if I see that, if I see a certain mood in a poem, then I’m immediately thinking “Okay, how do I subvert that particular mood and add to this poem its complete opposite?” and so, in all of my poems, there’s always a mood, a mode, a color, a tint that changes because I’m always trying to-- line to line, I’m trying to do the opposite thing of what I just did in the line before and so, that’s why those things get juxtaposed over and over again.
Jo Reed: You said once that you like to begin poems with the sound of words and how they kind of brush up against each other and then you play with that. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Jericho Brown: Yeah. I was actually just talking about this in another interview recently about how in the first couple of lines of the tradition, really the first line, you hear an -er sound, that the poem, the tradition, the E-R, the U-R sound and how that sound gets repeated throughout the poem because once in make a sound in a poem, you’re going to hear that sound again, not any more than four syllables later. Do you know what I mean? So, whatever sounds I’m making as I make a sentence, as I make a line, whatever sounds I’m making, part of how I know what comes in the next line isn’t because I know what I have to say. It’s because I know what sounds the next line has to make. If you know the sounds that you’re looking for, then you can sort of fish around for words that make those particular sounds. Once you find the words that make those sounds, that tells you what you’re saying. The words themselves will lead you to what you’re saying more than you trying to find the words for what you have to say. I usually try to approach poems without anything to say and I think it’s better for me that way because then I can figure out what my real concerns are. I can figure out what I’ve really been thinking and I can tap into my subconscious or unconscious mind. I think part of the reason why that’s important for me-- well, there are two reasons why that’s important for me, Jo. Reason number one is I want to write poems that change me and I can’t do that. I can’t do that if I’m not figuring out what I have to say as I say it. if I’m not doing an investigation through language that leads to discovery and then once I make those discoveries, I can say “Oh, is that what I think?” and then I can start living like it. You know what I mean? I can change-- literally change the way I live because I say things I don’t expect to say in my poems and I imagine that they must be closer to what I really believe. So, there’s a kind of truth in the poems and then the second things is the repetition of sounds makes for a kind of oneness, a unified whole in the feeling of the poem and so, that kind of discovery through language, investigation, that kind of thing can be made more into a piece of art, more into something that we feel like we hold because its sounds are unified.
Jo Reed: Well, you invented a form called the duplex, which certainly has repetition in it. Can you explain what that form is?
Jericho Brown: Yeah. The duplex is-- it’s an amalgamation of three forms-- the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues, which are three forms I identify with in many ways and it is a form that allows me to marry the East and West, it's 9 to 11 syllables a line, so I'm thinking about syllabics which is how many things are formed in Eastern poetics and I'm thinking about the way that number of syllables can married to a meter which is how we think about a form in Western poetics. And it also is a way of me really casting a spell to be honest with you, I was thinking about how a repeated line is like a chant and when you're chanting something, you're casting a spell and poems themselves seem to me a lot like spells and prayer, right? And so I wanted to make a poem that you felt hypnotized by or entranced by in some way and I thought the repetition of that line would be a part of that, knowing that whatever line you heard, you were going to hear at least once more would be a part of that. And so it was important to me to make a poem that was like a series of repeated lines and what I think I really love about it is that it's a form that reminds me of me, it's hard to identify, other than calling it a duplex, you sort of look at like, "Are you a sonnet?" What are you? What are you doing over there?" So part of what I love about it is feel like I'm a person who's always called to the mat about identify and I don't really put myself into percentages, I don't think of myself as 66 percent Black and 12 percent queer and 2 percent Southern, you know, I don't do that kind of math until I get to 100 percent, I just think I'm 100 percent everything that I am. So that's part of how the duplex came to be.
Jo Reed: Do you mind reading one?
Jericho Brown: Yeah, I'll read you a duplex.
Jo Reed: Okay. I'd go for the one on page 18, but obviously your choice.
Jericho Brown: Okay, 18's fine. "Duplex.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He'd leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
Jo Reed: The repetition is haunting, and it draws me to the poem. I found myself literally leaning in.
Jericho Brown: Yeah, thank you.
Jo Reed: I heard you say when you were writing "The Testament" that the writing was going very slowly and then between Thanksgiving and MLK Day something happened, it was like a geyser and you wrote 40 odd poems. Can you walk me through this?
Jericho Brown: Yeah. I mean it wasn't slow in a bad way, it's always slow between books, you know, it's slow right now. <laughs> I had some poems, but not a lot of poems, I mean maybe I had half the book done, do you know what I mean, maybe I had something like 15 to 20 to 25 poems or something, some of which were not very good. But I didn't care because I was just working poems and I imagined that if they turned into a book today, they just would. And then I just got hit by something, some bolt of inspiration, I think it wasn't really a bolt of inspiration, I think there were a lot of little inspirations that led up to what happened to me. I was experiencing a lot of great art, I had been to the Biennale in Italy, Claudia Rankine's "Citizen" had come out, "Moonlight," Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" had come out, so there were many pieces of television, film, visual art and poetry that I hadn't had before that I think were inspiring me in many ways and when Thanksgiving came and I had thought, you know, you have that little break from teaching or from going to school if you're in school or from anything, you know, Thanksgiving usually in the United States comes with a little bit of a break. So I did what I thought was a little writing and I just couldn't stop. The duplexes were mostly written in January and February of the next year, I mean all of them <laughs> were done in January and February of the next year, which would have been 20, what is that 2018, so it must have been 2017, 2018 is when all of this was going on and then the book came out in 2019. But I wrote something between 30 and 40 pages of poetry in those weeks and they were pretty good too, I was like, "Whoa, you're writing." <laughs> And I was writing in some instances three poems in a day and I would send them to my friends and they'd say, "When did you write this one?" And I would say, "Today," and they're like, "There's no way you wrote these poems today, they're done." <laughs> And I'm like, "I know, it's crazy." So it was scary to me though. It was really wonderful, I don't want to pretend I didn't love every minute of it, but it was exhausting, I was writing on elevators, I was pulling over my car to write poems in traffic. I was not really sleeping, I had a new job that included me having to be at work very often at eight or nine in the morning and I would go home and I would write until six in the morning. So that's how much sleep I was getting. So it was a really hard time, but I didn't want to turn away from the poems and I didn't want to turn the poems away. So I had to take them as they would come. But I really was afraid that something bad was about to happen to me Jo, I know it sounds weird, but I spent a lot of time in my life wondering what I was supposed to do and then I figured out, "Oh, just do the thing you love to do and that's write poems." And so because I've really only ever been sure that I could do one thing, the fact that I was doing it all at one time made me think I was going to die, I was certain that this wonderful gift that I had gotten from God was coming to its end and God was trying to milk me of my last vestiges of talent <laughs> before taking me out of here, you know what I mean? But that wasn't the case, the book came out and I'm still alive, so <laughs> it's been a few years and I'm still alive, it's been a couple of years, I'm still alive now.
Jo Reed: You came to poetry at a young age you said, your mom would drop you off at the library. When did reading become writing for you?
Jericho Brown: I don't know that it ever wasn't, as soon as I figured out what poems were and how they were working, the fact that they were shorter, I felt like I could do it. I wasn't so great at it, but it does give you the feeling that you could do it. Now I understood-- I think maybe the difference between me and other people or maybe other kids was I understood that my poems were not as good as Sylvia Plath's at the time, I would read a poem by Plath and I would try to do something she had done like break the modifier from the noun like in a poem like "Edge" she says, "Her bare," line break, "feet." And I remember thinking, "Oh my god, wow I've never seen anything like that, what has she done?" And so I would write a poem that was like, "The white refrigerator," you know? <laughs> So I was doing that kind of thing, which really didn't work in the same way as Plath's poems did, but I was practicing even then and my mom would get excited and she would put it on a magnet on the refrigerator, so I had a little bit of support too. So I just kept trying. I don't know that it ever wasn't, I think when I found poetry I found what writing would look like for me.
Jo Reed: You once said, "Growing up in the Black church prepared for life as a poet," and I'm so curious about that.
Jericho Brown: Yeah, I mean well for one thing I just think what happens in the church is lot like a poem itself, you know, it has its form, but you don't know what's going to happen. The order of service is the same every Sunday, but you don't know when the shouting's going to happen, you don't know who's going to do the shouting or you don't know what that's gonna look like, you don't know what the pastor is going to say, you don't know what song the choirs are going to sing unless you went to that choir rehearsal and you're in the choir. So those kinds of things are how-- that surprise, but that surprise that's also within a formal constraint reminds me of poems themselves. But also I think I learned in church how to be in community and how to deal with a community that has a common interest and I feel like that has a lot to do with relationships that poets have to one another today and historically. And I think I also learned what it felt like to be in front of an audience and to testify, to witness, to give the goods over, to tell all your business, you know, to put yourself on the line knowing that that audience, that community would gain something from your witnessing or from your testimony and somehow become closer to you because of your witness and your testimony. So I learned that in church and I think I actually also learned about travel to be quite honest with you, I went to a church where I did sing in the youth choir and we were always following our pastor around from church to church when he would get asked to do other things, he was a very high up official in the National Baptist Convention organization and he had been a wonderful civil rights leader. His name was the Reverend Harry Blake and he died recently of COVID in 2020, which was very hard for me because I think of him as sort of like a second dad or something, he was a huge mentor to all of us and just a wonderful human being.
Jo Reed: I'm sorry, that's very difficult.
Jericho Brown: But, you know, he was really a good, he was a good pastor with has to do with more than preaching, but he was a good preacher, we were captivated. And I think something about the way he would read passages from the Bible and then go about explicating them, there was something about that that taught me what poems should sound like and I'm grateful for that experience.
Jo Reed: Well I'd like to hear what another poem of yours sounds like and that's the title poem, "The Tradition."
Jericho Brown: Yeah sure. I mentioned it earlier, so it's good for me to read it now.
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
Jo Reed: That chilling couplet at the end and the way you-- you know, we return to dead Black men throughout this collection and so it's very much of the moment, but it's also so rooted in such a deep history, the poems as you say they testify.
Jericho Brown: Yeah, I just think it was really important that the names of these Black men who had been murdered by police, but also other Black people who appear throughout this book, you know, there's a little James Baldwin in this book, some Essex Hemphill in this book. There's a way that these are the people that in one way or another they were either murdered in some state sanctioned way, murdered by our nation or our state or they were neglected <laughs>, neglected in a way that led to death, so murdered indirectly. This pandemic that we are going through now, this is not our first pandemic and it's the first one that we rushed to have vaccines for because the one we experienced before seemed to only affect gay men and because it seemed to only affect gay men, people thought it was perfectly fine for them to be dead, do you know what I mean?
Jo Reed: I know exactly what you mean, yes.
Jericho Brown: So it's the kind of thing that I'm really-- it's not a spirit of trying to go after anybody, I want to commemorate the people who were here and who allowed for me to be here, I want to commemorate the people who made it so that I could be a poet, so that I could have this conversation with you, so that you would want to have this conversation with me. There was a time that I would not have been a candidate to even come on this show and it wouldn't have anything to do with my poems, it would just have to do with the fact I was a Black gay poet from the South, you know what I'm saying? So those are the kinds of things that I'm interested in and that's why those names appear in that poem, that poem is for them, it's not for me and I imagine something might come of, I imagine that something could come of having written a poem for them and not for me.
Jo Reed: It can't be an accident that the following poem on the facing page is called "Hero."
Jericho Brown: No, not at all. As a matter of fact whenever I'm organizing a book, I try to organize it such that the last line leads to the title of the next poem and so through reading the book you not only learn what you learned from that poem, but you learn something by reading the next poem. Reading the next poem will tell you more about the poem that you just read is my hope and that's one of the ways that I hope when read a Jericho Brown book they just keep turning the page because they're learning, they're finding out more than they expected to find out, yeah.
Jo Reed: Winning the Pulitzer the same year as Michael R. Jackson won for drama, a Black queer writer steeped in the church…
Jericho Brown: Yeah, he's great.
Jo Reed: …and he makes that central to his work, I mean what are the odds of that?
Jericho Brown: Yeah, yeah, Michael's really wonderful. We talk on the phone here and there and he's always got great ideas, he's so smart and he tells the truth all the time. He’s just got a lot of integrity Michael does, he believes in good art and he doesn't believe in cutting corners-- which makes him also a wonderful friend to have.
Jo Reed: It's been a year pretty much since you've won the Pulitzer and I wonder, have you begun to process what winning meant for you especially for this book, especially at this time?
Jericho Brown: Yeah, I'm not sure. I'm not sure in terms of meaning. I mean I do know what it means for my emails, <laughs> I know what it's meant for my workload, gratefully I know what it's meant for me financially. But on a larger and probably more important scale beyond Jericho Brown, I'm not really sure, I think something about winning the Pulitzer Prize probably is what led to it being chosen for the One Book Philadelphia Community Read, which was a big deal for me, it still is, it's something I'm very proud of. They hadn't done a book of poetry before, so I was the ambassador for poetry which made me feel very responsible. <laughs> So yeah, you know, those kinds of things, I think having conversations like this with people. I wrote an article about Pride last year for The New York Times, there are many opportunities I think that have come my way that otherwise may not have come my way if I hadn't won the Pulitzer, there are probably many opportunities open to me that would not be open to me if I hadn't won the Pulitzer. But I don't know, I mean I know what that means for me, I don't know what that means for people or what that means for literature, I can hope, I can imagine, but we have to see, we got to see 5, 10, 50 years down the line what The Tradition has done to folk, what it's done to poetry. We have to see 50 years down the line what the Pulitzer Prize, the Pulitzer Prize is like this great promotional tool almost, right, what that does and how that changes things. What I hope, one of the things, I mean there are probably six billion things I hope knowing me, but there's one thing, Michael and I are the first Black queer people to win in our categories and yet I hope that one of the things that it's done is created a world where we won't be the last, do you know what I mean? When certain doors are opened you find that if the door's open, everybody ought to be able to walk through. So I'm looking forward to what we think of a writer, I'm looking forward to our idea of that changing in terms of how we see the identity of that person. And you remember this Jo, when I was a kid, when I thought of a writer, I thought of a-- I mean I was a Black kid surrounded by Black people who had pens and paper, but when I thought of a writer, I thought of an old man who was White and had a white beard, do you understand what I'm saying?
Jo Reed: I do.
Jericho Brown: And I want that not to be what people have to think, I want people to be able to think of all kinds of faces, all kinds of backgrounds when they think of writers. And I think maybe something about winning the Pulitzer could change people's idea, continue to change, obviously that idea has already started shifting, but continue to change people's idea of that. I think one of the wonderful things about me being a queer writer is quite honestly the fact that I write about me being a queer writer means that I have a different kind of subject matter that I'm often approaching. We're all going to be writing, everybody's writing about desire, everybody's writing love poetry and yet not all of the love poetry is queer poetry. So maybe that will change too people's idea of what love can look like.
Jo Reed: I'd like to end with a poem if you don't mind and I really would like to end with the duplex, the one on page 49.
Jericho Brown: Yeah, sure. I'll read that duplex for you.
I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse
Full of medicines that turn in the sun.
Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good.
Those who need least, need hell to be good.
What are the symptoms of your sickness?
Here is one symptom of my sickness:
Men who love me are men who miss me.
Men who leave me are men who miss me
In the dream where I am an island.
In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.
Jo Reed: Thank you so much Jericho, I really appreciate you giving me your time, being so generous reading and we should all grow green with hope.
Jericho Brown: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks so much for having me Jo, thank you.
Jo Reed: You're welcome, you're very welcome.
We just heard my 2021 interview with poet and 2011 NEA Literature Fellow Jericho Brown. We were talking about his 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry The Tradition. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed—and thanks for listening.
Today, we’re celebrating Pride month by revisiting my 2021 conversation with poet, 2011 NEA Literature Fellow, and 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winner Jericho Brown. In this poetry-filled podcast, Brown walks us through his writing of his prize-winning collection The Tradition in particular and poetry in general. He reads a number of poems and discusses his creative process, his exploration of the themes of love, race, sexuality, violence, and spirituality in his work, explains the new poetic form he invented called “the duplex” (and gives us poetic examples of it,) and talks about the significance of Black queer poetry and its capacity to expand our concept of love. We also discuss the poets and writers who have influenced and shaped Brown's own artistic journey, his reflections on winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for “The Tradition,” his thoughts on the importance of diverse voices in literature and the role of poetry in fostering empathy and understanding in a divided world.