“I Just Live My Life and I Write My Soul”
An interview with Jericho Brown
By Cole Depuy
Jericho Brown, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Poetry Prize for his recent collection, The Tradition (Copper Canyon, 2019), explores what it means to survive in spite of immeasurable suffering. His work unravels into dozens of intersecting rivers, through his avid use of repetition, rhyme and intimate voice–rivers of sexual violence, police brutality, cuddling, and hope merge into one. These poetical currents inform what Brown describes as the American tradition of perseverance, especially within the ever-present tragedies in Black and Queer communities, where moments of joy become enmeshed within unending periods of grief.
Brown’s poems revisit, time and again, the blurred lines between romance and harm and what it means to be with (or without) a lover for the wrong reasons. Dotted with Greek myth throughout the collection, “Trojan,” ends with these lines: “Patroclus died because / He could not see / What he really was inside / His lover’s armor.” The concept of containment and identity captures a central theme in Brown’s work–whether love is something we construct, or something imposed upon our bodies. Yet, perhaps it is neither. Maybe love is merely an ideal engrained within the self–something we crave but have no way of deciphering once its truly real and here. In Brown’s poem, “I Know What I Love,” the speaker’s new corpse “groans: / I wanted what anyone / With an ear wants– / To be touched and / Touched by a presence / That has no hands,” via posthumous spiritual and interpersonal longing, the speaker admits the living and the dead want similar things: intimacy beyond vulnerabilities of the body.
This recurring message-from-the-dead form grounds more so in the voice of the living in “Bullet Points,” where, after alluding to the deaths of Sandra Bland and others, Brown anticipates, then rejects, his own possible suicide within the custody of police. He states, “I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me” in an artistic and literal effort to precede any future institutionalized counter narratives. This American tradition of the “unmattering” of Black bodies is echoed in other similar poems like “Dark,” “Foreday In the Morning” and “Hero,” which ends with the following proclamation: “Gratitude is black– / Black as a hero returning from war to a country that / banked on his death. / Thank God. It can’t get much darker than that.” Brown’s candor and ability to sear misery with meter and love makes him a cultural icon and thought leader in contemporary poetry.
During a virtual visit in Binghamton University’s Distinguished Writer’s Series, Brown read his work and courteously agreed to an interview with Harpur Palate. We discussed the function of writing in the second person, the effect of the unanswered question, and the holistic preservation of the self over politics.
Cole Depuy (CD): The majority of your poems are poems of address–so they’re dealing with a “you” character–regardless of who the speaker addresses [such as] a lover, foe, stranger, etc. In your poem “After Avery R. Young” you write “sometimes you is everybody.” I wanted to know, why do you employ the second person point of view and what do you hope it accomplishes?
Jericho Brown (JB): Probably because I’m a love poet and I’m a poet who believes in poetry as prayer and I think of poems as an asking-after, maybe even a begging. Everyone who writes poems is writing poems as a way to call out. Yes, when I’m writing my poems, I’m writing to satisfy myself, but I’m using language which would suggest that I’m trying to call out some other source or some other form or some other person and I imagine that if I call out, I will be answered back. I might not be answered back in the same form that I called out–but I will be answered back.
It’s interesting you would say that the majority of the poems are in second person because I don’t know that. I know that I use “you” a lot. I wouldn’t have known that the majority are–I guess you counted–and I wouldn’t have known that because I imagine it’s completely natural for me to do so as a love poet and as a poet who believes in poetry as prayer.
CD: That’s beautiful. I think the best prayers speak to some higher power that’s a friend or in the same way you’d talk to someone you love. I totally agree with poetry as prayer and I think you read your poems very much like prayer too–very contemplative and I appreciate that.
Your poetry has such an organic sense of anticipation and discovery. Put differently, it seems to value each idea and emotion as a building block, and you’re very unafraid to leave it behind in order to associate with something new. How does your sense of subject shift as you write and revise your poems?
JB: That depends. Often it’s quite literally associative and not just personal, but private. By associative I mean, quite obviously, that seeing a butterfly and then writing the word “butterfly” could indeed lead to thinking about and then writing the words “Mariah Carey.” Then sometimes it’s associative in private ways. Seeing a butterfly might lead to writing the word “grandmother” if I had a grandmother who had a relationship, that I know something special about, with butterflies.
For me, the important thing is that I’m generating lines and not that they make sense. Sometimes, its musical and sometimes it has to do with a word’s sound. A word like “avoid” might lead to a word like “boy.” There’s something about the sounds of the words similar enough to lead to one another. And in that way, the subject begins to shift as well. Sometimes it’s associative and sometimes its musical. One of the reasons I’m doing that is because I imagine that if I have musical reasoning and associative reasoning then the reader does too. But, also, because it allows me to generate more. It allows me to generate line after line until I can get to the point to where I see what I’m saying or see what I’m thinking. I think it’s really important for me to have non-sequitur after non-sequitur until I write things that bind the non-sequiturs together. I imagine, in poems, that everything I write must matter to the poem. That thinking, that way of writing, helps me create, even when I’m doing formal work–that first draft. Once I have a first draft, I’ve got something to work with. I mean, I don’t imagine that what I write first is done. I imagine what I write first will be pushed.
CD: It becomes associated with its next revised self.
JB: Well, I ask a different set of questions when making a first draft then when I’m revising. When revising, I pretend that someone else gave me the poem. Then I can work on it the same way I’d work on it if a friend or a student gave me the poem.
CD: That’s cool. I love that. I like revision almost more–that sweet spot of middle revision where the poem’s not quite there yet but there’s so much to work with and making those smaller changes is really satisfying.
JB: Yeah, but you have to be willing to fail in order to have something to revise, which is why being able to move from subject to subject, and empathy in each subject, even though you’ve moved away from it, is so important.
CD: Your work has a lot of trust in the reader–in closure, in the [conceptual] jumps that people make instantaneously over the periods, line breaks or commas–just to know or assume how to get from one image to the next is difficult, and to render the same feeling or meaning because we all get there differently.
You mentioned questions, which is one of the things I noticed stylistically and rhetorically in your work. Poems like “The Card Table” and “Second Language” include questions that are left unanswered. I was wondering, how would you describe the role of the question in poetry?
JB: I’m not interested in them if I can’t take them seriously. My questions go unanswered, but I think I only write questions that can be answered. And I’m usually writing a question down because I’m questioning myself about something. I’m much more interested in poems that have questions when I feel that the question isn’t just there as a craft move but there as a real interrogation of one’s thinking or one’s self or poetry. Ultimately, we have to think about the fact that when you ask questions in poetry you’re asking questions about poems, about poetry itself. So, that’s kind of what I’m interested in.
CD: It’s cool to pair that with your idea of the poem as prayer and a calling-out. I don’t think the answer to questions in poetry belong in the poems themselves. The way I was reading them, I got the sense that the speaker was less interested in the answers, in a way, because I felt the speaker knew the answer to most of the questions or at least could give a really damn good one. That made me get the sense that the question in itself was the end result. Like the questions are for the speaker to wonder and then to leave them to linger, to grow, to change. I was wondering then, why ask them if they’re the answer? If getting to the question is where you’re supposed to end?
JB: Well, I think part of what happens when you see a question in my poems is that maybe I’ve made a realization and in order to make that realization, I’ve actually had to ask myself that question. Often, we do things based on habit or based on tradition and we really have to ask ourselves why we’re doing them. One example of this might be the way that people think they support the police. The oldest person who reads this interview has been hearing the phrase “police reform” their entire life and yet the police are not reformed which means they don’t work. Do you see what I mean?
CD: Questions don’t work?
JB: No, the institution itself is unreformable. That’s the kind of thing that would come through in a question because, for my own part as a person living in the United States of America, indoctrinated into the institution of living in the police state, I had to ask myself questions that would lead to me understanding that the police as an institution is unreformable. I had to ask myself questions so those questions get to the process of coming to the answer, the process of coming to “the police are unreformable” comes from asking myself several questions about my real-life experience with the police. For instance, one question for if I was making a poem about this right now might be: Have I ever had “good” experience with the police? And the answer to that question is “No.” Of course, I don’t need to answer that because I’m asking. If I ask that question, the reader sort of knows, like “Oh, shit. I know the answer to that.” And then I can ask the opposite question: Have I ever had a bad experience with the police? And the answer to that is “Yes.” Maybe I don’t need to say that, right? The other thing is under what circumstances would I call the police. Do you understand what I’m saying? So then those questions are there as a part of the process and they have real answers.
CD: Yeah, the inquiry. It’s asking the right question. Questions are the parents of answers. I mean you teach the answer out of the question, in a way.
On the idea of political poetry, “Shovel” and “Stand” both deal with the activist or social responsibility. I noticed in “Shovel” the speaker explores diffusion of responsibility and cognitive dissonance while not really feeling responsible for this dead body and burying him. And in “Stand,” there’s this cool idea of the productivity of doing “nothing.” It reminded me of when Audre Lorde said, “self-care is an act of political warfare.” And I’ve noticed you seem to be taking care of yourself physically, for sure. I was wondering, what is your sense of your political self and your writing self and how do they intersect in your work?
JB: I don’t. I don’t have a sense of that. I always think that I’m all these things, that I am one hundred percent, so I don’t. I mean, I do a lot of compartmentalization in order to live here in the nation, in the state of Georgia. We do compartmentalization in order to be comfortable at Thanksgiving with our families. Even getting together at Thanksgiving is already an act of compartmentalization if anybody’s ever read anything. And yet, when I think about my work, I kind of think about it all together. I don’t think of myself politically at all.
I think I’m a guy trying to live his life. I like a good sandwich, on a croissant, in particular. You know, turkey, egg and cheese on a croissant makes me happy. So that’s who I think I am. But then things come up to remind me that there are other things going on, so I don’t think of that really as anything I separate from anything else. I know there was a time where I was not as comfortable talking about those facts or talking about those things. You know, there was time where it wasn’t always okay for me to see an awful thing happen, only because I was Black or only because somebody else was Black and I would just let it go, you know? I think the only thing that I may have grown in is courage, as it relates to that.
As a writer, I just live my life and I write my soul. I write my obsessions. I write my heart. I write what I believe in, what racks me. I write what I’m passionate about. I write what drives me crazy. And if I do that, of course I’m going to be writing about things that seem political, but they don’t really seem political to me. Everyone thinks of these things as political and part of their thinking about them that way has to do with the fact that they don’t live them. If you’re living a life being disenfranchised or you live a life where your disenfranchisement is possible then you’re very aware of that all the time. And of course if you’re a poet it will come out in your poems.
But the other thing is that I think it comes out in anything you do. If you’re a cook it’s going to come out in you’re cooking. If you’re an architect it’s going to come out in your architecture. You know, I don’t know if I’ve even separated these things; I don’t know if I’m separating them when I’m listening to music, which I think has a lot to do with me being a poet, which obviously has a lot to do with me being Black, which obviously has a lot to do with me being queer–the selections that I make, the way I hear it, how I talk about it, or even the food I like to eat.
Like you mentioned, even when working out, I’m a poet all the time. I’m thinking about pattern and variation like anybody else who works out with me. I think about pace. I’m thinking about distance. I’m thinking about everything everybody else is thinking about when they’re trying to write a poem. Do you follow what I’m saying?
CD: Yeah, it’s just an organic part of your lifestyle. I totally agree with living your life and the other stuff as an afterthought.
JB: I should have never ever told anybody I worked out though.
CD: It’s kind of obvious.
JB: Well, maybe. It’s just that I’m getting older. I would like to be able to get fat like a normal person.
CD: You can get fat. I’m cool with that.
JB: Oh, gee. Thanks, Cole!
CD: I’ll be fat, too.
JB: Oh, gee. You’re so kind. Thank you for joining the fat crew.
CD: Have an extra croissant.
JB: I love croissants.
Jericho Brown is author of the The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of the Whiting Award. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection, The Tradition won the Paterson Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, Buzzfeed, Fence, jubilat, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program and a professor at Emory University.
Cole Depuy, the winner of the Negative Capability Press Spring 2020 Poetry Contest, is a Ph.D. student at SUNY Binghamton & recipient of the Provost’s Doctoral Summer Fellowship. His poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in The Paterson Literary Review, The Penn Review, Ilanot Review, The Maynard & elsewhere. He is a poetry co-editor for Harpur Palate & instructor for the Binghamton Poetry Project.