DOGBYTES Interview: Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Best American Poetry. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is an assistant professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.
You are one of the originators of Black Poets Speak Out. How and why did you help launch this movement? What can poets do to promote social justice?
While Michael Brown’s body lay dead in the street, many of us wished we could do something other than watch it…something to help…something to help join and honor the grief of his mother and the crowd gathering around the murderous display. Then Amanda Johnston was brave enough to go to the Cave Canem Fellows Facebook group and ask quite directly, “What ARE WE going to do?” Soon, I joined in the conversation along with poets Jonterri Gadson, Mahogany L. Browne, Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe and others. I’m not sure I remember which of us came up with the hashtag, though I do remember writing a template for the language poets could use to introduce videos they uploaded in response to police brutality. After that, I texted everyone I knew in my contacts who writes and asked them to record a poem. Then spent my Thanksgiving—John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice had all been murdered by then—retweeting and reposting. Word of mouth did most of the rest. I guess all of that is the how. Community. Community is always how. Though writing a poem is an act of isolation, it happens by way of no one alone.
In this case, the why has to do with something that may be much more individual than it is communal. I don’t see the purpose of Cave Canem or Alpha Phi Alpha or Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church, for that matter, if these organizations don’t take a break from regularly scheduled programming to show and prove that they are made up of people with a stake in the world and our future. That’s my why. I could just imagine Amiri Baraka rolling his eyes from the grave and saying, “Oh, so what you Negro poets gon’ say about this?” Of course, no matter how much you do, you never feel you’ve done enough.
I don’t know that poets have to do anything other than allow all of themselves—all of their lives (and everyone on Earth lives a political life)—into their poems. That’s our only responsibility, and it’s all any one of us really can do.
Which poets or artists have influenced you the most, and where might readers see that influence in your work?
This list is probably too long to be of use to anyone, and I don’t think poets should intrude upon readers by telling them what antecedents to look for. I really wish everyone approached my poems assuming that I’ve read everything and that I’m allowing all of that to do some work in my writing.
I’m actually much more interested in talking about books that I see some of myself in than I am in talking inexhaustibly—doomed to leave someone out—about all those who come to make me who I am. I am, for instance, really excited about the work of people like Anais Duplan because something about it makes me feel that I haven’t been wasting my time and that my work has been of use to someone else’s work. I mean the greatest poems I write are the ones other poets will learn from and expand upon.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?
I’m excited to see Christina Garcia’s new book come into print. It’s called The Brighter House and should be out from White Pine Press soon. Her voice is wholly her own, and she speaks in the language of delicate and mesmerizing touch with phrases like “feather-brush antennae” and “ticklish insect-footed sensation” and “wished-for snow” without ever falling into precious sentimentality. Over and again, these poems mount to harsh and cold violences that speak to the intricacies of the soul in a gorgeous way that leaves the reader feeling bruised—as in pressed upon—but not bloody. It’s really a brilliant book of first-rate artistry.
When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, money, and energy?
Well, I try to wake in an attitude of gratitude so that feeling can guide the rest of my day. Then I weigh myself. If I’m over 189 pounds, I drink some water and do 100 burpees in my basement then eat breakfast and then sit in my living room to pray. If I weigh less than 190 pounds, I eat some breakfast, then sit in my living room to pray. Once I’ve done that, I check my five email accounts and my Twitter. I’m totally addicted to Twitter.
Email correspondence takes all day if I let it, but I usually stop after two hours and head to the gym and work out for about an hour. Most of the ordinary day other than that is “reading, writing, or teaching,” which really is at the center of all my doings and which, as far as I’m concerned, includes listening to music and having phone conversations with close friends about “reading, writing, or teaching.”
Of course, there are my fraternity meetings and service projects, and church on Sunday and sometimes a class offered at my church I may be taking once a week. I club or go to a house party when I can because I like to dance and look at cute black men and to see them look back at me. I love to hear live R&B, so I go to concerts whenever I know about them. And I watch Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder and Game of Thrones if I’m in town and not away giving a poetry reading. I go to the movies when I can, but of course, that’s writing too. I like to cuddle, but that doesn’t happen often enough for any of us to call it the way we spend our time.
I eat at least six times throughout the day. I’m generally hungry, so I spend my money on food. I enjoy shopping, but I don’t get to go hurt the mall as much as I would like because I’m so busy “reading, writing, or teaching,” and all three of those trump my capitalist and consumerist leanings. Whatever money I’m paid is divided among my bills, save for 10%, a tithe I give to my church, Cave Canem, and my alma mater Dillard University. (I really want to be a person who spends money on giving gifts to people, but unless it’s someone’s birthday and he or she is in my presence, I never actually send all the gifts I plan to send. This is like the last mountain of shame in my life.)
I try to keep the house open so that people can come and crash there if they have a ride and are visiting Atlanta for a couple days or even if they just need a place to wash clothes or to catch some cable TV or if people want a place to come work and read. I’m not really a host, though; often, I have people over who seem to understand that other than the music I’m playing, I like for the house to be quiet.
Lately, I’ve been practicing what I call radical forgiveness, so before I go to sleep at night I go over my day and think of anyone who may have rubbed me the wrong way in any interaction, and I let that shit go. I realized in these last few months that I was holding on to the idea that people in my past had done me wrong, and those grudges weren’t making anything good or new happen. So now when I come across these people in my mind or on the street, I try reimagining things and try remembering that people generally just do the best they can in the moment that they do whatever they do and that we all have times when we act out of fear when we should be acting out of love.
Just before going to sleep, I make a list of five things for which I am grateful and email it off to my friend the novelist Amber Dermont, who by that time has already sent her list of the same to me. I spend that “energy” you mention praying for another poem and trying to see some good in everything, which gets hard when police follow me into my driveway to ask if I live in my house.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?
But I have four:
- Use condoms, unless you’ve got another thought-out plan.
- Go about being whomever it is you want to be or doing whatever it is you want to do with what you have now.
- Experience your days as wholly and awake as possible so you can have something about which to write that comes to you as an automatic passion rather than a project for some poems.
- Go be where the poets are. Physically sit next to one sometimes. Read books written by some all the time.
What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?
I thought I was going to be one of those people who gets tenure then sits down somewhere. I’ve found that I’m actually still a dreamer. I still want to write a poem better than my last poem and a book better than my last book. I’m collaborating with Snehal Desai on a play, and if you had told me as a kid that I’d ever want to make anything other than a poem, I’d have rolled my eyes.
I didn’t think black people would be so wholesale taken with white people who record some version of black music. The Bee Gees and Billy Joel and Michael Bolton and Hall & Oates would have made way more money if they were artists who debuted in 2015.
What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?
The summer after I graduated from college, Toi Derricotte and Gloria Wade-Gayles and Yona Harvey and Terrance Hayes and Major Jackson all moved to New Orleans where I was living at the time. They (and people like Randy Bates and John Gery and Kay Murphy and Brenda Marie Osbey and Kalamu ya Salaam and Mona Lisa Saloy and the people Nommo Literary Society) seemed to appear out of my imagination as caretakers of my imagination. They looked at me as if I was a whole human being; this was a brand new way of being seen for me. They talked to me as if I already was a poet, and in their speaking to me that way, I became what they saw.
What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?
I may remember this wrong, but I think 2000, 2001, and 2004. I’m glad Cave Canem has stayed around long enough for me to be thought of as old skool CC.
I remember falling asleep on Sean Hill’s shoulder during a long bus ride. I remember Douglas Kearney waking me up every morning because I didn’t have an alarm. I remember hearing Mendi Lewis Obadike sing “Believe in Yourself” from The Wiz at a CC graduation. I remember writing while I wished I was partying with other CCers who were already done with their poems to be workshopped the next day but feeling like I was writing my ass off. I remember John Murillo doing pushups shirtless. I remember cuddling with Marvin K. White. I remember everybody acting like it was normal when Nikky Finney said she used to catch herself levitating when she was a kid. I remember Ronaldo Wilson giving a great reading and Treasure Shields doing a great Ronaldo Wilson impression. I remember listening to Shane Book and Greg Pardlo talk to each other about poetry and thinking one day I’d be as smart as them. I remember Elizabeth Alexander reading to us the poems of Forrest Hamer and feeling like I wasn’t alone. I remember Tracie Morris singing the word “Blackberry” until it meant everything. I remember Jacqueline Jones LaMon giving us one motherly look that made us rethink our decision to play music full of profanity at the farewell party. I remember Patricia Smith dancing in a magenta dress, leaving to go to sleep, then coming back to dance some more. I remember Lucille Clifton telling me to hush.