Interview with Jericho Brown

The first time I read “Labor” by Jericho Brown, I threw The New Testament across the room and left my apartment. I was excited and filled with an acute delight having been introduced to the poet’s work by Roger Reeves. My visceral reaction to the poet’s work is reasonable when you consider how accomplished he is. Jericho Brown’s first book Please (New Issues, 2008) won the American Book Award and his second book published with Copper Canyon was recognized as being one of the best poetry of 2014 by Library Journal.

Along with being a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award & the National Endowment of the Arts, Brown’s work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other publications.
Brown granted Chaparral a brief interview.

I.S. Jones: Back in March, Buzzfeed published your poem ‘Bullet Points’. As a whole the majority of the poem is bereft of flowery language (like much of your work) and plainly states: “I will die by my own hands and not that of a police officer, but know if I were to die in police custody, they killed me”. As an emerging poet, how does a poet speak their truth, speak of their rage and use art as a vehicle to address socio-political inequality without it jeopardizing their careers? Is this even possible?

Jericho Brown: I don’t really think of art as a vehicle. Then again, when I think of trees, my mind doesn’t go to terms like “Oxygen Producers” in spite of the fact that I know this about trees. At any rate, they wouldn’t have to produce oxygen for me to love them.

I don’t know that artists I love most ever think outside of risk and jeopardy, and the history of English literature shows that risky behavior in writing is probably the best behavior. I’m saying I’ve never thought about making something that doesn’t live in the land of jeopardy. At the same time, though, I don’t think of that land as a place that could hurt anyone’s career. I actually think of that as the only place a career can indeed grow.

Of course, we may be thinking of two different things when we use the word “career.” The way I see it, the writer’s life is the writer’s career. I could spend a lot of time trying to separate the two, but that would be time wasted. How we live matters and has a great deal to do with how and what we write. Some of us live lives that are in jeopardy at every moment. There are people—many people—who would prefer us dead. It is possible to be a humorous and joyful person while knowing this is the case, and is it possible to write both threat and joy in a single poem.

Jones: As a recent MFA graduate, for me, there was a severe lack of diversity in terms of the students as well as the curriculum. As a professor and as a former MFA student, now that you have been on both sides, what advice would you give both administration as well as students on how they can make MFA programs more inviting to POC students? Can MFA programs, in your opinion, do anything on their end to combat the disparaging numbers of black and brown bodies in graduate programs?

Brown: I’m sorry to hear that you did not get what you needed in terms of diversity where you went to school. Of course, this is the reason why it is still important for us to put ourselves through another kind of school while participating in classes where only white writers are read. This is where havens like The Watering Hole come into play, and this is the reason we have to honor these havens. Our poet friendships outside of the classroom are paramount. The conversations and book recommendations that come from such friendships are a large part of what we mean when we talk about community. And yes, it is true that if one’s community outside of the MFA classroom is diverse enough, she may not feel the need for getting the MFA at all.

I am glad I got one, though. In spite of the fact that I know the degree was not necessary for Wheatley and Whitman and Dickinson and Hughes, I understand that the organized structure of my MFA and PhD programs was necessary for me to stay the course and to ingest a large amount of information in a short period of time. Different people need different things.

I don’t know that I have any advice for the administrators and students about which you ask, other than, “Stop being racist,” which is, of course, not helpful since most racist folk have no idea they’re racist and break down into denial or tears whenever I’ve tried to explain to them that they’ve done a racist thing. It seems that the only thing that can help white people stop being racist is themselves.

Here is what I’m trying to get at: People of color have to stop being responsible for “advice” to white people who can’t seem to notice that there are only white people on their syllabi. And here’s a greater truth: That brand of racism in 2016 is actually more willful than anyone of us would like to believe. If you are a “recent” MFA graduate, then your teachers are teaching at a time when writers of color are not hard to find. Even on the (sad) literary establishment level, these writers are Google-ably serving on the juries that pick winners for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award every year. This ain’t hard work for teachers who read as part of their job.

Jones: Langston Hughes appears to be a huge source of wealth for you, in that you seem to share a deep connection to the poet’s work as well as who he was when he was alive. Can you share how you came to discover his work and, from what you understand about Hughes, what are some things people miss about who he was / his approach to the page?

Brown: Langston Hughes’ poems were just plain fun to me when I encountered them in the library as a kid, and I remember that sometimes for pageants and programs at church, a child would recite “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and I’d get all excited. I love a lot of his work because it’s sassy and rhythmical. It makes a kind of music that asks to be spoken by particular characters—a large portion of the work is persona poems (in the voices of black women). This was a good time for a black gay nerdy kid like me who grew up Southern and was raised by working class Christians.

As an adult, I found his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” liberating. It let me know that I could indeed use the stuff about which I was most obsessed as material for my own poems.

Jones: In your poems, ‘Heartland’ and ‘Another Elegy’, is it intentional that ‘Another Elegy’ seems to pick up where ‘Heartland’ ends? In ‘Another Elegy’ the ending is a sudden shift in which the speaker stands over his brother’s body having realized he killed him; this ending stands loosely in the shadows of ‘Cain and Abel’. The final line says: “Except to lose / again as you stand for nothing / Over his body, witness / Or reporter, murderer or kin”. Did this ending surprise you? And while the speaker’s brother is killed, would it be incorrect to say the speaker loses more than the slain brother?

Brown: Yes, I mean for all of the poems to comment on the preceding poem or to add a dimension to it. I’m glad to know you’ve done the work necessary to notice this. And yes, every ending surprises me in some way or another. I write to make discoveries, to come to know what I didn’t know I knew. And definitely yes, every poem must be about more than its surface dramatic situation. Poems must touch something outside of themselves to truly be poems.