Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. 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 and was named one of the best of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of the collection The Tradition, which will be published this spring. His poems have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry anthologies. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory.
Jericho Brown Skyped with River Heron Review co-editors Robbin Farr and Judith Lagana on December 17 to discuss his insights into the influence of music, other writers, and his youth on his writing, among other observations. What follows is the interview.
RHR: What is the one bit of advice you offer to your students which you feel is most valuable?
Jericho Brown: I think that it’s important that when you are writing a poem you have a metaphor for poetry. Meaning, something that is not poetry. Something that is completely separate from poetry.
For me, music is the metaphor. For somebody else it might be roller skating or running or cooking. The thing is, it must be something that you really have some other interest in, so you can look at the poem and say, “How is this thing like that thing?”
When I’m writing a poem, I might be able to say, “Look, there's not enough bass right here. I can’t translate what that means, but I know that’s true.” Somebody else might say, “I need some spice right here,” like somebody who cooks might say, “I need oregano.” They would be able to translate, “This should cook a little longer, and this should actually be served cold. Why was I thinking it had to be served hot?”
RHR: How do you find time to write?
Jericho Brown: I’ve always been very good, for whatever reason. No matter what’s going on, I just won’t sleep or I will just pull my car over, because I don’t want to forget the line. I have become very aware. What usually happens for me is there are these long periods where I feel like I am not writing at all, which isn’t true. The one thing that being in a long term relationship taught me, is that I was indeed writing all the time. You don’t think you're writing. You have to have a boyfriend to say, “you’re always writing” to realize, “Oh, it is true.” I do take time. I do sort of have a practice and I am scribbling here and there. But you know, those little moments of scribbling here and there will, in my experience, round up to one larger moment.
RHR: Tell us about your writing process
Jericho Brown: If I am traveling, I know that I can only do so much. I have a journal with me, and I try to push around a thought or a line, and I sort of try to make it musical. I am always scribbling down lines, things I overhear, things that come to me, so that there is this running list of sentences or lines in a literary page of my notes, in my iPhone. On Sunday, whatever lines are there, I’ll cut and paste and dump them into an email and send it to myself, then dump that into a core document. Then I start looking at what I have and pretty much, that’s what I’m working on through the week. Can I push this line around? Does this line have some type of formal suggestion to it?
There is a part of my mind that wants to escape all of the things that are going on and wants to create this space of introspection and solitude, which I can find when I am about to, or am in the middle of, writing a poem. So ultimately, to answer your question, the process varies. But, there is always something going on, and then I can be disciplined, you know, during those months in the summer and definitely during the holidays.
RHR: As you go through the process of writing, do you get to a place where you feel you are over-crafting? How do you know when a poem is finished? Have you ever been in a situation when you are crafting and say, “Ah, that’s too much.”?
Jericho Brown: That is a really interesting question. Talking to my students about their writing leads me to a better explanation about my own writing. I was speaking with a student and explaining certain differences about abstract language and different kinds of concrete language. I was explaining to her that it's not that you can’t use abstract language in a poem; it’s that you have to earn it. It is a matter of intuitive or instinctual timing so that you have a certain amount of concretes that lead to an opportunity or an abstraction. But, you can’t do that if you are just talking abstractions in your writing. That amounts to a sermon. Then, you are not writing a poem.
So I’m telling her this, and she was asking me about revisions (for her portfolio) and I said, “One of the ways which you will know that you’ve taken the poem as far as you can is that every part of the poem has to do with at least another part of the poem. There is that resonance singing all the way down, and there is a resonance singing all the way back up, right? That resonance is throughout the poem. That something you say at the beginning of the poem is answered in some way or responded to at the end.”
I know I am done with a poem when revising the poem some things have or will say something to something else in that unit. You know, I’m really interested in the poem itself as an object, really interested in it as a single unit of something.
Like this earpiece, this is real, like this water bottle or this pen, you know? What are the parts of this pen? When I explain this to my students, I actually use a microwave. The door of the microwave is its own thing, and yet the door of a microwave only has meaning to the microwave. What I am thinking about when I am finishing a poem, I’m sort of going back to the microwave to see, do you have your own door? Do you have your own keypad? Do you have your own tray? And those are different elements. Sometimes that’s metaphor. Sometimes that’s story. Sometimes that’s the line itself or the music or rhythm that the line creates and does it have something to do with the eating of food? Use what is useful to yourself as an object. That's the way I think about revision for the single poem.
RHR: When you were creating the duplex, was that something you set out to do? Or was it an evolution of sorts? Would you just share a little bit about your process in the creation of the duplex?
Jericho Brown: I’ve been writing these duplexes in my mind for about ten years. I’ll tell you all something very strange. My dad had a lawn and landscaping service when I was growing up. My mom would clean houses and my dad would do these yards, and often they would do both for any one family, right? So you know, I grew up doing the same, the same kind of work. More on the outside than on the inside, and whenever anyone asks me about the inception of a poem or of an idea I always think well, I was mowing the lawn.
Let me tell you all something that is weird about that. There is something about mowing the lawn for so many years and something about that work. I mean when I was a kid growing up, I was always mowing the lawn and because something in me was always a poet. I was always making up stories, and I was always trying to write rhymes. I was always trying to make poems. My mother was putting poems on the refrigerator as far back as I can remember, so once I figured out what rhyme was, that was it. I would just write words down that could rhyme.
Looking back at those yards, I will never forget how, when we would drive away, we would be looking at the yard and we’d be like...hmmm, that’s pretty. Do you know what I mean?
I think there is something about that process. And it was hard work, you know? I am from Louisiana, so it was hot and you know, the days are long. Which, I think is the way I think about writing in that I was doing the labor to make something pretty. That’s sort of how I think about it.
So, when you ask me about that, the first thing I thought was oh, when I was mowing the lawn. There is something about that. Anytime anyone asks me about writing, I think of mowing the lawn which is so funny because I have not mowed the lawn in years.
You are always making patterns. Any work you are doing, particularly outside, you are literally making patterns in the grass or patterns in planting or making rows, so you are making lines.
RHR: Isn’t that true, you are making lines on so many levels.
Jericho Brown: Exactly. And I think that has a lot to do with the way I think about form and about structure, which I do think of as two different things.
So the duplexes came because I had written formal poems in my first book in particular. There were many formal poems. For whatever reason I didn’t trust the sonnet. I wanted to do something other than that. I wanted to write these poems that were sonnet descendents. If you read my first book there are all these 14-line poems. They are not exactly sonnets. All these 13 or 15-line poems could have been exact sonnets, but I clearly wouldn’t let them be. And that was a very conscious decision at the time. I had this idea that if the poem was a sonnet, then it would sing back to the tradition of poetry and that I could establish my individual will or my individual ideas. I don’t know why I though that, I mean, I was a very young person and you know, I was an idealist. But, I was under that impression.
And then, years later, having written a second book and thinking about it, there is a ghazal called “Hustle” in my second book. I was also thinking about the duplex and the sonnet. I have a blues poem in the second book, as well, so I was sort of always was thinking about, how do I write a sonnet crown that allows me to get where something happens in the last line? And in that last line, you make that last line, the first line of the next poem. And when writing these, my goal is always to write a ghazal that is also a sonnet that is also a blues poem.
So, there is something that happens in those last two lines. There is something that happens, I think, from the first line of each sonnet...right? Like, if you only look at the first line of each sonnet in a crown, it is sort of like looking at the topic sentences of an essay, I mean, it is the essay a sixteen year old gets, but supposedly, something in my mind thinks, oh, if I just read the first line then I should know everything….right?
RHR: Like knowing the gist of it, right?
Jericho Brown: Yeah, I wanted to make a poem that made that true. I was concerned and thinking about how I was going to have to do certain kinds of juxtaposition that we already make way for and accept when we see ghazals. I had that in mind. And then I knew, I mean, what changes the poem? Why isn’t it just a ghazal? And I think that had to do with sort of the storification of the repeated lines that are changed by the following line. That something, after the repeated line, makes the repeated line sound like singing, sound like spell-casting. That is the part of the poem that I think of as the blues.
RHR: Your work has many references to music. There is clearly an honoring of music. Were you surrounded by it while growing up, and was it part of your life?
Jericho Brown: Yeah, it was there when I was growing up. I think it is part of everybody’s life, but because I was such a sensitive kid I made much more of it than what other people might make of it. I paid attention to the way it would change a room.
I paid attention to people. I’m from a card playing family, so when people would be playing cards and having a good time and smoking cigarettes and all that, there were certain songs that would come on when the music would be playing, and everyone would sort of pause. I mirrored that. I watched that. I paid a lot of attention to the music that was being sung at the church where I grew up. I was always fascinated by how different people would sing the same song different ways, and I was fascinated by people’s reactions to those songs.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the library, so I got really obsessed. I would play records in the library, and I wanted to know what Aretha Franklin sounded like in 1960, and then I wanted to know what she sounded like in 1970, and then I wanted to know what she sounded like in 1980. These are things I wanted to know when I was 12 years old for whatever reason. I wanted to chart that, and I wanted to think that, oh, she could do this now or oh, now she’s scatting a song. There are songs in the ‘80’s Luther Vandross was recording for her, and she’s scatting. She hadn’t scat like that in years. So, those are the kinds of things that as a kid, I was obsessed with, much in the same way kids are obsessed with Marvel comics, or that kids are obsessed with certain video games. I just could not afford Marvel comic books, but I could listen to music, and music was much more. Although my parents didn’t give me any lessons in music, they sort of supported me or were interested in buying tapes that became the music that was being played around the house.
RHR: When you are writing, what ghosts hover in the background for you?
Jericho Brown: I’ll say this about music, and I think this has to do with the ghosts. What I am thinking about when writing a poem is I am thinking of this poem as object. The other thing I think about is poem as song. When I say poem as song I mean if a poem is like a song, then I can create metaphors that speak to me when I am trying to revise the poem.
What I mean by that is the ghosts in the room for me are people like those singers, like Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston. But also the people who wrote and produced those songs where people who had ideas about what songs should be like during certain periods. So, the truth is, Kenneth Babyface Edmonds is over my shoulder, and Barry Gordy is over my shoulder, and Michael Masse is over my shoulder, and Holland-Dozier-Holland is over my shoulder and so is Valerie Simpson.
Those people are people I think of as being over my shoulder because when I am writing a poem and I’m having a problem, I try to think about what they would do? And these are very inventive people. We don’t really think about how inventive these people were. Holland-Dozier-Holland because they were always trying to make for new sounds. They would have instruments that did not even exist in the United States flown to the United States until they could find ways to use them. Or they would do things like have people bring in bike chains and just throw the chains on the floor and find ways to use those sounds later.
I think that it’s important that when you are writing a poem, you have a metaphor for poetry that is not poetry but something completely separate from poetry. For me, music is the metaphor. For somebody else it might be roller skating or running or cooking or going shopping at the mall. The thing is that you really have to have some other interest so you can look at the poem and say, “How is this thing like that thing?”
Somebody like LeBron James might be in the room because I’m thinking about just plain old excellence. Somebody like Serena Williams might be in the room because I’m thinking about excellence. Because you know, I am thinking I need to make a poem that is like what they do when they hit a tennis ball or when they put a the ball through the net. My poem needs to be like that.
And then there are all those writers. Baldwin is very important to me because he is and was such a truth teller, such a spiritual person who was really trying, in my opinion, really trying to figure out how to make use of his spiritual self in his writing and how to reconcile the person he was as an adult to the Christian he was as a child.
Essex Hemphill is a very powerful poet, but he also wrote essays. He was a community oriented poet, you know. He helps me think about my poems as useful objects. That’s the reason that I like to say or use “microwave.” I think about music in the way I do is because I know it creates in people a feeling, and that feeling allows for a different sense of how they can relate to one another when they are in a space or in the space together.
I am interested in poems that can be used. Those are two of the people, Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, and you know, people that are just pop culture famous. I mean, I am a big Lucille Clifton fan. I think she is the greatest. I’ve met Gwendolyn Brooks. I think Gwendolyn Brooks is actually, well, my closest friends who are poets are astounded by the fact that I can’t talk about Gwendolyn Brooks without crying. I think meeting her became a huge influence for me.
I met her when I was writing poetry, but I wasn’t yet a poet. I might have been 21-22 years old or something like that. She was an example to me of, and I mean to this day I believe Gwendolyn Brooks is the kindest person who ever walked the earth. Definitely in the 20th Century.
Gwendolyn Brooks had a conversation with me where she was talking to me like I was an adult when I really, really wasn’t, which made me feel like I wanted to be an adult. I went to Dillard University, and because she was visiting the college and since I was a halfway smart kid, I was asked to go to the dinner, which is what we do with half-way smart kids, right? So I’m sitting next to her, and she turns to me and she says, “So what is your conception of the line?” And all I got from that was that I needed to have a conception of the line.
She had a way of talking to a person. She had this way. She mentioned to me this new anthology that had been edited, this anthology of African American literature. She asked me what I thought of it. I hadn’t even known it existed. She was putting me in a position to think about what my life needed to be, but I thought whatever that book was, that is the cool thing, and maybe I should have an answer or maybe I should consciously have an answer. And she asked me about this book. Of course I told her I hadn’t read it or seen it. She started talking about decisions that were made and selections that were made and a week later, in my college mailbox, who knows how, was that book, signed by Gwendolyn Brooks. I mean in retrospect, even in that moment when I got it, I was like , “Oh, I have to go do something. I need to meet that.
Yeah, so, she is there. You know, she loved poetry. She really believed in it as a spirit that could change the way we saw things in this nation in particular. She believed in poetry as a guiding cultural force, and I loved that about her.
So she is in the room. She says this one thing in her lecture when she became the United States Poet Laureate, “no cliches in poetry, and no cliches in life.” When she says “no cliches in life” she says it like it comes from on high, so that’s something I’m always thinking about. I mean I want every line to be a surprise, and I really got that from her. In Brooks’ poems every line is a surprise.
There are a lot of people who are in the room. I’m in the room too, you know. There is a me when I was nineteen years old who was really an at-risk kid. I was really using poems when I was nineteen to stay alive. I would read something, and I would find out about a poet, and I would say, “Oh, I should just read all of the poems by Essex Hemphill,” and I was like, “Oh, if I read all of the poems by Essex Hemphill, I won’t kill myself until after I have read all of those poems.” Then it was Melvin Dixon, then I read about Essex Hemphill which led me to Melvin Dixon and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just read all of the poems by Melvin Dixon. Then I’ll kill myself.” This is really weird logic, but poems really, a lot of poems kept me alive.
Maybe some people say that, but I really mean it. It gave me something else to do, something that I could really concentrate on and love and feel and experience and have inward experiences through, and it was for a period of my life when the inward experience I was having through reading poetry was the only time that inward experience was not an experience of dread.
We do gain, who knows if it is good or bad, but we do gain pleasure from some of the most dour of poems. Hopefully some of that pleasure is derived from an idea that having read the poem we can make for a situation that is less dour.