Autobiography of Real: an interview with Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown is a love poet like Sappho was a love poet, like King Solomon; Jericho Brown is a political poet like Sappho, or whoever wrote Song of Songs. In his two books of poems, Please (2008) and The New Testament (2014), Brown reminds us that successful poetry must have a stake in both the personal and the public, the contemporary and the historical; that successful poetry is itself a kind of coherence of opposites. Born and raised in Louisiana, he now lives in Atlanta where he teaches English at Emory University. He has won numerous fellowships and award including a newly announced 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship. Before his life as a professor and a poet, Brown worked as a speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans. Well, not “before,” exactly—Jericho Brown has always been a poet.

In The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, you included a beautiful essay that begins, “Every poem in a love poem. Every poem is a political poem. So say the masters. Every love poem is political. Every political poem must fall in love.” Is this a reader’s distinction or a writer’s distinction, or both?

 

What do we expect from the art we make? What do we expect from the art we consume? What do we want art to do? What draws us to it over and again, though it is always difficult, though it always knocks the breath out of us, though the best of it makes us—yes!—uncomfortable?

Jake, don’t you want to be changed, expanded? I mean wouldn’t it be lovely to know that what you do will indeed alter you? And as a reader, don’t you want to come away from what you’ve read with no choice but to see the world anew?

Yes, that’s what you want. That’s what I want too! We are one.

Poetry is meant to move us. This is not some strange thing I am saying here. And once our emotions are rightly moved and/or often moved, that makes for a change in our intellect; a change of mind. A real change of mind is only evident through a change in action. Feeling leads to acting. Love is, therefore, political. No distinction necessary.

 

Following your writing outside of Please and The New Testament, I always have been struck by how direct and genuine it feels. You have told me you love me, your reader, on more than one occasion. And your tweets, “If I don’t fall in love and stay that way, then my parents win.” “The grief is actual. You could touch it. Do you want to? Touch it.” “I #love you.” Including your tweets is probably not great journalistic evidence, but I like them a lot. Even outside the twitterverse, though, you use direct address a lot. Is that something you think about?

 

I think people want what I want. (That’s probably selfish or narcissistic. Maybe I shouldn’t think this way, and maybe it’s yet another feature of my thinking I’ll have to work to change.) I want people to imagine me. I want to be possible in the mind even before I’m met in person. I want my subject position—all of my subject positions—to be a consideration. I imagine other people want that too, so I try talking to people as directly as I can in my poems and otherwise. I try to come at things where I imagine folks already are or have been. Of course, that gets me into trouble sometimes…

For example, I have a friend who is asexual, and he came to a panel I was on recently. The panel was about sex and love and the body in poetry. The moderator asked a question of me, and my answer was that I didn’t understand why so many are uncomfortable talking about having sex when everyone wants to have it. Of course, that got a lot of laughs, but I felt like shit after the panel as I was walking away from the event with my friend.

You see, the comment re-establishes a world in which he must not exist, and I’m willing to bet that those laughs I knew would come as the result of the comment helped to enable my forgetting his existence. But, by God, he was sitting right there! A person I swear I love!

I kept apologizing, and he kept saying that he didn’t even notice. But him not noticing doesn’t change the fact that I was wrong, that I had committed a violence. And that violence isn’t just against him. It’s also a violence against myself because if I really do believe in the golden rule, and that there is value in speaking to what I know we have in common, if I believe I should be imagined as a possibility, then certainly, I should be able to imagine a way my comments can include my friend. He is, after all, my friend. And I am a writer for heaven’s sake. I should be able to work with language.

I should also say Essex Hemphill and Gwendolyn Brooks. These and other writers were aware that I could be before I ever was. They’re writing is for a future. I want to do what good writers do. We call James Baldwin a prophet because that’s exactly what he was. But those prophecies from the best of our writers aren’t just about culture. They are also about those who inhabit and add to that culture. They are about me. I owe those writers something for imagining that I could be when nothing of the world around them suggested someone like me was possible.

So how do I pay my debt? I try doing what they did for me. If I can imagine someone, Jake, I can quite literally, create him should the work in which I imagine him get into his hands.

 

Do you think about cultivating a public image?
Do you think about not cultivating one?

 

I don’t say the n-word in front of white people if that’s what you’re asking me!

Okay, I’ll be more serious for you here. I do worry that no matter how good my poems are, it’s hard for people to take them or me seriously because I have never bought into the idea that I should pretend I’m not having a good time. And I know what my good time looks like bothers people. I also know that’s they’re problem.

I’m very black and Southern and loud and country and sometimes even ratchet. And I will queen all the way out if the right song comes on in the grocery store while I’m buying lettuce. I love these things about myself. And those who love me love these things about me.

But some people read my poems and desperately need me to be the man in the poems… I’m not sure if that means they should change their expectations of a poem’s speaker (who is always unlike a human being in that he is a fixed being) or if it means they’re not so good at reading poems.

And I guess me typing this much shows that I don’t care which they’re problem is or what they think of me. Bad readers or bad expectation, they have these ideas because they read the poems all the way to their last lines, which means I’ve done the work I was supposed to do. Now they have work to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dropping my nudes on Twitter. But that is about the fact that I wouldn’t, not about the fact that I think it would change my public persona…a public persona which, by the way Jake, we both know doesn’t exist.

I would like for people to think I’m a good man. And I would like for them to think I’m a good poet. But more than that, I’d really just like for these things to be true.

Let’s ask some more questions here I want it to be clear that I’ve already thought about:

How many MacArthur Genius Fellows in poetry have enjoyed going back and forth with their friends publicly on Twitter?

How many Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry openly say anything radically left about race or gender in public talks or on panels?

How many National Book Award winners in poetry would ever plan to include in their acceptance speeches a word about how our community is made more safe when the women in our community know they won’t be sexually harassed?

How many poems are published by The Yale Review that… I’ll stop. I think you get my point.

I know what I’m doing. And I know what my work can do without me imprisoning my person.

 

In that same vein, you’ve written and spoken a bit about your relationships to the New Critics. In a conversation with Natasha Trethewey you mentioned that especially coming from the South, New Criticism had always been touchstone for how you analyzed poetry. As you developed as a poet, you began to write in direct opposition of their imperative. In a section of the essay I mentioned above you write to Cleanth Brooks:

“I’m sorry, but seeing the poem as artifact without seeing the history and culture embedded suggests we read without history at all. This may be a convenient way of reading for those who have a history they can’t face.”

There’s a lot to think about there, but first do you think that the public persona of a poet can or should enter into our perception of their verse? Of course you’re talking about identity in the excerpt I pulled, and I’m asking more about personality, but do you think we can or should think about the latter, if we must think about the former?

 

I try not to demand too much of anything from poets. There are things I’d like to see and that I’d like to see more of, yes. But I really do think each one of us is trying to do the best she can do. This is why I don’t write reviews. And it’s probably why I haven’t yet figured out how to say no to writing blurbs.

I don’t like everything. I like very little. Still, I’m not foolish enough to believe that what I don’t like doesn’t have value.

I have yet to read the poem that I don’t think of as autobiographical. Isn’t poetry the real autobiography since—at its best—it is a record of the life of the mind?

 

Does rejecting the New Critics in this way demand that the poet address their own autobiography, as the reader must? This might seem like an obvious question—no one has to write about anything—but some of the most lauded poets of the moment seem to be doing a lot of similarly thinking about autobiography as such, like Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, and to some extent yourself.

 

Whether or not “the public persona of a poet…should enter our perception of their verse” seems not to matter to me since we know that it is impossible for it not to enter. Me publishing a poem as—for lack of a better word—raceless as “Turn You Over” in a publication as widely read as The New York Times or as raceless as “Colosseum” in a publication as widely read as The New Yorker won’t stop people from introducing me at readings as a black poet. And it won’t stop readers from reading those poems and looking for something to be particularly black about them. And it won’t stop those who don’t find that particularly black thing—is it there?—from noting race when they comment to themselves that the poems aren’t particularly black.

And nothing is going to stop me from being surprised every time white people acknowledge the fact of whiteness in their poems. I’ve counted, and so far this has happened about six times in the history of American poetry!

But yes, you’re asking about personality more than you are asking about identity, so I should stay focused. It seems that what we fall in love with when we fall in love with the poems of Frank O’Hara is at least a facet of the personality of the actual man. We like hearing stories about Frank O’Hara and Dorothy Parker because something about those stories reaffirms our belief in the voices they create for us in their poems. And yes, we like knowing that Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov and Sonia Sanchez and Grace Paley were willing to march and be arrested on the behalf of some ethical and moral cause because it suggests to us that the challenges set forth in their poems can indeed be met.

Should we need these things? No! But then again, we shouldn’t need much of what we use.

 

It’s really interesting to think about the psychic desires of the hegemonic culture as influencing on such a large scale how we write and read. On the other hand, the way we read poems is also so rooted in our personal history. Do you think these two kinds of baggage are ever in conflict? Have you ever noticed them operating differently in your readership?

For example, if someone were to pick up your book, they might place you in a lineage of Black poets more readily than in that of gay or queer poets. Maybe not, or maybe so and that fact is less illuminating than I think it is.

 

Jake, my love, I think you’re asking me—a Southern black gay poet who’s lived on both coasts and is several years younger than the members of the Darkroom Collective but too old to call a Millennial, with a PhD in poetry where my teachers were both Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine—if I think some readers have a difficult time with a poet having complexities that make that poet hard to categorize, classify, and taxonomize.

I guess my answer to that is that my goal has always been to create that difficult time with and through my poems. My readers—may the Lord be praised!— either want the difficulty, or they already know that the individual is varied and that it’s okay that part of that variety includes the individual’s identities. Yes, yes, yes, I’m just as frustrated as anyone else about being pigeonholed, but none of those frustrations will stop me from believing that an ownership of all my identities are of great use to my poems.

 

Your work bears a stronger formal similarity to the lyric poetry that the New Critics themselves were looking at; or rather, it is more strongly what we associate with the lyric form. Today that form seems to be fading. I mentioned Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine. Ben Lerner comes to mind, and Elizabeth Willis, Anne Carson—all those who seem to have wandered out from a kind of inherited lyric form towards something more influenced by a critical prose style. Do you see this drift as part of a larger contemporary trend?

 

I’m not sure I agree with you about Willis since Address is the latest book that’s not a selected, and I haven’t had the chance to get to the selected just yet. (Forgive me, Elizabeth!) At any rate, I actually think of my work as being a great deal like Willis’s formally and otherwise, though I have some qualms with her poems as I would with any poet’s…

But sure, I’ll say there’s a trend…particularly in terms of what the work you mention has been able to do for poetry’s popularity and wider audience since there’s not really very much of a question about that…

I really just think, though, that there’s yet another genre of poetry for us to learn from and contend with, and that genre stands alongside so many others including the formalist leanings in the work of poets like Derrick Austin and Erica Dawson or the avant garde and performance-oriented work of poets like Douglas Kearney and Tracie Morris.

The question I think you may be asking me is why more people have historically and continuously preferred reading prose to reading lines, and that might have something to do with their perception of difficulty as it relates to lines. Of course, the poets you mention subvert the perception of prose as somehow “easier” by writing beautifully difficult poetry in memorable prose styles. Or maybe you’re asking me why I have yet to give up on lines since they are clearly dead and since so many of the writers I love seem to use them less and less. Maybe I will give up on them some day. Anything is so very possible. But lines were called dead long before I was born, and yet they made their way to me, and I fell in love with them.

Of course, I won’t be agreeing with you that anything about the wrought nature of Please or The New Testament is “fading.” As a matter of fact, it seems to me alive enough for you to take the time to draft these complex questions about it. I should at least be grateful for that much!

 

In “To Be Seen” from The New Testament you write “We talk about God // Because we want to speak / In metaphors.” You also write in the first “Another Elegy” “Expect death. In every line, / Death is a metaphor that stands / For nothing, represents itself, / No goods for sale.” I’m interested in the connective tissue that metaphor provides here between God and death. Could you talk a little about that?

 

Those lines come from the poet’s frustration with trying to get at the truth by nailing the abstract nature of it down to something physical in the world. We do feel that there are times we know the truth, and we’d like to believe we can show just how well we know it through making metaphors. Of course, these metaphors fail us since the truth (tenor here) shifts in ways the metaphors (vehicle) can’t. I wanted, in these poems, to admit that I wouldn’t be getting it right but that I’ll keep trying and that I’ll get so close that sometimes—however briefly—I’ll feel satisfied.