Jericho Brown–My Poems, My People
I strive to be clear—not obvious. I am neither afraid of nor married to difficulty or accessibility. I mean to write poems that are felt before they are understood. Of course, anyone who reads or hears my poems can tell that I have an investment in story and folklore, particularly as they are understood in the African American literary tradition, but no matter how obvious the narrative, I have never thought that knowing exactly what is going on in a poem makes it attractive.
I think of writing, first, as a process of listening to some series of sounds that enter my mind and, second, as a process of embodying those sounds. I try and leave as much as I can to instinct, intuition, and reflex—even in the final stages of revision. Because I’m so interested in both music and voice, I find myself trying to figure the personality of the sounds as I am composing. At some point in the writing of a first draft, I start to take on the characteristics of the voice asking to be channeled through words that convey what I think of as a necessary mixture of the sacred and the profane, the ironic and the ecstatic. An example of this might be something as simple as punching the computer if the voice is pissed to the point of violence.
I hardly feel that I have any control or power over the “story” that begins to emerge from a poem while composing it. I do my best writing when I am most vulnerable to the writing, when I allow for the construction of images and lines that, in the midst of composing, frighten me.
When I write and revise, I imagine myself in the middle of a conversation, often a disagreement, with someone I love. I mean for the experience of writing to be like the experience of saying, “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “Baby, please don’t” to a person I need in my life. The only difference is that, because those phrases are so trite, I have to find the language and pacing necessary to let that someone know I really mean it.
I negotiate the personal and the universal by understanding that the universal, as it has been presented to us over and over again, is a lie. I know it’s a lie because, though I’ve witnessed audience members at readings ask gay poets what a straight person can appreciate about their poems, I have never seen a straight poet asked what gay people can appreciate about his or her poems.
The civil rights movement was not meant to erase race. As a matter of fact, one of its goals was to make the history and contributions of various peoples in this nation all the more prominent. I wonder what would happen if we stopped telling the lie of universality to our poetry students… if we, instead, told them the truth of difference, of the magic found in range and in oddity, in writing that which is, dare I say it, queer. Yes, syntactical acumen just might be universal, but content is definitely not. Content has nothing to do with anything we love. If it did, we’d all have better boyfriends.
American poetry is at its best when it is as vast and varied as American people mythologize themselves to be. Further, an American poet must be the poet who understands the vastness and variedness of herself as an individual. And that poet must be vulnerable to her work. . . so vulnerable that complete contradictions come through her poems in a gorgeous way. I am everyday feeling more and more homeless because of a kind of thinking on the part of artists of color and queer artists who call for an erasure of identity that is supposed to somehow allow them (and me?) to be better artists. Our lot in life as poets in this nation has a great deal to do with how many ways we can see a thing and accept its complexity as well as how many ways we can see ourselves and put into our art every inch of us. We’ve done some work when we pile a bunch of adjectives in front of the word “poet” and allow ourselves to see the poems within the context of all those adjectives. Without every adjective, we fall for the silly idea that there is only one way to evaluate an art object, and that idea never bodes well for innovative work. That idea makes for really lazy reading. That idea is un-American.
I am all about those multitudes Whitman saw himself containing. I am enchanted and encouraged by the ways American poets of my generation show proof of this part of our inheritance through writing poems that make apparent a multi-voiced speaker. Still, I do hope that this trend does not lead to a loss of responsibility for all that comes along with any one part of those multilayered identities. I hope to read in the essays and interviews you are collecting a white poet who says that he is white and that the privileges that come along with whiteness in the United States have indeed informed his poetics…
. . . Which is why it is so important for me to say that I am male and that I am completely aware that my work explores maleness and masculinity (what ever the hell these may be) in the way that I think several poets of the American tradition do and have done from Whitman to Sandburg to Tony Hoagland (bless his heart). But I haven’t done a damn thing if the poems do not admit and question the privilege that attends being born male in this nation.
Jericho Brown grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before earning his PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans and graduated with a BA from Dillard University in 1998. Brown is the author of two books of poetry. His most recent collection, The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), was described by Yusef Komunyakaa as a chronicle of “life and death, personal rituals and blasphemies, race and nation, the good and the bad” that illuminates “scenarios of self-interrogation and near redemption.”