Last year, I brought a YouTube clip to the literary translation class I teach at The Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv. It was Jericho Brown reading “Heart Condition,” a poem about being African American, gay love, and separation. I let my students simply listen to it, without handing out the words to the poem and without commenting. You could have heard a pin drop in the room, it was that mesmerizing.
As a literary translator, I’m always looking for voices from afar that transcend the ordinary, voices that are rooted in the particular and the personal and yet are accessible and universal. Jericho Brown is one of these voices. An associate professor and director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University, his first book, Please, (New Issues 2008) won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament, (Copper Canyon 2014) won the Ansfield-Wolf Book Award. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts. But it is his presence in this world that electrifies and resonates, accentuating every syllable of every word in readings, plastered over social media, ready and waiting to offer poetry to everyone, even those who normally shy away from it.
I spoke to him via Skype last week to talk about his latest poetry collection, The Tradition, (Copper Canyon 2019), a book that gives witness to today’s incomprehensible world.
JOANNA CHEN: In many ways your poetry is like opening people’s eyes to the world in which they live.
JERICHO BROWN: I guess it’s what I’m trying to do because when I’m writing my poems I’m trying to open my own eyes and I imagine that whatever the poet is really after will be reflected in the reader’s experience. So for me, when I’m writing my poems, one of the reasons I don’t sit down with the idea that I will write a poem about blank is because I want to find out. I follow language so that I will be lead to certain lines and certain phrases that honestly scare me and surprise me, that have me say things I didn’t expect to say, and when I say things I didn’t expect to say I have to wonder if I’ve said something that I believe. The more I question this the more I have to also wonder whether or not I should change my living to fit that belief.
So it’s a belief?
I think so … There are things I realize while I’m writing poems that I otherwise don’t. They’re not necessarily things that I’m conscious of and when I bring them to the fore I have to deal with what that means. In the first poem of my book, for example, I wrote the lines “The people of my country believe/ We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.” That seemed very true to me when I wrote them. I didn’t sit down knowing that I was going to write those lines. So after I write a line like that — what does it mean about my living? Do I really think that about my country? And if I do, what does that mean about my citizenship in this country? I’m trying to understand better who I am and what I’m doing and whether or not I have been or am being the best possible man I can be. Do you understand what I’m saying? And when I’m doing that, I imagine that goes somewhere. I imagine that if someone reads that, they feel that. But I can’t think about that as I’m writing because if I were to think about it I would never make a poem.
This element of surprise you mentioned — it’s your own surprise as you’re writing and this brings a wonderful freshness to your words. It’s echoed in your line breaks, and the way you read out loud.
I’m comfortable with the fact that, because I don’t know where I’m going, things won’t always make sense in the first draft. I think that one of the things that stifles very young writers is that they expect to make their Nobel winning work on the first try. They think of it as a thing of talent, that you should just be able to do it. If I teach my students anything, I teach them to be more comfortable with failure and to have a better understanding of time. We’re not football players, we’re not basketball players, we’re not soccer players, we don’t have to worry about retiring at 34. So if you get a line and you haven’t figured out how to make it work, you have the rest of your life to work on it.
In Hebrew, the word for “poetry” is shira, and it also means “song.” When I listen to you reading a poem, you’re almost singing, or maybe chanting is more what you do. There is music, incredible attention not only to rhythm but to every single syllable.
I’m interested in casting spells. This is what happens to us when we’re overtaken by great art. We feel that a spell is being cast. When we are moved, isn’t that magical? Isn’t it strange that you read characters, you read words on a piece of paper and you find yourself crying, right?
But that’s what I do. I’m a conjurer, that’s my job, and there is something to be said about the oral tradition, there is something to be said about the fact of what poetry does when we hear it out loud. I don’t only make my poems on the computer. I probably look strange, you know, an indigent person roaming the house in my underwear at 2:30 in the morning, chanting to myself because I’m trying to hear if the language out of my mouth and into my ear is doing what I want the language in a poem to do when I am moved by it.
There are things you have power over when you’re writing, and there are things that you don’t. I don’t think I have power over subject matter, for instance, but I do have power over line links and line breaks. A lot of that is instinctual, a lot of craft-based things — rhythm, song, metaphor, where you use timing, where you use an abstraction and where you use concrete language. These kinds of things are instinctual but can be learned. You can gain some control over them.
So there is music, but you’ve said poetry begins in silence.
What I mean by that is I have to have a certain amount of silence.
I just need quiet in order to get writing done so that I can’t be distracted. So that I can focus on, quite honestly, the voices I’m hearing in my head. I can’t have other noises around. I think this is one of the reasons I get so much writing done in the middle of the night. You know, even a car driving by on the road might be the thing that snaps my attention, and that’s so much less likely in the wee hours of the morning. So for me it’s better if everyone else is asleep.
Some of that silence comes through in the gentle cadence of your poems. And that gentleness contradicts the violence. You lull the readers with these gentle tones and then jerk them into reality by a line break or repetition.
One of the things I realized long ago, maybe even more in this book, is the way of the poems, and by that I mean the music of the poems and how the poems are made, which might seem contradictory to what people believe the poems are about … So part of what I’m doing is working with craft to manage material. The craft is what allows me to cut and snip and come up with the piece of clothing or the piece of art, the final product, which in this case is the poem.
And there were times you had to pull over the car to write these poems.
This book scared me to death. Most of the book was written between Thanksgiving of 2017 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2018. I was calling my friends on the phone because I was worried things were going so good! I was having great writing days, sometimes writing three poems a day, do you know what I mean? It was crazy. I felt completely inspired but also totally exhausted, because all of these poems were coming to me. When a line comes to you, you sort of service that line, and there might come a time when you’re pushing words around, and you’re making things happen but things are going slow and after a period of years you look back and you’ve got some poems. But in this case I would get a line and think, “Oh, I’d better hurry up and go somewhere where I can write that down.” It was happening all the time. I would be at a movie and would have to get up and go to the restrooms so I could type on my phone because I was getting lines. And it was crazy.
I grew up very religious and sometimes in an American context that which is religious and that which is superstitious will intersect very well. Because I had all of these poems I kept thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to die.” You know, I’m always in search of myself as a poet, an identity that this is who I am and this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Having that many poems at once gave me the feeling that God was trying to get it all out at one time. So when the book came out and I held it in my hands I was so happy. Look! I didn’t die.
Yes, there is a certain urgency to the poems here.
The last few years in this country have been exceptional, obviously. I’ve always known that there was unnecessary violence done by police to black people my entire life. I’ve always known that. But seeing it on video the ways that we’ve had to see it is a very different occurrence. The election of this particular president seemed to me a very different occurrence.
I was thinking about my childhood in different ways, I was remembering all of these things that I knew about plants and flowers and trees that I would have thought that I’d forgot, I was understanding my parents in ways that I had never understood them before. And there was Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen, and Barry Jenkins’ movie, Moonlight. So there were a lot of different art objects that I was consuming, and I think all of those things came together almost at one time and I just had to give them space.
So your poems are poems of witness in that you’re recreating a scene only you can know, and finally all these minute details present a larger picture. And your life is not mine, your poems are very personal and specific, and yet in the first poem in The Tradition, you write, “The people of my country believe/ We can’t be hurt if we can be bought,” and this certainly has parallels in what is happening in Israel today.
That’s what we’re told poetry does, it collapses time and space. It is also true that many of the atrocities that we are experiencing in the United States are microcosms of the atrocities that are going on all over this world. I don’t know how but there is very clearly a fascist movement, a movement toward fascism, going on all over our planet right now. I think it’s important that we be honest about that, that we know it, and that we keep our eye on it and that we do everything we can to root it out because the last time fascism was this popular all over the world a whole lot of people died.
You’ve said that a poem is a mirror of the life of the believer. Is this prayer?
When you say you’re having a good writing day part of what you mean is it feels almost as if it’s not you. It feels much more like listening than writing, you know? So my question is this: Who are you listening to? I think if it isn’t God it’s some version of a higher self that knows exactly what needs to be written down at that moment and at that time. I think we recreate that communion, that moment of meditation, that moment of oneness with our higher selves. We recreate that for the reader, the reader gets the poem, senses the poem and, yes, participates in that prayer. And this is part of what I was saying earlier, about silence, about chanting, about casting spells. All of that is from the world of prayer. All of that is from the spiritual realm.
It’s hard talking about these things because you know, poets, particularly here in the United States, like to eschew the idea of a God. But whether or not we believe in God it seems we all have moments of prayer, we all have moments of meditation and realization, and we all have moments where we feel something stronger than intuition speaking to us.