On Truth, Queerness, and Social Media: A Conversation with Jericho Brown
Poet Jona Colson Talks to the Pulitzer Prize Winner
Jericho Brown is author of The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is a winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award. 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. His third collection, The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019), won the Paterson Poetry Prize, was a 2019 New York Times 100 Notable Books of the year, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program and a professor at Emory University.
Jona Colson: By way of welcome, congratulations on all of the awards and accolades you are receiving for your work and The Tradition including being a finalist for the National Book Awards, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, an NAACP Image Award nomination, the United States Artists Fellowship, and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize!
JERICHO BROWN: Thank you. I appreciate that. It feels very good.
JC: How does it feel to win the Pulitzer Prize? How did you find out?
JB: It felt affirming and exciting. Joyous. Unexpected and odd somehow. I was waiting for her [Dana Canedy] to say who won in poetry. I turned on the telecast like everyone else. I watch it and pay attention to it every year like everyone. Well, maybe not everyone, but those who are interested. You may not watch the National Book Awards every year, but if you are a poet, you quickly know who won, and I wanted to know who it was going to be.
JC: You must have known you were a finalist?
JB: No, you don’t know anything. If somebody knows, I don’t think they are supposed to. You find out everything at the same time as everyone else. The Pulitzer could go any way. You see a lot of the same books winning awards, finalizing for awards, or being on books-of-the-year lists so that inspires you to make a prediction or have an idea, but sometimes the Pulitzer goes in a different direction from what other people had been talking about all year. I had this feeling that I could possibly finalize for the Pulitzer, so I was interested to see how it would work out. Then, when she said my name I was crying. I was crying before because the whole thing was emotional. By the time she said my name, I was worn out and in tears, and I was really happy.
JC: Have the prizes and accolades changed you as a poet?
JB: You have to always know that some of your favorite poets never won a Pulitzer prize or any prize. Lucille Clifton never won a Pulitzer. When black people started winning prizes, it made people notice. Also, I immediately began to remind myself that the prize is the recognition and not the achievement. The poem is the achievement. You can’t get too wrapped up in it. There is a way that you must understand these prizes so that you can continue to work and continue to read what you need to read.
JC: Do you think a writer, and specifically a poet, could ever prepare for the attention and prizes your work is getting?
JB: I don’t think a person could ever prepare for how busy it makes you. There are things that you want, but they also come with more responsibilities and more expectations. They mean all of that from more people. I want to be better at what I love to do.There is a way that you must understand these prizes so that you can continue to work and continue to read what you need to read.
JC: Did you expect it?
JB: Yes, I’m surprised when I don’t get it! I work really hard on my poems. I feel that in order to make the work that I’ve made, I have to be at an extraordinary level, and I have to embody counter-cultural beliefs, and this resonates with many people. While I was writing The Tradition, I felt like it was the best work I had ever done, and I also thought it was going to kill me. I would get home at 6:00 pm, and I’d be working on poems, and it would be 6:00 again in the morning. I can’t say that I necessarily expected it, but I’m very happy about it. I hope for the best. I could list for you 100 other poets who deserve all the awards. Everybody nominated should win—maybe there could be a five-way tie. I want everything, but I know I’m not going to get everything.
I think if you don’t get something that you want in terms of recognition you have to understand that it doesn’t matter in the long haul, but it does matter in an immediate way because prizes make a difference in terms of how much money you can get for a reading or who is inviting you, or if you’ll get a raise or tenure.
When I write a poem and I work hard on the poem and I’m satisfied with the poem, it’s my soul speaking out to the world, and I can’t be surprised that another soul identifies my soul as theirs. When I got home (from the NBA ceremony), I was too busy to cry or be upset about not winning the National Book Award because everything felt like I imagined it would be if I had won.
JC: Do you think there has been a “tradition” of winners? Do you feel the diversity in the category?
JB: I know what the statistics say about where I should be. I know what I’m from. I know who raised me. I know who my ancestors are. I know where I went to school. As a black queer man from the South who did not go to an Ivy League school—I went to Dillard University in New Orleans—all of this is wonderful, and I’m grateful. I feel like this book is getting a great deal of recognition, but I also feel and know that no poet and no good book could ever get enough recognition. No matter how big the book, it is never recognized enough. I believe in poets. I believe in us. We are the makers of the beauty that people didn’t know they needed until they see it.
JC: Do the nominations and recognition cement your identity as a poet?
JB: No, I’m already a poet by identity. I’m not a poet only when I feel like it. I’m going to be writing these poems and wearing people out as best as I possibly can because I’m trying to wear myself out whenever I write a poem. I’m trying to open myself up, and I’m trying to see, I’m trying to surprise myself, and I believe that if I keep doing that then I end up doing that to other people.
JC: In some other interviews, you have mentioned mid-20th-century poets like Plath, Ginsberg, Lowell, and Sexton. And, Sexton, specifically, often talked about performance and poetry. The way in which you present poems at a reading is so memorable. Do you consider readings an act of performance, and do your poems change for you after you read them to an audience?
JB: Of course it’s a performance. You have to give the poems over to an audience, and when you do that you are performing. I wouldn’t be performing if I was reading to myself, but if I’m reading to people, I want them to hear the poems in a certain way.
JC: Are there some poems that you would never read to an audience?
JB: I’ll read anything, but I won’t read anything everywhere. I’m not trying to get killed after the reading. I’m not trying to fight. I’m subversive, but I’m not trying to disrespect your religious beliefs or culture. I’m not going to come to your temple saying stuff that I know is going to confuse you. I try to be appropriate to the occasion. If I look out and I see a bunch of kids in the audience, I’ll be careful what I read, or I’ll say to people at the beginning that “I see a bunch of kids in this audience, and I had picked out a bunch of poems where I cuss, so I don’t know if the kids should leave or if I should not cuss.” Then, I’ll let the audience decide. There is a poem for everywhere and every time in every place.
Different audiences react to certain things in different poems. I have a poem in The Tradition called “Foreday in the Morning” where I say “She [my mother] told me I could have whatever I worked for. That means she was an American.” I’ve read that line at some places and people laugh, and I read it at other places that people just look through me as if the line is flat. I’m changed by that because I’m thinking about tone and language and how they come over to the ear. So, yes, I would say that different reactions to poems change my reading of poems or what I was thinking when I wrote it.
JC: Do you have any advice for poets who give readings?
JB: I’ve been to a lot of poetry readings, and they can be the worst experiences of a life. So, I try to give a reading that I would want to go to. I don’t think the reading I give is the reading that everyone wants to see, but it’s the one I’m invested in and committed to. I think often people get up to read, and they have made no investment and they are not committed, and they don’t believe in it. If people see you commit, then they know you care about something, and if people care about something, then you have to deal with failure. I don’t really care about failing in public because I actually think failing is how we end up learning how to do something. Just do the thing you would want to see—I’m reading poems at readings that I haven’t heard.
JC: Could I take you back to your first book, Please? In Please, you have poems that respond to characters in The Wizard of Oz. What was the impulse behind these poems?
JB: I was interested in music, and the movie’s relationship to queerness. In particular, Judy Garland’s relationship to queerness and Diana Ross’s relationship to queerness. I was thinking about songs from The Wiz and songs from The Wizard of Oz, and the song for the making of America. I bet there is someone who thinks that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the National Anthem.
I was trying to use figures that we supposedly have in common and turn them and twist them and change the lens in relationship to queerness and blackness. Those movies reflect relationships between blackness and queerness and music.
JC: In “Again,” in Please, there is a recurring theme of returning or walking back into a place that doesn’t want you. You write, “We walked back / To the house we ran from.” Do you feel that in your life or in your work, you are walking back to a place that doesn’t want you?
JB: Yes, but I also think that’s the condition of being black in this country and the condition of being queer in this country and maybe in this world. We almost always know there could be somebody who wants to beat us up and the other people might just stand and watch because they are not sure whether or not we should be beat up just for being who we are. We know that growing up even inside the queer community. People want to beat you up for being queer because they’re mad about it.
JC: Why do you think people are mad about being queer?
JB: That’s the million-dollar question. It’s hard for me to understand that anger. I think people have fears about themselves. People are afraid that they’re going to have sex with people of their same sex or gender, and I think people are afraid that because that happens to me, it could happen to them, and then what? Their identity is wrapped up in sexuality, and they don’t want their identity to collapse because of desire. I don’t know what people’s problem is with queer folk, with black folk, and I don’t know what some black people’s problem is with themselves.
Especially now, I don’t know more than I ever didn’t know. Sometimes, we’re not going to find anything in common, and we’re going to have to learn to accept the fact that we don’t have to disenfranchise people and we don’t have to shoot them. My dad’s homophobia is built out of his history and his environment and his religion. It is also built out of a certain kind of a narcissism that sees his son as his leg or his arm. I don’t know why it is, but I know it is.
JC: In The Tradition, the poem “The Card Tables” speaks to many ideas expressed in your previous answer—identity, history, and sexuality. This poem is also a great example of the accessibility of your language. At first read, you skim the surface, but then you have a way of asking readers to look again and dive deeper.
JB: Yes, that’s poetry! I like to believe that’s what poetry does. A poem should ask you to look at it again and see something you didn’t see before. The poem becomes a poem the second time you need to see it.
JC: Often, you begin a poem in mid conversation, which is a very effective way to draw the reader in. “The Card Tables” begins “Stop playing. You do remember the card tables.” Did the poem start this way for you? How intentional was this beginning? Or, was it an exercise?
JB: I think it’s useful to the reader as a rhetorical device—to begin halfway through or have an address. If you can have media res in a poem, people want to know what happened before this and what’s going to happen after. It’s craft. You learn and you use it.
JC: Why did you decide to name your latest book, The Tradition, from the poem of the same name, and what are some ways in which you think the title subverts tradition and a reader’s expectations?
JB: It’s not the first poem in the book although it is the title of the book, and I think that’s a good thing. I do think that that poem has a lot of what the book is about. What’s interesting to me is that when I wrote the book, I wrote what seemed to me to be a very pastoral book, a book in the pastoral tradition. For me, the poem “The Tradition” is a poem about climate change, about the way in which we are destroying the environment in front of our eyes, and it’s a poem about brotherhood, about black brotherhood in particular, and what we expect of black men, which is a lot of what the book is about.
JC: You are opening the poem up. Many readers, including myself and critics, have noted the police brutality in the poem that is indicated by the last line.
JB: Yes, it’s about that, but “The Tradition” is also a poem about tenderness and about caring for the earth. Also, a poem about education and learning and subverting what you learn. And finding out that what you have depended on to be true is not.
If the book is about anything, it’s about us honoring the fact that we have more than one gripe at a time, and that all of those gripes can be serviced at once. We have more than one passion at a time, and all of those passions can be serviced at once. I’m proud of having done that. When I’m revising and working on a poem, I am trying to make sure that I go beyond whatever its supposed subject matter is, and that the problem is bigger than any one subject, including Jericho Brown as a subject.
JC: In that sense, is the I in your poems you, or just someone who knows you very well and speaks?
JB: Every poem is a chronicle of an individual’s imagination, and I think imagination is more true to life than we are. My imagination, if you could see it, tells you a great deal more about my concerns, and about my love. I discuss my real life in many of my poems, and talk about the things that happened to me, and I say plenty of things that happened to someone else who seems like me.
JC: Does that also concern Truth (with a capital T) and truth in poems? As long as there is a poetic truth, is that honest enough for the poem and the reader?
JB: Yes, but I think the capital T. Truth does not include appropriation. I think a real poem is clear and self-conscious enough about why you are handling the material you’re handling. I do think that you can do whatever you want, but I also think that that doesn’t mean you will have a good poem.
To get to the Truth, you’re going to have to be honest about who you are and that takes a little bit of doubling that everybody’s not necessarily ready to do. Poets who can’t double themselves and see what they are doing are not going to write good poems. It takes practice. If you keep trying to steal other people’s experiences, that’s a different story because you’re not looking at yourself.
JC: I know you’re active on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, so how do you think that social media has affected your work and who gets to read work? Has that enhanced or changed your image as a poet?
JB: I don’t think of myself as being active on Instagram. There was a period when I was getting ready for the book to come out that I made use of Instagram and established a presence, and I did a good job. However, after the book came out, I really did not do a good job of using Instagram. I think that many of the sales for the book came from that period when I was active, but I get bored with Instagram pretty quickly. I’m better at Twitter although I haven’t been as active on Twitter lately. Part of the reason why I have not been active on Twitter lately is because I’m not trying to say too much. I want the best thing possible to happen for the book, but if I talk too much, I end up pinning down people’s idea of the book, and I want people to have readings of it that are their own.
I can get active with social media when I know there is an external need in the poetry world for me to be active. Since The Tradition came out, I really haven’t been on Twitter late at night saying my thoughts to the world. My book tried to kill me, then this book tour tried to kill me. From March until Thanksgiving, I was doing three cities a week. I’m not Janet Jackson, and I don’t have Janet Jackson’s help to be on the road like that.
JC: So, social media may not have the effect that writers want? I guess I’m wondering if social media shapes a writer’s image and their engagement or if it is a way to sell books.
JB: I think that my goals for poetry, in terms of whose hands I can get poems into, shift a lot and change. My idea of what the poet’s job is or what the poet’s responsibility should be to promote their work changes all the time. It’s very different from what I thought when I was a very young person. The public’s access to poetry has changed.
Posting on Instagram is one of the most anxious situations I could ever put myself in. I just don’t like pictures of myself. I remember being young and reading an anthology and seeing pictures of poets that I had been reading for a very long time. As a young reader, I didn’t think about what people look like, and I didn’t care. I knew what they sounded like. So, this expectation for me to be camera ready stresses me out, and I think it stresses me out a little more than it should.
JC: How can social media be stressful for a writer?
JB: The day before the book came out, I posted a picture of me reenacting the cover of The Tradition, and I showed a good deal of my chest in that picture, and people bought books because of that, and they let me know in DM’s. For about seventeen seconds this is very funny and satisfying, but then at the eighteenth second I’m disgusted because I set up a world where that’s the expectation. Now, I have to keep my chest high and looking good. I have to have my angles just right. I’m probably the last poet to join Instagram.The day before the book came out, I posted a picture of me reenacting the cover of The Tradition, and I showed a good deal of my chest in that picture, and people bought books because of that, and they let me know in DM’s.
JC: You mentioned that Twitter is easier. Is that because it’s mainly text?
JB: Twitter is different. I don’t know if it sells any books, but I feel more of a community happening. I talk to some poet friends in public on Twitter. I can sort of keep up with people. I was always turned off by Facebook. If I weren’t a person with books, I wouldn’t have social media.
I’m conflicted about social media because part of my definition of the poet has to do with the ability to leave one’s past behind and live much more fully in the present. Social media sets up a situation where you’re always in your past or faced with your past. You can’t live in the now.
If you’re young enough, you can be on Facebook your whole life, which means everything you do, everybody sees it. I think more people now than ever are still friends with people who were their friends in high school. You have to be able to leave some things behind so that you can morph and transition and change. If you have moments of activity on social media, then you increase the expectation that you will respond to people on social media.
JC: In addition to writing poetry, you also teach poetry. What are some core objectives in a Jericho Brown poetry workshop?
JB: I just want people to learn to be there for one another. When you are any kind of artist, a poet in particular, you’re in a position where there is absolutely no language to explain to other people what it is you do or why it’s important to you. In spite of the fact that other people in the world have had experience with poems and poetry, it is very difficult and, in the contemporary moment more difficult than ever before, to relate to people what your passion is.
Poetry has been taken for granted, yet people have been changed and moved by poetry that they themselves cannot explain. Poets have to be there for each other and provide a kind of community and support for one another, and I think of my class as the location where that begins. My students learn that the more you can give over and give up and submit to someone else’s poetry, the more you help them and become a better poet yourself.
JC: So, in that way, the poets consider audience? How much do you consider audience in your own work?
JB: I think about a reader in terms of clarity when I’m revising. At first, I just want to be crazy and say things even I don’t understand in the first draft. In revision, I’m thinking about unity and clarity in ways that maybe I wasn’t thinking about when I first sat down to write. I try to read a lot of poetry, and the more I read, the more I notice what I don’t see, and that’s what I need to be writing.
JC: I was so happy to read your new poem “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” that was published in The New York Times in June 2020. In this poem, you write “I’d like us to rethink / What it is to be a nation. I’m in a mood about America / today.” Could you speak about those lines? And, perhaps the way in which they relate to the Black Lives Matter movement.
JB: I have deep interest and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe in that, and I understand what is to be a part of a longer and larger continuum of troubles for black people. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for that conversation and for people to think about black lives in America, and who we are. Being “in a mood about America” is not new, but it intensifies and fluctuates depending on what’s going on outside.
This interview originally appeared at The Writer’s Chronicle, courtesy AWP.