- 2019 Volume 14
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 The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press, 2019); The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), which received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; and Please (New Issues, 2008), which received the 2009 American Book Award. Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. He is currently an associate professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
I became a poet because I like listening to people talk much more than I am interested in what they have to say.
I became a poet because I like listening to people talk much more than I am interested in what they have to say. I am interested in the way things were delivered or the way people say things. I grew up in the black church where people were always going the extra mile to say something in a way that is beyond just saying. It was never, “Pass me the program.” It was, “The program that you are holding I would also like to hold.”
The first time I finished reading a book of poems, I said, ‘Mommy, I read a book’ and the face my mother made was amazing.
I became attracted to poetry in particular when I was a kid. I was very fortunate to have a mother who couldn’t afford child care. She was an improvisational genius. She would take me and my sister to the library when she had to be somewhere. We spent a lot of summers in the library. The librarians and my mother didn’t have to be worried about us to tearing anything up. We weren’t going to run crazy in the library. The other wonderful thing about libraries is there were no computers, at least back then. So where we would go in the library there was nothing there but books. We didn’t have the internet to distract us from reading. Poems were interesting because they were short. I would look a page of prose and I’d be so worn out. I thought, “How am I supposed to do all that?” I would look at a poem and be like, “Oh Lord Jesus that’s only a fourth of the page! I can do this!”
The first time I finished reading a book of poems, I said, “Mommy, I read a book” and the face my mother made was amazing. It was the only time she ever made it. She said, “My baby, my baby read a book?” I’ll never forget that. I wanted to see that again. So, I would be in a rush to get to the library and I would read every book of poetry I could find. I fell in love with poems then because I wasn’t under the impression that I had to explicate the poem. There was no need for interpretation. I just needed to read them and enjoy them for the music of language. I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t feel like I needed to know what was going on.
I write poems asking questions of my life. At the root of my poems I don’t have any intentions. I don’t have any designs.
I write poems asking questions of my life. At the root of my poems, I don’t have any intentions. I don’t have any designs. At the root of them I’m thinking, “Well, let me figure this out. Let me see where I’m wrong. Let me see where they’re wrong. Let me just blow that thing up.” I guess that some people don’t like that. I don’t think that many people who don’t like how I do what I do are looking at me. I think the people who are looking at me are the people who want to hear what I have to say.
At the root of my poetry is tenderness, not politics. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to be more tender and put more tenderness into the world.
The part of my life that has the biggest influence on my writing is the willingness to fall in love and fall out of love and make love and be a romantic, intimate person. Ultimately, I’m a love poet. People like talking about me being a political poet and that’s fine. But people don’t really have much to say about me being a love poet because they have to think before writing their essay or what not. I think it also has to do with the fact that I’m black.
When I say something about the police or something everyone is like,“Oh let’s see what he’s got to say about the police.” I think on the whole that people still have a hard time understanding that black people walk around here falling in love, that they are in a rush to get home so they can cuddle with somebody. There’s a wholeness to being that I know among black people. But I don’t know if people looking at black people see that. They see the ways of the black people can be offended, but they don’t necessarily see the fact that we can fall in love. At the root of my poetry is tenderness, not politics. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to be more tender and put more tenderness into the world.
Video: Poet and professor Jericho Brown, director of Emory's Creative Writing Program, reads the poem "Stand" from his acclaimed collection The Tradition.