Jericho Brown received the Whiting Award and the Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard. His poems appear in 100 Best African American Poems, American Poetry Review, Believer, and Oxford American. His first book, Please (New Issues), won the American Book Award. His poem “The Rest We Deserve” is featured in the Summer 2012 issue of KR.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
“The Rest We Deserve” was one of those few godsends that didn’t take very long at all. I had been struggling with some other poems for months and woke up one morning having dreamed most of it as is. I skipped the gym so I could get it all down then sent a copy to Joel Dias-Porter and in the sending realized exactly what he’d have to say about it before he said it. I took those imagined suggestions and quickly sent him a second version while he was typing the exact responses I expected him to make. He liked the second version a lot, which convinced me that it was a done as it was going to be for a while because Joel don’t like much that ain’t perfect.
The hardest part was 1.) believing it was done since I finished it in about six hours and 2.) trusting that it was okay for me to finally start writing “about” music again. I had been outlawing myself from making use of any reference to music because of its predominance in my first book Please. I literally refused to write the words “song,” “voice,” “tune,” etc. in anything on which I was working. I wanted to create a brand new lexicon for myself. I decided that I didn’t have to throw “The Rest We Deserve” away because its themes fit so well with those of the poems I was including in my new manuscript The New Testament and because it made use of music in ways that I didn’t know were possible when I was writing Please.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
1. Play is the only way.
2. If you ain’t writing, teach your ass off, and you won’t feel so bad about not writing. Putting myself in some sort of position where I can be of use to other poets (students or friends or mentors) keeps me from feeling like I have no purpose in the world when I’m not writing. I don’t write a lot at all, and in the periods where no magic is being made, I used to think a great deal about new and exciting way to kill myself. It’s harder for me to think I shouldn’t be on the planet when I’m under the impression that somebody (or that poetry itself) needs me.
3. Stay vulnerable to the work. Do what ever the hell it wants you to do when it wants you to do it, and never apologize to anybody for being its slave.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
jubilat. jubilat. jubilat. It’s really an exciting read for me because I always see multiple pieces that give me new goals for my own writing, new ways of getting at emotion of which I get envious and want to figure how to do myself.
I have to add, though, that I do wish part of your question was something every lit mag poetry editor had to answer: “Do you make selections for your journal thinking about what Jericho Brown would look forward to reading. If not, why not?”
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
Naw. I doubt that emotional concepts precede language in my own process. I usually write because I have a line and I like how it sounds so I want to see if I can make more sounds that are like it or that riff off of it. My second stage is figuring the emotional concept–so Larkin and I have those two switched. Also, it’s pretty obvious that nobody feels what Larkin felt when he wrote his poems. If they did, they’d teach his poems more often and stop treating him so badly. I’d have even more people trying to sleep with me if I could make that happen.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I am not writing until I’m writing what John Crowe Ransom thought I couldn’t and never thinking about John Crowe Ransom while doing it.
Every poem is 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.
The political poem has an aim, whether the poet is aware of it or not. When I say I love you, I mean for you to understand that I exist in relation to you. And to your view of me.
Every poem challenges or supports the status quo. So say the masters. Poets whose work supports the status quo often fail to acknowledge that their poems are just as political as poets whose work questions it.
The love poet is not afraid of -isms or phobias. She believes her love, the love she pours into her poems, overpowers. This belief makes her a vulnerable person on this planet where weapons are known to be sharp or explosive.
The political poet loves me. He says so in his poems. I meet him with my extended hand; he opens his arms. Literally.
In the political poem, each character is a figure meant to represent some aspect of the whole. I write, “Derrick” in a love poem thinking men other than me are in love.
You can’t love me if you don’t love politically.
Hope is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.
Poems built around the idea of art as expression—an idea that makes me want to pull my hair out! What one chooses to wear in the morning is expression. Art is not.
Some “drafts” suggest that because a feeling is prevalent that prevalence is enough for the poem, but drafts born from this sense are not poems; they are reports.
Poems change landscapes rather than photograph them. They have language and linebreak enough for us to see beyond any poet’s ignorance as a person.
Do you love me? So say the masters.
What is the sound of me shaking my head?
We look to literature to see what we hide from within ourselves.
An event happening 10 minutes or 10 years ago matters if anyone can indeed feel the effects of it now.
I will never understand the spirit of my ancestors, but I know it. I know it lives in me. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming the manifestation of their hope. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming what the living dead are for me. I exist because I was impossible for someone else to be before me.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
San Diego taught me to wait for Atlanta.