by Weston Cutter
Jericho Brown’s poetry’s the powerfully gentle sort that welcomes you incredibly into itself and then after awhile you notice how intently it’s directing your attention, like a warm hand on your jaw pointing your face at something and not shouting or whispering but just saying—I imagine it always a little hummed—Look.
This is to say his poems are Beautiful, though it’s also to say that his poems are asking something of us: attention, sure, but I’ve yet to find a way to read Brown’s work without feeling as if I need to try my hardest to love the work itself, alive on the page. Maybe everyone does this without thinking and I’m just a bastardish reader; I’m not sure. I don’t know.
But I’ve been hypnotically stumped by the glory of Jericho Brown’s poetry for going on seven years now, from first catching a poem of his in some old Hayden’s Ferry Review to his devastatingly great Please in 2008 to now, just now, this summer and autumn, his The New Testament, which has been the book not only that I’m most excited about, but the book that makes me forget prizes and publishing. If you think about or read or review books there’s a part of your brain (there is in mine anyway) that lights up on reading certain things, and the lit-up part’s flashing going, This should win a Prize! This should be Known! Jericho Brown’s The New Testament is better than any prize it might be up for or win. That’s what I mean. It’s a deliciousness. I read the thing out behind a Kroger on an autumn day and keep finding my way back to the thing still, months later.
Below’s an emailed interview Jericho kindly undertook this fall and I don’t know what else to say. It’s my favorite interview among the very many dozens of interviews I’ve done. He emailed his answers on 22 November, which means little other than that two days later, on the night of the 24th, in Ferguson, Mike Brown’s killer wasn’t charged with any crime, and, like many folks, Jericho was on Twitter, as was I, and at some point during that ______ (disgusting? fucked? heart-breaking? American?) night he tweeted: “Words clearly don’t work. I don’t think I’ll ever write another poem.” This is to say: work to make the country better. We need alive unjailed young black men and nonmurderous police departments and dismantled systemic racism and we need Jericho Brown.
I’m most interested in self and voice in The New Testament. The book feels more searching, somehow, than even Please: searching, specifically, for the particular self of Jericho Brown. Almost as if the other-voiced poems from the first book were more play, attempts at trying new tools to get to important insights or views, and now, with this, it’s much more grounded-in-self—that, whatever other tools are deployed, the who-you-are-ness of the poems, of the speakers, is the destination. It feels like there’s a lot personally at stake (which, even typing, feels silly: I don’t know you from Adam [in fairness: I saw you at some AWP in the last however-many years and stood around for a bit thinking to say something to you but got too anxious]). I’m of course not remotely trying to make you be more explicit or pin the poems’ speaker’s self too tight to the wall, just that there’s a focus on self-depth-plumbing that’s pretty heavy and beautiful here (raw, unflinching, carrying a lot of past, etc. as well).
I do wish you would have said hello, Weston. I’d have hugged you tight and bought you a drink and, eventually, stolen you from whomever you think you love. We’d have started a new life together and seen the world knowing it was a better world since we had left all of it behind for one another. Now when I think back on writing The New Testament, I think only of how I’d never have finished it if I were busy looking into your eyes. You’d have no questions to ask me about voice or self because you’d only ask why I was staring at you instead of kissing you. As it is, though, I have nothing to hold or to hold me as the night falls into another morning—nothing but the power of poetry. When I was younger, that is when I was writing Please, I’d have said nothing but poetry. Now I say the power of poetry because I better understand it as a force capable of making the mind aware of its own infinitude. I imagine getting older without you next to me has led to a life where I ask poetry’s power to sustain me, while it asks me to be a little more vulnerable to it each day. Each day, I search for something of my imagination or my experience or my intellect that I can give to poetry. Since I can’t love the man I want to love, I write the poems I now want to read, poems that search the self until getting to the bone. Then, like a young dog, poetry chews at that bone. I couldn’t have known that joy if you had said hello. I couldn’t have known that joy back when I wrote Please.
I’m just curious—I somehow didn’t retain this if I did see it in any bio mentions of yours from when Please was released, but: has there been any way in which being a speech-writer for a politician informed your poetry? I imagine it hasn’t been too much either way (and that you were writing poetry before you were writing speeches), but I’d be curious. Seems like there’d be some echoes between those two tasks.
Writing speeches was a way for me to make money when I was young person and knew no greater living than living in New Orleans, and no greater service than serving at the leisure of the Mayor. But poetry was an escape from that living and that service. Writing speeches requires staying on message. They are written by people who look at the page knowing what they have to say. Writing poetry is a much more dangerous task as it asks the writer not to have a message or, at least, not to be aware of it. I love taking the risks involved with writing poetry. That kind of risk has no place in speechwriting. In the midst of writing a poem, one must be ready to discover what he or she thinks. And those thoughts might be thoughts we are trained to discard or thoughts from which we’d like to run.
This is exclusively because at the end of your Kenyon Review Conversation you wrote the following: “San Diego taught me to wait for Atlanta.” How much is place a thing for you? I don’t know if I’m missing it, or just getting too enraptured by other stuff, but place doesn’t seem as big a haunt for you as it does for some other folks.
Atlanta is home, but it wouldn’t be if it weren’t the South. I’m a very Southern poet, particularly when it comes to the ways I think about form and narrative and voice and mystery and, yes, decorum. I’m a fool for sound, and the people of Atlanta sound like a tune I recognize, one I heard the entire time I was growing up. Where you live dictates how you sound and how comfortable you are with that sound. When you live dictates what you see and how you see it. One day, someone will notice how much the natural world of places I’ve lived has played a part in the images of my poems.
You talk, in another of the interviews up elsewhere about how you want your legacy or your work to enact social change. I’m curious what change you’d like your work to establish or usher.
Here’s what I believe. I believe that the best poetry has an effect on the mind and the emotions. I believe that any effect on our mind and emotions leads us to imagining other ways we could possibly live on this planet. I believe that the more we imagine these other ways of life, the more we find ourselves in longing and/or attempting to make these ways of life a reality. I’d love to know why so many poets and readers of poetry get upset about the fact that a poem can lead to a change of mind and, therefore, a change in one’s own reality. Who, exactly, does my belief hurt? Yet, when asked about poems giving rise to social action, poets squirm. What happens to these people when they read a poem? In what world is pleasure itself not political? Or is it because I am black and gay that I see how political pleasure is? We all agree that poems mean for us to feel. Why can’t we agree that feelings shape our actions? It’s not as if I’m claiming that I would ever privilege a bad poem about the unending trouble between Israel and Palestine over a good poem about a sunrise.
I kept feeling the lines differently in The New Testament compared to Please. The lines feel both shorter and longer, somehow—I know there was plenty of variance in Please, nothing like some uniformity, but there does feel like there’s this more wild variety here. Was there any effort, on your part, to vary that?
The poems of Please are the poems of a man learning to write poems. The poems of The New Testament are the poems of a man who wants to know if the act of writing the poem can do something to him, change his mind, move him to tears. I’d say there’s a greater sense of fluidity in the lines of the second book and that the lyricism here attempts to make greater use of abstractions. I don’t believe poetry can’t have abstractions, but I do believe it must use its abstractions well. In many ways, I was trying to see if that belief was true. This led to a different idea of how heavy a line could land in the mouth. I tested different weights every time I wrote a poem.
What’s the view out your window?
Blue. And I can see the monuments of Washington, DC below me. The flight attendant has asked me to power down. But I live to break the law.