JERICHO BROWN
in conversation with MICHAEL DUMANIS

The poet Jericho Brown had the following conversation with Bennington Review editor Michael Dumanis at the Ace Hotel in New York City on Saturday, October 27th, 2018.

 

 MICHAEL DUMANIS

What do you see as the dominant modes in American poetry today?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Many more of us than before are very aware that we’re in a social and political crisis. And I think that’s led to an attraction to knowing who’s on what side, which pervades much of the poetry that I’ve been reading—that it be made clear who’s on what side, that the poem is on the right side, or that the poem is on my side. And while I think that’s important, because I think we need poems for our moment right now, of course that can also be concerning. Poems have to be complex in order to be poems, poems have to make revelations that a poet wasn’t prepared to make, and things like that might go beyond what side you’re on. A poem should go beyond what you already know, and if it’s going to go beyond what you already know, a poem might say something that begins to have you question what side you’re on, which, in turn, might begin to have an audience question what side you’re on. I’m saying all that to say that while I’m really interested in poems in the political realm, I’m also interested in precision, and not all poems call for the same type of precision. Sometimes a poem might call for a precision in emotion where it does not call for a precision in language.

I also think this is going to be a different answer for each person because people really work hard to ensconce themselves in the poetry they want to read. You know, people watch only Fox News and think that it’s true and they don’t know that they work hard to do that, but they do.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So what you think about poetry, for all you know, may be the equivalent of basing your ideas about the world exclusively from watching Fox News because there are other things out there that you simply don’t know?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Exactly. For example, I think in many ways maybe the poet Ed Dorn was this way. Ed Dorn is a poet who very willfully was not interested in having his books published with large houses. And he also had ethical questions about having his books published by university presses. He believed in the small press as the only ethical way to publish. And so, because of that, I presume he was reading books from small presses and shunning books from large presses, which would mean he couldn’t possibly have been reading Adrienne Rich.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So his notion of what was going on in American poetry…

 

JERICHO BROWN

…would be completely different, right.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Because it’s informed by one’s reading, which is a selective process.

 

JERICHO BROWN

Exactly, and you know we’re a lot nicer to one another than what we must have been in the ’80s and the ’90s. We’re a lot more social with each other as poets. There was a time when if one poet mentioned, I don’t know, Lyn Hejinian in a conversation, another poet would feel the need to cuss out the poet who mentioned Lyn Hejinian in public. Or would somehow make it clear that they could no longer be friends. And we’re not like that at all, I don’t think. I think everybody’s okay with the fact that they’re influenced by different people and different kinds of poetry.

But I don’t know how much it’s broadened our reading habits. I do think that our bookcases are more integrated than they were in the late ’90s and the early 2000s, when I first began to pay attention. But while our bookcases are more aesthetically integrated, we’re still going to be attracted to what we’re attracted to, and so what I think of as the dominant mode in American poetry right now is not going to be the same thing that Matthea Harvey thinks or the same thing that you think or the same thing that Phillip B. Williams thinks.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

But isn’t there also a difference between what one thinks of as a dominant mode and what one personally likes? Because one can feel excluded by the dominant mode. And I think that’s the other related curiosity that I have, do you feel—taking into account what you’re saying about the dominant mode being a very subjective lens—like your view of what the dominant mode is has changed? Do you feel you woke up one day or over a series of days and thought, “American poetry is different than it was five years ago, than it was ten years ago.”—and how do you think about that change? Had I asked you this question in 2012 or 2007 about what practices seem most dominant in poetry at the moment, would you have given me a different answer?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yeah, I do think that the mode has changed because there was, for instance, a very recent time when the poems everyone seemed to be talking about weren’t outwardly political. There was a recent time that the poems that people like Tony Hoagland were writing may not have been the dominant mode, but were certainly a major mode.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

And how would you characterize that?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Well, in a Tony Hoagland poem you talk a lot, you make some jokes in your poem, or you say some things that are humorous or ironic. There’s a way that Tony meant to be political, but, you know, ultimately Tony was much more pop-cultural than he was actually political, and that was also true of the poets that he admired. Well, Frank O’Hara ends up being political, but only when we have to write an essay about a Frank O’Hara poem. Do you understand what I mean?

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

While in the moment of writing, it’s a poem that’s only pop-cultural?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Exactly, and also in the moment of first reading. People really like to point to “The Day Lady Died” or “Personal Poem,” the one with Miles Davis. People like to point to the political content of certain poems, but according to O’Hara, the politics in the poems is happenstance. Politics is a part of life, so these political things, these social moments, are arising as a part of his life, which, to be quite honest with you, Michael, I am much more interested in. And I am concerned that people search for the political moment they want as their subject as opposed to facing the political moment that is a part of their lives.

So no matter the race of the poet, I’m much more interested in a poem that is like the life we live. I want the poem that is like, “I saw that people got shot at the synagogue today, and I had a sandwich, and I miss my daughter.” And in actuality, that’s what a day in our life looks like, and the poem has to carry the tones of all those emotions. Sometimes I think that poems lately are interested at the outset in settling on an emotion, as opposed to gradually discovering several tones and seeing if those tones might accumulate into a single poem.

But I also think that part of this has to do with the fact that I am directing a creative writing program and that I am teaching and that I am teaching much more intensely than I’ve ever taught before, so I’ve been thinking about pedagogy a lot differently. I think one of the troubles of being a younger writer, of being someone who wants to write poetry, is that you put the cart before the horse. You put the ideas that you want to get to, or that you think you want to get to, before your language. If you put language first, then you can discover your ideas. But if you are thinking about your ideas, then you’re going to be at the mercy of the language you already know instead of one that you can figure out. And so maybe what I’m seeing in the writing of my students I’m ascribing to contemporary poetry at large. But I also do feel like I’ve read a ton of books in the last couple of years, and there’s a lot of knowns that I see coming through in the poetry, as opposed to unknowns that the poems discover.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So, for example, people are announcing things politically that are already familiar?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yeah, so what is the way around that? Because I do want poets to feel empowered to announce politically, but I also want them to go beyond the pronouncement. What happens at the beginning of your poem has to—because it’s a poem—be transformed by the end of your poem. So if the triggering moment for the beginning of your poem is a known political moment, I am fine with that, that’s great. But as I’m reading, I expect it to change because that was just the trigger. So I’m let down if everything is only some form of outside political thing or even inside political thing. I want the world in the poem to expand. I want the world in the poem to change. At least I want that for my poems. If I start with my mom, then I might end with the police. If I start with the police, then I might end with my lover. But if I start with the police, I don’t imagine I’m done with my poem if I’m still talking about the police. I just can’t imagine that.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

 The title poem of your new book The Tradition is a sonnet that connects the cultivation of a flower with the development of a poem, exploring American political, historical, and racial reality as the conversation moves from the planting of a garden to the recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police, while it also approaches of the concept of tradition in multiple ways: the sonnet tradition, the tradition of racial injustice in this country, the tradition of continuing to plant gardens. So that’s an example of that kind of move.

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yeah, though if my memory of writing that poem is accurate, a lot of that only happened on a subconscious level. Of course, I’ve been thinking about the murder of John Crawford and the murder of Mike Brown and the murder of Eric Garner over the last few years of my life, how could I not be? How could we all not? But when I’m coming to language, when I come to the poem, I am not submitting myself to my ideas about those things. Those ideas might come up, and thank God they do, because then I get a poem. But I’m just really thinking about what sounds good to me, what makes music, oh, this is a line of iambic pentameter, oh, this rhymes with this. And often I don’t want to make sense of these things until much later in the revision process.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So if you can think back to how you first drafted “The Tradition,” are you saying you didn’t know when you wrote that poem that it was going to invoke the names of these men?

 

JERICHO BROWN

No, I did not know.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So you started writing about flowers?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Well, I’m a poet, so historically we kind of get interested in flowers. And their names sound good. In reality, we’re all Adams, we all want to name things, and it does sound like something is happening when you’re naming flowers, or when you’re looking at something that has a particular name and you can say what it is. And I was enjoying that moment while I was making this poem happen.

I was also thinking a lot about Ross Gay. The truth about that poem is, I was trying to write a poem for Ross Gay. So I was like, if you’re trying to write a poem for Ross Gay, you’re gonna have to write about a garden, there’s got to be a garden in this, do you know what I mean?

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Did Ross Gay know the poem was for him?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yeah, I sent it to him. But when I was initially writing the poem, I was like, “Oh, I should write a poem that Ross would like.” So ultimately I’m like, “Oh, I’ll just start with the sounds of flowers and I’ll think about a black man taking care of flowers.” And then it turned into black men and black boys taking care of flowers, and of course, because I’m thinking about these other things that are going on, here comes Mike Brown, here comes John Crawford, here comes Eric Garner. But I didn’t have that in mind at first. At first I had in mind my friend Ross Gay, a poet I like, who I admire, who when I graduated from Cave Canem introduced me at my graduation. All of those are just emotions, they’re not political... And yet I’m sure they are in many ways political, because Cave Canem is involved in those emotions. And at the same time, they don’t feel initially political. They feel like, “Oh, I should write a poem for my friend. Somebody is taller than me, thank God, so I should write a poem for him.”

I think that’s the thing about working with language in a way that is subconscious. It defies memory. When you’re a poet, you’re a wizard. You know the spell is right. I don’t know at what point I figured out that this poem was going to be about race. The real question is, when did I come up with the phrase, “Men like me and my brothers.” Because obviously that’s the trigger in the poem that might later let me know, “Oh, I could be going... that might be where I’m going back to, to my brothers.” But I begin in music, I begin in line. Usually my poems are in a tetrameter or something close to that. Nobody seems to notice or talk about this, but that’s fine. This poem is, I think, in more of a five-beat line, but usually it’s a four-beat. I can get in the groove of a four-beat line. And when I’m in the groove of a four-beat line, I’m also paying a little bit of attention to what I’m saying, but not too much, then I’m also trying to create resonances, like I’m remembering, “Oh, I said that earlier, so I should say something like it later.” And I just figure it out later, like, don’t worry, I’ll get it to make sense or to make nonsense later. I work on a poem for a long time, I mean, that poem was a year old before it got published anywhere. So I was working on it for a year. You just keep going back to a thing.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

I’m interested in how organically you just brought up form and prosody, and I want to talk to you about what role they play in your work, in The Tradition and prior. How has your thinking about formalism in poetry been shaped, and how has it evolved?

 

JERICHO BROWN

One of my first two poetry teachers was a New FormalistKay Murphy—and the other, John Gery, wrote in form sometimes. Kay used to write in free verse but at the time when I was her student at the University of New Orleans, she had two books in a row that were both formal and confessional. It was very important to Kay and also to John Gery that their students know about form, so I know what canzones are, whereas other people might not know or care. I know what villanelles are, so there’s a way that, yes, it is a part of my investment. But then again, maybe it’s not really a part of my investment, maybe it’s just the way I grew up.

So one of the things that has been really important both to me and to them is that the form has something to do with the content of the poem. That our form informs our content, that they’re hand in hand, that they go back and forth with one another, that they’re having a conversation. Often, I think the form of the poem can tell me things about the poem up front, leading me toward knowing where I’m going to end or knowing what to say next or what I have to say—at least, if not what to say, how it’s going to sound. I think a book called The Tradition is clearly going to be interested in form, but I wasn’t conscious of that when I was writing.

However, here are some of the questions I was asking myself. What does a sonnet have to do with anybody’s content? And if the presumed content of a sonnet is that it’s a love poem, how do I subvert that? How do I trick that out? And how do I nevertheless make it a love poem? And if I’m Jericho Brown, what is a Jericho Brown sonnet? That gave rise to my desire to create a new form for this book, which is the duplex. Though I may not be, I do feel like a bit of a mutt in the world. I feel like a person who is hard to understand, given our clichés and stereotypes about people. So I wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and Southern.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So you see this form you’ve invented in The Tradition, the duplex, as inherently a black form, a queer form, a Southern form?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms? I was looking at sonnets, looking at ghazals. I got really interested in ghazals when writing my second book. In ghazals, you take couplets that are completely disparate, then juxtapose those couplets so that some kind of magic happens because of the juxtapositions. So I was like, “Oh, if I can take a sonnet and I can take a ghazal and I can take the blues—we’re not gonna get around taking the blues, since I’m black—if I take those three things, is it possible for me to merge them into a single coherent form?” And that’s how the duplex came to be.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Can you describe the duplex as a formal structure a bit more?

 

JERICHO BROWN

I would first say it’s a form of repeating lines, where the poem’s first line is going to also be its last line. And because it’s a form of repeating lines, it depends on variation in order to have ant progression. Also, it’s syllabic rather than metrical—nine to eleven syllables per line, which, sure, ultimately gets us to something like iambic pentameter, and that was something that I wanted. I wanted East married to West, so I started thinking about syllabics, and yet I was still thinking about meter. So I’m like, “Oh, if I can make the syllabic structure loose, like instead of saying it has to be a nine-syllable line, if I say nine to eleven syllables, then I’m dealing with something that also will, because of American English, be related to iambic pentameter.”

So I’m trying to make this mutt of a form where you start with a couplet of two lines that are completely different, then you repeat the second line and then another line that’s different, then you repeat that line and then another line that’s different, until you have seven couplets. And in the final couplet, you get back to the poem’s first line, which is also the poem’s fourteenth line. It rhymes because you’re repeating the lines, and it turns, so it’s definitely a sonnet. Part of the reason why I wanted to invent a form is because I want full participation for myself, but also for anyone who’s writing after me, in the tradition. And the way that you become a part of it is that you literally deal with it. You participate by writing in received forms, but also by creating forms for others to receive, and also by subverting forms, by thumbing your nose at them.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

One thing I find particularly engaging about you inventing this form is the term you chose for it, because a duplex is also a very particular kind of living space in America. A duplex carries with it a certain amount of socio-economic stratification, where you think you have a house, but not really—you just have half a house that you pretend is actually a full house, and you share a wall, which is like the juxtaposition of two lines—you share a wall with someone you don’t necessarily have control over whom you are going to coexist with, so your house is always inherently divided. What are the implications of the term duplex for you?

 

JERICHO BROWN

You know, people keep talking about the ways the country is divided, and I wasn’t aware that the country hadn’t always been divided. If you listen to people, it’s like they woke up and the country was divided, and as a black person in this country, I find that really offensive. I think about Max Robinson, the black reporter, the first black male anchor on the nightly news. He made a TV special about Washington, DC and the fact that Washington, DC was black. At the time, it was as if nobody outside of Washington, DC thought of it as a black city. He called it The Other Washington. Even back then, like it or not, there’s this division. So I was trying to make a form that asked, What is it about this very capitalist nation, with all of these people and their middle-class aspirations? How do I capture that in the title of this poem and in what the poem does? How do I capture this sort-of-making-it but barely-making-it life?

And I really like what you say about sharing a wall. That we’re inhabiting this together, but that the goal is to pretend, “Oh, I have everything under control, over here, by myself.”

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

“Because I can’t see what’s on the other side of the wall.”

 

JERICHO BROWN

Exactly, that’s it. And there’s a way that the couplets are not aware of one another, and yet they must be if they’re repeating information from the preceding couplet. That’s what I wanted from the form. When I was working on it, I told my friend, the poet Sean Hill, that I was thinking about calling it a duplex, and he said, “Oh, so it has two addresses.” And I was like, “Oh shit, that’s right.” It’s like a single place with two addresses. It’s getting its mail, but it’s also talking to two different people, and it isn’t even aware that everything it says comes from the same mouth.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

As soon as we started talking about the duplex, you identified the form as black, queer, and Southern. I don’t know if this is an anecdotal or overly subjective experience of reading, but reading poems in form, I feel like the function of form in African American poetry is inherently different in some way I can’t quite grasp from the function of form in American poetry overall. Sometimes I see why a given person might gravitate toward a given: I see how a poem interested in the post-colonial, for instance, might want to be a pantoum, which is originally Malay, or a ghazal, which is a form in Urdu and Farsi. When I think of contemporary American formalists that excite me, I think of poets of color like Randall Mann and Evie Shockley almost immediately. Do you think there’s something to the idea that form inherently functions differently for some writers because of race and background?

 

JERICHO BROWN

You know, the 18th-century poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley is I think her most famous and most quoted because it allows her to subvert discourse on race in a way that feels subversive even now. There’s a moment in that poem where she expresses gratitude for Christian missions to enslaved Africans, arguing that the reason Africa needs to be under the thumb of Europe and under the thumb of the white Americans is that when we get to Heaven, now that we have become Christian, everybody’s gonna get to be together. All the black people and all the white people are gonna hang out together. And there’s a way that no one white on Earth had really thought about that or would have wanted that at that time.

I think this idea that form functions differently is definitely the case for somebody like Gwendolyn Brooks, though not for somebody like Langston Hughes, which is why Hughes is interested in inventing a form, or taking something outside poetry that the folk are already using and making it into a form, as opposed to using a traditional form himself. But I do think that somebody like Brooks, and people like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, 100% Claude McKay, are interested in what happens when you put the black body inside the sonnet. When I make formal the black body, it is still a black body and you will still be offended by its presence. But then you have to face your excuse. So there’s a way that you have to deal, as in the Phillis Wheatley poem, where the black body says, I’m enslaved because I’m a savage and you’re going to Christianize me. But then, once I tell you I’m a Christian and I’m going to Heaven with you and we’ll hang out there together, you then have to be faced with your excuse. You’ve made an excuse for your evil, and now you’re going to have to be faced with it, because here’s my subject-verb agreement, here’s my rhyme, here is me knowing what a pentameter line is. So, if your excuse was that I was illiterate, if your excuse was, as Thomas Jefferson says, that there’s no poetry among black people, then you have to be faced with the fact that, actually, you’re just a hater. I think there’s something much more automatically and subconsciously political going on when black people write in a form that has to do with participating in a larger culture outside, and I shouldn’t say larger, but participating with the culture that black culture circulates through and dwells within.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

But wouldn’t there also be a motivation to reject Western formal tradition?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yeah, we see much of that throughout the Black Arts Movement. And of course everybody’s not writing in form. But the people who are writing in form, I think they mean just that though, do you know what I mean? I’m thinking of think Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Miscegenation” and that sonnet that’s also a blues poem in Native Guard—“Graveyard Blues”—about the burial of her mother. By merging the sonnet with the blues, Natasha splices together two very different traditions and stands up inside both of them, saying, “I’m here, I’m in both of your traditions. What are you gonna do with me? How will you deal with me?”

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

To whom do you see your poems as speaking in general? How do you think about audience?

 

JERICHO BROWN

This is a good question because I haven’t said a lot about this. The Tradition is probably the first book where I really was thinking about addressing individual people, like I think I made it plain in one of the notes in the back of the book that one of the poems is for the poet L. Lamar Wilson. And so many of these poems, somewhere in my head, are for different people.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So that’s a certain kind of Frank-O’Hara-style personism, right, where you’re picking up the phone metaphorically and having a conversation with somebody, though you’re just not necessarily always announcing who the conversation is with.

 

JERICHO BROWN

Exactly. I was thinking a lot about my friendships and relationships, about my ex or this new guy I was dating. Or thinking about you, Michael, as I’m writing, thinking, “Oh, Michael’s getting married.” So things were happening to my friends in the present moment that I was much more conscious of when I was writing these poems.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Some years ago, I heard the poet Claudia Rankine question the act of writing for posterity, for a reader who may not exist yet, as opposed to writing into the present. This made me think of poets in the Black Arts Movement consciously writing to a particular community, or of writing about what’s on the news at the moment you’re writing. Do you feel like you’re increasingly writing more for the present than for posterity, and this is something you think about a lot?

 

JERICHO BROWN

I think I use the tools that are given to us, and those tools have something to do with immortality and posterity. For instance, the tool of metaphor is human and everlasting, and when we think, whether we like it or not, we make use of metaphor in order to better process certain things. I think structure, I think narrative, I think order, I think juxtapositions, I think certain things are going to be the tools that everybody uses, regardless of when. Ultimately I don’t have tools that are different from Milton’s tools, though I might know more about poetry, quite honestly, than what Milton knew. Because he didn’t have access to the poetry of the East, for one thing. He also didn’t have Langston Hughes, do you know what I mean?

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

He didn’t have access to all the incredible things that happened after he died, which you do.

 

JERICHO BROWN

And also, he made those incredible things happen. They would not have existed without him. You know, Milton’s like my homeboy lately. Everybody gets sick of me talking about Milton.

But I think either Claudia says what you heard her say a lot or maybe I was there for that same conversation, because that comment of hers has long been on my mind. This was before I had a first book, when I heard her say this. It’s interesting when you’re not aiming for your poem to live forever while every poet around you seems to be. It’s like everyone was aiming to write the immortal poem, and I was like, “Who told us that, that that was the most important thing in the world? I’m going to die, so why can’t a poem?”

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Why can’t a poem die as well?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Well it’s not like the dead poet would know the difference. Why is it so important that your ideas, which were quite useful in 1906, why do those ideas need to be the ideas of now in 2018 or 2019? I was asking myself this while I was writing, and it freed me, because I finally could say, “Oh I want this book to have something to do with our, my, present moment.” At the same time, I am not under the impression that my poems are going to do anything to change the present moment. It would be nice if anything could do anything to change the present moment.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Can literature do that?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yes, but only in an individual, not in a widespread, political, governmental way. As far as I know, the books of contemporary poetry most widely read before the last presidential election were Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Every poet I know was reading and talking about those three books, these three poets of color. So if that’s the case, how does Donald Trump get elected? I’m not under the impression that my poems are going to affect anything beyond a person. Now, do I believe that poems change persons? Yes. Do I believe they change people? No

But let’s think, let’s really think about this, Michael, let’s think about Adrienne Rich and let’s think about Allen Ginsberg. I hate talking about social media, let alone participating in it, but when Hillary Clinton was running for office, I put something positive about her on my Facebook wall, and there were all these people who you would think were human beings, saying all of these crazy… as if it was the time for it.  Like somebody literally said, for instance, “I don’t know, Donald Trump is interesting, we’ve never had anything like him before. Might be nice to shake things up.” And I’m not even talking about a general population, I’m talking about the people who would see my Facebook wall. That’s hugely problematic after—forget the current moment, forget Claudia Rankine, forget Ocean Vuong, forget Natalie Diaz—how does this happen after Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg, after Audre Lorde. Everybody wants to believe in the ripple effect, that oh, you put a little bit down—I don’t think Adrienne Rich put a little bit down, I think she put a lot down, the fact of women studies programs, the proliferation of women studies programs on college campuses can be traced in many ways to the essays and the poems of Adrienne Rich—so yes, there is that, but is that indeed wide enough? What do you think Adrienne Rich would say about this moment?

Me, I’m out here writing my poems because it gives me joy and pleasure. And yes, I do believe because of what reading a poem can do to me, that a poem can do something to a person, that a poem can change a life. But I’m not under the impression that poems are gonna go out there and suddenly everybody’s gonna vote right. I’m not under the impression that poems are gonna go out there and suddenly people are gonna stop shooting up synagogues and schools. I have no reason to believe that. And I think it’s okay for us to be writing for pleasure, as long as we’re honest about what we’re doing. I don’t want to seem like I’m talking out of two sides of my mouth. The poem is going to be political if you’re being truthful in the poem, and there won’t be a way around that if you’re indeed allowing all of yourself into the poem. The poem will make use of what it needs. And there’s no part of our lives that isn’t also a political part of our lives. So if that’s the case, we don’t have to sit down at the poetry table in front of our computer or with our pen and say, “Oh, I gotta go get Congress today for what they’ve done.” Do you know what I’m saying? We don’t have to do it. It will happen.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Okay, I’d like to switch gears a little bit, and I’d like to use Milton to switch them because you brought up Milton earlier. I for one am not sick of you talking about Milton, so I was hoping you could talk more about your interest in him. Is this an interest in his sonnets or in his person? In his blindness? Or is it an interest in Paradise Lost?

 

JERICHO BROWN

I just think about how amazing it is that people do what they want to do, that people find a way to make what they need to make, and I don’t know why I’m enchanted by it, I mean enchanted, but the fact that Milton was writing, was going blind and writing about going blind—there’s something about the moment of knowing what’s going on with someone else and knowing that it’s real for that person. But with Milton, what he was going through—it’s also somehow real for me, do you know what I mean? And also I am thinking about Paradise Lost a lot, about the irony of that poem and the irony of good and evil.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

The irony of good and evil?

 

JERICHO BROWN

In Paradise Lost, obviously Satan is much more attractive, but who and what is Satan, given our ideas about good and evil? Hopefully I’ll get old enough to remember the era I live in as something completely ridiculous—hopefully people will laugh about this—but we seriously live in an era where football players are castigated for kneeling during the national anthem.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Well it’s also interesting that kneeling is somehow seen as a blasphemous act, as opposed to an act of devotion, which it traditionally is. That’s relatively complicated, right? The Christian nation that doesn’t let you kneel?

 

JERICHO BROWN

You know, I’m fascinated by our differing conceptions of good and evil, both as Americans and throughout the world. We can be looking at the exact same thing, children in cages, and some think, “Oh, this is horrendous,” and others think, “Oh, this is exactly what’s needed.” That’s really hilarious to me. I think Paradise Lost is full of humor and nobody ever wants to talk about that. People are really serious about how they discuss it, and I think it’s hilarious. So that’s part of my thing with Milton, and you know I’ve been working with rhymes a lot and for whatever reason he was the guy I kept turning to to figure out how to make rhymes happen.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Milton taught you how to rhyme?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yeah, there’s a way that I sort of knew how to rhyme, and now you can just look rhymes up very easily. You can type, “What words rhyme with blank?” And then you see literally all the words that could possibly rhyme with blank. But that doesn’t help you arrive at the rhyme syntactically. And somehow there is something about Milton that, in comparison to his contemporaries, he talks syntactically much more like what I would talk like or at least like what black people in the church that I grew up in would talk like, a way of talking that is sort of grandiose in some ways and syntactically odd in some ways, but also very attractive and beautiful and sermonized.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

You have two poems in this current Bennington Review. How did “Shovel” come into being?

 

JERICHO BROWN

One of the book’s goals was to write poems that didn’t use metaphors, that instead employed a lot of metonymy. And so I ended up with poems like “The Rabbits,” “The Hammers,” the this, the that. The goal was to focus in on a thing, to say what the thing was doing or could do. “Shovel” started that way, but I could never focus in on the shovel. Instead I kept trying to figure out what a person was doing with this shovel. That made me wonder who the speaker was. And I realized, oh this is the guy that gets rid of the bodies when someone is tortured and murdered.

Of course, I don’t fully understand the circumstances under which people might be tortured and murdered. I know that people get tortured and murdered; that’s all I needed to know. And I know that their bodies have to be disposed of. And I kept thinking, if their bodies don’t get burned, their bodies must get buried. And who does that? And I kept thinking, I’m the person who buries the body, and I don’t know why I thought this, Michael. Maybe I was watching too much TV or something. Maybe this had to do with me watching a great deal of the show Scandal.

But I kept thinking about how the world of torture and murder is a world made by several people. There’s a conglomerate of folks that comes together. There are the people who do the kidnapping. There are the people who do the torturing, the people who kill people. There’s somebody who signs something saying it’s okay to let it happen. So I was thinking about that, and I was like, so who gets rid of the body? I wanted to write a poem in the voice of the guy who gets rid of the body. A poem about what it’s like to be used, what it’s like to be a cog in a wheel of torture, what it’s like to be robotic. What do I have if I have a person who is also a machine who has no thought or feeling of the fact of the dead body? Or of the fact of the people who killed the person who was once in the dead body? And I was also thinking, as I am daily thinking, about capitalism, how there’s no way around it for us.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

There’s that wild moment in the poem where the speaker starts singing a love song to himself…

 

JERICHO BROWN

Because I wanted him to be a person who has the same things that I have. I have love songs, Michael, and I sing them to myself sometimes. Alan Shapiro once pointed out to me that the same poems Jews were reciting in concentration camps to help them get through the experience of being in places like Auschwitz were the same poems Germans were reciting when they took their bodies and threw them in ovens. Everybody had the same poems. Everybody had the same songs. The reason why Josephine Baker could do the kind of espionage that she did during World War II is because the Nazis wanted to hear Josephine Baker. Just as Martin Luther King did when he had her standing next to him during the “I Have a Dream” speech.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Could you say a little about your poem “Virus”?

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JERICHO BROWN

You know, my dad literally cut yards for a living—that’s how we ate as a family—so I learned a lot about lawn care. And flowerbeds. And because I’ve been able to buy my own home and have a flowerbed, I have all these things I can look at out my window all of a sudden. So in “Virus”—another persona poem—I try to allow the virus inside me to see the same things, the same flowers, I’m looking out at as it speaks to me. And if I can hear it, then whatever it has to tell me has to do with it reminding me it’s there. No matter how healthy I am, it wants me to know, You think you’re healthy, but oh, I remember, I am capable, I have done such stuff to people you wouldn’t believe. In many ways that poem is thinking about HIV’s history much more than about HIV in its present tense. We now know that once we’re medicated, the disease becomes incommunicable, and yet the history of the disease will always overshadow its present tense. An entire generation, Michael, an entire generation of people, of men who were not there when I was coming of age as a gay man. And I think that’s important, that I could not meet Essex Hemphill because he was dead. And so Essex Hemphill never had the opportunity to be my mentor or to shun me. And I never had the opportunity to see which way it was going to go.

You mentioned Randall Mann earlier, and I think about him a lot. I’m in conversation with a lot of the work that he’s doing recently and also with others in our generation of gay men, Aaron Smith, James Allen Hall. It’s not like we did not have queer influences, but many of the ones that we would have had we couldn’t touch, we couldn’t go see. And not just in poetry but also just in life, like walking up and down the street, because they were dead or they were dying. That will always be the story of HIV, so I wanted to know what HIV thought of that story.

I’m interested in persona poems still, I haven’t given up on them, I think there’s a possibility for them in the world. It’s interesting for me to make the choice of speaking through people that we cannot see or, in this case, through something that is not actually a person.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

There’s something particularly curious about the persona poem where the persona is something that is speaking back to the writer and/or speaker. The virus is not just a persona speaking outward. It’s a persona speaking back to the creator of the persona.

 

JERICHO BROWN

That’s interesting. Maybe that’s another way to think about some of the troubles people have had with persona. Or is all poetry just a conversation with the self? If that’s the case, then that speaker, whether it’s you or some persona, will always just be speaking back to you.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

In your book The New Testament, in one of the poems titled “Another Elegy,” you write, “To believe in God is to love/What none can see.” What role do faith and the experience of growing up with religious paradigms play in your work?

 

JERICHO BROWN

My relationship to poetry is religious and spiritual because I am a person who is. Earlier I said that I don’t expect people to be changed by poetry. But persons can be, and I’m clearly one of those persons. Poems have changed my life and changed my mind, and that sounds like the same kind of thing people would say about Jesus when I was a kid growing up in church. The way I practice poetry is religious. I mean, Michael, I go to poems every day. If there’s one thing that’s gonna happen every day, that thing is that I’m gonna read some poems.

Each day, I’m trying to make a line. Hopefully I make a whole bunch of lines happen every day, but I’m trying to write down at least one line every day. And that’s a practice that reminds me of the situation I grew up in, where people believed in the daily practice of our religion. We were gonna be there every Sunday, and we were also gonna go every Wednesday night, and in between we were gonna pray before every meal, and that prayer was gonna be a real prayer that mattered. So for me, yes, that’s how I think about poetry.

So is there a God in my poems? And is poetry God, or do I think there’s an actual God? Sometimes I don’t act like a person who believes in an actual God, that’s for sure. Then, when I read my poems and see lines like “To believe in God is to love/What none can see,” I think, oh, that sounds like somebody who believes in God, but who also doesn’t believe… who also believes that God is somehow made from the belief in God. My conception of God now has to do with my ability, in everything, no matter what it is, to see some faith, see some hope. But you know, even now I feel like that’s the worst thing that can happen to a person—hope—that’s the thing that happened to Barack Obama, that whole “They go low, we go high” Michelle Obama thing. That is the worst thing at a time like now. I feel like people on the right side of things need to be cutthroat individuals if we’re gonna get anywhere. And that doesn’t sound like a person who believes in God, that sounds like a person who’s scared. Or who believes in human action.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

In The Tradition, you interrogate blackness as subject, but you seem to also actively interrogate whiteness as subject. Or the subjectivity of whiteness, or what whiteness means to someone black, is there such a thing as a good white person, what does it mean for someone to not believe that there can be such a thing as a good white person. Would you elaborate on that a little?

 

JERICHO BROWN

I started thinking about this when I was thinking about women who were posting online that men are trash. And I started thinking about the fact that the response to that of many men was that not all men are trash, right? That was weird to me because I kept thinking, well, actually, if you have not directly harmed a woman in some way, you have at least watched it happen. You have stood by and, in some way, allowed for it. And in some cases, you have rooted it on. And then I started thinking about the ways in which we are all complicit in many of these situations, however reluctant we may be to admit it. The Tradition is ultimately about evil and the normalization of evil. I was thinking about the ways we are complicit in the same evils, the ways I am complicit.

I also started thinking about how with white people, it always seems most interesting to them that you’re not talking about them individually. Like the issue is often not race or racism. It’s as long as you’re not talking about me, we’re okay. But I wanted it to be clear that, no, I am in fact talking about you, and there is really no way around the complicity of all white people in this capitalist and racist nation.

So I think it’s important for each of us to ask what whiteness is, to examine what it has done, and how we all participate in it, and how it is not possible for anything to work as long as we are participating in a system that lifts whiteness as the highest part of the system. It hasn’t worked and it’s not going to. And I think those are the same questions that we have about rape.

If we’re lucky, we learn Greek and Roman mythology when we’re very young. And many of the stories are quite aptly and plainly named the Rape of Blank. The Rape of Ganymede, the Rape of Leda, the Rape of Lucrece. This is introduced to us in a way that is so normal, as if someone of power and immortal, a god, a man in charge, raping someone who does not have power, a woman, a young boy, an earthling, is just the natural order of things. Apollo chasing Daphne to the point of her turning in to a tree.

That’s the base from which we think about sex and sexuality in this country. I know there are exceptions, but men in this country on the whole have no clue what rape is, or that they have done it. Or that they are planning on doing it. That’s hugely problematic. But I thank God for terms. When I was growing up I didn’t have terms like “micro-aggression” and “sexual coercion.”

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

So do you feel that men are not aware of their masculinity in a way that’s analogous to white people in America not being aware of the consequences of their whiteness?

 

JERICHO BROWN

Yes.

 

MICHAEL DUMANIS

Where being male is a default that enables you not to think about gender and the consequences of sexuality in the same way that white privilege is a default?

 

JERICHO BROWN

I think those defaults allow for a lot of harm that it becomes impossible to confront. Because it’s the default, confronting it feels like you’re doing something that is abnormal. And so the normal thing is actually to allow yourself to be raped and not say anything about it. The truth is that somebody can indeed come up to me and touch my hair without consequence because they find it interesting, while in this same world, if I Jericho Brown were to go up to somebody and touch their hair, I would get arrested. I can’t just go up to some white woman and touch her hair, but if a white woman came up to me now and touched my hair and I were to look at her funny right after she did it, she would be offended. Why are you making such a big deal out of this, is what she would think and say. When you’re in the default position, you have no clue that anyone should face and question you about your default position.

I didn’t realize I wanted to write about this, but in revision, I realized I was writing poems that questioned this: What is rape and what does it have to do with power? What is whiteness and what does it have to do with power? How much have black people bought into whiteness in spite of the fact that it’s not going to heal or help them? In many ways, that’s what my poem “The Water Lilies” is about, this ahistorical, dishonest idea some people have of the way race has worked in this nation. This is why people are upset when there’s a riot and the Walgreens gets burned down, and why, when people are upset about the Walgreens getting burned down, I am always laughing. I’m like, you think the Walgreens getting burned down is the end of it? Do you realize how much would have to get burned down for it to really make a difference to our ideas of masculinity, our ideas of capitalism, our ideas that have been influenced by whiteness? Child.



JERICHO BROWN is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the Whiting Foundation, and the NEA. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection is The Tradition (Copper Canyon, 2019)His poems have appeared in BuzzfeedThe New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME Magazine, Tin House, and several volumes of Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.

MICHAEL DUMANIS is the editor of Bennington Review, the director of Poetry at Bennington, and a member of the Literature faculty at Bennington College.


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