KR OnlineInterview

“Mischief and Sorrow”: An Interview with Jericho Brown

I’ve known the celebrated poet Jericho Brown since he was a very young man: we first met in the early 2000s. I didn’t even know he was a poet then, and when I finally read his work—his first book, PLEASE—I was so surprised and moved that I read the book repeatedly for several days, shocked by the maturity and depth of his verse. I did the same with his second book, The New Testament, and when I received The Tradition, his third book, a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to have a conversation with him about his poetry.

As African Americans of the Deep South, Brown and I always have had a “family” way of talking. (You might notice he uses my nickname, “Honi.”) And I wanted to capture this same home-feeling in our discussions of themes in and artistic influences on his poetry. Although I asked Brown for some clarifications over e-mail, this interview—an exchange between cultural sister and brother—is primarily compiled from one very long, laughter-filled, telephone conversation. There are formal craft considerations here, but many tangents and black southern code-switches, too. Thus, I have edited the following for clarity.

• •

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: I’m going to start with a pedestrian question, because I’m all about place. Can you tell me where you grew up?

Jericho Brown: I’m originally from Shreveport, Louisiana. My parents are both the children of sharecroppers, and their parents had to flee the plantations where they were working. White people would terrorize black people, break into their smokehouses, steal their hogs, and black folks would have nothing to eat in the winter. If you were sharecropping for these white people, they would beat you. My grandmother used to tell me about her brothers getting a whooping from the white man that owned their land.

HFJ: Oh, wow.

JB: I would ask my grandmother why was this still going on? This was in the 1940s. It wasn’t like you all were slaves. And she would say, “What were we supposed to do?”

HFJ: You know I’m from the South, so you ain’t telling me nothing new. My mother’s people were sharecroppers, too, although my mother never wanted to say her people were “sharecroppers.” Instead, she would always say her people were “tenant farmers.”

JB: My mother always said sharecroppers. It’s always interesting to hear a black person say tenant farmers. And this is what I think about black people—OK, I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t say “black people” because I don’t think I know black people no more.

HFJ: Uh-oh. Why’s that?

JB: Because some black people will hurry up to tell you [when you talk about black experiences] that that’s not their experience.

HFJ: Who? Black folks in academia?

JB: All kinds. Have you seen this video [on the Internet] that came out with Maya Angelou, with her correcting a young, black girl for calling her by her first name?

HFJ: Yes, and I don’t understand the surprise. When we were growing up, you just didn’t call an elder by their first name!

JB: The negative reaction to that video is completely generational.

HFJ: Well, folks [online] say [the clip is] from a documentary, and that later on, Dr. Angelou said to the young girl, “I’m sorry for being so short,” and then she answers the question. But I understand Dr. Angelou’s original point.

JB: I think the problem some [black] folks had was the level of diction that Maya Angelou was using. Like, for example, she used “license” in her remarks. Maya Angelou told the young girl, “You don’t have the license to call me by my first name.” She said license, OK?

HFJ: Jericho, you so crazy!

JB: But it’s interesting to me that young [black] people don’t know that history. They do not understand that there should be all the reason in the world [for Angelou to require a title]. Maya Angelou used to sleep with a gun under her pillow.

HFJ: I know!

JB: We need to look at the life that would inform the actions of a human being. It’s also true that that video was from the 1990s.

HFJ: Yes, it was. And black kids were raised to use titles with their elders in the ’90s.

JB: So that’s why I don’t understand people’s reaction.

HFJ: It’s interesting that you start our conversation with black women, because I see so much love and tenderness in your creative work towards black women, even as they are flawed—or even sometimes, mean—in your poems. What about love and complication is important to your poems, as it relates to black women?

JB: I’m so glad you asked this because one of the things I love most about this new book [The Tradition] is that my mama takes center stage in the first section. She becomes a woman of power capable of making decisions and living with them. My favorite line in this book is “these words: I love my mother. I love black women.” The pleasure of having managed to say something like that in a poem! In “As a Human Being” and “Hero” and “Foreday in the Morning” and other poems, my mother gets to embody the responsibility the world asks of black women and their ways of taking on or dismissing the troubles of that responsibility that shouldn’t be required of them or anyone else.

HFJ: Does this focus have to do with where you come from? Being from Louisiana?

JB: It’s impossible for me in terms of subject matter when I’m making my own poems to untie that which is supposed social or political from the autobiographical. The love that someone has for his grandmother and grandfather is shaped by what that particular grandmother or grandfather has done. So the fact that my grandfather figured a way to get out of the sharecropping system is important. He got his own plot of land, worked that land, and then, he figured out how to begin to send his children to college.

HFJ: Oh, wow.

JB: Yeah. It’s hard talking about this. I might start weeping or something.

HFJ: Go ’head. I might cry right on with you.

JB: My grandfather left Mississippi with his brothers because one of his brothers had killed a white man. In the middle of the night they understood that they had to hurry up and get out of there until they did, and that’s how my mother ended up being born in northeast Louisiana and my grandfather got work as a sharecropper, and in time, moved from under that system. Then, moved to selling his own cotton that he and his wife and his children picked themselves, and he ended up running his own farm. My grandfather had thirteen kids, and his third child went to college, and then after that all his children were going to college and his grandchildren were going to college.

HFJ: And now, here you are, a tenured college professor.

JB: So my love for my grandfather informs the ways I think about discipline, the way that you support folk, love on folk—all of this is formed by a word like “legacy,” but also informed by a word like “heart.” All that comes together.

This leads me back to the story of how my grandmother’s family left Black Lake.

HFJ: Yes, I want to hear this story! Black Lake, Louisiana?

JB: Yes. They left because they were being terrorized by these white folks on the Weaver Plantation, and my uncle had gotten on the bus and the woman driving the bus was a white woman who was a Weaver. She and my uncle had some sort of verbal altercation, and the white woman told my uncle, I’m going to come back there on the back of the bus and whoop you. They had been getting beat up by these [Weaver] folks.

HFJ: Isn’t that funny how random, southern white people thought they could discipline any black person’s child back then?! What happened on the bus with your uncle and the white woman?

JB: My uncle hit her and got off the bus.

HFJ: He hit a white lady in Louisiana?

JB: Exactly! And when he got off the bus, he ran back to the cabins where his family was staying. According to my grandmother—now this is where the story gets interesting—according to my grandmother, they put my uncle in a log and put him on Black Lake.

HFJ: Oh, my God. This is such a great story!

JB: At that part of the story I always was, like, “Wait. What?”

HFJ: Yes, because it’s like something out of the Bible. Like Moses.

JB: But this is how I believe it, or, at least, in part. My grandmother would say, “We got all of our hogs and we got out of there. We left.”

HFJ: “All our hogs,” because if you black, you do not leave behind no good pig meat.

JB: Exactly. My grandmother was interested in money. She was a hustler. The whole time I was growing up, my grandmother had card games on Friday that gave her a great amount of money.

HFJ: I remember reading the poem in PLEASE about that card game [“Track 3 (Back Down) Memory Lane”].

JB: So you’re asking me where I’m from. I’m from those card games and those people who were hustlers. I’m from these people who really believed in work. You work and then you survive. I’m from folk who had experienced a lot of violence and who did a lot of violence. I would imagine that the violence that they did was similar to the violence that they experienced and that they saw.

HFJ: What you’re talking about in terms of your grandmother is what the poet Cherise Pollard calls the “striver bourgeoisie.”

JB: Yes, that’s a great term. My Aunt Jackie to this day brags about the fact that my grandmother would take her girl children to get pedicures. My grandmother was a front porch cussing woman. Pea hulls in her dress. You know how women used to sit and break peas and use their dress as a bowl? But she got her girls pedicures, too.

HFJ: This will lead me to the thematic question that I had about juxtaposition in your work. The juxtaposition between the quotidian—the everyday life—and intellectual aspiration.

JB: [When I was growing up] if there was something that you could do at the age of three or four or five—if you appeared to have talent, then that was encouraged. If you saw a piano and you would not leave it alone, you got piano lessons. If you heard music and you began to dance, then you got dance lessons. And this was my thing right?—if you wanted to sit around and read in a corner you were encouraged, or if you looked like you were very good at giving the Easter speech at church, you were always in a position to be in front of the church.

HFJ: Oh, the Easter speech! Do you remember how those of us who had very good elocution and read well were always encouraged to memorize a longer Bible verse? And then you have the other kids who couldn’t [memorize] but they were still encouraged to come out and at least say, “Happy Easter to everybody”?

JB: I remember that. That’s very important because entire families [in black communities] would come to see things like that. People who didn’t go to church at all would come to see members of their family. If you were what they called “on program,” they would come see you do your thing. You know, your drug-dealing cousin or your drug-dealing uncle.

HFJ: Oh yeah, they would come up in there. Your cousin Pookie really wouldn’t be wearing great church clothes, but he would still be there to support you. I know that we’re idealizing this, but it’s also very real.

JB: It’s very real, Honi. And I’m actually not idealizing it, which is why I’m talking about violence [in my poems.] When all these good things were happening, my father was being very violent towards my mother and towards me and my sister.

HFJ: I’m so sorry.

JB: The other thing that makes me emotional and invigorates me is what happened for me and my cousins. What shaped me. Like my cousin was the first black head cheerleader in a school that had never had a black cheerleader.

HFJ: That was a huge deal.

JB: She was also in charge of the Junior ROTC for the whole state. So much of what has gone into my upbringing is all about [black] people getting you to where you’re supposed to be and trusting that when you get there, you’re going to take care of yourself.

HFJ: And also letting you know that when you get there, don’t be breaking fool because when you are embarrassing yourself, you are embarrassing your entire family and your [African American] community.

JB: And all of that happened with very little money. When I look back and think about how poor people were, and how people made do and how people improvised. How they would do certain things in order to make something happen. I remember my father and his sisters getting together and making food and selling plates [of food] to make money. Or like, when I went off to college, people from both sides of my family—people I didn’t even know—were sending me stuff.

HFJ: You went to Dillard University?

JB: Yes, I went to Dillard.

HFJ: That’s a black college. And as you are talking to me, I’m realizing that attending an historically black college really shaped you. I went to an HBCU as well, Talladega College. And what folks who haven’t gone to these kinds of schools may not know is that HBCUs are really extensions of black communities.

We’ve actually been talking all this time about themes of blackness and ancestry and lineage in your poems. But sometimes, I’m a little wary to talk overtly about themes because folks of all races want to look at black poetry as politics and not art.

JB: It’s really interesting that you would say that, Honi, because while I understand that that is true, I also understand that only happens when your poems are about blackness and when your poems are about race.

HFJ: Yes, that’s true, isn’t it? For example, look at the work of Clarence Major. I’ve read some of the critical writings on him, and they always say things like, “His work is so much more profound [than his other African American contemporaries] because it doesn’t deal with race.”

JB: Which means they [the critics] can’t read.

HFJ: And also, people have a hard time looking at nuance. They need a very heavy-handed performance of blackness in order to see that it’s a black poem.

JB: Yes.

HFJ: As a black child, how did you move into poetry?

JB: Well, poems were in the schools. And I get the feeling that they’re not anymore?

HFJ: I don’t think there’s a lot of recitation.

JB: [My generation] clearly [was] coming at the end of [the era of] recitation. And it’s interesting that you would mention this about schools and the black church and poetry, because one of the things that would happen when you were “on program” in church, one of the children might recite “Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni.

HFJ: They always recited “Ego Tripping”! It was that “Still I rise” by Maya Angelou—

JB: —yeah! And “Phenomenal Woman” [by Maya Angelou] sometimes, too—

HFJ: —oh, my God, yes!—

JB: —but that’s not all of it! You would get almost all of Langston Hughes sometimes—

HFJ: —yes, “Mother to Son”! You always got that poem, particularly during Black History Month.

JB: And this is why I try to encourage younger poets and tell them, poetry has to be a part of your life that you are not ashamed of. It is not a side conversation. We don’t treat art like a side conversation. Everybody got a picture of something on they wall.

HFJ: Some kind of poster they done framed.

JB: That’s right.

HFJ: Regular folks don’t be collecting art, but everybody got a print they done put on they wall.

JB: Right. So, another example [I give my students] is, you might not watch basketball, but everybody in the United States knows that basketball exists. And like basketball, poetry has to be part of our lives. You know, people always ask me, “How did you become a poet?” But I didn’t completely know that I couldn’t become a poet, because there were poems everywhere.

HFJ: OK, so nobody said to you, being a poet was forbidden? So you started writing poetry in college?

JB: Well, I started writing poetry even earlier. It was bad poetry.

HFJ: All of our early poems are bad.

JB: As soon as I could start making rhymes, I started writing them down.

HFJ: And when was this? What age?

JB: Very young. I remember my mom putting what I thought were poems on the refrigerator. I was in first grade.

HFJ: My mama did that, too. This is so lovely.

JB: And I also remember my mother dropping us off at the library. Or sometimes she would be in the library with us, me and my sister. We would go read. So as young as seven years old, I was going to the library, and I felt completely responsible for my sister. I was three years older than her.

HFJ: And your brother, how much older are you than him?

JB: I don’t have a brother. It’s just me and my sister. I have a half-brother, but I didn’t grow up with him.

HFJ: OK, now I’m confused, because there’s a brother that pops up in your poems [in The New Testament]!

JB: Yes, in my second book there’s a brother, but I tried to explain what that was about in that poem [in The New Testament] “Make-Believe.”

HFJ: You invented this brother, then. Why?

JB: So I think of this book [The New Testament] as a really long elegy.

HFJ: To the young man [Messiah Demery] to whom it is dedicated?

JB: In a way, yes. That was the youngest of my first cousins. I think that had a lot to do with it. When he [Messiah] died, there went my youth. I remember feeling that way in San Diego. Honi, I don’t even have the accent that I used to have. When I moved to San Diego, it was the first time ever that I was talking to people and they didn’t understand what I was saying, and they would tell me as much.

HFJ: Oh, they always say that. They always say, “Can you repeat what you’re saying?” And I’m like, “Damnit, you understand me!”

JB: But you know when you’re in San Diego, you’re not around as many black people as you are used to. You know, before then I had only lived in Shreveport, New Orleans, Houston, and I did a short stint in Chicago. And so, when I lived in San Diego, it was the first time I had ever not lived around a bunch of black folks.

HFJ: And Chicago is basically “up south.”

JB: Yes, yes.

HFJ: All them black folks in Chicago are basically from Mississippi.

JB: Yes. But I had to understand, “Oh, I am dealing with the thing that people experience when they turn a certain age, and now, they are not the youngest person in the room. They are no longer misunderstood.” Do you know what I mean?

HFJ: You’re the old person at the club.

JB: And, Honi, I wasn’t old!

HFJ: No, you weren’t. Because I still see you as the baby—my baby brother.

JB: But there was a lot of what I knew that was old. [Then, in San Diego] there was a lot of music I didn’t understand or didn’t know.

HFJ: Ah.

JB: And there was lot of music that I loved that people that I was hanging out with didn’t know. And I was confused as to why they didn’t know it!

HFJ: Like what kind of music? Like Bobby “Blue” Bland?

JB: Yes, him. And Johnny Taylor.

HFJ: Who don’t know Johnny Taylor? That’s just crazy talk!

JB: Honi, I think we actually don’t realize how regional musical tastes are until we move to another region.

HFJ: It is regional, I know. But I just refuse to accept that folks ain’t heard of Johnny Taylor.

JB: And the blues shows that we grew up with that came on the radio every Sunday. There would be gospel, then there be like this short space of jazz—or supposed jazz—and then all of a sudden, all night was the blues.

HFJ: That’s right.

JB: If you wanted to listen to any black radio when I was growing up and you listened to it on Sunday, you were going to listen to the blues, because that was your option. But, Honi, by the time I moved to San Diego, nobody was listening to the radio anymore! The way it works now with music is that you decide in advance what you want to hear.

HFJ: Yes, Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal—that’s owned by Beyoncé and them. But you make your own playlist now. You don’t get someone else’s taste imposed on you.

JB: But I think intellectualizing that “black” is expansive—understanding that blackness is not essential—there’s a way that you can intellectualize that. You can know that when you are fighting people who want to narrow down blackness, but there’s another way that when you leave the South and you move to another part of the country—there’s another way that you have to know it emotionally.

HFJ: And that emotional part is the hardest part. Because you begin to solidify your notion of blackness in white spaces, according to the blackness that you grew up with.

JB: Yes.

HFJ: Your work always has had this bittersweet pathos. To me, that feeling is very much about the blues, which you just mentioned. Are you influenced by the blues at all?

JB: I am a blues poet, and the short lines in my first book are blues lines heavily influenced by years of studying poems like “Island” and “Suicide’s Note” and “Theme for an English B” by Langston Hughes. I had been trying to get the tone of that kind of a line into my poems so desperately that, by the time I was writing my second book, I very purposely worked to stay away from them. This is why the lines are longer and more discursive in The New Testament. Pushing away from the blues allow for poems like “Homeland.” But also, I grew up listening to Johnnie Taylor and Jackie Moore, so I’ll always be trying to get at the mischief and sorrow their voices expressed.

HFJ: Which, to me, brings us back to vulnerability, and literal and racial ancestry and what that has to do with it. There’s vulnerability in your second book, The New Testament, and now, in this third book, The Tradition, the theme of black male vulnerability continues. What do you find so compelling about this theme? Is this notion of vulnerability why you invented a brother in The New Testament?

JB: I’m interested in allegory, and I try to make use of it whenever I can because I think it’s another way of getting all of history down to something more individual. Literature always takes history down to a scale of one. In the book of elegies, I needed a brother to describe the feeling of loss that comes with getting older. One of the things I lost was naivete about and romanticizing blackness and black people. I understand that we are particular, but that doesn’t mean we are superior to anyone else. I had to read all of Baldwin to accept that we still hurt one another. The brother [I invented in The New Testament], then, is like the brother black men once called one another whether they knew each other or not. And this particular brother beats his girlfriend because him being my speaker’s brother in the book does not absolve him from human evil.

The brother in The New Testament had to do with me reflecting that things that you realize that you’re accustomed to are becoming obsolete. Then, you get older and you start reflecting that your presence had created [obsolescence] for folks older than you. I was a conduit in many ways for people realizing that changes were coming that they were not prepared for.

And so, what I kept thinking about was, you know [Black Arts Movement poet] Mari Evans died never having called a black woman anything else other than “sister”? And I’m thinking about [other black] poets in particular, people like Haki Madhubuti, people like Amiri Baraka. I remember seeing Madhubuti talking once, and he was saying that he didn’t understand why people were so angry with him.

HFJ: Angry about what? About his [Madhubuti’s] poetry career?

JB: He didn’t understand that anger, because as far as Madhubuti was concerned, he had only done what he said he was going to do, as a poet and in terms in institution building. I was thinking about how black people in this country would literally pass one another and say “brother” and “sister.” But when I was living in San Diego, if you were to say “brother” to another black man, they would look at you like you were crazy. People get scared.

HFJ: I’m thinking about the “brothers” as a public utterance now. In The Tradition, public vulnerability appears, the notion that the physicality of the black male body is always under danger in public spaces, whenever white people are present.

JB: Well, this is just true. I don’t know what else to say about this. And this is the case for black people and not just black men. White people can make the slightest suggestion and end our lives. That is why Tamir Rice is dead. White people killed him. He would not be dead if he had been white. Fin.

HFJ: Currently, I’m reading a lot of poems about the police and black men these days. And I’ve noticed this attitude in the literary world—from readers of all races—that urgent poems about African American lives in peril are new or revolutionary, that this subject and theme in black poetry never existed before the Black Lives Matter movement. I have a name for a reader with this lack of historical and literary awareness: “Johnny-Come-Woke-ly.” Because in fact, African American poets have been writing these kinds of poems for many years, and anyone who reads the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance—and even before that—knows that.

But in terms of your artistic trajectory, I see these public and political considerations of black male vulnerability as natural continuums of your work. What makes the notion of public politics—as opposed to family dynamics—a new, artistic conversation for you in The Tradition?

JB: I don’t think the conversation is new for me, but the willingness is. This new book is direct in ways my education as a poet eschewed. I am still interested in subtlety and complexity and difficulty, but these poems are more bare and spare and make their dramatic situations known in the first line. I was once, for instance, enchanted with the idea of the reader coming to know the dramatic situation as the poem progressed. Here, I wanted to find out what I’d say and where I’d go if I put everything up front. Saying the knowns early put me in a position to investigate the unknowns more fully and with greater vulnerability. A poem is an emotional thing. And why not!

• •

Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before earning his PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakόw Poetry Seminar in Poland, his 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 and was named one of the best of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets; the collection was also nominated for the NAACP award for poetry and made The Believer’s “Top 5 Books of the Year.” Brown is the director of the creative writing program at Emory University and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Photo of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is critic at large for the Kenyon Review. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, The Glory Gets (Wesleyan, 2015), and the forthcoming novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper, 2021). She has received fellowships from the Aspen Summer Words Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Fellowship through the Library of Congress, as well as an award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction, a lifetime achievement award. She is professor of English at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.