Jericho Brown: A Night of Poems

He looked directly into the camera and fervently declared, “Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long” (Track 1: Lush Life). Oceans deep and seconds apart, deep and poignant quiet impounded the silence between each of his words. This moment is one of several that epitomize the incredibly unique experience of watching Jericho Brown read his poetry.

On Thursday, March 11, Jericho Brown read at a virtual event sponsored by the William J. Cooper Foundation, the Sager Fund, and the Swarthmore Department of English Literature. Reuben Gelley Newman ’21, Paul Buchanan ’21, Yi Wei ’21, and Nicole Liu ’21 planned and hosted the event alongside English Professor Nathalie Anderson. The reading was followed by a Q&A with the audience moderated by Yi Wei ’21. 

Jericho Brown is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University. His most recent book, “The Tradition,” won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Across his three publications, he has received a plethora of critical acclaim, including the American Book Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize. In addition, his poems have been featured in a wide variety of publications, such as TIME Magazine, The New York Times, The New Republic, jubilat, Fence, Buzzfeed, The Bennington Review, and The Best American Poetry.

At the virtual event, Brown read primarily from “The Tradition,” in which he focuses on a diverse array of cracks in society’s foundation. 

“It’s a book about money, it’s a book about capitalism, and commerce and economics,” he said. Brown also pointed to the stark, seedy underlying truth that he found beneath this exploration of capitalism and economics, adding,“We are under the impression that it is okay to sexually mistreat one another as long as money is involved.”

These words truly encapsulated the expansive set of poetry he read from “The Tradition,” which included everything from a poem praising the essential workers in grocery stores to a complex modern-day telling of the Greek myth of Ganymede (a story focused on a father selling his son into sexual slavery).

After a year of meetings and lackluster attempted human connection over Zoom, Brown’s vulnerability and the virtual reading’s intimacy was a breath of fresh air. When Brown cried in response to the hosts’ words of appreciation, the emotion was so palpable that it felt as if he was truly right next to me. The way he spoke to the camera, looked directly into our eyes, accentuated his words with such intention and breath — it was as if the audience was in the “drivers’ seat” of his poem and could peer directly through the windshield into his creative imagination.

Speaking of his relation to his work, Brown said, “I think of poet as an identity, and I think it is as much my identity.” Indeed, listening to him read his work feels as if he has stitched his identity into his poetry just as tangibly as the fabric was woven into that makes up the vibrantly colored knitted cap he wore that night. 

In fact, this form of art is so crucial to his identity that he created a style of poetry, entitled the duplex (a combination of the structure of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues), parallel to his own self: a fossilized version of himself that will leave a lasting imprint on the world of creative writing. When asked what motivated him to create the duplex, he responded, “I really wanted to make a form that was unidentifiable and yet familiar. Everything I am, I am 100%, and I wanted to make a form that was its own form and yet an amalgamation of forms. What am I, like how am I possible? I ask myself this all the time, and then I end up crying. Why am I? How do I get to be here?” 

He cited Luthor Vandross’ music as his biggest influence, noting that “listening to music helps me think about my writing in a metaphorical way, and the certain things I would like to achieve in my writing.” In response to a question about his creative motivations during the past year, he responded humbly: “I’m writing all the time, but am I writing well? Nuh-uh.”

The most lasting impact of his reading is that Jericho Brown redefined the meaning of poetry for me. He tied it to identity, voice, authenticity, vulnerability — so many things that plague the human condition. Speaking about the politicization of his identity as a poet, he professed, “Whether I’m in the midst of Black joy or Black trauma, I’m still Black. There is no poetry that is not political … Poems are better than us, because they tell the truth.” And isn’t the truth what we are all striving for?

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