Stacey Balkun, Festival Assistant
Jericho Brown was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, but feels he “did his growing-up” in New Orleans, where he worked as a speechwriter for the mayor. While his old career may seem good preparation for that of a poet because both are considered writers, the two professions require different approaches. In an interview with Robert Lee Brewer, Brown explains from experience that “a speechwriter goes into each speech knowing the message and figuring the best way to communicate the message as he goes” while a poet “figures ways of communicating and wonders if he has a message.” Brown believes poems offer multiple interpretations of meaning, whereas speeches focus on driving specific messages. To read the full interview, visit Poetic Asides with Robert Lee Brewer.
Brown’s poetry is rich with musical elements; the words fluctuate like notes on a blues scale. Brown’s words become musicians in their own right, taking the reader on a melodic journey through the voices of several different musicians. The language of “Track 4: Reflections” reflects the voice of Diana Ross; a diva who is immediately recognizable because of her desire “to reflect the sun.” Another captivating persona poem in the collection is written from the perspective of famed performer Janis Joplin. His collection Please opens with a poem that warns, “The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you” (“Track 1: Lush Life”), but these poems sing to please the reader.
Please replicates the format of a record album, with sections titled after iPod buttons and poems titled as track numbers. This arrangement ties the collection together, despite the diversity of form and content of the poems. In an interview on the web magazine Critical Mass, Brown articulates his belief that “the best singers showcase their talents by performing several kinds of songs for an album or during a show.” To successfully perform in such a way requires a powerful voice and distinctive character. Similarly, Please holds several poems that vary in form, length, and persona, but are all linked by Brown’s distinct voice. This collection is the recipient of the 2009 American Book Award.
Other awards include a 2009-2010 Radcliffe fellowship. Brown is currently working on his second collection of poetry, tentatively titled The New Testament. Find his advice to aspiring writers and other audio recordings on From the Fishhouse.
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Photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University Staff Photographer