Today, Krista’s conversation with Jericho Brown, “Small Truths and Other Surprises,” is available for streaming and download.
In honor of the release of this conversation, we’re re-posting our Ask a Poet Q&A with Jericho Brown, originally published August 24, 2018:
If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you to describe your poetry, how would you describe it?
When people ask me what kind of poems I write, I usually reply, “Good ones.” I think it’s hard for poets to describe their own work because when we write it, we’re trying to discover a sense, a revelation…not a subject, not content. We want to see the world in a new way. My poems are about changing the lens through which we see all of the things we’ve already seen…which is to say, they’re good poems.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
I have to trace it back to a mother who really couldn’t afford childcare. She would drop my sister and I off at the library whenever she had errands to run. We had no choice but to read. I don’t know if the librarians knew it or not, but they were our babysitters.
What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
By the time I was 10 years old I had read several of John Updike’s novels, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni — so many people whose work still means so much to me. That seed was watered by my experience growing up in the African American church, which is a location of pomp and circumstance and drama and theater. I was very active in the church, a fan of my pastor’s oratory. After that, I became interested in writing as a space where you could put things you couldn’t necessarily talk about in the grocery story line, but that you knew existed. Things I began to understand that people couldn’t talk about but could be written about.
When I was 16 years old, I had a high school assignment to spend a year writing a research paper. I missed school the day topics were picked, and only one was left: the confessional poets, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. I spent a year reading their poems, even though I had no idea what they were talking about. Then I had to read criticism written about their poetry so I could better understand it. I began teaching myself about poetry and my own aesthetic proclivities. From that point on, I think I had the idea I would be a writer of some sort. I was really taken by the ways in which those poets made themselves vulnerable to their own work, as well as the ways in which they made it clear they were living in a landscape that was not only personal but also political. That’s exactly what I try to do every time I sit down to write a poem. I want to write poems that are not only about me, but also about the world.
Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s 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. His poems have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Buzzfeed, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.