At The Bitter Southerner, Josina Guess profiles Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown. In this inspiring piece, she learns about the duplex — a new form of poetry he invented — the cadence of his creative process, how the pandemic offered the forced respite he needed to work on his health, and the three problems he works to solve with each of his poems.
This piece includes a video of Brown delivering his poem, “Foreday in the Morning.” Do not miss out on the chance to hear his words.
Jericho Brown is a harvester of sounds. All week long he gathers words, jots them down, collects a phrase here, a riff there. On Sundays, he prays, then takes printed sheets of his gathered words and cuts up the lines to create text that will carry meaning on the page and in the mouth in surprising ways. He pushes himself, reading other poets and forms, and pushes his poems, waking in the middle of the night, reciting them over and over until they are uniquely his. To aspiring poets in the room he recommended Langston Hughes’s, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and Adrienne Rich’s, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” as formative texts.
Two single friends came to live with him when things started shutting down. “If I had been by myself, I would have made a series of poor decisions.” As an extroverted introvert Jericho knows he needs people and solitude and has been thankful for the balance this spring has brought.
Living with HIV has meant being vigilant on keeping doctors’ appointments, keeping up on medication and awareness of living with a tiny silent killer. The lines of “The Virus” ring with a terrifying prescience of the moment we find ourselves in:
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
As COVID-19, like HIV, is disproportionately ravaging Black and already vulnerable communities I asked for his take on that.
“People are interested in making parallels to the ways in which these illnesses, these viruses, these diseases have made it clear who in our culture and who in our society is most vulnerable and who the society leaves vulnerable. I would actually prefer that we look at things not as a parallel, that we look at things as a continuum and that we understand that; whether it is by bullet, or by disease, or when I think about the murder of Troy Davis, by execution. People use diseases in order to somehow further the cause that they already have. And it’s a cause of hatred. You know, there are many ways to commit violence, and you know, only one of them is our fist, right? It’s par for the course. I wish I could say I was surprised. I’m shocked, but not surprised.”
When Jericho Brown writes poems he writes them primarily for himself, he is usually wrestling with three problems, a real life problem, like “I can’t afford to pay the water bill and the bill is due,” a spiritual problem like, “I don’t believe that I am worthy of light and water despite of the fact of all the water in the world,” and a poetry problem, “I’d like this poem to end with an abstraction.” He believes that that if he is completely honest in that poetic conversation and allowing his whole Black self and his whole queer self into his poems, then the poem will do its job. He hopes that by being as honest as he can be that his poems will be as accessible as they can be and that they will be put to good use.