Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, Jericho Brown says he always thought he’d get some kind of real job, and then retire early enough to pursue his dream of being a poet.
Fortunately, the propositions were not mutually exclusive for the author of TheTradition, which received a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry last week. Like much of Brown’s earlier work, his prizewinning collection explores where love goes awry, how violence can be mistaken for love and why we’ve grown accustomed to rape, sexual coercion and the ways in which love and brutality coexist.
Brown’s invention of a new poetic form called the “duplex” — a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal and the blues — has helped earn him recognition, along with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have been published in The New Republic, The New Yorker and The Best American Poetry.
His first book, Please, received a 2009 American Book Award. His second, The New Testament, won a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. And before winning the Pulitzer, The Tradition received the Paterson Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards.
Brown is a professor of creative writing at Emory University, and directs Emory’s creative writing program. ArtsATL caught up with him to talk about the significance of following in the footsteps of giants, the perks of sheltering-in-place and the three lines of poetry that changed his life.
ArtsATL: Has the reality of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet sunken in yet?
Jericho Brown: No . . . no . . . noooooo! I can’t even say it without getting emotional. But this is the 70th anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’ [the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize] award for her book of poetry, Annie Allen. I think there are a total of eight of us [African Americans] now who have received a prize for poetry in the Pulitzer’s 103-year history.
ArtsATL: What did you learn from Brooks that informs your work today?
Brown: I met her when I was a kid, 19 years old, and I remember she talked to me as if I was a grown man who was a real poet. That’s part of what I want to offer to my students at Emory today: a chance to do the work and proclaim themselves real poets.
ArtsATL: You and your students are in uncharted waters where celebrations are concerned. They will graduate this month with no pomp and circumstance, while you must process the significance of an extraordinary honor in relative isolation.
Brown: Guuuurl, I can get into a star-studded affair . . . do my hair up and dress better than anybody else. Did you see what I wore to the National Book Awards last year? Under normal circumstances, I would have immediately gone out in the world partying and dancing. But sheltering in place has forced me to turn inward. It’s allowed time for introspection, meditation and gratitude that I would have forfeited if the option to party and dance was on the table.
ArtsATL: Postponing the razzle-dazzle is one thing. But how are you coping with being unable to give and receive celebratory hugs with your favorite people?
Brown: This is a time when I would get a lot of hugs, isn’t it? And I love a hug more than anything! You know, a cuddle makes me very happy. But knowing that people [who are homebound] might add poetry to their reading repertoires — as they look for new leisure activities under quarantine — also makes me very happy.
ArtsATL: Poetry gives a lot, but she is a notoriously demanding mistress.
Brown: You gotta watch out for poetry because she’s not as leisurely as binge-watching Ozark on Netflix. Both experiences can be riveting, but poetry is always going to ask something of you. And it’s going to have you looking at the world anew. What I believe about poetry — what I’m constantly telling my students and what I demand of myself as a writer — is that the reader should see the world differently after engaging with the work.
ArtsATL: Who was the first poet to make you see the world differently?
Brown: I imagine it was Langston Hughes — who I think of like a granddad. I read “Suicide’s Note” when I was 8 years old, and can recite it for you now:
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
I remember being worn out by the fact that he had managed to do what he did in three lines.
ArtsATL: Did you have the words to express what you were feeling inside back then?
Brown: No. I sort of understood that I was having a relationship I could not explain. But I couldn’t turn to my mom and say, “Mama, I read this poem and something’s happening to me.”
ArtsATL: Now that you have the words, how would you characterize what happened?
Brown: I now realize I was experiencing what we feel when we encounter beauty. And I think I’ve been trying to make that moment happen over and over again, as a reader and a writer, ever since.
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