It Becomes a Question
A conversation with Jericho Brown
“Your interview is not happening, the interviewer is sick,” the volunteer at author check-in told Jericho Brown. His smile fell, he paused. It was the inaugural Wordplay event hosted by the Loft Literary Center to celebrate readers, writers, and great books in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jericho is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is author of three books of poetry. The most recent, The Tradition, published by Copper Canyon Press, came out in April 2019.
I had seen him that morning with an entourage of cameras in and around the shiny royal-blue Guthrie Theatre. On the four-story-high escalator, he knelt down on one leg with the fluidity of a dancer. On a couch in front of long windows with views of the Mississippi River, he rested chin to fist. Between poses, he talked to the crew, threw his head back to laugh. Just watching him made me smile. Out on the Endless Bridge that extends 178’ from the face of the building and overlooks the former mills the city built itself around, Jericho stood face upward, eyes closed, shoulder length braids swaying in a breeze coming off the river. He was beautiful. The photographer was close enough to where I was drinking coffee that I heard him sigh with what sounded like satisfaction at capturing this image on film.
After hearing that his interview was cancelled, Jericho looked up and asked, “Is there someone else who can interview me?” He was both joking and earnest.
Without thinking I stepped out from the group of volunteers in matching conference t-shirts and fanny packs. “I can.”
Three months before I had finished an intense job at the Minnesota State Capitol. Instead of getting the next big job, I was writing. When I found creative flow, I know I was where I needed to be, but the battle to get there was exhausting. I wrote with one hand while the other held back a giant wave of demons. I volunteered for the interview because I wanted to know what made this poet glow.
Jericho’s presence was both quiet and loud. He paused speaking on stage and before answering my questions. “Trying to tell the truth means that I have to take a second and search myself, make sure I’m saying what is really the case for me,” he told me.
When he walked into the house that served as the green room for the authors, he didn’t hesitate before approaching people. He was not taking up space, but opening up new space none of us had realized were there, spaces we felt ourselves pulled into as sparks of smiles and jokes took off into full-blown conversations between acquaintances and people meeting for the first time.
I asked what drove him to be so friendly, so welcoming. He told me his parents taught him as a young child to walk into a room and talk to every adult, to make people “feel that you are a part of them when they saw you.” Making people feel seen may have made him charming, but that wasn’t why his parents taught him this behavior. “My mom and dad really believed that it was sinful to greet people without a smile. You greet people with a smile, that is the right thing to do.”
Up on the roof deck, a chill moved over us and then lifted as the clouds shifted back and forth across the sun. We sat on wood benches that ran the perimeter of the deck, and pulled layers on over our long sleeves. Jericho sat close, leaned close, looked into my eyes. After answering a question he would say, Ya’ Know? Do you follow? Do you understand what I mean? He paused, made sure I was with him.
Jericho pulled a KIND Bar out of his gift bag. Voices from the closest stage floated up from a National Book Awards panel. He told me he loved eating junk: Doritos, Lay’s STAX sour cream and onion, white cheddar Smartfood popcorn. He followed this up by saying, “I go through these periods where I only eat very healthy and I try to do it for a twelve week period. I’ll only eat some protein and something green. I’m a big kale fan. And then for carbohydrates, I’ll have sweet potato or brown rice or quinoa.”
“When did you start eating quinoa?” I asked.
“When I moved to Atlanta.” Jericho moved from San Diego to Atlanta in 2012 where he is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.
During our interview, other writers came up to greet Jericho. They paused before leaving, one offered to read him a poem later.
By this time we had known each other for less than an hour and I felt like we had everything in common. We both worked for elected officials! I only recently discovered quinoa too! We both liked plants! That this interview was happening was obviously because we were both the kind of people who said Yes!
This sense of being kindred spirits didn’t come from our chemistry, nor was it something about me in particular. It was him. It was his particular magic, a special ability to connect with others. Poets sometimes get stereotyped as quiet and withdrawn. Jericho is not just a poet on the page; he is also a performer. When he is on stage, he feels like he could, “do it forever.”
But his laughter and smiles were not performance. They were the laughter of someone who knows the sadness and joy of their own heart.
I asked where he gets his energy from, Jericho told me, “I like a lot of old school music. I like Motown from the sixties and seventies. I like to hear women, Black women in particular, singing, hollering.” He went on, “I exercise a lot. I do burpees. I do weight training. I think it’s a good idea because it gets me out of my head. You know when you are out of breath and you gotta do ten more reps?” Jericho has put out burpee challenges on Twitter where he has over 15,000 followers, pushing, encouraging, and asking people to let him know how it goes.
The Tradition came to Jericho quickly. He wrote most of the book between Thanksgiving of 2017 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2018. “It was chasing me,” he said. “I couldn’t stop writing. I was actually scared I was going to die because I was writing so much.”
“I invented a new form, I cut up all the lines I had left over from poems failed going back as far as 2004. I was splicing things together, making fragments work in ways I had never made them work before.” Jericho’s new form is called the duplex. It was like listening to a scientist explained the set-up of an experiment when he explained the structure of the duplex. Put simply, it is a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues.
The book is about tradition in our culture, exploring what it means to live in a country where we normalize rape culture, mass shootings, and police violence. It’s about tradition in our families, like planting gardens. “This is the stuff men in my family have cared about for generations just for the sake of beauty.” Jericho recently bought a house and found himself planting begonias and creeping myrtle. The book is about tradition in our daily lives, “If people see me as someone who falls in love, it might keep them from shooting me.”
Jericho juxtaposes images of black men and flowers in his poem The Tradition. The first line names flowers. Aster. Nasturtium, Delphinium. And the last line names black men killed by police. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. In his headshot on the back of the book, Jericho wears a bright yellow shirt that matches a garden of yellow daffodils behind him. In his iconic social media headshot, he wears a wreath of flowers, mirroring the image of the African American child painted on the cover of his newest book. By juxtaposing flowers and black men, he asks a question of the reader about what images come to mind when they think of a flower, a black child, a black man. It’s a question that creates an opportunity for examination, opens the possibility for change.
“Can poetry change the world?” I asked.
“Yeah!” He exclaimed, then went on in a quieter voice, “but, I also think its a powerful force for those who let it have power on them. You have to be exposed to it; you have to be in the position to know it. That is part of what we are doing as ambassadors of poetry. We poets are putting ourselves in a position so that if you might be interested, here we are.”
Jericho doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike; he prepares himself for it by consuming art and writing daily. He writes for two hours first thing every morning. “I set appointments with myself, and I honor them. I feel exhilarated by that fact.”
“You get to create your life,” he told me. “As soon as you realize it, it becomes a question. I get to create my life? And then you say to yourself, yes!” He laughed before saying, “You realize you are looking into a void.”
He went on, “It’s the same thing that happens when you make a poem. You are looking at a blank sheet and suddenly you have made a thing that literally changes thoughts and emotions simply by typing. Suddenly you have a trigger.” A question, like a poem, is an act of change.
His daily writing practice starts with meditation and prayer. He reads modern spiritual writers like Ernest Holmes, Marianne Williamson, and Michael Bernard Beckwith. “The spiritual part has always been there, because that is how I was raised. But, I started taking responsibility for my own spirituality at a certain point,” he explained, “and when I did, my poems got to be a lot better.” His spirituality helps him “put myself in a place of faith and trust,” this creates the space and safety for play.
Jericho’s daily appointment has many forms. “Writing sometimes means revision, sometimes means drafting, sometimes means putting up things that aren’t working. Sometimes writing doesn’t go so well. It doesn’t mean any of that. It just means reading stuff or wishing you had something. But there are two hours I dedicate to it everyday.”
I pictured him like a train going up a mountain at a steady pace then reaching the top and coming down the other side faster and faster as he neared the end of his last book.
“When a book comes out, I run behind it pretty hard for a year, which is why I am here. I say yes to everything. I try to drum up whatever I need to send the book out into the world so people know it exists.”
Jericho’s goal was to sell at least 4000 copies of The Tradition in the next three months. I asked, “Who do you want those 4000 people to be? Who do you want to buy the book?” He started listing states he had never been to.
THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT – if you are in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, or Idaho, Jericho has you on his mind. He has never been to your state, and he wants to come. He will walk in, look you in the eye, and shake your hand. And if you meet him again, a year later, in different clothing and in a different place, he will remember you. He has timed how long it takes to read each poem; he is ready for whatever venue you have. The room where his parents taught him to walk in and greet everyone, it has expanded to be the entire country.
Later that afternoon Jericho spoke on a low stage with a backdrop of exposed brick. The panel was on Art & The Body with T. Fleischmann, moderated by Lisa Marie Brimmer. Jericho’s preparation was evident in his clothing; his thin peach sweater matched the color of the sky on the cover of The Tradition, and his grey-blue pants matched the color of the ocean.
The panel started with an acknowledgment that we were on stolen Indigenous land. This is something said more and more often at events in Minnesota. The statement was followed by a beat to consider—stolen lands, Indigenous—and then the schedule continued. In my own head, I heard Jericho’s voice, It becomes a question. We create our own lives.
At the end of the Q&A, an older African American woman asked Jericho to read his poem about cuddling. It’s called Stand. “Cuddling is my favorite thing to do,” Jericho said with an open-mouth smile, and we all smiled back. At each line break, I was uncertain of what would come next: violence or beauty?
When he was done, he didn’t look up to see the crowd holding its breath and considering how bodies making love fit into our landscapes of crisis. He didn’t smile or laugh. The poem had taken him elsewhere, as it had taken each of us.
I had asked him earlier if poetry is a political tool, and he didn’t pause before shaking his head no. “I think every poem, I think every book, is for a single heart. When someone is reading it, it is your heart to their heart. It’s not your heart to a mass of people.”
I biked home along the beautiful Ȟaȟáwakpa Misi-ziibi Mississippi River. Cars zoomed by me on one side. On the other, trees blushed green with spring leaves along the steep riverbank. I cast questions into the void: Is it a responsibility to greet everyone when I walk into a room? What would it mean to have a culture of connection? Every room of people an opportunity to change myself, every person a poem?
E. A. Farro is a scientist and artist who spent the last seven years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art instillation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a 2010 Loft Literary Center Mentor Award and a 2019 Minnesota State Art Board grant.