Sunday, January 18, 2009

I A I Discusses Poetry with Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown, currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of San Diego, is the author of Please -- his first book, published by New Issue Poetry & Prose.

IAI: Please is your first book; how long did it take for it to come together?

Jericho Brown: The oldest drafts of some poems in PLEASE were written in 2000, and I wrote them when I first attended the Cave Canem workshop/retreat for African American poets. Some poems' first drafts were written in 2007, the same year New Issues asked to publish the book. But seven years seems a dishonest answer when I think of how I'm prone to reading and thinking more than to writing itself.

In the last eight years of my life, there were times I couldn't stop writing. Over a short period of weeks, I'd have many drafts of very different things and begin to think I may be quite literally possessed. Once, I actually had a car accident trying to get some scribbling done while driving. These periods were thrilling for me, but during them, I felt vulnerable in a way I have a hard time characterizing to some of my closest poet friends.

At other times, for periods as long as two years within the last eight, I didn't write at all. I couldn't even think to revise. This is, of course, painful and scary in a very different way. Today, I think I managed to get through these silences because I was much more interested in figuring how to write poems than I was in how to write a book. I had no goal other than the poem itself and could almost satisfy my yearnings to write by reading and discovering other poets.

IAI: You teach creative writing at the University of San Diego; how do you teach creative writing?

Brown: In addition to fashioning a classroom that investigates and hones craft, I help undergraduate students develop themselves as men and women who think about literature and appreciate art. To that end, students read poetry manifestos written by such canonical writers as Wordsworth, Eliot, Oppen, Hughes, Rich, Gl├╝ck, Howe, and others. Students then write their own credos and manifestos in order to begin thinking about what they deem aesthetically valuable. In every class, I emphasize the relationship between writing well and reading broadly, the relationship between sharpening critical skills and polishing creative skills. Students participate in what I call "field work," searching out recent issues of journals as different as The Southern Review and Fence, and scouring these magazines for poems they feel must exist and poems they had hoped did not, all the while familiarizing themselves with contemporary poetry. And, in order to highlight the orality of the art, students memorize and recite poems in class throughout the semester.

In the workshop, I guide students in analyzing poems for specific strategies, naming each as a tool that the poet uses to establish emotional depth, to make for musical pleasure, or even to incite humor. Following thorough discussions, students write imitations modeled after giants including Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Rae Armantrout, and David Kirby and more recent contemporary poets, such as Tina Chang, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Ben Doller (nee Doyle), Thomas Sayers Ellis, Beth Ann Fennelly, James Hall, Sean Hill, Jay Hopler, Douglas Kearney, Joseph Legaspi, Richard Siken, Natasha Trethewey, Rachel Zucker, and others. In class and in several conferences throughout the semester, we discuss the ways students deploy these tools in their own work.

IAI: Are the majority of your students poets and writers or are they students taking the class as an elective?

Brown: Even on library bookshelves, poets are never in the majority.

IAI: In schools, teachers tend to teach the same poets over and over again, such as Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Are you a fan of Plath? Dickinson? Hughes?

Brown: I'm pretty crazy about all three of those poets, but as I mentioned in my earlier answer, I don't think of them as the only poets.

IAI: If you were in charge of choosing the poet laureate for the universe, who would you appoint? Why?

Brown: Maybe I'd get Oprah Winfrey to do it because she'd bring a lot of attention to poetry itself, and since she doesn't seem to know a lot about poetry save for the verse of Angelou and Giovanni, she very well may hire really good poets to advise her on how to handle the job.

On the other hand, I'd probably appoint myself for fear of making the wrong decision by picking Winfrey.

IAI: When did you decide to become a poet?

Brown: I don't remember not wanting to write. While growing up, I always thought I'd have what adults termed some kind of a "real job" and then retire from it in time enough to do what I always wanted to do in earnest. As my relationships with my family became more and more strained in my very late teens, I began to understand that I didn't have to wait to have, do, or be anything I wanted. An example of this was my choosing English as a major while an undergraduate at Dillard University. I convinced my father that the major was best for those planning to attend law school, but I knew I just wanted a major that would allow me to read and think about poetry and fiction.

IAI: I always imagine a poet living like this:

"We walked down the path to breakfast.
The morning swung open like an iron gate…

We trotted back and forth to readings….

Someone was always hungover,
scheming with rhymes…"

At the bonfire, we flamed with words…"
-- from "Green Night" by Edward Hirsch
How are you living?

Brown: I'm grateful that I've been traveling a lot in order to fill requests that I give readings. Most of my recent life is centered around meeting really interesting people from all over the nation who love good poetry. Also, I try to make sure I have enough reading to do on planes since I spend so much time on them.

Other than that, I go to the gym a lot. I eat a lot. I talk with friends over the phone a lot. I teach a lot and read a lot in preparation for teaching. I usually go clubbing when I get the chance because I like flirting and dancing.

IAI: From the same poem, the line: "It was a green night to be a poet in those days/we didn't care if the country didn't care about us." Do you care?

Brown: Yes, but I have low expectations when it comes to this country caring about its poets. Maybe that will change now…who knows?

IAI: Finally, on a different note, I love the library; it is still a magical place for me. Is it for you?

Brown: Of course. Free books are more than magical.

Jericho Brown's book was recently reviewed on Immunization Against Invisibility.

You can learn more about Jericho Brown at

Jericho Brown's Please, published by New Issues Poetry & Prose (2008), can be purchased at and


Michelle "Mim" McEwen said...

I enjoyed this interview. The questions AND the answers. I especially like his response to how he teaches creative writing.

Wonder Woman said...

Ditto what Michelle said. As a teacher of English who likes to focus on creative writing, it's nice to hear an established educator/writer's version of how to do so.