Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Season 1 of Line / Break launches with Pulitzer Prize-winner Jericho Brown. In this episode, Jericho talks about saying “no,” and his intention to laugh every day—and sings some iconic Diana Ross.
We’re back next week with the fabulous poet and playwright, Sarah Ruhl. Stay tuned!
Laura (00:02): Hi everyone. I’m Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press. And you’re watching our new interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and the minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. And working with these poets at the press has truly inspired me. It’s challenged me, and it’s been a ton of fun. So, in this series I wanted to bring that spirit to you wherever you might be. And each season we will be bringing you episodes from different Copper Canyon Press poets. In this episode, we are speaking with Jericho Brown. Jericho, thank you so much for being here. How’s your day going?
Jericho (00:54): It’s a good day.
Laura (00:54): It’s a good day. Okay, good. Well, instead of having me intro you, I’d love it if you could intro yourself, maybe. Maybe name, pronouns, where you live, most recent book you’ve published.
Jericho (01:10): Yeah. So, my name is Jericho Brown.
Laura (01:13): [jokingly] I’m shocked.
Jericho (01:14): I’m a poet, pronoun is he. I live in Atlanta, Georgia. Well, actually I live in unincorporated DeKalb County. I live in the few blocks between Atlanta, Georgia and Decatur, Georgia that are unincorporated and therefore I live in no city at all. I live in this house that makes me very happy cause there’s a window that I can look out of while I’m working. Cause it’s very big and all I see is my backyard, which is full of trees and there’s a similar window in the front of the house. And so I can work up there too. And I really just like to see the rabbits and the squirrels take over.
Jericho (01:59): The poet, Phillip B. Williams, he used to be a poetry fellow where I teach at Emory University. And he came to my house one time and he said, “Why is your house like a Disney movie?” Because there’s all these… you can see Blue Jays and Cardinals at my house all the time. People are like, how is it that I see a Blue Jay at your… Blue Jay? So I’m very proud of that. I think I have a particularly special relationship with animals. They’re always around me and they just don’t pay me very much attention. Oh, I forgot I was introducing myself. Oh but I’m—
Laura (02:34): No, I love this.
Jericho (02:36): I’m originally from Louisiana. I always feel like when I say “home,” conversationally I’m talking about this house. But then there’s a thing in me that says “home” and means Louisiana. So that’s where I’m from and this is where I live. And what else could I say to introduce myself? Oh— I wrote my last book was a book called The Tradition.
Laura (03:04): Yeah.
Jericho (03:07): Yeah. And I am really proud of that book. It makes… that book, the experience I had writing that book makes writing anything else very difficult. Cause it’s very difficult to forget that feeling. And I really just want to hold on to it. And so I’m working right now to let that feeling go and to get into it. Every time you write a book… I mean, first of all, when you’re a poet, you really just want to write and it’s nice to make a book. But as soon as the book is done, for me at least maybe other posts feel differently, but when a book is done, you feel a little death happen. So one of the things that I have been missing for a while is I’ve been in mourning about the experience of writing The Tradition. Cause it really wore me out and I loved every second of it. Like it took everything. And I loved that. I loved that. I felt like I was really giving my 100%, body, mind and soul just to what I’d love to do the most, which is write poems. That’s my last book. And I’ve written some poems since then that are okay. What else? I think—
Laura (04:20): [crosstalk 00:04:20] you were happy about something.
Jericho (04:23): Tell you if I’m what?
Laura (04:24): You were saying, “And I’m happy” and then I cut you off and I was like “you wrote a book.”
Jericho (04:30): I don’t even remember, but let me tell you, I will tell you this.
Laura (04:33): Tell me.
Jericho (04:34): Because you mentioned it cause I emailed, well, maybe I can’t announce this actually I can’t announce—
Laura (04:40): Oh, yeah I don’t think you can.
Jericho (04:41): Or, you’ll have to cut it out. I’ll just say it this way. I’ll say yesterday, I was really down on myself about writing. Like I was really… You know how you say these things and they’re awful things and people shouldn’t say them because they’re not true. We have to be careful about what we tell ourselves. And often we say things that are just… I mean, I don’t even know why we say these things. I will say out of my mouth before a poetry reading, I will say, “I don’t know what I’m going to read, I don’t have any poem.” I have three books of poems! You know what I mean?
Laura (05:23): Yeah, I do know what you mean.
Jericho (05:24): Or I’m getting ready to go somewhere. I don’t know what I’m going to wear, I don’t have anything to wear.
Laura (05:29): Closet full of clothes [crosstalk 00:05:30]
Jericho (05:30): I got, that’s three closets full of clothes.
Laura (05:32): You have to them, Jericho. You got three closets and little Blue Jays in your backyard, helping you put on all these clothes, my God.
Jericho (05:41): And I’m doing that about writing yesterday because I want more to happen faster than it’s ever happened before.
Laura (05:50): Exactly [crosstalk 00:05:51].
Jericho (05:52): I should be used to this now. But I got this news that you all know about that I’m not supposed to tell anybody about. But when I got this little piece of news I was like, I’m still in it. I’m still on top—
Laura (06:10): I’m amazed that you could be shocked by that. It just says it all. I love that.
Jericho (06:16): You know, Laura, it’s so funny and I know it is not going to make any sense to people, I guess. But whenever a good thing happens, I’m always like, “really? Oh wow. I’m a poet?!”
Laura (06:33): That’s so interesting. Cause did you ever have that kind of aha moment then? Where you were like, “I’m a poet, I’m doing this professionally, this is my life.”
Jericho (06:45): I didn’t feel comfortable calling… I understood that I was a poet, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying it until my first book came out. When Please came out in the ’08, when Please came out, I was convinced. I was like, “Oh, that’s a book, I have proof.” And so when I’m telling myself I’m not a poet, I can hold up this book and be like, “Jericho, you’re a poet.”
Laura (07:08): Wow.
Jericho (07:09): Look!
Laura (07:10): You made that tangible.
Jericho (07:13): Yeah, I mean it’s something I could hold in my hand. What’s interesting to me about all of that is that’s always just been the goal. I just always just wanted to be a poet. And I like for a day to go by knowing that feeling, living and walking and being a poet. The bad thing about that is, and maybe the sad thing about that is, part of being a poet is having doubts about one’s poetry.
Laura (07:46): Absolutely.
Jericho (07:47): And you can’t get any better at it if you think it’s over. If you think you’re the best at it, you’re not going to get any better. There always has to be something that you’re trying to figure out, that I’m trying to figure out. Whether that’s long lines. Or whether that’s, can I put abstractions at the end of a poem? Or whatever that is, there always has to be something you’re trying to figure out.
Laura (08:13): I find that really interesting, but I want to back up and ask one thing. When did you start writing poetry in high school, in college before that? What are we talking here? Like little five-year-old Jericho running around writing a poem? What age did you?
Jericho (08:31): I was writing poems as soon as I understood they were rhymes.
Laura (08:34): Yeah?
Jericho (08:35): When I was very little, one of my earliest memories as a matter of fact, is understanding that there were rhymes in songs. There’s a song by Diana Ross called “Upside Down.” It occurred to me when I was a little kid and my mom and dad were playing the record on a record player. I’ll never forget cause I remember looking at it spin on the record player and listening to it and standing close because I wanted to hear the rhymes, right? And they were such exciting rhymes to me because they were giving me brand new words. That song has words in it like “instinctively,” “respectfully.”
Laura (09:16): What did she rhyme “instinctively” with?
Jericho (09:18): “Respectfully.”
Laura (09:21): Wow.
Jericho (09:38): [sings] “Instinctively, you give to me the love that I need/ I cherish the moments with you/ Respectfully, I say to thee/ I’m aware that you’re cheating/When no one makes me feel like you do/Upside down” [stops singing]. So anyway.
Laura (09:42): So that gave you all these new words.
Jericho (09:43): Yeah, so when I figured that out I was like, “Oh my God, ‘instinctively,’ ‘respectfully.'” And then I would go around the house thinking of all these words. And I couldn’t do as long as instinctively or respectfully, but I would be like “‘jelly’, ‘really.'” And my mom and dad would get excited. Either way is always the key. When your parents get excited about something, then you’re like, “oh, this works. This—
Laura (10:15): Oh, totally.
Jericho (10:15): “Let me do more of this.”
Laura (10:17): Yeah. You’re showing them something that they didn’t know was in you or that they didn’t understand was there.
Jericho (10:22): They’re still so confused by it too. If I was sitting in a corner writing, I mean … when I was six years old, I was like this. If I was sitting in a corner writing something, my mom and dad would look on, look at me with such pride, be like, “oh, Trey is smart. Oh, he’s sitting in that corner, he’s writing.” Now, I might’ve been writing awful things about them, but I was writing. And so my parents are now like, “how do we do this? How is this our faith that you are a poet?” And I’m like, “You kept telling me I was smart! You liked that when I was—”
Laura (10:58): Yeah. “You kept encouraging it.” Have they read your books?
Jericho (11:05): I hope not. They have, they’ve never said anything to me about… I think they read… my mom read some poems once and she was just so disappointed. I was like, “oh, you don’t like them?” She’s like, “I don’t know why you would say that about your family.” And I said, “Mama, did I say something that wasn’t true?”
Laura (11:23): That’s the problem though.
Jericho (11:31): She read a few poems… when I was in grad school I thought I had put everything away, but I think there were some poems out, maybe there was 40, who knows? But other than that… I don’t sit in them books when books come out or anything like that. And I think that’s what’s best for us. I don’t need them to write my poems just like they don’t need me to be in the middle of their lives. I don’t take my mom and dad to work with me. I don’t think anybody else does either. So I just think you get a lot more done at work if you don’t take your parents with you.
Laura (12:15): That is a good tagline.
Jericho (12:17): Unless you have a family business, I guess.
Laura (12:20): All right, all right. I stand corrected.
Jericho (12:20): But I just tell my family business.
Laura (12:27): I can agree to that, Oh my God. Well, so I’m curious. You mentioned songs, you mentioned learning rhymes and things like that from music. But I’m curious, when it comes to poetry, at least for me, I’d say that everything can kind of be tracked to that first moment of inspiration. And that first moment that one kind of sees themselves represented in a word, a phrase, a song, anything, a character. So I’m curious, was it music that was the first time you saw yourself kind of represented in language or in spirit? Or were there shows, were there films or songs or poems that you connected with or identified with initially?
Jericho (13:19): I actually think it was all of those things. I think it was really good for me to have been brought up in the Black church and to hear my pastor preach and to be aware of the fact that words were made for emotions. And that, that was very open. So my pastor, the Reverend Harry Blake, would say things and people in the audience would react. And depending on what he said there would be a different reaction. And depending on how he said it, there would be a different reaction. Sometimes he could say the same thing three times in a row, and that would get a reaction.
Jericho (13:57): And so there was always… and then you know there were the choirs, there was music, there were always plays. There were always things for me to see. And because of that, I understood that you could take these things that seem intangible and make them tangible to the heart of the human being listening. I understood that you could make these things that seem intangible and yet ignite the imagination of the person who was viewing them. And I knew I wanted to do that. I didn’t understand that that meant being a poet. But I was amazed by it. Even as a kid, I was like, “Oh, these people are shouting and he just stood up and talked.” I was like, “Wow, I want to stand up and talk!”
Laura (14:50): Fantastic. And that repetition that you mentioned. You were like, when he said something three times, it got a different reaction than saying it once or saying it quietly versus shouting it. And that’s so much in poetry and it’s not, for me at least, so much in like fiction or memoir or things like that. Poetry really lends itself to that, in my opinion.
Jericho (15:12): Music was really important. I come from a family… if Gladys Knight was on TV, there would be a shout through the house, “Gladys Knight on TV!” And then everybody in the house, it’d be my grandmother’s house or my house, it didn’t matter whose house, I could be at my friend’s house. And people are watching the TV to see what Gladys Knight was doing on TV. And she was singing. I said, “Wow, all these people are just standing here to watch Gladys Knight sing?” You know what I mean? So I’m intrigued and why? Because something about that wakes us up. Something about that reminds us, something about that allows us to feel whatever emotions we have and to be 100% awake in the midst of those emotions. And that’s what I think about art. That’s what I think about poetry. Poetry asks us to be conscious of our emotions without running away, right? The world asks us to be conscious of our emotion, to be unconscious of our emotions. If we have a moment of consciousness to put it aside, right? But poetry tells us, we know this, even before we start reading a poem. I sometimes feel bad for poetry, cause it’s like the lowest in terms of monetary capitalistic payoff.
Laura (16:39): Absolutely.
Jericho (16:39): It carries the heaviest burden. Cause when somebody encounters a poem and they get to the first line, when they’re reading the poem, they have an expectation. They want to know. This is also why a lot of people, especially for poem is somehow subtle. People are like, “Wait, what? What was I supposed to get? What did I miss wait?” Cause there’s huge weight… And it’s so funny. You know, people watch dance, people look at abstract art. And nobody freaks out. You know what I’m saying? People watch all kinds or experience all kinds of art, not needing a one-to-one. Right? But when it comes to poetry, people are like, “Give me what I need!”
Laura (17:27): “How do I decode? How do I decode? Where is the manual?” Yeah. Well, I have one more question for you. Actually two but one before two. I know, right? It’s getting crazy over here. So you won the Pulitzer. Everybody’s asking you, I know everybody’s asking you to do a lot cause it comes to my inbox. And you’re saying yes to so many things, you’re being so generous with your time. But I’m curious, how do you manage to hold on to space for yourself, for your writing, for your health while being asked to do all of these things that coincide with this huge prize or book or just moment? Is this a conscious thing that you’re setting? Like one hour I can do this or two hours I can do this and that’s all. Or is it just kind of, I don’t know. I’m just really curious, how do you handle something like that?
Jericho (18:39): Well, discipline is the answer. “No” is a discipline. Just like time management. Understanding that I don’t have to do everything that I’m asked to do. I’m still probably doing too much, but I’m getting better. I mean, the wonderful thing is I have said more between May and December/January, I’d say more between May and January, than I have in my whole life. I’ve never said “no” before. I just didn’t think it was an option. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I would have what people think of as recognition if I were a person who had been willing to say “no.” And I think up until winning the Pulitzer, I was much more a person who really would just work himself to death. And I think I’ve gotten better because I had no choice. I think I’ve gotten better at not working myself to death.
Jericho (19:57): This one of the things I was talking about earlier, when I said I missed writing The Tradition. I was writing The Tradition along with everything else that was expected of me. And I’m a person who’s pretty big on responsibility and doing what I say I’m going to do and trying to do it well, trying to do it the best I possibly can. So, I think one of the things that I always had that the Pulitzer has asked me to really put in full effect is not just the discipline to say no, but the discipline to have a time for myself, where I am in prayer, meditation, in affirmation, which I do daily. And something about that helps, something about doing that helps to organize everything else. Just that when I do finally log in to the emails, which I appreciate you getting, when I do finally get all the emails you send back to me, I have a better idea of what’s important and what’s not.
Jericho (21:03): And just like I said the other day, I’ll try to end it at night. At night I’ll watch an episode of The Golden Girls, which seems silly but I find that if I watch an episode of The Golden Girls at night, then I can just go to bed and not hold on… I was doing this thing before where I would have a hard time falling asleep. And I realized, “Oh, Jericho, you have a hard time falling asleep because you refuse to let go.” It’s much easier-
Laura (21:31): Oh my God.
Jericho (21:34): After I’ve watched Blanche and Dorothy read each other, and just be delighted only. I have some laughs. I think laughter’s really important. I really think it’s so interesting, maybe everybody laughs at least once a day, but what would happen if we’ve made our laughter more purposeful? And so what I decided to do at the onset of this pandemic is to plan my laughter, and to be purposeful about my laughter as I am about my writing or as I am about my grading or meeting with students or anything else, or even just being here with you, anything else.
Jericho (22:24): I need to make sure that I have really guffawed. I have really just lost it before I get in bed at night. Because why have a day without… I mean we could make a plan to, we know what makes each of us laugh so we could make a plan to laugh every day. So that’s part, I think of what I’ve been doing.
Laura (22:49): We all need to stop what we’re doing and plan our laughs. I love that. I love that. I was, walking on the street the other day and I saw, cause we’re all wearing masks these days, I saw this girl in her car without a mask on, obviously cause she’s in her car. And she was on the phone and she was cracking up, laughing on the phone. And I realized, I hadn’t seen somebody laugh in a really long time because we’re all wearing these masks and it just brought me, I don’t know her or anything like that, but it brought me such joy to pass by a car and see somebody totally cracking up. And so I believe in the power of laughter for sure. It changes things.
Jericho (23:36): It’s beautiful to see and it’s beautiful to feel. Yeah.
Laura (23:40): Well, before we go, will you maybe read us a poem either from one of your poems, somebody else’s poem and maybe give… Yeah, go ahead.
Jericho (23:53): My favorite poet lately has been a poet named Yesenia Montilla. So I’ll read a new poem by her. It’s a poem called “a brief meditation on breath.”
i have diver’s lungs from holding
my breath for so long. i promise you
i’m not trying to break a record.
sometimes, i just forget to
exhale. my shoulders held tightly
near my neck. i am a ball of tense
living, a tumbleweed with steel-toed
boots. i can’t remember the last time
i felt light as a dandelion. i can’t remember
the last time i took the sweetness in
and my diaphragm expanded into song.
they tell me breathing is everything,
meaning if i breathe right, i can live to be
ancient. i’ll grow a soft furry tail or be
telekinetic, something powerful enough
to heal the world. i swear, i thought
the last time i’d think of death with breath
was that balmy day in july, when the cops
became a raging fire and sucked the breath
out of Garner. But yesterday i walked
38 blocks to my father’s house with a mask
over my nose and mouth, the sweat dripping
off my chin only to get caught in fabric & pool up
like rain. & i inhaled small spurts of me, little
particles of my dna. i took into my body my own self
and thought i’d die from so much exposure
to my own bereavement- they’re saying
this virus takes your breath away, not
like a mother’s love or like a good kiss
from your lover’s soft mouth, but like the police.
It can kill you fast or slow; dealer’s choice.
a pallbearer carrying your body without a casket.
they say it’s so contagious, it could be quite
breathtaking. So persistent, it might as well
be breathing down your neck—
Ain’t that good?
Laura (26:08): Oh my God.
Jericho (26:10): I think she’s really great. I think she’s always been really good by doing some really fantabulous work in these poems I’ve been seeing come up over the very last few years. So I’m really excited for her and I’m completely jealous. And I think people should look that poem up and look up other of her work and buy her books she’s written.
Laura (26:33): I agree. I love that poem. And thank you for reading it. I love hearing that out loud. The repetition of breath just, it’s a lot. Well, thank you, Jericho. I appreciate you taking your time and being here and just being such a great guest and thank you everybody at home for watching and we will see you next time.
Line / Break with Copper Canyon Press joins a vibrant community of programming bringing poets and their readers together—including fellow Line Breaks! We want to give a shout-out to the Young Writers Project podcast, the poetry book club at Malvern Books, the Line Break Reading series in Chicago, and The Poetry School podcast in the UK.