Jericho Brown ponders the current moment in Decatur Book Festival keynote

By Susan Carini | Emory Report | Sept. 9, 2020

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Jericho Brown, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and director of Emory’s Creative Writing Program, opened the 2020 Decatur Book Festival in a virtual conversation that touched on his identity as a poet, creativity during the pandemic and more.

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Calling the Decatur Book Festival his “favorite holiday,” Jericho Brown headlined the festival’s keynote session on Friday, Sept. 4, which had the feel of Christmas morning despite being presented virtually. 

Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for “The Tradition,” Brown is Emory’s Winship Distinguished Research Professor in Creative Writing and director of the Creative Writing Program.

Brown fielded questions from Mathwon Howard, associate vice president for development at Yale University and former senior associate vice president for advancement programs at Emory. By their playfulness and ease with one another, the two men lifted the conversation above the usual limits of online platforms even as the session drew much of its subject matter from the strange way we live now. 

Asked how this period of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his creativity, Brown admitted that, in one sense, he is where he lands after each book — a state he describes as “waiting for the muses to speak to me again. It takes a while for the well to fill back up.” 

Brown’s first two books of poetry were “Please” (2008), which garnered the American Book Award, and “The New Testament” (2014), winner of the Anisfeld-Wolf Book Award. Previously the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Brown was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry.

A poet “by identity”

It won’t surprise Brown’s readers to know how core his life as a poet is to him, but he brought new detail to that idea, noting, “I long ago disciplined my life around the idea that the poet came first. I am only a professor because I am a poet.” And he described paying it forward by “calling my students poets so that they can begin to see themselves that way.” 

Like a lot of writers, Brown chides himself for not writing enough and is in turn chided by those close to him for writing all the time. He acknowledges that “everything that I am reading, all the art that I am observing, the news I see — all of that is going to where I will need it when it is time to make a poem.”

Somehow the arrival of a finished poem, even at this mature stage of Brown’s career, often is unexpected. “As silly as it might sound to say,” Brown says, “most of my work occurs over time and I look up and see, oh, I have a poem.” 

On productivity in a pandemic

For Brown, the era of coronavirus has been fruitful not so much for the volume of writing he has done but for what he describes as the “opportunity for silence” created by our retreat from one another. He likened it to the opening of the seventh seal in the Book of Revelation and the fact that 30 minutes of silence in heaven followed. 

During the pandemic, he has caught up on prayer and meditation. These tools, according to Brown, help him better understand two important questions: “What do I see when I look at the world and what do I see when I look at myself?”

From the time the virus struck, he observes, as a society “we were trying to figure out how to restart things, how to get back to work and keep going when obviously the planet was telling us to slow down. 

“What do you do when you slow down and stop?” he asks. “For me, as a poet, maybe it is easier. You think, you reflect, you meditate. I have tried to use the time to become closer to the ‘higher self,’ which is always my aim and part of what I want through my poems.”

Learning despite distance

Brown honestly addressed the challenges of teaching at this time, saying, “What I enjoyed about classroom teaching was seeing the light bulbs go off in person. When you are talking to young people, there is an energy in that room. You can’t touch it, but it is there. I miss that.”

As he now juggles screen sharing with trying to read his students’ faces, Brown credits them with “meeting me at any point where I might falter.” And they keep him laughing. 

For instance, his students are asked to memorize and recite seven lines of poetry in class. Online, he acknowledges, it’s difficult to know if someone has the lines propped up beside their computer and is reading from them. Wanting to assure him on this score, his students took their face coverings and put them over their eyes before reciting their lines.

Calling students “the heroes of this moment” and the source of his “greatest lessons,” Brown also described how they keep his scholarship broad. He recalls being in graduate school and being able to read all contemporary Latin poets because there weren’t that many.

“Now, by contrast,” he says, “contemporary poetry has grown far and wide, beyond what I ever imagined. My students need to be influenced by what might not influence me. For their sake, I have to stay capacious, stay open to poets outside my aesthetic.”

Racial reckoning

To Howard’s comment, “It has been a hell of a year to be a Black person,” Brown referenced history, saying, “Even if you are writing well about race, you are not saying anything that wasn’t said by 1965. The period 1865 to 1965 was the hundred years to get it all out.”

Brown acknowledges, though, that he and so many other artists keep formulating new answers to old questions. For instance, his poem “Bullet Points” — which he read along with a handful of other recent work — was written to honor people such as Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African American woman who hanged herself in a Texas jail cell in 2015, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop. In Brown’s words, the poem was his answer to “the supposed suicides of people of color while in police custody.” The greatest compliment “Bullet Points” ever received, he said, was from the artist Titus Kaphar, who considers it a poem that every Black person should carry in their wallet. 

Whether it is the state of race in the country or another fraught subject, Brown says that “poems allow me to fix ideas and emotions that seem unfixable. At least for that moment that I am writing, the chaos in the world feels a little more like an order.” 

Though fully acknowledging this “hell of a year,” as Howard termed it, Brown still believes that “what we have in common does not have to be our oppression.” Indeed, he encouraged taking refuge in what he called “something pure,” like the music of Al Green. 

The Pulitzer party that will be

Howard asked Brown if receiving a Pulitzer in a pandemic made it possible “truly to experience the honor.” Brown’s answer was yes and no.

On the one hand, as a result of winning the prize, the New York Times Book Review asked him in June, along with poet Claudia Rankine of Yale University, to write a poem capturing the moment. As the editor, Pamela Paul, wrote: “This may be the first time the Book Review has done this in its 124-year history. . . . But these are not ordinary times.” Brown produced “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.”

Its closing lines read:

The people who work at the grocery don’t care.

They say, Thank you. They say, Sorry,

We don’t sell motor oil anymore with a grief so thick

You could touch it. Go on. Touch it.

It is early. It is late. They have washed their hands.

They have washed their hands for you.

And they take the bus home.

Says Brown, “Hopefully that poem does something for someone else. Poems matter in ways that we poets are unaware of, going out there and doing really amazing things.”

But as much glory as the New York Times Book Review confers, Brown is not done riding the wave. In a fair warning to subsequent winners of the Pulitzer Prize, he announced, “When we can get back in the world again, I am going to celebrate my Pulitzer as if I got it yesterday.”

If the keynote has put you in a bookish mood, don’t miss the remaining Decatur Book Festival events sponsored by Emory.