By Frank Harder
For Jericho Brown, poetry is laced with doubt. The poet should remain vulnerable, frightened even, in the midst of writing. Each line break drives the poet further into uncertainty. Ironically, Brown feels most whole when thinking in lines. The process he suggested to young poets during his April 21 Visiting Writers craft talk at George Mason involves listening and riffing, relying on reflex and intuition. With this musician’s curiosity, sounds grow to have personality. For Brown, music and aesthetics—an appealing voice, tone, or arresting image—supercedes meaning. He might tell you a poem “needs more bass,” though he’d be pressed to tell you what exactly that means.
Brown, a name which is currently buzzing in the small but fervent poetry world, is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Brown is the author of two books: the musically-driven Please (New Issues 2008), recipient of the 2009 American Book Award for Poetry, and The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), which recently won the 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award and received high praise from Library Journal, Coldfront, and The Academy of American Poets.
Brown’s advice to young poets was both energetic and organic during his craft talk. He selected readings from two of his essays, pausing only to clarify where his opinions on a subject had changed or complicated, and followed by opening himself up to our nervous questioning. It was this openness that kept us rapt in attention, the air of tension that characteristically surrounds a celebrity poet of Brown’s stature quickly dispelled, and the conversation livened. Listening to him speak, I sensed that the personal lies at the crux of Brown’s craft, even if the personal is a performance. Performance is closer to the self that one might think, as it keeps the speaker vulnerable in relation to his audience. “The artist’s answer is always risk,” Brown said in a tone of amused experience. “Faith keeps us breathing.”
For Brown, uncertainty drives the process. Take his poem spoken in the voice of Janis Joplin, “Track 5: Summertime” from Please. The lines “So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl/I’m such an ugly girl” didn’t initially come to him direct from the mouth of Joplin. Rather, they were lines he could eagerly get behind, but had to figure out who might say them. As chance would have it, he had Joplin on his mind. Brown’s collage-like process of sorting through lines can be obsessive, and in describing it, he inadvertently answered the one question that many writers fuss over: “Do I need to write every day?” Brown does, he acknowledged, though he distinguished between writing something every day from writing a poem every day. In a span of 3-5 years, he said, you’re bound to write about only a limited amount of obsessions. Books can arise from bringing together these obsessions, attending to and even fostering them. “Be complete in what you want to do and go all the way,” Brown said.