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'I Want You To Change': Jericho Brown On His New Collection Of Poems, 'The Tradition'

Stephanie Mitchell

At the beginning of 2019, NPR, Publishers Weekly, Lit Hub, and other national media flagged at Jericho Brown's new poetry collection as one to watch. The book was released last week during Brown's visit to Wichita as WSU's 2019 Distinguished Visiting Poet. He stopped by the KMUW studios to talk with Beth Golay about his work.

Interview Highlights

Beth Golay: Your third collection of poems is titled The Tradition. The book is divided into three sections. Is there a significance to that specific division?

Copper Canyon Press

Jericho Brown: Yes. I think the first section has a lot to do with what I think is much more domestic, what can happen in a home; the way one might see the world among his or her family or his or her community. That's sort of how I grouped those poems. The second section has much more to do with the world, the way capitalism oppresses us, real and figurative rape. The third section looks at an individual and some of the instances of that individual's life — ultimately of my life. And by the end of the book, what I hope I do is that I end in a note of celebration and in praise.

The book can be harrowing, but there is something that happens at the end of the book where I want to take the note up; I want to sing a little higher and I want to do some celebration.

So the title of the collection is The Tradition, but it's also the title of one of the sonnets in the collection. Would you mind reading that?

Yeah, I'll read it for you.

"The Tradition"

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

You're shaking your head.

When I give readings I don't read this poem aloud. I think it makes me emotional. I think all of these poems make me emotional to read out loud. This poem in particular does. Maybe it seems that it shouldn't since I wrote it, since I know what's coming, since I know what it's about. There's this moment in this poem when I get to it where I say, "men like me and my brothers," and I just think about how there are people in this country who are really just out here trying to make it. You know? And there are other forces that seem not to understand that. And people like John Crawford and Eric Garner and Mike Brown had to encounter those forces, and it led to their deaths.

I watched a video in which, for Black History Month, you performed and spoke about one of your poems and I wanted to talk about something you said in that video, that you "don't mind if people are uncomfortable because that's where change happens." Is there one poem in this collection that you hope provides the most discomfort?

That's a great question. I don't know if there's one poem because I really think that should be happening poem by poem in a poet's work. If you read a poem and you're not moved in some way — and by moved I don't just mean emotional — I think one of the problems we have is that we have this idea that literature is supposed to make us cry, and that's the end of the story. But if that's the end of the story we don't need literature. I don't just need you to cry. I need you to change. And so when I say "move" I do want you, yes, to be moved emotionally. But I also want you to move your feet, move your body. I want you to change. I think that first comes the emotions, but the emotions — if we have indeed a real emotional reaction — then that is going to affect our minds. We're going to wonder why we're sitting there crying. And when we start answering that question — "Why am I sitting here crying?" — then that should lead to action.

So I don't know if I could single out a ... I wish you would've told me you were going to ask me that, Beth. But I don't know that I could single out one poem that I think of that way. There is this poem called "Entertainment Industry" which is a blues poem. One of the things that I'm interested in is taking what people think of as controversial in this book and showing just how not controversial it is, although it should be. For instance, we have come to a point in this country where we are absolutely accustomed to mass shootings. But the poem makes music and fun out of something that I think is absolutely miserable that we're enduring, and it has become a part of the background of our lives. It's as if, you know, we're having a good time, while this is okay, while there's nothing among us to make this stop.

So those are the kinds of things that I think are happening in the world now that I want the poems to bring our attention to in a new way. And that's what I mean when I say "uncomfortable." Can you look at what you're really doing? And can you continue to accept it?

What should people do now? What kind of action would you like to see after... after they experience your poetry?

This is a great question. Not because... I'll say it this way. I think that has to be different for each person. I think if you read my poems I'd like for you to do what you should do. I think it's also important for me to say that I'm much more interested in an individual than I am in people.

I'm not under the impression that my poems are going to make a whole bunch of people vote for some particular candidate. I'm not under the impression that my poems have to mean for a mass movement of thousands of folk. But I am under the impression that poetry plants itself in a person's heart. And that's all I need; I just need room in a heart. Now if I get room in more than one heart, yay. But if I get room in one heart, then that's the right heart for my poems. And that one heart will make the changes necessary for that one heart's life. At least that's the way I think of it.

Jericho Brown will be reading from his new collection at WSU's Ulrich Museum of Art Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Transcript of the poem "The Tradition" by Jericho Brown was used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Follow Beth Golay on Twitter @BethGolay.

Beth Golay is KMUW's Director of Marketing and Digital Content. She is the host of the KMUW podcast Marginalia and co-host with Suzanne Perez of the Books & Whatnot podcast. You can find her on Wichita Transit in conversation with other riders for En Route, a monthly segment on KMUW's weekly news program The Range.