ITHACA, N.Y.—On Sept. 23, Ithaca College commenced its autumn Distinguished Visiting Writers Series with a reading by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown. While the reading took place live in The Handwerker Gallery, a portion of attendees who could not be physically present accessed the reading through Zoom.
Brown began the reading with poems from his first work, Please. “Where I’m from, we always begin with ‘Prayer,’” Brown said. He then began reading “Prayer of the Backhanded,” a poem with allusions to his Christian upbringing in Louisiana, and his tense relationship between himself, God, and his father.
Other poems read from Please included “Autobiography,” a collection of quotes Brown had heard from his church community. These quotes, when put together, were tragically ironic, exposing how no level of Christian faith could shield people from treating one another cruelly.
“N’em” was another poem that followed. Its title is a colloquialism that refers to people, and others associated with that person (“and them”). Brown’s poem took the term and showed how it could be used to regard everyone, but in regarding everyone the identity of the individual is forgotten, ending with the line, “People like me forgot their names.”
Brown then proceeded to read from his newest volume of poetry, The Tradition, a volume that was the finalist of the 2019 National Book Award, and 2020 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. It explores how society, particularly Black America, reacts and interacts with terrors that are unfortunately commonplace.
The first poem read from The Tradition was “Bullet Points,” a tribute to victims of police brutality that were said to have committed suicide. However, the fact that they were handcuffed or otherwise unable to wield a firearm renders the idea of suicide implausible. Instead, it exposes the magnitude of the abuse and injustice law enforcement is capable of inflicting.
The next poem read from The Tradition was “Homeland,” a poem inspired by the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy, in which Gates, a Black professor, was arrested when police accused him of breaking into a home—in reality, Gates lived at the house and had lost his keys. President Barack Obama commented on the incident, angering all parties involved, and tried to compensate by inviting both Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for a beer.
A beer cannot remedy centuries of racism in a nation. “Homeland” delves into the feeling of displacement that African American males feel daily. Stereotyping and other forms of socially ingrained discrimination are the very reason why controversies such as Gates’ are commonplace, even when they shouldn’t be.
Brown concluded his reading with love poems. “Heart Condition” gave insight into the perspective of a queer Black man. An extended metaphor was drawn, comparing his relationship with his lover on opposite coasts to that of his relationship with himself, of carrying Africa and America in both birth and blood.
In the final stanza of “Heart Condition” Brown states, “I don’t want the world. I only want/African sense of American sound. Him. Touching.” He concludes the final stanza with, “I am here to love you uncomfortable,” suggesting a more compassionate approach to uncertainties faced in establishing identity.
The severity of the reading lightened when Brown made a confession. “I like poetry more than anything, except one thing. The only thing I love more than poetry is cuddling.” Following this confession was chortling from the audience. Brown then read “Stand,” a poem that featured himself and a lover cuddling, acknowledging that in that peaceful moment there would simultaneously be someone else facing injustice. Yet in that moment of cuddling, Brown in “Stand” describes it “As a political act. I/May as well have/Held myself.”
A Q&A session followed the reading. When asked about his relationship to God, how it has changed over time, and how his sexuality has affected it, Brown initially explained that in childhood, he had an ideal of God that was handed to him. God was a force of punishment. But now, Brown sees that ideal as silly.
“There is a being that runs through everything, and is completely benevolent, and full of love. And suddenly, he’s mad at me? For having great sex? You know what I mean, do you understand what I’m saying? I think I’m able to still have a belief in God because my idea about what God is and what God’s capabilities are and what I am, what my capabilities are, I don’t need to think that the devil did it. If I do something wrong, I did it all on my own, the devil didn’t do anything. I do horrible things that I wish I hadn’t done. I think that’s how that works.”
Writers have a tendency for their work to follow a trajectory that explores common themes. When asked about what Brown noticed about the trajectory of his own work, he initially admitted that while he was open to readers interpreting his journey, he himself would not focus on it.
“I think I have to stay away, honestly, from that kind of thinking about my work. What I do know about my books is that when I finish one I solve, I come to terms with something that was a problem,” Brown said.
He continued, “So in my first book—it seemed to be about old school music in particular, like old R&B and Rock & Roll—but it was really a book about my dad, and figuring out how to come to terms with the fact that he was a fallible human being. After I finished that book, I understood that better and I could have some sense of empathy for him.”
Brown’s work is very autobiographical, vulnerable and succinct. His poetry etches the realities of America’s sociopolitical landscape, and provokes both thought and emotion. Brown’s poems allow readers to easily slip into his perspective, and comprehend both the beauty and the wrongs of the present, with influences of the past undercurrent.
Brown acknowledged that poetry as a form of therapy has its own set of problematic implications, particularly in the classroom—he is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory College.
“I think when I finish a book, I come to some greater understanding of things in my real-world life, which is hard to talk about in university because when you talk about poetry as therapy it gets really dangerous, especially if you look at who some of the poets have been,” he said.
However despite this dissonance between personal and professional life, Brown sticks with his connection to his work as a poet.
“My relationship to poetry, though, is a relationship where I’m doing work and I wouldn’t be a poet if I wasn’t doing that kind of work on myself,” he said.