Whose Words These Are (5): Jericho Brown

In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jericho Brown. (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Jericho Brown was born and raised in Shreveport, but did his growing-up in New Orleans. Library daycare introduced him to Shelley’s love poetry; the black church introduced him to call-and-response testimony and poetic performance. Fresh out of Dillard University, Jericho wrote speeches for New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. But poetry kept calling. In his new book, Please, Jericho channels the powerful voices of the great girl singers of pop — Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Minnie Riperton and others — to write his unique strain of love poetry. Jericho teaches poetry at UC San Diego; he is spending this year in Boston, as a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Q: Give us a signature poem.

A: “Track 5: Summertime, as performed by Janis Joplin.”

Q: How do you see yourself in the great poetic chain of being?

A: I always hope to be the love child of T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes. [They] had my aunts Lucille Clifton and Louise Glück raise me, and then I got old enough I went to a college with only one teacher: Jean Valentine.

Q: Who lives in your poetic neighborhood now?

A: Katie Peterson. Dawn Lundy Martin. James Allen Hall.

Q: Who are the ancestors you have to live up to?

A: Langston Hughes. When I write and do the things I do all day everyday I wonder if he would be proud. Are these the things he would patron in any way? His essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was freeing for me. His legacy is one I aspire to everyday.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other mediums?

A: Daniel Minterlook at his images. He is amazing. I hope that my poems sound like what Daniel Minter’s art looks like.

Q: What talent do you covet that you don’t have, yet?

A: Singing.

Q: Who are your favorite singers?

A: Donny Hathaway. Freddie Jackson, Jeffery Osborne. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross. I like singers who have a story attached to their singing. Not just biography, but a story.

Q: What’s the keynote of your character as a poet?

A: My favorite color is orange. I try to get that color out in all of my poems.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “The world is ugly but it is our job to make it sexy.”

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