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Jericho Brown Takes on Tradition

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Poet Jericho Brown won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection “The Tradition.” The poems are vivid works of beauty and agony – each word delivered with a strong sense of urgency. Brown breaks down the process behind writing the collection’s titular poem, “The Tradition,” and the many layers of his ever-changing consciousness that inspired its creation.

Joe Skinner: I’m walking to the Brooklyn Public Library at Prospect Park here in New York. I just had a conversation with poet, Jericho Brown, and he compelled me to go visit my local library. So here I am.

Jericho Brown: I felt this when I was seven years old, Joe. I would be sitting in a library reading a book of poems, and when I was a kid falling in love with poetry, I remember it like yesterday. I remember reading Langston Hughes and thinking I could hear it. I wasn’t moving my lips.

Joe Skinner: I am at the library now, for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I love it here. I will say – it’s easier to hear the words come out of these books when it’s so quiet. Jericho Brown was a young boy in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he encountered poets like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes at his local library. One of the poems he found, by Hughes, is titled “My People.”

Jericho Brown: The night is beautiful, so the faces of my people. The Stars are beautiful, so the eyes of my people. Beautiful also is the sun. Beautiful also, are the souls of my people. That’s it.

Langston Hughes is crazy. Like he’s so good. It makes you angry. I really want to fight this man. “The stars are beautiful.” Like, what? Why is that so great? I mean, there are a few reasons why it’s so great actually, but part of the reason it’s great is because of sound. Somehow or another, the sounds of poetry, the rhymes in poetry, the consonants, the alliteration, if we’re doing it well, if we’re doing it right, we hear them, even though nobody’s speaking, we are moved by sound from reading the words.

Part of it does have to do with meaning and deep meaning and various meanings of a single word, but also just – what does it sound like? And does that music attract us? Does it bring pleasure? Does it make us want to see or know more? When I have a sound that I’m making early on in a poem that becomes the hinge.

Joe Skinner: I’m Joe Skinner, this is American Masters: Creative Spark. In each episode, we bring you the story of how one work of art came to exist, in the artist’s own words. Today’s focus: Jericho Brown on the making of his poem, “The Tradition.”

“The Tradition” is the title poem from a collection that won Jericho Brown the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2020. So how do the words show up for him and transform into something that can move people emotionally? Did it appear like lightning one day? How does this happen?

Jericho Brown: I don’t remember where I was sitting – probably on one of these couches in this house. When I sit down at first, I’m anxious to fail. The first time I write something down I can be rest assured that it’ll be pretty awful. So because of that, I’m free to mess up because I have all the time in the world to fix it. In the case of “The Tradition,” I sat down and I just wrote what I thought in that moment.

Joe Skinner: Brown is the director of the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. From his perspective, as a professor, Brown says “only our honesty is what progresses poetry.”

Jericho Brown: So I’m really just first writing for me. I’m trying to express. And I think the final outcome of art is not expression, but I do think you can begin there. I think if you express enough, you can create the language necessary that will lead to art.

Joe Skinner: It’s with this aim that he shares an early draft of “The Tradition.” Only it wasn’t called “The Tradition” just yet.

Jericho Brown: Somehow or another, I clearly didn’t have a title for it. So I just called it “2014” because I didn’t know what to call it. And I didn’t, um, I didn’t care because I knew I had time. I could call it something else sometime.

Joe Skinner: Brown’s early draft runs 27 lines long – almost twice the length of his final poem, full of earthy imagery of flowers, and heat. Here’s that draft, in full:

Jericho Brown:
2014
That summer we learned the names
Of flowers strong enough to take
Heat and light and all elements
Classical philosophers thought
Could change us.  They seemed to bloom
Against the will of the sun, which was—
According to news reports—warmer
On our planet than the sun guilty
Of sweat our fathers once wiped
From their necks and foreheads.
Baby’s Breath.  Bird of Paradise.  We
Had nerve enough to say names
As if our fingers in the dirt meant
It was our dirt.  Cockscomb.  Cosmos.
Earth hotter than ever, men like me
And my brothers took daily video
Of the garden we planted and sped
It faster to see blossoms brought
In seconds.  Star Gazer.  Foxglove.
Names like prophecy on our tongues
All summer.  Eric Garner.  John Crawford.
Mike Brown.  Such color bright before
Our weeping eyes:  orange, lilac, red,
And black.  Then, to hit our lessons
Home, somebody showed us how
Simply, a dark flower—because it is
A dark flower—can be cut down.

Jericho Brown: So I’m in one state in a first draft or an early draft, where I want to get everything down. And if I’m getting everything down that means even I don’t know what it’s saying, even I don’t know what’s important, even I don’t understand all of its images or all of its language. And because of that, when I come back to it I start asking it questions. Who is your speaker? And I read the poem trying to see if there is evidence of a personality. Is there evidence of a biography? Is there something that I know about this person that even they didn’t know they were telling me.

Joe Skinner: You can see evidence of Jericho Brown’s own biography in the images that find their way into his early draft of the poem.

Jericho Brown: My dad cut yards for a living. He said he had a landscaping service. My mom used to say he had a yard business. Well actually she said “yahd bidness.” And I, I just thought we cut yards, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs) And that was my life. I got out of school and I got on the back of the truck and we went all around the Shreveport-Bossier area in Louisiana and we cut people’s yards and they paid us and that’s how my parents were able to afford food for us and to buy us clothes.

Joe Skinner: Names of flowers are peppered throughout Brown’s early draft – foxglove, cosmos, cockscomb, bird of paradise, baby’s breath.

Jericho Brown: Because my dad planted flowers for us, but also for other people, I learned the names of flowers and I figured out what I thought was, as he would say, “purdy,” and there was a deep satisfaction, in planting things for people and watching them grow, over the weeks, going back and forth and seeing the things that you plant thrive.

Joe Skinner: Jericho Brown’s father appears in some of his poems, described in complicated terms. In “Prayer of the Backhanded,” he writes about palms, broomsticks, and an extension cord – all instruments of physical abuse. In past interviews, Brown has described his family with love and affection, despite some challenging differences in their values: His father’s religious convictions are in direct conflict with Brown’s sexuality and identity as a gay man.

Jericho Brown: When I was growing up, I thought the worst thing a person could be was gay. I thought, you know, well, that’s just the end. You’re no longer a human being. You know what I mean? Which means I thought that about myself. I thought I was the worst thing you could be. Do you know what I’m saying? (Laughs) Obviously that has changed over the years. Maybe even five years ago, I was actually thinking, “oh, that’s the best thing you can be, like that that’s the gift, you know, lucky people!”

Joe Skinner: These kinds of changes and evolutions come to mind for Jericho when he considers the thought process behind his early draft of the poem.

Jericho Brown:  I think I was thinking about my own consciousness, the ways in which I have changed over the years, and I was thinking about what in my life could possibly change even more.

Joe Skinner: He digs through layers of unfettered expression compiled into 27 lines, to find what he’s looking for in his draft.

Jericho Brown: Perfection can only be made if you have raw materials, you know, so I’m using the raw materials and I say, “who is your speaker?” I say, “what is your location? What is your occasion? Why are you so mad right here? What is this tone about? What is this line about?” And I’m asking that of the poem.

Joe Skinner: And from here he sculpts his poem. Brown picks apart his draft, beat by beat.

Jericho Brown: “That summer, we learned the names of flowers, strong enough to take heat and light and all elements, classical philosophers thought could change us.” It seems really prose-y to me really situational, so that’s sort of easy for me to cut, you know, I want poems to be everlasting. I want a moment to seem like all the moments.

Joe Skinner: 2014 and all signs of narrative, start to find their way out of the work.

Jericho Brown: “They seem to bloom against the wheel of the sun, which was, em-dash, according to news reports, em-dash warmer on our planet and the sun guilty, the sun guilty of sweat, our fathers once wiped from their necks and foreheads.” So all of that is really a matter of image. Part of what I’m doing when I get to those moments is I’m trying to pull it out of its prosaic nature and keep the images.

Then there’s a shift, probably because I didn’t know what to say next, when I don’t know what to say next in a poem, I just say whatever I think. “Baby’s breath, bird of paradise.” And that’s probably just me thinking very quickly, “Okay Jericho, name some damn flowers.”

Joe Skinner: Flowers are a recurring theme in this early draft. For Brown, they become a tool for layering in meaning and value; a way for him to bring cosmic, classical and tender language into the poem.

Jericho Brown: You see baby’s breath you have to think of a baby. I’m interested in ways that I can introduce other elements into the poem to literally expand the mind of the reader. And so that’s why I choose things like aster, things like cosmos. Flowers that point to the fact of the earth as a planet among planets.

Joe Skinner: These flowers also become a tool for marking a chapter break.

Jericho Brown:  It became clear to me that the names of the flowers would interrupt the poem at points. And they would be a way for me to shift the lens. Whatever words I give you between the names of flowers are one scene. And then you get the name of a flower, and then you get another scene. And then you get the names of those flowers, and then you get another scene.

Joe Skinner: Jericho Brown continues to walk through each line of his early draft of “The Tradition.” He approaches a climactic scene that would come to define what he has searched for in his poem – the shift into this moment begins with two more flowers.

Jericho Brown: “Stargazer, foxglove.” The “star,” the “Z” in –gazer, the “X” sound and “glove” allowing for a little bit of, of consonance and alliteration. “Names like prophecy on our tongues all summer.” Why am I talking about the summer again in this poem? And, “Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown.” I don’t think I knew that I was writing about them until I say their names.

And I had run out of flowers that I could just think of off the top of my head. It was then that I said, “oh, what are they doing here?” I thought I was just sort of writing, you know, about the planet maybe, about, you know, quite literally about my own front and backyard.

Archival of Protestors: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

News Reporter: A cell phone video of officer Daniel Pantaleo reaching around Garner’s neck and wrestling him to the ground is still shocking to watch.

Archival of Man on the Street: You don’t kill a man for selling cigarettes.

Archival of 2nd Man on the Street: 11 times, he said “I cannot breathe.”

Archival of Protestors: Hand’s up! Don’t shoot.

Jericho Brown: I really just wanted to figure out, what did I say that was important? And the answer to that question was really easy, because in the earliest draft of this poem, I mentioned the names Mike Brown, Eric Garner and John Crawford.

Archival of Speech: Don’t forget the name John Crawford the Third. He was killed at the biggest retailer in the world.

News Reporter: The decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson over the death of 18-year old Michael Brown has once again inflamed one of America’s great sensitivities about race, justice and how it is applied.

2nd News Reporter: A grand jury did not indict a white New York police officer who put 43-year old African-American Eric Garner in a choke hold last July and helped hold him down while he shouted, “I can’t breathe” over and over, and then he died.

Jericho Brown: Those three deaths the year before – it wasn’t the first time I had experienced those kinds of murders via police brutality and police violence. I do think it was the first time that I reckoned with my own experiences with police officers. Often we have, things that go on in our lives that we think of as just a part of life. We don’t think about changing them or getting rid of them because they’ve been with us in our entire lives. And I think that’s my relationship to police. And I think that relationship began to change after the protests.

Archival of Protests: Who polices the police? Who polices the police? Who polices the police?

Jericho Brown: Something in me did want to put that change of understanding my own relationship to police into language. I suddenly begin to understand that when a police officer threw me over my car when I was leaving a bar one night or when a police officer followed me into my driveway for no reason, or when police would terrorize us, you know, we were kids playing. Just terrorize us. At one point in my life, I remember that as a part of my life. And then suddenly I understood that is absolute 100% abuse. Abuse of power, and abuse of my literal body, you know what I mean?

And so I’m writing down language and then as I write the language down, I begin to understand, oh, this is about X. So this is part of what I mean, when I talk about discovering what you have to say, through the language itself. After I had that early draft, I understood, I have said these names. And so that’s what this poem has to be about.

It’s somehow really sad that anything should be gained from an unnecessary death. You know, I’m here gaining consciousness and somebody’s lost their father. Somebody’s lost their brother, somebody’s lost their son. Do you know what I mean? It’s not worth it actually.

Joe Skinner: As the subject of Brown’s piece clarifies, so too does its structure, now taking shape around the deaths of these three men.

Jericho Brown: The next time I look at the poem I’m working on how to make this their poem. I think something about that decision led to them not appearing until the very end of the poem. And then, because they appear at the end hopefully you understand that they’ve been there all along.

Joe Skinner: In the finished poem, Brown begins with the names of three flowers: “Aster, Nasturtium, Delphinium.” And he ends the poem with the three names: “John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown.”

Jericho Brown:  I realize I couldn’t really say anything, after I said those names, that was of value. They are the moment in the poem that most surprised me as I was writing the early draft. And so I imagine they will be the moment in the poem that most surprised the reader.

Joe Skinner: Upon arriving at a final draft, “The Tradition” takes shape in the sonnet format – it’s now down to 14 lines that follow a strict rhyme scheme and structure.

Jericho Brown: I was aware that a sonnet is short, it’s only 14 lines. And yet I had a lot to say within the sonnet and I wanted the sonnet because I wanted to get rid of everything in the earlier draft that sounded like prose and pushing it toward the form in that way would allow that.

Joe Skinner: One of the first things you might think of when you see the word “sonnet” is William Shakespeare. The poetic form is rooted in a long history that dates back all the way to the 13th century. It is one of many sign posts that led Brown towards his decision to title his poem, “The Tradition.”

Jericho Brown: I was asking questions about the history of what we think of as good. We think of the sonnet as the achievement of the poet’s work. You know, if you can write a good sonnet, you must be a good poet. Or so we’re told. And then obviously John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, their deaths, their murders seem to be me, outcomes of a tradition. I sort of sit around thinking, what can I call this poem that nails it down and opens it up at the same time? What can I call this poem that lends itself to the reading of the poem, without telling everybody what to read in the poem?

Joe Skinner: Brown decides “The Tradition” should be the title for not just this poem, but the entire collection as well.

Jericho Brown: I feel about this poem, that it was a door opener. I feel like it allowed me to see the possibility of making the other poems that appeared in this book. It was important that I titled the whole book after this poem.

Joe Skinner: With his title now in place, and a clear sense of resolve, Jericho Brown arrives at his final poem. Here it is, in full.

Jericho Brown:
“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.
Foxglove.
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.

Joe Skinner: Thank you to Jericho Brown for his interview, and for inviting us into his creative process. Join us for more episodes weekly, as we continue to look into how artists make their work.

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