Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 — Jericho Brown

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?

I’ve been falling in love with this poem all over again and the ways that it shows there are no boundaries separating the personal, the political, the public, the economic, the environmental, and the erotic. “Oh stay at home, lad, and plough,” by A.E. Housman.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too “intense” or “upsetting?”

I probably wouldn’t say anything. If they can’t handle my poetry—which makes all those upsetting intensities musical—then they won’t be able to handle me.

I don’t mean to be everyone’s cup of tea anyway. Different poets speak to different people. I’m blessed with people who go a long way to teach and recommend and review and read my work. And I know there’s always someone fighting for my poems in boardrooms and backrooms that I’ll never see. I appreciate everyone who lets my work do work on them, and I am grateful that they don’t put designs on what I should be doing. They want me to be free to discover how the definition of poetry changes for me as I grow. And they want me to prove those new definitions through my poems. I think about these people who I may never meet and who are yet born much too often to remember that haters exist.

Do you feel that your writing is assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? Does memoir play a role in your poetry?

Of course it’s assumed to be autobiographical. I’m not sure why readers do that, but I know they do. There’s nothing to be done about that, even though they’re sometimes wrong. I make stuff up because that stuff makes poems better. Still, “most” of the events of my poems probably have happened (and happened to me). And every event in my poems has indeed happened somewhere in my mind. But those same events have happened to many other people who wouldn’t be able to write about them and make use of them in poems. Poetry readers aren’t moved because something happened to me. They’re moved because poems move them.

At any rate, each poet must have all of everything at their access while writing: autobiography, imagination, science, all kinds of trivia…

Is there anything in your work that people frequently misunderstand?

So many (white) people’s surprise about the last Presidential election showed me that much of what I’ve written—hell, much of what Ginsberg, Brooks, and Rich wrote—has been taken as entertainment rather than serious prophecy. Readers who are surprised that our country is what it really is have no real respect for what they’ve spent years reading…and I won’t even begin to get into what all this surprise means for what readers must think of contemporary poets of color they claim to love.

What are the best ways to support poets and poetry?

Buy books. Teach them. Talk about them. Quote lines out loud when life situations call for them. Know lines by heart. Try to get the world of poetry in your every day conversation the same way folks think they can talk to you about football or basketball without first asking if you watch football or basketball. Most important, if you are a poet, see it as an identity and do what you believe that identity requires of you. And be proud of it. When people ask you what you do, stop saying you teach at the local college. Tell them you’re a poet.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Never say no.” –Nikki Giovanni

How do you feel about the ongoing debates concerning “writing outside of your identity?”

I’m honestly trying to figure this out. I don’t know. I really just wish white people would talk to one another more often. I think they’d have more to write about if they knew more about themselves. They’re in the poor privileged position of hardly ever having to know anything about themselves. Maybe they wouldn’t feel the need to write in the voices of marginalized voices if they understood how privilege and the ills that come with whiteness makes them another brand of marginalized. They could write about that instead. But right now, white folk still want to argue about the existence of their privilege.

Still, my training taught me that empathy is the answer to any good piece of literature. I believe anything is possible for a poem.

Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Are there any past or contemporary social movements that have affected your poetry? Can poetry be activism?

I’m not sure what it is if it’s not activism. If you read a poem and you don’t see anything differently afterward, then it isn’t a poem or you didn’t read it right.

Has 2017 been different for you than other years?

I’m really making strides at this forgiveness thing. I feel so much lighter because of it. I still have some people on the list, but I’m a better man now that I know forgiveness is a real process that takes work…and now that I feel the benefits of doing that work.

Other than that, I’ve mostly spent the year trying to get over my fear of taking photos and my low body image issues. Telling myself I’m fine is fun and new.


JERICHO BROWN is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Buzzfeed, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Emory University.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for these anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.