Maintaining a Tradition

An Interview with gay poet Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown is a gay poet. Poets are known for their economy of language. That said, as a storyteller (and one telling his own story with a blend of humor and honesty), Brown has a lot to say. The author of two highly regarded poetry collections, “Please” and “The New Testament,” Brown’s latest is the highly anticipated forthcoming “The Tradition” (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), out in April in time for National Poetry Month. What follows is some of what we talked about in advance of the publication of “The Tradition.”

Gregg Shapiro: Jericho, which came first for you, writing poetry or reading books of poetry?

Jericho Brown: This is a great question! Reading poems came first because poems are available to us before we can actually be very good (writers of poems). There are great poems available to you when you are five years old or even before you have speech, maybe! At least to me they were available.

GS: Do you remember what you read or what was read to you?

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JB: I grew up in a black church. There were always occasions for which young people had to get up and recite a Bible verse or something or to sing or to be in this play or that pageant. You can be on the debate or the drill team or the swim team, and you can do this among a series of churches. Everything you can do in the world [laughs], you don’t really have to go to the world to do if you’re in the right church affiliation. I was in that kind of church. If you went on an Easter Sunday to hear young people recite their Easter speeches, you would also hear somebody reciting “Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni or “I, Too” by Langston Hughes or “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.

GS: Something by Gwendolyn Brooks, too?

JB: “We Real Cool” is something that would be recited, though they had no idea what it actually meant or said [laughs]. Those are the kinds of things I was hearing or seeing or reading when I was growing up. Then, when I was in elementary, middle and high school, I spent a lot of time in libraries. I think the idea that rhyme is attractive comes to us very early. When you’re very young you notice and get caught up in the music of rhyme. I know I did. My mother distinctly remembers me walking around the house saying words that rhyme before I was in the first grade. When I could finally write, I was writing lines and poems that I thought were good, that really aren’t that good, and my mom would put them on the refrigerator. The idea of revision wouldn’t come to me until high school.

GS: How did you arrive at the name Jericho Brown?

JB: I was living in New Orleans and I had a great full-time job. When you have a full-time job, you go to bed at a certain time. I had a dream that I was in a hot and sweaty waiting room filled with men. You know how whoever is beyond the waiting room door is taking too long and things get anxious? People were coming in on time, and in spite of that, they would not be seen anywhere near on time. There was a woman with a little box haircut, a little frame around her face, calling names. When a name was called, they would go through a door that was just beyond her little desk. She got to the name Jericho, and repeated it. I realized that I was in a dream and that the law of the dream was that if no one got up to go beyond the door, I would never get up. I would just be in this dream with this woman saying Jericho forever. I said, “I’m going to be Jericho” and she looked at me strangely as if to say, “Why are you announcing that to me? Don’t you want to go through the door?” And then I woke up. It was some weird time. I decided to go for a drive toward the (French) Quarter. I got to a bar. I met someone and he asked me my name, I said “My name is Jericho.” He said, “Oh, so you’re straightly shut up.” I said, “What?” He said it literally translates to “literally shut up”. Loosely, it means “the fence.” That’s why the city was called Jericho, because of the wall, the fence. I had been thinking about changing my name for a while before that. My friends were all making fun of me about it. I was actually thinking of changing my name to Rooster, that’s how bad it got. My birth name is Nelson Demery III. That third always did drive me crazy. I didn’t feel free to write about my family with my family name, at least not at that time. I was finally getting poems published. I would see them in print and get all excited, then I would see what seemed to me like my grandad or dad’s name and the gift of seeing the poem in print would be taken away at that moment. I wanted the gift back.

GS: In essence you were reclaiming your work.

JB: Yes! I changed my name to Jericho starting that night. Later, I saw a friend of mine from high school, whose last name was Brown, in a gay bar. He had been very closeted up until that point. When I was in high school, I hung out with Leonardo Brown, Shanetta Brown and Jason Brown. I was Nelson Demery III; the only one whose name was not Brown. When I saw him, I instantly offered him a drink having figured out what my last name would be. I knew I wanted it to be four syllables, like Michael Jackson and Diana Ross [laughs]. I decided my name would be Jericho Brown that summer, I think I changed my name in 2002.

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GS: Does your driver’s license say Jericho Brown?

JB: Uh-uh. My mother would kill me [laughs]! I have a business, in Atlanta, Jericho Brown, Poet. So, if you make a check out to Jericho Brown, I can indeed cash it [laughs].

GS: In what ways would you say that being gay inspires and influences your work?

JB: I think in every way, and therefore in no way at all. Thinking about queer poetic, there’s no other way for me to be able to proceed since it is who I am. It turns out to be all of my perception. That doesn’t mean that being black isn’t all of my perception, too. That doesn’t mean that being Southern is all of my perception. That doesn’t mean that coming from a kind of impoverished background isn’t part of my perception. I think it allows for me to be able to see things. If I wasn’t queer, I wouldn’t be a poet, that’s certain. I think being queer allows me to see opportunities in language that can create for me an existence in a world that keeps trying to erase the fact of my being.

GS: The rumpus.net, Buzzfeed and bigother.com, to name a few, included your new book, “The Tradition,” which is being published by Copper Canyon Press in April 2019, in pieces about 2019 books for readers to look forward to reading. What does inclusion in such lists mean to you?

JB: It just makes me cry. I spend a lot of time crying, Gregg. People don’t know this about me. I’m just so grateful. I really cannot believe. I wanted to be a poet when I was eight years old. Everybody wants to be like Beyoncé when they’re eight years, but they’re not going to get to (be her) because she’s busy doing it. There’s not going to be any room. The fact of becoming what I wanted to be my entire life and being able to live this life doing what I love most and seeing appreciation for it in the world, it just makes me emotional. I’m so thankful that I get to live and work in this way. I’m really glad to be included on those lists because I’m really excited about this book. I write poems because they give me pleasure. I write books because I want to see that pleasure made manifest in the world. Part of that means is having a conversation with all of poetry. When you publish a poem, and definitely when you make a book, you alter things. The way that poetry has to turn to you and say, “We include you. Going forward we will be whatever we are given what you have added unto us.” When I see those lists, I think about myself in terms of poetic tradition and in terms of literary history and in terms of the contemporary moment, in particular. I’m so blessed!

Jericho Brown’s new book, “The Tradition,” is being published in April in time for National Poetry Month 2019.

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