Jericho Brown: The Music the Work Makes in My Mind

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 loggernaut September 7th marks the release of Jericho Brown's much-awaited second collection of poetry—which he has brazenly titled The New Testament—from Copper Canyon press. His first collection, Please, won the American Book Award in 2008; his second is a powerful and sometimes frightening meditation on death, race, sexuality, and violence.

As I read and then reread the new collection in preparation for this interview, I was struck by how much agony the new poems contain. "Too much," I scribbled in the margins of one—as in too much sorrow, too much pain. And yet there is an enduring lightness to be found in these poems, too, a faith that seems to be rooted in the evangelical Christian church with which he was raised, and with whose tradition his poetry regularly quarrels.

Brown has previously received the Whiting Writers' Award and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and The Believer. Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, he now lives in Atlanta, where he teaches at Emory University. We corresponded in July of 2014. -Alex Gallo-Brown

Alex Gallo-Brown: The first thing I noticed, reading through the new collection—which, I have to say, I think is tremendous—is that there were very few allusions to music. In "Please," the poems were often "tracks," "performed" by the likes of Diana Ross and Janis Joplin; there were also liner notes in the way that there would be at the end of an album. In "The New Testament," however, the most important textual references are to the bible and Christianity—"the voice of God and other old music," as you write in the poem, "To Be Seen." Can you talk about the relationship for you between music, religion, and poetry?

Jericho Brown: Thanks for loving on the new book, Alex. I'm glad it's been of use to you, and I'm thankful that so many people are championing it in a way I could have never expected.

Writing The New Testament meant setting for myself a new constraint, a new challenge. I consciously stopped making any reference to music because of its predominance in my first book. I literally refused to write the words "song, " "voice, " "tune, " etc., in anything on which I was working. I wanted a brand new lexicon for myself. I believe there is always new terrain to be discovered in the mind and soul of any human being. How does the Terence saying go? "I am human. Nothing human can be alien to me."

The relationship between music and faith and poetry is hard for me to discuss because they are hard for me to separate. All three make up the backbone of my life. What they have in common is that they know through feeling rather than through understanding. Don't get me wrong: I want poems to have meaning, but I also think that having comprehensible meaning is not the end of the conversation about poetry—or about faith.

Other than that, I can say that I grew up loving music and going to church and reading poetry and believing that all three were necessary and black.

AGB: The poems in The New Testament are named after Bible verses, psalms, The Ten Commandments, and so on. I know that you grew up in an intensely religious home in Shreveport, Louisiana, where the church was vital for both you and your family. Can you talk about your relationship to that church as an adult? Do you feel like there is a place for you there now, as a gay man?

JB: We were active in church. My father is a deacon there, making my mother a deaconess. They both still teach a Sunday school class. The man who was pastor the entire time I grew up is still the pastor there. His name is Reverend Harry Blake, and in the 1960s, the police rode horses into a church sanctuary near our church and beat him silly in front of the congregation. Silly as in close to death.

Yes, there is a place for me there. I can sit wherever I want when I go there, any pew or even in the choir stand, although not the pulpit, of course. And when I visit, the pastor always asks me to say a few words.

I still love going to church, but I'm wiser than to sit myself in so-called Christian churches every Sunday if I know they are places where it's okay to say hurtful, dumb things. Many churches don't think Sunday service is complete without someone saying something meant to break you. If I'm going to get my heart broken, I want a lover to do it.

So, no, I don't go to the kinds of churches (all Christian) I attended up until I was about 25 years old. But corporate worship and prayer and community praise and gratitude are still important to me. To better and more directly answer your question, I started attending Reverend Michael Bernard Beckwith's Agape International in 2007 when I moved to California, and I felt so spiritually enhanced there that the New Thought movement has become where I'd place myself spiritually now, if I was pushed into titling such a place. These days, I attend the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta where Reverend David Ault is Senior Minister. And as I type this, I'm realizing I still have a lot of shame about it, because poets who go to church are outcasts even among poets.

But I think I'm okay with that because poets who are too cool or too hip bore me to tears with their coolness and hipness and in-crowd sensibilities. I'd rather us think of the best poets as the ones who write the best poems rather than think of them as some group of people who







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