The Art That Sings to Hurt You: An Interview with Poet Jericho Brown

In Poets on May 2, 2011 at 10:49 am

The best kind of art should make us uncomfortable, but it should also give us a pleasing experience aesthetically.  Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with Jericho Brown on poetry, jazz, music, Prince, sexuality, and Janis Joplin, among other topics.

Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. He also holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a BA from Dillard University. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including, The Iowa Review, jubilat, Oxford American, A Public Space, and 100 Best African American Poems.  His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.  See also www.jerichobrown.com.

The following is an interview via email April 2011 between Ephraim Scott Sommers and Jericho Brown.

How do you view the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature?

I’ve always wanted to see Wanda Coleman read and finally got the chance to do so a few days ago in Los Angeles.  The experience was just as wonderful as I had expected, and after the reading, there was a Q&A.  She answered one of the questions, “Art feeds art.”  That about sums what I think of the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature.

When I first read this question, I started thinking about a recent argument I had with the poet Tyehimba Jess about whether or not Prince is/was a pop star.  Jess is a good friend and a great poet and a musician too, but he was quite upset that I thought of Prince as a pop star.  He kept telling me all this stuff about Prince’s talents and skills and abilities as a musician as if any of that stopped Prince from being a pop star.  (I’m not sure why our category making minds don’t like for people to be too many things at one time.)  I think he didn’t want to believe that people like Stevie Wonder and Prince and Muddy Waters could ever share the same title as someone like Britney Spears because those first three artists have a lot to do with how he thinks about his own work, and I’m willing to bet you couldn’t convince him that someone like Spears is thinking about artistry as much as she is about how to sell records; and of course, that may be true in the case of Spears.  Believe it or not, the Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout is a big fan of Lady Gaga, and I don’t think she’d ever deny that listening to the singer’s lyrics doesn’t have some effect on her own juxtapositions.

At any rate, I listened to Prince’s Purple Rain over and over when I was trying to figure out how to put the poems in Please in an order that would help to make them sing off of the page.  I needed a model of genius to create what I wanted to be a work of genius.  Nothing wrong with having the biggest goal possible.

Langston Hughes saw the possibilities for poetry modeled after jazz and blues at a time when many black intellectuals and artists were ashamed to admit in public that they enjoyed listening to the blues.  I don’t know that things have changed much in the larger scheme of American poetry.  Black writers are more likely these days to admit their influences are pop musicians, but others still have a lot of shame about this or don’t realize it’s the case.

What music have you been enjoying lately?  What music specifically has influenced your writing? How?

Shirlette and the Dynamite Brothers lately: http://mosadimusic.com/wordpress/.  They bad and can’t be categorized as nothing but good.

I’ve also be listening to some live Eva Cassidy too, a little bit of Kem when I get the chance to make love, and yes, guilty pleasure or not, I’m one of those fools convinced that Lil Wayne is the real thing.  Most of this will probably stop now that you’ve asked me though.  I don’t like knowing that I’m listening to music.  That takes the fun out of it for me, and I can’t notice things in a song if I’m trying to hear them.

I’m mostly a fool for women singers with limited voices.  It’s more fun for me to hear how Mary J. Blige or Diana Ross manage to relate an emotion when they do it well than it is for me to hear Chaka Khan or Aretha Franklin do so.  Don’t get me wrong.  I ain’t stupid.  I know Khan and Franklin can sang, but there’s little mystery to that for me.

I’m trying to think whether or not there’s a music that hasn’t influenced my writing.  Maybe I could say classical music hasn’t, but then I guess it wouldn’t really be classical music if that was true, and I have been known to be sappy enough to put Renee Fleming on when I feeling for purity and cleanliness and how they are or are not useful.  With as far as sampling goes at this point, though, I can’t say there is a music that hasn’t influenced the way I think about my own work as an artist.

My favorite songwriters of all time are Stevie Wonder and Ashford & Simpson.  Wonder’s music always makes me feel my insides and everything A&S work on makes me feel my skin.

I will say this about how music influences my writing:  musicians and singers, even the ones who ain’t all that good at it, always look completely confident while they are doing it.  My favorite thing to see is how a singer runs out on stage just before opening his or her mouth.  The footage of the band or the lead standing around like nothing is about to happen or even arguing right before a show excites the fuck out of me.  I can never believe those few moments are real ones, and I have to feel the way they must feel when I’m in the process of writing.  I have to believe what I’m doing is what should be done just the way I’m doing it and that everything I need to get it done is within me.

There are about 297 other ways music influences my writing, but this answer is pretty long as it is, and talking about this kind of thing is much more fun than typing it.

What are your thoughts about the relationship of music and poetry over time? Is there any particular combination of song and text that you would like to highlight/mention, have been inspired by?

I think I already got at the first part of this in my last answer.   Here’s a poem that’s pretty popular by Michael Harper that was and still is of great use to me:

Dear John, Dear Coltrane

a love supreme, a love supreme

a love supreme, a love supreme

Sex fingers toes

in the marketplace

near your father’s church

in Hamlet, North Carolina—

witness to this love

in this calm fallow

of these minds,

there is no substitute for pain:

genitals gone or going,

seed burned out,

you tuck the roots in the earth,

turn back, and move

by river through the swamps,

singing: a love supreme, a love supreme;

what does it all mean?

Loss, so great each black

woman expects your failure

in mute change, the seed gone.

You plod up into the electric city—

your song now crystal and

the blues. You pick up the horn

with some will and blow

into the freezing night:

a love supreme, a love supreme—

Dawn comes and you cook

up the thick sin ‘tween

impotence and death, fuel

the tenor sax cannibal

heart, genitals, and sweat

that makes you clean—

a love supreme, a love supreme—

Why you so black?

cause I am

why you so funky?

cause I am

why you so black?

cause I am

why you so sweet?

cause I am

why you so black?

cause I am

a love supreme, a love supreme:

So sick

you couldn’t play Naima,

so flat we ached

for song you’d concealed

with your own blood,

your diseased liver gave

out its purity,

the inflated heart

pumps out, the tenor kiss,

tenor love:

a love supreme, a love supreme—

a love supreme, a love supreme—

Everything about this poem seems so sudden to me, so completely uncharacteristic of the stereotypical sounds and images nonreaders of poetry often expect from the genre, and I think that has everything to do with the ways the poem’s form and word choice inform its content.  It really is a jazz poem because it is aware of the power of improvisation.  This poem, like good jazz, is always aware of and capable of going back to or hinting at pattern while leaping into variation.  More than that, it gives me something to chant to myself when ever I feel like I’ve done something right on this planet, ie:

Why you so black?

cause I am

why you so funky?

cause I am

why you so black?

cause I am

why you so sweet?

cause I am

why you so black?

cause I am

a love supreme, a love supreme

Poetry is a form of art that is often compared to music, how would you describe the “musical quality” of a poem as you understand it?   

A lot of people don’t like my answer to this, but it’s still my answer.  A reader should be able to hum along to the poem and able to sing the words of the poem aloud as if it is set to music.  The poem itself should tell the reader the melody of itself by way of its combination of words.  Yes, I believe this to be the case with free verse poems as much as formal ones.

When you sit down to write, do you mostly compose with this “music” of a poem in mind, or do you pay more attention to things like narrative thread, image, and tone? 

Narrative and image are quite important to me as a poet writing in the African American literary tradition, but I usually figure the “story” of a poem out after I’m much more fully aware of its sound(s).  I don’t think I know the difference between the music of a poem and the tone of the poem.  I think the music of the poem is what makes for the tone of the poem.

A few poets, such as Langston Hughes, Kevin Young and yourself, write poems that are in song form while others write poems that speak in some way to a piece of music or a specific musician.  Which do you find more effective?  Why? 

It’s more effective for each poet to do his or her own thing.  Poets should seek out work that turns them on and write the poems they wish to read but can’t seem to find anywhere.  Poems about music as a subject and/or poems that take music on as a form have the same goal:  an emotional reaction from the reader.  We are here to move people.  Beauty is moving.  Don’t you feel moved when you see somebody fine?  And you either talk or regret not having the guts to do so when she’s gone.  That reaction is how the reader knows we did what we were supposed to do.

Throughout your book Please, there are track titles and section titles that would mirror what the reader might see on an album.  As you have envisioned, how are the readers meant to experience Please as a piece of music or as an album?  Please explain.

I wanted a sense of what I mention in the previous answer as an upfront admission about my poetry and my poetics.  I know that people are okay with going to music to be moved, and I wanted to foreground this as my intention.

There is a love/hate relationship between a musician and his/her instrument.  The musicians you seem to focus on in your book Please are singers, why is that?

First, I grew up in church choirs and never learned to play anything but my lungs and my throat.  My sister got piano lessons, but I wasn’t allowed the same because my parents were afraid learning piano would make me gay.  (Guess I showed them.)

Also, I thought there would be more resonances with voices since we understand that poems have to have voice and speakers.  I thought that the hate part of the love/hate relationship you mention would be more interesting if the instrument indeed becomes the self or the self’s body.

In “Track 5: Summertime,” you take on the persona of Janis Joplin, that is, the poet becomes the singer and speaks through her.  Could you explain why you chose to speak as the singer rather than to the singer, and why Janis?

If I were to speak to Joplin, I’d be saying all kinds of things she’d like that hearers outside of our relationship might find absolutely inappropriate.  Even though we may sit and listen to the same song at the same time by her, my Janis and what we do ain’t nothing like your Janis and what you do.

I chose to speak as Joplin because I know we have a lot in common, and I know a good bit of her biography.

In “Pause,” you write, “I want to ask/ If they ever heard of slavery,/ The work song—the best music/ Is made of subtraction,/ The singer seeks an exit from the scarred body/ And opens his mouth/ Trying to get out” (10-16).  The singers throughout Please seem to be scarred or hurt into music in some way.  By the same degree, can it be said then that your book Please as a whole is a kind of blues or “work song,” where the poet seeks the same kind of escape?  Does poetry work in the same way? 

I’m so glad you can read, Ephraim.  And you asking me this just made me feel like I really can write.  I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people review Please, but few have made note of this aspect of the volume as directly as your question does.

Reading good poetry is indeed an escape for me, or I should say, after I’ve read a really good poem, I have to remember that the world it created for me isn’t the one in which my literal and physical body was.

Well, if reading a good poem is like running away from home, for me, writing poetry is like walking a nicely populated nude beach on Mars.  I should capitalize NICELY.

We’ve been talking about the intersection of poetry and music.  The first poem in Please, titled “Track 1: Lush Life,” speaks to the relationship between the listener and the singer.  In that poem, the music triggers a memory of pain in the listener, a pain that is shared.  Does this say something about the art we gravitate toward, that we actually seek it out because it hurts us?  As you see it, what kind of music is the kind that “sings to hurt you” (1)?  Is it soul music?  Is it blues?  Why might listeners or readers “drive to the center of town/ To be whipped by a woman’s voice” (3-4)?

I’ve been arguing about the pain of pleasure with my students lately and can’t seem to get them to admit that, while pain can be felt without pleasure, there is no way to feel pleasure without pain.  Since I haven’t convinced them, I’m starting to second guess myself, but up until recently, I was pretty sure that desire is based on not having a thing and the realization of not having it hurts like hell until you get it.  The opposite is also true, that we experience pleasure with some idea that we can and/or will lose it.

Do you like that Michael Harper poem?  If you started liking at the first few lines, you probably wondered at some point whether or not it was going to make a misstep.  If you don’t like that poem, you read it thinking about the poems you do like and how much you’d rather be reading those.  Of course, you like that poem because you’ve already proven yourself a good reader in this conversation we’re having.

Even Mary Oliver’s most inspirational poems seek the need in us to be and remain inspired.  All good art means to hurt you in order to please and/or convince you.


Purchase Please at Small Press Distribution here.

Find out what famous poet Mark Doty says about Please here. This site also offers comments and/or reviews on a wide range of poets and poetry.

Read “The Gulf,” a poem from Please, at Verse Daily here. This site posts one poem per day from a wide range of poetic sources.

See how Missy McEwan feels about Please here.  This site contains several blog posts about different aspects of a writer’s life.

Dig deeper into Jericho Brown’s biography and enjoy three of his poems here.  Poets.org is a popular poetry resource for any scholar looking to begin research on a poet’s work.

  1. Really nice interview. As Jericho said, your good reading drew a lot out of the book that might be overlooked by readers. Well, at least upon the first read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: