What the Poem Wants: A Phone Call with Jericho Brown

Photo Credit: John Lucas

Interview by Kendalyn McKisick

JB: Hello?

KM: Hello? Jericho?


This is Kendalyn.

Hey Kendalyn. How are you?

I’m good, how are you doing?

I’m good, but you know, I’m gonna tell you the truth. I mean, ‘cause you know God is good. Maybe I’m not realizing the goodness of God completely, because I am dealing with some allergies right now. So I’m just letting you know I might be sniffling and I might be sneezing; I’m trying to get to the house so I can take some Benadryl. But you can ask me whatever you wanna ask me, Kendalyn, and I’ll answer your question. I will tell you the truth as close as I can get to the truth. And in some situations I end up lying, but that’s just because of my own insecurity and uncomfortability. But, generally, I cleave to the truth. I’m going to get as close as I can to that thing.

Okay, that sounds good.


I’m sorry you’re feeling sick.

Yeah me too, but I sure appreciate that. Are you in Alaska?

Unfortunately, yes.

Oh, you don’t like Alaska?

Um, I love it, but I miss the south. I’m from Arkansas.

Oh, I’m from Louisiana. Where you from in Arkansas?

Little Rock.

Are you a poet?

I am.

So you went up there to go to school?

Yeah, I came up here to go to school, hang out with Sean Hill, and write poems.

You’re in school now?


Okay well good.

Alright, well are you ready for the first question?

I’m ready for all of the questions.

Cool. So the first one is about your work. A lot of your work deals with the infliction of pain – physical, mental, and emotional – and the gentleness needed to survive. Does this gentleness arrive as the result of the writing process or because of each individual experience?

Well, it definitely can’t have anything to do with the writing process, because I would like for the reader to be able to come across that tenderness through reading. It is something that I have to experience in order to write the poem; I do have to experience it in the process of making the poem. This is what poetry allows me and what I imagine it allows all of us –

[Aside] Ugh, the leaves, I shouldn’t have let them leaves sit on my – I’m sorry – I let these leaves sit on my driveway and now they’ve stained the driveway!

the opportunity to stop, in the midst of whatever it is that we are doing, and to really look at it. To look at it outside of the experience of having it. To have a different relationship to it as if we were holding it in our hands – not as if it were inside our bodies. Do you understand what I mean? And I think reading allows for that. But of course, I don’t believe that writing is the only thing that allows for it. I think there are other ways to get to it. Any way you look at it, it is necessary that we do that to get on the other side of the pain – that we are tender with ourselves and tender with those who are around us.

In relation to the last question, you have a lot of church poems, and I’ve actually heard you read some of them when you came to Arkansas. I was at Pulaski Tech, and Nickole Brown was there.

I love Nickole Brown.

So do I! She was my teacher.

I bet she was. She’s wonderful. I looove that Nickole Brown…

So can you talk a little bit about your church poems, or how God plays a part in your poetry?

Well, I don’t know. I guess I don’t think of any of my poems as “church poems’ in particular. Although, the church is a part of my experience and a part of my background, I do think of myself as a poet that tries to use all of himself, right. I’m going to use all of myself, and that’s going to include that part of my experience and background. And you know, poetry has a long tradition of the sacred meeting the profane, of the supposed devotional moment meeting the moment that is just the opposite of devotional, right? So, I think for me, even when the poem isn’t necessarily what you might call a “church poem,’ I think of it as a spiritual poem, because poets have to have a direct link to God – a direct line, you know? That’s what we’re looking for. I mean that’s what everyone wants when they get to the end of a poem. They want to feel somehow changed, different, or moved, or that they’ve had a transcendent experience, whether that transcendent experience means only intellectual, partially intellectual, partially emotional, or only emotional. We read that poem thinking we’re going to be transformed, and that transformation seems to be a spiritual act. I hope that happens with every poem I write, whether or not it’s a poem about growing up in the church, or whether or not it’s a poem that alludes to a Bible scripture or to some religious artifact. So, yeah, you know, those poems are important to me, and God is important to me in that I am a poet.

Don’t be fooled, because poets like to say, if anything else, “You know, nobody is calling it ‘God’ these days.’ But you know I’ll call it “God’ and not feel as bad as other people might feel when they say “the transcendent’ or when they say “the spiritual’ or when they say whatever they say for the feeling that we feel when we read poems, when we enjoy art, when we are changed, when we are moved by literature. So for me, it’s hard for me to talk about it as if it is separate from what anyone else does. I think the only difference is that I’m not ashamed of the fact that I do it. I know what I’m here for, you know? I know what I want for my poems; I know what I want from the poems that I read. And if I want that from the poems I read, it must be what I want from the poems I write. Ultimately, we’re all writing the poems that we wish for in the world. We keep reading poems and we keep looking for something that’s not there.  

When we go to the page, that’s what we’re trying to write. We’re trying to write that thing that we’re looking for, what we must be trying to write. What I’m looking for, and what you, Kendalyn, are looking for – it’s going to be two very different things, you know what I mean? Both of those things need to be in the canon; both of those things are important to what needs to be made available to readers. And we know that both of those things don’t exist yet! I talked about God; that, in and of itself, seems to me a spiritual concept. The fact that I write a poem and I create an entirely new audience for poetry when I do that – that, I think, is amazing, right?! The fact that I make something that has not existed before when I write a poem – I think that’s special. And the fact that when you write a poem, you make something that only you can make. I think that’s proof of the spiritual in the world. Now where is the Benadryl in the house?

Yeah, I like that idea of creating a whole new audience for poetry.

Yeah! Exactly. That’s what we’re doing when we write our poems. We’re carrying on the work that’s been done before us, but who are we carrying it on to? We must be carrying it on to those who otherwise would not know that work. We become the way poetry is introduced to people. That’s very important! I mean, that’s soul work, you know? That’s righteous work right there. That’s the real thing.

Definitely. So, when you teach a new group of creative writing students, or a new group of writers, what is the first or most important thing that you tell them?

In truth, I think the most important thing that a creative writer can teach his or her students is that what we’re looking for when we read is not meaning. We’re looking for what turns us on and how and why it turns us on. We’re looking for strategies.  Let me say it this way: people who are new to writing often think (I mean, some of them know better) that the subject of the poem has something to do with the poem being good. Now, the subjects of your poems will give them a level of, for want of a better word, I will say, intensity. They will give your poems certain levels to talk about a certain thing. To talk about them will change people’s idea of what kinds of risks the poem is taking. Now I’m not questioning that some subjects seem different from other subjects to our minds, but nothing about the subject is what makes the poem a good poem or a not-so-good poem. The thing that makes the poem a good poem is how well one employs the strategies necessary to make that poem what it needs to be. So, in that case, what I teach is strategy.

When I teach students to read poetry, I ask them why they love the poems they love. What is it about the way the poem is made that has something to do with what we are attracted to when we read it? I do that poet by poet – whether we’re reading the poems of someone like Tracy K. Smith or Rachel Zucker or Timothy Donnelly – no matter whose poems we’re reading. For example, I ask my students to tell me what Timothy Donnelly does over and over again in his poems. How does he start? How does he end? Where are the long sentences? Where are the long lines and why do they suddenly appear where they appear, rather than short sentences? So those are the kinds of things that I teach students to look for, and to look for why those things lead to the feeling of satisfaction that we feel when we get to the end of a poem.

Let me tell you this other thing about subject matter, since I’m talking about it. I think it’s important that we let our students know that the subject matter has to be important to them. Now, I can question why people aren’t thinking about certain things, but I can’t make them think about anything other than what they are thinking about, you know what I mean? So, if you’re really thinking about shoestring, if you write poems about shoestring, all your syntactical energy is going to come from that, because that’s actually really important.

I can’t teach you subject matter. I’m not gonna sit my students down and say “Hey! Write about Palestine.’ I’m not doing that. Now, I will have questions for why everybody who has the same social media, everybody who’s got the same news channels I’ve got, ain’t thinking about Palestine. But I can’t make you think about it. I do think it’s important that we wonder why it is that we’re not writing about it, or why we’re not thinking about it, why we might be avoiding certain subjects. We have to be true to what’s in front of us and to where our minds go when we’re writing; we have to be true to that.

Right, definitely. I think that’s important about subject matter. Do you ever get any interesting responses when you ask a student why they’re not writing what they think they want to be writing?

No, my students usually get scared – scared because, you know, they’re 18 to 23 years old. Often my students are afraid, because they think “If I write this thing, that becomes who I am’ or “If I write this thing, everyone will know who I am.’ They have shame issues; they have issues where they don’t want their parents to know this or that thing about them. It’s very strange; they lie to their parents about everything. I don’t know why they think they have to show their parents at all; it’s very weird. So I don’t really get what that’s all about, but I think this is the case with adults as well. People think they get to choose what they write about. I think that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! You’re welcome to think it, I just disagree. I think that’s why people’s poems just don’t work out. I think it’s a good idea for you to write about what’s affecting you, for you to write about what’s wracking your brain – what you’re passionate about. But I don’t know that I’ve had particular responses from students other than, you know, the fear that comes with what they’re writing about. It’s not so much that people know that about you, but they do know that you’re looking at things. And, you know, there is a lot of shame around what we’re really thinking about and looking at. Nobody’s looking at or thinking about anything that doesn’t have weight, and that’s true.

Yeah, that’s true. I think you’re being honest there.

I also think we’ve got to think about that broader, you know. Why do we live in a country where everybody’s thinking about a really weighty thing, everybody’s thinking about something that has dire consequences, you know? If that’s the case, how do we solve any of our problems when there’s shame in thinking about our problems. That’s crazy. That’s crazy! Who set that shit up? Who set that up? That’s a setup, right? And why would we fall for it? Why does that make so many more people comfortable if we’re all going through that same thing.

We have to be more honest – with one another, but especially with ourselves. We’d actually get somewhere. We’d actually get somewhere in our world, but our poems would definitely be better.

Yeah, I agree with you. So do you think poets have an obligation to write about issues that have a direct effect on our world? Or can poems just be about a tree?

I think poets have an obligation to feel an experience as much as they can. I have questions about why it is poets are choosing to feel and experience the same things that they’ve felt and experienced forever. Sooner or later, we have to step outside of ourselves. What happens to the poet’s eye when it looks at something it hasn’t seen before? I think that’s the responsibility of the poet.

Do I think a poet has to write about war? Do I think a poet has to write about racism? No, but I do think it’s really weird to live in the United States of America and have no idea that wars have happened and are happening.  To have nothing to say about one’s position as it relates to our system of race…it’s very strange that you would be a poet and not be that reflective. I think that’s odd.

What if you’re just not reflective in that way?

But that’s weird, right, because what is the way to be reflective? All I’m saying is that everybody is welcome to write about what they want to write about. And then after you’ve written 693 poems about that thing, if indeed you are an artist, you will want to see what else you can see and you’ll wonder at other things. Your style and your way, who you are, don’t have to change, but you’ll be concerned about other things. What I haven’t figured out, for instance, is how to be funny, or completely funny. I have funny lines in poems, but I don’t really think poems are the place to make jokes. So I‘ve written other things. I wrote a play that allowed me to be completely funny.  I think that’s a very important thing for me as a writer. Even if you’re not doing it in your poem, find some other way to do it.

But it is strange. For instance, why is it that all the poems about race (well, I don’t want to say “all,’ because obviously there are white poets who are doing this work), in general, have to be written by people of color? White people have a race too.

Yeah, it is interesting. I think it has to do with the idea of being white. Not the actuality of it.

White people used to be white, too. When I was growing up, they were, but lately they haven’t been. Call people “white’ and they get kind of offended with you, lately. I don’t get it.

Have you read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates? I think he discusses that very well in that book.

Mmhm. That’s true.

So, you’ve been a poetry editor for a literary magazine before, correct? How can literary magazines contribute something valuable to the conversation?

That’s an interesting question. This might be something that it might be better to ask a current editor. I think the job of literary magazines is to publish the best work they can find. Other than that, I don’t have a particular answer. Other than publishing the best work they can find, I don’t know that literary magazines have any particular responsibility. They are welcome to take on other responsibilities, if they want, but I don’t know that it’s right for me to say “Oh you’re a literary magazine. You should be doing, on top of what you’re doing, A, B, and C as well.’

Right, and maybe different magazines have different goals.

Yeah. Different journals have different goals, yeah. I think all journals are probably interested in putting forward whatever aesthetic that editor believes in. Then that aesthetic becomes much more codified in our way of thinking about poetry.

So when reading some of your books, I see that you pay attention to poetic form. How do you think poetic forms can serve to open up language rather than constrain it?

They ask you to know things that you otherwise would not know. For instance, when you’re looking for a rhyme, you might be have to make use of a word that you otherwise would not use. Now this is really good, because it gets you in a position where you’re extending and expanding your vocabulary, making use of diction that you otherwise wouldn’t use. But it also gets you in a position where you have to say things that you otherwise would not expect yourself to say. And then once you say it, you have to look at the poem a little bit more outside of yourself, and say “Oh, this is what the poem needs to say.’ I think that’s the wonderful thing about form.

Often, in revision, it’s hard for us to deal with the fact that our poems are saying something different than what we meant to say, and we’ve gotta do what the poem wants us to do. When we’re writing in form, I think it gets a little easier to understand that the poem has made a decision. It needs this word. So if it needs this word, it needs this sentence around this word. If it needs this sentence around this word, then that sentence is telling me that the poem is trying to tell me what the poem needs to be about.

So you feel that the poem tells you what it wants to be?

Yeah. After you write the first draft of the poem, it’s a good idea to ask the poem questions. You ask the poem what it wants to be. You ask it: “Who’s your speaker? What are you so angry about? What are you laughing about? What’s the point? What have you been through before this point?’ You know? Literally ask this thing some questions, and whatever the first draft is doing, it will give you some answers. You revise toward those answers. But you’ve got to ask the poem questions, and I mean that. Directly treat the poem like a being that you’re trying to get to know, and like it’s trying to tell you what it’s told you so far: “This is who I am. Add this to me to make me more full. Take this away from me to make me more full, because this is who I really am.’

Do you feel like experimentation with form is an act of rebellion or is it tugging at the sleeves of tradition?

By “tugging at the sleeves,’ do you mean capitulation? Well no, of course not. I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s what we do. I think we see something, and we wanna make more of it. I think that’s what poets do; we see something and we wanna see what else we can do, right? I think tradition is a good idea; I think it’s a good idea to have something that’s sitting there that you can mess with. I don’t think that’s about rebellion or worshipping the thing that’s already there; it’s just about being a poet.

So it’s neither?

I think so. I mean, I think poets like form. There’s no way around the fact that poets are into form. Poets, like, literally type on a sheet of paper. They type, and then they print on paper. Poets are, anyway you look at it, into form.

Yeah, the line breaks, the attention to every single word…

Yeah. Even with a Frost poem, a Frost poem is tradition.

Yeah, it is. Every single part of it.

Yeah, and poets know that. There’s no way out of form. Poets are really into tradition. I don’t know a poet who doesn’t love tradition. They all love tradition, every one of them. The problem is that when we say “tradition’ we make the mistake of thinking that there’s only one tradition. We pretend that, somehow or another, Robert Frost is tradition as if Gertrude Stein isn’t. But both of those poets can be part of your tradition. They’re definitely both a part of mine.

For a more experienced writer, I want to ask you an editing question. What’s the most important thing that a poet should value when editing a poem?

That you let go of your intentions and you allow the poem to have its own intentions. That you treat the poem as if it is a thing outside of yourself, and you sort of grow the poem up, like you would a child. If it’s dancing, you give it tap lessons. If it keeps screaming, you give it singing lessons.

That’s a good analogy! So, I noticed that you have a very active Twitter presence.

Is it very active? I am addicted to Twitter. I wouldn’t call it very active; I would call it horrendously. I mean, you know, like I love it; I do love it. I love that that’s where I can get my news. I feel there’s something about Facebook where I feel like people aren’t being honest. They don’t have any limitations. They’re more prone to jump on each other in worse ways. I think Twitter is much better at letting things go. Somebody says something I don’t like, and it’s easier for me to ignore them. Yeah I like Twitter. It’s cool. I find a lot of poets on Twitter. I find a lot of poems I otherwise would not have seen. It’s good.

I like Twitter as well. I do enjoy the immediacy of news and not having it be as family-oriented as Facebook is now. When someone tells you they are a writer in 2016, they could mean an array of different things: they could have a strong Twitter presence, they may have a blog that has a handful of followers, or maybe they write advertisement snippets for a microbrewery, etc. What does this mean for the writing world, that the label of “writer’ or “poet’ has become more flexible?

I think anywhere you go, and you tell people you’re a poet, they look at you like you’re crazy – even if they’re a poet. When I tell people I’m a poet, they sort of look at me like “Hmm, I wonder if that’s real.’  So I think telling people that you’re a writer probably makes them feel a little uncomfortable. But still, people want to know how you eat. I haven’t thought about this: what it means that having a blog also makes you a writer. I think it’s a wonderful thing to have this definition expanded as far it possibly can, as long as it always includes excellence. Excellence is always going to be put forward by that particular genre. I don’t decide what is excellence in hip-hop. I don’t decide what is excellence when writing copy for college brochures. That is not my job. So excellence needs to be decided upon by the people who do that thing, as it is in publishing.  

Definitely. Earlier, you were talking about Robert Frost. How do we approach the primarily white male and cisgender canon? Should we ask more of our universities when it comes to required texts?

You know what would be interesting? Well, let me answer that second question: should we ask more of our universities when it comes to required texts? What we should ask is that our instructors and college professors be aware of what they’re teaching, that they be aware of how broad what they’re teaching is. If you’re teaching, for instance, contemporary poetry and you don’t have anybody of color on your syllabus, then that probably means you haven’t been reading contemporary poetry. You’re welcome to that, if that’s how you want to live your life, but you’re doing a disservice to your students. So, I think that’s what should happen. I think people should do their damn jobs and look at the thing that they claim to be looking at as wholly as they can possibly look at it. That’s the most important thing to me, and I think that also becomes how we handle the canon. Sooner or later, you look at your shelf and you notice that your shelf is racist. You look at yourself, your shelf, and you see your self is racist.  You also make the decision to say “I don’t want any part of that; let me change my shelf.’ That’s what I think.

I like that. So you’re saying that the responsibility lies more with the professors?

Yeah. I mean, I also think that students have the right to say to their professors, “Hey, what about this?’ or “Why not that? Can we talk about these things?’ Professors should be welcoming to those things. You know, my students always want to talk to me about, for instance, performance, about spoken word, or about slam, and I don’t teach those things. I don’t have the degree necessary to teach those things. I’m not skilled in those things, and that’s why we don’t talk about those things. But they talk about those things because they overlap with what I am skilled at doing, what I have studied. And sooner or later people have to accept what you believe about literature. Women writers still are writing; writers of color still are writing. You have to be honest about what you believe in, and whatever that is comes from all kinds of people, not just white men. And if what you believe in only comes from white men, you should probably stop believing in it.

Why is that?

Because that’s racism. If everything about your beliefs is informed by race or gender on one side, then that’s racism and sexism. That’s what racism and sexism are. If you keep looking up and no one can satisfy your need for art other than white men, then you have a problem. You also have a palate problem, right? People should broaden their palates.

You were talking earlier about living in the United States right now, with all the trouble that we have at this point. How do you think poetry can work to help us cope during these vitriolic times?

First, we have to be more proud of ourselves and what we do. First, we have to be poets who are much more open about the fact that we are poets and not carry that same amount of shame. I think that’s the first move. The next move is to continue to write the work that actually moves people. When you change someone’s emotions, it can lead to a change in thought, and a change in thought can indeed lead to a change in action. But we can’t do that if we’re not putting the work out there in a way that lets people know that the work does something, that lets people know that the work itself is something to be proud of. That’s what will attract people to poetry. It’s not just the poetry, it’s also our relationship to poetry. We keep saying that it changes our lives, so we should act like it changes our lives. We have to connect ourselves to people who think otherwise. I think we need to change our attitude toward poetry. The way that it begins to change the world is when we believe that it can change the world and that people see us acting like we believe it.

You know what changes the world? Football. You know what gets people to talk to each other, who otherwise would not talk to each other? What gets people to party together and love one another? It’s football. And you wanna know why people act that way with football? It’s because football is hard. It’s hard to do. Poetry is hard to do too. When you make a touchdown, you do a happy dance. Seriously, you say to the world, “I just did the greatest thing that can ever be done.’ When poets do things, they are always like “Well, you know, thanks very much, well my editor…well, well you know…’ You know what I mean? What is all the shame about? We have nothing to be ashamed of.

Football is definitely the thing people gather around. So, with the current political climate, what does it mean for you personally as a poet?

I don’t know that it means anything different for me. I don’t know that the current political situation seems much different from what I imagined it always was. If you read news, if you read poems, if you read essays – obviously, I think things are as they were. The thing everyone is surprised by, I cannot claim to be surprised by. Their surprise has to do with the fact that they are not in proximity to the realities of the world! I can’t be ashamed of the fact that I am; I’m sorry people suddenly have to come to some real proximity to the realities of the world, that they have to see just how inconsiderate other people are and how people really depend on their hatred in order to reassert themselves. I don’t really have questions about that.

As a poet, as a person who is a cultural worker, as a person who has been saying what I’ve been saying since 2008, I do not believe that it is my responsibility to change anything. It is the responsibility of those who are indeed surprised, who weren’t believing me – they weren’t believing me – when I was telling them what I was telling them since 2008. And now they have reason to. And now they should act like it. If anybody in the world should be changed, it’s those who are [surprised].

This is a wonderful question to ask the poets who are disagreeing with me about all the stuff we’ve been talking about on the phone. That question is actually a question we need to ask everyone who thought it was okay. That’s a question for these college professors – these poet college professors who are still complaining about having faculty of color, about having diverse faculty for students, about having a diverse student population. Ask them what they’re gonna change. I don’t need to change anything.

I have but one more question for you, before I let you get to your medicine or naps, or whatever you’re gonna do. What were your favorite three books of poetry of 2016?

Blackacre by Monica Youn. Um, do I have to do three?

Just do your favorite ones, however many that is.

Okay, Post by Wayne Miller. ShallCross by C.D. Wright.

Yeah! She’s from Arkansas.

A Woman of Property by Robyn Schiff. The Collected Poems of Rita Dove by Rita Dove. Tyehimba Jess’s book…the title of that book is escaping me.

Oh my gosh, yeah, the latest one?

Olio, that’s it. And then, there was a new and selected by Rae Armantrout that I think was very good. Let me think of what else. There were so many books that came up this year; it’s really hard to narrow that down.

Yeah, I think that’s a really good list though. I think it’s very empowering.

Oh yeah! Cynthia Cruz. Cynthia Cruz had a book that I loved called How the End Begins. And C. Dale Young had a book called Halo. Wait…but there’s one more book I liked a lot…her name is Jennifer Knox…Days of Shame and Failure.

Alright, well I am going to read those books over winter break.

Please do.

Thanks for having this interview today.

Talk to you later.

Have a good one, bye!


This phone interview took place on December 16, 2016.

Jericho Brown is our judge for Permafrost‘s  2017 Poetry Book Prize.  

Kendalyn McKisick serves as poetry editor.