We spoke with poet Jericho Brown, author of Please, about his relationship with the “we”, about sitting on beds in street clothes, and the poems he’d read to all of Shreveport, Louisiana if he could. Brown will read with Khadijah Queen, Rachel Sherman, eteam, and DJ Lady DM at the 2012-2013 First Person Plural Reading Series season finale on April 1 at Shrine.
When do you feel most “we”? When Al Green gets played in a public place.
How comfortable is “we” to you? I’m either a team player or a man with too big an ego because I actually think “we” whenever I make a decision that is actually “I.” Examples include: “We will not go another week without getting our roots twisted.”/ “We cannot believe they rejected our poem and published this trash instead.”/ “We should do some cardio if we plan to eat what we want.” Wherever there isn’t a “we,” I find myself trying to make one.
Do you ever resist the “we”? Not since the first time I met Alice Walker, which was shortly after I read The Third Life of Grange Copeland, one of my favorite novels. At the time, I thought I was every one of the characters.
Has the “we” ever hurt you? “We” has, but I think I may not be as sensitive as I once was. I just think, “Who hasn’t ‘we’ hurt?”
Have you written in a collective voice before? What was that like? I am a student of Kay Murphy and a child of Toi Derricotte. I believe the personal is political, that the private is the most public, and I believe my poems should make that clear.
First knowledge of Harlem. His name was Dre. He met me at the subway stop to make sure I didn’t get lost. He didn’t have much furniture, but he did have crates and crates of records all over the living room of his apartment. Maybe he was a deejay. I would have asked about the music, but we got…umm…sidetracked. He told me I couldn’t sit on the bed in my “street clothes.” I remember being bothered that he had hand towels and no face towels. In the morning, he asked if I remembered how to get back to the subway.
Which musician, living or dead, should sing at your wedding? Stephanie Mills.
When you dance with your beloved, who is playing on the turntable? Chuck Brown, but of course, we’d want him live and not on a turntable.
Who inspires you right now? Muriel Rukeyser, Jonah D. Mixon-Webster, and Rob Halpern.
What are you working on now? I’m fighting with Wayne Johns over edits to The New Testament, my second book which will be published by Copper Canyon in 2014. (Actually, I’m just fighting with him to get back to me about final drafts I send him as fast as I get back to him about drafts he sends me lol.)
I’m showing my students opportunities in their poems to say more with less.
I’m reading Amber Dermont’s book of short stories, Damage Control.
Tell us about the future. “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”
What urgent advice would you give emerging writers? Use condoms.
If you could have all of Shreveport show for a reading, which poem would you read? It’s a toss up between this one:
Found: Messiah (Blog Entry from “The Dumb, the Bad, and the Dead”) A Shreveport man was killed When he tried to rob two men. Decided he could make money Easier stealing it. Police responding to Gunshots found Messiah Demery, 27, shot once in the chest Trying to rob Rodrigus And Shamicheal. Rodrigus got A gun, but police found Some marijuana, so he’s going to jail Too. This story would have been nicer With some innocent people involved, But one less goblin is one Less goblin is one less.
Or this one:
Track 3: (Back Down) Memory Lane Dangerous men park carefully, Slanting severely-sized Automobiles into the ditches That line the narrowness Of 77th. It’s Friday night In Shreveport. Checks Have been cashed, bills Folded and stashed Into wallets and bra straps. Card tables, folding chairs, And every gold tooth in town Crowd our grandmother’s Camelback shotgun house Because gambling’s illegal In Shreveport and she cuts Only two dollars a hand For every joker that slides Into a queen. We don’t know Minnie Riperton’s dead Years now, buried With one breast to her name. School-uniformed in a corner, We learn to listen to music Over hollers, through Smoke. Her soprano comes across A photograph in giggles, But ends up crying, Save me. We think we’d like that Kind of love, sad and steeped In trumpets, though a block up The entire decade shoots For words to put in the dictionary: Crackhead, drive-by. Loss And gain. The bullet Meant for a man named Money Removes his baby sister’s chin. Ask for horns in Shreveport And sirens are on the way. We can’t hear either, grandmama Calling for us to change The tape, No more slow songs, Keep us awake, these years Before surgeons slice her In vain, and we drive Away, our car stereos Playing rhythm and blues.
If you could have all of Harlem show for this reading, which poem would you read, and why?
“O Blood of the River of songs,
O songs of the River of Blood,”
Let me lie down. Let my words
Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
And perfect as a moan
That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
Of heaven. Blues for the angels
Who miss them still. Blues for
For my people and what water
They know. O weary drinkers
Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
So close? Why sing of rivers
With fathers of our own to miss?
I remember mine and taste a stain
Like blood coursing the body
Of a man chased by a mob. I write
His running, his sweat: here,
He climbs a poplar for the sky,
But it is only sky. The river?
Follow me. You’ll see. We tried
To fly and learned we couldn’t
Swim. Dear singing river full
Of my blood, are we as loud under
Water? Is it blood that binds
Brothers? Or is it the Mississippi
Running through the fattest vein
Of America? When I say home,
I mean I wanted to write some
Lines. I wanted to hear the blues,
But here I am swimming in the river
Again. What flows through the fat
Veins of a drowned body? What
America can a body call
Home? When I say Congo, I mean
Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood.
When I say Euphrates, I mean,
If only you knew what blood
We have in common. So much,
In Louisiana, they call a man like me
Red. And red was too dark
For my daddy. And my daddy was
Too dark for America. He ran
Like a man from my mother
And me. And my mother’s sobs
Are the songs of Bessie Smith
Who wears more feathers than
Death. O the death my people refuse
To die. When I was 18, I wrote down
The river though I couldn’t win
A race, climbed a tree that winter, then
Fell, flat on my wet, red face. Line
After line, I read all the time,
But “there was nothing I could do