Pulitzer Prize-winning poet brings ‘tradition’ to campus
OWhenever poet Jericho Brown feels chosen to experience something, he jumps into that moment as much as he can. He felt that when he was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – a unique moment in the midst of a global pandemic where his words had the opportunity to help heal readers. Next month, he will share those same words with the UC San Diego campus community at a poetry reading event at the Price Center Theater.
On May 5, Brown will take to campus to read an excerpt from his winning entry “The Tradition” and participate in a moderated Q&A. The event is organized by the Humanities Program to celebrate the inaugural year of One Book Revelle, which unites readers and builds community around a single title. Guests can register to attend the poetry reading, in person or remotely, on the event webpage.
“The Tradition” is Brown’s third book and is recognized by the Pulitzer Board as “a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy and historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.” We spoke to Brown to learn more about his influences, what it’s like to win a Pulitzer during the pandemic, his connection to San Diego and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Can you tell us where you grew up? Have your roots shaped your work?
A. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. I think my work is quite southern in its vernacular. I definitely use the types of phrasing and the types of speech that I heard as a kid.
I also grew up in a family where there were lots of parties on Friday and Saturday nights. But no matter how festive it was, people didn’t miss church on Sunday mornings. I think the black church in particular has a lot to do with how I think about poems – how I think about performance, how I think about everything may be staged, or whatever may be ceded as art. The very structure of the order of the church service probably has a lot to do with how I think of the structure of a poem or a book.
Q. Was there a specific moment when you knew your path was to become a poet?
A. I don’t think there was a definitive moment, but I think I have moments bit by bit. I think I still have those moments – sometimes I think it’s over for me now, and then I’ll finish a poem!
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in libraries. I think seeing poems on the page and hearing them recited from time to time in church is what inspired me to do them. I knew I had feelings from poems. I knew that by reading Langston Hughes or Sylvia Plath, I would feel things. I wanted to make this feeling accessible to other people.
Q. What are some of your influences?
A. I’m really influenced by music. There’s something about Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and the music coming out of Motown in the 60s and 70s that really influenced me. I think I learned there how to organize a work of art – how to create excitement, how to create a mood, how to create sadness in a listener.
I am also influenced by cinema. I think my last book wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t seen Moonlight 17 times. I think there was something about that that changed what I was able to do in my own writing.
Q. What was the experience of receiving a Pulitzer? What does this distinction mean to you personally?
A. It was very exciting for me. We were in the pandemic when I found out, so I really wasn’t leaving my house and no one was coming. I discovered the Pulitzer in a kind of isolation which I think is very different from how anyone else discovered their Pulitzer in previous years.
Suddenly, I could not party, and yet, I had what still seems to me like a huge responsibility. I was the pandemic poet who won the Pulitzer! I had a lot of work to do on Zoom and it was work I was happy to do.
I thought to myself, “Oh, we are in the middle of a moment and poetry is always a help and a balm.” I felt like I was chosen for this moment. And, when I feel like I’ve been chosen for something, I jump into it as much as possible.
Q. Do you think the moment you won the Pulitzer changed the way the public reacted to your work?
A. I think a lot of people discovered poetry during the pandemic and I think it was the best time for them to discover it. I think poetry fills a need we don’t know we have.
During the pandemic – because people were isolated and dealing with very new and very scary things – I think people realized that poetry could kind of hold them back during that moment.
Q. In writing “The Tradition,” did you have any specific hopes for what audiences would take away after reading the collection?
A. It’s an interesting question—yes and no. When you’re working on a book, it’s actually important for you not to think about readers. If you do, you’ll end up trying to write a book that satisfies what you’ve imagined people want to be.
Instead, I think it’s a good idea to write poems and books that really meet your needs and what you want from poetry. I also think it’s impossible not to hope that you touch someone. I’m really glad that there are so many people interested in “La Tradition”, but beyond that, I have to give up.
I’m grateful that something I did made a difference in someone else’s life. I truly believe that about art, it makes a difference in our lives that we cannot measure. The value is too great. So we can’t do what we do for people and yet the act of writing is an act of reaching
Q. Your work presents a new poetic form called the duplex. Can you share a bit about this?
A. I wrote the duplex because I was thinking of these three different forms: the ghazal, the sonnet and the blues. I just wanted to appropriate these forms a little more because I feel close to each of them. I wanted to own them in a way where their identity was made complete in a single poem.
I wanted to do this because I would like my identity to appear fully in one body, you know? I always get called to the mat about my own identity – people want me to be 60% black, 20% queer, 7% southern, etc., and it gets complicated. I would like to be 100% everything that I am without this very misconception that I am somehow at war with myself. I think I am all of these whole things.
Q. What does your writing process look like?
A. I will write anytime, anywhere if something comes my way. To be completely honest, sometimes it feels like changing a period to a dash in a day. I’m obsessed with the smallest things.
I wish it looked like this more often, but sometimes it looks like I start with the first line and end with the last line in one sitting and get a first draft. Very often it feels like looking back at an old work and taking the good things from the failed poems and putting them together with other good lines and good bits from other failed poems.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your connection to San Diego?
A. I used to live here! I was teaching at the University of San Diego – it was my first full-time job as a college professor. While I was there, my first book “Please” came out and I started writing my second book, “The New Testament”. I stayed there for five years. I have good friends and colleagues there and always look forward to coming back.
I’m glad I got to live there because it gave me a new landscape to work with. It sounds small and simple, but if a poet spends enough time in one place, what he has to say and the elements that appear in his poems are different. So when I was in San Diego, there were suddenly canyons and sand in my poems, and that had never happened before.
Q. Finally, what advice would you give to our community of student writers on campus?
A. I think the best advice I can give is to read in a way that allows you to see beyond the topic.
We know that it is possible to write a very unsuccessful poem about kittens. We know that it is possible to write a very beautiful poem about kittens. So my advice is that you find, in any poem, what went well. Try to understand, literally, how it happened. How did you come to fall in love with the poem? Use these same strategies in your own poems.
To learn more about the upcoming poetry reading with poet Jericho Brown, please visit the event website. The event is organized by Revelle College and the Humanities program. It is partnered with UC San Diego New Writing Series, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Black Resource Center, and the LGBT Resource Center.