On May 4, as coronavirus continued to keep half the world on lockdown, the Pulitzer Prizes were awarded—including, for the first time, to openly gay Black men, and not one, but two: Michael R. Jackson for his musical A Strange Loop (read our interview with him here) and Atlanta-based Jericho Brown for his third poetry collection, The Tradition, published last year.
The collection, even for those (like me) not steeped in the inside-baseball world of poetry, is a gorgeous, intricate landscape of imagery, metaphor, and poetic form and structure, moving fluidly between the exterior worlds of racism and homophobia; the interior worlds of love, desire, joy, fear, and family; and the spaces where outer and inner worlds connect, collide, and feed on each other. Some of the poems are epic and sweeping in their scope, others are deceptively short and simple.
Amid a life suddenly bombarded by post-Pulitzer requests, Brown took time to chat with TheBody about what it’s like to receive one of the world’s biggest prizes amid a social-distancing shutdown, how his 2012 HIV diagnosis informs (and doesn’t inform) his life and work, and why people should loosen up about poetry and just try to enjoy it more, the way we do pop songs on the radio.
Tim Murphy: So, congratulations, Jericho! Your gorgeous third collection of poetry won the Pulitzer! Are you having all the feelings?
Jericho Brown: (laughs) I feel a bit overwhelmed, in the best way. When you emailed yesterday, my schedule was starting to feel impossible. But one of the first writers I read when I was young was Nikki Giovanni. I heard her speak when I was younger, and she was asked, “What advice do you give to young writers?” and she said, “The only advice I give is ‘Never say no.’” So I’ve been building this career where I’m giving as many yes’s as I possibly can. So I’m glad to talk to you.
You know, all poets are ambassadors. We’re the ones responsible for spreading poetry. We don’t have DJs to play our music! We don’t get the same kind of advances [fees] as other writers, but we still believe in what we do and that it’s very important to the fabric of this nation’s culture. So I think the message to me is that I got the Pulitzer in the middle of a pandemic for some reason. So I need to be a better ambassador instead of just moping around my house and regretting that I didn’t get to go out and party the day I won the Pulitzer. So this is a time of introspection and meditation for me rather than partying.
It’s also the 70th anniversary of poet Gwendolyn Brooks winning the Pulitzer, the first African-American to win it. When I met her many years ago, I wanted to be a poet but I didn’t know what that meant. So I feel like this is my opportunity to finally meet her in some spiritual realm and say, “Hello again, Miss Brooks.”
TM: So, when and how did you find out you won it? What went through your head?
JB: The classy thing about the Pulitzer is that everybody finds out at the same time. With other prizes you win [Ed.: Brown’s The Tradition was also a 2019 National Book Award finalist], they tell you to keep it a secret, or you find out you’re a finalist, and they make you dress up and spend a lot of money to fly somewhere, just to be told you don’t get the damn thing! But with the Pulitzer, everyone is genuinely surprised, including your publisher, who has to figure out how to print more books fast. So I was watching the Pulitzer announcements on the livestream like everyone else. I was proud that I hadn’t spent the entire week obsessing about it. I got up at 3 a.m. the morning before to go to the bathroom and saw a text from my editor saying, “I’m rooting for you and hoping they make the right decision.” I was like, “What is he talking about? Oh, it’s the Pulitzer!” Then I could not get back to sleep. I must have watched every online Diana Ross performance there is. So 3 p.m. finally comes—and I win. I was completely in tears and screaming.
TM: Were you immediately barraged with calls and texts?
JB: Yes, and they were all important to me, but the most important thing was that before 5 p.m., I got calls from Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and Rita Dove, all Black women poets who’ve won the Pulitzer prize. They knew I needed those calls! I really appreciated them reaching out to me. They were such examples to me as a younger writer. And I’ve done at least seven interviews a day since then!
TM: Was the Pulitzer something you’d ever thought about? Was it among certain markers of what you thought “success” meant as a poet?
JB: I think, in the U.S., that it’s pretty accepted that it’s the biggest recognition a poet can get from the outward [non-poetry] world. But for poets and writers, the real success happens amid the writing, when you make a leap you never made before, use a new metaphor, or maybe because your writing reaches a certain person or community. Like, after my first book [Please, 2008] came out, I got an email from a minister who said to me that something about how I wrote about my relationship with my father changed his own relationship with his son. That’s success to me. My goal when I was young was just to have a book, and everything else would be what we call in New Orleans a lagniappe—something extra. I’ve been honored for The Tradition all year, the National Book Award finalist and reviews in The Washington Post and The New York Times, so I’ve had a lot to be grateful for already.
This is a big deal in terms of my background, region, and race. Lots of people think that Black people can’t read or write. I went to Dillard University, a small private Black school in New Orleans. It equipped me really well to be the person I am in the world. Now Dillard can say that they had something to do with the education of a Pulitzer winner. I’m from a small city, Shreveport, and now they can say that they have a Pulitzer winner, and that makes me feel proud that I was able to bring that home to them.
TM: Indeed. You’re the first openly gay Black man to win the Pulitzer for poetry.
JB: Michael [R. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer for playwriting] and I are the first openly gay Black men to win a Pulitzer. People have been sending me messages saying, very directly, that they didn’t know there were Black gay poets. I’m opening up a realm of possibility that they didn’t know existed. It’s so important for people to see and know people with the identity they’re born with. You say, “Wait, I can have a kid like them? A family? Run for office?” Michael and I kiki’d over Twitter DMs the other night. This is a really important moment for us. I feel like I’m joining a long tradition among Black queer men, from Tarell Alvin McCraney [the playwright whose script was adapted into the Oscar-winning Moonlight] as far back as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, then James Baldwin. I feel like I’m part of something much larger than myself.
TM: And indeed you do a lot of nodding and bowing in The Tradition to writers who came before you, from Baldwin to Essex Hemphill to Marie Howe.
JB: People are saying, “Oh, there’s this new flowering of Black literature,” but I think Black people could always write, tell a good story, had the talents that attend to narrative and folklore, just as much as anyone. Black people have been publishing poems, novels, stories, and plays for a very long time. But there are more options now. There is more possibility for who has access to Black writing, and queer writing as well. One of my jobs as a writer is to show that what I’m doing isn’t just for me. I have the backing of hundreds of years of ancestry behind me. And Black writers are always the most radical of writers. So in that sense, my job is to be a little more radical than even my forebears!
TM: I wanted to ask you what, if anything, you think is the relationship between poetry and politics, or what’s called “issues in the real world.” In an interview you did a few years ago, you said: “We like knowing that Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov and Sonia Sanchez and Grace Paley were willing to march and be arrested on the behalf of some ethical and moral cause because it suggests to us that the challenges set forth in their poems can indeed be met.”
JB: I believe that art moves us. When we read or see something, we have a feeling, and often when something’s really good, we cry. The body tells us, before we can think it, that there’s something going on. And if you have a deep emotional response to something, that leads to thinking. First you feel, then you ask, “Why am I crying?” Any sustained thought leads to a change in one’s actions, or changing one’s inactions. In my poems, you’re reading about sexual assault, police brutality against Black people, how we’ve treated the natural world—and you feel an emotion, and suddenly you remember things about yourself. Like with me, I didn’t realize how much I was pledged to the land. My grandfathers were sharecroppers. I grew up taking care of people’s yards and flowers—and my own. Writing the poems gave me an emotion that led to my thinking that reminded me who I really was, which will change how I act.
So, can I get the book in the hands of a person whose actions make more of a difference? Poems can only do what they do one-on-one. I thank God for librarians, books, and book people. When you read a book, all you’re really doing is looking at etchings of black ink on a white page. And yet you begin to see people, places, things, images, actions. And if it’s really good, you believe it so much that you want to know what happens next, line to line and page to page. And that, my friend, is absolute magic.
You can live either on the track of career and family or in the field of creation. I thank God every day that I was born gay, where you understand life as a field into which you can pass anything you want to create, a way of living that is original to you, that makes you happy.
So, with my poem, “Stand,” where there are two men making love. Maybe reading it will make you a better lover to your lover. If I write a poem about my father, maybe you’ll think that there might be other ways to be a son. Reading takes us off the track of assimilation and standardization and makes us think and create for ourselves. That’s why I think reading and writing are behind resistance to every oppressive regime.
TM: I did want to ask you about HIV in your poetry. You were diagnosed in 2012. And in The Tradition at least, HIV seems to come up explicitly only a few times, such as in the poem, “The Virus,” told in the voice of HIV itself, which says to you at the end of the poem, “If I can’t leave you dead, I’ll have you vexed.” I hate asking writers what their work “means” or “is about,” but ... can I ask?
JB: What I think I’m getting at is that we know that anyone who is willing to read now knows that HIV is not a death sentence and that having sex with me with my undetectable viral load is safer than having sex with someone whose HIV status or viral load you don’t know. But people are still making decisions that have nothing to do with what we know. They’re not mature adults. James Baldwin said of Americans that he’d never seen a bigger bunch of infants. The COVID-19 virus is showing just how true that is. You have to convince people to put a mask on? And similarly, many queer people will have a prejudice against people with HIV. So with that poem, this fear is still there somewhere for all of us—and it turns out to be the same homophobic fear of ourselves that others have of us.
TM: Where does your own HIV status fit into how you see yourself and think about your work, if it does at all?
JB: I contracted the virus because I got raped. Otherwise, I would not have it, because I was afraid of the virus. I was a sexual late bloomer. I didn’t have sexual intercourse with a man until I was 24, and it was only because my 25th birthday was coming and I was like, “I gotta get this goddamn thing done!” So I would say that HIV has everything to do with my work, but also, as poets, we have to be able to access all our experiences and equalize them. So everything I know about—every traumatic experience, every joyful one—I have right above my head and I can pull them down. Some kinds of materials readers think of as “the big deal,” but I think of them all the same. So in this book there’s police brutality and the fact that people kill unarmed Black and Brown people for no reason, and after the video comes out, we hear again and again “no indictment.” But when I’m writing these poems, there’s also my mother, love, romantic love, the fact that I made a sandwich today. So HIV has had all the influence in the world on me and, at the same time, none at all. Like with being Black. I’m Black! There’s no doubt about it. So that’s had all the influence in the world—yet when I’m writing, I’m so much myself that I don’t have to be a Black self in the midst of that.
TM: Right. One thing I love about the collection is that often I’m never quite sure what one thing a poem is about. It’s about many things, and it’s constantly shifting. Do you think consciously about how oblique or explicit you want your poems to be for readers?
JB: I’m not thinking that I want to make anything oblique. Poets are always surprised at how other people think of their work as oblique, whereas it all seems pretty simple and plain to us. The thing is, people want more from poetry than they want from any other art. When we watch someone dance and do 37 flips, we [know] something great happened. Same when we listen to people play piano or violin. But with poetry, we’ve been taught that it has to be interpreted and explicated, so when people get to the end of a line of poetry, before they read the next line, they start the process of decoding. You should just listen to the poem first, the way you do regular old pop music. Poems that bear a certain amount of resonance will ask you to do the work you need to do.
TM: You’re saying we should just try to enjoy poetry more on its face and not feel like it has to be analyzed?
JB: Right. Have the same experience with poetry that you have with any other art. Poetry is the only art where many people are comfortable saying out loud that they hate it. Right in front of me—a poet! And I say to them, “You don’t like any poems?” And I have not yet met someone who can’t then immediately begin to recite “We Real Cool” or “The Road Not Taken” or parts of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” or some poem they first read when they were 7 or 8. So it’s clear that this poem has sustained you for the last 40 goddamn years!
TM: That is so true. If even one poem stays with you that long, then it shows that you can connect with poetry the same way you connect with a book, a movie, a song. So, Jericho, how are you holding up during our COVID era?
JB: It’s made me more busy, because you have to spray everything down before you can eat it! And if I’d gotten the Pulitzer at any other time, I also would’ve gotten laid that same night, which isn’t what I did. This is the worst time to be single. But it’s also been an opportunity for me to have a different kind of reaction to this win—to be more introspective. The day I won, when not taking calls or emails, I sat on my couch here in Atlanta and looked out the window at the world, at my yard, and thought about how far I’ve come. I wrote down the names of people who weren’t here to see me win. Like my grandmother and Rudolph Byrd, a gay Black man who was a mentor of mine who introduced me to the work of Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Marlon Riggs. He used to teach at Emory, and I had access to him for just one summer. I wasn’t even drinking on my couch, but I sort of toasted him and sent my gratitude to him. I was having conversations with dead people, and I wouldn’t have been doing that the day of winning the Pulitzer if it weren’t for corona.