This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jericho Brown’s Please (New Issues, 2008).
H.L. Hix: When I reach the end of “Pause” I can’t help but hear the slang usage of “the man” resonating, which leads me to variant readings of the sentence that composes the last three and a half lines of the poem. For instance, reading the last clause as “if I hide [, then] inside the man I must be cold” is different from reading it as “if I hide / Inside the man [, then] I must be cold.” And so on. How important are such ambiguities (those created by echoes “external” to the poem, and those created “within” the poem itself) to the aims of your poetry?
Jericho Brown: Ambiguity seems to me the ultimate aim of any line of poetry. It is part of what excites both the reader and the writer as, contrary to the beliefs of anyone who fears art, ambiguity allows for meanings that enhance clarity, that make known the absolute complexity of an idea or experience the artist attempts to name.
The poems in Please definitely make much of what Stephen Henderson calls mascon words and images, and I do mean for a term like “the man” to highlight the power dynamics (oppression?) ever present in the lover/beloved relationship. Doing so allows me to write what I hope are poems that are at once black and gay, poems which have at their heart a voice which belongs to a complicated personality readers come to know as they read each line.
HH: If I had to identify a single polarity as the axis on which the book turns, it would be the hand vs. the tongue/mouth/voice. From the first poem (“Speak to me in a lover’s tongue…”) through the last (“…my mouth plays / Now as it did then…”), from lament (“Forgive us, Father, the use of our hands”) to praise (“his hand opens like the hand of God above me”), the hand and the mouth strive with one another. Would I be right to read this as your book’s version of the body and the spirit?
JB: Yes, Harvey. I suspect this makes you an ideal reader for me as you’re so good at asking these questions that you leave little for me to say in response…The most I can add is that I’ve always been taken with Plato’s reasons for throwing poets out of the city. They are overtaken and possessed. Their bodies are not their own. For Plato, the definition of a poet is the same as the definition many of us have for a person in love. My work concerns itself with the ways love leads to touch and the fact that touch may well be an invasion.
What I really like about your question is the phrase, “this as your book’s version of the body and the spirit.” It seems to suggest that every book of poetry has as its underlying purpose some set of comments about the body and the spirit. Does each poet have a version of the body and the spirit he means to convey? Can we begin to judge work based on how well body and spirit are rendered? What a wonderful way to think of poetry and to approach books! Wouldn’t it be lovely for us to teach our students to read in search of body and spirit? I am under the strange impression that words last and that my body won’t. I think about this every day.
HH: Obviously music informs your work. Would it be reading too much into the poems, because of the frequent biblical/religious references (the burning bush, Joshua/Jericho, et al.), to hear—behind the work of Coltrane, Strayhorn, Ross, Joplin, and others—the spiritual at work in these poems?
JB: Music (and popular music in particular) is one of the few embodiments of the spirit we allow ourselves to enjoy without feeling fear or shame. Indeed, I think of the book’s singers, bands, musicians, and songwriters as vehicles for questions and musings I have about the spirit.
Isn’t the spiritual at work in every poem? I hope so. I hope that, whether or not we believe in any god, we return to good art because it enlivens in us and makes us aware of some part of the self we cannot completely name. Art is not simply stimulation for our emotions; it is the recognition and acknowledgment of the depths of our beings.