Jericho Brown: ‘Poetry is a veil in front of a heart beating at a fast pace’

The US poet on tensions between religion, sexuality and race – and why writing has saved his life

Jericho Brown was born in Louisiana and teaches English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has won several fellowships including, in 2016, the Guggenheim. In an early incarnation, he worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before gathering momentum as a poet. His first collection, Please, won the American book award. His second, The New Testament, written in a spirit of tense lamentation, urgently addresses what it is to be gay, black and living in the US today.

Why The New Testament? Does the Bible provide your poetry with a holy infrastructure?
I grew up in a religious family – it was a requirement that we knew the scriptures. In 2010, I became very ill with HIV. I had not, for a while, thought about the relationship I had with God. I had spent so much time, as a child, talking with God and felt he was speaking to me. When I got sick, I wondered what he would say about this devastating thing. I wondered if God could comfort me in the ways I had once been taught to comfort myself. The Bible became the mythology around which I could create: the sound of scriptures came through my ear and into the poetry.

Was it difficult to continue the conversation with God when, in many religious circles, if you are gay, you are treated as a pariah?
I go to a church that is not based on fear of people. I’m not interested in any philosophy that needs inferior people for its worshippers to feel superior. Evangelical Christianity remains violently homophobic. There are religious people who do not understand why you are alive if you are gay.

Are poets preachers without sermons?
It’s a calling. You do it whether you like it or not.

Your poems are like powder kegs, ready to explode. The tension is in the sense of a huge amount held back
The challenge was exercising restraint in describing a political reality: what is it to be a citizen of a country that does not want you as its citizen? Or to be a brother or a son in a family that would rather not have you? It is the hardest thing to take chaos and make order of it. Poetry is a veil in front of a heart beating at a very fast pace.

Your parents barely appear, although the word “brother” frequently does. Could we unpack the word – you’ve no actual brother?
No – the book is allegorical. I’m interested in what it means to be a brother. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. Back then, if black men passed one another on the street, they’d say: “How you doing, brother?” Now, they just look at you… The loss of this greeting is something I elegise. As to my parents, they didn’t think I could do this [make a living as an artist]. When my father found out I was going to be an English major, he didn’t speak to me for a very long time. It was also about sexuality. My parents have no patience with the fact I’m gay.

It is threatening to them?
I guess that’s the word. I don’t know, it’s about image – how it makes them look. You do not conform – why did we do all the work of raising you? My father and mother were landscapers, mowed lawns, did yard work.

Is your use of metaphor protective coloration (if the phrase will serve in this context)?
A metaphor is a sign of desperation when we need another world to describe what we are feeling. Metaphors are about desperation and safety. We call out to metaphor because a metaphor makes us feel safe.

In your opening poem, Colosseum, love and pain seem inseparable
I’m interested in that intersection: where does tenderness meet violence? They can live within the same body at the same time. I try to figure out how – and why – that is possible.

You write: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” To what extent is your book about race?
Right now, I don’t know which book isn’t about race. We either deal with it or have the privilege of not having to deal with it. US schools have a Black History Month. You learn about Africans on ships to the US who were sold at auction into slavery, but never learn who did it. We take everything out of context when we look at race. We only see the people who are not white.

You’re outspoken about the position of black people in the US. “Nobody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still a reason why.” How does this feel?
It just hurts. And what hurts most is how normal it is.

You worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of Orleans. What did you learn?
To be ready. I had to write a speech when Hurricane Georges came along. I knew what would go down. I was in love with New Orleans. If the mayor wanted a speech telling people not to use guns on New Year’s Eve, I knew people whose children had been murdered by these falling bullets.

What has teaching creative writing taught you?
How to break rules. Whenever I lay down a maxim to students, it makes them want to overcome it. Poetry is about surprise. Every time you write a line, you want to subvert it…

Why so many elegies in your book?
When people I love die, the question is: what will I be to fill the space left behind? The question has its own misery but makes you feel you have work to do. Poetry has saved my life. Poets like Lucille Clifton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anna Swir…They keep me sane. Poetry fills that space.

What books are on your bedside table?
I don’t believe in bedside table books. If they’re good in a page-turner way, I don’t get the sleep I need. If they’re difficult or laborious in even the best ways, then I never actually end up finishing the book because I keep falling asleep. I do all of my reading while sitting upright, and I’m more likely to keep books by the toilet than I am by the bed. Beckett’s complete plays are there now.

How do you decide which books to read? Social media buzz, word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?
Years ago, I made what Reetika Vazirani called a family tree. It meant reading all the work of my favourite poets – Lucille Clifton and Louise Glück at that time. Next, I read all of those poets’ favourite poets, which is how I ended up reading William Carlos Williams and George Oppen and the whole of the Bible, and listening to all of Marvin Gaye. The next step is to read all of those poets’ favourite poets, etc. It works so that I’m always moving backwards and contextualising the past with the present.

Do you prefer to read on paper or a screen?
I prefer paper for the whole of a book and for work I’m marking. I want to read things that feel as vulnerable as paper.

Which book would you give to a young person?
I really think they should read my books. When I’m writing, I think of myself when I was 19 and younger. That’s the person I think of as audience. Maybe it’s out of line to say my books, but it is true.

• The New Testament by Jericho Brown is published by Picador (£10.99). To order a copy for £9.34 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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