To many, Jericho Brown’s poetry speaks to this particular moment of civil rights activism condemning police brutality. But that’s not all there is to his work, though.
Brown, 45, hit his literary zenith last year when he took home the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his third collection, The Tradition, an earthquakingly masterful work that bends the traditional conventions of poetic form to confront many forms of evil in our society, from sexual violence to mass murder and, yes, the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police.
In a conversation conducted the day after the Derek Chauvin verdict, Brown is quick to point out there are just as many, if not more, poems in his collection about family and erotic love as there are about police brutality. His work, he says, captures the whole spectrum of his life experience, not just how he moves through the world as a Black man in the South.
“It’s always fascinating to me that I wrote a poem about flowers, about the natural world, about the environment, and that no matter how much I write about that, folks can’t see that because, of course, I have to write about that along with my race,” he says ahead of his upcoming Inprint reading on April 26. "I believe that we’re capable of holding more than one thing in our hands at a time."
One of those elements he’s always holding in his hands and heart is his time in the Bayou City—a time that, like his poetry, was filled with both wonder and heartbreak. The Louisiana native vividly recalls the night in graduate school when he was stopped by police and thrown onto the hood of his car to be searched following a drag show at JR’s Bar. Why he was stopped, he’s still not sure, but the experience is one in a long line of bad experiences he and other Black Americans he knows have had with the police.
But it was also in Houston, and especially at the Inprint readings he frequently attended while earning his Ph.D. in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston, that Brown encountered many famous writers, including Mary Oliver and John Updike, and continued to build the foundations of his poetry.
Brown, who currently leads Emory University’s creative writing program, has come a long way since he left Houston—"kicking and screaming,” he jokes—following his graduation in 2007. In addition to a Pulitzer, he’s received the American Book and National Book Critics Circle awards and has been named a Guggenheim fellow. His latest collection was also a National Book Award finalist.
But it’s because of his Houston memories, both good and bad, that the poet says he never misses an opportunity to return to the vibrant city where he came into his own as a writer. Making this visit even more special is the fact that it’s his first time attending an Inprint event as the guest of honor (he has previously appeared as a featured salon reader during Inprint’s 2013 Poets & Writers Ball).
Part of Brown wishes he’d delayed this full-circle moment until he could experience it in person and be part of the synergistic environment he remembers so fondly. But he wants to be a part of bringing art to people who need it most in these trying times.
“Now more than ever, people have been … in need of poetry,” he says. “The poets have become the superheroes of this moment because we are supplying people with what they didn’t know they needed.”
April 26. $5. Online. More info and tickets at inprinthouston.org.