September 1–7, 2014
Jericho Brown is the recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Nation, New Yorker, New Republic and Best American Poetry. His first book, Please, won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament, was just published this fall by Copper Canyon Press. Brown will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series as part of a Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event on Friday, September 19, at Dumbo Sky with R. A. Villanueva and Cathy Park Hong.
“O Blood of the River songs,
O songs of the River of Blood,”
Let me lie down. Let my words
Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
And perfect as a moan
That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
Of heaven. Blues for the angels
Who miss them still. Blues
For my people and what water
They know. O weary drinkers
Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
So close? Why sing of rivers
With fathers of our own to miss?
I remember mine and taste a stain
Like blood coursing the body
Of a man chased by a mob. I write
His running, his sweat: here,
He climbs a poplar for the sky,
But it is only sky. The river?
Follow me. You’ll see. We tried
To fly and learned we couldn’t
Swim. Dear singing river full
Of my blood, are we as loud under-
Water? Is it blood that binds
Brothers? Or is it the Mississippi
Running through the fattest vein
Of America? When I say home,
I mean I wanted to write some
Lines. I wanted to hear the blues,
But here I am swimming the river
Again. What runs through the fat
Veins of a drowned body? What
America can a body call
Home? When I say Congo, I mean
Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood.
When I say Euphrates, I mean,
If only you knew what blood
We have in common. So much,
In Louisiana, they call a man like me
Red. And red was too dark
For my daddy. And my daddy was
Too dark for America. He ran
Like a man from my mother
And me. And my mother’s sobs
Are the songs of Bessie Smith
Who wears more feathers than
Death. O the death my people refuse
To die. When I was 18, I wrote down
The river though I couldn’t win
A race, climbed a tree that winter, then
Fell, flat on my wet, red face. Line
After line, I read all the time,
But “there was nothing I could do
–From The New Testament, Copper Canyon Press, 2014.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
In Terrance Hayes’ “A Small Novel” (one of the under-discussed poems from Wind in a Box) Hayes writes: “On its blank last page I write the poem // ‘The Blue Langston’ which begins: ‘O Blood of the River songs, O song of the River of Blood,’ / and ends: ‘There was nothing I could do about Race.’”
After reading the poem, I guess I got a little frustrated by the fact that the book had all these exciting personas, like “The Blue Baraka” and “The Blue Seuss,” yet it only gives us the beginning and ending of what would be “The Blue Langston.”
I wanted that poem to exist in full because of my love for Langston Hughes. He’s a figure so many people refer to as “Langston,” not because we ever knew him and not because we mean any disrespect by using his first name. We say, “Langston,” and each of us thinks, “my Langston.”
What are you working on right now?
You come with a little
Black string tied
Around your tongue
Knotted to remind
Where you came from
And why you left
Of people whose
Names need no
Do you say God
Now that the night
Rises sooner? How
Dare you wake to work
Before any alarm?
I am the man asking,
The great grandson
Made so by the dead
Tenant farmers promised
A plot of land to hew.
They thought they could
Own the dirt they were
Bound to. In that part
Of the country, a knot
Means something you
Get after getting knocked
Down, and story means
Lie. In your part
Of the country, class
Means school, this room
Where we practice
Words like rope, because
We hope to undo your
Tongue, so you can tell
A story or make
A promise or grow a lie.
What’s a good day for you?
Any day I actually get a draft out of my body and onto the page, I feel like everything else is really no big deal. That’s about the only time I’m actually relaxed … because the only thing I know I’m supposed to be doing on this planet is writing poems. Everything else often feels like guesswork.
So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?
My home is in Atlanta, but until I moved here, I always thought of New Orleans as the place I had made home. Atlanta’s good for me because I can always find a spades game or some other similar trouble to get myself into. I’ve spent enough time away from people who look like and are like me to still be excited about the privilege of living so close to those people.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Oh, that’s hard to narrow down. Can I make a list?
Rickey Laurentiis is an OF COURSE. Nobody’s talking about Marianne Moore enough. I love Monica Ferrell. Nicole Sealey is a special brand of genius. John Murillo is my brother in the word. I really do think D. Nurkse’s work is underrated. Who doesn’t want to marry Dorothea Lasky? Whitman’s pretty cool.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
I’m sort of behind because I’ve been tinkering with a website and a tenure file more than I’ve been reading. When I left off, here’s what I loved:
Hello the Roses
To Anacreon in Heaven
Large White House Speaking
The Most Natural Thing
As Long as Trees Last
The Rose of January
Lisa Russ Spaar
The Vital System
The Glacier’s Wake
Nicole Terez Dutton
If One of Us Should Fall
Michael Tod Edgerton
Dear Weather Ghost
Hemming the Water
The Stick Soldiers
If I Should Say I Have Hope
The Green-go Turn of Telling
The Hundred Grasses
Debts & Lessons
You Are Not Dead
Man Vs. Sky
So embarrassing, I know. I really should be more responsible, but sometimes, I get clouded by things other than what really matters. I have a lot of catching up to do.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate hair and sing to my hair,
And what I run my fingers through you should run your
For every need in me is as good as a touch from you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Now that I have authored my tender Father
As if his love
For me seemed a sin,
I turn to the actual awful dodger,
The me who carried a pen
With him on trips to Brooklyn,
And finally begin to see what I said was no biggie:
All those raw Bed-Stuy nights I spent with every Rob,
I lack meter and rhyme, lack what led me to every Jack.
It gives me yet another chance to point out that I keep getting invited to every borough but the Bronx.