Jericho Brown’s Credo

I came across today’s little dose of magic in a Kenyon Review interview with Jericho Brown, whose book The New Testament left me curious to know more about his life. How much of the book, in which his brother Messiah’s death seems to occur twice and  in two different manners, is metaphor? How much (auto)biography? The interview didn’t answer those questions but it did reveal some surprising aspects of Brown’s writing process and his literary values.

And ultimately, don’t those values and the metaphors we make of them matter as much to poets as the literal facts of anyone’s life?

Interviewer: In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?

Jericho Brown: I am not writing until I’m writing what John Crowe Ransom thought I couldn’t and never thinking about John Crowe Ransom while doing it.

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Every poem is a love poem. Every poem is a political poem. So say the masters. Every love poem is political. Every political poem must fall in love.

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The political poem has an aim, whether the poet is aware of it or not. When I say I love you, I mean for you to understand that I exist in relation to you. And to your view of me.

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Every poem challenges or supports the status quo. So say the masters. Poets whose work supports the status quo often fail to acknowledge that their poems are just as political as poets whose work questions it.

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The love poet is not afraid of -isms or phobias. She believes her love, the love she pours into her poems, overpowers. This belief makes her a vulnerable person on this planet where weapons are known to be sharp or explosive.

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The political poet loves me. He says so in his poems. I meet him with my extended hand; he opens his arms. Literally.

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In the political poem, each character is a figure meant to represent some aspect of the whole. I write, “Derrick” in a love poem thinking men other than me are in love.

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You can’t love me if you don’t love politically.

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Hope is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.

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Poems built around the idea of art as expression—an idea that makes me want to pull my hair out! What one chooses to wear in the morning is expression. Art is not.

Some “drafts” suggest that because a feeling is prevalent that prevalence is enough for the poem, but drafts born from this sense are not poems; they are reports.

Poems change landscapes rather than photograph them. They have language and linebreak enough for us to see beyond any poet’s ignorance as a person.

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Do you love me? So say the masters.

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What is the sound of me shaking my head?

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We look to literature to see what we hide from within ourselves.

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An event happening 10 minutes or 10 years ago matters if anyone can indeed feel the effects of it now.

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I will never understand the spirit of my ancestors, but I know it. I know it lives in me. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming the manifestation of their hope. I write because my writing mind is the only chance I have of becoming what the living dead are for me. I exist because I was impossible for someone else to be before me.

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