The Tradition is Jericho Brown’s third book and second full-length collection. It’s a tumultuous collection where he plays with form, celebrates life, and braids together aspects of culture, childhood, violence, and transformation into a moving book. He juxtaposes violence with flowers and fruit. In “Night Shift”, he examines the painful intimacies of domestic abuse and the layered, contradictory emotions one might feel toward their abuser: “Midnight is many colors. Black and blue / Are only two.”
In “Correspondence“, Jericho specifically writes about wholeness and how violence affects one’s own psyche and self-perception:
I am writing to you from the other side
Of my body where I have never been
Shot and no one’s ever cut me.
I had to go back this far in order
To present myself as a whole being…
There’s a yearning to separate oneself from the traumas that affect them, to “cross back” and become “the one who leaps” (quoted from “Crossing”), to heal and begin the journey again, to reimagine what life is supposed to be like apart from brokenness and loss. In the collection’s final poem, “Duplex: Centro”, Jericho writes “None of the beaten end where they begin.”
The Tradition explores change — both how it shapes us internally and as a society.
I interviewed Jericho about this collection earlier this week.
Thanks so much for your time, Jericho, and for these incredible poems.
Thanks so much for doing this.
One of my favorite aspects of “The Tradition” is that it celebrates color and Black culture, from “The Card Tables” to the description of how fucking hardworking so many people of color are in “”Foreday in the Morning” to the line in one of the “Duplex” poems: “A poem is a gesture toward home.” These celebratory moments are interwoven with pain and institutionalized racism and grief, and I think this makes them that much more important. They exist in the landscape of the book as flowers, blossoming in the rocky, infertile places where it’s least expected. How do beauty and joy operate in your own life? Do you have any advice for others who want to grow and embrace joy despite their circumstances and hardships?
I do it on purpose. I mean I seek out opportunities for joy and for beauty. I really have a time in my day, usually right after my first meal, where I sit for a few minutes in front of the big window and decide that I like the color of a flower I see outside or the way it’s so nice that I have heat when it’s cold out. I lose my way here and there, but if I order the day like that from the beginning, it becomes incumbent upon me throughout the day to get really ecstatic about things other folks would think of as quite mundane. I means for more joy in my life, but it also drives other people crazy because I’m generally excited and excitable. Of course, I don’t care that my joy drives other people crazy.
“Entertainment Industry” is a painfully poignant poem about gun violence and our country’s lack of weapons restrictions. Why is reform necessary and how does a poem about gun violence fit in with the rest of these political and personal poems? How does the U.S. fail to value what it boasts about being able to protect?
Well, I think it fits because the kind of gun violence the poem bemoans is only committed by white people with very, very few exceptions. And white people somehow don’t get pathologized in spite of the fact that they are historically steeped in this sort of thing. I don’t think any peoples should be pathologized, but I’m fascinated that white people don’t considering some of the things white people and only white people have done and continue to do. It’s hilarious. And I’d like more white folks to notice.
Definitely. How can people be so overprotective of their kids yet fail to recognize that the threat of gun violence could largely be curbed by stricter gun restrictions? In fact, today, nationwide protests for gun reform are happening in schools. I hope so much that these students’ parents and families (including my own) pay attention and have a change of heart.
Okay, next question. I recently read “The Book of Unknown Americans” and – SPOILER ALERT – I was devastated by the ending, where Señora Rivera loses her husband. I cried for three days afterward, in secret, mourning for her loss and contemplating what my life would be like should my husband die.
Your poem “Of My Fury” explores this too, how beyond the normal dangers of living, your lover is at risk of being harmed or killed simply because of the color of “all / His flawless skin.” I want to be angry and decry the situational threat that our society assigns to people of color simply by living, by existing. It’s so wrong that this poem is necessary, and that this poem isn’t accepted by or understood by so many white Americans. How do you cope with these race-specific stressors?
Oh, I’m not sure I “cope.” I cry and think about ways I can do violence like any other human being would. I just haven’t gotten caught on a day or in a location where my wish toward violence ended up in anyone’s murder. It’s important to know that anyone of us could burn down or assist in the burning down of a Walgreen’s. Anyone of us could riot. And for good reason. Other than through my poems, I haven’t rioted. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to go to prison, but even that isn’t the same as “coping.”
Your past books have also dealt with the themes of domestic violence and your own childhood (am I assuming that correctly, that you’re writing from experience in your poems about being young?). Every time I read one of your works about the violence and neglect you’ve endured, I ache. Is writing about these experiences cathartic at all? How have they been received?
Well, obviously, my dad doesn’t like them, and he thinks he should somehow be paid if it’s okay for me to make a career based of them. So maybe he would like them if I could get him some money for them. Or maybe that tells you all you really need to know about my daddy in terms his reception of my poems. My mother hasn’t said much of anything. My sister thinks it’s really good work but also has said she feels the need to shower after reading my work; she’s a filmmaker. I think some people like my poems, and some people don’t, and either way, it’s none of my business. I just want everyone to know the poems exist so they have them to consider. I don’t care how they land in terms of their reception of them. I only care that they have some reason to land in the first place.
I think every book I’ve ever written has helped me deal with that book’s subject matter in a more mature way. I think writing poems about having been raped in a way that is not as shrouded as it is in my earlier two books has helped me deal with that like a survivor instead of dealing with it like a person who did something that made me deserve it.
Wow. That’s powerful. Thank you for your vulnerability.
A few of these poems discuss the speaker’s mother, tenderly and fairly, but not always in the best light. I’m also very conflicted in my relationships – which are rapidly deteriorating – with all four of my parents. What, if anything, have you found provides comfort or helps you to cope and work through the hurt and disappointment of those relationships? Have you been able to find forgiveness at all?
It’s interesting you would say this because I think everything I say about my mother in this book is the kindest I’ve ever been to my mother in my life as a writer. Interesting. Maybe I’m not so nice to her in the duplex where she’s mentioned because she doesn’t get as much agency there, but in all, I think she’s quite a powerful figure in the first section of the book. It’s not so hard forgiving my parents since I don’t have to live with them and because I understand — as a person who continues to fuck up here and there — that they did the very best they thought they could do under their circumstance. More than that, I know they love me. At any rate, they’re really too old (and in some ways too feeble) for me to hold grudges against them. They aren’t really capable of raising hell the way they used to because it could quite literally kill them. They’ve mellowed, and I think they see that I’m okay, that I eat and pay my mortgage, etc.
That’s good to hear. And it’s particularly relatable. Thanks so much for doing this interview with me.
Thanks again for everything, Kelsey. You’re the best.
The Tradition will be available in April 2019 for $17 from Copper Canyon Press.