The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Jericho Brown about his book The New Testament, elegies, childhood, and the size of his forehead.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Ciri: Hi. I am curious about the title The New Testament.
Jericho: My mother’s very upset about that title. She still thinks that maybe I’ll change it…
Ciri: Haha. You could leave copies in hotel room drawers… next to the phone book.
Brian S: I suppose I can see that, assuming she finds it sacrilegious.
Jericho: I was thinking a lot about what I wanted a second book to be for me, the kind of work I wanted it to do in my life as the poet of the book, and I was looking at some of the content and some of what I was clearly excavating about myself… Will y’all help with that? I’d love it if the book was in every hotel room.
Jennifer: Hi, Jericho! So have you started to think of Please as the Old Testament?
Jericho: No, I didn’t think of Please at all. I just thought I should write again and that what I should write should have some value to me as a writer, should change me as a writer.
Ciri: Did it change you?
Jericho: Yes! I’m taller and my smile is brighter.
Brian S: Ha!
Jericho: But really, it gave me a better idea of what kinds of things I’d be expecting from myself as an artist. It helped me understand that I would always want to try something different.
Ciri: The cover has lots of oil paint like shading and also suffering. Did you choose the cover?
Brian S: What was it that drove you to the New Testament specifically as source material? I was raised in a fundamentalist household, and the text is an innate part of my childhood now, so I can see doing something similar even though I’m no longer a believer.
Jericho: Yes. I love the painting so much. I first saw it in a Facebook group (huh?) of gay black male writers. Someone posted it there, and I showed it to my partner, and we sort of stared at each other for a full three minutes with our mouths open. The book had already been taken, and THERE was my cover!
Brian S: It’s so awesome when that happens.
Jericho: I think I was trying to figure out the last part of that sentence.
Ciri: The somberness… and then lots of fiery desire in the book…
Jericho: I wanted to be honest with myself about my childhood and whether or not I was still that kid who so fervently thought of Christ as Lord and Savior.
Brian S: That’s a tough place to go.
Jericho: Yes, it was hard because I was afraid I would come out of it without a God.
Evie: Hey, Jericho!
Jericho: Hey, Evie, love.
Evie: That’s close to my question for you. With all of the elegies and death in this book, is there redemption? (Haven’t read all the way to the end yet… but looking forward to finishing!)
Jericho: I wanted to know that I still had God in common with so many people on this planet, with so many black people in particular. And I wanted to know it without feeling guilty about it. I thought I could write my way into that. Redemption? Yes.
Evie: I like what you just said, about not feeling guilty, too.
Jericho: I hope that the end points to the fact that there is no redemption greater than earthly love, no matter what form that love takes…
Brian S: “To believe in God is to love / What none can see.”
Ciri: Redemption means, getting back on the good side of the big guy/big girl.
Jericho: I think it also means knowing that you weren’t imagining what you felt like were real connection to other human beings.
Ciri: Earthly love or earthly desire or earthly love/desire.
Jericho: Yes yes yes. You can’t touch those, but they ARE there.
Evie: Yes to love, desire, and connection
Jericho: I needed to write myself back into knowing that. And I wanted to talk a little more in my poems, to think a little more… I wanted to see images and metaphors go through certain transformations in the poems.
Brian S: Side note: I loved that you called your end notes “Apocrypha.” So apt. So appropriate given the title and the source material.
Jericho: What you should love is that my editor took that down from four pages to one lolololol
Evie: I see that. One of my favorite poems so far is “Labor.” Amazing last lines.
Jericho: Thanks, Evie. That poem was written in the thick of me understanding that I was writing a book of elegies… and understanding the book would elegize the 20th century.
Evie: Have you read from the book “as a book” yet?
Jericho: Not yet. I will for the first time tomorrow, and only one poem, and that one poem is “Labor.”
Evie: : )
Ciri: That poem “Labor” mentioned childhood you hated….
Jericho: Yea, Ciri. I hated it. That ain’t even a speaker.
Ciri: Why, may I ask?
Jericho: Because I thought I was ugly, because I knew I was gay and “the phase” was lasting so long, because I felt helpless, because I couldn’t convince my mother to leave my father, because my father beat everyone who lived in my house and I thought I should be able to do something about it, because we were poor.
Jericho: Those are all the reasons I can think of right now.
Ciri: But you made it! Fabulously
Jericho: Uh huh. Gleaming!
Evie: That’s plenty! And yes—you are still here. Glowing!
Ciri: Language is power.
Brian S: Nothing like the helplessness of being a kid and knowing you can’t do anything meaningful to change the situation.
Jericho: Glowing (or maybe my forehead is just a little shiny).
Evie: Nope—it’s an internal glow, for sure.
Jericho: I still feel that way.
Brian S: Are you at the point where there’s a little more forehead than you like yet? 🙂
Jericho: I got so much forehead, friends call it a fivehead.
Ciri: Fivehead lol
Evie: I also am loving the poem “The Ten Commandments.”
Brian S: Yes Evie, yes.
Jericho: Thanks, Evie. I like that I got E. Lynn Harris into a poem!
Ciri: “Ten Commandments” whereas the Buddhists have “Eight Suggestions.”
Evie: The line: “half- / nude, I let her light into me” !!! whut??? How did you make that do that??? I love the E. Lynn Harris reference, too! Perfect.
Jericho: That’s one of those little transformations I was talking about—where the colloquial and the metaphorical intersect.
Ciri: Love your slant rhymes etc throughout—they make everything so easy to read.
Brian S: And the way it ends, that if you were a novel character, the author would have had pity on you (the speaker), pity you were unwilling to show yourself. That sense of guilt, so strong.
Jericho: I think that poem is another example of that helplessness
Evie: True, Ciri.
Ciri: Evie, thx.
Jericho: Yes, Brian. Ilya and I fought about that ending for weeks. Looks like you just proved I won.
Brian S: That’s interesting, because I don’t see that speaker as helpless. Guilty, certainly, but he was able to leave if he wanted. He chose to stay and take the punishment he felt he deserved, which is, to me anyway, the opposite of helplessness.
Jericho: I still believe poems must be musical, Ciri. I don’t think that idea will ever leave me.
Brian S: It’s an odd sort of penitence, perhaps, which is submission, but again, deliberate.
Evie: But not as punishment, I think. More like an offering.
Ciri: Style, yes, and your music is subtle.
Jericho: Ahhh! Nice, Brian.
Evie: Since it’s “New Testament”—Jesus didn’t deserve the violence he received, but he took it. I just made Jericho into a Christ-figure. College students everywhere should just throw up their hands . . .
Brian S: Should we wave them like we just don’t care?
Jericho: Well, Jesus did talk pretty disrespectfully to his mother like all the time. And you know he knocked over all those moneychangers’ tables that day at the temple.
Evie: Ha! Brian
Ciri: I like Christ ok because he was kind.
Evie: He was a bad-ass, if such a thing can be said.
Jericho: We should throw ’em up and say don’t shoot.
Evie: I mean it in the best possible way.
Ciri: The ancient world was pretty cruel, even the Greeks were hitting the disabled etc… until Christ said we should treat others as we treat ourselves… a completely novel idea
Jericho: He was definitely a rabble-rouser. I love that about Christ.
Jericho: Yes, Christ was interested in a sort of protest of the mind.
Evie: But also putting your money where your mouth is.
Brian S: And there’s Mark 14:50-52 as well. “And they all left Him and fled. 51 A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. 52 But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.” Mmmhmm.
Your mom will be shaking her head at me next.
Jericho: I won’t tell her, Brian. lolololol
Ciri: (but the Dalai Lama is my guy—actually, Christlike)
Brian S: When I left the church and left belief, I held on to Jesus’s teachings, the things actually attributed to him, because they’re good stuff. He was a protester of the mind, like you say, and he wanted to change the way his fellow humans saw themselves and each other.
Evie: Last poem shout: I love “Host.” The rhythm, how you pivot, and of course, the dismantling of online dating stuff
Jericho: What’s important to me about The New Testament, and what I hope it has in common with my book, is that an oppressed people is speaking to one another about how to handle their oppression and how to be Christ-like (how to have dignity) while doing it. Yes, thanks, Evie. That makes me glad really.
Evie: The thanks go to you, for the writing!
Brian S: Have you moved on to a new project yet?
Jericho: Yes, I’m trying to go back to a(n even) shorter line and to look at single object one by one and see where they lead me in an exploration of the world. The poem you published, “ESL,” would be an example.
Ciri: I read that you have some sounds, and you listen to them, and then try to embody those sounds.
Evie: A new direction! Enjoy it, Jericho.
Brian S: That sounds like a call for me to link it 🙂
Jericho: Yes, I still do that. I try to allow the sounds to lead me where I’m going so that I can actually end up in a place of surprise and further questions.
Ciri: I love that, starting with sound
Brian S: Ending in surprise is so important.
Ciri: Continuous surprise
Jericho: Lol. I don’t know if it was a call, but that poem and “The Hammers” and a few other new things i’ve been doing seem smaller in their initial scope, at there beginnings that is. Then they reach beyond themselves I hope.
Ciri: Small is big.
Jericho: Yes, Ciri. I want the small to be big. I want this squirrel in my attic to mean something other than resealing the barrier around my roof.
Brian S: Are you just writing individual poems at this point, waiting to see if they grow into anything? Or do you have a project in mind?
Jericho: I don’t believe in projects. I think once you have enough poems, they tell you what you’ve been thinking. And I don’t look TOO hard to see what I’ve been thinking until I get about 50 pages done… done as in I’m done tinkering with even the smallest comma.
Brian S: That happens? Just kidding—I abandon them all the time.
Jericho: I don’t mean that to be proscriptive. Other poets write really well with projects in mind. I just wouldn’t get anything done that way.
Brian S: I vary—I’m doing a project right now, but I also like just seeing where the poems take me. Who are you reading these days? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Jericho: Which makes the foolery of applying for anything difficult for me, but so what.
Ciri: Do you like teaching—I mean, everyone has to say yes to that question—but how does teaching impact you/the students?
Jericho: I’m starting a new semester and feeling all the anxiety and excitement that goes along with that. Yes, I love it. I get to talk with young people about poetry. Their enthusiasm encourages me, helps me believe it is still just as valuable as it ever was.
Brian S: I get so much more writing done when I’m teaching. It’s like their energy rubs off on me, and I do all the writing exercises I assign them.
Ciri: Any new books you like or assign?
Jericho: Exactly, Brian. I love Tanya Olson’s Boyishly and and Victoria Chang’s The Boss and and Mark Irwin’s Large White House Speaking and Jean Valentine’s recent translations of Tsvetaeva. I like Sampson Starkweather’s big book, Keplinger’s The Most Natural Thing.
Brian S: I’ve not checked out any of those yet. I’ll have to do that.
Ciri: I have The Boss.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight, Jericho, and for writing such a wonderful book.