Gutting the Sonnet: A Conversation with Jericho Brown

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It is fitting that Jericho Brown’s third collection, The Tradition, introduces us to his invention called the duplex. The duplex is a new form that renders the musicality and structure of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues on a single plane. The poem starts with a couplet of two distinct lines. The second line is repeated and a new line is added, and then repeated until there are seven couplets of nine to eleven syllables each. Although the poem sounds iambic, it retains its relationship to the metrical tradition of the ghazal. The first line is the fourteenth line. The rhyme (via repetition) and the turn are reminiscent of the sonnet. The duplex holds tradition in its embrace while calling that embrace into question. This tension and release are a means for The Tradition’s speaker to interrogate and transcend their condition.

Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s first book, Please (2008), won the American Book Award. Brown is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University in Atlanta.

Recently, I spoke to Brown via phone about pedagogy, his new duplex form, and how he builds the relationship between the reader and the speaker.

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The Rumpus: I just am really fascinated by the duplex, the form you invented, and used in your latest collection The Tradition. How did you go about figuring out what the constraints would be? How did this form influence the collection as a whole?

Jericho Brown: I sort of had been thinking about gutting a sonnet. We go fourteen lines to get to what will be in that fourteenth line, a repeated line. I kept thinking, “Why can’t I just skip all the lines in between? What would that make?” In my head I kept thinking that it would make a ghazal. A ghazal is couplets that seem disparate because there’s something in between them that is not said. Do you see what I mean?

So first, it started with me asking, “How do I gut the sonnet crown?” But I guess the question before that is, “Why do I wanna gut the sonnet crown?” I feel completely in love with and oppressed by the sonnet. You know, because I’m a poet. I can conjecture about my obsession with the sonnet. I mean, I’m educated in the sonnet. It’s been pushed down my throat the entirety of my life. There is something in me that doesn’t like that, and doesn’t trust that, because I’m a rebellious human being. I need to be a rebellious human being because I’m black and gay in this nation and in this world which has not been good to me or anybody like me.

I have this responsibility to be skeptical, even of what I love. I know the truth about capitalism and I know the truth about whiteness and I know the truth about democracy, or supposed democracy. If you know the truth about those things, you always have to be able to cast what you love into skepticism.

Many of us don’t want to wonder why but I don’t have the option to not wonder why because of my subject position, my identity, and because I’m a poet. Which is why I get so frustrated with poets who get frustrated with me for asking them to wonder why. Like, you are literally a poet, all you do is wonder why. All you do is problematize. All you do is question things and marvel at them.

Rumpus: How did you choose “Ganymede” to be the first poem in the collection? It’s an incredible opener.

Brown: Ultimately, part of the reason why we’re allowing so much evil to go on in front of our faces, is that somehow or another we’ve been fooled into believing that there’s going to be a payoff for it. Even if we keep quiet about it, we will benefit later. Ain’t that crazy? Don’t look like yourself. Don’t be yourself and there will be a payoff later.

I decided that “Ganymede” would be first because I felt like it was the best poem that had all of the subject matter and content of the book. Ordering the book was way harder than writing the book’s poems. I had to give up on my sense of showmanship. You know, I always want to be sparkly, and there are really meditative moments that come one right after another to situate the reader in a certain mode, in a certain mood, before moving on to the next mode and mood.

There are poems with really long sentences. Poems of a certain length that have to come in certain places. It was hard for me to make decisions about putting poems in places that I knew would make the book a book that you literally can’t read on the go. I mean, you can. But there’s a much different experience if you really give it your time. When I’ve written my books in the past, I’ve thought about timing in a different way that has to do with how do I stage the poems of this book. Instead of trying to stage the poems of the book, I really just tried to create a relationship between the reader and the speaker. I wanted the reader to have everything that goes in a relationship. So, I knew there would be trouble. Do you understand what I mean? Just like I knew there would be joy, I knew there would be trouble because that’s what happens in a relationship. I knew that there would be moments at which the reader would be questioning what was going on. And, you know, I think the difference between the poet I am now and the poet that I was before, is that I understand the value of that. That relationship was something that I wanted from this book.

When you watch Moonlight, you have no choice but to interact with the movie. That’s the kind of book that I was trying to make. That’s the reason why the book ramps up and gains speed. I wanted to create a feeling of stasis and a feeling of stability. I also wanted to make that stability feel as if it was fleeting as you continued throughout the book. I want you to feel that as you read the book more and more you are losing stability.

Rumpus: I’d love to hear about your writing pedagogy. How has it developed over time?

Brown: First, I try to create a world in the classroom where everybody understands their reading is first. Reading is first is because we want to be turned on, we wanted to be attracted. We’re reading as much as we can to get a sense of what we love. That sense of what we love will lead us back to what we want to make in our own poems.

I think it’s really important for students to create a certain kind of a poetics for themselves, an ever-changing poetics. This is built by the books they read. The more students read poems, the more they become aware of what they think is boring. What they think is poorly written. What they think is beautiful. What they think of as sublime. What they think is necessary.

Students can’t make those decisions in the dark. They have to have texts of very different kinds of writers in front of them. So, they have to be reading Michael Palmer and Claudia Rankine and Louise Glück and Tracy K. Smith. If they can read these very different writers, then they come to some idea about what they want from a poem.

Second, is that we all have an idea of what we want to give to literature. I remind my students over and over that there’s a poem that does not exist that they’re trying to write. Part of what we’re doing when we’re reading is we’re looking for something that we think is unsatisfied in us. We would like to see the poem that does that or we would like to see the book that does that. Their job is to write that book. To write the book you want to read. Write the poem you’ve been wishing you could read. You’ve read a thousand poems and you still haven’t come across it. Make it. Build it.

Another thing, is that when we’re reading books we’re writing down strategies. What did the poet do to make you fall in love with the poem? What are the things about the poem that attracts you to it? Ultimately, the answer to that question can never be based in subject matter or content.

The truth is, in order to write poetry, you don’t need to know what happens next. You need to know how you’re going to make your next move. If you know how you’re going to make your next move, that creates text on the page. As long as you have text on the page, you have something you can revise. Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing with the reading.

You have have to trick yourself so that you’re following your subconscious. If you’re going to make the poem that you want to read, then you’re not going to be able to be completely conscious when you do it. You’re really going to have to figure out, “What is it that I really want? What are the hidden memories, the hidden metaphors, the hidden lines that are actually not so hidden in my mind?”

I used to have written over my computer “every line, a surprise” because no matter what, every time I wrote a line I needed to make sure that that next line subverted that line, or said something I didn’t expect to say, no matter how crazy that thing was.

I had to get students to decide to surprise themselves. One of the exercises that I give students, for instance, is to take a very short poem and to write the opposite of every word in the poem. Even words that don’t have opposites, like “and” or “the” or “if.” When they do that, they come up with this page of text that makes absolutely no sense, whatever the hell sense is. They then do what human beings can’t help but do. They start giving that nonsense narrative. You know, that’s what we do. When we see a painting, and it could be the most abstract thing in the world, we start thinking, “This is about blank.” I mean, we do the same thing if we see two people having an argument, or what seems to be an argument, across the quad at our university. We think, “This is about.” We give it a beginning, a middle, and an end. And we can do that same thing with a mess of words, but what I believe happens when we see a mess of words and we start to do that thing, is that we tap into some story that we need to tell through poetry.

When you’re looking at a mess of words and you make decisions that, “Oh, this sentence is about blank” but that’s not even a sentence. It’s a mess of words, right? In your revision of that mess of words, what you end up with is something much more subconscious. You end up getting at something you didn’t expect to get at in language that you didn’t have before. Putting that “What do you see?” into language is a new language for you. That’s what I mean when I talk about letting the language lead you to the poem, as opposed to sitting down and deciding, “I’m going to write a poem about the time I blank.”

There are great poems that have been written that way, but it seems to me that if you want to write a bunch of poems, you sort of have to give up on “The time I blank.” After a while, it becomes a little rote. The reason why is because you know everything that happened. You’re not going to surprise yourself. You already know where you’re going and the trick is to not know where you’re going.

And if you can write lines, if you can write words, and lines, and sentences, if you can write these things not really knowing where you’re going, if you can be led with where the line takes you, then you will say things, you will write things that surprise you. You will write things you didn’t expect yourself to say. You will write things that you’ll begin to wonder whether or not you agree with or disagree with.

That’s the land of poetry. The land of poetry is when we’re having a conversation with ourselves, with our subconscious mind, in the act of writing. We say things that we don’t expect to say. Things that scare us. “If I said that, do I think that?” That’s poetry. That’s what I have to get my students in the act of doing.

This is why imagery is so important in poetry. When we’re looking at an image, we’re not so busy trying to say philosophical meanings. When we concentrate on an image, we can begin to move away from putting what we want on top of what the poem might need.

Rumpus: Can you talk about the book as a physical object? It’s very striking when I pick it up.

Brown: It’s really intimidating as a poet, too. I mean, for me. When I was writing the book, I felt really overcome by poetry. And overcome by the moment in which I live, and last five years, and the fact that those years were coming to me through poetry. Actually, maybe the last six years or seven years.

When I found the image, I was really worn out. I was tired. I saw it and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful.” Right after, like literally right after that, I felt completely tired. I just thought, “This thing is so good that I can’t look at it. It’s so good.” Do you know what I mean? Like, I was really bothered, I have to say, by how much it looks like it was made for this book. This, among other things, is a very pastoral book. There are a lot of trees and flowers. There are rabbits, for heaven’s sake.

This book is very much a book set within the natural world and looking at the natural world and making use of the natural world. And looking at that picture, looking at that black boy covered in those flowers, it just seems like he’s been romping all day. You look at his eye. It’s like he’s gotten caught and he’s on the verge of like tears or something, and you feel so much for him. It really was bothering me, I have to say, that it looked like that poem. It looked like the way I imagined that poem, “The Tradition,” when I say “The opposite of rape is understanding.” It looked like so much of the work that was is in the book that I was a little afraid. How is this possible? This is too good to be true.

Then, after they decided to use it, I realized that I was also really intimidated by it. It’s so gorgeous and it does speak directly to the poems. I kept wondering, “Are these poems good enough for this goddamn cover?”

Lauren Ralphi Burgess made it. She painted it and it’s really gorgeous and I’m really excited about her work and I’m really glad she made this. From front, to back, the book has a great cover. The text does not supersede the image. I think it’s really beautiful. I hope if people don’t like the poems, they like the cover of the book enough to just buy it. Everything is muted enough so that if you have feelings about what you’re seeing, then they’re your feelings. They’re not feelings that we’re putting on you.

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Photograph of Jericho Brown © Brian Cornelius.


Candace Williams is a black queer nerd living a double life. By day, she’s a sixth grade humanities educator and robotics coach. By night and subway ride, she’s a poet. futureblack, her first full-length manuscript, is a finalist of the 2018 National Poetry Series open competition. In 2018, she released Spells for Black Wizards (The Atlas Review), a winner of the 2017 TAR Chapbook Series. Her work has appeared in the PEN Poetry Series, Tin House Online, Hyperallergic, and Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books), among other places. She earned her master’s in education from Stanford University and has received support from Cave Canem, Brooklyn Poets, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her essays, interviews, and reviews can be found in Electric Literature, VIDA Review, the Fanzine, and Shondaland. Learn more about her at www.candace-williams.com. More from this author →