Jericho Brown talks poetry

Muhlenberg's third installment of the living writers course

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Jericho Brown speaking in the Miller Forum | Photo courtesy of Tom Amico

On Oct. 24, award-winning poet Jericho Brown joined the Muhlenberg community for a Q&A and live reading as part of the Living Writers series. He is the third author to be featured. In preparation for Brown’s visit, students read “The Tradition” (2019), a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award and the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This collection of poems aims to break the tradition of silence on topics such as the continued racism in America, the abuse he suffered at home and prejudice based on sexuality. 

At the Q&A, students asked Brown a variety of different questions regarding specific poems in the collection, his writing practice and poetry as a whole. One student asked Brown about how he created his metaphors, and went on to explain, “I wasn’t very good at metaphors at first. It’s actually something I had practiced over time and thank God for basketball. I remember in LeBron James’ early career, while he would play, commentators would say, ‘Oh, he’s got to work on this,’ or ‘he doesn’t have that, but he does have this.’ And it gave me the sense that I can get better. Like, there are certain things I’m not so great at doing. But if I practice them enough, I can get better at doing them. And then literally that next season watching LeBron James play, you would hear commentators say, ‘oh, he has this now that he didn’t have that last season, but you still need to do this next season, etc.’” 

Brown continued to explain to students in a very accessible way how he would write his poems, making jokes with the audience and laughing on stage. At one point he said, “It’s really just me in my underwear, pacing around my living room, looking crazy, chanting to myself.”

“I was interested in his use of dialect and different voices in the poems, which is not evident on the page.”

-Alec Marsh, PhD.

Later, at the live reading, Brown read over ten poems to the audience, and even read a few new and unpublished works. He read poems from “The Tradition” and from his two previous collections, “New Testament” and “Please.” Brown’s reading of his poems reiterated for students that poetry is truly an oral art. Sarah Wedeking ‘24 said, “I loved Brown’s performances of his poems. You could see the passion and the power instilled in his words, simply by watching him speak them. I remember getting goosebumps at one point.” 

Alex Caban-Echevarria ‘23 added, “My favorite part about Brown’s live reading was the energy that he brought to every poem. He spoke so eloquently and beautifully whether while reading or from memorization.”

At one point, a student asked Brown about the difference between poetry and prose. Brown explained, to the amusement of the audience, that a prose writer can’t read the last page of their book without having to explain the plot of the novel, while he can read the last page of any of his poetry collections. “What I mean is, when you remember a poem, you don’t just remember what happens in the poem, you remember the language of the poem, while you’re at the opera house, the grocery store. You can’t hold the novel, the language of the novel, the same way you can with poetry.”

Many students enjoyed Brown’s talk. Harry Glicklin ‘26 commented, “I was never big into poetry, but [Brown] made it feel much more accessible. Brown talked about how he drew inspiration from his favorite music and TV shows, which is something that I feel that I could do too. He also put into perspective the amount of work it takes to write a poem. I had always thought of it to be a quicker task, as poems aren’t often lengthy, but Brown said that it typically takes him years to complete a poem, which was fascinating.”

Wedeking also learned a lot from Brown’s visit. “Brown once said that poetry is like a machine. You don’t know what their function is yet, but they aim to do something. After learning that, I realized that a lot of the poetry I write ends up giving me clarity on my thoughts and emotions. It’s the fact that writing, or even poetry is not just an expression of one’s thoughts, but a process of processing those thoughts and emotions so [that] they can be expressed clearly.”

Professor of English Alec Marsh, Ph.D., attended the live reading and expressed, “I liked Mr. Brown personally, a lot—a really charming, entertaining, delightful person. I thought his reading really brought his poems to life. I was interested in his use of dialect and different voices in the poems, which is not evident on the page.” Brown read a poem called “Nim” that was composed of different phrases he’s heard people say all of his life. As he read the poem, he modulated his voice to mimic that of the people who would say these phrases. Marsh added that Brown’s performance of this poem “was full of different voices and really came alive for me.”

“I was never big into poetry, but [Brown] made it feel much more accessible.”

-Harry Glicklin ’24

And as for the Living Writers class as a whole, Wedeking reflected, “My favorite part of the Living Writers [course] so far are the authors who come and talk about their work. You really do see the work through a different lens, as a reader, a writer and a person. And it’s eye-opening to see the process, something not really talked about in literary classes. There’s just the finished work, not the actual way meanings and ideas are made into the work.” However, students have expressed dismay towards the structure of the class. There is a lecture on Monday with the entire Living Writers cohort (60+ students) and then it is divided into sections for the rest of the week. Wedeking added, “I’m not a huge fan of how the class is structured. It doesn’t feel like an English class to me, where we can discuss the text freely. Instead, it feels like a lecture. I also do not like the emphasis on asking questions. Can’t I just listen to the author gush about their work?”

The next author to be featured in the Living Writers Series is Nnedi Okorafor, where she will be discussing africanfuturism in her novel, “Noor,” on Nov. 7.

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