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Pulitzer-winning poet Jericho Brown to read at Gonzaga on Wednesday

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 3, 2021

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown has a poetry reading at Gonzaga on Wednesday night.  (Courtesy)
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown has a poetry reading at Gonzaga on Wednesday night. (Courtesy)

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown remembers a time where he took public gatherings and community events for granted, before the pandemic snatched away poetry seminars, readings and other in-person events.

“I didn’t know how much I needed it until it was gone,” Brown said Tuesday. “It’s difficult for me to write if I don’t have a certain level of human interaction.”

He’s excited to attend an event at Gonzaga University, held as part of the college’s Visiting Writers Series. In a free, public reading and discussion Wednesday night, Brown will read poems from his award-winning collection, “The Tradition.” Along with the Pulitzer, it also won the Paterson Poetry Award.

Brown is a professor and director of Emory University’s Creative Writing Program in Atlanta. Through this work, he is able to learn poems in completely new ways.

”Sometimes I’ll teach the same poems over and over again, but every session I learn anew about the poem because it’s a new set of students. No matter how long I’ve been interacting with the poem, I learn way more from my students than I teach,” Brown said.

Brown won the Pulitzer for poetry in May 2020, just as the theme of race took the national stage that summer. His work embodies the queer, Black and male-identifying lifestyles, the relationships those identities have with each other and even the lingering friction that exists embedded in the intersection of those identities. His upbringing in the Black church’s performance and pageantry are also inspirations. In his work, he moves the legacy of Black poetry forward, returning to techniques that Black poetry’s architects mastered before him.

“I’m so proud to be a part of that lineage and be a part of that tradition,” he said. “I’m really grateful to contribute my own work to it, I’m excited. I only exist because they existed as fully as they possibly could. I’m always thinking about making work that gives in the ways their work has given to me.”

During spoken-word performances, Brown’s orations resemble Maya Angelou’s deep, striking voice that carried assurance of crafting each word perfectly. His breathing rhythms personify the line breaks, commas and dashes placed in poems. Throughout them, Brown’s use of repetition, reinvents words’ meaning when used in line six, then he shifts tense or possession in line eight.

“My last love drove a burgundy car / Color of a rash, symptom of sickness / We were the symptoms, the road of our sickness: / None of our fights ended where they began,” Brown writes in “Duplex: Cento,” from “The Tradition.” “He was so young, so unreasonable / Steadfast and awful, tall as my father / Steadfast and awful, my tall father / Was my first love. He drove a burgundy car.”

There is an intimacy Brown builds as he recalls his Shreveport, Louisiana, origins and current life as a Black gay man in America. Even when he shows himself as a common man, retweeting fan appreciation Whitney Houston clips to his 38,000 Twitter followers.

“Whitney would literally stand in the middle of a stage, flat-footed and wear you out singing down,” Brown said. “Listen to the live recording of ‘Didn’t We Almost Have it All,’ and it becomes clear that Whitney is the greatest vocalist of all time.”

Eager for his face-to-face event at Gonzaga, Brown said he’s ready to find something new in his poems once he performs them Wednesday night.

“I get that moment of quiet before I get up there and put myself in the position I was in while writing the poem,” He said. “That helps me forget that people are watching, so I can read the poem in the same spirit that I wrote them.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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