The Louisiana writer opens up about his Pulitzer Prize win, the power of transformation and the moment he realized he was a poet.
- by Skye Jackson
Last fall at the University of New Orleans, I shuffled to the Earl K. Long Library, eager to check out books for my poetry workshop. On my way up the stony steps, I ran into a friend, a fellow writer and local poet. I noticed he was cradling something in his arms. After we greeted each other, he flashed a wide smile.
“Guess what I’ve got,” he said. His eyes glimmered. He pulled a slender black book out of a binder.
“What is it?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Look at it.” He handed the book to me, and I studied it carefully. The spine of the book read: N. Demery III.
“Who in the world is that?” I asked.
The poet ran his fingers across the black binding.
“It’s Jericho Brown,” he said, proudly. “This is his thesis.”
My eyes widened. Even though Jericho hadn’t yet won the Pulitzer Prize, he was up for the National Book Award for The Tradition. All of the students in our program were rooting for him to win. The poet said he’d stumbled across the thesis in the library. He meant to spend a lot of time with it and study it closely. I was amazed at how a poet had gone to the library to wander among the stacks and left with a bona fide treasure.
That night I phoned a cohort and let her know of the poet’s discovery. I heard a tremor of excitement in her voice when she responded, “I need that book. I’ve got to get my hands on it.” As of this writing, she still has the manuscript in her possession and has kept it within hand’s reach through the delicate hell that is crafting the first draft of her own thesis.
Such is the power of Jericho Brown’s words. Still. Strong. Quiet, yet enduring. At the University of New Orleans, this slender black book has become sacred text. Elegy. Hope. Dream. Fuel.
Before he was Jericho Brown, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, he was Nelson Demery III, a black kid who grew up in Shreveport, La. He attended college in New Orleans and eventually the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop – which led to the creation of the text I’d caught a glimpse of.
It’s true. Some poets become their mythologies. Such is the mythos and sheer force of nature that is Jericho Brown. Although the man possesses a biography and red carpet-length number of prestigious awards, he remains humble, an accessible person in this world of aloof and superficial celebrity. Make no mistake: Jericho Brown is a star. But not only is he shining above you, he’s a star you can touch. Warm, congenial, brilliant and generous with his time and knowledge, the man is legend encased in flesh.
I caught up with the poet by phone as he sheltered in place at his home in Atlanta, Ga, where he serves as the director of the Creative Writing Program and professor at Emory University. Among other subjects, Jericho Brown and I discussed how he plans to celebrate his historic Pulitzer Prize win, identity, the power of touch in the time of Covid-19 and the exact moment he realized that he was a poet.
Skye Jackson: Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize! How do you plan to celebrate your win? Or, how would you have celebrated if not for the Covid crisis?
Jericho Brown: Honestly, I probably would have gotten arrested. You know, I’m from Louisiana and we love to party. The Atlanta Police Department would have had a field day with me on the night I found out that I won the Pulitzer. But for COVID, I would have gotten in big trouble.
It’s a horrible time for us, all through the world. I’ve talked to no less than seven reporters every day since the announcement. One of the reporters I talked to was from Italy – he’s actually in Italy. I’m thinking … how could you ask me these questions considering what you must be looking at in the landscape of your country right now? I was grateful to him that he allowed part of the interview to include answering my questions about that.
It’s been a horrible time. We lost one of my chapter brothers here from my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, in Dekalb County – a really active brother. That really hit me to the core. And then another brother got very sick. He’s okay now. And you know, you come out of that – you win the Pulitzer Prize, which feels like, a wonderful respite but then maybe a day or two after the video of Ahmaud Arbery comes out, Little Richard dies, Betty Wright dies so it doesn’t feel like … it’s not the happiest black time. You know what I’m saying?
Jackson: What do they say? When America gets a cold, black America gets the flu.
Brown: Right. Right. It’s very difficult to balance these emotions right now. I’m happy. I see all of these things happening around me and I feel a little guilt about my happiness. What I did that night was to use the happiness to send out the love energy to these ancestors, to these people, who made this possible and could not see it.
I was thinking about the fact that this is the seventieth anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black person to win this prize in poetry and maybe the first black person to win the prize, period. But she won in the early forties or late fifties, right? Because I know how to do subtraction, right? But for me, it’s a big deal, and it allowed me to revisit in that moment. Instead of going out to play and party, it allowed me to revisit that one time that I got to meet her and what her presence has meant to me throughout my life.
I was at New Orleans at Dillard University when I met Gwendolyn Brooks, and I have, in one way or another, been trying to emulate that meeting for other poets, for other people, throughout my life. And anyone who knows her can tell you she wasn’t just a poet – she was a great poet, obviously. She was an ambassador for poetry. She was an ambassador for black people. She wasn’t just a great poet. She was an ambassador for black poetry in particular. That’s what I re-dedicated myself to on that night.
Jackson: When was the exact moment that you realized you were a poet? I’ve found that a lot of young writers often suffer with a sense of imposter syndrome. Did you ever struggle with that feeling?
Brown: I’m struggling with that feeling right now. I don’t think that ever goes away. Honestly, I think that you have to use it. If you’re in a position where you feel imposter syndrome, you have to turn that into two kinds of opportunities. Number one is the opportunity to encourage yourself and to realize that you ain’t really fooled that many people (laughs). You know what I mean?
People who have imposter syndrome are also under the impression that they’ve gotten away with something. So you have to sort of remind yourself who you think you’ve gotten away with something with. Do you understand what I’m saying? There are people that I might be able to get away with something, but none of them are Adam Kirchsner, Len Chin, or Patrick Phillips. I’ve been reading these people for most of my life. They don’t play. So, I have to take that seriously.
If you think that you’re an imposter, it gives you an idea of what identity it is that you want to work toward and who you really wanna be. If you’re an imposter, it means that you’re parading around as somebody else and it’s okay to do whatever you need to do to become that somebody else. Practice makes perfect.
One of the reasons I love singers so much is that you get to really watch them evolve into the full and total image of the self that they need to be onstage. If you pay attention to somebody like Beyoncé or Diana Ross, you literally see it happen over a course of years; they have a goal in mind of what they want to look like and sound like and who they want to be. They, little by little, they become that person. I think that’s possible for all of us.
It’s one of the reasons I changed my name. I was at a crossroads where I really wanted to start over and figure out who I was for myself. And I felt that I needed a whole new name in order to do it right, a whole new change in identity in order to create the identity of the person that I wanted to be. And it turned out that choice worked out for me.
When I was living in New Orleans, I learned that poets validate poets.
I had a really great teacher. Her name was Mona Lisa Saloy. I was not writing very well, although I had some talent for writing. I definitely didn’t know what I was gonna do with my life in terms of a career. I remember that it was close to graduation time and I showed Mona Lisa Saloy a poem, and she noticed on my face this look of terror. Which wasn’t really about the poem, it was about that feeling you get on your senior year of college when you don’t know what the hell is gonna happen for the rest of your life.
And she was asking, what was wrong with me. And I told her some of my concerns about myself and about my life. She looked back at the poem and she started making marks on it and working towards edits and revisions. Somewhere in that conversation she said, “You know, you have all this language. What are you gonna do with it?”
I said, “I don’t know! Is this a rhetorical question?”
She said, “I know what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna be a poet. You’re a poet.”
She made the decision for me. It makes me emotional, just to think about right now, actually. Soon thereafter, I met Terrence Hayes in a very strange way.
I had read Terrence’s book and Niyi Osundare, who taught at UNO for years, was giving a reading at Xavier University and I had gone with another poet, the great Keisha N. We were young and sort of playful, and New Orleans is a place where it doesn’t matter who is reading; there is an open mic before the reading because New Orleans is so community-oriented from the rooter to the tooter.
I remember Keisha saying to me, “You should read a poem!” I actually got up there and read a poem. I read a poem that’s in my first book called, “Detailing the Nape.” Now this was nine or 10 years before that book actually came out.
I read the poem and then a couple of other open mic folk read, and then Niyi Osundare showed us what it was about and how to read a poem and how to write one. Afterwards this very tall man came up to me and he asked me, “So where the poets be at in New Orleans? Where the poets be at?” I told him about this workshop that I had been attending called the NOMO Literary Society and some other readings and open mic things that I knew about.
At that time there was a group of young people who called themselves POZazz – you know, P.O. then capital Z: poetry and jazz! It was really huge. For a lot of people, it was a great date night. You would get up and read your poem. I was doing that kind of thing and telling him about it. He was asking other questions about the poetry scene in New Orleans.
And I really felt like he was standing a little bit too close to me. I was like, who is this very aggressive person? And later in this conversation, I found out that he was Terrence Hayes, which was a big deal to me and I think one of the biggest recognitions to me of the fact that I was a poet. This person who had a book, whose work I admired, assumed I would know the answers to these questions because of one poem he heard me read.
I think that we get our validation of who we are from other poets. He was standing close to me because he was teaching me.
Jackson: Music is such an integral element of your work. Your poetry is filled to the brim with beautiful sonics. You also seem to weave or pay homage to artists through lines from particular songs. I’m thinking of your poem “Dear Whiteness” which contains references to a Fleetwood Mac song, Little Lies. I love how the title works on different levels – referring to the lyrics of a popular white band and addressing the systemic oppression of black people by white people. What was it about that song that made you want to include those lyrics?
Brown: Yeah. I love that song and I like a lyric that will get at what really goes on at making oneself vulnerable to love, or to falling in love. I’m sort of taken by love songs that say, “Treat me badly but I’m still yours anyway.” I’m really mesmerized by that. Part of the reason I’m mesmerized is thinking of black people’s relationship to this nation. It is a very fraught relationship where we maintain and understand our citizenship through a fight against understanding. It’s very difficult to be a citizen in a capitalist system that will never be of use to you or your people on the whole.
What I was doing was thinking of my relationship, and of black people’s relationship to America, and how that relationship is like a really bad love relationship and I was also writing, as you know, that book in various forms. The book is full of sonnets. There’s a golden shovel in the book. Duplexes. I wanted also to write a bop – that is, a form invented by the poet Afaa Michael Weaver.
Jackson: Each time I hear you read or recite your poetry, I’m in awe of your physical presence and delivery. You convey this delicate strength when you read your work. It forces me to feel the gravity of your poetry but also the softness of it, too. How do you bring that sense of orality to the reading of your work?
Brown: I really just try to enjoy myself when I give a reading. If I can just put myself in the position of when I was writing the poem, then I can have a good time and I can enjoy the language that I myself have set up in my own work.
When you’re writing a poem and all cylinders are turning, you really feel like you can do anything. And when you’re writing a poem and things are going well, and you’re in the midst of writing the lines that are working at their best, you are saying those lines out loud. You’re chanting to yourself.
I try to recreate that moment. It’s just that I’m doing it while people are watching me, and I don’t tell them that’s what I’m doing. I’m ultimately trying to recreate the moment when I was wandering around looking like a bit of a crazy person in my underwear at three in the morning, pacing and chanting words to myself because I’ve got to get it right and this feels good in that moment.
That’s probably what I do when I read. And I grew up in the black church, so I think is probably a part of the way that I present. It’s always this plain-spoken speech lifted in a dignified manner in church.
I’m really just trying to have a conversation. This is why the second person was used so often in my first book.
I’m interested in poems that proceed as if one person is solely speaking to another person. So that’s another part of what I do when I’m trying to give a reading.
Jackson: I’m amazed by the way you ordered the poems in The Tradition. How did you decide that “Ganymede” would be the first poem?
Brown: Honestly, it was done by process of elimination. My editor wanted me to start with a duplex but I didn’t want the book to completely and only become about the duplexes.
I decided on “Ganymede” because it was the poem that line after line seemed to have something to do with all the other poems. There’s the sexual assault and rape. There’s the moment that the police, “Who patrol our inherited / Kingdom.” There are moments with the relationship between black people and the police. The relationship between black people and the United States. Then, there is also the land and nature, the environment and the natural world that comes up in that poem.
So literally, almost every theme – the father-son relationship that comes up in the book, the supposed romance (which isn’t really a romance) – it’s sort of sick romance between Zeus and Ganymede. You know, there are a lot of love poems in this book. All of those things come up in that one poem. There wasn’t another poem in the book where all of those themes came up.
Ganymede stood out to me as the poem that would be first. I avoided it at first because I didn’t know how I felt about having a first poem that had the word “rape” in it, which seemed to me very difficult to have there.
I remember reading critics of Anne Sexton. One was critical of Anne Sexton’s use of the word “suicide” and more interested that we got at the fact of suicide through Sylvia Plath’s poem though Plath never says the word. I think I read this critic by the way when I was 16 years old and I was writing a paper on Anne Sexton. I’ve never forgotten that.
I remember also thinking about the fact that when somebody tells me that I can’t do something, that I start thinking about how I can get away with it. I’m a poet so I can’t help it. I really wanted poems that made use of this word yet were still poems. And I didn’t know if that was possible when I was trying to do it. I wanted to see if that could be a possibility for language.
Jackson: So, you issued yourself a challenge and completed the challenge.
Brown: Yeah, well, I think that’s all we’re ever doing, right? One of the ways that you know you’re a poet is that first of all you love poetry. You can’t get enough of the stuff.
But being a poet means that no matter how much you love it, you’re also dissatisfied with it because part of what we’re trying to do is contribute to it. You’re trying to contribute to it because there’s a hole – something there that you do not see and you wish it was there. You wish there was more of this or that in the land of poetry. That’s how we sort of figure out our Marvel superhero power – or our place in the pantheon among Greek gods.
Jackson: The Tradition feels ancestral. The focus on the personal and familial are undercurrents that run throughout. Were you ever afraid of exposing certain truths about your family and yourself? If so, what allowed you to overcome that fear?
Brown: No, not in this book I wasn’t afraid. Maybe I’m stronger than what I was. Before I had a book, I was very worried about these things. The poems that I admire put everything on the line. Not just in terms of family or personal life but complete knowledge. Poems have to have access to everything we know. If our poems have access to everything we know, then anything at any given moment could possibly drop down into a poem.
For me, that was the real work. Being able to see everything as one. Being able to equalize every fact of my own life – everything I knew and everything I had experienced and to turn all of that into material. No matter how traumatic the experience or how joyful the experience … when you’re working on a poem, it’s all experience. It’s all material. When you’re working on a poem, any scientific fact you know is material. Any trivia you know is material. It all has to be the same. You can’t think, “Oh, this is more important than that.” In the field of the poem, all is equalized.
I didn’t have any responsibility to bring my parents to work with me. You know, nobody else does. It’s just not my job. It’s my job to write poems. My job is not to write poems and get my parents’ approval for those poems. I need to write the poems of my life. I need to write the poems of my soul. And I can’t wait on my mom and dad to identify what that should mean.
I imagine that I had fears about it that I don’t even remember. I very quickly realized that I was living a life that was separate from my family and from my parents and that unless they had to, my parents would never read my poems. There were only two things that would make my parents have to read my poems. One is if I showed my poems to my parents. I fixed that. Just don’t show them. It’s just not their business. And then the other, is that something so good happened that my parents had to read my book. Like winning the Pulitzer Prize. I always felt if I write a book that makes my parents angry and they find out about it, I won’t care because I will have won the Pulitzer Prize.
Jackson: It’s something I struggle with – saying certain things and then I’m thinking, “What will they think when they read this?”
Brown: When you go off to college and you’re writing your poem, whenever you really take off on a new experience for yourself, it has to be new. Which means that you have to lose a certain level of communication and relationship with other people. That doesn’t mean you’re not still there for them or that you don’t love them. People in my family are not bothering me about my poems. They’re not big readers.
I think I would have a different concern if my parents or other people in my family were people who read reviews of poetry or read contemporary poetry. But they are not. Because they’re not I don’t have those same concerns.
This is part of the reason why our independence is so important to us. From the institution of the family to the institution of the government to the institution of the university, there will always be an institution that means to control us. We have to become independent so that we’re not somehow financially beholding to someone else or to some other institution. Because if you’re financially beholding, then you’re in a position where you feel like your poems have to be approved by that institution.
Jackson: I read your book as aligning black men with flowers – beautiful, fragile and oft cut down by violence and systemic racism. It brings to mind the recent brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery. What gave you the idea? Have you been working on poetry that pertains to the Arbery situation?
Brown: I haven’t been working on poems that pertain to that. I’m always writing poems so I shouldn’t second guess myself or short sell myself. I think The Tradition is about that. Because The Tradition is about that maybe I won’t be writing about that as much. I just think that we’re beautiful. I think black people are beautiful. And I think the word out on black men is a lie.
You know, I grew up with a dad and I grew up around other men who were really interested in what their yards looked like. They had beautiful front yards with beautiful flower beds. And they had very clean cars. They did all of that for two reasons actually. One was for the simple fact of beauty - their own satisfaction and contentment with beauty. Number two, it also had to do with their responsibility to their families and to each other’s families and to one another in the neighborhoods in which they lived. If everybody’s yard looks nice and your yard does not look nice, everybody is looking at you.
So, it was part of what I understood growing up, when I was mowing the lawn or helping my daddy do that kind of work. I wasn’t just doing it for us. I was doing it for the street. I was doing what I was doing for the street that we lived on to make that street a more attractive place for all of us.
We’re not thought of that way – and yet that’s who we are. I wonder how much we think of ourselves in that way. Because so many lies are out there about black men. We don’t realize the truths that we experience every day because we keep seeing lies about us every day on news and social media. Among the stereotypes on black men, none of them is that black men are concerned with periwinkles....
Jackson: When that is the case!
Brown: When that is the case. I actually don’t know a black man with a yard for whom that is not the case! So that’s why I have to tell the truth all the damn time. That turns out to be the truth. It’s not actually that special. We have to see it for what it is.
Jackson: Has your writing process changed at all during the Covid crisis? Are you creating right now or absorbing?
Brown: I’m probably just absorbing. Maybe I’m creating. You know I wrote a book. It’s like a year and a month and a half old. A year and six weeks old. I used to be nervous about this period, but I’m not anymore because it’s my third book so I know that the well is filling with water. I have to honor whatever scribbling I’m doing. But I don’t know what that scribbling is about just yet, you know? I think I’m gonna work on some essays, actually. But we’ll see!
Jackson: I’ve been thinking a lot about the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It has taken on a new and richer meaning for me in light of the Covid crisis. It forces me to think of stories and posts I’ve read from black men and women across the nation who are concerned about the dangers of being black and wearing masks in public -- which almost seems to equal the fear of being unmasked and black -- while fearing exposure to the virus. Are there any poems that you have been revisiting or looking at differently in light of the Covid crisis?
Brown: Yeah, there’s this poem by Whitman when he talks about touch. What number is it? It is “Song of Myself, 27.”
This is the part that I’m really interested in. It seems to have something to do with the pandemic:
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I
pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am
To touch my person to some one else’s is about
as much as I can stand.
I’m interested in that feeling of energy. Part of what we’re experiencing right now is because we are not touching one another, because we are not as close to one another, that energy must be going somewhere else. So, we’re becoming accustomed to where it’s going to and we are missing where it used to go.
And I think we are hopefully looking forward to the times we are able to touch. When we are able to touch in the future, we will do so with more reverence. Understanding that these are conductors – the skin, the body. What we touch goes all the way through us, is in us, is a part of us.
One of the things that I like about Whitman and Song of Myself is that it’s all about energy and I’m really attracted to that.
Jackson: I’ve read interviews where you’ve spoken about the idea of transformation as a poet. You said you needed to allow yourself the freedom to write the poems that you needed to write – and that is why you changed your name to Jericho Brown. How important is it for a poet to undergo a transformation? How does this transformation take place? Where does Jericho Brown begin and Nelson Demery end? Do you think of them as two distinct sides of yourself?
Brown: Very. I don’t know if it’s as much a transformation as it is growing up and becoming an adult. Baldwin was one of the writers who was good at this. He understood that you are always growing up. That should be the goal. Growing up has to do with being more honest with yourself and being more honest with the people that are around you. And then also being more honest in your work.
People from the past call me Nelson. They feel bad about it! But they shouldn’t! I don’t like it when people play with me. Trying to call me Nelson when they hadn’t ever known me as Nelson – like trying to flex that they have some knowledge about me. I don’t have any idea that Nelson ever ended. I think he’s here. He’s a part of Jericho Brown. I imagine maybe he does end somewhere. Because I don’t think of Jericho Brown as being a part of him – except maybe as a dream he had. So in that way, yeah, they are a part of each other. I don’t think of them as different personalities. I just think that Jericho afforded Nelson a possibility that Nelson didn’t otherwise know how to access.
Jackson: You have said you are interested in the moments where love goes awry and brutality and love intersect. When did you first become interested in that intersection? And do you find it challenging to convey that intersection?
Brown: I was interested in it when I would see my aunts and uncles, my mom and dad, fight or have conflict and not leave each other alone. My early response to conflict is, well, let me just leave you alone. I have figured out that love does not allow for people to leave you alone even if they are getting on your nerves in the worst way.
I’m always fascinated by the limits of freedom. Romantic love calls upon us to be honest about the limits of freedom.
Jackson: In an interview you talked about Maya Angelou and the gun she kept underneath her pillow. When you said that, I began to think of poetry that way – a gun under the pillow. Particularly as it pertains to the balancing of structure and surprise in the crafting of a poem. How do you balance a poem in that way? Making sure that the structure is there but also the necessary surprise that acts as the “trigger” in the poem?
Brown: Structure is different from form. Structure is analogous to syntax – the order in which we receive information. So structure seems to be more about that which is the beginning, that which is the middle, and that which is the end of the poem. That’s how I think of structure in poetry.
You know the wonderful thing about that poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly called “Song.” The first line of the poem is, “Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes / in a tree.” Probably know this poem. And if you don’t you should. It’s a great poem. Great poem. It is probably one of the greatest poems of the second half of the 20th century. Later in the poem we figure out how the goat’s head got into the tree, but the poem starts where the energy is; it starts where the trouble is. And that is what makes us want to keep reading the poem because we want to know how it got there.
That’s a structural move because she is putting the middle of that which is narrative at the beginning of the poem. That’s just all a poet’s choice. She knows what that could do to the reader and how that will enrapture and capture the attention of the reader.
I think one of the things that I do is that I’m only working with language and structure when I’m writing a poem and yet I don’t have any idea what I’m going to say. When I think about surprise, I think that quite literally line to line you are trying to surprise yourself. Then over time it becomes a habit and you don’t have to try. Structure might come at the beginning or at revision. You’re deciding where things go - moving things around. But at any rate I don’t think structure or surprise are at odds with one another because revision exists.
Jackson: How do you fight against bowing to expectation in your own work?I feel like there are certain expectations placed upon black writers – people want to read about black rage. But there are so many other parts about who we are. We are more than our anger. Do you think that a black poet has a duty to communicate that rage? Or is it the responsibility of the poet to just write a good poem?
Brown: I just think it is the responsibility of the poet to tell the truth. For me, that’s the end of that. You have to tell the truth to the best of your ability. You have to tell it the way that only you could possibly tell it. If you tell something the way that only you can tell it, it will be unique. It will be original. It will be individual. It will be special.
I don’t imagine that there is anything I’m supposed to do as a black poet. I imagine that what I’m supposed to do as a black poet will be done because I am a black poet. Maybe I’m lucky in that regard because I have black friends. I do what I do within black communities. When I listen to music, I’m listening to black music. When I’m going to parties I’m surrounded by black people. When I’m worshipping, I’m worshipping where black people are. I think those things are gonna come out in our work whether we try to put them there or not. I don’t ever have to try.
I was writing a poem the other day and I used the word twerk. I meant it. I meant literally twerking – like dancing. Like shaking your ass. And I didn’t think about it when I wrote it. I wrote it because it was true. I wasn’t trying to be black when I wrote it – I just am. I don’t think we have to try to do any of that.
Jackson: Society tells us that we must write poems that are universal but also specific to a certain type of black experience. How do you do that in your work?
Brown: I don’t care about being transcendent of my identity. I don’t believe in that. I don’t know where people get this word “universal” from. What I believe is that music sounds good and people like it. You can make a poem musical enough or rhythmic enough. You can tell a story good enough that people want to know what’s going to happen next and people are going to want to hear that music. I guess that’s universal. I don’t know what people mean when they say universal.
I think what you have to do is use you and everything you know when you write a poem. That’s individual. Your sense of the vernacular, your sense of idiom, your sense of pacing. That’s all individual. If you do that well enough, maybe somebody else will want to read it. You can’t think about somebody else when you’re writing your poem. You can only be thinking about your poem.
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do,
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home. Yes, I may be at risk,
But I promise you, I trust the maggots
Who live beneath the floorboards
Of my house to do what they must
To any carcass more than I trust
An officer of the law of the land
To shut my eyes like a man
Of God might, or to cover me with a sheet
So clean my mother could have used it
To tuck me in. When I kill me, I will
Do it the same way most Americans do,
I promise you: cigarette smoke
Or a piece of meat on which I choke
Or so broke I freeze
In one of these winters we keep
Calling worst. I promise if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me. He took
Me from us and left my body, which is,
No matter what we've been taught,
Greater than the settlement
A city can pay a mother to stop crying,
And more beautiful than the new bullet
Fished from the folds of my brain.
Come, love, come lie down, love, with me
In this king-size bed where we go numb
For one another letting sleep take us into
Ease, a slumber made only when I hold
You or you hold me so close I have no idea
Where I begin—where do you end?—where you
Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies
About what I mean to you when
I’ve labored all day and wish to come
Home like a war hero who lost an arm.
That’s how I fight to win you, to gain
Ground you are welcome to divide
And name. See how this mouth opens
To speak what language you allow me
With the threat of my head cradled safe.
Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies
Of what you require, intimacy so industrious
That when I wake to brush you from my own
Teeth I see you in the mirror. I won’t stay
Too long. When you look in that mirror, it
Will be clean. You’ll be content
Seeing only yourself. Was I ever there?
Tell me lies. Tell me. Tell me lies.
Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill
The people you touch, and I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.