Jericho Brown’s Got a Lot to Say

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jericho Brown


When Jericho Brown — winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his most recent book, The Tradition — thinks something is funny, everyone within earshot knows it. His laugh isn’t just infectious, it’s a booming, joyful explosion.

More than 100 people joined the kick-off event to the Fall 2020 Lindsay J. Cropper Memorial Writers Series on September 3 to hear Brown read from his work, talk about his craft and take questions. He is still much beloved on campus; he joined the USD faculty in the fall of 2007 as an assistant professor of English, holding the position until 2012.

“USD is a very special place for me,” he said to a rapt audience who dialed in via Zoom. “It was my first full-time job after I finished school.” Now the director of the Creative Writing Program and a professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, he seemed delighted to see the faces of past colleagues, calling out greetings to some before he began the reading.

He began with an excerpt from an essay that he wrote from the 2019 Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, lingering over the words to the Negro National Anthem.

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“Clearly our belief and freedom were inextricably tied,” he said. Then, a few moments later, he mused, “I take responsibility for my own joy.”

Brown read a series of poems, evoking both joyfulness and deep pain, combining seemingly disparate emotions with poetic precision. “Bullet Points” was felt particularly resonant, given the long overdue national conversation regarding the movement for Black lives. The poem begins:

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

As harrowing as his work can be, Brown holds tight to delight. “I love poetry more than anything in the world,” he said. “Except for one thing. Cuddling.” He then read his poem “Stand,” which elaborates on that love:

Peace on this planet
Or guns glowing hot,
We lay there together
As if we were getting
Something done.

When he opened up the reading to questions, Brown couldn’t resist a bit of gentle teasing of his own former colleagues, pointing out that “Poetry is superior to fiction, because we can read the last page of our book and not ruin anything.”

His laugh boomed, and in the Zoom room where it happened, more than 100 people laughed right along with him. Julene Snyder

Upcoming Cropper events this fall take place on Oct. 1 and Oct. 29. Learn more about the Lindsay J. Cropper Memorial Writers Series.

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