Poets’ Tug of War

Jericho Brown stood directly before me dressed in a deep blue sweater, reciting “Heart Condition,” a poem I read online several times before that night. From my seat in the front row, I could see his heels rise while his voice dug into every line. I found it so peculiar that I looked for the mannerism during each poem that followed.

Before Brown read from his first book of poetry, Please, and his new release, The New Testament, he invited four Arcadia students to read poems of their own to the audience in the Castle Rose Room. While on campus, Brown held a workshop with students and these poems were the ones he felt were fantastic. Calling them out, though, was a little bit like reeling fish in from choppy waters. The students were prepared but hesitant, and I understood why, because the situation was familiar to me.

Last semester I took “Writing Fiction & Poetry,” which functioned like a workshop most of the time. We would spend a week or two writing a short story or poem and then read our work aloud to the class for feedback. Having done that a few times, I know how ridiculous it feels. You want your audience to like it, even though you haven’t spent that much time on it. It feels incomplete. It feels messy in a few places. You’re not sure why you wrote it the way you did. You’re afraid that, even worse than being disliked, you’re reading a crappy poem with your name stamped on it.

We always fought through the discomfort and settled our fears enough to get through our readings. But, we also all knew each other. Our audience was made up of people who were going to have to do the exact same thing. What the students faced at the Jericho Brown reading was different, and for that reason I was sympathetic and happy for them. Brown gave them an opportunity that I’m sure was scary but valuable to the young poets. We all need space to become writers, and we have to claim that space even when we’re mortified and want to shrink away from the spotlight.

When it came time for Brown’s reading, though, the atmosphere changed. The nervous vibes I felt from the students gave way to the confidence of an award-winning poet. Between the poems, read with vigor and personality, Brown gave us bits of information about Shreveport, La., where he grew up, and Bessie Smith, a blues singer who inspired Langston Hughes, a famous poet whose voice Brown adopts in “Langston Blue.” He made us laugh and injected the room with an intelligent, but snarky energy.

It struck me why it’s important for poems to exist off the pages of a book or a website. The shifts in Brown’s body language, the changes in his facial expressions, the rhythms of his words, all came together to create an experience that was much more interactive. The poems were a conversation between Brown and I, between the different identities in the room, between us and the things we cherish and recoil from. Brown described these imposing aspects of poetry during the Q&A portion of the evening.

In response to questions about being a Black Southern poet and the religious undertones in his work, Brown’s point-of-view synthesized with his poetry, which is steeped in themes of racism, inequality, love, and eroticism. He wanted us to know that race is socially constructed. He wanted us to know that as much as he loves television, being a viewer can perpetuate systems of power. And, he wanted us to know that the reason people don’t like poetry is because it forces us to be involved with the things that are so tough, so painful, so controversial that we otherwise avoid them. It’s in the very nature of the medium.

When we read poetry, we don’t always realize what we got ourselves into until we get to the end of the poem. For me, it starts with a intrigued giggle and I begin to believe I relate to it. Different facets of my identity surface and find a place in the message but then there’s a turn. I’m not sure what the author is talking about anymore. The meaning gets muddled and through the unresolved conflict I start to ask, “What is this?” Much like the end of “Heart Condition,” the poem simply answers, “I am here to love you uncomfortable.”

Photo by Jordan Richards ’15 | Video by Denise Henhoeffer