Sunday, March 24, 2019

Jericho Brown and 'N'em

Growing up, there were sometimes too many people in select groups in our families and communities to name them all. Ain't nobody got time for that. So we gave shorthand. Rather than mention that you saw Tasha, James, Jessica, Marcus, Tee-tee, and Shay, you'd simply go, "Tasha-n-'n'em." 

The enjoyment of reading Jericho Brown's The Tradition emerges, in part, from considering all the ways that he's in conversation with all these other poets. There's something about the interconnectivity, something about Jericho-n-'n'em that animates the experience of reading his work and black poetry in general.

I read The Tradition and thought of Brown's previous works. I also thought of poems by Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton, Evie Shockley, Tyehimba Jess, Adrian Matejka, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young. The lines connecting them to Brown and each other aren't always straight, but instead are connected by zigzags and various arcs. (I admit too that some of the connections are based on my own preferences and hence limits as a reader).

In many circumstances, people wouldn't draw links between Baraka, Clifton, and Brown. But, think about the ways they play with religion. Baraka has this poem where he states that "We'll worship Jesus / when Jesus does somethin'." More comically, his poem "Dope" is one of the most extraordinary poetry performances and critiques of black churches that you'll encounter.

Clifton is less direct in her critiques, but you read something like her poem "slaveships," and you catch the sly ways she questions Christian practice. Similarly, Brown has all these subtle ways that he's questioning, critiquing, and playing with religious ideas.

You notice how Brown absorbs, adapts, and alters different poetic forms, and you're reminded of works by Shockley, Terrance Hayes, Allison Joseph, and Tyehimba Jess. Several other poets, including Nikky Finney, Marilyn Nelson, Vievee Francis, Elizabeth Alexander, and A. Van Jordan have produced crowns of sonnets during the 2010s.

Similar to Afaa Michael Weaver who created the Bop and Eugene B. Redmond who created kwansabas, Brown created s form, the "duplex," which combines aspects of a sonnets, ghazals, and blues poems.

Reginald Harris and Jericho Brown

A few years back, I was noting ties between Reginald Harris and Brown. In particular, I was noting the significance of the two of them writing about black boys and utilizing black vernacular in their works.

And hey, those two poets appear in discussions of black queer poets. There are elder figures who passed away in that realm such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker,  and Essex Hemphill, the latter of whom appears as the title of a poem in The Tradition. Other black gay writers mentioned as precursors to Brown would be Carl Phillips and Cyrus Cassells.

Alright, then there's another group of younger black queer writers who are more readily identified as Brown's peers. I'm thinking of folks like Bettina Judd, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, among many others.

Some of the resistance I noticed in Brown's work had me thinking of June Jordan and Sonia Sanchez. The really audacious aspects of his work and public persona had me thinking of Nikki Giovanni. Hey, we witness that audaciousness in works by Tony Medina as well. 

Brown frequently writes about the South, so as I read his volume, I of course thought of a wide range of poets who've covered similar terrain. That includes folks like Margaret Walker, Sterling Plumpp, Mona Lisa Saloy, Young, Trethewey, and even an emergent figure writer like Tiana Clark. Throughout his new volume, Brown writes about nature in general. That aspect of his work connects to some recent work by Ross Gay that I've read. 

As you see, this list could go on and on. It's much more concise to say that reading The Tradition had me thinking about Jericho-n-n'em.  

A Notebook on Jericho Brown

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Black male bodies, Jericho Brown, and The Tradition

Artwork by: L. Ralphi Burgess

In his book The Tradition, Jericho Brown writes a multifaceted collection of works on black male bodies. Sure, he covers various other subjects as well. But what he's doing with representations of black male bodies is particularly noteworthy.

Over the last several years, spurred by some highly visible and publicized racially motivated and police brutality incidents, we've seen an increasing number of poets write about black people who were killed or died under awful circumstances. Trayvon Martin. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Mike Brown. And on and on. The Mike Brown killing remains particularly haunting because of how his dead body stayed on the street for so long -- a deeply troubling signal for the disregard of black people in this society.

In addition to individual poems, Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (2016) edited by Tony Medina and Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (2016) edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr contain multiple works that address issues of harm done to black folks, with a specific focus on some of the high-profile tragedies.

Brown's title poem "The Tradition," a sonnet, closes with the lines: "Where the world ends, everything cut down / John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown." Here, we get a sense of the poet's clever use of language as he refers to three black males who were "cut down," and at the same time, he rhymes "down" and "Brown." There's a juxtaposition here too between the playfulness of rhyming and the seriousness of how terribly those guys were killed.

In another poem, Brown mentions Emmett Till -- a figure and destroyed body that remains a fixture in American poetry. Taken together, Brown's poems in the volume mentioning violence inflicted upon African Americans contributes to the large, growing domain of writings that address abuse and brutality. Yet, Brown takes additional steps.

Where many writers admirably address the mistreatment of African Americans, relatively few go to the lengths that Brown does in also celebrating black male bodies. He writes about the bodies of black male lovers. He writes of his own black male body. He discusses braiding his hair. He writes of bodies with HIV. He references viewing bus stops early in the morning all across the country as "all those black folks" -- men and women -- wait to go to work.

Listen: even if we removed his meditations on police violence, Jericho Brown would still have a substantial number of diverse works highlighting aspects of black bodies. In one poem, he writes that "Men roam shirtless as if none ever hurt me." In "Of My Fury," he writes of how a man he loves could die because of the color of "all his flawless skin." In his poem "Thighs and Ass," he writes that "Where I am thickest, I grew / Myself by squat and lunge."

Brown's black, queer, southern perspective and knowledge are integral to his perspectives and his representations of black male bodies throughout The Tradition. For him, black lives and black bodies matter, and they matter in his poetry well beyond the context of racist abuse. 

A Notebook on Jericho Brown

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Notebook on Jericho Brown

• March 24: Jericho Brown and 'N'em
• March 23: Black male bodies, Jericho Brown, and The Tradition
• March 20: "Oldest of the young poets": On Jericho Brown, Elizabeth Alexander, and crucial connectors
• March 19: Jericho Brown's 3 books and 132 poems
• March 18: Notations on Jericho Brown's The Tradition

• March 21: Reginald Harris, Jericho Brown, Tee-Tee, Keyshawn, and 'N'em 
• February 20: A Poetic Trilogy: Jericho Brown, Phillip B. Williams & Rickey Laurentiis

• December 7: Jericho Brown takes you there in #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

• October 2: Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Jericho Brown, and the Emory model 

An Extended Notebook on the works of writers, artists & cultural workers

Haley Reading Group: “The New Harpoon”

[The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2017)]

Tom Kizzia retells the story of Tariek Ovuik in his hometown Point Hope fleeing from dangerous rising water. Ovuik recounts the near-death experience and relates it to the shifts in climate change.

Kizzia works to relay Point Hope and places like it affected by oil drilling and the history of how the practice occurred (80). This article points out the danger in climate change caused by government involvement for oil.

There's been increasing discussion of climate change and government involvement over the years. What's one useful way this article expanded or deepened your knowledge on the subject?

"Oldest of the young poets": On Jericho Brown, Elizabeth Alexander, and crucial connectors

"I maintain my position," Jericho Brown recently tweeted, "as the oldest of the young poets." Something about the comment is comical, in part because Brown frequently makes humorous remarks on Twitter. On the other hand, the comment speaks to the ongoing generational shifts and identifications among all writers, and especially among black writers.

During the 1920s, a group of writers announced themselves as representative of "the New Negro," though today they are more frequently referred to as contributors to the Harlem Renaissance. During the late 1960s, a group of writers announced themselves as "new" black poets and contributed to what we now commonly refer to as the Black Arts Movement.

These days, it's common to read coverage on the emergence of this and that new or young group of poets. Many of these young poets are in their late 20s and early 30s, hence Brown proclaims himself as the oldest among them. Back in 2008 with his debut Please, Brown was regularly introduced as one of the new, young important voices. More than a decade later with this third book The Tradition, he's at a different place in his career but still maintaining his position, as he noted.   

In sectors of black culture, we often talk with reverence of our elders. Because the elders age too, then what it means to be young can extend. In 2004, Eugene B. Redmond introduced me to Katherine Dunham at her 95th birthday party. Redmond laughed at me as he told Dunham how "young" I was, but then she in turn laughed at him when he revealed that he was 67. "Only 67? Talk to me when you're older," she said to him. "You haven't really lived until you're 75."

In a room full of emergent poets, Brown is looked up to as an experienced and even older writer. Place him in a room with Redmond, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and others, and they'd view him as a talented young writer. Oldest of the young poets!

Remember that New York Times piece on black men writers? People debated the idea of placing only a group of black men on the cover. Looking back, I wish there was more discussion of how intergenerational the gathering was.

One of the alternate covers from the shoot shows Brown with George C. Wolfe, who's no a senior to the poet. On the other hand, Wolfe would be viewed as much younger by the octogenarian Ishmael Reed who was also featured.

In response to Brown's tweet, Elizabeth Alexander responded that, "there’s an important job in that position bridging generations." And hey, she know. I've long maintained that Alexander is one of our most crucial connectors from black arts era poets to the poets who emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. In related ways yet for a different generation, Brown too serves as one of our connectors, a crucial one.

A Notebook on Jericho Brown

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Jericho Brown's 3 books and 132 poems

As I was reading Jericho Brown's new volume The Tradition, I was looking back on his previous books. I was jotting down titles so decided to pull together a list of all 132 of his poems published in the 3 books.

The Tradition (2019)  -- 52 poems
As a Human Being
The Microscopes
The Tradition
After Another Country
The Water Lilies
Foreday in the Morning
The Card Tables
Bullet Points
The Trees
Second Language
After Avery R. Young
A Young Man
Good White People

Monday, March 18, 2019

Notations on Jericho Brown's The Tradition

On April 2, Jericho Brown will publish The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press), his third volume of poetry. Here, he offers many powerful, inventive poems. He displays considerable topical and artistic range, covering multiple subjects and doing so utilizing a variety of writing modes.

For me, the presence of poetic wisdom remains one of the most distinguishing features of Brown's work. Nearly everywhere you look in his poems, you encounter him, a speaker, or a key character presenting some thoughtful insight or a moving eloquent phrase. In one poem, "As a Human Being," he writes, "There is the happiness you have / And the happiness you deserve." Consequently, "they sit apart from each other."

There's this poem "Layover," where he notes that "Dallas is so / Far away / Even for the people / Who live  /In Dallas." In "After Avery R. Young," he writes, "All land owned is land once stolen."

What I'm saying is that a Jericho Brown book is a book full of critical knowledge, delivered to us in these delightful little packages that we call poems.

Over the years and continuing here with The Tradition, I've been able to depend on Brown as an important cultural witness. He's observing and remembering all kinds of things that resonate with my black southern sensibilities.

In "The Legend of Big and Fine," he writes "Long ago, we used two words for the worth of a house, a car, a woman--all the same to men who claimed them." The poem is a remembrance and critique. That is, it's a recollection of familiar word usage -- big and fine -- and at the same time commentary on the troublesome deployment of those terms in relation to what men possess.

Similar to in his previous volumes Please (2008) and The New Testament (2014), religion remains a crucial, recurring force throughout The Tradition. Christianity clearly supplies the poet with considerable cultural materials and insight. At the same time, he's an unruly believer -- questioning and offering alternative takes on supposed sacred concepts.

In "Deliverance," he notes that "I am not a saint." Instead, he'd rather be a particular kind of unforgettable sound--"something / You will remember / Once you've lived enough not to believe in heaven." In "The Microscopes," he reflects on using those instruments and learning "what little difference / God saw if God saw me."   

So there's this tension with religion in his writing that instills the work with seriousness, excitement, and surprises. He wants to be the sound of a gospel singer. He doesn't want to be a saint.

The creative contribution from The Tradition that will likely receive the most attention will be this form, the "duplex" that Brown created. The form "merges the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues" with "nine to eleven syllables a line." The 14-line poem contains repetitions and is comprised of 7 couplets. The third line echoes and alters the second. The fifth line echoes and alters the fourth, and so on. The third and fourth, seventh and eighth, and eleventh and twelfth are indented. The last line is a variation of the first.

Consider the first 4 couplets of his poem, "Duplex (I begin with love)":
I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

            I don’t want to leave a messy corpse
            Full of medicines that turn in the sun.

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good.

            Those who need least, need hell to be good.
            What are the symptoms of your sickness?
There's much more to say about these duplex poems, which I'll do in a follow-up entry. For now, I'm fascinated by the kind of artistic imagination that comes up with a form like this. It's a mind that takes poetry play serious. It's an artist who absorbs and then alters. Like I said, there's much more to say.

What we have in this volume of poetry is a convergence of creative domains--black, queer, southern, Christian, and more. As it turns out, Jericho Brown is writing within and beyond our sense of tradition. 

A Notebook on Jericho Brown

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Notes on a black actors and actresses dataset

As part of the project that I'm working on, I constructed a dataset based on black actors and actresses. Here's a rundown of some info I noticed while looking through the data:

• 50 black men and 50 black women
• Birth years are from 1893 - 2003
• 30 of the actors were born prior to 1960; 70 of the actors were born after 1960
• Largest concentration of actor birth years is from 1965 - 1975 (38 actors)
• The top 4 cities of birth: New York City (15),  Los Angeles (10), Chicago (6), London (6)
• The actor with the most appearances -- Samuel L. Jackson (120)

The dataset encompasses:
• 2,700 films, released from 1932 through 2018
• 2,175 films that include only one of the 100 actors.
• 525 films that include two of the 100 actors.
• 161 films that include three of the 100 actors.
• 2 films -- Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Black Panther (2018) -- that include 9 of the 100 actors.
• The year with the most releases was 2013 with 117 films

In a Dataset of Their Own: comparisons of black artists & black artists