I spoke with Nikky Finney and Jericho Brown in the spring of 2020 as a part of the Bay Area Book Festival’s #Unbound series of virtual conversations. We convened just after citizens began mobilizing against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers. I was hurt, and there couldn’t have been two poets I needed to speak with more during that difficult historical moment. Something of the importance of Nikky’s and Jericho’s work is captured in the epigraph of Nikky’s latest book, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts, which is from Langston Hughes: “I’m laying off of political poetry for a while, though, since the world situation, me thinks, is too complicated for so simple an art. So I am going back (indeed have gone) to nature, Negroes, and love.”
To me, that epigraph speaks to what binds these poets together and makes them crucial to our moment: their dedication not just to political poetry but to politically engaged poetry that is about Black people, Black life, and Black lives. They get to their politics through a careful examination of Blackness and the poetic forms that that examination yields. Jericho’s and Nikky’s work reminds us exactly what we’re fighting for.
I. WHEN IT IS GOOD TO HAVE POEMS
THE BELIEVER: I want to thank you two for being here. I have some questions about witness, about social form, and about poetic form. But I want to start off with the most important question: How are you two doing right now? What’s keeping you afloat? What’s giving you life?
JERICHO BROWN: I’m traumatized. My heart is broken, you know. You know this, Ismail. And Nikky knows this as well. One of the ways we know we’re magical people is by how much we manage to do with broken hearts. I understand that I’m a person who can’t handle that which everyone else can handle. I am indeed that clichéd sensitive poet. So I’ve been avoiding the news. But it’s very difficult to avoid the news when the news is as big as it is now. And so I’m trying my best to tap into all the love, joy, and gratitude I can, so I can send that energy. Because I believe I can do that. I can send that energy to all the people who are indeed in this moment, in the midst of this pandemic, risking their lives to make a necessary statement, and I want us to know that the statement they are making is indeed a necessary one and it does make a difference. I think we can get very skeptical of protest, and I am interested in the fact that no matter what our skepticism may be, using your body to create the drama of protest does indeed change things and make more people aware of certain problems they may not otherwise have been aware of. And so I am glad to be here with you, Ismail. I’m always happy to be with my teacher Nikky Finney. I wouldn’t know how to write if it weren’t for her. So I thank god for her. But, Ismail, you know, you read that Langston Hughes poem, and I’m sensitive right now. I had to get myself together. Don’t ruin my makeup. [Laughs] How you doing, Nikky?
NIKKY FINNEY: You know, we work with words, right? We do. We do words. Toni Morrison taught us and others have taught us. I’ve been scribbling a lot, using the broken heart—the letters of the broken heart—to write. I want to be here with you, Jericho, and I want to be here with you, Ismail. But I really don’t want to be here. I really don’t want the light on me. I really don’t want to do this, and yet we step forward to hold one another and to say, “You OK? You all right? I’m looking for you.” I’ve been wanting to do this with Jericho for maybe twenty years. So I’m good now. I think I feel like I’ve made it across the Chattahoochee or something. I don’t know. I just… I am full of wonder. I’m full of joy. I am full of pain. I refuse once again to allow the brutality of white supremacy to define how I ultimately feel, how I open my eyes in the morning or close them at night. And it is work. It is work every single day. It is impossible to tell you how I’m doing, because it changes by the minute. Fury one minute, tears the next, pulling Audre Lorde off the shelf the next. And so one of the things that keeps my chin above the waterline is absolutely those who came before me who went through what we are going through now in their own time. And I try to reach out for some younger people, human beings who may not have that sort of barrier and buoy that I have with the culture and the history. So [sighs]—so that’s how I’m doing.
BLVR: I wonder—just because you are both teachers and I assume you were both teaching this past spring—how has teaching entered into how you’re encountering this moment, working with students and younger writers and mentees?
NF: As a teacher, I want to impart what I know back into the water, and I feel like I’ve been doing that for thirty years of my life. And, in fact, it’s a good segue to how I met Jericho, who wasn’t Jericho. When I met him he was Jericho, but he wasn’t Jericho. He was in his spirit, but he wasn’t by name, and that’s how far back we go. I’ve always wanted to say this. I’ve written it in my journal books, but I haven’t said it to him: He was one of the hungriest, most brilliant young writers I ever met in the moment… That was the year 2000. It was twenty years ago, and he was so hungry and was a lot quieter than he is right now.
BLVR: I can imagine.
NF: He was looking for the twenty years that he’s lived since then. He was looking for the stepping-stones. I gave him what I could and told him to find out the rest of it on his own, and he did. As a teacher, one of the things I feel like I get really clear about with my students is a feeling. A feeling like what they need, a feeling like what I can impart to them. It’s always different, which makes teaching the way I teach really difficult, because I know that not everybody gets the same thing and learns the same way. And I know Jericho is the same way in a different kind of way, because I’ve talked to some of his students who have said that same kind of thing about him. So I think we share that, in a way.
JB: I’ll just say that what I love about teaching—and I believe what my students love about the opportunity to get the education they’re getting, in particular in the workshops where I teach them—is that it’s an opportunity to tell the truth in ways they are otherwise not going to be told the truth. The truth has been hidden from them, mostly because they’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one years old. So in many cases they have been told lies, and if you don’t put yourself in a position where you can find out the truth, you will not get it. You won’t get it from the news. You definitely won’t get it from your parents. We had some very interesting times and some interesting interactions, and I got the opportunity to find out even more about them than I would have otherwise found out, and that was wonderful.
As soon as we got out of school, though, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered, and so I was in the middle of finishing grades and I had just gotten the news about the Pulitzer. I was trying to finish grades so I could act inappropriately [laughs], and my students were texting me and emailing me. My students are Black and white and of every kind of descent you can imagine, and they were reaching out to me because they needed to extend what we’d learned in poetry to this other part of their lives. And what I really loved is that I could hear in our conversations that they were using poems to get through that moment. You know, the wonderful thing about that Langston Hughes poem you opened with, and what I know is true in my life, is that when stuff like this happens, it’s good to have poems that remind me who we really are without the threat we live with, without the threat that it’s really about us. I want to make a sandwich; I want to take a nap; you know what I mean? So we’re living that life, and yet we are also always under the threat.
BLVR: Your point, Jericho, about Black life, about the threat, and about what we live for makes me think about the question of form. What I’ve been struck by, having read your books, is the way in which the social informs all the poetic innovation you’re doing at the level of form. So, Jericho, you’ve written [in the essay “Invention”] about this, about creating the duplex from this heterogeneous collection of genres and forms of the sonnet and the blues and the ghazal. That heterogeneity in form is, in part, mirroring the heterogeneity of your life. So your Blackness, your queerness, your Southernness. And the same thing’s at play, I think, with Love Child’s: Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, Nikky.
NF: Blackness. Queerness. Southernness. Yes. It’s the same.
BLVR: When I was reading Love Child’s, I was imagining that the hotbed is a new kind of poetic form, but I’m not sure if you’re thinking about it as a separate form. I wonder here if you can speak both about the relationship between innovating new poetic forms and the social life those forms spring from.
NF: From the beginning, I have been curious about how to say what I want to say, and I have not waited for permission from some great somebody to say, This is how you can do it. This is how you should do it. The only way you’re going to make it through this world is to say it in this kind of way. I have followed my own sensitive and curious child self, going back even to On Wings Made of Gauze,which was my first book. Just listening to words, sonically, has always been something I did, even as a young person. Loving words and positioning those words on the page has always had a sort of music for me, and I’ve continued to do that and follow that line of poetic reasoning. It’s different in each poem, because hopefully I’ve grown as a human being and as a poet. But really letting the poem and what I’m saying, rather than something else, lead me—that’s been my North Star. I hope; I mean, that’s what I’m thinking. But I’m also using the visual and ephemeral letters from my father and things of this sort as stars in that constellation of how I’m putting words together, and that felt really right to me.
Hotbeds really came from my love of gardening and being outside and knowing that those were actual seeds of thoughts and words that came from journal books I’ve been keeping since I was thirteen or fourteen years old. The book people at Northwestern University Press looked at the book at first and went, “Oh my god, what is this?” And I had to sort of explain it to them. Then they said, “Oh, OK, OK, hotbed.” People were, like, running to the hills when they saw the word hotbed. I had to keep explaining it to people who thought I meant something else. I love form. I just don’t want to be told how to write what I’m feeling. I want to put it on the page.
JB: The most I can do is echo what Nikky said. Maybe, like, fifteen years ago, I figured out that in order for me to exude any kind of self-love and to have any kind of pride, I would have to first figure out what things about myself I had been told I was supposed to be ashamed of. I would have to reclaim those things and find ways to be proud of them. And then the second thing I had to do was find the things about myself that I had been told were improbable as they related to achievement, which turned out to be a lie. I actually believe the reason Black people are capable of the highest forms of achievement in every area is because, first of all, we have no choice but to achieve in the highest form. We were always taught, and we know it to be true, that whatever we do, we have to do it better than anyone else in order to get any recognition for it. But also because—and I think queerness, in my life, has had a large part in this—we’re able to see ourselves from the outside and from the inside, you know? I’m not saying anything new; that’s Anna Julia Cooper and W.E.B. Du Bois. Double consciousness, right? So if you can really tap into that, if you can tap into your Blackness, your queerness, your Southernness, your mother’s son–ness, your sister’s brother–ness—if you can tap into those things, then you can really have a greater appreciation for everything. And so because I’m a Black writer, I know what a bop is in a way that other writers might not be aware of. And because I’m a Black writer, I know what a sonnet is in ways that other writers might not be aware of. And because I’m a Black and queer writer, I know what a hustle is, and so I have those things in ways that other people are not going to have them, because they’re not going to see them through the lens or the lenses through which I’m able to see them. And after I realize I have those things, my job is then to use them.
So I have to believe I have everything I need for my poems, and then I have to use everything I’ve got that I’m aware of when I’m trying to write my poem. I have to be who I am, and I’m always trying to reconcile my life and my feelings, and that comes through in my poetry. The reason I’m trying to reconcile those things, by the way, is because I think that’s what integrity is: the ability to be whoever you are all the time, no matter the audience. You know that feeling—when that police station went up in flames the other night… I love God, but I cannot pretend that I did not have some feeling of satisfaction or comeuppance at the sight of that. I wasn’t out there burning the building down, but I was not depressed that it burned down. Do you follow what I’m saying? So I have to reconcile that. I have to be honest about that. And I have to create a world where other people can be honest about that in the midst of so much confusion. I brought all these forms together to create the duplex, because we’re walking around with what people keep calling contradictions, and I don’t think they’re contradictions. If we can be honest about them, they are what makes us human, and I wanted to show humanity, you know, the all-ness of myself, the humanity of myself in a single form.
BLVR: I want to backtrack a little bit and kind of pick up on what you said, Jericho. You used the word impossible.
JB: Yeah, improbable.
JB: You know, like Ismail, we’re not in jail; we’re not in prison. That’s actually improbable.
JB: I’m walking around with that. People know that, but I think the difference between writers—or maybe artists, but definitely writers—and other people is that we have an awareness of that, and that every once in a while we are tapping into it, right? We’re aware of the not, if you follow what I’m saying. I’m aware of the not, and in poems I’m trying to prove the not, the negative, because there are so many negatives coming at me from the outside world. And so I have to figure out where I am in the world, because people don’t want to tell me who and what I am; they want to tell me what I’m not and what I can’t do. So I have to say, “Oh no, you said I’m not that, so now I gotta prove the opposite.” I’m working on the negative, which I don’t think all writers are having to work through.
II. “SENSIBILITY FOR THE TREE”
BLVR: Let’s talk about region a little bit. Obviously, you’re both from the South, and I wonder how the South moves through your language and what it does to your writing.
NF: Well, I had to leave the Black church. I had to leave my Black community. And one of the lenses I had to put my hands around was being a Black, Southern lesbian in the world, and I could not do that at home. I kept thinking, you know, the devil and somebody else was going to snatch my tongue or cut my head off or something, because these are the images that came at me in church. And so I landed in Oakland, California, in 1984 or ’85, and it all fell away because I had a community of all kinds of people, including Black, gay women, who embraced me and opened a passageway for me, allowed me one of those lenses that I had to keep sunglasses on when I was in South Carolina. I’m grateful for that moment in my life, in my early twenties, when I started shedding some of the things that had to go.
BLVR: And how about you, Jericho?
JB: Can I just say, it sends chills through my body to hear a poet like Nikky Finney say that she is a lesbian, and the reason is because I was under the impression for a very long time… I mean, this is really a moment that is very important to me. I was under the impression for a very long time that in order to be a Black writer, I would have to put something about my identity, subjectivity, and self aside. Y’all know what I’m talking about because you know that somebody had you read some James Baldwin, some Sonny’s Blues, you know, when you were in high school or college, but you didn’t know James Baldwin was gay till you were forty. [Laughs] And the man was not hiding it, but somehow or other everybody else was hiding it for him. Do you know what I mean?
For the generation of poets just before Nikky Finney, it was a really big deal for them to be able to do what they did. It’s not like there weren’t gay and lesbian poets in a generation, but the Black poets were in a position and believed—and maybe it was true—they had to have one identity in order to make way for the freedom and understanding of another part of their identity. So we’re in brand-new terrain. A lot of young people take this stuff for granted. But that is new.
JB: That possibility for us is definitely new if we look at the history of Black writing in this country. And I’m grateful for that. As a Southerner, I think part of what happens when you leave the South is that you become aware of your vernacular in ways you were not aware of before you left. You know, I have a poem [in The Tradition]called “Foreday in the Morning,” which is a phrase I always heard older people say when I was growing up. Older people would also say things like “chifforobe,” right? And I think they were saying that in the South in a way that they weren’t necessarily saying it everywhere else. So the sound of language and the way language comes to us depend on where we are.
You don’t really become aware of it, because you’re living it, or at least that was the case for me. I wasn’t aware of those intonations until I left, and I missed them. And I think missing them gave me a greater appreciation for them and helped me understand how best to make use of them in my work. I also think on the level of image—because all poets are always concerned with flora and fauna—what I can see in the natural world here is different from what I would see in the natural world when I was living, for instance, in Southern California. And it is also wonderful to see how where I live enters my poems. When I lived in Massachusetts, I had snow in my poems; when I lived in California, there was sand in my poems; there were canyons.[Laughter] Look, I didn’t know what a canyon was, do you know what I mean? Like, I had heard of canyons, but I hadn’t really seen them, you know?
When I first moved to California, I had this plan, and the plan was to be miserable. Like I expected [laughs]—I expected to be miserable, and I’ll never forget what happened when I got my little office. My first teaching job was at the University of San Diego, which is really where I learned to teach because there was a huge reverence for teaching at that school. And I respect that school for that so much. But I was miserable, and I wanted to go home. I remember getting my office. I walked into my office and I sat down and I opened the window, and they had shutters for windows, and I looked out the window and I felt like—well, let me tell y’all what I saw: I looked out the window and I saw a magnolia tree, and it was all I could see.
JB: And I said, Jericho, you better just stop trying to be miserable. I didn’t even know how much I loved magnolia trees, and I don’t think I knew I could identify trees as well as I could until that moment. So I think that’s part of what happens in your poems; that sensibility for the tree is what happens in your poems.
III. THE POETRY OF WITNESS
BLVR: I suppose we should talk about witness. Nikky, you describe Love Child’s as an exercise in occasional poems. And I wonder if, for both of you, the form of the occasional poem overlaps with the question of witness, as both a duty and something that’s beautiful to bear. So what is the difference between writing to memorialize something and writing as a mode of witnessing? And what does it even mean to witness in the first place, I suppose?
JB: Well, when I think of the poetry of witness, I think of the ability to see—with the best writing eyes through which you can possibly see—the complexity of anything that you have the opportunity to come across. To understand that for you, it is a unique moment. You know, poetry of witness is a term Carolyn Forché uses a great deal, and when she was able to write about El Salvador in poems like “The Colonel”… She was an American poet in El Salvador [during that country’s civil war], and she understood that you have to be aware that, as a poet, you’re going to be in situations where you have a responsibility to that situation because you’ll be the only poet there. And so that’s how I’m thinking about witness. All of us have some role to play, given what we see and where we are, and I will have a role to play, and I have to pay a different kind of attention because of that role.
So, for instance, I live in Georgia, the state that was the last to close down during the pandemic and the first to open up. That is the same state that, before I moved to it, executed Troy Davis, even though witnesses were recanting their testimony. It’s the same state in which Ahmaud Arbery was murdered, the same week I won the Pulitzer Prize. So that had… the effect that has on me… I just have to pay attention to it all and I have to get that in my poems. And when I get that in my poems, I want to see all the way around it. Nikky actually did an exercise with us that I’ll never forget because I still do it all the time for my own poems. She taught us about how to not only look at this personal thing that is happening to you in that moment, but also to look at: What’s happening in your neighborhood? What’s happening in your city? What’s happening in the state? What’s happening in the nation? What’s the world news? And how are these things ricocheting off one another? If there’s a world event, you can work backward. If there’s a city, if there’s a national event, you can work forward and backward. So I’m always trying to see around, and I think that’s what being a witness—a poet—a poet of witness is about.
NF: I grew up in a really small town. I had incredible Black folks around me who loved to do things with their hands, or with their minds, or with their laughter, or with their bodies. Mr. Sinclair had a gas station. He had one arm because he had lost the other arm in the Korean War, and he owned the one Black gas station in town. And there was a Black electrician and a contractor. And so all these people had the responsibility of what they loved to do, what they wanted to do, or what they got up every morning at eight o’clock or six o’clock or four o’clock to do. And I started thinking, Well, what is my responsibility? What do I get up in the morning and think about? What do I want to do to help somebody, to build something that matters that might proclaim that I’m here in this world at this time? And I always had poetry books in my back pocket or dinosaur books or a pencil or something. I didn’t know what an occasional poem was when I was nine or fifteen, but when people saw me writing poems and stuffing them into my pockets, they would come up to me and, as a way of affirming me, say, “Mrs. Robertson is turning ninety on Sunday. She’d like a little poem from you. Why don’t you?” And I would go, “Oh, let me get to work on that right away.” Terrible poem, you know, going on and on like I do now. But I felt like this was my responsibility. Someone had asked me to do something, build something to honor somebody, to honor somebody’s birthday, or the church that was turning one hundred, or the NAACP. I felt like this was my role in this community I grew up in.
So I was bringing together all sides of myself in order to write this occasional poem, and the occasional poem for me was not a bad thing. It was not something I looked down upon. It was something I actually got charged up about because somebody thought I could make something with my hands and a pencil and some paper and some letters and then it would be a part of the entire celebration we would have in that moment, in that town, for that person we adored and whom we wanted to treasure. And so I didn’t intend to do this with the rest of my life. I intended to love poetry, but I also kept building these worlds, not because somebody in my family or somebody in my hometown asked me to, but because, as Jericho was just saying, the world seems to need this from us. We know—we who love words, we who love language, we who love story—we are doing our part.
BLVR: I think by way of closing, not to, like, put the “Where do you see the culture going?” question on your shoulders, but I wonder what you’re hopeful about right now, moving forward? What do you hope for? What are you fearful of, in this political moment? But also what role poetry can play in that moment?
NF: I just want to go back to the first thing Jericho said, because it’s the flag flying over my house outside. I heard fifty young people in the street yesterday flying the same flag, saying, “I want my life to be about truth.” And if my life is not about truth, then I’m out here in search of that. And you can call your curfew and you can stand there in front of me with your gun. But for nine minutes a man had his knee on a human being’s neck for all the world to see. I saw this young man who was nineteen years old saying, “I had to come out here. I have to be in my truth about this.” Ismail, I don’t want to talk about the White House. I don’t want to talk about politics. I want to talk about young people and their deep desire to live. And the deep desire to live their truth and to be their definition of free in this world. And that’s what wakes me up in the morning. That’s what makes me go out in the streets with them. That’s what I care about. And that’s what I see happening all over the country.
JB: You know, I’m looking forward to us talking. I mean, in just plain old conversation, more and more about defunding the police to the point of the abolition of that institution, and I would like that to be a normal part of our discourse. That’s my hope. I would like for us to talk about that the way we say “Pass the bread,” you know, as easy as it is for us to see that image that Nikky just described. Over and over again, when we see that image of George Floyd and images like it, the police are the chief problem in the picture, and we should get rid of the problem. And I want us to remember that when I say that, I want us to remember that in this nation, in 1855, if you said you wanted [to talk] or were interested in talking about the abolition of slavery, people thought you were crazy. People thought you were insane. And we are going to have to make some decisions toward what seems like insanity, because that is the only way progress is ever made anywhere. So that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to.