Danger by Desire:
A Conversation between Jericho Brown & James Allen Hall

Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. He also holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a BA from Dillard University. The recipient of a Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and two travel fellowships to the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, he has served as poetry editor at Gulf Coast and assistant poetry editor at Callaloo. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, jubilat, New England Review, Oxford American, and several other journals and anthologies. Brown teaches creative writing as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of San Diego. New Issues Poetry & Prose published his first book Please.
James Allen Hall is the author of Now You're The Enemy, selected for the 2008 Arkansas Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award and the Helen C. Smith Memorial Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters. His poems and personal essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Boston Review, American Letters and Commentary, Redivider, and other journals. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, residencies at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and two Donald Barthelme Awards from Inprint, Inc. A graduate of the PhD program at the University of Houston, Hall currently teaches creative writing and literature at the State University of New York, Potsdam.

Jericho Brown: Now that you and Brandon are no longer a couple, when Now You're the Enemy is in its second printing, will you change the dedication in the book to read only "for Dustin," your brother?
James Allen Hall: The pain of reading from my book starts there, on that page. Brandon and I had a rocky relationship, so I knew it was a risk dedicating it to him as well. Part of me wants it removed, part of me wants to resist re-framing the book. Because Now You're the Enemy is about the failure of love, perhaps the dedication to a dismantled love is fitting? I should also say that my brother deserves a book of his own; he's really a great guy. Remember how you used to hit on him hardcore, throughout our years at Houston?

I remember reading the notes in the back of the combined edition of Mark's Bethlehem in Broad Daylight and Turtle, Swan, where he talks about refusing the urge to revise from time's vantage point. Sometimes I can't help but feel that Brandon was a typo in my life that I should have corrected a while ago. Maybe it's not perfection I want: I'd like to erase the shame I have regarding this failed relationship. But, then, poetry isn't exactly the medium for that, or is it?

Is there a moment for you like that in Please?
JB: I do remember flirting with Dustin, James. And if I ever forget, I know you'll be there to remind me...I don't remember doing much of anything "hardcore" in Houston. I stopped that after I left New Orleans.

I'm sad to say I don't know if poetry or any other medium allows us to erase or rewrite history exactly. I can say that the work of so many poets I love is all about highlighting some overlooked perspective from history.

You mentioned Mark's early work, and I immediately thought of the final lines from "Charlie Howard's Descent," a poem included in one of those books:

Or else he is not afraid,

and in this way climbs back
up the ladder of his fall,
out of the river into the arms
of the three teenage boys

who hurled him from the edge-
   really boys now, afraid,
their fathers' cars shivering behind them,
headlights on-and tells them

it's all right, that he knows
they didn't believe him
when he said he couldn't swim,
and blesses his killers

in the way that only the dead
can afford to forgive.

Here is where the heart is broken-not because Howard's murder is re-written into a kind of resurrection, but because we know that resurrection does not actually happen. Howard is indeed dead-dead because he made the mistake of existing. Mark tells us what Mark wishes, not what is. The emotional reaction the reader experiences comes from the fact that Mark, no matter how extraordinary his imagination, no matter how elegant his lines and line breaks, cannot raise the boy from the dead.

I'm not saying we don't gain something. I'm only saying we don't really get to live in the world Mark wishes we inhabited...but he does get to make plain what the world he desires is like and allows us to contras t it to the dangers of the one in which small town gay boys get thrown into rivers.

Many black American poets, in particular, also have had this as their goal. I've always thought of writing as participating in a conversation, the method by which I am able to respond to the countless questions I think Gwendolyn Bennett and Gwendolyn Brooks and others ask me when I read their work. Writing and putting poems in print also gives me the chance to ask them?and hopefully a few of the unborn?questions that I have as well.

So to answer you, James, the medicine necessary for me to see whether I should regret anything about Please is yet invented. I won't live long enough to know whether or not anyone in the far future I'm attempting to address will bother with responding to the questions that book asks. And it's just as well; otherwise, I may not care to write another book or another one after that one.

You say the pain of reading from your book "starts" with the regret of that failed relationship with Brandon. What are the other pains? Conversely, of what about Now You're the Enemy are you most proud?
JAH: It's interesting that you feel writing allows you to participate in a conversation. I came late to that idea, Jericho; the poets that first drew me to them always made me feel as if they were speaking intimately to my inward self. Maybe because of that feeling, I've always thought of poetry as a conversation between my outward self (the self in the world, who thinks) and an inner self (the feeling one).

I think I read once that Toni Morrison began to write because she wasn't reading the kinds of stories she wanted to read; I have some of that in the background of why I write. But so much of my reading life, especially as a child devouring bodice-rippers and Steven King novels, made me feel both involved and alone. I did an awful lot of translating myself into the dresses and desires of Harlequin women. (And those bitches had nothing on me, honey!).

And so maybe in writing these poems for this book, I went unconsciously to the trove of stories I'd heard from and about my mother. I knew from an early age that my mother had been sexually and physically abused by her father. (This is a point of contention among my aunts; my mother's memory was recovered while in therapy). My mother has struggled with depression, adultery, and suicide for most of her adult life.

The first time I read from the book, I nearly broke down. How embarrassingly sentimental is that: the poet almost crying over his own fucking poems. Writing is fashioning, editing, organizing: it's making pattern from chaos. It's coping. A student asked me which of the poems was most painful to write. None of them were painful to write. I believe that writing empowers us: it gives us the power to form, render , revise. Reading is reliving. I'd been so happy to move away from Now You're the Enemy. I wanted my mother's drama "out of the painting/ out of the eye, out of my life forever" as I say in "Portrait of My Mother as Victorine Meurent." I loved that it was shuttered up, a house I no longer had to inhabit. But when I read from the book, I move back in. Not just sleeping there, not just going to dinner: pressing the mouth to the linens, breathing in the scents that make it a real place inside me again.

When the book was taken, I felt-and still feel-like it was happening to someone I kinda knew, whom I kinda liked. Maybe I'm proud-that's not the right word-of writing a book in which lots of people get some voice: gay and straight, black and white, painter and singer, male and female, model and bullfighter.

I feel most consciously that I am a gay man who finds poetry in the margins. I'm proud that I write from this perspective but that the poems themselves don't feel closed off to just that perspective. I hope that's true, anyway. I'm wondering if the same is true for you-do you feel, for instance, that Please explores a specifically black, gay subjectivity? (I'm thinking of poems like "The Gulf," for instance).
JB: James, I do hope you don't mind me sharing your definition of poetry with my students. I'm always trying to get them to define the thing and to challenge their own definitions with what they are writing, so part of what we do is look at what poets say poetry is. I honestly didn't think of myself as offering a definition when I was mentioning writing as an act of conversation, but in retrospect, I feel like that works as a definition for poetry, too. What Morrison says about writing the novels she wanted to read seems to me useful as well. If we take this as a kind of dictum, then we are never at a loss for work to do, and we can't complain that we don't have the resources (imagination, that is) necessary to do it.

There's also an assumption of power and creation ability in Morrison's statement that I like a lot. I have to say, though, that I don't think any of that kind of power or the kind of control you mention has had much to do with my own writing, at least not in the case of writing Please. I wept my way through the making of most of those poems-that's 10 points for me in the sentimentality game we seem to be playing-and hardly felt that I had any control or power over the "story" that began to emerge from them. I felt that I did my best writing when I was the most vulnerable to the writing, when I allowed for the construction of images and lines that, in the midst of composing, frightened me.

What I mean, James, is-and this, I hope, moves toward the question of subjectivity-I felt about writing those poems the sam e way I felt when I first realized how much I could not get enough of seeing men's calf muscles when I was a pre-teen on summer days in Louisiana. I didn't want to want it. I hated wanting it. Had I a choice, I'd have wanted to care the least bit about the low necklines women wore on those same hot days. Don't you think your life would have been a good deal easier had you not been a poet? You're a smart man, James; you could have done anything. Do you for a minute think you chose to be a writer?

I don't think that. I believe I came of age in a situation where I was never allowed to speak, and since my father was too much a violent man for me to dream of speaking or expressing myself through some of the trouble for which my cousins and the other young men of my neighborhood have been imprisoned, I went to the page. Because I am a human, I have to speak: I only do that with any kind of success when I am writing poems.

I should temper all of this by admitting that I could just be a crybaby. I, like you, find myself choking on the words of those poems when I read them aloud, but rather than admit to reliving some of those experiences, I've always said to myself that those tears had something to do with what Chivas Perkins might think of as method acting. So much of Please isn't the autobiographical me, yet I don't think I'm at all aware of that when I give a reading.

Though I didn't have this in mind as I was writing-no one should have anything in mind while writing a poem-looking back, I fully understand that poems like "The Gulf" and "Pause" do indeed explore a "specifically black, gay subjectivity," and for that, I am most thankful. I will be even more thankful when straight, white poets more often realize and acknowledge the fact that their poems-whether or not they had it in mind during composition-explore a specifically straight, white subjectivity.

And now that we are talking about race, can you speak to the presence of "A Fact Which Occurred in America" as it relates to the other poems and entire arc of your book? Maybe you can say something about "Portrait of My Lover as 'Man in a Polyester Suit (1980)'" as well. Essex Hemphill attacked Mapplethorpe for those photographs of a black man's penis without his face. Did his essay have anything to do with you writing that poem? How is it that you, unlike so many white folks writing (there are exceptions to this, of course; I just finished Jake Adam's York most recent book, A Murmuration of Starlings), became so aware that there were people in the world who weren't white and that you could write about your or your speaker's experiences with them?
JAH: I do experience an overwhelming urgency to create, and I love that you connect poetry to wanting. Psychoanalytic critics like Julia Kristeva say that our first desire (hunger for the mother's body) compels us to language. For me, writing and desire are inextricably linked. I would have been a writer despite my occupation-no matter if I was a lawyer or a doctor or a stripper, I would always see how that work connected to the work I really do, which is writing. I'm glad that I've chosen a profession-teaching-whic h allows me to constantly connect and contextualize ideas for an audience.

There are so many bad poems about ________________ (fill in the blank), and certainly race is one way to fill in the blank. I love Sylvia Plath, but when she writes in "The Arrival of the Bee Box,"

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I cringe. I cringe at the idea that this white woman is comparing her attraction and repulsion for the bees to the way African hands touch her. There's worse: in saying she ordered the African hands, in saying she is "the owner," Plath makes a really unfortunate metaphor go antebellum-atomic. When I teach that poem, I don't let her get away with it. I don't let students say, "It's just how it was back then." Because there's a history, dating to the 16th century and beyond, of the "dark, dark" being valued negatively by white imperialists (those men we call "trailblazers" or "founding fathers"). And that construction has soaked its stain into the collective unconscious.

I write to peel back history, to explore other ways of seeing. Mapplethorpe's photo has been widely and, I think, correctly critiqued for its severing of the man's face and head, for its metonymic use of black male genitalia. It reduces a man to his penis; but in doing so, perhaps Mapplethorpe means to critique the way black men are viewed? Maybe he wants to say in the photograph: You were looking at it already. For you, this dick is always on display, you sick fucks. I think he does that through placing the model in a three-piece suit as well. We notice the dick, not the threads.

For me, the gaze becomes implicated; it becomes subject matter. In "Portrait of My Lover as 'Man in a Polyester Suit,'" the speaker is an Orphic photographer who must be rent apart, must be d ismantled, precisely because his enactment of desire leads to destruction (destruction of the beloved Other and for the self). I think it's important for my speaker in "A Fact Which Occurred in America" to be implicated in the story as criminal, punished-and for him to connect that punishment to how he feels about his skin. "I wanted," this white boy says, "to stay black," and describes his whiteness as "chalk, a sickness stretched over my skin." That poem is about feeling Other, and about the decision the speaker makes: "in that America, I am always betraying the master."

Whiteness, for that speaker, means something different: straight, male, ignorant of alterity, privileged, unoppressed. It is, to some extent, true for me too. I don't necessarily think of myself as "white" or "male." Of course I am not NOT white, and I am not NOT male; and there are some slight privileges I've enjoyed because of my ability to "pass." But there's more trouble living under those signs than there is comfort for me. I wanted a book that doesn't avoid that fact. There are detestable poems in the world-written by otherwise good writers; detestable because of their haphazard and shallow representations of non-white, non-straight, non-male people. Because of their failure to implicate themselves in the otherness they describe, because of an insistence that they are something untouched (or touched repugnantly) by, and utterly different from the Other about which they write. It's not poetry when it doesn't pierce below the skin.

I believe in the responsibility of art to mirror the world, even as it suggests things could be different. I'm reminded of your poem "Rick," and how you seem to invert the critique. I mean, the power differential between race in America seems to have other insidious effects. How do you confront and represent these effects? Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to "represent" in certain ways?
JB: James, "We notice the dick, not the threads?" Yes. Of course. Of course. And you're "not NOT white." Yes. Sure. You're not NOT, and I'm just not...

For my own part, James, I'm not sure how conscious I am of confronting and representing anything in the ways that we usually think of confronting and representing (i.e, race, gender, sexuality, etc.). I don't even get angry any more about all of the sad and sadistic ways in which black people (and other people of color and women and gay people) are represented throughout the history of "literature" written in English. Lately, I've been hearing that statements like this don't make any sense whatsoever to people who have read Please. (Recently, I was telling a group of students that I am more interested in sound and music than I am in dramatic situation and narrative; they each, one after the other, began to call me several kinds of a liar by quoting my own poems back to me. Talk about fun!) Let me explain things this way:

Where you and I agree is on the point of piercing the self. I believe that all I can do is confront and represent every inch of Nelson Jericho Trey Brown Demery, III-my loves and my hates, my ability to do good and evil, my lust after the flesh and my respect for it. Of course, several of my poems are not about me exactly, but even in that work, I have the "responsibility" to find a little something of my own complexity. When I am doing that, I am writing well. When I am doing that, I can focus on challenging and exp anding my own talents and skills as a poet. Worrying about other people's really bad poems doesn't help me write good ones.

And now that I've said that, I have to account for the existence of a poem like "Rick." One very close friend suggested that I not include the poem in Please because he thought it too "gossipy." But I wasn't writing the poem to gossip, and I don't care if anyone else thinks of me as a gossip because Barot himself saw the poem before it was published and sent me a note to tell me how much he loves it, its metaphors, and its images. While I think his "Eight Elegies" is a lovely poem-so lovely that I teach it to my students-I wasn't writing to respond to it as much as I was responding to my own experiences with and misperceptions of interracial relationships and desire. I didn't write the poem because of, for lack of a better phrase, the issue; I wrote it because of my issue. A love of language coupled with a real exploration of one's own issues and obsessions give the poet more than a lifetime of material. The word "real" is the important one in that sentence. The exploration will be one in which readers can invest rather than a public psychotherapy session replete with sobs.

I think examples of this are the humorous and darkly ironic ways the figure of the mother is presented in poems from your book like "Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas" and "Portrait of My Mother as Rosemary Woodhouse." But, James, after reading such an obsessively scrumptious book about such a figure, I have to ask you...

Do you now find it hard not to write about the mother? Will your work continue to pursue her?

I've said that I was glad to close the doors of Now You're the Enemy, scrumptious or over-obsessive as it may be. I remember late nights with you on the phone as we played with line breaks of our poems, I remember feeling like there was nothing more I could do for that manuscript. If it hadn't been taken, I don't believe I would have added more poems to it. It was done. Writing the book helped me excise my mother from my life. At the same time, writing the book comprised the only relationship I had with her for years.

My mother will not be contained. She appears in so many guises. Ultimately, my book is about how identities are shaped by a history and a culture that reifies some people and denigrates others. The portrait poems identify her and at the same time suggest that she will slip free from any stable view. I'm glad you find these poems darkly ironic and humorous. I needed a form that pressurized my autobiographical impulse and lensed the poem's material as to spotlight the way in which the story is told. I wanted a poetry that approached the unsayable with new tools of making it talk.

The first poem I wrote after Now You're the Enemy does recount a story in which my mother appears. My mother was having an affair with a married cop. He'd pick her up at my house (I opened the door for him), and they'd go parking somewhere. Once, my father went looking for them with a gun. The poem watches and listens from my father's vantage point, and its concerns center on his failure to do anything but love her more ferociously.

In the poems I've written since, she's made no appearance. Maybe I needed a bridge? I'm a little relieved that a different project has presented itself. I'm writing poems concerned with the intersections of violence, masculinity, and (in spite of my irreverent self) spirituality. I'm thinking more now about listening and sound as conductors of experience, whereas my first book seems obsessed with the gaze. If my mother comes into the project, so be it. Wallace Stevens says that the subject matter springs from the irrational part of our brain, and that the irrational element is necessary to all art. We must write what fascinates us. Many of my friends working on their second books fret over it being "different" from the first. I am not. The imagination won't be controlled. My mother is a diva, certainly, but the curtain closes; when it opens again, it reveals other dramas, which must then unfold.

Many poems in Please are spoken by-or center on-"divas" like Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Natalie Cole, to mention a few. My question is dual: First, what does the use of diva-driven dramatic monologue permit you in the book? And second, do you feel that diva-ness is crucial to your process of making poems?
JB: I'm intrigued that our work is so different in thousands of ways and yet so much alike in that one most important way: we are both fascinated by the limitless dangers caused by desire. That scene of a man taking gun in hand and going to retrieve his wayward beloved, your comment about "his failure to do anythi ng but lover her more ferociously" made me wonder for a moment whether you were referencing my book or yours.

From the beginning, lyrics to all of popular music often referred to a man or woman in love with one word: fool. I remember once asking my father why he and my mother didn't just call it quits. I was ten years old at the time, and he was crying in front of me, complaining that she shouldn't have made him cry in front of one of his children. He answered, "Because I love her," and then he slapped me across the face for having the gall to ask him something like that.

The funny thing about this story, James, is that if you were to ask my dad today why he slapped me that day years ago, he'd answer, "Because I love him." By the time I was ten, I was pretty certain that I'd never be a fool-so what if that meant never being in love. Today, I am still fascinated by fools and by love, the agent that makes them act so foolish. I don't know that I'll write without that in mind.

That said, I don't "fret" over the book being different from the first, but there are several words I refuse to use in poems written post-Please. The list is long. I kept coming back to certain words because I felt that doing so would help create a world with which readers become acquainted while reading the book. Part of that world includes figures to whom music fans have been widely attracted, but who often felt like outcasts in terms of their race or their hometowns or their families or the music industry itself.

While Please is a stage Cole, Joplin, and Ross share with Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Luther Vandross, you are correct in noting that I have been obsessed with the woman singer, the diva, and the ways people in the United States from all walks of life have a history of rallying behind her, defending her, or tossing her aside for another with a broader range or a bigger butt. The diva is important to me as a black poet and to Please as a book because she allows me the opportunity to make lyric revelations about the often contradictory life of the minority artist and her relationship to consumers-an audience that may know nothing firsthand of the background that inspires that artist's material.

Divas are also quite unapologetically talented...and, yes, beautiful. They mean for their very presence to make people cry, just as the poet must mean for his or her poems to make readers fully feel an emotion. I've always believed that this is why gay folks love divas so much. Divas are only completely themselves on stage. Gay people all over the world, no matter how "out" they are, never get to publicly experience this. We see or hear the diva, and...let's just say: we don't hate; we appreciate.

That's something of the land of Please. Now, though, I want to make a new world. I've been shifting my lexicon and writing poems about and in the voices of Max Robinson and Jessica Savitch as well as poems based on scriptures from the Bible. The manuscript is tentatively titled The New Testament. Still, I understand that this time in my life is the Wood Between the Worlds; we shall see if I make it to Narnia.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761