Four poems and an interview.
After Jubilee, which will be published in the fall of 2017, examines how the lineage of violence against people of color is passed down generationally within the black family and how this violence becomes even more complicated for a woman of color in the past and present day.
TYREE DAYE So let me start by saying congratulations on the book prize. After Jubilee is a beautiful, necessary book. How are you handling the news?
BRIONNE JANAE Thank you! I feel like I'm still mildly shocked by the news. I'm extremely excited but it still feels surreal, like I won't be able to really believe it until I see a physical copy of the book. That said, I am very happy and grateful to spend the next year looking forward to the day I get to hold my first book for the first time. It sounds corny but it's so real.
TD How long did it take After Jubilee to come about, to become a complete concept?.
BJ I wrote the first poem for After Jubilee, "Going North," during my second semester of grad school at Emerson College. I was inspired by my maternal grandparents' life, particularly my grandmother's, and what it must have been like for her to have her husband go off to find work up north and in California while she stayed behind in Mississippi. This was before cell phones, so she just had to sit and wait for him to come back and hope that he didn't forget her and their children, or get hurt by any of the myriad forces waiting to harm a young black man out in the world.
After that poem I was really taken with the time period. I had known before that I wanted to write about black folk, but more than that I wanted to write about the nature of humanity under pressure. How people manage to make lives for themselves even when they are forced to live at the bottom. And I found an emotional home in that time after Reconstruction and before the Civil Rights Movement, when it would seem that there was little or no hope for black folk. I could not imagine how people still continued to live their intricate, complicated lives despite all the reasons for despair. So I guess I wrote to understand it. I didn't read about the massacre in Slocum, Texas, until almost a year after the first poem, and after that I was just researching and writing solely persona poems until my cousin's three-year-old son, Edward "Juju" Sutton, passed, and I was forced out of the past and persona into the present day. I wrote most of the poems written in a modern/ non-persona voice, the ones you see in the opening and "Donor" sections of the book, during my last year of grad school. All said, it took After Jubilee about 2 1/2 years to become a finished entity.
TD Cave Canem is such an important place for learning and healing. How has it influenced you and your poetry?
BJ Cave Canem taught me how important, necessary, and healthy it is to center blackness. It taught me that in a world that is so incredibly/unbelievably cruel and exhausting it is important to be deliberate about love, especially among poets, especially among black poets. We are all such fragile, beautifully delicate beings, and we need each other so much. Cave Canem has helped me learn to be honest about that need, and has helped me feel comfortable reaching out to other poets and people when I need them. It has also given me a-model for how to create my own safe spaces in the world, and I am indebted to them for that.
TD The opening poem, "Postcard," uses an epigraph from Natasha Trethewey:
always the dark body hewn asunder; always
The poem shows a snapshot of American history, a violent one. So much of After Jubilee examines how the speaker has learned of their American history through family interactions with whiteness.
Thinking about how important lineage is within After Jubilee, I was wondering, what is your poetry lineage?
BJ I don't come from a family of poets or poetry readers. My first experiences of poetry were probably the Bible and song lyrics. I do come from a family of musicians, though, and storytellers, dancers, and debaters. I have a huge extended family on both sides, and have had the privilege of growing up with all four of my grandparents. Some of my best memories are of sitting on the floor of either of my grandparents' homes and listening to my family sing or debate or just be our weird goofy black selves. There is, for sure, much of the cadence of my family's black English in After Jubilee. And though the book is certainly driven by violence, I believe it is driven by the love of families and lovers too. Often dysfunctional, yes, but love nevertheless.
The first poet I read of my own choice was Maya Angelou. I was 14, and to this day I still think of her and try to walk as if "I've got diamond mines / At the meeting of my thighs." Then at 15 I took a creative writing class at my local community college and read Nikki Giovanni's Collected Poetry 1968-1998. I remember looking at all those poems, and seeing how her voice changed over time, and realizing poetry was something you could do, that a black woman could do, for her whole life. I didn't read Natasha Trethewey until I was in grad school, probably around the time I was beginning this manuscript. I read Bellocq's Ophelia and Thrall and nearly died. Trethewey was one of the first poets to really teach me all that poetry can do. And I wanted to do it so bad. To write poems that brought the past flush together with the present, that could reckon with what has been and what is, and make something beautiful in the process.
TD I'm thinking of the poems "Swing Dance, A Spiritual" and "Postcard: Billy Harrison Speaks," dedicated to Laura Nelson (1878-1911). Much of After Jubilee shows the complexity of being a woman of color within America's violent history, especially the idea of being taught to forget this violence. How does this knowledge influence your poems?
BJ This question is difficult for me, because I feel that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the complexity of being a woman of color in America in this manuscript. I can tell you I still remember the night I found the photo of Laura Nelson on a website that archived photographs of people lynched in America. I remember the shock of seeing myself in her slack body, of realizing that they killed us too.
TD The third section of the book, dedicated to Edward "JuJu" Sutton, seems to be a giving of a young black body, but it's complicated by telescoping into his heart and liver that were donated and used to save lives, thus turning his body into a form of joy. How do you see this section working? And why use Edward "JuJu" Sutton to do so?
BJ Edward "Juju" Sutton was my cousin's youngest son. He was three years old when he fell from the third-story window of his bedroom and died. My cousin and his wife decided to donate his organs. After the funeral, my cousin's wife posted a picture of a letter from the organ donor organization which expressed their gratitude and detailed where Juju's organs had gone and to whom. The letter mentioned his corneas, and how they would be able to restore sight to someone without it. They described it as "miraculous." A three-year-old child was dead, his parents forced to live without their son, his siblings without their youngest brother, and that created the potential for something "miraculous." Those five poems in the middle of After Jubilee began as an attempt to memorialize Juju, but I quickly realized I didn't know how to do that for someone who died so young, so unexpectedly, randomly. And so they are quite simply my attempt to make sense of, figure out how to live in, a world where such disorder and pain is possible, and happens every day.
TD Much of the fourth section of After Jubilee deals with the lineage of abuse in relationships between men of color and women of color within a society that inflicts violence on both in very different ways. How do you navigate this lineage within your poetry?
BJ I think black relationships and love are as important as they are complicated. We receive so much hate from the world every day, it's hard enough to love our individual selves, let alone somebody else who is also just as flawed and reeling from the same history as we are. And I think there can be a reluctance to acknowledge how hard it can be for black folk to love one another. I didn't always understand this until my poetry instructor, Aya de Leon, explained that often the impulse of black folk to find love elsewhere, from non-black folk, is simply a reluctance to stand in such close proximity to someone with such deeply similar trauma. It's simply a reluctance to look in ' the mirror. Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with interracial relationships or that everyone who marries outside is running from a familiar trauma, though at times I think that is the case. I was just interested in what happened when people didn't have the option to find love elsewhere, and entered into relationships with their profoundly broken selves.
TD This book, while dealing with violence against women, also shows a strong love, wisdom of self, and strength within this specific lineage of women. How important was the amount of love in this book?
BJ After the election of Donald Trump I began teaching Jamaal May's poem "There Are Birds Here" every chance I got. Since he announced his campaign for the presidency, Trump has questioned the humanity of everyone except straight white able-bodied males. I teach May's poem to talk about how important it is to talk back to the reductive narratives that oversimplify our lives. To assert that sometimes insisting on the fullness of our humanity is enough. Our lives are not just "war zones," our smiles are often genuine, the birds flying over our homes are not just "metaphors / for what is trapped / between buildings." There is so much love in After Jubilee because, as hard as life is/has been for black folk, somehow we still manage to give and receive love. That is amazing, that is worth celebrating.
TD Thank you for your time and for such a wonderful book.
BJ Ditto, Tyree. Your attention to my work is appreciated, and these questions were a pleasure to think about and respond to.
~for Edward "Juju" Sutton 2010-2014
in that moment he is still taste of skin salt, lips pulling on middle fingers a forgotten memory of the nipple in his mouth, miraculous . he is. filled with impermanent teeth and laughter and screaming and vital things, he is. and so the sun yields to his body, miraculous . just look how his shadow, drawn longer than he'll ever be, can. dim the room just so. and still his lungs pull the air. his hands press into the window's screen, miraculous . he is. the way it ripples around his fingers without giving before its time, the way he yells puppy cause it didn't exist before his eyes caught hold. miraculous the way he is pure delight. in that moment, the way he is, then is not he. but vanished thing, miraculous , he is what was. sound of a three year old opening on pavement. * I heard if a person jumps from a skyscraper it's not the fall that kills them but the fear of impact. what mercy. O hush heart, what miraculous God to still the life's breath before the break. but he was so young, and what could he know of being broken. in only three stories how could his heart learn peace. recovered: Edward's corneas his gift may restore sight, the gift of restored vision is miraculous . miraculous . that you, God, would take his life, violently, to be miraculous . to give sight.
~for Edward and Vanessa Sutton
having borne all the way to the core of the earth through darkness, passed the bones of the boy that was son call him God's child now what selfish God . having burned on molten pitch, beheld the billowing light of hell and burrowed still having opened against the rock felt fresh that cleaving separation of the body from the body, having muddied the ground with your blood and thought maybe he could be made flesh anew, having called for ruach and learned there is no life begun down here. having opened your flesh oh release me from the flesh having given up on death and heard tell of a mouth to this low place an opening into something other than flesh having dreamed you walked into the light your scars grimacing at the sun having hoped just a little, having given up on life, come now, if you can, recall growth.
Picture After the Big Game
it is october in california, five months after their brother's fall. in Jeremiah's arms they smile and he is no longer mine standing beneath the friday night lights but a giant, his body, bulked out with football pads, invincible, you can see it in the way they clutch at him, my baby brother, as if it would make him theirs, Juju come up from the grave to hold them for a moment. how not to see the need of it on their faces they the etymology of want: absence of that vital thing, yet look how they pose with the ease of children from Gap retail magazines who have never known hurt, even my brother who likes to pretend he's too hard for joy has exposed his teeth. Christ, teach me to see them without the small boy chilled beneath the veil, teach me to find Juju living, in Kayleigh's out-swung hip, Michael's cheeks, Karry's brow. Christ teach me to look and see all you have given and not all there is still left to take.
~July 29, 1910
now they are more than just sparks in the trees, booming pockets of sound breaking the dusk you see them advancing, the brown of their boots parting the parting the grass, the hootch shimmying, the unstopped bottle, their shoulders, the rifles like sticks in boys' hands cocked for play, you know from how the rope hangs, the not yet noose, that this is fun, and they must surely find you. even the musk from your body is belabored with this truth, like disease it moves your skin, an impatient fear, eager to have it over, hidden at the window you think of Bo running from their fever think Bo and wish him here, and far from here, Bo your keeper Bo and when you first turned round and round his shanty like a pony itching for a way free of the corral, you think how your shift clung to your thighs all damp somewhere between flight and crooning for nakedness, to be seen to be loosed from this flush of skin and tongue and flesh, then just before his fingers convince you to splay your body, before they touch the down between your legs, then, you wish it were then now, and Bo swaggering home with the smell of blues, Bo curling your toes and not this fear, not your body bowing, ready for the cracking blow.
BRIONNE JANAE received her B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and her MFA from Emerson. She is the recipient of the 2016 St. Botolph Emerging Artist award, a Hedgebrook Alumna, and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Her work has been published in Bitch Magazine, jubilat, Sixth Finch, Plume, The Nashville Review, and Waxwing, among others. Her first book, After Jubilee, will be published by BOAAT Press in 2017.
TYREE DAVE is the winner of the 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his book River Hymns, which will be published in September. He was also awarded the Amy Clampitt Residency for 2018 and The Clenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award in the Fall 2015 issue.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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