Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” And author Jennifer Brown wrote, “Just like there’s always time for pain, there’s always time for healing.”
Poetry has a unique way of capturing our feelings, doesn’t it? We can use beautiful words and arrange them so that they take on new meaning and communicate our feelings to others in unique ways. We can create poems that help us process our thoughts and emotions, and poetry can also help us relate to one another and heal from personal trauma. It’s a powerful art form that we often overlook.
Now, I know some of you may be thinking, “Poetry? You mean that boring stuff I had to study in school?” Maybe you didn’t have the best experience studying poetry in high school, but that doesn’t mean that all poetry is boring! Contemporary poets like my guest are doing incredible things with their art, and it’s definitely worth exploring!
Jericho Brown is an incredible poet and artist, and even if you’ve never read poetry on your own before, you’re going to want to check out his work after this episode. As a queer man living in America, Jericho has a few things to say — and he speaks eloquently and artfully through his poems. Not to mention the fact that he’s been recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for his work! Jericho is incredibly talented, and I was thrilled to have him here on The School of Greatness!
Jericho Brown is one of the foremost poets in the world today. His work covers a range of topics, from his experiences as a queer man to his religious identities. His work has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Buzzfeed, and he is the Professor of Creative Writing and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University in Atlanta.
Jericho’s work has also won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Tradition, which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. He was also awarded the American Book Award for his first book, Please, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his second book, The New Testament. The New Testament was also named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. Jericho has also been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of the Whiting Award.
But in addition to being a great poet and artist, Jericho is just an all-around great guy. I had a lot of fun picking his brain about the complexities of life and the nuances of pain and healing. I know you’ll enjoy hearing our conversation!
In this episode, we dove deep into all of those things and more. We discussed Jericho’s experiences growing up queer, why shame affects us so much, and how we can overcome pain and trauma. We also talked about identity and how Jericho has shaped and reshaped himself, even changing his name. And we talked about how you can believe in yourself and build self-confidence as an artist.
This conversation was fascinating — I know you’re going to love it as much as I did!
Jericho and I kicked off our interview by discussing the process of creating poetry and how he became a poet. Jericho is a world-renowned poet and has received countless awards, but he recognizes that the process of creating art is far more important that receiving recognition:
“The poem itself … [is] the achievement. The achievement is the work and getting the work done and getting in the groove of doing the work. … And then when it’s over, there’s a little bit of grief because that little love affair that you had with those few words is done. And now it’s time to move on, hopefully, to another love affair to another poem. … You have to be in love with the process enough not to look forward to recognition as much as you look forward to the process of making the thing.” – Jericho Brown
Through the years, Jericho has not only engaged in the process of creating art but also the process of recreating himself and learning to love what others hate about him. Jericho grew up facing adversity as a queer man, and he had to learn what is was about himself that people feared and hated and love himself for those things.
“If what people are afraid of when they encounter queer people is that the men are feminine, I had to figure out what was feminine about me and not hate it because I already had the world to do that for me. … The more you can love what you imagine people hating about you, the more you can sort of embrace that and think of it as a part of your God-given gifts. The more you can think about it that way, the more it becomes who you are and the reason why people want to be around you. … I wouldn’t have wanted to be born any other way.” – Jericho Brown
Jericho faced judgment and hatred for being queer, but he learned to love what others hated and embraced himself. He used to hide and feel insecure for being what others perceive as different, but now he’s proud and grateful for who he is. Have you fully embraced who you are regardless of what others think of you? Maybe you need to learn to love your sexuality or your personality despite what others think. Accept and love yourself for who you are.
Part of Jericho’s journey in accepting himself involved changing his name. Before becoming Jericho, his name was Nelson Demory III, and he worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans. At 26, he found himself at a crossroads to either keep his job as a speechwriter or enter the Ph.D. program for literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. Even though he knew that he would have a safe and financially secure job as a speechwriter, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a poet. During that time, he knew that he needed to change his name in order to fully love himself and follow his dreams.
“I remember thinking of it as an opportunity to completely reinvent myself. That summer before I went off to school, I changed my name to Jericho Brown. … I decided to become Jericho because I wanted a 100% reinvention of self. I wanted a 100% transformation. … I knew there was nothing wrong with me, but I needed to go away and be by myself, and I needed to go figure out why I was acting like there was something wrong with me in spite of the fact that I knew better. … [I] really [embraced] the belief in myself as a creator of my own life and what that would mean.” – Jericho Brown
Jericho changed his name to begin transforming his life and accepting himself. He decided to view himself as the creator of his own life and journey. What do you need to do to embrace and love yourself fully? You might not need to change your name like Jericho, but finding a way to accept yourself and create the life you want to lead is crucial for your happiness. Maybe you need to begin following your dreams or change your career path. Do whatever it takes to love and embrace yourself!
Throughout his life, Jericho has had to overcome sadness and trauma surrounding his childhood and an instance of sexual assault he suffered in his late 20s. His journey in healing from his past is inspiring, and he has a great deal of guidance for how you can heal from your past.
Jericho grew up with an incredibly controlling father who often became angry and violent when Jericho didn’t do what his father wanted. Over the years, he’s had to overcome his father’s influence and accept the path he wanted to create.
“I think that was one of the things that was most difficult for me because I had to figure out as an adult how I was going to shut off that influence of what life had to be like. Because my father, for instance, didn’t understand that there were careers for people other than being a doctor or a lawyer. … I had to turn off [his influence] and [understand] that my journey would be mine. It wouldn’t be a cookie-cutter journey. It wouldn’t be a journey that was already set up by my dad or by anybody else.” – Jericho Brown
Jericho needed his journey to be his own and no one else’s. Although his mother didn’t give him as hard of a time as his father, she also didn’t believe in Jericho’s dream of becoming a poet. Over time, Jericho learned to accept the path that he wanted to create for himself rather than follow what his parents wanted. Part of his drive to becoming a world-renowned poet sprang from what he describes as a “spirit of rebellion.” He wanted to prove his parents wrong and achieve his dreams. Jericho recognizes that a huge part of his spirit of rebellion revolves around his ability to honor the sadness and pain that he’s experienced in his life:
“You know, you have to have a certain amount of a spirit of rebellion in order to overcome anything. And you can’t have that spirit of rebellion if you’re not capable of honoring your sadness. … The way I honor that sadness is I look back at these things and say, ‘Well, look at you still here, Jericho Brown,’ and my ability to say that to myself means that I am here in spite of that and therefore better than those occurrences, those situations, [and] those moments of trauma.” – Jericho Brown
Jericho honors his sadness and recognizes the adversity that he’s had to overcome throughout his life. He experienced a great deal of sadness from his childhood growing up queer and not having supportive parents, and he also experienced a great deal of pain and sadness surrounding being raped. On top of experiencing something so horrific and tragic, Jericho also contracted HIV from his attacker.
“At first, I felt a great deal of shame. I felt branded, like not only has this thing happened, but now there’s evidence that this thing has happened to me. And that’s not necessarily even evidence to the world, but even evidence to me every night that I’d take [my HIV medication].” – Jericho Brown
Jericho has to live with a daily reminder of being sexually assaulted. Part of his journey of emotionally healing from the experience was finding community with others who had experienced similar events.
“The distance between the wound of the rape and the healing that I feel now has to do with uniting myself with other people who have experiences similar to mine, being there for them and allowing them to be there for me.” – Jericho Brown
Jericho found community with other rape survivors and people who have HIV, and he also found community with poets in the LGBTQ community who felt comfortable expressing their sexuality in front of people. He began healing from his trauma, and he was able to become more comfortable expressing and accepting himself as a queer man.
In addition to healing through community, Jericho found peace and healing after he finished his first book:
“I finished my book, and I had something in my hand that said what I got through. … I remember thinking, ‘Finally, I did the thing I’m meant to do in spite of these bumps along the road.’ And so me being able to forgive had to do with the fact that I survived and saw my survival made flesh in a book that I could hold in my hand. I could sort of prove to myself, ‘Oh, you did indeed survive. And here’s proof of it.'” – Jericho Brown
Jericho’s journey in healing from his past is so incredibly inspiring. Despite all of the horrific things Jericho experienced, he fulfilled his dreams of publishing his first book, Please. The book is a symbol of overcoming everything he had experienced in his life.
How can you begin to heal from your past? Do you need to find a community of others who understand your experiences or fulfill a goal that symbolizes healing? As many of you know, I was sexually assaulted when I was a child, and it caused a great deal of anger and shame throughout my life. It wasn’t until I was able to start talking about it and finding support in others that I could heal from my past. Don’t ignore what you’ve experienced — address what you’ve been through with others to heal from your trauma. You don’t have to do this alone!
A key part of achieving greatness and fulfilling your dreams is having confidence and believing in yourself. This is especially true for artists because you need to have confidence in what you’re creating. Jericho discussed how finding confidence in yourself and your art has to do with accepting your identity within that art form and recognizing how you can continue growing as an artist.
“It’s not that I have the ability to write poetry. It’s that I have an identity as a poet, which means I have the ability to get better at writing poetry, … and that’s what it means to me to have confidence in oneself. It’s not really like, ‘Oh, I’m so great.’ It’s, ‘Oh, I can get better.'” – Jericho Brown
You have an identity in whatever art form you’re working in. If you paint, you’re a painter, and if you take photographs, you’re a photographer. You may not be great at those things initially, but your identity in your art form means that you can continue growing and improving in your art. Jericho observed that believing in yourself means that you believe that you’re capable of being the best.
“I think I’m good, but I don’t think I’m the best poet in the whole world. I just think I could be. I don’t think there’s any reason why I can’t be the best poet in the whole world, and as long as I believe that, that means I believe in myself.” – Jericho Brown
Getting rid of limiting beliefs and believing that you can become incredible is a key part of achieving greatness. You may not be exceptional in your field right now, but you need to believe in your ability to become the best. Believe in your ability to do amazing things!
So how can we build self-confidence in our abilities?
“One is to practice something small, and if you can practice something small, then you can sort of move on to bigger things. … The small thing will be arrived at first, giving you more confidence in the larger thing. … Something with sort of a shorter deadline sort of prepares you for larger things where you’re like, ‘Oh, I just take it moment by moment.'” – Jericho Brown
Starting with something small will help build confidence for undertaking bigger tasks. For example, let’s say that you want to become a singer. You don’t start by auditioning for a singing show — you start with one song and build your way up from there. You build confidence in doing a small task, and then you work your way up to doing something larger. Maybe you want to become a poet like Jericho. You wouldn’t start by attempting to write an entire book of poetry — you start by writing a simple, short poem, and the confidence that you gained in writing that poem will assist you in working your way up to becoming a master poet.
Another suggestion that Jericho had for building confidence is studying your art form and other artists.
“Be aware of the tradition in which you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. That means studying [and] knowing who’s done it before you. That means being aware of the people who have come before you and having some sort of reverence for that art and for those people.” – Jericho Brown
Studying others in the field that you want to go into is a key way to build confidence. Jericho read and studied every poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American person to win a Pulitzer Prize. Jericho studied her work to grow in his knowledge and confidence in poetry. Research and study your field and the creators who came before you! For example, if you want to write plays, you should read and learn from William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams to build your knowledge and confidence in playwriting.
Building self-confidence is essential for whatever career you want to pursue or goal that you want to achieve. Just because you haven’t completed your goal or become a master in your field doesn’t mean that you can’t do those things. Build your confidence by practicing something small and studying your field of interest to strive forward to greatness!
Guys, I had such an amazing time with Jericho Brown. His journey in embracing and loving himself and healing from his painful past is so inspiring, and I can’t wait to speak with him in person after this pandemic is over.
His definition of greatness is truly something we should all strive for. It has everything to do with the importance of recognizing how you can continue growing and improving yourself:
“Greatness is to be in a position where you’re learning. … To be in a position where you’re becoming, and you feel yourself becoming, and you know that you have sought out becoming greater than you already were, no matter how great you are. So greatness has to do with being in the moment of education [and] in the moment of learning. And then in the moment of exploration of experience. That’s where real greatness is. And to be aware of that moment when it happens. To seek that moment out and to be aware of it when it happens.” – Jericho Brown
Friends, join me on Episode 1,033 if you’re ready to overcome shame, heal your trauma, and start believing in yourself! Jericho’s story is going to inspire you and change your life!