Jericho Brown, Winship Distinguished Research Professor in Creative Writing and director of the Creative Writing Program, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry on May 4 for his most recent collection, “The Tradition.” This collection was also a finalist for the National Book Award in 2019.
“The Tradition” focuses on “why and how we’ve become accustomed to terror: in the bedroom, the classroom, the workplace, and the movie theater,” according to a note from the publisher. Brown explained to the Wheel that the shooting and death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 and “the images of unarmed people being murdered by the police for no reason” influenced him in creating the work.
“What happened with Tamir Rice in particular was heartbreaking,” Brown said. “I don’t even have the words for it. There is no poem in the book that is directly about him. John Crawford is in that book, Eric Garner is in that book and Mike Brown is in that book, but Tamir Rice isn’t and that is because I can’t get over that. That was the beginning, trying to articulate what it is like to know that some injustice has occurred and to hear no indictment over and over again.”
The Pulitzer Prize Board described Brown’s winning poems as “a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”
Leading up to the announcement, Brown experienced a mixture of anticipation and calm.
“No matter what happened, I decided that I would smile no matter the outcome,” Brown said.
“There is about a one in 300 chance of getting a Pulitzer, so there wasn’t a point in getting nervous, but I was still in front of my computer at 2:55 p.m. waiting for the 3 p.m. announcement.”
After the announcement that he had won, Brown found new ways to celebrate the accomplishment in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I really wanted to enjoy this, and I really wanted to relax,” Brown said. “Since I can’t go to the drag show or out to karaoke or the strip club because of COVID, I’m going to focus on the opportunities available to me, like introspection and meditation. I’m going to do that all the way in the same way I would have partied.”
Brown worked on “The Tradition” for nearly five years, and he noted that his writing process was never clear-cut.
“There is a poem [in the book] that would have been published in 2015,” Brown said. “I’d been working on a lot of the poems in the book slowly for years.”
He explained that writing poetry is a process of extensive revision, so he spends years going between poems to cultivate and edit them until he is happy with his final result. Brown had been working on a number of poems until one day in November 2017 when he was struck with a burst of inspiration.
“I could not stop — I wrote about 66% of the book during that time,” Brown said. “I was writing in elevators; I was pulling over my car to jot stuff down. It was crazy. I could not stop.”
While writing “The Tradition,” Brown created an entirely new poetic form called the “duplex.” This new form highlights his theme of subverting societal expectations. The duplex combines different aspects of his personal background as a black, queer, Southern man that many consider in isolation to each other and combines them into one form.
“Something in our atmosphere would suggest that our identities are at war with each other,” Brown said. “Everything that I am and everything that anybody is — they are those things whole. They aren’t those things by percentage. I wanted to make something that was at one time a ghazal, a sonnet and a blues poem. That was the goal of the duplex.”
Brown aims to continue pushing the boundaries around him, using poetry to convey the limitless possibilities available once an individual sets a goal. Brown cited former President Barack Obama as an example: as America’s first black president, many black individuals did not fathom the possibility until it happened.
Brown argued nothing would change if people continued repeating what had been done in the past, emphasizing that those who choose to break down the expectations and invent new ways of looking at a situation are vital to societal progression.
“The people that are our biggest role models who really made a difference are not just talented people, they’re also people who thought about doing what had been done before in a brand new way,” Brown said. Brown is the third Emory professor to win a Pulitzer Prize. Former U.S. Poet Laureate and former Emory Creative Writing Program Director Natasha Trethewey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007 for her collection “Native Guard.” Hank Klibanoff, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing editor and a current professor of practice in the Creative Writing Program, won a Pulitzer Prize for history in the same year for his book, “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.”