Skip to main content

Jericho Brown on Poetry, Podcasting and Emily Dickinson



Published September 9, 2022

Smith’s Boutelle-Day Poetry Center has a mission “to help make poetry something that resonates and is relevant to people’s lives,” says center director Matt Donovan.

And few are better suited to that endeavor, he adds, than Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown, who will be on campus Thursday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m. for a Presidential Colloquium in the Campus Center Carroll Room. (The event will also be livestreamed).

Alena SmithThe colloquium, co-presented by the poetry center, is a conversation between Brown and playwright Alena Smith, creator of the critically acclaimed Apple TV+ series “Dickinson,” about poet and Amherst native Emily Dickinson.

The discussion will also explore Brown’s role as co-host of “The Slave is Gone,” a “talkback” podcast about the series. Smith is co-sponsoring the podcast, which is titled after a line in one of Dickinson’s poems.

In exploring Dickinson’s artistry, Brown responds to her work “from a place of personal passion and personal relevance,” says Donovan.

The colloquium aims to inspire “a newfound exhilaration about Dickinson’s work, Jericho’s work and about what Alena has done with the TV show,” he adds. “It’s about breaking out of that famous portrait of Dickinson and thinking of her as a living, breathing person whose work has ongoing importance and immediacy.”

Brown will be available to sign books and talk with students and community members in the atrium outside of the Carroll Room from 3:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 29.  

Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview about poetry, podcasting and Emily Dickinson’s lasting influence.

How did you first encounter Emily Dickinson?

“I’ve known her work since I was in elementary school, where I first read her poem “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died.” I loved that she wanted to imagine a poem in the voice of someone who wasn’t there anymore—someone who had just died. So, my first relationship to her is the relationship to imagination; the understanding of poetry as the opportunity to make things up—and make them beautiful! I also like the fact that Dickinson is quite direct, and yet not obvious. She gives you work to do, and I like having a little bit of work to do when it comes to poetry.”

What drew you to want to co-host a podcast about the TV series “Dickinson”?

“I wanted to do a podcast because I’m interested in Emily Dickinson’s standing in American poetry. We refer to her as the mother of American poetry, and although Walt Whitman might be more known, she has become the more influential poet over time. 

“It was also a chance to sit around and talk about a TV show and ratchet up the conversation to be about things that are much more serious. It’s really impossible to talk about Emily Dickinson without talking about the Civil War and the role of women or the roles that women were assigned during that period. Those conversations lead to conversations about race, about race in the U.S. in particular, and the ways in which some of our conceptions about race are still the same as they were during the Civil War. Talking about the show is an opportunity to look at the poems and, at the same time, look at the poems in context.”

How do you see Dickinson’s work as relevant to our present moment?

“She is always writing about choice, and our time is very concerned with choice. One of the big things we are figuring out, particularly as it relates to race, is that racism has to do with not everyone having the same options. Dickinson’s work opens a window on the opportunity to make choices—to see options you might not have seen otherwise. Quite often she’s writing about death. She’s always writing about sex. These are things that matter to us, that remain important and are all subjects she finds her way into.”

How does the immediacy of her writing fit with the perception of Emily Dickinson as a recluse?

“I do wonder about that. She did have a whole social life. And letters took on a different meaning in her time—a large part of socializing was writing letters. She was reclusive, but I’m not sure it was so different from how people actually are today. People go to work, they come home and then they go to sleep. So, I’m not sure she was a recluse—or if she was, being a recluse is not all that outstanding.”

What do you think the series “Dickinson” does best?

“I appreciate that the show is able to give us a representation of history in a way that moves forward: ‘Here’s what we believe about being a teenager, so what does it mean for when Emily Dickinson was a teenager?‘ I think what I really love most about the show is that the backdrop to every episode is that she’s always working on a poem. It’s part of her daily life. And at the end of every episode, a poem gets written. That’s beautiful!”

We often hear that “poetry is having a moment.” Do you think that’s true?

“I’ve been reading poetry since I was a kid and I never understood that poetry was a marginalized genre. I came to understand that later, but it wasn’t my experience. I came to poetry in the library, where my Mom took us because she didn’t have childcare. And I came to poetry through the Black church, where you can’t be shy because you might have to get up and recite the 23rd Psalm or a poem by Maya Angelou. I think there is something interesting about poetry in every era, and I think contemporary American poetry beats everywhere else in being  willing to take certain kinds of leaps and risks that allow it to move forward.”

Where do you get ideas for your poems?

“I just live. I listen to music, I fall in love, someone breaks up with me. I just pay attention and I honor my emotions. And I trust that I have language; that words matter and that they can change things. I like being able to talk to people around the country about poetry, and that’s also one of the ways my poetry gets made. My ideas can come from anywhere and I’m still always surprised by them. When I finish a poem, I think, ‘Who wrote that?’ I’m amazed it gets done, every time.”