Poetry with a Purpose: 2019 National Book Festival

>>Rob Casper: Good to see you. My name is Rob Casper. I’m the head of the poetry
and literature center at the Library of Congress. And it’s very exciting to
be here today for our poetry with a purpose event, featuring
Jericho Brown and Dorianne Laux. Since 2017 this pavilion
has featured readings of literary writers reading
their work and participating in conversations moderated
by the Library of Congress and National Endowment
for the Arts staff. I’m excited to be a part of
this pairing for our poetry with a purpose event
featuring poets and former NEA fellows Jericho
Brown and Dorianne Laux. And if you want to find out more
about the National Endowment for the Arts you can go check
out the materials in the back. Brown is the author of three
poetry collections including the tradition published this April
by Copper Canyon Press as well as the New Testament, which received the
Anisfield-Book Award in 2015. And please winner of an
American Book Award in 2009. He is currently an associate
professor and the director of the creative writing program
at Emory University in Atlanta. Dorianne Laux is the author
of Only as the Day is Long, new and selected poems,
published by WW Norton and Company in January
of this year. It is her sixth poetry
collection after the Book of Men, which received the
Patterson Prize in 2011. And Facts about the Moon winner
of the 2005 Oregon Book Award. She’s also the author – co-author of the
Poets Companion, a Guide to the Pleasures
of Writing Poetry. Laux has taught creative writing
at the University of Oregon, Pacific University and North
Carolina State University where she is a professor
of English and the Director of the Creative Writing Program. Please join me in
welcoming first Jericho Brown and then Dorianne Laux. [ Applause ]>>Jericho Brown: Hi. I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much Rob
for that introduction. Can I just read you
all some poems? I’m going to read you some
poems from a new book I wrote, it’s called The Tradition. She’s 23 weeks old. It’s like she can
already walk by herself and look I always tell people,
this is – and this is the truth. You don’t have to like
these poems to buy the book. [ Laughter ] And I’ll tell you why. I’m supposed to give a 10
minute reading so I’m using like two minutes right here. But I’ll tell you why. Because I – and I know
this, this is objective, this is not subjective. I have in for this book the
best poetry book cover ever. So you are welcome
to get the book and just display it
on your coffee table. Okay I’ll read you
some poems now. Now that everybody is going
to buy the book, right? Foreday in the Morning. My mother grew morning
glory’s that spilled onto the walkway
toward her porch. Because she was a
woman with land, who showed as much
by giving it color. She told me I could have
whatever I worked for. That means, she was an American. But she’d say it was
because she believed in God. I am ashamed of America. And confounded by God. I thank God for my citizenship,
in spite of the timer set on my life to write these words. I love my mother. I love black women
who plant flowers as sheepish as their sons. By the time the blooms unfurl
themselves for a few hours of light, the women who tend
them are already at work. Blue, I’ll never know who started the lie
that we are lazy. But I’d love to wake that
bastard up at foreday in the morning, toss him
in a truck and drive him under Go past every
bus stop in America to see all those black
folk waiting to go work for whatever they want. A house? A boy to keep the lawn
cut, some color in the yard. My God, we leave things green. [ Applause ] I wrote this next poem after
finding out and being confounded by the very long list of people who have supposedly committed
suicide while in police custody. That includes people like
Jesus Suata, North Carolina who somehow managed to shoot
himself in the back corner of his head while handcuffed on
the walk from the police cruiser to the building where
he was to be booked, after having been patted
down, managed to shoot himself in the back corner of his head. Victor White III from Louisiana,
where I’m from, who shot himself in his upper back while
handcuffed sitting in the backseat of
a police cruiser after having been patted down. The list is long, Sandra
Bland in a cell after a day of fighting for her life. In a cell where there is video
footage, but the video goes out at just the moment that the
coroner says she must have hung herself with a trash bag. Bullet Points. I will not shoot
myself in the head. And I will not shoot
myself in the back. And I will not hang
myself with a trash bag. And if I do, I promise
you I will not do it in a police car while
handcuffed or in the jail cell of a town I only know the name
of because I have to drive through it to get home. Yes, I may be at risk but I
promise you I trust the maggots who live beneath the
floorboards of my house to do what they must
to any carcass. More than I trust an officer
of the law of the land to shut my eyes like a man
of God might or to cover me with a sheet so clean my
mother could have used it to tuck me in. When I kill me, I will do it
the same way most Americans do. I promise you, cigarette
smoke or a piece of meat on which I choke or so
broke I freeze in one of these winters we
keep calling worst. I promise if you hear of me
dead anywhere near a cop, then that cop killed me. He took me from us
and left my body which is no matter
what we’ve been taught, greater than the settlement
a city can pay a mother to stop crying. And more beautiful than
the new bullet fished from the folds of my brain. [ Applause ] I wasn’t going to
read this poem, but – but Rob asked to hear it. Hero. She never knew
one of us from another. So my brothers and I grew up
fighting over our mothers mind. Like sun colored
suiters in a Greek myth, we were willing to do evil. We kept chocolate
around our mouths. The last of her mother’s
lot she cried at funerals, cried when she whipped me. She whipped me daily. I am most interested in
people who declare gratitude for their childhood beatings. None of them took
what my mother gave. Waking us for school with a
sharp slaps to our bare thighs, that side of the
family is darker. I should be grateful,
so I will be. No one on earth knows how many
abortions happened before a woman risked her freedom
by giving that risk a name, by taking it to breast. I don’t know why I am alive now that I still cannot impress the
woman who whipped me into being. I turned my mother
into a grandmother. She thanks me by
kissing my sons. Gratitude is black. Black as a hero returning
from war to a country that banked on his death. Thank God it can’t get
much darker than that. [ Applause ] I’ll finish with – I’ll
finish with a duplex. A duplex is a feature
of this book, so I want you to know about it. The duplex is a form
that I invented. It is a – it is at once
and whole a huzzle, a sonnet, and a blue’s poem. And I think you’re going
to hear all of those things when I read you the poem. If you think about what
you know about huzzles. What we know about sonnets,
what we know about the blues, the first American poetry form. The Blues, you’ll hear elements
of that come out in this poem. And there are a few – a
few duplex’s in the book. I wrote this poem because
I was always getting – I wrote these poems – made up
this form – I invented this form because I was always
getting called to the mat about my identity. People wanted to know you
know, you’re 12% southern and 15% black and I’m like, I just feel everything
that I am whole. So this is – this
is the form Whole. Duplex. I begin with
love, hoping to end there. I don’t want to leave
a messy corpse. I don’t want to leave
a messy corpse full of medicines that
turn in the sun. Some of my medicines
turn in the sun. Some of us don’t
need Hell to be good. Those who need most,
need Hell to be good. What are the symptoms
of your sickness? Here is one symptom
of my sickness. Men who love me,
are men who miss me. Men who leave me
are men who miss me in the dream where
I am an island. In the dream where I am an
island, I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there. Thank you all so much. [ Applause ]>>Dorianne Laux: Thank
you all for not going to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I wanted to go to
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That’s the only reason I came. And then I find out
that our events are at the exact same time. That is not right,
not fair and not good. We saw an ambulance out
front, my friend said, “I hope it’s not Ruth.” I said – I’m going to
read from – from my new and selected poems, which
also has a lovely cover.>>Jericho Brown:
It’s okay, it’s okay.>>Dorianne Laux: The thing with my cover is it’s called
Only As the Day is Long. But if you turn it sideways
you realize it’s a sunset over the ocean. Can yours do that? [ Laughter ]>>Rob Casper: Oh it’s going
to be a fun conversation.>>Jericho Brown: Mine is a
pop up; does yours pop up? [ Laughter ]>>Dorianne Laux: Okay. So the first poem I’m going to
read is from the final section, which are the new poems. Which are all about my mother
who died a few years ago now, she was born in 1928, so she
was a child of the Depression. This first poem is also
a form that was made up by Terrence Hayes,
your competitor. And – we didn’t plan this,
it just turned out this way. And it’s called The Golden
Shovel and it takes a line from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks
and uses each word in the line in order as the poems end words. So this is called Lapse. I am not deceived. I do not think it
is still summer. I see the leaves
turning on their stems. I’m not oblivious to the sun
as it lowers on its stem, not fooled by the
clock holding off. Not deceived by the weight of
its tired hands holding forth. I do not think my
dead will return. They will not do
what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees. Not even if I kiss their
photographs or think of them as I touch the things
they left me. It isn’t possible to raise
them from their beds, is it? Even if I push the dirt away
with my bare hands, stillness, unearth their faces, bring me
the last Dalia’s of summer. [ Applause ] And this is called
Death of the Mother and it uses a John Dunn poem. And I – again use his
final rhymed words as the same final rhymed
words in my own poem. Death of the Mother. And the quote from John Dunn
is the first line of his sonnet At the Round Earth’s
Imagined Corners. Blow your trumpets
angels and arise. Arise. At days end last
sight, sound, smell and touch, blow your final breath into
the hospitals disinfected air. Rise from your bed,
mother of eight. The blue scars of infinity
leasing your belly. Your fractious hair
and bony knees and go where we can never find you. Where we can never
overthrow your lust for order, your love of chaos,
your tyrannies of despair, your can of beer. Cast down your night shade eyes
and float through the quiet. Your nightgown wrapped like
whoa, around your shredded soul. Your cavernous heart that
space you left us like a gift, brittle staircase of ifs. We are bound to climb
too often and too late. Unleash us, let your
grace breathe over us in silence when we can bear it. Ground as we are into your lust. You taught us how to glean
the goo from anything. Pardon anyone, even you a
wash as we are in your blood. [ Applause ] This is called Crow. When the air conditioner comes
on it sounds for all the world like my mother, clearing
her throat and then sighing. After she died I’d
shudder and look up expecting to see her ghost. I wasn’t afraid, only
hopeful to see her again, to hear her knees
crack, her knuckles pop. The ash of her cigarette
hiss and flare. She gargled with salt water,
spit it into the sink. Grabbed the phone with her claw, the back of her head
sleek as a crow. My mother is a crow on my
lawn, laughing with the others, flapping up on a branch, jerking and twisting her roughed
neck, looking around. I find her everywhere. Her eyes staring
out from aspen bar. The rivers of her hands,
the horses ankle bones, astounding such delicacy could
bear such terrible weight. [ Applause ] This is clearly a
mother reading. Our Mothers are very
important people. They’re epic I think. And in nature, and indeed – I feel more poems should be
written about our mothers because without them
where would we be? Not here. This is
called Arizona. The last time I saw my
mother she was sitting on the back patio in her
nightgown, a robe thrown over her shoulders, the
elbows gone sheer from wear. It was three months
before her death. She was hunched above one of the last crossword
puzzles she would ever solve. Her brow furrowed over a
seven letter word fertuth. I was staying at a cheap hotel. The kind where everyone stands
outside their front door to smoke. A cup of hotel coffee
balanced on the butt end of the air conditioner
blasting it’s cold fumes over the unmade bed. The outdoor speakers played
Take it Easy on a loop. By the time I get to
Phoenix and Get Back. It wasn’t the best visit. My sisters house was filled
with dogs, half grown kids and piles of dirty clothes. No food in the fridge so we went
out and got tacos, enchiladas and burritos from the
Filiberto’s a few blocks away. A squat tub of guacamole and
chips, tumblers of horchata, orange Fanta and Mr.
Pib, 1,000 napkins. Everyone was happy
while they chewed. The state of Arizona is a box
of heat wedged between Las Vegas and Albuquerque,
not a good place to get poor or be sick or die. My mother rode a train
from Maine in 1953. She was just a girl. Me, bundled in her arms
all the way to California. I’ve tried to imagine it. If you continue west on Route
66 it will branch upward and dump you into the spangle of Santa Monica where
I used to live. Then you can drive Highway
One almost all the way up the Redwood Coast
to Mendocino. I used to do that. I probably spent more time in my
car than any house I lived in. My mother never knew
where I was. She’d call and leave a message. This is your mother, as if I
might not recognize her voice. And I’m just wondering where
you are in these United States. She used to make me laugh. The whole family
was funny as hell. Once dinner time was like a green room full
of standup comics. That day sitting with them over spilled salsa I
saw the damage booze and meth can do to
a row of faces. The jokes were tired. And the windows behind
them filled with hot white sky,
clean as day. When I got back to the
hotel it was getting dark, but it had cooled off so I took
a walk around the parking lot. Strangers leaned out over
their second floor balconies and shouted down, their
friends traipsing away in thin hotel towels,
toward the tepid blue pool. The moon was up. Struggling to unsnag itself from the thorny crowns
of the honey locus. The stunted curbside pines. I left my tall mother
on the couch where she was sleeping
flat on her back, her robe now a blanket. Her rainbow striped
socks sticking out like the bad witch beneath
the house in the Wizard of Oz. But she was not a bad
witch, nor was she Glenda. That was my mother’s
brother’s wife’s name. We called her the bad
witch behind her back. My mother still wore her wedding
ring even after she remarried. Why spend good money
on a new one when she liked this
one perfectly well? She always touched it like
a talisman threaded it around her bony finger. Three kinds of braided gold,
white, rose and yellow. By the end the only
thing keeping it from slipping off was
her arthritic knuckle. I don’t know what my sister
did with it after she died. I wonder if all that gold was
melted down in a crucible, the colors mixing
a muddy nugget. I do know that Route
66 in addition to being called the Will Rogers
Highway and the Main Street of America was also
known as the Mother Road. From John Steinbeck’s
The Grapes of Wrath. My mother looked like a
woman Walker Evans might have photographed with
her dark wavy hair, wide forehead and
high cheekbones. One veined hand clutching
her sweater at the collar. Her face a map of
every place she’d been, every floor she scrubbed,
every book she’d read, every ungrateful child she
birthed that lived or died, every hungry upturned mouth
she fed, every beer she drank, every unslept night, every
cigarette, every song gone out of her, every failure. Severe you might say. She always looked slightly
haughty, glamorous and famished. I saw all the cars parked
in that lot and wanted to hotwire one with a
good radio, drive away. Keep driving until
the ocean stopped me. Then hairpin up the coast
and arrive like an orphan at Canada’s front door. If I’d known I’d never see my
mother again I wouldn’t have done much different. I might have woken her,
taken her tarnished shoulders in my arms, rocked
her like a child. As it was I bent over her
and kissed her on the temple. A curl of her hair
caught for a moment between the corner of my lips. This is my mother I thought. Her brain sleeping beneath
her skull, her heart sluggish but still beating, her
body my first house. The dark horse I came in on. [ Applause ]>>Rob Casper: Wow,
well thank you both for incredible readings. It’s true that I had
wanted to begin by talking about how poems help us contend
with the miracles and challenges and incomprehensibilities
of family, specifically mothers I suppose because of the poems
you’ve both written. I was struck by how when you
read those poems you both read in a way that felt like
a kind of incantation to both bring your mothers alive
and to find a different way to talk about them,
and even talk to them and maybe you could
speak to that.>>Dorianne Laux: Oh man
is your mother still alive?>>Jericho Brown:
She is still alive. And you know, I think this is
the first time I wrote poems – I have poems about her from
the past in my first two books. But in this book I really
felt like I got her right. And I felt like I had
occasion, you know I’ve never – one of the things that people
always ask me is what does your family say about your poems? And my response to
that is always, “Why would my family
see my poems?” And everybody is like ->>Dorianne Laux: Or want to.>>Jericho Brown: Yeah, but
seriously everybody is like “How is it that you don’t
show your family your poems?” I’m like “You work at Kroger,
do you take your family to the checkout line?” Nobody seems to be taking
their parents to work with them, why am I expected to? But for whatever reason when I wrote these poems I did
want my mother to see them, because I felt like I
finally got something to – I got her complexity
down on the page. All that power, that – the
spirit of melancholy and yet the spirit of joy that
seemed to exude all around her and move through our house. And in the way that
she – there’s something about my mother where every time
I see her I know there’s more, but I have to remember
that I know it. When I see her I’m like
what is that thing? And I’m like oh yeah that’s –
my mother literally seems to me to carry all of her sisters
and all of her ancestors like the women I
knew my grandmother, my grandmother’s sisters. There’s a way that my
mother has all of that in her .And she had all of that in her the whole time
I was growing up. So that’s what I was trying
to get to in these poems.>>Dorianne Laux:
Yeah, yeah exactly. The same experience. Trying to get – I
used the word epic. But I think we see a lot of
books and films and you know about the male’s epic
journey, manifest destiny. You know, and yet women
we’re doing these – making these incredible treks
with children under their arms and you know taking care
of them and feeding them and rocking them, you know? And – and it really was an epic
journey that my mother took. And it was one of the last
poems I wrote for the book and I felt the same way. I finally got it right. I got that thing
about her that I see, which is very similar to you. Everything behind her
is massive, you know? All the women who have trekked
across all the countries of the world to get to where
they were going with children, with all their possessions, with
all their knowledge of the earth and how to eat and how to
cure someone of some sickness. You know? My mother was
an emergency room nurse. One of the first paramedics, first woman paramedics
in California. And it was great because she’d
come home and tell us stories about the emergency room
while we ate our dinner. And – but also if any of
us got hurt in any way, she’d take a look at it
and put some iodine on it. Unless it was a gaping
sucking wound, you know she was not interested. It was take care of
yourself, get the bactine. And so to me she was
not only this mother who worked inside the home,
but she was a mother who was out saving lives in addition
to saving our lives, you know? And yet she was very
complicated. She was really a
pretty disturbed person in many ways you know? And – and it was a very
dysfunctional household that I wanted to get all of it. You know, not just oh my mother
was this wonderful woman. My mother was this very complex
and deeply, deeply conflicted.>>Jericho Brown: I
think one of the things that make it difficult to be
a poet in this world the fact that people who aren’t aware
of what poetry actually is, you know like I think Laura
Bush had this problem. She invited people to come
to the White House during one of our wars to read poems. And then people wanted to
read poems about our wars.>>Dorianne Laux: Yeah.>>Jericho Brown: And
she didn’t understand why that would happen. She was like “Oh I
just wanted poetry.” But what she actually
– I mean that happened. I’m not – that just
really happened. But what – what’s
interesting to me about that is that she wasn’t aware
of what poetry is. And when we’re confronted
with what poetry is, when we’re confronted with the
fact that poetry must carry with it what we are
in real life, and we’re never any one way. Like often what we want,
what people think they want from poetry, they don’t want
from – they don’t want poems. They want Hallmark cards. Because Hallmark
cards get us one way. Love is love. It’s your birthday,
have a good time. That’s the end of it. A celebration is a celebration. Do you understand what I mean?>>Rob Casper: Of course. .Dorianne Laux: They don’t
add to the Hallmark card and pretty soon you will die.>>Jericho Brown: Yeah, exactly. It’s your birthday, one
year closer to the end. If you’re a poet then you’re
going to include that.>>Rob Casper: Of course.>>Jericho Brown: And I
think that’s part of – that’s part of what we’re
always – what I’m trying to do and I know what your poems do. That first poem you read,
the first time I saw it. I didn’t see it in a magazine. I saw it in the Best
American Poetry.>>Dorianne Laux: Oh yeah.>>Jericho Brown: And
I was so mad at you. Girl I was going to call
you and cuss you out. I was so angry. That poem – it’s a great poem. That poem wears me out. I’m so glad you read it. Thank you.>>Dorianne Laux: Thank you. That’s the greatest
complement you can get that someone wants to kill you.>>Jericho Brown:
That’s what you want.>>Rob Casper: At least
if they’re another poet. Exactly. It’s – it
explains a little bit about how our wonderfully
dysfunctional little group works and supports each other. Speaking of bringing
everything in. I wanted to talk a
little bit about sex. And how sex connects
to both violence and celebration in your poems. You didn’t read very
explicitly sexual poems, but I think you two share
kind of ability to navigate and include in your poems
that kind of much that kind of overwhelming truth about
– about love and pleasure that only poems can do.>>Jericho Brown: One of
the things that this book is about is sexual assault. And it’s actually the thing
I didn’t want the book to be about. I didn’t want to write
poems about rape. I definitely didn’t want to
write poems about my own rape. You asked me to read
one of those poems. And I was like “No.” Because it’s sort of difficult. You can write it and you
can put it in the world, you can let people have it, but
talking about it isn’t as easy. In spite of the fact
that you may have worked through the emotion,
having written the poem. But what – what I wanted
to do in this boo more than anything wasn’t
just to write about that. I mean I didn’t want to
write about that at all. I mean I actually felt
called to – I felt ethical, which I think is the worst
thing for a poet to every feel. But there was so much
in this world going on and there weren’t
really men talking about their experiences with it. And there are so many men, so many of my very close friends
their first sexual experiences they were having them before
they were 10 years old. And yet when all of the hashtag
Me Too stuff was coming out, you were hearing from woman
after woman after woman. And I felt that I had some
kind of a responsibility, which is like the
worst thing to feel. And yet I needed
to answer to that. And so when those
poems started calling to me I gave them
back the language that they were asking for. But what I wanted to
do in the book was to write a book not necessarily
about that, but how to survive and enjoy sex after that,
which is why the third section of the book is so
much about good sex.>>Dorianne Laux: Yeah
we really are brother and sister from another mother. I mean you know, we’re just
writing the same thing, but from completely
different perspectives. And through very
different lenses. But my very first book was
called the Wake and it was about childhood sexual abuse. Did I want to write those poems? Did I want anybody to see them? Including my family. Did I want the public to
know that this had happened? I had a hard enough
time telling anybody, let alone being public about it. But it’s such a common
event, we know that now. And then when the Me Too thing
was going on, same thing. I kept thinking well okay, this
is at the hands of strangers at jobs, you’re an adult. You know what about children? What – you know what I kept
thinking bout was what’s her name – Taylor Swift, right? Remember the guy puts his hand under her dress while
they’re being photographed? A guy next to her
starts sticking his hand under her dress? And she freezes, she
doesn’t know what to do. And when she walks off
stage she tells someone. You know and they respond
and the guy, she sues him for a penny but you know –
sues the hell out of him. And I thought this
is Taylor Swift. She’s one of the richest
most powerful young women in the world. And when someone grabs her
in public in front of a bunch of people she freezes. She does not know what to do. She doesn’t turn around and
say “Hey knock it off buddy. What the hell do you
think you’re doing.” Right? That’s how
frightening it was. Hilary Clinton, she’s got Trump
behind her looming over her ->>Jericho Brown:
That was crazy.>>Dorianne Laux:
Does she turn around and say “Hey Buddy,
knock it off.” No. What is a four year old –
what’s her chance of saying no? If these two powerful, rich, strong women can’t
say “Hey Buddy.” Right? So it just makes you so
aware of how important it is that we do say Me Too. That there are more
forms of this kind of abuse that go on every day. That people carry
around their whole lives. And so for us to write about it, for whatever reasons we
ended up writing about it. You know it is a political act
in this culture, in this time.>>Rob Casper: And I think to Jericho’s point you’ve
also written great poems in the noon selected about
the pleasures of love. The intimate and sort of incomprehensible
pleasures of love. That – that live alongside
that violence in a way that I think again,
only poems can capture.>>Dorianne Laux: Well it’s
hopefully from you know, again you don’t plan
on this result. But it does show people that
there is life after this kind of violence, that
you can transform it. Why should someone take from
you your greatest pleasure? You know, really it’s the
only free thing we have that we can just you know? And – and it’s ours and so
they cannot take that from us. And I think it is again, making
this huge political statement that you did not get me. I’m taking this back and
I’m having it for myself. And – and for someone to read
that I think is very empowering, for someone to read a poem
by Jericho where they go, oh my God this horrible thing. Oh my God, look at the
pleasure he’s having now. You know? And it’s his and
that means I can have it too.>>Rob Casper: Well finally
before we open up to questions, I’d just like to talk about
the importance of play. I love that Jericho you read
your duplex poems and Dorianne that you read your Golden Shovel
poem and then you read that poem that engaged with John Dunn
too, Death of the Mother. And I’d like you to talk a
little bit about how that kind of play with language, that
play with form, helps inform and helps maybe also push
what you’re able to do, especially when contending
with otherwise topics that otherwise you couldn’t find
a way to wrap your brain around.>>Jericho Brown: I’ll say
this, it’s – this is sort of what I was thinking
about when I was talking about being ethical
or being responsible. The truth about me being able
to make a poem is that I have to be available to language. So that I’m only
dealing with the sounds of things as they come to me. So it’s almost as
if I’m saying things and not aware of
what I’m saying. So if you all, if anybody knows
anything about music or anything about sheet music,
the music is there and then you would have
words right under the music, do you all understand
what I mean? But without the words
the music still exists. Do you all follow
what I’m saying? So part of what I’m doing
when I’m writing is I’m trying to find the right
word that sounds like a note that’s in my head. And sometimes especially
in a first draft, that series of words
makes no sense. But they do follow this musical
notation going on in my head. And because of that, because and if I’m writing well that’s
what I’m doing, I’m not – and everything is at my access. So often what I will say comes
from my personal experience, comes from some scientific
fact that I happen to know, some trivia that I know more
than anybody else in this room about Diana Ross
and the Supremes. You know, all of those things
have to be at my access when I’m writing poems. Every story I’ve ever overheard, do you all understand
what I’m saying? Because all those
things are at my access and I just need language,
I need sentences, I need phrases, I need lines. Then anyone of those things
could at any moment fall into the poem, do you
all see what I’m saying? Does that make sense? So then once I’ve done
that and I look back at it, I’ve said a bunch of stuff
that I did not expect to say.>>Dorianne Laux: By accident.>>Rob Casper: Yeah.>>Jericho Brown: And that’s why when you read the poems
hopefully you’re surprised because I too am surprised. That’s why you get
the unexpected. Because I got the unexpected. That’s why you cry. Because I look back
and I start crying, like oh my God what
was I thinking? Because I tapped into the
subconscious, which is – which is what I was interested
in doing with the duplex. In particular with those
poems I had these lines that were sitting around
that weren’t working, that had been written. I liked them individually. I cut them up and I put
them all over my house. And I just started putting lines
together to see what would sing. If I smash these
two lines together, if I juxtapose these two lines. What sings? What has meaning? What makes meaning just
because they’re side by side? So those are the kinds
of things that I’m doing when I’m making poems and that’s
the ways in which I try to tap into the subconscious so that
the poems are making themselves. And I’m not putting
my intensions on them.>>Rob Casper: Right.>>Dorianne Laux: Exactly. If you’re listening to
a higher order of sound, you’re not so interested in what
it is you’re actually saying. You’re just trying to grab that. My mother was a pianist. And so she every day played
piano and she played everything from classical piano to rock
tunes to pop music to you know, whatever she just
could play anything. And – and even though I never
learned how to play the piano, I spent a lifetime
listening to music phrases. And – and how the affected
me as a human being. What – what feelings would
emerge out of what series of notes and so when I
write I do exactly the same. I’m listening to some
weird music in my head that I’m following along with
words, you know in some way. And without that, I can’t do it, which is why I could
never write fiction. Because there was
no music to follow. I didn’t ->>Jericho Brown:
Supposed to tell a story.>>Dorianne Laux:
Yeah, what story?>>Jericho Brown: Or why?>>Dorianne Laux: Yeah why? Note, word, note, word. And although my poems
are very narrative and they do tell stories.>>Rob Casper: I was going to
say, you both are able to move between the lyric and
the narrative mode. And also find ways to embed
stories within stories in your narrative poems.>>Dorianne Laux: If I had
to get someone from one room into another I would be lost. But if I can just sing
about them and their journey and whatever comes in, comes in. Oh here’s Route 66 all of
a sudden, oh here’s right? I didn’t know that shit
was going to come in. I didn’t know there was
going to be a hotel room and an air conditioner,
you know? Whatever, I mean just comes in? So for writing fiction it’s very
bad because there is no ending, there is no plot, there is not
really any scene or landscape or any of the things
you need for fiction.>>Jericho Brown: I figured
this out about the lyric when I was very young,
and I heard this song by Minny Ripperton
called Love You. Do you know this song?>>Rob Casper: Everyone
knows this song, right? She hits the high note. [ Humming ]>>Rob Casper: I love that song.>>Jericho Brown:
But one of the lyrics in that song is no one else
can make me feel the colors that you bring.>>Rob Casper: Yeah.>>Dorianne Laux: Right.>>Rob Casper: No joke.>>Jericho Brown:
That’s pretty good. And if that’s not a story, I don’t know – but
that’s not plot. That is narrative though. That does have in it a
beginning, a middle and an end. And over and over again in my
poems that what I’ve been trying to do as it relates
to narrative. It’s not that I have
a plot, right? I can’t get – I love fiction ->>Dorianne Laux: Yeah.>>Rob Casper: Me too.>>Dorianne Laux: I admire it.>>Jericho Brown: I like all
kinds of second rate genres.>>Dorianne Laux: Don’t
tell anyone we said that.>>Jericho Brown: It’s a joke. Like Jericho I was
going to buy your book. Buy the book, great cover. Anyway and yet what I want to
do in a poem is I want to make that kind of narrative happen. No one else can make me feel
the colors that you bring. She’s told us a lot of
herself, her past, her present. And ->>Rob Casper: It’s a
surprise too, it has this move and then suddenly brain
comes in and you’re like whoa colors
that you bring, huh. And that’s what poems can do. You know with just
one simple word, and can sort f upend everything.>>Dorianne Laux: Right.>>Rob Casper: Anybody
have any questions? We don’t have that much
time, but come on up to the mic right up here. You can come next
ma’am, go ahead.>>I was struck by Jericho’s
comment about your comfort of writing about your mother in particular while
she’s still here. And I’m wondering Dorianne if
you know you noticed a shift in your writing about your
mother from when she was alive to now that she’s passed?>>Dorianne Laux:
Well a little bit. She’s always been my muse and
I’ve always written about her. But it’s true, I don’t
think I would have written about her quite so – in
quite as complex a way. You know? One time I
wrote a poem about her where I said something
about at night she came home and drank a six pack of
beer before she went to bed. My mom read that poem, and she
said, “I don’t drink a six pack of beer before I go –
don’t tell people that.” You know? Well I mean
she did, but whatever. So I changed it to drinks her
dark beer and goes to bed. So that she would look like she
was drinking a nice stiff ale and she called it quits. And she was a low down
alcoholic you know, there’s just no way around it. Well now in these
poems I can talk about that more freely,
you know. Because it did –
it was who she was, it was part of what
I grew up with. And so yeah, I have more freedom
in talking about her now, but I also think I feel more
tender toward her then I did when she was actually alive. Because I see now the
epic ness of her journey. You can’t really know
someone’s journey until they’re done with it. And so I think I understand
her more now that she’s dead, than I ever did when
she was alive.>>Rob Casper: Unfortunately
we’ve run out of time. I’m sorry.>>Jericho Brown: So sad.>>Rob Casper: I know, I
wish we could talk more but you can go to
the book signing. Get these books ->>Jericho Brown: Answer
all of your questions ->>Rob Casper: Answer
all your questions.>>Jericho Brown: If you
have a book for us to sign.>>Rob Casper: Yeah, totally. So get the books ->>Dorianne Laux: The only
requirement; the book.>>Rob Casper: Thanks so
much for hanging out with us. It was a beautiful,
wonderful time. Thanks to Jericho and Dorianne. [ Applause ]

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