NEW ORLEANS (October 31, 2019) – Award-winning author and poet Jericho Brown (Class of 1995) charged students to “do what you say you are, not what you are going to do” at the final Brain Food lecture Sept. 25 in Georges Auditorium.
Brown, born Nelson Demery III in Shreveport, reminisced about his days at Dillard and used his 13 of his poems and that of current students to advance his discussion of inspiration for his work and the writing process. In particular, he recalled his encounters with Dillard’s Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, his first poetry professor.
“[Saloy] inspired me to keep on writing,” said Brown, an associate professor and director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University. “No matter how bad the poem was, she would always say, ‘There’s a poem in there somewhere.’ ”
Brown called up three students he had met earlier to read their poems: Sterling Miller, a junior theater major from Minneapolis, reading “A Fearsome Mind”; William Shelton, a sophomore English major from Nashville, “Summer”; and Lauren Rhodes, a sophomore English major from Thibodaux, “Time Well-Wasted.”
Brown said when the students shared that they were writers, he didn’t tell them he would call them up to read their work, and he suggested that as a lesson to all aspiring writers.
“You have to do what you say you are and not what you are going to do. So if you say you are a writer, then write, and be prepared to share what you write,” he said.
Brown said it’s easier to write about the people you love and harder to write about yourself.
“To share deep aspects about myself is scary, and the fear never goes away,” he said, although it has become easier. “I now expect fear, intimacy and vulnerability when I write about myself, and I look for it.”
Brown’s first three poems were related to his grandmother and growing up in the South, with references to the 1980s and ‘90s R&B and common words and phrases he would hear growing up. His next set of poems had themes of labor, referencing college life and what it was like when he worked on the West Coast.
Brown said one of his greatest influences was poet Langston Hughes, who gained fame during the Harlem Renaissance. Brown said he was first introduced to Hughes’ work when he found Hughes’ poems in the public library. He read a poem dedicated to Hughes.
Another set of poems were about his religious parents: “We always started everything off with prayer growing up,” he said.
One poem said, “God blessed the back of my daddy’s hand,” which he said conveyed the irony of prayer.
A member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Brown earned his master’s degree in fine arts from the University of New Orleans and a doctorate from the University of Houston. His first book “Please” in 2008, won the American Book Award, and his book of poetry, “The New Testament” in 2014, won the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Brown’s speech marks the end of Dr. Walter Kimbrough’s Brain Food lecture series, which he implemented at the start of his tenure as president at Dillard.