Each experience is meant to be fully absorbed. Jericho Brown, assistant professor of English at the University of San Diego, knows this because he’s always fed off of it.
“I think about it every day,” Brown said. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to be a writer. He’d say, ‘that’s great, but what are you going to do for your real job?’”
Teaching creative writing to USD students is one of Brown’s passions and provides a steady paycheck. But there are many reasons why this former speechwriter for a New Orleans mayor flashes his infectious smile these days. The last few years have been overwhelmingly rewarding, beginning with a phone call Brown received in 2007. New Issues Poetry & Prose, a publishing company in Michigan, wanted to turn Brown’s collection of poems into a book.
Please, released in October 2008, is in its fourth printing. Critical praise for the debut effort — a Before Columbus Foundation’s 2009 American Book Award winner — and a sense of accomplishment enveloped him.
“I’m doing what I love to do,” Brown (pictured, right) said. “It’s working. It makes a difference in people’s lives. Since 2009 there hasn’t been a day that goes by where I don’t get an e-mail, mail, a Facebook message or some correspondence from somebody saying, ‘I like your book! I like your poems!’ It’s really been wild and unexpected.”
Brown’s world expanded further when he was selected for a 2009-10 Bunting Fellowship, taking him away from USD last year to spend time at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He also received the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award, which came with a $50,000 prize and recognition as one of 10 young writers selected for their extraordinary talent and potential.
The fellowship came at a good creative point for Brown. “Poems started coming to me after I moved (to San Diego). You know when you get a new job and you have a fire lit up under you? Writing helped me organize my thoughts about being in a new place.”
He had some raw material, but going to Boston, as a published poet in a bona fide “poetry town,” gave him confidence. “I had nothing that was really any good, but I did have lines that I felt really close to and I felt could be developed.”
He had more time to devote to writing and reading books from Harvard’s vast library collection. The result was a collection of poems called “The New Testament,” some of which he read to an audience at Harvard.
While the past year has been a truly worthwhile experience, Brown admits that he’s interested in expanding his talent to other writing forms. “I have some essays and I’d like to see if I can’t expand on those and write more prose.” Writing a novel or a book of short stories is quite possibly in his future.
But right now he’s motivated to bring his experiences back to a USD classroom. He teaches creative writing to passionate students — “I don’t want to miss classes here because USD students are like no other. They really want it and that makes me require a lot from them” — and wants to harvest their talent through the university’s Lindsay J. Cropper Center for Creative Writing. Furthermore, Brown picks the guest speakers for the annual Cropper Writers Series, which will take place on Oct. 1 (Mark Doty) and Nov. 5 (Paisley Rekdal) this year.
Brown wants to raise the local profile of creative writing. He wants awareness of the center, both on and off campus, to grow. Asked if San Diego is a true “poetry town,” his short answer is “no,” but says one way to improve it is developing a relationship between USD and other local colleges and local events to expose more students to the creative potential that does exist.
“What I’d really like to do is see each other more often, be a part of each others’ events and see it get much larger play. If the students here are interested in writing, they will connect it back, somehow, to the city. It should be automatic. Just because something isn’t here (on campus) doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go to it.”
— Ryan T. Blystone