Brionne Janae is a Southern California native who came to Boston to get an MFA at Emerson College. While in California, Brionne received her B.A. at U.C. Berkeley where she was a Student Teacher Poet in the Poetry for the People class/movement. As an STP Brionne had the privilege of teaching, learning and writing poetry within a “beloved community” inspired and developed by the late June Jordan. Brionne is currently an instructor at Bunker Hill Community College. Her work as a poet has been published or is forthcoming in Plume, Apogee Journal, Toe Good Poetry, Redivider, Fjords Review, and she is the winner of the 2014 Muriel Craft Bailey Contest from the Comstock Review judged by Kwame Dawes. Her manuscript was selected by Michael Ryan for Emerson Colleges Best Thesis Award and she was a finalist for BOAAT’s first book prize for After Jubilee, selected by Dorianne Laux, and will be published by in the Winter of 2017.
After Jubilee examines how the lineage of violence against people of color is passed down generationally within the black family and how this violence becomes even more complicated being a woman of color.
TD: So let me start by saying congratulations on the book prize, After Jubilee is a beautiful, necessary book, how are you handling the news?
BJ: Thank you! I feel like I'm still mildly shocked by the news. I’m extremely excited but it still feels surreal, like I won’t be able to really believe it until I see a physical copy of the book. That said I am very happy and grateful to spend the next year looking forward to the day I get to hold my first book for the first time. It sounds corny but it's so real.
TD: How long did it take After Jubilee to come about, to become a complete concept?
BJ: I wrote the the first poem for After Jubilee, “Going North,” during my second semester of grad school at Emerson College. I was inspired by my maternal grandparents’ life, particularly my grandmother’s, and what it must have been like for her to have her husband go off to find work up north and in California while she stayed behind in Mississippi. This was before cell phones, so she just had to sit and wait for him to come back and hope that he didn’t forget her and their children, or get hurt by any of the myriad forces waiting to harm a young black man out in the world.
After that poem I was really taken with the time period. I had known before that I wanted to write about black folk but more than that I wanted to write about the nature of humanity under pressure. How people manage to make lives for themselves even when they are forced to live at the bottom. And I found an emotional home in that time after Reconstruction and before the Civil Rights Movement, when it would seem that there was little or no hope for black folk. I could not imagine how people still continued to live their intricate complicated lives despite all the reasons for despair. So I guess I wrote to understand it. I didn’t read about the massacre in Slocum, Texas until almost a year after the first poem, and after that I was just researching and writing solely persona poems until my cousins three year old son, Edward “Juju” Sutton, passed, and I was forced out of the past and persona into the present day. I wrote most of the poems written in a modern/non-persona voice, the ones you see in the opening and “Donor” section of the book during my last year of grad school. All said it took After Jubilee about 2 1/2 years to become a finished entity.
TD: Cave Canem is such an important place for learning and healing. How has it influenced you and your poetry?
BJ: Cave Canem taught me how important, necessary, and healthy it is to center blackness. It taught me that in a world that is so incredibly/unbelievably cruel and exhausting it is important to be deliberate about love, especially among poets, especially among black poets. We are all such fragile beautifully delicate beings, and we need each other so much. Cave Canem helped me to learn to be honest about that need, and has helped me feel comfortable reaching out to other poets and people when I need them. It has also given me a model for how to create my own safe spaces in the world, and I am indebted to them for that.
TD: The opening poem “Postcard” uses an epigraph from Natasha Trethewey;
always the dark body hewn asunder; always
The poem shows a snapshot of American history, a violent one, so much of After Jubilee examines how the speaker has learned of their American history through family’s interactions with whiteness.
Thinking about how important lineage is within After Jubilee I was wondering what is your poetry lineage?
BJ: I don’t come from a family of poets or poetry readers. My first experiences of poetry were probably the bible and song lyrics. I do come from a family of musicians though and story tellers, dancers and debaters. I have a huge extended family on both sides, and have had the privilege of growing up with all four of my grandparents. Some of my best memories are of sitting on the floor of either of my grandparents homes and listening to my family sing or debate or just be our weird goofy black selves. There is, for sure, much of the cadence of my family’s black english in After Jubilee. And though the book is certainly driven by violence I believe it is driven by the love of families and lovers too. Often dysfunctional, yes, but love never-the-less.
The first poet I read of my own choice was Maya Angelou. I was 14 and to this day I still think of her and try to walk as if “I’ve got diamond mines/At the meeting of my thighs.” Then at 15 I took a Creative Writing class at my local community college and read Nikki Giovanni’s “Collected Poems 1968-1998.” I remember looking at all those poems, and seeing how her voice changed over time and realizing poetry was something you could do, that a black woman could do, for their whole life. I didn’t read Natasha Trethewey until I was in grad school. Probably around the time I was beginning this manuscript. I read Belloq’s Ophelia and Thrall, and nearly died. Trethewey was one of the first poets to really teach me all that poetry can do. And I wanted to do it so bad. To write poems that brought the past flush together with the present, that could reckon with what has been and what is, and make something beautiful in the process.
TD: I’m thinking of the poems “Swing Dance, A Spiritual” and “Postcard: Billy Harrison Speaks” dedicated to Laura Nelson (1878-1911). Much of After Jubilee shows the complexity of being a woman of color within America’s violent history, especially the idea of being taught to forget this violence. How does this knowledge influence your poems?
BJ: This question is difficult for me, because I feel that I have only just began to really scratch the surface of the complexity of being a woman of color in America in this manuscript. I can tell you I still remember the night I found the photo of Laura Nelson on a website that archived photographs of people lynched in America. I remember the shock of seeing myself in her slack body, of realizing that they killed us too.
TD: The third section of the book dedicated to Edward “JuJu” Sutton seems to be a giving of a young black body, but it’s complicated by telescoping into his heart, liver that were donated and used to save lives, thus turning his body into a form of joy. How do you see this section working? And why use Edward “JuJu” Sutton to do so?
BJ: Edward “JuJu” Sutton was my cousin’s youngest son. He was three years old when he fell from the third story window of his bedroom, and died. My cousin and his wife decided to donate his organs. After the funeral, my cousin’s wife posted a picture of a letter from the organ donor organization which expressed their gratitude, and detailed where JuJu’s organs had gone and to whom. The letter mentioned his corneas, and how they would be able to restore sight to someone without it. They described it as “miraculous.” A three year old child was dead, his parents forced to live without their son, his siblings without their youngest brother and that created the potential for something “miraculous.” Those five poems in the middle of After Jubilee began as an attempt to memorialize JuJu, but I quickly realized I didn’t know how to do that for some one who died so young, so unexpectedly, randomly. And so they are quite simply my attempt to make sense of, figure out how to live in, a world where such disorder and pain is possible, and happens every day.
TD: Much of the fourth section of After Jubilee deals with the lineage of abuse in relationships between men of color and women of color within a society that inflicts violence on both in very different ways. How do you navigate this lineage within your poetry?
BJ: I think black relationships and love are as important as they are complicated. We receive so much hate from the world everyday, its hard enough to love our individual selves, let alone somebody else who is also just as flawed and reeling from the same history as we are. And I think there can be a reluctance to acknowledge how hard it can be for black folk to love one another. I didn’t always understand this, until a professor of mine in undergrad explained that often the impulse of black folk to find love elsewhere, from non-black folk is simply a reluctance to stand in such close proximity to someone with such deeply similar trauma. Its simply a reluctance to look in the mirror. Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with interracial relationships or that everyone who marries outside is running from a familiar trauma, though at times I think that is the case. I was just interested in what happened when people didn’t have the option to find love elsewhere, and entered into relationships with their profoundly broken selves.
TD: This book while dealing with violence against women, it also shows a strong love, wisdom of self and strength within this specific lineage of women. How important was the amount of love in this book?
BJ: After the election of Donald Trump I began teaching Jamaal May’s poem “There Are Birds Here” every chance I got. Since he announced his campaign for presidency, Trump has questioned the humanity of everyone except straight white able-bodied males. I teach May’s poem to talk about how important it is to talk back to the reductive narratives that over simplify our lives. To assert that sometimes insisting on the fullness of our humanity is enough. Our lives are not just “war zones,” our smiles are often genuine, the birds flying over our homes are not just “metaphors/ for what is trapped/between buildings.” There is so much love in After Jubilee, because as hard as life is/has been for black folk somehow we still manage to give and receive love. That is amazing, that is worth celebrating.
TD: Thank you for your time and for such a wonderful book.
BJ: Ditto Tyree. Your attention to my work is appreciated, and these questions were a pleasure to think about and respond to.