11/12/2020 Alicia Morrissey

Why Writing 10 Failed Poems is Best Thing to Happen to You

Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown teaches about second chances in poetry reading, workshop

This story is part of our #FandMAnywhere series, showcasing how traditional College events have navigated obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic presented, adapted to the virtual space and can be enjoyed by members of our F&M community anywhere they are

A decade after visiting Franklin & Marshall College as one of the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House’s five emerging writers, poet Jericho Brown returned to campus as part of Virtual True Blue Weekend

Now with numerous publications and a Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Brown again joined the Writers House—this time via Zoom—to host a poetry reading Oct. 31 and a workshop Nov. 1.

During the reading, he performed a series of his poems, including “Labor,” “'N’em,” “Crossing,” “Bullet Points,” and “Foreday in the Morning.”

“This poem is titled after a word that only exists in the South,” Brown said of “'N’em” and “Foreday in the Morning.” He described wanting to write poems using vernacular he heard growing up.

Brown also read and discussed several “duplex” poems, a form of poetry he created. During these readings, Kerry Sherin Wright, director of the Writers House, described his lines as “two opposing magnets that repel and then connect.”

“I’ve always wanted to make a poem that was like a living organism,” Brown said in response. “I wanted to make a poem like a person, like a life. And no life is all sunshine and no life is all rain. And so I’m always going back and forth between those poles.”

VTBW Jericho

The next day, more than 35 students, alumni, faculty, and professional staff attended a workshop to learn how to write a duplex poem from the inventor himself. 

“Jericho Brown’s workshop was like autumn made spring again—a refreshing, slightly warm wind of fresh blooms and light rain,” said Mike Johnson, a senior majoring in creative writing. “Jericho’s energy was inspiring, and his philosophy on both poetry and life that informs his duplex form is a tour de force.”

During this session, participants received undivided time with Brown, discovering exclusive tips and tricks about how to compose a duplex. The first step was to find 14 lines; Brown explained that, while a duplex can be written with new lines, most of his duplexes involve old lines given new life.

“If you can write 10 failed poems, that’s the best thing that can ever happen to you because you’ll end up with at least 10 good lines,” he said. He noted that “when you find yourself staring at the ceiling fan” looking for inspiration, turn to those lines.

Brown invited participants to share their progress throughout the session, giving enthusiastic feedback and praise to each person who read.

“He has a way of making it feel as though the sun has turned toward you,” Wright said. 

Johnson agreed, saying, “I felt welcomed in that virtual space. A community formed in minutes and lasted nearly two hours. I particularly enjoyed hearing what others had written. There were a few pieces that rattled my bones.”

Jeremy Mauser, a junior creative writing major, expressed similar thoughts. 

“It was surreal to have the chance not just to hear from him, but to actually work with him,” he said. “I loved the humor and humanity that he showed in the workshop and reading. His laugh was contagious, and despite the virtual format, it felt like we were in the same room as him, conversing and absorbing his brilliance.”

  • Jericho Brown and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Tradition" Jericho Brown and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Tradition" Image Credit: Writers House

Workshop participants not only enjoyed a master class in how to write a duplex; they also learned the history of how the duplex came to be. Brown said he had found himself writing a lot of sonnets and began to play around with various forms of poetry. He then landed on a form that blends the formality of a sonnet, the repetition of a ghazal, and the animation and personality of the blues.

Describing the duplex as a “casting of spells” and a “queer, nonbinary form,” Brown said, “I wanted to make a form that was like me. I wanted to make a form that was like a mistaken identity.” 

This identity shines through, not only in form, but in name. Brown said he was writing these poems when he kept hearing about how divided we were as a nation. He then began thinking about the duplex—“there are so many of them where I grew up in Louisiana,” he said—and became interested in what happens in the membrane of a shared wall.

“What does it mean to be in a single house and not know what’s going on in half of the house?” he said. 

He described being fascinated by the idea that there are two families living on either side of that wall, enjoying living spaces that often look exactly the same.

“But once you get families in these houses, those symmetrical spaces start to look different,” he said.

In a duplex poem, Brown demonstrates that shared wall by the repeated lines between couplets; the varying yet symmetrical living spaces are illustrated by the line that comes next. 

“Can they hear each other? Can they understand one another?” Brown said. “The whole poem is asking for [the lines] to hear each other over time and space.”

  • Jericho Brown Jericho Brown Image Credit: Blue Flower Arts

Johnson described his appreciation of learning the duplex form from Brown and that he plans to adopt it moving forward—particularly the reuse of old lines.

“When I find myself staring at the ceiling fan, I will remember my unfinished poems, laden with lines waiting to be a part of something new,” he said. 

“I’m grateful to the Writers House for making this possible,” Johnson continued, “and I’m grateful to Jericho Brown for his shared wisdom and time.”

“I'm really grateful that my students had an opportunity to interact one-on-one with Jericho Brown in the duplex workshop,” said Meg Day, assistant professor of English. “An important part of teaching the craft of poetry to young writers is demystifying the role of the poet in the world. For students to have the opportunity to meet him virtually and be in conversation goes a long way in allowing them to imagine themselves as a part of that poetic lineage and understand that they are already a participant in the making of contemporary literature. That's invaluable.”


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