Douglas Brown is a poet at the intersection of the avant-garde and tradition. Mixing experimental work with formalism, his work tackles three generations of his family history from his mother and father, his own rite of passage, and episodes with his son and daughter.
His award-winning book, Zero to Three is a tome of 32 poems about fatherhood, love, loss, American pop culture and the roller coaster range of emotions that are all a part of what it means to exist in the 21st Century. Published by the University of Georgia Press, this volume was the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2013. The poems utilize formal structures like ghazals, sonnets, catalogues and segmented cantos with more experimental styles like stream of consciousness and prose poems.
Brown has taught high school for over 20 years and first caught the poetry bug in high school in the late 1980s after reading Quincy Troupe’s “Magic Johnson,” poem. “That poem showed me you could write a poem about something you loved and could do it with style,” he remembers. Following high school, he began writing poetry in earnest as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in the early 1990s.
After attending graduate school at San Francisco State and working in the Bay Area as a teacher for a number of years, Brown lived in Phoenix, Arizona for a few seasons before moving to Southern California. For the last 8 years, he has taught English at Loyola High School. More recently, he also attended graduate school at Antioch University, where he worked closely with the poet and professor Jenny Factor. The poems in Zero to Three, were pieces that he crafted in workshops at Cave Canem and at Antioch.
Cave Canem, for those that do not know, is a writing workshop that was founded in 1996. Founded by Toi Derricot and Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem focuses on African-American poets and writers. The annual weeklong workshop is held at the University of Pittsburgh. The rigor and structure of Cave Canem has been a major influence on Brown’s form and poetic technique. Brown attended in 2008, 2010 and 2012. He enthusiastically recalled to me how he flourished in the focused setting, often writing multiple poems a day. Brown has also created strong friendships with fellow Cave Canem poets like Terrance Hayes, Douglas Kearney, Ashaki Jackson, Kima Jones and Dexter Booth. The Cave Canem poet and Pulitzer Prize Winner Tracy K. Smith selected Brown’s book as the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2013.
Poems like “These Dead Days,” reveal the immense size of Brown’s heart. A tribute to his late father who passed in 2009, Brown ruminates on “His Southern manners/Singing no nonsense/His Folgers, his Palmolive.” Several other poems center on his father like, “Memento for a Mississippian.” The cycle of poems on his father capture both their similarities and differences. After reading with Brown several times in the last few years and having numerous lengthy conversations, I can personally attest to Brown sharing his father’s empathy and deep laughter.
In the poem, “My Daughter Speaks of Bitter,” Brown is responding to Langston Hughes’s poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem combines thoughts from his daughter blending with his own reflections as her father. “I’ve known little girl anger, seen it crisp into an acrid ripple/flush in the middle—spit in my fist,” Brown confesses. One of the most distinguishing features of Brown’s poetics is the weaving of multiple voices with his own internal dialogue. The portraits he offers of his father, mother, daughter and son are peppered with their words and his own compassionate voice guiding the poetic narrative. His work also peels away the layers behind what is masculine and what is feminine to get directly at what it means to be human.
Another poem for his daughter, “Dear Defiance,” skillfully combines humor and fatherly concern. The opening sets the tone: “As your daddy I shouldn’t say this but/One day I want you to stand up/To your brother and if need be, punch him/In the face or last resort, the ding-ding.” Brown’s poems are a rich mix of colloquial expression and musicality. His warmth as a father, son and husband comes across in each piece. As Terrance Hayes blurbed, “F. Douglas Brown writes on behalf of the families we make and the families that make us.”
“Make Out Sonnet,” is a Shakespearian sonnet paying tribute to a group of gay men that his mother knew during his childhood in the 1970s. The piece gingerly honors them and their efforts as caretakers. “They even did her laundry. They did sweet/Better than honey. Did family better than blood,” Brown writes. His worldview makes room for everyone, ushering them into his poetic living-room. The scattered use of form throughout the book gives Brown the perfect framework for his memories and poetic insight.
He also uses avant-garde techniques and experimental methods like a poetic form called, “the Bop.” In his “Notes,” at the end of the book, Brown breaks down “the Bop,” and its genesis: “The Bop is a form created by the poet Afaa Weaver, which consists of three stanzas and a refrain between each.” The poem, “Body Stubborn,” is a Bop in three sections. Besides being his daughter’s favorite poem, it is a crowd favorite in spaces like Art Share in Downtown LA and in Venice at Beyond Baroque. The second section, “Body Stubborn Remix: My Daughter Learns to Spin,” contains the refrain, “Can I Kick it?” from A Tribe Called Quest’s song of the same name. The third section of the “Body Stubborn Side B: My Father’s Original Sample,” contains a refrain from James Brown’s song, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” These musical references interspersed throughout the book also connect to Brown’s moonlighting gig over the last decade as a DJ and record selector at various clubs and weddings across Southern California.
Brown is also deeply embedded in the Los Angeles poetry community. Most recently, he’s hosted and produced a series of events honoring Sandra Bland. In addition to numerous poets from the city’s literary scene, Brown has also included a number of high school poets including some of his own students from Loyola High School. One of them is 11th-grader Spencer Fuller. Fuller has shared his work in several spaces across the city because of Brown. “What I like about Mr. Brown is that he genuinely wants to see me succeed as a writer,” says Fuller. “I know he wants me to get better, and he always lets me know when there are opportunities to improve my craft, whether it be workshops or poetry readings. Also, if I need something, I know I can ask Mr. Brown. From highlighters to help with a poem or piece that I’m having a hard time with. Mr. Brown looks after us.” Brown’s connection to mentoring teen poets is also why he has been one of the distinguished judges every year for the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate program.
One of Brown’s latest projects is a series of ekphrastic poems of photographs of the great author, former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Considering Douglass was the most photographed man in the 19th Century, there is no shortage of Douglass images for this project. Brown’s parents named him Frederick Douglas Brown in honor of the great man’s legacy, so Brown could think of no better way to honor the legacy than through a cycle of poems. Brown sees the project as a way of both interrogating his own name and further exploring the genius of Douglass.
On a recent February morning I received an email from the Academy of American Poets featuring their poem of the day. One of Brown’s poems was selected for their daily email blast and it was his piece, “Epistemology of Laundry.” In this poem, Brown recounts his own memories of doing laundry with his father and fast forwards to a recent incident where “this week’s last load of laundry has me stealing/my son’s precious teenage time.” He connects memories of his father’s Southern charm to witnessing his son’s own charisma to other patrons in the laundry mat. The three generations addressed in this 15-line poem perfectly capture Brown’s compassion and poetic dexterity. The poem is a response to poet Geffrey Davis’s series of epistemology poems in the book Revising the Storm. Below Brown’s poem in the email, there is a short explanation and in this description, Brown writes, “the poem seeks to pinpoint a moment when I think recollection is teaching me, but the reality is that the present offers the lesson.”
Ironically, a few weeks before I saw this poem, I connected with Brown at a laundry mat in the San Gabriel Valley. Being that we are both married fathers and full time teachers, the laundry mat was the only place either one of us had time to catch up over a very busy period near the end of the semester. In between starting new loads, putting clothes in the dryer and folding afterwards, we spoke about his work, our thoughts on contemporary poetry and what it means to be a father, husband and teacher. Though we were in a mundane location, the conversation was anything but run of the mill. Brown emanates a palpable energy in his work and in person that extends beyond the page, transcending the physical plane. Brown amplifies the music in our daily lives and with every poem he reminds the reader to listen and enjoy the song because it will only play for so long.