Talking With Roger Reeves: A Pawn, a Poet, a King

"If one is obsessed with finger puppets, one will write about finger puppets. My obsession happens to be the intersection of politics, subjectivity, aesthetics and race."
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When the behemoth of all writers conferences, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), begins this week, Roger Reeves will be everywhere, discussing hip-hop poetry on Friday and debut-collections on Saturday. He will also be at a multitude of off-site events including the Bat City Review's 10th Anniversary Reading, the PYSCCity and Youth Care reading on behalf of city youth, which will include poets Matthew Dickman, Matt Hart, Tanya Olson, and Phillip B. Williams and, of course, the Cave Canem and Copper Canyon (which publishes Reeves), All-Star Reading, whose line up includes many rising young poets, among them Fady Joudah, Jericho Brown and Natalie Diaz.

Reeves may owe some of his popularity to the fact that he balances talent with engagement in the world of poetry and politics, a hard combination to resist in a literary universe that sometimes seems too removed from the people who give it shape and reason. Reeves was awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation in 2008, and is a two time Cave Canem Fellow and an NEA Fellow in Poetry in 2013. His publications, which include American Poetry Review and Poetry, are only matched by the accolades he has received from his peers. Kim Addonizio selected "Kletic of Walt Whiman" for Best New Poets 2009, and Terance Hayes, chose Reeves's collection, King Me (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) for the Los Angeles Review of Books Valentines. He writes,

King Me is a book of varied tongues and urgencies. Van Gogh is here, Mike Tyson, Ernest "Tiny" Davis, and in the first and last poems, someone named Roger Reeves appears. It's a book of inhabitations and transformations; the disembodied multitudes that constitute a single body. King Me. The title sounds in one ear like the declaration of a deluded despot atop his ruined kingdom, double-fisted with bravado coated in tragic doubt. It sounds in another ear like the request of a formerly powerless pawn having made it, after fields of struggle, to the king's doorstep. In both ears these poems are resoundingly humanizing and vital and true.

King Me is, indeed, deeply connected to the roots of human conflict and love. It is an intense, transcendental experience to read this work, a collection whose wisdom grows until, its final lines: "Then, let us hold each other toward heaven/ and forget that we were once made of flesh/ that this is the fall our gods refuse to clean with fire or water." Those words are a convocational plea, one that begs the reader to return to the beginning. And begin again.

RF: In her introduction to Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, (University of Georgia Press, 2009), editor Camille Dungy writes that many Black writers do not engage the natural world as often as Anglo-American writers do, that "the pastoral as diversion, a construction of a culture that dreams through landscape and animal less prevalent," among the former. Your poems draw heavily on the natural world, from animals (cows, dogs, pigs, cats, horses, elephants) to birds (falcons, crows, herons. sparrows, chickens, geese) to insects (cockroaches, wasps, butterflies, moths, fleas, maggots, and repeatedly, bees) to flowers and farming. You write, "I have an animal for every occasion. And another/ for the occasion after." ("Every Casket, a Pause"). What in your experience compels you so repeatedly to place your vision within this inspiration?

RR: The natural world is rather prominent in my work for several reasons. When I moved South, to Atlanta and then to various cities in Texas, I realized that I had grown up in a rather rural suburb in Southern New Jersey. Normally, the U.S. South is considered bucolic, the place of the pastoral, but within three to five miles of my home, dairy cow farms speckled the landscape. Hundreds of acres of corn spread all over the surrounding towns from Burlington to Willingboro; forty miles away stood a cranberry bog that I often visited as a Boy Scout, and the Rancocas Indian Reservation stood hidden behind a stand of pines about five miles from my house. Much of my childhood was spent outdoors -- camping, hiking, playing basketball, picking crab apples off of trees and throwing them at parked cars and friends.

Moving to the U.S. South made more aware of my upbringing and how the natural world was my first teacher. And my second teacher was poetry. In 2007, I became obsessed with Natasha Trethewey's "Pastoral" (in Native Guard), a poem that engages and interrogates the constructedness of identity, race, the South, the lyric and canonicity. I had already been writing poems that sought to encounter some of the same material. However, in reading and re-reading the poem, in starting to think about how I might extend Trethewey's conversation of race, canon and literary form, I realized how intrinsically linked African-American history and life (slavery, lynching, share-cropping) were linked to the pastoral -- to its philosophical, poetic and epistemological concerns. I became interested in the dreaming (writing poems) through animal life because of the way they are both knowable and unknowable, familiar and unfamiliar. I'm really interested in the notion of the sublime. And when reading Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and Sublime, I noticed throughout the text that he often associated the beautiful or the sublime with animals. For instance, bulls are sublime while cows are not. Wolves sublime; dogs [are] not. Animals become the ways by which we metonymically discuss the human.

RF: In "Southern Charm" you evoke the Persian epic poem, "The Conference of Birds," with your allusion to "A Parliament of Fowls." "In the Lone Horse and Plum Wu-Tang," you begin with Bashō, and go on to write: "I am the willing minstrel with honey on his tongue,/ Smearing the burnt cork of anybody's ode onto my face." Can you talk about influence?

RR: Influence -- there are too many, but I will try. Might I start with a bit of a preamble? Forgive me for this; I believe in a set-up, but I do believe I will answer the question. I'm just coming through the attic window rather than the front door. During my first graduate student days at Texas A&M University, I took a gender theory class. In fact, I believe it was just called Gender Theory. There, I encountered Judith Butler's seminal work, Gender Trouble, for the first time. Of course, it unstitched me in the very best of ways. However, it also taught me a lot about citationality, about the way in which we are all just copies of copies, that we are ultimately an amalgamation of others. Sure, she's borrowing from Derrida's work on philosophical rhetoric, but I was smitten with this idea. I found it incredibly liberating -- that we are assemblages, artificial and real as any poem, story, building or boat. Then, a few years later, I was watching outtakes to Oprah Winfrey's interview of Cormac McCarthy who I was binging on one summer. And he said something similar about the making of books -- that "books are made of other books." In other words, his books, your books, my books are Frankensteins; they are bits and pieces of the dead. Influence is another way of saying talking to the dead, talking to what has come before. To borrow a phrase from Yusef Komunyakaa and remix it a bit, books are opportunity to talk dirty to the gods. I am interested in talking to those that came before me -- whether it be Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rilke, Bashō, Berryman, Brooks, Hayes or Trethewey.

RF: You write unflinchingly of politics, something many poets do not aver let alone address. Your poetry encompasses a range of injustices from poverty in Latin America, ("Samba in Sao Cristovao, or Temporary Flight," and "Exit Interview") of the rise and fall of extremism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union ("Of Genocide, or Merely Sound." "What Stalin Grew Tired Of,") and a multitude of sins in America ("Cross Country," "Cymothoa exigua," "1987," "Some Young Kings,") among others. In "Of Genocide," you write of the way in which the exclusivity of tragedy effectively silences those who have not themselves gone through those events, and how our separation from each others experiences ultimately beget atrocities. To what extent do you think poets should carry the burden of witness and voice?

RR: Ru, great question, because I do and don't think poets should carry the burden of witness and voice. Before sitting down for this interview today, I wrote down on a piece of scratch paper: "A man can never be larger than his obsessions." (So sorry about the gendered language, but I was kind of talking to myself, but this declarative statement might also apply for and to a woman.) I think one can only write out of one's obsessions. If one is obsessed with flowers, one will write about flowers. If one is obsessed with finger puppets, one will write about finger puppets. My obsession happens to be the intersection of politics, subjectivity, aesthetics and race. I live such a politicized life. Turn on the news, read your Facebook stream, the black body, my body is such a politicized body that it would be hard for me to ignore it and the ways that it is politicized. And in many ways, politics and poetry (aesthetics) are all about artifice. The politician and the poet both traffic in illusion, revelation, concealment, metaphor, and pathos in highly crafted ways around language and its deployment over time and space. I've been teaching Junot Diaz's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In the novel, Diaz's narrator, Yunior, argues that the dictator and writer are natural enemies of each other because they are so alike. And I couldn't agree more. However, I would like to see more poets think through the way in which their obsessions (whether they be questions about gender, aesthetics, animal crackers, or spelunking) intersect and engage with politics. We, as U.S. writers, have a great amount of privilege. Often, this privilege allows us to write about things (obsessions), write in forms that push aesthetics and the lyric in a manner that other writers in other countries, times, etc. are or were not always allowed to. Sometimes, I am amazed when writers say that they don't see a place for the political in their work because the political has seen a place for you and often circumscribes the work whether we want it to or not. You might not believe in politics, Dear Writer, but the political believes in you.

RF: It is customary, if unfortunate, that writers are wont to be critical of the judging behind the award of grants and institutional support, chalking it up to politics. Your work has been supported by fellowships from the NEA, Cave Canem, and the Poetry Foundation, and by scholarships at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center as well as the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Apart from the obvious -- your work is excellent and deserving -- is there a particular universality to your work that accounts for the way it has been singled out for recognition by bodies that straddle a varied and sometimes divergent aesthetic?

RR: No, I don't believe my work is particularly universal. I don't agree or believe in the universal. Many critics have argued this point so I will only say this: often, when we use the term universal, we secretly and not-so secretly mean white and white cultural epistemes. That's why I resist the term. However, I do believe work can appeal beyond its cultural ascriptions, can speak across borders. However, in doing that, the work doesn't lose its specificity per se. I can enjoy Emmanuel Carrère's very French fiction and nonfiction as well as Aimé Césaire's very Martiniquan poetry and prose without them having to rise up beyond their respective cultural positions to the place of the "human." I don't think culture and cultural specificity is a limitation. What I hope is that these awards recognize the way my work might seek to contribute to the better-making of poetry and art in America.

RF: What do you want to say about your poetry, your journey, that might be helpful, encouraging, or otherwise explanatory to other writers and/or readers?

RR: What I might like to say about poetry is: Let us write more poetry. Let us be better, more patient, more rigorous readers of poems. Let us write the invisible. Let us be open to poetry changing our life.

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