Interviewed by Chris Mink
Roger Reeves’ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and Tin House, among others. He earned his MFA from the James A. Michener Center for Creative Writing, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Texas and an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His first book, King Me, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.
Q: Your first book of poems, King Me, is due out next year. The title is arresting, at once authoritative and vulnerable. Titles are so tough and so often overlooked as part of writing process. Can you tell us how you came to it, and what it means to you?
A: Titles are often overlooked, Chris. Since this is my first book and thus the only book I have titled, it’s probably better if I talk about the methodology I use to title poems, being that I’ve titled numerous ones. Titles are windows and doors into the house of
the poem. Forgive the trite metaphor, but it is the one I use with myself. However, the title (as window) might not open up into the room of the poem. What I mean is that the poem could be occurring in the kitchen of the house, but the title is attic window, which doesn’t allow you to glimpse the drama of the poem but only allows one to catch residues—thumps, screams, or snatches of conversation that occur below, in the kitchen. Quite simply, every title does not open directly into the poem. This is obvious I’m sure. I’m also intrigued with dirty windows, or windows that are blacked over. I am interested in titles of poems that cause people to stand on tip toe and try to peek in and discern what is being obscured. Often, when titling a poem, I’m looking for something that creates a conversation with the poem. The title is a mini-poetic statement unto itself, an ars poetica of sorts. I am afraid I am being painfully obvious in my answer, but I also must say that I believe titles do not have to be in direct relationship to the sonic, dramatic, or intellectual territory of the poem. Titles can be intuitive pieces of sound that help to start the engine of the poem. They can create a sonic, emotional, or intellectual space for the poem to be encountered in by the reader.
In terms of coming up with the title for the book, King Me, I am thinking about playing checkers with my sister, and whenever she got a position to have her king crowned, she would yell out, “King Me! King Me! King Me!” and laugh. I remember her smile and the
satisfaction in the moment, and that’s what I thought I wanted these poems to do. And at the same time, I liked, as you say, the vulnerability of the request as well as the potential swagger in the demand. The NBA Finals has just concluded, and I can’t help but thinking of Lebron James and his moniker, King James, which reminds me of the poem “Some Young Kings” in the manuscript. While writing this text, I became very interested in the mythology of king, the one who is sacrificed at the end of the harvest season. I remember taking a class on Faulkner while a freshman at Princeton, and as part of the secondary material for the course we read the The Golden Bough. And remember reading that myth. And while writing these poems, I was thinking about the contemporary manifestation of that myth in twenty and twenty-first century America. For me, the myth manifests in the killing of young black men, Emmett Till, and in the ways America deems young, black male bodies as expendable—Jean Michel Basquiat, Mike Tyson, Jack Johnson. These are the young kings whom we love to kill—over and over again. These are the young men we exalt only to thrash them on he altar of popular culture for our own amusement. I could go on, but that’s enough about that.
Q: We were once in a workshop together and someone (we won’t put them on blast here) said that certain subjects should be off-limits in poetry, that they’d been covered too many times. Do you believe there are topics we should leave alone? Are there topics we, as writers, do not broach often enough?
A: No. And hell no. There’s nothing off-limits in poetry. What is off-limits is what one can’t imagine. And that type of critique is one that serves to sequester and hog-tie rather than offer up constructive criticism. Also, that critique also reveals a lack of sophistication, a lack of understanding of poeming. Poems aren’t really about anything per se. They are about making; they are about melodies and sound; the topics of the poem are important—the what the poems are about—but Wallace Stevens has a plethora of poems about nothing that folks seem to love and revere. Somewhere in Proofs and Theories, Louise Glück declares that poems save the poet first, or they are for the poet first. So this critique is rather misguided and fascist. My philosophy towards writing isthis: anytime anyone tells you not to write about something, that’s the first thing you should write about. I seek to scare myself often. If I think to myself ‘I can’t say that,’ then I know I’m going in the right direction with the work.
In fact, this type of fear, this type of abjection should be wallowed
around in. And I think I remember the workshop you’re referring to. And honestly, that’s the pitfall of workshops. Because they occur in institutions, people begin to institutionalize their work and try to institutionalize yours for you. They erect borders and hedges. Anthropologists, historians, psychologists, and sociologists study these types of phenomenon all the time, and I will leave that to them. However, I will say that as writers and critics in a classroom, we must be very careful in our critiques, in our declarations and pronouncements. I have been guilty of making pronouncements. And thus repent, here and now, if I have caused anyone any harm or tribulation while offering critique of their work. I use the language of religion because poetry is a faith, and many of us have taken this vow of poverty and profligacy along with it.
Are there subjects in poems that I would like to see broached more? Of course. Yes. I will offer them now, but I will only do so with the caveat that these are my own interests, and I do not believe the kingdom of poetry must answer to my every beck and call. Here we go: I would like to see more poems about white folks dealing with the sign, signifiers, and signified of race more directly; I would like to see poets be a little less ahistorical and apolitical; I would like to see poems that grapple with the Ideological State Apparatus and Repressive State Apparatus. I want to see more poets encounter myth and correlate to the Ideological State Apparatus. I would like to see more poems that risk beauty. Why are we so afraid of beauty, right now? Is this the post-postmodern condition? Well, Chris, that’s enough for now.
Q: You’re from New Jersey but you’ve lived in a number of places, some for longer periods than others. How has location infused your work?
A: Man, I wanted to answer this question so many ways at once, but I will begin with an anecdote. Last week I was in New Jersey. I haven’t lived there since 1998. I was talking to an older gentleman from Ecuador who was telling me his story: how he came to Jersey in 1972, got divorced a few years ago, and found himself living in a car with his younger wife and their stepson. Dude had a story. And as I’m nodding and asking questions, he asked me where I was from. I said here. I was literally in my hometown. He said, you have an accent. In my head, I’m thinking ‘yeah, I do; it’s called New Jersey.’ But he proceeded to say that my accent sounded foreign. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but since I’ve had locks, folks—black, white, Hispanic, Latino—can’t place me. In Chicago, I have been from Nigeria as well as from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee incident was my favorite. One cold December afternoon here in Chicago, the delivery man told me that I had an accent, that I must be from out of town. And he said, ‘you must be from Milwaukee because I’ve never heard someone talk like that before.’ Milwaukee?! I didn’t want to laugh in the man’s face, but…to answer your question in a more straightforward manner, location is hella important.
Living in the south and the southwest for the last eleven years of my life has greatly influenced my work. There are tons of grackles and blackish, purplish birds in my poems because I lived in Central Texas, where grackles run things and try to kill you when you come too close to their nests. Living in Atlanta and Austin, the heat, made me nostalgic for snow and the cold and that type of desolation. Though I
must say, I only intellectually missed the northeast and the snowstorms. When I lived in Austin and the average temperature was seventy three degrees, I was never angry or forlorn that I was not shoveling out a driveway. Another example: my last year in Austin, I lived on a creek that ran through the south side of town. I really got into birding; I started to research the migratory patterns of herons, the little blue heron in particular. These cycles, these patterns, the birds in the trees were often the inspiration for many of the
And I have to say, I love the dirty South. The country’s imagination is
located there. Atlanta is where I learned to hustle, love, forgive, and bounce. Where else can you hear somebody say “it’s colder than a polar bear’s toenail” or “she got more thighs than Church’s Chicken” (I do not support the objectification and harassment of women in general nor women who are walking up to the club just trying to get a little taste of the night life; however one must give props when props are due). Shout-out to Morehouse College, AUC, Fat Matt’s, Q-Time, Dr. Melvin Rahming, Baba, Nzinga and Ndugu, Alpha Phi Alpha and
Q: Besides being an acclaimed poet, you’re also an accomplished playwright. Do you find those processes of creation vastly different, or do they permeate one another? Does the material dictate the form, or vice versa?
A: I got a little carried away with the last question, but you asked me about the South. I love that place. You know I hear people say that poetry and playwriting are cousins or twins or some type of kin, and I can see that in certain ways—the handling of time, excess (or
minimalism) in language, uses of imagination, space and consciousness—however, I find them two very different creative processes. I will probably contradict myself later, but alas. I am so much more strategic in playwriting. In order for me to start a play, I must know the opening scene and closing scene. I must have an opening image and a closing image. When writing a poem, I’m not looking to know the end. When writing poems I live by Robert Frost’s axiom: ‘no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ My aesthetic predilections in each genre also come to bear heavily on this. In playwriting, I am consumed with telling a good story. I’m not a meta-playwright in the tradition of Beckett who was interested in deconstructing and exposing the ribs of the play as play. I respect that tradition. I am in the tradition of August Wilson or Lynn Nottage. I am interested in the story.
I want the audience member to slip into the story so fully they forget to look at their watch. This is a sign for me of a good play. I am obsessed with time. I am always looking at my watch. I know a play or movie or novel is good when I don’t look at my watch. I want to do this to the audience, to the spectator. I want them to be engrossed in story, in the story on stage. Time must stop. Consequently, I think this notion of stopping time or the notion that time is arrested is also
a part of the lyric tradition in poetry. A lyric poem takes a moment, or, even better, creates a moment in which the reader is arrested, stunned, and cannot see but for the ink and images in front of him or her. So yes, the poetry and playwriting permeate each other. However, in the poem I am interested in delighting my reader with sound, with image, with controlling their breath. When writing poems, I am trying to manipulate my reader’s breath.
Q: Speaking of form, so much of contemporary poetry is written in free verse. Many people, even those writing in free verse, see this as problematic. There’s a concern that we’re paddling so far from our roots that we’ll become lost, that our skills are diminishing.
How important is it for writers to remain connected to formal poetry? When you return to works, are they sonnets and villanelles? A: I am not of the school that believes there is a strict divide between “formal poetry” (by that most people are referring to verse written in received forms, poems written with a metric pattern, etc.) and “free verse poetry” (by this most people mean poetry without a readily discernible rhyme scheme, stanzaic structure, meter, etc.) All verse has its form; and all verse has its freedom. I’m sure someone else has said this. Free verse was nothing more than an ad campaign by a few Modernists (Eliot, Pound) as a way of separating themselves from the Romantics and the presiding versifiers (such as Yeats) whom they felt were clogging up the pipes, garnering too much shine, getting in the way. Free verse is nothing more than the love-child of Pound’s famous koan—‘make it new.’ Pound was one of the greatest ad men of our times. But I digress. Maybe another way of saying this is that there are a plethora of formalisms; I know Eleanor Berry argued that in “The Free Verse Spectrum.” I think it is important for writers to embrace all poems, all traditions—todo, todo. Embracing, reading in and through as many traditions as possible enlarges the mind and imagination of the writer. Steven Dietz, a playwright that I studied with at UT, used to say: “good writers borrow; greater writers steal.” And I am of the thieving school. And the Malcolm X school of poetics—by any means necessary. In order to write the best poems, I need to absorb as many poems, traditions as possible.
There is no room for like and dislike when it comes to writing the best poem I can write.
However, there are poets and poems that I return to. I don’t really
return to forms per se. For instance, I have been rereading and rereading The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa over and over and over again. Komunyakaa makes a grown man dizzy with the intellectual, mythological, and imagistic rigor of his work. I also return to John Berryman often—the Dreamsongs. His work teaches me how to manage a prosodically rich and emotionally lush landscape while yet being intellectually rigorous. The line breaks, the hard enjambments—got to love Berryman. I also tend to go back
to Ariel by Plath. “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”—the three hard syllables at the end made up of one syllable words foreshadows the image of the midwife slapping the baby’s footsoles. The reader,
in the first line, becomes the baby. We become awakened. She midwifes us through the text. Such a great metonymical switcheroo. I could go on, but I won’t.
Q: How crucial is a narrative strand in poetry, to you? Do you rely on it when you’re reading a poem? Is it important for you to maintain a narrative thread when you’re writing a poem? So often, people establish a binary between the lyrical and the narrative—is that necessary?
A: A narrative strand isn’t crucial for me. And I don’t rely on it when reading a poem. And I don’t rely on it when writing either. I might use one, but it’s not necessary. In fact, during my time in my MFA, I took quite a liking to Borges. I don’t believe I write like him in the least bit, but one of the features of his poetry is this notion of leaping, associative and dissociative movement. I am interested in covering as
much ground as possible in a poem. I could cover that ground linguistically—playing with as many different types of speech, the high and the low. I could cover that ground imaginatively—moving from one image to the next without any connective tissue. I could cover that ground sonically or emotionally. I am interested in putting as much space between each line each sentence in the poem as possible. I like to mess with scale.
It’s why I like the work of Terrance Hayes, Frank Bidart, John Ashbery, and Anne Lauterbach. They move mellifluously in and out of images, language, form with aplomb, without causing any damage to the reader. So to answer your final question, I don’t believe in the binary. Most of us are writing lyric poems with snatches and moments of narrative. Very few, very few people are writing epics. I think of two books that plays with this binary and answers this question better than I could—Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies and Noelle Kocot’s The Bigger World.
Q: Talk a little about how you came to poetry—-when did you know you absolutely HAD TO DO THIS? Who were some important poets along the way, not only in regards to your own work, but in regards to the larger world of poetry?
A: I came to poetry because I was nailed to a hill and a prophet thus spoke—no, just playing. I grew up in a Pentecostal Church that believed in the spoken and written word of God; I learned to read
while attending my mother’s Sunday School (she was the teacher). And my first book was the Bible. My mother read it to us twice daily—when we woke and before we went to sleep. I loved the language; I loved the exegetical readings that I would later learn were a reader-response theory of interpretation. I loved testimonies because of all the juicy gossip that spilled out in the process. Language was
salvation. I learned very early on that we were creatures made of language and not flesh in blood. Whoever controlled the signs controlled the actions of men. Sorry, my Pentecostal roots are deep. Nevertheless, I broke away from the church and in college I found that language was the only way to reconstruct and create the me that did not exist.
Some important poets along the way were Sharan Strange who gave me my first poetry workshop and subsequently my first poetry evisceration ever. It was a necessary evisceration though. She did it
with such care, grace, and intelligence. Other important poets were Natasha Trethewey whose workshop during the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops kept me from giving up. Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricote and the Cave Canem family are also important as well as poets like Jericho Brown (my big brother), Terrance Hayes (the biggest brother), Dean Young (kinfolk), Brigit Kelly (Zen with it,
ain’t she?), Marilyn Nelson, Patricia Smith, Forrest Hamer, and A. Van Jordan. All these poets have been directly involved in nurturing me up over the last twelve years. These folks have been solid. In terms of folks that are important to poetry, the poetry world in general that have not already been listed somewhere in this interview because most of the folks would be on this list too, I would say: Rita Dove, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zbigniew Herbert, Larry Levis, John Milton, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Emily
Dickinson, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Pablo Neruda, Baudelaire, Wole Soyinka, Aime Cesaire, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Phillis Wheatley (the original gangster), Claudia Rankine, James Wright (my God, that man could write). I could go on, but lists are more about who has been
left out than who is included.
About the Interviewer: Chris Mink was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, AL. He is currently pursuing his PhD in poetry at Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Anti-, The Offending Adam, and la fovea. Earlier work can be seen in a folder his mother keeps.