Poetry Around Us with Chris Green

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

Getting the Word Back: An Interview with Roger Reeves



Fifth Wednesday Journal: We had a great walk and talk the other day on Michigan Avenue. Our conversation ranged widely — from favorite poets to the place of birds and bugs in your poems. You were particularly passionate and articulate about parasites and their role in your first collection, King Me. Would you mind explaining again?

Roger Reeves: I hope to be as articulate as I was on that day. I became interested in parasites after reading an article about cymothoa exigua, a parasite discovered in 2005. Cymothoa exigua was discovered in the mouth of a red snapper in a fishing market in Britain. Apparently, cymothoa exigua eats the tongue of the red snapper and then replaces the fish’s tongue with his body. Unbeknownst to the fish, it goes about the rest of his or her life with this parasite for a tongue. The fish will live a full and robust life with this new tongue. At the same time I found out about the snapper, I was visiting the online exhibit Without Sanctuary. Without Sanctuary was a traveling exhibit of lynching postcards, memorabilia, and pictures that had made its way around the United States (I had seen the exhibit in Atlanta in 2000). And as I was doing research about lynchings in the United States in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, I read that lynch mobs often cut off the fingers, toes, genitals, and tongues of the lynched men and women. Then, they displayed their digits, limbs, and members in butcher shops and shop windows. W.E.B. DuBois recounts finding the digits of a lynched man in a butcher’s shop in Atlanta. Also, it was a common practice to replace the tongue of the lynched man with a lead pipe. When I read this — that the lynched person’s tongue was replaced with a lead pipe — I immediately thought about cymothoa exigua and the overlap of parasitism and lynching, the overlap of biological science and oppression (history). The lynch mobs enacted parasitism. I am also very interested in the way that parasites transform, transmogrify, the body of another. They hollow things out and innovate on the body. I became interested in invoking that practice as a type of poetics. I also became interested in exploring lynchings, the disingenuous racial history of America (to borrow a phrase from Toni Morrison), and the way in which America performs this hollowing out of the black body. I wanted to use the parasites as a literary vehicle, as an imaginative space, as a linguistic field to think through poetry of black bodies, which is an American poetry.

FWJ: I’m caught by how your poems transform historical horror into poetry. You mention the “poetry of black bodies, which is an American poetry.” Could you possibly elaborate on that idea in the light of your poem “Whatever the Fruit Flies Made,” where you evoke the story of Stagolee, whose story and murder is the subject of numerous songs?

RR: Yes, I can definitely elaborate. In fact, I might elaborate too much on this subject. When I state that the poetry of black bodies is an American poetry, I am invoking or putting two writers in conversation at once — Toni Morrison and Wallace Stevens. Morrison gave the William E. Massey lectures at Harvard in 1992. These lectures eventually became “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.” In “Playing in the Dark,” Morrison states that over many years she began to collect moments in white American literature where blackness and black people were either explicitly or implicitly mentioned. Through her collecting and subsequent analysis, Morrison presences blackness and the black body in white literature in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, where it had been elided or understood as inconsequential to the literature. Morrison challenges the elision and elucidates how, in fact, important black bodies were and are to the white imagination and to the American imagination in general. Here is where I put Wallace Stevens into the conversation. Blackness and black bodies are one of Wallace Stevens’s obsessions. The easy examples are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” However, what about Stevens’s “The Silver Plough-Boy,” where the first line reads “A black figure dances in a black field”? Or “Domination of Black” and “In the Carolinas,” where the penultimate line reads “The pine trees sweeten my body”? In fact that penultimate line is italicized in the poem, which I read as Stevens quoting or lifting that line from somewhere else. And if we read the quote in a non-idyllic fashion, then we can think about that line in terms of a lynched body speaking and not of a body walking among pine trees and taking in the scent from the ground. After reading Stevens over and over again through the years, I wanted to talk back to his poetics and his use of blackness. Therefore, in the Stagolee poem I am responding to “In the Carolinas,” “The Silver Plough-Boy,” and “The Snow Man,” a poem that can be read as implicitly discussing darkness through the metonym of nothing. In so doing, I am seeking to play in the dark and play with the dark. So often, poems about lynchings are seen as highly emotional, as though they lack any type of intellectual landscape. Often, poems that engage the “disingenuous” racial past of America are seen as highly political but not highly aesthetic. In writing the Stagolee poem, I sought to dismantle this divide. And many poets have done this before me: Natasha Trethewey, Nathaniel Mackey, Jay Wright, Terrance Hayes, Haryette Mullen, Patricia Smith. However, in engaging Stevens, I am seeking to talk back to the ol’ boy, talk back to the New Critics, talk back to the notion that black art is embodied and performance-oriented. Using Stagolee as a figure also allows me to declare the blues as an episteme, as a discursive body of knowledge that not only has a corporeal or embodied manifestation but an intellectual one as well. I’ll stop here.

FWJ: Could you discuss the “intellectual landscape” of your poem “Lent”? And is this one of your new poems, perhaps influenced by Berryman?

RR: The intellectual landscape and aesthetic configuration of the poem “Lent” converses with and borrows from John Berryman and Wallace Stevens. My discussion with Berryman in the poem takes the form of playing with the nonce stanza, the sonnet, and his wrenched and tightened syntax. Just as Berryman sought to find a form that he could return to again and again in The Dream Songs, I am performing a similar task in series of poems that I am writing about minstrelsy, lynching, and academic culture. Berryman is a great poet to be in conversation with concerning these topics because he himself wrote through the persona of a minstrel (Mr. Bones à la Henry) and often rendered the academy in many poems (the MLA poems). I am quite interested in Berryman’s playing with and playing in race as well his dynamic syntactical deployment. From research, I understand that the syntactical deployment of Berryman can be traced to two sources — Yeats and Shakespeare. As a young man, Berryman visited the elder statesman, Yeats, and asked him how he might go about innovating and innervating modern poetry. Yeats suggested syntax. Berryman took that to heart, and he was already transfixed by Elizabethan deployment of syntax as well as by minstrel speech that came out of minstrel shows. It should be noted that minstrel shows often have a portion of the show in which they put on airs and deliver soliloquies and monologues from Renaissance literature. Often in the shows, the minstrels employ malapropisms and dirty innuendos and generally bumble through the speeches and monologues. Berryman was aware of this and sought to bring a type of linguistic sense of play and (in)appropriateness to poetry. I myself am performing something similar in playing with minstrelsy (not in “Lent” as much, but in this series). I seek to muck about in the abjection.

In terms of Stevens, “Lent” traffics in the rhetorical gestures and epistemological concerns of Stevens’s “Loneliness in Jersey City.” This poem caught my eye because of its title. As a Jersey boy (born and raised), the poem caught a second glance. The “Ho!” at the end of the first line is my injecting a bit of the Stevensian (and Berryman for that matter) play. I love the linguistic playfulness, nay silliness, of the first couplet in “Bantam in Pine-Woods.” Poets like Dean Young, Anthony Madrid, and Michael Robbins perform these linguistic moves in their work. I am also interested in digressions that resonate somehow (linguistically, sonically, etc.), hence, the last line of the first stanza. The “o”of Mercutio rhymes with and calls back to the “Ho” of the first line, which creates this room (stanza) where one can think about syntax, shifting linguistic registers, and archaic language, as that might bear upon the subject matter of the poem (lynching) and the bodies that are made to transform and conform to the whims, wishes, and desires of a mob (a canon of sorts).

FWJ: You’ve been teaching now at UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] for the last two years. Do you have any favorite books or assignments or strategies for teaching poetry?

RR: Yes, I have been teaching at UIC for two years, and I do have a favorite assignment that I use with my both my literary studies undergraduates and my undergraduate writers. I give them three poems by James Wright — “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” “A Blessing,” and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” With my undergraduate literary studies students, I pair it with readings and essays on the line by James Logenbach and Tony Hoagland. Then I ask the students, “Why are these poems?” and make them account for every line break, choice of syntax, diction, and image. I make them explain to me how these poems act as poems. How do they deploy the materials of poetry? The reason I use these poems is because Wright’s choices are so very clear and yet retain a bit of unknowing. For instance, students never expect Wright’s last lines, the epiphanies. However, as we go word by word, line by line, image by image, the students begin to see the inevitability of the epiphanies — “I have wasted my life,” “I would / break into blossom.” I want to disabuse my students of the belief that poetry and poets make arbitrary decisions based on whimsy. Wright isn’t merely emoting; he’s being precise and aesthetically rigorous. I also want to disabuse my students of the notion that poems can mean whatever the reader thinks they mean. Poets make choices. Understand the choices, you understand the poem.

I use these same poems in my poetry workshop as models of creation and revision. Writing poetry is about what comes next — what word, image, sound. What comes next must seem inevitable, as though the next image, word, metaphor had always been there, had been hovering just below the last thing written, placed on the line. Writing poetry is about making a series of choices (the literal definition of the term aesthetic). I want students to understand, as Eliot put it, that there are moments to be unconscious and moments to be conscious in the writing.

FWJ: Wonderful, Roger — Wright is one of my favorite poets. By the way, since you’re relatively new to the area, I’ve been wanting to ask if you have any special impressions of Chicago so far? Of the Chicago poetry scene?

RR: My impressions about Chicago and the Chicago poetry scene are not particularly special. They are probably what everyone else notices: Chicago has a diverse poetry scene, but it’s particularly segregated — much like the neighborhoods. There’s a great deal of experimentation — Red Rover Series, Chicago School of Poetics. There are a lot of institutions — University of Illinois at Chicago, Poetry Foundation, University of Chicago, Chicago State, Northwestern. One of my favorite discoveries, which is no discovery at all, is the Dollhouse Reading Series and The Danny’s Reading Series. I’ve met some very interesting poets at these reading series that are having a good effect on my work like Kenyatta Rogers, Ladan Osman, Phil Williams, Anthony Madrid, Nate Hoks, Joel Craig, Laura Goldstein, and Christina Pugh. I’m a poet who likes to get with one or two other poets and have very intense conversations that cause one almost to go blind from the sheer amount of intensity. I like to feel drunk and wasted after these conversations. Chicago is a great town for this!

FWJ: Along with your poetry, I know you write in other genres. Could you discuss any ongoing writing projects? I believe you said you’re working on a novel.

RR: Yes, Chris, I write in multiple genres. However, I don’t like to talk about projects before they’re done. Call me superstitious, but I believe you can kill a thing by talking about it before it’s done. Also, on a less superstitious note, talking about a project that is in mid-conception forces the project (the work) to be something it might not want to be. I believe in following projects, following the work, being as unconscious as possible (à la Eliot) in the first draft of the thing. However, I will talk wildly about scholarly projects I plan to write. I would like to write a book that takes up and explores the question of what if abjection of being an object is embraced by black scholars and artists rather than remonstrated. In this book, I would explore the work of Kara Walker (visual artist), Terrance Hayes (poet), Fred Moten (poet and visual arts critic), Natasha Trethewey (poet), Éduoard Glissant (poet and philosopher), and contemporary black surrealists and the ways in which these works traffic in and embrace the abjection of slavery and object-hood.

FWJ: Roger, I admire your sprawling intelligence. Thanks for your sophisticated responses. And one final thought, or exclamation, as a fan of your work: I think your poems form a new necessary mythology. They feel maximally here, but also then and there — a confluence of hard history and lyricism. To my eyes and ears, these are BIG American songs — I’m eager to read King Me. Thanks again for sharing your poetic energy and insights with Fifth Wednesday Journal readers.


Chris Green is the author of two books of poetry: Epiphany School and The Sky Over Walgreens. His poetry has appeared in such journals as Poetry, New Letters, Verse, Nimrod, RATTLE,and Black Clock. He recently edited the anthology, Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose & Photography. He teaches in the English Department at DePaul University in Chicago.

This interview and the poetry of Roger Reeves are available in the fall 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.

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