Saturday, October 27, 2007

Two Interviews With Reginald Shepherd

The last time I made a blog post, it may have been around 90 degrees outside. Now, it feels about 60, and the trees are turning into firework displays outside. It's great to be back in Missouri for them, to be able to drive down highway 70 where it dives into the shallow, wooded valleys, and have them flash seven different shades between yellow and green.

One of the many, great things that's kept me busy between then and now has been the chance to write a profile of Reginald Shepherd for Poets & Writers. The wonderful poet, and great friend, Joshua Kryah was assigned the profile, and offered me the chance to do it since his work had piled up too high for it. Josh and his awesome wife, Amber, have a something-month-old daughter, Eavan, whose incredibly cute picture beams in my apartment. They're also the new parents of Witness, the wonderful journal.

To top it all off, Josh's book, Glean, winner of Nightboat's 2005 contest, has been getting him much-deserved readings around the country. In the midst of all of this, he still makes time to be a great friend, and had just enough time to make a tremendous gesture of friendship by offering me the assignment. It's been a great chance to look at Reginald's poetry, and the prose that will be coming out in Orpheus in the Bronx, the essay collection to be published as part of Michigan's Poets in Prose series.

With not much time to do the profile (I'm making final edits, with the help of the wonderful editors there, this weekend), I've been really grateful to Reginald for sending quick responses to my questions. Since the profile can't offer the full texts of the two, brief e-mail interviews, he's been kind enough to let me post them here.

The first interview:

1. You talk about identity poetics in your book, and how passion is more important to your view of poetry. You talk about it with real power, saying that you’re tired of being seen as a black poet, with all the agenda that that implies. Was there one particular event that led to this realization? Do you remember where you were, what you were doing when it hit you?

This is something that has been hitting me, hard and repeatedly, all my life. Ever since I was a child I have been accused by other black people, starting with my mother’s family, of not being black or of thinking I was white (which assuredly never occurred to me—I have much too much evidence to the contrary, physical and social). Simultaneously, I have labored under the burden of being too black for many white people—that is, of being black at all. Having so often felt racial identity as an imposition rather than a choice, as a means of being identified (and categorized and labeled) rather than as a means of identification, I am very skeptical of it in all areas of life. In the literary arena in particular, it too often seems that a writer who is black is expected, even obligated, to be “a black writer” in ways that I find prescriptive and restrictive. I’m hardly deluded enough to believe that I can escape my social identity, and the specific version of it I have experienced (there are many such versions) has shaped me as a person or a writer. But it doesn’t determine or define me. I find often myself discounted as a black poet for not following the prescriptions laid down for poets who are black. As Samuel R. Delany has said of himself, I am black, and to that extent what I write is black literature. I would add that it is also many other things. In any case, it shouldn’t be my job to fit myself to a predecided definition of what counts as “black literature,” of who counts as “a black writer.”

It’s somewhat funny that my desire that my race not define my writing has led to my spending so much time and energy on the topic that I am now almost defined as “the black writer who doesn’t want his race to define his writing.” There’s always a box into which one can be put and into which one can put oneself. But then, the world is full of ironies.

2. In Orpheus in the Bronx, you talk openly about your childhood, movingly about your growth as a poet, and humbly about your accomplishments in poetry. One of the successes, for you and for the world of poetry, came when Carolyn Forché picked Some Are Drowning. Do you remember your circumstances at the time—where you were, what you were thinking, and how the notification came?

I remember those circumstances very clearly. It was the summer of 1993 and I was living, briefly and unhappily, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I met several men who’d had friends killed by Jeffrey Dahmer—not the most auspicious introduction to a city. I had thought that I was going to do a PhD there, but that didn’t work out, and I wasn’t sure what I would do instead, though I knew that it involved leaving Milwaukee.

I had become very discouraged about the manuscript, having sent out different versions of it continuously for five years, and was convinced that it would definitely not win anything that year (as it had not for any of the previous years), but that, with all the revisions I had done, it had a good shot at winning a prize the following year. Carolyn Forché called me while I was packing to move to Chicago (where I ended up living for six years) to tell me that she had picked Some Are Drowning for the AWP Prize. Apparently it had not even been a finalist, but she had been dissatisfied with the finalist pool and had asked to see more manuscripts. So the book was plucked out of the proverbial slush pile. I was hyper-ventilating when I got her call—I could hardly breathe. It was exhilarating and overwhelming. It was also heartening to know that such a thing could happen for someone with no connections and no sponsors, purely on the basis of the work.

3. Now that you’ve had five books published, Orpheus in the Bronx carries the feeling of a major poet looking back on his work, and seeing how it merges with the world. Did you envision the book that way before you started? In the way that your poetry so wonderfully embodies process, becoming rather than being, was the book self-transformative at all?

I’m very flattered at your description of me and of my book of essays. I certainly didn’t envision the book as any such retrospective monument. Especially given that it underwent many revisions and reworkings over the years, I’m not sure how I envisioned it. Mostly I was guided by a sense that I wanted to leave behind some evidence of my intelligence, that I was capable of communicating in other ways than in poems, that I could talk the talk as well as walk the walk. The process of writing prose at all, let alone a whole book of prose, was transformative for me. For many years, I was one of those poets who feared prose as an intimidatingly alien realm. This was quite a problem for me in college, where writing papers was nearly traumatic; I don’t think that I ever turned in a paper on time. So when I first thought of assembling a collection of essays, the surprise was that I had enough prose to do so at all. Like Molière’s M. Jourdain realizing that he had been speaking prose all along, I realized that I had been writing prose all along, almost despite myself, and usually at another’s request or invitation. It was a reassuring realization, and helped alleviate my fears about writing prose, with which I’m now quite taken. Prose of all kinds now gives me an arena to write and say things that don’t go into poems, at least not into the poems that I write, and to engage in a different kind of discourse and a different kind of thinking, about poetry and all manner of other things.

It’s very important for poets to articulate what they are doing and why, what matters to them about poetry. That kind of discussion enriches and illuminates one’s own work, and creates a sense of dialogue in what is often a very lonely vocation. I’ve now started a web log, at, on which I discuss poetry and poetics. The process of writing for it (unlike many bloggers, I post not journal entries or passing thoughts but carefully worked over essays, many of them quite substantial) and of receiving serious and overwhelmingly positive responses (which have often helped hone my thinking and my formulations), has made me a much more productive prose writer. I now have the makings of another essay collection, primarily comprised of pieces from my blog. The sense of audience and response that the blog has provided has been very heartening. I’ve found another home as a writer in prose, and I’m quite happy about that.

4. Your essays on other poets point to where your work, and theirs, converge. In that way, they manage to be both personal and critical, which is a rare combination. They inspire questions about how you view aspects of your own writing. Your writing on Jorie Graham, for example, shows how deftly Erosion uses beauty. Your work shows us how indispensable it is, and how constantly called into question. Have you felt a changing relationship with beauty over the course of your writing career? How do your different works engage it differently? Your writing about Gregg shows the depth and brilliance in her use of myth. How do you see your own use of it?

I appreciate your characterization of my essays on other poets, which is what I aim for. In general, I only write about poets whose work is important to me (though, given that most of my critical prose has been solicited work on particular topics, there are many poets whose work I value on whom I’ve not yet written). My critical investments are also personal investments: I write about these poets because I care about their work, and it’s that which leads me to investigate it more closely.

With regard to beauty, I feel ambivalent toward it, and yet I am deeply committed to it. As I write in “Notes Toward Beauty” in the collection, there is a current suspicion of beauty which I don’t share, which to my mind is linked to a general suspicion of emotion in contemporary American culture, except in its most reified and commodified forms. Beauty is often seen as a lie, while intense emotion is seen as unseemly and gauche, an embarrassment. There’s a pervasive valorization of a blank and, to my mind, evasive irony with which I take issue. Beauty, of course, often leads to and is the source of intense emotion. Your first question mentioned my commitment to passion, and I do think that without passion there is not point to the creation or consumption of art. These days, the critical impulse often seems to overtake the creative impulse in art. But I still believe in the possibilities that beauty offers of a life other than that which we now live, of a world of just proportion that is in some ways an image of justice and freedom, of what Kant called the kingdom of ends, in which things exist for their own sake. Part of the pain beauty can cause is the realization that such a kingdom is not ours: somewhere is such a kingdom, but not here, not now. But beauty reminds us of its possibility, and of the necessity to strive for it.

I have felt a changing relationship to beauty over the course of my development as a writer. A professor of mine once told me that I wrote about things that everyone agreed were beautiful, and over time I came to see the limitations to such an acceptable and apprehensible notion of beauty. My notions of beauty are more complex and more contradictory now; they incorporate brokenness and even failure, the beauty of ruin and the ruin of beauty. I’ve become distrustful of the purely consoling, soothing aspects of beauty; I’m more interested in its piercing, challenging aspects. In the dialogue between beauty and justice, I’m less willing always to let beauty have the last word. But I still remain convinced that the two need not be antagonists, and that at the core they are one. But that core is less easily reached than I once thought, and I’ve become more willing and even determined to play out that struggle in my work.

As for myth, it has been a central part of my consciousness since I was a child. Part of the appeal of myth for me has always been that things make sense in myths, even if a kind of mad sense, in a way that they rarely did or do in my life. Ordinary, meaningless suffering is transformed in myth, made sublime, made beautiful, made meaningful. The pain is not excluded, but it is (dare I say it?) ennobled.

The sense in Linda Gregg’s poems of myth as lived experience, and of its interpenetration with our daily lives, has been very important to me. I’ve been very interested in juxtaposing myth’s world of meaning and form, of power and grace, with the contemporary quotidian world, in seeing what kind of sparks are generated when different worlds are forced to confront one another, when mythic history meets mundane history. For example, in “A Man Named Troy,” from my second book, Angel, Interrupted, I juxtapose the Trojan War with the First Gulf War, Apollo with a man reading in a Chicago café, the Olympian gods treading just above the earth with an elevated train line. These things all coexist in my consciousness and in my world, and I like to see what happens when they’re brought together in poems, which should be at least as complex as life.

5. After reading Orpheus in the Bronx, I’m struck by how the title seems to point to the Orphic action of the book—you’re going into the underworld of childhood, to bring back, not Eurydice, but memory and lyric, which may be the shape she takes, after all. How do you hope that the reader will see the memories that you offer there? What does it say about the notion of identity as a whole?

You’ve pointed out something in the book’s title that I hadn’t consciously thought of in this connection, though the ideas you bring up are constants for me. In a way, I see all my poetry as a kind of Orphic quest, to rescue my mother, my own Eurydice, whose death stung me into poetry. Reading T.S. Eliot in the ninth grade made me want to be a poet; my mother’s death soon afterward made me need to be a poet. Memory and lyric are indeed the shape my mother, my Eurydice, my muse, takes now, the only form she has anymore, since there is no rescue for the dead. I hope that a reader will see the various memories assembled in the book—personal, literary, social, historical—these fragments I have shored up against my ruin, against our ruin—as evidence of the complex, contradictory, overdetermined nature of identity. There is no singular, unitary “whole” called “identity,” not for me, not for anyone. The idea of identity has become so simplified and reified that it reduces rather than enhances possibility. People cling to their chosen or assigned identities like armor, to protect themselves against all those they see as other, to protect themselves against themselves. This impoverishes experience, impoverishes art, impoverishes the potentials of identity itself. Memory is at the core of identity, that sense that I am now what I was, that I will be what I am. But in my experience, I was many things, and they have made me many things today, some congruent, some contradictory. Memory is plural, as is identity, and both are moving targets, things striven for and never really achieved.

The second interview:

1. In Some Are Drowning, “Brotherhood” carries a great sense of identity, of otherness, and how each melt in the sea through which the speaker walks. It made me think of Iowa, and Bob Archambeau’s discussion of its Eliotic traits [in his article in Pleiades] also took me back to the great picture of you, copying Eliot’s work in high school.

“Brotherhood” is one of the older poems in Some Are Drowning. I wrote it in 1986 or 1987 (although it underwent subsequent revision, as all my poems do), soon after returning to college to finish my BA after three years of doing menial labor in Boston. It’s about my life as a poet manqué during that period, when there was a total disjunction between my material life (which consisted of days working at demeaning, poorly paid jobs and nights of being snubbed by handsome men in gay clubs while trying to forget that I had to go to work the next day) and my sense of myself as an artist, an identity or aspiration that had no connection to anything else in my life, which existed in opposition to that life. I would read and try to write on the subway on the way to and from work, and set aside time in the evenings to do what I considered my real work, to remind myself of who I thought I was despite the utter lack of recognition of that self in my real world. When I went back to school, I felt that I had finally gotten back on the path I’d fallen from (I had been a prodigy, but had become a mere prodigal).

“Brotherhood” is about someone who is still trapped in that space between what the world permits him and what he dreams of being, about someone who will never become more than an aspiring artist: the person that for years I feared that I would become, and still feel lucky not to have. His ambitions are as ephemeral as the waves on the shore, are constantly interrupted by the routine of his daily life, the stops and starts of the subway that takes him nowhere.

2. In Angel, Interrupted, “‘Orpheus and Eros,’ by George Platt Lynes” shows a kind of otherhood between the two figures, and the stone of each brilliantly represents that sense of immutability that comes with feelings of grief and desire. It made me think of the Chicago Art Institute, too, and I wondered if you’d seen it there.

I wrote this poem while I was a student at Iowa, after seeing a reproduction of the piece in the book The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe by Allen Ellenzweig. The photograph is of two nude, slim but well-developed young men, both of whom have their backs to the camera; the figure in the background has a sort of diaphanous curtain draped over him, while the figure in the foreground holds his hand as if to pull him toward him and into the light. Given the black and white sheen of the photograph, I superimposed my idea of the figures, particularly the shrouded background figure, whom I identified as Apollo (on the idea that gods can’t be clearly seen), as stone statues, marble or alabaster, on the photograph’s human forms. This led to an exploration of whiteness as beauty, and of Orpheus as emblematic of an implicitly white western culture that excludes or ignores me as a black man, though my desire as a gay man is inscribed in the photograph. This returns to the ambivalence about beauty that we discussed in an earlier question. I’ve never felt that beauty could be mine, that I could be part of beauty.

3. In Wrong, “Telemachus On the Waterfront” reminded me of Navy Pier, and how the Telemachus I know from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” would fit there with the wind and clouds. I wondered if its great sense of landscape rose from looking at parts of Chicago, and how its easy movements through the giant landscape of myth reflect life in an urban space.

Though I lived in Chicago for six years, and wrote “Telemachus on the Waterfront” there (around 1997, I think), I’m not sure that I ever went to Navy Pier. (Often when one lives in a place, one doesn’t do or go to the things that are famous to those who don’t live there.) In titling the poem I was thinking of the song “I Cover the Waterfront,” especially as sung by Billie Holiday. The line “Will the one I love be coming home to me?” felt particularly apt in relation to Telemachus waiting twenty years for a man he doesn’t even know, since Odysseus left Ithaca when Telemachus was an infant. The poem is about Telemachus’s ambivalence about the return of this man called “father” who is a total stranger, and who will displace him as the man of the house, whose return will overturn his life. I do like your phrase "the giant landscape of myth." Lake Michigan was an overwhelming presence in my life in Chicago (I even lived in a neighborhood called Lakeview—the hip gay neighborhood). I spent lots of time at the lake, and no doubt the lakefront influenced my creation of the waterfront Telemachus wanders.

4. Otherhood offers “Apollo Steps in Daphne’s Footprint,” and the spontaneity of the title act, along with the easy music that follows, makes both figures seem so real. There’s a sense of the god following in the tracks of the goddess that seems familial, too, as if the speaker is following a family member. Is this poem, for you, tied in at all to the Orphic quest to recover lost loved ones?

I have written many poems from the perspective of the victims of the gods, the ones spoken of in the myths who don’t get themselves to speak. I became interested in trying to write from the perspective of the god, to find out what it felt like to exercise power rather than just be its object. My project was to write several poems from Apollo’s viewpoint, but it petered out after two poems, this one and “Apollo on What the Boy Gave,” about Apollo and Hyacinth. Perhaps because I’ve never been able to identify with power, what I found is that the god’s power renders him powerless, that the god doesn’t get what he wants: everything he tries to touch is destroyed or transformed into something different from what he was seeking. Apollo pursues the nymph Daphne and to escape him she’s transformed into a laurel tree, which he makes sacred to himself and which becomes the emblem of poetry. He seeks physical fulfillment, love even (whatever love means to a god), and ends up with just representation, a poem instead of the object of his desire. That does tie into what you call the Orphic quest to recover lost loved ones. Much of my poetry has been an attempt to rescue my dead mother, but it can’t be done: the dead can’t be saved. All I have are the words I’ve turned her into: “a crumpled poem in place of love,” as the last line of my poem “How People Disappear” (in Fata Morgana) puts it.

5. In Fata Morgana, there’s such a rich mix of grit and myth, and it would be great to hear about how that came for you from “Orpheus Plays the Bronx,” especially after the Chicago-oriented poems of the earlier books. Did you write it while working on a particular part of Orpheus in the Bronx?

I like your notion of the mix of grit and myth: I've always wanted both to ballast the myth with the ground of fact and experience and to raise up the immediate and the personal to a higher, more resonant level. My mother and her death have been among the motives for my work since the time I began writing, but I’ve rarely directly addressed or engaged that material. A few poems in my first book did so, but for years she was a kind of absent center about which my poems revolved. In more recent years I’ve returned to more openly dealing with the fact of her death and the loss it represented to me, the hole it still makes in me. This has also involved writing more autobiographically than I usually do. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote “Orpheus Plays the Bronx” the poem, or the circumstances of its writing (though I know I wrote it in Chicago), but it was years before I even conceived of Orpheus in the Bronx the essay collection. I wanted to take my personal experience of my mother’s suicide attempt when I was very young (an attempt she later denied, though I remember it vividly), many years before her death of an asthma-induced heart attack, and place it in the context of a cultural story, or more than one such story, if we count the soul singers Al Green and Barry White as contemporary Orpheus figures, singing our modern myths. Like Orpheus singing the songs of his mourning for Eurydice, my mother’s death stung me into poetry. There is a way in which her death was my escape, from the Bronx, from the ghetto, from a intimacy so suffocating it was a trap. There was a sense, as the poem says, that I couldn’t live if she did, that only her death set me free, though into what I’m still not sure.


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