blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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back ROGER REEVES  |  Levis Remembered

Q&A with Roger Reeves

Gregory Donovan: Roger is willing to answer some questions, so we will have a few questions now.

Audience: Do you have any recurring dreams?

Roger Reeves: I do. One of them—it’s a very black dream—which is: I always have a dream of being falsely accused and being imprisoned. [It’s] probably my anxiety dream. People dream of tornadoes and things like that. My anxiety dream is I’m always arrested for something I didn’t do. Then I go to jail and I’m always trying to explain to people that I didn’t do it. That’s why I think prison sometimes figures into my work because I dream about that. I don’t have the dragon and fairy dreams. My dreams are like an HBO show. They’re very gritty. They’re very The Wire. There’s nothing ever fantastic that happens in them. So that's my recurring dream, one of many. Any other questions?

Audience: When you begin writing, do you start with an idea in mind or do you start with a form that you’d like to work within?

RR: I think I’ve done all of the above. Sometimes you hear something—you hear a snatch of language; you hear something, for some reason, that’s peculiar; or you overhear someone speaking, you hear a voice that you want to inhabit. I think I’ve done the form thing where, for a while, I was just trying to write sonnets. I was trying to learn why everybody loves sonnets. So I was writing a lot of sonnets, then pantoums. So you might do that. But I find that I do best when I’m driven first through language to the poem, because poems are sound machines. The most basic definition is sound over a line, so I’m always very interested in inhabiting sound first. But I think however you get to the poem, it's kind of like a street fight: you just don’t want to get knocked out. You’re trying to grapple with the sound of the poem. So I think all of the above. It depends on what you’re trying to do. When I was younger, sometimes—because I played sports—I very much looked at writing poems as practice, like batting practice and shooting hoops, so a lot of times it was just foul shots. I’d do a hundred foul shots just to get that rhythm and to know what it is. And I think I do that with poems, with certain forms, where I’m just going to keep shooting, and that might turn into something. I might find something and I might not, but it doesn’t hurt to write one more poem. No one in the world is worse for one more poem. It’s not like one more bomb, right—one more Scud missile? You’re worse for that.

Audience: I really appreciate what you said about Yeats, and I was wondering, right now, who is the person that you would love to have an epic rap-off with?

RR: Living or dead?

Audience: Either.

RR: Okay, I like this question. I have to say the poet that I’ve been grappling with a lot right now is Frank Bidart. I’ve been really reading through In the Western Night. I’ve read all of his work and now I’m reading it again. For some reason, it’s landing with me differently. The poet that I actually wouldn’t want to battle, because he would kill me—well maybe not—because he would out-deprecate me, is John Berryman. I think that Berryman, to me, is one of the best lyricists, one of the best writers, period. I love him. That would be someone that I would love to sit and throw language back and forth with because he thinks so well with such a small space. I was just looking at “The Demented Priest” the other day. It’s in the eighteen-line form like The Dream Songs, but very different from The Dream Songs in that it’s not rhyming. It’s doing some things that are quite different even as it’s occupying his nonce form of something akin to a sonnet but not that. But it’s a beautiful poem if you haven’t read it. So I guess Berryman and Bidart.

Audience: I was just wondering why you write about geese so much.

RR: I grew up in this town called Mount Holly, New Jersey, and there’s actually several things. My mother scared the crap out of me when I was younger because she was bit by a goose when she was a kid, so I was always scared of geese. So they occupy this space of, “Don’t fuck with the geese; don’t fuck with a goose.” But it’s also because they figure prominently in my youth—probably another recurring image, sort of dream-like, that happens for me—so the geese are there. Then when I lived in Texas, there are no geese, and so I missed them, like I kind of missed winter. Now I don’t. But then I did. When I was in Texas I lived on this stream, and you would get migratory patterns of birds coming through and it was just great bird-watching, so I got into birds. They probably also sonically do something for me—that long e sound, the s—there’s probably something in the sound that propels me into thinking about poems and into thinking. That’s why geese.

Audience: Do you have recurring things that you find that pop up in your unconscious mind, that pop up in your work?

RR: Yeah, I think it’s a little more conscious now because you go back and you read and you go “Oh you’re doing a lot with the word dead.” I think the thing I am quite interested in is the dead. Poets are always interested in the dead. Mary Ruefle has a great essay in Madness, Rack, and Honey where she says, “the only conversation a living poet can really have with another poet is with a dead poet” because they’ve said everything they could say. So the dead are really the only people we can talk to, because in some ways, with the living, the conversation goes on and on and on. It’s not until we have a terminal body of something that you can talk to something. So I think the dead for me are fascinating. Also, I was reading that Komunyakaa poem, as well as Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”—the idea of suffering. And then I was reading a lot of Foucault and, for him, writing is an act of death. To write is actually not an enlivening thing. So for me the thing that I’m always kind of going back to is the dead, partly because I think another recurring dream I always had was dying—I’d die a lot in my dreams, I think because I had a fear of death because I grew up really fundamentalist Christian and I was really scared of going to Hell. For a long time I had this fear, like I couldn’t move. I felt very arrested in my early twenties because I was like, “I’m going to die and go to Hell.” So I’m constantly interested in interrogating that space, and actually the space of the newly dead. The newest work I’m working on is about the newly dead, because I think it must be really confusing to be newly dead. If you think about that moment, it’s kind of like just being born. You’re like, “Ah, what is this?” Those are my recurring images or thoughts.

Audience: Could you talk a little bit about—I notice in a lot of your poems the relationship between nature and art, you would describe specific moments in nature or specific images—how that relates to maybe your thought process or kind of your emotions toward certain things.

RR: Sure. I found this thing in grad school called art criticism, and it’s amazing. I’m a literary critic; I have a PhD. [But] I think art critics write the best criticism in terms of just pure writing. I was reading all these art critics on Van Gogh. Van Gogh actually writes a lot about nature. When Van Gogh was first going out, after the minister-type stuff, he was trying to write, he was trying to draw. His biggest issue when he wrote to Theo, his brother, was that nature moved. He was like, “I can’t actually render nature because it’s moving,” and that’s why I began that one poem, “Nature always begins with resistance.” For him, the best way to do nature was dead. So Van Gogh in his letters, particularly when he’s talking about art and color, really shape how I think about studying the world, and so for me there’s a language. I think of myself like I’m a kind of failed painter, and so I think poetry is where I get to be painterly. For me there’s that connection where recently I’ve been trying to grapple with the idea of anthropomorphizing nature, which I’m always interested in. That for me is conflictual—giving nature human subjectivity and the ethics of that—for a lot of different reasons. So I’m always grappling with: What do we do with nature? What is nature there for? And even that question—“for”—that’s a problematic idea that nature’s there for anything. So I think that when we’re making art, particularly when—like, I'm always occupying other people’s bodies and voices, I think there’s an ethic to that. You have to be very careful. I think you should radically occupy people and things that are nothing like you, but you have to be very careful about that. I’ve never been a woman—maybe I have, but not recently—but I’m very interested in exploring women’s subjectivity and the subjectivity of people that are nothing like me, because I think that’s what art should do. It’s a long way of answering your question.

Audience: In the asylum poem, where you’re thinking about your sister and she was in the asylum and she was losing her mind, were you trying to put yourself in that situation and maybe try to do it from that?

RR: Well, I think yes, and also this is where biography sort of intersects, but also is not part of it. Later I found out, after leaving home for college, that my sister was put in a hospital. She was never when I was there, but I didn’t find out until much later. It’s sort of like there’s pieces of things that you’re working with. One of the things I think poems allow us to do is imagine and say the unsayable. There I’m trying to occupy what I will never know, which I think is a great place to start. I think not knowing—not having language for something—but knowing, that’s the place to start, for me. It’s not so much I’m trying to embody that. When I play with it with Duchenne [“Self-Portrait as Duchenne at La Salpêtrière”], whose son also was schizophrenic, I’m melding Duchenne’s life with my own and thinking about [how] Duchenne becomes the father of basically neurology because he’s trying to figure out how to cure his son who has schizophrenia. So he maps all the nerve systems because he first thinks it’s a nervous issue. So I’m thinking about: what do we do to try to make our own family well? How do we go out and get them back from where they are because we feel this gap, this distance? So the poems often are interested in that gap and distance, and understanding that to some degree you can’t ever really bring those two distances closer. Sometimes all you can do is imagine them.  end  

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