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

A Reading by Roger Reeves

[“Before Diagnosis,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

Roger Reeves: Thank you VCU. Thank you Greg Donovan, Greg Kimbrell, Kathy—everybody for having me out here. Rachael, Christian—I’ve corresponded with so many folks. This is amazing as a young poet. All the young poets in the room know, we’re just writing in our notebooks. Even the old poets know this, we’re just writing in our notebooks, all the time. All we’re doing is just writing in the notebook. We hope that poems land one day and that we get careful readers and thoughtful readers, so thank you. I feel like we’re family, so because we’re family, normally I don’t show people my runner’s feet, but we’re going to do runner’s feet today. What I mean by that is I’m just going to relax and I’m going to read for y’all and we’re going to just have a good time. Me and Kathy are from the same area. This is like Jersey love right here—I got family in Virginia. Let’s do it.

This next poem is for Emmett Till. Most of us probably know who Emmett Till is but just in case we don’t: Emmett Till was a young black man who traveled to the South from Chicago in the 1950s. As the story goes, he either looked at a white woman, whistled at a white woman, said “hey baby” to a white woman, winked at a white woman—he did something, maybe nothing. Maybe he just was black. The family of this white woman, of course this is Money, Mississippi, were incredibly upset—that’s a mild way of saying it—and decided to lynch him. There was a story my mother used to tell me with the Bible. I grew up with, “and God said let there be light” and Emmett Till. This poem was haunting me for a long, long time. It was one of the first poems I felt like “yes.” It took me a lot of drafts and five years to get to. So this is “The Mare of Money” and it’s for Emmett Till.

[“The Mare of Money,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

So let’s stay in the South a bit. This next poem, I used to live in Austin, Texas. I always like to give a little preamble to this poem because it can be shocking at times for people. But I was running in front of campus and a guy decided to follow me. It happens, people follow you while you run, I guess. He decided to shout “nigger” at me as I ran for probably about a half mile. A friend of mine had challenged me to write a poem about running many years ago and I wasn’t able to do it and I was like, “Oh, I think I can do it now.” So this is the poem that came about.

[“Cross Country,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

So next, let’s go to Britain. I feel like we’re going to travel around the world, a little bit. So this really happened.

[“In a Brief, Animated World: The Marriage of Anne of Denmark to James of Scotland, 1589,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

This next poem [Kathleen] talked about a bit in the introduction, which is “Self-Portrait as Ernestine ‘Tiny’ Davis.” I became fascinated with Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and finding as much archival stuff I could find on her. YouTube was actually quite helpful. She was a great trumpeter. She was a contemporary of Louis Armstrong and Clark Terry. Louis Armstrong in fact tried to buy her—not literally buy her like a slave, but tried to buy her away from the Sweethearts of Rhythm because he felt like she was such a great trumpeter. But she refused because she had this group already. She eventually retires from International Sweethearts of Rhythm and opens, I believe, the first gay club in Chicago called “Ruby and Dee’s Gay Place.” Dee was her partner. There’s some documentary footage of her talking about being now lesbian in the forties and fifties and starting this club in Chicago. She’s one of my heroes—sheroes. So I felt like I had to write this poem that was kind of cyborgish.

[“Self-Portrait as Ernestine ‘Tiny’ Davis,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

I like this postmodern poetry collective called Wu-Tang Clan. I was for a long time trying to figure out why I liked them so much. I think part of is the referentiality. I think the way in which they deploy allusions really reminds me of Shakespeare in the sense that they believe in innovating allusions. They’ll take something that we know and sort of inhabit it in this different way. Modernists—like, Pound is always like “make it new” and we’re running around still saying it—“make it new.” They didn’t say that; that’s not what folks were saying for most of the world. But I just love Wu-Tang, so I’m going to read some Wu-Tang poems to y’all. Y’all all right with that? All right let’s do it.

“Shadowboxing Herons” for Wu-Tang Clan and 1992. Also, I should note it: Wu-Tang Clan got introduced to me on a basketball court. That might be significant because I always think about them in the rhythm of the ball. I always think about them in concert with other men. I feel like it’s a very homosocial space but we don’t talk about hip-hop in homosociality. We too hard for that.

[“Shadowboxing Herons,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

Another Wu-Tang poem, but I always feel like Wu-Tang invites me to think about the haiku. This is me thinking about the haiku in the long form.

[“In the Lone Horse and Plum, Wu-Tang,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

I don’t know if you poets have this. Poets tend to have this—you first read a poet and you’re like, “Man, I really hate everything this poet is writing.” And then you kind of constantly stay with that poet for a while and then years pass and then eventually you’re like, “That’s the greatest poet in the world.” That sort of happened with me, I’ll admit this, with Yeats. When I first encountered Yeats I was like “this is the worst”—not the gyre stuff, but the political poems, you just got it, like “1913,” you’re like, “I don’t think . . . ” But then you sort of start to find your way in a poet and so I started to find my way in Yeats. There was this one poem that I found particularly moving and he had this line of “when I come to the valley of the black pig” and I just sort of started playing with that line a bit.

[“When I come to the Valley of the Black Pig,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

When I moved to Austin, Texas—I was raised in Jersey, and then I moved to Texas—at first I was hanging out with a lot of hippies. I love hippies, like that’s my joint. I think like free love and strawberry farms—that’s my joint. And then I moved to Austin and I found out about hipsters and I hadn’t heard of a hipster before other than Amiri Baraka talking about them. But I was like, “Clearly these aren’t the same hipsters.” But I got kind of fascinated with the aesthetic of hipsterism. I thought, what would a black hipster race poem be like? So it made me think about Basquiat, because he probably would’ve been a black hipster in the ’80s. And then I started thinking about [what] my hipster poem would be, so this is it.

[“Some Young Kings,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

This next poem is for Jermaine Jimenez, my brother.

[“Maggot Therapy,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

I’m kind of fascinated with very obscure things like parasites, but all poets are. We all have obsessions; that’s what helps to teach us about form in a lot of ways. There’s this parasite that I found out that was discovered in 2005. It was discovered in a fish market in Britain, though the fish was shipped from California. There was a parasite found in the fish’s mouth. What this parasite is named is Cymothoa exigua and what the parasite does is it eats the tongue off of the fish—spotted red snappers—and then it replaces the tongue with its body. So when the fish eats, the parasite eats. However, scientists have found out that this does not inhibit the life of the fish, it doesn’t shorten the life of the fish. So there’s this really interesting relationship between this parasite and the fish. As I was reading different texts on parasites, like Parasite Rex and different texts on parasites, I started thinking about parasitism and putting it in conversation with lynching. Partly because lynching culture had an aesthetic. It wasn’t just, “Oh, we just killed the person and kind of left him there.” It was the carnivalesque. If we know anything about killing in the carnivalesque and ritual—there’s an aesthetic to it. What often happened in lynchings is that they would cut the tongue and fingers of the lynched person. Often they would remake the lynched person—remake their body. So they might stuff a pipe into their mouth, you’ll see that in the poem. Or they might, as I said in “Some Young Kings,” there’s “a white coat of paint for all the faces of my negro friends,” because literally they would paint the faces with white at times. So there’s this whole aesthetic to lynching. I started thinking about this sort of parasitism, lynching, and what is made and how does one feed off of the other. So this next poem is called “Cymothoa exigua.”

[“Cymothoa exigua,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

I’m a big fan of Rilke—sort of. Nah, I am a big fan of Rilke. I think it’s always great to be able to battle-rap some of the best poets in history. So one of the things I’m really interested in thinking about aesthetics like, Rilke probably would’ve popped a lot of shit. If he would’ve been a battle rapper, he would’ve been so good at hip-hop. He would’ve been ready. Him and Jay-Z would’ve probably had like the rock together. But one of the things that I always think about is: I write these battle poems—Can I write a poem that’s talking smack back? So this one is “Brief Angel.” Most people wouldn’t know that it’s a battle-rap poem. I always like to explain that.

[“Brief Angel,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

Just a few more poems, y’all. I know, poetry readings, boy. I wish we could do like a live Twitter feed where you could see a Twitter feed over my head, like a halo of Twitter feed. No, I’m just playing, actually I wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t like that at all. It’s a lie. This next poem is called “Thinking of Anne Frank in the Middle of Winter.”

[“Thinking of Anne Frank in the Middle of Winter,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

So this is the love portion of the night. I’m an elegiac writer. People are like, “Why do you write so sad poems?” They’re not sad, they’re happy. It’s like the blues—you sing about sad situations but in the singing, the singing is the happiness. That’s what people don’t get about the blues. The singing is the testament to the life, so if you’re singing, you’re alive. It’s pretty awesome. So this is my version of like, love, that you’ll hear, which is: You’re alive—yay! The next poem is called “Romanticism (the Blue Keats).”

[“Romanticism (the Blue Keats),” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

And for the last poem I’ll read tonight, because we have to get on in our lives. We can’t stay in poetry world forever. It’s a poem that I kind of wrote to myself. It’s a love poem, again. I read this poem for my MFA compatriots struggling in the muck of all types of criticism and self-doubt. It doesn’t stop. It will keep going. No, actually I was struggling in my MFA a lot. I don’t know if you guys are the type of poets that are trying to write poems that last beyond your life, which is what I’m always trying to do. I’m always trying to make something that can outlast me, because why else would we make something? Frank O’Hara is a guy I always turn to. He had this one line in his poem—I can’t find the poem again because you know Frank O’Hara has a lot of poems—and it’s a poem where he says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara.” I thought, that is the best thing to say in the middle of a poem—someday you’ll love yourself. So I said, I’m going to title a poem “Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves.” Here it is.

“Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves.” And thank you for your kindness, and for this. Don’t forget that poetry makes other things possible. Poems make more than just poems possible, okay? Last piece of propaganda.

[“Someday I’ll love Roger Reeves,” Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.]

Thank you.  end  

return to top