Roger Reeves’s poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2014, Boston Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. He is associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He has received a Whiting Award, two Pushcart Prizes, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His first book, King Me (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), won the Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University, the John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares, and a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Book Award.
He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Suzanne Young Murray Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Over Zoom, we chatted about jazz, fatherhood, and his new book, Best Barbarian (W. W. Norton, 2022).
C. Francis Fisher: It sometimes feels like a writer has all the time in the world to come up with a first book. After that freedom, writing a second book must be daunting. Can you tell me about the process of writing your second book?
Roger Reeves: I have so many thoughts on this. I want to start by picking up some of the language you started with, which was that you have all the time in the world to write the first book. I think it’s the same for the second book, we just don’t think we think of it that way. For example, my first book came out when I was thirty-three, but it’s not as though all those years were used up in the writing of one book. There’s a way in which you’re writing your second book even as you’re writing your first book. There are all these things I learned watching my first book come out and how it was received that I wanted to do differently or I wanted to extend.
So to answer your question more directly, what was it like for me, I’ve noticed a pattern in my book writing, which is that I write two for one. For every book I put out, I’ve written two to three. I actually thought another book was going to be the second book, but I didn’t know how to edit it. I had this really long poem called “On Paradise,” and I just didn’t know how to revise it and wasn’t going to put it out just because it was cohesive. I think my standards are higher for what I want. The types of beauty and freedom that I want to express have changed. So it took me a long time to write my second book. It is nine years since my first book came out, but I’ve written a lot more than what’s in the second. It’s like for every seven poems I write, there’s one I keep.
Fisher: There is a school of thought that claims you’re always writing the same poem over and over, you have one idea that you’re trying to get out. I hope that’s not true, it feels so limiting.
Reeves: I think you’ll circle around the same obsessions. Whether they are formal and aesthetic obsessions, or subject matter obsessions. Solmaz Sharif once offered me this great analogy in terms of animals, the mole and the fox. I think the idea that you’re writing the same poem over and over illustrates this idea of a mole. The mole tunnels down into the earth, as opposed to the fox who is trying to leap and run all over the countryside. It’s leaping over fences. It’s always moving into other territory.
Fisher: Would you say you’re more of a fox?
Reeves: Yeah, I think I’m more of a fox than a mole. Wallace Stevens is a mole, pointing to the same thing over and over again. Terrance Hayes is a fox. Muriel Rukeyser, Marilyn Hacker, Gwendolyn Brooks, all foxes. A mole would be, I’m trying to think of someone—
Fisher: Maybe Paul Celan as a mole? It’s a bit surprising given his inventiveness, but because of his psychic trauma, it was like he could never get away from circling around the same issues.
Reeves: Yeah, and his use of the fugue as a form plays well with the idea of Celan as a mole.
Fisher: Kaveh Akbar once had another animal metaphor for writers—that there are cats and oxen. So the cat is the writer who goes through the day flitting from place to place, waiting for the right moment to write, and the ox is at their desk every morning working away.
Reeves: I would definitely be an ox.
Fisher: Sounds like it! If you’re writing seven poems for every one you keep, that’s the only way you could do it.
Reeves: It took me so long to figure out revisions and how to revise every book. Revision is such an interesting tool. Naturally, I think I’m more of a soloist. But when you’re writing a book, that’s a lot of melody making that isn’t about improvisation but rather about getting as much out of the melody as possible.
At the end of the day, though, writing poems is just fun, you know? I mean, just being able to make something. I think that’s such a gift, and it’s a gift I can give myself every day, and that’s just really cool.
Fisher: I love that way of thinking about it, work as a gift to yourself. What is your process of revision?
Reeves: With Best Barbarian it was different than with King Me. I would write the poem and then leave it for several years, the old-school method that you always hear people talk about. For Best Barbarian it was write the poems, put them away, and let them become strange, and in that becoming strange, I knew exactly what to do. They became easier to revise because they were written by a whole different person. Whereas with King Me, I’d write the poem, then rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it, immediately.
Fisher: For Best Barbarian, how did you know that a poem was finished enough for you to put it away and return to it later?
Reeves: I write a lot, so it’s just like, on to the next. Sometimes what’ll happen is I’ve written a poem and I’m not quite sure where it’s going. I like to not know what the poem means sometimes, to not know everything about it. And when that happens, that’s a very good sign. Because it means that something happened which I have not encountered in my own work before, and I don’t know yet what to do. And so for me that’s a time to put it away.
And then what will happen is I’ll be working on something else, or I’ll read another poem, or hear a song, and that will send me back to whatever I was working on.
Fisher: In what ways did fatherhood influence this book?
Reeves: Within the first year of having my daughter, my father passed. I wasn’t raised with him in the house, but I got to know him as I became an adult. And so I had this expectation that he could be a grandfather, you know? But, by the time my daughter was one, he was dead.
I realized two things when she was born. First, that I’m going to die. Something about her birth made it feel immediate. And the second insight was that I’m no longer a child. There’s a way in which we’re always in relationship to childhood, and her birth was the first thing that really separated me from childhood.
So I was between these two positions: my father already in the afterlife and my daughter just being born. That became my way of thinking about fatherhood, as this liminal space between these two positions, my daughter and my father.
Through my experience of fatherhood, I became very unsettled with my earlier ideas of beauty. I became quieter as a poet because I was watching this child just be herself. It was amazing to just watch her be herself and for that to be beautiful. She wasn’t trying to form any thoughts or articulate any ideas, she was beautiful just by being, and I wanted to write a poem that could touch that or come close to it. I started to ask what happens if I allow Naima, that’s my daughter’s name, to teach me how to be a poet? What if I let her redirect my orientation toward aesthetics?
Fisher: That’s beautiful. It’s like fatherhood changed everything and that’s all there is to it. I also noticed how important naming is in the collection. Can you talk about that a bit?
Reeves: I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and that makes me very aware of nouns and the performance of language, the performative utterance. What is it to say, And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, or, I now pronounce you man and wife? All those pronouncements make a thing so, they make a thing visible. In light of this tradition, I’m interested in how names also make something visible.
But I also think we forget that poetry has a really long history of naming. If we think about The Aeneid or The Iliad, they give the names of all the soldiers that are dying and how they die. So if I think about “Domestic Violence,” the poem where I do a lot of naming, it’s because I want to participate in that epic tradition. When I think of those who have died at the hands of police brutality and anti-Blackness, we think of them as expendable, much in the way soldiers are thought of as expendable.
I also felt that ethically I couldn’t recapitulate everyone’s death, because that would be pornographically exploitative. I think that sort of recapitulation of violence becomes a certain type of titillation that we like. We kind of love brutality in America. But what I wanted to do was give the dead that moment of privacy, and yet express the publicness of their death. I thought I could do this through the collecting of their names. I was trying to ethically think about how we encounter violence, particularly in how we reproduce violence and represent it on the page as poets. Those names need to be remembered, but we don’t necessarily need the gory details. To me, naming can be an ethically fit position to engage these public violences and private deaths.
Fisher: I was fascinated by the way the book starts with Grendel and the idea that “all lions must lean into something other than a roar.” That emphasizes how tenuous the relationship is in this collection between Black joy and beauty and also death and violence.
Reeves: I’m referencing James Baldwin’s singing in that poem. I think hearing James Baldwin sing taught me about vulnerability, which none of his other work did. He doesn’t ever seem weary in his essays, or exhausted. I think exhaustion is really important. We always like to talk about Black people as resilient, but we have limits and ends, and there’s a way in which we don’t think of Black people as having those. So that’s why you have to lean into something other than a roar, something other than this indomitable spirit. Which we do have, but we can have an indomitable spirit and be tired. I don’t think we teach that as part of what it means to be a radical political subject. Tiredness is part of this political process, and so is learning how to rest.
Part of what I’m trying to do in thinking about something other than a roar is ask, What is the place of silence or vulnerability? What is the place of quiet? What is the space of pause in political action? How might that actually shift political action if we occupy the space of pause? One of the things I’m trying to think through is where are the places that we haven’t allowed ourselves to be politically?
We think we always have to speak truth to power, which is important. I’m not saying don’t do that. I would never say don’t protest. But there are also ways in which we are giving up other parts of our traditions. We used silence a lot during slavery and secrets during civil rights. All of these things were used subversively. I want Black people to claim a fullness of sound, and that includes the absence of sound as well—its quiet, its pause, and its rest. I hearing someone say that there’s nothing more accurate than silence, that silence is the most accurate sound. And I think about that. What does that mean? How undertheorized and underpoliticized is silence?
Fisher: Both in Best Barbarian and King Me and in your response just now, you’re thinking about sound and music, and I was wondering how that plays into your work.
Reeves: I love music. I think I’m really just trying to be a musician at the end of the day. I study music all the time. I read about it as much as possible. I play music. For me, language is so denotative, right? It’s always pointing, it’s always describing, like the apple. And I think there’s a need for that. But sometimes there’s something else.
In that Pentecostal church when I was growing up, people would speak in tongues. They would use sound to communicate with God or to communicate a longing. And that sound didn’t always have like a clear, explicit grammar. For me, when I feel something quite deeply, it doesn’t come out as a sentence all the time. I’m very shaped by the idea of sound as a type of sensibility.
Fisher: Can you tell me about the title Best Barbarian? Do you think of the phrase as drawing out an inherent tension, or is that only true if we accept the negative connotation of the word “barbarian”?
Reeves: It comes from that line in the poem “Rich Black, or Best Barbarian,” where I talk about the human form being improvisational. And that’s an idea from Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem and the Dogon in West Africa. They had this idea that there were multiple drafts of the human.
I started thinking about the human or the form that we’re in as a type of draft, as a type of fugitive form. I wanted to suggest that maybe the best way to be human is actually to be as fugitive as possible. When I say, “best put on your best barbarian,” maybe the thing to put on is anti-manners, anti–the West. It’s the thing through which we might be our best.
This is why I like Grendel. To me, he is the barbarian. I actually think he’s probably the first Black figure in literature. To me, best barbarian is about putting on your best self that may be totally unlike everybody else in the way that the self is supposed to be organized.
Fisher: I’m interested in revaluing terms, as you do with “barbarian,” and how that ties into a movement like Négritude that wanted to reimagine the value of Blackness. I’m also considering Césaire’s assertion in Discourse on Colonialism that Hitler was a historical inevitability, a figure who brought the tactics of colonialism back to Europe, or the way that James Baldwin says the N-word does not refer to Black folks at all but rather reveals how morally bankrupt white supremacy has made white people. I’m trying to tie that back to the balance we were talking about earlier between Black joy and beauty and Black suffering.
Reeves: What I try to do is not think oppositionally, Black joy versus Black pain, but rather to think relationally. I have an essay in The Yale Review that tried to think about how ecstasy can be practiced in the middle of a disaster. It argues that the middle of catastrophe is always the way Black people have practiced joy.
There’s this really great scholar, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, who talks about how we shouldn’t have a teleological relationship to ecstasy. We have to practice ecstasy and joy now, because in some ways that is the future. Through displays of joy, you can enact the future now. If there’s a type of joy you want, do it now. Do it in the place where allegedly there is no place for it, because in that way, you actually make that other place possible! You begin to imagine and live in this other world. And the more you sort of reside in the light in the middle of catastrophe, the more likely it is that that very joy or ecstasy will be what dismantles that catastrophe.
You saw this happen at the protests for George Floyd around the country. Protestors would be out there alongside police officers and the National Guard ,and suddenly Black folks would start dancing and that made the the National Guard and police officers want to start dancing too. There’s something about occupying moments of ecstasy and joy that moves over barriers and through uniforms and the prescribed duty they’re supposed to represent, because there’s something radical about being joyful in the middle of terrible shit. That’s what I’m trying to think about in this book. It might not get better. This might just be what it is. And what do we have to do? We have to have a good time.
C. Francis Fisher’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK Magazine, Pacifica Literary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and *Asymptote *and elsewhere. Her poem “Self-Portrait at 25” won the 2021 Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she works as the poetry editor for Columbia Journal.