Roger Reeves has been writing poems since he was six years old. They began as acrostics, written and illustrated as gifts to his friends in lieu of the birthday presents his family couldn’t afford. He remembers it as a kind of play; he enjoyed making all sorts of things, building contraptions out of cardboard and magnets, and poetry was just another way to create. But even before he was writing poems, Reeves was learning how to be a poet.
“It all really began with the church and sermons and reading the King James version of the Bible and growing up with my mother as a Sunday school teacher,” says Reeves, an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. “Exegetical readings, learning how to read a text and think about a text, those were really, really important. It was a Pentecostal church, so it was all about sound and the way in which sound changes a person’s spirit, changes how they’re feeling.”
When I meet Reeves, it’s already a hot day in Austin and getting hotter. Over coffee and Orangina, he talks about writing, about the mentors who have shaped his work, about his understanding of himself as a writer and poet. But Reeves also talks about what it means to be human — and maybe something better, something beyond.
His early experiences with poetry as play, as making, and as a sound that moves people to change still shape Reeves’ work, and that work is earning him more and more recognition. He’s been published in an ever-expanding list of prominent magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, and Ploughshares; he’s won a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize, a NEA Fellowship, scholarships to prestigious writing residencies, and an invitation to join the Harvard Radcliffe Institute as the Suzanne Young Murray Fellow in fiction and poetry.
But growing up in Mount Holly, New Jersey — “corn and cow farms,” Reeves says — being a full-time writer wasn’t considered a possible career. Even so, all through junior high and high school, Reeves kept writing, encouraged by his journalism teacher and a group of fellow students who took the craft seriously. When he landed at Morehouse College in Atlanta a few years later, after a short stint studying mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, he started writing more intentionally under the guidance of Daniel Black, a novelist and professor at Clark Atlanta University.
“Dr. Black helped me mature in so many ways and understand what I was supposed to bring to my community, to Black folks, to America, and the kind of writer I could be,” Reeves says. “He was like, ‘you can be this type of writer, you can be amazing,’ and I was 20 and needed that. But he also made it clear that writing takes work, and it takes very consistent work.”
Reeves started writing a poem a day, sometimes more, growing and sharpening his voice. Throughout graduate school, first an M.A. in English from Texas A&M University and then an MFA and Ph.D. from UT Austin, Reeves was reading and writing, always writing.
“I just wrote poems all the time,” he says. “I wrote whatever I wanted, wrote plays, just wrote and wrote. And I read a lot, and I used everything I read to make me a better writer.”
The extent of his reading and thinking comes through forcefully in Reeves’ collected works. His first poetry collection, King Me, was a kind of lyrical kaleidoscope turned towards American identity, fractures everywhere. The poems in King Me take in Mikhail Bulgakov, Walt Whitman, the Wu-Tang Clan, slave massacres, mental illness and more, then reflect them back to us, edges sharp.
His latest collection, Best Barbarian, was published by Norton earlier this year to critical acclaim. The slim hardcover belies the depth of the work; reading Best Barbarian can feel like stepping through the look-ing-glass into Wonderland, where everything’s bigger on the inside than the outside could possibly suggest.
Take the title, to start. Who is the best barbarian? What does it mean to be the best? To be barbaric?
“It comes from this riff on this idea of the barbarian as the best human,” Reeves says. “There’s a line in the poem ‘Rich Black, or Best Barbarian,’ where I say that fugitivity is the original human form.”
As in Black is the Black ain’t
As in everywhere the bucks went clattering
The police bristled in the way
As in form forgets fugitivity is the original human
Form as in best put on your best barbarian
“It’s looking at the barbarian also as the African American in America and playing in that abjection. Like, alright, I’m a barbarian, I’ll be a barbarian. I’ll be the best one! Or, be your best, for everybody. For me, the barbarian is the achievement of something that is recognizably outside and potentially threatening, not because it seeks to be but just because it’s making a way and a life of being possible. It’s about self-love. Being your best barbarian is really about loving yourself, and that is completely different from the normal.”
Reeves compares Best Barbarian to hip hop, to a jazz song, and to an act of physical creation. The collection’s hip-hop feel comes from its wealth of allusions — there are dozens and dozens, collected and cited in a lengthy “notes” section at the book’s close. Over the collection’s 42 pieces, Reeves samples everyone from Augustine to Homer, the Aeneid to James Baldwin, John Coltrane to Drake. Like a familiar beat in a song you’re hearing for the first time, the allusions give a richer pleasure and under-standing if you know them and recede if you don’t, but their very presence speaks to a core tenet of Reeves’ project and his larger worldview. He’s a poet who’s engaging the past and the present, joining the conversation and reinventing it in equal measure. It’s part homage, part correction.
Take “Domestic Violence,” a long and hallucinatory poem at the heart of the collection. It opens with a quote from Dante’s Inferno before introducing Ezra Pound, the influential early-20th-century poet turned fascist turned caged rambler, as a would-be nightmare spirit guide to the poem’s speaker. Who’s the speaker? Louis Till, father of civil rights martyr Emmett Till, who really did spend time in an Italian prison with Pound. But in “Domestic Violence” he shakes the poet off, running in search of a truer voice to follow, which he finds in Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton. The poem ends with a list of names of the dead –
… I will show you how to touch
The earth. I will show you how to die.
Eric Garner Emmett Till Freddie Gray
Korryn Gaines Trayvon Martin Martin Luther
King El-Hajj Malik Shabazz Fred Hampton
— and on and on. The poem offers Louis Till — and the reader — a new genealogy of hope and loss; a vision of both the inferno and a possible paradise just past it.
“I think it’s really important for us to carry the names of the dead and the names of the people that made us possible and invoke them as much as possible,” Reeves says. “Because in some ways, these texts are coordinately made, they’re ensemble-y made. Yes, I’m the poet, but I can’t make these poems without James Baldwin, and I cannot and I should not make them without thinking about December 2020. All of these things are happening simultaneously.”
That idea of the ensemble, of creating together, is also a jazz concept. This is fitting, since Reeves thinks of Best Barbarian as a jazz song, a pattern of melody, improvisation, and return. The themes and forms of the poems are established, transformed, and come back a little different, a little strange.
Many of the themes that weave their way through Reeves’ work are serious, heavy. Best Barbarian addresses itself to slavery and its aftermaths, to climate change, and to continuing racial injustice and violence both within the U.S. and abroad. But Reeves is an expert at holding multiple meanings and moments at once, and alongside the poems’ darkest moments he creates spaces for joy and for resistance.
Take, for example, his poem “Rat Among the Pines,” in which the poem’s speaker describes holding his young daughter on a gorgeous night, knowing there’s been another police shooting:
And my daughter hiding in the rose
Bushes, asking who, who the sirens
Have come to kill. And someone calling
It beautiful—summer, moon—
And someone dying beneath that beauty,
Which is America.
It’s a haunting image, and one that may feel all too familiar. But there’s beauty there, too. It’s one of Best Barbarian’s many “simultaneities,” as Reeves calls them, where horror and violence rub against joy. “In the text, the political situations that come up, the sociological situations, the historical situations, they’re sitting there alongside joy and ecstasy,” Reeves says. “I always think about this video of a father who was teaching his daughter to laugh at bombs as they were falling all around them. That’s sort of the way that I think about ecstasy and joy in relationship to something like a political situation, that there’s these simultaneities that are happening. It’s all of it together, at once.”
That simultaneity — joy and terror; ecstasy and loss — reflects Reeves’ thinking about how to move through a world that can be openly hostile. It’s also born out of his own life. Best Barbarian is dedicated to Reeves’ daughter, Naima, and her presence is evident in many of the poems, but the work collected in the book was also written during a period of grief. Reeves lost his father shortly after the birth of his daughter, and throughout Best Barbarian his work seems perched between birth and death, pulled in both directions.
“I just wrote poems about losing my father for a good year and a half,” Reeves says. “The first title for Best Barbarian was ‘One From Another,’ because I was thinking about how I was the kind of interstitial space between Naima and my dad. When I had Naima, I was like, oh, I’m going to die. I’m going to die and I’m no longer a child. It felt like having her cut me off from childhood in a certain way, or it made the distance between myself and childhood very concrete. So, the poems in some ways become, to me, thinking about what’s that space, what is it to be betwixt and between, to be liminal, neither child nor dead, alive but moving towards your death in a very real way with this child who’s very much green in her life.”
By the end of the collection, Reeves seems to have found some peace in the inbetween. We find him looking straight at the future in “For Black Children at the End of the World—And The Beginning”:
Black Child, you are the walking-on-of-water
Without the need of an approving master.
You are in a beautiful language.
You are what lies beyond this kingdom
And the next and the next and fire. Fire, Black Child.
In addition to poetry, Reeves works in fiction, nonfiction, and drama. There’s a novel in the works and an essay collection due out next year from Graywolf, and work on both manuscripts is consuming much of his time. These upcoming projects continue many of Reeves’ themes — the novel addresses climate change, for example, and there’s an essay about putting aside the human — and also mark a next step in a larger project. Particularly in the essays, Reeves is stepping into and continuing what he sees as a dormant tradition of American criticism: the critic as someone who offers a new path, an alternative way of moving through the world.
“I want to bring back the idea that criticism is offering us ways of thinking, seeing, and possibility out,” Reeves says. “I want to take the risk of saying, ‘Here are some big ideas, here are things that are troubling Black folks in America — have we ever thought about this?’ Or, ‘How about we go back and do something that our ancestors used to do in the way that they were circumventing some of these things.’”
That work of seeing, of offering a way up and out, reverberates through Reeves’ thinking on poetry and its possibilities, too. In a class he’s teaching this fall, Reeves asks students to investigate how poets “see” — that is, how poets with “vision” interact with and interrogate political and artistic conflicts. It’s an idea originally borrowed from British essayist, artist, art critic, and activist John Berger, that “the artist doesn’t offer us any transcendent ideal in art, but what they do is they offer us a way of seeing that expands who and what we know and what we can be in our era,” Reeves says.
In this understanding of the artist or the poet, Reeves argues, the artist is charged with having a vision, a way of seeing, and passing that vision on to others. At the end of our conversation, Orangina long gone, I ask Reeves what he hopes readers will see in his poetry. If he’s offering us a vision, what is it?
“I hope that you see an incredible amount of care, that I’m trying to care for you as a reader, care for you in ways that the world may not be caring for you every day,” he says. “I think about those last three lines of ‘Children Listen’: ‘You were never meant to be human/ You must be the grass/ You must grow wildly over the graves.’ Grass always comes back, and we must keep growing this way, growing against the restrictions, growing against the pulling and the weeding out and the genocides. The genocides are gonna come, the counter-revolution is always going to bring violence — it’s not the revolution that brings violence, it’s the counter-revolution; the revolution brings love — so what I hope that people feel is that love. And a sort of freedom to be. A freedom inside language, a freedom to create possibility; any possibility that the reader needs, it’s there for them. I want this book to be like, whatever you need, it’s here, take it. Here’s the permission. Go be yourself.”