John C. Zacharis Award, Roger Reeves
John C. Zacharis Award Ploughshares is pleased to present Roger Reeves with the twenty-fourth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for his poetry collection, King Me (Copper Canyon, 2013). The $1,500 award, which is named after Emerson College’s former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.
This year’s judge was John Skoyles, Ploughshares’ poetry editor. In choosing the book, Skoyles said: “The poems in Roger Reeves’ King Me are lively, intelligent, and dramatic. They possess an astonishing range, richly populated by the things of this world. Open the book anywhere, and you will touch and be touched by a startling image, statement, or object. These poems would overflow their forms if not for Reeves’ ability to harness their power into tight and explosive lines. King Me is down to earth, tough, tuneful, and wise.”
Awarded a 2014-2015 Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a 2014 Pushcart Prize, a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and 2008 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Roger Reeves’ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Tin House, among other publications. King Me, his first book of poems, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. King Me has been awarded the 2014 Larry Levis Reading Prize by the creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. He is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
What was your early life like? What was your first exposure to poetry?
My earliest exposure to poetry was a mash-up of Dr. Seuss and the King James Version of the Bible. I grew up in a pretty religious household (Pentecostal), and my mother was a Sunday School teacher. Often, on Fridays and Saturdays, I hung out with my mother while she prepared her Sunday School lesson, so my first real exposure to poetry and writing and the magnificence of the written word was as a critic. And because there was no separate Sunday School for children in my church, I learned to read and think about texts while watching adults grapple with the ineffable, faith, and the mysteries of a Judeo-Christian god. But what I remember most was the weeping and transformation. Often, I watched churchgoers, brothers and sisters, come to some epiphany about their own life because of the text. I know, I know, very reader-response of me, but I didn’t know to look at the scene with a more fashionable post-structural eye.
What sent me into poetry—the ability of the word (written and spoken) to transform—is what keeps me here now. As a child, I was fascinated by passages like the Tower of Babel and the Day of Pentecost. Both of those passages highlight the difficulty of language and the power of ecstatic speech. Though I had no clue what they meant, I loved the Song of Solomon as well as David’s psalms. So these were my first poems, my first exposure to poetry.
When did you start reading and writing seriously? What was the first poem that you remember meaning something to you?
I decided to be a writer when I was 16. I had just flunked an AP History timed-essay exam. I wrote nothing in the forty minutes of allotted time. Often, I clammed up. Sure, a few fits and starts, but I always crossed out the passages, never satisfied with the writing. So I had written nothing on this exam, and I remember walking down the hall of my high school to my journalism teacher’s room, Mr. Connolly, and declaring through teary eyes that I wanted to be a writer even though I had just failed this timed-essay exam.
Mr. Connolly gave me some of the best writing advice I ever received: “Just write. Then revise.” And then, he offered to look at any writing I did. And he was a merciless editor. Red all over the page. But when I started to give him poems, there was much less red and more comments concerning the meditations. It was the first time that I understood writing to be a dialogue with a reader.
The first poem that meant something to me was a Kenneth Koch poem because it was “postmodern” and crazy, which appealed to my seventeen-year-old self. I can’t quite recall the title of the Kenneth Koch poem, but I remember feeling like it gave me permission to write whatever I wanted and needed to write. I went home that night, waited for everyone to go to bed, and wrote until 2 or 3 in the morning. It was spring. I remember hearing the universe for the first time. It buzzed. I’ll never forget that moment. This might sound overly romantic, but I’m always listening for that buzz.
When did this collection start taking shape? What were some of your inspirations?
The manuscript started taking shape late summer 2011. I was at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and I took a manuscript shaping workshop with Tom Sleigh. Sleigh began the workshop on manuscript shape by discussing literal shapes—lines, spirals, circles, curves. He was speaking my language. I understand the world via shapes and geometric objects. And it was the first time I heard someone discuss a manuscript’s trajectory in this manner. For a long time, because I saw so many books with sections, I tried to force my book into sections. But as Sleigh introduced to me, sections are important for a book, necessary for the book, if they teach the reader how to understand the arc or trajectory of the book.
In the workshop, Sleigh handed out tables of contents of different poetry books—Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography, The Iliad, and a few others I can’t remember. What I remember most was realizing that my book didn’t have to look arc-wise like other books and that it needed to find its own logics. I realized that the book hovered around certain obsessions. That’s when I realized my book’s shape was more like a sine curve with troughs and peaks. So I literally used the shape of a sine curve to lay it out on the floor of my apartment in Chicago.
Some of my inspirations for the book, for thinking about the making of the book were Jean-Michel Basquiat and his deformation of mastery, lynching, family, home, our many loves and lovers.
Who are some of your favorite poets, and which influences do you think appear most powerfully in this collection?
My favorite poets probably shift depending on the time of the day, but at the time of writing King Me, the poets I constantly returned to were Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Dean Young, Larry Levis, John Ashbery, W. B. Yeats, John Berryman, Carl Phillips, W. H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, and Federico García Lorca. Which influences do I think appear most powerfully in this collection? That’s such a difficult question to answer because I think of my influences as a weave, a very tightly woven weave, wherein it’s quite difficult to pull one thread out and say “ah, that’s it, that’s where the tapestry begins.”
However, I can point to lines from other poets that sent me into poems. For instance, the title of the poem “When I Come to the Valley of the Black Pig” comes from a poem by Yeats. Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair offered a presiding aesthetic consciousness in some of the “love” poems in the books. Some of the formal concerns—meter, received form, line—are in direct conversation with Yeats, Stevens, and Trethewey. However, I think of poems as an amalgamation of influences, of conversations, or replies of sorts.
Your work moves from pop culture to politics to history (often, it seems, the history of tragedies) and finally to what might be called “high culture,” sometimes within a single poem. Talk about this mix, and how it reflects your preoccupations and interests as a writer.
I find the distinction between “high” and “low” to be rather arbitrary. For instance, opera was not always high culture, and now it is. Shakespeare’s plays weren’t always high culture, and now they are. All culture and its attendant appendages are contested. And it is that contestation and conversation that I’m most interested in. There’s aesthetic energy, restraint, complexity in all cultural forms and productions. How that rigor is displayed, played with, troubled, dissembled, funked up, is often what I’m interested in as a writer. As aforementioned, we are all a collision of influences, and I happen to believe these influences offer both aesthetic and intellectual appeal. Mike Tyson tending to his pigeons in Brooklyn teaches me as much about the ethics and erotics of care as Toni Morrison writing about mother tending to a reincarnated ghost. Both of these moments are spaces of lyric energy. Each moment teaches about craft and what it is to make.
Have there been any surprising reactions to King Me since its publication? Are there any observations you’ve heard that you perhaps didn’t recognize while writing?
Yes and no. I knew that there would be poems that challenged my readers because of the way in which they embrace abjection and grapple with intimacy, often simultaneously. Most people like to keep pain as far away from them as possible. And concomitantly, most folks like to keep beauty close. I understand the impulse. However, I wanted to play with both of these impulses in the text. A poem like “Cross Country” often causes many people to cringe and even put the book down. I was aware that this poem might have this effect. In fact, in trying to publish “Cross Country” in journals, editors often replied that they liked the poem most, but they felt some anxiety publishing it. Ah well.
However, what I have found most odd but totally pleasing is the way the book has been embraced by high-school students, folks in communities that I never thought the book would reach, like Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I did a reading out there, in Cedar Rapids, and this older white woman who was a journalist during the Civil Rights Movement grabbed my arm very gently after the reading and talked to me about the movement and how she wished it could have done more for African Americans. I have had an opportunity to talk about the book with men in prison through letters and e-mails.
What have you been working on recently? And how do you tend to write (in terms of times of day, materials, routines)?
I have been working on a book-length poem and a novel. I don’t like to do too much telling or describing of work-in-progress, because I find that description can over-determine the project. I like to follow and attend to the work rather than intend anything. I write at any time during the day. I perform the morning brain, that right-out-of-the-bed-the-dream-world-and-logic-still-with-you brain. I try to be as flexible as possible, to not be too prescriptive about what I need in order to write. It keeps the pretensions and mystery out of the work. Writers write. You sit down (or stand) and move a pen (or typing cursor) across the page. However, I do have preferences that I am learning help to ease me into writing, like a closed door, mountains, big open spaces, elevation, nature (both sublime and picturesque). But those are preferences, not requirements in the least.