Visiting poet Roger Reeves aims at ‘permission to be writers’ with UMSL, MICDS students
When Brigitte Leschhorn was a second-year graduate student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, she attended an event that still stands out to her as a moment of life-changing inspiration.
“I never forgot that poetry reading,” says Leschhorn, now an English teacher at MICDS. “Roger Reeves can speak to his craft eloquently and then read and at times recite from his work. His readings are part poetic storytelling, part performance, and the opportunity to sit down and talk about how he has found success, how his studies have gotten him there, how he continues to overcome the many obstacles we face as writers – it’s invaluable.”
Reeves returns to St. Louis this month to work with young writers, including some of Leschhorn’s own students as well as current students in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program, and to give a public reading at UMSL at Grand Center at 7 p.m. April 25.
“Visiting writers do what often your professors, though writers, cannot do by virtue of being your professors,” Leschhorn says. “There are no expectations of grades, mentorship or aesthetic preference. When a writer like Roger Reeves comes, it’s about inspiration and a reminder of why we write.”
As he interacts with the graduate students at UMSL and the youth at MICDS next week, Reeves hopes to encourage them to dream big, to take themselves seriously and to recognize that there are many different ways to be a writer. In a nutshell, he says, his first goal will be to offer them “permission to be writers.”
“I think that was the thing I most needed when I was younger,” he says. “The other [goal] is to have them think about writing as something that is part of your everyday life.”
That’s because writing isn’t just for those formally publishing their work, Reeves explains, but for everyone – people involved in all sorts of endeavors within the world.
“I think that writing makes people stop for beauty,” he says, then laughs and adds that he’s sitting under a tree full of spring blooms during the phone conversation.
Currently an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Reeves’ work has appeared in journals such as “Poetry,” “Ploughshares” and “Tin House” among others. He’s been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and other scholarships and awards in recent years.
He has said of his poetry, “I am interested in corralling sound into patterns that hopefully bring delight, but I am also interested in troubling my reader – nothing easy, nothing without a little blood and bleeding.” His debut poetry collection, “King Me” (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), from which he’ll be reading on the 25th, masterfully demonstrates both of those ideas, says UMSL poet laureate Victoria Walls, a student in the MFA program.
“Reeves has a finesse for wrangling the intimacy between past and present, self and history, and I think that is the crux of the seductive nature of ‘King Me,’” Walls says, giving “The Mare of Money” as a key example. “Lyricism, beauty, wordplay, form or freedom – all of that is good and well. The marrow is what Roger Reeves offers that much current poetry does not.”
Reeves points to growing up in a church where people were moved by sound via music as the source of his love for sound. As for the notion of “nothing without a little blood and bleeding,” he describes it as a constant grappling with culture and context.
“I think I’m kind of wrestling with American history and the black position in the American tradition,” Reeves says. “I’m thinking about Emmett Till, Mike Tyson … and brothers and sisters everywhere in the world who aren’t famous but whose lives are worthy of writing.”
Walls considers his voice a particularly critical one for young and developing writers.
“What Roger Reeves accomplishes, and what I think he can show young poets better than many others, is that the self is inextricable from its cultural milieu,” she says. “He undertakes the horrific and historical – and the horrifically historical – blocks that build and shape the selves we wear throughout our lives … Through form and allusion, Reeves accounts for this permanence and pervasiveness.”
Leschhorn, who is teaching an 11th-grade course on American literature and recently taught Reeves’ poetry as part of it, says he helps student “see how they can reject and accept simultaneously notions of Americanness within themselves.”
“His explorations of culture, family, racial tensions and outsider/insider status gave students an opportunity to talk about why our history and culture affects our sense of self,” Leschhorn says. “This may seem an obvious conclusion, but to a teenager in the throes of maturing into their own person, this can be difficult to grapple with.”
She adds that Reeves’ work and experiences as an educator and poet of color speak to her as well, and she’s glad to see her alma mater working to bring diverse voices to campus.
“I am excited for our current MFA students to experience and be inspired by such an incredible poet,” Leschhorn says.
As for Reeves, it won’t be his first visit to St. Louis, to UMSL – or to the green expanse that is Forest Park. He looks forward to exploring it once again, along with the St. Louis restaurant scene.
“I love that big park,” he says. “I love running through that place.”
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