Poet Roger Reeves has a shelf full of honors—the Whiting Award, the Pushcart Prize, and most recently, the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. But his new book, “Dark Days,” is not poetry, but essays. In rich and heady prose, Reeves mixes memoir, theory and literary criticism. His subjects range from an opera singer breaking a silence curfew by singing in the streets to the “hush harbors,” where enslaved people would steal away to pray. He takes on both “Hamilton” and the “1619 Project,” and writes letters to Michael Brown, the young Black man killed by police.
Reeves, a former University of Illinois at Chicago professor now at University of Texas-Austin, talks about why he wanted to write essays, and how the loquaciousness of our social-media-saturated society may be hurting the quest for freedom.
Why did you write this book now?
I wanted to have multiple types of conversations in multiple places. I know that nonfiction prose goes in different places than poetry does. Two, as writers we must often stretch ourselves, and I think it’s good to stretch out of the genre you’re known for… I really wanted to find a place where we can bring back a certain type of public intellectualism. And I think essays are a great place for that. Also, I want to make criticism sexy again. There was a time when we really embraced critics in America… We’ve given over public intellectual and critical work that’s grappling with ideas either purely to academia, or, if it’s political, it’s purely happening in the news cycle. I’m really a fan of James Baldwin and Lionel Trilling and Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison and cats like that, and Susan Sontag… Remember when there were debates on television between Baldwin and William F. Buckley? I want to bring back the idea that what we need to do is be listening to ideas and thinking about ideas, and they should be in the popular discourse, the popular imagination.
Why did you call it “Dark Days?” There’s a lot of singing and joy and light in these essays.
Remember a poet loves irony. There’s irony to it. It’s also a callback. Baldwin had an essay called “Dark Days.” The book was forming, taking shape during the pandemic, which were dark days, as well as during the protests occurring in 2020… Sometimes in our darkest moments is the time to express joy, when it feels as if catastrophe is at the door, that maybe some of our way out of catastrophe is thinking about pleasure, thinking about the joys that we can bring about in the middle of disaster… We forget that during the Civil Rights movement, which was a pretty dark time, the nights before the rallies, they would often meet at churches or in the field and they would sing, and prepare their bodies and their minds for the dogs and the water hoses that were coming the next day. I keep thinking about how in these dark days, we will need this joy. We can’t delay our joy until this is over.
Much of your book is about paying attention and listening. Why is this message so urgent?
It’s so urgent partly because our loquaciousness, everybody talking, is a type of labor that we think is going to yield our freedom, but is actually yielding the opposite. I don’t think anybody is unclear that the police occupying Black neighborhoods, killing Black people, putting their knees on their necks—no one is unclear that that’s terrible! I don’t think I need to say that (laughs). I don’t think saying that moves the needle, politically… As someone who’s fighting the anti-truth laws here in Texas [limits on discussion of racial history], who went and testified in front of Senate committees about how unnecessary these laws are and yet they passed, that tells me my speaking is not the thing that’s going to liberate me… I don’t think they care—I mean Republican senators, elected officials. I think we have to turn toward each other. It doesn’t mean we let them off the hook, but I do think there’s a different kind of conversation, where we have to listen to each other. We think of social media as a kind of liberation because you get to represent yourself and be your own brand. But I think brand is exactly the issue, we become little capitalists and then re-enshrine the thing that’s actually hurting us.
What do you mean by “ecstatic” poetry?
What I mean is a poem that revels in the body, that thinks about the body as producing a knowledge that will eventually have language but maybe doesn’t begin in language. It moves in pleasure, it moves out of joy, it’s a poetry that is willing to encounter the difficult and understands that to be a place to be from. There’s something to being able to be confused, to be in the unknown and still revel in that.
How is essay-writing different?
The query in the poem, the not-knowing and the following in the not-knowing, is part of the delight of a poem, it’s part of the freedom. In an essay, it’s harder to stay only in the search. We often want essays to have some kind of argument… It’s much more of a guided tour. I think that people will step into an essay quicker than they’ll step into a poem. They feel they know it better. I wanted to write into a form that people didn’t feel as intimidated by.
Since you first wrote to Michael Brown in 2015, has anything changed in the Black experience?
I think we’re in the same troubled area… We think of the Civil Rights movement as happening in amber, from 1954 to 1968. and it’s just not true. We think of history as a line that moves from one point to another, but what if history is more cyclical, or more like a spiral, or a sine wave? I just find that we’re still in the midst of all the same things we were in the midst of in 2014 and 2020 and in 1968…
How do you help students overcoming their fear of writing?
I tell them it’s okay to fuck up, it’s okay to make a mistake. You first have to allow yourself out of whatever you think is good writing. Because often what is keeping someone from writing is they have an idea of what they want a thing to be. I often think the essay and the poem are smarter than us. The language is older than us, the language is much wiser than me. By putting certain words together, the language is going to push in a direction where you say, oh, this is strange, and you’re just going to embrace that strangeness and let go of what one imagines the end product is going to be…. Often, the editor helps. It helps to have somebody ask, “What do you really mean here?” Then you begin to drill down a bit more. I often in poems don’t know what’s next after a line, but I do trust the poem, I trust the line. I trust the language, and try to let the language attend to it.
“Dark Days: Fugitive Essays”
By Roger Reeves
Graywolf Press, 232 pages
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”