Following His Path to Poetry

For poet Roger Reeves, assistant professor in the Department of English, science and poetry aren’t as different as most people might think.

He maintains that the models and representations used to explain difficult-to-grasp scientific concepts are similar to the metaphors often found in poetry. “Science is always dealing in poetry, in representation and metaphor,” Reeves said. “What you’re dealing with in both science and poetry is, ‘Will something live? How does it live?’ That’s the essence of what we’re trying to figure out on all of our cultural levels—how to live.”

Roger Reeves

Roger Reeves.

Reeves should know. At 33 years old, he is already an award-winning poet and the recipient of multiple fellowships and scholarships including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, two Bread Loaf Scholarships and an Alberta H. Walker Scholarship from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

On the awards side, Reeves recently learned that he won a highly-coveted Pushcart Prize for his poem “The Field Museum,” in which he takes on the voice of a father who is thinking through loss and raising a daughter without a mother. The poem was originally published in the Winter 2013, 9.2 edition of The Cincinnati Review.

In November, 2012 Reeves was awarded a $25,000 2013 Creative Writing Grant for Outstanding Poets from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When he was younger he didn’t even consider himself a good writer. Reeves excelled in his high school science and math classes and struggled with his advanced-placement history essays. “I loved writing and poetry, but I had to work harder to get A’s in those classes,” he said. “Math came easier. It’s sequential in a way that made a lot of sense to me.”

His natural aptitude in science and math drove his decision to major in aerospace engineering at Princeton University. This path seemed to make sense, but it failed to make him happy.

“I just felt dull,” Reeves said. “I felt dulled. So I thought, ‘You know what, there’s no way out of this, because what I really want to do is this thing over here. This is what is screaming inside of me to do.’”

Reeves finally decided to listen to his gut and go for the “thing over here.” He abandoned the Ivy League and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to study poetry at Morehouse College. After he earned his bachelor’s degree in English he kept going—earning a master’s degree in literature, an MFA in creative writing, and a PhD in poetry and poetics from the University of Texas, Austin.

Already on faculty at UIC, and just two days before his doctoral dissertation was due, Reeves found out he had won the NEA grant—an award he called both “unexpected” and “huge.” The win was doubly gratifying because many of his friends were grant winners as well. “It’s nice to see your friends get things because you see so many people working really hard, tirelessly, without getting much in the way of recognition,” he said. “Writing is a difficult trajectory. We don’t play in the NFL—there’s no professional league of writing.”

Reeves will use the NEA grant money to fund a trip to Wyoming in the late summer to research and write about the Rock Springs Massacre, a racial labor riot that led to the 1885 murder of 28 Chinese miners by white miners. He will look at the event’s connection with the rise of lynching in the South around that time.

While Reeves has a general idea of what he might write as a result of his research, he isn’t fazed by the possibility that his exploration might lead him outside the sphere of his current plan.

“I’m trying to be very open to the possibility of not getting what I set out for,” he explained. “With writing—and poetry in particular—you set out thinking you’re going to write something, but then there’s this other thing that needs to be written.

“If you know what the work is going to produce at the beginning, then there’s no point to doing the work. It’s already been done,” he added.

Reeves’ first collection of poems, King Me, will be out in October from Copper Canyon Press. The book explores several themes including what it is like to have a sibling with a mental illness, the history of black men in relation to the making of American culture, and the humility it takes to love oneself.

Releasing his first book, which has been in the works for about a year and a half, is a great feeling—but it’s also a scary one.

“It’s super scary, because this is my first project that will go out into the world as a book—as a statement,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve read so many great books, listened to so many great albums, from all of these people who put out this really shocking, interesting work, and I want to do the same. I may fall short—and there’s nothing wrong with falling short, it’s art, it’s part of the process—but it’s sort of nerve-wracking to think about trying to push the artistic world in this way.”

Roger Reeves in the classroom.

Roger Reeves in his classroom.

Embracing the possibility of falling short—or even failing completely—in the pursuit of art and good writing is something Reeves tries to impart to his UIC students, explaining that intelligence is about revision, not about coming up with a genius draft in your first attempt. In his classroom Reeves does his best to create a community where students will not be criticized for their mistakes, but actually affirmed for taking the risk of being wrong.

However, he wants students to understand that taking risks—in art and in life—is very different from being simply reckless. “You can move up and down and all around, but something else has to be a little solid,” Reeves said. “You can take risks, but if you can’t eat, you have to handle that first. Get wild in the writing, get wild in the thinking, but you gotta live.”

Moving to Chicago from sunny and temperate Austin in 2011 to teach at UIC has been a big adjustment. He’s still getting used to the harsh weather after being used to running outside all year round. His teaching schedule also means there less time to write, but his goal is to write at least two poems a week.

Since joining the English faculty he has enjoyed attending the department’s Friday Colloquiums, a weekly speaker series. “That intellectual inquiry is really stimulating,” Reeves said. “It makes you want to respond. At the end of the day, being exposed to theories I don’t always agree with, or scholars who have opposite views, is a really great thing.”

Most of all, Reeves said what he appreciates is that UIC shows its community members a lot of love. “There’s a lot of good love here. It’s a hard love sometimes, but people show lots of love here.”

Reeves wants his students to feel that love every day. “I really do feel like some of these students don’t feel like people care about them,” he said. “A lot of the students—no one’s ever told them they are smart, or that they could do it.”

That kind of support—and demonstrating that he takes them and their work seriously—is all part of Reeves’ goal of holding his students to a high standard so that they can learn to hold themselves to a high standard. It’s that attitude that will determine success, Reeves explained, far more than a student’s background or major. People, he believes, are only as successful as the expectations they place on themselves.

“People with higher standards get jobs,” he said. “People with high standards do well in the world. If you have a high standard for yourself, whatever you choose to do, you will be able to do.”

Reeves also has little regard for limiting oneself to just one dream or direction, and he takes this belief to heart in his own life. He said that someday he would like to take advantage of the pre-med requisites he earned as an undergraduate, attend medical school and become a pediatrician like his favorite poet, William Carlos Williams.

“It’s not about one path,” he said. “One can major in English and then decide to be a lab technician, or a chemist, or go to grad school for architecture. If you do well at one thing, you’ll figure out how to do well at another.”

Photos by Chris Strong Photography