Conversation with the Poet: Reginald Shepherd

In the fall of 2007, I began an interview, via email, with the poet Reginald Shepherd. The interview was to be in two parts; part one, about writing in general, and part two on Reginald’s poetry. Immediately after completing part one, Reginald took seriously ill and was unable to go any further with the project. It’s no longer possible to wait for Reginald to gather his strength before continuing with the interview, so I present what we managed to finish, along with another unfinished interview, with another writer, which I conducted a few years prior, in honor of the noteworthy (often poignant) resonances between the two texts.

SA: Recently re-reading Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer”, I was struck by its description of the fraught marriage between the great (fictional) novelist E.I. Lonoff and his long-suffering wife Hope; struck because it reminded me powerfully of Paul Theroux’s description of real-life V.S.Naipaul’s relationship with his first wife Pat… which caused me to reflect on the literary tradition of The Great Writer and His (or, less familiarly, Her) muse/helper/victim.

How does your partner cope with your calling as an Artist? Does your personal life pay a price for your public Art?

RS: Well, I’m not sure that I would call myself an “Artist” with a capital “A.” I take my art very seriously, but I don’t think the sort of religion of art that the capital letter applies is really viable today. Certainly there’s no longer a cultural space or validation of that sense of sacred vocation, and that’s not all to the bad. There are other important things in life besides art.

But to answer your question, my partner is incredibly supportive in every way, emotionally, materially, and intellectually. He is a cultural anthropologist with very wide-ranging interests, from bird-watching to jazz to history to (yes) poetry. Our conversations about all kinds of things, including art and aesthetics, are a constant stimulus and inspiration to me. I am a better writer and a clearer thinker for my relationship with Robert. He is definitely one of my muses (I doubt that any artist has just one), and it’s been an interesting experience to write love poems for a real lover instead of an imaginary or absent lover. Robert is also incredibly helpful in every area of my life, and has made me a better person for his presence. He’s not in any way my victim; he certainly doesn’t have to “cope” with my being an artist. We have a relationship of reciprocal love, trust, and respect. I don’t find any conflict between my personal life and my public art, nor would I ever sacrifice one for the other. Luckily, I don’t have to make such a choice.

SA: You say, “Certainly there’s no longer a cultural space or validation of that sense of sacred vocation, and that’s not all to the bad.”

Can you remember the sensation of there being such a cultural space? If so, can you pinpoint the moment of its disappearance? And, further, if so, do you have any theories as to why it disappeared?

The optimistic bit at the end of your statement (“…and that’s not all to the bad”) interests me as well; can you specify?

RS: I personally can’t remember such a cultural space, though I had a quite romantic/Romantic sense of the exalted status of Art as an adolescent, very much as distinct from the values of my actual surroundings. But the religion of art, the belief in art for art’s sake, and particularly of art as something set above and even against life, has been dead for some time, at least since the death of Robert Lowell, probably since the death of T.S. Eliot. The abstract expressionist painters were the last grand representatives of that tradition (or anti-tradition) in America.

The religion of art was a product of the nineteenth century. It was a reaction against the rise of capitalism, industrialism, and mass media, and against the erosion of art’s role as a mode of social and cultural legitimation. Artists had to find some new role for themselves and some new justification for their activities. As German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, among others, has pointed out, high culture and mass culture came into being at the same time and define each other by their mutual exclusion. The exalted ideal of autonomous art had and has a liberatory, utopian role, preserving a space not colonized by capital, not dominated by instrumental reason and the profit motive. But it was also a highly negative and insular ideal, circumscribed by that which it refused. Art as an escape or an evasion of life is very limited and limiting. A more open and flexible conception of the aesthetic, though still one that doesn’t just surrender to the tyranny of things as they are, might have more creative possibilities for our present historical moment. Though I am opposed to many things in our current culture and society, I don’t think that an assumed antagonism between art and life as such is healthy or productive.

SA: Upon further reflection on the very first question, I wonder why we haven’t been presented with many examples from this tradition (Zelda and Fitz/ Nora and Joyce / Bellow and many) when it comes to the black American literary artist. Is it due to a subconscious prejudice that the distance between a black writer’s subject and his/her actual Life is so slight that examining the tension between the two is seen as pointless? (In other words, is “black writing”, do you think, less often framed as Art than reportage?)

RS: I confess that I’m not very clear what you mean by this question. From what I can tell, any number of black writers, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, have had spouses and/or partners who supported, encouraged, and facilitated their art, emotionally and materially. In the case of jazz musicians, there seem to have been many mates who did all the work to keep their men together while they made their art (often while being alcoholics or drug addicts) and even, in the case of Alice Coltrane, seem to have suppressed their own artistic activities to facilitate their mates’. This is not necessarily the most positive thing, as the list of examples you present indicates. Artists shouldn’t and needn’t exploit others to do their art (except in the sense that one is always mining or “exploiting” one’s own experiences for materials, even if the end result of that process is very far from a personal portrait), and while I think that people should be supportive of their partners, I don’t think that they should subordinate their needs and desires to another’s. Any good relationship should be a negotiation between equals, in which both parties’ needs are taken into consideration.

As for the prejudice that the distance between a black writer’s subject and his or her actual life is so slight as to be meaningless, it is very pervasive and hardly subconscious. Black writing is frequently framed less as art than as reportage, and this is often seen as its mission. It’s not even a document of the writer’s life as an individual, but of his or her position as a “representative” of the race. This is of course the basis of the “positive images” school of thought about black writing, and of the idea that racial “dirty laundry” should not be aired in art by black people. Black writers are expected, by black audiences and by white audiences to embody and enact a recognizable and acceptable version of “blackness” for both black people and white people. Little space is allowed for personal and artistic individuality, or for the complexities of either real life or real art.

SA: I suppose my question about the paucity of Fitz/Zelda-style mythologizing as regards black writers relates to the second part of this answer. When you write, “Little space is allowed for personal and artistic individuality” (regarding perceptions of the black writer), that seems to encompass the fact that classical black writers come to us without the same sort of glamorous romantic mythology attached.

Is it possible that the image-apartheid of Hollywood’s two-class racial system of stars is fairly close, in concept and effect, to the division we see in Literature? In other words, would Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Miller, Sartre, Kerouac, Bellow, Roth, et al (all film-era writers, coincidentally or not), be thinkable as Literary Greats without their attendant romantic mythologies, and where are the equivalent black romantic literary myths?

(I refer to the extent that writers are not just known to academics, but are a part of the broader culture, defining the concept “writer” for Everywoman/man. Even sexual outsider Gertrude Stein had her Alice B. Toklas and the romantic myth of their dyad; even Pynchon and Salinger have the romantic myths of their gnomic isolation.)

Are the myths, in the end, important, or not?

RS: There is definitely a distinction between the writer as an artist and the writer as a figure, as there is in other fields of artistic endeavor. People know about Jackson Pollock the hard-drinking social rebel who died in a car wreck in the same way that they know about James Dean the hard-living social rebel who died in a car wreck. Their lives and especially their deaths are part of their mythology, and many have heard of them who have never seen one of Pollock’s drip paintings or one of Dean’s few films. (It’s not coincidental that a film was made about Pollock.) Many of those who know about Pollock as a figure would probably dislike his paintings. But Pollock and Dean are images, and it’s through their images, not their work, that they have a cultural presence. This holds true as well for more traditional figures like Michelangelo and Beethoven (about whom movies have also been made), known respectively as the tortured genius who sculpted the David by people who know and care nothing about art and as the tormented genius who composed even though he was deaf by people who know and care nothing about classical music.

Black artists tend not to be accorded such mythological treatment, except when they are drug addicted jazz artists who died young, like Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker. Many more people know Parker’s image and nickname (“Bird,” as the film about him was called) than know his music or would appreciate it if they did. Proportionately more people know (and enjoy) Holiday ‘s music, but her music is heard as a reflection or even a symptom of her archetypically tragic life: her suffering is seen as the key to her music. At least in America, artists in general tend to be seen as naifs who produce art the way trees produce leaves (when they are not seen as egghead intellectuals who create work deliberately cut off from “reality”), but that is particularly the case with black artists, who are viewed as “naturals” who make their art instinctively, not as craftsmen who carefully work on and think through their work. That may be one reason why there is so much more mythologization of black musicians than of black writers. It’s harder to see writing in such purely instinctual terms, whereas music is seen as primal and visceral, something operating at an unconscious level deeper level than intellect. One even sees this dichotomy in sports, in which black athletes are seen as naturals and white athletes are seen as thinkers and strategizers.

The myths are important in terms of the cultural presence of artists as figures; they are the means by which artists make their cultural impact, by which artists circulate as cultural currency. However, the myths are often impediments to experiencing the work itself, smothered as it so often is under preconceptions and personal legends. It’s hard for the work to be taken on its own terms, and not as a reflection of the artist.

Nor is it coincidental that Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy, as both Salinger and Pynchon appear to be. The issues you bring up are matters of class and social position as much as they are of race, though obviously in America these three factors are intertwined.

SA: So-called “black culture,” as portrayed in the popular media and casually defined by most of the planet, presents a rather macho impression. One perceives that to be a black American Artist, or to be Gay and black, seem like steps along the same basic path. Is this an illusion, or does the black male Fine Artist read, by default, as more feminine than his “white” counterpart? To what extent do the gender values as applied to the “races” in modern America amplify (or distort) the Artist?

RS: This is a very interesting question. It’s not something I’d thought about previously, but it’s very insightful. There is a feminization to the idea of being an artist in America, a notion that art is “unmasculine.” This is one root of the macho posturing so pervasive in American art, from Jackson Pollock to Miles Davis to Norman Mailer. [Please not that I have deleted the mention of Richard Hugo, as that might not have been a fair characterization.] I agree that this sense is even more intense for black male artists, who, like black men in general, are expected to be tough, to be strong, to constantly be fighting “The Man.”

The popularity of gangsta rap and of the thuggish, brutish, violent, and misogynistic image of black masculinity it valorizes is a perfect (and perfectly depressing) example of this. Even to be educated and well spoken is often seen as “trying to be white,” as a denial of blackness. This model, in which every black man is a “nigga” and every black woman is a “bitch” or a “ho,” clearly embodies a huge amount of internalized racism and self-hatred. There’s little room in mainstream black American culture for a sensitive and intelligent black man, let alone for an artistic black man, let alone for a gay black man. Gayness is often seen as a betrayal of blackness, as “the white man’s disease,” as an abdication of maleness.

These values, if one can call them that, clearly distort black people’s behavior, self-image, and images of other black people (not to mention white people’s views of black people), and they certainly deform black popular art to the point at which I, at least, can barely listen to most contemporary black music or watch most contemporary black movies or television programs. Most black poets subscribe to some version of the identity politics aesthetic, though in general they focus on pointing out black oppression (which many of them have never experienced, coming as most artists of any color do from socially and economically comfortable backgrounds and having secure academic positions) and attempting to celebrate the positive aspects of black culture (including trying to salvage what they can of rap culture, in an attempt to feel connected to “the people”). Many black artists often turn to rather forced identifications with an idealized version of West Indian culture (hence the pervasive dreadlocks) and an even more idealized and reified “African culture” (as if African culture were unitary, as if there were any direct continuity between black North American culture and the various cultures of the regions of West Africa from whom the ancestors of most black Americans were taken, or as if East African Swahili language and culture, for example, had any connection to American black people at all).

SA: I’m interested in what strikes me as your fairly amazing journey. At what point did you begin to assert yourself as either a young Poet, or Gay, in surroundings that must have been hostile to both identities? How open were you about either? Did you have surprising allies?

And which was most jarring: being a “fish-out-of-water” among America’s urban poor, or being the same sort of unlikely creature in the halls of Academe?

RS: In one sense I could say that my journey began with my conception, as my mother bought me books before I was born, determined as she was that I was going to be smart and get an education that would take me out of the ghetto and into a better life. I read constantly as a child and was always good at what they used to call “language arts,” though it wasn’t until I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a ninth grade literature class that I encountered poetry and decided that’s what I wanted to do, that I wanted my words to have the effect on others that Eliot’s words had on me. My mother’s death soon after that encounter cemented the sense of poetry as a necessity for me, the only thing that kept me sane (to the extent that I was sane) for several years.

I realized/decided that I was gay fairly young as well, and that, like poetry, offered a sense of a refuge and an escape from the unwelcoming world around me. No one around me was gay, no one I knew was gay, and so the gay world I conjured up (from gay liberation books that were outdated by the time I read them and from soft-core gay porno magazines I bought from corner newsstands) provided an image of a place I could eventually go where I would be accepted, would find a home for myself.

In both cases, poetry and gayness, the indifference or hostility of my surroundings contributed to my commitment to them, because they separated me from those surroundings. My openness about being gay was an act of defiance, a refusal to be limited by my circumstances. This was especially the case when I moved to Macon, Georgia, after my mother’s death, living with eight other people in my Aunt Mildred’s three bedroom house, sleeping on a rollaway bed in the den. I clung to everything and anything that emphasized how much I didn’t belong there, how much I was not like them. And my relatives and the other denizens of Macon took every opportunity to remind me that I wasn’t one of them, and couldn’t be even if I wanted to, which I very much did not.

If I were to compare my sense of alienation from the ghettoes in which I grew up or from my mother’s boorish, often violent, and intensely anti-intellectual relatives in Georgia with the alienation I experienced as a scholarship student at various private schools in New York, as a college student (again on scholarship) at various elite institutions of higher learning, or as a faculty member in academia, I would say that it was much greater in the former situations. At least there has always been something I could get out of Academe–an education, a degree of social mobility–whereas there was nothing to be gotten from either my ghetto neighbors or my relatives. And while I have often experienced rejection of various forms, both subtle and more overt, in academia, including racism, homophobia, and even anti-intellectualism, it has never involved the threat or reality of violence which was omnipresent in my childhood and adolescence.

Though I hardly feel that I “fit in” in academia or in the literary world, I have done much better for myself there than I ever could have either in the Bronx ghetto or in Macon, Georgia. There was no place for me at all in those places.

2: Intraview with T. R. Dennis

T. Raleigh Dennis’s epic novel, “The Broken Word,” first came to my attention when I was a high school student, not quite ready for the “adult” world of literary fiction, yet vaguely disenchanted with the Sci Fi I’d had my nose buried in since first reading a book by Arthur C. Clarke at the age of nine or ten. I found a paperback of “The Broken Word” in a bargain bin, in a University of Chicago campus book store, drawn to it by its cover, which had a Sci Fi look about it, and took it home expecting to be treated to a space opera.

What I found in Dennis’s novel (his only novel; his only known published work; now long out of print) was the imaginative range that had drawn me to Sci Fi, but something else, too… the something I’d been missing in my reading until then: human life as I knew it. Even as I couldn’t quite grasp why the three main characters in Dennis’s book were doing, saying and thinking what they were, I recognized immediately that my confusion in their presence was identical to my confusion in the presence of my family and friends and everyone else; my teachers and the family doctor and all the strangers on the street. Reading “The Broken Word” produced my first epiphany: that human life is profoundly irrational, and only Art can really make sense of it.

I lost my original copy of “The Broken Word” and was delighted to find another copy in a secondhand bookstore specializing (ironically) in Sci Fi. Managing to lose this book yet again, I was given (by an unusually merciful deity of the random fates) a third chance approximately fifteen years later, happening across a German translation, miraculously, in Berlin.

The astronomically improbable luck of finding “The Broken Word” in Berlin (with its deeply Midwestern characters suddenly speaking in German, no less) sent me on a quest to track down the author himself, T. Raleigh Dennis. For two years I’ve been feeding the name into search engines and drawing blanks, the quixotic quest becoming a Friday night tradition of exceedingly low promise. For two years: nothing.

Two weeks ago, however, expecting the usual blank, I was surprised to turn up one result: a commenter on a Lit Blog, using the screen name “TR Dennis”, had left an interesting quotation. The screen name led to an email address and, to make a long-ish story short, I conducted this brief interview as a consequence.

SA: It wasn’t until you sent me a photo of yourself that I realized that you’re “black” or African-American. I have to admit that this “development” inspires another species of interview question entirely; in fact, I’ve thrown my original questions out the window. Do you mind if we follow this new direction of inquiry?

TRD: Not at all.

SA: As far as I know, “The Broken Word” is your only published novel.  If this is so, I can’t help being reminded of another, more famous one-off, Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” which came out to universal acclaim, only to precede one of the most notorious cases of writer’s block in the Twentieth Century.

TRD: Yes, it’s my only book, published or otherwise. The difference between my case and Mr. Ellison’s would be that whereas he tried to write another book after his first, I did not. I had no interest in doing so. I felt that I had said what I needed to, to the people I wanted to say it to. If I’d written a second and third book they would have been fraudulent efforts, because my reasons could only have been the desire for money or fame. I guess I mean here to defy what Sam Johnson said, “None but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” If I were to state my honest belief I would remove “except” from that sentence.

SA: In Ellison’s case, I always felt, it was the narrow range of the subject matter he was “allowed” to address, on top of the crushing self-consciousness aggravated by trying to follow up on such a massive literary success, which silenced him.

TRD: If I am permitted to be honest again, I wouldn’t know enough about Ellison’s work or life to comment on your observation.

SA: “The Broken Word” has been out of print for a while now, but it remained in print for quite a few years, despite being off the critical radar and enjoying what I would imagine was almost nonexistent publicity. Was the book’s relative durability… here we are discussing it in the 21st century, and it was written in 1952… a testament to the quality of the writing, and the mysterious karma of literature, which seems to dictate that no great book is every truly forgotten?

TRD: My book was helped a lot by its cover (here I am compelled to be brutally honest a third time, which makes me nervous). People often mistook it for Science Fiction because of the original cover, which was an image of the constellation Cassiopeia photographed by the observatory at Palomar. During the heyday of pulp genres like Westerns and Science Fiction, fly-by-night publishers would buy up genre almost literally by the ton. They would sell the books off in batches to be sold from revolving racks in outlets such as drugstores, record shops, bus stations and newsstands. The covers of these books were more important than their contents, and my book had a very evocative cover.

SA: Speaking for myself, the first line of “The Broken Word”, which I read before I was fully equipped to understand it, was like falling down a rabbit hole. It made such an impression that I still, to this day, know it by heart (although the German translation I have before me is somewhat different):  “After doing it, they agreed to never do it again, though they knew too well, deep down, that it wouldn’t be long before the urge to repeat the mistake imposed itself.”

TRD: Thank you. But the actual sentence differs by one word, which is “all”. After doing it, they all agreed to never do it again, though they knew too well, deep down, that it wouldn’t be long before the urge to repeat the mistake imposed itself. The version you remember is ambiguous. With the “all”, “they” go from being two in number, maybe, to being at least three. Which means the reader is being let in on a perversion or a conspiracy.

You can imagine how a reader expecting rocket ships or robots would end up scratching his head after such an intro. My book probably broke some kind of record for the number of times a copy was discarded after only the first sentence.

SA:  Was the cover photo deliberately misleading?

TRD: No, the cover photo is symbolic. The constellation depicted is Cassiopeia, and the myth of Cassiopeia is an ordering motif within the novel.

SA: What are some of the special problems that African-American writers face?

TRD:  Every writer’s problems are unique. Questions like that infuriate me.

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  • […] review of Shepherd’s books, Lawrence La Riviere White’s heartfelt testimonial at The Valve or this unfinished interview he gave Steven Augustine. As usual, Ron Silliman has collected a comprehensive set of links. […]

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