David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, a novel which Karen Russell describes as, “Filled with kaleidoscopic pleasures.” Says Russell, “Using prose as clear as pure, cold air, Smith moves the narrative vertically as well as horizontally, each ticking minute yielding more insights into a young woman’s life revealed over one single day.” The book became a reader favorite following its publication in 2012. Now, more than a decade after its initial publication, Tin House is releasing a new edition of Smith’s beloved novel featuring an introduction from Maris Kreizman who writes, “Glaciers feels refreshingly uncluttered, so clear and concise that even its smallest details contain whole galaxies.” I myself will add that 11 years ago, Alexis was on the show to talk about Glaciers in one of the first handful of interviews I did as host of Between the Covers. You can check out our conversation about Glaciers, about the original edition of it, and seek out this new edition, this reissue of Glaciers which is out now from Tin House. I’ve long been a lover and admirer of Roger Reeves’ poetry as well as how he talks about it, and into it. As a poet with close connections to past Between the Covers guests Natalie Diaz and Solmaz Sharif, I was also often watching or listening to Roger in conversation with one of them, talking about their work, or writing about it. One of my favorite things as a reader is to read prose written by poets, so I was unusually excited to be able to talk to Roger in advance of his debut collection of prose, his collection of fugitive essays called Dark Days, and to discover at the end that this was his first discussion of it, and to be able to share that with you just days before the book comes out, to look at the essay form through a poet’s eyes which by doing so becomes a deep dive into poetry and narrative, both into questions of time and how to extend it or disrupt it with sound and silence and how those strategies have been and can be employed to create fugitive spaces within a larger world that, depending upon your subject position, may not allow you to fully breathe, to fully live. We also look at sounding across difference and how to create space for one’s own people without harming another, the provisional and also always renegotiated gestures of creating spaces that recognize the other, that resist the temptation of centering one’s own story, that find our own presence at the margins of our identities. I’m excited to share this conversation with Roger Reeves because Roger’s enthusiasm for the power of language and sound is contagious. His deep love for poetry, not as revolution, but as a way of knowing why it must come—to borrow Adrienne Rich’s words—feels like it speaks to the most vital questions of creating spaces to live and thrive in the world we’ve all inherited. Roger’s contribution to the bonus audio archive creates an unexpected connection with the last episode, the episode with Palestinian Novelist Isabella Hammad. Roger’s essays explore so many things that we only touch on some of them. One figure he explores is the Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani. For the bonus audio, he gives an extended reading from Kanafani’s novella Return to Haifa. This joins many past contributions from everyone from Natalie Diaz to Dionne Brand and also the contribution by Isabella Hammad of a reading of Walid Daqqa’s letter from Israeli prison Parallel Time. The bonus audio archive is only one of many things you can choose from when joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter, which also includes the possibility of becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before the general public. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode and every listener-supporter is invited to help shape the future of the show by joining our brainstorm of future guests. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Roger Reeves.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Poet Roger Reeves, earned a BA in English from Morehouse College, an MA in English from Texas A&M, and both an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin where he is now himself a professor of English and creative writing teaching classes on poetry, Black studies, Blackness, and the literary imagination and Blackness in the American imagination to name a few. His debut 2013 collection King Me was picked by Library Journal as one of the Best Poetry Books of that year. In the nine years between it and his second collection Best Barbarian, it would be an understatement to say that the world stood up and took notice of Reeves as an important new voice in poetry. He was granted fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in Cave Canem. He won the Whiting Award, garnered Pushcart Prize, was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and later a Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. His poetry appeared everywhere from the American Poetry Review to Poetry Magazine, and when Best Barbarian arrived in 2022, it did not disappoint. Jericho Brown said of Reeves’ second book, “From Grendel to Gilgamesh, Best Barbarian reviews and retells the most ancient of stories so that Roger Reeves can tell his own. The capaciousness of these elegiac poems, their Whitmanian need to hold and see it all, mirrors this speaker’s need to be known fully as a black father, a man in love, a surviving citizen, a son to his mother, and an investigator of his father’s whereabouts even after death. This book is an education on this history of the soul.” Terrance Hayes adds, “I cannot overstate the brilliance of Roger Reeves. A sentence inside a Reeves poem is a score of breath; a scripture with texture and subtext; a tightrope of expansive, existential syntax. Best Barbarian is a monumental and elegiac tour de force. Peerless and unprecedented, it is one of the best books I’ve read in years.” Tracy K. Smith calls the book, “A revelation,” Cathy Park Hong, “A twenty-first-century masterpiece.” Best Barbarian became not only a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, the PEN Voelcker Award for poetry, and the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry but also won both the 2023 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the 2023 Griffin Poetry Prize whose judges said in their citation, “At the intersections of history and myth, elegy and celebration, these poems chart the ruptures and violences enacted across time and space—particularly against black humanity—while leaning always toward beauty. Beauty and tenderness abound in this collection that dares to risk both: a brilliant and ambitious book.” Roger Reeves has since, as part of his Best Barbarian victory lap, gone on to win a Guggenheim Fellowship and we’re lucky to have him here today to talk about his first book of prose, his debut essay collection Dark Days out with Graywolf. Kirkus calls Dark Days, “A cerebral, rumiNative essay collection brimming with insight and vision.” Publishers Weekly adds that Reeves interweaves autobiography and American history with his trademark lyricism shining through, proving that he is just as affecting in prose as in verse. Finally, past Between the Covers guest Mitchell S. Jackson says, “Pro tip: partake of the brilliance of Roger Reeves. Among other marvels, the essays in Dark Days challenge silences and attempted erasures with acuity, with eloquence, with a thunderous beating heart.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Roger Reeves.
Roger Reeves: Oh, thank you for having me. Thank you for having me, David. Great to be here.
DN: I wanted to start with questions of moving from poetry to prose from the line to the sentence and what things within the essay forum you were excited to employ versus the things within prose that perhaps you were wary of, and needed to strategize around. I think of your discussion with Paul Muldoon when you were a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist before winning the award where he asks you if you start with an idea when you write poetry and you say, “Your trust is in language, not in an idea.” That ideas are like tethers and that language is like freedom. When you say language, I don’t think you mean the connotative semantic aspect of words or not only this, yet the essay is a form that is one of the premier places to work out and develop ideas, a place where continuity of thought can be conjured and sustained. You’ve also brought up elsewhere Barbara Christian’s The Race for Theory and how she purports that Black poets and Black art theorizes itself, that it doesn’t need to adopt a theoretical framework. Similar to your new book which engages with the music of OutKast, in your Harvard lecture, you quote the line from them which is a question, “How to catch the feeling off instrumentals?” and your subsequent talk was about how to write out of what you call sonic material. Thinking of ideas as tethers and the sound of language as freedom, and you now stepping into the form where traditionally, ideas are developed, talk to us about how you navigate the essay as form, what you anticipated it would be like, what you discovered, how you worked with it or how you worked against it.
RR: This is a great question. When I say language, what I really mean is sound probably. I think it’s one of the most freeing things we can do, is just to utter, just to be in utterance of something, a cry, a yell, oomph, hmm, or the yeah. I’m really interested in that gesturality of life, the way it can contain so much, which is what the poem gives us, that condensed gesture that was always inherent in language. With the essay, I think I became seduced with the possibility that the essay can do more than hold ideas. Honestly, it was actually reading cultural critics and theorists like Fred Moten. When I read something like In The Break and I’m watching Fred signify in certain ways, there are all these moments of signification and signifying that comes out of the Black community. I thought, “Oh, this is something else.” He’s really pushing the form of the essay, pushing its possibilities, pushing opacity. I think that what I’m resisting at times in the essay or what I’m trying to hold in question is the desire for absolute clarity. It doesn’t mean that I’m interested in obfuscation but I am interested in irony and multiplicity. I think that’s the thing that the poem gives us. The line break is ultimately the most ironic gesture. It’s an ending and also simultaneously announced as a beginning, so it’s an apocalypse. I think that’s why poems feel so dangerous to people, is that they have to be willing to sit and rupture. You have the seduction in the essay of prose which feels progressive. There’s an argument. You will know something allegedly at the end of this that you didn’t know before. You will have a better understanding of something. I think we too often associate the essay with a recipe. But even those who cook know that there’s a lot of improvisation in making a recipe, there’s a lot of improvisation in “following a path.” What I was interested in with the form of the essay is playing in sound but trying to see if I can do something that I think I associate with the poem which is, “Can I get free? Could you get free in the language such that the language begins to reveal and begins to push the essay?” I think there are moments of that but there’s a type of like what I didn’t anticipate in writing essays is the type of emotional improvisation that would occur if that makes sense. What I mean by that is I didn’t know I was going to feel certain things and that those feelings would move the essay. There’s one essay where at some point, I realized I was like, “Oh, the whole time, I’ve been writing about love,” and I say that in the essay, I say, “I thought I had been writing about this but actually, I’ve been writing about love this whole essay.” It’s an essay about intimacy and thinking about what is the intimacy between Black and Native folks in our respective dealing with the catastrophe of America, in trying to make the community, make home, and make love. I realized I’ve been writing about love the whole essay when I thought I was writing about this political, social idea. In some ways, the essay has its own [inaudible]. I hope I’m answering the question a bit.
RR: That’s some things I was thinking about. Also, as an academic, you’re always writing essays and I was watching essays move into the culture, move into mainstream culture, being talked about in ways. I think we’re predisposed to the essay via our love of the hot take and the call-out, which are really prosaic. It’s another form of essay writing or a miniature essay writing, so I was like, “Oh, what if we just extend this? What if we extend critique and bring back the days of like Buckley and Baldwin debating on television and Malcolm X in London?” In my book, I wanted to try to convene that spirit, if that makes sense.
DN: Yeah, it does. What I noticed thinking of this essay collection written by a poet is that the book is bookended by images, that we begin and end the book outside of language, and later I do want to talk about the movement between these two images. But in between the images within the words themselves, within the text, one major throughline of the book is sound, meditations and explorations on different types of sound and silence, whispers, grunts, singing, laughter. It makes me think of Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes which also meditates on images, yet also is deeply engaged with sound. One ordinary note she explores is the character Hi Man from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, who marks the beginning and end of the day for the chain gang, yelling a heigh at dawn and a ho at dusk to both mark the day and interrupt the daily violences that the prisoners are enduring. Staying with the tether of ideas and the freedom within the sound of language in its broadest sense, I wanted to talk about that strange aspect that is particular to words in contrast to say visual art, insofar as words hold that tension between idea or meaning and the meaning that is in their sound that isn’t obviously meaning. I wanted to take this into the way the church has influenced you, even as you seem to have stepped away from its ideas. You’re the son of a Sunday school teacher and Holy Roller. When you were younger, you could have imagined becoming a minister. You mentioned the Pentecostal church in your background in almost every appearance that I’ve watched you speak in and I also watched you give your first commencement speech at the seminary of the Southwest which was amazing. [laughter] You’re at a pulpit, you’re getting everyone to greet their neighbors, to participate in the call and response as if you were leading a service and you seem deeply in your element. You talk in Dark Days about the church being the place you learn to read and in order to be present in discussion groups with adults, pretending to be reading before you could read, making the sounds and mouth movements of reading. You talk about the notion of getting happy in the Black Pentecostal church, of being filled with the Holy Ghost. That this tradition of praise and ecstatic dancing is actually a West African tradition smuggled into Christianity. You also wonder if the God of the King James Bible is the same God as the God of the Pentecostal church given a different relation to the body and the body’s relationship to the spirit. I guess this is my long way of asking you to unpack further how you clearly cite the Pentecostal church as foundational in many ways to your poetics but not in its ideas, ideas which I think you have stepped away from but being more interested in what was smuggled into the church. I guess I wondered if it would be right to say you’re smuggling them back out, that much like the relationship of sound to sense, it is sound that’s foundational here for you. Talk to us more about the church and the sermon, the spirit and the body in relationship to your poetics.
RR: I think I can talk about that by way of thinking about becoming a student at a university. When you often move into an English major into the university, you don’t find many folks that come out of the Pentecostal tradition and you don’t find many people that come to sound the way I’ve come to sound and to think about the importance of sound. I was raised with the belief that if you said the right thing, sang the right way, or sang in the right key, you could actually heal someone. That someone could come out of the streets, be on drugs, hear you sing, and all of a sudden, it would vibrate in their body and they would no longer want the drugs. They would no longer be an addict. I really believe that. As a kid, when I’m growing up thinking about, “What does language do?” I’m watching people literally use sound to transform their lives. Even if the pedagogy later or the doxology is problematic, I think what is positive there about sound is really useful outside of it. I think that’s what jazz, blues, I think that’s what house music does. I think that so much of joy and ecstasy comes from sound or comes from the gesturality of sound and even silence. I saw this in the Christian church growing up, then when I broke away, I would go to the club and see the same thing happen. It was just to [Cisco] to some reggae music but people were trying to achieve the same thing. They were trying to feel something. As OutKast says, “Trying to catch that feeling off instrumentals,” as you brought up earlier. I think this gets to the idea of fugitivity in my work. I think the criminal or the fugitive is the one who can see purpose, can see possibility in something that is discarded or something that people didn’t see as the original purpose. I like to watch people and I often watch unhoused people and the way they look at the world. I started this because I lived in Atlanta and I was really, really broken. Sometimes, I have a little dollar extra and I would give it to a homeless person, an unhoused person, and we would talk. I learned through talking to them about how they see the world. That’s the way I think about life material. That discarded cigarette on the ground may be really, really useful to someone else. I think about this with mask-making and building sculptures. What someone considers refuse may not be refuse. For me, the church at times, I disagreed with the doxology, the pedagogy but what I didn’t disagree with was the idea of sound being transformational. I wanted to keep that. I wanted to be honest about that because there’s a way in which if I’m not honest about the soil that I was planted in, then I don’t know what type of tree I’m going to grow out of it. We have to be honest about the soil we were planted in, the seeds that were planted in us. I learned I couldn’t resist that. The goal wasn’t to try to be something I wasn’t. The goal was to integrate it all, like to integrate Tolstoy with OutKast, OutKast with Ghassan Kanafani. [laughter] I want to put it together. I think about Coltrane loving Stravinsky. I’m thinking about The Firebird Suite. When I’m listening to A Love Supreme, you can hear Stravinsky’s influence. You can see why folks like Miles & Monk, and different folks were like [gravity]. To me I want to be capacious in this way, which is that it’s all sonic materials, it can all be used and it can be used in ways that the original source never intended, which often happens in language. This is why, again, the Pentecostal church comes up. This is really wild. We used to just sit, have a song that was just yes and people would just sing yes. They would sing it with different variations and modulations of the voice. It was really, really beautiful and I used to love to watch, and I would sing and I would participate and feel the way in which just saying the word yes can change. My interiority changed. It can be elegiac in one moment and praiseworthy in another moment. I was writing plays in my early 20s and there was a theater game that was about building a dialogue between two characters with one word that could actually state the conflict, so whatever the word is, “Could you move through a whole scene where we develop a conflict, discuss the conflict, and move out of the conflict with this one word?” I was like, “Oh, the Pentecostal church does that.”[laughter] I was just like, “Oh.” That’s why I started saying, “Oh, maybe this thing that I’m doing over here where she’s really divorced and far away from where I was raised is actually the same thing.” There’s a way in which I really feel like I was being prepared to be a poet or some type of artist going to church as much as I went to church, singing in the choir, watching my mom being a Sunday school teacher, writing plays for church services. To me, I was just like, “Oh, we can do all these things simultaneously,” because their strategy is really a feeling. We think about language. Language is ultimately a strategy of feeling. It has a grammar to it. We use that grammar to make things. Music does the same thing. It’s a strategy of feeling. I just want to play with these. The essay is another strategy of feeling, the strategy of knowing. I just want to use all these different strategies of feeling a note.
DN: Yeah. I love that. Well, I want to ask you since you brought up fugitivity, you mostly bring up the notion of fugitivity as a poetics the way Fred Moten does, who suggests that Blackness is fugitive insofar as it is a refusal of standards upon it where he says, “Fugitivity, then, is a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed. It’s a desire for the outside, for a playing or being outside, an outlaw edge proper to the now always already improper voice or instrument.” You speak about it in this way too, the runaway, the escapee but I wonder if it is also not the desire for the outside but the smuggling within, the finding of the outside in the inside. For instance, the notion which you explore in the essay collection of cakewalking where slaves would perform these formal dances that included these exaggerated high leg prances and stiff backward tilts of their upper bodies, and where the plantation owners were often the judges. But the cakewalking, unbeknownst to the masters, was not a form of mimicry, of the formal mannerisms of the masters but a form of mockery of the masters from within the way they move. It’s smuggling in a commentary into the form and the smuggling of West African traditions into Christianity isn’t the same in that Christianity isn’t being mocked. But it feels like the outside is found in the inside, perhaps in the smuggling. I wondered if that felt like a form of fugitivity to you as well.
RR: It does. It does feel like a form of fugitivity, the outside that’s already inside. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I think why that happens in Christianity is probably because Christianity is African. [laughs] It’s coming from Africa in the Middle East, so there’s a way in which it was already outside. What happens through it becoming standardized and Europeanized is that a lot of its African presence is mass erased. I think what winds up happening is that a lot of Black folks, they reanimated of sorts, so that would be my guess as to that but I also think about Jadakiss, the rapper yelling at the verses, “We outside,” like, “You can find me, I’m outside.” I love this idea of being outside. The romantics were big on this too, like if you think about Wordsworth, there’s always been in aesthetics some outsiderism, like the outside. I think about the hippodramas during the romantic era where they would take horses and bring them on stage, and that was a way of bringing the natural world inside, trying to disrupt the interior, exterior. I’m so about being outside in that way. Also, I was always in my family the improper one. We weren’t allowed to tell jokes in the Pentecostal church but I was always trying to be funny, being a comedian and making my mom laugh but then she wasn’t supposed to laugh. [laughter] I hope she doesn’t mind. But I always think that impulse, and I have the same impulse as a writer, artist, and poet, as soon as someone tells me, “Oh, you can’t do this,” I’m like, “Oh, that’s exactly the thing I want to do.” [laughs] You tell me like, “You can’t have a deer in a poem,” I’m going to put a deer in a poem because to me I know that is the space of possibility that you’re demarcating or it’s the space of “darkness,” the thing for which cannot be touched, the thing that should not be named, or you’re being indecorous. I think that the moments of being indecorous are the moments that we find certain possibilities that we need to live. I always think about that quote. I have it in the book in Dark Days, it comes from Adrienne Rich where she says, “Poetry isn’t revolution but a way of knowing why it must come.” I think finding that outside while you’re inside is really important. There’s a really good book by Ashon T. Crawley called Blackpentecostal Breath. I taught a whole sectional glossolalia from that book and the idea of speaking in tongues. I’ve really been really interested in this idea of how nonsense is a type of outside, that language is always moving towards nonsense and in fact, it is mostly nonsense. All you have to do is listen to a child speak or if you let people tell you about poetry, they’ll tell you that it’s a bunch of nonsense. I’m really interested in the nonsensical as a way of breaking a thing down, something like glossolalia, or like ecstatic dance as a way of finding something else, kind of moving beyond.
DN: Well, perhaps the most literal example of going inside to get outside is Henry Box Brown who, as a slave, mailed himself in a wooden crate to freedom where for a while, he became a noted abolitionist speaker and of which you say as part of a larger discussion of how you see Black linguistics signifying as related to fugitivity, “In stealing himself out of bondage, Henry Box Brown problematizes the notion that he is chattel because he animates the question, ‘How can property steal property?’” Thinking of this, I want to return again to sound and think about sound as a way to trouble time, and how troubling time, creating a different time within time might be an act of survival, escape, resistance, or revolution. Dark Days looks at many examples of this, a Chilean singer breaking the curfew of silence during martial law, a Syrian child’s ecstatic laughter with bombs falling all around her, the hush harbors, the provisional spaces slaves created within the noise and violence. Somehow with all of these, I think of time. I think for instance when you say, “Dancing creates a beyond without the necessity of a future,” or when you talk about the notion in the Pentecostal church of stepping out on faith, you describe it as, “A practice of inhabiting the invisible, moving off feeling and sound, negotiating the future not by sight but by touch, even if what must be touched has not arrived yet, occupying a non-existent form and turning it into fact.” All of this reminds me of Dionne Brand speaking of John Coltrane’s eight-minute song Venus which she describes as, “Speaking out and beyond time, blowing into the future, a song that sounds like we in the future, a song that sounds like we in the future,” a song that evokes what she calls, “the job of Black artists to play where we ought to be living.” She says that at some point in the song, deep into it, it rejects its former self while also somehow accepting that rejected life like a shadow embedded in the song and in Coltrane himself. Your book opens with Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, the angel that is facing with its back to the future, the angel that faces the past and witnesses the never-ending piling up of catastrophes before it, and that disastrous momentum of the piling up of catastrophe creates this wind that prevents the angel from being able to close its wings, so it’s perpetually blown backward into the future and what people call progress is actually this catastrophic wind in this formulation. But you stake a different relationship to time for Black life saying that your version of the Angel of History stares at the same time into the past and the future, and is actually unmoving and still unaccounted for yet by history, which feels in a way like Coltrane both blowing from the future and beyond time and playing from where we ought to be living.
RR: Man, you read, like that Dionne Brand, I teach that particular moment from The Blue Clerk. I just want to affirm, you read this sh*t. Thanks, brother. [laughter]
DN: That’s an amazing moment in The Blue Clerk.
RR: What you’re describing, I’m so interested in this. I had a friend Nasser Mufti who teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago and he was writing about the difference between time in the colonies and time in the metropole and it made me start thinking about the way in which Black folks are always trying to interrupt, particularly the time of colonization, the time of oppression. I think like breaking the shovels. “Laziness” is actually a manifestation of this time breaking. I think about Sixo from Beloved, when Morrison describes he’s the minor character in chapter two where Morrison says he stopped speaking English because he sees no future in it and that Sixo will never obey time. He would go out to be the Thirty-Mile Woman and come back. He could never get the timing of the potatoes. I think about Ellison too. He talks about the beginning of the prologue of Invisible Man, the boxer, the yokel that steps into the professional sense of time and still is able to knock him out because he disrupts the professional boxer’s sense of timing. I really think that that’s exactly where freedom is. I actually think that that’s where it really, really lives is how we disrupt time. But I interrupted your question, brother.
DN: No. You’re answering it already. The only other thing I was going to mention was your durational poem, something about John Coltrane, which takes as long to read as it does to listen to Alice Coltrane’s song of the same name. I wanted to hear more about time, time and sound or time and history in relation to Dark Days and your poetics but it sounds like you’ve already started to do that.
RR: It’s funny, I think because I’ve lived in different parts of the country that have very different senses of time. The Northeast, growing up in New Jersey has a really different sense of time than Atlanta, which has a really different sense of time than Texas, which has a very different sense of time. In Chicago, what I noticed was where I felt most comfortable in a sense of time. I’m always thinking about timing. I played music. For me, Texas, I love its sense of time. I love Texas’ sense of time. I love the South’s sense of time. Something I’ve been thinking about is how can we, Black folks, trying to achieve certain levels of liberation and freedom, trying to live our best lives as we say, how can we be aware that that’s about time? I think about someone like The Nap Ministry talking to us about this movement now to rest, to resist the 24/7 cycle of something like the internet. I think of Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s idea of critiques of capitalism. He’s an Italian philosopher that writes on poetry and capitalism, and there’s this idea of inexhaustibility. I think that’s what slavery and certain types of oppression wielded through work is about, that we constantly are inexhaustible, we’re an exhaustible resource when in actuality, we know that that’s not true. I think one of the best ways to resist, it’s on some like Billy Budd, I prefer not, I’m just like, “No, I’m not going to.” [laughs] I think that this is about stepping inside of capitalism and stepping inside of its sense of time in teleology and say, “Oh, watch. No, no, no, I don’t. I don’t have to participate.” Non-participation is actually something and I think that’s about time when you’re like, “No, I’m not participating in this.”
DN: That makes me think of the Sabbath in its most aspirational or most beautiful form and maybe Heschel’s writing about the Sabbath but you don’t exchange money, you don’t do work. You’re supposed to create Messianic time. You’re creating the future essentially before the future. You’re living where you ought to be living in this one time a week.
RR: Because what you do is when you inhabit it, even if it’s just for a moment, I talk about this in Singing into the Silence of the State, even if you inhabit a type of future for a moment, then the police come, someone disrupts it, or the university says, “You gotta get out of this room, you can’t be doing that in this room,” you have now made it possible to enter it again and with variation because then you learn it’s flexible. One of the things I think we often want, and this is my beef with nation, the country, we want it to be solid, we want this sense of place when in actuality, it must always be in flux because I think that once it becomes solid, then what we try to do is protect it. What we have to resist is the desire that this thing will always be and I think that we learn this from fugitivity, that the fugitive must catch as catch can, [inaudible] must be still when they can be still, then run when they need to run and they must pull up stakes when they do pull-up stakes, and sit when they need to sit. That’s the thing that I’m trying to think about in this book, which is we might need to begin to select slow time, change time, go underground, or move to the side of time, move to the left of it. We’re just above the contemporary swing of time. I think jazz does this. This is why I love Coltrane. Jazz had been codified, it was like, “Oh, we’re going to do this thing for a time. We’re going to do it in this certain way.” We’re like, “No, no, no. We can open this up in other ways.” I love this idea. I think Stevie Wonder is a musician like this where they’re always looking for the next sound. They’re not looking to repeat themselves. I just love this idea of like time [inaudible]
DN: Well, the Angel of History in Dark Days is the boy in the image that opens the book, a boy who’s Black and who is at Obama’s presidential inauguration. I feel like another major thing that Dark Days examines is repetition, especially repetition that involves an imagined body swapping, in your terminology, something you imagine that the boy is rejecting, that he’s not imagining himself aspirationally as he looks at the first Black president being sworn in. He’s looking with distance and dubiousness. But before we talk about the dangers of body-swapping repetition, I wanted to spend a moment with what you see as the good kind of repetition. For instance, you say in this book, “Repetition is devotion,” which I think you’ve already evoked really well with that song, with the one-word yes. I think of your craft lecture about troubling the image, a lecture that I discussed when I interviewed Gabrielle Bates, how your line by line reading of Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem The Dragon and you emphasizing how she returns over and over again to the same image and with each return, something accretes with time in the image, the bees are as large as melons, the next time we return later in the poem, we learn the melons are orange and step by step things accrue, and you say that images are not static and arrested but moving through time themselves, and also thanks to you, thanks to the lecture you gave at Harvard, I learned about Derrida’s interview of Ornette Coleman and one part of that exchange between them I found really interesting, I found many parts of that interview interesting but this part where Derrida says, “Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we often understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.” “That’s true,” says Coleman, then Derrida continues, “I am not an ‘Ornette Coleman expert,’ but if I translate what you are doing into a domain that I know better, that of written language, the unique event that is produced only one time is nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation—that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation. Repetition is already in improvisation: thus when people want to trap you between improvisation and the pre-written, they are wrong,” and Coleman answers, “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the Earth rotates.” Lastly, I wanted to bring up, as you do in the book, Judith Butler’s notion of subversive repetition. You bring up subversive repetition in many ways, the cakewalking, the subversiveness of prayer, and here Butler is speaking about gender when she says, “The task is not whether to repeat, but how to repeat or, indeed, to repeat and, throughout a radical proliferation of gender, displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself.” In that spirit, you say, “The playfulness in Black speech is the pleasure of getting free while cakewalking the master’s discourse.” Again, a subversive repetition that really in a way isn’t a repetition at all but perhaps it’s related to your unmoving Angel of History, a creating of a different weather, climate, or world within the world. I just wondered if it provoked any thoughts for you about repetition in relationship to the essays but also in the relationship to your poetry.
RR: Yeah. It’s funny, you made me think of a lecture that Natalie Diaz actually gave about repetition as well.
DN: I think maybe we were at the same lecture. Was it at Tin House?
DN: With the Steph Curry dribbling video?
RR: Yeah. It’s funny, basketball is a great analogy for this because you dribble, [laughs] but there are all these variations like the hesi in the dribble. “Where’s your head in relationship to your body?” There’s all these like, “Where is your hand? Does it look like you’re about to shoot? How do you cross over?” When I think about repetition, I’m always thinking about the same with variation, the changing scene, like the blues does this so well. It’s funny when you were bringing up Brigit Pegeen Kelly, I kept thinking about the lyric in a lyric sense of time versus a narrative sense of time. One of the things that I think I’ve learned so much from Brigit Pegeen Kelly as a poet is that she arrests time. That if you look at that poem you referred to, when there’s a reference to time happening, so the bees are carrying a snake out of a garden and basically, the question maybe that is asked of the speaker you can imagine is, “How long did it take the bees to carry the snake out of the garden?” and she says, “It took the length of time it takes for bees to carry a snake out of the garden.” The reference is through the image that is being made. I was like, “Oh, that’s a lyric. That’s a lyric moment.” It’s not 9:00 PM, there’s not an objective sense of time, the lyric is subject to the time of its making, which is really, really brilliant. I think that this is why jazz is really and music can be really subversive, is that it requires you to be in the time of the making of the music, which is not anybody else’s time. It becomes your time because you’re co-performing through listening to the making, thus it’s being made much like reading. There’s a way in which I’m really interested and this is why I think I’m a [inaudible], like I want to interrupt people’s sense of time but by interrupting, offer them another possibility that there’s this other time that’s existing in pockets or is running alongside the time that they think is time to be worried about what’s going on Netflix. Some of the freedom we want is actually being able to step inside other people’s sense of sound to other people’s sense of time and being able to be with them. Man, everything you’re laying down, I’m like, “Yeah.” [laughter] I mean yes, I don’t know anything else to say. [laughter]
DN: We should say yes. [laughter]
RR: Yes, right? I think the Pentecostal church really taught me that because I don’t know if you know anything about Pentecostal church but we don’t have a set like you’ll get in at 10 and be done by 11. You can get in at 10 and be done at noon, you can get in at 10 and be done at 4. It’s all about how spirit moves. That is the Messianic sense of time. To get back to repetition more specifically, I think of repetition as yes, devotion but also through the repeated act, I think I’m a runner, so I love repetition, through the repeated footfalls, that can move one into another space as well. I think moving so, it becomes an interiority that’s actually built through repetition is another way of saying it. You build a type of mind or a type of ontology right there.
DN: Well, I have a paragraph I’d love you to read about repetition from the essay collection but before you do, I wondered if there was a poem or a part of a poem that you think of that might exemplify repetition or subversive repetition.
RR: That I’ve written or someone else?
DN: Either way. I was thinking of you but if you wanted to pull something and just read something from someone else, that would be great too.
RR: It’s funny, I was going to read a poem from Solmaz. She has a poem I really love called The End of Exile. I find it to be doing repetition but different. Let’s see. We’ll see. You’ll let me know. This is Solmaz Sharif The End of Exile.
[Roger Reeves reads a poem called The End of Exile by Solmaz Sharif]
DN: I love that poem.
RR: To me, this is a poem that plays with repetition in really subtly beautiful ways. I think it’s an amazing, amazing poem.
DN: Well, I was hoping we might hear the last half page of the essay Beyond the Report of Beauty. Since you referred to Michael in this excerpt, maybe you could orient us to the video of the actor Michael K. Williams that is a vital part of this piece as a lead into hearing it.
RR: Sure. So Michael K. Williams, the actor that played Chalky White, Boardwalk Empire, played Omar in The Wire played just these groundbreaking roles of Black masculinity and sexuality that complicated the bifurcation that we have like, “This isn’t what a man is,” and all these toxic ideas. He’s a beautiful dark-skinned man who had a scar across his face that he got in a fight at a club. I love his work. I love that he was a dancer. He went on tour with Madonna and things like that.
DN: Oh, wow.
RR: Yeah. Most people don’t know he was a dancer and choreographed and danced for Madonna and danced in I think George Michael. He was all over the club scenes and dancing in the 80s but he becomes this actor. During the pandemic, there’s a video of him dancing in a park in Brooklyn and the way he dances reminds me so much of the dances that I saw Black folks do in my church when we get happy and the music would move. I just loved watching him dance. I found the video just right after he had passed from a drug overdose. I was just thinking about watching him perform this dance maybe a year before, 8 or 10 months before he was going to die, and also in the pandemic. I just was moved and I wanted to sit with dancing in his beauty, which is also a way of thinking about me as a dark-skinned Black man. I grew up being made fun of quite a bit for being dark-skinned as a kid but the way in which I’ve learned to really love and accept the beauty of dark skin, I love it. I try to celebrate it as much as possible. The end of this essay, I’m thinking about the interactions and the intersection between Michael Williams dancing, the church I grew up in and I’m leaning on living out via the church, living the essay via the church.
[Roger Reeves reads from his debut essay collection Dark Days]
DN: We’ve been listening to Roger Reeves read from his debut essay collection Dark Days. Much of your book could be viewed not just through sound but through questions of repetition, not when the Holy Spirit has entered us but when we imagine ourselves in the position of another. There are countless examples of this in the book that are otherwise quite different from each other but are all cautionary in one way or another. I wanted to take two examples that to me seem different but where with both you pause and refrain from what you call body swapping, then have you talk more into them for us. The first seems quite clear to me, the boy in the photo at Obama’s inauguration, who in your reading of his face is not looking at Obama aspirationally or inspirationally, dubiously instead and by extension, looking dubiously at the American project in relation to Black life and he refusing to put himself in Obama’s shoes. The way Obama himself is placing himself in the shoes of all the presidents before him is something you yourself refuse to do in the book. That opening section of the book, you talk about Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech which he gives opening the speech by first situating himself as the commander of the US military and which is really a very long justification for the importance of war and the various ways war can be not just necessary but just. I remember being amazed by this at the time but I was happy to be re-amazed going back to it where he says things like speaking about our burden, the American burden of conducting just wars. He says, “We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity,” blah-blah-blah. But also, early in the book, you’re invited to give a poetry reading at a former plantation in South Carolina, which prompts a long meditation on the place itself where you walk the grounds and come across a brick in a building that still retains the indentation of a finger, a child’s finger, a child who was a slave’s finger indented in it and your desire to place your finger in the groove to touch where he touched, to understand him better perhaps by placing yourself “there” but you’re wary of your own impulse, you refuse your desire saying, “What would sliding my finger into the indentation erase overwrite make opaque? What is gained in putting my hand into this lacuna of history?” This question of your finger in the brick seems very different than the question of whether one sees a certain arrival of one’s people when a Black person becomes president but both bring up this question of body swapping and your weariness and refusal of it, even if from my naive outsider point of view, it seems like one is more fraught and dangerous than the other. I guess I was hoping you could talk about the juxtaposition of these two and how they do and don’t resonate with each other for you in Dark Days.
RR: Sure. I just want to make a little correction. The image you’re referring to, the first image is actually he’s a boy at a rally for the presidential candidate Obama.
RR: It’s actually not the inauguration. I just want to make sure that we have that historically. [laughs]
DN: Yeah, that’s good. He still could be potentially imagining the hopefulness that Black people could arrive as a president and he’s not.
RR: Yeah. I think I was really disappointed but I shouldn’t have been disappointed. He’s a Democrat. At the end of the day, it’s an American president who is interested in furthering the American agenda, which is not always necessarily an agenda that’s on behalf of the poor or Black folks in America or folks all over the world. When you recounted the speech, I remember that speech and thinking, “This is the most arrogant speech that one could give.” When you bring up this moment of like, “Oh, it’s enlightened self-interest,” like, “Read the room.”
DN: [laughs] Well, he does share the Peace Prize with Kissinger now.
RR: [laughter] It was one of these moments where quickly, I was disabused and many I think were disabused of the notion that this was going to be anything. If we thought that this was going to be a type of progressive reimagination, it was not going to be radical but a little bit progressive I think, that was quickly, quickly disabused of that. When I think about the boy there, what is interesting to me is the boy’s face is so flat. To me, he’s reading. I’ve had the fortune of watching people read. It’s something I do because I’m a professor, so I watch people read, I watch students read or you watch someone read a text and you can see there’s just a flat like I was just really surprised at this six, maybe seven-year-old kid was looking up possibly at Obama, another politician, or someone else speaking but this really beautifully mature affect I would say and that’s the way I would describe it, was that he’s looking, he’s really trying to listen and listen below the words or at least, that’s what appears to me. I do think that that is a different type of position than putting my finger into the brick at the plantation. I’m going to give you a little bit of how I come to thinking about these body-swapping movements, if it wasn’t for someone like Saidiya Hartman and seeing the subjection, she talks about this letter, an abolitionist writing to his slaveholding brother. In the letter basically, I think it’s John Rankin writing to his brother and he says like, “Imagine it were me or imagine it was my children.” There’s this moment, and I talk about this in the book, there’s a lot of times when we’re trying to do empathy, this is the problems of empathy, we have to take out the body, we have to remove the pain in the body that is there, either opaquely, implicitly, sometimes explicitly there and we say, “Imagine it’s me,” so there’s a way in which we have to change and what becomes a priority is not the pained body, the enslaved boy but our own emotional desires or our own desire for some type of catharsis replaces the actual ameliorating of the harm or addressing and redressing harm. I want to be careful about how I put my body in the way of or in front of obscuring bodies that are actually announcing their pain is not always readily addressed, observed, acknowledged. There’s that for me. I even think about this in terms of like I had a colleague at the University of Illinois Chicago again, a story who really had me thinking about, particularly because I’m a writer, like, “How do I put black bodies to work in text even if they’re fictional bodies?” Because there’s still an ethics and a history of Black people being like if I’m going to write about even a fictionalized version of an enslaved person, that is still intersecting and interacting with the real history of Black people being forced to be slaves here in the US. There’s an ethics to how we put Black bodies work, how we show Black bodies and pain in work. It’s not that we don’t show them. I don’t want people to think I’m saying that Black people can’t be in pain, that’s not it, but I do think that we have to think about like the care by which we do it because it’s interacting with a longer tradition in the history of Black people laboring and no one caring or laboring in these really abusive and oppressive ways. I don’t want to reinscribe that, even if it’s just in something like a text.
DN: Well, it reminds me of Solmaz’s line from her last book or lines, “Empathy means laying yourself down in someone else’s chalklines and snapping a photo.” She says this just after saying that empathy is one of the requirements of statehood. It’s a sentiment I imagine is kindred to your own questioning of stepping into the lives of others to see oneself there and what that does. But as an extension of this for Solmaz, she’s wary of metaphor because of this, of a thing standing in for something else. I think she has a persuasive politics around this aesthetic. But I’m also very compelled by Sabrina Orah Mark’s meditations on metaphor as an enactment of the state of exile. She says, “Metaphor makes language lack a certain presence where language happens to be or elsewhere, metaphor is a movable burial plot. It contains, like soil and air, the uncontainable. Metaphor is a ghost turning back into a boy.” I don’t think these are necessarily in opposition but talk to us about your own relationship to metaphor given your concerns around where we place our finger in the brick or whose indentation we’re putting our finger in.
RR: Yeah. I have an opening to a poem of mine called The City where I say, “Empathy will not end Genocide. It won’t even delay it.” When I think about empathy, I’m probably more in line with Solmaz in that we often turn to it but what we’re actually turning is to our own emotional desires and catharsis. I actually think empathy, like I saw a really great discussion of this by [Danielle Evans]. She’s a short fiction writer. Her first book was [Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self]. She has a great essay on craft in The Sewanee Review, maybe spring 2022, maybe spring 2021 where she talks about how empathy works on the individual level but when you move to something like nation and community, it really falls apart because a nation doesn’t have the capacity for empathy. I thought that was a really brilliant way. But in terms of metaphor, I like metaphor. [laughs] How do I say this? So Miles also says this thing. We had a discussion where she says, “All stanzas are announcements of power.” I think this about the idea of something standing in for another, so you have to decide how you want to corroborate or interrogate power in the stanza or play with perceived ideas of power through something like a [inaudible]. I think this about metaphor. I think that there’s a way in which metaphor can be used in harmful ways, but I also think it can be not. It’s about ethics, the ethics of how one deploys this, which is what I think when I say this language, “How do we deploy the metaphor? What is the metaphor doing? Can we be aware of what is obscuring?” Because for me, I had the experience of a metaphor really nailing something and really illuminating a thing that I could not see without it. I think that it’s all about the ethical deployment of anything, of any craft. It’s like a hammer can be violently used or it can be used to build something.
DN: You similarly have a really interesting meditation on writing persona, writing in and about a body, language, culture, social position, or a class that is not the poets and you characterize the two sides as the free speechers and the strict constructionists who believe to deploy or inhabit the materials of another culture furthers the extraction of the labor and materials of that culture. But you yourself think from a middle position where you suggest that the problem might be our inability to imagine the other in ecstasy where you say, “What if the pursuit of writing about the other means understanding the other as a body in the possession or position of ecstasy, rather than sorrow?” where you argue not that pain and sorrow should be off limits but that ecstasy, pleasure, and joy should be comprehensible within the moments of struggle and sorrow. You use as one example Christopher Gilbert’s work which is, in your words, “suffused by his sense of wonder—wonder at how to be part of something that is not one’s own, how that wonder can pull someone into a place of joy.” I don’t know if this is the same thing or something different but I also think of your craft talk you gave called The Work of Art in the Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston where you talk about Seamus Heaney’s poem Punishment about the people who were murdered and hidden in the bogs of Ireland centuries ago and have since become these eerily preserved bog bodies and how his poem teaches you to write about brutality that is culturally sanctioned because Heaney reanimates the body making it into a puppet eroticizing the dead but he critiques his own impulse and subject position as the artful voyeur questioning his position as a modern person looking from a distance and implicating himself in the act of stoning and communal violence, sort of demonstrating the limits of empathy. Given how the question of writing the others so seemingly eternally in the foreground of our literary discussions these days, talk to us about this metric of ecstasy regarding your middle path around inhabiting the position of otherness.
RR: Yeah. It comes about thinking about that poem that Christopher Gilbert wrote and also thinking about the poem that started us into this contemporary conversation of the persona poem that was published in The Nation. One of the things that I began to think about is the way in which we think of, it’s funny, what happens for us I think as poets sometimes or writers sometimes, we are aware of ourselves as being bodies and people constantly in emotional flux but somehow we forget that when we write. So I became really interested in the idea of how one cannot know something and that can send one into a place of like ecstasy or joy. I’m even thinking about in the poem Christopher Gilbert is trying to learn how to braid his sister’s hair. But just being asked to do something he doesn’t know how to do, something he’s witnessed but just being asked to participate is enough to bring about pleasure and ecstasy. Just to be asked to be a novice, to be non-Native to the moment as he says. I was like, “Oh, that’s such a great complication of something like pleasure or joy,” which we always think of as this thing for which we completely know and understand and there’s a sense of all in it, and that one is really great at something. What I began to think about is the way in which might we extend this idea to how we build even characters that are in ongoing catastrophe. For instance, I think about Moonlight, that movie Moonlight where there are moments where there’s absolute beauty that these characters are experiencing in the middle of something like parents addicted to drugs or trying to figure out one’s sexuality. All of that, there are still these moments of little snatches of pleasure. It makes me think of this scholar who brought this to my attention through her article in GLQ, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman who talks about, I know this is going to be a weird way of getting to persona but, what if we never get there? What if the goals of Black freedom are not able to be achieved? What if actually what we’re in is this recursive thing? Are we going to wait for our ecstasy, for our joy, our pleasure, or are we going to open it up in these moments? One of the things that I think about is I grew up, again, this is growing up with people who were experiencing poverty, sometimes homelessness through the Pentecostal church, poor Black folks and I would watch them on Sundays trying to open up moments of joy and ecstasy that counteracted, spoke counter to what they were feeling and experiencing throughout the week. I began to think about this as a way of thinking about persona. Yes, conflict drives literature without a doubt but how do we express complication? I think about Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs and Beloved where she asked for a piece of fabric, just color because she wanted just to touch a piece of color even though she was sick, just having that piece of color in the middle of dying or in the middle of feeling bad offered her something else. I think that’s the complication I want to see when we’re writing about each other. It’s not right, which is how do we see someone complicated, troubling their trouble, not allowing the trouble to be the only thing that is in and of them.
DN: Well, one of the things that makes Dark Days so compelling and alive I think is that you root much of your philosophic, political, and aesthetic meditations in your own biography and within the everyday choices you have to make. Part of this is around your own upbringing in the lives of your parents and grandparents. But more so, Dark Days is a deep look at becoming a father and the choices you make around how to raise your daughter. We learn that you read a poem a day with your daughter from the age of four, how you ponder whether to take her when she’s five to protests and ultimately decide yes. You work through how to talk to her about why you don’t stand for the national anthem or about the killing of Black people when she hears sirens and wonders if they’re coming for her or for you. We learn about your own fears about staying alive, about encounters with the police, about her falling in love with songs from the musical Hamilton, and you thinking about the way Hamilton tries to “body swap our way to freedom.” You mentioned Toni Morrison helping fund Ishmael Reed’s critical response to Hamilton, the play The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Reed who, prior to the play, wrote many essays such as “Hamilton: the Musical:” Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders, and It’s Not Halloween, and Hamilton and the Negro Whisperers: Miranda’s Consumer Fraud, but ultimately it feels like lots of your decisions with your daughter about making sure not to falsely console her where you say, “Severing Black children from the American dreaming tradition might be one of the fundamental foundational jobs of Black parents in America,” a line that I think brings us back to the photograph at the beginning, the refusal of entering Obama’s dream. But can you talk more about the American dreaming tradition and the importance of severing oneself from it, and maybe any other ways you try to do so as a father in your own family?
RR: Yeah. Part of this American dream tradition that I don’t know if we realize as part of it is everything’s going to turn out, everything’s going to be all right for everyone, and it won’t be. Partly because we are making it such as American citizens, not a right for a lot of people around the world. One of the things is I want her to be accountable to that. I want her to understand, as a Black child in America, that she will occupy two positions: as oppressed and oppressive just like by being birthed here under the circumstances that she was birthed here under and that she has to constantly negotiate that. I actually think that that’s like intelligence, like how to negotiate. I get this from thinking about Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason where he talks about on the plantation, this would happen. One moment, an enslaved person is being oppressed, being whipped, and next moment, they could be informing on someone or be the one with being. I’m really thinking about the American dreaming tradition with Naima, my daughter because so much of when I left home was ways that I had to sever myself from it. I always thought, “Oh, I wish somebody would have told me these things before I had left home.” I don’t want her to walk about believing that when she’s buying this pair of jeans, that she doesn’t understand that [inaudible] or the factories that are producing the jean she’s buying and the labor that is required of that and the abuse and the potential abuse of power that’s involved in that, I want her to be aware of that because I think it’ll help her make decisions. I think if we want our children to make decisions that are about changing the future, then we have to give them all of the history and truth behind the thing. Anytime she asked, like we were just reading last night the book Pies from Nowhere, which is about Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and how Georgia Gilmore was this amazing Black woman who helped fund the bus boycotts through a secret organization called a Club from Nowhere where they would bake pies and sell them and they basically funded the Montgomery Bus Boycott and they also helped buy other cars so that they could take people around. But what Georgia Gilmore wanted was she wanted to make sure no one else associated with the making of the pies, we’d get in trouble. So when people asked who made these pies, she said, “No one.” Where did they come from? Nowhere. I try to teach my daughter about these things as well. That’s breaking her too from the American dreaming tradition. It’s teaching her that in order for Black people to get free, we have to be subversive. It won’t be done on social media. It will be done through clubs from nowhere, being no one. For hundreds of years, that’s how it’s been done and I want her to know that. To me, there’s this idea that if you petition your senator, the legislature will do right. It’s like, “No, baby. Your daddy was just up there and legislators turned their back when your daddy spoke to them about the anti-truth campaigns going on in Texas and why certain legislation that they’re proposing is retrogressive and ultimately racist, sexist, and homophobic.” I want her to know that. Our senators do not have her best intent. I always think about that moment where Kanye West said, it was during the Hurricane Katrina, I don’t know if you remember this, Hurricane Katrina happened, and this was before Kanye was Kanye now and I don’t know if you agree with the Kanye in 2005 but he was on there with Michael Myers, they were trying to raise money and Kanye goes off script and he says, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” and I want her to understand this nation does not care about you. They don’t care about me, they don’t care about you.
DN: Well, I want to take this sentiment and these questions about the American dreaming tradition back into sound and talk about these questions through that lens. We have a question for you from the anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, and musician Alex E. Chávez.
RR: My boy, Chávez. [laughter]
DN: Who you’ve collaborated with before and with whom you are collaborating with again on his upcoming album Sonorous Present. I should say this question came in really late in the game so I couldn’t elegantly build my questions around it and place it. It’s a robust, rich, and multi-dimensional question but it culminates in the final seconds into a question that we’ve already spoken into in different ways. When he’s done, I’m going to pull on another of many threads within it and redirect you to that once we hear the full question from Alex.
Alex E. Chávez: Saludos, Roger. It’s Alex. First, thank you, David, for the invitation. I always love being in conversation with my good friend, Roger. In our work both individually and in collaboration, we’ve made space to meditate on sound, subjectivity, borders, both their limits and acts of refusing and transgressing those limits to make connections across difference for instance. I want to take us there for a moment to travel there and yet metaphor is, well you know, Roger, that I’ve often invoked is that of a bridge, that a bridge is a connection called up by desire. It’s a desire to move, to greet, to reunite. It’s a desire to go so that a return can come into being or a crossing. It’s a necessary trajectory. It’s when your own body loosens and you feel a connection with another being, another place, a verse, a melody, and both of you are affected, the other next to you, the story conveyed, an emotion elicited, the echoes of meaning that touch, and these imaginings, its bridges often become politicized in contexts of violence and injustice. It’s why you’ll appreciate this, Roger. It’s why, for instance, the Corrido, the Mexican epic ballad, was so crucial in a social world of the 19th century where “literal death—flesh-ripping death—abounded as a consequence of politics.” That’s José Limón. That is that connection and memory were necessary to living in the Texas-Mexican borderlands and still for Mexican migrants, the politics of death and dying have not receded. So we may begin thinking about all the possibilities that could be bridged across something like a border, what connections might these bridges entail, and this question for me relates less to the result of having crossed, the finality of it than to the bridge itself, the moment of crossing with all of its intensities, the collapsing of place through saturated imaginings that reach out and suddenly drag things and people into view when adjacencies occur and people and moments fold together. These bridges carry intentions and in the end, I continue to ask, and I believe, Roger, through your work, you also ask, what does this crossing sound like? For in context where people are excluded from the realms of formal politics, let’s say that these precarious existences provide the conditions under which sound as transgression, as refusal, as excess can be understood as a bid for a certain kind of survival, a certain kind of survival in spaces of death at a level beyond the barest of bare life. I think this resonates with the speculative worlds imagined through say Afrofuturism or really Black music more broadly. That’s what Ashon Crawley has put forth as “otherwise possibilities.” In this capacity to create worlds, otherwise, as to fashion, a line of escape to invoke George Jackson, it is to map a way out of existing ontologies of capture by unleashing creative forces, producing new conditions, and this recognition of sound is a potentially radically autonomous force [inaudible] that we trace its flows beyond imposed ordering. So, brother Roger, do you think of your work in relation to sound, sound as refuge, sound as survival? If so, how? And if not, why not? [inaudible] brother. I hope to see you soon.
DN: Just as my brief add-on to this from this wonderful question from Alex, obviously, we’ve already talked about your work in many ways in relation to sound but I’m curious about Alex’s notion of the bridge and whether you see sound in your work more broadly in these terms as a bridge is something that sounds a cross difference, and if so, how that would look to you and anything else obviously in this really capacious question of Alex’s that you want to respond to.
RR: It’s interesting because I keep thinking about the middle of the bridge versus the ends of the bridge or the being in the bridge and the bridge is the break. I do think of myself as definitely playing in the break of things or in the breaks and thinking about the wound or the gap in the way in which sound can bear. But at the same time, I think about it as like a simultaneity or maybe a neither nor. When you’re in the middle of the bridge, you’re not in one place or the other. You’re in that interstitial zone and that liminality. But I wonder, can I answer this question also with a poem?
DN: Of course.
RR: When I heard the bridge, one of the things that I was thinking with, I always loved to think [inaudible] Christopher Gilbert, the first poem in the book Across the Mutual Landscape is called This Bridge Across. I think for me, this is how I might answer this. So this is Christopher Gilbert Across the Mutual Landscape and the poem is This Bridge Across.
[Roger Reeves reads a poem called This Bridge Across by Christopher Gilbert]
A moment comes to me and
it’s a lot like the dead
who get in the way sometimes
hanging around, with their ranks
growing bigger by the second
and the game of tag they play
claiming whoever happens by.
I try to put them off
but the space between us
is like a country growing closer
which has a language I know
more and more of me is
growing up inside of, and
the clincher is the nothing
for me to do inside here
except to face my dead
as the spirits they are,
find the parts of me in them —
call them back with my words.
Ancestor worship or prayer?
It’s a kind of getting by–
an extension of living
beyond my self my people taught me,
and each moment is a boundary
I will throw this bridge across.
So I think of sound as that thing that we’re throwing across. We’re constantly throwing this bridge across. The sound becomes that possibility of connecting a thing that wasn’t prior to connecting. One of the things I love working with Alex is we’re always thinking about ways to make these connections and bringing with us many different sorts of materials and even variations on what it is to bridge to make a thing that moves across sonically that offers a possibility that otherwise, it’ll change, like the sound. One of the things why I love poems is there are so many different forms and so there are so many different bridges that one can make in some ways and so many different sounds that one can sound like oneself is. That to me is how I’m thinking about sound and form. What the bridge is, the bridge is the thing that we always carry with us sonically, it literally happens with sound. Sound literally moves from here to somewhere else.
DN: I wanted to place Alex’s question here as the beginning of talking about sounding across difference and some of the questions that I have for you around sounding across difference. Thinking about sound and thinking about the American imaginary, I’m going to quote something else that Alex has said and then try to connect it to your own writing. In an episode of the AnthroPod podcast called The Sound of Borders, this is Alex, Josh Kun, in a book called Audiotopia, makes a case for how the American racial imaginary has been generated in part through experiences of music and through experiences of sound. There’s a way that selective listening has constructed a kind of aural harmony in the service of the project of US White racial hegemony because it silences the kind of presumed dissonance that racial and ethnic difference introduce. Within that context, he argues that those differences ultimately sound out against the constraints of this monocultural vision of American citizenship that they have a capacity to disturb the national aesthetic of unisonance, a one singular sound. In Sounds of Crossing, I extend that argument to suggest that the kind of construction of what he calls the American audio racial imagination is not only about how America hears itself domestically but equally about what it hears itself against, those sounds from outside for instance, outside its national borders. In other words, the policing of American national culture in these English-only initiatives but that policing is definitely the segregationist project that necessarily extends its oral attention beyond the physical space of the nation. This makes me think of a lot of things. This makes me think of the word barbarian in the title of your last book, the word barbarian like the word Berber in North Africa, a word created as an imitation of the sound of the uncivilized other, when the civilized hear them speak. But I wanted to connect this to something I loved that I read in your, forgive me, doctoral thesis in 2012.
RR: Oh, my God. Why did you read that? Don’t do that, man.
DN: No, but this is really good.
RR: [inaudible] archives.
DN: Black Western Thought: Toward a Theory of the Black Citizen-Object. In that thesis, you talk about being in the class in early romantic literature, which you’ve already referred to today, and how unexpectedly, your work in that class became the beginning of your interest in the subjectivity of objects and Black subjectivity. But we also talk about an exchange with a teacher who didn’t understand your use of the word trouble as a verb in your paper and wanted you to change it to the word challenge and where you walk us through the history of the word trouble as a verb in Black spirituals and ultimately say, “I would explain that while the use of the word ‘challenge’ would be more palatable, more easily recognizable to the Academy at large, the use of the term ‘trouble,’ in its unrecognizability, performs two services; it broadens the linguistic and intellectual archive of the Academy, and it brings African-American language and intellectual practices, processes, and traditions in relation, a poetics of relation, to British, cultural and aesthetic artifacts and the scholarly discourse that surrounds them.” So based on this, and granted this was 10 years ago so your views might have changed, but I wanted to ask you about what seems like a very different relation for you toward the canon than you have toward America. Whereas with America you say, “The art, literature, culture, style lives we’ve made out of genocide, I would argue, do not belong to America. We’ve made beautiful things despite America. To give jazz, the blues, hip-hop over to America is akin to giving Frederick Douglass’s master partial credit for writing Douglass’s slave narratives and autobiographies.” You see him, on the other hand, very engaged in a poetics of relation with regards to the non-Black canon whether Pound or Stevens or Louise Glück with some of the poets themselves having been accused of racism or anti-Semitism, or happily those things, a love of fascism, poets who are decidedly other and sometimes participate very explicitly or less explicitly in White supremacy. Your engagement brings you to wonderfully, I think, provocative places like when you say in Dark Days, “I came to sense that Eliot’s articulation of memory and ecstasy is ontologically Black and queer.” I was hoping you could talk to us about how you see your relation to the canon and canon formation, something that seems decidedly different if not opposed to say the project of Tyehimba Jess where he’s unearthing and foregrounding the Black archive in relationship to itself, creating a system of of erased, forgotten, or never centered Black artists.
RR: One of the things that I think we have to remember in the making of nationalist discourse around art is every art form that Black Americans have created was originally rejected by the establishment, sequestered, or tried to vividly work against proliferating. I think about how hard it was for jazz musicians to make money because they had to have Cabaret licenses. There’s a famous incident where Miles Davis was getting his head beaten outside of a club and his Cabaret license being taken from him. One of the things that I’m really interested in is, and this is provocative again, but when did Black Americans start calling themselves Americans? There was a way in which prior to 1960, I don’t think probably most Black folks would have called themselves American. Partly because we were under apartheid, we were not Americans. We were second classes. Even when James Brown was talking about being in America, he was doing it to really piss off White folks, that would have had a problem with him deploying. It’s an ironic relationship to America. One of the things that I think I’m saying about jazz, blues, and hip-hop is that we know this with hip-hop, I have to say 2009 was revelatory for me I think. That was the year when that song Black and Yellow was like everybody was singing it. I remember when hip-hop became mainstream. That was only like 15, 16 years ago. I grew up when people were like, “That’s noise. That’s N-music. Kids don’t listen to this. [inaudible]” There’s a way in which to me, this should be obvious that Black music has not been American music, partly because of the opposition to it by Americans simply. I think saying it makes people be like, “Oh, [inaudible]” But it’s not provocative when you look at the actual history of the music and the musicians that had the play to live it. It actually isn’t provocative to say this, that America found this music completely problematic and that it wasn’t American. One, I want to couch that we have to actually look at the actual history and not just get caught up in the statement, and not that you were at all but the other is thinking about one’s relationship to the canon or tradition. Again, we already talked about this. It’s my same relationship to the Pentecostal church. I’m going to take what works and what don’t, I’m going to leave it. It’s the same relationship. My relationship to Stevens or anybody, I’m going to take what works and I’m going to leave what doesn’t work. I’m going to play in what they don’t want me to play. That’s part of it too. I’m going to play in all this material, all this sonic material. If it has a sound, I’m going to play with it and I’m not going to appropriate it but I’m going to think about it. One of the things that I think that we forget is that work has an imagination beyond itself because language is, like anything else, much older than we are. Poetics and people’s poems are actually much older than they actually are as well and it’s doing things that they never intended. So what I’m going to do is think about the imagination. I think Tyehimba Jess does this with John Berryman, with Henry. He’s like, “Okay, Berryman created this blackface figure.” John Berryman, poet for folks, I don’t know who created this blackface figure and he would sometimes use it in his poems. Tyehimba Jess was like, “I’m going to take that figure and do something else that Berryman never intended.” I think that’s cool. I’m like, “Yo, that’s what we should be doing.” [laughter] I think it’s to be played with and there are many ways of playing with a thing. I think of Broadway, I think it was a finalist for a Pulitzer, maybe won some [inaudible] that played with blackface a few years ago. I’m open to play. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be pulled off. This is the other thing we have to do. This is something that’s difficult. If someone might do something and it not be good or it not be done well, I’m okay with that. That’s the what-if of art. People are going to try something, I’m not saying we should not call it out or we shouldn’t describe in detail because I actually think we learn a lot from unsuccessful art, art that doesn’t pull itself all the way off, doesn’t pull off its intent. I’m not saying that we should be racist, homophobic, transphobic in our literature. But what I am asking people to do is take risks with things and then sometimes those risks don’t succeed. I’m taking a lot of risk I think in this book in essence. I’m critiquing things that people love. Lin-Manuel Miranda happens [inaudible] How can you critique Hamilton? [laughter] But I found this article, my partner, she’s a historian, she sent me an article that actually shows that Hamilton owned slaves and not just through the Schuylers, but actually Philip Schuyler may have actually bought slaves for Hamilton on Hamilton’s behalf but we want to throw that away because we have to have this narrative of what Hamilton is. I’m interested in the play. I don’t know if I’m making sense but my relationship to the canon is, again, like any hegemonic force. It’s my relationship to English. Sometimes I’m trying to make English be nonsensical, sometimes I’m using it to do things like [inaudible] to speak in tongues. I want to do that with the tradition. I want to do that with all these different writers that have come before me. Sometimes I would do something never intended with their work. I may say they’re next to Gertrude Stein.
DN: Yeah. I remember that exchange between Derrida and Coleman when they talk about neither of them having languages of origin and Coleman asking Derrida if he felt like sometimes it interfered with thought the fact that he was thinking in a language that wasn’t a language of origin. That was a really interesting part of their discussion.
RR: Yeah. I think about that often. I talked about that with like Solmaz or with Natalie Diaz. It’s a hard-to-know thing, particularly if you don’t have another language. I learned French growing up. That’s still not a language that is fine in that same way. My daughter, my partner, she’s Puerto Rican, she’s learning Spanish, that’s still a colonizer’s language for Puerto Rico. What I’ve been thinking about is how do we play in those gaps, how do we question those things, how do we bring about that possibility. I do think that’s where silences can be really useful or explosions and playing with certain types of rupturing that actually is about thinking about the silences that are there.
DN: Well, I wanted to save my favorite part of the book for near the end, which is also an area where I think you take big risks but that’s not why it’s my favorite part, but the essay Intimate Freedoms, Intimate Futures, which is a critique of the 1619 Project and also a deeply imagined alternative to it that uses the character Sixo from Beloved is the inspiration, before we talk about Sixo and your counterpoint to the 1619 Project, I’d love to spend some time with your critique of it. I remember when it first came out, a project that centers the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, The White Lion as the origin story of America as America, Natalie Diaz tweeting that ignoring the history of indigenous democracy, which predated the US founding, amounted to a form of erasure and some people then calling her out as anti-Black saying that after being so marginalized in America’s telling of its own history and after all the scholarship done by Black women for Black people to finally center their story, to finally tell the history of America from a position of centrality, to have these critiques come from Diaz amounted to anti-Blackness, that she should instead celebrate this achievement and focus on centering her own people and telling their story in a similar fashion alongside it. You talk in Dark Days about the sometimes fraught history between Native peoples and people of the African diaspora in North America, whether Native participation in the slave trade or Buffalo Soldiers participating in the Indian Wars, an ongoing legacy that still sometimes manifests as anti-Blackness in the Native community or indigenous erasure within the Black community, something that I suspect is informing this exchange and its tensions that happened when the 1619 Project came out. Nevertheless, I remember feeling unconvinced and skeptical that Natalie was speaking from a place of anti-Blackness, and your critique of the project gave me words for what I imagined Natalie was getting at where what you are critiquing is the centering itself and the desire for centering. You suggest history must be complicated through diffusion rather than centering and that to center 1619 as America’s founding is to perform a type of ethnocentrism that allides to ongoing histories. Where, in your words, Nikole Hannah-Jones graphs the African-American body onto the disingenuous American mythologizing of its history, and that 1619 is not the beginning but the middle, and that exclusion of Natives from the story perpetuates what David Treuer argues that Nativeness must always be beautifully and romantically absent. Talk to us about why centering in your mind is so problematic, why two parallel projects, as some of the critics suggested, one Black and one Native both centering themselves is not the answer, that the real story is at the margins, the margins of both narrative but also the margins of identity.
RR: Yeah. Earlier in the discussion, I talked about the nation and the problem of nation. What I find completely ironic to the point of like, this is obvious, how can we center democracy in slavery? Unless we want to tell the truth about democracy, which is democracy can bear slavery but that’s not what we’re saying, that democracy actually allows for and it can perpetuate but that’s not what we’re saying. For me, centering is problematic because what the desire is is to be the node by which everything else moves around and I don’t think that that’s going to liberate Black people, Native folks, or anybody. I don’t think that’s going to change the nation. One of the things that I think I want to hold in question, and partly the reason I’m holding this in question is because our art has held it in question, I find it interesting that Daughters of the Dust wasn’t discussed, Daughters of the Dust is a great film by Julie Dash wherein she’s looking at the islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida called the Gullah Sea Islands where Black folks were kept during slavery sometimes and therefore never made it to the mainland. One of the things that I find so beautiful about this film is that Black folks interacting with Native folks throughout the film. One of the things is that we know certain types of Black liberation would not be possible, during slavery, without Native involvement, particularly in Florida into Mexico. Also, 1619 isn’t the first time that Black people are here. It’s just not. The Spanish had been here and Colonial Mexico had the largest Black population. There’s a great book called Black Creole history book. We also get in centering “America” as she recapitulates the erasure of South America, of Central America, and the way in which the US becomes America but the US is the US. What I would have loved to see is a more robust and rigorous thinking about the intersection of these two ongoing modernities we might say, both Black and Native, and the way in which they were brought about together. But to me, it seems as if we really are trying to counteract or critique the exclusion of Black folks from the “story of the US,” then what we would also be trying to do is critique all these exclusions because they were all happening simultaneously and happening in a coordinated fashion and our liberation was too. It’s not saying that Black liberation is Native liberation, because what we want as communities are very different, and even what we want inside Black communities and inside Native communities in terms of liberation is going to be different and how we want the US to respond. We don’t need myth. What we need is complication. We need to deal with the difficulty of these things. Again, my example is Sixo because Sixo goes, and one of the things I think that Morrison does really beautifully is to have him ask for permission. Sixo in Beloved is going to meet the Thirty-Mile Woman. He has this partner that he wants to have a relationship with but she’s on one plantation, he’s on another and they’re about 34 miles away so they call it a Thirty-Mile Woman. Sixo would have to go back and forth over the weekend over a Sunday, meet with her, he would walk the distance to meet her, basically tell her good morning, then have to walk back. He finds this abandoned or no-longer-used Native American spiritual space and he asks the spirits can he bring his lady there because it’s about halfway between them or a third or two-thirds, I forget the distance between them, but it would make it easier. I always loved that moment as a moment of thinking about, “Oh, maybe that’s the possibility to think about this intimacy.” This was the way I began to think about how Black families can come to be was in order for Sixo to make family, in order for him to have intimacy, he had to have intimacy also with Native folks and what their sense of land was and their sense of space was. He was trying to honor them. So much of thinking about where Black people in the future, how are we economically is to not to recapitulate capitalism such that we’re doing the exploitation. We are the ones that own the means and modes of production but to actually think about how do we end or begin to integrate others into a more equitable society. That’s about creating intimacy and thinking about it that way.
DN: Well, and you also go into this question of this conundrum of owning land and the power that anybody gets from owning land but then how do you contend with securing the base of power for your people while also contending with that the land is stolen to begin with. I love the way the Sixo part of the book, which is really moving, re-evokes the notion of hush harbors but it isn’t just slaves and Black people, it’s a provisional and always renegotiated space with others that aren’t you. You say things like, which I loved, “The future must conspire with the edges and borders of another,” and you talk about world-building within the wound, which I think is so great, that notion.
RR: It comes from me thinking about like Maroon culture, that one must build within something because that’s what Maroons did, they ran away to The Great Dismal Swamp in Florida, they ran to different places. Even within plantations, there were actually Maroon. On actual plantation, because we think of plantations probably as these farms with rows, big corn fields, and things like that and that’s not all of what a plantation was. Sometimes plantations were still very wilderness. Within sometimes plantations, there were actual Maroon cultures, runaway slaves, and fugitive and slave folks that had built a separate autonomous space. I think, “Oh, we might need to do that. It won’t look the same.” But we might think about our autonomy that way, that we might have to build spaces and we will have to do this thinking about Native folks because these spaces will occur on their land and we have to think about how we can have a conversation about like, “Hey, we were dragged here and we’re trying to figure it out. Can we figure it out together?” We don’t want to do any more taking than has already happened but what we have to do is talk about like, “But we’re here.” That’s the conversation, and I know folks are having these conversations and have had these conversations, are in it. I’m not proposing anything new but what I want to do is think about the way in which we might need to have more of them and in thinking about them. For me, the 1619 Project was a great opportunity to think about this in terms of building this alternative canon, this alternative history of America. It was sponsored by The New York Times. That’s huge. I just thought that was an opportunity.
DN: Well, I love this idea of finding these autonomous spaces at the margins of one’s identity. This whole section, I feel like it provokes so many or evoked so many things that I feel like I could do an entire podcast episode with you just talking about this one section. But one of the things I did want to bring up, I’m going to exercise restraint and not bring them all up but the one thing I did want to bring up that brings us back to the church and also questions that animate my own thoughts about my Jewish identity in relation to Jewish memory and in relation to diaspora and margins and related to the dispossession of Palestinians was my conversation with Pádraig Ó Tuama, the Irish poet and theologian who hosts Poetry Unbound. When we talked, we talked a lot about his book with Glenn Jordan Borders and Belonging, which is about the Book of Ruth and how they used this book in their conflict resolution sessions between the Irish and the British and Northern Ireland as it’s a book from both of their traditions, Protestant and Catholic, and yet in their mind advantageously a book that neither people are very familiar with. They place this book between them as a discussion space rather than having them recite their own stories of grievance where they’re centered and centering themselves. One thing I love about this meditation on the Book of Ruth from the Hebrew Bible is that when the Jews were returning from Babylonian captivity, the question to God was why did this happen to us and different prophets had different opinions. Ezekiel said the temple was defiled and needed to be cleansed. Isaiah, that we needed a new social vision because of social injustice. Jeremiah thought prayer should have never been centralized in Jerusalem in one temple, that we needed to go back to decentralized localized prayer, which is interesting to me that even at the time, when the Jews had an axis mundi a center, an umbilicus from which their cosmology was organized, the house of the indwelling divine feminine and the Ark of the Covenant, that even then, there were those that were arguing against the center, against the centralized kingdom. But speaking most directly to our conversation today was Pádraig’s suggestion that the Book of Ruth was written in response to the ideas of the fourth prophet Nehemiah, one who seems to be the spirit of modern-day Israel, who suggested that we were held captive in Babylon because we had allowed in the stranger, the foreigner, and the other. That if you came back from Babylon with a foreign spouse, get rid of her. If you have children with polluted blood, get rid of them, and where Pádraig imagines the writer of The Book of Ruth saying, “You know what we most need now, we need a story that’s about a foreigner who returns us to ourselves,” and that book has no divine intervention, rather, it has all of these border crossings and many fraught and complicated moments of hospitality. They’re fraught because Ruth comes from the absolutely most hated people of the Israelites, the Moabites, the people who refused to feed the Israelites when they were starving in the desert. Yet the most difficult other becomes the matrilineal line that results in King David, the most exalted Jewish king, that the most central aspects of Jewish identity came from the margins or even from beyond Jewishness and from being alive to the provisionality of identity and borders. I don’t know if this sparks any thoughts for you. But either way, I wanted to share this way that Sixo moved me as we came to an end. Also, I wanted to have us go out, not with a conversation about the final photographs because I want to preserve the pleasure of what it means for people to both journey toward them and then arrive at them, but with a reading of Instructions for the Underground.
RR: Thank you for that. I feel like you just gave me a gift with thinking about the Ruth. I was someone raised very, very aware of that and my mother has taught Sunday school lessons about Ruth.
DN: About Ruth?
RR: Yeah, Boaz. I love this idea there was no divine intervention. This was something that had to happen between peoples and the people had to make this. It really resonates and actually, I find that to be really useful as a way of thinking about how we don’t need the governments. I think of that way of needing governments to arbitrate some of these things and I think mutual aid is another way for me to think about this. But I love that, what’s it, Pádraig?
DN: Pádraig Ó Tuama. It’s a great conversation that we talk about conflicting, the erasure of dreaming I think also, these narratives when you’re not contending with other narratives and you’re just dreaming your narrative forward, the disaster of that and to contend with them not necessarily that they’re on equal. I didn’t mean to suggest that the British and the Irish were just like brothers who had a disagreement and they’re very aware of that power dynamic as Irish people. But it was a pretty interesting conversation to have about his own relation to Christianity too, which is really unusual and generative.
RR: Yeah. I’m going to check that one out. This is Instructions for the Underground.
[Roger Reeves reads a poem called Instructions for the Underground]
DN: Thank you, Roger, for today and for Dark Days.
RR: Thank you. This was wonderful, man. I hope I answered the questions. You do some hell of reading, brother. [laughter] The Ornette Coleman.
DN: Coleman was great. Thank you for pointing me there.
RR: Thank you so much for just the dedication to reading and to really sitting with the work. That’s all we can ask and I really, really appreciate your openness and working with the book. This is my first time, first book, fiction writing, so it means a lot. Thank you.
DN: Yeah. You’re welcome. We were talking today to Roger Reeves about his essay collection Dark Days from Graywolf. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
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