Roger Reeves is an ecstatic poet, a poet of suffering transmuted into higher-order sound. Best Barbarian has the structure of a jazz number. The melody is the first twenty poems—starting with a whirling riff on Grendel and James Baldwin—then “Children Listen,” “Sovereign Silence, or The City,” “Echo: From the Mountain,” “So, Ecstasy” and others, each concerned with the nature of a kind of repeated or formal sound. Then comes the improvisation, the loosening spontaneity, which is section two, made up of two long poems as enriched by the Aeneid, Chaucer, and Dante as they are by the idea of a solo that tells a story. “Domestic Violence” is fierce but inquiring, in its seeing, in its sense of the hell that is a state that shoots down unarmed Black men. Then comes “Something About John Coltrane,” a wonder of a poem that makes sense of a feeling, that moves against normative sensemaking: that is, as the poet described it to me, “me blowing my horn.” It’s a poem that plays historical characters, that takes as its starting point Alice Coltrane’s song by that same name, an infusion of Gospel, Black vernacular, blues, and dirge—and this, maybe, is what we mean when we talk about an ecstatic poetry, a poetry that rolls the suffering and the style into a radical love song:
Something about a tree in shallow sleep
Listening for what it wants to remember:
The note of a seed, its neck sliding through
Dirt and its confusion—nothing cleansed
Of struggle. The weight lost after death,
A confrontation of death. John Coltrane
Even in death is a perfect instrument
Of water and working the day past its zero—
The fires in the trees, a legless rabbit
Drifting across the sky—dream of a mule
Covered in crows opened in front of a mule
Covered in crows, their wings beating against him
Like skin. An autumned tree in autumn
Watching fire autumn the other trees.
It doesn’t have to make sense now; it can
Make sense later on. A mule covered in crows—
The poem keeps coming back to a refrain, with different names—“Something About John Coltrane,” “Something About Marion Brown,” “Something About Aretha Franklin”—and as it builds it moves us through the crescendo of grief. Reeves is a poet of ornament, because he is a poet of layering, of great linguistic flourish, of repetition—“an autumned tree in autumn”—of a language wrought and gorgeous like the King James Bible, and so—most important—his work abides in a richness of language and artifice like few writing today. His work is gourmand. Delicious. As tragic as it is textured.
JESSE NATHAN: How do you think about poetic artifice? Some people think of that as a bad word. I think of it as neutral, myself. How do you find yourself relating to the idea of artifice? How do your poems find their forms, their individual styles? I’d be curious especially to hear about “Domestic Violence” or “Something About John Coltrane.” (It seems to be connected, in part, to the question of “why poetry?”) What is artifice, to you — and how do you use it?
ROGER REEVES: To ask a poet about artifice is to ask the poet to explain the whole world—the whole world of the poem. I will try to do my best. I think about artifice as a catalyst for poetic meditation. But what do I mean by artifice? Artifice is the frame, the props by which the poem enacts its poem-ness. Now that might seem tautological or opaque, but I don’t mean to be. Artifice is not just the form (i.e., sonnet, free verse, couplets, etc.), it’s also diction, syntax, metaphor-system (or lack thereof). Artifice is the skeleton upon which the saying-something-of-the-poem lays itself. Artifice animates the saying-something. Artifice is often felt but not always seen. In this way, I think of it as material—very real—and a bit ephemeral, something like spirit. Artifice can be described. Take for instance a one-sentence description of the artifice of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”: “Here’s a one-sentence poem that deploys couplets as its formal container while using the rhetorical veneer of a thesis statement to give its emotional heft.” That description leaves out something ephemeral like tone (though it’s there a bit in the phrase “emotional heft”). Williams’s poem deploys artifice in the nature of its line breaks, in the rhythmic deployment of one-word lines. So much has been written about this poem that I will stop here, but I believe I’m beginning to make my point.
When I’m looking for a poem’s form or artifice, I’m looking for something that both breaks open the poem for me, hurtling me through the poem, and simultaneously slows me down. I’m looking for the artifice to reveal to me something I did not know I knew. That’s when the artifice is working—when I come upon a thought, a turn of phrase, a metaphor, an insight that I did not know I knew until the writing of that poem. In this way, I am both sped up and slowed down, because I’m looking to see, to feel, to hear a new sound—even if it’s just new to me.
Now, how do poems find their form? Well, sometimes by luck, but mostly by trial and error, reading around looking for forms, experimenting, constantly shaping the sound, sometimes revising the sound through different line arrangements and stanzaic forms. I’m constantly reading others—Zbigniew Herbert, Nathaniel Mackey, H.D., Solmaz Sharif, Homer, David Ferry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Aimé Césaire, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey—for formal ideas; how do poets announce or renounce poetry, power; how might their attention to the line, to odd music, to metaphor create feeling, catalyze thinking? I’m also looking for form and artifice in other places, in other ideas of composition. For instance, during the pandemic, I read around Ornette Coleman and his notion of harmolodics and his notion of free jazz—improvisation from time signature and melodic territory to create feeling, sound. Alice Coltrane, her mixing the blues with Indian ragas was completely useful in terms of how I came to building “Something About John Coltrane.” I’m interested in forms, notions of composition, that weave together diverse and diffuse traditions and materials. I’m composed of so many different sounds, traditions of music, and spirituality; composed of various notions of what it means to be present and alive—and I always hope to sit with these sources in some sort of conversation, not an argument. I’m interested in speaking from, writing with the many tongues in my head.