In Conversation With . . . Reginald Shepherd: More Than a Product of Circumstance

Reginald Shepherd is an American writer and academic. He has published five books of poetry.

His latest work, Orpheus in the Bronx, a group of essays proposing a new understanding of?and direction for?modern poetry, was published by the University of Michigan Press as part of its Poets on Poetry series.

The Voice recently reviewed Orpheus in the Bronx.

Building a Verbal Structure

I don’t need any particular physical environment to be able to read and write, though a modicum of privacy and quiet is always helpful. I’ve been able to write on buses, planes, trains, and even in nightclubs. Whenever the opportunity presents itself I try to take advantage of it.

I have a couple of different processes when I write a poem. Sometimes (this is the more rare occurrence) a poem presents itself to me more or less whole. It will often undergo extensive revision, but most of the poem is there in draft form.

More usually, I collect lines, images, phrases, and even words?I carry a notebook around with me to jot down things I notice or things that come to me?until at some point I have a critical mass of lines and phrases that seem to go together. Part of the process of writing the poem is figuring out how they go together, building a verbal structure that will contain them.

On Orpheus in the Bronx

I wanted a title that would link the mundane circumstances in which I grew up, and of which I am largely the product, with the realm of art, which offered an alternative to those circumstances and the possibility of a self that was more than just the product of those circumstances.

I’ve always thought that the importance of literature, and of art in general, is that it offers possibilities and potentials besides those of the world as it is, that it offers alternatives?That’s what has always appealed to me about literature.

Through the course of my education and my writing career I’ve felt the need to articulate and develop my ideas and convictions, to present good arguments for my positions and my viewpoints in order to make them more than just personal opinions. Many times the occasion to do so was an invitation to write something?I’ve often been prodded to explore my ideas by what one might call required writing.

Solace in Solitude

I’ve felt socially isolated in some way and to some degree pretty much all my life. But I’ve been lucky in always having a few friends who have at least tried to understand me. And literature, reading it and writing it, has been a strong source of sustenance all my life, as has listening to music.

The Danger of Losing Poetry

I think that the abandonment of poetry as an aesthetic form is a real danger. People too often look to poetry, and to art in general, for confirmation of their sense of personal and especially of group identity, treating it as a means rather than an end, and limiting the range of possibilities it can offer.

They just want to see themselves, or rather some idealized image of themselves, reflected back at them, rather than taking the opportunity to really explore identity and the world that art offers, not just through its content but through its nature as an aesthetic form.

Something called poetry might well continue after people have given up a sense of poetry as art.

I don’t see the world in black-and-white, either/or terms, and I think that one of the many possibilities literature offers is of linking different worlds, of bringing different kinds of things together and finding out how they relate to one another.

The title of my fourth book of poems, Otherhood, embodies this attempt, bringing together otherness and brotherhood in a single word. Poetry, and art in general, is a social product, but it is also something that takes on a life of its own and speaks back to society. Much of its power resides in that dialectical relationship.

On Pissing People Off

I’ve come to realise that even things I write that I think are wholly innocuous will offend someone or another. If I spent all my time worrying about how people might respond, I would never write anything. On a practical level, I’ve been very lucky to have a steady publisher of my books of poetry: my editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester, is very loyal and supportive of my work. And I’ve also been lucky to have various forums in which to voice my viewpoints even when they’re considered controversial.

The Poet in a TiVo World

I think that the explosion of communications technology has both expanded and contracted the possibilities for poets to find an audience. On the one hand, the Internet makes both finding and buying books and disseminating work in non-traditional ways (e-books, blogs, podcasts, web sites) much easier, making work accessible to a much larger audience than ever before possible, and also making it possible for a much larger number and variety of people to participate in literary culture.

On the other hand, the proliferation of blogs and web sites, etc., makes it much harder for any given work or writer to stand out, makes it much easier for things to get lost in the flood of data. And of course the larger world of mass media provides many distractions from the merely literary that simply didn’t exist in the 19th century. People are too busy voting for the next American Idol and TiVo-ing episodes of 24 to pick up a book.

I hope that the benefits communication technology provides will outweigh the downsides, but I wouldn’t try to predict the future.

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