Famed poet makes his mark in Claremont

Roger Reeves, Claremont Graduate University’s 2023 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner, reads excerpts from “Best Barbarian: Poems” at the Claremont Helen Renwick Library on Wednesday. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Internationally acclaimed poet and essayist Roger Reeves, 43, said he’s not really feeling like a celebrity this week despite Claremont Graduate University rolling out the red carpet for him. Don’t get him wrong though, he’s still enjoying the star treatment as an honored guest of the college, complete with a welcome ceremony Monday.

This week Reeves, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, was recognized for his achievement as CGU’s 2023 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Awards recipient for his second collection of poetry, “Best Barbarian: Poems,” published by W.W. Norton and Company in 2022. The award was granted in April and came with a hefty $100,000 bonus.

Reeves’ sequel of works comes nine years after his first body, “King Me,” published by Copper Canyon Press. Lynne Thompson, one of five judges for CGU’s award this year, said once she picked up “Best Barbarian: Poems,” it was hard to compare it to the other nearly 400 entries.

“I read it and thought, ‘I don’t want to be pushy, but I think I’m going to be hard-pressed to read anything more beautiful, more tightly written than this book,’” Thompson said, noting Reeves’ curiosity, use of language, exploration, and insistence on a particular voice were what drew her. “This was a book where every single line was critical to the whole. I remember as I was reading it saying, ‘I finished a poem, I just need to take a breath.’

“To me, it was well executed without being pedantic, overly academic. It just was the perfect blend of a personal vision with the best that poetry can do in terms of language,” Thompson said.

Reeves’ resume of poetry accolades is remarkable given his career as a published poet is just a decade young. “A young writer was in their 40s, that’s what I always understood,” he joked Tuesday.

From “King Me” landing success as the 2013 recipient of the Library Journal’s Best Poetry Book of the Year honor as well as the Larry Levis Reading Prize among many others, “Best Barbarian: Poems” builds on that by receiving CGU’s coveted prize and Canada’s 2023 Griffin Poetry Prize. The 2022 book was also a finalist for the National Book Foundation’s National Book Award for Poetry last year. Reeves’ poetry has appeared in literary powerhouses such as PoetryPloughsharesAmerican Poetry ReviewBoston Review and more. In August, Graywolf Press published Reeves’ first nonfiction title, “Dark Days: Fugitive Essays.”

Although success is an encouraging sign to write more poetry, Reeves’ true goal in literature is to cultivate an audience of readers who look at language and history critically.

“To me, we’re trying to build a reading public and an intellectual public, a public that is questioning and looking askance at power, looking askance at the light that is the sort of moment of the epoch. That’s what all writers and artists are trying to build.”

Reeves’ poetry draws upon his current state, which has shifted over the years with the completion of college, the forging of a 16-year relationship with fellow poet and partner Monica Jimenez, and birth of his daughter Naima. He said since poems are always in conversation with the poet’s life, his works change as Reeves changes.

“I think we have an evolving voice, an evolving sort of sound, and that’s what I’m trying to build in my own work,” he said. “A lot of poems are trying to address what does it mean to live, and what does it mean to live under certain dynamics, structures, systems, powers, politics, oppressive regimes.”

Born in January of 1980, Reeves grew up in a subdivision in Mount Holly, New Jersey, a working town outside of Philadelphia surrounded by meadows and farmland. “[I] grew up in my grandmother’s house, actually. She bought the house with my grandfather in 1958 so I grew up there with my mother and sister and grandmother. And then, eventually my mother bought a house when I was leaving for college.”

Reeves surrounded himself with literature from an early age and liked to memorize poems for the school’s annual elocution contest and keep up with advanced mathematics. He also wrote poems for his childhood friends as birthday gifts since he couldn’t afford lavish presents.

After graduating Rancocas Valley Regional High School in 1998, Reeves enrolled at Princeton University but left two years after declaring as a mechanical and aerospace engineering major. “I was really attracted to and still am really attracted to math and science,” he said. “My first way of thinking about language actually was through math and science. I thought of them as languages. And then when I went to college I realized I wanted to read more books, but I was in this math-sciencey sort of track, and that’s when I left Princeton.”

He went to Morehouse College in 2000 and graduated with a bachelor’s in English three years later. “I didn’t meet my first living poet until I was in college,” he said, referencing his long-time mentor, Daniel Black. “It wasn’t until then where I was just in the world and was seeking out poets and artists that I moved in that direction.”

He completed his master’s in English in 2006 from Texas A&M University, then his Master of Fine Arts in poetry in 2010 and his doctorate in English in 2012 at the University of Texas at Austin. Reeves honed his craft throughout college, sticking to a one poem a day criteria Black had set for him.

“I wrote quite a bit. I would sometimes keep the notebooks, sometimes I’d throw them out, burn them. It’s so different now,” he said. “I did write a lot in college, but I didn’t see it as something I needed to publish. And I still don’t see everything I write as something that needs to be published.

“What does being published mean? It just means this is the work that I felt could contribute to the sort of discussions we might need to be having in the public and that I need to be discussing,” he said. “For instance, right now, U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Israel, and the way in which it’s affecting Palestinians.”

Reeves wrapped his residency Friday with a 6 p.m. free and public reading at the Peggy Phelps and East Galleries, 251 E. 10th St., Claremont. He returns to teaching undergraduates the following week at his alma mater.


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