As I’m in the throes of interviewing this summer, I’ve been thinking about the first book I published a lot and how wonderful those interviews were, how kind and generous the poets were. Sadly, two of the 12 men I interviewed have passed away. I sometimes forget about the human connections made during the interviews, and I don’t often talk about those details….but I thought I might. Hopefully soon I’ll have the chance to talk about my brief interaction with Thom Gunn, but for now I wanted to talk about Reginald Shepherd. To be clear, many others who knew him far better have offered much more meaningful tributes, and I wrote such a tribute previously for The Bloomsbury Review, but I’ve never gone back in my head and thought about what it was like to know him as a person, to talk with him, to make that human connection.
I “met” Reginald Shepherd through his poetry’s Greek gods and their boys, especially Apollo and Hyacinth. Those poems snagged me pretty immediately. I knew he was a poet I wanted in my first edition. When I spoke with him over the phone, I was in my living room in an apartment in Brookline, an apartment sparsely decorated and with cinder block walls with little on them. I literally had to lay on the hardwood because I was using an old phone with a speaker phone option, and I had nowhere to put it but on the floor next to the room’s only jack. My rusty old tape recorder lay next to the speaker. I was nervous and wondered if he’d hear how uncomfortable I was. (As soon as he started talking, I forgot about that.) I was picturing Reginald’s famous photo and for some reason I imagine him to be this towering, deep-voiced smooth operator. He was smooth, certainly, but not in the way I imagined. When he answered the phone, he had a voice pitched higher than I’d imagined and even a little feminine. He spoke rapidly and with such eagerness, I was immediately put at ease. He even asked about my “project” (I love that!) and off we went. I think we talked for almost two hours straight. Often, I would forget my pre-prepared questions and we’d just follow the currents of a real conversation. He sparkled in conversation. And I knew his poetry well enough by then (as I aspire to with all my interviewees), that I found myself connecting poems and pieces of poems across his work, jumping off something Reginald said to offer some comment, praise, not-necessarily-question. It was exhilarating.
When I met Reginald at AWP in New York City, for a panel he kindly asked me to be a part of, I was shocked that he was around my height. His energy was contagious. And I noticed his penchant for standing close to you when talking to you, creating an immediate intimacy. He was nothing like I’d imagined him. And yet from that disembodied voice, the intellect and the warmth came through in person even more.
Reginald and I communicated via email as well, something I always looked forward to. He once sent me some of his college-years work, and I was so flattered that he’d even think of getting my response. And when he got sick, I once asked him —in the hopes of setting a tone of optimism — if he thought he’d one day write about his health problems, dire as they were. He talks about this issue in his posthumous book of essays, and all I could think of was how sure I was he’d beat the cancer, how asking such a question, I hoped, would create that future.
As many people have commented, Reginald always signed his emails…
Peace and poetry.