Regarding This First Ghost: Reginald Shepherd

by Andris Feldmanis

Lately, I’ve been reading A Martian Muse: Further Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry by Reginald Shepherd. Many people are now familiar with Shepherd’s Oprheus in the Bronx the collection of essays published shortly after his death.

When I read the essays in Orpheus in the Bronx last winter, something in me broke open. I was sitting in a coffee shop, reading as much as I could before my poetry workshop that evening, and then next thing I knew, I was crying uncontrollably, embarrassingly. I can’t tell you what it is about Shepherd’s work that resonates so deeply with me. Perhaps it has something to do with my realization that so many of my black gay mentors in the word are gone: Melvin Dixon, Reginald Shepherd, Essex Hemphill, E. Lynn Harris, Don Belton.

It seems that I’m a student of ghosts. (Then again, most writers could very well say the same.) In tribute to these ghosts, I will be writing about their work throughout the summer. It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of them (or perhaps you love them even more than I do.) Regardless, I want to honor their memory & their words.

I’m working on a more elaborate post about Shepherd’s poetry but, for now, here’s a passage from his essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” that I read yesterday & have been running over my tongue ever since:

Some years ago, when I lived in Chicago, I attended a screening of a film biography of the late Martinican Negritude poet Aime Cesaire, a fascinating and challenging poet who also had a rather interesting life. During the question and answer period someone asked, “What does this film have to say to the average black kid on the street corner?” I wondered, “Why does it have to speak to him? Isn’t there enough in our culture that’s addressed to him, that panders, however patronizingly and exploitatively, to him?” And isn’t it insulting to assume that he couldn’t find something interesting and engaging in Cesaire if he were given the chance to do so? To assume that the mythical “average person” can’t appreciate anything complex is rank condescension. But in our culture, anything “intellectual,” anything complex or difficult, is not only marginalized but dismissed as irrelevant or, most damningly, “elitist,” often by members of the socio-economic elite.

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3 responses to “Regarding This First Ghost: Reginald Shepherd

  1. Kirsten Hemmy

    Beautifully put. Reginald Shepherd was so brilliant, so thoughtful, so engaged with this world in poetic and important ways. I’m glad to encounter your blog and look forward to keeping up with your words.

    Peace and light, Kirsten

  2. SAEED!

    I love the quote and have been grasping with the idea of “elitism in poetry” for a while, and having been that “average Black kid on the street corner” I find myself asking the same thing of all poetry, especially my own. It’s not so much about condescension, for me, as much as it is about representation.

    Shepherd wrote: “I wondered, ‘Why does it have to speak to him? Isn’t there enough in our culture that’s addressed to him, that panders, however patronizingly and exploitatively, to him?'” – and that is the problem, that whatever does seem to be directed to us are more so for capitalistic purposes than for creative engagement or intellectual inspiration. I think his counter-question is more condescending/problematic than the idea that someone cannot get something out of Aime Cesaire, as most of the teens I tutor are reading well below their expected level, as are many students in Chicago Public School’s system.

    When I ask this of my own work, I am asking what can my students, family and friends get from this poem. I’ve thrown away many poems that seemed wholly content on being poems without a purpose outside of being poems. I don’t want to write those kinds of poems, but for those poets who do, write on (poor pun intended)! Write with your purpose and your vision. There are poets of different types and all are welcome, but it doesn’t seem as though we engage with each other in a healthy manner. I could have easily been that person, asking the same question about the “average black kid” as a poet, looking for guidance, a way IN as opposed to a reason to keep something OUT.

    I’m not a fan of Shepherd’s poetry but I get a sense that he is useful, immensely so, especially having read his posts in Harriet. His essays both thrill and worry me because he is (“was” is for those forgotten) so erudite, and is proud of it sometimes to the point of exclusionary tactics. The “mythical” average person can, indeed, appreciate complexity. Don’t we all begin somewhere? But the question as I read it seemed less critical of complex work and more asking for clarification on how to use complex material to reach out to students, communities, and mentees. I was not at the viewing to hear the tone, but despite any potential inflection of hostility on the inquirer’s part, there was an opportunity missed here.

    How does one teach the many layers of literature to not only Black kids but to ANY kid? How does one use Negritude poetics to enhance a classroom? In this case, there was a chance to shed light on not WHY this work is important (a question also worth answering if posed despite assumptions of work being able to speak for itself), but HOW it could be used. Unfortunately I feel Shepherd’s defensiveness assisted with him missing a great opportunity to take the conversation further than “elitism” and “dismissive” practices, something Shepherd is regretfully guilty of on his end.

    ~Phillip

  3. Rich and I both really appreciate and come back to “Orpheus in the Bronx” so I’m interested in the other title you mentioned. I’m so thankful for this body of work that is Shepherd’s legacy.

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