In The Loop With: 

Roger Reeves 

An award winning author, father, artist, and life-long runner. Roger has an astute perspective on the world around us; we caught up with him on the heels of his poignantly powerful, and highly anticipated new book release, Best Barbarian. Read more below. 

Photo: Brendan Carroll 

Words: John Rice 

Best Barbarian 

At its core, 'In The Loop' aims to explore where running and life intersect. With Roger, we laughed over some shared experiences running at the collegiate level, commiserated over some of those long days at the oval office, and agreed running is an art. Running can be a form of worship. As a writer and long distance runner, a sense of solitude is where his worship is best practiced, over and over and over. A choreography that becomes mundane and repetitive – in which all things are stripped to basic attributes and real change can occur. Running is the invisible ecstasy where one trains in the present unaware of fitness to bloom. Breath and body moving in synchronicity to make a beautiful dance.

Conversing in his home office, to the tune of Brendan’s shutter click, Roger Reeves spoke with a tranquil tone. “To be a fugitive is to be a barbarian; a barbarian is the best of us.” Truthfully, I was surprised at his reclamation of the word barbarian as it relates to blackness and humanity. To hear Roger wade through trauma with such stoicism was powerful.
Best Barbarian is written with a certain sobriety that makes themes of intergenerational violence and grief even more visceral. His work in Best Barbarian intersects life and death as he powerfully displays the burden of Blackness in America, while his intellect as a writer is on full display with amazing riffs of literary titans and their key works.

In ‘Domestic Violence’ he reignites and interweaves the work of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Erza Pound’s Pisan Cantos, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘Anniad’ from the perspective of Louis Till navigating the underworld toiling with life, death, mysticism, and the current socio political conflicts around race.
Drapetomania, or James Baldwin as an Improvisation’, Roger joins Toni Morrison in confronting Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on The State of Virginia’ where Jefferson discredits the intellectual and poetic validity of Phyllis Wheatley; a prominent African American author pre-19th century. Roger describes this type of criticism as “the beginning of the American (literary) critical tradition that cannot comprehend the largesse of Black aesthetic productions or Black life.” The rest of the piece plays on the “poetics of fugitive” which holds strong as a central tenet of Best Barbarian.

Reeves pointed to the concept of fugivity as the essence of what it means to be barbarian. “To be barbarian is to be other, to be alien, to be heathen, to be Black in America” he said. But, Reeves argues that the barbarian is the best of us. It forces us to find ourselves outside the boundaries of a flawed society. The barbarian introspectively finds themselves outside of what society demarcates them to be; and society has demarcated blackness as heathen. Being the best barbarian is combatting the ugliness of society to give yourself life. Roger spoke candidly about this as we sat in his home office, ending with a powerfully poignant line: “rejection of the barbarian is the rejection of self.”

I hope you all find power, hope, and raw emotion in Roger’s words. He is a wonderful human, an accomplished runner, and a masterful poet. Read some of his words below, hear some of his words next Tuesday night at the shop, and go cop his latest work Best Barbarian -- it is an incredibly moving piece of work.

When we met for this project, we explored your use of the word barbarian as a way to describe being ‘other’. As a poet, longtime distance runner, and Black man in America how have you used your experiences of solitude to find yourself ? 

Solitude is hugely important to me. I love it. Without solitude, one cannot be a good writer. Or oneself for that matter. The writer James Baldwin has an essay where he counsels the writer to embrace alienation, to be an outsider. I think his advice has to do with vision, being able to truly see. The writer must be able to see what is hidden, what sits below the lights, in the dark spaces of the epoch. That requires one to step away from the zeitgeist-y moments, from the center and reside at the margins. Solitude, quiet, silence, which seem to be out of fashion in the current moment, allows one to see and hear below the noise, the rabble. Also, in silence, we can do the work of writing. And for those that are not interested in writing, quiet allows us to become ourselves, to decide who and what we are, what we truly believe.

 How does the concept of fugitivity exist in Best Barbarian

Fugitivity is one the central tenets of the book, the idea of being outside of, profligate, out or order. Fugitivity figures so largely into the book because I’m not only thinking about race but also about pleasure and ecstasy, and often to find one’s sense of pleasure, one must go against what society says is normal or respectable. One must become a fugitive, an odd-ball, a weirdo, an outcast. Fugitivity is the original human form. Fugitivity is where we are most ourselves.

Best Barbarian includes stunning riffs of some key literary figures and works in American literature; where did you see yourself contributing to these scholarly conversations?

Thanks for noticing. Literary and artistic figures from James Baldwin to Pablo Neruda to Alice and John Coltrane appear in Best Barbarian. And they appear because I’m in conversation with their work, their music, their writings, their poems. Poems, works of art, are made and constructed from other works of art. Nothing comes out of nothing. Poets don’t spring from the head of Zeus. Therefore, we are constantly assembling our work, our poems, our art from materials of the past, from language and ideas that have come before us. And even as we are borrowing those materials, we are advancing the ideas in them, for instance. Or, at least, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to converse with these literary figures, with their ideas of love, justice, beauty, and move them along. It's a relay race to some degree. Baldwin’s work is always asking the reader, what will you do with this language, with your life, with your beauty? How will you bring more love and justice into the world? I myself am answering Baldwin in Best Barbarian. I hope to make my reader aware of the natural world, of the difficulty of the world of the human, how we can bring more beauty to it.

Written after the title page is ‘For Naima, for encouraging me to risk beauty’. How has fatherhood reshaped your past into what you will choose to leave for your future? 

Fatherhood has brought me a new teacher in the form of my daughter. I’m constantly learning what beauty is, what it means to be oneself. In watching my daughter, I’m learning how to be a poet, an artist. It’s been truly radical and revolutionary for me. When she was an infant, I would just watch her be in the world. All her movements, her play were so decisive. The way she stared at light. I thought to myself, “that’s it. That’s how one must be a poet. That’s how one must be.”

In terms of fatherhood reshaping my path, having my daughter made me realize two things: 1) I was very far from childhood. There’s a way in which I felt like even in my mid-thirties that I was still that 12 year-old, 18 year-old kid, but once you have a child, you realize that you are quite far from that boy you used to be. The second thing I realized was “you’re going to die.” Something about having a child made mortality very real.

Can you talk a bit about your running? How did you start? Why do you keep going? 

I started running as most do–in the neighborhood, racing friends up and down the block. I started to run competitively in elementary school–sprints, 200 meter races, relays–through the Hershey Track Program. I continued running competitively in middle school, moving up to the 800, running relays, and I added cross country. In college, I walked on to the track team and ran cross country and the 800. After college, I decided to tackle the marathon and half-marathon. My favorite distance to run and race for a while was the 5K and half-marathon. 

After college, I kept running because I love the daily-ness of it, the rhythm, the feeling of going long and meandering through a city. While in college, I used to run in these old battlefields for an hour, an hour and a half. And those runs were where I fell in love with running so after college I kept extending runs and exploring. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve run–Xalapa, Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, Krakow, Poland, Boulder, Colorado, Madrid, San Juan and Ponce, Puerto Rico. I find that running is the best way to get to know a place. You see things that you would otherwise not see.

Running is just a great way to be in the world.

What are similarities in your process of writing and running? 

In both running and writing, endurance is key. However, one doesn’t come into either enterprise fully fit. Endurance must be cultivated. One must be willing to put in the work–long runs, short runs, track work, hill work. Similarly in writing, one must put in work–reading, journaling, imagining, drafting, revising, re-envisioning, revising and revising some more. Also one must have patience for uncertainty and being able to exist in discomfort in both endeavors. I’ve often thought that both activities–writing and running–require one to sit in the difficult, to be able to relax inside that difficulty. Running is not easy and neither is writing. However, I find them so rewarding–the rhythm of them, the beauty one makes in each activity. Both activities require you to be aware of your breath and the controlling of breath. When writing poetry I’m supremely aware of breath because the smallest unit of a poem is the breath. It’s where the poem begins, resides, and ends. Running is similar. Breathing is the basic unit of running.

May 23, 2022 — Pam Hess