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  • An Interview with Reginald Shepherd
  • Charles H. Rowell

This interview was conducted February 20, 1997, by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois, and revised by mail in December of 1997 and January of 1998.


I want to begin this interview with a quote from your “Sidelights” essay in Contemporary Authors. I think the following quote prepares us for your first two volumes of poems; I cannot speak of your future volumes. You write:

My poetry is involved in a struggle with and within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is premised on my absence as a black man, on my mutism as a gay man.

You say much in that one sentence. Will you amplify that important statement?


I have an ambivalent relationship to literary tradition, to the “canonical” literary language. Every writer is alienated from his own language: language belongs to no one, and writing is always about trying to find or construct a place for yourself in this system based on negation. Saussure points out that language is based on negation, on “bat” not being “cat” and “b” not being “p” (between its elements, he wrote, is only difference), and Lacan points out that the psyche itself is built on negation, on the self being always other and always unattainable, a kind of asymptote toward which one strives. That’s what identity is, the attempt toward identity. But just as a straight white male individual can more easily rest in the illusion of a fixed, stable identity, similarly a straight white male writer can have a more settled, though still illusory, sense that the language belongs to him: he can have a sense of security, however false, I never had. I had a sense from a very early age that literature was a world to which I aspired, something preferable to the circumstances in which I grew up. I believed that language would save me from the housing projects and tenements of the Bronx, would save me from myself, even, if only I could get to it. And when I got there, when I arrived at “literature,” I realized that A) it was not going to save me and B) there was an ambiguity in my relationship to it in that it was a language that did not acknowledge my existence. There was a paradox in that I looked to this language both to make me exist in the world and at the same time to make me into something else, someone else. It was a language that, insofar as I was a black person, insofar as I was a gay person, didn’t speak of me, and that was both an attraction (the [End Page 290] world literature proposed wasn’t part of the trap in which I was living) and a problem. I’ve never had an interest in being a “black writer” in the Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez mode, in speaking “for” or “as” a black person, as if that were a settled, stable thing to be. The discourse of black identity (which is a construct, after all, there’s no essence of “blackness”) is neither “mine” nor something I’ve ever aspired to. “Black” poetry, poetry that took a reified idea of “blackness” as its topic and its justification, never counted for me as the sort of poetry that I was interested in writing, as a language I was interested in entering. So I’ve never had any desire to overthrow the “canon,” but I did have a desire to make room in it for myself, to carve out some kind of liminal space within that discourse for myself. As I said, there is an absence of myself as a black person in that discourse and as a gay person there is a mutism, which is a term of the French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s for a presence that doesn’t acknowledge itself: it speaks not as itself, not for itself, but in a kind of ventriloquism. Because obviously from the 19th century onward there is a male homosexual presence in literature, within the “canon,” that as the...

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