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In Memoriam: Reginald Shepherd (1963—2008)

Seeing the large, round, beaming black man coming toward me in the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square was a thrill—the hug was warm, fiercely close, long and so welcome. We had met at last. This was the poet I had come to admire and love from a distance and in the best way possible for a writer: through his writing—poems, essays, and, of course, emails. At that point he hadn’t started his blog. In 2001, I was one of two finalists for the Black Warrior Review’s chapbook competition; the other was Reginald Shepherd, someone I hadn’t heard of. When I looked him up and saw his poems and his publication history, I was immediately impressed and honored to have been considered a contender of his, even briefly. Did I then write to him and tell him so? No. He wrote to me, to tell me so. What winner bothers to write such gracious things to the loser? This was quintessential Reginald Shepherd, and this began our seven years of e-mail correspondence, phone calls, and three actual meetings: the first in the Casablanca. By the time we met, his e-mails had been a life raft and inspiration for me during a catastrophic personal event, I had come to know many details of his life and struggles (as well as joys), and I was eager to meet him at last. We quickly fell into talking—life, love, poetry—and the voice and presence I had come to know and rely on in his correspondence—so intelligent, aware and empathic—was embodied and unmistakably human.

That I didn’t know Reginald’s work as a poet or critic in 2001, even though he had by then published three books of poetry, is not surprising since I entered the contemporary poetry world through the back, or side, door of the internet. Reginald was a “print-only” poet, one who had travelled the academic route, studying first at Iowa, then at Brown, but was never, as it turned out, an insider, instead (as he described it) always forced back into the stance he knew best and was best at: persistent outsider. The question always in the case of the outsider is who rejected whom first, and, in Reginald’s case, it was hard to tell. He possessed a larger-than-life personality, personhood, otherhood (as his third collection was so aptly named), and the impression he made often contradicted his intention (or emphasized it). As with all those of unshakeable integrity, he could only be what he was (in spite of getting into trouble for it) and his way of dealing with rejection was inspiring, even heroic: overcome, persist, and succeed. For Reginald, rejection seemed to be a spur rather than a dampening or discouragement. He possessed genius along with persistence. All that was missing was exposure to more readers. Thus, his blog was born—and it was born from a sense of needing to speak up, to fully counter a comment on another blog (Ron Silliman’s).

It took only a little while for Reginald to overcome the “print-only” poet’s disdain for the rough-and-tumble web world of poetry. He saw very quickly that there were people blogging whose work he respected (Joshua Corey and Jasper Bernes were poets he often cited to me), that they were young and smart and using technology in the service of poetry, and, most importantly, the blog provided a way for him to speak directly to many, without the worry of personality interference. And speak he did—I was astonished when his blog developed from some early, brief entries to full-blown essays. Nearly every day he provided the readers of his blog with depth, insight, and inspiration. Reginald was a true teacher and a scholar. The best part was his manner on-screen: strong-willed, intellectually wide-ranging, but also modest and willing to listen and respond respectfully to opposing points of view. He had found a medium for his multiplicity of messages, and he knew it. Behind the scenes, he often e-mailed or called to expostulate about one or another responses on his blog—at the Atlanta AWP (2007) he even called my hotel room to urge me online, to read someone’s response on his blog. I said, “Reginald, come out of your room—the whole point here is to go see people in person!” I loved walking into the hotel lobby there with him for his first AWP—he was very nervous and kept saying he didn’t know anyone. Then it was “Hey, Reginald!” so many times I began to feel I was with a rock star. “Seems like every other person knows you,” I accused. He was beaming.

That’s the look I carry with me now, the happiness of that moment for him along with the joy of a seven-year long friendship, the conversations and emails, his inspiring life history, and, of course, his work. I’m especially happy that he found a way to reach and touch so many people through his blog, that he was featured in Poets and Writers and American Poetry Review, that his anthologies and essays found their way to print, that he received the Guggenheim this year (after 18 tries!), and that so many now know him and can love him as he deserved.

Books by Reginald Shepherd:

Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries (editor, 2008)

Orpheus in the Bronx: Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry (essays, 2008)

Fata Morgana (poems, 2007)

The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (editor, 2004)

Otherhood (poems, 2003)

Wrong (poems, 1999)

Angel, Interrupted (poems, 1996)

Some Are Drowning (poems, 1994, winner of the 1993 Associated Writing Programs’ Award in Poetry)

Reginald’s Blog: http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/

This post was written by:

- who has written 11 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at Bostoncomment.com and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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