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Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Blog

Reginald Gibbons in Conversation with Alex Kotlowitz

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

This conversation is clarified from the discussion that took place at the Fuller Award ceremony to Reginald Gibbons, which took place September 21, 2021 via Zoom.

Alex Kotlowitz:  I wish I was seeing you in person—I miss our Furama days! I loved your talk. Everybody talks about your generosity—it was so "Reg"—and here we are to celebrate your writing and you spend fifteen minutes celebrating all these writers, other than yourself. Chris Abani talked about the coins of good will you've left in people's pockets and you've left plenty of those coins of good will in my pockets. I had the pleasure of working under you at the Center for the Writing Arts for a number of years, so this is a pleasure. We only have 15 minutes, so let's get to what we can. The first question I have—you spent all this time running these organizations… you co-founded the Guild Literary Complex, the fabulous Litowitz MFA program at Northwestern, you spent years editing TriQuarterly, you helped shape the Continuing Studies writing program at Northwestern, you've taught there… all of which, I'm sure, has taken you away from your own writing. So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about why all that work has been so important to you.

Reginald Gibbons: Well, somewhat to repeat myself, all of that, too, has been part of my education as a writer. Of course, I've also read I don't know how many books—a lot of books—and I've learned so much from so many writers. I try to teach students how to use the books that they admire the most as resources for their own growth as writers and I've certainly done that, but nothing was as shaping, I guess, as actually being with other people, and sharing ideas, trying to find your way forward to help what could be done, what might be staged, what might be created—such as how in the world would a museum be made if it's an American writers museum? I got so much from all that, if I hadn't done all those things and been involved in those things. There's a lot I would never have learned. To give just one example, you can imagine that the Guild Complex presented so many events—we did hundreds of them and I went to a lot of them, and also we spent time planning them. With the American Writers Museum, there were five of us on a committee. A whole bunch of scholars came up with a list of three hundred American writers who needed to being included in the museum but there was only space, in the exhibit that was going to be about the history of American writing, for a hundred. So those conversations among the five committee members to try to nail down the one hundred and having to get rid of two hundred—you learn a lot from such a thing. I think I got as much as I gave, from everything that I did.

Alex Kotlowitz: So much work, too, I think, was you celebrating emerging writers, and it seems to me so central to what you've done over the years.

Reginald Gibbons: I would say that my generation—when young—of poets and fiction writers didn't get a lot of help from older writers. That's quite different now. I think that the way the generations assist each other and sustain each other is really important.

Alex Kotlowitz: And also for you it seems to be really important to you, to create a kind of community of writers that sort of feed off of each other's work…  I want to talk about your novel Sweetbitter, which I just love, it's a beautiful, tender-hearted book, and deeply felt, about this young man Reuben Sweetbitter, who is half Choctaw, who falls in love with the daughter of a local lawyer in East Texas. And we were talking, the other day, about it's going to be re-published, and you mentioned you're going back through the manuscript and actually changing things in the novel. And I kind of love this notion that this novel, which has been around for many years now, that there kind of could be a fluidness to it. Can you talk a little bit about this experience of coming back to this work?

Reginald Gibbons: It's interesting that in the last couple of weeks two different people told me the same anecdote about Toni Morrison, which I hadn't heard, being interviewed on "60 Minutes" or something.  She said about Beloved—and Toni Morrison is another of my goddesses of fiction—she said about Beloved, "If only my publisher had given me three more weeks!" And I knew exactly what she meant, because I read through all of Sweetbitter again, and this time through I see things that aren't as clear as they should have been, or sentences that I just think are ugly, and how can I not, if I had the chance, how can I not spend my three weeks (it's going to take me longer than that!) to just fix a few, or many, little things? Why not make it better?

Alex Kotlowitz: Has it been exhilarating to do that?

Reginald Gibbons: It's been really interesting, yes. Many things in the book—I wrote the book a long time ago—I'd forgotten many of the details, and I had done a ton of research for it, about the historical era, about flora and fauna, about lumber mills, about lawyers, about lynchings, about the history of Native peoples in Texas, about all kinds of stuff. And I don't have all that in my head anymore, and actually I'm learning from the book, this time, what it was that I tried to teach myself, the last time, when I finished it.

Alex Kotlowitz: It's such a beautiful book, and I actually went back and listened to the interview you did with Studs Terkel. It's easy to find online, and I would recommend it to everyone.

Reginald Gibbons: You know, when I got to WFMT that day, the studio wasn't working.  And Studs had a little pocket micro-cassette tape recorder, and we sat on a couch in a hallway in WFMT—in the old WFMT space—and he recorded the whole thing there, and the audio came out pretty well, but what I most noticed that just startled me was his copy of the book. It was a hardback copy and it looked like it had been clawed through sleepless nights and everything he wrote in it that he wanted to remind himself of during the interview later, he had written with a dark blue marker, and I thought, no one in the world has ever before, or will ever again, used one of my books the way this man has done it. And that was typical of him—he was so amazingly invested in the people that he wanted to talk to.

Alex Kotlowitz: Yes, he was such a close reader and in fact early in the interview he talks about this motif he kind of uncovered in the book—of people walking—and you, do you remember?—I don't know if you remember this but you said to him, I hadn't even thought about that. That's how close a reader he was.  He saw things that we ourselves didn't see, as writers.

Reginald Gibbons: Yes.

Alex Kotlowitz: Talk a little bit about your poetry. One question I had is, you've translated poems from Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, ancient Greek. I'm wondering how translating other poets influenced your own writing.

Reginald Gibbons: You know, it was partly a fluke in the way it got started. I happened to be in public school in Texas when I was a kid, and in Texas in those days, elementary and junior high and high schools had been infused with money because of Sputnik. But of course it wasn't equitable. I happened to be in a place outside of Houston where the white schools were getting money, but not the black ones. And I had good teachers, I was taught Spanish from the sixth grade to the twelfth. When I got to college, I was going to be an English major. I went to the English department professor in charge of majors. You had to be interviewed in order to be approved, to be an English major. And I did not like the interviewer at all. He was really awful, skeptical about me, and after we had talked he said he would let me in. And I said I needed to think about it overnight, and he said "What?!" and I said I'd let him know the next morning and I was so angry at how he'd treated me that I walked across the courtyard and into the Romance Languages Department and signed up to major in Spanish and Portuguese. And that too began my study of poetry. I began to read a lot in Spanish and Portuguese and, to this day I still read lots of work in a few other languages. I can handle the ones I can decipher with some help and dictionaries. I see poetry in other languages and in other cultures doing things that I would like to be able to do in English. And there are lots of novelistic tricks and techniques in Tristram Shandy, for example, and other fiction. You could go to fiction, too, and collect a basket full of ways to use the tradition and contemporary work.

Alex Kotlowitz: It sounds like it's been really helpful in some ways.

Reginald Gibbons: I love translating poetry. In my latest book, a few of the poems are pretty close translations, but mostly they're what I called "renditions." Like in music—my rendition of…  So I transfer the locale of the poem or various elements in the poem to my experience and I draw on my experience and I substitute some of that for what's in the original poem or maybe I take just three or four lines from one poem and because I see that from those few lines I can discover my own impulse in a poem.

Alex Kotlowitz: It' a beautiful collection—kind of like riffs on other poems.

Reginald Gibbons: Yes, I'm always exploring, every time I read a poem I'm looking for something that strikes me especially, that evokes something in me, and then I look at it from different sides and think about it, and sometimes I find a way to use it….  It was T. S. Eliot who said, "Poets don't borrow; they steal." I plead guilty.

Alex Kotlowitz: You wrote a recent piece, I think it was in the L.A. Times [it was in the Los Angeles Review of Books online], about the Romanian writer Norman Manea. You wrote, "Norman Manea remains an example of how, when the rushing and careening of life annul thought and numb feeling, writing can nevertheless slow that 'speed of darkness' (in the phrase of the American poet Muriel Rukeyser)." And that made me  think about this moment in time, and I wonder if you could speak a little about that, because I know that for you, you've got such a commitment to equity and social justice—about where writers fit into this moment, especially poets.

Reginald Gibbons: I could maybe make a list of seventeen different kinds of writing politically. There's so many… so much variety, to the way people do it, it's an incredible profusion now of modes of poetry, so I don't know if I have a simple answer but, what I've mostly done is simply to have kept in mind the people who do not benefit from almost anything that we call politics. And this stance had to do partly with my own childhood and youth. But also it's had to do with Chicago, because when I walked the city for these forty-some years, going here and there—then you're out in a world where you see the human moment of need or celebration or desperation, and you think, "Maybe I can give this a try." To articulate it. And those figures—you know,  someone panhandling, someone singing the blues on a street corner, a couple walking along talking, and you happen to overhear, I think, "What a whole story is there!" All that kind of thing always takes me back to the humanity of all humanities, which would be the humane side of politics, to put one's hopes that way. Of course, I was very anti- war during the Vietnam period, and through the horrible things Reagan did, and all the just-as-horrible things George W. Bush did, and his father. I remember when Cornelia and I went to a demonstration—it was so cold, early winter, 1991—against George H. W. Bush's Iraq war. We were on Clark and a cross street on the North Side, trying with millions of others to stop the coming military invasion from Kuwait into Iraq. Those things stay with me, but it's hard to write about them, it's difficult to get them into an  intensity of language and feeling that isn't just rhetoric.

Alex Kotlowitz: Well, it feels like so much that you're writing and so much of your work in some ways, is about finding community, and that's how I think about so much of what you've done.

Reginald Gibbons: Or finding connection, anyway.

Alex Kotlowitz: Or connection. Right. I don't know if we have time but I was going to ask you to read a short piece before we left. Do you want to do that?

Reginald Gibbons: Why don't you say why you want me to read this particular piece.

Alex Kotlowitz: This is a piece I read a while ago, and re-read it recently, called "River," and I think it will be pretty evident why I'd like you to read it. First of all, I know this piece was meant as a kind of metaphor, but you know I love rivers, I find peacefulness in rivers.  But there was something for me about this piece that made me think for the first time about rivers in a different way, and the rivers in our lives in a different way. 

Reginald Gibbons: OK.  This is "River." It's a short prose piece:

            Stay in the river, Bill was told by Father John.  "Stay in the river, don't go over to the bank and climb up there into those weeds, stay out in the middle, go where it's flowing.  You don't know where it's flowing but you have to stay in it, you don't have to know, you can't know.  Stay in the river."

            "But," Bill said, "I've been around rivers and streams all my life, I've been up in those weeds and found those fantastic nests in there, with all those eggs, those wonderful nests, that's where I like to be."

            "But that's only till they hatch.  That's only for them to leave, so they can get into the river, even the mama leaves that nest as soon as she can with those offspring of hers, or she's got the kind that she can leave them, on the right day, and she goes back into the river—no, you can't stay there… Stay in the river, don't be afraid of where it's going to carry you, that's where you're meant to be."

Alex Kotlowitz: Reg, thanks so much.  And congratulations!

Reginald Gibbons: Thank you.

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