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Hoks & Reeves: poignant, interrogating and weird poetry

This Wednesday marked the second Writers@Grinnell event of the semester. The reading, which  featured poets Nathan Hoks and Roger Reeves, was held in the Faulconer Gallery against the backdrop of the current exhibit, “Stocked: Contemporary Art from the Grocery Aisles.”

Hoks, a part-time instructor at Columbia College, Chicago and the publisher and editor of the micro-press Convulsive Editions, won the Crashaw Prize in 2009 for his first book, “Reveilles” and, more recently, was named by Dean Young as the winner of the 2012 National Poetry Series for his second book, “The Narrow Circle.”

Reeves, who is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has had one of his poems featured in the “Best New Poets 2009” anthology and has been awarded a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship, a 2013 Pushcart Prize, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, two Bread Loaf scholarships, two Cave Canem scholarships and an Alberta H. Walker Scholarship. He read from his just-published first book, a decade-long project titled “King Me.”

The poets were introduced by Professor Hai-Dang Phan, English, who invited the two to read at Grinnell. Phan is drawn to the novelty of the poets’ work, and, as their contemporary, is inspired by their craft.

“I just love their work. I think it’s sort of different to see poets with one or two books out; so, I think we often read poets who are pretty well-established … and these guys are pretty young so they have this sort of infectious energy and they’re writing new things so they have these new voices,” he said.

Reeves’ poems, described by Phan as “shapeshift[ing] into and out of different personae,” were consistently rich in metaphor, but varied in tone, style and subject. His reading, which he dedicated to Trayvon Martin, featured poems that had strong elements of social justice and engaged with historical phenomena. One of his poems was based on a racist encounter he had in college in Texas, and another was titled, “Self-Portrait as Ernestine ‘Tiny’ Davis,” after the publicly gay African-American jazz musician who, with her partner, opened one of the first gay bars in Chicago in the 1950’s, Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot.

The very fact that Reeves worked with these issues was likely one of the reasons that his poetry was so appealing, especially given that the audience consisted mostly of Grinnell students. The energy and youthfulness with which he engaged with both his work and the audience rendered his poetry all the more effective and relatable.

“Writing … is for me a way of dispelling and witnessing against the way culture, society, time and racism would like to make me be unbeautiful,” Reeves said, when asked why he wrote. “The space of a poem is the space of a question. A poem is the space of adventure.”

Hoks, who spoke of writing as “a compulsion … an obsession,” possessed a similarly engaging energy. He read from “Narrow Circles,” a book divided into two sections: “the interior” and “the exterior.” His poetry, too, varied drastically in tone, ranging from the conversational and slangy to what he described as more “stilted.”

Phan, while introducing Hoks, noted the ways in which his poetry caused readers to engage in a process of thinking and rethinking—of transporting them from the realm of the familiar to a different place altogether.

“[His poems] make you weird. They estrange you from your habits of thought and perception through enticingly bizarre metaphors, they shock you into another worldly awareness of the world by reminding you that at the root of the surreal is the real,” Phan said.

The crowning moment of the reading, perhaps, was the question and answer session at the end, where the audience had the chance to personally interact with the poets. Hoks and Reeves responded to questions about why they wrote and how they determined style, among others. Speaking about their style, both poets acknowledged that theirs was constantly evolving, that their style was, at least in part, a reflection of external influences. It is this fluidity, perhaps, that renders their poetry so appealing—their stylistic exploration a manifestation of a larger willingness to be influenced by outside stimuli and, in the process, to create poetry that is current, and evocative of both emotion and thought.

Nathan Hoks reading from his book, “The Narrow Circle.” Photo by Aniqa Rahman.
Nathan Hoks reading from his book, “The Narrow Circle.” Photo by Aniqa Rahman.
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