University of Illinois-Chicago assistant professor Roger Reeves may have just won one of the biggest awards an American writer could hope to receive--a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts--but when he was younger, he didn't know he could pursue poetry professionally.
Reeves actually started as a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Princeton University.
"My mother was like, ‘You can always write on the side,' " Reeves said of his choice to major in engineering even though he knew he wanted to focus on English.
It didn't take Reeves long to realize how unhappy he was at Princeton-- and that he wouldn't be satisfied unless he pursued writing full-time. So he took a risk: He left the Ivy League for Atlanta, where he knew few people, and moved in with his father, whom he hadn't grown up with, to study poetry at Morehouse College.
"That was a tough transition period for me," Reeves said. "Can you imagine telling your parents, ‘Hey, I got into Princeton, but I don't like it, so I'm going to leave'? It wasn't good. It's not a good conversation to have."
Reeves, 33, who lives near the UIC Medical District, said he still remembers the day a friend told him it was possible to have a career in poetry.
"I was just like, ‘For real?' " Reeves said. "So I started looking up [master's of fine arts] programs and realized, ‘Oh! I could just be a poet!' "
Reeves eventually got his master's in literature and a master's in poetry. He was halfway through his doctorate program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 when he got a job teaching at UIC. Reeves found out he had received the NEA award two days before his dissertation was due in November.
The federal grant is far from Reeves' first award in his field--he has won several fellowships and scholarships in the past, and has been published in a variety of anthologies and journals--but he said each time he wins something it's a surprise.
"It's always new, because you go so long between those periods," Reeves said. "With writing there is a lot of rejection. It's many more no's than yes's."
And as grateful as he is to have received so much recognition for his work, Reeves--who cites Shakespeare and Lil Wayne as two of his biggest influences--said awards don't make the actual writing process any easier.
"At the end of the day, I got the NEA, but I still have to go back to my writing desk," Reeves said. "The award doesn't write poems--I write poems. You're not in conversation with the awards committee, you're not in conversation with the money, you're in conversation with yourself, and the blank page, and what you're trying to do on that page. And ultimately, the page is blank every morning. So, getting the award is awesome, but now I have to do something on that page."
Regardless, he said the award is reassurance he is moving in the right direction with his work.
"This is definitely one of the biggest yes's I've gotten," Reeves said.
Reeves will use the award money to travel to Wyoming to write about the Rock Springs Massacre, an 1885 racial labor riot in Wyoming that led to the murder of 28 Chinese miners by white miners, and explore the massacre's relationship to the rise of lynching in the South in the late 19th Century.
The idea that poetry can be used as a tool to examine history isn't a novel or unusual idea for Reeves, who has been writing poems related to lynching in America for several years.
"The field of unearthing history is not only the job of the historian, it's not just the job of the journalist," Reeves said. "It's actually the job of the poet too. There are poems there. There are elegies that haven't been written for those people who have been killed. There's a way in which, as a poet, I can consider, ‘Do we still see those people in this place? How do we need to remember them? Why do we need to remember?' That's the job of poetry too."
Reeves said he will probably make the trip--or possibly several trips--in late summer after classes let out.
In the meantime, Reeves will continue to teach at UIC, advising students like 32-year-old Sara Tracey, a fifth-year doctorate student who has been working one-on-one with Reeves for the last year.
Tracey said one of the things that make Reeves a unique teacher is that he encourages his students to take risks.
"Sometimes, in graduate workshops, everyone is so worried about writing a successful poem or saying the right thing that they don't experiment," Tracey said. "In Roger's workshop, it's OK to fail. It's OK to write a shitty poem or say something that doesn't make sense as long as it's part of a process that gets you to a good poem or an insight about your work."
Reeves said he also tries to teach his students how important it is to take yourself seriously--both as a person and as an artist--in order to find creative success.