Reginald Gibbons

recorded in Chicago, IL


Reginald Gibbons

I’m Reginald Gibbons, I was born in Texas at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Houston, which is still there but I think the buildings gone now. I lived there until I was 18 ½ and I left Texas, desiring deeply never to live there again, and I ended up here, where I’ve been for a long time. I came to Chicago, to Evanston, to Northwestern, specifically, in 1981. And in between I did college and graduate school and a little travelling and those kinds of things. I’m a poet and a fiction writer—much more of a poet than a fiction writer—and a translator, and I’ve done a lot of editing and a lot of teaching. I’ve published one novel, a book of very short stories, and a number of books of poems and translations and other things, and for a long time I was the editor of TriQuarterly magazine, from 1981, which was what I was hired to come here and do, to 1997. So there are dozens of those that I edited, also. That’s kind of the quick history.

The Knox Writers’ House

You’ve written this entire book, Slow Trains Overhead, on Chicago, basically. What about Chicago grabs your attention?


Well, I think there are three places that really—I was going to say formed me, but I suppose really, it’s not that—maybe it’s, that remained really important to my psyche, that just became part of who I was. So one was Texas, and my novel, which is pretty long, was set in Texas, between 1895 and exactly 1916. A lot of that novel is about race, but I set it in the distant past so that I could write about that more freely and not get accused by people who didn’t want to hear about it as just writing about something that was topical—as if that was ever going to go away. So that was a very big part, and I wrote that book in the late 80s and early 90s, so that was a long time after I was born, you know, 50 years later, finally. So that was still a big part of my mental map. My artistic map is still preformed by that. And I’ve written a lot of poems over the years, fewer and fewer, but I did write a lot of poems set in Texas, too. And then, before I got here, I had some experience of a sort of Mediterranean environment, in two places–the Bay Area, because I went to Stanford, and Spain, I had a Fulbright to Spain when I was 25. I majored in Spanish as an undergrad so that’s one of my languages. That’s my best language, besides English. And that’s always attracted me. Not just culturally, that would be Spain, not California—two different cultures—but also, somehow, environmentally. Culture is climate, to some extent. Then that turned out to be relatively short, you know, because I’ve got to live as long as I’ve lived, and then I’ve been here for a long time, so this is the third big place. I came here when I was 34 years old. That may seem old to you guys, but when you look back at it, even when you’re 34, you realize, “Wow. I’ve got a lot to learn.” So my artistic development, or whatever you want to call it, was really influenced by finally finding this urban environment where I could settle in and think through and experience a lot of the urban. I knew New York really well, but I never felt a spiritual kinship—I’m using spiritual in a sort of secular sense, you know. New York is…well, okay, that’s another story. Chicago turned out to be really important. And this book that you mentioned, Slow Trains Overhead, actually was not all written to be this book, but I realized about two or three years ago that Id written so many poems already and some short stories that were set in Chicago, that if I put them all in one book, I was kind of curious to see what that would feel like. So I put a bunch of them together, and then I could see there were some holes. I could see there were some I’d never actually touched in my work of Chicago. So I began to write some new pieces, some new poems, and I eventually put those in. So that’s the kind of book it is, it’s actually spread out over a long time. The earliest poem in there is from the early 80s. That’s a long time ago now, but that wasn’t my whole life. So Texas, Bay Area, Spain, Little Italy, I went to Turkey, actually, that same year and that was a different world in those days, that was a really easy way to go into a very different place and be welcomed. Anyway, those are the three places that I consist of. And that’s the latest thing I’ve done that’s very placed. That book is very placed, very situated geographically and culturally. My sense of the urban experience is that it’s a ceaseless sequence of anonymous encounters with people that you’ll never meet. But you pass them on the street. You’re in proximity. Usually we just can’t engage with that. I mean, that would be overwhelming to the psyche. You just can’t actually, as if we were living 200,000 years ago and there weren’t that many people on the planet, grab everyone we saw and have some sort of encounter. We can’t do that. But that’s a really fundamental, for me, central aspect of urban life. Coming to terms with the anonymity and the crowding, and at the same time not wanting to feel like you’re detached from everyone else that you pass. I don’t have a solution, I can’t write a self-help book. I’m just saying that what’s reflected in my poems and in my fiction, I see, is some sort of intense encounters that break out of that anonymity a little bit, just for a moment.

Letter to an Imaginary Friend by Thomas McGrath


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