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Reginald Gibbons finds poetry in Chicago

A collection of his poems about the city is due in April.

December 30, 2009|By Julia Keller

Reporting from Chicago — Like a lot of people who have lived in Chicago a long time, Reginald Gibbons knows the city like the back of his hand. In Gibbons' case, that hand holds a pen. And with it he chronicles the beautiful chaos of his adopted hometown, its furious pace and its powerful history, a history tucked into the creases between the great buildings like a love note left in a school locker.

In a poem such as "Train Above Pedestrians," which appeared in his 2008 collection "Creatures of a Day," Gibbons describes the elevated train as it shoulders its way through the Loop, "shrieking / and drumming, / lit by explosions of sparks / that harm no one." From the "L," "passengers can still / see stone ornaments, / pilasters, lintels, / carved by grandfathers, / great uncles and gone / second cousins."

Gibbons, 62, is a poet, essayist, translator and professor of English at Northwestern University. He edited TriQuarterly, one of the nation's premier literary magazines, for 16 years. This year, Gibbons added another line to his resume: muse. A woman whose work he long championed, Angela Jackson, saw the publication of her first novel, "Where I Must Go." The novel has garnered a great deal of attention for its lyrical depiction of a young African American woman who enrolls in a predominantly white college in the late 1960s. Jackson, a Chicago poet whose novel is clearly drawn from her own experiences, credits Gibbons with guiding her and getting the novel published by TriQuarterly Books.

"There's a lot of excitement about helping other voices flower," Gibbons says in his soft-spoken way. You can imagine him narrating a nature documentary, so gentle and mellifluous is his tone.

Gibbons remembers the first time he read Jackson's work. "In 1984, I was editing TriQuarterly and we did a special issue on Chicago writers. She sent me a very early piece from what is now her novel. I was completely enchanted by it. I felt it spoke in a way, and about things, that I'd never heard before."

Helping other voices find a platform has always been a part of Gibbons' mission, perhaps because he knows what it feels like to struggle to be heard. A native of Houston, he came to Northwestern in 1981 to edit TriQuarterly and serve as lecturer in the English department. He had earned an undergraduate degree at Princeton University and a doctoral degree at Stanford University -- but his initial ambition was simpler, he says: getting out of Houston.

"It was a small and provincial place," recalls Gibbons, who graduated from high school in 1965. "The attitudes there toward race, politics and culture in general were oppressive."

He began to write poems at Stanford. "I had written poems as an undergraduate, but I didn't feel I had any claim on being a poet until I published my first book when I was 31."

Yet it was coming to Chicago -- a place in which, to Gibbons' eye, the past and present commingle in rackety yet luminous profusion -- that truly set fire to his imagination, he says. "I got such a powerful feeling in Chicago, a feeling I've never gotten in New York -- the historical echo of the spaces downtown, the feeling that everyone who has ever worked here is still here. There's a profoundly good feeling of being connected with the generations."

Gibbons' poems are both precise descriptions of the physical landscape and vivid dispatches from an emotional response to it all. "I try to pay attention to the whole web of the concrete world and the human world," he says.

In April, his next collection, "Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories," will be published by the University of Chicago Press. "I realized that I'd written so many poems about the city and wanted to see them all together."

He and his wife, author Cornelia Spelman, who live in Evanston, enjoy walking in downtown Chicago. To them, the city's hectic beauty is a buffer against the world's gathering woes. "I think," Gibbons says, "we live in terribly ominous times."

Some kinds of change, though, intrigue rather than depress him. Earlier this year, university officials said TriQuarterly would become an online-only publication affiliated with Northwestern's graduate creative writing program -- no longer an independent print publication. "I think it's good to have a Web presence," he says.

"I don't ever want to be disengaged. But I don't want to lose focus on what happens inside people, on the inner life."

Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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