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Flapper Press Interviews Trish Reeves, Poet of the Human Spirit

By Guest Editor Catherine Anderson:



The Flapper Press Poetry Café is honored to feature the work from poets from all over the globe. This week, we present the work of poet Trish Reeves!

Trish Reeves, Photo by Jeremiah Reeves

Trish Reeves’s most recent book, The Receipt, was published by Cynren Press in 2023. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, Keck (Sarah Lawrence College), and the Kansas Arts Commission. For 21 years, Reeves taught at Haskell Indian Nations University and led a Changing Lives Through Literature program. She is also a Humanities Kansas Scholar.  


Please meet Trish Reeves!


 

Catherine Anderson: Welcome, Trish, to the Flapper Press Poetry Café. I’ve read your work since 1988 when I saw your first book, Returning the Question, at the Grolier Book Shop in Cambridge and read it immediately on the granite steps outside. That book was the winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize. You’ve published three other works since then, including In the Knees of the Gods (BkMk Press), God, Maybe (Scattering Skies Press) and, most recently, The Receipt (Cynren Press). Can you tell us how you conceived this latest book? 


Trish Reeves: Thank you. It’s a delight to be here. I guess most everyone has a COVID book, and mine, The Receipt, came about not because I engaged the theme of the pandemic but because I had a new-found amount of time due to the quarantines. So, I decided to write some more poems and see how they and what I already had written for a new manuscript might work together to form a complete collection.  


Strange when I think about it now, because I’d not been interested in writing about COVID and never have done so specifically, but The Receipt ended up being built around a series of poems I’d written and originally called “The Glass Negatives.” They form the center section of the book and deal with the life of my history-loving grandmother’s family, as seen in actual glass negatives, photographs, and documents. Many of these are from when the family was on Angel Island, because my grandmother’s father, Joseph J. Kinyoun (M.D. and microbiologist), accompanied by his wife and children, had been sent there for him to direct the Quarantine Station in anticipation of the arrival of the bubonic plague. Kinyoun had already prepared a plague plan while working in his lab in Washington, D.C. This lab was his second and had been relocated from his first in the United States Marine Hospital on Staten Island, New York. It was in that small laboratory where he is considered to have founded the National Institutes of Health in 1887, when he isolated cholera for the first time in the western hemisphere. 


When the bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco and was diagnosed by Kinyoun in March 1900, he passionately and officially shouldered the work of preventing the plague from sweeping the United States. The immensity of that responsibility still amazes me. It was not until I’d finished putting The Receipt together that I realized the book’s underlying theme was to pay tribute to the human spirit and all people through the ages. And, oddly, given the current time, the book also dealt with a family attempting to continue their lives on Angel Island while the husband and father of the family worked to prevent a deadly pandemic for which there were no antibiotics, and the California politicians and press, all except for the Sacramento Bee, denied the existence of the disease. 


CA: Speaking of paying tribute to the human spirit, I know you hold the great Romantic poet John Keats in high esteem. As a poet, what do you value most in his writing, what have you carried with you since you first read him?    


TR: John Keats has lodged deeply in my heart because of a number of his sonnets, the odes, and his remarkable struggle to become a poet and then continue his art longer than one might imagine possible during his struggle with tuberculosis, the illness that took his life. (His mother and brother both died of that same disease while Keats cared for them.)  I’m grateful for his example as a poet and his recorded courage when dying in Rome.


My favorite of Keats’s sonnets, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” not only continues to delight me but decades ago led me to read Chapman’s translation of the Iliad aloud. I still remember finding myself crying as I read the final page. This amazed me; I can’t remember having been brought to tears in that way before, and it was John Keats who led me there. I had read the Iliad before, but not Chapman’s translation.


CA: Here is something I often wonder about: how does poetry elicit this sense of mystery and emotion you describe? What makes it work?


TR: If we remember that the origins of poetry are found in rituals, incantations, sacred rites—and oral, even sung—we also are reminded that the rhythmic quality of the contemporary poetic line, even terminal rhyme, has traveled to us a great distance from an ancient system of mnemonics. Of course, we no longer need mnemonics to call up sacred and critical words communicated from one generation to the other, but we do need some of those ancient techniques to help our reader find our twenty-first-century poems meaningful. If the poet is skilled, just the rhythm and sound of the words selected will go a long way in helping the reader understand the tone and the meaning of a poem. As Mr. Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”


About mystery, I no longer remember the source/s, but I do recall this critical lesson: Mystery in a poem does not arise from being obscure; that only results in confusion. Mystery arises from being in control of every element of the poem so that the ordinary is understood as mysterious. I suppose there are various reasons, some resting with the poet, some with the reader, that account for a poem not being understood. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “You should never explain a poem, but it sure can help.” 


CA: For years people have talked about poetry as a dying art. That doesn’t seem to be the case. How does writing poetry and reading it make you feel alive? 


TR: Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium writes, “Poetry is the great enemy of chance.” I don’t know if thirty years ago I would have said, "That’s it!" But at this point in my life, That’s it. I love Calvino’s statement. And maybe in my youth, as well, it would have made perfect sense. Because I suppose it goes back to those origins of poetry I spoke of earlier.

These rituals and incantations are attempts not only to impose our will over chance through our pleas but to recognize and understand our world and our needs in it. Against chance, we are lifted into the air with the words as they are spoken or as the words themselves lift off the page. In this way, the writing and reading of poems seem the same to me. 

CA: I’ve noticed how often your poems speak of the past in what may be called a present tense voice, very immediate. It seems that you can address racism, homophobia, and other current issues as they spring organically from the angle of history you are illuminating. Can you talk about the play of documentation and historical research as you are writing?


TR: Like most writers, I love research, it’s fun and keeps the hard part at bay. Then, finally, I realize there’s no more playing around, it’s time to sit down at the keyboard. I’ve spent all of this time on research, maybe even travel, and finally I have to make something of it; but, I also have to make it poetry. Compelling as I find all the minor, as well as major, details (many if not most of which I’ll never use) that I’ve located on a topic, they can amount to nothing or become a problem if what I ultimately write reads like “some fascinating facts I’ve found.” A lot of my poems don’t require research, though it’s amazing how much time I’ve spent making sure a small fact or item that gets into a short poem is correct.


Your question is interesting to me in that I’d not thought much about how I was using the first person/present tense jump into history for the speaker of many of the poems. It may be like the saying about point of view in fiction: the most instinctive decision made in telling the story is point of view—first, second, or third. 


History has long been an interest, beginning with the little orange biographies and Landmark books I loved from second grade onward. This interest was undoubtedly heightened due to the encouragement of my paternal grandmother, her love of history, and her ability to relay it through family stories. It’s likely that my grandmother’s vivid stories made me think about what it would have been like to have been there when she was a child and ate the bee along with the honey, or her father was a little boy holding the ligatures for his father on house calls made by horse and buggy. 


As we know, once we begin to look at history—in the United States and around the world—those same old human problems and triumphs seem to jump out—to this day. With the composition of any poem, whether dealing with history or not, I’ve always thought that whatever I’m preoccupied with, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, details pertinent to that concern fly to the poem like lead filings to a magnet. 


CA: I wonder about the preoccupations that led to the tavern poems in your latest book as well as in God, Maybe. These are fun to read and must have been fun to write. They seem to take the reader back down to earth, create an intimate space between the reader and poet.


TR: The tavern poems were a lot of fun to write. I began writing them quite a while ago, right after my second book was published. One day at Haskell, a close friend and I were looking at his New York state atlas when we came upon a hamlet called Monkey’s Elbow. I was off to the races. A lot of those poems were written around that time; though I’ve written some since then, none for a year or so. At the time I was writing most of them, my children were in high school and college and thought the poems would make a dandy little bar book and a poetry book that would actually sell—at bars. I’ve always thought of those poems like Didion once spoke about a screenplay, "my beads but not my necklace." At the same time, I have to admit that I’m fond of quite a number of them, and a couple of them still make me laugh aloud when, sitting alone, I hit the last line.


CA: Yes! I’ve laughed out loud when I’ve read them. It’s always a deep pleasure to read you. Thank you for this lively discussion on your poems and your thoughts on the poetic process.


TR: I’ve enjoyed it. Thank you.


CA: Now, I’d love to share some of your poems and their backstories with Flapper readers:


 

Angel Island photo of Joseph Kinyoun, in wagon, holding John (born on Angel Island in 1899), two other sons (Conrad & Perry) and daughter Alice (grandmother of Trish Reeves).  Photo taken by Elizabeth Perry Kinyoun

Variations on an Island

from The Receipt, Cynren Press, 2023


1.  In the Late 1800s


labor remained cheap, paper plentiful, 

and those lucky enough to learn to write 

were sometimes able to spare the time 

to look about and admire the basking shark, 

the peacock’s tail, and pull from experience

the rock-strewn road or roaring sea 

required to reach the thought that Angel Island, 

though earthbound by the weight of human desire, 

would be a lovely spot for a coastal rest, 

the wind light, the waves of such predictable

permanence that the shift from parchment 

to paper was rarely contemplated as erasure 

of the reminder that the animal

must bear the weight of the words,

even the translucence. 


2.  Leprosy Uphill from Wharf and Boat House 


It’s not that the green is invisible

in the photo, but that it is not green, 

just a sepia stand-in for the color 

of encouragement; better, perhaps, than grey,

but like calling redstem stork’s bill: pin grass;

the cup of gold: California poppy. 

Like hearing, Yes, this is still your body,

 but now we say: skin sores, blindness, 

infectious disease; you’ve been around 

as long as the eucalyptus, holy thistle, 

and cow’s tongue have walked hills, yet 

unlike in the miracle, as we oil you and 

cleanse you with bichloride of mercury, 

your home becomes this small, white house, 

the only true lack of color in the photo 

by the unseen hand above the wharf

and boat house and San Francisco Bay,

as fog clears all variations of blue from the sky. 


3.  The Walking Lesson, 1901


Odd place to learn to walk—Angel Island—

where one might hope for a flying lesson

instead of slow steps toward the bay 

as your earth-bound sister leads you 

by your infant hand, you who always hoped

for a cloud to land on, long after you’d left

that first island of rose-ringed parakeets 

calling from the gallery of the house, sometimes 

squawking in your very own gibberish, 

other times gentle as your mother

as she tied the bonnet under your chin,

pulled the sweater around you,  

wrote on the back of the photo, fixed 

in blue tones, “The Walking Lesson,” 

what you and your sister were about.


4.  The Toddler


looks down and studies the reins as if

they, not the firm hand of his father standing

beside him, will keep the child seated in the saddle.


There is stillness in this old glass negative.

Of course, one might say, if one forgets the waves

that slam all about the shores of Angel Island, 

and the accompanying wind the tree betrays as 

the slow shutter speed of registry, accustomed to turning

small children into hummingbird wings, that light,

that lovely, comes across the unusual quiet of a child, 

this very small boy who was handed the reins 

and finds them something to puzzle apart, 

the knot of departure presented to calm, 

to hold, to understand before this father and son

absorb all the light and energy they can contain.


5.  Huddled


--considerably disheartened when I came to the Station and found it in the condition that it was…

[I] have just about completed an addition to the bath house and added a shed to the disinfecting house, so that the Chinese can have some place to dress and stay in after their bath.

I will, if the Bureau will hurry matters…be in a position to care for the people humanely

at the time when the rainy season sets in.  

  —Joseph J. Kinyoun, M.D., San Francisco Quarantine Station,

       Angel Island, California, August 9, 1900; in letter to a friend


If one saw the Quarantine Station photograph

of so many men bare-chested, crouching 

close together, almost in formation, though 

not flying, one of another culture might say: 

Cultural, or, Notice how to enter this country 

one first must be humble.  


If the opposite shore comes to mind, one might think 

one was thinking in opposites, but no—Ellis Island—

Eastern Europeans, Germans, Italians, Irish—

sacks slung over sons’ shoulders, bedding 

balanced on mothers’ heads. At the foot 

of “The New Colossus,” a poem written by a woman 

named Lazarus, its ninth line:

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!

mistakenly engraved with the comma after

Keep omitted, and, still, uncorrected.


Yet don’t we try, we say, to care for the people

humanely, and shouldn’t we shiver when 

we see ourselves, however long on this land,

so similar in shoulder, hand, naked or burdened;

ourselves still naked, still burdened, still so hopeful

it almost, as we say, breaks our hearts. 


 

About the poem:

As the poem reveals, the island is Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, 1889–1901+. The accompanying photographs, taken by my great-grandmother Elizabeth Perry Kinyoun, capture aspects of the island as well as domestic life taking place while her husband (Joseph Kinyoun, physician and microbiologist) worked to rehabilitate the Quarantine Station so it would be habitable for the staff and Chinese immigrants and prepared for the formidable scientific work that lay ahead. Elizabeth Kinyoun not only took the photographs but also processed them and their negatives in the family darkroom her husband also used. She used a special solution for the blue and sepia tones.


 

Cover art for The Receipt is modified from "Autograph Receipt for Keats's Piano, signed by Anna Angeletti," reproduced courtesy of the Keats-Shelly Memorial Association. All rights reserved.

The original receipt is framed and hanging on a wall in the bedroom where John Keats died in what is now known as the Keats-Shelly House in Rome, Italy. The painter Joseph Severn agreed to abandon commissioned work in London in order to accompany his friend, the dying Keats, to Rome in search of a milder climate.

Upon arrival, Keats asked Severn to rent a piano and play Haydn for him.

Severn did this; the receipt he received for this rental was for seven scudi (roughly seven American at the time).

The last poem in this book, titled "Severn's Receipt," and the book's title, 

The Receipt, serve to indicate the poems represent a receipt for life lived, through the ages.


 

Silver Coin Cow Tavern

from The Receipt, Cynren Press, 2023


most popular nights

of the full moon, previously known as

Drink ‘n Drown Nights,

is named for the therein celebrated

cow whose action

instituted evening swims, known as

skinny dips among other species, and

braving the belief system among

her kind, the bovine.

Though this brave sister

has long since departed, a painting

of her hangs above the bar

in Silver Coin Cow Tavern where

cow and cowgirl and cowboy alike belly up

for well drinks and, on more difficult

nights, raise their glasses to the painting

for courage. One look at her stately figure

advancing upon the pond

in moonlight and all who reflect

are reminded of what hot summer nights

must have been for cows before cows

first knew they might enter the water and survive.

And here is the draw for Silver Coin Cow Tavern

where cowboys, cowgirls, and cows savor

that first moment, speak of life

and believe in bravery

whatever the form.


 

About the poem:

This poem is one of the latest of the tavern poems and probably springs from

two sources: my adult children asking me if I’d written any tavern poems recently and my fondness for the last poem in my first book, Returning the Question. That poem, “The Silver Coin,” introduces the pond and the cows gathered around the pond and wanting to go into the water on a very hot night but, based on their belief system, afraid that they will die if they do so. 


 


Photo credit: paix120 on VisualHunt.com

Flight


I’ve been watching a birds’ nest this afternoon, 

a robins’ nest, the first bird I remember 

my mother acquainting me with.


Robin Red Breast, she said with an affection 

I’ve often longed for in the many years since.

I’d have missed this nest, and had missed this nest, 


but for the moment the pale-red breasted mother 

dropped down from the sky to her basket of eggs 

as my eyes turned from the desk to the window 


and caused me to speak. In recognition,

I said, Oh, or was it, Look, and laughed softly. 

Such moments must steal some part of memory 


while they sear other parts into the interior:

the long dangling string, the twigs the color

of straw wedged in the branches of the maple tree.


And then there was no one sitting the nest.

The mother and father robin that had patched 

together the untidy home to ride the Kansas wind 


did not return. No matter how much a part 

of nature their nest now looks, branch and 

mess of twigs—much like the bare-wood

 

home up to its windows in dust, the missing

faces and cries, like beaks and feathers--left--


long, and not so long-ago scenes so desolate

that only a Dorothea Lange might

be brave enough to show us


the blue eagle hung up in the barbed wire.


 

About the poem:

The backstory/impetus for “Flight” is contained in the first four stanzas: I was working at my desk when I turned to look out the window across the room. The nest I suddenly recognized had been so well camouflaged, being made of nature itself, that I’d not noticed it among the branches. The lovely mother robin made it visible. From that image, the filings, once again, jumped to the magnet. 


 

Catherine Anderson

For over twenty years, Catherine Anderson has been working with immigrant and refugee communities in Kansas City, where she currently lives. She also facilitates the Kansas City Writers Place Poetry Reading Circle, where participants gather monthly to discuss poems and poets. For two decades, she worked in Boston as a teacher and writer, primarily focused on the lives of new immigrants. She has received awards in poetry from the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation (many years ago) and, more recently, the I-70 Review and the Crab Orchard Review.


 

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