Fellow: Awarded 2008
Field of Study: Poetry
Competition: US & Canada
Reginald Shepherd was esteemed for his lyric, experimental poetry and his insightful, original critical voice.
Shepherd earned a B.A. (1988) from Bennington College and M.F.A. degrees from Brown University (1991) and the University of Iowa (1993). Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (as were all his subsequent collections), Some Are Drowning, his first poetry collection, earned the 1993 Associated Writing Programs’ Award in Poetry for its combination of traditional poetic forms, sometimes evoking classical myths, with, as Shepherd described it, “the tensions and ambivalences of my claim to a language both mine and not mine at all, a language in which I must create a place for myself.”
Four other collections followed: Angel, Interrupted (1996), which was nominated for the 1997 Lambda Literary Award; Wrong (1999); Otherhood (2003), which was a finalist for the 2004 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and Fata Morgana (2007). In addition, he published over four hundred poems in such preeminent poetry journals as Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, Paris Review, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. His poems were included in four editions of The Best American Poetry (1995, 1996, 2000, 2002) as well as in two volumes of The Pushcart Prize (XXIV and XXXI) and The Pushcart Book of Poetry, which collected the best poetry from the first thirty years of the Pushcart Prize. His poems also appeared in over two dozen other anthologies.
Among his other honors were Fellowships from the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council; grants from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation; and the Discovery/The Nation award, Paumanok Poetry Award from SUNY Farmingdale, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, and Poetry's George Kent Prize.
Issued by the University of Michigan in 2008 as part of its Poets on Poetry series, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry also won kudos for Reginald Shepherd. As he explained on his blog (January 26, 2008),
"The essays in Orpheus in the Bronx argue against ideological evaluations of art as either bourgeois mystification or social critique, focusing on the one hand on the liberatory possibilities of the autonomy of art and on the other hand on art’s relationship to social context and particularly to questions of social identity. For some time it’s been the fashion to see literature as a social symptom, or at best an epiphenomenon, to think that social conditions and social identity completely determine the nature and value of a piece of writing. But art’s utopian potential lies exactly in the degree to which it exceeds social determinations and definitions, bringing together the strange and the familiar, combining otherness and brotherhood."
In an often-cited review, poet and critic James Longenbach praised the book wholeheartedly: “Orpheus in the Bronx not only extols the freedom language affords us; it embodies that freedom, enacting poetry's greatest gift—the power to recognize ourselves as something other than what we are. These bracing arguments were written by a poet who sings.”
Through these years he was also teaching. He was an Assistant Professor of English at Northern Illinois University (1995-99) and Cornell University (1999-2002) before moving to Florida, where he held an adjunct instructorship in English (2002-05) and then a position as Visiting Assistant Professor of English (2005-06) at the University of West Florida.
Reginald Shepherd died on September 10, 2008. In his honor, the literary magazine Knockout established in 2009 the International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize, to honor his life and work.