There is the inevitable urge to find similarities or wild divergences when pairing two writers together. And when the writers are, by their own admission, kings of the multi-genre approach, you could spend all day making conclusions about how their work is alike or different.
Reginald Gibbons and Regie Gibson also share a coincidental similarity in their very names. A grin comes through in Gibson's voice when asks if it's ever caused embarrassment.
"Sometimes, someone will show up at a reading or a performance and say, 'You don't look like a middle-aged white guy,'" he chuckles on the line from his home near Boston.
Hailing from Chicago (he was born in Mississippi), Gibson is a poet, songwriter, performer and educator. He's the founder of The Church of the Funky Word and, in 1998, won the National Poetry Slam Individual Championship. In 2002, his first full-length book, Storms Beneath the Skin, received the Golden Pen Award. He's appeared in the film love jones, and with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and orchestra "X."
Reginald Gibbons was born in Texas but "would have cut off (his) right foot at 18 to get out of there." He's the author of eight books of poetry since the early '80s, including It's Time in 2002 and a chapbook, In the Warhouse, last year; his novel Sweetbitter came out a decade ago; and he's published short prose and works translated from Spanish and ancient Greek. He was the editor of TriQuarterly from 1981 to 1997. He's a professor of English at Northwestern University in Chicago and a core faculty member of the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.
"Finding your voice implies that only one exists," explains Regie Gibson of the different genres he writes in. "I'm caught between several gravitational pulls. I love to listen to gutbucket blues in the seediest part of any city. But I also volunteer to usher at the opera. I read hip-hop poetry and The Inferno. I never saw a reason to stick to one genre and that seems to be a problem when most folks kick out the same work over a career."
Gibbons echoes the sentiment. "I'm just kind of greedy. I'll never have time to finish it all, so I wander all over the place."
His poem "Stop" begged for its form based on how he heard it in his head--67 sentences that are unfinished, truncated almost like an old-fashioned telegram:
I always like to have a little quiet time after the lunch dishes are
And yesterday when we came in here after we ate we didn't
We both of us wish you could visit more often, but we understand how you
"I hate to give it away," admits Gibbons when asked how he devised the poem that contrasts with his other work. "Part of how it looks is similar to when you construct a poetic monolog, and you make it sound the way people talk. Long before a sentence is finished, we already know where it's going."
It's the musicality that lures Gibbons and is his approach to teaching writing, too. He tells students at the launch of a 10-week class that he's going to train them to hear language, almost in a nuts and bolts fashion.
"If you don't want to use it, then you work against it. Poetry is a time art like music," Gibbons says.
Regie Gibson is equally informed by music. His literary ensemble, Church of the Funky Word, was comprised of writers and musicians that he corralled in Chicago to "play blood."
"By that, I mean going beyond the notes, pulling from the Earth, raising up the spirit, kind of like when Nina Simone sings. She's got something Britney Spears certainly doesn't."
Gibson says the members took into account church ritual and had a strong pull toward history--where slaves would meet at night to console each other and re-ritualize themselves in an African way. "They would sanctify each other through music and poetry," explains Gibson of the roots of his Chicago ensemble--a grouping he hasn't been able to replicate in his five years in Boston.
The poetry slam scene is another of Gibson's communities, though he hasn't competed since 2001. He says slam is a good way to see if your work fits into a niche, like a sonnet-writing contest.
"I don't really know why I did well with slam, considering my work doesn't beat you over the head with 300 years of African American history. But I still support it. I think people should do it for two or three years and get out before they get too crowd drunk."
Gibson's work is evolving from his first book that had a slam-oriented feel. It's becoming more formal, more on the page.
A new piece called "Day of the Dead" was commissioned by the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center. Gibson subtitled it "A November lament in four parts for Lorca and Neruda."
...When you return / where will we find you / Beneath the barren cellos cracked skin / In the sore throated weeping of myths / Shaping our ruin / Will we know you as sacrifice / Two bludgeoned and staggering creatures / Whose bleating heavies / Our song...
"I was speaking to the poets as though they're both dead and alive, like a eulogy," explains Gibson of the poem. "As a poet, death is one of those things we circle back to."
"Day of the Dead" has yet to find a permanent home in print. Like Gibson, Reginald Gibbons is always looking for the right place to publish his work. So last year, he put out a chapbook after a long spate of being published by academic presses.
"The poems had been orphaned by editors who thought they were too political."
He adds, "In our culture where we have enormous webs of instant communication, people actually feel isolated. So you put the ideas out there, make them accessible because it's the right thing to do."