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Cut & Paste: Justin Phillip Reed's poetry is haunted by St. Louis history

Poet Justin Phillip Reed relocated to St. Louis to earn his MFA at Washington University, and the city's history hovers over his first book, which won the National Book Award.
Nicholas A. C. Nichols
Poet Justin Phillip Reed relocated to St. Louis to earn his MFA at Washington University, and the city's history hovers over his first book, which won the National Book Award.

Justin Phillip Reed’s writing career has gotten off to an extraordinary start. Following a chapbook in 2016, this year he published his first collection of poetry (“Indecency,” Coffee House Press) — and it won the National Book Award for poetry. “Indecency” is, in large part, a product of the 29-year old’s time in St. Louis.

The South Carolina native relocated here to earn his MFA at Washington University, which he completed in 2015. His work foregrounds his identity as a queer black man in America, and examines the complex social calculus he’s navigated as he earns literary accolades and is celebrated by traditionally white institutions.

St. Louis itself hovers as a character in Reed’s work. It’s a place where he’s chosen to relocate and where he relishes a strong home-grown poetry scene. But it’s a place where he also feels haunted by the ghosts of the city’s forgotten stories and the spectre of racism, both past and present.

In this episode of Cut & Paste, Reed recalls an adolescence in which daily bullying contributed to him being expelled from three different high schools, despite showing academic brilliance at a young age. He reads from his work, and describes how one poem was inspired not just by the killing of Michael Brown, but by the dispiriting reactions of his white friends and peers to Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer.  

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Look for new Cut & Paste podcasts every few weeks on our website. You can also find all previous podcasts focusing on a diverse collection of visual and performing artists here.

The podcast is sponsored by JEMA Architects, Planners and Designers.

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