It is hard to believe that half of 2011 is already over. One of my goals for the year is to devote a post a month to interviewing an emerging GLBT poet. I’ve had an amazing time doing this project and getting to know more about many of my peers that I greatly admire.
June marks my sixth interview and this month I talked with Steven Reigns. I hope you will enjoy our conversation.
Stephen: Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember the first poem you wrote and what it was about? Or when did you first get into poetry?
Steven: I was thankful to have Jean Young as an elementary school teacher. In the sixth grade she taught our Language Arts class using this progressive curriculum that involved creative writing and peer review. I wrote poems in that class that were submitted to a national elementary school journal that got published. One poem was about the Missouri artist George Bingham, the other was, when I look back, surprisingly complex for my age about a swan, lake, and the clouds.
I loved writing poetry, loved having my work in print, the attention it got me. I felt special for the first time—as if I had something to contribute, that I had a talent or gift. I loved the identity as a poet but middle school was around the corner and I soon found myself teased for it, as well as my gayness. It was at that time I distanced myself from both things thinking it would bring me happiness and acceptance. The irony is that now they are the two things that have brought me the most happiness.
S: I started writing creative work around the same time myself and can very much identify with those feelings. After reading your most recent book, Inheritance, I knew I wanted to interview you.
S: Thanks. I’m flattered because I read your blog and have enjoyed learning about the other poets you’ve interviewed.
S: Thank you. From reading the poems in your newest book, I was drawn to your autobiographical approach to poetry. I then found out that you actually teach some workshops on autobiographical poetry to the GLBT community. My approach to poetry is very similar. How exactly do you define the term autobiographical poetry and how did you come to writing it?
S: In my own poetry I never want to hide behind terms like “the speaker” of the poem. I want readers to know that these poems are true. There isn’t a fictionalizing of events or people. I sometimes think the root of all reading, writing, and storytelling is about connection. My first collection had fictionalized events and real events. There was a general assumption by readers that all of the stories were true. They were emotionally relating to the work that wasn’t real. This made me feel uneasy, as if I was misleading them.
For my poetry, I desire to express the deepest truth I know. Part of my editing involves looking over a poem and questioning if there’s something I’m not saying. If I’m omitting something out of fear, I know I what I need to include.
S: That’s a very interesting perspective. I seem to be coming around to the same conclusion. I’ve also been experimenting with what you might call “documentary poetry,” which often combines my story with facts about another event or person.
When you teach poetry, how do you approach it? What are the challenges? Where do you start?
S: I believe we all have the ability to write and every voice deserves time, space, and consideration. A big part of my teaching is getting my students to understand this and to create a safe space for them to explore and create.
S: Writers who do such a great job of showing readers the multiple layers of their characters always strike me and you do that so well in this book. The “mother” figure in these poems is difficult to like. In some poems she’s shouting things like “‘You seem to want to be a girl. / Maybe we could go to the doctor and he can make you a girl.’” It is easy to hate this woman, but then we come to the poem “My Mother Applies for a Job.” This was one of my favorites because of how it added so much to the mother in these poems. She is so vulnerable here. When putting together this book, was this something you carefully considered?
S: I’m so pleased to hear you saw her vulnerability in that poem and that it was remembered. I think the awful things are easier to remember sometimes. We’ll vividly recount the car crash but not the five cars that pulled over to help.
I recently made an agreement with myself to stop talking about and writing about the abuse in my past. This isn’t out denial, this is about ensuring the abuse doesn’t consume my adult life too. I see my first collection, Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat, as a recounting of the horrors. I think of Inheritance as a document of the after effects. Those experiences shaped me greatly but I’m no longer keeping my sights on the past, I’m interested in my present and future.
My parents were horrible at times. They were also loving at other times. Having them as parents was a mixed bag—so is about everything else. My perception of myself and my life were profoundly changed when I read Robyn Posen’s essay where she stated “I would not trade this me for a different childhood, a different mother.” I eventually used this as one of the pull quotes for the book.
S: How did you think about the placement of the poems in this collection?
S: The collection is devised into three sections. Each section’s title is text taken from a Last Will & Testament. Inheritance is a collection with a tight focus but the poems themselves have a different feel. The book’s order was a way of grouping the poems by the emotional experience they represent.
S: Outside of poetry, you recently completed your Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. How has that influenced your poetry work or has it?
S: The degree hasn’t changed my writing style and hasn’t dictated my subject matter. It has created a busier life for me. I’m not resentful of this. The reality is that no one can support themselves from poetry alone. I’ve always had a deep interest in psychology. The profession, psychology, focuses on the personal and relationships. My poetry has had the same scope. There is a Sigmund Freud quote, “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.” Anne Sexton has a poem about the similarities between the professions, “Said The Poet to the Analyst.”
I’ve facilitated a series of support groups utilizing writing as a way of expression, a projective tool, and creating a new narrative. I’ve lead these groups at a residential house for the newly sober and currently have a group at a GLBT senior residential center. I might specialize in the emerging Poetry Therapy field.
S: That sounds fascinating. I’m interested in seeing where “Poetry Therapy” goes.
Inheritance is your second book and you have also published a few chapbooks. Publishing can be one of the trickiest parts of the poetry world. From your experience, what have you learned about publishing? What is your best advice?
S: I’m madly in love with my current publisher Sibling Rivalry Press. It’s an honor to have one’s work at a professional publishing house where it is respected and the poet’s input on the final book is regarded. This wasn’t the case with the first publishing of Inheritance. This new edition is striking and I couldn’t have asked for more.
S: I will say the cover of the new edition more than slightly terrifies me. I like that.
S: I know. It’s by David Moore. I saw it in his book and knew immediately I wanted that image for the cover of Inheritance. I’ve since purchased a large print of it and it’s hanging on my bedroom wall.
I wish there was easy advice when it comes to publishing. One of my favorite writers, Anais Nin, bought her own printing press and published her own books because her work wasn’t getting published. Thanks to Print on Demand publishing, one doesn’t have to manually set the typeface and ink the plates. It’s a bit easier but still it’s a bold act and I applaud anyone putting their work out there for public consumption.
S: You currently live in LA and I’m always interested in having the poets I interview talk a bit about the poetry scene in their location. What is happening poetically in LA?
S: When people ask what I do, I feel a need to specify, “I write poetry.” LA is saturated with screen writers and people working in the industry. When I first moved here I was at a party and this guy told me he was an editor. I asked which publishing house? This was naive of me.
S: Who are your greatest influences?
S: That’s a very long list. I’m influenced by great writing. Reading a really good piece of writing can prompt me to start writing. This isn’t always poetry. What’s ignited me most recently is the short story collection Widow by Michelle Latiolais. I was powerfully moved at the ending of each story. Her grasp and use of language awed me as much as her emotional insight into the characters.
S: I also have found much of my inspiration from fiction. You are my June poet and June is Pride month. How do you think gay poets fit within the wider gay community? What do we offer?
S: I wish I could firmly state where we place within the gay community but I’m not so sure I know where poets place within the larger community either. Honestly, I don’t really think about these things. I’m a poet and my acceptance or rejection isn’t going to change who I am and what I do. The same is true of my gayness.
S: On your website (www.stevenreigns.com), I learned that you are currently participating in a 7-year endurance-performance based project you are calling “S(t)even Years.” Could you explain this project?
S: It is a seven-year project where I focus on one chakra a year. There are colors and focuses associated with each chakra. I’ve made intentions for each year to teach a free workshop based on the theme of that chakra, wear at least one item of clothing everyday of the chakra color, publish a chapbook of the writings each year, and to alter my living space.
This project is under the tutelage of Linda Montano who did a similar project for 14 years. I’m not doing this alone, there are numerous other artists exploring this together and we send out mass emails to each other often.
S: Sounds rather interesting. Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or live would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?
S: My poem The Dead has some lines about my fantasizing about the men I’ve had sex with that are now dead. Ah, sexualizing the dead. I don’t do it often but welcome an opportunity. David Groff’s Persistent Voices is an anthology of poets who have died from AIDS. It’s a tomb of poetic voices gone too soon. I don’t know if I sexualize them but there’s a beauty in their voices, a unique perspective that is a turn-on. I’d sleep with them—the women and the men. Frank O’Hara also comes to mind. He was sexy but more than that, I want to be loved like he loved the object in “Having a Coke With You.”
S: I’m with you on Frank O’Hara. He is my favorite. What is something that you absolutely love that would surprise most people?
S: Frank really was dreamy. With the photographer Jenny Walters we replicated a Frank O’Hara shot for my chapbook As if Memories Were Not Enough. The style of those poems was inspired by his poetry. Something surprising about me? Soap. My shower usually has about 8-10 different kinds of soap in it.
S: If you could take any of your poems and turn it into a film, what poem would you pick and why?
S: I’d love to see “Recipe Box” turned into a short-short film. It’s a poem about a dear moment where my now-deceased friend shouts out where he would place his dead friends’ memorial cards in a recipe box. That was the first poem that came to my mind, not because I think it’s the best poem or would work best in that medium. Michael was magical and that moment was art. I guess when writing the poem and even when reading it, I want to be there again with him. I am sort of but I’m also painfully aware at how poetry isn’t a time machine. That moment is gone. I documented the moment in a poem but the poem also serves as a reminder of what isn’t around anymore.
S: What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?
S: This answer might change weekly.
S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?
S: Scott Bakula or Kim Fields
S: Lastly, what are you currently working on?
S: I’m still writing poems. My life has been happening at a rapid pace and I don’t have as much time to write as I used to or that I’d like to. I have a new collection that Sibling Rivalry has expressed interest in publishing and my fingers are crossed it happens.
S: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.
Top photo by Mark Oberlin. Bottom photo by Leo Garcia.