Wednesday, June 5, 2013

He Do the Gay Man Winning an Award: Reflecting on the 25th Lambda Literary Awards

In the last seven months, I moved to New York City, I turned thirty, I was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Poetry Award, I signed a contract for a second book, and on Monday night I won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Pretty unbelievable. I went from feeling like my life was stalled out to feeling empowered and accomplished.

Following grad school, I moved to Orlando, Florida and lived there for four and a half years. During that time, I wrote the majority of He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, but I also felt like my life was spinning out of control. In those years, I battled depression issues. Part of this was simply the shock of entering the job market after seven years of higher education and entering it at the peak of the recession. Part of it was the location I had selected. Orlando didn't really meet a lot of my needs. Part of it was just growing up and figuring out how to make it in this world as a writer. Luckily, I had the support of my partner, Dustin, and many good friends (lots of love to Jaclyn, Mark, Josh, Chiara, Gail, Beth, and Josh).

When my book came out in March of 2012, things began to change. My goal of having a book before I turned thirty was met. By this point, I had also made a plan to move to NYC. Having a book has been an amazing and strange experience. It has given me the chance to meet so many people and to feel a part of something truly special and that is the Sibling Rivalry family. I've been surprised by so much and there's been some ups and downs. I'm very hard on myself, which means I look for the negatives. There were moments when I felt like very few publications were interested in reviewing my book or interviewing me, which made me question if I did something wrong, or if the book wasn't good enough, or why others were getting more reviews than me (normal writer feelings). But I kept getting reader reviews on Amazon and Good Reads. While these reviews were sometimes mixed, they felt honest and were from true readers (some were very funny). Regardless of the reviews, my book became the bestselling book for my press in 2012 and made the contemporary poetry bestsellers list in August of 2012. I guess those pat-everyone-on-the-back reviews don't necessary mean that much. Then the most surprising thing happened: my book was named a finalist for both the Thom Gunn Poetry Award and the Lambda Literary Award.

When this happened in March, I was already living here in NYC and loving it. I felt like everything had fallen into place. Both award ceremonies were here in New York, which made my recent move feel even more like the right decision. Suddenly, I began to realize what I've accomplished and how far I've come. In the months leading up to the Lammys, I've had the chance to do a few readings here in the city and one in Boston during AWP. I've had the chance to meet and read with many amazing writers and to realize more than ever that I'm a part of a true community. I'm so tired of hearing about how bad the publishing world is or how poetry is dying. Things change. They always do, but there's still amazing writers out there doing impressive and interesting work. I'm lucky to be at a press that actually pays its writers and puts amazing work out into the world. I don't see the death so many people are talking about. I see change, opportunity, and new and vital voices.

In April, the Triangle Awards took place and I lost to Richard Blanco as I thought I might. It was an enjoyable evening and I was pleased to have my parents here in the city to share it with me. I wrote about that night here.

I went into the Lammys thinking of it as a celebration or bookend for my first book journey. I didn't expect to win, but, of course, I wanted to win (who doesn't?). Having lost one award and won the other, I can say winning is more fun. Of course, awards are just a small group's opinion. My Lammy means that this particular group of judges wanted to honor my book over others, and I'm pleased that they did. I'm sure someone out there thinks another poet should have won and that's fine. That's how it goes.

I won't say the Lambda Literary Foundation is perfect. I know it gets a lot of critiques and you can find that in many current stories about this year's awards. Awards, of any kind, are never perfect. There are always arguments about representation and inclusion (particularly for trans writers and writers of color). That doesn't mean, however, that the Lammys aren't still important to the community, and it doesn't mean they can't keep getting better. Cherrie Moraga was given the Pioneer Award at this year's ceremony and her speech was one of the most moving of the night. I thought she did an amazing job of both accepting the award, being honored by it, yet also expressing her concerns about the representation of writers of color. She also rightly expressed discomfort at the use of the word "pioneer." Speeches like this at award ceremonies can be awkward moments, but it truly wasn't. She was so genuine that I think the majority of the audience was moved. It was also hard to deny her sentiments since the winners had mostly been white people (myself included). I've had my own issues with Lambda and I often feel the website seems to highlight the same small group of writers over and over again, but these are all things that can change. Like Moraga, I'd like to see more diversity and for us as a community to "remain queer" as she said in her speech. This is something I strongly believe in and is partly a focus of my second book that questions the whole marriage movement and openly discusses my own open relationship.

My Lammy day actually started off pretty badly. I taught class Monday morning and ended up leaving my keys in my office at work and didn't realize I'd done this until I was in front of my apartment building. I live in upper Harlem and I teach in the financial district, so basically I spent a lot of my day on the subway. Then as I was getting ready for the night, I decided to try a new moisturizer (okay, it was tinted moisturizer) and after about twenty minutes, my face began to burn and turn red. I was not pleased. Luckily, I got it washed off and took some benadryl, which made my face return to normal by the time I got to the event. Then on the way from the subway to the event, it started pouring and Dustin and I got really wet even with an umbrella. Basically, things were not going my way. At that point, I was expecting a four-way tie in my category giving a Lammy to everyone but me.

After a few minutes of calming down and attempting to dry off, I began to feel better (maybe it was the three drinks I downed at the pre-ceremony reception). The Lammys are a pretty fun and impressive event. There was a red carpet, famous people, drinks, and lots of nervous writers. About 400 people attended, so it was a good crowd. Kate Clinton hosted the ceremony and was funny and kept things moving. I liked the use of the screens on stage to showcase the book covers. My award was right in the center of the night. Thankfully, I was entertained while I waited (I grew up loving to watch award ceremonies). The presenters were mostly funny and the acceptance speeches were quick and sometimes moving (as noted earlier).

When it came to the poetry awards, there was a drop in my stomach. I remember them announcing the nominees and my book cover coming up, but then it gets a little hazy. Of course, I know what must have happened. They must have read my book as the winner. My cover must have come back on the screen with the Lammy seal, and I know I somehow got to the stage. I don't completely remember what I said, but I think I mentioned how great Sibling Rivalry Press is, I thanked Bryan Borland, my teachers, and Dustin. I was quick, but to the point. I hadn't prepared anything specific to say, and I was truly in shock, which is why no one is quoting my acceptance speech.

I sat through the second half of the ceremony in a dream state. I kept looking down at my lap to remind myself that I'd actually won (the award was in my lap just to clarify). I remember being a little gay boy growing up in Indiana and telling people I wanted to be a writer. My life has changed so much in the last year and I keep thinking that somehow this can't all be real, but it is.

Afterwards, I attended the after party and drank a lot more and got to meet and get congratulations from so many people who I admire like Edmund White and John Irving. You might think this party would be full of snobby people, but everyone was so nice and accepting and while I've always been aware of my connection to the history of literature and other writers, it felt different to feel that connection in the flesh and here in New York City where so many significant gay writers have lived. The after party was on the top floor of the New Museum and it had a balcony that overlooked lower Manhattan. It was beautiful and surreal to stand there with a major award in my hand in a city that I've dreamed about living in all my life. Life isn't perfect, but sometimes it's pretty fucking great.

Since Monday night, I've been truly overwhelmed by all of the very kind messages, Facebook posts, emails, texts, tweets, etc. that I've gotten. You don't do anything in life completely alone. My book is a product of my life, my experiences, my education, and the people I've met along the way. I was very pleased to hear from so many of my past professors from both my undergrad days at Hanover College and my MFA days at Florida State. I often still feel like a student longing for the approval of my professors. It feels really good and I want to remember this feeling.

Lastly, I want to take a moment and say that I was honored to be in the same category as Aaron, Patrick, Richard, and Eduardo. And I'm sorry to Richard that every article so far that's mentioned my win has pointed out that I even beat the poet who read at Obama's inauguration (but I think he can take it). In lots of ways, the talent I was up against has made this award feel even more amazing.

Thanks to everyone for the kind words and for believing in my work.

-Stephen (Winning)


  1. we have yet to meet but I do feel I know something abt you because of yr posts on Facebook. so in a strange way I've been watching yr journey of this past year.

    this is a lovely reflection on an important moment in yr life. I thank you for sharing it. & I congratulate you not so much for winning an award but for realizing the significance of where you are at this time.

    enjoy it young man.

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