Interview with Steven Reigns

1.As a writer, I find that writing about myself personally is challenging. Why did you decide to write an autobiographical book with you as the subject?

My first collection, Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat, was a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. After the book was published, the nonfictional elements began to feel a bit cheap to me. I kept hearing from readers how much the book affected them and heard stories they hadn’t disclosed to anyone else.
These experiences really shaped my idea of the type of work I want to create. Though an imagined reality can be as moving as real life events, I wanted to have my next collection focus only on my experience. Another interesting thing about Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat is that I refrained from talking about my parent’s abuse. I hadn’t noticed this until after the book came out. Holding onto family secrets was so ingrained in me that, though I was disclosing about my neighbor and being molested, I didn’t talk about how my parents treated me.

2.I want to know what you feel is both the limitations and the advantages of writing in prose/verse...at least as it pertains to you?

I don’t feel limited by poetry. It suits my temperament. I don’t have the patience of a novelist. My writings for the past ten years have been autobiographical or based on true events. I don’t have a desire to enter into a fabricated or false world. Though I might not be patient, I’m highly attentive. This works as a writer and reader of poetry.
The biggest thing limiting poetry isn’t the form as much as it is the public’s perception of poetry. I think with more exposure, people would enjoy poetry more.

3.Why did you choose to use the real names in the book? -esp Debbie May.

I always get questions about my use of real events and sometimes not changing names. I tried to search for Debbie a few times over the years. Before the book went to print I sent out dozens of Facebook messages searching for her. I couldn’t find her and proceeded without permission. I’d like to think she would be okay with what is said about her in the poem. I think of it as an honoring. I wasn’t innocent, for quite awhile I was the one laughing with the kids who made fun of her. That changed for me the day I reference in the poem. I didn’t feel like I had the “social capital” to stick up for her. My fear was that I was on a par with her; the most hated, talked about, and teased girl in the school. What might feel like I’m dragging people’s real life into my book is really, for me, about my own life and growth.
The people are mentioned because they were a part of my life. I want to write the most emotionally and historically accurate poem I can about my life. I don’t intend on keeping someone else’s secrets but I wouldn’t write a slanderous poem either.

4.What sets your teaching apart from some of the other workshops and creative writing teachers?

I think I have a gift for articulating complexity simply. Mark Doty called my work “plainspoken.” This is accurate for my poetry but also for my teaching style. My teaching style does differ in that I use humor often and I’m forever telling analogies. Actually, I might be the kind of analogies: usually centered around baking, dating, driving, or gardening.
My enthusiasm for poetry and the writing process comes through as a teacher. I have faith in the page and process. I try hard to give that to my students.

5.How has being a teacher helped shaped your own writings?

Teaching has kept me connected with some of the basics of writing and being a writer. The advice I give my classes is the same advice I adhere to myself. It would be easy for me to continually stumble over words and expressions, taking hours to complete a first stanza. But instead, I remind myself what I tell my students, that the creative process and critical process should be separated. Get it out on the paper first, and later on you can reword, reorder, and edit.
Teaching hasn’t shaped my writing but it has shaped my life. I enjoy connecting people with information. Every time I teach a class I’m sharing something I deeply love. Teaching has enriched my life.

6. I love that you write autobiographical. I think it’s brave that you own your past and use it to teach and inspire. Because of you, am I inspired to write my second book of poetry. Any advice?

The first piece of advice I’d give for any writer is to write. So often our perfectionism or desire to “do it right” gets in the way of writing. Our judgment and concern for appropriateness is just another form of resistance. Make sure these don’t get in the way. If you want to write, start putting ink on the page.
Our lives are big and broad. Wanting to write an autobiographical collection may feel overwhelming. Start by writing what moves you, what you find interesting about you’ve experienced, felt, and witnessed. Remember those assignments in school where you had to write what you did on summer vacation? Give yourself such an assignment but designate years, a car you owned, or places you’ve lived. This doesn’t mean you create a collection of poems about your 1983 Honda Accord or about 1366 Solana Avenue; this assignment is designed to help you pull things from your past and reexamine them.

7.I completely agree with how you use Debbie’s name. I had a straight male friend recently who called me after the “It Gets Better” videos went public. He told me that when he was younger he had made fun of a gay kid when he was younger. He didn’t know how to contact him now, naturally, but he called to apologize to me saying I never realized the struggle that gay men and women have. I felt that there was power in his apology – as if perhaps he was apologizing for all those kids that had made fun of me somehow when I was growing up. It’s great that you use your writing as a way to bridge the past and the present. Do you use this when you teach? Share an analogy.

That’s a great story. I’m awed at how quickly the “It Gets Better” videos were created and circulated. I think that’s great but I also don’t want us to just give queer kids a PROMISE of a good future, I want them to have a tolerable present. I’ve taught writing in Middle Schools and to queer youth groups across the country. I was doing this over ten years ago because adolescence can be such a painful and awkward time. I really wanted to connect those youth to books that they could relate to and to the writing process.
Writing about our past automatically brings it into the present. Hopefully, we have gained perspective or insight that allows for enough emotional distance to write about it. Writing in the heat of the moment for me might feel good but it has never produced my favorite poems. As a teacher I’m interested in the experiential. It is okay for students to write about something that is emotionally urgent and possibly create a poem that will never get published. Getting out those emotions, at that time, might offer more of a sense of satisfaction than writing a prize winning poem. As a teacher, I’m happy they are connecting with writing and that they have found one of its uses. If one is only writing poetry to be published, then they have missed out on more than half of the experience. There’s a joy to writing, expressing ourselves, and finding a new narrative for old experiences.

8.What is next for you?

I still occasionally write autobiographically but most of my creative focus has been on a project of narrative poetry that does not involve me or my past experiences. I’ve been enjoying not writing about myself. There’s something about it that feels safer. My life isn’t up on a platter for people to know about or discuss. The joy of writing this new stuff just isn’t about not disclosing, I’m quite happy to have a different subject matter. Always writing about myself can be horribly boring. Only a handful of friends know what I’m working on. I’m keeping this one close to me and not revealing too much. This isn’t out of superstation but out of a desire to protect my vision for what I want. If people were to devalue the idea it would create more doubt. I also think that talking about a project can sometimes take the place of actually doing it.
9.What do you think of encouraging other writers?

Flannery O’Connor has a quote about her wish that more writers were stifled and recently Fran Lebovitz has said something similar. It’s hard for me to find the humor in it. I think published writers laugh at it in hopes it doesn’t apply to them. “If I laugh at this joke, no one will think it’s about me.” Maybe non-published writers laugh at it too. “See, my creative dream was foolish. I should leave writing to the others.” I don’t buy into the elitism that surrounds the literary world. Writers who don’t encourage other writers are self-hating or simply trying to narrow the competition. Why wouldn’t you want more and more people to share in one of your life’s loves. To me, it doesn’t matter that we’re all not going to play on the same court or in the same stadium. What maters is that we’re all participating in the craft and joy of writing. To stifle others is as ridiculous as Lebron James going to a neighborhood basketball court and telling the weekend players they should stop playing. It’s about the joy of doing it, not about where the doing it will lead you.

10.Have you experienced this kind of elitism?

Not recently. For my first book I had a publisher decline it and suggest I wait until I’m in my 40’s and “have something to really say.” That hurt and felt very dismissive. I was tenuous and kept trying to get it published. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her. That means I still wouldn’t have a book out! I’m not so sure what prompted her was elitism. She was an older lesbian and maybe she simply lacked interest in the stories I was telling.

For the most part, I’ve received extreme support from other writers. It’s nice to know that my poems have received such praise. It feels like a great pat on the back.

11.You’ve been busy this year with readings?

Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited numerous places. My book release party at Skylight Bookstore in Los Angeles was huge. Inheritance is listed as their 16th best selling book for 2010. It’s the only poetry book on their top list of 25 and it beat out these great writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Juno Diaz. I was awed after reading of my place on the list. I was sponsored by Poets & Writers grant to read at The Atlanta Queer Literary Festival. It was a great event where I shared the stage with one of my favorite poets Collin Kelly. I’ve also read at Saints & Sinners in New Orleans, Different Light in San Francisco, and numerous venues in Los Angeles. I recently read at Antioch University for a talk on Gay Male Identity. I enjoyed discussing how my gay identity inhabits the work and what it means to me to be a gay poet.

12.Are you pleased with the good reception Inheritance has received?

I’m thrilled. It has really been the best case scenario. It’s received many great reviews and I get emails from readers living in towns I’ve never heard of. To me it proves that poetry isn’t dead, this has gotten more praise and attention than some fiction books. I also love the lasting quality of a book. 2010 won’t be its only life. I’ve discovered books long after their initial publication and the late introduction never takes away from the power of the book. I’m in hopes readers find Inheritance for years to come.

13.Do you see yourself as a writer or a teacher?

I don’t think I could have become a teacher without being a writer. One of the best gifts I can give my students is my own experience. I know writing, I know the process, I know how to generate good ideas, stifle critical voices, mix up forms, and I deeply trust the process. I’m an experienced tour guide through the terrain of finding your voice and style.

14.How can someone take one of your classes?

I don’t have any classes to the general public scheduled yet for 2011. The best thing to do is keep checking my website for announcements. www.stevenreigns.com I’ll be teaching a workshop for GLBT Seniors starting in February and later in the year a workshop for people living with HIV. I’m sure there might be something for National Poetry Month.