Outlook Theater Interview with Steven Reigns

How did this project come about?

I created Write Now, a writing workshop for GLBTQ youth. I had been teaching it for a few years and was soon asked to teach a workshop at a hospice’s retreat for people living with HIV. With my workshops for youth, the first writing exercise was to write about their first time—it could be sex, kissing, hand holding, any charged moment they considered a first. These moments in our lives usually make the best initial writing assignments. What I was not prepared for when I walked into the room was the large number of elderly men and women at the hospice retreat. I got nervous. I was mortified to ask these women, some would call “blue hairs” that surpassed my grandmother in age to write about sex. Out of lack of preparation for anything else, I proceeded with the same lesson plan fearful they might be offended. When the moment came for students to voluntarily share what they wrote, all these wrinkled, liver spotted hands went in the air. They were so willing and excited to share their stories—and what stories they were. I can still recall details of those stories almost a decade later.
I kept thinking about these bold individuals. Seniors do not get adequate airtime. We’re no longer a culture that values the wisdom and stories that come with age. With the digital media landscape changing, I feared even more for the silencing of these stories. This population isn’t necessarily blogging or keeping a live journal. We lost a generation to HIV; this only increases the value of the stories of those who survived it. GLBT seniors themselves can also become isolated from each other. These and many other reasons were why I created My Life is Poetry. I wanted to gather glbt seniors together and give them a platform to share their stories.
I received for a Los Angeles County Department of Cultural Affairs grant to teach autobiographical poetry workshop to GLBT seniors. They’ve thankfully funded the workshop for two years. The LA Gay & Lesbian Center was happy to be a supportive collaborator generously donating space and making accommodations. The grant cycle has ended and we’re currently seeking additional funding to keep the program going.

What has been your most memorable experience as part of My Life is Poetry?

Albert Busendorfer, one of my students, had suffered from a stroke and was in a coma in the hospital. To be with someone while they are writing, rediscovering their life, finding their voice, and telling their story is an incredibly intimate experience. I was very upset but remembered reading a study on how people in comas showed some brain stimulation when being spoken to. I grabbed a handful of poetry books, went to the hospital, and read to Albert. Holding his hand I read the poetry of Anne Sexton, Marie Howe, Terry Wolverton, Sharon Olds, and Mark Doty. Machines were keeping him alive and he soon passed away.
With Al and all of my other students, I feel honored to witness to their growth, hear their stories, and share the love of writing poetry. It is extremely sad to me that Albert isn’t around but I’m pleased to have his stories printed the My Life is Poetry anthology and to keep revisiting his words.

How has the process of revisiting memories and writing about them changed your perception of your self, your community, and your world?

I don’t think my self-concept has changed much or my feelings for my community. Writing autobiographical poetry helps us remember feelings, revisit details, create a narrative, and document our lives. My latest collection, Inheritance, is all autobiographical poetry. I think writing it was a way of understanding my life. There is also a relief in sharing and not holding onto secrets. It is pleasing to craft my life experiences into art. The community response has been great. People respond to the intimacy in the poems, they feel close to me, and that we have shared something.

What is one “thing” (be it message, hope, dream, legacy, etc.) you want LGBTQ community to know?

There is room for all of us. There isn’t a need to devalue others within our community. I see this especially with the more fringe parts of our community from leather to drag. I want more, not less, diversity of fashion, femininity, race, age, and weight.

What is one “thing” you want other seniors/elders to know?

All of our stories have value. If we don’t tell our story, no one else will. For most GLBTQ people validation has to be an inside job. Straight people’s relationships and experiences automatically receive encouragement. As a teacher, it requires some of my students blindly trusting me that their stories are of note and deserve the time to consider and document. They need to blindly trust because the concept is so foreign to them.

Reflecting on your life up to this point, what is your greatest lesson?

My life lessons seem to build upon each other. They seem to be so intricately connected that it would be hard to isolate one. In Inheritance, I’m disclosing these intimate details about my life, some I know are hurtful for others to hear. I remind myself of a lesson I learned years ago– it is not my job to emotionally take care of people. When writing I want to be as truthful as possible, to distill the feelings as clearly as possible. In American culture we are encouraged to not “go against” the family or “air dirty laundry.” This type of silence only protects predators.

How can others stay connected to you and/or your writing?

Through my websites www.stevenreigns.com and www.mylifeispoetry.com
They can also participate in a new project I’m working on: www.thegayrub.com

image by: Jenny Walters