Thursday, April 9, 2009
April 2009: Steven Reigns
Steven Reigns is a Los Angeles based poet and educator. After earning a degree in
Creative Writing at the University of South Florida, his début poetry collection, Your
Dead Body is My Welcome Mat, was published in 2001. Since then, Reigns has published
two chapbooks, Ignited and Cartography, and taught creative writing workshops around
the country to gay youth and people living with HIV. For three years, Reigns served as
Literary Director for Tampa’s GLBT community center. Currently he is working on
S(t)even Years, a 7-year endurance performance under the mentorship of performance
artist Linda Montano and is also at work on a new collection of poetry entitled
Inheritance. He recently edited My Life is Poetry, an anthology of autobiographical poetry by GLB seniors. www.stevenreigns.com
1) What is the biggest challenge facing writers/poets today?
I think creative people’s challenges have been similar for decades, if not centuries, we wrestle with creating precisely what we envision and feel, we’re in constant exploration and observation of our inner and outer worlds. What’s unique to our time is the changing culture of print and its competition for our attention. Writing poetry, sans a small few, isn’t a viable means for sole income.
As far as the future of poetry, I’m not a fatalist. I embrace technology and feel that we’re in an exciting time. Fifteen years ago we lamented on the dying art of letter writing. It would have been impossible to imagine what we have today—email. I realize it isn’t the same thing but if we embrace the change it’s easier to recognize that more people are expressing themselves with the written word than twenty years ago. I’m confident poetry will have a similar fate. Just last week I was scouring the net and downloading poets into my iPod. Technology or some type of cultural shift is going to give poetry new life. In many ways, I think poetry, with its brevity, has the potential to become favored over novels.
2) What has been one of your biggest challenges?
The first is finding time. I don’t think this challenge is unique to me. I’m so engaged in life and find so many things of interest that it can sometimes be easy to neglect my writing time. The books on my shelf and the blank page have lots of attention competition and don’t seem to cry from neglect.
I’m also not immune to self-doubt. There are times I question the importance of what I’m doing. I even get into the comparing game and think of all of the talented poets out there vying for the same space in journals, publisher’s printing presses, and bookshelves. About two years ago I was flying out of NYC and kept staring out the window. I was like a kid again and awed at how many people were out in the world. My thought wasn’t “There are so many people, I should stop being one.” I felt excited to be on the planet, able to join-in and witness life. I soon began to think similarly about my poetry—I’m joining a pantheon, not battling in the coliseum. There is enough room for all of our voices.
3) Where do you find your inspiration to write?
I think anything can serve as an inspiration to write, we just need to allow ourselves the time to do it. Linda Montano wrote that everyone has a chicken story. The first time I read that, I thought it was ridiculous. Then, when I gave myself time, I realized I had one too.
As a poet, I gather what is around me and inside of me and put it into my work.
Generally to write a poem I like to have two ideas or two sources of inspiration. Sometimes one element doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain a poem. As an example, smells can quickly take me back to a time and place. Smelling the perfume soap my grandmother used could be a poem but I like poetry to be a bit more complex than that. I’d couple that poem with a story about sitting in her beauty parlor or relate the aromatic reminder to my first boyfriend’s cologne.
Inspiration for writing has changed over the years. Good writing inspires me. I’ll read a good poem and get excited thinking how I want to write something as good. I don’t think of this as competiveness, I think of it as almost a conversation. I want to be in that kitchen, cooking with those chiefs.
4) What current projects are you working on?
The biggest “project” I’m working on isn’t directly poetry related. In December I will graduate with a Masters in Family Therapy. When starting the program I wrote supportively in my journal “You’re not leaving poetry behind, you’re leaving poverty behind.” I was tempted to get an MFA but I was unsure about my interest in teaching in academia.
As a poet, one needs to find a way to support themselves; poetry isn’t going to be enough. My course of study, psychology, focuses on the personal and relationships. My poetry has had the same scope. Shortly after starting the program I read the 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.” If I desired I could even specialize in the emerging Poetry Therapy field. The deeper I get into it, the more surprising the similarities.
5) Do you mostly write in free verse?
I have quite a few poems that are forms but I’m a fan of the narrative block.
I think one of the dangers of form poetry is that the message or meaning gets distorted because the poet tries to push a story or experience into a container that might not be appropriate. It’s important to know what container fits best for ones story. There isn’t a one-size/one form fits all proportion. That’s why it’s important to know forms and what works best within them. In my classes we avoid all end rhyme. It usually makes a poem sound like a nursery book.
6) What else do you write besides poetry?
For three years I had a bi-monthly column in a magazine. I’ve occasionally written book reviews and conducted interviews. Primarily I write poetry. Right now I don’t have an interest in anything else. This is a rarity in Los Angeles where there are so many aspiring screenwriters. I went on a date with a guy who was amazed I only had interest in writing poetry. He thought it lacked ambition and asked annoyingly, “Don’t you ever want to do anything bigger than that?” I told him that poetry is big, it’s the biggest thing in my life and I never tire of it.
7) What is your ideal writing sanctuary?
I’ve long given up the idea of a writing sanctuary. Focusing on the perfect one or how I don’t have one seems like a good excuse to procrastinate or a good reason why I’m not writing. Ideally, I’d write down a poem when the idea comes to me. This isn’t always the case, I’d be a more prolific writer if I were as open to ideas as I was in the past. I was forever pulling my car over and jotting down ideas, stopping mid-shower to write a verse. I still keep a notebook near my bed but the urgency to write down every idea isn’t as strong. Maybe my feelings of needing to immediately write the thought came from some type of starvation thinking. I’m more comfortable with myself as a creative person, I know my output is endless. I believe the strong images will be waiting when I’m ready to write. The challenge currently is setting aside the time to write.
8)Do you think that being openly gay affects your writing?
My flippant answer to this question is that everything affects my writings. However, I know it’s more complex. Such questions are common during queer writing panels and at conferences. What makes a work gay? What is a gay sensibility? I took a weekly pottery class for four years. One night I was looking at a shelf filled with my work, the only gay male, and that of my classmates. I’m not so sure potters talk about the gay sensibility of their work or if their gayness affects their work, they just make it. The same is true for my poetry. I don’t feel the need to represent my community when I write. If I did, I’d be paralyzed with pressure. I’m focused on representing my experience or vision—that’s pressure enough. I hope readers can relate, learn, and empathize with the work but I don’t sit down with an audience in mind.
Gayness and being a writer has always been intricately linked for me. When I first had sex with a guy at age sixteen, I wrote about it in my journal. Later while reading that entry to my friend Stephanie Recht, she encouraged me to write more and I followed that advice.
9) What s your next project?
On April 15th, I’m teaching a free autobiographical poetry workshop at The West Hollywood Library at 6:00 PM that is co-sponsored by Friends of the West Hollywood Library. On April 27, I will perform at Queer Mondays at Highways Performance Space at 7:30 PM. I enjoy teaching poetry workshops and connecting people with the joy of writing poetry and finding a creative outlet. I still teach the monthly autobiographical poetry workshop My Life is Poetry for GLBT elders.
I have a finished collection, Inheritance, which I’m submitting to presses. I’m three years into my seven-year performance piece S(t)even Years. Each year I focus and move my way up to each chakra of the body. There’s a chapbook for each year but these have very small runs and are limited editions.
10) As of right now, what are you most proud of with your writing?
I’m always the most proud of my latest accomplishments. Most of my work is autobiographical and the writings are documents of that time. I think I’ve become a better writer but also a more astute observer and a healthier person. My new work reflects that. The honesty and integrity of my work hasn’t wavered but the pacing, rawness, and immediacy have changed. I’m quite happy with where I am and the direction of my poetry. I look forward to observing where poetry takes me and where I take the poetry.