Poet to Poet: Walter Beck In Conversation with Stephen S. Mills
Walter Beck talks Sex, Booze, and Poetry to rising young poet Stephen S. Mills.
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Stephen S. Mills is one of the rising young poets in the American queer literary scene. His first book He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices came out in the spring of 2012 to great acclaim and his second book A History of the Unmarried is slated for release this fall through Sibling Rivalry Press.
I had a chance to talk with Stephen one afternoon, in which we discussed his poetry and he also opened up about his grittier side as well as the political radicalism that often colors his work.
Stephen, would you introduce yourself to the readers of Polari.
For those who don’t me, I’m a poet and author of He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices and the forthcoming A History of the Unmarried both from Sibling Rivalry Press. I was born and raised in Indiana. I have my MFA from Florida State University and I currently live in New York City with my husband and dog.
Where in Indiana are you from?
I was born in Richmond, Indiana and I lived there until I turned 18. Then I attended Hanover College in Southern Indiana for undergrad.
Given that you spent most of your life in Indiana, has it reflected in any of your work? I’m likewise a native Hoosier (born and raised in Hendricks County) and I find myself referencing a lot of the places I knew in my poetry.
It does. Place or location is important to my work. I didn’t necessarily realize it at first, but once I left Indiana, I began to write about Indiana more. Partly it was me coming to terms with where I grew up and accepting that my upbringing is part of who I am. I also lived in Florida for seven years and now I’ve been in New York City for going on two years. All of these places have made an impact on me and my work.They are part of my journey and that’s reflected in many of my poems in my first book and my second that’s coming out.
What are your influences as a poet? I’ve read your first book He Do the Gay Man in Difference Voices and some stuff you’ve had published in lit rags. And I’ve noticed that a lot of your work has a very gritty edge to it – it’s often very sexual, sometimes violent, and certainly addresses controversial political subjects. You are not a poet who holds back or cleans up his work.
No, I’m not. Honesty is important to me in my work. And that doesn’t necessarily mean telling my truth, but telling something that is true or reflects what people experience or feel or fear. My first book is very much about the lines between sexuality and violence, so it’s very gritty and dark in places. That book was greatly influenced by the media and how our first exposure to violence and sexuality is often through the news. One of the poems in the book is called ‘Sex Education’, and is about a woman who was raped who went to church with me when I was a kid. This was one of my first times hearing about such things. The book is influenced by a lot of real life cases or violent acts from Jeffrey Dahmer to various hate crimes against gay people. But I’m also greatly influenced by pop culture (film and television especially) and by other poets like Frank O’Hara and T.S. Eliot.
How are you on stage for a live reading? Having read your stuff, I can nearly see you in a sweaty frenzy on stage, almost like a hardcore punk poet.
Ha, well I’m not sure I’m quite like that. I’ve done a lot more readings since moving to New York, so I’m getting more and more experience. I think I’m a fine reader, but I could be better. I’m not necessarily a performer poet, but I do enjoy doing it and connecting with an audience. From what I’ve heard about your performances, mine are pretty tame.
Yeah some of mine were pretty notorious. I’m probably the only poet to ever get banned from Indiana State University open mic nights.
No one has banned me yet, but New York is pretty open. I read about fisting in the middle of Bryant Park last summer with little kids walking around.
Nice! No boundaries. Alright, moving on a bit, your new book, when is it due for release?
It’s coming out September 16th.
How does it compare to your first book? He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices was a very intense heavy read. Can readers expect another round of that? Or did you re-invent yourself?
The book is still very me, but it’s different in tone and subject matter (though there is some crossover). The new book centers around the idea of marriage and really follows my journey as a gay man figuring out what marriage means to me. It’s not, however, a big celebration of marriage. For me, the gay rights movement started focusing so much on marriage about a decade ago but never really stopped to ask important questions like what does it mean to be queer and married? Do we want to be married? Does being married mean the same thing? What if you don’t want to follow these rules? The book asks those questions. It also puts my relationship next to various iconic images of marriage from the 1950s and ’60s. It references famous celebrities and writers from that time period as well as the television show Mad Men. I married my partner last September after being together for ten years, but I view marriage very differently than I did when I first met him. For example, we have an open relationship, which the book also explores.
How do you feel about the current state of the gay rights movement as a queer outlaw poet (if I may call you that)? Marriage certainly has been zeroed in on it.
I’m often frustrated by it. There’s been a big push to mainstream gay culture that I think perhaps had good intentions, but can really be harmful. I don’t like the way various organizations seem to want to show how gay people are just like other people and therefore deserve equal rights. I don’t need to be like you to deserve equal rights. Also a lot of mainstream gay rights groups like HRC aren’t very supportive of people who don’t play by the rules – like people in open relationships or people who want to wear a leather harness and a jockstrap and walk in a Pride parade. I also think the focus on marriage has ignored a lot of other important issues like job discrimination.
I’m certainly no fan or supporter of Gay, Inc. I’m not even a big fan of our local Pride events here, they seem more like giant corporate billboards than anything else.
In my new book, I also make a joke about GLAAD. Listen, these organizations mean well and were started with good intentions, but like many things they lose focus, become too big, and often start turning on the very community they are meant to protect. Sadly, that seems to be the trend in many areas. Pride has become a way for big corporations to come in and sell to the gay community.
I saw something online recently for my local Pride event coming up and it was all this merchandise – t-shirts, tote bags, boxers, flip-flops you can buy with our Pride logo on it. Maybe I’m too much of a punk at heart, but nothing ever screamed “Sell Out!” louder in my life.
I know what you mean. I love to celebrate Pride, but it can be frustrating when you see such a commercial overtake of it.
One of things I’ve written about lately with my political journalism is the brewing backlash from the Religious Right. Marriage is pretty much a settled question and of course gay folks have a lot more prominent role in popular culture these days. Now you grew up in the Midwest, you’re familiar with the hell-screaming holy rollers. Do you feel there’s gonna be a backlash from them or will they just whisper out?
It is hard to say really. The rise of this very vocal Religious Right has been frustrating to watch, but also very fascinating. For the marriage issue, yes, it’s a done deal. I guess my feeling is that they will move on to something else, but I’m not sure what that will be. I also think the next presidential election might play a big role. If another Democrat is elected, I think the power this very conservative group has will continue to crumble. People will stop listening as much or giving them as much media time eventually. Of course, something worse could rise in their place. Who knows.
Your second book is coming out soon, and you’ve had a lot of work published in a wide array of lit rags. What do you consider to be your best poem?
That’s a hard question. Obviously, as the author, I have a very different relationship with my poems than readers do. There are some that I hold in a special place for various reasons. I will say my Jeffrey Dahmer poem in my first book called ‘An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore’, because it changed me as a writer. It made me aware of what I was capable of doing. At that point, it was the longest poem I had ever written. It’s eighteen pages of the book. It also weaves together three different stories. It was a breakthrough for me as a poet and I guess a good showcase of my talent or lack of talent (if you hate it).
How did it change you? What was the breakthrough?
Before that a lot of my poems were more internal or even domestic. That poem got me really interested in doing research as a poet and bringing in other stories like the story of Dahmer and the poet Reginald Shepherd. But then weaving their story through my life and eyes. Doing this just really opened up the possibilities to me. And since has lead to a lot of other researched works and poems that incorporate things beyond me. I became really interested in what is called documentary poetry, which is what a lot of my work could be called.
Your first book was critically well received. What was that like, tasting a bit of the poetry limelight?
It was surprising. My book came out in March of 2012, so the finalists for most book awards for that year weren’t announced until the following March. My book had been out for a year and had sold well and I was really proud of it, but then all the sudden a year later it was named a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award and for the Lambda Literary Award, which I won. I didn’t expect it and it was the first book to get those recognitions for Sibling Rivalry Press, which made it even more rewarding. I wanted to make the press and Bryan Borland proud. It was an honor to get to do that.
I was a finalist against a lot of strong and more well-known poets, like Richard Blanco who had just read at Obama’s inauguration, so to win the Lambda Award was pretty awesome. To be able to get on that stage in front of a lot of people I admire and who have been pioneers in gay literature was something I won’t ever forget. People always say awards don’t matter, but normally those are people who haven’t won any. I’m not afraid to say, winning is a lot of fun. Yes, it’s just one group’s opinion, but it meant a lot to me. And got my book a lot more attention. I never thought that would happen with my first book.
The question is can A History of the Unmarried top that?
That is the question. Honestly, the success of the first book has made me a little more nervous this time around. There’s more to live up to now and something to compare it to, but I’m proud of the second book and all I can do is put it out there and see what happens. I’m sure some people will love it and some will hate it.
Indeed. Well Stephen, any final thoughts, musings, or words of wisdom for the readers of Polari?
Buy my books. That’s really the best advice I can give. I joke. My best is advice is to read and experience as much as you can. That’s what I try to do.