A Longish Interview with the Handsome Poet Stephen Mills

Stephen S. Mills has an MFA from Florida State University. His poems have appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review, PANK Literary Magazine, Velvet Mafia, The New York Quarterly, The Antioch Review, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Ganymede, Poetic Voices Without Borders 2, Assaracus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award. He currently lives in Orlando, FL with his partner and his dog. Website: http://joesjacket.blogspot.com/
Jory Mickelson: Your poetry is filled with pop culture references, characters and images. How did this start? Where did your obsession (is it fair to call it an obsession) with popular culture begin?
Stephen Mills: I’ve always loved movies, television, and celebrity culture. As a fairly young teen, I would spend hours reading Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone. I always made sure to watch the award shows and I would try to see all the movies nominated, which was challenging living in the middle of rural Indiana. I don’t know if it was a complete obsession, because I did lots of other things and as a young kid my parents didn’t let me watch tons of TV or rated R movies. As I got older and smarter (I guess), I started seeing pop culture in different ways and began to analyze it and think about the greater implications of what we watch and are surrounded by on a daily basis.
This interest in pop culture didn’t enter my poetry until much later. The moment I pinpoint as the beginning was during my second year of graduate school at FSU. It was my turn to be workshopped and I didn’t have a poem that I really wanted to take. The day of the workshop, I kept trying to come up with something. I had just recently watched Interview with the Vampire and I suddenly came up with this title “Making Love After Watching Interview with the Vampire.” I thought it was kind of silly, but I went with it. I wrote up a draft of a poem that was about a gay couple and their sex life that used the film and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. I took it to class and the reaction from my workshop was completely unexpected. People really liked the poem and they gave me some great feedback. I felt like I had touched on something useful and unique.
After a few weeks, I realized that maybe there was more to this poem and I came up with the idea of writing a whole series of poems using Brad Pitt films that would all be about a central gay couple. This was truly a breakthrough for me. I started to consider the power of using pop culture to examine the inter-workings of our lives and relationships.
The colliery to that is does being a gay man have something to with your love of popular culture?
As for being gay, I do think it plays an interesting role in how I view pop culture. Many gay people view TV, film, music, etc. differently because we are always searching for a little glimpse of ourselves. We often read pop culture more closely because we are looking for a hint of something homoerotic or a little suggestion that some character might be gay. You learn to read codes. For many gay people, especially those of us who grew up in very conservative places, TV and film were outlets for seeing the way others live. The first gay person I ever saw was in a movie or on TV. This is why many gay people are drawn to writing about pop culture. One of the biggest influences on my work is Frank O’Hara, who was one of the first poets to really write a lot about pop culture. He loved to use movies, celebrities, and even the local art scene of New York City. David Trinidad is another great example. He writes a lot about the Hollywood divas of the 50s and 60s. While many people can love pop culture and write about it, I do think my gay perspective changes how I view it and use it in my work.
Are you familiar with the poet Kenneth Fearing? He was hired by the government as a WPA poet in the early 1930s. He, as far as I know was one of the earliest modern poet to incorporate popular slang and even newspaper advertisements into his poems.
How did you come to poetry? Have you done other kinds of writing?
I’m not familiar with Kenneth Fearing, but he sounds interesting. I will check him out.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer even before I could fully write. As a really young kid, I would scrawl out these “stories” in old bank calendars my parents would give me to play with. The stories, of course, didn’t make sense, but I would “read” them to my mother. In 3rd grade, we had to draw a picture of ourselves on the cover of Time Magazine and had to write a story about what got us on the cover. I made myself get on the cover for winning various Newbery Awards, which was the only literary award I knew about at the time because it is for children’s literature. It is safe to say the desire and passion to write has always been in me, but I didn’t always envision myself as a poet.
I spent much of my middle school and high school days writing novel length works and short stories. I wrote a poem here and there, but not much. My senior year of high school, I got a bit more into poetry after reading more and meeting a student teacher who encouraged me. My freshmen year of college I took my first ever creative writing course. It was a fiction and poetry workshop. When I turned in my final portfolio for that class, my professor, who became my mentor, told me I was a poet and I needed to know it “bone marrow deep.” I took her advice and wisdom and devoted most of my writing time after that to poetry. I have written a handful of short stories since then and I also enjoy writing creative non-fiction or memoir pieces, but poetry is my home.
What keeps you coming back to poetry, instead of another genre?
For me poetry is the most freeing genre. Since I write mostly free verse, each new poem is a whole new adventure and I must find my way into it and figure out the form and shape of it. I also love the compression of poetry and how you can convey so much in a simple line or two. It is the challenge that keeps me coming back again and again.
I was first introduced to your work through a review of your poem “Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran.” Steve Fellner reviewed it on his blog Pansy Poetics (http://pansypoetics.blogspot.com/2010/04/on-stephen-s-mills-poem-against-our.html). I was wondering if you could tell me more about how this poem came to be written.
First of all, I am very thankful to Jeremy Halinen who accepted and published this poem in Knockout last spring. I am also thankful to Steve for writing such a thoughtful piece about it. The poem actually came about from a picture that was in The Advocate in the summer of 2005. It was an image of two Iranian boys (they were both about 16) with bags over their heads and ropes around their necks. They were about to be hanged for sodomy charges. The image was so startling and terrifying that I couldn’t stop staring at it. I cutout the image and saved it. Months later, maybe even a year, I came back to that image and wrote the poem “Iranian Boys Hanged for Sodomy, July 2005.” It ended up winning the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award in 2008 and was published in an anthology. After I wrote that poem, I kept thinking about the issues facing gay people in Iran and the helplessness one feels as an American. I felt there were more poems to write on the issue. This is what inspired the poem “Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran.”
Also, why do you feel that this poem got as much attention as it did?

It can be hard to determine what makes a poem stand out to people, especially when you wrote it yourself, but I think this poem has a rawness and honesty to it that you sometimes don’t find in more politically charged works. The poem isn’t preachy. It is angry and maybe even offensive to some. The speaker doesn’t have all the answers and the ending begs more questions than solutions. It gets at that American desire to save others, but also at the selfishness and sometimes insensitivity we have as members of this society. I’m extremely happy that it got attention, because it is a great example of the work I do and the things I care most about in poetry. Plus it is an issue worth discussing and thinking about even if it is a painful one.

Let’s talk a bit more about activism. What current issues or concerns to you have for the LGBTQ community right now? Do you think that poetry can “do something” in the face of those issues?

My biggest concern for the community is a lack of education. So many people out there don’t know the history of the gay rights movement or gay history at all. Many also don’t know the clear facts about the lack of rights we have as gay people in this country. Something very strange has happened with gay rights. It is almost the opposite of the civil rights movement. In the case of civil rights, the laws and rights often came before social acceptance of black people in society. Gay rights has moved in a different direction. Gay people are more socially accepted. We are on TV. We are in movies. We are politicians, teachers, police officers, etc. This doesn’t mean things are perfect, but it is more widely accepted on a social level, yet we still haven’t won many important equal rights. This has created an apathy and misunderstanding in a lot of people both gay and straight. I have educated people countless times about the fact that you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states in this country. People always look at me in shock and typically don’t believe me until they look it up. I’m talking about well-educated and accepting people. We have somehow created a world where people can’t see the complete injustice that they are faced with on a daily basis. This is very dangerous and allows for the right-wing movement in this country to gain even more power. The facts remain that we have a long road ahead of us.

As for poetry, I do think it can “do something.” As a lover of literature, there have been countless poems, stories, and novels I’ve read that have completely changed me and my outlook on life. In my poetry, I attempt to shed light on many issues people are very uncomfortable with. By doing that, I know many will turn away from my work and not accept it or value it, but I also know there are people out there wanting and needing poems like mine. In many ways, I try to write the poems I wish I could have read as a younger man coming to terms with being gay.

I heard a recent statistic that of all the money that goes into funding the queer community, only about five percent of it is spent on LGBTQ arts. Is it important that queer people support queer artists? Is this a ghettoization of queer people, and is that dangerous or are we beyond the need to make distinctions gay/straight/lesbian writer or book? Is it just a form of marketing?

All arts need support, so I would say that it is vital that queer people support queer artists. That doesn’t mean that you support people solely based on their queerness, but also on the quality of their work. I often feel like I’m in the minority on this issue, but I don’t have many problems with the label of “gay poet.” No matter what I write it is from my perspective and I am gay. I may not be writing about something gay, but it is coming from me. I don’t think we are in a place in society to completely remove these labels. On a very practical level, it can really help people find your work when they are seeking out gay poets.

Having said that, I don’t consider my work to be for a gay audience only. I think instead of feeling the need to remove labels and assimilate, we should be encouraging people to read outside of their box. The speaker in my poems is almost always coming from a gay perspective, but my poems touch on a range of issues, feelings, and themes that many can connect with and enjoy. I always it find it interesting when straight people seem to think they can’t or shouldn’t read gay work. I read straight people’s work all the time and I learn from it, enjoy it, and am moved by it. I think of these labels more as facts. I am gay and I am a poet. These aren’t going to change.

I like this. In a talk, Eileen Myles said that (and I am paraphrasing here) that as queer people we widen the range of human experience. We record an outsider’s point of view from our work and that is one of the things that gives it great value, the ability to stretch the scope of possibility.

Who are some poets who have influenced and changed you or your work?

As I mentioned earlier, Frank O’Hara is a huge influence on me. He showed me a different way of approaching poetry. He wrote so much from his own experience. His poems are grounded in his life in New York with his friends, and yet they connect to much bigger themes and can really make you think. Richard Tayson is also a big influence on me. He is a contemporary poet and one of the first I read as a young man in college that really got at the inter-workings of a gay relationship. His poems made me realize how raw and direct my poems could be, but how they could also have a great beauty to them. Tony Hoagland is also an influence. I was encouraged to read him in grad school by my thesis advisor who thought I could learn from him. What is interesting about Hoagland is that we are both concerned with the personal in connection to the wider American culture, but he comes from a very different point-of-view, so our poems are similar, yet so different.

Who are you telling other folks to read?

I love to recommend books to people and I often do. Most people don’t have trouble finding or reading older poets, but so many have no clue about contemporary poets and books. I read as much contemporary poetry as possible. I just finished Matthew Zapruder’s newest book Come on All You Ghosts and it was amazing. I highly recommend it. I also always recommend David Kirby, Carl Philips, Denise Duhamel, and Kim Addonizio. I’ve recently fallen for Randall Mann as well. I could go on and on, because there are a lot of great poets and books out there.

I heard Matthew Zapruder read recently in Washington D.C. His reading and his work are fantastic. What are you currently working on?

I am currently sending out a new manuscript that I recently completed called He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I have my first book, which I co-wrote with Bryan Borland, coming out later this year. It is called The Hanky Code. I have new work in the winter issues of The Los Angeles Review, Mary: A Literary Quarterly, and New Mexico Poetry Review. I’m also always working on new poems.

You sound like a busy man. We saw Allison Books collapse in a sense, it no longer prints books–only does e-publishing. Print book sales are falling as ebooks are on the rise. Where do you think the publishing industry is headed right now?

These are all great questions and important ones to consider. Publishing is changing, but I am not fully convinced that the print book is on its way out. I personally don’t own a e-reader and I don’t like the idea of reading a book on an electronic device. If you look at most of these e-reading devices, they still don’t offer many of the books I read or am interested in reading. They still cater mostly to very popular fiction and non-fiction, which means they don’t cater much to the queer audience. It is hard to be a small press these days and some are turning to e-publishing, but there will still be a demand for actual books. Part of reading, for me, is the experience of holding a book in my hand. It is about the feel of it and the smell of it. Reading something on the screen just isn’t the same. On the other hand, I do think that literary magazines can really gain some power and recognition from going online. My favorites still publish a print version, but have a very strong presence online.

Is reading still vital part of queer culture or are LGBTQ people no longer reading?

Reading is still vital and I believe still thriving in queer culture. It is often in books that we first discover glimpses of queer life and I think reading, for many, was a part of their coming out experience. There is a lot more diversity out there in books than perhaps any other entertainment medium. We have to help continue to produce work that some young boy or girl can discover and connect with and realize there are others out there just like them.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to thank you for asking me to do this interview and for helping to continue the discussion about poetry and the gay arts scene. Since leaving grad school, I have found a real sense of community in connecting with other gay poets through my blog, Facebook, and Twitter. While I have my technological reservations at times, I’ve greatly benefited from everyone I’ve met, so I encourage people to reach out to those poets they’ve read and enjoyed. There’s nothing like getting a quick note from someone who actually read a poem of yours and was moved by it.

Thanks again for doing this interview, it has been great!

Posted in bryan borland, eileen myles, gival press, jeremy halinen, knockout, pansy poetics, stephen mills, steve fellner, The Advocate.

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