Stephen S. Mills: Sex, Identity and Self
Author: Jeffery Berg
July 28, 2013
“Using my real life brings honesty to the work. I’m not only showing the flattering sides of myself, but those dark or random thoughts we’ve probably all had at some point.”
In the striking and intimate Lambda Award winning poetry collection He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press), Stephen S. Mills explores sex, relationships and identity. The Lambda Literary Review asked Mills a few questions about the book and what’s next for him.
The title is a riff off of Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land. Was he a particular influence on you? Any writers that you feel were? I remember Reginald Shepherd is invoked quite movingly in the second section’s long poem.
I’m influenced by a lot of writers. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you need to be a good reader if you want to be a good writer. It’s important to place yourself and your work within a context and that requires a lot of reading. The modernist period, as a whole, has really shaped me. In college I fell in love with Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and others. “The Waste Land” is considered by many to be the greatest poem of the 20th century and a perfect example of modernism. I was always interested in the story behind the poem about how Ezra Pound told Eliot to change the title, which was originally “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” I wonder what would have happened to the poem had Eliot not changed it. I’ve always loved the original title and that was part of the jumping off point for me when writing the poem “He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices.” My poem has lots of references to “The Waste Land,” but is capturing my own generation and works without necessarily having to know “The Waste Land.”
I saw Reginald Shepherd read before he died and I enjoy his work. His poem “Hygiene” was a huge influence on my own Jeffrey Dahmer poem. The title of my poem comes from a line of his. His poem was in an anthology I used when I taught a pop culture poetry class at Florida State.
Of course, I also read lots of other writers. Frank O’Hara is one of my poetry heroes. I also love Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, Denise Duhamel, Bob Hicok, Matthew Dickman, Jillian Weise, and Anne Carson. All of these poets have inspired me in some way.
I like the way you describe the two main landscapes of the book–Florida and Indiana. Now that you live in New York, do you notice at all how environment affects your poetry?
Place has become important in my work in ways I didn’t necessarily plan. The book does rely a lot on the landscapes of Indiana and Florida. I grew up in Indiana and I went to college there, but it wasn’t until I left Indiana that it suddenly became important to my work. We often spend a lot of time trying to escape where we came from only to realize that it’s an important piece of the puzzle.
I moved to Florida to attend graduate school. It was never a state I imagined living in and I guess I always felt a bit like an outsider even though I lived there for over seven years (both in Tallahassee and Orlando). Florida is a place that people have misconceptions about, which is why it’s interesting to write about and use. It is also so vastly different from Indiana. Both states have given me interesting and unique experiences that I used in the book.
I moved to New York eight months ago, and it fits me. This is the first place I’ve lived that I intend on staying. It has factored into new work that I’ve written, but I’ve been careful in how I use New York. It is often overused and can be very cliché. I don’t want to become just a “New York” poet. I like that I’ve had the chance to live in many different places. It gives you a deeper understanding of people and place. I love New York, but I’ve also met some New Yorkers who have no idea what the rest of the country is like or how other people live. There’s a danger in that. As a writer, it’s important to have varied experiences and to not forget where you’ve been.
Most of the poems in the collection have fairly long lines and stanzas, though some are broken up. Did the poems go through different shapes and forms, or did they come together quickly and naturally that way?
I do a lot of revision, so most of the poems went through many drafts, shapes, and forms. The book does play a lot with the long form whether that is line length or poem length. It was challenging to push the poems in different directions and writing long poems was actually quite freeing. Prior to this book, I hadn’t written many long works. Poets often don’t write long pieces for many reasons. One reason is they are hard to get published. Most journals or magazines won’t accept long poems. I actually remember submitting the longest poem in the book (“An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore”) and being told it should be a short story and not a poem. No, it should be a poem. There are a few pieces in the book that did just fall into place and worked rather quickly, but those were exceptions.
The poems seem semi-autobiographical and the subject matter is sometimes quite candid. Have you found that your boyfriend, friends and family have been overall supportive of your work?
I do use a lot of my own life in my work. The book contains many real things that happened to me, but, of course, those are mixed with made-up things. For example, the poem “He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices,” is not based on my life, but a combination of different ideas, experiences, and voices. I like using a version of myself in my work, but it is just a version. Sometimes it’s a playful version of myself or a version I can poke fun at or use to make a point. Some readers of my book seem to take everything in the book at face value. The book has humor in it and is often playing with the image of the white liberal gay man. Using my real life brings honesty to the work. I’m not only showing the flattering sides of myself, but those dark or random thoughts we’ve probably all had at some point.
I’m lucky to have a very supportive partner who never has a problem with me sharing personal things about our relationship or our sex life. Of course, he sees all of my work before it gets published, but he’s never asked me to change something or leave something out. He understands that being with me means I do this.
I’m a very open person with my friends, so I don’t think my work ever comes off as surprising or shocking to them. There’s a line in the book about discussing fisting over brunch with friends and that’s pretty accurate.
As for family, my parents have always supported my writing and encouraged me to pursue it. My family members aren’t big readers of poetry, so I think my work provides some challenges for them and my subject matter might play a role in that. But I have their support.
What is next for you in your artistic endeavors?
I’m currently finishing my second poetry collection called A History of the Unmarried, which will be released by Sibling Rivalry Press in September of 2014. It’s a collection that examines and questions the idea of marriage and captures this strange time period where gay marriage is legal in some states but not in others. I’m supportive of the fight for marriage equality, but I also question the idea of gay couples feeling like they need to live like straight people. I’ve defined my relationship in my own terms and the book explores my personal journey to doing that and how my thoughts on marriage have evolved with time.