Poet & Advocate Steven Reigns Talks with A&U’s Chip Alfred
It’s been nearly ten years since Steven Reigns released his last book of poetry. Reigns, a Los Angles poet and HIV advocate, is an HIV test counselor and runs a weekly support group for HIV-positive gay men exploring identity issues. After participating in his first AIDS Walk in 1993, Reigns has been a part of countless AIDS walks, protests, and fundraisers.
His fifth poetry collection, Inheritance, is worth the decade-long wait. In this autobiographical anthology, Reigns takes us on an emotional journey—from abusive childhood to confused adolescence to coming of age as an adult. With heartrending and touching poems about love and loss, he peels off layer after layer of life experience. He bares his soul in this bold, brave confessional and reveals secrets from the past—some kept hidden for years.
A&U spoke with Reigns about his newest release and what inspired it.
Chip Alfred: Why the title Inheritance?
Steven Reigns: The collection is autobiographical poetry about what I’ve been given from friends, family, lovers, and our culture. We normally think of an inheritance in terms of material possessions, but this is about what emotions and experiences I’ve been bequeathed. The poems document what I’ve inherited, for better or worse.
What was your life like growing up?
I can’t reminisce about too many times I thought of as innocent or even happy. Childhood was extremely painful. I grew up with physically and emotionally abusive parents. An older neighbor boy was molesting me, and when most of that was waning, I started being taunted by classmates for being gay.
In “Playing with the Doll” you recount the experience of being sexually assaulted:
This is when I thought touch was love,
This is when I thought what he did to me
was a sign of love
When did you realize it wasn’t a sign of love?
I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There’s a passage about her mother’s boyfriend molesting her. She had feelings of guilt because it felt good to be held. As soon as I read that passage, I was able to finally name what had been happening to me. This physical pleasure complicated trying to make sense of what was going on. It’s confusing and intense being a child coerced to hold on to such secrets.
You dedicate the collection to your sister Cindy. Was she your saving grace growing up? Is she still?
My relationship with my sister only got closer after I left the house. She was molested by a cousin and also the same neighbor. The poem “She Knew” addresses my sister, at the age of nine, telling my mother about her molestation and how my mother did nothing. The majority of my conversations now with Cindy are far from talking about the past. It’s just comfortable to know that someone else fully gets what it was like back then.
In “Class Ring” you write about searching for a symbol to place on the side of your high school ring:
At times I miss and long for
Being someone who would have fit in wearing one
Someone who could easily decide
What image would emblazon the side
Have you figured out now what you would want on the ring? Do you know where you fit in?
In high school there’s immense pressure to fit in. The inspiration for the poem came when I met a grown man still wearing his ring. He was proud of his experience and those were the best times of his life. I respect that, but, for someone made fun of by classmates, those weren’t my best times. I wouldn’t want a constant reminder. “Class Ring” is a poem about being young, queer, isolated, and feeling talentless. Even nonconformists have moments of longing to fit in.
What was the trigger for writing your poem “The Dead?”
I wrote “The Dead” after I read the obituary of a past sex partner. I’ve read many stories about the loss of a lover, friend, or family member due to HIV, but never the loss of a fuck buddy. Having sex, whether casual or romantic, is a powerful act. It was a moment we had together, intensely, and only between us. My sadness felt inconsequential to those who had interacted with him on another level, but I felt strongly about what we shared. I wrote the poem I had been wanting to read, to help normalize what I was feeling.
You also lost someone very close to you to AIDS—a man named Michael?
Michael Church was one of my best friends. He was a gay uncle figure, always so supportive and loving. The year after he died I cried more than I did for my entire childhood. Then, I started to feel survivor’s guilt. It was hard for me to enjoy my life and also miss him. What helped me move through this was writing. In my journal I wrote, “I don’t feel like wearing ribbons, or sewing, or praying, or venting, or fundraising, or medicating, or meditating, or mourning. My life feels as if I’m on vacation, only without you. Having a wonderful time. I wish you were here.”
Tell me about “My Life is Poetry,” your writing workshop for LGBT seniors.
They were so willing and excited to share their stories. Seniors do not get adequate airtime. We’re no longer a culture that values the wisdom and stories that come with age. We lost a generation to HIV; this only increases the value of the stories of those who survived it.
The workshop isn’t simply about helping to “find your voice.” It’s about trusting that voice and guiding them, through writing, where the story takes them. I want to aid in documenting these experiences. It’s one of the reasons for compiling the seniors’ writings into the anthology My Life is Poetry.
You’ve also taught writing to LGBT youth and people with HIV. Do you take a different approach with each group?
I want them all to feel as if their life experience and emotions are being represented on the page. What is similar and has been a constant in all of my workshops is providing the encouragement needed to write their stories and creating a safe space. Without feeling emotionally safe, people aren’t going to take the risks that are required to make great art.
Why the nearly ten-year gap between books? Will we have to wait another decade for your next poetry collection?
I’ve written more poems in the past ten years, but some didn’t seem suitable for this collection. Part of the power of my poetry is the relaying of experiences. When artists isolate, they produce work that becomes myopic and feels stale to me. It creates poets writing poems about poems or songwriters writing songs about the songwriting. I would like to be a bit more prolific but I’d be okay if I wasn’t. I’m really happy with my life and the balance of it.
Chip Alfred is a nationally published freelance journalist and writing instructor based in Philadelphia.