Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Normal is a relative term": An interview with Stephen S. Mills, author of He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices

Dear readers,

It's my great pleasure to present the first Poemocracy interview with Stephen S. Mills, author of the brand new debut poetry collection He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, just out on Sibling Rivalry Press.

Stephen is not "the next O'Hara"--he's just Stephen, and lovably so. We went to FSU together for our MFA degrees, studying with poets such as David Kirby, Erin Belieu, and James Kimbrell. This Friday, you can catch us both in New York City at the Assaracus showcase celebration as part of the Rainbow Book Fair.

Stephen writes about twenty-first century gay life in the era of emerging gay marriage and disappearing DADT. It's a curious middle ground to map, at once brimming with new possibilities and freedoms and still riddled with hostilities. Beyond just gay life, Stephen deals with death. People, young and old, dear and stranger, die from car accidents, executions, hate crimes, disease, and gay-on-gay serial murder. In He Do the Gay Man, readers encounter Jeffrey Dahmer side by side with Little Edie Beale.

That's about enough from me. Let's hear from Stephen.

EJP: One thing that intrigues me about your book is how normal everything is. Even fear, hate crimes, and extreme sex are taken in stride. It's not a fantasy world of glamour and danger; it's quite realistic. Can you tell me more about that tone and aesthetic?

SSM: Normal is a relative term. I’m not positive that most would describe the lives of the people in my book as completely “normal,” but I think I understand what you mean. To be honest, fantasy doesn’t interest me much. I don’t really read it or watch much of it. There are, of course, exceptions, but I find real life a lot more interesting to explore.

In this book, I’m examining the lines between sexuality and violence, but also our fear of death and destruction from various forces (accidents, disease, serial killers, hate crimes, etc.). Our modern day life is full of these horrific events that somehow have to fold into our everyday lives. People die in car accidents. Horrible crimes are committed. People get HIV/AIDS. But we have to keep going. We have to keep living and that’s what the book is trying to come to terms with. How do we do that?

The media bombards us with terrible news all the time, which is why the media plays a role in my book. This is true for all of us, but it’s especially true for gay people. Even in our moments of celebration, we are reminded of the hate that’s out there. One of the poems mentions going to a Pride event and having a gay group there shouting “there’s a GLBT murder every nine days.” This is Pride, yet we are still reminded that we could be killed at any moment just for being us.

The book is also trying to explore the fact that we are more alike than we sometimes want to admit. Jeffrey Dahmer isn’t as far from ourselves as we want to think. There’s a thin line between what he did and what we might all think about doing at some point. We have the tendency in our culture to demonize people and label them monsters. We do this for survival, but in reality these are still people and we have a lot in common with them. I wanted to showcase this as well, particularly in the Jeffrey Dahmer poem ("An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn't Moving Anymore"). That’s why there are sections of the poem that mention him watching bad TV and eating takeout. He wasn’t just some madman killing people constantly. He also did normal everyday things.

EJP: The Dahmer poem is 18 pages and takes the whole central section of your book, while the three sections are each quite cohesive. They then fit together nicely. Do you tend to write in streaks on a single topic? I'm also thinking in particular about the poems about your incarcerated pen pal, Edmon, the porn star.

SSM: Thank you. I’m actually very proud of how cohesive the book is. In poetry, that can be one of the most challenging parts of putting together a manuscript. I do sometimes write in streaks, but I didn’t actually write this book as a book. I did, however, write all of the Edmon poems together and intentionally as a series. I was actually going to publish them as a chapbook and then I realized I had all these other poems that dealt with violence and sex and it suddenly came together as a full-length book and it works really well together.

Currently, I am working on a new book project and this is the first time I’ve sat down with a full idea for a whole book and I’m writing it as a book, so it’s a new experience for me. I’ll see how it goes.

EJP: He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices contains nuances and outright references of/to Eliot, Yeats, O'Hara, and Reginald Shepherd. How influential are these poets on your work? Who else is a big influence or inspiration?

SSM: Let me start with the easy one. O’Hara has always been a big influence on me. When I first read him it was the moment I realized that poetry really could be different than what I’d thought previously. O’Hara opened up a new world for me and for that I’m indebted to his work. At the same time, I am leery of the overuse of O’Hara to describe other gay poets. Everyone it seems is “this generation’s Frank O’Hara.” I’m not necessarily trying to be that, and I don’t label myself in that way. There are for sure connections between what I’m doing in my work and what he was doing, but he is one influence of many.

Eliot and Yeats come from my love of modernism. It’s my favorite time period in literature. It’s the area I’ve studied the most. I love Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner. The whole time period really strikes a chord with me. It may seem almost “uncool” to love Eliot, but I think a lot of his work is just amazing and some of the best of the 20th century. At the same time, I don’t think Eliot would really have thought he would inspire such a poem as “He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices,” which is partly what I love about using him. Nor do I think Yeats would imagine being referenced in a poem about being in a porn store. A lot of my work is very confrontational and direct and about topics people are very uncomfortable with. What I love is to see someone who thinks at first I’m just out there shocking people and then suddenly they realize this poem that’s about gay sex and all of these very contemporary issues is also partly a play off of “The Waste Land” or something else. I love literature and I’m well-read and I use my academic background to add layers to my poems. In lots of ways, I think this is what makes my work appealing to a broader audience.

Shepherd came into the book very intentionally. My long poem about Jeffrey Dahmer was inspired by many things, and one of those was Shepherd’s poem “Hygiene.” It is where I get the title for my poem. I taught his poem in a pop culture poetry class at Florida State and I just loved it. I also got to see him read at FSU, and that works into the poem I wrote that explores Dahmer’s story, my story, and partly Shepherd’s story. It felt fitting to have him there in the poem with me, whereas a lot of the other works I reference are under the surface.

As for other influences, I read all the time, and I’m influenced by so much, but here’s a few that are typically on the list of influences: Jack Spicer, Walt Whitman, Tim Dlugos, Denise Duhamel, Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, David Trinidad, Mina Loy, and most recently I’ve really been exploring Plath and Hughes for a new book project.

EJP: I love Plath! We'll come back to this project in a moment. First, let's talk about the less "poetic" influences. Pop culture is such a prominent theme in your work; please tell me what you find to be poetically vital about it.

SSM: We live in a time period where pop culture and pop culture references are how we communicate and often understand our own lives. Most people have more knowledge of Brad Pitt films or Seinfeld episodes than they do of stories from the Bible or mythology. For centuries, poets relied on religious stories or mythology as a touching point for their work. As a contemporary writer, I find pop culture to be useful in that same way. I can reference Misery or Patrick Wilson or Oz and most people know what I’m talking about, and that’s work I don’t have to do in the poem. It works as a great setup and a way of understanding or exploring our own existence.

EJP: I hadn't thought of that. The Bible and other religious or mythological systems would absolutely be the pop culture of their own times. So, more about that: who are your celebrity crushes? 

Oh, so many. I would let Alexander Skarsgard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joe Manganiello, and Jon Hamm do whatever they want to me. I’m also madly in love with Jake Shears. The Scissor Sisters’ Night Work is actually the best soundtrack to my book you can find. I just wish celebs would stop shaving their body hair. I love my men hairy. I need to do a PSA.

EJP: Okay, please, PLEASE do a PSA for the net about staying hairy and put it on your website. By the way, readers, you can hear Stephen podcasting his own poems at his site, .

I also adore Night Work. I'm less into the muscle boys than you are, but I would go for Jake Shears (or any member of the Scissor Sisters, for that matter.) Do you listen to music while writing or for inspiration?

SSM: I actually don’t listen to music while writing. I need complete silence to work. I address this in a blog post that will soon be up on Sibling Rivalry’s site. I was asked to write a post outlining a soundtrack to my book, which was really fun and a song from the Scissor Sisters’ album is on it.

EJP: Is it "Harder You Get?"

SSM: You'll have to wait and see. I do love music and I do find some inspiration from it, but not typically in a direct way. While movies and TV often directly appear in my poems, music rarely does. I was listening to Night Work quite a bit around the time I was working on some of the poems in the book and I saw them in concert during that time period as well, so I’m sure they were in my head a bit. Two other musical inspirations would be Ben Folds and Ryan Adams (not Bryan Adams). They are both great writers and musicians.

EJP: Okay, back to poetry. What three poetry books should everyone read, whether they're into poetry or not? Especially if they're not?

SSM: This is a hard question. I’ve been staring at my bookshelves trying to decide. My answer would probably change a bit from day to day, but today I’m going to say Jillian Weise’s The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to Me, and James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies. If you haven’t read a lot of poetry, I think it’s best to start with more contemporary work and then go back to the classics. Most people have no idea what contemporary poetry looks like because they only know Shakespearean sonnets. These books would show a very different side to poetry, as would many others.

EJP: Let's say that you meet a poetry groupie who wants to not only publish but also improve their craft. What advice would you give this person?

SSM: My first advice is always to read and read and read some more. I’m a firm believer that reading is the best way to become a better writer. I meet too many people who say they are writers or want to be writers, but don’t read much. I’ve also met many poets who only want to read old poetry and seem to have no idea about what is happening in contemporary poetry, which is important to know, especially if you are interested in publishing. Reading will help with craft.

As for publishing, you have to be a very patient person and you have to be ready. Don’t submit work until you are ready. Ready for rejection. Ready to stand up for your work. Ready to know that you are submitting your very best pieces. It’s hard and it’s not for everyone.

I’ve been published in over 25 journals and my first book is out, but all of that happened because I was ready, and I work really hard on the submission process. I submit work all the time to many, many places and I get rejected a lot. You have to find the places that work for you and that will make you proud. I don’t submit to places that I don’t like or respect. I have a wide range of publications because of this.

The bottom-line is that you need to be at a place that you feel confident in your own craft and then the waiting game starts. I’d also recommend finding some other writers to connect with and have a community. I think it’s important for your sanity.

EJP: Can you tell me and the Poemocracy readers some more about your new Plath/Hughes project?

SSM: Sure. I’ve actually surprised myself by diving so fully into a new large-scale project. I’ve spent so much time living and breathing He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices that I thought I’d take more of a break, but I haven’t. Now I’m out here promoting the book, but I’m actually knee-deep in very different poems, which is exciting.

As I said before, this is the first time I’ve really decided to work on a book length project from the beginning, so my creation process has been a little different. I’m thinking a lot more about the big picture and the connections and where I want it all to go.

Before people get too concerned and say “oh no, not another gay boy writing about Plath,” let me say that the book is not strictly about Plath and Hughes. It’s actually a wider look at domestic life and relationships and references a lot of different poets. It’s also striving to place the 1950s and 60s view of domestic life right next to the domestic life of a gay couple in 2012. One of the main through-lines of the book is a series of poems that use the character Betty Draper from Mad Men. The speaker of the poems sees parts of himself in her. There are also references to O’Hara, Stein, and Mayakovsky. It’s taking on a life of its own really and moving in interesting directions. I’d say I’m about a third of the way done, so there’s lots more work to do.

EJP: I'll be happy to interview you about it when it's ready to debut. Finally, where can I get a broadside or other published version of your Jackson Pollock poem?

I’m so glad you love that poem so much. It’s been a long time favorite of mine and I submitted that poem everywhere and no one would take it. I was so pleased when Redheaded Stepchild published it. For those who don’t know, Redheaded Stepchild only publishes work that has been rejected from other magazines. It’s a great idea for a journal, and I’m thankful to them for giving that poem a home. I don’t have a broadside, but I just remembered that I used that poem on promotion postcards that I made two years ago for my blog. I have tons of them, so I’ll bring you some when we're in New York City next week.

Strangely enough, I just wrote a new Pollock poem for my new project. I do love his work and I just got to see more of it when I was in Chicago for AWP. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted and maybe I’ll find a way to give the poem a second chance in the world.

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