Steven Reigns’ new book Inheritance is unflinching in its courage to remember, name and call out abuse of one vulnerable gay kid who becomes more and more familiar as each page is turned. The work crackles with the unjust power dynamics and complicated spaces of sexuality. Though unsparing in its account of a journey through abuse, the book exhilarates in the energy released when the story is told, claimed and transformed. I spoke with Steven Reigns in Los Angeles about memory, the body, and what we all inherit.
TM: Your new book Inheritance gets so close to the real feeling of a queer childhood’s confusions and chaos. What brought you to write it?
SR: I’m addicted to personal narrative. My first collection flirted with autobiography but wasn’t there fully. After that collection was published, I realized that though it was scary to disclose so much, the non-autobiographical elements or the things I created to “cover up” that a poem was about me didn’t make me feel more secure. It actually made me feel worse. It felt cheap to tell half of a story and recreate the other half. Truth is not only stranger than fiction; I think it’s more interesting. In Inheritance, my scope was narrow. I aimed to poetically tell my story as clearly and as directly as possible. I wanted to be as emotionally honest as I am able. I did this in hope that others could relate deeply to what it means to grow up in our culture and explore what we are given, what we inherit.
TM: What is the sexual journey that is marked in Inheritance?
SR: Gay men at an early age are painfully aware of the value placed on our lives, loves, sexuality, and legal rights. We are given clear messages of who has the power. Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat explored abuses of power and Inheritance explores the inequities of power. Coming from a physically and sexually abusive home amplified a feeling of powerlessness for me. I didn’t even feel as if my body were my own. Part of the reclaiming process of my life involved redefining everything for myself. To do that required an inventory of what I have. These poems document what I’ve been given.
TM: Your work really argues for the power of poetry to hit the jugular of what life looks/tastes/feels like. Do you have a kind of poetic manifesto you try to bring to the work?
SR: I have a deep love for poetry. It’s an automatic interest. I love writer’s manifestos but I don’t have one. I’m wary of making any bold declarations and don’t spend much time thinking about rules for poetry or the writing process. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and my value system is rooted in all of those Midwestern stereotypes. I write the way I do out of respect. The reader is giving me their time and attention and I want to honor that with the work being honest, concise, crafted, and moving. I don’t want readers to feel like they are solving a riddle in the form of poem. I want readers to feel, to relate, and to understand more about their own experiences.
I like art that goes for the jugular and hits the core. Poetry does this quickly and doesn’t allow for much excess. In our fast-paced lives, I think conveying something in economic language like the poetic form should be more welcomed. The reward of reading just one poem can be as great as submerging oneself in a novel or film.
TM: The heat and intimacy of Inheritance is powerful. What gave you the courage to dive in? You are particularly brave in identifying the multiple kinds of abuse that exist. Did you ever feel the temptation to pull back?
SR: There are things I don’t openly talk about with family, friends, or lovers, but I don’t hesitate when writing; it’s where I feel the safest. My hesitancy and desire to pull back is present when I contemplate showing others what I’ve written. When looking over the final proof of Inheritance, I noticed it was missing a poem I wrote about my mother. I looked up the document I submitted to the publisher. I couldn’t figure out why it was omitted. I remembered, “Oh, I got scared and took it out.” So I put the poem back into the book. It makes me nervous, but to withhold that poem would make me feel like I’m holding a card to my chest. I’m not interested in that. I want everything out on the table. Secrets are some of the worst things to inherit and I don’t intend to leave any behind in my will.
TM: How do we journey from acknowledging these injustices, and step forward into our lives?
SR: Silence only protects predators. Voice our experience not only helps us come to terms with our past, whatever past that might be, but it also helps us forge deeper connections with others. It’s natural for the pendulum of our voice to swing for a bit. It’s great when we’re able to find that medium ground of not being shamed or muted but also not dwelling too much on the past. I think this collection shows a bit of that balance. All elements of my life are written about because they are the dowry I come with.