I am pleased to announce that my third poetry collection has been signed under contract with Sibling Rivalry Press and will be released in September of 2018. The book is titled Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution and is a collection that I began back in 2012. I'm very proud of where the book has taken me and look forward to sharing it with readers.
Happy National Poetry Month! I'm celebrating by giving my website an update. I've redesigned the site, updated some of the information, and uploaded some new images.
The last year has been a busy one professionally. I've been balancing two jobs and devoting much of my free time to working on new projects. I'm in the process of completing my third poetry collection as well as working on two other manuscripts.
This means there's a lot of new working coming your way (hopefully). I've recently been submitting new work and getting some publications. I have poems in the newest issues of Impossible Archetype and Midwestern Gothic and work forthcoming in The Account.
I hope you enjoy the new look of the site and feel free to contact me about readings, classroom visits, or publications.
It's hard to believe the year is already half over. It's been a busy one for me. I'm currently working on finishing a poetry manuscript and also diving into a new project that was jump started by a research trip I took to London in May.
This has been a year of change for me and focus on my writing. I haven't published as much this year, but have recently had three poems enter the world. The first is a poem I wrote after the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub. The shooting hit close to home for me since I lived in Orlando for almost five years and know many people there. IDK Magazine published my piece "Our Bodies Are Political" at the beginning of the month as part of an ongoing series about the event. And just this week Queen Mob's Tea House published two new pieces of mine titled "How We Became Sluts" and "My Students Talk of Color." I'm always thrilled when publications consider longer poems, which "Sluts" is.
Outside of writing, I have been participating as a mentor this summer to two high school students through the Adroit Journal's Summer Mentorship Program. It's been a great experience to see young writers pushing themselves and writing interesting and complex work.
As more news happens, I always update my publications list and occasionally this blog.
It's hard to believe it is already mid-September. 2015 is well on its way and fall is about to begin, which is my favorite time of the year. I thought I'd take this chance to recap some recent news regarding publications, events, and projects.
In publication news, I recently had a new essay printed in Lunch called "Thursdays at Red Lobster," which examines the film American Beauty among other things. I also had three poems featured in the July issue of Assaracus. And most recently, I found a home for my 17 page poem "A Brief History of How My Parents Didn't Die," which will be featured in an upcoming issue of Tahoma Review.
This month also marked the one year anniversary of my second book A History of the Unmarried, which came out on September 16, 2014. Right in time for the anniversary, Huffington Post published a great review of the book, which you can read here.
In event news, I have been asked to be a guest reader and speaker at the Reading Queer Literary Festival at the Miami Book Festival in November. I'm very honored to be included with so many other great writers. The events are taking place the weekend of my 33rd birthday, which will be a fun way to celebrate. I'm doing an event celebrating the Lambda Awards on November 22nd.
Finally, I am in the process of raising funds for a new research and book project. My goal is to raise $3,000 for a research trip to London in the spring. You can read more about the project and make a tax-deductible donation here.
Here's to a great fall!
Over the last two months, I've been guest editing the summer issue of OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts. It is with great pleasure that I announce its release. You can purchase either a digital copy (with sound) or a print copy by going here.
When I agreed to edit the issue, I quickly realized I'd never edited a specifically queer publication before. I've worked on many magazines and currently serve as the poetry editor for Animal, but an all queer publication was new and exciting for me. I was really pleased with the quality of the submissions I received from both known writers and unknown.
I worked to strike a balance in the issue between more established writers and emerging writers. What I love about using the word "queer" is that it encompasses so much. I looked for work that queered the world or experience. For some writers that was in the form or presentation of the pieces. For others, it was in the subject matter.
In the end, I'm extremely pleased with the issue and appreciate the opportunity to edit such a unique and powerful magazine.
Please buy a copy and read it. You won't regret it.
2015 is off to a good, but busy start. Quite a few things have happened in the last few weeks worthy of a quick roundup here on my official website.
First up, I had an amazing week in California doing a west coast book tour with two of my press mates: Matthew Hittinger and Brent Calderwood. We did six events in six days. It was a lot of poetry, a lot of bonding, and a lot of connecting with new and old fans. It really energized me in lots of ways and got me thinking about the whole idea of book tours and readings. What I found most interesting was the benefit of doing all of these readings with the same two other poets (we also did four events on the east coast in the fall). I found that we all became even better readers by doing these events together. We were constantly finding new and interesting ways our work connected to each other. All in all, my time in California was a great experience. I really loved exploring San Francisco, getting to spend a day at the beach in LA, and meeting so many new and supportive people. And we all sold a lot of books.
While I was on tour, I also found out that my book A History of the Unmarried was officially put on the Over the Rainbow list complied by the GLBT Roundtable of the American Library Association. This is a list that gets sent out to libraries across the country to recommend the best GLBT books published in 2014. It's an honor to have my book on the list (also Matthew's book and Brent's book made the list as well).
Lastly, I have a poem in the brand new (and redesigned) issue of The Los Angeles Review. I'm always happy to have work in this great publication. They have published me three times over the years and have always been very supportive of me and my work.
Here's to more good things in 2015!
I just finished reading Amy Poehler's Yes Please, which is the 77th and last book I will have read this year. In the book she offers this career advice: "You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look." She goes on to admit this is difficult to accomplish and that she struggles herself. While this bit of wisdom isn't necessarily that life-shattering, I felt like it was something that spoke to me and the year I've had and where I am at this point in my own career (in fact, Poehler's book offers a lot of wisdom and advice, which I normally hate, but Poehler made me like it).
2014 has been a good year for me in lots of ways. I published quite a few poems, a few essays, some pop culture pieces/reviews, and my second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried. I did more poetry readings this year than any other year in my life. I had the honor of reading at my alma mater and even got paid to do it (my first paid poetry event ever). I got a second adjunct gig in a traditional college setting, which I've been longing for. I adopted a new and wonderful dog (with only three legs). I read a lot of books. I saw a lot of great plays and art exhibits. I got a memoir piece published in a book about Atheists and got to read and speak at a few Atheist events (in fact, I'm now the go-to gay Atheist at Columbia University--just kidding, but kind of). All in all, I had a good year.
Since I moved to NYC a little over two years ago, I've been trying to forge a new path for myself. I've focused on writing as much as possible and I've dived into the adjunct world (which has some positives (flexible scheduling), but one big negative: horrible pay). Like someone in AA, I've tried to accept the things I can't change. I can't change the terrible academic job market. I can't suddenly make some school give me a full-time teaching job with benefits and security. I can't change how little I get paid to teach adjunct classes. The idea I once had for my life may not completely work out. I spent a few years being angry about this (sometimes really angry), but now I've come to some sort of peace with it. I still need more money to survive, but I'm casting a wider net and trying to worry less (I won't bog this down with my money troubles or you might get depressed). I love teaching, but I have to accept I may not be able to do it as a full-time faculty member (at least not for a long while).
What's partly kept me going has been my writing. In my darkest days spent teaching at a for-profit school in Florida, I wrote He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, which served me well. It sold well. It got nominated for awards. It won one. It helped open some doors for me when I moved to New York. It was like my invite to the party in some ways (though I sometimes think I've lost the invite and I'm crouched on the floor looking for it while all these other poets walk over me).
My first book also set me up for disappointment. When it came out, I was just so excited to have a book that I didn't focus that much on people's reactions and when the reactions were good and a year later I won the Lambda, it all felt a little unbelievable or like extra icing on an already really good cake. When my second book came out in September, I had a lot more in my head about how people might react and the reviews and the reading opportunities, which brings me back to Poehler's advice. She recommends a heavy dose of ambivalence when it comes to these things (which proves correct in my handling of my first book).
My new book has been selling well. I've heard only good things about it. I haven't even had an angry Good Reads review like I did with my first book (which is actually disappointing). But, at the same time, it's been like pulling teeth to get any publication to review it or interview me or talk about the book or whatever (as of this moment, I've had one professional review of the book in three months). It seems every publication that wants to talk about poetry (especially poetry by gay people) is only aware of about two books that came out this year and mine isn't one of them. This isn't for lacking of trying. It's just how things fall into place. I thought having one already successful book would get me invited to the table or get me something more. See, expectations are harmful. You heard it here.
As anyone who has published a book knows, it can be easy to get bogged down in negative thoughts no matter what is happening. We often focus on what hasn't happened instead of what has happened. We also compare ourselves nonstop to others, which is super easy to do with the Internet.
This is why, on this next to last day of the year, I'm glad I read Poehler's advice. Is it easy to shut off our need for outside approval? No. But I think it is vital to being successful. If we worry too much about what others will say, we may never do our very best work. I try never to censor myself in my creative process. I might later change things or revise or edit, but I let it all out first because who knows what might happen.
I'm not writing this to complain or to seek sympathy. I am very aware that I'm lucky in many ways and that I have many things to be thankful for. I'm not writing this to give you the impression that I'm bitter or I've been spending time sulking (both would be incorrect). I'm writing this because it's real. And I think as a writer we often feel alone in these thoughts because everyone is afraid to say anything that might make them look this way or that way. On the one hand, we put ourselves out there in the most vulnerable ways possible, but then also stay very guarded (or at least I do).
I'm growing up and I'm trying to care less what people think of me. Somedays I'm really good at it other days I'm not. I turned 32 this year. I have, in some ways, had more success as a poet than I imagined I would at this age, but I'm also a very driven person and I know I have a lot more to offer. I'm already halfway through a new book.
Like Poehler recommends, I do care about my work and I'm proud of what I've done. My second book is better than my first book. I know that. And maybe that's enough. Or maybe not. What do you think? (Just kidding).
Here's to another year of ups and downs and chances to do more, write more, and be more.
Here's to 2015.*
*I realize some of you will find this post annoying, full of bullshit, attention seeking, etc. But I don't care.
December always marks the on-slaughter of "end of the year" lists, which I both love and hate. They are fun yet frustrating and always subjective. It's truly impossible to make a list that everyone would agree upon, so I'm not doing that. I'm not naming my top ten books or films or TV shows.
Instead I've created a list of ten pieces of entertainment/art that I will remember from 2014 (or at least I think I will). This list is a combination of books, plays, TV shows, etc. that stood out to me. This is not to say there weren't other great things, but these are what I'm thinking about on this day in December sitting in my apartment with the hum of the Christmas tree nearby and my two dogs on each side of me.
Here's my list (in no particular order):
1. The Leftovers: HBO's new series blew me away. I read the novel a few years ago, but this adaption was perfection and took the novel to a whole new level. It was hands down my favorite new show of the year. I also loved True Detective, Fargo, The Affair, and The Knick, but The Leftovers struck a cord with me in a different way. It's a show that hasn't left me, and one I'll continue to think about in the years to come.
2. Hedwig and the Angry Inch: I've been a huge Hedwig fan since I first saw the film back in college. When I heard it was coming to Broadway, I was thrilled. I actually saw it twice: once with Neil Patrick Harris and once with Michael C. Hall. I'll be back in January when John Cameron Mitchell takes over the role. It's such an amazing show to see live, and I'm thankful I've been able to do so.
3. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine: As a white liberal poet, it's pretty popular to say you like this book, but, in this case, the book is worth all the praise. It also seems like a fitting book for a year full of racial tensions in our country. But I liked the book mostly for its form and style. It shows you what can happen when you allow yourself freedom to explore. I've spent most of 2014 working on my third book, which is also about race, so it was also useful to read Rankine's in relationship to my own project.
4. The Comeback: The return of the amazing and under-appreciated HBO show didn't disappoint. I've been a fan of The Comeback from the very beginning. I watched it when it first aired and fell in love with Valerie Cherish immediately. I even wrote a paper on the show in grad school. The second season (nine years later) is just as thought-provoking and sharp. It's truly the best commentary about women in Hollywood that's out there.
5. Serial: I was late to the game on this one. Really late. I actually just started listening this past week, so this one just made the list. Serial is a podcast that examined a murder case and possible wrong conviction from 1999 over twelve episodes. I listened to all twelve in the last four days. It was engaging and thought-provoking. It raised great questions about truth, memory, and our justice system.
6. Snowpiercer: To be honest, I've really lost interest in films over the last decade. I used to be a huge film buff, but in recent years the film industry just seems so boring and lacking creativity. TV just keeps getting better and better and that's where I've devoted most of my watching time. But I did catch this fascinating sci-fi film and was pleasantly surprised. It all takes place in the future when the world is frozen and the last remaining humans must stay aboard a train (like the ark), which has a set class system that mirrors our society. If nothing else, everyone should watch it for Tilda Swinton's performance.
7. This Is Our Youth: One of my goals this year was to see more theater and I did. A few months ago I saw this play by Kenneth Lonergan starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. The writing was sharp, funny, but underneath rather sad, and the acting was excellent. While the play is set in the early 1990s, it still felt very relevant to contemporary times, and I connected with many of the feelings and ideas presented.
8. Orange is the New Black: Netflix's huge hit got even better in its second season. The show went a little darker, but still provided great comedic moments. Overall, the second season proved this is not a one hit wonder. Can't wait for season three in 2015.
9. Mad Men: It's hard to make a list like this one and not include one of my all time favorite shows (and a huge influence on my second book). Mad Men began its final season in 2014 (the second half will air in early 2015). While it was only seven episodes long, it proved the show is still one of the best things on TV. The writing is hard to beat and the acting is top-notch. While I can't wait for the final episodes, I'm also dreading a TV landscape that doesn't include Don Draper.
10. Sweeney Todd: Towards the beginning of the year, I got the chance to see Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. It was only a five-night run, but thankfully I found out that they sell all seats for $75 on the day of (if they aren't sold). My partner and I got box seats that would have cost about $300 a piece and it was opening night. Not only was the performance amazing (truly one of my favorites of the year), but the room was full of celebrities from Meryl Streep to Neil Patrick Harris to Sondheim himself. It was one of my favorite New York nights I've had.
Thanks to Thomas March at Lambda Literary for writing a very nice and detailed review of my new book A History of the Unmarried.
March writes, "Many of the most compelling poems in this collection examine the liberties--sexual, intellectual, and imaginative--that intimacy can actually encourage, not just withstand. In these poems, even sexual freedom, when openly granted and shared, can become a manifestation of closeness."
Read his full review here.
My second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried officially released on September 16th from Sibling Rivalry Press. I'm very thankful to everyone who has already supported the book. I had a very nice release party here in New York City with fellow poet Matthew Hittinger whose new book The Erotic Postulate is also out.
Please check out my events tab to keep up with future readings and appearances. I have quite a few scheduled in the next month here in New York City and one in Boston. I'm also planning events on the west coast for late January and early February.
If you have purchased the book, please consider reviewing or rating it on Good Reads or Amazon. If you haven't purchased a copy, you can do so from Sibling Rivalry Press and other stores. I am also selling signed copies myself. If you are interested in a signed copy, they cost $16 (which covers shipping) and payments can be made to my PayPal account using this email address: email@example.com. Send payment and your address, and I'll get you a book in the mail.
Last week I was tagged in a Writing Blog Roll Call where writers answer four questions about their own work and process and then tag others to do the same. It's a fun way to connect with writers and to see how people approach writing in very different ways.
I was tagged by my friend Mark Pursell. You can read his response here. I met Mark while I lived in Orlando, Florida. Over the years, he's become one of my best friends, and we still keep in contact since I moved to New York two years ago (In fact, he's coming to NYC in October to visit). In terms of what we we write, Mark and I are the opposite. He's writes mostly fiction, but some poetry, and I write mostly poetry, but some fiction. He was one of the few people I met in Orlando that I could talk to about writing, literature, and more (We actually talk about nearly everything). I'm honored to be tagged by him.
Here's my response to the four questions:
1. What are you working on?
My second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried is about to come out in September, but I'm currently halfway through a third collection. My current project, much like my second book, is focused around one central idea, and I'm writing it as a book, which isn't always the case for poets. But I really like working that way. I enjoy taking a theme or concept and exploring it in book length form.
This collection focuses on race, identity, and sexuality, which is challenging to write because I'm very aware of how people view discussions of race by white people and that's part of what I'm playing with. I'm particularly looking at race relationships between black and white people in a lot of different ways. The poems are using my own experiences, but also the experiences of others and incorporating more voices. Many of the poems explore Harlem where I've lived for the last two years. Some address the Harlem of 2014 and others look back at the Harlem Renaissance, which has been one of my favorite literary periods since I first studied it back in college.
I'm also devoting space to my hometown of Richmond, Indiana and examining the very disturbing history of the KKK in Indiana (a place many don't associate with the KKK, but at one time had one of the strongest groups of Klan members in the country). The book also takes a look at my own heritage, which includes a connection to two slaves from the 1840s.
The book continues my interest in what I call documentary poetry. I'm looking at history mixed with my personal experience, but through a poetic lens that blurs fact and fiction to get at a greater truth.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The most challenging part of being a writer is finding your own voice, but with a lot time, practice, and the help of others, I've found my own way into poetry. I don't often see a lot of work that is extremely similar to mine. Of course, others write about the same topics, but I attempt to bring something fresh in my delivery.
I often mix humor with dark subject matter. I also play with the idea of the narrator in my poems. It's often a version of me, but not fully me. I also try to have strong honesty and rawness in my work. I write about sex often, but my poems about sex are not what many poets write (especially gay poets). Personally, I'm sick of the "Greek god" kind of admiration of the male body poems that so many gay poets have written over and over and over (seriously, enough already). I never write those because that's not close to reality. Sex is funny, unexpected, awkward, surprising, and human. I try to bring that aspect to any sex poem I write. The same goes for other topics.
My work also mostly leans toward the documentary like I said before. Sometimes that's just documenting my own life or incorporating history or the real life experiences of others. I also often juxtapose daily events against news events or world events to show the personal against the public.
That's all to say that I think the voice in my poems makes them standout. You can spot a "Stephen poem."
3. Why do you write what you do?
It's important as a writer (at least if you want to publish) to think about your audience, but it's also important to write work that makes you happy or that you enjoy. I write what I do because I'm interested in what I write. I write poems I would enjoy reading. I write about topics and issues that I find fascinating. If I'm bored with my work, then I know it's not working.
I also listen to my instincts. If something catches my attention, I write it down, I play with it, and I see where it takes me. I don't always feel in control of what I write. Many times the poems drive me.
4. What is your writing process like?
My process isn't always the same, and I've tried a lot of different approaches or exercises before. Currently, I don't force myself to write everyday, but I typically do any way. I have a pretty flexible schedule at the moment, so that affects my process and makes it a little looser. When I've had a full-time forty hour a week schedule, I've had to set aside specific blocks to write.
With most poems, I start with an idea or a line. That line is often the title. In fact about 75 percent of my poems begin with a title and then I write the poem. That's partly because my titles normally direct the poem or setup the situation of the poem. From there I write a draft that is pretty sloppy and contains the general movement of the poem (or at least what I think the movement will be), but with a lot of filler lines. After that, I typically put it away for a day or so before I revisit the messy first draft. From there I built a more fleshed out second draft, which then turns into draft 3 and 4 and 5 and so on. I'm a big reviser. I reread the poem over and over (always aloud). Some get to a more final stage quicker and others I put away for months and revisit them down the line. Of course, plenty go into an idea folder that I have for poems that didn't work.
In terms of book writing, once I have enough poems, I start playing with them in one document to see how they flow together or where they overlap. It also helps me see what is missing. What other kinds of poems need to be in this collection to make the idea work? I let the poems start talking to each other as well. In a book, I like for there to be little reoccurring ideas or images or thoughts.
After all those stages, I move on to feedback. I ask friends and people I trust to look over the manuscript and give me their thoughts both small and large on how it's working as a book as well as small line by line comments.
I hope this gives you some insight into my process. I'm tagging a fellow Indiana poet named Walter Beck. You can read a little more about him here.
For many small press authors, one of the biggest challenges is promoting your work. Touring and reading from your book is a great way to do that, but it takes money. Most small press authors have to pay for this out of pocket, which can be difficult or impossible.
This is why I'm so pleased that my press recently started a foundation to support small presses and small press authors. My publisher Bryan Borland calls the foundation a "tax-deductible version of Kickstarter." This foundation allows small press authors (not just those from Sibling Rivalry Press) to raise money for travel, research, and other literary events or workshops.
Currently, I'm asking people to donate to a book tour for A History of the Unmarried (my new book releasing on September 16th). All money raised will be going toward my ability to travel and promote the book. In the fall, I plan to do readings on the east coast and in the winter I'll be heading to California to read in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Your donation will help make that possible.
Here's how to donate:
1. Go to to the Sibling Rivalry Press Foundation page for small press authors.
2. There you will see a drop-down menu of authors you can donate directly to. Select my name: Stephen S. Mills. Then add me to your cart.
3. On the next page, you can change the amount you would like to donate by increments of ten.
4. Then hit check-out and enter your payment information.
10% of all donations go directly to the running of the foundation and 90% will go to me. Your donation is tax-deductible and a great way to support the literary world.
For anyone who donates $50 or more, I will send you a free signed copy of A History of the Unmarried.
I thank you all for your support of my work whether you can donate or not. Feel free to pass this information on to anyone who might be interested, willing, or able.
I'm honored to announce that my short story "After the Cure" won the Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction given out by A&U: America's AIDS Magazine. This is particularly exciting for me because this is the first short story I have ever sent out for publication and one of the first I've written in many years.
I've recently been working on a few short stories, so this win and publication has given me a little confidence boost to keep at it. Below you can find a brief paragraph about my short story. It will be on the website later this month and is in August issue of the magazine.
You can now officially pre-order my new book A History of the Unmarried. It releases on September 16th from Sibling Rivalry Press. Pre-orders will be shipped out about a week before the release date.
My press is also offering a great fall bundle that includes my book, Matthew Hittinger's new book The Erotic Postulate and a debut collection by Brent Calderwood called The God of Longing. You can get all three books for just $30 and free shipping. It's a great deal and a great way to get exposed to other poets (if you don't already know them).
I'm also happy to share the blurbs for A History of the Unmarried:
We often like to throw around the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover," but in reality that's exactly what most of us do. I do it all the time. If I'm browsing for books, the cover is often what causes me to pick something up and flip through it. It's a nature thing to be drawn in by the visual. Sure there are many good books I've read that had terrible covers and some I read that had great covers but weren't such great books. That doesn't change the fact that a strong cover makes your book stand out.
This is why, as an author, cover art can be so challenging. You want something that represents the book, but also something that is visually interesting and appealing. You then have to worry about getting the rights to use images and the various other complications that can arise like image quality, size, etc.
For my second poetry collection, which comes out in September, I knew I wanted a vintage photograph of gay men on the cover. Particularly I wanted an image from the 1950s or 1960s because the book references that time period quite often. I was actually very lucky to find the image that I did on this great site devoted to collecting images of the LGBT community called Ourfamilyalbum.org. The image I found is of gay men on a beach in New York in 1954. The way the men are standing together, yet apart, speaks to many of the themes of the book.
It is with great excitement that I share the cover here on my website. The book releases in two months from Sibling Rivalry Press. Pre-orders will be available soon.
In a graduate school workshop, I remember a conversation breaking out about "shock value" in relationship to one of my poems. I actually don't remember which poem now, but the conversation began by questioning if certain parts of my poem were there only as "shock value." Underneath this conversation was a layer of homophobia. I'm not necessarily saying the people who were raising these concerns were homophobic (I don't think they were), but there's no denying that these kinds of questions were partly raised about my poem because I was writing about gay sex. Had the poem been about straight sex, there's a good chance this conversation would never have happened.
When you write about subjects people find "uncomfortable" or topics outside of that person's "norm," you are often accused of being shocking or writing about such subjects to get that kind of response from people. As if you are responsible for their reaction. You are often immediately put in the position of defending your work, or feeling the need to explain what your work is doing.
I've seen this many times since leaving graduate school. My first book of poems included many poems dealing not only with gay sex, but also violence and sexuality (which makes people even more uncomfortable). Before the book got published, I had some fears that people would label the work "shocking" or "overly sexual" or "pornographic" and would ignore all the literary things happening in the book (the play off other works, the many references, the questioning of the lines between sex and violence, etc.).
In reality, most people didn't do this. They saw the full picture of the book and didn't write it off as "shocking." Though, I did find a few readers were not uncomfortable about the sex, but were uncomfortable with my discussion of race in the book, which I didn't anticipate. This also goes to the idea that some hold that white people shouldn't write about race (as if it is not your place to have any thoughts or comments). Obviously, I don't believe this, and I've continued to write about race. In fact, my new book project I started working on this spring is focused on race, so look forward to that.
What I've learned, however, is that writing the uncomfortable is important to me. I strive to write about those things people often don't want to talk about or think about and because of that some will turn away from my work or might misunderstand it. I've also found that some people aren't very close readers and want to take some of my poems at face value. A lot of work has a playfulness about it that some readers have missed due to perhaps their own hangups about sex or race or whatever the topic.
In my new book, coming out in September, I take on marriage, but not in the way some might expect. I question the idea of marriage. I question if one should want to get married. If fighting for marriage equality was the right step for the gay rights movement. I question what it means to be queer and married. I try to ask the hard questions, not to shock, but to make you think and to make myself think.
As a writer there is only so much control you have over your reader and their response and that can be hard to thing to come to terms with. You have to put the work out there and hope for the best. Most writers, whether they admit it or not, want great reactions from everyone even though that's not really possible. As my career has continued, I've had to find ways to be comfortable with the reactions I get from my work and to trust that good readers will see the work for what it is.
The poet and fellow Hoosier Walter Beck interviewed me for Polari Magazine the other day. We talked about poetry, politics, winning the Lammy, and my new book.
Check out the interview here: Poet to Poet: Walter Beck in Conversation with Stephen S. Mills
In the last few weeks, I have had some new work published. Check them out below:
1. My personal essay titled "The Problem With Slut-Shaming" was published at The Good Men Project.
2. I wrote a review of season three of HBO's Girls for Glide Magazine.
3. My poem "I'm Supposed to Start with the Last Time I Saw You" was published at The Good Men Project.
5. I also have two poems in the new issue of The Account. Both are from my upcoming book A History of the Unmarried. They are titled "A History of Marriage" and "Slicing Limes for Dustin."
National Poetry Month often reminds me of the frustrations of being a poet in a world that doesn't really pay much attention to poetry. This month many people, publications, programs, etc. will devote a bit of time to poetry, but will quickly forget all about it for the other eleven months of the year.
As a poet, I've come to accept this, but seeing all the National Poetry Month talk does make me think of the many odd/annoying/frustrating conversations I've had with people when I tell them I'm a poet. This month seems like a good time to point out some "poet pet peeves," or in other words, here's some advice on how not to talk to poets:
1. "So you are a poet, when are you going to write a novel?"
I've heard this so many times as if poetry is some stepping stone to fiction. This often feels like the person is asking when you are going to write something I might be willing to read because I'm not going to read poetry.
2. "Oh you write poetry, so do I! Will you read mine and tell me what you think?"
Way to make it all about you. If we've just met, please don't say this to me. Of course, I read and give feedback to people on their work, but I do this for friends and people I have some connection to. People get paid to be editors, so it's a bit insulting for strangers to ask writers to just randomly read and critique work for free.
3. You're a poet? Write me a poem."
I get this a lot, which is kind of odd. Normally it's someone attempting to flirt with me. Not gonna happen if this is how you start. It also implies I need to prove I'm poet right on the spot. I'm not a poetry machine, and why would I write you a poem?
4. "You have a book? Can I have a copy?"
This can happen to any writer, and it can be awkward and frustrating. Most writers don't make tons of money, so wanting to get a free copy of a book is insulting (especially if I don't know you very well). When my first book came out, I hardly gave anyone a free copy. As a reader myself, I always buy people's books. It's important to support writers with your purchase even if you are friends with them (actually especially if you are friends with them).
5. "I write for fun too, but what do you really do?"
I've come across many who seem to not understand there are people who really do write and publish poetry on a regular basis. This is the group that thinks of creative work as a hobby.
6. "Is your book on Amazon?"
I don't really mind this question, but I did find it humorous how many times I was asked this when my first book came out. It seems many people's definition of creditable is having it on Amazon. This is even more humorous because it's not hard to get things listed on Amazon.
7. "Is your next book going to be gay poetry too?"
I'm never quite sure how to answer this question. I don't mind people labeling me a gay poet because I am gay and I am a poet, but this question seems to imply that they hope I will write something else or that "gay poetry" means poetry only for gay people. My issue is never with the labels as much as people's idea that these labels must describe the reader as well. I often write about gay issues, but that doesn't mean only gay people should read my work. I read work by straight people all the time.
8. "What does your poem mean?"
Most poets dread this question, myself included. I don't mind talking to people about my work or answering some questions, but the flat out "what does this mean?" question is frustrating. I blame bad teachers for this. Everyone always wants to beat a meaning out of a poem.
9. "Is this poem true?"
People are really obsessed with "truth," and I'm not really sure why it matters. I do use a lot of my own life in my work, but I like poetry because I'm not held to some autobiographical truth. I can combine things, mix things up, leave things out, etc. The speaker of my poems is often a version of myself, but that version is often poking fun at things or questioning the idea of something. And of course, the speaker isn't always me. I will normally answer the question, but I'm not sure it should really affect the poem or your understanding of it.
10. "I'm a poet." Silence/quick subject change.
At least say something.
For some artists it’s easy to pinpoint the exact moment when they exploded onto the pop culture radar. For Britney Spears that moment was in November of 1998. I grew up in a small city in Indiana and in the fall of that year I was a sophomore in high school. I typically came home from school to watch Total Request Live on MTV with my younger sister. This was the peak of the TRL days, and that November Britney Spears’ video for “…Baby One More Time” premiered. There she was: a sixteen-year-old pop star in her Catholic schoolgirl get-up flaunting her dance moves and oozing with sex.
As a 16 year old myself, I was struggling to hide my sexuality while Britney seemed happy to expose hers every day after school. I knew enough about heterosexuality and teenage boys to understand that this video was meant to get me aroused. Her catchy songs might have been for the girls, but her toned stomach and her slutty outfit was meant to get teenage boys on her side. It did catch my interest, but for very different reasons: Britney was doing something I couldn’t do at 16. There was power in that. Power in the way she made boys feel. Of course, this was only the beginning. She would go on to numerous number one hits, bestselling albums, sold-out concerts, and enough drama to match it all.
In the music world, the late 1990s marked a boom in pop music that would be referred to as another wave of “bubblegum pop.” These were the years of white clean-cut teenagers (many of whom were former members of the revived Mickey Mouse Club) dominating the charts with catchy songs and videos rife with sexuality. While the songs and videos were selling sex, the personal interviews with these artists were sometimes attempting to do the opposite. In 1999, Britney famously told the world that she wanted to stay a virgin until she got married. This seemed at odds with the girl on the TRL countdown week after week. It was this perfect mix of sex and innocence that pushed her further into the spotlight.
Britney reigned over these bubblegum years and while I never truly considered myself a big fan, her music was always there. In those first years, she was played by my younger sister in the car or by the pool on lazy summer days. She became part of the background of my high school days, as did her pop-music buddies: ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera. At my senior prom I remember a group of straight boys doing the full choreography to “Bye, Bye, Bye” on the dance floor. A closeted gay boy would never have dared.
When I finally came out in college, I quickly discovered Britney’s gay icon status. She had quickly become the Madonna for young gay men. Having been born in 1982, I always felt caught between the two divas (and truth be told, I’ve always preferred Whitney Houston over both of them). But I followed the news stories of Britney’s fall, the famous “Leave Britney Alone” video by now gay porn-star Chris Crocker, her shaved head, her babies, and her bare feet in that public restroom. When her later music came out, I danced to it on the floors of gay clubs, watched drag queens perform it on dimly lit stages, and cycled to it in weekly spinning classes at the YMCA. Britney was there, growing up right beside me. Each with our own ups and downs.
It wasn’t, however, until the summer of 2009 that I read my first Britney Spears poem. I remember flipping through The American Poetry Review and stopping to read new work by Tony Hoagland (one of my favorite contemporary poets). One of these poems was called “Poor Britney Spears.” Yes, my first Britney poem was not by some young girl or gay fanboy, it was by a straight middle-aged white male poet. The poem would later be included in Hoagland’s 2010 book Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty published by Graywolf Press.
The oddness of his subject choice is noted in the opening of the poem: “[Poor Britney Spears] is not the beginning of a sentence / you hear often uttered in my household.” That’s the thing about Britney: her presence is hard to ignore even for those outside her demographic like Hoagland.
The poem quickly turns to evaluating our obsession with celebrity and our desire to use them however we please. He refers to Britney as “a kind of voodoo doll,” “a pink, life-size piece of chewing gum,” and “my adorable little monkey.” These all imply someone else is in control. That we, the audience, play a role in her ups and downs. We stick in the pins, chew the gum, and make the monkey dance.
The jumping off point for this particular poem was Britney’s much talked about attempt at a comeback at an MTV awards show in 2007. The performance was clumsy, desperate, hard to watch, but the perfect foil to her Catholic schoolgirl days. It was the confirmation of how far she’d fallen and the media and viewers ate it up. Hoagland’s poem even argues that this was part of the plan: “it wasn’t by accident, was it?” This points to the fact that we enjoy celebrity success as much as failure. This is proven by how many people are now considered celebrities for often doing rather “embarrassing” things (like releasing a sex tape).
Hoagland’s poem isn’t necessarily exploring new territory and Britney’s rise, fall, and comeback is something that has been played out over and over again with various celebrities. Yet something feels different. Perhaps it is her perfect combination of innocence and sexuality (as noted earlier), or her true extremes: pop chart goddess to barefoot redneck mother to pop star again.
The speaker of the poem is part of the mass as well as an observer. He writes, “First we made her into an object of desire, / then into an object of contempt, / now we turn her into an object of compassion?” The “we” is inclusive. The question mark at the end of these lines is echoed in the next: “Are you sure we know what the hell we’re doing?” He admits to being part of a system, yet is questioning that system and that “compassion.” In other words, should we be doing this?
We use celebrities like Britney Spears to entertain us and not just through their music. The amount of personal information one can find out about celebrities has only increased with the Internet, the 24-hour news and entertainment channels, and the rise of reality-TV. The audience is in more control than ever before and part of Hoagland’s poem is pointing the finger at us: the viewers. Towards the end he imagines Britney as “a gladiatrix / who strolls into the coliseum / full of blinding lights and tigers.” Of course, there isn’t a coliseum without an audience rooting for blood and destruction. Hoagland isn’t the first to compare our culture’s obsession with celebrity and reality TV shows to coliseum days.
The poem ends with the duality that lives in so many of us and in Britney herself: “with one of my voices I shout, ‘Jump! Jump, you little whore!’ / With another I say, // in a quiet way that turns down the lights, / ‘Put on some clothes and go home, Sweetheart.’” In a way, Hoagland is returning the power to Britney herself: You can end this all, just leave. He is also evoking the virgin/whore idea by using the words “whore” and “sweetheart.” She has served as both for the viewing public.
Hoagland is not the only poet to use Britney Spears in poetry. I later found more and more poets utilizing the pop princess in verse. C.S. Carrier’s poem “Marry Me” was published in his 2008 book After Dayton published by Four Way Books. Carrier is another straight male poet. His poem is a direct address to Britney and much more sexually charged than Hoagland’s. Hoagland’s piece works more as an observation of this cultural phenomenon, while Carrier’s speaker has been deeply affected by Britney as a sex goddess.
Again Britney is an object or plaything. The second line of the poem calls her a “plastic doll with comb and microphone,” which clearly evokes a Barbie doll image. Britney as object is carried throughout the entire poem. It is a direct address that repeatedly states, “marry me,” but what does he want to marry? He wants to marry her “schoolgirl uniform,” her “nautilus arms,” and her “tanningbed skin.” This is Britney Spears in pieces. She’s not a whole woman.
The poem isn’t all male gaze. There are also moments of self-reflection. The most interesting parts of the poem are those that tell us something more about the speaker. In the first stanza he mentions “shushing” the room whenever she came on MTV and singing along. He states, “People’d laugh because they didn’t understand.” This evokes the power Britney had/has on the hetero-male mind, especially ones growing up on videos like “…Baby One More Time.”
Britney seems to gain more and more power as the poem continues. Toward the middle, she appears in the flesh of a girl the speaker kisses (no longer plastic): “Last girl I kissed was a girlfriend who wasn’t mine. / It was at a party, behind the house. / I used my tongue & kicked over a bowl of grapes. / She had your eyes & sang ‘Hit Me Baby.’” It seems important that the girl is a girlfriend of someone else. She, like Britney, is unattainable. This section also plays with the phrase “hit me baby,” which can sound both threatening and sexually charged. Britney like so many female pop stars of the last decade or so, play with the image of female power but often couple it with submissiveness (see Rihanna).
The poem ends with an iconic image of Britney: “Marry me, as an albino python twists your shoulders, / as you destroy me with an encore.” This evokes her famous performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the 2001 MTV Music Video Awards. This is once again her balancing innocence (or servitude in this case) with powerful sexuality. Who is actually in control? The snake image is no mistake. It also feels like the perfect ending for the poem. The speaker has been completely destroyed by Britney, yet he doesn’t seem to mind. Will she marry him? Of course not. In one way, he’s become her slave. For the speaker, no woman can truly compare to this image of Britney.
Britney, however, appears in poetry earlier than both Hoagland’s and Carrier’s poems. In 2006 Red Hen Press published Ryan G. Van Cleave’s humorously titled book The Magical Breasts of Britney Spears. Van Cleave is best known for writing the first memoir about video game addiction, but before that he wrote an interesting collection of pop culture poems that examine our connection to pop stars, famous golfers, game shows, Blue Man Group, and more.
Britney serves as a guiding or connecting force in the book. She pops up in eleven poems and is obviously in the title. Some of these focus on Britney or people related to her, but in many of the poems Britney is just a quick reference or repeatedly an object of lust for the speaker, who is a straight married man who has a list of five celebrities his wife will allow him to sleep with. Britney is on that list.
Van Cleave’s poems are very in the moment and were written before Britney’s life and career took a few downward turns (though some hint that he saw this coming). Van Cleave’s Britney is the not the “Poor Britney Spears” of Hoagland’s poem. The majority of Van Cleave’s book is an attempt to make sense of our lives in relationship to our everyday entertainment. The pop figures aren’t really front and center here. The speaker seems more important than Britney.
In the opening poem in the book, “Music Theory as Chaos.com, or the Magical Breasts of Britney Spears,” the speaker is teaching Walt Whitman to “a pack of beaky, cheeky geeks” and failing. Teachers can easily relate to how quickly the speaker’s lesson spins out of control. As the poem progresses, his students begin to examine Britney in relation to Whitman. His know-it-all student states, “Britney’s / a perfect example of a distinctly American mentality, the poster child of hard / bodies and soft music. She’s the pop icon extension of Whitman, but also / the antithesis of him, inevitably.” This observation is put into the mouth of the student and not the teacher, which partly showcases the teacher’s own failure here.
Yes, in many ways, Britney is distinctly American and her journey would not be the same in another country, but does this make her an extension of Whitman’s America? Would Whitman approve? Or does she actually turn out to be the exact opposite of what one hoped America might become? Van Cleave doesn’t give us clear answers, but concludes the poem by acknowledging the power Britney has over nearly everyone (a theme in Britney poems). At the end the speaker is at home watching Britney’s Pepsi commercial. He writes, “Even my dog paused mid-scratch to eyeball // the screen.” She’s so American that even man’s best friend can’t resist her.
Britney’s presence is carried throughout the book in different ways. Van Cleave’s approach, however, is a little colder. Britney doesn’t get much humanity in his poems. She is there as a figure of pop culture that isn’t quite real, which is how many view celebrities. In other places, he goes into the head of an elementary school friend of Britney’s and of her make-up artist, but these are more relatable to the everyday person and not the celebrity.
The end of the collection includes a poem titled “Britney Must Die, or A Sonnet from the lips of the Milwaukee Pyromaniac Who Once Was a Music Critic But Heard Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time / (Your Drive Me) Crazy / I’m a Slave 4 U/ Toxic / Oops!...I Did It Again / Stronger / Everytime’ Chris Cox Megamix and Had a Complete Breakdown.” For such a great title, the poem is a bit of a let down. It plays out as an actual fantasy of killing Britney by fire. The speaker worries though: “Perhaps she won’t burn, perhaps her pact with / Satan’s lawyers taught her to quench all flames / into the sparks from which they came.” But the speaker wants to try anyway. This poem, again, showcases an un-human Britney that is worthy of being burned at the stake. Van Cleave’s Britney never comes fully alive for us, but works as a static image to throw things at (Whitman, The Muppets, fire, tattoo regret, etc.).
Van Cleave’s book, however, is a great precursor to a newer collection completely devoted to Britney Spears. D. Gilson’s chapbook Brit Lit was released in 2013 by Sibling Rivalry Press and contains eighteen poems all dealing with various aspects of Britney.
More space provides more variations and ideas to emerge. Gilson is a young gay poet who sees Britney in a slightly different light. Gilson’s Britney has more layers and his work ventures even farther into the imagination with such poems as “Yoga with Britney Spears” and “From rehab, Britney reads Ariel and dreams of Sylvia Plath at the Stonewall Inn.” As the back of the book proclaims: “‘She is larger than life, she contains multitudes,’ W. Whitman says of Britney Spears.” Yes, Whitman and Britney appear together again. If you can’t tell from that line and those titles, the book is playful and funny, yet gets at the heart of our connection to celebrities and what they represent to us, which is often different from person to person (or poet to poet).
In the opening poem of the book “Spin,” Gilson writes, “As I stand at the checkout of the supermarket, / Britney Spears is there, looking up at me, / eyes glossier than usual, lips glossier than usual, / all breasts and swollen motherhood, no maternity / shirt holding her back. What have we done /to you?” Like Hoagland’s poem, this opening of Brit Lit is taking responsibility and using an inclusive “we.” The poem goes on to use a line from Hoagland, which shows Britney poems intentionally communicating with each other (Gilson has done his homework): “We watched you on television once, and Tony, / drunk maybe, said, Put on some clothes and go home, // Sweetheart.” It is a fitting opening. Gilson is paying tribute to the Hoagland poem, but is about to take Britney in a lot of different directions. He also puts Tony Hoagland’s line in the mouth of a “drunk maybe” named Tony, which gives the line a different spin. Should we take it at face value? Probably not.
As the book continues we get to see Britney in many different situations. In the poem “Britney Spears Watches CNN,” she is eating fried chicken and engaging with the speaker of the poem. In Brit Lit, the speaker isn’t an observer, he is right there with Britney. After seeing a news story about an earthquake in Myanmar, Britney asks “Where is Me-and-Mart?” The speaker doesn’t know how to explain it all to her. Here Britney works as a stand-in for the average American who is not well versed in world events, but the poem isn’t that simple.
Before the speaker can answer Britney, CNN switches to another story: “Britney Spears /at it again! Drugs and sex, just another / Beverley Hills night for our former / Mouseketeer.” This perfectly captures the odd juxtaposition of our news channels: one story is about a deadly earthquake in another part of the world and the next story is about a pop star’s night on the town. Are these equal? Does one get more attention? The poem ends with “I don’t know how to tell her, / you can’t believe everything they say.” A poem that begins poking fun at Britney’s intelligence quickly turns to a commentary on the media and even compassion for Britney as she eats another wing and watches her own life on display. The unasked question might be is it any wonder Britney doesn’t know anything about Myanmar?
The book uses the news and world events in other poems as well. One of the strongest poems in the collection, “By Way of Composure,” begins with “Seven more soldiers died in Afghanistan. / A roadside bomb exploded. I spilled // coffee on a barista earlier. None of us, / not one of us, is able.” This poem focuses more on the speaker and less on Britney. It is also a careful collection of large events paired with everyday events. Soldiers are dead; I spilled coffee. In some ways, it brings into question the idea of what matters most to us. Soldiers dying in a roadside bomb is tragic, yet spilling coffee probably has more of an effect on our day. The other events in the poem range in scale of seriousness and personal connection. The speaker’s mother is having “more tests” implying illness and later the speaker witnesses a man on the train crying over his wife losing their baby, which is again tragic, yet the speaker doesn’t know this person.
Britney is absent from the first half of the poem, but appears suddenly in the man on the train’s newspaper: “On the cover, / a bald woman wields an umbrella against / an SUV as photographers’ flash bulbs /set ablaze again and again. The headline: / BRITNEY SPEARS HAS COLLAPSED!” Fans of Frank O’Hara will immediately see the clear reference to his famous poem about Lana Turner, which includes him seeing a headline reading “Lana Turner has collapsed!” O’Hara ends his commentary with “I have been to plenty of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I have never collapsed / oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” O’Hara, on the one hand, sees himself in Turner, but also sees a distinction. His poem has a dose of tough love: “we love you get up.” O’Hara is echoing a common theme of the gay man’s connection to pop culture divas.
Gilson’s poem also turns to the “we” at the end: “We want to take care // of her because this is what one does: one tries / to save anything so wholly incapable of saving.” This places Britney along side the other events in the poem. We want to save the speaker’s mother, the lost baby, the soldiers in Afghanistan, and we want to save Britney Spears, but we don’t really know how. Yet, all of these figures seem incapable of surviving without help. The poem also confronts how much we are bombarded with news both personal and public on a daily basis and expresses how overwhelming it can be.
In other places in the book, Britney serves as mentor or spiritual guide for the speaker as he comes to terms with his own identity as a gay man. In the poem “Driving back to Missouri from New Orleans,” the speaker forces his father to take a detour past Britney Spears’ childhood home in Kentwood, Louisiana. He writes, “Some years later, Dad / will learn his son is gay” and “I can’t / explain to him what it is to be queer / from the country, to dream in pop / music and choreography, in eye / shadow and excess from the sidelines / of a football game.” The father figure can’t understand this, but the speaker thinks/hopes Britney can. Here Britney’s past and country-ness is important to the speaker. She came from this place and went on to explode in bright colors and in a fantasy pop world perfectly choreographed.
The poem ends with “I need to see where / she comes from, to see if life is what / I fear, you can never get away, or what / I dream, you never have to come back.” There are bits of humor in this poem, but the underlining current is a young gay man in the moment between fearing and dreaming. Can I escape? Can I do what I dream? Or will I always be held by this place? These are experiences many of us go through, gay or straight, as we struggle to come to terms with where we grew up and what we want or hope for in our own lives. This is a journey Britney, herself, went through.
The final poem in Gilson’s chapbook is titled “Britney Spears Must Die” and takes place at Britney’s bedside in Rockland Psychiatric Hospital. The speaker is visiting her trying to keep her alive by saying “Tell me about the time / you danced with that albino / boa constrictor.” According to the speaker this is her favorite story to tell and he’s heard it all before. We don’t get the story in the poem, instead the speaker tells us about a dream he’s had where his boyfriend drives him off a cliff in Maine and he’s greeted by Britney in heaven, which is “full of life, queers, / and Jews and performance / artists, Proust scholars and / bakers.” Death works in the poem on many different levels: real death, dream death, the death of the celebrity, and the death of the image of Britney. The speaker writes, “if Britney Spears must die, / how can the rest of us live?” As in the other poems, Britney is important to the speaker’s own sense of identity and coming to terms with his sexuality and “country” upbringing. Just like I saw power in Britney as a 16-year-old, the speaker of these poems needs Britney, yet the final poem is titled “Britney Spears Must Die,” which echoes one of the last Britney poems in Van Cleave’s book.
The final lines of the poem (and book) are in Britney’s voice. As she coughs and squeezes the speaker’s hand, she says, “In the end there is only this: / we are all here to perform.” Here Britney is providing a bit of wisdom and connecting all of us together. “We are all here to perform” implies that we all play different roles: the pop star, the washed-up celebrity, the young gay boy, the country boy, the Britney fan, and perhaps one day the confident gay man. We are all performing, which is true of poetry. In these pages there are glimpses of Gilson the person, but, as a reader, you don’t know which parts are “true” and, which are pure “performance.” Like the pop star, the poet walks that line between reality and fiction.
Perhaps it is this fantasy/reality that draws contemporary poets to figures like Britney Spears. She represents something truly American in the way that she is a perfect example of the rags to riches story, but also in the fact that she is so truly flawed. In her, we can see it all: stardom, sex, failure, motherhood, success, and dreams. She can be a stand-in for so many different emotions and desires. One can feel sorry for her, love her, and hate her almost at the exact same time. She is everything right about America and everything wrong. In this sense, she is perfect for poetry. Her story can take many forms and changes depending on the perspective.
It’s been fifteen years since I watched Britney’s first hit video. I’ve grown and changed as a man. I’ve moved out of Indiana. I’ve had my own success as a writer, but nothing quite compares to the power Britney still has. She’s still part of the discussion in current culture. There is real power in that.