Moving Toward Answers: A Conversation with Stephen Mills

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I like to imagine meeting Stephen Mills in Florida in 2012: he and his partner Dustin driving north to their new home in New York City, my partner Angie and me driving south to our new home in Miami. Somehow we meet in the middle, pass some poems between us like a torch.

But the fact is, Mills and I are poets from other places who settled in the Sunshine State at different times. He was born and raised in Richmond, Indiana, and earned his MFA at Florida State University in Tallahassee. I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and moved to Miami after graduate school to teach in the MFA program at Florida International University.

Instead of a serendipitous meeting on the road, or a joint reading at a gala for Florida poets—it’s my imagination, so everything gets to be grand!—I first met Mills on the page in 2013, when his collection He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry. And in 2015, I met him in real life, when I heard him read from his second collection, A History of the Unmarried, at the Miami Book Fair International. I thought then, as I think now, that Mills is one of the most honest, riveting, and essential voices shaping American poetry today.

We spoke in the fall of 2017 about his life and work.

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The Rumpus: When did you first realize you were a poet, and when did you begin to identify yourself as a poet to others? I’m curious about the lag time between poets coming to know themselves as poets and poets moving forward in the world, claiming this vocation as a central part of their identities.

Stephen Mills: I can say, without a doubt, that I always wanted to be a writer. So the label of ‘writer’ was never something I was afraid of. It was something I knew about myself almost immediately. In fact, I was writing before I could actually write. As a little kid, I’d fill old bank calendars my mother would give me with symbols and scribbles and then would “read” the stories I had “written” to her.

The label of poet, however, was something harder for me to embrace. I didn’t come to writing much poetry until late in my high school days and then into college, which of course is still quite young. But my early days of writing were all fiction. In middle school, I wrote huge stories (some over a hundred pages) on our family’s first computer. In many ways, poetry seemed too difficult or just something moody teenagers wrote.

A lot of that changed my freshmen year of college. I went to Hanover College in Southern Indiana, which is a small liberal arts school. My freshmen year, I signed up for a general fiction and poetry workshop for that term. That is where I met Dr. Kathy Barbour, who had a great influence on me and really became my mentor. We submitted a portfolio of work and when I got mine back, Dr. Barbour had written on it: “You are a poet. Know it bone marrow deep.” I still have that piece of paper. It truly was a moment when I felt like I had been seen by someone. Sometimes we need that boost from someone else to push us to see our truth.

Rumpus: Given your early awareness of yourself as a writer, did you see a connection between that sense of purpose and vocation and the kind of career you might someday pursue?

Mills: I did see that connection early on in my experience. In third or fourth grade, we had an assignment where we had to imagine we were on the cover of TIME. We had to draw the cover and then write a story that revealed the reason we were on the cover. I imagined I had won the Newbery Award for a book I had written. I picked the Newbery Award because it was the only book award I knew about at that age.

I wouldn’t say I thought a lot about earning money, but fame and/or recognition was something I connected to writing. The idea that one could write and publish books and have a positive response was clear to me. This was partly because I was also an avid reader as a child, so I respected books a great deal. Of course, I wasn’t aware of how challenging all of that can be or how few of us can necessarily make a living writing (awards or not). But I had a desire from the very beginning to send my writing into the world and to make it a central part of my life and career. Later, I learned what that actually looks like.

Rumpus: What do you feel most proud of about your poetic canon so far?

Mills: I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to put out two books I’m very proud of, but on a more specific scale I often point to my poem “An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore” as a piece that changed my writing. It is the center poem of my first book and takes up eighteen pages. It weaves the story of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer with my own story, and with references to a poem by Reginald Shepherd about Dahmer.

This piece is significant to me because it truly changed my whole outlook on what I could accomplish in poetry. After completing my MFA in 2008, I was still struggling just a bit to find my voice and to find the balance I wanted to strike in my work between research and the personal and other pieces of literature or pop culture. This poem was a breakthrough for me because it hits on all of those in a seamless way. It’s a piece I can look back on and say I can’t believe I wrote that. At the time, it was also the longest poem I had ever written, so it made me start to explore length and style, which is something that has continued in my work.

After the book came out, the first letter I received from a reader commended me for my ability to write about the Dahmer killings in the way that I had. He went on to say that he had lost a lover to a serial killer many years ago. Writing, at least for me, is mostly a solitary act, so getting that letter was a reminder of the power and connection words can have. And it made me realize, wow people are actually going to read this, which of course you know, but it still feels surprising sometimes.

Rumpus: I found myself marveling, as I read “An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore” the first time, was the fact that you wrote so candidly about teaching; you folded teaching along with Dahmer and Shepherd and your life outside the classroom into this poem.

How has teaching poetry informed/altered/complicated your reading and writing of poetry? What will you miss most about teaching as you go forward into the new academic year without students? Is it too soon to say?

Mills: A majority of my teaching experience has been in the freshmen composition classroom, which means I’ve rarely taught English majors or even students interested in literature. Many professors hate teaching those classes, but I’ve always enjoyed that experience because it creates opportunities to engage students in something they might not seek out for themselves.

Poetry holds a lot of mystery for students. Even students who don’t love reading can still grasp the basics of fiction. They are used to storytelling from TV or film, if not from the written page. But poetry is strange and notoriously known as difficult. Students come in with the idea that poetry is a puzzle they must figure out and they often want you, the teacher, to unlock it for them.

One of my goals in teaching poetry in this environment is to break down those poetry myths. One of my favorite exercises is to bring in, like, forty or fifty contemporary poetry books and have students search those books simply for a poem they like. It’s not about analysis or getting graded or impressing me; it is about finding something they enjoy for whatever reason. Then, depending on the amount of time and number of students, I either have them go around and read the poem to the class, or I have them write a brief response explaining why they like the poem and what made them pick it. This is also a fantastic way to get students to realize how vast poetry is and what current poets are writing about. Students are often shocked to know people have written poetry about Kanye West or Britney Spears or zombies.

In this way, teaching poetry has made me think more about audience. Poets can sometimes be a little elitist. I try to write poems that work on a lot of levels. That’s not to say the poems are easy or simple, but you can often grasp something useful on the first read and depending on your devotion to the poem or sometimes your knowledge, you will get into those other layers. Because I often write about taboo topics or use pop culture, people can sometimes be surprised by all the literary and historical references also lurking in the poems.

I will miss a lot about teaching. I love planning out a course and creating a journey for the students from start to finish. I love introducing students to texts that surprise them in some way (new and old). The best moments of teaching are always when students get excited by a piece, and I love it when someone says something in class that I’ve never thought about even if I’ve read the story or poem twenty times. Teaching can be exciting because you never know what’s going to happen when you walk into a classroom.

My teaching experience is such a part of me that it does come out in other experiences. It has helped me be successful in my full-time job in HIV testing and prevention. One of the goals of testing someone is to get them to have a conversation with you about their sexual health and to ask questions they might have. I find patients are often very open and honest with me, and I think a lot that comes from my approach and experience as a teacher.

Rumpus: Let me flip the question now and ask you about your own teachers—in the classroom, on the page, in the world at large. I find your poems are permeated with references to other poets and poems as well as music, film, television, painting, etc. As someone who is clearly an ardent student of history, art, literature, and popular culture, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned? Who (or what) has been your most surprising teacher so far?

Mills: I am very interested in the conversation between texts, so a lot of my work plays with that idea. Some of those who have inspired me might seem obvious choices like Frank O’Hara and others perhaps more surprising like T.S. Eliot. I do love Eliot’s work, and I used him as an inspiration for the title poem of my first book, which has a lot of references in it to The Waste Land. Inspiration of course is not imitation. Sometimes people forget that.

From my early college days, I’ve loved the Modernist Period. Another favorite professor of mine, Dr. Dee Goertz, introduced me to many of the writers from that period. I love Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Eliot and Mina Loy. Many of the Modernists were responding to a vastly changing and complicated world and were exploring the internal struggles of living in that world. That’s something that is central to my own work as well. My favorite line from Mrs. Dalloway is “She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” In some ways, that’s been a guiding idea for me.

I also love the use of pop culture in poetry because pop culture has become what we use to understand our own lives. It’s the religion of modern day. We filter our own experiences through film and television and music. Because of this, I am greatly inspired by people outside of the literary world. For instance, Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Man, was a heavy influence on my second book. He is a master at storytelling and capturing a time period. He has an amazing devotion to detail. A History of the Unmarried uses a lot of references to the 1950s and 60s, which is another favorite period of mine. It references Hitchcock, Perry Mason, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Jackson Pollock, just to name a few.

I also look to poets who have been able to capture that balance between the personal and pop culture so well in their work. Dr. David Kirby, who was on my thesis committee Florida State, is one of those poets. As is your good friend Denise Duhamel. When I first read her work, I immediately felt a connection. She has greatly inspired me in the kind of work I can do. She is also great at playing with a sense of self in the poem: a version of the poet. She taught me a lot just by reading her. Duhamel and Kirby also use humor, and I love humor in poetry. Mine is perhaps a dark humor.

I would say one of my most surprising teachers is one of my newest. I’ve recently become obsessed with Shirley Jackson. Since about November, I’ve been reading everything she ever wrote, which has led to a new project I’m working on that will likely become my fourth book.

Rumpus: The final poem in this collection, “Slicing Limes for Dustin,” is comprised almost entirely of questions, and I found myself thinking of a quote from Rilke: “Live the questions now.”

You write in this poem:

And what does it mean for two men
to be protected
under the law?
To call each other husband?
And what does it mean to know
that if we ever want to leave
each other
it will have to be official?
[…] And what does it mean to be married
yet remain queer?

Does writing the questions help you to live them better? Have poems you’ve written helped you live your way into answers, the way Rilke suggests? In essence, I may be asking how the controlled and aesthetic enterprise of poem-making has helped you reckon with the greatest riddles of your own life.

Mills: On some level, writing for me is a way of processing my life and my experiences and, often, my fears. So, in this way, writing poems has often moved me toward answers. Sometimes, though, it leads to just more questions.

In writing A History of the Unmarried, I wanted to explore the notion of limbo that many of us lived in for years. I met my husband in 2003, just as the fight for gay marriage was really getting ignited. This was partly pushed by Bush using it as a wedge issue in the 2004 election, which helped him get re-elected. In the ten or so years that followed, there were marriage bans in states, cities issuing domestic partnerships, lawsuits, and eventually marriage equality. Because this was all happening as I was growing and developing my relationship with my partner, it had an impact on me, and how I began to think about marriage and question the institution.

I always want to clarify that A History of the Unmarried isn’t a book about loving marriage or some heteronormative love fest. It’s a book about questioning it, which is why I turn to the idealized 1950s and 60s family life as a jumping off point. As I grew older, I began to open my mind to the possibilities, and I write openly about the fact that my husband and I have a sexually open relationship. In this way, the book questions what it means to be married and to be queer and to be a couple that had to forge their own path against a hostile political backdrop.

My biggest challenge in writing the book was deciding on an ending, which is what led to the poem “Slicing Limes for Dustin,” which is a play off a Diane Wakoski poem. I thought it was a fitting ending because it opened the book up and made it clear that I wasn’t there to give answers but to pose questions. Perhaps questions we all have to live and figure out for ourselves.

Rumpus: You have a new poetry collection on the horizon—due out in September—but I know very little about the project or even its title. How does the new book take what you have learned in writing He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices and A History of the Unmarried and extend, transform, or even subvert that knowledge to make something new?

Mills: The book is called Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, and I can say it is the hardest book I have ever written. I began the initial project back in 2012, so it’s been a fairly long process for me. The book is a departure, in many ways, because half the book is a fictional story in poems set in New England in the 18th century. The story is based on an actual phenomenon involving murder, suicide, and religion. The second half of the book is more personal poems set in modern New York that have various threads that connect to the first half of the book sometimes in odd ways.

As I moved from my first book to my second and now my third, I’ve discovered that I am very interested in writing poetry collections that are connected and meant to be read cover to cover and in order. So this new book takes that all the way. The book will make the most sense if read from start to finish because things build on what’s come before and tell a story, which is mostly true of A History of the Unmarried as well.

As a whole, the book explores the complexities of the US justice system over time and, on a more individual level, how our own mind and beliefs can drive us to do questionable things.

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Author photographer © Dustin Carter.


Julie Marie Wade is the author of nine collections of poetry and prose, including Same-Sexy Marriage (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2018), SIX (Red Hen Press, 2016), Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016), When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014), Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. In 2019, Noctuary Press will publish her first co-authored collection with Denise Duhamel, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose. More from this author →