Filling in the Missing Patchwork: A Conversation with Steven Reigns

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Steven Reigns, the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, has published over a dozen chapbooks and poetry collections, including Inheritance (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011), and Your Dead Body Is My Welcome Mat (Burning Page Press, 2001). His most recent, A Quilt for David (City Lights Books, 2021), is a book of documentary poetry that tells the story of David Acer, the Florida dentist who was accused of infecting several of his patients with the HIV virus in 1990. In his meticulously researched and beautifully rendered account, Reigns gives readers a better sense of Acer, a man judged harshly by both the masses and media. Reigns also examines broader issue of cultural mythology that we, as a society, have leaned on throughout history, and exposes our propensity to outcast “the other.”

It was my great pleasure to speak with Steven Reigns over Zoom about this moving and incredibly important project.

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The Rumpus: I want to start by saying congratulations on the book. Can you tell us a little bit about your motivation to write this and your process?

Steven Reigns: I worked for ten years as an HIV test counselor. During that time, I tested and counseled over nine thousand people, giving them their HIV results. I presented at national conferences, was trained by some of the best health educators in the country, and was certified in health departments in Florida and California. One day, a young woman came in concerned about her HIV risk after a dental appointment. Her test result came back negative. It was only after she left that I remembered seeing a woman claiming the same thing on a television tabloid show when I was in the eighth grade.

At that time, I would watch tabloid shows—A Current Affair, Inside Edition. Being so young and having a suspicion or knowledge that I was gay, it was the only time I saw gay people on television. The shows were lurid and had really cheesy stories about gay people—not very empowering: a BMW car salesman by day, stripper by night. But that’s where I first encountered the story of Kimberly Bergalis, who said she was a virgin and that her HIV infection was due to her dentist.

I remembered it all those years later, and my first thought was, Oh, how did he give it to his patients? I started googling. Every article and piece of information I came across was loaded with homophobia and AIDS phobia. I wanted to know more. I wasn’t encountering information about the dentist, David Acer, just a lot of information about Kimberly and his accusers. I thought, Who was this man and what was going on? It was my curiosity, really, that started my research.

Rumpus: When did you figure out this was going to be a project?

Reigns: That’s a good question, and I’m not so sure I know. I didn’t know why I was doing so much research on this project, just that it interested me. As a creative person, I follow my impulses and assume cognition will come later.

At one point, I thought it might be a chapbook. It kept changing shape. Another time, I thought, Oh, maybe I’ll write a straightforward nonfiction book, but because it happened thirty years ago, there just wasn’t enough information to sustain that narrative. Poetry is the language of our emotions. I thought, What if I were to be able to use poetry as a tool to help people understand and empathize with David Acer and his life experience?

Rumpus: The 1980s and 1990s were filled with strong emotions of fear and hate. To answer those with poetry is powerful and disarming. Did you have a model for documentary poetry?

Reigns: During the research and writing of this, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen came out. It was so affirming, to both read the work and to see the reaction to it. In a way, it gave me permission to keep going.

Rumpus: I’m embarrassed to say that when I first heard your book was about David Acer, I was like, Oh that’s the dentist who infected his patients. I did not question the veracity of the statement. I love that in your dedication you thank your parents who “instilled values that helped you look beyond the headline.” I’m glad they did because you gave us this wonderful book. You questioned the story we were fed and looked beyond the headlines.

Reigns: The way the story was presented at the time didn’t allow for another narrative. There wasn’t the buffering language of “alleged” or “accused.” Kimberly Bergalis hired Robert Montgomery, a very savvy lawyer who knew how to inspire the media. That really helped shape the narrative. Also, David Acer’s family and friends were, for the most part, silent. There was no dissenting voice to the narrative that was being created.

It was a time of such HIV hysteria; it’s easy to see how people got swept up in it. Kimberly Bergalis said she was a virgin. It’s an archetype, right? This pure, innocent girl being victimized by the diseased, gay man. I thought I was researching and writing about that dental office in Stuart, Florida. Really, what I was doing was writing about where America was at that time.

Rumpus: We don’t, as a society, like to confront our mythology or our history. We have a lot of trouble learning from it. Here you are opening up this door thirty years later. I found it interesting that you brought up Typhoid Mary in two of the poems. I’m thinking of how this all relates to COVID and how we’re playing out similar narratives. It’s as if our society is an archetype too. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Reigns: We can see examples throughout history of how we talk about “the other” and how our culture sees “the other” as a dangerous person. We can think about it beyond illness and focus on Chicago’s Great fire in 1871. We all know the story of Catherine O’Leary and her cow causing the big fire that left one hundred thousand people homeless. There was such anti-Irish sentiment at the time. It’s the foreigner who causes damage. Typhoid Mary—Mary Mallon—same situation. We also have Gaëtan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant who Randy Shilts outed as being patient zero in And the Band Played On. Thankfully, Richard McKay wrote a book called Patient Zero and that inspired a recent documentary. Carl Smith wrote Chicago’s Great Fire. I see A Quilt for David as part of that lineage of books questioning how we blame the outsider and examining why it was so easy for people to believe the narrative.

Rumpus: We have trouble with our history and mythology but also with ambiguity. I’m reminded of the psychological term “splitting” because we don’t have an easy time with continuums or shades of gray. It’s good or evil. We need a villain.

Reigns: I completely agree. It also involves sitting with uncomfortable emotions. There were uncomfortable emotions for everyone. For people diagnosed with HIV, it can feel easier to point the finger at someone else as opposed to looking at our own personal responsibility and what risks we take or what actions happened that caused our infection. It’s sitting with those feelings, but also sitting with the unknown. It was much easier to blame David Acer, who at that point was dead. Also, he was a gay man. Because of gay men’s low social standing, it was easy to take advantage of and wield power.

David was villainized, but this book isn’t about villainizing his accusers.

Rumpus: Not at all. Let’s talk about the poems. You do this thing where you alternate: You’ll  have a poem about David, then one about Kimberly; then maybe a poem about her father, or about Scott Montgomery, whose son was also infected. How did you organize the poems?

Reigns: I owe a lot to poet David Trinidad and my editor Amy Scholder, for helping shape this manuscript. The poems were not written in sequential order. Their order in the book was chosen to move the story along. Some poems’ placement was chosen to inform a poem maybe five pages later.

There were two or three poems I created to help complete the story or to make it easier for a reader to understand.

There were gaps in this story. The research gave me the little bits of information I have. I took no poetic license in this collection. Every detail is a detail that I encountered in my research of personal interviews or articles or courthouse documents or press clippings. I went to Florida several times to do research.

Rumpus: There are eight pages of citations and bibliography. While it’s always important to research one’s subject, do you think the citations and additional research felt more critical to the project?

Reigns: I wanted to give the original writers credit for the work they did. I also think there’s something about a bibliography that helps substantiate what I’m saying, that I’m not someone who’s just having these poetic musings and creating a story—this is something I worked really hard for. Natalie Goldberg, in her endorsement of the book, said that I go to the mat for David Acer, and I really do. I like the idea that readers can look up this information.

Rumpus: There are a bunch of prose poems in here. How did you decide which form to use for the different bits of information?

Reigns: Collin Kelly and David Trinidad both suggested prose poems. When two great poets give me that input, I’m going to pay attention. They were right. Also, I liked that a prose poem resembles reportage.

Rumpus: In some of the poems, you address Acer directly. That’s powerful! How did you arrive at that choice?

Reigns: Anyone researching a subject has a personal relationship with them, even if they’re no longer living. David Acer and I share the same birthday, November 11. But there’s more. I felt like I could empathize and understand. I moved to Florida at the age of eighteen, just three years after David died. Florida is its own ecosystem, socially. I understood the closet in Florida. I understood small towns and secrets. I was going to some of the same bars and clubs he would travel to. It’s called A Quilt for David because it’s honoring and humanizing David. I only encountered one record of him using his own language in his own words, and I quote that in the introduction to the book. It was also a way for the reader to experience David.

Rumpus: How did you experience David?

Reigns: It changed over time. Very similar to yourself, when I started googling, I was like, How did he do that? I didn’t remember his name, but I began to discover quite a bit. I talked to many people who knew David. The Center for Disease Control did a lot of research but was not able to locate any of David’s sexual partners. I did. I also talked to his friends, his patients. I talked to some of his coworkers. I learned some really sweet stories about him, and some of these are in the book. He saved office copies of People magazine for a patient because she liked the magazine. One woman volunteered with underprivileged youth, and David took all of them out on his boat for the day. He was also ambitious. He died a very young man. He had a dental practice. He was part of an accelerated class in college, he enlisted in the military. Also, he seemed to be a very gentle and private man, very quiet and reserved.

Rumpus: Did you put on your therapist’s hat while you were writing and researching?

Reigns: I think to put on my therapist hat would have meant potentially diagnosing people, and I didn’t do that. I did utilize my therapist-sensibility, though. As therapists, we hopefully hold people with generosity and have this desire to understand motivators. I think that was present.

Rumpus: Many of your readers may not be old enough to remember the quilts. Can you just share a little bit about the title of the book?

Reigns: The AIDS memorial quilt was conceived by Cleve Jones to honor loved ones who were suffering or had died from AIDS. It is a collection of quilts that people have made from all over the world. At one point in time, they were displayed on the Capitol lawn in Washington, DC. Quilts are created for comfort and security. There’s something about creating a quilt that helps loved ones, and gives them something to do with their grief. This book consists of some patchwork poems that essentially makes a quilt for David.

Rumpus: In the end, we don’t know for sure whether Acer did infect his patients, or if he did, how. Did finding those answers become less important to you as you went along? Does it even matter now?

Reigns: I think other elements of the story took over at some point. What’s so striking is the comparison of how certain people were treated over others. Whose lives do we value more than others? What risks do we forgive, what risks do we punish? In the book, I mentioned James Sharpe, a Black man who accused his dentist of HIV infection. The case went significantly differently than Kimberly Bergalis’s case.

In David’s case, there were a total of eight accusers. Is it possible a dental transmission happened? Why hasn’t this happened since? It’s very curious. The test they used to compare the HIV strand [that David Acer had] with the strands of his accusers is a test they’re no longer using in Europe because it doesn’t yield the results they think it should. There’s not a definitive answer, but I think very rarely do we ever have a definitive answer.

Rumpus: It struck me when Kimberly claimed she did nothing wrong. It’s that mythology we hold: you will be punished for your sins, and innocent people don’t have bad things happen to them.

Reigns: Yes, I love that you picked up on it. I want to believe that none of them did anything wrong.

This is, in a lot of ways, a very unusual book. I’m so happy that Amy Scholder was my editor and that City Lights accepted the book. To be published with a house like them is an honor. Talk about a great lineage of poets and risk takers.

Rumpus: Can you tell us a little bit about Gay Rub?

Reigns: The Gay Rub is a participatory art project I created that’s a collection of rubbings of LGBTQ landmarks all over the world. It tells a story of queer history, who gets represented, who gets erased. There are so many connotations to the word “rub.” Rub can mean social friction, as in, “They got a lot of rub for that.” It can also mean sexual activity. It can mean being erased. It can mean the truth like, “That’s the rub.” It also is short for rubbings of grave markers, like this ongoing project, and I love that the rubbing of David’s grave marker is actually the front’s piece and the end’s piece in the book. That was Amy Scholder’s idea. She thought it would be a nice way of honoring him and set the tone of the book. Rubbings are so hauntingly beautiful to begin with.

Rumpus: What’s next for you?

Reigns: I am working on a collection of poetry about one of my best friends, Michael Church, who died in 2000. He died of an AIDS-related complication. I, for a brief time, tried to be his caregiver. I was too young and couldn’t handle it.

Sometimes I can be critical of my work and think, Here I am writing about AIDS again. But once again, it’s not just AIDS. It’s about friendship, mentorship, living life as an artist, being gay men, and loving. The collection is called The Bodiless Power.

 

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Author photo by Evans Vestal Ward.


Diane Gottlieb’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in About Place Journal, The Longridge Review, The VIDA Review, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Entropy, among others. She has an MSW, an MEd, and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. You can find her at dianegottlieb.com and on Twitter at @DianeGotAuthor. More from this author →