Stephen S. Mills on marriage, identity, & patriotism

Stephen S. Mills has received many awards and accolades for his poetry and art, and rightfully so. His poetry is powerful and honest; it explores multiple sides of identity, politics, and relationships and left me feeling and thinking a lot of new emotions and thoughts. A History of the Unmarried and He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices are available for purchase from Sibling Rivalry Press, and he has a forthcoming collection scheduled for publication from SRP next year. And, he’s been such a joy to interview!


What’s been on your mind lately? What are you currently writing and thinking about?

The simple answer is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been working on a poetry collection about her since January. Jackson’s work is fascinating to explore and has some interesting parallels to our current world. She was writing during a period of unrest (the 1940s-1960s) and she often examined the personal anxieties of living in that changing world. Those are things I’m thinking a lot about in this moment in our lifetime when the country seems on the brink of disaster or great change. She’s also very drawn to the outsider within the community and how society continues to enforce norms even norms that hurt the people enforcing them. All of this feels pretty relevant to our moment in time, so this project is moving in a lot of different directions: a close look at her life and work as well as my own life in this time and place.

What’s your favorite place to write in?

I’m not overly attached to place in terms of where I write. But I mostly prefer silence. I have a hard time writing around other people, so I don’t work much in public spaces unless I’m just editing or jotting down ideas. I mostly work at home when I’m alone with my two dogs. I also really like to read work aloud, so it’s best to be in a private space for that.

How did you begin writing and reading poetry? What is the impact poetry has since had on you?

I wanted to be a writer from the time I can remember and began writing at a very young age. I mostly wrote fiction as a kid and then slowly found my way toward poetry by high school. In college, it really solidified for me that I was a poet (though I have written some fiction and creative non-fiction). It helped a lot to have encouraging professors who helped me discover my voice as a poet and also taught me how to better read and explore poetry by others. I love poetry because I find it to be the most freeing form of writing. You can do so much in a poem that isn’t really allowed in other forms of writing. It has impacted how I view and experience the world. I often see how things are connected by exploring them in poetry.

I love your ekphrastic pieces. Could you talk about what art does for you and art’s place in society?

The visual arts have often been a place of inspiration for me and a lot of my ekphrastic pieces explore our relationship to art and how we view those pieces (often in a museum setting). I was an art minor in college, so I’ve formally studied art but have also explored it on my own. I love museums and have lived in New York for the last five years, so my access to art is vast here, which I love and appreciate. A lot of my work explores the relationship between various arts forms: visual art, film, television, and written works. I like seeing the interconnections between pieces and putting them together within a poem. The arts as a whole allows people windows into other worlds and experiences they might not have had or be able to have. For that, it is extremely beneficial.

I, too, am queer and married; I’m pansexual and polyamorous and live in a low-income, racially diverse neighborhood, yet I married a straight, white, cis man. But none of that “contradicts” itself. Being attracted to women doesn’t mean I have to be in a relationship with a woman to still be queer, ya know? 

We’re recently married, having just celebrated our one year anniversary this fall. I’m beginning to navigate the paths of individual identity remaining intact while being in an incredibly satisfying and healthy marriage. I’m also being sensitive to the privileges that come with passing.

Could you discuss your lines: “what does it mean to be married / yet remain queer?” What is the loveliness of marriage for you? Do you ever feel like you compromised “being queer” or is there more to being queer than pride culture acknowledges?

The goal of my second book A History of the Unmarried, which contains those lines, was to explore the notion of marriage within a queer context. The fight for marriage equality really took off right as I entered a relationship that I’m still in (we just celebrated 14 years together).


That fight was running parallel to my own experience of navigating and defining a relationship that fit me. Over the years, I became increasingly interested in what a queer or gay marriage looks like. In the end, I’m not sure marriage should have the place it does legally speaking in our country, but the fact is it does, so those protections are important to couples of all kinds.

So for me, I’m interested in how marriage can look from different angles and that being a queer person and getting married doesn’t necessarily have to mean following a heteronormative path (though many may accuse you of doing so). I write very freely about the fact that my husband and I have a sexually open relationship and I’m interested in exploring that in my work because I see so few writers doing that in significant ways. We are in a culture right now that really loves to pinpoint and label things, but I’m more interested in the gray spaces–the hard to define spots.

I agree. People are complex, and we regularly defy stereotypes, so while labels can be helpful, they can also be limiting. 

“Election Night: November 2008” was a really powerful poem. I personally despise patriotism, as I think it drives mental wedges between Americans and “the rest of the world”; it convinces U.S. citizens (I should note, mainly white citizens of all three classes) of their superiority. So: how is patriotism affecting our culture currently? How can we step back from our egos and remember our humanity? 

It’s funny to think of that poem now in the current situation we are in. That poem explores the hopeful election of Obama, but also an uneasiness about the idea of trusting government or feeling patriotic as a queer person. I’ve never felt the patriotism that so many around me have so freely expressed throughout my life, and I think a lot of that comes from living as a gay person and often feeling like an outsider. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and didn’t know any other out gay people until I went to college. This outsider perspective has made me more skeptical of things than other people might be. I’ve also always had a great love for travel and experiencing other places, which I think, to answer your question, is one of the best ways to step back and remember our humanity. When you never leave your bubble, you have little understanding of the reality of the world we live in.

Thanks again to Stephen for conducting this interview with me! Check out his new work in Queen Mobs and follow his new book release and other news via his website.

Photo credit: Sibling Rivalry Press

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