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Interview With an Author: Steven Reigns

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Steven Reigns and his book, A Quilt fo David
Steven Reigns and his book, A Quilt fo David. Photo credit: Evans Vestal Ward

Steven Reigns is a Los Angeles poet and educator and was appointed the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. Alongside over a dozen chapbooks, he has published the collections Inheritance, and Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat. Reigns holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida, a Master of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, and is a fourteen-time recipient of The Los Angeles County's Department of Cultural Affairs' Artist in Residency Grant. He edited My Life is Poetry, showcasing his students’ work from the first-ever autobiographical poetry workshop for LGBT seniors. Reigns has lectured and taught writing workshops around the country to LGBTQIA youth and people living with HIV. His newest collection is A Quilt for David, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell. It is being posted on the LAPL Blog today to recognize World AIDS Day.

What was your inspiration for A Quilt for David?

I started my research, questioning what happened in that dental office? In 1991, eight people claimed their HIV infection was due to their dentist. Was he infecting people on accident or on purpose, or were his accusers, one of them an avowed virgin, lying to cover up shameful secrets?

How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write A Quilt for David?

It took me about ten years to research and write this book. What I noticed initially was how much homophobia permeated the press it received. There also wasn’t the use of buffering language like “claimed” or “alleged.” The information was presented to the public as fact. Family and friends of David chose to be silent, so there were no dissenting voices to combat the narrative spun by the high-powered lawyer representing the victims who wanted millions.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research about Dr. David Acer, Kimberly Bergalis, or any of the other people that accused Dr. Acer or were involved in what happened in 1990?

I was surprised at how much silence, secrecy, and shame still exist in that small town. I placed an ad in the paper asking to talk with people who knew Dr. David Acer. I heard from co-workers, friends, patients, and even a previous lover. Some were reluctant to talk at first, but eventually, they opened up. Then another local paper ran a suspicious story on my ad, and my phone immediately stopped ringing. Most of those who I interviewed stopped communicating with me altogether.

If you had the chance to ask or tell Dr. Acer something, what would it be? Same question for Kimberly Bergalis or any/all of the other seven individuals that accused Dr. Acer?

That’s an interesting question. I think Dr. Acer, Kimberly, and many of the other accusers all had secrets in common. David was in the closet and would commute during weekends to Ft. Lauderdale to live openly. Kimberly had boyfriends and gummed cocaine at parties; the other accusers had affairs outside of marriages or sex with sex workers.

What I’d wish for everyone involved is for them to have felt safe with disclosing their true experiences and who they were. I wish they would have been surrounded by supportive people interested in frankness and not fiction.

As a previous AIDS educator and counselor, what is the most common misconception about AIDS that you encounter or the one thing you wish people knew that they do not?

In the decade I worked in the field, it was fascinating how few people understood that the only infectious HIV fluids are blood, ejaculate (including pre-ejaculate), vaginal flood, and breast milk. One doesn’t have to worry about tears, sweat, or salvia.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Amy Gerstler’s Index of Women, James Davis’s Club Q, and a stack of New Yorkers I keep intending to get through.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

This is such a big question and hard to narrow down. Given that this is the L.A. Public Library, I’m going to limit my list to non-poet, L.A. writers:
Bernard Cooper: I first encountered a personal essay of his in an anthology. I hunted down his other work and fell in love with the writing. Each book is so considerate and well crafted. Reading him inspires me to be a better writer.
Attica Locke is an amazing writer and such a champion of authors and libraries. I always buy my father her new releases. He has exclaimed that she’s his favorite writer. Though I think he has good taste, I thought perhaps his son might have that title. No. I lost to Attica.
Clive Barker has skillfully pushed the horror genre to be more horrific and psychological. He also keeps pushing himself. He’s written over 25 books, 15 screenplays, directed a handful of films, and is a prolific painter. He’s working on a collected poetry volume that I was fortunate enough to read, and can’t wait for everyone else to also experience it.
Michelle Latiolais's work is so exciting to read and exacting. I rarely re-read books these days, but her work is an exception. The stories are so thoughtful and backed by her expert pacing, dialogue, and character. I look forward to the next book.
David Roman’s work is always fascinating. He’s written extensively on performance with a focus on race, sexuality, and HIV. When he’s not watching theater, teaching, or writing, he’s editing books to further theater scholarship and championing emerging artists.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I remember my second-grade teacher reading Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I came home and begged my mom to buy it. It’s a cringing story to read now about a boy who takes throughout his lifetime and a tree who gives everything of herself. I suspect when I was younger, I was attracted to the unconditional support that was shown. I didn’t know, and the book didn’t show that though love is unconditional, our relationships are built on conditions. The boy and the tree would have been better with set boundaries.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My parents were quite uninterested in what I read. This was a great gift as I had the freedom to read anything I pleased. When I was fourteen, I read August by Judith Rossner and liked it. I then picked up Looking for Mr. Goodbar at a used bookstore. My aunt saw me reading it and kindly promptly took it from me. She held onto the book but thankfully didn’t say anything to my parents. I then went back to uncensored readings.

Is there a book that changed your life?

AnaÏs Nin had a huge impact on my life. I used her diary as a compass of sorts to navigate through the world as a writer. Elements of her personal life are shocking and fantastical, but they’re nothing compared to what she put on the page and gave to her readers.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I identify as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and so I’m moved quite easily by things. For this reason, I’m cautious about what I consume because it can have such a profound impact on me. Sarah Schulman’s Let The Record Show has been quite an emotional read lately.

What are you working on now?

I’m very close to finishing another collection of poetry, The Bodiless Powers. It is about Michael Church, a best friend who died of AIDS-related illness in 2000. It’s interesting to not have written about him until now. I think it’s been prompted by writing about Dr. David Acer in A Quilt for David and because I’m now beyond the age Michael died. His friendship was so influential, and it’s been a pleasure to revisit writing about that time.

Book cover for A Quilt for David
A Quilt for David
Reigns, Steven

Taking his inspiration from a nearly forgotten chapter of history, the accusation that Dr. David Acer, a Florida dentist, infected his patients with AIDS in 1990, poet Steven Reigns examines and recreates the events surrounding Dr. Acer and those who accused him. More importantly, he looks beyond the overly simplified labels applied by the media to create portraits of frightened people who were clinging desperately to a story that seemed at the time to hide the secrets they could not admit to themselves or others.

Reigns also provides a terrifying reminder of how facts and data were, and continue to be, overlooked when they are in conflict with people’s fears, anxieties, and beliefs. It is difficult to read about the wild accusations and political maneuvering of three decades ago and not be struck by the similarities that are playing out now as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thoughtful, thought-provoking, timely, and long overdue, A Quilt for David provides the “other sides” of the story sensationalized in the press. And Reigns stresses that, while there were some monstrous actions taken by some, none of the people involved were monsters.