Steven Reigns, West Hollywood’s inaugural poet laureate, is a frequent visitor to Atlanta for performances, workshops and keynotes, but he’ll be beaming in virtually on Thursday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m. with Charis Books in Decatur to discuss his new collection “A Quilt for David.”
The controversial new collection just published by San Francisco’s famed City Lights Books, traces the story of Dr. David Acer, a Florida dentist infamously blamed for infecting some of his patients with HIV in the late 1980s and early 90s. Reigns sets out to reframe the narrative around Acer and his accusers through a series of narrative poems.
Q. What drew you to write the poems that form the narrative about Dr. David Acer?
A. The writing came out of my research and the research came out of my curiosity about what really happened in that dental office. I worked as an HIV test counselor for over a decade, certified by the health departments in Florida and California. At work one day I remembered in the eighth grade and seeing a young woman on Inside Edition and A Current Affair. She said she was virgin and became HIV positive from her dentist. With all of my HIV education and experience, I couldn’t understand how that could have happened to her and the others who accused the dentist. My research started with a google search and lead me to searching library archives, courthouse documents, placing an ad in the paper, and conducting personal interviews. While doing this research for 10 years, I’d write about what I Was discovering. These writings were the germination of the final work that is in A Quilt for David.
Q. Although this is poetry, there’s a decidedly non-fiction feel about the work.
A. The story of dental transmission of HIV is already so saturated with misinformation that I didn’t want to add to it with poetic license, poetic musing, or fictionalized details. I wanted the reader to know that every detail in the book is based on my research. A Quilt for David is documentary poetry. Instead of writing a straightforward journalistic piece, I wanted to write something that would elicit emotions and help humanize this maligned man.
Q. There are still a lot of conflicting facts and feelings about Dr. Acer and whether he inadvertently infected his patients with HIV/AIDS. What did you learn and what do you hope readers’ will learn?
A. I think it’s easy for readers to see how this isn’t just a story about that dental office and these people but a story that encapsulates what was going on in our country and cultural in regards to AIDS. My book explores so many of the dynamics. As an example, I have a poem in the book on how while David was alive, an article was in the paper suggesting HIV positive people be delineated from the rest of the population with a tattoo.
I also hope readers can see firsthand how damaging secrets can be. What happened to David Acer can happen to any of us. David was a shy, closet man living in a small, conservative town. By not revealing much of himself, there was a void of information that people could later fill in. However, David wasn’t the only one with secrets. Kimberly doesn’t seem to have been living the life of the innocent, pure virgin she claimed. Barbara Webb, another accuser, had an extramarital affair.
Q. Tell us a bit more about your event on Thursday.
A. It’s thrilling to do a reading sponsored by Charis Books. Atlantans are fortunate to have such a literary institution in their backyard. I would visit the store during trips to Atlanta. At one point in my life, I only knew the bars and bookstores of a city and very little else. Charis was always a highlight of my travels as someone living in a city that didn’t have much of a literary and queer culture. Thankfully, Charis has an online ordering system and so those in smaller cities can get their cultural fix without having to travel. I’m thrilled to be in conversation with Carter Sickles. He’s such a detailed and emotional writer. I think we’re about the same age and yet our latest books go back to about the same time in history, revisiting those early years in the AIDS epidemic. They both center around a man grappling with death and his small town. I’m looking forward to our dialogue and hope all of your readers can join in.