Steven Reigns: West Hollywood's First City Poet

Steven Reigns reads from his collection "Inheritance" | Photo: YouTube

In December 2012 the City of Los Angeles set a Southern California precedent by selecting Eloise Klein Healy as the city's first official Poet Laureate. Now in Fall 2014 West Hollywood has followed L.A.'s lead by selecting Steven Reigns as WeHo's first official City Poet. In the context of this essay, the terms City Poet and Poet Laureate will be used interchangeably. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Steven Reigns, West Hollywood and his plans for promoting poetry in the city he loves so much.

One of the many reasons Steve Reigns loves West Hollywood is because "[it's] a city that cares deeply about its residents and has always been on the forefront," he says. "It was the first city offering same-gender domestic partnerships and same-gender benefits to city employees." Furthermore he notes, "It isn't a geographically large city but it incorporates so many distinct areas and residents. The Russian and immigrant community is strong. In a city of 35,000, there are '10,429 foreign-born residents.' Similar to the gay community, WEHO is a safe haven and celebrator of diversity."

For many years, the area now considered West Hollywood was unincorporated Los Angeles County. This is why the Sunset Strip was one of the city's first nightlife and vice districts dating back to the Roaring 20s, because it was out of the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department. West Hollywood did not become an official city until 1984 and it is surrounded by Los Angeles on the north, east and southern sides, and Beverly Hills to the west. Known for its gay community, the Sunset Strip, the lively district along Santa Monica Boulevard, and the art, fashion, and design corridors along Beverly, Melrose and Robertson, West Hollywood is highly walkable. Though the city is quite small geographically, it is filled with public art, landmarks, and notable architecture like the Schindler House, Pacific Design Center, and its new library.

The new library is a building that Reigns feels especially strong about. Since it opened he has already organized several readings there, including a tribute to Ray Bradbury in 2012. The first time he walked in he says, "I got teary eyed. The building really is an architectural feat but for me, as a lover of the literary arts, I was moved that I lived in a city that valued the written word enough to make such a massive investment."

Reigns lives in the Norma Triangle neighborhood of the city. He notes the ongoing literary tradition in the area. "Dorothy Parker's last residency in West Hollywood is a block from my home," he says. "Best-selling mystery writer who penned the only ongoing mystery series set in West Hollywood, John Morgan Wilson, is on my street. Television writer Larry Kase is around the corner, Book Soup is up the street, the library is three blocks away, and when I moved in A Different Light [Bookstore] was still open."

Courtesy of Steven Reigns
Courtesy of Steven Reigns

Reigns has lived in West Hollywood since 2005. When the city announced the call for an official Poet Laureate, it was a no brainer for Reigns to apply because he's been writing fervently for three decades since his childhood in St. Louis. Furthermore, for several years now he has been teaching an autobiographical poetry workshop for seniors at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, titled "My Life is Poetry." Reigns' workshop has been so successful that it has catalyzed both a poetry anthology and forthcoming documentary film, both with the same name as his workshop.

Reigns has also been honored in the past for his workshops with a few grants awarded by Poets & Writers Magazine. Cheryl Klein, the former Los Angeles Director for Poets & Writers, says, "Besides being a courageous, open-hearted, and accomplished poet, Steven Reigns is one of the most impressive teachers I've witnessed. He makes it look easy, which anyone who has taught knows it is not. He introduces complex ideas via poems he loves, and he makes them personal and visceral for his audience. He's so passionate and enthusiastic that it's contagious, and he respects people from all walks of life. I suspect he's a member of a tribe that believes reading saves lives, because it has saved our own. Those things make him a perfect City Poet for a city known for its edge, humor and compassion."

Reigns has been teaching poetry workshops since 2001 and has also led many writing workshops for people with HIV. After years of teaching poetry and community service in the literary arts, Reigns is eager to begin his two year term as Weho's City Poet. Terry Wolverton, founder of Writers at Work and one of the most active Angeleno poets of the last four decades, says, "Steven is a great person to be the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. He's not only concentrated on his own poetry, but has provided insightful instruction in the community and, in doing so, has changed people's lives."

He's been able to change people's lives because he first used poetry to help himself during his youth. Reigns says that in the midst of a tumultuous childhood, he "found solace in reading and writing poetry." He adds, "My early poetry allowed me to express what was going on and helped me make sense of an uncomfortable and confusing time." He is a big believer in the healing force of poetry and the power it wields with minimal words. "I think poetry is the language of our emotions," he shares. "It is the reason non-identified poets pen poetry when upset or in love. Good poetry doesn't tell you want to feel it moves you into feeling."

He wants to share this spirit with the residents of West Hollywood. "I want to create events and opportunities for residents to encounter and engage with poetry," he says. "I believe our lives are naturally poetic, and in the right environment people are able to craft their experiences into poetry." He plans to introduce and encourage this process with all of the city's residents.

Stolen & Forbidden, in which gay men read from work they were forbidden to read, was presented by Steven Reigns and the City of West Hollywood, 2013 | Photo: John D'Amico/Flickr/Creative Commons

He has already thought of several events he plans to organize and produce. To begin he says, "I intend on having several free poetry writing workshops. One of the first I would like to facilitate would utilize poetry written in Russian, along with the English translations, of some well-known Russian poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva." He hopes to have this workshop held at Plummer Park, where the West Hollywood Russian community gathers.

Reigns also has had close ties with many of Southern California's most distinguished poets. Wanda Coleman wrote a blurb for his book "Inheritance." He also says, "Our first Los Angeles poet laureate Eloise Klein Healy helped me polish "Inheritance" into the collection I wanted it to be. Amy Gerstler has been generous with supportive suggestions and advice. Terry Wolverton even let me teach workshops at her Writers At Work space." Whether it's his own published work or the workshops he teaches, Reigns is deeply connected to the Southern California literary scene.

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Among the hundreds of poems he has written over the years, one of the best known is his tribute piece "Morning, West Hollywood." The poem goes line by line naming the city's famous sites, streets and neighborhood specifics. For example, "Light arcs over bakeries and grocers/selling babka, bagels, baba ghanoush. /Signs reveal another alphabet,/a melting pot of generations and cultures." He includes them all and never misses a beat. The last four lines of the piece punctuate his sentiments about the city:

As this poem demonstrates, Reigns likes to write poetry that means something to everyone. He says, "I have an academic training in poetry but refrain from any poetic pomposity that would alienate readers. My work is highly accessible and creates inclusion. I want to continually add people into the fold." The Mayor of West Hollywood John D'Amico, recently said at the City Council meeting "Big congratulations to Steven Reigns, an amazing poet and a terrific talent. Thank you for delivering to us yet another great level of culture and meaning to this city." Steven Reigns and West Hollywood form a perfect mutual admiration society.

West Hollywood has always been a progressive city, so it is truly fitting that its first official City Poet is equally forward. Salute to West Hollywood and Steven Reigns for their groundbreaking contribution and transformational energy in the geography of L.A. Letters.

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