Michael Broder, a poet living with HIV, decided to start a blog featuring a range of poets' work, publishing a new piece each day in the year leading up to the June 5, 2016 anniversary of the first public recognition of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I spoke to him about his journey, the project and the ways that poetry can speak about HIV/AIDS in unique ways.
In addition, Broder has curated and commented on a set of poems from the project for TheBody.com, showing diverse perspectives, styles and approaches to HIV in poetic form.
You identify as a long-term survivor of HIV. Can you share your experiences of HIV in your own life?
I tested positive in October 1990. I was devastated, as I'm sure we pretty much all are at that moment. At the same time, I was very consciously certain that HIV was not going to kill me. I don't think the fact that I'm (so far) correct makes me special, maybe just a good guesser. I was maniacal about getting medical care, such as it was at the time, keeping my life "normal" and moving forward with work, relationships, creativity, etc. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared. But I stayed healthy, and it got to be 1996, and the rest is miraculous history -- voila, here I am. If I'm not mistaken, I was infected by my boyfriend when I demanded we have unprotected make-up sex. His lover had died of AIDS, but he always said he was negative -- which I for some reason believed completely at face value. He was also an active and pretty advanced alcoholic. Not too long after this all went down, I realized he probably had never even been tested. You know, the whole river in Egypt thing. During a hospitalization for alcohol poisoning, he did get tested, and he was positive -- but he assured me he did not blame me! I loved that guy. I cherish his memory. I've got his photo right here at my elbow right now. He cracked me up! What more could I ask for? I was a big boy; I knew how to make my own mistakes.
As you've gone through the past years of living with HIV, has your relationship to poetry been a consistent part of your HIV journey or has it changed over the years?
I started writing poetry late -- in poet years -- and not until after I tested positive, so HIV was always a factor in my poetry. Always fatalistic, loving life, loving men, never casting blame, just trying to express what it was like to live in this space that was at once very personal and very historical. That's how it was until just the last few years. Once I turned 50, and I published a short collection of oh-so-sweet-and-loving poems about living with HIV and losing the men I loved, some things changed. I got angrier. Not at myself or my boyfriend or the virus. I got angry at the resurgent regime of shame and stigma that was preventing us as a society from ending this fucking epidemic. And that started coming out in poems. Few of those poems have been published yet. I had a second book to publish of older work in that old cheerful, optimistic vein. But now I'm working on The Hotel Cumdump Notebooks, and I'm hoping the world sees a new Georgy Girl when those poems come out.
Does poetry allow us to talk about HIV differently than prose?
Yes. Poetry is more like music. You can write language that is fast or slow, soaring or sinking, wind chimes or a funeral dirge. You can start a poem innocently enough, go ironic somewhere in the middle, make a joke and then end on a devastating note. You can use language to represent ideas and emotions with a compression and impact that I think is difficult to accomplish in prose. And when prose does manage to do that, if it does, then it's really sort of lyric prose or prose poetry at that point. So it all comes back to poetry.
How did you come up with the HIV Here and Now project, and why did you give it that title?
I was part of a reading at the public library in Minneapolis in 2015 when a big annual writers' conference was there (AWP, if that means anything to anybody reading this). And I had some poems about long-term HIV survival, and I noticed that some other men did, too. And I thought, huh, this I have not heard before, not in quite this way. So many of us over 50, living with HIV for so long now -- this is something that's never really existed before. Maybe we need an anthology of this work. And then as I thought of it, I thought, no, not just long-term survivors over 50, but also the young and newly infected. Also the uninfected trying to stay that way or not trying to stay that way, or whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever -- there are so many possible relationships to HIV now. Here and now. That's the idea behind what was the title of a planned anthology; that is now the name of an ongoing project. The project is meant to be about this world in this moment. Specifically, more about what we are experiencing now, less about memorials and reminiscences of the past. I have to say, though, that has been a HUGE challenge. People, all sorts of people, seem to be so strongly invested in the past, in memorial, commemoration, taking account of their losses, keeping tallies. That's not what I wanted, but it's a lot of what I've gotten.
If you had a 60-second sound bite to describe HIV, in the here and now moment, what would you say?
HIV is not something from the past that we have made it through or come out the other side of. HIV is here and now. The epidemic is ongoing. And the people it is hitting hardest right now are people of color, specifically young, black, gay men and transgender women. We have the medical tools to end the epidemic in the next 20 years, but that isn't going to happen if we don't confront what is really going on, the sex people are having, the lives people are living, the tremendous challenges people are facing throughout all strata of society, but especially on the margins.
What captured your interest about this particular AIDS-related anniversary?
Frankly, I had the idea for the print poetry anthology, but then when I decided the online component would be helpful to raise awareness about the project, I needed something to hook it on, so I just ran through some dates in my head and realized we were approaching the 35th anniversary of AIDS. Not the coolest anniversary necessarily, not as good as 25 or 50, maybe; but still, you have to work with what you've got, right?
What have you learned from the contributors to HIV Here and Now from different generations, including different generations of people living with HIV?
Old farts such as me tend to be preoccupied with the loss of innocence, the loss of a "normal" life, the loss of everyone they ever loved, the little black address books filled with the names of friends and lovers who died of AIDS. Younger people -- well, for one thing, I've had trouble getting work from younger people who clearly and openly identify as HIV positive. I have some, but not as much as I wanted, and that's why even though the poem-a-day countdown ended on June 5, submissions to the print anthology are still open, and I'm making a special plea to poets of color, particularly black poets, particularly young, black, gay male and trans women poets -- or poets who can speak authentically and authoritatively from that perspective, regardless of their own HIV status. This project is supposed to be about HIV risk as much as about HIV infection, but again, I don't think I've ever been able to communicate that message effectively, or it's just not a message that a lot of people, specifically a lot of poets, want to speak to.
What came up in this project that surprised you?
The persistence of the past, of the memories and emotions from the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. Even in terms of long-term survivors -- for me, as a poet who is a long-term survivor, I want to write about now, the work I do now, the sex I have now, the life I live now. But so many poets, older poets like me, are writing about those loves and losses of 20 and 30 years ago. For so many, that experience was so defining, so definitive, it seems they either cannot move beyond it, or perhaps don't want to, or perhaps they had those poems in their back pockets, as it were, and thought this project was the place for them. I was also surprised by how many older white women sent me work, often allied health care professionals, who lost sons, sometimes lovers, often beloved friends, patients, clients, etc., during the 1980s and 90s. Also a number of young poets who were very affected by or influenced by an older gay male, often an uncle, who died of AIDS many years ago when these poets were children. All these different ways in which my idea of here and now sort of collapsed into there and then. How maybe there really is no distinction, or that distinction is difficult to maintain; how our past and our memories and the people who made an impression on us then cannot help but constitute our here and now. But I was also surprised by the extent to which we do not want to talk about the difficult issues, the present issues, the ways we are negotiating sex and HIV risk now -- here and now. I cannot help but believe there is much more to be said about how HIV is a factor, a specter, a presence in our lives here and now, and yet that material does not seem to be finding its way into poetry to the extent I thought it would, or else I'm just not doing a good enough job of getting at that work.
Now that the anniversary has passed, what is next for you and for HIV Here and Now?
I'm working on the HIV Here & Now print anthology. I would like to publish it is 2017, but more important than the publication date is that it include the right range of voices, so I'm still gathering submissions, this time with an emphasis on black writers, especially young black gay men (including trans men) and transgender women. HIV Here & Now is going to continue for the time being with an emphasis on blog posts by contributing editors (for whom I'm always on the lookout). Someday I would like HH&N to move into other media -- visual arts, dance, theatre, etc. And of course there's my own poetry: The Hotel Cumdump Notebooks have a long way to go.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.