A Forced Life

S.K. Duff

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

Wendell Barry

In January 1990, I wrote an essay to support an exhibition I had curated entitled Life Before Art: Images from the Age of AIDS. It opened, "We are currently living in 'The Age of AIDS,' where our own mortality and that of our planet (as we know it) suddenly seems all too precious, and our very existence is the ultimate 'instant' or 'disposable.' While obviously a personal issue facing many members of the art(isitic) community, several artists have embarked on whole bodies of work relating to the complexities of our time and our common mortality."

At that time, I was HIV-negative, but like many, I was living a wide range of ripple effects of the disease, extending from the losses of friends and colleagues to how AIDS had affected my own personal sexual practices. What I wrote in reflection of the epidemic and its effects on the art world could easily translate to the literary world as well.

A Private Poet

Personally, I see AIDS as the catalyst for the seriousness with which I pursue my own writing. As a performance artist turned painter, I had always written, but considered my poetry to be a private and intimate affair. Before the now public world of poetry slams and performance poets, I considered my poetry to be of a personal nature, much like the writings of Emily Dickinson.

Within my personal history, in the summer of 1993 I met my lover -- life, and constant sparring, partner. In January of '94 we were both tested, with the assumption that we'd clear the air of any doubt and question, which would enable us to engage in a life together of unprotected sex. We both felt we would be negative. When our results came back, my partner went in to meet with the counselor first and came out joyously proclaiming his negativity. The counselor suggested I come into his office with my mate. I, of course, was told I was positive. I couldn't stop shaking. My hands fluttered uncontrollably, like Kathryn Hepburn's riddled with Parkinson's. That night I wrote:


It is these
institutional green walls
I hate most
realizing that this is
the color
of the rest of my life.

I went to work the next day, fearing that if I stayed home feeling sorry for myself I'd never return to the world at large, but would buckle under in my bed, subordinate to the fear engulfing me. For the following weeks into months, my poetry moved to the forefront over my painting, curating, and performance. It became the sole outlet for my anger, grief, confusion, and fear. In short, my writing had become robustly therapeutic. Thus I faced work, and wrote feverishly during my commutes, on lunch breaks, etc.

Months later I was to return to my home of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for an exhibition and performance related to my having been sexually abused (by a neighbor) as a child. This was a recent discovery in therapy, and one that allowed me to let my new mate in and build a substantial relationship, unlike anything I had engaged in until then. I did exhibit the selected paintings, but changed my performance to Unwilling Voyeur, a haunting, almost churchlike ritual paying homage to those lost to AIDS. It was the first time I relied almost solely on my poetry as text in a performance.

A Public Poet

At the time, my partner was virtually the only one I shared my writing with, and he claimed to be impressed (and sometimes threatened creatively) by the power of my words. As artist Lesley Dill once stated, "Facing one's mortality is the same as facing one's true self in a compression of time." To look at the self clearly and honestly, with a raw sense of urgency, can be quite overwhelming! My lover encouraged me to begin reading publicly. Although I had some limited publishing experience in journals like The James White Review, I had never read publicly without dressing my words with accompanying visual, musical, and theatrical elements. My partner took me to my first open mike night at a Rutgers coffee bar, and that was the beginning of my trusting my poetry as a stand-alone entity.

I then attended Outwrite: The Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Writers' Conference, where I took part in a panel on "Poetry and Tradition." My subject was how I felt AIDS was affecting the literary world and playing heavily into the traditional subjects of poetry, those of love and loss. I joined Scott Hightower's poetry workshop at Gay Men's Health Crisis (a continuation of a program initiated by Rachel Hadas).

I have always felt that my connections with Hightower and Walter Holland as workshop facilitators were something special, as were those with my peers in the group--Stephen Cordova, Ron Drummond, Jon Nalley, and others. One night while "the group" was reading at an East Village coffeehouse, someone said that he should have brought his camera. I asked why, and he said, "Because something special is happening here--something bigger than each of you individually, and someone should be documenting it."

With this built-in support and fellowship within the group, I felt we were forging a place for something similar to the Violet Quill, a group of gay fiction writers during the 1970s who wrote in spite of their oppression to define our loves, hopes, and dreams in their novels and short stories. With the Clinton years, and advancements in public perception of gays and lesbians, PWAs still remain(ed) hidden and fearful, in short returning to the closets and margins of a generation of writers proceeding us. Thus, perhaps we are a new "Violet Hyperemic" if you will, giving voice to gay poetry in light (perhaps in spite) of being outsiders in the world at large, and insiders engulfed within the day-to-day of an epidemic.

A Published Poet

I started sending out poems to predominately gay presses, and Christopher Street magazine decided to run a group of seven of my longer poems as a feature in April of '95. According to the editor, this was something that was rarely if ever done. In fact, the last such episode she could remember involved the printing of a suite of poems by Tennessee Williams. Ego-stroked, I became more confident about where I would submit work or read publicly, and I began to approach more conventional literary journals. Much to my surprise, after about five years I now have over seventy poems in print in a wide range of magazines and journals. My illness had forced me to address my creative life right now, not later!

With no time to waste, shortly after diagnosis my partner and I moved in together. A few years later we had a commitment ceremony at a Unitarian church, and at the beginning of our seventh year together, we jointly purchased a house. I have now written two complete volumes of poetry. The first, a finalist in a number of first-book contests (but yet to be published), is titled Concealed in the Hand, and the second, with working titles Travelogues of the Misbegotten or Holding on to the Beauty We Have, is now in the works.

The first volume weighs in heavily on my presumed loss; it is a hypnotically grief-stricken manuscript. Now, with the advent of protease inhibitors, my second volumes deals more with how beautiful this world can be in light of something like AIDS, forcing me to look at and address every moment for its beauty and merit. In reality, the pair would make a handsome, pseudo--before-and-after two-volume set.

Last summer I became very ill, my viral load shot into a frightening range, and I began taking "the cocktail." My doctor and I were waiting until the right moment, knowing more advanced medicines were on the way. I suffered serious side effects with my regimen and felt as if I had begun the downhill spiral.

Now I am one of the lucky ones; my viral load is undetectable and life goes on. This new shift has further sparked my writing. In addition to the poetry, I am about eighty pages into the creation of a book of humor. I think I might like to try stand-up next, and my current project, Bitch Rants at the Crossroads of a New Millennium: A Pseudo-Hysterical Memoir, is the latest product of my body's shift in "numbers."

Yet the heart of me, my core, remains my poetry. Words filled with hope. I feel that many creative people go through a number of shifts, cycles, and often-varied media to find where their voices are the strongest. As a painter, my poems are very visual and heavily collaged. My method of writing is much like my painting in that it is initially overpainted, then stripped back to a stronger sense of precision. At this time, I view my poetry as much more than therapeutic, but wholeheartedly believe that it was my diagnosis that forced me to find my truest voice sooner than later. Part of truly living is accepting that we are never complete and always growing. As my creative and personal life continues to evolve, so does my language. As Jonathan Larkin so aptly put it in my all-time favorite musical, Rent, there's "no day but today." HIV has given me a voice, but it is hope that gives my poems their song.

S.K. Duff's poems have appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Chelsea, The Ledge, Minnesota Review, Art & Understanding, Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Global City Review, and Green Mountains Review. His writing is featured in the books American Poetry Confronts the 1990s, Voices of Courage and Healing, and When Life Mates Die: Stories of Love, Loss and Healing.


The paper whites on the living room floor
lay like Christina in the field,

having fallen off the Magnavox
in the night. Their lithe dancer bodies

must have swayed to the artificial illumination
of a midnight sun. Heavy heads

could not hold the weight of their own
desires, brought down by a streetlight,

in an attempt to pull from darkness.
We are all subject, often misguided by a deceitful

brightness. The allure of the metallic:
The flashing chrome of fast cars, the blush

of sparkling champagne, the pantomimed stars
on a blues singer's sequined gown. The diamond glitter

of fresh snow cannot cut stones, but melts
away under the slightest influence of warmth.

The stalks turned their backs from opaque walls,
"Queen-waving" emerald forearms, snapped and broke.

Crowns of white left paralyzed: spilled stars
of narcissus, extinguished meteors of hope.

S.K. Duff
Back to the April 2000 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.