As part of our marking of the 35th anniversary of the recognition of the AIDS epidemic, TheBody.com interviewed Michael Broder, a long-time survivor of HIV and a poet who founded HIV Here & Now, which uses literary arts to advocate for a world without HIV.
HIV Here & Now posted a new piece of poetry each day leading up to the anniversary date. TheBody.com invited Broder to curate a selection of poems from the year-long effort, explaining his choice of each piece. Together, the collection presents a broad scope of perspectives and approaches to communicating about HIV through the power of poetry:
This first one is one of the final poems in the countdown (June 2). I don't require poets to tell me their HIV status or anything related to their experience with HIV. I let the poems speak for themselves. But I do ask for author photos, and so I have some information about race, ethnicity, age, etc. I like the fact that this is a poem about living with HIV by a young white woman. Of course, we cannot be sure, unless the poet tells, that the poem is autobiographical. But nevertheless, we have that perspective being shared in the poem.
By J.M. Templet
I sit across from ghosts
at a folding card table
in the basement of
Our Lady of Perpetual Redemption
I wonder at women saints
I've read about
some dying in flame or war
their intellect too beautiful
hiding under those black robes
I want to write a torrid romance
saints must have such terrible guilt
over sex or fantasy
more than shame, more than hate
such purity it must be
Penny, the ghost on my left
is calling herself Penelope today
she thinks if she keeps
changing her name we might
forget her hollow eyes
her hollow necklace of collar bones
she smokes cigarettes attached
to long pipes like in silent films
Rob, our group leader
is too scared to tell her to stop
smoke is not allowed here
we might get cancer
last time he told her that
she leaned over
blew smoke in his mouth
with her black lips missing teeth
she said he kissed like a fish
all trout and no claw
Rob asks me about coping
about hope and inspiration
I'm supposed to talk about God
I'm supposed to ignore
the cross and the man nailed to it
such a symbol to admire
we, the cursed, should be saints
our suffering tears collected
for blessings faith healings seed money
I tell him I'm writing an autobiography
when it is turned into a screenplay
I want Liv Tyler to play me
the young me
without the weak left leg
almost yellow right eye
hitch walk, cave belly
without the bruised lips
arms tattooed with needle marks
blood drawn blood given
garbage in garbage out
we hold hands
our arms an unwilling
Rob barely grips Penny's
he knows he can't catch it
his letters are not H nor I nor V
his letters are in that brown book
frayed at the edges
he carries close to his chest
This next poem is by a transgender women of color who has worked tirelessly for years advocating for marginalized communities: transwomen of color and people with HIV and AIDS. I come from the world of poetry workshops and graduate programs and poetry journals and presses and poetry as a business (what we poets call "pobiz"). I value this poem because it does not come from that world. I value this poem for its direct and honest expression of personal experience.
By Tela L. Love
Yes. I've been the hurt one, sad confused and afraid.
Believing for my promiscuities; for my insecurities; for my impurities there was a price to be paid.
I've lain down with the wrong man and arose to find I now carry a deadly strand taking the form of HIV inside of me.
What do I do now? I've lost my will to live.
That's what I first thought when I tested positive.
I fought with myself.
With my emotions I did wrestle with how this virus somehow crept into my vessel.
I cried constantly using drugs to cope.
My dealer became my doctor; he kept me supplied with dope.
I ran from the truth, destroyed any proof, I had HIV unknowing it was the truth I needed to set me free.
With no one to blame for this mind numbing pain, I isolated as I contemplated ways to die.
Tired of suffering and living this lie.
In public I wore baggy clothes and a hood covered my head.
There was a vacancy in my eyes while I roamed as the walking dead.
Then one day I fell to my knees and belted out a cry.
Why Lord why?
The Great Spirit said, "Hold on, be strong. I'm not ready for you to come home.
You were living recklessly and we're running out of time.
You were moving much too fast and I need you back in line.
I'm preparing you to do things you never thought you would. Just know, My Child, all things are working together for your good."
So today I don't blame the man whom I thought for certain held my life in his hand.
Cause truth be told; he broke no law.
It was my decision to let him to enter me raw.
Today I say:
Protect yourself, don't infect yourself.
Protect yourself, don't disrespect yourself.
Protect yourself, don't neglect yourself!
Because in 2016, If you fall weak to temptation and give in to lust ...
Please remember to play it safe and wrap it up.
This next poet is Filipino and now lives in Australia. I appreciate that ethnic and geographic perspective that is so different from what many of us in the U.S. are used to -- what we think of when we think of HIV. I also love that it is a poem about letting in pain and maybe even needing to let in pain in order to let in love.
By Ramon Loyola
Do not touch me there. There was someone who
reveled in my skin, but he's long gone since
the sins of the fathers permeated
my own veins, my blood, the very essence
of living the life I had not foreseen.
Touch me here, where it hurts like no other,
where the mere flutter of kisses linger
on my neck, reminding me of letters
never sent, of souvenirs I never
took from places I had never been to.
Do not touch me there, where the wound sits raw,
invisible, unseen and unwelcomed.
To feel it with fingers, with tongue, with skin,
is to memorize its face, acknowledge
its inanity, its absurdity.
Touch me here, where my heart sits quietly
in submission to love and only love.
There is no pain here, no judgment or strife.
The wound does not hurt; it is just as strong
as the desire to touch another's skin.
Jacob [the next poet] exemplifies the diversity of experience I was looking for. He grew up on Santa Monica Boulevard in LA and Polk Street in San Francisco. He was involved with drugs and sex work, among other harsh realities of life. But he also did HIV prevention outreach to teens with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Without going into personal detail, let me assure you, he is still living the hard-knock life but also still writing and painting and working towards a future when he can focus on his creativity and his contributions to society.
By Jacob Hardt
Sometimes I wonder if heaven can hear me
I whisper my prayers into the sky, breathe the silence
await the word, but the only sound is something like
raindrops, divine tears touching everyone
everywhere sadness echoes through the land,
hate claims the heavy air like an evil, bloody fog
nightmares fill my lungs and the same damned demons
carry me from dreams into the light of day I wake up screaming
Across the rivers of the wealthy your children are dying of thirst
A mutant plague threads a quilt stretching longer than the most ancient rivers
twisting, bending, winding around gnarled victims then crushing them like play dough
the shapes of the shamed shunned undesirable
I am trapped here wearing the 21st century scarlet letters
lost in this maze of places, faces, some sad
some angry or confused, most just gone mad
from fear of things that hurt enough to hide
frightened children beneath the urine stained stairwells, jail cells,
stuck inside these tenderloin hotels. Now I'm wired taut and stung and
here on these tar stained tire-treaded streets people lie in rows
piano wires waiting to be struck for song or glory everybody wants more
Across the river the town crier cries two a.m. and all is well
But he's another dope fiend! looking to heaven
and I wonder if god listens to prayers from the Tenderloin.
This final poem is by a member of the Youth Committee of CHIVA, the Children's HIV Association, a UK charity that works with children and young people perinatally infected with HIV. I love that is poem is by a person born with HIV, that it is filled with indignation and anger but also with hope and a sense of justice.
I smile with glee at the headlines
Cuba has successfully become the first country in the world to eradicate mother-child transmission
"Ah, no more like me"
Yet, my whole world comes tumbling down when ignorance spreads like wildfire through social media
Why do all of these people suddenly feel that they have the right to deny me a healthy family?
"Why are HIV+ people having babies?!?!"
Because I have the right to a family just as much as the next person
"Why would you put a baby in that risk?"
How far are you going to stretch this? Should people with predispositions to other illnesses be denied the right to a child too?
I grew up just like most little girls, dreaming of that dream relationship and the dream family with the dream house
And it breaks me to have to sit and watch all of these comments go by
Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.