Friday, October 8, 2010

The Dialogue Continues: A Review

A few months ago, I wrote a review of the fantastic anthology titled Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark and David Groff. What I loved so much about that book was all the writers it exposed me to that I wanted to read more about. The anthology contained useful bios of each poet that I carefully read looking for other books to buy. One of those books I bought is titled Unending Dialogue: Voices From an AIDS Poetry Workshop edited by Rachel Hadas. I have spent the last week or so reading this book and thinking about the idea of dialogue, but also of poetry workshops.

What is unique about this book is that it is work that came out of a workshop that Rachel Hadas conducted weekly at the Gay Men's Health Crisis building in New York City during 1989 and 1990. These were difficult years for GMHC as the AIDS crisis was in full swing. Her workshop often only consisted of a few men, but powerful work was produced. She writes a lovely introductory essay about her experience. I found this very interesting because of all the time I've spent in workshops and then my own experiences as a teacher trying to lead one. It is challenging especially when faced with a room of men who are facing their own deaths.

This book really gives strength to the idea of a workshop. For many, poetry is a very solitary act. A workshop, however, is a coming together and a sharing. Hadas says a lot of actual writing was done in the workshop as well as a lot of reading. She explains how many of the lines and ideas were shared amongst the men, which really shows the power of collaboration. I've been toying with the idea of starting a workshop here in Orlando geared toward GLBT writers and this book really pushed that idea to the front of my mind. This book also expresses the power of poetry to help examine difficult and confusing topics like the AIDS crisis.

After Hadas's essay, there is a section of poems by the men in the group. They range in perspective, but all feel very raw and to the point. These are poems written in the moment that help continue a dialogue that is still happening today. AIDS is still very much present in our society and world. Yes, we have better treatments and AIDS is not the life sentence it once was, but we still have a long way to go. These poems give a sense of where we have been and the wonderful people we have lost. In many ways, it is hard to put myself into those moments in the 80s and early 90s when so many men were dying. These poems help give me a glimpse into that fear and confusion that must have been everywhere. And because this is a collection written during a workshop, I can't help but think of those men gathered around a table talking about poetry and finding a voice in it. Part of me longs to be in that room with them.

The second half of the book, however, falls a little short. After the section of work by the men, Hadas includes poems she wrote during the workshop along with commentary about each one. Reading this last section confirmed my belief that poets shouldn't speak too much about their own work. By giving such lengthy commentary on her own poems, she devalues them and narrows their power. The great thing about literature is the connections and ideas you, as the reader, can pull from it. I found myself less engaged in her poems, because I knew she was going to explain the hell out of them on the next page. I believe that the intent or idea the poet had for a poem doesn't really matter that much after the poem has entered the world. It no longer belongs to the poet. She did include some interesting insights into how these poems developed from her workshop experience and her connection to these men, many of whom died while the workshop was still going on, but the commentary felt overworked and unnecessary. I don't say this out of hate, because I admire her attempt and the work she did in this workshop, but as a part of this book it doesn't work that well.

In the end, the book was well worth the read. I do recommend checking it out, if you can find it. I bought my copy used on Amazon. It is no longer in print, which is why the new anthology Persistent Voices is so important. It takes so many of these "lost" voices and gives them a second chance to speak. These books encourage dialogue and discussion and the use of poetry to do both. We must not forgot those we have lost, nor can we ignore the current dialogue that is happening all around us.

-Stephen (Unending)

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