Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Poetry of AIDS

I can't remember the first time I heard the word AIDS. It was probably on TV and I was probably around eight. Growing up in a smallish Midwest city, I was not faced with too many people willing to discuss the topic, but I do remember it being treated very carefully. No one spoke of AIDS like they did of cancer.

My childhood and teen years were filled with fragments of news stories involving AIDS. There was the one about the dentist who was possibly infecting patients. There were the rumors of people putting infected HIV needles in movie theater seats. Then of course there was the story of Ryan White who lived about an hour or two from where I grew up in Indiana. All I really knew was that AIDS was something to fear.

The first time I heard about World AIDS Day was in the church I attended with my family as a teenager. I remember one year in the late 1990s when one of our pastors gave a sermon discussing the AIDS crisis. It was right around and even possibly right on World AIDS Day (December 1st). By this point, more people were comfortable discussing AIDS, but most conversations, at least in the Midwest, focused on the crisis in Africa.

World AIDS Day is a day to reflect on the lives lost and the lives changed by HIV/AIDS. It is also a day to recognize that this is a world problem, but to also look at our own communities. This is a special World AIDS Day for me. Almost two weeks ago, I completed the Smart Ride (see my previous blog post for details), which raises money for local HIV/AIDS organizations. I'm proud of what I've helped do and the money I raised, but I know there is much more that can be done.

I've known various people who are positive, but I've never been super close with them and I've never lost anyone to HIV/AIDS, yet it's been a cause that's weighed heavily on me and one I've cared a great deal for in my life so far. This has a lot to do with poetry.

Through poetry, I've experienced many aspects of the AIDS crisis. In fact, we owe a great deal to many of the gay poets who wrote down their experiences, their fears, their confusions, their insights, and their hopes. The AIDS crisis within the gay community is captured in the poetry of the 80s and 90s. These poems come from those infected and dying, those infected but surviving, and those witnessing it all. By reading these works by living and dead poets, I've been transported to a different time and place not that long ago, but so very different from my childhood and teenage years in Indiana. It's strange to think all of that was happening and I wasn't really aware. Of course, I didn't really know another gay person until I was 20 and gay people weren't really discussed much in my hometown, so it's no surprise.

In the last two years, I've been exploring the idea of poetry as documentation and the significance of using poetry to explore very real and very complicated situations. The AIDS poems I'm thinking of, do just that. These poems bring facts, but also faces to the issue. The gay community was one of the first groups of people widely infected, but they were also the first to stand up and put their faces with a disease everyone was terrified of and didn't understand. That's pretty brave.

These poems continue to help people understand what it means to face HIV/AIDS and how it has changed and not changed. I'm going to continue my efforts in the fight against HIV/AIDS and I'm going to keep reading.

Suggested Reading:
A Fast Life: The Collected Poems by Tim Dlugos, edited by David Trinidad
Unending Dialogue: Voices from an AIDS Poetry Workshop edited by Rachel Hadas
Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark and David Groff
Fire to Fire by Mark Doty
The Apprentice of Fever by Richard Tayson

-Stephen (no day but today)

1 comment:

  1. And while she wasn't gay, Tory Dent's "HIV, Mon Amour" should be on everyone's reading list.