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)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Smart Ride: A Reflection

Last week, I completed The Smart Ride, which was a 165 mile charity bike ride from Miami to Key West. The event raised money for HIV/AIDS. My partner and I decided to do the ride months ago and officially signed up in June. Knowing this was going to be challenging, we prepared ourselves. We joined a gym in May. We went to lots of spinning classes and rode our bikes many weekends on a bike trail here in Orlando. We also had to heavily promote and ask for money. Each rider was required to raise at least $1250, which was daunting.

I decided to do this ride for a couple of reasons. I deeply care about the cause and thought this would be a great way to raise a lot of money and to bring more awareness to the issue. I also thought it would be fun. If you are going to ride your bike a long distance, it might as well be somewhere pretty like the road to Key West. But honestly, the biggest reason I decided to do this ride was to push myself physically. A few months ago I wrote a blog post about my fears of the gym. I've never felt adequate when it comes to athletics. Doing this ride was about proving to myself that I could do it.

When we arrived in Miami on Thursday of last week, I was terrified. I knew I had prepared, but I also knew I could have done more. Everything I had set into motion months ago was finally coming to ahead and I had no choice but to do it. There was no backing out.

On Friday morning, we arrived at the ride-out spot. Everyone seemed calmer than me, but I'm sure that's just my perception. The great thing about this ride is that it brings a wide range of people together. Some are very serious cyclists. Others are first timers. Others are there mostly because of the cause. There is a big age range. Gay people. Straight people, etc.

We lined our bikes up for the big group ride out, which was a little scary. Nearly 400 riders pedaling close together is asking for trouble. We took it slow and soon enough everyone spread out. As the group got more spread out, I quickly began to relax and sink into what I had practiced. It was pretty easy going for the first thirty miles, but then some strong wind came through, making it a lot harder. At this point I began to doubt myself and question why I would have ever signed up to do this kind of thing.

That's about the time the rain started. I had prepared for a lot of things, but not for rain. This was one of my lowest moments on the ride. There I was 40 some miles out of Miami on a bike in pouring rain and I was cursing everything and everyone, but I kept pedaling. The thing is, you don't have a lot of choice. The rain is coming down and the only way to get out of the rain is to ride out of it.

We eventually did and made it to the lunch pit stop (53 miles into the ride). At lunch, I wanted to quit. I was wet. The hot sun was back out. All there was to eat was a veggie burger that I had no interest in. There was a man beside me talking about peeing on himself while riding. I was pretty miserable. I also knew we had almost 50 miles to go before the day would be over. I really wanted to give up.

It would have been easy to give up, but something wouldn't let me do it. In some ways, I wouldn't let the full thought go through my head. Also, if I just made myself get back on the bike, it was done. I was moving again. Miles were being crossed off, because in a ride like this everything is about miles. One more down. Ten more to the next pit stop. 115 until the end of the two day ride.

After lunch, my energy was super low. I'm not good at eating in the heat, which makes doing things like this hard. I had to basically force myself to eat. As we rode on, I got slower and slower and thankfully my partner stuck with me. It's funny, you think doing a ride with 300 to 400 riders would mean you see people all the time, but you actually don't. There were many times I could only see Dustin and he could only see me.

About halfway to the first pit stop after lunch, I had to stop along the road. I was feeling completely overwhelmed. It really is the only way to describe the feeling. I felt constantly on the verge of tears and I couldn't fully place my emotions. It was there, 60 some miles into the ride, that I felt I needed a break. Thankfully, the ride was very well organized and they had a great motorcycle crew who basically kept track of all the riders. At this point, we were in the last 20 or 30 riders due to my slowing down. Soon enough, one of the motorcycle guys was there asking if we needed any help. Throughout the ride, they provide what they call "SAG" vehicles. They will pick you up and take you to the next pit stop or wherever you feel you need to go. I wasn't proud, but I got a "SAG" ride to the next pit stop, which was 9 miles. Dustin came with me. It gave me a chance to breathe and to reflect on what I'd done so far (oh and to sit in A/C).

When we got dropped off at the next pit stop, I had a decision to make. I could call it quits or I could finish the day (30 more miles). More than anything, I didn't want to disappoint myself, so I got back on that bike. Pain rushed through my ass, my shoulders ached, but I kept pedaling. The last 30 miles on day one were the hardest of the ride. I was exhausted. I was, honestly, an emotional wreck. Luckily, no one could see the tears in my eyes. When I rode into the resort we were staying the night in, I had never felt so overcome with relief and accomplishment. I technically only rode 91 miles on day one, but I didn't give up and that small ride in a truck for 9 miles, gave me the strength to do those last 30.

In Duck Key, we stayed the night at a beautiful resort called Hawk's Cay. We ate dinner, but skipped the evening entertainment in favor of bed. There in bed, I became overwhelmed by the fact that we had 65 miles to go the next day. My body ached. Plus, I guess I should mention, I was running a low grade fever the few days before the ride and during the ride, which wasn't helping. There in the arms of my man, I cried and let everything out (I'm honestly not a crier, which is why all this crying was freaking me out).

In the morning, after 12 hours of sleep, I moved through the motions of getting ready and told myself I'm doing it. I'm doing all 65 miles and I'm riding into Key West. Something clicked in my head. I wanted to do this ride to prove I could be athletic and do something physically challenging. I focused so much on the physical, but in reality it was the mental that was the problem. Yes, my body was sore, but I'd trained my legs exactly right. They could do it. They had the strength and were actually the things that hurt the least. I was sore from being hunched over a bike for seven hours, but that's going to happen to anyone. Physically, I had done it.

Those last 65 miles became about mind over matter. The most physically challenging thing I've ever tried to do, became the biggest mental challenge. I had to ignore the uncomfortable feelings in my ass, crotch, and back. I had to focus on getting done and completing the ride. I pulled through and rode all 65 miles and arrived in Key West feeling empowered.

In the end, when I was standing on the pier in Key West in a sea of bikes, I realized I had been part of something pretty amazing. I'd spent much of the ride focusing on myself, but there, with the sea air and all the faces of the riders, I saw the impact of what we'd all done. HIV/AIDS is something that nearly destroyed the gay community. I honestly can't imagine what it was like to be in a highly populated gay area in the 80s and early 90s. I can't imagine the fear, misunderstanding, and pain. Luckily, there's been huge improvements and it's not the death sentence it once was. It is, however, still scary and life-changing and people still need help and support. There in Key West, I was surrounded by others like me (younger and negative), but I was also there with positive men, men and women who had lost loved ones, and people who face HIV/AIDS every day in some capacity.

This year's Smart Ride raised $675, 724, which is just amazing. All of that money goes to six local HIV/AIDS organizations in the state of Florida. I raised $1575 myself and I'm thankful to all who donated.

If you had asked me during the ride would I ever do this again, I would have said no. A day or two after the ride, walking the streets of Key West with Dustin, I realized I would do it again. It changed me and pushed me in ways I didn't expect. It truly was a very emotional event for me and I'm so thankful to have done it. I'm also thankful that I have such an amazing partner who is always willing to do new things with me. We will both be back for another one someday.

-Stephen (Smart)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Book Cover

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about my search for cover art for my upcoming first book of poems. For me, the process of deciding a cover was complicated and required a lot of time staring at images on my computer screen. In the post, I mentioned how lucky I am to be working with a press that gave me final approval on the cover. They were great to work with and very willing to listen to my ideas and my criticism of the various covers placed before me.

In some ways, I had a clear image in my head that I was having difficulty communicating. I wanted something a little edgy and a little unsettling. I also quickly found myself drawn to using a mouth on the cover. The title of the book has "voices" in it and the idea of having an image that showcased the mouth more prominently than anything else struck me as the right move.

The final result is the image to the right and I'm very pleased with how it turned out. This is my first book of poems and it's very personal to me and this image feels just right for these poems. Of course, I'm sure some won't like it. It's sort of like naming your child. Everyone has an opinion about the name you selected, but I'm happy with my choice.

I thought I would officially release the image here, before people saw it on promotional materials. Today marks the four month countdown to the release of He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I can't wait for you all to read it.

-Stephen (Cover)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Business of Poetry

The word business has a lot of negative connotations that comes with it. Often one thinks of big business, of underpaid workers and CEOs with private jets, and of greedy men in suits. In some ways, this is fair and understandable. This is typically why many hate to use the word "business" when it comes to the arts.

This has been on my mind a lot recently as I prepare for the launch of my first book of poems in March. Poets like many other artists are often afraid of the word business. There is a concept that if you make money or become successful that you've somehow sold out and that to be a true artist you must suffer.

In the poetry word, the idea of success is a little different. It's very difficult to make lots of money as a poet, so you might think this idea wouldn't be such an issue, but to some it is. The other day on my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a poet post that another poet had contacted him saying he should stop promoting his book on Facebook so much, because it looked desperate.

There seems to be a school of thought that says if you are poet you should do nothing to promote yourself and should just sit and wait as if magically people will flock to you. Perhaps this is why so many poetry presses are so bad at marketing books. Is it an elitist thing? Is it laziness? Is it some internal honor that I don't have or understand?

Why is promoting your work and gaining more readers negative or desperate? Poetry books aren't that easy to come by and many people don't know what's out there, if you don't tell them. Social networking has made it so easy for writers of all kinds to promote their work. I post all the time about magazines or journals that I've been published in and I encourage people to buy copies. I'll be doing the same with my book. It's also the reason to do poetry readings. Is it desperate to want a few people to buy your book and to maybe make a few bucks?

This isn't something new facing writers today. Poets used to be paid by kings and queens and other wealthy people to entertain them. 19th century novelists often had their work serialized and were paid by the word, which is why many of those novels are so long. Yet, we hold many of these writers in high esteem. Why should it be any different for writers today? It seems some are holding writers and artists to standards that perhaps never really existed.

There is a business side to being a published writer and it doesn't have to be a negative business. Some writers/artists want to place themselves above this concept of business. That is fine, but you probably won't ever get your work out there. I write because I love it, but I also write because I want to share my work with others and to do that I have to focus on the business side from time to time.

In the last three years, I've gotten a lot of poems accepted for publication and the primary reason for that is that I've spent a lot of time researching places to submit and doing submissions. This is part of being a published writer. Is it fun? Most of the time, no. Does it take a lot of time? Yes. Submissions is part of the business. You can't just sit in your apartment and wait for someone to magically find your poem on your hard-drive and want to publish it.

Being proud of your work and promoting it, doesn't make you any less of a writer. When my book comes out, you can count on me to be posting and promoting about it as much as I can. I owe that to myself and to my publisher. Don't fear, I'm a long way from a private jet or even a nice suit.

-Stephen (Busy)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It's November!

It is hard to believe that 2011 is heading to its close. It is already November and while I absolutely love October and Halloween (as you can see from the picture), I've always had a soft spot for November. This is probably because it is my birth month and who doesn't like a month where you can make people be nice to you and buy you things and eat cake?

This November is special because it is not only my birthday, but I'm also about to complete a huge challenge that I set myself up for a few months ago. Last summer, Dustin and I decided to register for the Smart Ride, which is a 165 mile bike ride from Miami to Key West. It raises money for those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. The ride is November 18th and 19th.

It is one thing to sign up for a ride and another to properly prepare for it. I have to say I am very pleased with Dustin and myself. We've being seriously preparing and working hard and we have both raised the required $1250.00. I am still taking donations. I would love to get to $1500.00 and I have about $150 to go. If you would like to help out, you can donate by going to this link.

Completing this ride means a lot to me. This is a cause I truly care about and the ride also represents a personal challenge to myself. I've never been a big athletic person, so doing this ride has made me go outside my comfort zone, which is something we all need to do sometimes. It's been a rewarding experience so far and I can't want to actually do the ride.

I do have a pretty good reward at the end. We will be staying in Key West for a few days and will be there on my birthday. This year I turn 29 and I honestly can't wait for the next year of my life. I have a lot of big plans and goals and I want to make my last year of my 20s the best one yet.

Here's to a great November!

-Stephen (28 going on 29)