Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS
Alyson Books, 2009
Edited by Philip Clark & David Groff
I was in my early twenties when the first cases of AIDS were identified and reported. The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan was president and his administration announced that there was nothing to be alarmed about since the virus—often referred to as “the gay plague” was not affecting “normal” people. ACT UP (the radical AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), with its infamous die-ins and other acts of civil disobedience, has yet to be born. The first-wave of the AIDS epidemic changed everything. The deaths came in twos and threes and fours. Then more. A friend of mine crossed out almost his entire address book. Communities were decimated.
Twenty five years later, the memories of those lost are not so much forgotten but subsumed – in the passage of time; in the new faces of the diseases, in the miracle of the drugs that came along and extended lives. When a friend told me about Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS, edited by Philip Clark & David Groff, and published recently by Alyson Books, I immediately picked up a copy and started reading. My memory took me back – to the writers whose names appear in these pages, some of whom I had the privilege of working with, and also to other gay men I knew who were lost to this epidemic.
The impetus for this collection was born when co-editor Philip Clark read the work of many of the poets in his gay and lesbian youth group when was in high school. When he later tried to find out more about the readings/appearancess – most of them either self-published or in small press editions – all he could find out was that they were dead. He was struck by the immensity of the first-wave of the AIDS epidemic and the fact that it had largely been ignored. Later, he met David Groff, the literary executor for Paul Monette, and the two of them set upon the task of becoming co-editors of this collection. The result is an honoring, a resurrection, of sorts, of the poetic voices that were lost to this epidemic and a remembering of an era.
Persistent Voices is a diverse collection of poetry by poets lost to AIDS – including poets of different races, genders, and sexuality. Included are the few who are widely known – such as Paul Monette, (the first openly gay writer to win the National Book Award, for his memoir Becoming a Man, published in 1992) and William Dickey (one of the most award-winning poets of his generation); the experimental – such as Joe Brainard, also an acclaimed visual artist and the originator of the “I remember” poem and surrealist writer and actress in John Water’s films, Cookie Mueller – to the perhaps lesser known, but none the less exquisite writers Walta Borawski, Essex Hemphill, Karl Tierney, and Tim Dlugos, among others.
The poems are a tapestry of experience – with many pieces have nothing to do with gay life or the AIDS epidemic and others reflecting on the losses experienced before the readings/appearancess lost their own lives. One notable poem on this theme is Daniel Diamond’s “His Face in Every Crowd” – beginning with “I see it when something happens/ to individuals they can’t fully/ comprehend./ …/ I saw it at Bloomingdale’s on the face of a woman/ who was caught shoplifting / and tried to talk her way/ out of it.//…/…/…/ and ends with “The same shocked terror/ I’d sometimes catch (only from the corner of my eyes/ when he thought I wasn’t looking) on Bob’s face./ The look our friends / withdrew from one by one. / That stupefaction!/ His own body/ giving way / to dissolution/ with him caught/ inside.
The poems in this collection are more than poems – they are the memory of the lives that were lost, the friends, the lovers, the sons, the daughters, the parents and all of the lives that they touched. The poems are also a reminder of the long empty silence inhabiting the space since the contributors died. Decades have passed, a lifetime for the contributors, and what does this mean for the rest of us, those who have gone on living without them?
This audio commentary was aired recently on This Way Out, the LGBT syndicated international radio program. Click here for audio.
Photos taken at a recent reading from Persistent Voices at Giovanni's Room Bookstore in Philadelphia