New Responsibilities: Gay Men & the poetry of AIDS

About a week ago, Eduardo wrote this in his blog:

"Some people have critiqued me for writing these "AIDS" poems. They want me to engage with the subject on a more personal level. But I can't. AIDS is like 911 for me: a trauma too recent to even approach in my work. I came of age as a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The mid-to-late 80s. After I kissed a man for the first time, I spent the rest of the day scanning my skin, looking for purple patches of KS. I remember spending hours in high school touching my lymph nodes to make sure they weren't swollen.... For me, the pleasures of the flesh will always be intertwined with death. Paging a therapist."

I remember, as a child, hearing reports of gay cancer on the news. In high school, all sex ed talks were focused on preventing HIV transmission. It's something we live with every day. And maybe it's because of the "false safety" of the late 90s—when many young queer men returned to unsafe sex practices because they thought the epidemic was over—that poets need to continue writing the disease. It's not over for us.

What's probably the most unfortunate part of this whole post is that more heterosexual people don't write about AIDS, or don't think about writing about AIDS, or don't ask themselves why they don't write about AIDS. Or why we clearly believe AIDS is an American homosexual disease when it is clearly spreading like wildfire across Africa.

I, too, have written poems that touch on AIDS, and they are peppered throughout my ms. But my poems don't address the experience of having AIDS, and I don't think Eduardo's do either. I don't know what it's like to have AIDS, but I sure know how it feels to believe, and to fear, deep down, beyond all doubt, that I have AIDS and will die. The HIV test, although we know now that it belongs to everyone, is an intricately queer experience—a responsibility we have to ourselves and to each other, to our community.

I believe this young generation of gay male poets must continue to write AIDS poetry, but for us, it's a different disease. For the previous generation, AIDS was faceless, could come from anywhere, took anyone without discrimination. For us, AIDS has a face—and our biggest fear is that it will be our own. It isn't just a disease anymore—it permeates our relationships, our conversations, our thoughts, our concerns. We ask new partners, Have you been tested? because we have to and always have had to. It isn't an adaptation we've made to our lifestyle. It is our lifestyle.

You can see the effect AIDS had on the poetry of the 80s—how suddenly, it carves itself in to the poetic consciousness, fracturing queer poetry. You can read people like Tim Dlugos migrate from nonchalant, arrogant poems about how cute he is to eulogizing his own life, slowly confronting his own life and death. And Aaron Surin writing ethereal, intangible pieces about male bodies because maybe the male body can never be touched again. There's a sense of slipping under, being taken by a wave...


  1. Charles,
    What a beautiful post. What really got me is that, when I read Eduardo's post, I asked myself the AIDS question: why does my poetry pretend it's not there? I'm still staring into the bottomless void for an answer. I suppose it has simply been negligence. For me, the AIDS test is not unknown (I've had a few), but it is just something that has never offered itself up to my writing.
    That fear and uncertainty are certainly familiar to me, and I have read and appreciated all of Eduardo's AIDS poems (the first is my favorite), but I have just never let meyself really look at the problem - treating it like some kind of Medusa that will turn me to stone. I feel culpable because of my irresponsibility in dealing with it: how has this problem faded into the mundane backdrop of Americans' everyday lives?
    As a heterosexual, it is just as much my problem as anyone else's, yet I have taken no measures toward acknowleding this in my work. I thank you for opening my eyes to a glaring hole (I'm sure there are many) in my work. So, thank you Charles. I hope you are having a wonderful Thanksgiving. Best, Ryan
    P.S. Thank you also for your comments back at my blog.

  2. I think the absence of the body and body awareness in works by major male American poets has always puzzled me.

    Thom Gunn's The Man with Night Sweats is a work (that does work in this vein) that really opened up contemporary poetry for me.