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Your poem “Patient Zero” is written for Gaëtan Dugas. Can you tell me about him and what moved you to write a poem for him?
Gaëtan Dugas was hypothesized as being the “first” person with HIV—although that’s been debunked, it didn’t stop the media and medical community of the 80s and 90s from villifying him in sensational terms. They presented “Patient Zero” as a sadist hell-bent on spreading AIDS deliberately, having sex with partners without disclosing his positive status.
So, on the one hand, this poem is an attempt to reclaim that bit of history, to retell Dugas and give a narration that shows him as a human rather than a monster. Compassion.
More than that, though, this poem was composed as an invocation; this poem was and is an invitation to Dugas himself to write his story. He dictates throughout this poem—when I ask “come again,” the “come” obviously has double meanings, but it’s also the moment in the poem where his voice faded out. That’s a moment of transition, from transcribing his voice in my head to searching for it. He left, he’d said enough.
My life has been defined by death. Many people around me have died, from first lovers to mothers and fathers, and I think somehow this brings me closer to a spiritual or metaphysical plane where echoes from life occur. Can be heard. I wanted to use this proximity to that realm in a way that helped us understand even the most evil possible Dugas that might have existed. “Come again &again,” I tell him, “Tell them that truth.” It’s an angry reclamation: if I infected deliberately, maybe you should reconsider the rage behind that and feel compassion for it… not condemnation.
There is so much gravity in this poem; weight and movement threaded throughout. How do you see these aspects of the poem working? What kind of physical movement brings you sorrow/joy/fear/thrill?
As an image, gravity is post-AIDS worldviews. This poem shows Dugas and the rest of the world in a moment where, out of shock, that post-AIDS reality has been suspended. Of course, gravity returns.
Compositionally, though, I think weight and movement (their own sorts of gravity) informed how I received these lines. The beats in the first line struck me as a body pulling itself across the floor, grueling and laboriously, with a SMACK each time the body/beat ends. “Trace the perimeter [SMACK] of your face…”
At the time, I was going through an intense bout of mononucleosis that my doctor said was the worst she’d seen. It brought me closer to the heritage of HIV/AIDS and illness, as a gay man, but as a poet it brought me closer to the labor of movement… In the line and in the body
In what ways has an awareness (or lack thereof) oh HIV/AIDS affected your experience of being young and queer? What kind of misinformation do you feel you were fed as a child (if any) about HIV/AIDS and the queer community? What do you now know to be true?
I don’t remember being told much about HIV/AIDS as a kid growing up in the 90s. I think that is true for a lot of my generation—the first time we really began encountering information about it was, like, in MTV adverts; ie, we were already approaching sexual maturity. I’m not sure how things may have been different if it were otherwise… Maybe we wouldn’t have the sense of apathy I associate with my generation and HIV/AIDS. It’s just… not that big of a deal to most people, historically or creatively.
Do you feel that your poetry has political and/or social aims? If so, in what ways?
I aim to never have to aim.
What news outlets do you regularly read? Do you see them covering HIV/AIDS at all, and in what ways?
An old (and wise!) therapist told me to stop reading news if it was making me depressed, which it was. So, no, I hardly ever see news coverage about HIV/AIDS. However, even reading the cheerier publications I do subscribe to (like Fader or MTVNews) expose me to projects and artists who are working with HIV/AIDs-related material.
You write reviews and essay for Pitchfork: who are some of your favorite musicians/albums at the moment? In what ways does music soothe/excite/inflame/accompany you in your daily life?
Music saves me. Right now, NINA SIMONE has overtaken everything and everyone in my life. Her performance of “Four Women” and “Save Me” in this video—really this entire performance—from 1969 in Antibes gives me life, gives me spring 2016.
A short playlist of recent faves:
“Animales Destinos” by Elsa Y Elmar
“Wax” by Fake Boyfriend
“Yes, I’m A Witch” by Yoko Ono
“Ultimate Care II Excerpt Five” by Matmos (all recorded from noises made by or on their washing machine)
“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Nina Simone
“SEE-LINE WOMAN” BY NINA SIMONE (LIVE AND AMAZING AND CAN’T MISS THIS)
And a short poem made up with a line from each song:
we are different animals
If i write you another letter
each time we close our minds to how we feel, we’re dying
smear squelch streaks queer
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter and make-believe it came from you
Do you have a favorite artwork/artist who addresses HIV/AIDS in their work? What about their work is particularly salient for you?
But James Robert Baker is my absolute favorite HIV/AIDS writer and one I think is in danger of being lost, canonically… His work is complex and problematic in all the right ways: it speaks to the tensions not just between queers and straights during the AIDS crisis, but also the tensions within the gay male community particularly. Also, I mean, who doesn’t want to read about terminal AIDS cases becoming kamikaze Republican senator-killers rather than statistics?