Getting Down to It: Writing Poetry & Living with HIV

A&U's new poetry editor reflects on why he writes

by Noah Stetzer


When A&U announced a few months back that I would be taking on the role of poetry editor here, I shared a brief insight about how I think poetry and HIV intersect. Today, I’d like to expand on that with some further thoughts I have about the intersection of my own HIV infection and the poems I write, along with a note about the kinds of poems that speak to me.

On fear.
Managing my HIV infection has meant becoming accustomed to a sense of vigilance and along with that has come a new relationship with fear. In her book Madness Rack and Honey (Wave Books, 2012), poet Mary Ruefle takes on the subject of fear in an effort to explore its influence on/in her writing. Ruefle recounts her exploration of the subject with a physican and an airplane pilot. Asking them how they overcome fear in two very high-stakes jobs, one of them explains, “The only way to overcome fear is to do what you are trained to do. Fear is overcome by procedure.” In high school, I attended a young writers summer program and then pursued poetry writing classes during my stint as an undergrad. Writing, and in particular writing poems, has been how I do the messy work of figuring out what I think and how I feel about the world and my place in it. The close inspection of word choice and line break, the tight attention to structure and form keep my brain occupied. And so I forget momentarily about the risky work of writing poems and the truths they reveal.

Near and far.
My HIV diagnosis was delivered in a hospital emergency room as doctors worked fast to mitigate my collapsed lungs that were the result of pneumocystis pneumonia. Being critically ill with a number of opportunistic infections meant that teams of doctors and shifts of nurses seemed to suddenly have claim over my body and its workings. For the month I stayed at the hospital (and to a lesser degree even now), my body seemed to no longer only belong to me. And so a distance began to stretch between my sense of my self and my body. But the funny thing is that at the very same time, this infection and its effects made me (and everyone else) discuss my body in minute detail. It brought my attention down to the microscopic level to think in terms of T cells and antibodies. So that at the same time that I was feeling removed from it, I was also immersed in my own body.

Taking on language.
I wrote here a few months back: “Poetry, I think, is often a startling experience of everyday language—suddenly words seem to behave differently.” Part of this surprise is similar to the kind of surprise with my own body that HIV has brought about. After my time in the hospital and now as I manage my HIV infection, I find myself both intimately familiar with my body but also sometimes completely mystified (and scared) by it. When I go to write poetry, I teeter in this same balancing act of the familiar with the strange. As I grapple with word choice and line breaks, with syntax and with structure, I can forget the broader implications of what I might be revealing. And in paying such close attention to these elements I briefly forget about the fear I have in saying a thing that is inconveniently and sometimes painfully true. Like Ruefle’s pilot and physician, I sink to the level of procedure: scribbling through so that both a distant perspective and a microscopic inspection are revealed. Looking at those last sentences, I can’t help to think that in a way I am trying to recreate in language the same contained dichotomy that I perceive HIV has brought about in me. I am both healthy and infected, I am both a survivor and still surviving—language that is at first familiar and then startlingly strange.

I set about in this piece to share ways in which my work is influenced by HIV and in doing so try to show a little of the kind of work to which I find myself responding. Because my infection holds within it the deeply intimate and personal along with the very public and the universal, I look for poems that attempt to reconcile opposing elements within them. In trying to overcome my fears, I rely on attention to elements of craft. A little magician’s misdirection maybe so that I can try to get to what I really need to say. Poems that speak to me are ones where the poet’s work, as it travels down the page, combines the seemingly opposite qualities of the inevitable with the unexpected. Ruefle maybe says this in a different (and infinitely better) way, “It is not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what a poem does with its eyes.”

In 2016, Noah Stetzer’s poetry book, Because I Can See Needing a Knife, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. He has been a finalist for the Claudia Emerson Poetry Chapbook Award and the Annual Tinderbox Poetry Contest. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has won both the 2015 Christopher Hewitt Award for Poetry and the 39th New Millennium Award for Poetry. Noah’s poems have appeared in various places including the New England Review, Nimrod International Journal of Prose & Poetry, Green Mountains Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. He is a scholarship recipient from the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBT Writers and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Noah now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and can be found online at