In one of the poems that Christopher Hewitt published in A&U, and reprinted in our anthology, Art and Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press), coedited by Diane Goettel and myself, he touches on the despair someone feels when trying to be there for a dying friend:
I hold him so tightly
as if holding him could cure him
as if one hug
could fend off
It’s all I know to do…
The speaker in “All I Know to Do” laments that his comforting action is neglible in the face of the struggle that many living with HIV/AIDS go through. But we know that moments like these do add up, do make a difference in our lives. Hewitt ends the poem with the speaker admiring his friend’s courage, among a list of traits. It points to the act of writing, ultimately. The speaker has done more than give a hug; he has created a portrait of someone living with HIV/AIDS and drawn attention to their individual humanity, their resilience, their pain, and their triumphs. The space of “all we know to do” is expansive.
All three winners of this year’s literary contest do the same—using their pens to not only show the complexity of living with HIV/AIDS but also how small acts of bravery and integrity and empathy can transform the world for the better.
The winner in the creative nonfiction category, judged by Rachel Aydt and Victoria Noe, is “We Blessed,” by John Boucher. Chicago-based writer and ACT UP/NY member Victoria Noe, who is the author of the award-winning Friend Grief series and the forthcoming Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community, commented: “I felt instantly transported. I felt like I could see everyone in the essay: how they walked, the look in their eyes, the pitch of their voices. Maybe because they reminded me of women I’ve known in the community, always ready to insist they are blessed.” Rachel Aydt, a part-time Assistant Professor of writing and literature at the New School University who has held staff positions in national consumer magazines including CosmoGirl and Cosmopolitan, was also transported by the essay, a feeling reconfirmed by second and third readings, adding, “I love it when writers can take something simple and add gravity to it—what’s so special about a trip to get a press & curl? In John Boucher’s hand, everything, and at the end of the day it left this reader feeling blessed to have read the story.”
Top honors in fiction, judged by Randy Boyd and Joe Jiménez, went to Raymond Luczak for “The Love Whisperer.” Randy Boyd, a novelist who has received five Lambda Literary Award noms, stated: “‘The Love Whisperer’ was mesmerizing and engaging, taking the reader to a place and time in America that is both familiar and strange. The main character was quite memorable, the entire story very cinematic.” Joe Jiménez, the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016), and the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize as well as a Lucas Artists Literary Artists Fellowship from 2017–2020, said, “The voice of ‘The Love Whisperer’ drew me in, which means I wanted to know the narrator, the ‘proverbial woman on the street whose name you’d never know even if we’d acknowledged each other with a nod for years.’ But the narrative voice alone is not the reason I like this story—it’s the writer’s ability to articulate the change both in place and person, the ability to tell a story that parallels Ironwood, the place, which once was ‘jumping alive’ and the narrator, who admits to us, ‘Twenty years ago I made a foolish mistake.’ As the place has changed, so, too, evidently has the person, a positioning the writer conveys through image, selection of detail, and of course, of course, voice.”
Charles Stephens’ ten-minute play The War Years won in the drama category, judged by Bruce Ward, whose AIDS-themed play Lazarus Syndrome has received two professional regional productions, and was the recipient of the 2007 2nd-place Jean Kennedy Smith ACTF award.
“A ten-minute play is a tricky thing. It must provide valid characterizations, believable dialogue, conflict, and resolution, all contained within a ten-minute framework,” Ward commented. “The War Years succeeds as a ten-minute play because it does all of this, and more: It takes a complicated and expansive slice of history (the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s), and personalizes it in a fresh way, through the lens of two young, African-American men, each dealing with grief in his own way, and yet, ultimately, coming together to share their collective grief. With humor and pathos that never feel forced or contrived, this short play is a welcome addition to the dramatic canon of theater pieces that bear witness to the AIDS epidemic.” Ward should know, as several of his ten-minute plays have been produced by the Boston Theater Marathon, and have been published by Samuel French.
We are sad to report that there was no winner in poetry. Judges Noah Stetzer and Joy Gaines-Friedler, both widely published poets, found much to praise in many of the submissions but were unable to find a clear-cut winner.
We are happy, however, that so many writers are interested in telling stories about the pandemic. And happy that our readers can help bear witness alongside them.
Link to the winning pieces here:
—Chael Needle, Managing Editor, A&U