As we look to the fall and all the educational responsibilities of raising literate children (in my case grandchildren) in an age that favors the visual over the verbal, replete with pervasive nonverbal activities (gaming), we first have to take a load off our feet and indulge ourselves with our more slow-going reading materials, be they a summer potboiler, a political exposé, or an intriguing mystery novel. It’s all about soaking in the sun along with the ocean waves—the iambic pentameter of Mother Nature. Getting away from it all is chicken soup for the soul.
Now is the time, you might think, to read your newest romance novel, and practice a little self-care by setting aside the stresses of living with HIV. But don’t let escapism go to your head; there are other ways to practice self-care and reading literature that brings us into a closer engagement with the world can be just as beneficial.
That is why I am pleased to offer you the seventeenth annual Summer Reading issue, stocked with literary pieces and interviews with writers whose books strive to strengthen our connections with each other, even if it means pointing out what disconnects us. Perhaps more than anything else about A&U’s John Francis Leonard’s up-close and exclusive exchange with the August cover subject, the young gender-queer poet Danez Smith, is how forthright this leading voice of contemporary poetry truly is. I realized while writing this month’s Frontdesk how important both the written and the spoken word are in making record of our struggles in the HIV community. Often, the best poetry—a haiku, sonnet, or even an epic poem—is a song of myself (with apologies to Walt Whitman). It nurtures our selves by railing against the story others want to confine us within. As Danez says so eloquently and so succinctly in one of their poems: “history is what it is. it knows what it did. bad dog. /bad blood. bad day to be a boy.” As Leonard recognizes: “[Danez’s] beautiful poetry delves further into the issue of HIV: ‘I’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news. / i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner /until light outweighs us, & we become it. family/ gathered around my barely body telling me to go / toward myself.’” When Leonard asks Smith why it is important to talk about HIV/AIDS in their work, Danez doesn’t hesitate: “I don’t know how to write what’s not going on in my life. For me, it was my own process, my own understanding of myself, problem solving for myself. All of that I have through poetry.”
We strive to write what is going on in our lives—Smith’s approach is important. As members of the HIV community, we need to set down our feelings and thoughts and our travails and triumphs because, quite frankly, no one else will, not with the same insight nor passion. The winnng entries in our Christopher Hewitt Awards literary contest—penned by Greg Casale, John Whittier Treat, Daniel Hurewitz, and Andrea Laiacona Dooley—describe different experiences with the same goal: to deepen our understanding of how to survive.
They honor the memory of one of A&U’s founding board members, Christopher Hewitt, who passed away fourteen years ago, and they also honor his work, which intertwined universal themes, lyricism, and advocacy.
And so do the subjects of our Summer Reading features: Daniel Baxter, MD, who has mined his experiences as an HIV/AIDS physician in Botswana to deepen our understanding of empathy; Jerry Torre, a writer living with HIV who has set down a personal journey through the early days of AIDS; and Stephen Zerance, whose poetry explores how we navigate vulnerability and safety.
A good piece of literature is a good form of medicine. It keeps us thriving. It joins us together in the community as we struggle to overcome AIDS. And might even inspire us to tap into our own creativity, too!
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.