Poets for Life: Philip F. Clark on Why Writing Matters

Poets for Life
A&U’s New Poetry Editor on Why Writing Matters
by Philip F. Clark

“emaciation, grisly cancer,
no future, heart of gold,
passionate engagement with a great
B film, a glorious summer
afternoon in which to pick up
the ripest plum tomatoes of the year
and prosciutto for the feast I’ll cook
tonight for the man I love,
phone calls from my friends
and a walk to the park, ignoring
stares, to clear my head. A day
like any, like no other. Not so bad
for the dead.”

—Tim Dlugos, from”G-9,” in Powerless

Photo courtesy P. Clark

As a poet, the question has often crossed my mind, “Does our work change anything; does it help anyone?” And while poetry, as any art, may have limits in doing so, I have known its ability to absolutely transform and change lives. One of the first, and most important times that it had such an impact of change and support in my life was during the midst of the AIDS crisis. Out of the chaos, fear, and anger of the crucible that was AIDS, came a burgeoning literature of memoirs, novels, and poetry—which today only continues to grow. At the time, it was the direct voice of those experiencing the plague from their very hospital beds. A poetry of loss, as some would define it, but it was more than that; to take the words of the extraordinary AIDS memoir by Fenton Johnson, it was a literary “geography of the heart.” It was the work of Paul Monette (Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies For Rog); Atlantis by Mark Doty; The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn; Tim Dlugos’s Powerless; Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies; and so many others. These were poets and poems of pure resistance, written with an ironic anarchy as well as a deep call to attention.

But it was these very works of poetry that made me understand in the most powerful way, what poetry—specifically the poetry of AIDS—could do. I remember reading in 1992, Heather McHugh’s “What Hell Is,” in the remarkable first anthology of AIDS poetry, Michael Klein’s Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS. The poem shattered me—a poem that resounded with such truth, heartbreak and honesty; a poem that did not let us look away from the devastation, but rather made us face the mirror. I read these poems and realized I, too, had something I needed to write, something to face, in order to transform myself.

With my own diagnosis, among so many things I had to deal with—those very fears, sorrows and confusion that led to a sense of being frozen and unable to write—the one thing that began my road to acceptance and care, was the ability to say the words: I am HIV-positive. That verbalization was made possible through poetry. Writing the words down on paper, saying the words, enabled me the chance to start living; to begin to add to the voices behind me, and the voices in front of me. If poetry did anything, it allowed me to find my community in that time when I so needed it.

What changed, and was transformed? The poetry of AIDS/HIV, long seen as a poetry of loss, has become a poetry of life. The newly diagnosed, as well as the long-term survivors of AIDS/HIV, are living against history’s ravages, and write about the opportunities medical advances have given us since the plague’s early years. And whether it is describing the experience of loving in this new time; being fully sexual (as more and more are educated about U=U guidelines); or living with a fuller life—and the promise of more of it—poets of AIDS/HIV are writing with more promise than ever, both for themselves, and the community of poets who support them, and there are so many who do. The vast literary output now is even more remarkable, including poets of every experience, race, age, and sexual orientation. These, too, are still, poets for life. That engine of art, in words, is only stronger and more persistent. We are richer for the way these voices inform with conviction, compel with hope, and ultimately sustain us.

A&U has been a venue for a wide array of poets writing their new lives, as well as still remembering and paying tribute to the history of lives lost. The energy is that of proud and loud voices; and the ability to verbalize their lives as writers of the AIDS/HIV fight that continues. As Poetry Editor, I am honored to continue to present the wonderful poetry that has been published in these pages. It is a work that is necessary to an art that will always be transformative.

Selected Bibliography of Works on the Poetry of AIDS/HIV:
Chael Needle and Diane Goettel, eds. Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U. Black Lawrence Press. 2014.
Tim Dlugos. Powerless: Selected Poems 1973–1990. David Trinidad, ed. High Risk Books. 1996.
Paul Monette. Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies For Rog. St. Martin’s Press. 1988.
Mark Doty. Atlantis. Harper Perennial. 1995.
Thom Gunn. The Man With Night Sweats. Farrar Straus Giroux. 1993.
Essex Hemphill. Ceremonies: Poems and Prose. Plume Books. 1992.
Michael Klein, ed. Poets For Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS. Crown Publishers. 1988.
Heather McHugh. “What Hell Is,” in Poets For Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS.
Philip Clark and David Groff, eds. Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS. Alyson Books, 2006.

Philip F. Clark is the author of the poetry collection, The Carnival of Affection (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). He currently teaches English, poetry and literature at City College, New York, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing in 2016. He is also an Associate Poetry Editor at The Night Heron Barks, and the editor of The Poet’s Grin. His poetry and reviews have been published in Lambda Literary, Vox Populi, (Re:) An Ideas Journal, HIV Here and Now, and Atomic Micro Press. His other published writing has been included in Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book (ITNA Press, 2019). and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares and Rebels Press, 2019). He is currently working on a second collection of poetry.