A Poetry of Possibilities
Poet Mark Bibbins Talks with A&U’s Philip F. Clark About His New Poem, the Book-Length 13th Balloon

Photo by Rex Lott

In his newest book, 13th Balloon (Copper Canyon Press), noted poet and teacher Mark Bibbins traces an emotional, social, and personal history of the impact of AIDS. A single poem, it comes at a time when we continue to need reminding not only of the progress that we have made in the lives of those affected by the disease, but also that poetry continues to be a medium in which a sense of where we are and where we grow, remains a matter of innate attention to connection, understanding, and hope. It is a map of a particular experience that lends these very elements to new audiences of diverse backgrounds, engaging us in what the poetry of AIDS can provide. I posed some questions to Mark on the craft of the art, teaching, and his personal ideas on issues surrounding the subject, as well as the valuable sources of our community.

Philip F. Clark: In the long history of the poetry of AIDS, so much has been contributed to help us understand both the personal experiences as well as the social and political aspects of AIDS. It is still a relevant and important subject for many writers. How do you think the poetry of this subject has changed, developed, and grown? Or do you feel there is more work to process?
Mark Bibbins: There will always be more work to process, but I’d say one of the most significant ways it’s changed is that poems about HIV/AIDS are no longer elegies by default. American writers who are now in their twenties or thirties have grown up with the knowledge that HIV is a mostly treatable condition and they are writing from that position. I hope 13th Balloon might prove valuable to younger readers as a kind of historical document—what was it like for a queer kid to come of age before effective treatments, let alone things like PrEP? I’m not saying the book offers a comprehensive picture—far from it. If it ends up speaking for some larger group, it’s mostly by coincidence, but that’s okay. Coincidence can be fruitful.

As poets and educators, so much of our work involves bringing new ideas, as well as histories, to our students on so many subjects in poetry. How do you introduce, or integrate, the poetry of AIDS in your classes, and to your students—many of whom may be too young to have known the actual experience?
I’m guessing that by the actual experience you mean the worst of the AIDS crisis as it was endured by certain populations in the U.S. in the eighties and nineties. But it still is very much an actual experience: globally, more than half a million people died of AIDS in 2019. That statistic might come as a surprise, even to readers of this magazine. I admit it’s difficult for me to fathom, but that’s because we don’t hear much about the people who continue to be hardest hit. I would hope that anyone who tries to educate others via literature about the history of AIDS wouldn’t treat it as only historical, but to acknowledge that it’s an ongoing crisis in many parts of the world.

You’ve stated that the process of writing 13th Balloon took almost six years to evolve into a collection, having written parts of it over that time. What was your process and thinking as it grew and became the collection that was finally published?
In some ways it took much longer than that. The book deals with events that I had tried to write about decades ago—including moments from my childhood and adolescence—but previous attempts to describe them never felt sufficient. If I still haven’t gotten those descriptions exactly right, I hope I got close enough that they might resonate with some readers. At first I didn’t intend for 13th Balloon to be a book-length project. Snippets of it started bubbling up here and there, and I had no idea where they were headed. I began to see connections emerge, so the “process” was mostly keeping myself open to those connections and trusting that they would fit together somehow.

Photo by Rex Lott

The great power of 13th Balloon, to me, is the way that it meshes so many of your experiences over years, though not necessarily linear; it is not only a memory, an homage to Mark, but it also is a document and history of a very specific period of AIDS. Its images and ideas read as multiple exposures; they have a quality of the pentimento—its layers on top still revealing what is beneath it. Did this occur to you as your were writing the poems?
Thank you for saying that. As the book progressed I saw how things within it were illuminating and informing each other in unexpected ways. It was exciting for me whenever that happened because it felt larger than my experience—more connected to a larger community. It was in some ways beyond my control, which is a sweet spot for many artists—you sort of feel like someone or something else is speaking through you.

What, if any, were particular challenges to writing the collection? Or did the poems open new paths to your poetry that surprised you?
The challenge for many artists is deciding what to leave out. There were a few threads that I didn’t pursue in 13th Balloon, either because they sounded didactic when I tried to follow them, or because they were so far removed from what I had lived—the book kind of ended up telling me to stay in my lane a few times. Also, much of it is addressed to one person; if I had stayed exclusively in that mode, I’m not sure how welcoming it would be to potential readers, so I had to find a balance. I was surprised by several things that I ended up remembering from that time, and by the parallels that emerged with more contemporary events and images.

How has the community of poet colleagues, teachers, mentors, sustained you through the years of your work? What are the most important positive factors today that contribute to the development of our work as poets?
I can’t overstate how grateful I am for my friendships with other poets, teachers, editors, and students. These relationships are enriching and sustaining beyond measure. Despite what looks like a recent uptick in popularity, poetry doesn’t show up very often on most people’s radar in the U.S., so it’s been crucial to have fellow travelers who recognize its importance. And the Internet has made it easier to establish and maintain connections among poets who might otherwise be separated by geography or other obstacles. Of course we can see the negatives of this playing out too (anxiety, resentment, injustice, etc.), but I think the overall effect of this connectedness has been invigorating for the state of poetry in general. With the world being so relentlessly terrible, these different iterations of community become even more important.

In his poem, “The Victorious Ones,” the poet Chris Nealon has a line that really resonated with me deeply: “Poetry began to ask the question it had hidden in the forest’ /. In that, I felt the idea of unearthing, retrieving, bringing something into the light. In your perspective, what are the questions poetry still has to be answered? What, if any, of those questions might involve the poetry of AIDS?
I wouldn’t trust any artist, or any art form, that claimed to have all the answers. Authority makes me anxious and suspicious. Poems might provoke us to consider subjects like love, death, the environment, social injustice, and on and on and on, but what verifiable answers do they actually give us? We might fit a few puzzle pieces together here and there, but for me, poetry is most valuable when it suggests possibilities—when it raises questions we might not have considered before, but does not answer them.

For more information about the poet, visit markbibbins.com.

Philip F. Clark, A&U’s Poetry Editor, is the author of the poetry collection, The Carnival of Affection (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). He currently is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York, where he received his MFA in Creative Writing. He is 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, and HIV Here and Now. 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). His poetry in Tiferet Journal has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize.