Cea is not stopping their stories and noise. Cea (Constantine Jones) has more of them to make, and they are doing it with power, connection, and force. HIV-positive poet, noted adjunct faculty member at City College, New York (CUNY)), and recently chosen Liaison  for the Oral History Project at VisualAIDS, Cea is at a vanguard of new poets and writers who are using their experience and their art to make a difference and a change. Their practice is collaborative and rooted at the intersections of HIV/AIDS futurity, and archival cultural care-work/poetry as a catalyst for social instigation. Cea’s ongoing project, “My Dear, HIV”——a series of of poems as letters/diaries——confront the experience of their diagnosis both as a writer and as an advocate of the community [read one of Cea’s poems on page 48]. As documented in their website (see link at end of article) one can witness the hybrid forms of word, art, and music that Cea uses to create and address issues surrounding the complex, and affirming, experience of HIV as reflected in that very mesh of these arts. 

A member of the Artist+ Registry at Visual AIDS——the largest database of works by artists with HIV/AIDS——they are also a member of the collective, What Would An HIV Doula Do? They lead courses in poetry and hybrid writing modalities at City College and facilitate workshops outside of academia at The Operating System/Liminal Lab, Brooklyn Poets, and elsewhere. They have also worked in research capacities at The NYC LGBT Center Archives, where they digitized the Petalouthas Society for Gay Greek-American Women’s archival material for public access. Author of the hybrid print-document IN STILL ROOMS (Operating System, 2020), Cea has also produced a collaborative chapbook with Portuguese visual artist Vicente Sampaio, BALEEN: A POEM IN TWELVE DAYS (Ursus Americanus, 2021). Cea’s work has been performed or exhibited at various venues across New York City & Tennessee. 

In believing that “no one person is one person alone,” an urgent life-affirmation among many that has been a grounding for them, Cea continues to pursue questions that call us to consider community, even within solitude. As a colleague poet and fellow teacher at City College, I have witnessed Cea’s work and ideas evolve and thrive; confront with honesty and colloquy their own HIV diagnosis as well as how their poetry is so much a part of that idea  that no one person is alone. Cea’s work brings to the surface many kinds of histories——personal, social, cultural, and communal——yet it also reveals what is perhaps just below the surface: those emotions, actions, and events that are the core of these histories, an undercurrent of language that I would call “word fires.” 

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To anyone who is HIV-positive, the word “diagnosis” has complex associations and reactions——terror, confusion, impatience——it is a word that is too often associated with an underlying “condition of dis-ease” that must be examined, and ultimately corrected. Yet diagnosis is more positively a form of ability to learn, to reveal, to examine, to attest. In this respect, poetry itself is a form of diagnosis. Poets provide the scalpel to language, and to society, to examine those very things below the surface that contribute to who and what we are, in the best or worst interactions. And with language, poetry becomes a form of cure and solace.

In my interview with Cea, we discussed how poetry both articulates what shapes us and shapes others and society, and how it has had, and continues to have, significance on their art and their life. From the importance of their Greek family history, cultural and spiritual iconography, and the impact of teaching about HIV/AIDS to their students through their art, to the conditions of what is needed for intergenerational discussion, oral histories, and how past and present are both propagated in any necessary diagnosis of culture and education.

They understand that “Disclosure is a very personal and politically charged decision, but I think it’s important whenever those of us who are comfortable and able to lean into our experience living with this virus through our work do so. But I also think that people who aren’t living with HIV who find themselves in positions of influence should use that influence——speak on issues that feel taboo and slowly that taboo will dissipate…I don’t see why HIV/AIDS shouldn’t appear in some form across many disciplines and curricula.” If advocacy is the groundwork for education, it is also what sustains us in any aspect of understanding each other: that community that continues to grow us, to show us that we are not alone. That there are always stories and noise to make.

Philip F. Clark: Considering your Greek Orthodox ancestry, what were some of the first inspirations/impetuses that led you to poetry and art? How much of a spiritual (not necessarily “religious”) context did that include, if any?
Cea: I was raised in a culture that valued symbols and stories and communal ritual. For all my frustrations with the Greek Orthodox church, I still hold many aspects of it dearly—particularly the visual language of iconography. In a way, iconography isn’t so different from the blues, from folk or country music, which I was also raised among. What I mean by that is that the story is what’s important, not its authorship or credibility. The Saints and their miracles are distilled into visual representations that make them immediately recognizable, and whether you believe in them or not, the stories are there for you to carry however you like. Same with the blues and similar musical traditions—they’re just versions and versions of the same stories retold and recontextualized depending who is singing it and when and where and what their circumstances are. These two different storytelling languages—visual and sonic—have made deep and lasting impressions on me since childhood and have ab-solutely shaped my own relationship to poetry and storytelling. I expect they always will. 

 What iconography in that context appealed to you most, and why?
I have two perfect examples to answer this question. On my right arm is a tattoo of the Mother and Child, and on my left arm a representation of Saint Barbara. Both these women’s stories set them up in my mind as symbols of protection. My baptismal name is Panayiotis, the masculine form of Panagia, one of the many names we have for the Virgin Mary. My mother’s baptismal name is Maria. So in a way I see us both in that image. In Mytilene, the village in Greece where my mother’s mother was born, there is a cathedral to Saint Barbara where allegedly her finger is enshrined. It’s the church my grandmother would have gone to, and I went there myself the summer after my diagnosis. Saint Barbara is often depicted holding a sword or bolt of lightning, with a tower either behind her or as part of her crown. Again, a symbol of protection, fortitude, and retribution. 

Tattooed around my icon of the Mother and Child is a banner containing the phrase, “You must be certain of the Devil”——the name of a record by Greek-American performance artist Diamanda Galás [A&U, January/February 1993], whose work is heavily steeped in blues traditions of Greece and the American South, and who has long dedicated herself to advocating for systemically oppressed peoples, including folks living with and taken by HIV/AIDS, political refugees, incarcerated people, etc. I take the phrase to mean, “you should know the names of those who absolutely do not have your wellbeing in mind; you should recognize those who mean to do you harm.” So in a way that tattoo does what icons and the blues both do—it has become my own version of the story, my own rendition of protection and solidarity.

Similarly, the Saint Barbara tattoo on my left arm rests atop a banner that reads “Holy is the name of my ruthless axe.” This phrase comes from another performance artist, LINGUA IGNOTA, whose work also draws on various Christian symbology and positions itself unwaveringly against all forms of abuse. The phrase is the title of the final track on her debut record——a song that invokes blessings upon various weapons used to bring vengeance upon the speaker’s abusers. Sung in an angelic style informed by sacred music and incorporating an audio sample of Aileen Wuornos testifying in her own defense of murdering an attacker, this phrase too comes already heavy with so many references and connections. 

How do any of these things continue to instill your poetry and art work, life ideas, goals?

I have struggled with my bodily image for many years now, mostly from a point of gender frustration, but the tattoos have really changed that. When I look at myself in the mirror every day and see these adornments, these images that feel like they were always there only they’ve just now come to the surface, I not only feel more confident and beautiful but also I am reminded constantly of the lineages that matter to me. I think I’m just realizing I want to feel that kinship, that company, surrounding me when I write, when I clean my apartment, when I run my little errands. They come with me everywhere I go. 

The tattoos are really a sacred thing to me—a way to fit my own letters into an existing language of symbolism and to make the intention behind those symbols a visible part of me forever. But beyond my own person, I feel I am always looking for these threads in my work——who are my spiritual ancestors and kin and how can my work be in community with theirs? Which artists, activists, and people do I feel myself threaded through, like beads on an infinite string? 

Upon learning the diagnosis, how did it become an engine for life? What were the challenges, and the strengths of renewal?
I felt, unsurprisingly, completely unmoored by my diagnosis. It took a long time before I started to tell people, let alone start writing about it. That said, I felt I had suddenly gained an entirely new ancestry in HIV and I was desperate to connect with it. I had a lot of learning to catch up on. In East Tennessee, where I grew up, there was no comprehensive sex education, or discussions about responsible drug use and harm reduction. We were effectively told “don’t do it or else” and left with absolutely no resources to help us make informed decisions about our own and each other’s bodies. My resentment for that system and the shame it instills in folks looking for information is a significant motivating factor in my HIV/AIDS work in all capacities——as a poet, an educator, and advocate. 

Discuss the project “My Dear, HIV” and how it began, and how it relates to your poetry. What resources and what other poets and artists during this time, help/inspire your work?
”My Dear, HIV” is a translation and riff on the book HIV, Mon Amour, by American poet Tory Dent (1958–2005). The title poem is a multi-segment cycle where Dent addresses HIV/her body/her lover almost interchangeably in a way I’ve never seen done before. I’m realizing that correspondence and conversation are how I best process my own emotions, so to write my own “love letters to HIV” felt fitting and opened up one more avenue for me to engage with that ancestry I so desperately craved. Finding her work, and the work of other artists, poets, musicians and activists dealing with HIV/AIDS directly was literally life-saving. 

I must say I do feel an especially sacred gratitude for Diamanda Galás—partly because we share certain cultural identifiers, yes, but also because her work both comforted me and identified the object of my fury at a moment when I needed those things. Her work gives me space to feel all my complex emotions—heartache, loss, rage, and yes, even joy—in the context of a much larger, global community whose lives have been irreversibly impacted by this virus across time and space. 

This work is from a collaboration with photographer Francesco Di Benedetto as part of an ongoing photo-poetry project called [Ruins.In.Progress.] which aims to interrogate my relationship to HIV/AIDS via the lens of construction sites, demolition zones, and other spaces in structural flux. It takes its title from the Diamanda Galás rendition of a blues song with the same name [Youtube link: https://bit.ly/3sTLsFy].

Considering that language is both communication and information, how do you feel HIV/AIDS needs additional assessments/iconographies/discussion with “new” language?
This is a complex and important question; one that I think about a lot while engaging with archives. An archive is not a static thing—it is alive and ever-expanding and its ability to endure directly affects the scope of people it can reach. An archive is not just a record of what happened, but a document of happening. I worry about our culture’s relationship to “the past.” The past is never over. It is always happening again for the first time, getting bigger and bigger every day. We can learn from those who’ve come before us, build on what they have already set into motion, and find our own way to meet the past in the present. 

I have been so moved by the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry and Archive, and am lucky to now work with so many artists whose work I’ve come to love. Nancer LeMoins’ work, for example, is astounding—I particularly love her silkscreens of older women’s faces surrounded by text like “I’ve seen and done things you can’t imagine / ask me / talk to me / hear me / know me / it would be tragic if they were never heard” or “old women enjoy sex, too.” I’m also inspired the poetry of River Huston and the political installation and documentary video work of Jorge Bordello and Beto Perez. There is such a tangible richness to these works, and these artists and many more inspire me to push my own practice of manipulating text and visuals in different directions. 

What are your goals with the new website—what do they hope to engage in its development. There is also also a new project being completed.
I am finally planning to launch my own “CLOUD HOUSE” imprint using The Operating System’s open-source infrastructure. I have always imagined people and stories to be less like houses in a neighborhood and more like rooms in one big house, so in that spirit I imagine that projects published via that imprint will be largely collaborative in nature or community driven in their intention. 

The phrase “stories & noise” is one I’ve carried with me for over a decade now. I’m drawn to dualities, and I think very sincerely that phrase sums up what I think it is that I’m making. When I first thought about how to design the site, I imagined it as a very conventional “digital CV” of sorts, with links to all the things I’ve done. Once I started to catalog those projects, though, I realized that almost every single creative project of mine has been done in tandem / in community with others. The “[Ruins.In.Progress.]” project, for example, pairs longer narrative poems with photographs of me taken by others. The “VOICEOVER–” poems are offered to my friends to record a recitation before that audio is then used by another collaborator, Justin LoBasso, to make a sound-art piece. I have a chapbook coming out this year with Ursus Americanus called “BALEEN: A Poem In Twelve Days,” which is one long multi-part poem punctuated with illustrations by dear friend and longtime collaborator Vicente Sampaio, a Portuguese visual artist. Even my first book, “In Still Rooms,” published via The Operating System, was a communal effort—a dear friend gave me the title, my mother and aunts told me so many stories about Greece and our family’s history that shaped the work, etc. So “stories & noise” I feel is more of a meeting place—a common ground where I can showcase the work and lift up the remarkable people who have contributed to its making.  

How did your educational experiences and teaching relationships help develop areas of poetry and community?
I’ve been teaching at CCNY since 2016. I moved here from Tennessee thinking I was going to write short stories, but it was my small circle of friends and trusted mentors who kept saying to me “I think you’re a poet.” To me a poet is someone who is fundamentally dissatisfied with the given answers. I don’t mean for that to sound so gloomy—actually much of my work is very hopeful, almost aggressively so. I am furious about all the joy that we could be having. But what I mean is that, in order to be hopeful, to mobilize yourself and those around you to work for a world that is even a little bit more beautiful, you have to look around you and notice what’s wrong. All care is in the noticing. We can’t care for what we don’t notice. And we won’t love what we have failed to consider. 

How did your work and life as an HIV-positive poet find expression in your teaching?
The longer I spent volunteering with organizations like Visual AIDS or collaborating with folks in the collective, What Would An HIV Doula Do?, the more I came to realize just how equalizing an issue HIV/AIDS really is. I mean it’s connected to everything—sexual health, yes, but also harm reduction, housing insecurity, racial inequity, socio-economic class division, the list goes on. So it’s inevitable and appropriate, I think, that I’ve started to incorporate much more HIV/AIDS history and current developments into my syllabi depending on the course. It’s something I’m proud for my students to know about me, that I’m living with this virus. I think it’s important for students to see their instructors as whole human beings with their own struggles and successes. We need to be able to relate to each other as people, first and foremost, before any kind of learning can happen. It’s a sign of respect, not faking it in front of my students, that I feel very strongly about.

In working with your students, what do you feel is needed now in terms of intergenerational discussions of HIV/AIDS within current education? What specific discussions would you like to see?
I think about this question every single day. Actually a crucial component of the new Visual AIDS Oral History Project is to facilitate these intergenerational exchanges. So much has changed in the landscape of HIV/AIDS even in the last twenty years–in terms of medication and treatment, criminalization, stigma, and general public understanding. But those changes have not only affected young or newly diagnosed folks like myself—they also have affected long-term survivors and their loved ones. I am extraordinarily grateful, because of the work I do, to have befriended so many people—activists, artists, healthcare workers, social servants etc.—who have been living with this virus for longer than I have been alive. We can learn so much from each other, that’s the gift. I would especially love to see more intergenerational connections made across other demographic lines—across ethnic, geographic, economic and linguistic borders. There is this really sad idea about HIV/AIDS in the dominant culture right now that still considers the virus to have been an event—something that occurred in this country back in the eighties and nineties—rather than an ongoing pandemic that touches every corner of the world uniquely. I believe that the more we can widen our scope in how we think about HIV/AIDS, the more compassionate and better equipped to provide comprehensive care to people we will become.

A&U is distributed free to many colleges and universities; do they feel it is used and read as a part of curriculum to develop further education about this subject? Is the poetry and other literature of AIDS/HIV included to a degree that is effective in undergraduate and community colleges?
We didn’t have this kind of literature in Tennessee, let alone freely available or widely circulated. It’s a gift—one I wish I had when I was younger. I do think that’s one reason I’ve kept teaching—to give my students a little more of what I wish I had access to when I was in their position.

As the new liaison for the Oral History Project, what do you see, or hope to develop in this new position? How might art and poetry together access a part of this?
Oral history is one of the oldest forms of record-keeping we have as a species. And what makes it exciting to me is that, like poetry or music or art, it is a communal act of memory and cultural transmission. It is how a culture can come to understand itself—and not from the outside looking in. The Visual AIDS Oral History Project pairs HIV-positive artists across a wide range of demographics with each other, and these individuals are acting as both recorder and record. There is no third-party facilitation. These conversations are coming from within the various folds of this community, which I feel is very important. All of us have at least two things in common—we are living with HIV/AIDS and we make art. But there are so many other overlaps and differences beyond that common ground. Some art-ists in the Visual AIDS Archive and Artist+ Registry work in many mediums, across disciplines, and are all informed by their unique circumstances. Some artists, for example, work with text——either as protest signs, flyers, comics, hybrid illustration and text work, etc. My own work has started to move in this direction by finding DIY/low-cost ways to get poetry out from between the pages of a book and into the world via different avenues. Postcards, notes left in public, text posted on clothing or shared digitally with an invitation to respond—these are just a few methods I’ve been inspired by fellow Artist Members to experiment with.

More than anything I’d like to stay together. I want my work to be an ongoing invitation, because no one person is one person alone. We are all much more connected than we think, and we are capable of so much more together than we ever could be on our own. I want to leave behind a poetry of fierce optimism, of stubborn joy. Because there is no house my poems can build or fire they can douse or glacier they can restore. But the poetry could be the reason to spur the action. Better yet, the invitation to take stock of three things: what is here? / what is missing? / what could be here instead?


Visit Cea’s website: www.storiesandnoise.com.


Philip F. Clark, A&U’s Poetry Editor, is the author of The Carnival of Affection (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York, (MFA in Creative Writing in 2016). His work has been published in Tiferet Journal, The Marsh Hawk Press, Lambda Literary, Vox Populi, and The HIV HERE AND NOW Project among others. He recently read as part of the Phosphorescence Poetry Reading Series, hosted by the Emily Dickinson Museum. His essay, “Sustain Wonder,” appears in the forthcoming Marsh Hawk Press anthology On Becoming A Poet. He conducts poetry workshops for the Hudson Valley Writers Center.

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