We Are Family – Frontdesk

by Alina Oswald

Welcome to our July issue! This is a special issue, and for many reasons:
AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference, starts at the end of the month, and takes place in Montreal, Canada, July 29 – August 2. This year’s theme is “re-engage and follow the science.” This year’s conference “will define future research agendas, shift the latest evidence to action, and chart a new consensus on overcoming the HIV epidemic as a threat to public health and individual wellbeing.” Its objectives include presenting evidence, learning from COVID-19 and HIV, and supporting the next generation.

Also, there are various ways of engaging and supporting younger generations. Filmmaker and educator Micheal Rice does it while using the art of storytelling and taking on the concept of “other” within his community. Micheal Rice is also this month’s cover story subject. Photographed by Francis Hills and interviewed by John Francis Leonard, Rice offers enlightening insights into his work. “Outside of documentary filmmaking, I also work as an educator, teaching teens about the process of storytelling and filmmaking,” Rice says. “As a filmmaker, I would like to see more mainstream programming about HIV/AIDS. I want to normalize the conversation in order to create spaces for breaking the stigma.”
We can all do our part in helping normalize the conversation and break the stigma. Mel Baker of San Francisco Public Press offers an insightful article about the AIDS Quilt, as well as an interview with Harold Phillips, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. In addition, Larry Bradley shares a poem from his exquisite poetry collection, and award-winning author T.J. Banks shares an excerpt from her latest book, The Twice-Given Gift & Other Writings.

The first issue of A&U Magazine

Although I started writing for A&U Magazine in 2003, it was only in 2004, at an art event at Linda Stein’s studio in New York City, that I met in person then Managing Editor Chael Needle, and Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, David Waggoner. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to interview Waggoner, curious not only about the behind-the-scenes story of the publication, but also about his life. So, for this month’s special Frontdesk column, I had the honor to interview David Waggoner and talk with him about the person, artist, and visionary behind the Art & Understanding Magazine. Here’s what he had to say:

Alina Oswald: A&U Magazine’s headquarters are based in Upstate New York. Are you from Upstate New York? Have you always lived there?
David Waggoner: I grew up in San Diego, California. My father was a military officer for twenty-five years, which meant we were [often moving] from city to city. When his career was winding down, he was offered a job as the attaché to the commander in chief of the U.S. presence in South Korea. But my mother said, “absolutely not, we are staying in San Diego, and that’s that.”
So, I graduated from Patrick Henry High School in San Diego, and then was accepted to Brown University. After graduating from Brown, I [started at] a Master of Fine Arts and Painting program at the State University of New York, in Albany. From there, I went into directing films for PBS and other news outlets.

David Waggoner – Editor in Chief of A&U

You are known as the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of A&U Magazine. Have you always been interested in publishing? What sparked that interest?
[After I got my MFA] I was talking to a very good friend of mine, Richard Redlo. We were in his living room, and I was complaining that I felt adrift and that I didn’t have a focus on what to do next in my life. And he said, well, David, you studied with Doctor Toni Morrison at the New York State Writers Institute, so you have experience as a writer. And you are a visual artist, as well [I have a triple major from Brown in studio art, creative writing, and art history], so you are well equipped to start a magazine.
And then I got hired to develop an HIV and AIDS magazine by the AIDS Council of Northeast New York, which then became independent in 1991.

I came across an online photograph from 1991. It shows you holding what appears to be a proof copy of a very early Art & Understanding Magazine issue. It says, “1991 Press Photo David Waggoner, AIDS Council Literary Magazine Editor in Albany.” On the back of the picture is mentioned the photographer’s name, Roberta Smith, the date and location, November 5, 1991, Albany, and “David Waggoner, editor, and organizer behind new literary magazine from AIDS Council.” Is the issue you were holding in the photograph the very first issue of the magazine?
Yes. A design shop donated its services to the first few issues of the magazine, which were printed on newsprint.

Why a spin-off? Why go independent only after a few issues?
Because of Jesse Helms. His AIDS Amendments did not allow federal funding to be used for any HIV and AIDS educational material, nor to promote or encourage homosexual activities. So, because of the possible loss of funding, the AIDS Council Board of Directors had an emergency meeting. And we were afraid that they were going to shut us down. And we decided not to remain related to the AIDS Council, to go independent and publish [the magazine] as a spin-off, to save it.

Was that the beginning of Art & Understanding Magazine?
Yes. The very first issue came out in November of 1991. That’s when Freddie Mercury lost his fight against the disease, and Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive.

How did you first come up with story ideas for the magazine?
I studied under John Hawkes, Robert Coover, and Angela Carter at Brown, and Angela knew world-class filmmaker Derek Jarman, who died from complications of AIDS in 1994. And she recommended that we interview him. And that was the last interview he did worldwide.
It was at the height of the AIDS crisis, and we got many celebrities who wanted to be on the cover—Roseanne, Shirley MacLaine—who wanted to help destigmatize AIDS. Because celebrities can help destigmatize the disease, just like Elizabeth Taylor was trying to do, and, you know, I realized that she was a good example of notable celebrities lending their names to a worthy cause. Over the years, we’ve covered many other world-class cultural and political figures, such as Dolly Parton, Tony Kushner, Hillary Clinton, and many others. We’ve had over three hundred issues, and it has never been a problem getting to the famous. We’re like the literary version of ACT-UP.

You know, A&U in bold letters was one thing that caught my eye when I first noticed the magazine in Harvard Square [A&U, May 2022]. And to this day, many people are still asking me about it, what does “A&U” stand for. So, how did you come up with the name for the magazine?
It started as Art & Understanding, then shifted to A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine in 1997, to make it more…commercially viable, I guess. But I think [the magazine] is really about art and understanding, and destigmatizing AIDS through various art forms, like acting, theater, filmmaking, writing, and so on. So, I credit Chael Needle, the former managing editor, because he really thought it wise to change the name back to Art & Understanding [last year, for the thirtieth anniversary of the magazine], because these are our roots.

Alina Oswald – Managing Editor

Recently, the magazine has covered more celebrities and leaders from within the HIV and AIDS community, though.
I think that’s because our readership has broadened. I think it includes more minorities and activists of all sorts, you know, so we’re trying to appeal to a wider audience.

What do you see in the future of A&U?
As our mission statement says, A&U continues to help destigmatize the disease. We’ve published different kinds of cover stories and literary activism. We have a literary contest in August, now in its thirteenth year.
Also, the first edition of our anthology, Art & Understanding – Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U, edited by Chael Needle and Diane Goettel, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2014. So, it’s time for a new one. The second edition will also include works of visual art. It will be like an extended Gallery piece featuring the best of A&U’s Gallery.
So, there’s a lot of new stuff that’s coming up. I think, with the magazine, we’re trying to broaden the scope of activism beyond the ongoing reality of living with HIV.