Wordsworth’s daffodils, or how to write an HIV poem

By Michael Broder

I am not going to tell you how to write an HIV poem.

But I am going to ask you to write an HIV poem. And I am going to ask you to consider the issue of HIV as a matter for poetry.

A number of poets I’ve solicited for The HIV Here & Now Project turned me down, saying “Thank you for asking, Michael, but I don’t have any relevant work.”

When I heard that response, I thought two things: (1) this poet is not interested in contributing to the project; and (2) this poet is not comfortable with the topic of HIV.

But perhaps neither of these is the case. Regarding (1), I might want to be more assertive in asking poets to write a new poem for my project if they do not have an existing one that they can contribute. And regarding (2), I might want to think about the possibility that if there is indeed discomfort, it may not be a lack of sympathy with the issue, but it may represent a kind of failure to connect. That is, I think I need to give greater credence to how great a challenge it is to connect with HIV as a topic if you are not yourself HIV-positive, do not have an HIV-positive  partner, relative, or friend, or are not in the field of HIV advocacy.

So that’s what I’m doing here: If you are a poet and you are reading this post and you have not previously given me work for this project: I am asking you to write an HIV poem for me. 

So much for (1). The rest is a matter of (2).

Just what is an HIV poem, and does a poet have to have a personal connection to HIV in order to write one?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I think a poet needs to have an intimate connection with that about which he or she writes. But no, that connection does not have to be one’s own HIV-positive status or that of a partner or relative or friend or any other such mundane connection, any more than we need to have been in the war to write about the war or to have been in the towers to write about the towers.

What we do need to do, however, as poets, I believe, is each to find our own way to establish that intimacy with a subject matter. To make the war our war, the towers our towers, the disease our disease. And it’s dicey, to be sure—as we are seeing now, for example, with the issue of how each of us relates to the idea and the language of “Black lives matter.” It doesn’t work simply to say something like “We are all Eric Garner,” because we are not all Eric Garner. On the other hand, it does not work to broaden the category: it does not work to transform “Black lives matter” into “All lives matter” because that constitutes the erasure of black life and its value. Finding our authentic way into a strange topical landscape is hard work, hard poetic work.

But it occurs to me that the reason many poets who were not in the war or in the towers or born into a black body nevertheless think they can write about Iraq or 9/11 or Michael Brown is that we tend to see these as public issues.

And it occurs to me that while I see HIV as a public issue, and HIV advocates and activists see HIV as a public issue, many people, including many poets, who have no personal HIV connection in the mundane sense, do not see HIV as a public issue in quite the same sense as they do war or politics or race. It occurs to me that they see it, in fact, as an intensely private issue, and not one that they are free as poets to tread on without some kind of invitation.

And by invitation, I mean the kind of invitation that is special to poets: the invitation of experience—Wordsworth’s daffodils, if you will. But that experience can take many forms. I’ve received submissions from men my age who have been HIV-positive for many years; men 30 years younger than me who tested HIV-positive recently; and men who are HIV-negative but think about HIV risk in their daily lives with boyfriends, dates, hookups, whatever.

But even if you are a poet who cannot draw on any of these or similar personal experiences, there are ways in. The ways we poets use as entry points to many issues that are outside our own intimate experience. Through our reading. Through our observation of the world around us. Through talking to people, hearing their stories, putting ourselves in their places, empathizing. You don’t need a virus to empathize.

Then there’s also the idea of the challenge or the prompt. Thomas Dooley asked poets to write a poem about an element in the periodic table for an Emotive Fruition project he was doing with Radiolab. Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker asked poets to write poems for President Obama’s first 100 days. Carrey Wallace asked poets to write poems marking the death of every person killed by police in the summer of 2015 and every officer who loses his or her life in the line of duty.

To date, the HIV Here & Now Project has not posed any such specific challenge or prompt. But such a thing is not hard to pose to yourself. More than 1.2 million people in the US are living with HIV, and more than 35 million people worldwide (3 million of them younger than 15). Write a poem about one of them, real or imagined. Each year, about 50,000 people in the US become newly HIV-infected, as do about 2 million people each year worldwide. Write a poem about one of them, real or imagined. About 13,000 people each year die with an AIDS diagnosis in the US, as do about 1.5 million people worldwide. Write a poem about one of them, real or imagined.

2015-06-26 16.23.31-2I’m going to leave this where it is for now. This is a blog post, not long-form journalism. But I will come back to this issue of HIV as a public matter and a matter for poetry from time to time throughout the life of this project. Let me know if you have any thoughts you’d like me to consider, questions you’d like me to answer, etc.