Robert Carr Reviews Madelyn Garner’s Hum of Our Blood

What Laughter? What Joy?

A Review of Madelyn Garner’s Hum of Our Blood

By Robert Carr

Some experiences require the passage of twenty years before you can write about them. This is the case with Madelyn Garner’s powerful Hum of Our Blood, published by 3: A Taos Press in 2017. In this collection, the author draws on her identity as a poet and as the mother of an artist, photographer Bradley Joseph Braverman. Brad died from complications of HIV disease in 1996, at the age of 34.

I write this review as a gay man, a poet, and a public health professional who has worked in the field of HIV prevention and care for over 30 years.

Garner shares powerful testimony in this collection. The poems are consistently evocative. What I admire, among so many things, is her simultaneous vulnerability and objectivity, her ability to relate to her son Brad as a mother—but also as a fellow artist.

Through these poems, Garner has found a way to bring her talented son back into the world. She has partnered with the dead—a challenge which I have been trying to understand and accomplish for most of my life.

Hum of Our Blood is skillfully organized into three core sections, tracing the course of Brad Braverman’s illness and the speaker’s response as mother and artist. Each of the three main sections opens with a triptych of poems, followed by a deep exploration of each phase in Brad’s AIDS diagnosis.

The book, through the order and titles of poems, succeeds in conveying multiples layers of meaning. For example, the first section “Triptych: Days of Diagnosis” includes the poems “As Ouija Board,” “As Etch-A-Sketch” and “As Playground Swing.” These titles introduce us to the horror of an AIDS diagnosis in the early days of the epidemic (before the availability of effective treatments) through the unlikely framework of the names of childhood toys.

An astonishing quality of Hum of Our Blood is the speaker’s readiness, willingness, and availability to inhabit the sexual life of her son. In “The Baths, 1982” we experience the throb of those years and that erotic milieu

…possessed cocks,

engorged and driven like pistons, exploding
in each pink-cheeked Mozart—creator

of complex études for four hands.

In the same poem, the speaker asks, in the voice of Brad Braverman, “How many times can I be kissed before I die?” This question opens a deep reality for many who survived the early AIDS epidemic. While reading Hum of Our Blood I found myself questioning the arbitrary nature of a pandemic. As a gay man who survived, I am now 58. Today, Brad Braverman would be 56. Each poem in this collection forces the reader, regardless of age, gender or sexuality, to evaluate meaning and value in their life. The poems express terror, but also call on the reader to find gratitude.

The arc of this collection is straightforward and elegant. We witness the transformation of the speaker and Brad Braverman in a series of lines with the power and concentration of epitaph.

In the triptych poem “Days of Diagnosis, As Playground Swing,” the speaker describes the young man, about to receive the fateful diagnosis, as ascending

…weightless—free—beyond the terror of what his blood tests will show.

Still fixable.

Deep into the collection, in the poem “What I Didn’t Know,” all has been transformed:

What laughter? What joy? He is unmendable.

Before his untimely death, Brad Braverman was an accomplished photographer represented by galleries from Los Angeles to New York. The book uses Braverman’s photographic images to extraordinary and heartbreaking effect. There are many examples, but perhaps none as powerful as the connection between word and photograph in the poem “Spring Lament.” 

My womb, old empty pot, cannot replace
what it has lost, but I am ready to nurture
seedlings, tack clematis to trellis,
chase off aphid and beetles.

If only you will tilt. 

These words are followed two pages later by a black-and-white Brad Braverman photograph of a paint chipped cast iron urn positioned in shadow. A sheet of white silk flows from the urn as if in strong wind. The connection between poem and photographic image is vivid, enhancing the narrative connection between mother and son. “Spring Lament” evokes “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” by William Carlos Williams, and we can imagine the speaker finding a parallel grief in Williams’s words:

Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

Madelyn Garner does not flinch from describing the deepest grief and the tricks the mind plays in order to stay sane. In the poem “Schrödinger’s Cat” the speaker imagines a parallel world where Brad Braverman lives the life she had hoped for

My mind says Yes
to infinite copies of him coming
to the door, young
and transcendent with good blood,
bearing a kitten the color of shadows

Twenty-one years after Brad’s death, the author has found a vehicle for bringing the memory of her son to the door. She invites us to meet him, to appreciate their deep bond, and to learn from the power of their journey. These poems tap into a collective grief that remains relevant today.

Madelyn Garner

On a personal level, I experience this book as a gift. Reading and rereading the poems I found myself recalling my own mother, whom I lost 14 years ago. For years, from 1984-1994, she walked beside me at From All Walks of Life, the fundraising AIDS walk in Boston. She loved deeply, and she loved the young gay men that were in my life.

I will always treasure how strangers surrounded her on those marches. My mother became, in those moments, the mother of all those marchers. Men who had been rejected by their families flocked to her and she embraced them.

In this most personal of projects, Madelyn Garner has shown all of us that there are powerful women, powerful mothers, who still have our backs. This book is a healing force.


Publication details:
Perfect Paperback: 102 pages
Publisher: 3: A Taos Press; 1st edition (August 28, 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0997201150
ISBN-13: 978-0997201154





Robert Carr is the author of Amaranth, a chapbook published in 2016, and an associate editor with Indolent Books. Recent work appears in Assaracus, Bellevue Literary Review, Kettle Blue Review, New Verse News, Pretty Owl Poetry and other publications. He lives with his husband Stephen in Malden Massachusetts, and serves as deputy director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

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National HIV Poetry Writing Month

Here’s what you get when you Google “national poetry month hiv aids 2017”
Missing: hiv aids

That’s right. HIV and AIDS are literally, virtually, digitally, really and truly missing from the celebrations of poetry going on this National Poetry Month 2017.

I’ve been wondering what Indolent Books and our fiscal parent, Indolent Arts Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) charity, could do for National Poetry Month that was different from what everyone else was doing. SHAME ON ME  for not thinking sooner of our own HIV HERE AND NOW PROJECT.

THIS is where we need to focus our efforts for National Poetry Month 2017 and it’s many poem-a-day-for-30-days projects…

…all inspired by my dear friend Maureen Thorson, the founder of NaPoWriMo, (National Poetry WRITING Month) an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

So here’s the deal. Anybody who wants can write an HIV/AIDS poem for NaPoWriMo and submit it via our Submittable site. We will post one of those poems each day of April. Today, April 1, is going to be a challenge, because it’s already 6:48 pm EDT…but I know this will all work out in the end…it always has, it always does, it always will.

Since we can only post one poem per day on HH&N, we encourage you to post your own poems elsewhere—on your social media feeds, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, your blog.

In addition, we will be including a DAILY PROMPT along with each day’s poem. You do not have to use the prompt, but you are welcome to if if will help you write. WE REPEAT: To quote Maureen Thorson, the doyenne of NaPoWriMo, “The prompts we post each day are totally optional. Use ‘em if you like ‘em; ignore ‘em if you don’t.”

Here is today’s prompt:

Write about a person who died of AIDS who meant a lot to you. The person can be a well known public figure or someone in your own personal life. Anyone.

For inspiration, you might look at the following poems from the HIV Here & Now project archives

D. Gilson, “Triolet for Uncle Dennis”
Jeffery Berg, “Anthony,”
Daniel Nester, “Four poems from God Save My Queen II”

And that’s it. We are hereby participating in NaPoWriMo.

Wiesel, Silence, and HIV

By Nina Bennett
HIV Here & Now Poet and author of Sound Effects

The death of Elie Wiesel earlier this month spurred my thoughts on the issue of silence. A Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Wiesel was determined that the world not forget the Holocaust.

I have been involved in the HIV epidemic since July 1981, when a friend called and asked if I had seen the article in that day’s issue of the New York Times, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” As a healthcare provider with training in medical research, a brand-new virus captivated me. The science of a retrovirus fascinated me until I began seeing what this virus did to people, to friends. My fascination was tempered by anger and frustration with a society that branded HIV as a moral issue rather than a public health one.

In March 1983, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report on current trends in the emerging AIDS epidemic noting that most cases to date had been reported among gay men, IV drug users, and Haitians, with 11 recent cases reported among hemophiliacs. Soon enough, responders to the epidemic in the medical and public health spheres began referring to AIDS as the “4H” disease, because it affected homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. This characterization conflated risk groups with risk behaviors and heightened the stigmatization of AIDS even before its association with a then-unknown virus (HIV) was confirmed.

SilenceDeath_01A social activist since my teenage years in the sixties, I needed to do more than read newspaper headlines and medical journals. In 1986, six gay activists in New York formed the SILENCE=DEATH Project. They developed the now-iconic poster of the pink triangle (an inverted version of the symbol sewn onto concentration camp uniforms by the Nazis to identity those imprisoned as homosexuals) above the words SILENCE=DEATH. They wheat-pasting these posters around New York City and issued a manifesto declaring that “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” The slogan and the logo are closely associated with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the direct-action group that was formed in New York that same year with the participation of the SILENCE=DEATH Project members.

When I heard the slogan “silence=death,” it was a perfect fit for my call to advocacy. I lived in Delaware, smack in the middle of the infamous I-95 corridor, mere hours from New York, Philly, and D.C. I marched, I protested, and sadly, I made panel after panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Silence=death is just as pertinent today as it was in the 1980s. Silence about the challenges of being a long-term survivor can lead to the death of supportive services necessary to maintain health. Silence about the need for increased mental health and substance use disorder services perpetuates stigma and ensures that people will not get treatment. Silence about the difficulties inherent in negotiating sexual relationships, whether gay, bi, trans, straight, let alone HIV-positive, leads to continued transmission. Silence about what it takes to maintain faith, hope and joy while living with HIV guarantees the complacency of a society that thinks antiretroviral medication solves “the problem.” I am continually amazed when I tell someone I work in HIV, and their response is “I thought that was over.”

We need to continue to speak out, those living with and those affected by HIV, in order to ensure that we are not forgotten, and that the legacy of those who can no longer speak out continues. Federal legislation for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program requires consumer involvement. While it is much more common now for people living with HIV to become members of HIV community planning councils, many of these groups are still dominated by service providers. Join your local HIV planning council and speak your truth.

Advocacy around HIV does not have to involve marching in the streets. Because so many of the issues facing people living with and at risk of HIV are societal, a good starting place could be to become involved in local issues. Attend public meetings of your city council and speak up for increased funding and services for those struggling with mental health and substance use. Engage in one-on-one conversations with local candidates running for office. They are supposed to represent you, but how can they if they don’t know who you are and what you care about? Talk to your own doctor and dentist about routine HIV testing and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

I’d like to close with a quote from Elie Wiesel’s 1968 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.


Nina BennettDelaware native Nina Bennett is the author of the poetry chapbook Sound Effects (Broadkill River Press, 2013) and Forgotten Tears: A Grandmother’s Journey Through Grief (, 2005). Nina was among the first in her state to be certified to perform anonymous HIV counseling and testing. She also served as a buddy, facilitated a support group, and worked as an HIV/AIDS case manager. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Napalm and Novocain, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Houseboat, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Philadelphia Stories, and The Broadkill Review.


The 4H’s of HIV. Links all over the Internet will tell you that the CDC coined the phrase “the 4H’s of HIV” but that is not true. That’s why I included in Nina’s post a link to the the March 1983 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) where it is clear that they are simply listing groups that had accounted for the AIDS cases seen to date. The MMWR report does not even include the word “heroin,” but rather refers to “abusers of intravenous (IV) drugs.” The phrase “4H’s of HIV” seems to have sprung up in casual discourse among healthcare professionals and was presumably enshrined in various printed and published sources, but to my knowledge was never used by any credible source as a valid medical or public health term.

The SILENCE=DEATH poster. The six members of the SILENCE=DEATH Project were Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras. The image of the original poster included above comes from The Nomos of Images website. There the image is large enough for you to make out the text beneath the image, which reads:

Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable…Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.

There is a wonderfully informative post by Avram Finklestein about the genesis of the poster and its relationship to the beginnings of ACT Up on the New York Public Library blog.

HIV, Black Lives, and Criminal “Justice”

By Michael Broder
Director of The HIV Here & Now Project

Today is a day to think and feel and pray and talk about the murders of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, and all the others, police and civilian alike, injured in the Dallas shooting, and family, friends, anyone anywhere whose minds and hearts and spirits are soaking in spilled blood right now.

It is also a day not to forget the impact of HIV on black lives, an impact which is completely enmeshed not only with anti-black racism, white supremacism, heteropatriarchy, and predatory capitalism, but also and every day with the criminal justice system. The impact of an HIV that is racialized, criminalized, and weaponized as a tool in the ongoing genocide of black Americans.

Today I do not have the data, the research, the fully thought out and crafted arguments that I would like to have about the convergence on black lives of the prison industrial complex, the military industrial complex, and the healthcare industrial complex. Talk about the intersectionality of our identities—what about the intersectionality of the repressive forces massed against black lives? How we create social and economic conditions that maximize opportunities for black Americans to get HIV (particularly young black gay men and transgender women); then we create criminal justice conditions that punish black lives for the activities that contribute to their HIV risk—drug use, sex work, domestic abuse, mental illness, poverty; then we incarcerate black bodies in prisons organized, once again, to maximize their risk of HIV infection while incarcerated; then we diagnose them as HIV-positive while they are in prison and give them substandard healthcare as well as making them targets of HIV stigma; then, when we do release them back into society, we make it as hard as we can for them to access HIV care and treatment. “Wham, bam, fuck you black man!”

Since I do not have much more that I can write confidently about these issues, I am copying and pasting the brief essay “Prisons and Jails” from the website of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Prisons and Jails

Over two million people are incarcerated in the United States. Men and women of color, particularly black men and women, are disproportionately represented in the correctional system. In 2010, black men had an imprisonment rate that was nearly seven times that of white men, and almost two and a half times that of Latino men. Each year, an estimated one in seven persons living with HIV pass through a correctional or detention facility. At the end of 2010, state and federal prisons held over 20,000 people living with HIV. The rate of HIV among prisoners is 5 to 7 times that of the general population. HIV rates are highest among black prisoners.

The correctional setting is often the first place incarcerated men and women are diagnosed with HIV and provided treatment. Inmates in jails and prisons across the United States, generally, do not receive health care that meets public health standards. In some facilities, prisoners with HIV have no confidentiality or privacy regarding their HIV status. They may be segregated and housed separately from other inmates, and may be blocked from some recreational activities and work assignments.

For many inmates, the behaviors and circumstances that contributed to their HIV infection are those that led to their incarceration (e.g., drug use, sex work, domestic abuse, mental illness, poverty). For others, infection with HIV occurred during incarceration, either by coerced or consensual sex, or by sharing needles or syringes for injecting drugs. Response to the critical need for health care interventions and prevention efforts in correctional facilities have a direct impact on the health of the communities to which prisoners return.

© The Center for HIV Law and Policy

Large Blog ImageI would like to post more ideas and information about these issues. If you have access to the data, the research, and you have the passion to write about this topic, contact us.

Coming Out as a Long-Term Survivor at a Cure Focus Group

By Julene Tripp Weaver
Guest blogger and HIV Here & Now poet

In April I attended a long-term survivor focus group discussion about participating in HIV cure-related research in Seattle sponsored by The Martin Delaney Collaboratories and the National Community Advisory Board. In a packed room at the AIDS Clinical Trials Unit, we were led through a series of questions. There were separate groups for women and people of color, but I chose the long-term survivor group because I am a long-term survivor. I was one of two women in the group of mostly older men. I am an elder as well. Coming soon: over 50% of people who are HIV-positive will be over age 50.

The group was what I expected. I’ve been in many groups with some of these same men, usually as a case manager, since I spent 18 years working in HIV/AIDS in Seattle. My work in the field helped me process and deal with my own status. One of my personal goals was to learn everything possible about the disease.

Going to this focus group was a new layer of my coming out process. When I walked into the room, to my embarrassment the men applauded. Aside from the moderator, I was the only woman, although another woman joined the group later. Only two friends in the room knew my status before I entered. I had contacted them early to ask if they were attending and encouraged them to do so. I wanted their support. They are politically active so I knew they would most likely be willing. I sat next to a man who used to be a volunteer where I worked. I felt at home, as I do around gay men.

The facilitator led us through a series of questions such as: What does the term “AIDS cure” mean to you? Why would you choose to join a study? Why would you choose not to join a study? We were encouraged to keep our answers short.

I would join a study for science if I would qualify. Women are often ruled out. There were a few studies I’ve been eligible for earlier, and I’ve called to be screened for many studies. Being female with so many more hormones than men, and the risk of pregnancy, tends to be a disqualifier. For other medical studies not about AIDS, being on AIDS meds is a disqualifier. Certainly being over 60 may put one over the cutoff age. And would I have to stop taking the medications I’m on now? I waited a long time to take medications, which I believe saved me, but now there is no one easy pill I can take. It took a long time to get on a regimen I could tolerate. I developed resistance to the whole NNRTI class of HIV drugs, so some of the new drugs will not suppress my virus.

One question was interesting. Would you define yourself as healthy or unhealthy? I consider myself healthy; it is part of my self-talk and spiritual healing process not to think of myself as sick. Most in the room stated they are unhealthy. The discussion that evolved asked who decides if we are healthy or not when there is so much hidden in this disease. And fear, because if Social Security Disability decides someone on benefits is healthy they will lose their benefits. So what does that mean in terms of income? Housing? The ability to get assistance with medications or otherwise? There is a lot to lose in the semantics of how our health is defined and by whom.

For a fact, I do not have the energy I used to, possibly not the same mental clarity. There is aging that makes such innocuous changes blurry as to the cause. And of course, there is the virus. Even if it is undetectable, even with a decent CD4 count, it is an inflammatory agent in our body causing stress and an accelerated process that impacts our organs. My health issues are minor, but they are constant, annoying, and hinder me in ways I don’t like to admit. I’m not on disability and would not qualify. CD4 has never been a definer for Social Security disability; it has to be by opportunistic infections, or some combination with mental health.

So, was this focus group helpful? I hope so. There has been a lot of progress with the meds for sure. But some of us are not able to use what is coming out. There is a lot of talk about a cure, but what will it look like? I don’t think I’ll see a cure in my lifetime. But I do expect to live a full lifespan. Any possibility of my acceptance into a study for a cure is improbable and risky.

My search continues. Where do I continue to make a difference with this disease now that I no longer work in the field? One way is through writing. My book of poetry about HIV/AIDS, including poems about personal experience and work experiences, has found a publisher, and will be available soon. That is a huge coming out. So perhaps it will be the best way to enter my next phase. My passion to work with AIDS runs deep, and it’s a large stream with many tributaries to step into.


Julene It's About Time AprilJulene Tripp Weaver worked over 20 years in HIV Services. Her poetry collections include No Father Can Save Her (Plain View Press, 2011) and Case Walking: An AIDS Case Manager Wails Her Blues (Finishing Line Press, 2007). Garrison Keillor featured a poem from Case Walking on The Writer’s Almanac and in his anthology Good Poems American Places (Penguin Books, 2012). Weaver’s poems appear in Anti-Heroin Chic, Riverbabble, River & South Review, Red Headed Stepchild, and Cliterature, among other journals.  Learn more at and follow her on Twitter @trippweavepoet.


By Joss Barton
Contributing Editor


Illustration by Hulee Heck

I can’t begin without admitting defeat.

When I agreed to become a contributing editor for HIV Here & Now, I knew I wanted to craft a narrative and visual project that would become an honest document on the current state of HIV/AIDS art and activism in America.

I wanted to write about my experiences as a queer transgender femme of color, someone who statistically meets the definition of HIGH RISK: risk of poverty, risk of rape, risk of being imprisoned, risk of being murdered, risk of being profiled, and risk of contracting HIV, in a way that not only honored the lives and stories of marginalized queer and transgender communities, but also said FUCK IT to the respectability politics around how we are expected to talk about HIV and AIDS.

My mind soon filled with dozens of essay ideas. I began writing up a mini-list of artists and writers who were not only exploring HIV/AIDS in their work, but also working in ways that were powerful, poignant, and pushing those narratives in radical and innovative directions. I wanted this project to become a collaboration with these artists in interviews, dialogues, and daydreams of how we found liberation in the shadow of AIDS. Bryn Kelly was at the top of that list.

News of her death a few days later was soul shattering. I met Bryn as a 2013 Fellow at Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging LGBT Writers Retreat. Her aura and personality captivated me from the moment we met. Part of me was insanely jealous of her non-fiction cohorts who got to sit in her presence every morning and share their work with her under the direction of novelist Sarah Schulman. They were getting to know her better than I was. They were bouncing literary critiques back and forth with her and I wasn’t. They were the ones who got to hear her laugh.

Bryn’s work is an incredibly nuanced and intersectional look at the dynamics of modern day transgender liberation and survival in a world that actively seeks to erase marginalized communities. She wrote about poverty and transwomanhood and about living with HIV with stark honesty that allowed her to take raw moments of basic survival and craft them into narratives adorned with poignancy and human compassion. She also found ways to cut her stories with a searing dark humor that, like a narcotic, became an addiction for me whenever reading her work.

My goal with this essay is to give Bryn a proper literary analysis of her work. But I already know that nothing I can say can truly honor the immense genius inside her words. I could spend years truly examining her body of work, but for now this essay will focus on her pseudo-anonymous blog, PARTYBOTTOM, and her short story “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” which was curated for the journal We Who Feel Differently in the issue Time Is Not A Line: Conversations, Essays, and Images About HIV/AIDS Now. I hope what follows honors her narratives in a way that says, without conditions, that an HIV/AIDS art canon devoid of work by transgender women is pure bullshit.


IMG_1712The blog’s title, PARTYBOTTOM: THE SEXY HIV+ TRANSGENDER BLOG, alone is an artistic and political statement.

Bryn was no stranger to utilizing pseudonyms in her work. My first encounter with her writing came through her blog The Hussy (an extension of her column of the same name for the now defunct website While The Hussy is both a diary of her misadventures in dating and sex across Brooklyn, as well as a collection of stream of consciousness musing on gender, transfeminist theory, and snark, PARTYBOTTOM: THE SEXY HIV+ TRANSGENDER BLOG, is a document of incredible importance in the trajectory of future HIV/AIDS narrative art as activism.

Partybottoms, scourge of the BODY POLITIC in LGBT INC., are the irresponsible whores, the THOTS of the parTy, the ones who you can always count on with pockets full of poppers, noses stuffed with cocaine, eyes glassed by molly or meth. In their drug induced states they are also the ones who proudly proclaim NO LOADS REFUSED in online ads, orgy texts, or maybe marked on ass cheeks in black sharpie marker. Partybottoms become the magical, mythical creatures that conjure both repulsion and desire from the social and sexual queer culture. They are the monsters in the bathhouses and the trap houses who we can shame and fuck and write public health grants for under the banner of high risk demography. These are only a sprinkle of the existential reasons that makes Partybottom’s narrative both radical and subversive.

SEXY suggests desire and seduction and is immediately contrasted with thirty-five, years of fear, stigma, paranoia, and death in the term HIV+.

Bryn would often recount a timeless tale via social media about an anonymous commentator on who asks if he was exposed to HIV after sex with a transgender sex worker. The man in the story would be rambling off paranoid questions that he might have become HIV+ after using a condom with a transwoman or something even more banal like a back alley blowjob or handjob. The story is typically set in Brazil or maybe Puerto Rico or perhaps New York but the geography of the tale is irrelevant. The stigma of HIV and of the male-to-female transgender identity is universal enough to fill any province worth of fear and loathing for the cis gaze. Bryn utilized this story to expose not only the stigma and ignorance surrounding HIV but also the immense transphobia and transmisogyny embedded inside the cis consciousness.

This makes Partybottom’s transgender label so crucial to her thinking and her commitment to transliberation. Not only does she unapologetically state that she is a SEXY HIV+ TRANSWOMAN but she knows exactly how you are reading those words. You are walking along that headline with trepidation, with some kind of PC shyness. She knows that folks who share her narrative, trans, HIV+ folk, poor folk, gender nonconforming, may be in on the joke, but even if you are hesitant to celebrate that statement, she doesn’t care. She is going to show you HER TRUTH regardless if you are aroused or not.

On the surface, the blog appears to be another confessional outlet with a focus on the blogger’s serostatus, but there’s much more to it than that. Rather, Partybottom is a historical-ethnographic document that positions the stark realities of survival for a transgender HIV+ woman in the dark heart of neoliberal capitalism: New York City.

Two of Bryn’s first posts, “Experiences With Trans/HIV Health Care in NYC: Part 1,” and “A Tale of Two Trans Care Program Case Managers,” are short narratives on the very real difficulties of being poor and trans and relying on state assistance for one’s HIV meds. Because she is living these experiences, she is able to clearly explain why even the most well intentioned public health institutions and professionals focused on queer and trans* health can still fail those who need their care and attention the most. She cites funding constraints, unappreciated and underpaid staff, high case manager turnover, long hours, and the academic-bubbled world of social work graduate programs as some of the many problems ingrained in HIV/AIDS service organizations.

She also contrasts two very distinct and different forms of care in “A Tale of Two Trans Care Program Case Managers” in a translatina social worker and an ivy-league, genderqueer, white social worker. While she sees that both want to help their clients as best they can with the tools given, she can’t help but understand that the language of care coming from them and their respected institutions are polar opposites.

She writes, “I think it all comes down to hiring practices. If you prioritize education and being able to speak a certain kind of social-work-y, tenderqueer vernacular, you will get providers who can provide services for white, FAAB, transmasculine people. If you prioritize hiring people from the communities you hope to serve—people who have lived the life—you will serve those communities, and, hopefully, serve them well,” (Partybottom, December 13th, 2013).

Bryn’s writing throughout Partybottom also brings together some of the most nuanced and intersectional contemporary perspectives on HIV/AIDS with raw, personal accounts of poverty, welfare benefits, casual erasures of transwomen in HIV/AIDS service organizations, transmisogyny, and the physical and mental effects on marginalized people when their survival is tied to bloated political and medical bureaucracies.

In a post titled “Medicaid Mental Health Bureaucracy: Sooooo boring,” Bryn makes clear how the current systems of HIV/AIDS services for poor folk and people on welfare assumes certain levels of linguistic and technological literacy. She retells a simple story of how her basic computer skills, access to the Internet, a cell phone, and her ability to track down a ghost mental health HMO in the vast density of New York City affords her a small level of comfort; that, although she’s stuck in a cruel maze, she knows that others navigating the same routes, with few-to-none of the same skills, must be holding a much sicker kind of knowledge: One that tells them they are lost and being ignored by bureaucratic systems of care.

Bryn’s analysis of poverty and its relationship to HIV/AIDS ranges across her posts from her microscopic accuracy in charting the complexities of government housing assistance for PLWHA to the almost dystopian absurdities of Medicaid. The genius of how she describes all of this rests in her ability to convey the ugliness of oppression with moments of compassion and empathy.

For example, in her incredibly raw essay, “The HIV Welfare Merry-Go-Round: A Day In The Life,” she deals with matters quite literally of life or death: the threat of losing her case management, access to her HIV meds, and possibly her housing. She draws the reader a road-to-nowhere map of state and federal public health tightropes that she and other poor HIV+ citizens are forced to endure for their basic survival. At one point, Bryn finds herself in the halls of a Social Security office when she overhears two strangers discussing how to apply successfully for food stamps.

She writes:

This is not the first time I’ve seen this go down—in these weird liminal spaces, total strangers who share nothing but the commonality of poverty—well, somehow we all manage to form some sense of solidarity. We make small talk. We encourage each other. We share advice about what we have learned about the system. We make sure that we are taken care of. In small, understated, undramatic ways, we show each other tiny acts of love. And there is beauty in that. (Partybottom, August 1, 2014.)


IMG_1824Bryn’s 2014 short story “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” a beautiful, emotionally jarring narrative, walks the reader through the fictional day of SHE, a young, working-poor, HIV+ transwoman fucking and dreaming in New York City.

SHE strolls through Brooklyn, watches Scratch & Win! lotto players:

The cashier pulls from the crowded rolls of scratch-offs, a cascade of unspooling paper, but the deft clerk seems to have eight hands, handling the unfurling chaos while simultaneously wolfing down Sun Chips. She wonders if her boss ever gives her a break. (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”)

Buys beans, cornmeal mix, limes, some eggs, and stares through a blurry contact lens:

There is something wrong with her contacts. They are stained with waterproof mascara, making everything is a little blurry, so she hunches over the counter to make sure every letter is in its proper box on the little form. In the “amount to send” box, she writes $235, a week’s worth of wages she has earned as a receptionist at a Lower East Side salon, paid under the table. (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”)

Bryn’s ability to describe the interior mind with complex detail through a mundane errand is the narrative foundation to the consciousness of SHE. We learn about a new subletter, see her transmasc boyfriend jacking off in her bed, we smell her kitchen.

Bryn also gives us her projection of the NEO-CLASSIC TRANSSEXUAL. Vidal had Myra Breckinridge; Bryn gives us something fucking better. SHE contemplates her favorite drugs:

Her favorite pharmaceutical—hands-down (and she’s tried them all)—is Valium. She has an immense tolerance for it. Valley-yum. The “valley” in the name reminds her of Valley of the Dolls and the glamorous downward spiral of Neely O’Hara: dolls to wake her up in the morning, dolls to put her to sleep at night….She likes having about a pound of pills around. There’s something transsexually, femininely classique about it, and she loves anything feminine and classique (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).

And how she likes to fuck: “She wants to be fucked like dogs fuck—a few thrusts, then cum, then a knot to tie the two animals together to give them time to imprint on each other, and then to be done with it” (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).

Bryn’s neo-classic transsexual is unapologetically femme and lives in an incredibly violent and pornographic world (pornography defined as war, capitalism, penetration). Her SHE is a symbol for the soft girls who worshiped gods and idols in Gilead, and the ones being murdered in Detroit. SHE is also HIV+ and her serostatus brings an even deeper layer of conceptualism to the consciousness. SHE’s serostatus never sits far from her waking mind as she and her boyfriend talk Truvada and discuss if he should start PrEP.

One of the brightest gems of the story is when SHE connects “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” a church spiritual from her childhood, and the Bible scriptures it references, to her boyfriend, to HIV medications, and to the virus inside her.

The title of the story, “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” is itself a complex intervention in the discourse of HIV/AIDS.  The notion of “balm in Gilead” refers to the biblical trope of a medicinal balm (made in the ancient city of Gilead) as a metaphor for divine redemption. The same biblical Gilead inspired the name of the pharmaceutical company, founded in 1987, that manufactures some of the leading treatments for HIV, including Truvada, the only drug currently approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as PrEP.

One of the brightest gems of the story is when SHE considers “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” a traditional African-American spiritual that SHE remembers from her childhood (and the Bible scriptures it references), and connects the song to the pharmaceutical company Gilead and the medications it markets. The beautiful and poignant passage in the story breaks open conflicts of hope, stigma, bareback sex, desire, destruction, disease and healing. SHE muses, in part:

Do these tablets offer the promise of curing the guilt and shame we’ve felt after taking a raw dick (or two, or ten) up the ass? Does it promise God’s mercy for our abominable Romanesque transgressions? Instead of stigma, will we be given stigmata, to mark our holiness? Does the soul, which has been degraded by poverty, by neglect, by racism, by homophobia, the soul that has always been told it has nothing to live for, now, somehow, have the promise of tomorrow? Of hope and everlasting life? (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).

Bryn writes a character rich in desires and dreams but crafted with the true complexities of life: poverty, cooking dinner, making her lover cum. She creates someone who, in the quiet moments of existence, reflects our own small acts of transliberation. Bryn writes,

The Wikipedia article on long-term benzo addiction says that they degrade your cognition over the course of use, but sometimes she thinks she had too much cognition to start out with. Dolls. Years of estrogen shots, electrolysis, the back-alley snip by a half-trained medical student in a dingy hotel in Michigan, the thousands of hours spent on makeup and hair perfection and perfectly fitting clothes that show off her best assets. Dolls. She wants to be soft for him in every way. Soft, soft, soft. (“Other Balms, Other Gileads”).


I won’t pretend that this literary analysis of Bryn’s writing comes close to fully examining her body of work and its profound influence on the formation of contemporary transfeminist theory and transliberation narratives.

Her story and her art begin at the dawn of a digital era that has been shaped dramatically by the contributions of queer and trans* artists, activists, and accidental academics. The Internet has always given voice and space to the marginalized, and it is no coincidence that much of Bryn’s work will be forever coded onto the digital queer landscape. Just as I discovered The Hussy through an algorithmic dance on Tumblr, so will other future queer and trans* folk be introduced to her writing as it spreads, like a femme virus, across screens and feeds.

Sadly, this essay doesn’t even begin to truly dissect some of Bryn’s most vital and groundbreaking contributions to an HIV/AIDS art canon. In her essay, “How To Be A Good Roommate To Someone Living With HIV/AIDS,” Bryn crafts a monumental document of HIV/AIDS care that should be required reading for anyone contemplating medical, social, or cultural work around HIV/AIDS. In it, she not only lays out the complex housing blueprint for PLWHA when their housing is tied to state assistance, but she also bluntly details the emotional and physical realities that HIV+ people deal with everyday as they negotiate spectrums of survival and health. She writes with pinpoint accuracy about the consequences of homelessness for PLWHA, how unstable living conditions result in unstable antiretroviral regimens, the unique legal challenges facing undocumented HIV+ people seeking housing, and the fragility of an HIV+ person’s safety when their serostatus is disclosed without their permission. Bryn narrates these realities to point out the obvious: STIGMA AND POVERTY CREATE AN AIDS HOUSING CRISIS.

She tells us through her writing that a world built on greed, on binaries, on racism, and on the casual erasure and indifference to the most marginalized among us will continue to breed suffering in the human condition. She wrote to say that only a movement based on an intersectional commitment to transliberation, to anti-racism, to evolving beyond neoliberal capitalism, and to ending HIV stigma can alleviate the enormous psychic pain these various forms of oppression bring to the world. She wrote to restore dignity.

Her words were born from what can only be defined as the biblical state of grace, where one’s core encounters the divine in the most quiet and desolate of places, where the cosmic brushes against the soul to whisper truths that can only be translated by those willing to become specters for a disillusioned nation.

Bryn’s last post for Partybottom was a written response to an anonymous, young, HIV+ reader who asks her for reasons why they should take their pills when the weight of their depression seems too much to make any difference. Bryn lists her own personal reasons for staying on antiretrovirals, including a degree of health to work from when facing her own episodes of depression and the guilty pleasure of melodramatics with her friends and lover. She ends her list casting a stream of consciousness spell that transports the reader into dimensions still uncharted:

– YOU –
– HAVE –
– T I G E R –
– B L O O D –

(Partybottom, November 17th, 2015).

Learn more about Contributing Editor Joss Barton and the rest of Our Team.

HIV Here & Now reaches Poem 100

We posted Poem 100 today in our poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016. Here is the amazing list of poets we have featured to date. I do think we have a diversity problem, though: inadequate representation of poets whose first names begin with the letters U through Z.

Large Blog ImageAaron DeLeeAlfred CornAllen F. ClarkAntoinette BrimAshley InguantaAustin AlexisBilly MerrellBrian LeungBryan BorlandC. Cleo CreechC. Russell PriceCeleste GaineyCharlie BondhusCheryl ClarkeChip LivingstonChristopher GaskinsD. GilsonD.C. WiltshireDanez SmithDaniel D.K. LeeDaniel NesterDante MicheauxDavid BergmanDavid GroffDay MerrillDebora LidovDennis RhodesDonna MinkowitzEduardo C. CorralEduardo MorenoEileen R. TabiosElaine SextonElizabeth AlexanderErik SchuckersGuillermo Filice CastroJameson FitzpatrickJason SchneidermanJeff WaltJeffery BergJenna CardinaleJennifer ChapisJennifer Michael HechtJericho BrownJim ElledgeJoan LarkinJohn MedeirosJohn Whittier TreatJoseph O. LegaspiJoseph OsmundsonJulene T. WeaverJulian GewirtzL. Lamar WilsonMadelyn GarnerMARMarcos L. MartínezMarie Howe, Marion Winik (5)(4)(3)(2)(1), Mary Jane NealonMattilda Bernstein SycamoreMaxton Young-JonesMerrill ColeMichael BroderMichael CarosoneMichael KleinMichael MontlackMichael TyrellNancy BevilaquaNicole SealeyNina BennettPatricia Spears JonesPatrick DonnellyPerry BrassPhilip F. ClarkPhillis LevinRandy Evan BarlowRaymond BerryRisa DenenbergRobert CarrRobert SiekRoberto F. SantiagoRon MohringRyan BlackSarah RussellSarah SaraiScott ChalupaScott WiggermanSister Glo Euro N’WeiSophie Cabot BlackStephen MeadStephen MillsStephen RielSteve TurtellSteven CordovaThe HIV Here & Now ProjectTimothy LiuTom Capelonga.

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.


Showing up

By Michael Broder

Today’s post is about showing up.

I’m working on a blog post about why you should write a new poem for the HIV Here & Now print anthology. That’s taking me some time because I don’t want to wag fingers, I want to say something real and true about HIV as a public issue and the poet’s responsibility to address it the way he or she would address other public issues like racism, violence, or poverty.

But here I really just want to show up. To keep my commitment to you who are being so kind as to support this project with your visits to the website, your submissions, your readership, your sharing on social media, liking the Facebook page, following us on Twitter. You are showing up. I am showing up. For poetry and for HIV.

Showing up sounds easy, but it’s not always. I didn’t show up for AIDS 20 years ago. I had so much respect and admiration for ACT UP, and I loved and dated active members of ACT UP, but I went to a few meetings and a few demos and decided it was “not for me.” I did not like the spirit of confrontation. I felt like on some level it was bad for my own health, I mean once I myself tested HIV-positive in the fall of 1990.

I showed up in other ways. My day job as a project editor at a medical communications company that helped the drug company GSK educate physicians about the new HIV drugs—I do believe that made a difference. I edited a newsletter about new developments in HIV treatment, funded with GSK dollars, that was very well regarded among the HIV counselors and allied healthcare workers to whom it was targeted. But I could never get completely out from under the feeling that at the end of the day, I was selling drugs.

Something happened to me in the past year. First I got profoundly depressed; then I showed up. I put my fingers in a lot of pies, maybe too many pies, but I showed up. At AWP last year I got the idea for the HIV Here & Now anthology. A few weeks later I got the idea for the online poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016. After a while I realized the project needed to be about more than poetry. Poetry needed to be a vehicle for advocacy. I want to do more, but for now, I have an advocacy agenda expressed in the hashtags I now routinely append to my posts on social media: #hivtest #hivtreat #hivprevent #nohivshame #nohivstigma #hivPrEP.

Since starting the project I’ve realized there’s a disconnect out there, that many poets would of course agree that HIV was a problem, a tragedy, a crisis—but not their problem, not their crisis, perhaps because: not their tragedy. This is what I want to push against moving forward. I don’t know any poets who feel disempowered when it comes to writing about race, class, gender, sexuality, violence, justice, freedom, war, etc. But I do know that some poets feel they have no right to write about HIV or the impact of AIDS, because it hasn’t touched them personally, or perhaps they have a different kind of scruple, a discomfort, that I do not even want to speculate about here.

Large Blog ImageBut everyone can show up for HIV, regardless of their own HIV status, regardless of whether they have a partner, family member, or friend with HIV. And poets, in particular, come supplied with a vehicle for showing up: their poetry.

HIV Here & Now turns 50…days old, that is

So we’re up to Poem 50 in our poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016. Take a look at the stunning roster of poets we have featured to date:

Michael Broder
Julene T. Weaver
Merrill Cole
Sarah Sarai
L. Lamar Wilson
Joan Larkin
Risa Denenberg
Steven Cordova
Eileen R. Tabios
Joseph Osmundson
Danez Smith
Daniel Nester
Jennifer Michael Hecht
Patrick Donnelly
Phillis Levin
Jason Schneiderman
Charlie Bondhus
Michael Montlack
Guillermo Filice Castro
Sophie Cabot Black
Michael Carosone
Robert Siek
Jericho Brown
Elizabeth Alexander
David Groff
Tom Capelonga
Debora Lidov
Donna Minkowitz
Stephen Mills
John Medeiros
Antoinette Brim
Stephen Riel
Perry Brass
Philip F. Clark
Billy Merrell
Nina Bennett
Steve Turtell
Jim Elledge
Austin Alexis
Sarah Russell
Nancy Bevilaqua
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Allen F. Clark
Christopher Gaskins
John Whittier Treat
Marie Howe
Chip Livingston
Eduardo C. Corral
Cheryl Clarke

Large Blog ImageThat’s about 14% of the way to the end. Or 86% of the way from the end. 50 days/poems down, 315 days/poems to go. A lot of awareness to spread about testing, treating, and preventing HIV and eliminating the shame and stigma associated with an HIV diagnosis. Come with us on this journey. Stay with us on this journey.