Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In this Body: Reflections of a Recent Reading of To Be Left With the Body

By Raymond Berry (TWLWTB Contributor)

To Be Left With the Body held its first major reading in New York, at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) on Thursday, August 14, 2008. The reading featured co-editors, Cheryl Clarke and Steven G. Fullwood. I was also one of the presenters. The audience for this reading consisted of a support group for men of color called The Barbershop, a weekly discussion group for Black men who have sex with men. Each week the group focuses on a different topic, pertinent issues confronting participant's lives. The Barbershop’s intent is to provide an atmosphere for thought-provoking conversation with the end goal of skills building and increased community support. It is a program sponsored by GMHC.

I came to New York (for the first time) specifically for this reading. It was important that I share this work and prove that “positive” individuals can transcend “this body” of existence. Co-editors Steven and Cheryl sought to create a work that is universal to show that “we” are still in crisis, and that communities at large are capable of splintering this wall of inhumanity that separates us.

There were about thirty people present. We did not start by introducing ourselves or the work. Instead, we brought this audience into this world, one in which silence, shame, fear, and invisibility serve as clouds that block possibility -- the light within ourselves that we often suppress, somehow trapped under the weight of what we’ve done. No longer people, but monsters inside ourselves, broken by moments.

We read various selections of the work that spoke to us. Some are own, and some by the other contributors. Cheryl read excerpts from Samiya Bashir’s poem “Clitigation,” and Naomi Jackson’s short story “Before and After.” She also provided a unique interpretation of Marvin K. White’s “14.” Her reading of her own poem, “Body Double,” seemed to resonate most with the audience.

I was simply ecstatic to be in the company of this great woman writer.

Steven - what can I say about him? His reading of “Death Poem” was amazing. The way I imagined it. The way I maybe would have read it. But it is “his” way that brings us in the center of it - able to touch it, smell it, crave it, then wish we could forget. “It tickles,” he writes - my favorite line of the poem. So many entendres here. So many memories I relived, and that of those listening or reading these words. I was anticipating his reading of “Here,” but he did not read it. However, he did read “Popeye’s” by Pamela Sneed, and it reminded us of the journey - the one that has been, the one we travel, and the one we fear will swallow us.

I read some of the poems that I am deeply connected with. They include “Sustiva,” “Dirty,” “Truvada,” “Transformation,” “1995,” and “Journal.” Some of these works do not appear in TBLWTB, but they are equally important. I felt most comfortable here, not afraid to experience the moment. The silence of it. Sometimes we read, disconnecting ourselves from the world of the poem. Meaning is lost here. The audience made us feel welcome and free to explore the feelings we experienced when first crafting these poems.

Following the reading, there was a Q & A session, in which we had an opportunity to comment on the work and answer various questions, including what the work does aesthetically and contextually, and our assessment of the work as a whole, and how it’s compared to previous works. I responded by saying that one should not compare works, although it is the work of literary critics. It does a disservice to the work. TBLWTB is a continuation of what has been done, but experience is transcribed differently. The perspective is fresh.

One person said that he appreciated the authenticity of the work, but I got the impression that he assumed that “we” the authors, personally experienced the world of these poems.

This may or may be so, but I felt it necessary to explain that one should not assume the writer of a work and its speaker are the same. It was also brought to my attention that parts of this work can be transformed into film. I would love to see this as a series of monologues, a one-man show, or even a short play, especially the “Journal” suite.

We concluded by signing copies of the work. One audience member planted his lips on my face, and held on, as if he knew we both needed it. It was in that moment, that I felt his connection to my work, and came into the knowledge that when I read these poems, I do not have to be ashamed of them or be afraid to let go.

Friday, August 15, 2008

TBLWTB Interview with Clarke and Fullwood, by Herukhuti @ Black Funk

Black Funk was founded based upon the work of Herukhuti, a sociologist, sexologist and relationship coach, traditional/urban African shaman, educator, cultural animator, social theorist, and community activist. Black Funk draws upon Heru's philosophy and theories of human development, systems, and social transformation. See for more details.


Why this book and why now, both for you and for the world?

STEVEN: TO BE LEFT WITH THE BODY is the third in a series of books created by and for Black gay men produced by AIDS Project Los Angeles as a creative way to address HIV risk.

That said, the book is both nostalgic and magical for me, a grateful return to the first editing job I ever had. My experience with Colin Robinson, formerly the Executive Director of New York State Black Gay Network, and George Ayala, then the outreach educator/coordinator from APLA, taught me how to collaborate with editors and writers, solicit work from artists and to dedicate myself to the process. Working with Colin, George and the writers in Think Again was a critical step toward opening my own press a year later. I thank George and specifically Pato Hebert, who helmed the project for APLA, for allowing me this space to create and refine my thinking about the endless possibilities in doing HIV outreach to Black gay men. Both men were open to new things and continuously strive to do their work in creative, profound ways. It was a joy to work with Pato on this project because his vision and talents are expansive. Not only did he design the book, he also gave Cheryl and I space to imagine this project without limiting us. All we had to do is hit our deadlines. Check out his work on the countless APLA publications online at

CHERYL: Thank you, Heru, for doing this interview. Actually, I got introduced to the publications of AIDS Project Los Angeles with Vol.4, Issue 1 of CORPUS, edited by Alex Juhasz in 2006, in which I published an article on Black Gay Writing. That particular issue explored women’s relationships with HIV+ men.

However, working with you, Steven, on TBLWTB, recalled my work on CONDITIONS from 1981 to 1990. If you remember, CONDITIONS was a feminist journal “of writing for women with an emphasis on writing by lesbians,” begun in Brooklyn in 1977. Together with a multi-racial collective of dykes—Dorothy Allison, Jewelle Gomez, Mariana Romo-Carmona, Elly Bulkin, Jan Clausen, among the many over the course of the time I was an editor—we gathered and edited the writing of scores of women writing for women during the most active and activist period of lesbian-feminist publishing in the 20th century--and so far, the 21st century. Barbara Smith’s groundbreaking article, “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism,” appeared in CONDITIONS: TWO in 1977. This article radicalized criticism of Black women’s writing. So many of us, as critics, lesbian and non-lesbian, owe our orientations to Smith’s article, in which, among many other things, she interpreted Morrison’s SULA as a “lesbian novel.” You both may also remember CONDITIONS: FIVE, THE BLACK WOMEN’S ISSUE in 1979, guest-edited by Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel, which was the first publication to feature self-identified Black lesbian writers. So, TBLWTB took me back to those halcyon days of lesbian-feminism.

STEVEN: Yes, Cheryl, CONDITIONS, FIVE was quite important for me as a young Black gay man. It sort of showed me a way and opened a way for APLA’s publications and TBLWTB.

CHERYL: Except we could not distribute CONDITIONS for free!

STEVEN: Oh yes! TBLWTB, for the world, specifically the Black queer community, groundbreaking as it is the first co-gender, co-edited journal produced by APLA, and contains both male and female writers and expands the original premise of the book by also considering the impact that HIV/AIDS has on not just Black gay males, but also the Black queer community en masse; those who carry the virus, conjuring those who have passed, aging, and probably most interesting, an acceptance of life and death wrought in creative, thought-provoking ways. More importantly there is a celebration of the body which is something Black -people have always been mindful of as a legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Being told we were nothing but bodies is a confounding feeling. It hurts you where you live, born into pain because of one’s very body. Learning the history and my own complicity in self-denigration has led me on a quest not only to recover and celebrate my body in my life and writing, but to assess how this disembodiment has impacted the Black community, specifically Black queer bodies. Whose body is this, exactly? Fodder for Republicans? Whipping children for “normal” Black people? A voiceless, disembodied sociological experiment, always subject to, or farmed as white fantasies and terrors? The photo on the cover was taken when I was in Ghana, at Cape Coast at the Elmina Slave Castle. The last look at by some of our ancestors before they were shipped off to God knows where to be enslaved or killed. That abuse is in the blood memory and pain-body of the diasporic African. We need to remember this, so we can heal ourselves, the larger picture of how I believe we should address HIV/AIDS risk.

CHERYL: If I could chime in, Steven and Heru, about the body, the Black body, and the Black body’s pain: I’d like to say that I think the body records history, and this is infinitely crucial for and to the Black body—yours and mine and those of the contributors to TO BE LEFT WITH THE BODY who share the body of their work with us. The lesions, the scars, the wounds (which are historical record) remind us subconsciously and consciously and psychically of the last view of the edge of the Guinea coast and the first view of the West Indies and then the final debarkations in Boston or the Georgia Sea Islands or New York.

Wherever. Inside of all of us in the West, no matter whom we pass or pose as, there is a Black body in all of us—rather like that “Black Mother” Lorde says is in all of us. Sorta like Heru’s “Black mama sauce!” [a poem from Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality, Vol. 1, Vintage Entity Press, 2007.)

STEVEN: Yes, “Black mama sauce.” Visual representations of the bodies in the book compliment the stunning array of poems, essays and short stories that affirm “bodyspeak” before, during and after sex; during and after HIV/AIDS; as the body returns to dust; and the undertaking of the body as a text itself in remembrance pieces.

What does it mean to be left with the body in today’s world? Witness war on the television and in the papers. Ask someone who is often reduced in public discourse to nothing but a body to be controlled, abused and discarded. Queer bodies, Black bodies, bodies of color, working-class bodies, poor and disaffected bodies. To be left with a body in revolt, in joy, in pain, pleasure, writhing, wheezing, erupting, moving toward its end. These are the places I think the book goes, with clear eyes, no pity, no regrets. Witness.

To continue reading go to

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

francine j. harris – her intention

why write?

Once a week, I go to an open mike here in Detroit. And on the host’s sign-up sheet, there’s that question. Column A: What’s Your Name? Column B: Why do you write poetry?

And every week, I try to come up with something clever and light, particularly since my poems – aren’t always. Like: “What else am I gonna’ do after six o’clock that won’t make me fat?” or “Someone put a gun to my pillow, I sneezed and a poem came out.” or “As a kid, I used to eat my gum.”

But ultimately, every week I have to think about it. Why do I write?

It’s like when your lover asks you: “Why do you love me?” and you have to start the list. Because you’re smart. Because my heart thumps when you walk through the door. Because you’re hot and I can’t live without your dick (you gotta’ work on ego in those moments). But ultimately – everything you say sounds awful in some way. Selfish. Sometimes it borders on cruel. Because you complete me. Because no one else gets me. Because I need you.

I’ve got secret lovers. Things like trains. Places like the ocean. Grandiose ideas like God. There’s something I only share in the presence of these spaces. I tell it to them over and over again and they don’t tell anyone. I feel that way about writing. About the poems. Sometimes I think that’s what demands poetry to exist in its metaphorical environment. There’s an ambiguity in one’s true nature, always conflict, always dual meanings, and often – a cloaking. Something not every one else should see. Poems are very much about lingering in that space for me. I am comfortable there. Every poem has a secret of mine. Since its job is to communicate, it shares, and therefore does its job. But there is a secret in it, if only just in its creation. The poem’s mystery is the way it flirts with the reader and threatens betrothal of the creator. As an artist, I just can’t help myself. I love the dance and I love the mirror.

what inspired your poem "in intention?"

dUMBA (the poem’s dedication) was a queer performing arts collective in Brooklyn. It had a long and varied history. I lived there during its final years, where it had incidentally, become comprised of folks of color. Some days it was a gallery walk. Some days it was host to out of town performing artists. Some days (or nights, to be precise) we hosted play parties.

dUMBA is the most complicated space I have ever lived in. It was highly sexual, terribly intellectual, often intoxicated, always engaged, emotionally effusive, sometimes explosive, and it was very spiritual, haunting, magical.

Coming home from our 9 to 5’s, we got into the habit of retreating into roundtable discussions at night. They generally lasted all night. Mondays were generally sober, but by Thursday, they often involved beer (just being honest here). We talked about all kinds of shit. But from these conversations, there was one in particular – about HIV and AIDS that stood out to me. There was this notion, not a theory entirely, a thought really. One of those things you say out loud just so it exists. But something you also quietly want to believe. The theory was that disease is not physical, at least not just physical. That the culprit is mental, spiritual. And that yes, the science is obvious - you come in contact with something contagious, you can catch it. But that there is something to be said, too, about faith, about intention. That there is some immeasurable quality of disease that has to do with what we believe we are susceptible too, or immune to. And we would talk about it while we were gathering boxes of condoms to pass out. And I believe – there was something to that.

Interestingly, the people I knew there survived a spectrum of treacherous physical and emotional circumstances, not related to sex, but certainly the stuff of what can either make or break you. And I always thought something about the spirit, the intention, pulled us all through.

what issues are you dealing with in your current work?

Well, I am bumping up against myself in some ways. The various elements of my writing are calling for distinction between themselves, which probably demands a historical specificity and context. This is something I really struggle with. I find it very hard to incorporate factual information into my writing. I write from the gut. The gut tells its own truth and doesn't have clunky language. So it’s going to be a challenge. Which of course is a good thing.

In the same vein, I think, I want my writing to be unafraid of its perspective. I’m not trying to write political poetry, but I do want my writing to stand on its own and for itself. I want to allow it to be itself and to have its own politic. I worry, sometimes, what people will say, from either side of the political spectrum. Ultimately, I don’t want to give a fuck. And really, that’s easier said than done.

share some of your reactions to TBLWTB.

Damn, Steven...first of all...and I don't have the book with me, so I think I've got the title right - but Death Poem... oh my God. Was brilliant. Brilliant.

As for the rest of the book - well, the lay out is gorgeous. But I just got into it this weekend, and you know - well, there's a lot of painful stuff in there. Maybe I shouldn't have started with raymond berry, I don't know.

But I had to put it down at some point. I'm gonna' have to pull my way through it. But the writing is great and I'm so happy to be a part of it.

in our last conversation you and I talked about spaces we occupy as artists.

isolated spaces are so strange. we crave them. need them. hate them. fight for them. politic for them. politic against them. we dip around the corner with our friends to get to them. we kiss inside them. we inivte others to kiss with us in opposition to them. they are healing and horrible. terrible things happen inside them. sometimes nothing can be accomplished outside of them.

now i feel like i want to write something just around that whole idea. anyway, i think that way about the spaces we occupy as artists. every time we put pen to page, we create spaces, occupy them. we put up our walls and tear down others. it's really amazing - when you think about it - that anyone has any protest about ANY space at all. as humans, we can't help but occupy them.

physical law determines segregation.

art does too. it also worships at the altar of union. its offerings for the sake of society - these jarring connections we make with our paint.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Review of TBLWTB - The Edge

To Be Left With the Body
Reviewed by Kevin Scott Hall
EDGE Contributor

To Be Left With the Body
is the third in a series of publications issued by AIDS Project Los Angeles and designed to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis among black gay and bisexual men.

It is a crisis that needs to be addressed. According to a 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV rates among gay and bisexual black men is more than twice the rate of that for whites, 46% to 21%. Sadly, the rate of infection in recent years has been spiking upwards again.

As Vallerie Wagner puts it in the Foreword to this collection, "As the ’hidden’ face of AIDS became more public -- a black and brown face -- silence, stigma, and denial have become the inevitable result of inequity."

Despite the subject matter, the cumulative effect of the essays, poems and stories presented in this collection creates a tone of feistiness, radical creativity, and a will to not only live, but to transcend the illness (emphasis mine - sgf.)