Michael Broder is a Lambda Literary Award finalist and founder of HIV Here + Now, a project that explores the impact of HIV on all of us in the modern world, regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender, or any other category of identity. I was lucky enough to snag him for an interview where we discuss poetry, the project, and his experience with HIV.
Aidan Forster, Assistant Blog Editor: First, tell us a little about yourself.
Michael Broder: I’m a 54 year old gay Jew, second-generation American of Eastern-European descent. Grew up in Coney Island in a Mitchell-Lama co-op apartment complex (New York State government-subsidized housing for low- and middle-income people). I mention this because in the current resurgence of identity politics I think there’s often an assumption that white Jews from New York of my generation (baby boomers, although I’m what I like to call a late boomer, the 1960-64 birth cohort) all grew up with a certain level of socioeconomic as well as white privilege, and that’s not true, at least not the socioeconomic part. I was poor, as were many of my friends, neighbors, and relatives. We didn’t get braces on our teeth. We didn’t go on vacations. We didn’t go to summer camp. I went to New York City public schools. I went to Columbia University on a Pulitzer Scholarship and paid for my room and board with an American Federation of Teachers College Scholarship, and lots of student loans. I studied comparative literature. I spent my 20s studying Latin, Greek, and Biblical Hebrew while failing to establish myself in any kind of sustaining career. Capped that decade off by getting infected with HIV in 1990 at the age of 29. In my 30s I stumbled from nonprofit management to freelance journalism to medical communications, which means helping drug companies market their products through means other than advertising and public relations, such as physician education. A lot of my work in those years had to do with educating physicians and allied healthcare professionals about the new HIV treatments, and it was good, important work that I was proud of. By 2000, the HIV drug market was becoming much more competitive, and the leaders in the field were shifting their resources from education to advertising. The good work that I was proud of, not so much anymore. I had to get out of there. I had to figure out what I was really going to do with my life. So I leveraged my medical communications background to do freelance medical writing that paid the bills (including health insurance, which I could never be without because I needed my HIV meds to stay alive), while getting an MFA in poetry from NYU and finishing a long-abandoned PhD in classics from the CUNY Graduate Center. I tested the waters of an academic career but by this time the economy was tanking, the academic marketplace was shrinking (for full-time, tenure-track jobs, that is, as opposed to adjunct exploitation), classics was a dying field, and nobody wanted to hire an aging fag whose dissertation was on queer kinship and camp aesthetics in the satires of Juvenal. By 2014 I was profoundly depressed, anxious, and insomniac. But through some kind of grace that increasingly appears to be that of The Power That Created the Universe, plus psychotherapy, clonazepam, and citalopram, I clawed my way out of the hole. In 2015 I started a small independent literary press, Indolent Books, and became active in a number of queer, Jewish, and/or literary activities and organizations. And I started the HIV Here & Now Project.
AF: What drew you to poetry over anything else?
MB: I came late to poetry, as to most things in my life. I’ve written since I was a child, but I was initially drawn to fiction and thought poetry was only something one read if one’s English teacher assigned it. Awful, I know, but that’s how it was. I abandoned creative writing altogether when I was about 18, based on some weird internal homophobia that said, “You only want to write about one thing, Michael, and you know you don’t want to write about that thing because then you won’t be able to keep that thing a secret anymore.” My cover story was that I was more cut out to be a scholar and critic than a novelist. Like my heroes Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, I was going to subvert capitalism through literary criticism and cultural theory. I also had this odd idea that if you left the lights on in your dorm room when you went out to see live jazz downtown, that would ultimately bring about the downfall of capitalism through exhausting the energy supply. Needless to say, none of my revolutionary ideas panned out. But when I was about 28, I suddenly felt fiction welling up in me, and I started to write short stories. Not very many of them. I wrote very slowly. Of course, they were all the gay coming of age stories that I had censored myself from writing ten years earlier. Now I could write them from the perspective of a somewhat older first-person narrator who had finally navigated his coming out process. After a while, however, fiction began to feel like lies, and I wanted to write in a different way. So I did, and after a while, I thought, hmm, could this new way of writing be…poetry? And indeed, it was. And that was December 1991. The poem I wrote that month, the first poem I wrote as an adult, when I was already 30 years old, was published in Assaracus, Issue 17, in January 2015 (“Casual, Anonymous”).
AF: Recently, you’ve been working on the HIV Here and Now Project. What spurred you to start this project? What sort of feedback have you been getting?
MB: I was participating in an LGBTQ reading in Minneapolis during AWP in April 2015, and I noticed that a number of the gay male poets, particularly older gay male poets, including me, were reading poems about being long-term survivors of the AIDS epidemic, about being HIV-positive for a very long time, like, 25 years. I think especially of John Medeiros, the Minneapolis poet who helped organize that reading. But there were others, too. And I thought, huh, this isn’t Marie Howe writing about her brother who died of AIDS, or Mark Doty writing about his lover who died of AIDS, or any of the amazing poets in David Groff and Philip Clark’s incredible anthology, Persistent Voices, who wrote about their own experience of AIDS and are now dead (I’m not going to list even a single one because I don’t have room to list them all; just get the book). No, this is something different. This is we, the poets who didn’t die, the poets who lived, and how about that? What’s that like? And that’s when I decided to do the anthology. But at the same time, I decided I wanted huge breadth—not just old fags like me living with HIV for 25 years, but 22 year old kids newly infected, or on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill you take once a day to prevent HIV infection), or not on PrEP and scared shit they’re going to get infected any day now. People of all races, ages, sexes, genders, geographies, HIV statuses. So I got back to Brooklyn after AWP and started getting out the call for submissions and doing a lot of direct, individual solicitations to as many of my poetry friends and acquaintances as I had or could find emails for or reach on Facebook. And some were down with it right away. But a lot of people didn’t understand what the fuck I was talking about, and responded in ways that I found surprising. That’s not a topic I write about. That’s not something that’s part of my experience. I’m flattered, Michael, that you want to include me, but I don’t have any relevant work. So the feedback has been varied and at times I’ve been discouraged and even angry. But it got better over time, especially after I had the rather brilliant idea of starting the poem-a-day website, which gave the project greater visibility on social media and just gave people something they could actually look at, visit, interact with, experience, and I think it helped give some people a better sense of the possibilities for quote-unquote, “poems about HIV.” And then somehow you youngsters (*bumps his gums*) got a hold of it, which is what I really wanted all along, but I didn’t know how to reach you, and finally, somehow, the word got out, and now I’m getting all this incredible work from high school and college kids, and I’m so happy, and so grateful.
AF: How has the project changed your idea about HIV in the modern world?
MB: So that’s sort of what I was starting to get to in my answer to your previous question, about the feedback I’ve received. I was already well aware that HIV was not only a major ongoing catastrophe in the developing world, but a persistent public health crisis right here in the United States. We have about 1.2 million people living with HIV today in the US. Of these, about 170,000 don’t know they are infected, and about 755,000 are not on HIV meds. There are 50,000 new infections every year, and the hardest hit group is young black gay men and transgender women in urban centers. So even just in stark epidemiologic and public health terms, it’s a huge clusterfuck. But what I did not realize was the extent to which HIV stigma remains a problem here in the US. How much shame and secrecy remains about having HIV or AIDS. How many people still face discrimination at work, at school, in the community, because of their HIV status. And the lack of awareness among the general public about just how much of a social and public health issue HIV and AIDS still are in 2015. Not only that, but there’s an intense desire among Americans to think of AIDS as a tragedy from the past that is now behind us, and HIV as a chronic, manageable condition whose impact is…well, they don’t even really think about what it’s impact is. It’s just not something they need to worry about. It’s not “their issue.” It’s off the radar.
AF: How has your experience with HIV influenced your writing? How has it influenced other aspects of your life?
MB: As I mentioned earlier, I started writing poetry when I was 30, when I had recently become infected. So whereas the fiction I left behind tended to be about coming out and gay coming of age, my poetry tended to be, implicitly or explicitly, about living with HIV. Even if the poem seemed to be about a young gay man who was sad and lonely, the subtext was that he was sad and lonely ultimately because of living with HIV, losing lovers, feeling like a pariah, fearing for his life, feeling his mortality so very deeply, palpably. It colored the way he looked at his past, present, and future. I survived all of this gay shame, I struggled through so much homophobia, anger and resentment and resistance within my family, and I came out the other side, came out, embraced myself, embraced love, and for what? Only to face imminent death? That’s the poetry. Sometimes it’s hard to say how much of it is really me and how much of it is an invented poetic persona. As far as how it has influenced other aspects of my life—well, on the one hand, I just kind of go about my business: I have a house, a husband, a freelance medical writing career that still pays the bills, a poetry career that is growing and changing, I’m starting to edit and publish as well as write, in fact really I hardly write any poetry at all right now, I’m consumed by The HIV Here & Now Project as a curatorial and editorial and publishing endeavor. And I’m loving it. But on another level, HIV determines everything in my life. I absolutely cannot be without health insurance, so that means I have to live a certain way, work a certain way, make a certain amount of money so I can afford to purchase my own insurance—cuz ain’t no fuckin way I’m ever going back to a day job with a little grey cubicle and fluorescent lights overhead. It influences the sex I have, how my HIV-negative husband fucks me. The blood I cannot donate. The life insurance I cannot qualify for. The babies I could not father biologically (although I hasten to add that preventing mother-to-child transmission has been a great success of HIV medicine). And so on.
AF: Let’s talk about your poetry collection This Life Now, finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Poetry. As it was your first, how was your experience writing and refining your debut collection?
MB: Again I say the story of my life has been one of coming late to pretty much every party. The poems in that book go back to the mid 1990s. I wrote and revised very slowly. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and I was a mentorship anti-magnet, I had virtually no one to help me figure out which way was up. And then I dropped poetry for a bunch of years while I finished the PhD and worked the academic job market. I’ve been a very black and white, all or nothing thinker all my life—I could never handle being or doing two things at once. I’m working really hard on changing that now, but it took me over 50 years to figure that out. In a sense, I did not write or refine my debut collection. I wrote a different book. One about twice the length with a lot of poems that had nothing to do with gay experience or HIV. Poems about language. Poems about my mother dying. Poems about 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that manuscript spent two years on the contest circuit, like, really really hard on the contest circuit—I think I entered just about every contest there was two years running. And…nothing. Not even an honorable mention. So I just said fuck it and finished my doctorate and embarked on my abortive academic career. Then in 2013, at the Rainbow Book Fair here in New York City, I met my husband’s friend Julie Enzser, who edits the venerable lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom, and who also works closely with her friend Lawrence Schimel, publisher of A Midsummer Night’s Press, whose Body Language imprint features LGBTQ poets and poetry. And Julie said, Michael, Lawrence and I were talking about possibilities for his 2014 list the other night, and your name came up. You should send him a manuscript. And I did. And bless his heart, he yanked out all the poems that did not scream “Body Language,” and sent me what was left for my review, revision, and approval. And that’s how This Life Now was born. Which means there are lots of leftovers from my original manuscript that still need a home between covers. And there are other poems of gay experience and living with HIV that were never included in that original manuscript, that also need a home between covers. So the world should be seeing a couple more chaps or small collections from me in the next couple of years, just clearing out my backlog, before I go on to continue publishing newer work.
AF: What advice do you have for young writers and young members of the queer community?
MB: Wow. That’s a tough one. I feel like you guys already know so much more than I ever did or do or will know about writing and living a queer life. I feel like you guys are much better at juggling than I ever was—identities, roles, interests, commitments. And I hate sounding like anybody’s dad. Or in some cases grandpa! I think what I want to advise is: do what you want to do. By which I don’t mean be selfish or self-centered or inconsiderate. My husband is into Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant (is that I thing? I guess it is now) whose basic instruction is to pick up a piece of clutter and hold it your hands for 30 seconds. If it “sparks joy” you keep it; if not, it’s off to the Housing Works Thrift Store (to support housing and supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS—that part is me, not Marie Kondo). So when I say do what you want, I mean choose how to spend your time, energy, resources, and passion based on what brings you joy. From your college major and your job and your apartment and your roommates, to how you do your gender, how you have sex, how you interact with your family—base those choices on what brings you joy, and try your darnedest to wash your hands of all the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy, all the people, all the gender conventions or even the nonconventions, all the sex acts and kinds of relationships you can be in, with which people and how many people and on what terms. And don’t expect to make it all work in one day. You kind of spend your whole life figuring all of this out, and that’s fine. Just check in from time to time and make sure that, on balance, you’re moving closer to what brings you joy and leaving whatever doesn’t farther and farther behind. Same for writing. Write how and what you want to, how and what you need to. Put it out there. Some people won’t like it. Fuck ‘em; they’re not your audience. You’ll find your audience. Your audience will find you. Oh, and one other thing. Don’t try to change the world; do seek to make a difference. Changing the world is really quite difficult. Sort of hard to plan for. Making a difference is really quite possible. There so many differences you can make, whereas there’s only one world you can change, so even if you just look at it statistically, seeking to make a difference is a much smarter way to go.
Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Assaracus, BLOOM, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, OCHO, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journals, as well as in the anthologies This New Breed: Gents, Bad Boys and Barbarians 2 (Windstorm Creative, 2004), ed. Rudy Kikel; My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them (Terrace Books, 2009), ed. Michael Montlack; Spaces Between Us: Poetry, Prose and Art on HIV/AIDS (Third World Press, 2010), eds Kelly Norman Ellis and ML Hunter; and Divining Divas: 50 Gay Men on Their Muses (Lethe Press, 2012), edited by Michael Montlack. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of feral and stray cats.