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#51 of Our Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016: Patrick Donnelly

#51 of Our Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016: Patrick Donnelly

Patrick Donnelly

The world-renowned poet and activist contnues to explore places where the divine and the human condition meet.

Patrick Donnelly, an award-winning author and professor at Smith College, regards his writing as activism in the sense that “it insists on the subtle links between body and spirit, often treats same-sex love as equivalent to all other love and desire, and interrogates topics like the AIDS epidemic with lyric strategies.”

All that is to say that activism, the sheer nature of it, permeates his work.

Looking back on his experience of living with HIV since 1989, when he was first diagnosed, Donnelly refuses to condemn the person he was in those days, even though he essentially blames himself for becoming positive.

“[I]t was my own behavior that led to me becoming infected," he explains. "I didn’t think much of myself, was fiercely lonely, and turned to regular applications of sexual pleasure to assuage my discomfort. The huge irony is not lost on me that it took contracting HIV for me to learn how to not throw my life away. I don’t struggle against this destiny, because I appreciate the elegant spiritual logic: I had to be shaken awake, and on the whole I’m grateful for the shaking. I would have missed a lot otherwise.”

It's quickly clear from his skillful use of language why Donnelly was named the 2015 - 2017 Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts​. He's the author of two books of poetry: The Charge (2003) and Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin (Four Way Books, 2012); the latter a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.

Through his poetry Donnelly finds the divine in what might be seen as base or even sinful corporeal concerns, like gay sex or the AIDS epidemic; ultimately establishing the human body, with all its desires and failings, as holy unto itself.

Born in Tucson, Arizona, Donnelly grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and now lives in western Massachusetts with his spouse Stephen D. Miller. They've been together since 2002, and married since 2005.  Donnelly is an adjunct lecturer of poetry at Smith College, while Miller teaches Japanese language and literature at the nearby University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"We don’t have children, but our ongoing co-translations of classical Japanese Buddhist poetry sort of take the place of children," Donnelly jokes. "They demand almost total attention, and show no signs of leaving the house."

Donnelly has taken an circuitous career path: he's performed as an actor and opera singer: worked as a professional chef and food writer; helped to coordinate a meal and nutrition-education program for people with AIDS, cancer, and heart disease; and taught healthly cooking and eating skills to senior citizens and people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Much of this he’s done this through organizations like GMHC. His spiritual curiosity has led him, at different times, to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood and to live as a Buddhist and a Muslim. He continues to grow, explore and persevere as a writer and activist.

His boundless curiousity will clearly lead him down other roads less traveled. Through his writing, he takes us with him; and his way with words will keep us enthralled wherever they may lead.

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Savas Abadsidis

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