On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report about five gay men with a rare form of pneumonia. “Many people thus consider June 5 to be the anniversary of AIDS,” notes Michael Broder, the HIV-positive man behind the HIV Here & Now Project, which hosted a poem-a-day countdown to the 35th anniversary. “As a poet,” Broder explains, “I wanted to raise awareness about 35 years of AIDS, using poetry.”
But rather than simply writing the poems himself, Broder invited other poets to participate and posted a different poet's poem each day.
“The poets did not have to be HIV-positive and the poems did not have to be about HIV or AIDS,” Broder says. “But many of them were, and all the poems served to honor their day in the countdown — to bring some beauty and pleasure to what was otherwise a grim and ugly countdown.”
HIV Here & Now concluded the series June 5, 2016, with the poem “AIDS,” written for the project by acclaimed poet Ada Limón. In her poem, Broder says, “Ada writes, ‘AIDS’ in the 1980s became ‘a word for shame, for fear’ a ‘cutting out of the tongue,’ a ‘lesson in silence.’”
“Even 35 years later,” Broder adds, “silence still equals death and we must still speak up and speak out. Especially now, when so many of the most vulnerable are also the most marginalized, the most silenced, the most ignored members of society. These days, unfortunately, when it comes to HIV and AIDS, a lot of people are not listening.”
He blames that on the fact that people believe “AIDS is something from the past that is over and done with.” When, in reality, Broder says, “people continue to become infected, get sick, and die — despite effective treatments — because of poverty, lack of information, lack of access to care and services.”
Broder sees poetry as way to “break through some of that silence and reach some people who might otherwise not listen or hear. Poetry is one way to raise awareness, touch hearts, and enlighten minds.”
His project has done just that, having reached thousands of people, generating over 59,000 page views and leading hundreds of poets to submit their work. Broder acknowledges that HIV Here and Now includes the voices of many older gay white men, who “like me [have] been living with HIV for many years, and/or who lost lovers, partners, and dozens—scores, hundreds—of friends to AIDS.”
But the poems also represented some surprising demographics. Although Broder is “not sure why,” a number of South Asian poets contributed to the project. He muses that it could be “because HIV and AIDS continue to have such an impact in South Asian countries.”
In addition, “and what was very interesting and surprising to me,” Broder says, “many older white women poets [contributed], many of whom were, or still are, allied healthcare professionals, who lost friends, loved ones, and clients during those years.”
Broder says he’s most proud of how “the project caught on with younger poets, poets who did not live through the AIDS epidemic of the '80s and '90s,” but some of whom “had lost an uncle to AIDS, one they had known and loved, or one they had only heard stories about, and they used poetry to express how that man’s life or death affected them.”
A natural outgrowth of the project is an HIV Here & Now anthology, which Broder is currently editing and which will feature up to 100 of the very best poems from the poem-a-day countdown, as well as some poems that were not included in the countdown.
And, Broder says, the HIV Here & Now Project continues, with blog posts by contributing editors and guest bloggers "addressing the intersection of HIV with health justice, racial justice, criminal justice, and social justice, among other urgent topics.”
He’d like to see the project continue to grow and evolve, perhaps one day becoming, “a way to use poetry, spoken word, art, music, dance, film, and theater to raise awareness about HIV, reach out to underserved communities, and connect at-risk youth with testing, treatment, and prevention services.”