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Odd Words: Saints and Sinners Festival May 26, 2013

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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Thanks to local poet and writing educator Brad Richard for contributing a write-up of the Saints and Sinners LGBT Literary Festival in New Orleans:

May 25, 2013
The 10th Annual Saints and Sinners Festival, New Orleans

By Brad Richard

My first involvement with the Saints and Sinners Festival (a fundraiser for the NO/AIDS Task Force) was as moderator of the poetry panel in 2004, with, I believe, Jeff Mann, Trebor Healy, and Kay Murphy. I’d been to other writers’ conferences, but never one for LGBT writers—no surprise, as there weren’t many at the time, and they’re still somewhat scarce. Frankly, it wasn’t something I was even certain I wanted to do: I was a writer, I was gay, but was I a “gay writer”? Still I appreciated Paul Willis’ invitation, and I was relieved when he warned me not to get too academic, although that also left me unsure of what to expect. Cutting to the chase: I met great people, I partied, I had some of the best conversations about literature and life that I’ve ever had in any context, my eyes were opened to amazing writing I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered—and, in 2011, I met Bryan Borland, publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press, who would bring out my third book. For all these reasons of literature and community and sheer good fortune, I look forward to this festival with pride and gratitude every year.
This year, I arrived at 10 AM on Saturday to do some low-intensity volunteer work, taking an attendance count at a couple of panels. I sat in on the panel “AIDS Is Still with Us: Telling an Essential Story,” moderated by publisher Jameson Currier, with panelists Andrew Holleran, Trebor Healy, Lewis DeSimone, and Daniel M. Jaffe. The tone was somber and sardonic as the four writers took up Currier’s interesting and important questions, including the provocative, “Do you think AIDS literature has longevity?” The panelists’ answers ended up providing an instructive overview and multi-faceted reflection on the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the US as experienced by gay white men from 80s through the present. More than one panelist remarked that HIV/AIDS as a topic for fiction seemed absent in much contemporary fiction (along with earnest appeals for young people to tell their stories), although current documentaries such as We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, and United in Anger, all dealing with the story of ACT UP’s crucial activism in the heat of the crisis, show that there’s an interest in that phase of the AIDS pandemic as part of queer history. The panelists grappled with the fact that their experience of AIDS, as men who either came of age in the 80s or were already active in the gay scene, was completely different from that of younger people, many of whom may only see HIV/AIDS as a manageable condition, not the nearly immediate death sentence it was back then. DeSimone mentioned giving a reading recently, which included an AIDS death scene, and being taken to task by an older man for having written that—apparently, as DeSimone speculated, because the man was still dealing with not just AIDS fatigue, but also AIDS fiction fatigue. Holleran, in a parallel comment, discussed the difficult decision, when he was a columnist for Christopher Street in the 80s, to write about a disease people didn’t want to even talk about because it was such a downer. He tried alternating columns about AIDS with humorous ones; but soon, as he said, it was a monolith, “it was eating the culture.” It was impossible to write about anything else.
In the post-panel discussion, several audience members brought up the stories of HIV/AIDS among peoples of color, poor people, women, Haitians, Africans—in short, people who are not gay white men and whose communities have had very different experiences of HIV/AIDS. One man also mentioned the contingent of bisexual men who were part of early HIV/AIDS activism but whose stories were absorbed and lost within a larger narrative about men who identified as gay—a provocative point, since, ironically, gay men’s narrative of HIV/AIDS arguably gained the gay community a measure of sympathy, but at the expense, to some degree, of the real diversity of LGBT experience. As often happens with conference discussions, just as this became most interesting, we had to leave to make room for the next group; still, it was great to hear that conversation and see bridges starting to be built.
Later, I was a participant on this year’s poetry panel, which moderator Che Yeun had delightfully titled “Intro to Bodybuilding.” My co-panelists were Michael Montlack and Kay Murphy. Michael read a couple of poems from his first book, Cool Limbo, including the darkly funny “If Hello Kitty Had a Mouth” and the poignant “On Turning Forty.” He also read a new poem, “A Friend of Farrah,” which juxtaposed two cancer stories, Farrah Fawcett’s and his mother’s. Kay read typically tough, darkly comic poems dealing with addiction and illness, including a villanelle, “Undiagnosed,” about a recent bout of pneumonia; another villanelle, “Drinking”; and “Ode to Your Gall Bladder.” Her mastery of form made the poems real testaments of strength. Nervous as usual, I fumbled my way through introductory mumblings about the narrative body (whatever that is), and read poems from Butcher’s Sugar: “My Sixth Grade Sex Life: Milne Elementary, New Orleans,” “Night Lessons: A Writing Assignment,” and “Elegy in a Men’s Room.” The questions and panel discussion ranged across many topics, including the relation of our bodies to our writing practice, our sense of our bodies as history, and the body as source of pleasure and pain. The audience had tough questions, too, including “Does the fallibility of the body continue to inform your work?” and “Does it get easier dealing with mortality and the fact that your body doesn’t keep doing what you want it to?” Benjamin Morris finally asked if we’d all been thinking about mortality lately; I got a laugh when I said, “Most days!”
I left the festival for a while but returned to the Quarter in the evening for an offsite reading, at Gallery Orange, from Love, Christopher Street, an anthology, edited by Thomas Keith, of essays about LGBT experience in New York City. Many of the readings were funny and poignant (wonderful work from Michele Karlsberg, Fay Jacobs, Val McDermid, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, Shawn Syms, and Felice Picano) and others deeply moving, perhaps most particularly Martin Hyatt’s gripping, lyrical account of coming from rural Louisiana and becoming a writer and drug addict (his big addiction, ultimately: the city itself). “Maybe I’m like my Southern aunts,” said Hyatt: “I will tell you everything. Otherwise, I’ll tell you nothing.” His compelling voice, and the strong sense of the silence in the margins, brought the evening to a powerful close.
To myself from ten years ago, I can say what I already knew: yes, Brad, you are a gay writer—enjoy it! And to anyone who may be intrigued by any of this, whether you identify as LGBT or any other flavor of sexual or cultural identity (or saint or sinner, for that matter), check out next year’s festival! For an internationally known event, it remains a fairly well-kept local secret, and it would be fantastic to see even more local lovers of literature take part.

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