Joseph Delgado, HIV survivor and longtime poet, talks about a new collection of poetry

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This article is about suicide and suicidal thoughts, which may trigger some readers. If you or someone you care about is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the 24-hour toll-free US Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Author Joseph F. Delgado, diagnosed with HIV in 1986, was born in Puerto Rico and currently lives in South Carolina. He works in almost every form imaginable – novel, short story, poetry, translation, theatre, film, non-fiction. He has published numerous works, both in Spanish and in English, in complete works and in journals such as TO magazines and The James White Review. His drama Crushed at the Crossing or the Tyranny of Liberty was a finalist at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival 2019 in New York.

Delgado’s last collection of poetry, Viral Swan Songs: Variations on a Theme by Montagnier, began with a collection of poems in Spanish, “Canto de pato, 30 graznidos y una canción esperanzada”. This, Delgado says, roughly translates to “Queer Swan Song: 30 Squawks and a Song of Hope.” (In some Spanish-speaking countries, Patto, meaning “duck”, is a slur for a gay man.) He then transmuted these poems in this volume into English. The results are comic, tragic, erotic and moving. All registers are sounded, from science to the sacred, from the high camp to the gutter.

Delgado spoke with Michael Slipp, another poet living with HIV in New York, about his new collection, the lines of which are incorporated in the interview:

Now that a viral anger
made me almost blind,
I store these verses in piles
in the library of my mind.

(from “poetic imagery”)

Michael Slip: Hello, Joe. I am really impressed with your book. Many poems in the collection follow a child in Puerto Rico. Were you born there?

Joseph F. Delgado: Yes, but I spent most of my teenage and young adult years in Minnesota. Boarding school, college, doctoral school. I moved from there in 1987 to Pittsburgh, to work at Carnegie Mellon. And then here in South Carolina really out of ignorance.

Slippage: Yes, we are drifting. Life takes us, you know, where it takes us.

Delgado: Correct!

Slippage: The day I received your manuscript, I learned that the French HIV/AIDS researcher Luc Montagnier, who is credited with the co-discovery [HIV]died at the age of 89. He is in the title of your book, but as far as I could see there is no reference to him in the book.

Delgado: I thought anyone who looked at the book would know what his contribution was in detecting and identifying HIV. And so I used it instead of the Spanish version, which is completely untranslatable because it’s a cultural thing. So I thought the book would be a sort of continuation of the work the doctor had done. Of course, it’s not really related. But it’s related to AIDS.

Slippage: And “Variations” refers us to the musical reference scores of the manuscript. Tango, milonga, disco, rap, classical, liturgical. Even the Italian phrases used for musical direction. Are you a musician yourself?

Delgado: I’ve been playing piano since I was about 10, and guitar too. Tango interests me because my father was passionate about it. He used to sing me lullabies that were actually the worst and most horrible tango lyrics – about death, cheating and infidelity, and going to jail for killing his best friend.

Slippage: Yes, it’s like Greek tavern songs, Portuguese fado, Appalachian ballads. This is lyric poetry.

Delgado: Yes! But he was a fan of old-school tango, and I was more of a fan of the so-called “tango poets,” who were the generation that came after 1935. Later, I wrote my analysis of all the words of tangos and milongas, which are a kind of peasant tango. Homero Manzi is a well-known Argentinian milonga artist, composer and screenwriter.

So I have to say that I don’t consider myself a poet. I write poetry that I keep to myself or share with a few people I know. I am not a poet who taught poetry. I did not analyze the poetry. And so, for example, there is my poem “Martin’s Choice”. I made very little effort to observe any measure, rhythm or cadence, because the ending was not going to be poetic. The man who blew his brains out.

Slippage: In the poem, you use “brain”, in the singular. “He blew his brains out.” Almost everyone would say “brain” there, and I find it particularly moving and violent that you say “brain”. “Martin from the Steinway blew his brains out.”

Delgado: Yes. That is what I thought. I knew Martin. Most of this is non-fiction. It was his mantra: he wanted “quality, not quantity”. He was a dentist who was forced to give up his practice when he was diagnosed with HIV. He was telling me all these things, who he had seen and what he had done. He always said, “Quality, not quantity!” He invited me to play the piano. And while I was playing the piano, he blew his brains out.

Slippage: My God, right in front of you! But I want to turn now to the almost mystical fusion of religious themes with erotic imagery in many poems.

Give us this day our daily
caramelized bile,
turn it into ointment
turn it into light,
transform it into bread of life
turn it into calm,
turn it into pleasure,
transform it into humanity.

(from “A Hopeful Cry”)

It makes me think of Saint Thérèse of Avila, Saint John of the Cross and, in the 20th century, Gabriela Mistral.

Delgado: Yes! Well, I grew up a very religious person, and even though I lost my faith in the monastery, those things stayed with me. I have read the poets of which you speak. They kind of feed what’s left of my faith, which isn’t much. I can’t say I’m an atheist. And even the agnostic sounds a little too far.

The practice of religion itself has always been problematic for me, especially since I left the abbey. I left the abbey because I was manipulated by an older priest into thinking he loved me. And then I found out they call it “the Abbey Stud”. I was almost 20 at the time. It was the first time I was in love. And so I left, and several years later I went to visit him, and we sat somewhere in the park and he said, “When you left the monastery, I was so upset.” I gave him a summary of what we had done and its impact on me. And the fact that I wanted to be a priest since I was young and he ended that. He just stared at me, and when I was done he said, “I don’t remember any of that.”

Slippage: Something struck me. Your words are immediate and exciting. The book is roughly chronological, and its final poem is set perhaps in the mid-90s with the first success of triple therapy. I wonder how you kept that intensity. None of the poems seem polemical, but do you see your book as a message for younger generations for whom death from AIDS was not obvious? It’s not even such a young generation anymore. These are people up to the age of 50. I’ve had HIV since the early 90s, I’m 54 and I knew 12 men who died. Not 1,200. Today there are young people aged 19, 20, 25 who don’t even know what AIDS is.

You have time to waste
try to speculate
who had it in their ejaculate?
Come on, don’t wait!
…on cold ground with an Oxford bore
Schlosser, the Met usher,
Don Brazzi in a Ferrari?
In rehearsal at Universal?
Hume in the dunes?

(from “Speculation 1”)

Delgado: Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. What exactly is your question?

Slippage: Who is the audience for your book?

Delgado: I think it crosses the generations. I think a person who is a long-term survivor may find that they may not be the only one with the feelings they are experiencing. We don’t just ask ourselves, “How did we get this? but, “What awaits us?” Back when this all started, even when the clinic nurse gave me my diagnosis in 1986, she said, “But that’s not a death sentence. I looked at her, in my grief, because I wasn’t crying yet. I cried when I got in my car. And I thought, “Are you crazy? Why are you dating me? Yes. He is.” Even AZT hadn’t come out yet. And when it came out soon after, it wasn’t very successful.

Slippage: At those first high doses, it was toxic and unpleasant – and maybe added a few months to people’s lives.

Delgado: Not only that. I got horrible neuropathy from it. I still can’t feel my feet. I haven’t felt my feet in decades. So I believe everything [of] we long-term survivors live with the question, “How long is this going to last?” »

A large part of the book is therefore linked to this question. What is it like to live from 34 years old, to be young, relatively young, and to reach 70 when you thought you would not reach 36? Going through all that is not good. I was suicidal, but I overcame that, thankfully. And I had a productive life. But that doesn’t erase all the other things that happened in my life and in the lives of others. And to those who are long-term survivors, I think it gives them, “This is how HIV has changed our lives, in a sort of constant, although not neurotic, but constant awareness that one day some thing could happen. And we don’t know when it is. It’s just that we know perhaps better than others how our ends will be.

Slippage: I had some notes on the state of the world. “Don’t Say Gay” bills in Florida and elsewhere. The panic over teaching white high school students our history of black property slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow. Rising violence against trans people, primarily trans women, and Chinese and Asian people, primarily women. The spiritual disaster of the fragile American macho. Your book touches on all of these subjects even though it ostensibly takes place in the past.

Delgado: It is a kind of collection of past and present. I doubt anyone who is not HIV positive will read my book. But for those who are HIV positive and for those who I hope might be interested in reading it, I hope they will learn from it and move on to their own experience.

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