Masks and mythologies

by Guest Blogger

Julian Gewirtz '13 was awarded an OFA Artist Development Fellowship to explore the influence of the AIDS epidemic on American consciousness through poetry inspired by interviews with AIDS survivors, documentary research, and work with professional poets whose writing addresses these issues. Concentrating in History, Gewirtz has been a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, publisher of the Harvard Advocate, and a staff writer for the Harvard Book Review. He hopes to become both a professor of cultural history as well as a poet.

This summer, I received an Artist Development Fellowship to undertake a poetry project: investigating the continuing influence of the AIDS epidemic on my generation’s way of thinking about the world, and writing poems that explore the attitudes, anxieties, and ideas that I’ve uncovered.

This project has taken me from San Francisco to Fire Island, and has allowed me to talk with poets and doctors, lovers and fathers, whose work has addressed these themes or whose lives have been defined by them.

While I was in San Francisco—where I was lucky enough to spend time with one of my favorite poets, D.A. Powell—I saw a remarkable theatrical performance, a drag retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story "The Masque of the Red Death." In Poe’s story, the "Red Death" resembles tuberculosis; he wrote, "No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood."

In San Francisco, in 2011, in a drag show, a mysterious plague that ravages the young and the beautiful becomes something else entirely. We experience the performance as an allegory about the AIDS epidemic in the gay community, and as a way of engaging with that still-living past.

In Poe’s story, as with much literature that addresses the ravages of disease—mass mortality on morbid parade, endless proofs of the body’s frailty—the mythic (and, closely related, the allegorical) provides a point of entry. In contemporary American poetry, inhabiting myths occurs often. The mythic poem, when done well, can sublimate an individual’s voice into a universal and historical context, immediately engaging with the culture and the tradition. Poe’s allegorical "Red Death" achieves this effect in prose; the continuing relevance of this literary method is proven by the very fact that a drag show in 2011 was so easily able to access and reappropriate Poe’s themes.

As I’ve gone about my research and written poems this summer, I have been surprised to find that the speakers of my poems often come from my favorite childhood stories, the Greek myths, which I read obsessively as a boy and return to often. The poems I’m writing focus on the issues that HIV/AIDS raises and continues to raise: fear of the body, the unexpected costs of pleasure, community remade by decimation, and disease as an alienating force, to name several. But these issues are addressed by mythic speakers, in temporally blurred situations, as a way of conveying their status as universal concerns—concerns that have entered our culture and will persist as part of our tradition.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser, in her "The Poem as Mask," writes, "No more masks! No more mythologies!" My experience in San Francisco showed that one myth can wear many masks, speak to many situations—and one mask can belong to many myths. But "no more"? For my generation, the AIDS epidemic pervades and influences in ways we have not yet begun to understand. To come to terms with this legacy, we will take—and make—more masks, more mythologies.

[Caption: Artist Development Fellow Julian Gewirtz '13]