ACT UP activists at the National Institutes of Health on May 21, 1990.
“Authoritarian political ideologies have a vested interest in promoting fear,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1989. “Real diseases are useful material.” In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag argued that the virus had been stigmatized as a plague, “a disease to be regarded both as something incurred by vulnerable ‘others’ and as (potentially) everyone’s disease.” Sontag’s caution seems, unfortunately, to have an eternal relevance. But for the narrator of 13th Balloon, a new book-length poem by Mark Bibbins, the question of metaphor is beside the point. As a young gay man coming out in New York City in the early days of the AIDS crisis, Bibbins doesn’t need critical theory to recognize a plague: He sees its evidence every time he steps into the street.
Published in February 2020 by Copper Canyon Press, 13th Balloon is Bibbins’s fourth poetry collection, and its book-length poem doubles as a memoir. In fragments that emphasize the echoing cycles of memory, Bibbins returns to the New York streets of his youth and traces a grief that still arrives as startling “as shadows / of bees / darkening hives.” Of course, there is ecstasy, too, in memory, and the sweetness of love remembered from these years is astonishing: “what music sounds like / just before the record skips.”
While 13th Balloon witnesses loss on a generation-altering scale, its central lament is for an individual. The book is dedicated, in part, to a boyfriend who died during the epidemic, and the fragments Bibbins addresses to him are incisive, poignant, and fraught with danger. “When I cut into the past,” Bibbins writes, “what leaks out is you.”
What to do with do with grief like this? The answer is an elegy that is as delicate as it is courageous, fleeting and kinetic as it is true. Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham asked Bibbins about his approach to mourning and memory, writing about the AIDS crisis today, and what it was like to put personal tragedy on the page.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham [ERG]: The significance of the title — and the project of the book as a whole — is suggested by a 1992 clipping from the Daily Gazette. The article describes 12 balloons released in the memory of a young man who had died the night before from AIDS-related illness. That man was Mark, the boyfriend who shared your name. Between the flight of those 12 balloons and this book’s publication, almost three decades have passed. When did you realize there would be a thirteenth balloon for Mark?
Mark Bibbins [MB]: Yes, the news article that mentioned Mark’s death is reproduced in part on the back cover. I think they got the day wrong, and I riff a little on that at one point in the book. His life and death happened pre-internet, so googling wasn’t much help at all — a scan of that article was basically the only thing I could find about Mark online, and it feels suitably ironic that it likely contained an error. Of course memory (mine in particular) is not so reliable either, and that’s a theme that hovers prominently over the whole project. I decided to acknowledge and embrace the possibility of inaccuracies in a way that might not have worked if I were writing nonfiction. For instance, I could have tried interviewing Mark’s family members or our surviving mutual friends about what happened, but making this book felt like something I needed to do on my own.
I used the word “project” before, but that suggests I undertook it with a plan in mind, which I assure you was not the case. Fragments started arriving almost six years ago, not long after I published my last book, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, and there was no telling when they would show up next; sometimes there would be nothing new for weeks, other times there would be two or three in one day. I had no idea how or if they would add up, and I was terribly disorganized in the way I managed and saved different versions of the manuscript. About four years into writing it I printed all the files out, probably six or seven of them, then for months I’d glare at the stack every now and then from across the room. When I finally started going through everything, I figured I could salvage maybe 30 pages, but to my surprise it was closer to 60. That was encouraging, and it provided the momentum I needed to finish the thing. I had thought of the title as a placeholder, but it ended up hanging around.
ERG: Part of the tension in this book is the challenge of how to remember a person without burdening their memory with all the stuff and baggage of the living. I’m thinking of the contrast between a floating, elegiac balloon and your confession:
I have been terrified
since learning how much they weigh.
In another fragment, you note relief at not being able to read a poem your lover is photographed with, as if it might tether his memory to something ungainly or disappointing. Could you talk about finding the right lightness of balance between the lover remembered and the lover remembering?
MB: I’ve described the book as “mostly an elegy,” and the use of direct address within that was something I committed to early on — maybe addressing a “you” throughout helps to decenter the speaker. I didn’t shy away from including things that were ungainly or disappointing, even though I get what you mean by that part of your question. It was never my goal to present some tidy, idealized version of Mark or myself, so stuff and baggage found their ways in.
Not to sound bratty, but I’ve always felt uneasy around the word “lover.” Same with “foodie” — useful for some purposes, but a word that feels like someone else’s, not mine, even though I read food blogs and cook a lot. (Okay, “foodie” is worse.) Mark’s and my relationship was odd and variable and full of gaps, and it remains so in my memory. Even though the experience of his dying clarified things in many ways, it’s still a challenge for me to describe what we were to each other over time. As I admit in the book, “I still don’t have the word.”
ERG: The nature of elegy — and art-making in general — is queried throughout 13th Balloon. C.D. Wright, Candy Darling, Yoko Ono chime in with their interpretations, and shades of Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Paul Celan, and Virginia Woolf color the discussion. My favorite analysis is one of yours — elegy as Ouija planchette:
something I pretend not to touch
as I push it around trying
to make it say
what I want it to say.
Could you expand a little further on the Ouija approach to writing?
MB: Well, to see what a real Ouija approach looks like, one should head straight for James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. In 13th Balloon, I never expected the dead to respond. For me, the analogy applies not just to elegy, but to writing in general and prose in particular. When I write prose it feels clumsy and artificial, lots of uncertainty and fumbling about. At least poetry comes somewhat more naturally. I equate writing prose with swimming with clothes on.
ERG: If writing is swimming, it seems to me that emotions and memories arrive in 13th Balloon in waves, with each feeling passing, erasing, reiterating the wave that preceded it. How did you think about the overall structure of this book, especially in relation to themes of mourning and memory?
MB: I never wanted to present the events depicted in the book chronologically, so I was unencumbered by that constraint from the start. When I was editing and ordering the manuscript, I avoided obvious groupings or sections (for example, putting together all the “metaphorical” fragments, or the ones that address Mark directly, or the ones about my childhood). People have told me they read it from beginning to end in one sitting, and I think it would also work if read out of order. Mourning and memory behave unpredictably, in waves of varying frequency and intensity — I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong way to represent that structurally, but I was fine with keeping things a bit loose, with no punctuation, so readers could form their own connections.
ERG: How did you settle on the book as a single, long poem?
MB: The truest answer is that it’s simply how the book came out. I love poem titles, so it was a bit strange working without them this time, yet also liberating. When I got around to sending parts of the manuscript to a few journals, I wrestled with sticking titles on them, but fortunately most places were fine running the excerpts as “from 13th Balloon.” There were a few standalone poems I had written before this book eventually took over; I decided to remove their titles and rework them so they would fit in the manuscript.
I haven’t yet settled on a convenient term to refer to the individual components of the book — ”fragments” probably gets closest, even though many of them could function as lyric or narrative poems. There was one “eureka” moment when I was talking with Copper Canyon’s wonderful book designer, Phil Kovacevich, and I suggested that we put “a poem” on the cover. I had successfully resisted having “poems” appear on the fronts of my three previous books, perhaps to the annoyance of the marketing folks. It’s a convention that always felt unnecessary to me — you don’t see everyone insisting that albums should have the word “songs” on the covers.
ERG: In the 1990s, the narrator of 13th Balloon is in his early twenties, still a “baby” with baggy jeans and bad hair. But he’s already so experienced in death that he is incredulous to meet a gay man who buys his toothpaste in bulk — a gay man who anticipates outliving his consumables. At the same time, the narrator is defiant in the face of crisis. He interns with social workers at an AIDS unit, hands out condoms at college, joins ACT UP protests, fights for the right to wash his dying “boyfriend.” (Still not the right word; I’m sorry!) Do you think there is a difference between elegy and poetry of witness?
MB: The toothpaste moment was also a nod toward class. Given the conditions I lived in at the time, a well-stocked bathroom closet seemed positively luxurious. For the first 12 years I was in New York I lived in an East Village tenement with a bathtub in the kitchen and a toilet that I had to leave the apartment to access (though fortunately I didn’t have to share with my neighbors). The rent was a bargain then, and scandalously cheap by today’s standards, which allowed me to scrape by. I could swing the occasional concert or dinner that wasn’t packaged ramen, but I had no savings or health insurance, and sometimes brown water gushed from the kitchen light fixture. So there was precarity in that sense, but your reading of the scene is of course more to the point: Many gay men of my generation, whether HIV-positive or not, weren’t planning to die of old age.
Younger readers, as well as those who were around in the 1990s but weren’t immediately affected by AIDS in the same ways I was, might benefit from learning more about what we went through — not only how we suffered and grieved, but how we resisted, how we fought for and supported each other.
I’m glad you brought up the notion of elegy and poetry of witness. That’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit, because I feel like 13th Balloon falls into both categories. One could argue that in a broad sense all poetic elegies could be called poems of witness, while the opposite formulation isn’t necessarily true. But I’ll leave that to people who like to argue.
ERG: Does 13th Balloon differ in its discussion of the AIDS epidemic from the book you might have written at the time?
MB: Definitely. I’ve grown and changed as a poet — at the time of Mark’s death I’d only taken a workshop or two and, more importantly, I’d hardly read any poetry at all. It didn’t occur to me that one could be a poet. My life experiences in the intervening years, whether thrilling or traumatic or banal, add textures and perspectives to the book that would otherwise have been missing. This is certainly not to imply that there wasn’t a great deal of necessary and valuable art created as real-time responses to AIDS in the 1980s and 90s, just that I wasn’t sufficiently equipped as an artist to create it.
ERG: As I read 13th Balloon, I dog-eared every fragment, but this wasn’t always enough — there were moments when I had to summon the person I live with over to the sofa, to share the poem with me. One section made us both immediately burst into tears:
after how many times I’d arrive
at the hospital
thinking it would be the last
only to find you
sitting up doped up cockeyed grinning
You’d lift your head a little
and say Hey what’d you bring me Boo
and I’d climb into the bed
with you and say Nothing good just me
This book is full of sorrow and anger, but it’s also abundant with palpable, tender, risky, real love. What has it been like to put your grief and love on the page?
MB: The passage you mention is sad, certainly, but we found humor in moments like that, too. Toward the end of Mark’s life I had been going back and forth between Manhattan and Albany, where he was hospitalized. I can’t remember which of our friends said this, or what the exact quote was, but it was something like “Every time we think we’re finally about to get rid of him, you come back and he perks right up!” The ability to laugh in the face of such horror helped get us through it, so I hope readers will find some respite in the book’s funnier moments.
A few friends have told me they’ve read passages from 13th Balloon aloud to someone close to them, which is lovely and incredibly flattering, but it’s also surprised me each time, since it feels like such a private, interior book to me. It’s wonderful to think of my lines being part of a conversation between two living people, rather than a one-way conversation between myself and someone who’s gone. Almost no one saw the manuscript as I worked on it, and the now thought of reading from it in front of an audience makes me anxious, but again, it’s time to share it with the living.
Mark Bibbins is the author of four poetry collections, including the Lambda Literary Award-winning Sky Lounge, and teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and The New School, New York City.
Evangeline Riddiford is an editor at Public Seminar.