Starting With the Body
POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving creative writers. We pay fees to writers giving readings and leading workshops, provide information and advice to authors, and help them connect with one another and with audiences. We also sponsor a number of awards and prizes.
The room was cozy, dimly lit, stocked with food and warm beverages, patterned cloths placed over tables, and chairs arranged in a circle. It was a Saturday afternoon in early March 2017, and eight of us were in a cubbyhole of a room at the New School in the West Village of Manhattan. Outside it was gray, not cold enough to complain about, not warm enough to enjoy. Inside, the room crackled with the glow of people coming together.
A roomful of friends and strangers, we stared at one another, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, gathered for a workshop titled “The Spirit and the State,” facilitated by poet and educator Timothy DuWhite and writer and end-of-life doula iele paloumpis. Both DuWhite and paloumpis are members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD), a collective of writers, artists, healers, activists, front-line AIDS workers, and others committed to ensuring that community continues to play a central role in the ongoing AIDS crisis. The collective is rooted in the understanding that a doula is a person from within the community who holds space for others in times of transition, and that living with HIV—either individually or collectively—is a series of transitions.
For WWHIVDD, holding space can take the form of hosting a writing workshop, opening people up to see the connections between the machinations of the state when it comes to who lives, dies, gets tested, and has access to care and how that relates to thoughts and feelings we hold inside about our bodies, our desires, and our capacity to imagine our own futures. We refer to creative interventions such as the workshop—in equal parts earnestness and jest—as “doulaing ourselves and the world around us.”
Early in the three-hour workshop, paloumpis invited us to stand up, move away from our chairs, and, in pairs, dance for each other, one at a time. We then re-performed the dance of our partner, reflecting back his or her body and movements. Questions arose: “Do I recognize myself?” “How do I move in this world?” “How have I been formed and shaped by the world around me?” “What has been the impact of what I have endured on my body?” “Must I reconcile difference in my inner and outer experiences of the self?” I can still see the fingers of my dance partner articulating currents of air and remember the sensation of trying to recreate that for her.
Later, DuWhite spoke about connections he sees between prison, health outcomes, the criminal justice system, the media, faith, and more through the lens of anti-black racism and black joy. Then he offered a writing prompt. On a large piece of paper taped to the wall, he wrote with a red felt pen: “If you had to stand before either God or the state and tell the truth about your body, what would you say?” Upon reading it, people exhaled like they were in church and quickly got to writing. The prompt, like the dance, was an invitation for us to place our bodies at the center of our work and to remember that HIV begins from within.
The workshop was the second in a five-part series called HIV WITH, hosted by WWHIVDD and funded by Poets & Writers. The idea behind the workshop series is that no one gets HIV by themselves, so no one should have to deal with it by themselves. By inviting us to dance for one another, and asking us to consider truths about our body, DuWhite and paloumpis reminded us that in fact, for better or worse, we are never alone; we are always engaged in a dance with the spirit, the state, and one another.
The Readings & Workshops program provides fees to writers who give readings or conduct writing workshops in the states of New York and California as well as the cities of Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, New Orleans, Tucson, and Washington, D.C. Read more about the events we support at pw.org/blogs/rw_blogger.
Theodore Kerr is a Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS. His writing has been published in Poz, the Advocate, the New Inquiry, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Drain. He is a founding member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective.