AIDS TREATMENT PROJECTby Kevin Killian
John Giorno’s Subduing Demons in America: Selected Poems 1962–2007, ably edited by Marcus Boon, first allowed me a chance to grasp the whole nettle of Giorno’s career in poetry—its shape, its energy, its paideuma, as Pound (following Frobenius), used the word. I wondered at what seemed a radically small number of pages—only a couple poems really—composed in the ’80s through the mid-’90s. “Why so few?” I asked Mr. Giorno, at a rare San Francisco appearance, “There are lots of poems before that and after that.” He explained simply, “that was when AIDS was happening.” That was when he rebuilt his nonprofit Giorno Poetry Systems to include the AIDS Treatment Project, a mechanism to provide relief (often in the form of cash, “hard cash” he sometimes says) to people dying. The work lasted for years—never ending, really. Recently, Giorno told Andrew Hultkrans for frieze.com, that at one point “I said to myself: I’m a poet, not a healthcare provider, and then it was over.” Pretty ambiguous the last part of that remark, but it brings to the fore the question that has dominated my thinking, perplexed, and tormented me for thirty years: how on earth does one give oneself over to poetry while such great ills ravage the world? What kind of art is worth running away from direct social engagement?
Is there a social good in poetry? If so, can it be channeled to create good government in society today? Ezra Pound poses these questions in his provocative, if somewhat dated, “Cheng Ming: A New Paideuma.” I remember reading it years ago and feeling frustrated. In it we see Pound tracing the mindset of ancient man who believed in discipline and thought that to have good government you need a disciplined family, and that can’t happen without rectified heart’s, and to rectify your heart you had first to work in the field where the inarticulate is brought to articulation. I asked Pound scholar Carroll Terrell if this was the point where poetry came in and he beamed and said yes. At that point I supposed Carroll Terrell was the smartest person I’d ever met, but I never dared ask him why, then, did Pound not say so directly? Why did he omit poetry from this alternate history of government? Was there a place for art in the 20th century? Maybe not during the plague years during which John Giorno wrote so little. But perhaps during those years of moving cash around, John Giorno’s art reached its heroic height. The AIDS Treatment Project continues its work. I re-member that, when the poet Bernadette Mayer suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1994, Giorno Poetry Systems was right in place to aid her recovery. In far-off places like San Francisco, we Bernadette fans would sit down once a month and write a check for what we could afford, twenty dollars maybe? Thirty? And mail it to some scuzzy address in the Bowery—and little by little, Bernadette Mayer came back to life.
The part that Giorno is known best for, the recumbent prone man in Warhol’s 1963 Sleep (sleep—“death’s little brother”), presages in my imagination the field, decades later, not the field, a whole planet of prone men with AIDS. Thanks to Giorno’s activism—his “wokeness” as you’d say today—some rose again and lived. It’s like something out of the old creation myths—Izanagi piercing the underworld of Yomi-no-kuni to rescue Izanami after her death. Hail the sleeping, and waking, giant!
KEVIN KILLIAN lives in San Francisco. Recent projects include Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977–1997 (Nightboat), coedited with Dodie Bellamy; a new book of poetry Tony Green Era (Wonder Books); and the third volume of his Selected Amazon Reviews, edited by Dia Felix and available online from Essay Press.