Poet Joan Larkin at the Woodstock Writers Festival

(At this year’s Woodstock Writers Festival Gretchen Primack will teach a workshop on Friday, April 20th and lead a panel discussion on Saturday, April 21st. Tickets are selling fast, so don’t hesitate. Here’s an introduction to Joan Larkin, who will appear on the panel.)

On Joan Larkin, By Gretchen Primack

The day before the Poetry & Politics discussion/reading at the Woodstock Writers Fest, I’m leading a workshop about the freedom of form—how ironically freeing and pleasurable it can be to write in “restrictive” forms—for instance, the ghazal. This Persian form involves end-line refrains and pre-refrain rhymes. And each couplet of a ghazal should be able to stand alone yet also act as parts of a greater whole: they’re like beads on a necklace.

Well, the luminous Joan Larkin, one of the four poets I’m delighted to welcome to the Poetry & Politics panel itself, has a poem that evokes the ghazal for me. That will seem funny when you see it, since it doesn’t follow any of the form’s rules. But to me, the mesmerizing repetition in the first two words and sounds of each line reverberate like ghazal rhymes and refrains, and the shimmering integrity of each line’s sense reminds me of beads on a string.

As for politics, Joan is by no means a strident protest poet. But look at how this poem spills over with the vividness of a society’s nightmare. Look at the marriage of consistency and variety of form and content. Look how she writes outsider-insider balance and illustrates the diversity of humans in crisis. For all of these reasons—and I’m sure you’ll think of many more as you read—I can’t imagine a more effective poem about the catastrophe of AIDS.


One who lifted his arms with joy, first time across the finish line
          at the New York marathon, six months later a skeleton
          falling from threshold to threshold, shit streaming from
          his diaper,
one who walked with a stick, wore a well-cut suit to the opera,
          to poetry readings, to mass, who wrote the best long poem
          of his life at Roosevelt Hospital and read it on television,
one who went to 35 funerals in 12 months,
one who said I’m sick of all you AIDS widows,
one who lost both her sisters,
one who said I’m not sure that what he and I do is safe, but we’re
           young, I don’t think we’ll get sick
one who dying said They came for me in their boat, they want me
           on it, and I told them Not tonight, I’m staying here with James
one who went to Mexico for Laetrile,
one who went to California for Compound Q,
one who went to Germany for extract of Venus’ flytrap,
one who went to France for humane treatment,
one who chanted, holding hands in a circle,
one who ate vegetables, who looked in a mirror and said
          I forgive you,
one who refused to see his mother,
one who refused to speak to his brother,
one who refused to let a priest enter his room,
one who did the best paintings of his life and went home from
          his opening in a taxi with twenty kinds of flowers,
one who moved to San Francisco and lived two more years,
one who married his lover and died next day,
one who said I’m entirely filled with anger,
one who said I don’t have AIDS, I have something else,
one with night sweats, nausea, fever, who worked as a nurse,
one who kept on studying to be a priest,
one who kept on photographing famous women,
one who kept on writing vicious reviews,
one who kept going to AA meetings till he couldn’t walk,
one whose son came just once to the hospital,
one whose mother said This is God’s judgment,
one whose father held him when he was frightened,
one whose minister said Beth and her lover of twelve years were
           devoted as Ruth and Naomi
one whose clothes were thrown in the street, beautiful shirts and ties
          a neighbor picked from the garbage and handed out at a party,
one who said This room is a fucking prison,
one who said They’re so nice to me here,
one who cut my hair and said My legs bother me,
one who couldn’t stand, who said I like those earrings,
one with a tube in his chest, who asked What are you eating?
one who said How’s your writing? Are you moving to the
who said I hope you get rich.
One who said Death is transition,
one who was doing new work, entirely filled with anger,
one who wanted to live till his birthday, and did.

From My Body: New and Selected Poems (Hanging Loose, 2007), reproduced by permission

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The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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