The Poetry Project

Making the World: An Interview with Aaron Shurin

David Grundy

The life and work of poet Aaron Shurin, whose extraordinary 1997 prose work, Unbound: A Book of AIDS, was reissued by Nightboat Books in winter 2023, exemplifies a sense of queer, communal possibility. Born in New York in 1947, Shurin had relocated to Massachusetts and came to poetry through Denise Levertov’s workshops at MIT. Levertov, he writes in his 2016 essay collection, The Skin of Meaning, “had given me every sense of poetry’s immediacy and magic.” Yet Levertov herself was not able to fully grapple with the queerness fundamental to Shurin’s emergent aesthetic: she suggested that his early work was “too emphatically homosexual,” and that its politics—as compared to her poetry against the war in Vietnam—was “parochial in theme.” Such criticism led him to define his work politically all the more, as Shurin recalled when we met at his apartment in San Francisco in February 2022 to discuss a book project on queer poetry in Boston and San Francisco for which I was in town on pandemic-delayed research.

“I was making a unified theory of sexuality, politics, gender, revolution, everything and she was saying that it was minimal!” Shurin comments. “Boy, that lit a fire under me.” Reacting against the cultural stereotype that to be queer was to doom oneself to a life that was “emotionally destitute,” as Levertov had suggested, Shurin’s coming to poetry, as for so many of his generation, had been a defiant assertion of queer identity. In turn, the experience of having felt excluded by heterosexual men within Levertov’s workshop led to the incantatory poem “Exorcism of the Straight Man/Demon,” which ended up being the first publication of Boston’s Good Gay Poets press. “Straight man in me who I never wanted .... Look out! I expel you,” writes Shurin.

See how hard your cock is?

That’s how strong my jaw is.

xxxxThat’s how fierce my heart is xxand my love.

Shurin was one of the founding members of Good Gay Poets, alongside Charlie Shively and David Eberly; a press that, alongside the Gay Liberation newspaper Fag Rag, manifested a defiant and highly political reclamation of gay sexuality, with poetry a particularly important vehicle. “My politics, in fact, was my poetics of those days,” Shurin recalls. “You find somehow a gay language. It is a poetic language, and there’s a lot of freedom.”

Within the next few years, Shurin had relocated across the country to San Francisco, where he encountered another kind of queer sensibility. “I had a boyfriend who was living in North Beach and was a little bit older, hanging out with Bruce Boone’s crowd. That’s when it happened for me. They were intellectuals. They read. They listened to classical music. And that turned me on. And that turned me on in a gay way. I understood for the first time [that] I could see the shape of what my life might be like.”

“In San Francisco during the early 70s,” Shurin notes, “you had a glorious gay life, with the Cockettes and the Angels of Light: incredible, grand theater and inventiveness. That remains my paradise. It was a pluralistic moment. Everything seemed possible: people need to understand that. That was the hallmark of the 60s: that everything was up for review. Reinvention. It was psychology. It was sexuality. It was environmentalism. It was everything: everything could be reimagined and redone. And I think in San Francisco the barriers were very loose.”

Shurin’s start in the Bay Area poetry scene came through publishing in Winston Leyland’s newspaper Gay Sunshine, a venue whose importance, he stresses, cannot be underestimated. “It was amazing. It was gigantic. It was so influential. I mean, he was the weirdest cat—just the weirdest. But I can’t believe how savvy he was when you look at the people who he had interviews with. It was way beyond my ken, really. How did he know about these people? It really did feel like a magazine of the movement, but it was also this dinky little thing. It was incredible and it was certainly home for me for many years, and I think for Bob Glück too.”

Another key presence was that of Bay Area elder statesman Robert Duncan, whose work as part of the “Berkeley Renaissance,” alongside Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, Helen Adam, and others, had paved the way for the poets of Shurin’s generation to write their own poems of joyful queerness. Poetically, Shurin remarks, Duncan’s work afforded “the romantic permission towards extravagance, towards heightened language: that there could be a place for this.” The two, as Lisa Jarnot recounts in her biography of Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, were also briefly lovers. Shurin shows me a precious copy of Duncan’s The Venice Poem—a courageous, conflicted poem of queer love, written in the late 1940s, well before the Gay Liberation era. In the book’s inside copy, Duncan had inscribed, in his characteristically ornate calligraphy, a poem of dedication. That poem, which was never published—though it’s excerpted in Jarnot’s book—was written for Shurin alone. These are magic objects, totems, indications of relations I can only guess or gesture at, freighted with poetry’s simultaneous capacities for prophecy and for a reckoning with the past, its ability to look backwards and forwards at the same time. For Duncan, for Shurin, for the poets of Gay Liberation whose example remains a shining one, poetry serves as the relational bond within the public realm of language, building a community, even if that community begins with two.

Shurin’s first stand-alone publication was a 1975 chapbook entitled Woman on Fire. The book, he recalls, was “about being in drag and what transvestism was and what it meant in terms of gender.” About Woman on Fire, Bay Area poet Steve Abbott wrote that Shurin “advanced the idea of drag as a revelation, not a mask, of personality.” In today’s world, when drag is the subject of both moral panic from the right and Drag Race-induced professionalization, Shurin’s vision offers a different path, shimmering beyond the constrictions of gender. Continuing the project of the “Exorcism,” the poem resolves: “To speak of ourselves. Unnamed regions—rose-pink and rust-fire / Beyond the stern / and arrogant borders of manhood.” “And there races back / and forth across the party,” Shurin continues, “instant sympathy, a revolution / of untold ecstasies. Woman on Fire!”

Shurin self-published the book under the imprint Rose Deeprose, and to this day he produces an annual chapbook for friends, “making little handmade things as a challenge to professionalism,” and a part of the process of building community. The circuits of publishing, social life, activism, and sex created new and porous communities at a time of hitherto untold possibility. Shurin—who the late Kevin Killian remembers at this time as like a “gay shaman”—was gradually moving away from the more declarative poetics with which he’d begun the decade, and towards a more experimental approach, in dialogue with the Bay Area’s multiple writing communities.

For a time, Shurin lived nearby to poet and prose writer Steve Abbott, a community-builder and chronicler who would help to define the movement known as “New Narrative.” “The big question,” Abbott writes to Shurin in 1976, is “what is or is there such a thing as Gay poetry or a Gay aesthetic?” And, more than ever, Shurin was coming to realize that gayness might not, perhaps, mean the declaration of an increasingly visible queer identity, but a play with form itself. Shurin, like many in the scene, was increasingly coming into dialogue with the Language poets. The following year, he wrote back to Abbott: “What we learn immediately from these Language poets is a real need for poetic theory, to understand & map out why we do what we do. This is not the same as not doing what we do.” Language’s focus on theory, its insistence on an anti-subjective stance, might seem the polar opposite to Robert Duncan’s Romanticism or Shurin’s own earlier political declarations; tensions between various positions such as these would, in the following years, lead to the so-called “Poetry Wars,” a period Shurin recalls as “so intense: it was horrible!” But, as a writer, Shurin has never been one to limit himself to any one community or style. The poetry dictates its own form.

Looking back on the Poetry Wars several decades on, he remarks: “It seems strange to me, in a way, because the stuff was very specific, and now a lot of the debate is moot. I was certainly schooled by the Language poets: they toughened me up a lot. We just had to read some of the theory. But I didn’t feel like I had to pick a side, because I always wanted to do everything. I couldn’t figure out why you would choose one mode or one interpretation or not, and ignore the other, which is equally as real. These are all powers of poetry. So I just want to do everything, and maybe it makes me confusing for a lot of people.”

As well as Abbott and the Language writers, Shurin was developing long-term friendships with experimental writers such as Norma Cole and Michael Palmer. “Norma, Leslie [Scalapino] and I had a kind of dinner club that every few months we would go out together and have dinner together. It was quite wonderful,” he recalls, “And there was a little community.” He was also friends with socialist feminist poet Karen Brodine, then involved with the Woman Writers Union that had developed out of the struggle for a more diverse curriculum at San Francisco State.

Before visiting Shurin, I’d spent days in the extraordinary collections of the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center, going through Brodine’s papers, which, along with Abbott’s, are lovingly preserved. A few days later, I’d depart the sunny climes of the Bay for the sub-zero temperatures of Buffalo, NY, and there I found a beautiful letter from Brodine to Shurin about her concept of poetry. “Images,” Brodine contends,

are the livewire spark between opposites, contradictions, a juxtaposition of things that are alike and opposite—this is where dialectics come in. And the idea that those most pushed down by society have the most to say about it—in images, shouts, actions, all of those—because we live and see the opposites, the turbulence just under the smooth velour of the manufactured stories. Images leap right out of those contradictions blasting the true story into breath.

Though Brodine’s and Shurin’s writing was in many ways very different, this sense of the sparking of contradiction, the juxtapositions that constitute the movement of our bodies and our breath through the world, and the way those fold together to create social life, very much speak to Shurin’s own luminous work, whether in poetry, in essays, or in a hybrid prose between the two.

“Anyway,” Brodine signs off, “hope to run into you sometime at a reading or a demonstration (or maybe ducking cops at a riot?).” The letter conveys something of the spirit of the era: a sense, too, that the celebratory vision of gay life propounded principally by wealthier gay men in the city was losing the political edge present at the start of the decade. Writing to Abbott in November 1980, Shurin recalls a conversation with Abbott and fellow New Narrative architect Bob Glück about “how our community feeling doesn’t seem to be as strong or sensitive or united as it used to be, how in fact we’ve become not much different from the heterosexual men, the most macho of them even, who we used to counterpose ourselves to.” Such correspondence intuited a sense of dread, too, at the increasingly hostile political climate of the coming decade, a dread that turned out to be even more horrifically prescient than could have been expected.

“As high as the 70s were in San Francisco, that’s how low the 80s were for that period,” Shurin remembers in 2022, “AIDS posed a huge, huge dilemma. I mean it just swallowed everything.” Though his experience of AIDS was “bound by community,” the forms of community language developed in the prior decade—whether the political rhetoric of early Gay Liberation or the more experimental writing to which Shurin had turned towards the end of the decade, in dialogue with the Language poets—seemed inadequate, as did the existing prose of journalism or of existing forms of elegy and memorialization. As New Narrative writer Sam D’Allesandro wrote in a letter to Kevin Killian, a few years before his own passing from the disease:

I keep seeing obituaries in which the deceased AIDS person is characterized as “a fighter who fought to the very end” and who somehow provided an incredibly positive experience of strength for those left behind. What macho bullshit. I don’t believe such descriptions will help anyone facing the loss of his lover/best friend when there are so many other hard emotions to encounter at such a time …. I don’t see many pieces that seem to actually be about how people I know act/react in the world.

D’Allesandro would find his way to an alternative in the sparse, fragmentary narratives posthumously collected in the story collection The Zombie Pit (1989), edited by Steve Abbott, and later in the expanded version The Wild Creatures (2005), edited by Killian, both essential documents of the era. This, too, is the drama that informs Unbound. “It was so intimate,” Shurin remarks: “it involved you when your closest friends and everybody you knew peripherally. I guess there’s a way it affects language as well—to find language that could express that or not contain it—but, by this stage, I had moved from a political or more rhetorical position to a more experimental position. And yet here’s this non-experimental and quite rhetorical life that was presented to one. How am I going to write about that? First, I was writing prose. That seemed the only way to write about it. Prose could lock it down. And poetry doesn’t do that. Or I didn’t know how to do that. Unbound had its own shape. I couldn’t invent it. It had its own shape. I had to report it in some way. And in fact, I felt like I had to invent a prose for myself.”

In Unbound, that prose moves between essays that reflect on the possibility of narrating the experience of AIDS to prose poems that seem to embody that experience. “It seems essential to me, in the age of AIDS,” writes Shurin early on in the book, “to keep the body forward, to keep the parts named, to not let ourselves get scared back into our various closets… couplist or nuclear family paranoia, social scapegoating, stereotyping and moral sanctimony. Didn’t my generation become sexual pioneers not just by increasing the range of permissible sex acts… but by tying sexual expression to socialism, feminism, national liberation movements… and if it gets squashed, what else gets squashed with it?”

How, though, to write of this experience? The available discourses seem inadequate. Shurin continues: “I’m infected by a vocabulary, a prisoner of its over-specialized agenda. I know OK-T4 helper cells, macrophages, lymphadenopathy, hairy leukoplakia …. I’m learning this alien vocabulary by sight—it’s symbolic—but I don’t understand the grammar. I can’t apply it to any other situation; it’s a purely local dialect.” Two reactions suggest themselves, which Shurin playfully names “Shit! And Shoot ’em!” The first, the experience of loss, “seemed to me woefully personal … even sub-lexical,” while the second—the expression of politicized rage—was the domain of politics: of ACT UP and Queer Nation to which poetics had little to add. Nonetheless, Shurin found that he could not avoid the demands of finding some way to express the realities of that terrible present.

“How to write AIDS,” Shurin continues, “named me.” Such writing would not adopt a single approach, but find “multiform ways into it”: the essay of narrative, of “witness,” “interrogation and digression,” scrutinising “the pure rampage of facts,” “enmesh[ing] personal narrative and literary critical methodology”; the poem as “compound metaphor,” finding its way to narrative, not as straight line, but as elliptical curve. In the long prose poem “Human Immune,” Shurin writes, “the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.” Drawing inspiration from the circularity of Dante’s hell, the poem seeks to “dimensionalize AIDS from the personal to the historical: the curve one round is also around one, surrounding, a world.” Here, “the procession of history itself disappearing”—the history of a prior era, of the moment of gay liberation, of the deaths of so many of its pioneers and its followers—another history emerges to take its place.

The homecoming was marked and mapped; they circled in ever-widening loops. Processions migrating on blue nectar—stopping in the rising air over coastal waters. I waited I repeated I waited the test… I have variations about what was there: fathers, sons, grandsons. When the sky cleared the weather superimposed corrections, noticing and recording more details. Fly to an elevated lookout post. It’s my intention to describe history at the place we left them. Populations of flesh caught in our net. Of their courtship, of their species: their back was connected to display-movements fading toward the warm neck, a pirouette. Small circles this ceremony for hours on end.

“It took me all this time to write ‘Human Immune,’” Shurin recalls, “which was a collage poem and absolutely formal. I thought I had to use prose to lock it down. But finally, when I wrote the poem, it's not very locked down at all.” The poem ends with a moment of intimacy: part of a collage of multiple voices, it has no one location, no one name, but names instead a relation, a transferable sense of comradeship and of love, whether that of the survivors or the departed. AIDS itself, and the losses it has wrought, defies naming. But so do the ongoing valences of queerness.

We sat in silence, a blanket covering his lap. If you flew by you’d see these impostors, vapors of tenderness. It could never be contained.

As someone who had “lived through the dark ages at the beginning of my gay life,” Shurin notes, the experience of negativity, paranoia, or suspicion, was not an unfamiliar one, yet the intervening years of queer community building meant that, as he reflects, while “so much was destroyed, so much was created and was built to respond. The community was amazing in its terms of response and it also made for wisdom, encountering mortality. Frequently it made for some kind of wisdom about life.”

“‘Community,’” he continues, “is an essential word for me, and a word that I always associated with San Francisco …. There’s something permeable or semi-permeable about cultural life in the city that brings people together and awakens them in some collective way. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s not just to do with sexuality. But has a progressive contour. I’ve always felt it. I always thought that the shows of the Angels of Light in their later stages were the apex of cultural formation. A people’s opera, that’s what I call it: that’s what it was like and I felt part of it. It enlarged me. And I think a lot of people felt that in many ways, about different kinds of things, and so I guess that’s community. That’s the sense of community: that people are doing things for you, or you’re doing things for them as you do it for yourself.”

Such community, importantly, also exists in language itself. While Shurin’s participation in activism and the role his poetry played in a political moment is important, the real import of his lifework lives in his writing as creating its own space: not apart from or irrelevant to the world, but affording a perspective queerly alongside it. When we spoke, the United States was just emerging from a pandemic that—like AIDS—is not over simply because metropolitan centers have gone back to what passes for normal social life. Shurin reflects on the connections and divergences between the two epochs of plague in his introduction to the Nightboat reprint of Unbound. More broadly, though, he has been reflecting on what it means, not only to live through two such catastrophes, to survive multiple losses, but to witness the perpetually incomplete project of queer liberation.

“I’m in a little bit of an elegiac mood, as I turned 75, so I’ve really been feeling it,” Shurin remarks, “and during the lockdowns this past year I spent a lot of time this last year reading my own work. And I’ve been coming just to see it as a life. I have a life work. I was talking to Bob Glück about this. I lived my life as a writer. And that is a gift. It astonishes me. Somehow that’s really been becoming clarified and deepened in this last year.”

Shurin proffers an example of the symbiotic relation between poetry and life, between what the poet knows and what the poem knows. “Twenty-five years ago I wrote this poem called ‘Codex’ and I used little pieces of the first collage thing I ever did, these little pieces of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the poem, I took my father to the underworld, to hell, for judgement. And that ultimately enabled me to forgive my father. But it was the poem that did it. I had no intention of bringing him there. I have no intention of folding him in the guts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. But I did, and when I came out, I was sad for him. And there’s one line, the saddest line, it says, ‘“he held up his arms for a mast” as the winds blew over him.’ It was so sad. And that changed my relationship with it entirely. And I had nothing to do with it: the poem did it.”

Poetry, as Shurin’s example attests, is not about repeating what you already know, but the process of reaching towards new knowledge. “Like Robert [Duncan] said,” he concludes, “if you’re stating a position, you’re not making the world.” In Unbound, as in the rest of his life’s work, Shurin strives to make that world.

#275 – Winter 2024