Deeper Understanding
As A&U marks twenty-five years of publication, we look to our past and our future
by Chael Needle

Sometimes when I pause during my workday, my thoughts float back to Tommy and Patrick, two of the closest people to me who died before the advent of HAART. All of us movie buffs, we worked together at a video store in Albany, New York, in the late eighties. Tommy, hair cut short from his hippie days, turned me on to contemporary classics like Liquid Sky and Polyester. Patrick, a gruff and sweet leatherman, taught me about the Golden Age of Horror, movies from the 1930s and ’40s like Dracula, Frankenstein, and Cat People. Whenever the world quiets for a second, I hear the excitement in their voices, as they extolled the virtues of John Waters or Tod Browning. It’s their enthusiasm for the pleasures of friendship and learning that I try to carry into my work at A&U as its managing editor.

When I wasn’t working at the video store, I was at the gay bar down the street, the State Street Pub. That’s where I met editor-in-chief and publisher David Waggoner (this was a good twelve years before I joined the magazine staff) and we would talk about fiction writing. (Remember, this is a gay pub.) One night, I shared a fiction idea with him that I feared might be too outlandish. David’s advice to me: “Anything is possible if you can imagine it.” He must have listened to his own advice when he started A&U, then called Art & Understanding, in the very early nineties. Today, A&U’s goals remain “to inspire activism of the highest order,” Waggoner shares. “It will hopefully inspire tomorrow’s activists to seek inclusive creative responses to the pandemic here in America and elsewhere. For tomorrow’s literary AIDS activists who know that the pen is always mightier than the sword, there is no better place than A&U to experience the culture of AIDS.”

Chael Needle: What inspired you to start A&U?
David Waggoner: Back in the mid-eighties, about five years into the epidemic, I was noticing in the Brown alumni magazine’s Transitions section (obituaries section) that several of my classmates who I had taken fiction writing and arts classes with were passing away in their late twenties. I found out that several of them had died of AIDS. One of my visiting professors at Brown, the British novelist Angela Carter, and I reconnected at the New York State Writer’s Institute in Albany, New York. I mentioned the idea of starting a cultural magazine dedicated to covering the enormous losses to AIDS in the arts and publishing communities in New York and San Francisco. Angela mentioned that she had lost quite a few friends in the gay community to the disease and thought that a magazine dedicated to preserving the literature and arts emanating from the plague was a great idea and said that I should do whatever I could do to start the publication. Sadly, Angela died from lung cancer before I could send her the first copies of the journal. Incidentally, in our conversation, Angela mentioned that her friend Derek Jarman was infected and would make for a great cover story. In 1993 we were the last magazine to interview Jarman, who was literally on his deathbed, but was glad to do the interview. Perhaps Angela had mentioned the magazine; she was certainly a guiding angel, even in her premature death.

Why do you feel art and literature are important ways to address the pandemic?
I think it’s because artistic expression is one of the most personal ways to address difficult situations…HIV was so stigmatized in the late eighties and early nineties, that I felt the magazine could be a literary and artistic Quilt of sorts; a form of creative activism that could help bring awareness of the human condition surrounding the AIDS crisis.

What challenges did you face starting up?
When first seeking funding for the first issues of Art & Understanding, I was rebuffed by almost everyone in the philanthropic circles of New York City and Los Angeles, as well as San Francisco. Understandably, AIDS was a life-and-death situation with few if any treatment regimens. And most funding was going to the direct care and hospice care of tens of thousands of dying Americans, many of whom were ostracized because of their sexual orientation. Food first, then solace for the soul, was the common refrain from funding agencies. It was literary heavyweights like Mark Doty, John Ashbery, and Gwendolyn Brooks, who not only contributed original literary responses to the crisis, but who, in the case of Gwendolyn Brooks, donated several royalty checks to help get the publication onto the presses.

How did A&U’s mission evolve over the years?
In the first couple of years, A&U was primarily a literary and visual arts publication with a dedicated subscriber list made up of serious writers, established artists and photographers and their friends, who agreed that one way to counter the prejudice and stigma promoted by the hysterical mainstream media was to establish an attractive, glossy magazine that was a high-end lifestyle publication that also gradually introduced A-list celebrities on the cover. These Hollywood and Broadway folks attracted advertisers who understood the mission of A&U to publish the highest level of AIDS journalism, arts, literary and celebrity activism. A&U Magazine’s high-profile cultural interviews continue to build on the original literary impetus of Art & Understanding. Essentially, Art can be its own form of AIDS activism.

Are there moments that represent how you strive to make a positive difference in the fight against AIDS?
I guess it was when I saw the first copies of the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U on the shelves of the local bookstore that I realized how much the magazine had stuck to its original mission to preserve and protect the contributions made by hundreds of American poets, playwrights, and fiction writers in the fight against AIDS. It was like a time capsule, if you will, of the history of literary AIDS activism. In the introduction to the first edition of the anthology, the editors of the volume—yourself and Diane Goettel—tell the reader what they already know: “Against fear, we offer empowerment.” ◊

I also asked our writers and photographers: In what ways do you hope your writing or photography makes a difference in the fight against AIDS?

Lester Strong, Special Projects Editor: AIDS can be an isolating disease, where those living with it often feel abandoned to a harsh future of deadly opportunistic diseases or powerful medicines with debilitating side effects. The message of my writing: You are not alone. There are people out there who care and are working on your behalf.

Timothy J. Haines, Design Director: It’s important to remember the humanity and the dignity of persons affected by HIV and AIDS. Something that makes us unique in all of creation is that we communicate, restore, and elevate dignity through visual experiences. It’s something I and our photographers take seriously. It is not an incidental component to the work of A&U; which is what I think sets A&U apart, as well.

Alina Oswald, Arts Editor: A&U hasn’t only allowed me to cover something I feel strongly about, HIV and AIDS, but also to express, as well as discover myself, because through A&U I’ve gotten to meet, interview, and photograph inspiring people who have given my life a new perspective and changed it for the better. Their stories—of loss, struggle, suffering, and also survival while fighting and ultimately winning the war against this disease—go beyond the headlines to emphasize the human aspect of HIV and AIDS, sometimes unedited and un-retouched. I believe that that plays a role in better understanding and hopefully ending the pandemic once and for all.

Tara Lessard, contributing photographer: I love and appreciate this role because it allows me the opportunity to capture each person as they are and introduce them fully expressed, living a life they choose. Jeannie Wraight, contributing writer: It’s my goal to break down complicated HIV research in a way that everyone can understand. I hope that by helping people to better their knowledge of cutting-edge research, that they may find an edge in what they learn to help enhance their quality of life and their ability to advocate for better drugs and a cure for HIV.

Rob Zukowski, contributing writer: As a massage therapist and complementary and alternative medicine practitioner, it’s important to me that the topic of my writing addresses the “whole person.” I feel that it’s important to empower people by giving them varied options, and help them to look at alternative healthcare as a personal, unique journey and as self-empowering. I hope my writing inspires people to view their healthcare path as a collaborative exercise that addresses the physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and environmental factors of their well being.

John Francis Leonard, contributing writer: I was recently told by my editor that my column had been read online in fifteen countries around the world. I take particular pride and draw much strength from that, as our rights here seem to be coming under threat from this next administration. That someone, somewhere living in a country where there is only persecution, treatment might be less readily available, and stigma is unimaginably worse, might draw strength from what I have shared.

Connie Rose, contributing writer: My hope is that my writing becomes a voice for all PLWHIV/AIDS who are unable to speak, a voice for those who are forced to live in silence.

T.J. Banks, contributing writer: I learn a little more about the fight against AIDS with every review I write. I hope that my articles have that same effect on the people who read them.

Stevie St. John, contributing writer: I hope that telling the stories of artists, activists, and organizations fighting AIDS helps readers be more aware and informed. And I hope readers are inspired by those dedicated to ending HIV and AIDS. It is a privilege to tell some of their stories.

Hank Trout, contributing writer: While we all hope for and work toward a cure and an end to new HIV infections, I want my writing for A&U to give voice to issues faced by my fellow members of the AIDS Generation, those of us whose diagnosis came with a death sentence that we unexpectedly outlived. I hope my writing will keep front-and-center the economic hardship, the isolation and loneliness, the ageism and stigma that we Long-Term Survivors face, while also celebrating our strength, resilience, and renewed sense of community as we tackle those problems. I’m in this for the long run!

Chip Alfred, Editor at Large: I share the stories of inspiring individuals standing up in their own unique way for people living with HIV. By highlighting these shining examples of human kindness and compassion, my hope is that we can stop stigma in its tracks and win this fight!

Sean Black, Senior Editor: As an art educator and journalist living with HIV and someone who has witnessed the horrors of AIDS first-hand through the loss of so many friends, like George Foster in 1993, I endeavor to hold dear the memory of our great losses while creatively heralding our victories through art. The toll that AIDS has taken has been catastrophic and painfully immeasurable, yet I retain sight of a hopeful future by reflecting on our past victories, medical and political advancements, collective strengths and most of all, even in the darkest of times our deep, unconditional love for each other and the transformative, creative talents that we share. In holding to these truths, I confidently dedicate my time, energy, skills and lifeblood to this call to action, now more critical than ever with the dawn of a new presidency and political regime through unity, activism, advocacy and the arts.


Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.