Nothing in this volume was written in order to be published," writes Irene Borger in her preface to From a Burning House, edited by Borger and published in June by Washington Square Press. The authors of the dozens of stories, memoirs, poems and fragments upon which Borger built this Burning House are (or were: many of them are now deceased) members of the AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Writers Workshop -- people with HIV or AIDS who met once weekly and, under Borger’s guidance, wrote notes from the epidemic. Borger has culled thousands of stories from 1990 to the present to form a highly touted AIDS anthology (with an introduction by Tony Kushner); the audio version features narration by stars such as Kathy Bates.
POZ asked poet Michael Klein to interview Borger at the Mayflower Hotel during her recent trip to New York City. A veteran of AIDS anthologies, Klein edited one of the genre’s earliest, Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS. Klein reports that their rapport was instant. “When I met Irene, I was immediately struck by her,” he says. “Luminous, fast-talking and electrifying in a way I don’t usually associate with Los Angeles.” Whatever West Coast/East Coast apprehension he might have had, their meeting clearly dispelled it.
MK: What made you start a writing workshop for people with HIV?
IB: I heard somebody explain something I knew was deeply true: Everything is impermanent in this life. It popped into my head -- why don’t I do a writing workshop for people living with HIV and AIDS? I’d been a journalist for years and taught dance history and I’ve been in writing workshops. There’s nothing I like more than to listen to people tell stories. So I applied for a grant, got it, and that’s how the workshop came to be.
MK: Did you feel called to do the work?
IB: Totally. In Hebrew, the word is beshert, which means fated. I thought that people who are living with difficulty might have something to say, and I remembered that when I was growing up during the Vietnam War, numbers of people getting killed just went past me. The only time the war touched me was when I read an account of somebody else’s life. Show me a photograph or a story -- those stay. Maybe hearing other people’s first-person accounts cuts through the idea of them being “other.”
MK: Part of writing is finding a way to talk about something that most readers would only view before as “other.” The writer finds a way into the material so that it doesn’t become about “otherness,” but about how the experience enabled that person to live without being rendered a helpless victim. They’re more than just survivors; something has shifted spiritually.
IB: Yes. And if you can avoid judging what you’re doing when you’re writing, if you let yourself rest in each sentence, it will lead you somewhere. When I went to Venice, I was walking through those little tiny streets and I came upon the shock of St. Mark’s Square totally unexpectedly. Amazing!
MK: I know what you mean: The enigma of arrival. It’s important making discoveries you didn’t think were possible until you write them down.
IB: Working with the unknown is also a way of practicing living with HIV.
MK: Can you think of an exercise that proved to be most generative?
IB: One exercise that generated a lot of work was based on a quote from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting about how we let everything be forgotten. So I ask people in the workshop to consider what is essential not to be forgotten, that only they know.
There was another exercise that created a great spirit in the room. The exercise is to make believe your life is a musical comedy and make a list of songs for the original cast album. Then you take one of the songs and write the scene.
MK: What kinds of previously published work did you bring into the workshop?
IB: Narrative poetry by Mark Doty, Raymond Carver, Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich and prose by Michael Ondaatje, Joan Didion and Tim O’Brien. It surprised me that, even when I read Paul Monette’s angrier elegies aloud, it didn’t trigger any angry work. Irony, yes, but I didn’t hear anger coming out much in the workshop.
MK: In an essay about AIDS’ effect on art, entitled “Esthetics and Loss,” Edmund White wrote “If art is to confront AIDS more honestly than the media has done, it must begin and end in anger, and, in fact, avoid humor.”
IB: One of the writers in Burning House, Doug Bender [author of “Tubes,” excerpted opposite page], said that writing about AIDS was like watching a horror movie and finally removing your hands from your eyes.
MK: The powerful thing for me about your anthology is the fact that these people weren’t professional writers. What did writing give them that maybe it wouldn’t give someone who was more used to writing.
IB: You find that there’s material in your life that’s interesting, that you do have stories. Also, you develop the “witness,” the part of the self that’s not embroiled, which Richard Hugo calls “transferring your allegiance.”
MK: What can you say about the literature of witness?
IB: It’s individual and collective at the same time; it’s about who gets to leave records. Nobody’s story is ever the same and nobody can tell somebody else’s story in quite the same way in terms of content, wildness and syntax.
MK: What’s interesting is the proximity people have to AIDS or HIV and how that’s changed them. Some people are much more willing to address it. How did people in your workshop view their own disease?
IB: Everyone is different, and different from week to week. When somebody could open to the facts and the emotions of the illness and write about it, they were bringing a gift. I watched everyone fall in love with them. Tony Gramaglia would shake before he would read his work because he was scared and he was giving a voice to a level of emotion and truth-telling that opened up the room and completely took us to another level.
There were people who had a harder time facing things, who were in denial. It limited their creative work and that’s the ironic thing. I don’t think you can choose to open in one area and not in another.
MK: In his introduction to From a Burning House, Tony Kushner comes right out and says, “AIDS is about death.” How do you feel about that?
IB: I thought immediately of someone who was in the workshop who’s been living with HIV for many, many years who doesn’t believe that HIV causes AIDS. He’s not sick. When he sees that line, it’s going to drive him mad and make him furious. Right now, with the next set of drug breakthroughs, maybe something is turning around. Maybe Tony’s wrong.
MK: One of the things I found curious was that there are no women in the book. Why was that?
IB: I’m painfully aware of that. At AIDS Project Los Angeles, the rate of women clients is something like 7 percent, men 93 percent. A nurse in a local AIDS unit told me that most of the women she met said AIDS was the least of their problems. They were often poor women with children and without a support system. There isn’t always the luxury of time to go to a workshop.
MK: Who lives in a burning house?
IB: I met a firewoman and I asked her to tell me about fire. She said to me, “The thing you have to watch out for is that it’s so beautiful. You have to make sure you don’t get mesmerized by it.”
What happens in those rooms is even more compelling than what’s in the book. What happens when people are making discoveries. What happens when John Bell found that he had to write the story about how he betrayed a friend who was called a faggot when he was in high school. Or Chris Gorman writing about how he stole Caruso records. And watching somebody who’s dying write with grace about depression. Just watching people get there, to the workshop, week after week.
Who’s living in a burning house? I want to be in that house with the people who can’t get out. My life is transformed by working with people who are living like there’s no tomorrow.