‘Funeral Diva,’ a Mixture of Memoir and Poetry, Stirs the Physique and Thoughts
“Who will take care of our caretakers?”
At the height of the AIDS crisis, poet Craig Harris spoke at New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center not to mourn the dying men but to praise a woman: Pat Parker, a writer and black lesbian activist who worked on it had you.
The poet Pamela Sneed was in the audience that day. Her new book “Funeral Diva”, a mixture of poetry and memoir, appears 30 years later as a bleak and blunt answer to Harris’ question.
Who takes care of our caretakers? Nobody will take care of the caretakers. Few will actually remember them. Like Parker, many “silent invisible deaths” died, Sneed writes. Her work has been removed from the official AIDS story narrative in which “white men are always at the top”.
Sneed was deeply involved in AIDS activism and did a particular service from which her book takes its title. “Because of my stature” – Sneed is about 6-foot-2 – “Writing, edgy outfits, and a flair for the dramatic / I became a known and requested presence operating during the crisis / unofficially titled” Funeral Diva “. ‘”
How obscure are the contributions and guidance of lesbians in AIDS activism? In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, a story of twentieth century lesbian life, historian Lillian Faderman describes how the community “fought AIDS as if they were fighting for members of their own families.” Lesbian medical professionals would “cause disturbances” for men. (Two recent documentaries – “We Were Here” and “Quiet Heroes” – document the roles of lesbian doctors and nurses.) Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s ACT UP Oral History Project contain over 100 testimonies – half of them from women. This is the world “Funeral Diva” remembers, where Sneed and her friends, “clueless and unprepared” when AIDS emerged, frantically organized into ad hoc committees, with lesbians as “teachers, nurses, soldiers who worked long hours / mostly “without vacation or retirement plans, retirement or leave of absence. “
Not only is it that these women’s work has remained largely unconfirmed, it is also that their grief counted so little. All those beloved Sneed names that withered, went blind, or “disappeared like thousands of pieces of paper,” friends who were both their families and their education.
I learned more about being an artist in the early 90s than anyone else
has ever taught me
It was of little boys with baby faces and death sentences who spoke
and forced myself into the world despite all the adversities I had learned
She resurrects them on each side. Craig Harris smokes his long Virginia Slims. Donald Woods, who saw Sneed as a little sister who wrapped her in his arms and said, “God bless this woman / bless her.” They poke her over the finish lines of the poems in this book, poems she has had a hard time finishing for 15 years. They appear to her as sudden visits, memories of everything she once owned. While dancing she hears:
an updated disco remix version of Patti Labelle’s “You are My Friend”
and i get the holy spirit
feeling like it’s back to early 1991
All of my brothers were still alive
They really didn’t all die of me
I really belonged somewhere once, something
I’ve heard astute criticisms of Sneed’s poetry – that it’s powerful but not “well made,” which strikes me as odd, as if its jagged, roughly hewn collage effect isn’t very important, a deliberate style, an approach to memory . I am inclined to call Rita Mae Brown: “If Michelangelo were straight, the Sistine Chapel would have been painted white with a roller.”
Sneed is an acclaimed reader of her own poetry, and the book has the feel of a live performance, not to mention a false note or two (like the boring poems about Donald Trump). Its strength lies in its abundance, its desire for language to move body and mind. As the chapters go back to Sneed’s early years, we realize how hard-won this rawness is on the side. All her seriousness, her amazement, her anger – the pure innocence of feeling – was denied to her in her childhood.
“Size color class I was never allowed to be small”, she writes in the poem “Twizzlers”. “Little by little I mean innocent / little by little I mean I can play / make mistakes.”
Sneed grew up in the Boston suburbs. She was adopted as a young child and taken to a loveless, violent home. Her new mother left shortly afterwards and irreparably traumatized Sneed, she says. For 18 years, Sneed peeked out the window and waited for her mother to return. In the meantime, Sneed’s father had remarried. He would wantonly abuse his new wife in front of his daughter, and when Sneed fell in love with a woman, he attacked her too. She fled forever.
In her first collection of poems, “Imagine you are more afraid of freedom than slavery”, Sneed writes that from childhood she was “trained for docility and factory work”. Instead, she became a downtown darling, modeled for magazine covers, made occasional appearances in independent films and on the public television show “Dyke TV,” a crowd-sourced effort to increase the visibility of queers – and the apotheosis of the 90s DIY lesbian aesthetic. There I met Sneed for the first time with her shaved head and her boxy suit that looked gallant, shy and flirtatious – already a star.
Sneed has lived countless lives in this one. The book goes through them all: the young poet in New York; the pilgrim who travels the world looking for a home; the beloved miserable by her attraction to deeply chaotic women; the years of work and joyful collaboration; the years lost by trauma. She writes to the brink of the present, the current pandemic, and is amazed at the naivety of the headlines: “A story of two pandemics: shocking inequalities in health care” – “shocking” for whom? She writes about heroic black and lesbian history and activism, but also about shame, about the immobility of the years when her friends died, when she felt incapable, when she would run away. This writer, haunted by her unknown origins, always diligently fills the silence she can. I remember an early poem of hers, “Sweet Dreams”.
I once worked on a piece with a dancer
and she looked at my long arms outstretched and at her
said, “My God, Pamela, your wingspan.”