Remembering Assotto Saint: A Fierce and Fatal Vision
Author: Victoria Brownworth
June 19, 2014
Assotto Saint and I were both finalists for a Lambda Literary Award in 1997. He was up for Gay Biography, I was up for both Lesbian Studies and Fiction Anthologies. Neither of us would win that year, but I would have other chances. Assotto and I had both won before, but in those days, when everything seemed so temporal, the moment was everything. I wanted the win for my political offerings and I wanted it for him for history. I was very ill that year, bedridden and almost unable to move, and Assotto was on my mind a lot–all of them were, the gay men I had loved, who I had lost.
Assotto would never win another award because Assotto had died June 29, 1994. His work was over. The book that was a finalist, an autobiographical collection, Spells of a Voodoo Doll: The Poems, Fiction, Essays and Plays of Assotto Saint had been published by Richard Kasak at Masquerade Books, who I would later work for as an editor in the six years before his death.
Spells of a Voodoo Doll was collected by Assotto’s friend and literary executor, Michele Karlsberg, who wrote a brief, yet loving introduction to the book that pulsed with him and his work. It’s 500 pages of Assotto. Five hundred burning, painful, lyric, raw, visceral pages.
The pages of my copy have that reddish tinge of aging paper that looks like it’s on fire. And the words? The words still sear. The words take me back a quarter century and I can see Assotto vividly in my mind’s eye, with his long graceful dancer’s arms and his languid, lilting speech which belied the anger and urgency that pulsed always just below the surface in the years I knew him.
In “Evidence” he writes:
gay boys stricken
again then again & again
black men broken
again then again & again
best friends taken
again then again & again
I guess Joseph Beam was the first black gay man I knew to die of AIDS. There was a coterie of writers–black gay men, mostly poets, vivid and handsome and provocative. Two of them lived here in Philadelphia, Joe and Essex Hemphill. I knew Joe well, saw him every week, if not more. Joe’s death came early, 1988. We were revving into funeral mode in that year. The deaths were coming fast. But the others–Assotto, Essex, more–they would all die in a rush, together, as if they had all been infected on the same day, as if none of them could bear to live without the others, all in 1994 to 1995. I counted the death of a generation of black gay male writers in the span of three years at most. And then it was over.
They were gone. Every one of them. And for those of us who knew them, the devastation was almost more than we could bear. At some point I stopped going to funerals. Because I had become that woman, the one who keens and wails in the back of the church or synagogue or memorial hall, the one who everyone thinks might throw herself into the open pit of grave or onto the coffin or urn. I had become that woman because there was that much dying in those days.
Assotto was always prepared to die. If that makes him sound like a fatalist or a Zen master, he was neither. He was just clear about what was going to happen. And he knew the work had to be done and quickly, urgently, before time ran out.
And yet in 1993, in an interview I did with him for then–Lambda Book Report, in the March-April issue, I titled the piece, “The Road Before Him: Zen and the Art of Assotto Saint.”
So perhaps he was Zen. And I only see the realist in him from behind the two-decades long scrim of memory where I have reached that contemplative middle age, which he did not.
Of Assotto Saint I can say quite simply, that I loved him. In that heightened, urgent, angry and devastating time that was the deadly wave of the AIDS epidemic, those of us who were on the front lines of the struggle had a connection forged by death and dying that other people around us were oblivious to and ignorant of and it wedded us together. We were like cells in a resistance to a war that had no clear villains and no seeming end.
That fight was our gay Normandy and it consumed all our time, all our conversations. Like whispered messages from a foxhole, staccato shots over the bow of life, we spoke to each other like it might be our last time, like we must register that voice, those words, that tone and take its historical measure, because if we did not, it would be lost forever, because that person might be dead. Every conversation mentioned death and dying. It was, ironically, as natural as breath.
But you have to understand, we were all young. We were in our 20s and 30s–the oldest among us were still only 40-something, maybe just cresting 50–an age we’d think too young to die, now. Then, our days were like a science fiction horror tale where the old are left while the young drop like flies, their flaming youth unable to forestall the sudden and oh-so-wrong end.
You have to see, we loved them, these men who were dying right in front of us. We loved them, we were desperate to save them and we were powerless. All we had in our AIDS-war foxholes was each other. And the bodies kept piling up around us.
I thought, somehow, he’d best it, death. I thought his beauty, his quiet rage, his drive, his passion–all of it,I thought it would save him, somehow. Because, you see, I loved him.
When my collection From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth was published in 2011, I dedicated it to Assotto–“poet, activist, friend: These voices carry on for you.”
It was a statement to him across the divide, but it would not be my last. Because I can never forget how he imprinted my life.
This is who he was. He was this poem, “Life-Partners,” which he wrote for his life-partner, Jan Holmgren, a big, gorgeous Swedish bear of a man, when Jan was dying of AIDS:
solitudes of illness
& beatitudes our lips utter
evening settles in this exile of senses for our surrender
one more friend’s death has clocked the day like a tolling bell
biding time we are shadows also shrinking early into destiny
let us gather our pills & swallow all regrets with a kiss
cover each other then weave
dreams of another day
Then there was this, the final poem, excruciatingly raw, almost unbearably intimate, as we witness the death of the beloved, Assotto’s true love of 13 years, in his final throes as the disease they both share overtakes him. You can smell the hospital room, intuit the final labored breaths. There is no relief that the agony is over. Only an open chasm of grief:
A Lover’s Diary
monday, march 29, 1993
vigil on two chairs
iwhisper “hey, good morning”
he doesn’t respond
iwatch his labored breathings
the head nurse suctions him up
“he’s turned for the worse”
dr mcmeeking mumbles
weeks, days, just can’t tell
“hours” insists my mother
furious iescort her out
the oscars come on
the crying game stars don’t win
hoping he can hear
iremind him he’s my light
death rattles my scream for help
the nurse rushes in
mother returns with prayers
icradle him close
pleading “stay, one more day, stay”
eleven twenty, he’s gone
bathe him with my tears
parched lips thirst for a wet
istick my tongue deep
bitter taste of bloody phlegm
moans spat out ishut his eyes
The poem goes on for several more pages, three dozen more quintets of the more quotidian aspects of the death–the casket, the newspaper announcement in the New York Times, the banner across the spray of 53 red roses “one for each year of your life” which reads “sweetheart, see you soon.” And in that final stanza, the lover left alone, looks out over “a city in crisis,” asking, “why am ialive”?
And finally, after Jan is gone, in a poem titled “The Language of Dust,” with an epigraph from Essex Hemphill, Assotto is reminded of their final discussions over burial versus cremation. He demands that Jan be buried with him, eschews cremation. They watch a news story one night of how ashes are commingled in a crematorium and it shocks them both. Jan agrees to burial, to them together in “animal spirit,”
iwould find my way
around this evergreen
I don’t remember now, exactly, 20 years having passed, how it was I came to be speaking with Marie Lubin, Assotto’s mother, but it was right after his death. I can’t remember who called whom, but she told me she had a note from Assotto that she wanted to read to me.
It was a brief conversation, laden with both sadness and shared loss. Her son, only 36, dead. My friend, yet another gay man I knew and loved, dead, only 36. We were nearly the same age, I was less than a year older. And he was gone.
I know my grief was a tiny fraction of hers, but you could feel the intensity of it between us as we spoke–the piece that was missing: her son, my friend. I heard him in her voice. The island lilt. The hint of patois. It made me miss him more, yet it also brought me to a place of unquiet peace. Assotto was not suffering. Assotto had gone home. Assotto was still alive in our shared memories, our shared memorializing. “He loved you,” she said. “I loved him, too,” I told her, my voice choked with tears that never seemed to end. “I always will.”
I’ve written about the gay war poets of the first World War–Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and of course, Wilfred Owen–the men who died brutally young in that war that killed nine million, brief though it was. This is the centenary of that war. In Britain especially, with a whole generation lost, there have been stories and TV programs, videos and archival photos nearly every day in BBC online.
Assotto Saint was, first and foremost, a war poet. He was a poet of the AIDS war and more than that, he was a poet of the black voices of the AIDS war, the unheard, unmentioned voices that he was desperate to keep alive in any way he could.
Because he was beautiful–strikingly, dramatically, diva-ish beautiful–and had a quiet, almost subdued way of transmitting his rage at the AIDS epidemic, it was easy for people to presume about him. Beauty gets confused by many as lack of substance. But Assotto was both beautiful and bold–a bold dresser with a bold walk and bold gestures. He was also a bold thinker. He knew he had to chronicle the black gay voices of AIDS or they would be lost. He had to collect the bits and pieces that would create a different kind of names quilt–the angry verses, the embittered stanzas, the breathy last couplets of the dying.
In his introduction to The Road Before Us, Assotto talks about the importance of outing one’s HIV status. “There is nothing that those of us in this predicament could reveal in our bios that is more urgent and deserving of mention than our seropositivity or diagnosis.”
In his essay “Why I Write,” paralleling the similarly named essays of George Orwell and Joan Didion, both of which, Assotto and I had discussed at one point, had impacted us dramatically as both writers and activists, Assotto writes, “Most revolutions–be they political, social, spiritual or economic–are usually complemented by one in literature.”
Assotto was, without the trumpeting fanfare, bringing that about on a small but visceral level. The revolution of the dying cannot be ignored, even if it will not be televised, as Gil-Scot Heron had proclaimed. What Assotto was doing, as we discussed a few years before he died, was something in the oral tradition of the Caribbean from whence he came and the oral tradition of the slaves who were kept illiterate in America. These were the iterations white America, straight America, the America not touched by AIDS intended to keep hidden and silenced.
Just as those poets of the WWI foxholes, of the battles of the Somme, the Marne, the Verdun, were never meant to tell what it was like there, what it was like to be one of those on the front lines who queried daily, as Owen wrote in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons.”
Black gay men, with or without AIDS, from Assotto’s perspective at that time, were both being silenced and silencing themselves in the closet. No one was meant to hear their voices, but Assotto was determined, with a fearsome intensity of will, to break that silence, smash it into bits.
Douglas Steward, in his 1999 essay in African American Review “Saint’s Progeny: Assotto Saint, Gay Black Poets, and Poetic Agency in the Field of the Queer Symbolic,” pivots off Assotto’s revolution reference. And while the essay is deep post-modernist Lacan-meets-Butler academicizing of Assotto’s work, the points of clarity are there.
What Saint points us toward is the strong sense of complementary: literature as social force, without which revolution would remain incomplete, if not impossible. Under this model, map and territory are drawn and constructed simultaneously; the map is projected onto the territory, which only becomes visible as “the territory” as it stands in support of the phantasmatic projection of a particular social cartography.
Steward refers to Assotto as a “phallic mother” who has gathered together the voices of black gay male poets under the rubric of Assotto’s own declarative, and as Steward writes, “unified” voice, ostensibly giving them a purview from which to be viewed both individually and of a piece by Steward and other academics.
In short, Assotto had done what he set out to do: He created the comparable literature of revolution that was missing from the literary AIDS canon. He raised the black gay male voices from the shadow spaces, he raised them from within the recesses of the closet, he pulled them back from looming brink of death.
I have written extensively about the importance of memorializing our dead. Not just as a process of mourning–although certainly that has a central and fundamental purpose–but as a testament to history, to our collective gay history, a history that is fast being revised and re-written even from within our own ranks by those who weren’t there, but who are determined to reinvent our lives in their own image.
As an historian, I take the chronicling of our lived experience both seriously and personally. Next week will mark the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Assotto Saint (we were only a year apart in age) and I were among the first generation of post-Stonewall gays and lesbians. What we lived, what we experienced in that time between our national coming out and his death in the midst of the AIDS crisis was pivotal.
He knew this. Even then he had the prescience to know he had to get it all down. He also knew he had a responsibility to raise his voice in the hope of stanching the hemorrhage that was all that dying.
As he wrote in “Curse”:
i shake off the nightmare’s sweat
to cleanse my soul
i shake it off to cleanse history
cold sweat this water is no blessing
& the rage in me climbs out
to free the sun
in our sky of clouds
Who was Assotto Saint? He was one of the first black gay male activists to disclose his positive HIV status. He was also, with Essex Hemphill, Steven Corbin, Marlon Riggs, all of whom were the same age, all of whom died within six months of each other, one of the first black gay male voices of the AIDS literary movement.
Born Yves Francois Lubin in Les Cayes, Haiti October 2, 1957, the same week the infamous dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president, Assotto had come to the U.S. at 13. Assotto was a poet, a performance artist, an essayist, a playwright, a dramaturg, a singer, a dancer. He had danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company. He had briefly attended college as a pre-med student but moved on to performance art and writing.
According to the Encyclopedia of African American Literature, he chose he pseudonym Assotto Saint as he began performing. Assotto is the Haitian Creole patois pronunciation of one of the drums used in Vodun or Voodoo rituals and ceremonies. Assotto took the name Saint from one of his heroes, Toussaint Louverture.
According to the EAAL, although he initially spelled Assotto with only one t, he added the second t when his CD4 T-cell count fell to only nine.
The balance of Assotto’s work, beyond his activism and his own writing, was as an editor. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this work of Assotto’s. Black lesbian voices were being collected by the feminist presses acutely attuned to racism. But white gay male publishing had not made much room for the voices of black gay men.
Assotto made them make room. The books flowed. Here to Dare: 10 Gay Black Poets. New York: Galiens, 1992. Milking Black Bull: 11 Gay Black Poets. Sicklerville, N.J.: Vega, 1995. The Road before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets. New York: Galiens, 1991.
And then his own work–Stations. New York: Galiens Press, 1989. Wishing for Wings. New York: Galiens Press, 1994 Spells of a Voodoo Doll: The Poems, Fiction, Essays and Plays of Assotto Saint. New York: Richard Kasak, 1996.
Even now, 20 years since his death, Assotto’s collected works of all those black gay men stands as a testament not just to his power, but it gives voice to men who we may never have heard from otherwise.
Assotto brought explicitly black gay sexuality and sensuality into the gay literary canon. He refused to whitewash his work or the work of the black gay men he published. These were voices that were long suppressed–sometimes even by the writers themselves–he wanted them heard and heard in their full, unbleached blackness.
He also refused to reject his effeminate nature. He referred to himself as a “tall black queen” and that’s what he was–both regal and flaming. He loved being gay and he wanted other black gay men to revel in being gay. He believed fully in the axiom that silence=death.
Because when you discover you are dying in your mid-30s, everything changes, and you have no patience for timidity.
That may be why, in one of Assotto’s more dramatic moments–and he did drama so well, theater maven that he was–he disrupted poet Donald Wood’s funeral. He asserted that to let him be buried in secrecy and shame would be a travesty and a rejection of the life Wood’s had lived.
But saying the word AIDS was still as anathema within the black community as it was in Washington.
In “Going Home Celebration,”a poem dedicated to Donald Woods he writes: “donald/the spectacle of your funeral/was a wake-up call from the dead/but history religiously repeats its travesty/in lunatic denial of an epidemic that decimates us/gay black men”
And later in the poem: “anguish in the blood iarrive/skeptical after the obituary stated you died/of a heart attack which almost gave me one”
Toward the end of the poem he says: “isoar like an archangel summoning those wishing/to avenge your censored queer legacy”
Thomas Glave’s wrote about the dramatic event in his short story “The Final Inning,” which received the O. Henry Award for Fiction in 1997.
Assotto also talks about the incident in Emmy and Peabody Award–winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s film Non, je ne regrette rien, in which five black gay men with AIDS talk about how they came to terms with the disease. As he told me personally and in the interviews we did, “truth at all costs” was his mantra.
Beyond the poetry were the essays and plays and songs. Assotto was founder and artistic director of Metamorphosis Theater. With Jan he “created and staged theatrical works that focused on the complexity of the lives of black gay men.”
His works include Risin’ to the Love We Need, his first play, which was awarded second prize in the 1980 Jane Chambers Award for gay and lesbian playwriting; New Love Song; Black Fag; and Nuclear Lovers. Assotto was a part of New York’s Blackheart Collective, formed in 1981 by a group of artists and writers.
According to the Encyclopedia of African American Literature, Assotto was “a charter member of Other Countries: Black Gay Expression, the New York-based black gay writers’ collective, which, when it was founded in 1985, helped mark the beginning of what many scholars and critics now consider a renaissance in black gay writing and literature. Lubin served as the poetry editor of the distinguished journal Other Countries: Black Gay Voices (Other Countries Press, 1988); he later independently edited and published two anthologies through Galiens Press, which he founded in 1989: the Lambda Literary Award–winning The Road before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets (1991) and Here to Dare (1992). A third anthology, Milking Black Bull, which he conceived and edited, was ultimately published posthumously by Vega Press (1995), one of the few black gay presses in existence at the time.”
The EAAL also notes Assotto’s chapbook Triple Trouble was published in Tongues Untied (GMP, 1987) and that in 1990 he was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and received the James Baldwin Award from the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum.
In a 2001 interview, poet and radical faery Franklin Abbott spoke briefly about his relationship with Assotto Saint. Abbott said, “Assotto was one of the most intense, complex people I ever knew. Our attraction was in some ways about how utterly different we were on all kinds of levels. What I most appreciated about him was our long talks on the phone as everyone around us was getting diagnosed and dying. Our sexual dialogue was like the language of twins that no one else can understand.” (Abbott has digitized letters Assotto sent him, which can be viewed online here)
Of the interracial nature of his relationship with Assotto, Franklin said, “There is a moment in the communion of souls where all differences vanish. And when a black hand holds a white hand in public history can change in an instant.”
Assotto himself changed history. If not in an instant, over a feverish period of a very few years that were packed with writing, editing, activism, friendship and love.
This quote from Spells of a Voodoo Doll is explication of his life, his life with Jan, his work, his legacy: “Anytime one tries to take fragments of one’s personal mythology and make them understandable to the whole world, one reaches back to the past. It must be dreamed again.”
Occasionally, I dream of Assotto, and some of our other friends. In the dreams they are all as they were before AIDS took over their lives, and we are almost always sitting around with coffee and poetry. Assotto, so beautiful, those dancer’s arms in constant gesture. So young, so vibrant. A vivid dream. This is the counterpoint, his legacy: At the end of his essay “Sacred Life,” Assotto writes, “Art is a way of telling the truth.”
Assotto’s art was truth–so real and honest and unflinching at times it was difficult to read. But legacies aren’t always neat and tidy and unbloodied. Assotto tore at the guts of a community–the black gay community–that still struggles with the specter of AIDS to this day. Yet still, he gave voice.
In his work that voice resonates through the two decades since his passing. It leaves us a history, not just of Assotto’s own life, but of a place in time, a field of battle, from which few returned, but within which there were correspondents from the front lines, of which Assotto was one.
As he wrote at the end of “Heart & Soul,” a poem for Essex Hemphill:
that becomes me in tribal rituals
& battle against bigots
ihave honored with my blood
every time ileave my house
We were honored with his blood, his words, his work. He is part of our history, now. And the voices that carry on, in his name and those of all our valiant dead.