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Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, "Relationship No. 44" (2008-2013)


Rhys Ernst is on a roll. In the last year alone, Ernst was including in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, worked as producer and consultant of the Golden Globe-winning series Transparent, and contributed the incisive short video "Dear Lou Sullivan" to Visual AIDS's Day With(out) Art 25th anniversary video program, ALTERNATE ENDINGS.

In a response essay to "Dear Lou Sullivan," Lucas Hilderbrand writes that "Ernst's video importantly reminds us not only of Sullivan's radical self-determination but also more broadly that trans stories can also be AIDS histories and gay male stories." Visual AIDS interviews Rhys below about Transparent's Golden Globe and his "Dear Lou Sullivan" video below.


In "Dear Lou Sullivan," you merge archival footage of transgender activist Lou Sullivan and old-school pornography with contemporary Grindr chats. Why was it important for you to layer the past with the present on-screen in this way?
In his interview, Lou details numerous experiences of body dysphoria and transphobia. He also discusses the joy and fulfillment he experienced as a result of his successful gay sexual experiences. Sex is central to Lou's story--both in how central it was to his gender affirmation, as well as to his death.

If he was a trailblazer in creating a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation, it's ironic that his male identity was most validated when he was sexually accepted by the gay community. That paradox resonated with me.

Over the course of years I saved screengrabs of my experience of transphobia, ignorance, and debasement on Grindr. It's more often ignorant statements or questions than open harassment (though I've experienced both). My experience of transphobia on MSM apps is not unique--after I began collecting my own screengrabs I discovered a tumblr dedicated to this topic. What really blew my mind is how often gay cis men didn't even know what the terms "ftm," "trans man" or "trans" even mean--it's incredible how many cis gay men can live in an insulated bubble and be completely disconnected from the rest of the queer/trans world--this points to a very particular type of cis privilege.

I used one "found" grindr chat in the video, around 4:15, in which a poz guy is discriminated against. I sought that one out specifically for the video. There's a parallel in the discrimination that poz cis guys and neg trans guys experience in the MSM scene. Lou Sullivan was a rare overlap of that Venn diagram, of poz cis/gay trans, and experienced both of those types of discrimination. The Grindr screengrabs illustrate how little has changed since Lou's days in how trans men are perceived and treated in the MSM scene.

One thread that emerged in the making of this video was that of screens: the Grindr screengrabs on my iPhone, the VHS interviews of Lou bracketed in the YouTube page, the VHS porn shot off of my TV screen. The screen as a means of collapsing time, a mediation of the experience, a means of communication and reflection (literally and figuratively).

Can you describe the influence of Lou Sullivan, and your process of both being inspired to make the project about Lou and where your research into his life and work took you?
I'm often frustrated by the conspicuous void of visible trans-masculine elders and histories. Thankfully, there's a good deal of trans-feminine history out there, and I've been lucky to have access to amazing trans feminine elders. For a number of complex reasons however, transmasculinity is wildly underrepresented. I learned about Lou Sullivan two years ago from the Hero issue of Original Plumbing.

The absence of visible trans masculine elders and my search for them is part of what motivated me in the making of this video.

As a trans man who primarily dates gay men, finding elders that fit that archetype is a challenge. Lou was all of those things, whilst previously my investigation into the history of this demographic had left me pointedly empty handed. It's almost as if these two identities--gay cis male and gay trans man--have cancelled each other out. The way Lou talks about discovering he had AIDS, and the ways that that diagnosis could be seen as a "success" in being a gay man was really striking to me. He would eventually die of AIDS related illnesses. He referred to his ultimate circumstance as his "poetic justice."

In spite of his extraordinary obstacles, in the video footage Lou's optimism, steadfastness and strength shine through. In the late stages of AIDS related illness, Lou describes the positive aspects of his life, concluding "all is not doom and gloom." His spirit of perseverance endures beyond his passing and is embedded in this analog footage of him.

I initially went to the ONE archives in Los Angeles, thinking that they would have some of Lou's archive there. ONE connected me to Lou's book, Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual (which I used in the video), but I learned that the vast majority of L.S.-related materials are at the San Francisco GLBT Society. I wasn't able to travel to San Francisco at the time (I was headed to Europe and ended up completing the video in Berlin) so I turned instead to the internet. I came across the San Francisco GLBT Society videos of Lou on YouTube. My online research of Lou reflected my larger search for transmasculine elders--screengrabs of my web searches became a part of the video as well.

You've also been closely involved with Transparent, the 2015 Golden Globe-winning best comedy series, whose lead, Maura, is a contemporary--albeit fictional--character of noteworthy visibility. You've described your time as producer and consultant on Transparent as a creative/activist role. What was the range of parts that you played for the project, and how did your role emerge?
I met Transparent creator Jill Soloway when we were both premiering short films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. We kept in touch about trans issues in film (her parent had recently come out as trans) and when she was writing the pilot for the show, she got in touch about collaborating. I've been a part of the show since. My role as a producer and consultant has included extensive script notes, time in the writer's room, casting, locating and hiring trans crew members, time with the actors (in particular Jeffrey Tambor), interfacing between the show and the queer/trans community, and guiding the queer / trans content and political ethos behind the scenes. It's an incredibly exciting project to be a part of, not only because it's such groundbreaking storytelling, but also because it's occurring right in the middle of the trans civil rights movement and is is a part of shaping the conversation. We're beginning our second season now and are expanding some of our social responsibility programs to help trans people break into the film industry.

I also created the Transparent opening titles, which connected directly to my work on "Dear Lou Sullivan." For the Transparent title sequence, I used an old VHS camera to shoot original material, mixing it in with archival footage. All of this was fresh in my mind as I created "Dear Lou Sullivan." I even used a little leftover VHS static that was shot (but not used) for the Transparent title sequence at the very end of "Dear Lou Sullivan."

In what ways did you and your longtime collaborator Zachary Drucker work with Jeffrey Tambor to develop his portrayal of Maura for the series (which won him a Golden Globe)?
Zackary and I have spent a lot of time with Jeffrey since the inception of the show, and in addition to a collaboration, I enjoy a friendship with him. Jeffrey is just as sensitive, intelligent and empathetic as he comes across on screen and he really gets the importance of trans storytelling and what we're all doing here.

One story I like to tell about working with Jeffrey is that in the early days, before we even shot the pilot, I had the idea to bring Jeffrey in character to a trans night at a bar in the Valley. It turned into a field trip with a small group including other cast and crew members. Zackary and I met Jeffrey and Jill at his hotel and got him into character as Maura for the first time. He had been to some fittings but hadn't put the whole look together as one yet. The group of us sat around for several hours and shared stories about gender and our lives as Maura slowly emerged for the first time. Jill had to leave for a screening of her film Afternoon Delight, so Zackary and I and Jeffrey as Maura drove together to the bar in the Valley to meet our gang. That was the first time Maura ever stepped out and it was a revelation. We all had a fantastic time--Judith Light, who's a huge LGBT activist, met us there, and it was like Shelly meeting her former husband post-transition for the first time. Maura led us all to the dance floor. It was an incredible moment and left us all feeling that we were a part of something special.

What was the experience on set of Transparent? Any charged or emotional moments to share?
The Transparent set is lovely. It's a group of immensely talented people, no big egos, not a rotten apple in the bunch, doing what they do best. Some of Maura's big scenes have felt really special to be witness to and a part of--when Maura comes out to Sarah in episode 2, or when Sarah and Ali defend Maura in the women's room both come to mind.

It's always amazing when we shoot on location with a bunch of queer and trans actors and extras. The LGBT Center scenes, and in particular the "Trans Got Talent" scene, were examples of these. Zackary and I cast all the queer and trans background actors from the community, and there would be sometimes 70 or so queer and trans people in a room. Everyone was moved to be a part of it--the trans folks would often say that they had never been around so many other trans people before. There were always gender-neutral bathrooms on set, and the whole cast and crew were well versed in trans issues, including gender-neutral pronouns, etiquette, etc.

Another favorite was Camp Camelia--the early '90s flashback episode in which Maura goes to a weekend retreat for cross-dressers. We were out in Malibu State Park somewhere in an actual summer camp environment, with cross-dressers frolicking around. I was working on the title sequence at the time and brought a big VHS camera to shoot party footage on set alongside the primary production. Jill liked the idea and suggested I cross-dress and actually be in the scene on the dance floor as a party-goer while shooting VHS for the titles. I did a full drag look--early '90s with a copper sequin dress that went wrist to ankles--very Tootsie--a bob wig, full makeup, though I refused to shave my mustache. My drag alter-ego, "Copper Penny," was on the dance floor during the whole climactic scene with Maura and Marcie, though I didn't make the final cut, sadly.


Rhys Ernst is a filmmaker and artist who works across various forms and modalities to investigate transgender identity, masculinity, and the intersection of gender and narrative construction. He is a producer on Amazon's Transparent and created the title sequence for the series. He has shown work at the Sundance Film Festival, the Whitney Biennial, Oberhausen Film Festival, Rushes Soho Shorts, Brisbane International Film Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, MIX Brazil, Indie Memphis, REDCAT, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, MOCA Los Angeles, The New Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and The Hammer Museum, and won awards at Outfest, Chicago International Film Festival and Carrboro Film Festival, among others. He was the 2010 HBO Point Scholar and received a Princess Grace Awards Honoraria in 2003. Ernst received his MFA in film/video at CalArts in 2011 and a BA from Hampshire College in 2004. He lives in Los Angeles.

2015 Vanguard Awards: Jim Hodges Is a Sexy Genius

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Jim Hodges, Untitled (2011). Mirror ball, mechanics, computer, 4 lights, Bio Black Pond colorant and water. Photo credit: Ron Amstutz


The 10th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA Voom) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Luna Luis Ortiz, Julie Ault and Jim Hodges.

Since the late 1980s, Jim Hodges has created a broad range of work exploring themes of fragility, temporality, love and death, longing and loss and the formation of queer identity in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, utilizing a highly original and poetic vocabulary.

Carlos Marques da Cruz has worked in Jim's studio since 2009 and is an artist himself who works between dance, theater, film and art. He co-directed the film Untitled with Jim and Encke King, which was distributed by Visual AIDS for the 2011 World AIDS Day/Day With(out) Art. In anticipation of VAVA, Marques da Cruz shares his experiences with Visual AIDS of working with Jim so closely over the years.

Describe a "typical" workday in Jim's studio. How many assistants are around and what roles do folks play? How does the creative process come to the fore?

It might be a very old romantic point of view but I believe that art is not just a profession, but a way of living. It doesn't start or end at the studio. It's not a 9 to 5 job. Most of the artists that work at the studio have their own practice as well, and share everyday their experiences and ideas. The studio is a place where dialogue stimulates creativity. Maybe that's why I never think about roles or codes, but rather the relation between sensibility, knowledge, experimentation...and some madness. For example, I love that I don't really know what to say when someone asks what is my role...it is always changing and evolving, challenging quite often everything I know.

The creative process changes as well as the workday, depending on the pieces or projects we are working on, and which part of the process is being developed. Several projects may grow at the same time. A few might be almost ready, others just starting. Some are very complex, and involve consultation with engineers, architects, fabricators, and might take several months, even years to accomplish, while others are more spontaneous. Jim brings the raw material, the object, and we add questions, present various perspectives, we construct, deconstruct, and then, we construct again. But the process is not always the same: sometimes Jim draws for days listening to music. I would say that the "typical" day at Jim Hodges studio is a constant roller coaster of possibilities.

But there is one "typical" moment at the studio (maybe atypical for most Americans): When we stop for lunch, everyone sits and eats together. This daily moment brings us together, creates a very special intimacy.

You played a key role in installing Jim's Give More Than You Take retrospective throughout the country, and VAVA honoree Julie Ault also had a hand in installation and exhibition design in the Hammer's iteration of the show in Los Angeles. What were some of the central considerations of that exhibition, and what was the installation experience like?

Julie Ault and Martin Beck joined us on the last installation of Give More Than You Take at the Hammer Museum. Jim felt that after three venues it would be good to have someone that could start a new dialogue at the museum about installing his work in ways that normally wouldn't be considered. How could we increase the relation between the work and viewers? Museums tend to love when didactics frame the work, even at the risk of asphyxiation. So we started a totally different approach to the placement of the work.

The retrospective traveled to four museums, and there was a coincidence at three of those: The Dallas Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Hammer Museum were all designed by Edward Barnes. In the Hammer Museum he created a system of skylights that are often ignored and understandably covered due to the fragility that most art works have to being exposed to the sunlight. We created walls that protected the works on paper and other fragile work, but managed to keep the skylights open, exposing the full structure of the museum instead of going "against" its architecture. The game between natural light (cold blue) and artificial light (warm yellow) as well as the variation of intensity of the daylight created some parallel narrations. Works were also installed in the foyer of the museum, in order to expand the exhibition to more accessible public spaces, while trying to avoid the "decorative" effect that can happen when installing art in those spaces. There was a real discussion between Jim, Julie and Martin on where works should be at their best, and the sense of being installed in a certain way. With them the installation "politics" were as exciting as creating a new piece.

How do you see HIV/AIDS as playing a role in Jim's work?

Living in the eye of the AIDS crisis that was New York City in the '80s and '90s, the loss of dear ones in a terrifying way, and to the atrociously unfair and unjust system that stacked the deck against homosexuality and people with AIDS, exposed Jim to the fragility of living in those years. Jim is very involved, an activist, and his work is definitely scored by the crisis.

But I would use the prefix "trans" to talk about his work in response to the epidemic. "Trans" is a prefix meaning "across" or "through," used to denote movement or conveyance from place to place (transfer; transmit; transplant) or complete change (transform; transmute); or to form adjectives meaning "crossing," "on the other side of," or "going beyond"--words that imply other worlds, perhaps better worlds.

You collaborated with Jim and Encke King on the video Untitled, which Visual AIDS distributed for Day With(out) Art in 2011. Can you describe the inspiration and process of creating that work, and your perspective on the distribution of the video during Day With(out) Art?

When in 2010, Artpace San Antonio installed the Félix Gonzalez-Torres billboards in several cities, they invited Jim to present a conference on Félix. Jim thought the best way to tell about Félix's practice was through a collage of images, songs, and themes ranging from politics to Félix's personal idiosyncrasies, and to let the material speak for itself. Jim didn't want Félix's point of view to end with his death, because the themes were too important, and because they continue. Jim was very good friends with Félix, so he began the project by sharing subjects that interested Félix. We also knew the work shouldn't be presented in a temporal order. We started loose, and then let it flow. Then Jim, Encke, and I spent a very intense time doing research--at the incredible, generous New York Public Library research archive, watching videos--raw, unedited camera rolls as well as completed documentaries--as well as sharing films, music, and books. The material started to contaminate the process, and then we started editing, letting the voices in the footage amplify the historical record. In a funny way, a film that inspired a lot the "composition" of Untitled was Chelsea Girls by Warhol and Morrissey, even if conceptually the situationist films of Guy Debord were present. We split the screen in two to give us more space for different voices and to confront the multiplicity of realities.

Untitled cross-links many subjects not normally associated, certainly not by the mass media. The juxtapositions permit the audience to witness absurdities from the past. Still today, some of those absurdities are far from being resolved. AIDS is one of them, related to society's behavior, human rights, the economy, but also friendship, love and courage. It is incredible how much material was not presented to the straight world. Today AIDS is part of a bigger picture, with pharmaceutical empires making fortunes on prevention pills, while an enormous part of the positive population don't have access to medication. AIDS would not last for long if all positive people were on the right medication. Maybe we should have more Days With(out) Art.

What projects are you working on yourself these days? And what upcoming projects are in the works with Jim at the studio as well?

I finished a short film called Lovepuzzle, and I'm starting to write a script for a feature.

With Jim I'm working on several short films more related to documentary; a new piece with dancers and performers; and also all of the other projects, the sculptures, the installations.

Describe Jim Hodges in a sentence.

Sexy Genius!

Carlos Marques da Cruz has worked in theater, dance, cinema and fashion. He has performed, assisted and worked on the sets of Robert Wilson, as well as with Jérôme Savary, Damien Jalet, Francisco Rider, Encke King, Emanuela Not, Les Guzman and Luke Smalley. Carlos studied set design at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Venice and Art at the Escola Superior de Belas-Artes of Lisbon. He has been working with Jim Hodges since 2009. His most recent work, Lovepuzzle, is a video love letter to an ex-beloved in the age of crystal meth. Lovepuzzle assembles desperate pieces of passion, music and betrayal in a poetic song of despair and hope.

2015 Vanguard Awards: Julie Ault Always Sees Beyond

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Installation view from Macho Man, Tell It to My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault


The 10th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA Voom) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Julie Ault, Luna Luis Ortiz and Jim Hodges.

Julie Ault is an artist, curator, writer, and editor who works both independently and collaboratively, often engaging historical inquiry. Ault's recent exhibitions include Afterlife: a constellation for the 2014 Whitney Biennial and the collaboratively organized Macho Man Tell It to My Heart (Artists Space, 2013-14), featuring works by Tony Feher, Félix González-Torres, Martin Wong, Peter Hujar, Paul Thek and many others. Ault also cofounded the NYC-based collaborative Group Material in 1979, which presented such projects at AIDS Timeline in 1989.

Marvin Taylor, director of New York University's Fales Library and Special Collections, has worked closely with Julie over the last decade. Visual AIDS interviews Marvin about their work together as well as Julie's "visionary" practice with art and archives.


You've worked with Julie on multiple projects, and the way in which you both have reconsidered and activated archives has pushed the art and archives fields in important new directions. What have you learned from Julie and her work with archives?

I first met Julie in 2005 when we were both on a panel sponsored by the Artist Spaces Archives Project (ASAP) at the College Art Association conference. I had read her Alternative Art in New York, 1965-1985 and was very interested to hear her speak. As Julie began talking, I realized that I could finish some of her sentences. As the panel discussion went on, we began a dialogue about archives, art, and theory that has continued to this day. The next time we got together, Julie proposed donating the Group Material archive to the Downtown Collection at the Fales Library. As always with Julie, however, there was more to the project than just a simple donation. She proposed that she would help process the papers as a time-based art project. We agreed that she would set up a schedule of days and times when she would be in the library, processing the collection, and that visitors could come see her and talk about the process of organizing the Group Material archive, what that meant about narratives, authenticity, performance, and verification of sources: Archival processing as performance art as critique of the structures of libraries and archives. Julie's ideas about archives were in keeping with mine as I built the Downtown Collection. I had not thought of embodying them as an art practice, however. This project was the beginning of our now 10-year ongoing set of collaborations. Julie consistently causes me to question how the art world approaches archives, personal papers, and collections. Her recent project Tell It to My Heart pushed these ideas further, exploring the roles and embodied practices of artists, curators, museum staff, friends, colleagues, and the public. Julie pushes us all to think beyond the narratives to see what lies behind them and enforces their cultural agency.

Julie's contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial was Afterlife: a constellation, a "show within a show" that included works and ephemera by David Wojnarowicz and Martin Wong, among many others, from the Whitney's permanent collection and the Downtown Collection at the Fales. What was your take on the project?

Julie's room at the biennial was, needless to say, my favorite part of the show. I think her installation was a meta-commentary about the very notion of these kinds of mammoth surveys of the art world. One the one hand, she was showing archival materials from Wojnarowicz not as art, but as archival documentation that skirts the edges of art. I'm thinking of the Magic Box, the calendar, and the slide show. Just what is archival and what is art? Does the art world really understand why it is so obsessed with archival documents at this time? Julie suggests that curation is a form of art itself. The eye of the artist in choosing pieces that comment on one another is as creative an act as making a painting. Julie's inclusion of the outstanding Kinmont piece alongside Wojnarowicz's archival materials conjures up the latter's painting "Wind (for Peter Hujar)," 1987.

Now I have a pet peeve to share: "ephemera." The art world uses the term "ephemera" completely wrong. Archival materials such as letters, manuscripts, documentary photographs, etc., are not "ephemera." Ephemera is a very specific term that means printed materials produced for a specific event, such as tickets, flyers, or programs for the theater. As archives and museums move closer together, we need to start sharing a language that is mutually respectful of the materials we have in our collections.

You contributed an extensive interview with Julie to the Whitney Biennial project. What were some of the takeaways that you think are most interesting from that nuanced dialogue between the two of you?

Actually, Julie interviewed me for this piece. I was deeply honored. I knew Julie would ask all the very tough questions about the Downtown Collection, how it came about, how I envision its contours, how it resides in the realm of cultural politics. And she did just that. I hope our discussion shows how problematic archives are and is useful to artists who want to engage with them. Laurence Giffin, an archivist who worked at Fales, recently called archives "promiscuous." I'd like to think that Julie and I showed some of the promiscuity in the dialogue.

Julie was a founding member of Group Material, whose materials reside in the Fales Collection and whose work AIDS Timeline is a touchstone for us at Visual AIDS. What are some of your favorite Group Material projects? And what are some of the highlights of that collection of materials at Fales?

The Group Material archive is one of our most frequently used collections, especially the AIDS TIMELINE. We receive many, many requests from students, scholars, and curators to view the work and its documentations. Rather than select highlights from the collection, I think the most important thing about Group Material's archive is that you can see the process of collaboration; of opening up narratives to multiple voices; a privileging of indeterminacy over didacticism. If a student reads through all the documentation about "Democracy" for instance, she will come away not only with an understanding of the project, but also with a guide for possibly creating a similarly collaborative art model.

The exhibition of Julie's personal collection, Macho Man Tell It to My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault, included work that Julie had collected primarily as a result of her close relationships with many artists over time including work from Visual AIDS artist members Tony Feher, Félix González-Torres, Martin Wong, Peter Hujar, Paul Thek and VAVA honoree Jim Hodges. The way Julie amassed her collection, through gifting and exchanges with artist friends, is a similarly idiosyncratic approach to collecting as the Fales Downtown Collection, with its incredible archive of ephemera, journals, photographs and other objects from the downtown scene. Can you speak to Julie's collection exhibition, as well as the ways in which you both have been able to bring together such a fascinating record of artistic circles in both Julie's collection and the NYU Fales collection?

Wow! Your questions are hard. I was honored to be invited by Julie to participate in Tell It to My Heart. Julie explained to me what she planned to do in the broadest strokes then invited me to write a response for the first publication of the project. I'm pretty sure she did this because much of my collecting at Fales is related to her ideas about Tell It to My Heart. Art and archives are much more than just plastic objects. They are primarily about relationships. By that I mean correspondences, similarities, differences, quarrels, feuds, love affairs, one-night fucks. All these things inflect works of art with meaning that is personal, embodied, and often stripped from works when they enter institutions. How can we retain these subtle inferences? Should we? What is gained and what is lost? What is the role of time in all of this? Building a collection like Downtown is not a science, nor is it completely as personal as Julie's collection. I was honored again when Julie asked me to write a second piece after having seen the Basel and New York installations of the show. Something very, very important for me came out of that experience. I have used place often as a collection criterion. I did not quite know its power until I saw the differing installations of Tell It to My Heart.

Describe Julie Ault in a sentence.

Julie Ault is visionary--really--she always sees beyond.


Marvin Taylor has held positions at the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Health Sciences Library at Columbia University. He has been at the Fales Library since 1993. In 1994 Taylor founded the Downtown Collection, which contains over 12,000 printed books and 7,000 linear feet of manuscripts and archives, and 90,000 media elements. He was editor of The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984 (Princeton University Press, 2006), and co-curator of the exhibition The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984. With Marion Nestle, Taylor founded the Marion Nestle Food Studies Collection in 2003. Today, the collection contains more than 55,000 cookbooks, as well as archives and ephemera. With Clark Wolf, Taylor edited 101 Classic Cookbooks, 501 Classic Recipes (Rizzoli, 2012). In 2013, Taylor was promoted to full curator, the only librarian to be promoted to this rank in the history of NYU. He continues to do research in Victorian studies, experimental writing, English and American masculinities, downtown culture, contemporary art and queer studies.

'Meditating memories is a political act.'

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(l-r) Ted Rivera, Jenny Rivera and Peg Rivera speak out in the aftermath of Julio's murder. Photo courtesy of Jenny Rivera.


On July 2, 1990, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Julio Rivera, a 29-year-old gay man, was beaten to death by three armed men in Jackson Heights, Queens. Julio's assassination rallied people from around the city and left a powerful legacy of activism in Queens and beyond. For the Queens Museum's presentation of ALTERNATE ENDINGS--Visual AIDS's 25th Anniversary of Day With(out) Art--media scholar and memory activist Julian de Mayo Rodriguez and journalist Luis Gallo revisited the tragic yet pivotal moment through an oral history practice. A series of short interviews were presented, reflecting on Julio and the legacy of the community-wide response, followed by a discussion about the construction of collective memory that included strategies for media literacy and community-based storytelling. It was a moving intervention into traditional media coverage, especially in the context of Queens and days after the ruling in the Eric Garner case.

Below, Visual AIDS interviews Julian and Luis about their oral history practice. On their tumblr they highlight their non-linear storytelling practice reflecting multiple voices to detail the narratives of Julio's assassination.

Can you describe Julio Rivera's story and what made his assassination such a charged and galvanizing moment?
We like to imagine a historical ecosystem. It's the summer of 1990, it's hot, humid, and New York is a violent place, particularly for men of color. The city is living through some of the worst years of the AIDS crisis, and the crack epidemic is lingering. Homophobic violence is also common and under-reported. People are living with that fear. The summer he was killed, Julio had moved from Manhattan to Jackson Heights, Queens, because he thought it was safer.

According to Jenny Rivera, Julio's niece, Julio grew up in the Bronx and was raised in a working-class Puerto Rican family. He was openly gay, too. Jenny remembers him as a loving uncle who loved to dance and laugh.

Jackson Heights already had an established gay population even though it hadn't mobilize politically. Queens Councilmember Michael Dromm, who was a gay rights activist then, told us that 37th Avenue was referred to as "vaseline alley." A lot of great cruising was going on.

On the night of July 2, Julio was walking home when he was approached by three individuals carrying a 40-ounce bottle of beer, a hammer and a knife. They attacked him viciously; a stab wound punctured his lung and the blows of the hammer cracked his skull. Left for dead, Julio stumbled out onto the sidewalk looking for help. In what seems like a beautiful and bizarre coincidence, he was found bleeding profusely by his boyfriend, Alan, who was walking his dog. Julio later died of his wounds.

Julio's death is met with silence and neglect from mainstream media and the authorities. The police write it off as a young Latino man involved in a drug deal gone wrong. Jenny mourns her favorite uncle. Alan and the Riveras, distraught, determine to seek justice.

What ensues is a fascinating sequence of events that transforms a hateful crime into a dynamic mobilization of diverse sectors across the city. Alan and Jenny's parents, Peg and Ted Rivera--Julio's brother--engage with the Anti-Violence Project, Queer Nation and some of the membership of ACT UP NY, in developing both a media strategy and a grassroots campaign to pressure the NYPD and the city to investigate and hold the perpetrators accountable.

We learned that Julio's murder helped bring LGBT politics, already active in Manhattan, to Queens. Because of the murder, activists were able to galvanize the LGBT community in Queens. We also felt that activists harnessed the strategies and energy that was characteristic of AIDS activism, and translated it to community activism.

And this is where Julio's story, his last moments in this life, expand beyond their physical parameters and develop into a variety of simultaneous narratives. This is what our project attempts to explore. What eventually became an iconic tragedy and sensational news story of 1990 and 1991, is a wonderfully textured, networked and powerful statement of collective will and organizing. The lives of many people were transformed, legal precedents were set, annual rituals were sewn, and markers were left in the city's landscape that attest to the impact of this moment in the city's history.

How did the AIDS crisis impact the narrative and response surrounding Julio's death?
This played out in a few ways. The media hysteria around AIDS, and the stigma it unleashed, created an environment of fear and danger. Gay men were one of the populations held responsible for the epidemic, and violence against gay men was heightened during the AIDS crisis. The association of deviant, dirty, sickly bodies inspired the notion that streets were in need of cleansing, plagues in need of extermination. These myths were at play in Julio's murder. In Julio's case, race created an additional barrier for mainstream media, the police force, and the legal system to honor his life and do him justice.

AIDS activists by 1990 had been at war for enough years to understand that homophobia, racism and stigma were just as deadly as the virus itself. The same system that was intent on ignoring Julio's murder and absolving the hate behind the crime was responsible for the politics of silence that killed thousands of New Yorkers who contracted the virus.

Gay men of color were murdered frequently in New York. Julio was not the first, nor the last, unfortunately. But unlike so many others, his story made the headlines. And this took work.

As the indignation over Julio's death grew after authorities framed the incident as a drug deal gone wrong, a coalition of people come together--family members, friends, ACT UP NY, Queer Nation, the Anti Violence Project and people from the local community. Julio's murder brought all these forces together.

What approaches are you taking to telling the various perspectives involved in Julio's story? In what ways do you see biases coming into play with the way Julio's story has been told, and how are you working to offset those biases, or perhaps embrace your own set of biases in the historical process?
We approached this project as a media literacy exercise and we tried to engage the audience to think about the media's portrayal of Julio's murder.

We presented two New York Times articles, "An Unlikely Martyr Focuses Gay Anger" and "The Symbols Spawned by a Killing," that capture the language, tone and form that mainstream media used at the time. Another interesting aspect of these articles is that they are some of the top entries one finds when searching for Julio Rivera on Google. In other words, Julio's memory on the web is commanded by these articles. What are the implications for people who are unfamiliar with Julio and the case?

One of the articles opens with: "[Julio] was the most improbable gay martyr--a Hispanic drug user from Queens who lived on the far fringes of gay society," the article follows by describing Julio as a "handsome and charming but deeply troubled man, a part-time bartender who supported a cocaine habit. He loved to dress well and 'play macho,' ...and had shared houses with a variety of lovers."

These representations not only stigmatize but also dehumanize Julio and the people and spaces he's associated with. Julio is depicted as a man lost because of drugs, his lust, and the color of his skin. One of the conclusions that was drawn from our group discussion was that it makes Julio expendable to the reader. The implication is that Julio's life did not matter.

Something we found interesting in our research was how the Latino community at large reacted to the case. While the AIDS crisis fueled the public's fear and loathing, Julio's ethnicity added another layer to the anger projected onto his dead body. Perhaps Julio was killed for being gay, but he could have just as easily been killed for being Latino, and that resonated with many kinds of people in Jackson Heights. This wasn't just the murder of a young gay man, it was also that of a young Latino man.

These types of nuances in the story would not have been possible to surface without a longer format model. While we only got around to interviewing Jenny Rivera and Councilmember Dromm, we were able to present both of their accounts of the story. A newspaper article or a podcast, wouldn't allow for the type of redundancy, slow rhythm and contradictions that we were looking for.

We got to learn how Jenny's and Dromm's recollections of the sequence of events agreed or differed from one another. This in itself becomes a part of the story we present. It was also important for us to recreate a memory of Julio's life told by those closest to him, and contrast their impressions with the shortsighted narratives offered by mainstream media. The experience, we hope, challenges the traditional news story's 'arc,' and the linear, chronological order of things we find so digestible.

We know that Julio's case was at first discarded by detectives and police, while activists demanded a reward to be put out for Julio's murder. The detective assigned to investigate the case was actually on leave and there were no clear intentions from the police to dig deeper into the case. It was because of the pressure from the community that authorities had to reignite the investigation.

There is consensus, however, from Jenny, Dromm, and Richard Shpuntoff, the filmmaker behind Julio from Jackson Heights, that as a result of Julio's death, the LGBT community in Queens became political and, in a way, LGBT folks became visible on an institutional front. For Dromm, it was a turning point in his career. Julio's case was one of the events that thrust him into politics: "Julio's death galvanized us all and then followed up by the Pride Parade, we began to see huge numbers of people willing to turn out and say we are everywhere...we are here in Queens."

And while the ramifications of Julio's case--which became the first case tried as a hate crime against an LGBT person in the state of New York--were far-reaching, this remains for us a Queens story at its core.

It was significant for us to present the project at the Queens Museum. Most of the people in the audience, many whom were raised or currently live in the borough, did not know about Julio Rivera, not even in relation to the Queens Pride Parade.

What can we learn from the visual legacies and performative histories that are central to the AIDS activism and response to Julio's murder?
As we mentioned, the Queens Pride Parade and the corner named after Julio in Jackson Heights are the two most poignant visual legacies. Every year there is a moment of silence when the parade marshals reach the place where Julio was murdered.

While we think these are certainly beautiful imprints, it may be that their meanings become more evasive with time. The power of orality is that we interiorize stories, even if they're not our own. Let's celebrate our visual legacies and performative histories. But let's also talk (and listen) about Julio Rivera, Jesse Hernandez, Islan Nettles...

The parade also acknowledges and normalizes the public presence of LGBT people in Jackson Heights and reclaims space in the neighborhood. It's a visual legacy in creating a sense of belonging in the public sphere and serves as an open invitation to other LGBT people to celebrate themselves in the neighborhood.

How do you envision Julio's story will impact contemporary considerations of stigma, racism and homophobia?
We hope it can elicit a discussion on how these forces are at play today. We first presented The Assassination of Julio Rivera days following the verdict that freed the cops that killed Eric Garner. It was at the back of our minds as we organized the piece. For one, the way that mainstream media packages our stories is still problematic. And our fight for justice and safety, against the police and judicial system is ongoing. And the wins, as much as the losses, need to be assessed and monitored. Are the institutional changes that were fought for following Julio's murder working? Is anti-hate-crime legislation relevant to social justice today? Any changes or strategies of change, rather, are better formed when knowing how they came out about in the first place.

One could have grown up in Jackson Heights and walked by the intersection of 78th Street and 37th Avenue and never really questioned who that was. You could have attended the Queens Pride Parade and never really wondered why there's a moment of silence every year, in front of the school where Julio was assassinated.

What plans do you have for your account of Julio's story, as well as your unique process for bringing these stories to the light?
One of the challenges is ensuring that our work is easily accessible. While we conceived it as an interactive real-life exercise, we're interested in making the material public. Trying to find a platform that would allow us to play with temporality and the different elements in the piece, which include images, audio clips, pulled quotes and news articles, was a challenge. But when in doubt, choose tumblr. We're not quite sure it's the best fit, but it's easy to navigate and has kind of a disorderly, fleeting appeal that evokes some of the characteristics of our approach, like multiple voices and non-linear storytelling.

As for the process, I'm (Julian) flirting with the notion of "memory activism," which is inspired by the belief that mediating memories is a political act. In some cases it can be an intervention, in other case it's more of an exercise. Our piece for Julio may be more of the latter, but I'm trying to carve out some time to work on a series of stories about the ongoing AIDS crisis in the Latino communities of New York, in collaboration with activists leading the response. A lot of this has been motivated by research and friendships I've made with surviving members of the Latino Caucus of ACT UP NY. It was through my interviews with them, that I learned of Julio and his legacy.

This project made me (Luis) think a lot about the role of community storytelling in activating a collective memory. When we activate collective memories we are not just honoring or remembering a new past, but enabling each other to change the way we see the current material world and re-imagine future possibilities.

We think that in blurring the line of a single narrative or historical record, it encourages us to reconsider the binary of life and death. As Jenny attested, Julio's spirit is powerful and continues to bring us together.


Julian de Mayo is a media scholar and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. His work engages with cross-disciplinary and non-linear mediations of collective memory. Currently, his research is focused on the mediations of trauma and genocide in Guatemalan contemporary art, and the legacy of the ongoing AIDS crisis in Latino communities. He holds a bachelor's degree in geography and Latin American studies from Simon Fraser University, and is a master's candidate in media studies at The New School.

Luis Gallo is a Colombian-born journalist. He has reported on urban development in Turkey, produced radio stories on LGBTQ youth in Colombia and recorded audio for animated shorts. He captures stories for StoryCorps, a national oral history and radio project. He holds a bachelor's degree in geography from the University of Washington and is currently completing a master's in urban planning at Hunter College. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook self-portrait


Visual AIDS artist members James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook are New York-based artists who, in 1984, opened the East Village gallery Ground Zero, which showed pioneering installation, performance, and multimedia work. One of their earliest artists was David Wojnarowicz, who they collaborated with on 7 Miles a Second, a comic book based on Wojnarowicz's autobiographical writings. The couple most recently extended their collaborative relationship with the publication of The Late Child and Other Animals, drawn by James and written and colored by Marguerite. Below, they discuss their past, present and future projects with Visual AIDS.

Marguerite will be a panelist on Visual AIDS's upcoming Living Positive and Long-Term Surviving: An Artist Perspective panel discussion on April 23. More information here.


Can you describe the inspiration and process behind your new graphic memoir The Late Child and Other Animals?

Van Cook: When I started to write my stories, I realized that I couldn't tell my own story without telling that of my mother. My relationship with her was not always smooth to say the least, but I wanted to try and understand her so that I could understand what had happened between us and what had happened to me. She wasn't married when she had me, which in the 1950s was a terrible sin that had to be hidden. Although, the writing process isn't confessional; rather I write to capture the happy moments and in the process explore the sad ones.

Collaboration is a central aspect of your work, and this project is written and colored by Marguerite while the text is adapted to comic form and drawn by James. Can you talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaboration, and how you negotiate the exciting but daunting process of working artistically together / with others?

Van Cook: I know how good James is with textual adaptation and turning prose into a visual narrative and so I was really happy to hand him my stories. I write stories that have plenty of visual interest and dialogue, but it is James who adds the structure to the page and really does the work of animating the text. I generally enjoy the collaborative process because there is always someone to see your work when it is done--at the pace that you want it to be seen--and it is terribly exciting to see how someone else is interpreting your work and to see their creative process unfolding. Of course, you must absolutely trust and respect the people you are working with or it simply turns into a nightmare. The process allows each of you to bring your strengths to the table and produce something that is greater than anything that either of you would produce individually.

Romberger: I wanted to adapt Marguerite's memoirs because she is a fabulous writer and I loved the autobiographical prose that she was writing. I was looking for a worthy follow-up to 7 Miles a Second and the stories of The Late Child and Other Animals are perfect. The most important theme that seems to carry through them is about society's tragic rejection of children who like Marguerite are born out of wedlock; they form common scapegoats for society's ills and are ubiquitous plot-drivers for drama and literature. I fortunately knew her mother and was familiar with Portsmouth and the parts of France we showed, and so I was personally invested in the stories. Marguerite's coloring adds immeasurably to the believability and cohesion of the artwork and storytelling, she is fearless in her color choices and always heightens the emotional resonance of scenes.

Why have you been drawn to the comic strip/graphic novel format throughout your career?

Romberger: Comics are a barely explored form of communication that utilizes text and art in tandem. Only barely emerged from the domain of children's pulp entertainment in this country, it is becoming clear that comics can support a range of material: for instance fiction, autobiography, journalism and educational purposes. In fact, right now the form's practitioners are involved in one of the most vital art movements around.

You worked closely with David Wojnarowicz on his autobiographical graphic novel 7 Miles a Second. Any noteworthy anecdotes from creating that now cult classic publication?

Romberger: I began working with David on 7 Miles a Second in 1986, while Marguerite and I were showing his art in our gallery Ground Zero, long before the graphic novel boom. My motivation was that I liked David and his work very much and I wanted to do something that pushed the boundaries of content in comics; this it certainly did. I felt and still feel that LGBT rights are one of the most important civil rights issues facing the modern world. For his part, David wanted to tell his story in the comics form, which he saw as a popular medium. He wanted the book to be published in as mainstream a form as possible to be accessible to the general public, and also he wanted it to reach young people, particularly LGBT youth who had gone through similarly abused childhoods, so they might know that they were not alone, that others had also trodden those paths and survived. In fact, David's original ending was about survival--he didn't begin the book thinking that he would die at the end. His diagnosis with AIDS came later. I regret that I wasn't able to finish it before David died, because we were both busy with many other projects at the same time that we were working on it. But, I believe he would have been pleased with the finished product and the positive response it continues to get. It has been perhaps the most widely distributed of all his works.

Van Cook: The first edition of 7 Miles a Second with DC Comics had a print run of 25,000, which is a very big run in that world. It sold out. We always like to imagine the book being hidden under peoples' beds, because for a long time it seemed as if no one had seen it, but all the same, we knew it was out there. We felt a great affinity with our secret readership. The book was in the closet if you like, so it was only with the reprint that it finally came out. It is enjoying its hard-won freedom. Back then in its first edition in the 1990s, because of the limited technology, it had to go through a digital color separation process. The first company started working on it and then refused to handle it because of its content. The new version with Fantagraphics is exactly how we wanted it done and it is now available in all the regular bookshops. Now I'm happy to say that the book is out and knows exactly who its friends are. David and James had set out to produce something that would be widely accessible and I think that has now happened.

What are you looking forward to working on now that The Late Child and Other Animals is published?

Van Cook: I have two themes in process. One is about my time with The Innocents in London during the punk years. My experiences touring with The Clash is only a small part of that narrative. However, the other story, tentatively called "Week Nights," is about my times with my queer friends in Portsmouth during the late '60s ("gay" was barely in use as yet). They used to go out mainly on week nights when they were less likely to be observed and could escape detection, which I only just realized. Weekends were a lot more sober. The emeralds were all put away. I knew a lot about hiding myself, so we got on well. On Wednesday nights, well, what didn't we get up to? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," to quote Dickens, a fellow Portsmouthian.

Romberger: I am expanding my Eisner-nominated comic book Post York for Uncivilized Books into a full graphic novel. It is an ecological story that postulates a future New York that is flooded after the melting of the polar ice caps, that incorporates cinematically inspired narrative devices. The main character is based on our son Crosby and he contributes his music to the project; one of his songs was produced as a flexidisc that was bound into the book, which is also available as an online download.

What is one takeaway you hope readers will have when reading the graphic memoir and how have audiences received it?

Van Cook: I'd like readers to know that The Late Child and Other Animals is truthful. I think we all want to be seen and heard for who we are. Some of the good reviews have been very touching, for just that reason. It seems that when people actually read it, they find the work speaks to them. James's drawing is just gorgeous in this book. It was an absolute pleasure to color him.


James Romberger's fine art pastel drawings are in many private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Romberger's ecological comic, Post York, was published in 2012 by Uncivilized Books; it includes a flexidisc by his son Crosby and it was nominated for a 2013 Eisner Award for best single issue. Romberger collaborated with Marguerite Van Cook on the 2014 Fantagraphics Books graphic memoir The Late Child and Other Animals; with Guggenheim fellow Jay Cantor on the Vertigo graphic novel Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story; and with Van Cook and the late writer, artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz on the critically acclaimed graphic novel 7 Miles a Second, which was first published in 1996 by DC/Vertigo and then released in a revised, expanded edition in February 2013 by Fantagraphics. Romberger interviews authors for Publisher's Weekly and he writes critically for The Comics Journal and the pop culture site The Beat.

Marguerite Van Cook came to New York her punk with band The Innocents, after touring the UK with The Clash. She stayed and opened the seminal installation gallery Ground Zero with her partner, James Romberger. Her own works as an artist and filmmaker have placed her in many museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Schwartz Art Collection at Harvard. Her other credits include poet (she was awarded the Van Rensselear Prize while at Columbia) and actor. Her current generational graphic memoir, The Late Child and Other Animals, with James Romberger (Fantagraphics) has been translated and published in France under the title L'Enfant inattendue. Her color work on the graphic memoir 7 Miles a Second, a collaborative project with James Romberger and the late David Wojnarowicz garnered her a nomination for an Eisner Award 2014 for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist. In 2006, Van Cook became the creative and managing director of the Howl! Arts Festival, where in 2009 she helped establish Howl HELP, a free emergency health and care service for downtown artists. She holds an MA in Modern European Studies from Columbia University and is completing a PhD in French at the Graduate Center CUNY.

Unleash the Queen

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Still from Lyle Ashton Harris's "Selections from the Ektachrome Archive, 1986-1996"

To honor the 25th year of Day With(out) Art on December 1, 2014, Visual AIDS commissioned seven artists/collectives--Rhys Ernst, Glen Fogel, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hi Tiger, Tom Kalin, My Barbarian, and Julie Tolentino/Abigail Severance--to create provocative new short videos that reflect and respond to the ongoing AIDS pandemic for a program titled ALTERNATE ENDINGS.

Here, Rickey Laurentiis considers Lyle Ashton Harris's contribution to the video program, "Selections from the Ektachrome Archive, 1986-1996."


So there's this new communication in your blood that means something. Don't know it at first. How to know it? Then are told. Then know it. Then deny it. Deny it. Hate it. Hate yourself. Come to accept it. Have to. But can you ever love it? Can you enjoy it? Is this voice in the blood a new permission? Has it affirmed something deep in yourself you were hot and so desperate, so desperate not to face?

*

What photography does is put us unequivocally in the face of something. I don't mean to be anthropomorphic. It's not always a "human" face--but it is a surface that, because we are human, we endow with meaning, with import. A photo faces. This arrangement of light and its superior, the dark, becomes, for us, evidence of a narrative, an argument, a fragment.

*

I imagine how it enters the body is fragmentally. Coming through the semen (the milk) and passing into the bloodstream (a mouth), it is only a piece of itself and yet it attaches. It joins to the body, the DNA and it multiplies. Funny how multiplication here means change--demands that body, once it recognizes this new agent, won't ever be able to know itself as "just" a body again.

*

Don't you think a photo works like this--any visual art? What it does, I see, is take a "moment" and forces you to recognize it as that very thing: a moment. It's not a game of so much freezing time, but of vividly animating it--of making one's body realize that they are inside this moving thing, cell by cell, constancy. And, yes, even that Pollock or that Basquiat or whoever for you is the epitome of the "non-realist"--yes, even that forces the same realization, is still, after all, a "moment." The frame is the evidence.

*

Watching this video by Lyle Ashton Harris I come to believe he is a master at what he does, at facing. No one asked me to say that, but I believe it. For there is something unyielding about this insistence of photos--some portraiture, some suggestions--that recall, for me at least, a history I wish I knew. Or maybe it's a history that now, so eloquently, peals in my blood, a kind of constructed nostalgia? Or maybe it's a history I'm ashamed I've forgotten? It is not easy, I'm saying, to look upon the photo of Marlon Riggs--whether as a black gay person, whether as a poet--prideful in his "Unleash the Queen" T-shirt; it is not so easy to see this photo, if briefly, and not locate in it a meaning. What was the cost of such unleashing? (Why ever be leashed?) What were the ramifications--its products? Did it make something today more possible, someone like--me?

*

Last summer I took photos of myself, naked, as if to reclaim myself, claim myself, my former body, as if reclamation were ever possible, as if colonialism were a moral goal--but it was a failure, exquisite failure that I hold in the mind and cherish.

What I mean to say is that I struggled with my body--what lay discursive in its blood--and so struggled just as much to capture it, to give it its moment.

*

There is a power, I see here, in the archive. It announces an argument: that these texts, photos, people--that any of them are worthy to be remembered and, in that remembering, will inevitably shape the futures they couldn't exactly anticipate. It is an archive of joy and pleasure and sex and death and shadow and hurt and hate, and it's everything we need. At base, what's being unleashed here may be a queen of secret kind--not only Marlon himself, Essex himself and the others (I say their first names, for they're my brothers): but kinship, that shady queen; a way of overwriting the supposed permanency of death, of erasing erasure; a way of connecting me to where I've already been and where I am now facing.

*

There is a communication in my blood that's mean. But wasn't this always what I wanted? To conquer loneliness? For my body to be joined to some any thing, permanently, with meaning? Don't unleash me. Don't let me

let me go.//


Rickey Laurentiis was born in New Orleans. He is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy and a Chancellor's Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. His first book of poems, Boy with Thorn, was selected by Terrance Hayes for the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in fall of 2015.



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