I met Walta Borawski in June of 1975 at the Club Baths in New York. We both lived in Boston at the time but did not know one another. I was 26 at the time; he 27.
When we returned to our homes we started dating and quickly moved in together. As it turned out, we had much in common. I was a film critic and writer who contributed to Gay Community News and Fag Rag, the first gay literary journal to emerge after Stonewall. He contributed poems there.
As a poet, Walta flourished in the vibrant queer literary scene of that era. Boston and Cambridge, perhaps because they were university towns, were hotbeds of political action–the anti-war movement, radical feminism, race justice, environmentalism. And after Stonewall, they became centers of gay liberation, especially in publishing. In 1971 Fag Rag, a gay male journals of arts and politics, defined the era. Gay Communist News in 1973 became the first national lesbian and gay newspaper, the “paper of record” for the fledgling movement.
Walta joined Good Gay Poets, a collective that published two of his books, Sexually Dangerous Poet in 1978 and Lingering in a Silk Shirt in 1994. It was a fabulous life, exciting not only because of the enormous creative energy in the community, but because we had a life together in a rent controlled apartment in Harvard Square, large enough to host meetings, dinners, and out of town writers and activists.
Walta worked as an assistant (i.e. secretary) to a noted evolutionary biologist at Harvard and I was a journalist who made money as a cook and pastry chef in various restaurants and–for two years–as an employee at the Club Baths in Boston’s notorious underground Combat Zone. Our entire community felt that we were changing the world. And we were.
Walta began feeling ill in 1990. He died of HIV/AIDS on February 9th, 1994, just short of two decades together.
Another two decades later, just this November, I put together a tribute to Walta by collecting some of his best work, along with some unpublished poems, in Invisible History: The Collected Poems of Walta Borawski, published by Rebel Satori Press.
The poems are wonderful. They document gay male life, love, and lust – especially lust – before and during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The poems are emotionally charged, and incredibly real. They are a record of his sexual adventures, loves, fears, and sex and, finally, facing early death at the age of 46.
Walta was unafraid to write about sexual desire in all of its complications.
Here are two excerpts to memorialize Walta and World AIDS Day…
“Some of Us Are Stretched Tighter Than Others”
He says all the birds are flying
south this year, & I
am too intense to sleep with.
It’s warmer, that’s why they
go, kissing me is
kissing February, it stretches you
out & then sticks in the tongue,
the icicle tongue
In the last years of his life, diagnosed with HIV and slowly becoming ill (before there were effective treatments), he fell in love with a young actor and formed a serious, platonic relationship. The affair had my blessing, and out of this came a series of poems – “The J Poems”– a vivid chronicle of searching for love to fend off, or make bearable, his inevitable death. At one point, he stalks the religiously observant J. while attending Sunday mass, a refusal to give up on the possibility of desire in the face of death:
Flowers you bring me have too
much significance surely you
didn’t intend the heather to
root in my heart. Why did
white tulips last two weeks
in aseasonally warm weather?—Just because I cut their
stem bottoms biweekly, kept their water clean, lukewarm
Michael Bronski is the author of several books including A Queer History of he United States and You Can Tell Just by Looking and 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People. He is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media at Harvard University.