Clark University language students share poetry, songs, video with poet, AIDS activist

Belén Atienza, associate professor of Spanish, introduces poet and AIDS activist Norberto Stuart (seated) to students and guests in her classroom in Estabrook Hall, March 30.  Belén Atienza, associate professor of Spanish, introduces poet and AIDS activist Norberto Stuart (seated) to students and guests in her classroom in Estabrook Hall, March 30.

On March 30, Clark University and the Department of Language, Literature and Culture welcomed a special guest, poet and AIDS activist Norberto A. Stuart, who inspired students and faculty alike as he shared both his poetry and his story.

An AIDS activist who has been living with the disease for 25 years, Stuart encouraged students to think about their futures and how to use their talents to help others.

Hannah Corney, a Clark University first-year student, reads Norberto Stuart's poem Hannah Corney, a Clark University first-year student, reads Norberto Stuart's poem "El pez muerto flota panza arriba" (The Dead Fish Floats Belly-Up), the inspiration for a painting that she presented to the poet.

His bilingual poetry touches on not only the death and grief that surrounds the disease but his works also talks about what it is like to be a survivor, his nostalgia for the loved ones he has lost to the disease, as well as the pain and suffering he endured when his family rejected him as a gay man.

His work covers these themes of pain and grief, but it is also about life and having hope.

Stuart was born in Puerto Rico, where he became interested in theology and social justice. He moved to the United States in 1988 in order to further his education. He began his career doing social services. In 1992 he was diagnosed with HIV which quickly developed into AIDS, at a time when the disease was a virtual death sentence. As soon as he was able to, Stuart turned to activism, becoming involved in organizations like ACT UP. For years he wrote a monthly column for the magazine SIDAhora, covering various aspects (political, medical, social, etc.) of struggling with life with HIV. Stuart helped countless people deal with the realities of being underprivileged, sick, and at risk.

In 1998, Stuart authored a book of poetry entitled "Estoy hecho de rabia y de pena" which translates to "I Am Made of Rage and Sorrow." He writes in both Spanish and English and often translates his own work. His translations in themselves reflect issues of conflicting identities, hybridity, and the relationship between language and perception.

Belén Atienza, Associate Professor of Spanish, organized the event. Her classes (SPAN 105 and SPAN 140) and students from other language courses already had been studying, translating, and discussing Stuart's poems.

"Norberto really inspired my students to become artists and activists," Atienza said. "He inspired them to continue their work as writers, painters, scholars — all types of artists — in order to transform the world and help others, the way he did as an AIDS activist. He is bilingual and Latino… but above all his life is transformative; he touches the lives of those, like our students, who are seeking inspiration to become better citizens and to make a difference in the world.

"This is one of the experiences during their time at Clark that they will not forget for their entire lives."

Stuart's visit was an interactive event; several of Atienza's students played a role, engaging in his work by making personal and creative connections to the poetry — reciting dramatic readings, creating and performing music, and showing visual depictions of the poetry, both in Spanish and English.

Clark University sophomore John Hite performs the Norberto Stuart poem Clark University sophomore John Hite performs the Norberto Stuart poem "Mama Mártir" to a tune he composed.

Sophomore John Hite created and performed an original music composition, singing the words to Stuart's poem "Mama Mártir." Hite said the event was "a wonderful opportunity to speak with and hear from a poet who has dealt with so much in his life, and processed his struggles and experiences through his poetry. He is such a warm soul, and the room lit up when he entered."

Senior Benjamin Sax produced a video in which he reads Stuart's poem "Duelo" ("Mourning" in English). The video is subtitled in Spanish and features Sax's fellow Clarkie, Thomas Rizzo '15. Click here to watch the video.

Hannah Corney, a Clark first-year student, used Norberto Stuart's poem entitled "El pez muerto flota panza arriba" (The Dead Fish Floats Belly-Up) as the inspiration for a painting that she presented to the poet.

Elyse Waksman, a sophomore, gave a dramatic reading of the English translation of Stuart's poem, "I Will Not Have Life." It reads:

"I will not have life

slip through my fingers

like a fine sand

while clenching my fists,

trying to hold on to it

only to hasten its escape.

My final act will not be a gesture of despair

or resignation.

Despite tremor or hesitation

my hands will thrust forward

and open —

because I will them to —

and release countless red petals

into the wind, or the abyss…

Their flight will celebrate

The end of my lament."

"I think it is very important for people like Mr. Stuart to advocate for living with the disease [AIDS] in the way that he has chosen, through poetry," said Becca Hadik '17. "I am learning about the various misrepresented and marginalized populations of society in several classes right now … Many people who are diagnosed feel that they need to hide themselves away and pretend they are not affected by the disease. They think that society will be embarrassed by them. Mr. Stuart has chosen instead to reveal even some of the most raw and heart breaking effects that his diagnosis has had on his life."

Stuart's appearance inspired others in the Clark community to look at his work, Atienza said. Instructors and students from the Professor Stacey Battis' French courses translated a selection of Stuart's poetry from English into French as well.

Stuart expressed his joy at watching the performances by the students and "seeing them find meanings different than what I had in mind when composing the poems, flipping the perspective …" He remarked how these provided a "refreshing reminder that a work only finds its full expression when shared with an audience, in that space between concept and perception where possibilities are more numerous — something more eloquently (and poetically) stated by Emily Dickinson: 'I dwell in possibility, a house fairer than prose, more numerous in windows, superior for doors!'

"It was also immensely satisfying to see my work inspire them to produce in the various mediums (music, painting, video) they themselves pursue," Stuart added.

The Dean of the College as well as the departments of English, Language Literature and Culture and Visual and Performing Arts, as well as the Henry J. Leir Chair in Comparative Literature funded the event.

Atienza noted how Stuart's own experiences in liberal arts education made him such a fitting guest for her students, and how this creative and interactive event reflected the mission of Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP), Clark's pioneering model of education.

"This was truly a collaborative event between faculty, students, and artists," Atienza said. "I was so happy with the event that, at one point, while we were singing together a song at the end of the session, my eyes were filled with tears of joy. I was so excited to see my students shine and grow."

~ By Emma Ogg '17, Media Relations Assistant

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