An Interview of Ron Alexander
by Stuart Orenstein and Silver Webb
We sat down with Ron Alexander at his home on a sunny afternoon for a lovely lunch and warm conversation. Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White.
Stuart: Have you always been creative?
Ron: I was drawing when I was really young. I enjoyed drawing landscapes on large sheets of paper. In the fifth grade, I was friends with a couple of very smart, creative guys, one of whom was a pianist. Chris talked us into changing the lyrics of songs he knew, including Blue Moon—which I did not know—and we devised a new song. As I remember, it was about standing alone, waiting for a ham sandwich. From then on I started thinking about lyrics. Always intrigued by words, by art, by images, somewhere in there was a seed, a germ, and by college I was writing poetry, keeping a journal, making little books of poems for friends. After college, I returned to show a composition professor some of my work. I do not recall anything she said—probably faint praise—but whatever it was, I didn’t write any poetry for another twenty-five years. Stuart: When did you say to yourself, I’m a poet? Ron: My “I’m a poet” moment was much later, 2009, at 60. Testing positive for HIV in 1987, I finally received an AIDS diagnosis in 1996. But new drugs and regimens were just coming out and I started to feel better. My best friend, David Bennet, said, “If you’re not going to die, you should write.”
He had an idea for a plot about a person with AIDS. We developed a second character and wrote it together, each taking one of the two main characters and writing their alternate chapters. David, a nurse by profession, was to have helped me die, but he developed cancer 14 years ago and now, the tables have turned, as AIDS has become a very treatable disease and cancer still rages. We are intending to publish our novel in the coming year.
I finally began to write poems again in a Creative Writing class at SBCC under Terre Ouwehand in 1997. With David's prompting, I began attending writers conferences, but must confess, I attended the fiction workshops in the mornings, then sneaked away to the poetry workshops in the afternoons. One teacher at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference was Perie Longo, who I consider my mentor. Perie is a local poet, teacher, and former Santa Barbara Poet Laureate. She started me seriously writing poetry again at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in the early 2000s. In 2007, my mother died, and in 2009, my father passed, both of whom I expected to survive me. I started going to Perie’s grief/writing group and writing a poem every week. Soon I was writing more on my own as well as in the group. At a Summer Workshop with Perie, Carol DeCanio told me about the SB Poetry Series and invited me to read. I read for the series in October 2009, and it was then I finally said to myself, “I guess I’m a poet.” Silver: When you write a poem, do you start out with an idea? Ron: I try not to start with an idea where I presume the ending. That rarely works. But there’s something that happens when you put pen to paper without expectation. The connection between pen in hand and some other part of you just creates. I’ve seen it in the kids I work with, as they come up with the most amazing images and startling ways of putting words together. I think the idea for me, and maybe most writers is to stop the editor inside and just let the pen do its work. Silver: You are a very deep person, although you have a good sense of humor. Is all of your writing humorous? Ron: Parts of life are hard to make funny, like this winter's local fire and flood disasters. Overseas, I think of gay people in the Middle East being thrown off buildings. In Nigeria homosexuality is illegal and there is no punishment when LGBTQ people are killed for being who they are. There are gay people applying to the state department from Nigeria who are being denied asylum by this administration. They are sent back to Nigeria, and I find it impossible to make that funny Stuart: Have you published a poem chap book? Ron: I haven’t but I’m in the process of culling through and editing work I’ve already written to put together a chapbook. And now that I’m saying that to you and this is going to be published, I will really have to do it! But first I have to clean my office! (laughing) I’m not an organized person, and there are many undated versions of poems, hard copies of some and multiple digital copies, and I have to look through all of that and decide which ones still stand. It will be an adventure. Stuart: AIDS has been a big part of your life? Ron: I was first involved with AIDS from the perspective of having therapy clients with HIV and AIDS from very early in the epidemic. Besides just trying to stay alive, one of the biggest issues is and has been the loss of so many friends, and now, the question of what do you do when you realize you are not likely to die of AIDS? If you didn't plan on losing your hair, getting arthritis, a knee replacement, diabetes from the HIV meds, and all the various ailments that accompany aging. How do you manage that? And, more recently, realizing my generation was decimated, and so many people don't know that many of us are still here, having survived into poverty, having given up on a career, on life, in some cases.
The history of the LGBTQ communities coming together with our allies in those years, of fighting prejudice, of standing up against the talk in the 80's about bringing the Japanese internment camps like Manzanar back into use as an HIV/AIDS camp, of quarantining PWAs (People with AIDS) there, talk of tattooing people with HIV/AIDS. People who did not live through the AIDS Crisis years have no idea of the insanity with which the country met AIDS. The fact that I will be 70 next year and still here feels utterly unbelievable. Silver: You married your longtime partner, Gary, five years ago. What that like? Ron: After same-sex marriage became legal, we weren’t in a hurry to get married. Gary was attentive to the adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” He was concerned about how marriage might affect our relationship, which is and was sound. But I wasn’t as swayed against the idea as Gary was, and over time I wrote him several poems asking him to marry me. For me it was a romantic idea. But he always demurred, and I would agree.
Finally, there was another impetus. Gary works at UCSB, which provides my health coverage, and the powers that be decided the University wouldn’t pay for domestic partners anymore. If we wanted coverage for both of us, we would have to pay or get married. At that time, we were at a retreat for gay men in Malibu, towards the end of a week, slow dancing on the last night, and had been talking about the University's push for us to marry. Gary finally said, “So I guess we should get married.”
I didn’t say a word. I waited. I had labored over two poems in preceding weeks, and I was not going to let him back us into marriage. Finally, when he actually said the words “Will you marry me?” I said yes.
In October 2013, we were married at the top of the county courthouse with 20 friends and family, a few tourists and a busload of fifth-graders on a field trip as our witnesses. Gary and I wore flowered shirts, bowties, and lei's, handmade by our Best Man, Kerry Tomlinson. David was our Maid of Honor. Well, if you can't play with gender roles in a gay wedding, what's the point of having one?
Among all these fifth-graders there was a girl who asked Gary, obviously dressed for something, what was happening.
“We’re getting married,” he said.
She asked, "To who?" and Gary pointed to me.
The teacher immediately started pulling the students together, “Okay kids, time to go!” As if two men getting married was somehow contagious. In any case, she was not going to have her students witness a gay wedding on her watch. It was as if she thought we were celebrating a satanic ritual, perhaps sacrificing a goat.
That kind of absurdity is a huge piece of what goes into my poetry. When you find yourself the “other” because of age, color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or for some other reason, you get a different perspective of the world. Everyone around you sees what's happening as normal, but you can’t. And, in contrast, what you see as normal, others see as subversive. Silver: What is at the heart of your relationship with Gary that it has lasted this long? Ron: I would say it was built on low expectations (laughing). I met him in a Nautilus—a gym now closed for decades—and I was very attracted to him, but he was ostensibly straight. I didn’t know it then, but he was a therapist also. After not seeing him at the gym for a couple years, I started in a 3-year training group, learning about Gestalt psychology. By chance, in our introductory meeting, there he was, sitting across from me. Only when that was over in 1988, did we get together.
Neither of us had high expectations for it lasting because I had just tested positive for HIV. AZT, the first and only treatment at the time, had just come out, but people were dying right and left. We both thought I was going to die soon, I figured within a decade, certainly by the millennium. I thought he was fearless, or crazy, to get involved with a man with HIV. I kept thinking, he’s going to try this "gay thing" out and then he’ll look for a “real” boyfriend. Although, he kept saying, “I’m not going anywhere,” I didn’t believe him. It took me ten years to realize he was going to stick around. In that time, we grew to appreciate each other without a lot a baggage hanging on the relationship. There were no long-term plans or expectations. We didn’t get any more long-term than, “Where are we gonna go on vacation this summer, if I’m still alive.” Now, this year, we’ve been together 30 years. We have a house with a long-term mortgage. Silver: You’re happily married, so the familiar poetic trope of romantic disappointment isn’t an option. What do you focus on? Ron: Even my funny poems—and I have a lot of them—are really trying to find a way to laugh about things. Aging, for example. I thought I would die young and make a stunning corpse. I didn’t think I’d have to deal with aging. But, like anyone my age, I’ve had a host of medical challenges related to aging. I try to find humor in the things that disturb me. Silver: As part of the queer and AIDS communities, you’ve known a lot of people who have passed. Do you feel them present in your writing? Ron: Very much so. Yes, I feel an obligation to live, really, to live fully. So many of their names, even more so, their stories have been forgotten. So many people today have no sense of what the 80s were like, it was what I imagine a world war felt like, where you would hear constantly about friends, neighbors who have died. I contemplate not just my own mortality and appreciation of life, but all the people I’ve known and loved and lost. Stuart: Thanks so much for speaking with us, Ron. Ron: You’re very welcome.
Ron’s work has appeared in journals including Arts & Understanding, Askew, Solo Novo, and Lummox3, as well as several anthologies, such as A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens, and To Give Life a Shape. One of four of his poems in a recent anthology, Poems 2 F*ck 2, “Zebra," inspired a short film of the same name by Paul Detwiler, which has been shown at LGBTQ film festivals in North and South America, Europe and Asia.