Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Poet, writer Thomas Avena dies at 46


Thomas Avena
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Thomas Avena, poet, writer, AIDS educator, and a passionate proponent of the arts and the environment, died of AIDS on August 3, at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. He was 46.

Mr. Avena was born Jeff Nardi on May 27, 1959 in Chicago and was a graduate of San Francisco State University. Mr. Avena first gained attention with his literary journal, Bastard Review, which brought together works by Sharon Olds, Xavier Villaurrutia, Octavio Paz, and James Purdy. He later edited the 1995 American Book Award-winning anthology, Life Sentences: Writers, Artists and AIDS, to which he contributed a powerful essay about his experience undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. For this anthology, which presented a series of unsentimental but deeply moving interviews with artists including filmmaker Marlon Riggs, musician Diamanda Galas, and novelist Edmund White, Mr. Avena received the International Humanitas Award for his work in AIDS education and the arts. He was also the recipient of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in literature. In 1996, he co-authored with this writer Jerome: After the Pageant, an artist monograph on the late San Francisco painter and performance artist, Jerome Caja. In 1997, Mercury House Books published his collection of poems, Dream of Order. Adrienne Rich, in her foreword to the book, called the poems, "Original, passionately wrought as to craft, sensual and delicate, un-selfish in a profound way." Tony Kushner, describing the poems, but simultaneously describing the man who wrote them, called the work: "Elegiac, tragic, hopeful, fragile and very, very tough." Mr. Avena's work appeared in The American Poetry Review and Best American Poetry 1996 and his readings are available at SFSU's Poetry Center archives.

As an AIDS activist, Mr. Avena created one of the earliest HIV oral history projects for the Smithsonian, "Project Face to Face." Years later, he was asked to speak on his long-term survivor status and alternative treatment protocol. When asked by an audience member if he should "work with his disease," he replied, "If AIDS was a person, I'd kick him in the teeth." And kick he did. For the past five years, however, he was continuously challenged by illnesses, including two cancers that eroded his artistic ambitions. Eventually he sought what he referred to as "a little life," untroubled by illnesses and hospitalizations, in which he could devote himself to his partner and the long, coastal walks he so relished. At the end of his introduction to Life Sentences, he wrote: "For though there is no way to prepare for the uncertainty of living with this disease and its bewildering manifestations, this living in uncertainty, this state of radical doubt, parallels, even represents, the engagement with life."

Before his death, Mr. Avena completed a children's book, Muette with illustrations by Abira Ali, and was working on San Francisco Poets Lunch Cookbook with author Ana Daniel. He also wrote an introduction to the collected works of the late poet, Essex Hemphill. He exhibited a passion for collaboration, and a deep sense of loyalty to the friends with whom he maintained a rigorous, critical discourse on everything from music to politics. He was a superb cook and impeccable host, and extended his careful artistry to every aspect of his life. He bore a staunch commitment to preserving the vitality and significance of the arts, and was a vigorous advocate for the environment. His last collection of poems, Magi, which passionately articulated the strength he drew from his relationship with the land, and with the California coast specifically, remains unpublished. In 1987 he undertook a memoir, Marinol, which also remains unfinished.

Mr. Avena died under the constant care and loving attention of his close friends, particularly Donna Hughs, and his partner Barry Lloyd. He is also survived by his mother Virginia, his sister, Deena, and his brothers Richard and Charles Nardi.

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