Avena, Thomas (?)-2005

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Avena, Thomas (?)-2005

PERSONAL: Died August 6, 2005.

CAREER: Bastard Review, San Francisco, CA, founder and editor. Smithsonian Institution Experimental Gallery, Washington, DC, writer-in-residence during Project Face to Face (AIDS oral history and arts installation), 1991.

AWARDS, HONORS: San Francisco Mayor's Medal, and Before Columbus American Book Award, both 1995, and Joseph Henry Jackson Award in Literature, 1996, all for Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS.

WRITINGS:

(Editor and author of introduction) Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1994.

(With Adam Klein) Jerome: After the Pageant (biography), foreword by Klaus Kertess, Bastard Books (San Francisco, CA), 1996.

Dream of Order (poems), foreword by Adrienne Rich, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1997.

Contributor to periodicals, including American Poetry Review; work represented in anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1966.

SIDELIGHTS: Writer and poet Thomas Avena was the editor of the award-winning Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, a collection of essays, interviews, poems, and memoirs by writers such as Tony Kushner, Edmund White, William Dickey, David Wojnarowicz, Thom Gunn, Diamanda Galas, Bo Huston, Essex Hemphill, and Marlon Riggs. These contemporary gay writers, artists, and musicians reveal how AIDS has impacted their lives and their art.

Washington Post Book World contributor Dennis Drabelle felt the standout contribution in Life Sentences to be Bo Huston's account of his trip to Switzerland, where he takes a break from experimental medical treatments to visit the zoo and get into a staring contest with a deer. Avena and Huston completed the editing of Huston's piece over the phone while the author was in great pain and close to death. He confided to Avena that his family and lover were there and that he had planned his release from pain the following Sunday.

John-Manuel Andriote noted in Lambda Book Report that Life Sentences "approaches AIDS from a distinctly gay male point of view—not necessarily a bad thing, as gay men still comprise the largest percentage of this country's AIDS cases. And it is likely that the reason AIDS has generated such an unprecedented outpouring of artistic responses is that it has affected so many creative gay men whose legacy lies in their art rather than biological offspring."

Avena writes that "the unreliability of the body besieged by AIDS compels the race to create, and, more importantly, quickens and exacts as its price the imperative for an artist to mature as life itself is relinquished." Choice reviewer E. S. Nelson called the collection "an indispensable volume for all readers interested in the impact of AIDS on culture."

Avena and Adam Klein collaborated on a tribute to artist and drag queen Jerome Caya, who died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of thirty-seven. Jerome: After the Pageant, contains approximately four dozen color plates that show works made from nail polish, hair, gouache, china marker, scraps of lace, tar paper, and restaurant tip trays. Library Journal writer Eric Bryant noted that these items were significant to Caya as a person and as someone who rejected "aesthetic aloofness. Conversely, the works are in the style of religious icons … raising questions of the banality of martyrdom in the age of AIDS."

Dream of Order is a collection of Avena's previously unpublished poems, described as "graphically unorthodox" by a Washington Post Book World reviewer. Avena's poetry examines personal experience, homophobia, and the politics of AIDS. In a segment reflecting his graphic descriptions of the illness, he writes: "bright daubs of petal-bruised flesh catheter under the skin." Frank Allen noted in Library Journal that, "like Camus in The Plague, Avena concludes that an instinct for survival prevails over 'the body's slow rupture.'"

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Choice, October, 1994, E. S. Nelson, review of Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, p. 277.

Lambda Book Report, July-August, 1994, John-Manuel Andriote, review of Life Sentences, p. 24.

Library Journal, December, 1996, Eric Bryant, review of Jerome: After the Pageant, p. 87; April 1, 1997, Frank Allen, review of Dream of Order, p. 97.

Publishers Weekly, April 4, 1994, review of Life Sentences, p. 70.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, fall, 1997, review of Dream of Order, p. 7.

Washington Post Book World, June 26, 1994, Dennis Drabelle, review of Life Sentences, p. 6; July 27, 1997, review of Dream of Order, p. 12.

ONLINE

Queer Arts Resource Forum, http://www.queer-arts.org/ (February 24, 2005), Barry Harrison, interview with Avena and Adam Klein.

[Sketch reviewed by editor Kirsten Janel, Mercury House]

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