All My Teachers Died of AIDS: An Interview with Sam Moore
We caught up with writer Sam Moore after the release of All My Teachers Died of AIDS to discuss the impact of the AIDS crisis, Russell T. Davies and works like It’s a Sin on queer literature and the new generation of writers
BY THE SPILL
“The ways in which we can work to dispel stigma are vital for how we can continue forward on the path to queer liberation; by exploring the ways in which these disparate issues intersect around race, gender, sexuality, and class.”
BY THE SPILL
15 February 2021
Sam Moore is a writer, artist, and one of the founding editors of Third Way Press. Over the last few years, their beautiful poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online by The LA Review of Books and The Brixton Review of Books, to name a few, and in the Pilot Press anthology Modern Queer Poets. Their first book, All My Teachers Died of AIDS, was published by Pilot Press in December 2020, on World AIDS Day.
In All My Teachers Died of AIDS, Sam Moore takes us on a poetic journey of self-discovery through queer history, pop culture and (auto)biography, moving through time and across oceans.
In this deeply personal encounter with queer identity a generation after the AIDS crisis, Moore examines the violent political legacy of right-wing governments, the search for liberation through art and the endless quest for self-discovery.
Pilot Press describes All My Teachers Died of AIDS as “serving as both eulogy and rallying cry, asking us to mourn the dead while lighting a torch to help guide us through grief towards a brighter queer future”. We caught up with Sam Moore after the release of All My Teachers Died of AIDS to discuss the inspiration behind the book, the impact of the AIDS crisis, Russell T. Davies and works like It’s a Sin on queer literature and the new generation of writers, and more.
credit: Sam Moore
The Spill: When did you first have the idea for this book?
Sam Moore: There was a reading night at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London called Queers Read This, that was run by Isabel Waidner, who wrote the wonderful novel We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, and Richard Porter, who runs Pilot Press and would eventually go on to publish the book. I hadn’t been living in London for very long at this point, and was trying to work out what kind of thing I wanted to write after finally finishing my first poetry collection. Isabel read there, and Dodie Bellamy read from When the Sick Rule the World, and I was just fascinated by what the work that fell under this umbrella - queer, weird, experimental - was like, and it basically made me rethink exactly how I wanted to approach writing.
Off the back of that, I got to thinking about the kind of things I liked the most about that reading, and the books I’d been into at the time, and the more I was reading experimental stuff that tended to exist in-between different genres and styles. I’d been gradually going off of doing more traditional prose, so ended up settling on this combination of prose poem and personal essay. In terms of the topic of the book, a lot of my experience with queer writing, and the writers that I love the most (often writers and artists who get mentioned in the book, like David Wojnarowicz and Ron Athey) were writing about illness and the AIDS crisis, even decades after the height of the epidemic. So I started thinking about where my generation of queer people might fit in a generation after the AIDS crisis, always going back to my own experience, my own relationship with art, learning about queer history, and about myself.
The Spill: We are the generation following the AIDS crisis, how do you feel it has shaped queer culture today?
Sam Moore: I think that, even though we’re lucky enough to be living after the AIDS crisis, the crisis itself had, and continues to have, a really big impact on how we understand queer culture. It became such a huge, defining event in how we understand queer life, that decades worth of art and writing and film that was produced would tackle the crisis, often head-on. Larry Kramer’s stage writing, as well as his journalism, was a deliberate attempt to reckon with what was going on around him, in the same way, that Close to the Knives was Wojnarowvicz’s way of trying to come to terms with the loss of those dear to him.
And I think it’s that feeling of loss, of knowing what we’re living without, that causes the AIDS crisis to still be so prominent in queer culture, both for writers of my generation, and others. Whether that’s shows that go back to the past like It’s a Sin, or a play like The Inheritance that’s also about this idea of reckoning with the past, and what we’ve lost on the way to get to where we are. There’s this wonderful moment in The Inheritance where Eric Glass, the play’s main character, visits the old home of his friend Walter. The garden has a cherry tree, and this is the house where Morgan would care for the young men he knew as they succumbed to AIDS. And he steps into the garden and the stage is filled with young men, the ghosts of those who were lost to the illness. And I think that moment is really powerful and captures a lot of how contemporary queer culture responds to the AIDS crisis, and the imprint that it left behind; an attempt to have a kind of dialogue with the past. I think that remembering a kind of shared queer past - of liberation, intersectionality, activism, and art - is one of the most important things we can do moving forward.
The Spill: So who are the teachers in the book, and how did they guide you towards where you are now?
Sam Moore: There’s a long list of names that get dropped in the book, but in terms of getting me where I am, the most important ones are probably James Baldwin, my unnamed undergraduate lecturer, and Russell T. Davies.
I say in the book that Giovanni’s Room was the first thing I sought out because I knew it was queer, and that kind of thing is obviously so vital, those first steps into trying to understand exactly what your identity might be. And I didn’t really know where to look, there weren't a ton of things that I felt were ‘good representation’, I just knew I wanted to look for things that didn’t treat sexuality as binary. And that was, and is, a challenge to find, because there’s still this problem where a lot of the ways in which queer identity is understood - and represented in culture - tends to erase people who might identify as bi or pansexual. And Giovanni’s Room has a narrator grappling with what it means to love both men and women, and reading is an experience I’ll always be grateful for.
As an undergrad, I took advantage of the library and got as many books as I could that seemed queer and interesting, things that I couldn’t find easily in shops. And that’s how I first found authors like Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran. And of course, there’s that one lecturer of mine to whom I owe a great debt, whether he knows it or not. Being able to see someone talk about their life and work in a way that was so open and understanding made me feel welcome, and safe, in a way that was really rare at the time. And I think one of my great hopes for this book is to offer that same kind of feeling; whenever someone messages me or tags me in a post about the book on Instagram, I’m really overwhelmed by the generosity that people show towards it - and to me and Pilot Press - because it makes me think that the book is doing what I want it to, offering a space where people can feel safe, and understood.
The Spill: The book features Russell T. Davies prominently, how has his work influenced you on a personal and professional level?
Sam Moore: Russell T. Davies’ work has been a really huge thing for me, even before I first started writing. One of the first things I talk about in the book is watching Queer as Folk for the first time, and that was such a huge turning point, seeing a show that was unapologetically queer, sexually explicit, and unlike anything else I’d seen before. When I first started writing plays while doing my undergrad degree, it was the energy of characters like Stuart and Nathan that I really kept in mind when I was writing gay characters for the first time; this idea of being unapologetic, avoiding the things that I dislike in a lot of queer representation: this constant need to be respectable and palatable to straight audiences. Queer As Folk taught me a lot of things, and one of them was that it’s okay to write in a way that’s unapologetic.
And then Cucumber happened and it had something that still seems really rare to me: a bisexual character who owned their sexuality, and was never forced to choose a side on a gay/straight binary. Freddie was the first character I ever saw who was written that way, and I really haven’t seen many others like him at all since then. So I named the gay character in my first play after him. Cucumber does something that I really love about Davies’ work, it sort of engages in a dialogue with what’s come before it. You could call it “21st century Queer as Folk” if you wanted (although that might be a bit of an oversimplification), but it captures the ways in which queer life changed and stayed the same in the decade-plus since Queer as Folk first aired, from good things like a more diverse cast and a greater understanding of different identities, to darker elements; the spectre of homophobic violence, and the shadow cast by AIDS.
It might be an exaggeration to say that without Davies’ work my book wouldn’t exist at all, but I definitely think that if I hadn’t hidden away to watch Queer as Folk like it was a dirty little secret, I wouldn’t be the writer I am now.
The Spill: On that topic, how do you feel about works like It’s a Sin spreading awareness about this generation, especially for people who are not familiar with queer history?
Sam Moore: It’s a Sin is one of the best TV shows I’ve seen in years, I absolutely love it. And I think that it approaches the AIDS crisis in a way that’s vitally important - especially if you want to try and raise awareness around it for audiences that might not know too much about it - and that’s to foreground it in the way that people lived their lives, refusing to shy away from the infuriating or heart-breaking parts of it.
There are things in It’s a Sin that I didn’t know about; how AIDS patients were isolated in their own hospital wings because people thought they might be infectious, or how one character is taken away from his family because he’s diagnosed with AIDS. The show really takes aim at the ways in which, from the top-down - government and healthcare policy to the impact this had on individual gay men - a whole generation were essentially cast aside. It reckons with one of the biggest legacies of the crisis, and that’s the shame and stigma around both the disease and queer men themselves; it even appears in Davies’ Cucumber.
I think the thing that’s so important about It’s a Sin is that it also serves as a reminder that the events in the show didn’t happen that long ago; it was less than 40 years ago that these things were happening, and laws like Section 28 were being passed. We’ve come a long way from that, but I think it’s important we remember exactly what it was that previous generations of queer people had to deal with, and It’s a Sin captures a really full and beautiful portrait of queer life. Of course, the show grapples with the inevitable tragedy of illness and death, but so much of the story is animated by queer joy, the power that comes from finding your people, and finding yourself. It’s a Sin shows what happens when shame and stigma overcome people, and the ways in which it tackles the ideas are still very real issues for people today.
The Spill: Of course the book deals with the concept of death, but would you say it is also about finding acceptance and finding lights in the shadows?
Sam Moore: Yeah, I definitely hope that it manages to capture the importance and power of being able to find that light in the darkness. A lot of the book is pretty heavy-going and doesn’t exactly have a lot of jokes in, but there are still sections that focus on the importance of understanding what queer love means on an individual level, as well as a communal one: how we love ourselves and each other is something that comes up a lot in the book, not just as a way of connecting with the past, but also to live as fully as we can in the present.
A lot of the book is also about self-acceptance; it begins with talking about this lack of understanding of what desire or (self) love could look like for me, and ends in this moment of solidarity and communion with the things that have come before me, and I really hope that it does something to shine a light on the ways in which we gradually learn to accept ourselves.
The Spill: What is the main feeling you hope readers will get when reading the book?
Sam Moore: That they’re not alone. The dedication of the book is “for you”, and while it might seem a little sentimental - not that that’s necessarily a bad thing - I really think that it goes to the heart of what I wanted to do with the book, and that’s to have a conversation with whoever’s decided to read it. A lot of the book is about loneliness and the kind of solitude that can come from not quite knowing how to define yourself, and I hope the book offers a space to let people engage in that kind of self-discovery.
One of the pieces of writing advice that seems really ubiquitous is to write that kind of books that you wished you could have read sooner; obviously, this is about the books I did read, but it’s also that kind of act, of writing something I might have needed before, and that I hope people are able to find some hope and solidarity in.
The Spill: What do you wish more people knew about HIV and AIDS treatments?
Sam Moore: I think that education, and allowing people to share their experiences in a safe way is vital when it comes to things like this. And although AIDS isn’t a death sentence like it was in the past, and there have been big strides when it comes to treatment like PrEP, that doesn’t mean that HIV/AIDS is no longer an issue. The illness has had a hugely disproportionate impact on people of colour, and addressing that means addressing other structural issues.
The Spill: Do you wish there was more communication and more reads about this topic to end the taboo and stigma attached to it?
Sam Moore: As with the idea of people knowing more about treatment, I absolutely think that communication is vital here. The stigma around the illness is still real, and it’s something that needs to be dispelled, especially looking at the ways in which certain groups are disproportionately impacted by the illness.
The ways in which we can work to dispel stigma here are vital for how we can continue forward on the path to queer liberation; by exploring the ways in which these disparate issues intersect around race, gender, sexuality, and class. Some of these things might impact barriers to care when it comes to an HIV diagnosis, but they also remind us what our next steps should be as a community.
The Spill: Finally, if there is one quote from your book you wish readers could remember forever, what would it be?
Sam Moore: Right at the end of the book, I use the line “if I have seen anything, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants”, and to me, that’s the absolute heart of what it’s about. This book wouldn’t exist without the writers that came before me, I wouldn’t be the writer, or person that I am, without them either.
This idea of standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t just about history and learning about queer culture, but about solidarity and moving forward together as a community, being stronger together than we are alone. What I want to do the most is offer a hand out to the reader - the best scene in The History Boys is about this idea - and to basically show them that they’re not alone; I just hope that I’ve been able to succeed.