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SUNDAY PROFILE: Peter Mitchell - poet living with HIV

The Lismore App

Liina Flynn

08 February 2020, 3:16 AM

SUNDAY PROFILE: Peter Mitchell - poet living with HIV

In 1984, when AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was still a scary, unknown disease associated with the Grim Reaper ads on TV, Lismore author and poet Peter Mitchell was diagnosed with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).


In those dark ages of understanding HIV and AIDS, Peter began his journey of living with the disease - and the stigma that went with it. It was a journey that took him through years of health treatments, which he explored through writing volumes of poetry.


Last year, his second collection of poetry, Conspiracy of Skin, was awarded a Highly Commended in the prestigious national literary award – the Wesley Michel Wright Prize 2019 for poetry. 


Fear of recriminations for not only being gay, but being HIV positive, caused Peter to stay under the radar in his local community for a long time. 


But today, as he gains recognition for his writing, he is more vocal and open about his experiences. 


He shares with The Lismore App his story of being a sexually active gay man who has skirted death - and survived – and looks deep within himself to portray his journey in lyric poetry. 



Read some of Peter's poems from Conspiracy of Skin: Local poet Peter Mitchell wins national literary prize


“I’m gay, I’m a poof,” Peter said. “I knew from a young age I liked men – since I was about four or five years old.


“I suspect I was born gay. My father was a closeted gay man and my brother was gay, but he was more bisexual than me.


“One of my sisters had lesbian experiences in the 1970s. The same sex thread was in my family.


Gay male romance


“I’ve never had a love of my life - not to this day. Every so often I feel a sense of loss I never had that.


“I’ve had a vast range of experiences. I had an affair with a Catholic priest once and I’ve enjoyed polyamory and had multiple partners.


“Over time, I had different relationships with men. When I lived in Sydney, I had a five year relationship and lived together with a Mauritian Australian man who spoke French.


 “I also shared a house with two gay guys in Newtown. One was a part-time lover, who wanted to move, so in 1994, I thought I’d come up to Lismore and give it a go for 12 months – and I’m still here.


“It’s the longest I’ve been in one place. I’d visited for a New Year’s Eve Tropical Fruits party the year before and had friends who lived here.


“I love the beautiful, wild countryside and the counter-culture hippy movement here. It reminds me of rural Maitland, where I grew up.”


HIV


“In April 1984, I got tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections and that’s how I found out I had seroconverted,” Peter said.


In immunology, seroconversion is the time period during which an antibody develops and becomes detectable in the blood.


“In the first year or two, I felt a mix of emotions – fear, determination, denial - all at the same time - together and separate,” he said.


“It was fear of not knowing if it was HIV or not – we didn’t know much about it back then. At the time, the consensus was that people died after two years.


“From the beginning, I was determined it wouldn’t kill me and I wouldn’t die from it. I was influenced by alternative therapies and naturopathy, so I would construct mantras ‘I am well, all will be well’. 


“Before the HIV infection is detectable, many people have a flu that is a sign the body is going through the conversion. It’s a few days of fevers, sweating and colourful dreams.


“In 1985, it was obvious I had HIV. These days, medical technology has improved radically and you can be asymptomatic for years, with no development of the illnesses that encompass AIDS.


“AIDS is a syndrome that can develop after you contract HIV – it’s a combination of illnesses at the same time.


“In 1991, I spent a year seriously sick, almost dying with gut disease, infected salivary glands, shingles and tumours and I was admitted to St Vincent’s Darlinghurst AIDS ward.


“I couldn’t eat and my weight went from 80 to 59.6 kilograms - I thought I might die and so did my friends. I was struggling with varying emotions.


“In 1992, I had non-hodgkins lymphoma and went through four cycles of chemotherapy and lost my hair. In 1997, I had lymphoma again – it’s normal to see cancer induced by having HIV.


The turnaround


“In 1996, I started taking retrovirals to improve my immune system and I’ve been on them the past 23 years. 


“From the beginning my T cell count slowly improved. Now I’m undetectable and I’m a picture of health.


“These days, I use sport as a medical therapy. I knew physical exercise was beneficial for emotions and health.


“At 40 years old, I started football training and played soccer with the Nimbin team.


“I also go to the gym three times as week and do lots of walking and gardening.


“Sometimes, I feel like I’m a tribe of one – at 63, I’m fitter than most men and women my age.”


Writing 


Peter worked as a journalist and creative writer in the late 1980s after finishing a Communications degree at Sydney University.


“I wrote articles for the Sydney Star Observer and Australian Book Review, but I gave it up in 1995 before coming to the Northern Rivers,” he said.


“In Lismore, I was trying to write short stories related to living with HIV.


“I started writing my memoirs and wrote to St Vincent’s to get my medical records - but they had destroyed them. Eventually I got them from a clinic I’d been to.


“That’s when I realised my memories of those years as I was writing them were false. 


“So, I rewrote a chapter or two – and tried to make my medical consultations an interesting thing to read – that was hard – they were always testing for the same thing - blood tests, checking the groin and under arms.


“Writing memoir is like writing a novel. I wanted to give the reader an understanding of a particular experience, as opposed to the truth.


“I tried several times to finish my memoirs and tried to write three novels, but failed.


“I thought I couldn’t write a book, so I wrote short stories and academic writing instead. Then I started writing poetry in 1997.


“My memoirs changed to an experimental mosaic combination of poetry, letters, quotes and journal entries.


Fellowship


“In 2013, I applied for a Writer’s Centre three week fellowship to write a HIV based collection of poetry and I got it. 


“Then the Australia Council awarded me a writer’s grant of $10,000 for a year. So, every day, I started writing and forced myself to write conventional long form memoirs and redrafted my medical records to create dramatic scenes. 


“My mentor encouraged me to abandon the mosaic form and looking back, it was a great thing


“After five and a half years, I finished the manuscript. 


“To be an effective writer, I needed to let go of my inhibition, the cringes over family disputes - and portray my emotions. I let go of avoiding the real nasty stuff. I am a flawed character and needed to show a holistic picture of who I am.  


“That’s’ the hard part of being a writer – we all do shitty things to other people. We all have self-delusion about ourselves.


“Mine is I’m a wonderful person. I’m also really hard to be with. That’s ok.


Repercussions


“I still experience the repercussions of being public about being gay and living with HIV. But it’s out there now and it doesn’t matter. 


“I still feel I have to be guarded about it - especially locally – in case I am physically targeted – we still need to protect ourselves.


Wesley Michel Wright Prize 2019


“Last year my second collection of poetry, Conspiracy of Skin was given a Highly Commended in the Wesley Michel Wright Prize competition at Melbourne Writer’s Festival.


“I needed to have the courage to promote myself and my writing and had media in Byron media, but I was afraid to do it locally here. 


“When no one came up and said anything to me in Byron, I though maybe I can do the same here in Lismore – but it’s taken a long time for me to get to that point.


“It’s important for me to get recognition so the issues I am talking about can get out there. 


“It can be discouraging to be a writer and hard to be a poet. You can self publish your own book, but you need to be able to sell copies. 


“Poetry is harder to sell than a novel, and I’m still trying to get a publishers to take on my memoirs. 


The future 


“I have enough poems now for a full collection of poetry and I’m organising two or three collections now.


“My energy levels are being taxed all the time, but if I can get another 15 to 30 years, I’ll have time my fulfill all my book ideas.


“Right now, I pay the bills by reviewing books, but I have determination and resilience and I’m going to keep writing.” 


To find out more about Peter, visit http://www.peter-mitchell.com.au/

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