Darius Stewart shares story of self-acceptance and discovery

Darius Stewart is the author of “Intimacies in Borrowed Light” (EastOver Press 2022), his first full-length book of poetry, and his just-released memoir, “Be Not Afraid of My Body: A Lyrical Memoir” (Belt Publishing 2024).

The 2021 East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame recipient for Emerging Writer received an MFA in poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin (2007) and an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (2020).

His poetry and creative nonfiction essays have appeared in numerous publications such as Arkansas International, Brink, The Brooklyn Review, Callaloo, and Cimarron Review.

PrideIndex had the pleasure of interviewing Darius via email. Here’s what he shared about his earliest memory of writing, the takeaway, and why he does not see a distinction between being a writer and a poet.

PrideIndex (PI): Tell me about your journey and how you arrived where you are today.

DS: Let’s see what I can say without giving too much away. (Laughs.) I was born and raised in Knoxville, TN. I grew up in the eighties and nineties and pretty much kept to myself, especially during my preteen years. I was always holed up in my room reading a book—from “Encyclopedia Brown” to “The Baby-Sitters Club to A Wrinkle in Time” to Stephen King’s “Misery” and “It” (which I didn’t finish, though I made it to about the last two hundred pages of an 1100-page book!).

I attended Tennessee State University for three years, then transferred to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to pursue my interest in writing as an English major. I’m kind of glossing over my CV here since the details are in my memoir…(Laughs.)…But I can say that my decision to transfer schools is characteristic of what we call an “indomitable spirit.” (Laughs.) It might be cliché to use these terms to describe oneself, but I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I didn’t subscribe to any number of platitudes that, at the end of the day, inject me with a sense of agency.

I earned two Master of Fine Arts degrees from two of the most prestigious writing programs in the country—the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin (where I concentrated on poetry) and the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I’ve published three chapbooks of poetry—“The Terribly Beautiful” (2006), “Sotto Voce” (2008), and “The Ghost the Night Becomes” (2014, which won the 2013 Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition). In 2022, EastOver Press published my full-length poetry collection, “Intimacies in Borrowed Light.” And Belt Publishing debuted “Be Not Afraid of My Body: A Lyrical Memoir” just a few weeks ago.

PI: What is your earliest memory of writing?
DS: I remember sitting around my grandaddy’s kitchen table in Walter P. (short for Walter P. Taylor Homes—the projects) when I was about five or six years old, and my Uncle Sam—one of my mama’s older brothers—taught me how to write my name in cursive. I believe he was enrolled at Knoxville College then and was a very serious man about education. I distinctly remember him guiding my hand and maybe telling me how important it was to be able to write my signature. I can only imagine that was probably something he might’ve said, but I loved it. Especially writing that big ass D…(Laughs). To this day, my cursive D is pretty much still the same…(Laughs)… all the other letters—well, I didn’t practice them as much. I had more fun finding all the right loops and curves to form the D.

I don’t know if that’s what sparked my interest in the kind of writing you’re talking about, but I got really interested in writing essays when I was in fourth or fifth grade. My elementary school held two essay contests in those years—at least, I can only remember there being two—and I won them both. One was for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) campaign for those not old enough to remember. (Laughs) It’s a byproduct of the Reagan era’s “war on drugs.” God only knows what I wrote about (Laughs.) It did the trick.

The other contest I won was sponsored by the Modern Woodmen of America. I remember the prompt was about immigration and how I would introduce the city of Knoxville to immigrants new to the city. I wrote about showing them the Sunsphere—which was erected when Knoxville hosted the 1982 World’s Fair—and other city landmarks like the Civic Coliseum because that’s where we went to go to the circus and Disney on Ice…(Laughs)…and the Thompson-Boling Arena where the Lady Vols played…I remember being enthusiastic about describing those places and why it was important that anyone new to Knoxville would love the city based on my child’s-eye view. I didn’t think at the time that I was writing an essay, per se, but just expressing myself without restraint. I go to that memory sometimes when I’m too much about how to write instead of letting myself go and allowing what happens on the page to happen.

PI: Talk about your book, “Be Not Afraid of My Body: A Lyrical Memoir;” why did you write it, and what is the takeaway?
DS: 2015 was a hell of a year for me! I experienced a lot of traumas that weren’t only physical or mental but very emotional as well. I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, then HIV, and during all of that, my boyfriend (or partner, whatever) broke up with me. I was out of a job because my heart was too weak for me to work. I was such a mess. But when I pulled myself together—finally—in 2016, I knew I wanted to write about what I’d gone through, but, most of all—and this was incredibly important to me—I wrote “Be Not Afraid of My Body” to understand who Darius was, which is to say I needed to reconcile the events of my life that led to me becoming this intelligent, talented, and ambitious person with so much potential who also suffered from a substance use disorder and alcoholism that would one day cause congestive heart failure and, in all likelihood, facilitate my HIV infection. I wouldn’t say that it was therapeutic or that I wrote the book as a form of therapy. I wanted (and needed) to have enough emotional distance from the traumatic events to be able to re-create those experiences as artfully as possible.

The initial title of the book was “Call Me When You Get This.” I won’t go into the details (at least not presently) about why I changed the title. Still, one of my dearest friends, and probably the best reader of my work ever, wrote to me after reading an early manuscript draft that understands what I want readers to take away from the book. She wrote:

“This is a memoir that will fill the gaps in our very flawed canon, representing a rare and vital perspective on what it’s like to survive AIDS as a gay black man while hitting rock bottom as an alcoholic and a drug addict. It is simultaneously an illness/recovery narrative, a trauma narrative, a legacy narrative, a coming out story, and a coming-of-age story, all told with a hauntingly tender poetic sensibility and framed with an intersectional lens.”

PI: In this book, you are very forthcoming regarding your health status. Why is it important to share that with readers?

DS: Sharing my health status in such an intimate way allowed me to embark on a personal journey of reconciliation—that is, to understand how my behaviors had significant material consequences. And mind you, I didn’t (and still don’t) intend any of the candid descriptions about my health to act as a cautionary tale—though, by all means, folx are welcome to take them as such if it’s to their benefit. But I also wanted to address the stigma that still attaches to HIV-positive people without it becoming a cause célèbre. I don’t think this book about surviving multiple illnesses can exist if I cannot be forthcoming about my health. It doesn’t make any sense.

PI: What have you learned about yourself from writing “Be Not Afraid of My Body: A Lyrical Memoir?
DS: I want to leave this question for readers to answer for themselves…(Laughs)…because I hope that the narrator’s journey will suggest what I’ve learned about myself.

PI: Let’s switch gears and talk about your poetry. If your poetic style were a dessert, what kind of dessert would it be?
DS: This is almost too easy: red velvet cake! I think my poetic style is moist, rich, and decadent…(Laughs.)

PI: If you had to choose between being a writer and a poet and could choose only one, which one would you choose? Why?
DS: I don’t see a distinction between a writer and a poet. A poet is a writer, and all writers—I think—would benefit from studying poetry. But if you are talking about the difference between being an essayist and a poet, I wouldn’t say it’s a choice, but I like to consider myself an essayist. I’ve said this repeatedly, but I believe the so-called fourth genre can contain all genres. The essay is flexible in this way and has benefitted my idiosyncratic writing style—one that demonstrates how easily conventionality bores me…lol.

Montaigne describes the essay (essai) as an attempt, simple as that. Writers are always attempting, sure, and most do so within specific parameters we otherwise call a genre, this container for language. I like to think the essay—as a genre—is more of a crucible, a container for subjecting language to tests and experimentations—even scrutiny—that feels satisfying and limitless.

PI: When and where do you plan on promoting “Be Not Afraid of My Body: A Lyrical Memoir?” Is there anything else you would like to share?
DS: So far, I’ve been doing readings here and there, as well as interviews (like this one!). My next virtual event is on March 14 at 7:00 PM EST. Folx can register for that event here:
https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZcvcOisrzsoE9YZPR9MMFCOShc-fE0eAt1M

I’m also trying to keep my website (dariusantwan.com) updated so that folx can stay abreast of any other promotional activity for the book. You can also follow me on socials—@dariusantwan on Facebook and Instagram, Darius Stewart on Goodreads, and @dariusantwan79 on Twitter (or X, whatever…). I think the best promotion is word-of-mouth, so recommending the book to friends (or anyone you think would like the book) is always appreciated.