Pamela Sneed is an incredible poet historian. I think that many poets are in some way historians, reflecting on a people or a place or a feeling. In Funeral Diva, Sneed recounts her experiences in the Black queer community, living through two pandemics: AIDS—where she spoke at numerous funerals and wakes as a funeral diva—and now COVID-19. Each poem is firmly grounded in history, directly and indirectly citing the likes of Octavia Butler, Audre Lord, and Pat Parker. Sneed is full of names: names of the loved, the lost, the teachers, the students. Every poem extends the breadth and depth of its moment. The “Never Again”s uttered at the end of Holocaust films doesn’t align with reality with its deportations and round-ups and all the other ways undesirables are ejected and rejected.
The most salient moment of this collection for me was one that came up multiple times: poet Assotto Saint’s time at the pulpit during the funeral for Pamela Sneed’s beloved friend Donald Woods. “[T]o everyone’s shock he screamed, ‘Donald Woods was a / proud Black gay man, he did not die of heart failure. / He died of AIDS. If you agree with me, stand up.” Most of Woods’s family were appalled, but his sister stood. And all of Woods’s queer artist friends stood. It knocked the wind out of me. Do we as queer people, as people of color, always have to defend our stories? Not simply the validity of our lived experience, but that of our living—is our love not as sacred as our names? Assotto Saint shouldn’t have had to have been at that pulpit. In fact, that funeral should not have happened. We all (should) know that the AIDS pandemic (like COVID…) did not have to be a pandemic.
I find it difficult to talk about Funeral Diva, to be honest. It is deceptively slim, at only 150 pages; after reading it, I know Sneed has a first mother and a second mother, a first name and a second name, and has been nearly as many people as she has held close. She quietly considers how to change for the better while grappling with past attacks. She takes it all in and writes it back out. The danger of silence. The business of Beyoncé. The American Dream as a side hustle for businessmen. How Black Panther uses Africa as a backdrop rather than a living setting. She covers it all while harkening back to the lessons of the poets who raised her and the revolutionaries who uplifted us.
Every poem took me somewhere new, uncovered fresh wounds, and made renewed calls to do/live/be better. For ourselves, for those we want to save, and for those we couldn’t save (sometimes they’re the same person). Pamela Sneed refracts her life and loss through her unique poetic prism to bring us an untouchable collection that is as heartbreaking as it is heartening.