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'Funeral Diva' Pamela Sneed: 'We can heal'

Pamela Sneed’s prose and poetry can reach out and grab you. They did me.

She reads four poems from her memoir, Funeral Diva, on this week’s Out in the Bayand shares key points of her life story. Funeral Diva, published by San Francisco’s City Lights Publishers, is a powerful collection of poems and prose described as a “coming of age in New York City during the late 1980s.”

Funeral Diva, finished while COVID raged in 2020, chronicles Sneed's life as a proud Black lesbian and the impact of the AIDS pandemic on Black queer life. It’s also an incisive commentary about the COVID pandemic, divisive politics and pervasive social inequities.

Sneed takes us with her to Ghana slave ports and the streets of New York, tackling an array of heavy topics, including the history of slavery, millennial gentrification and health care disparities. Her poem “A Tale of Two Pandemics” starts:

The headline in yesterday’s news blared, 'A Tale of Two Pandemics, Shocking Inequities in the Healthcare System' What got me was use of words shocking and two …

Yet in “Why I Cling to Flowers,” she ends Funeral Diva on a hopeful note. After describing in glorious detail the beauty of flowers, then the mounting deaths, her last five lines are:

… If we can survive, have equipment means money, support conditions, There are also other possibilities, We can heal.

Sneed says she got the nickname “Funeral Diva” during the worst of the AIDS pandemic in the late 1980s when she went to countless funerals of artists, writers and other friends whom she was frequently asked to memorialize.

“I always wore these outfits, and I had a personality for each thing I went to, so then it really was like a wry, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing where I became, like, a funeral diva.”

Sneed hopes “Funeral Diva” gives readers courage. “I guess people are attracted to my work because I speak the unspeakable."

We spoke in late 2020. With the current state of the world, our talk remains relevant. It's the full conversation that KALW's Queer Power Hour excerpted this week to play after a feature on Bayard Rustin, pictured above with Sneed.


Pamela Sneed is a New York-based poet, writer, performer and visual artist, and author of Funeral Diva, published by City Lights in October 2020, as well as Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery; KONG and Other Works; Sweet Dreams and two chaplets: Gift by Belladonna and Black Panther. Her work is included in Nikki Giovanni’s The 100 Best African American Poems and she was nominated for two PushCart Prizes in poetry in 2018.

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Photo of Pamela Sneed by Patricia Silva

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Eric Jansen is a long-time broadcaster and print journalist. A former news anchor, producer and reporter at KQED FM, San Francisco; KLIV AM, San Jose; and Minnesota Public Radio, Eric's award-winning reports have been heard on many NPR programs and PRI's Marketplace. His print work has been in The Mercury News, The Business Journal, and LGBTQ magazines Genre and The Advocate, among other publications. He co-produced the June 2007 PBS documentary Why We Sing!, about LGBTQ choruses and their role in the civil rights fight.