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Out in the Bay

Poet Pamela Sneed: ‘We Can Heal’

Pamela Sneed's poetic memoir "Funeral Diva" is described as a “coming of age in New York City during the late 1980s.”
Patricia Silva
Pamela Sneed's poetic memoir "Funeral Diva" is described as a “coming of age in New York City during the late 1980s.”

Pamela Sneed’s prose and poetry can reach out and grab you. She reads four selections from her memoir, Funeral Diva, on this week’s Out in the Bayand shares some of her life story.

Funeral Diva is a powerful collection of poems and prose, in part describing Sneed's coming of age in the late 1980s. It chronicles Sneed’s emergence as a proud Black lesbian and the impact of the AIDS pandemic on Black queer life, with courageous commentary about today’s COVID pandemic, divisive politics and pervasive social inequities.

Sneed takes us to the streets of New York, ancient Ghana slave ports and other locales, tackling an array of heavy topics, including gentrification, health care disparities and the history of slavery. 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 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," she told Out in the Bay. "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.”

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 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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